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    Posted by Sean at 13:13, October 22nd, 2008

    Today’s lead editorial in the Nikkei is headlined “Accounting improprieties by regional governments cause trouble with separation of powers.”

    After the Board of Audit conducted a nationwide investigation of 12 prefectures, it came to light that federal subsidies exceeding 500 million yen had been used improperly. Cases in which slush funds were eked out through fabricated orders to suppliers were also discovered. Each entity should, at the same time as it returns the misappopriated portion of funds to the federal government, do its own thorough investigation that includes how the slush funds were used.

    The accounting improprieties indicated by the Board of Audit are largely of two types. One was the MO of “deposit,” in which orders for purchasees of office supplies and things were fraudulently generated, and the capital accumulated in the account of the relevant supplier. Because subsidy money left over must be returned to Tokyo, the method was to move it into suppliers’ accounts at the end of the fiscal year, and from the next year on, to make payments from that account when goods were actually purchased.

    Another was the allocation of subsidies. There were cases in which temporary employees hired for the work of allocating subsidy money were rotated to other jobs, and funds for their business travel were obtained from subsidies that were unrelated to it.

    Increasing the transparency of administration and use of public funds is one of the minimum conditions for moving forward with regional separation of powers. Even those entities that were not subjects of the current investigation should do their own investigations and clear out all the corruption [“drain out all the pus,” in the evocative Japanese phrasing–SRK].

    That accounting improprieties were left unattended in each prefecture until the Board of Audit pointed them out is also a problem. Even if we allow that the tricks used were clever, what on earth were the prefectural assemblies and the auditing committees, which were supposed to verify budgeting and book-closing, doing? We call on everyone from the employees of the regional entities to the audit committees to do some hard soul-searching.

    Aichi Prefecture apparently took (the biggest slice of) the cake, with diverted subsidies and dodgy expenditures totaling 130 million yen. Bear in mind that only a quarter of Japan’s prefectures were studied, too.

    The “separation of powers” part is, of course, the longstanding argument over what and how much Tokyo should be giving back to prefectural (and municipal) governments. I can see the point that giving more power to regional governments that are busy creating slush funds is a bad idea. On the other hand, the sense of assurance that Tokyo is far, far away and not looking too hard makes it easier to get crafty. And pouring so much tax and revenue from around Japan into one federal pool makes the resulting funds seem to come from big, abstract Tokyo rather than living, breathing taxpayers in local officials’ own communities. It’s inexcusable that they regard the subsidy system as an open tap, but it’s not really hard to see how they get that way.


    Posted by Sean at 21:25, October 15th, 2008

    Yes, because I also know which pronouns are singular and plural.

    And they complain about Sarah Palin’s intelligence.

    Added at 21:26: “Are each of you willing to…?”

    Added at 23:00: May I just say…I will never agree with Hillary Clinton on policy, but she’s come a long way in terms of her public persona. Good on her.

    In the neighborhood

    Posted by Sean at 16:02, October 10th, 2008

    Wow. Looks like a fire behind our building–on 39th, I think, just east of Park. There’s been smoke pouring out of a building for the last twenty minutes. Murray Hill’s mostly residential, especially on the Streets (as opposed to the Aves.), so the probability is well over 50% that it’s someone’s house or apartments…though it’s close enough to 100 Park that I can’t tell. Here’s hoping there are no injuries and that property damage is minimized. FDNY seems to be there.

    Don’t blame this sleeping satellite

    Posted by Sean at 11:34, October 10th, 2008

    Eric links to this post by Bill Whittle about Barack Obama’s assertion that citizens have a right to health care in the debate the other night. Eric says,

    [H]ealth care is not a right. Certainly not a right in the way our country has always defined rights, for if there is an obligation for other people to pay for it, it becomes not a right but a duty, to the government, by other people — duties to the government being the antithesis of rights.

    Having lived in Japan for twelve years and had several friends who (unlike me) work in health care, I had a lot of lively discussions about the relative merits of socialized medicine. What always drove me crazy was when people talked as if the money for health care weren’t going to have to come from somewhere. There’s plenty of great health care available in Japan, but stories have surfaced recently about patients’ being turned away or dumped by hospitals, and about desperate Japanese who travel to China for organ transplants. One doesn’t want to be like the NYT Style Section and inflate every clutch of three colorful anecdotes into a Major Trend, but the aging society does mean that there will be fewer workers supporting more geriatric patients in short order. Everyone is worried.

    Of course, that’s a practical, not philosophical, problem. Whittle writes,

    Constitutional rights protect us from things: intimidation, illegal search and seizure, self-incrimination, and so on. The revolutionary idea of our Founding Fathers was that people had a God-given right to live as they saw fit. Our constitutional rights protect us from the power of government.

    But these new so-called “rights” are about the government — who the Founders saw as the enemy — giving us things: food, health care, education… And when we have a right to be given stuff that previously we had to work for, then there is no reason — none — to go and work for them. The goody bag has no bottom, except bankruptcy and ruin.

    And, of course, when the government is in charge of giving out goodies, it gets to set priorities and trade-offs for individuals. Is your need for a procedure “urgent”? What’s an acceptable minimum for “quality of life”? Would you prefer to buy less health coverage and more of something else you value more highly? What happens when functionaries start telling fat people they don’t deserve bypass surgery because they’ve spent their lives tunneling through five Entenmann’s cakes a week?

    Not, I hasten to add, that the current American system is anywhere near perfect…but then, neither is it a free-market system. Former AIG executive (!) Jon Basil Utley wrote the following in Reason a few months ago:

    So why isn’t all this being debated in the presidential campaign? For one, some of the richest and most powerful lobbies in Washington are run by the medical and pharmaceutical establishments. They don’t want a competitive system. Democrats do propose forcing everyone to “buy” high-cost insurance, while continuing with the current system, and then have taxpayers subsidize premiums for the poor. But they also oppose tort reform which would hurt their trial lawyer political allies. Many Republican congressmen, meanwhile, also benefit from the lobbies and don’t want to rock the boat. After eight years in power, they don’t want to take criticism for having made little reform.

    Medical cost reform is just one of many areas where Washington is corrupt and paralyzed, in particular because of the gerrymandered power structure, whereby sitting congressmen are almost invulnerable to defeat. They then legally collect millions in “campaign contributions” from the lobbies. Reform will only come about if Americans become better informed, yet most of the media is ignorant about health costs. Reform depends also upon major corporations attacking the current system, such as Wal-Mart has started to do with its in-store clinics. But most companies are silent and afraid to tackle the medical power structure. The Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Businesses seem reluctant to challenge both the monopolies and the current system. Lessons from the experiences of other nations are certainly available, but most Americans are ignorant of them and still believe claims that “our system is the best.” It may be “best” for Medicare, some Medicaid recipients, congressmen, state and federal government employees, and the military, but then they already have “socialized” medicine; they just don’t pay most of the costs.

    I’m not sure exactly what can be done about the current mess. Public policy that enshrines health care as a right does not seem like a great plan, though. It would further separate the health-care payments citizens make from the goods and services meted out, muffling useful price signals. And it would further insulate government officials controlling the goodies from competition, feedback, and new ideas. That always works out well, huh?

    World Turning

    Posted by Sean at 23:23, October 7th, 2008

    I watched the debate with my buddy, a few friends of his, and some friends of theirs. I was pretty much the only right-of-center person in the room, but I feel safe in saying that we all had more pointed, concrete things to say about The Issues than either man in the hot seat tonight. (And Tom Brokaw seriously needs a different surgeon.) I’m still voting McCain–at this point, nothing would make me trust Obama with the presidency–but between the jabbering about ending dependency on foreign oil and the nattering about using federal power to play Mr. Fix-it with the economy, I was (even more) glad (than usual) for the nectar of the grape. Ugh.

    Added later: Will Wilkinson:

    Holy god there is nothing more important than not trading with foreigners for energy. Double the Peace Corps, so we can renew America, because there is no non-state way to do that.

    Why are you right when I’m so wrong?

    Posted by Sean at 15:07, October 5th, 2008

    Ann Althouse takes issue with Andrew Sullivan’s sardonic comments about Sarah Palin’s winking during the debate. Althouse specifically tackles this Rich Lowry post, in which he admits to finding Sarah Palin sexy. Althouse makes a good point, but she doesn’t seem to remember this post by Sullivan himself a few years ago. About a VP candidate. In a debate.

    Well, I could easily be wrong, but I have a feeling Cheney will crush Edwards tonight. The format is God’s gift to Daddy. They’ll both be seated at a table, immediately allowing Cheney to do his assured, paternal, man-of-the-world schtick that makes me roll on my back and ask to have my tummy scratched. (Yes, I do think that Cheney is way sexier than Edwards. Not that you asked or anything.)

    Your day’s complete now, right?

    Personally, I don’t see why we shouldn’t take note of a politician who’s unusually hot; it’s not as if Washington were so chock-a-block with irresistible sexpots that we’d run the risk of being distracted indefinitely from economic, geopolitical, and energy policy. Corn subsidies are at least as sexy as the average member of congress.

    Eric, BTW, notes that Palin’s winking is not exactly precedent-setting.

    Standing on shakey ground

    Posted by Sean at 14:04, October 3rd, 2008

    I didn’t go into the debate thinking Sarah Palin was either (1) the august Saint Jane of Sixpack, whose Middle-American horse sense is worth ten times its weight in Yale degrees and who has the stuff to remake Washington completely while one hand dandles a baby and the other cleans a rifle or (2) the dumbest religious-rightest bitch ever nominated for anything ever who can’t even make sentences and OMG have you seen those glasses and what does she think this is a Pantene commercial and that Valley-Girl-from-the-North-Country accent gives me hives and AAARRRGGGGGGHHHH?!

    I like Palin. I think she’s shrewd and grounded. I like that she loves her country without qualification. I have the same problems with her that I do with all politicians: I wish she weren’t an economics moron, and I wish her political compromises indicated a more consistent way of prioritizing principles and goods. And there are some more specific problems with her individually: shrewdness and cockiness are not substitutes for being informed, and there is, in fact, nothing elitist about deploying good grammar/usage/mechanics off the cuff. I was never persuaded that Palin was lacking in intelligence, but I’m still not persuaded that she has the hunger for knowledge or conceptual framework for driving policy effectively.

    That said, she did well last night. She appeared to believe what she was saying, and there were few “How’s that again?” sentence constructions. Biden’s been around for ages, so I have a difficult time assessing what the debate itself really made me think of him. He seemed more lizardly than usual, though he never acted like a jerk.

    Like Virginia, I like Will Wilkinson’s liveblog. Some excerpts:

    8:16 – Biden: Barack Obama will never raise taxes on anyone ever. Almost. McCain is middle-class-hating shill for megawealthy.

    8:18 – Palin: Higher taxes not patriotic, Biden. Government off our snow machines! I did a good job remembering talking points about McCain’s health care tax credit plan! Budget-neutral: I can say it!

    8:19 – Biden: Scranton, reprezent. Redistribution isn’t if you don’t call it that. Fairness! Health care, blah blah Bridge to Nowhere.

    8:21 – Biden: How to save? Screw foreign assistance, tax cuts for rich, can’t “slow up on” stuff that’s the “engine”, like subsidies for the energy companies we’re not going to give tax cuts to. Tax havens unpatriotic!

    8:31 – Palin: Extemp grammar weird. Global warming. Yeah, we’ve got glaciers in Alaska, so we need to pay more for energy by subsidizing the same energy companies I had to wrestle like polar bears.

    8:32 – Biden: Global warming totally manmade. I know. I made it. By Talking. BO likes clean coal and safe nuclear. China: Dirty dirty coal. Give em our tech. McCain hates environment because he opposes causing hunger in third world children by subsidizing corn. Drilling won’t get us anywhere until 10 years, as if prices don’t reflect expectations of future production.

    My biggest worry last night was that if Palin crashed and burned, she would not only discredit the McCain campaign but also the idea that bringing outsiders (“non-professionals”) into DC politics is a good one. She held her own and seems to be learning her lessons. That’s not major praise, but considering whom she’s running with and against, and considering her own very, very iffy performance over the last several weeks, it’s enough.

    Do you like or love / either or both of me?

    Posted by Sean at 18:23, October 2nd, 2008

    It looks as if our debate-watching party will take place at home rather than at a friend’s place as planned. For the five of you who may care, be it known that

    1. I will not be live-blogging. At least, not the whole thing. I may be moved to reach for the laptop to comment in real time if anything seems particularly noteworthy, but I’ll have guests, and my first responsibility will be to see to their comfort while punching the sofa cushions hard every time someone on television says something dumb. (NB: I actually do that, even when there are other people around.)

    2. Don’t bother looking to me for a drinking game. The only drinking game I ever play has the following rules:
      • Whenever you want a gulp, take one. Then take one more.

      • The host or hostess loses if the alcohol runs out before everyone’s sated. (No household of mine has ever lost, I’ll have you know.)
      • Otherwise, everyone wins…you know, as in those new non-competitive versions of tag they play on playgrounds so every participant gets to feel equally special. But more fun.

    3. My friend Portia, whom you may know as a commenter at Eric‘s, pretty much sums up what I’m thinking going in.

      Right now I’m waiting for the debate to see how she performs. NOT to make up my mind. As I said, it’s pretty much get drunk and vote for McCain and I’d have done it even if he picked Romney. (If he picked Huckabee I had plans to find a lone island and hide out to wait for the end of the world.) I don’t like McCain, but I’m back in the familiar situation of the seventies, where I have to pick between those who will get me and my family killed and those who MIGHT allow us to live another four years.

      There are other reasons to vote for McCain, including that the press wants us to vote for Obama and I don’t like being told what to do.

      But I hope and pray I’m right and that there is a “there” there when it comes to Palin. Because if McCain wins, and croaks, I don’t want her playing sweet little girl to Putin, heaven help us all. Perhaps not as bad as Obama would be, but six of one, half a dozen of the other.

      On experience — not too fussed, provided McCain doesn’t die first day in office — PROVIDED SHE KICKS OFF “good little girl” mode. I’m hoping it happens sometime. Can’t promise, because it depends on McCain’s attitude, too.

      Look, everyone knew going into this that Palin was going to be under a microscope. She said she accepted the slot without hesitation. Great. Now give us reason to be glad for that. And bear in mind, a lot of us remember Margaret Thatcher.

    Should be entertaining, at least.

    He knows how to give me two-fisted love

    Posted by Sean at 21:45, September 30th, 2008

    I don’t happen to think the whole Palin thing is all that hard to understand–whether you do or do not want to support her. The original argument from the McCain campaign was that it didn’t matter that she didn’t have impressive academic credentials or a history of grooming herself for national politics; she had the knowledge and skill sets to get the job done well. The initial protests from the more hysterical corners of the left that she was a rube with outdated hair and a degree from Nowheresville State and too many kids and guns and a history of sportscasting were therefore petty and irrelevant. Unfortunately, many on the right are still responding as if those were the issues at hand. They are not. The issue still is, can she get the job done well?

    Rachel Lucas is another person who’s getting it from right-leaning commenters about criticizing Palin, and she responds perfectly sensibly:

    So I watched the Couric interview of Palin clips late on a Friday afternoon and blogged that I thought she sounded like a fool. Didn’t say she is a fool, or stupid, just that she didn’t sound like she knew what she was talking about and that if she were on “the other side,” I would mock her with verbatim transcripts and most of my readers would laugh and mock along with me.


    This isn’t the Washington Post you know. I’m not Charles Freakin’ Krauthammer. But most of all, I refuse to be a hypocrite and it kinda pisses me off, not a lot but kinda, that so few others on “my side” don’t see how hypocritical it is to say that you wouldn’t tear her up all over the place if she were a Democrat, wouldn’t say that she sounded like a complete and total moron in those interviews if she were a liberal. She did sound like that, editing or not. You do realize that half the time I or any other blogger or right-leaning writer mocks the intelligence of Democrats, we’re doing that selectively, too?

    Along the same lines, my friend Zak zeroes in on a major issue, though I think he mischaracterizes it:

    The thing is, it’s almost impossible to talk about these things when someone who has risen up from truly humble roots through his own abilities is branded “elite,” while the guy who got into Annapolis because his dad was an Admiral and then married an heiress is somehow salt of the earth.

    In the end, it’s now a nonsense word, and just means “a liberal I dislike.”

    I DO think there is a serious current of anti-intellectualism in America these days, though. There always has been, but I think it’s been cresting.

    To start with…look, this is probably about the thousandth time I’ve linked this post by Megan McCardle, but it really does help illuminate things, so here it is:

    What is true is that Democrats, right now, have more ability to insulate themselves from being confronted with the views of the other side. Geographically, they can isolate themselves into coastal cities, which is why I never met any Republicans except my grandparents until I went to business school. And informationally, provided that they don’t watch Fox news, don’t subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, and keep the radio tuned to NPR, they can keep from ever hearing if the other side has a good argument.

    This is why the Democrats at that luncheon were so shocked and hurt. Not because they are stupid, or venal, or arrogant. But because they live in a bubble, and thus are genuinely not aware that the other side may occasionally have the better of the argument. The New Republic is about as far right as your average New Yorker generally goes, publication-wise — and I am acquainted with a number of people who have dropped it because it’s too right-wing these days. If the only explanation of conservatives beliefs you ever hear comes from the editorial pages of the New York Times, it is indeed incomprehensible that people out there could actually embrace such twaddle. I’d be looking under the couch for the Vast Right Wing conspiracy too.

    The main distinction that needs to be made here is between eliteness (being privileged) and elitism (the state of mind, the worldview, the 主義 that one is superior to others and, in this context, can govern them effectively without learning from them). I’ve never heard the argument advanced that McCain is not an elite, in the sense of coming from a powerful insider family and therefore being in a better position to snag an heiress. I have seen people occasionally use Obama’s grandmother’s job as a bank vice-president as grounds for arguing that his background was more elite than we’re given to understand, but most of his detractors that I know of accept that his family was pretty non-descript middle-class.

    The argument that McCain, despite his background, is not an elitist is based on his perceived willingness to get his hands dirty, which is predicated on the belief that he’s no better than anyone he’s serving. He went to Vietnam and withstood imprisonment and torture. He’s spent his career in the senate pursuing bipartisan cooperation. His wife doesn’t inform voters that her husband is going to shake them up, because his position is not that they’ve chosen to live their lives in ways that need to be reformed by do-gooder technocrats. He tells them that they have every right to love America as it is and that their existing values are worthwhile.

    The argument that Obama, despite his background, is an elitist is based on his perceived belief that he’s destined to fulfill the role of an enlightened political leader, a high-status charity worker who ladles goodness onto his constituents from on high because they don’t know what’s good for them. He explained the values of small-town and rural voters as resulting from the failure of presidential administrations to engineer the economy to make them happy. He sucks up to European social democrats and acts as if we needed to be more like them. He’s still against the surge even though he acknowledges that it’s worked. He started running for president practically from the moment he was elected to the senate.

    My point is not that either extreme is entirely true, only that it’s about more than just deciding based on upbringing who’s elitist and who is not.

    Regarding Sarah Palin, the questions seem to revolve more around eliteness of achievement than around elitism of beliefs. There seems to be little evidence that she’s tried to use the coercive power of her government position to push others to live her way. There is, however, evidence that she’s out of her depth as a contender for the vice-presidency. It’s not conclusive evidence, so I’m happy to humor conservatives who maintain that she’s saving up all her killer lines and dazzling political insights for the debate Thursday. We’ll know soon enough, after all. But the contention that anyone who questions her possible relationship to the Peter principle is a tool of the Obama left is ridiculous. I’m as unmoved by that as I am by the contention that anyone who votes against Obama is a racist.


    Posted by Sean at 16:37, September 28th, 2008

    I think the left is more frequently guilty than the right of shrill, emotionally charged reactions when their sacred cows are criticized, but that doesn’t mean they have a monopoly on the practice. Bridget Johnson posted this on PJM about whether Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal might not have made a better choice for McCain’s VP than Sarah Palin:

    Considering the excessive media tear against Palin, as opposed to the kid-gloves treatment afforded Barack Obama, it was no surprise that anyone in the media who questioned the selection of Palin — regardless of whether he or she fell on the right of left side of the aisle, or somewhere in between — was regarded as having nefarious ulterior motives by fans of the newly created ticket.

    [A]s soon as I blogged on the possibility that storm season could show Jindal may have been the smarter choice, commenters in conservative forums were calling me a Marxist mainstream media louse who was surely making the suggestion to sabotage a right-wing dream ticket (though, it should be said, McCain was in the not-too-distant past considered a poseur Republican, and any pundit who pitched him in the primary over Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee was roundly castigated). Never mind that I was suggesting another Reagan Republican as McCain’s ideal running mate.

    If you want to see what she’s talking about, just look at the comments. Enough of them gainsay her argument without giving a good reason that I had to stop reading halfway through. Johnson must have expected that, and good on her for writing what she believes anyway.

    From the opposite side of the political spectrum, friends of mine, such as Zak in a comment the other day, have been asking why I’m not flipping out over Palin as much as they are:

    I think Palin appeals to the ignorant because they can sense that she is exactly as ignorant as they. I can’t figure out why you aren’t appalled about her candidacy, though, because you clearly don’t fit into this group.

    I seriously doubt there are many people who support Palin because she seems dumb enough to be unthreatening and easy to relate to. I do think there are a lot of smart, experienced people who’ve followed politics for years, were excited at the potential ascent of a genuine outsider such as Palin, and have been bending over backwards to put the best face on her performance since her convention speech because they really, really want her to do well. And McCain to win.

    Palin hasn’t said anything egregiously, quotably stupid, which is good; but she has settled into a pattern of giving obtuse responses to questions that leave a strong impression that she just doesn’t really know what she’s talking about. The line about this among fans is that the McCain campaign is micro-managing her self-presentation, and that she is therefore displaying the discomfort of someone trying to play a role she’s pledged to but doesn’t really want.

    That all sounds very sympathetic, but weren’t we told, expressly, that Palin’s a good choice because she has a solid core of conviction and principle and doesn’t let people push her around? I have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes, but in public Palin is looking less steady and spunky as things wear on. She’s nearly lost a lot of us, and if she’s saving herself up for her debate performance (which I find possible but not really likely), she’s running a terrible risk.

    And can we please stop it with the crap about how any criticism of Palin is based on snobbery and is practically prima facie evidence of a desire for Obama to win? Anti-elitism is not supposed to mean lowering standards. Just because a lot of blowhards went to Harvard, that doesn’t mean that going to a state school is a sign of shrewdness. Palin’s convention speech was a great start and suggested that she might be one of those smart, talented people whose path happened not to pass through an elite university. I can’t see anything inherently snobbish about pointing out that she hasn’t done much to develop since then.