Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why look for stupidity, when laziness is staring you in the face?

The floodgates have opened, and there's a torrent of opinion speculating on Barack Obama's intelligence. A recent example is Noemie Emery's Examiner column: What if Barack Obama isn't so smart?
Fortunately we have such a thinker, "capable to examining" things to perfection, and that is the problem: President Obama is their ideal of a thinker. He is president, and he has been -- how to put it? -- a bomb.

Based on results, Perry has been more successful as governor of Texas than Obama has been as president, or as anything else he has ever tried being, in the entire whole course of his life.

In 2008, Obama was hailed as a genius, a "first rate intellect," the smartest man to ever be president, and we know now the first part is true. He is the political genius who shed 30 points in his first years in office.

He's the political genius who blew up his coalition in his first months in office, who led his party to annihilation in the 2010 midterms (while showing utter indifference to the fate of congressional Democrats), and gave the Republicans -- who were on the floor, in a coma -- more than they needed to come roaring back from the dead...

And if Obama is brilliant, and Bush is an imbecile, how come the genius kept most of the things the dolt set in motion: the protocols for fighting the war against terror, the surge strategy, the timetables, and even, in Robert Gates and David Petraeus, some of his main appointees? Why couldn't the genius improve on the idiot's handiwork?

Maybe he isn't that bright.

Well, there's an alternate explanation for President Obama's record in office, one that accords better with Occam's Razor. We can't measure Obama's intelligence directly -- and he won't release his college or law school transcripts, so we can't use those as a proxy for an intelligence measurement. But we can directly observe one important aspect of Obama's behavior, and definitively state that he is exceedingly lazy.

Emery correctly points out that Obama has demonstrated mediocre to poor performance in each of the jobs he's held. He doesn't exhibit the perseverance to stick with a job until he masters it; instead, his pattern is to become bored or frustrated quickly and to seek some other opportunity.

But with that mediocre performance, Obama has achieved a rapid rise to the absolute pinnacle of political office. That brings up another pattern in Obama's career: his advancement has been largely independent of performance. His editorship of the Harvard Law Review, for example, seems to have required no body of work. His run for the Illinois State Senate was made simpler when his putative mentor was disqualified from the ballot, letting Obama take the Democratic nomination. When he attempted a competitive run for Bobby Rush's seat in Congress, he failed completely. And when he ran for the U.S. Senate, his Republican opponent's divorce records were somehow unsealed, again clearing Obama's path for him.

If you're not good at doing anything but you consistently meet with advancement, you tend to attribute your success to your own inherent awesomeness and you tend to discount the importance of hard work and persistence to achievement. Obama's cocky statements "I got this" and "Just give me the ball" early in his term reflected his belief that his mere presence would be sufficient to solve the thorny problems he would face as President.

So on taking office, he chose to employ a simple two-step strategy. Step one was to give Pelosi and Reid vague outlines of what he wanted and let them handle it. Step two was to deal with the things Pelosi and Reid couldn't or wouldn't get for him by reverting to continuing Bush Administration policies. It was effortless, and as far as Obama was concerned, it was supposed to be a slam dunk: if he ran into too much resistance, he only had to give a speech and the public acclaim would ensure that everyone in Washington (everyone who mattered) would fall into line.

He assumed that the auto-pilot ARRA stimulus would cure the nation's economic ills in one shot; when it didn't, his only fallback was to wait for it to "kick in" over successive "Summers of Recovery." When he ran into real, substantive resistance, as on ObamaCare, he found that speechifying had no effect; only because nationalized health care was a cherished goal of Pelosi and Reid were they willing to go to unprecedented lengths to pass it.

And as his policies proved to be ineffectual both in substance and politically, he became frustrated, bored and disinterested in his job. He sought out ways to avoid work -- golfing, fundraising, hosting celebrities -- because he has no realistic way to find another ostensibly better and more interesting job.

This pattern isn't necessarily symptomatic of intellectual dullness. Intelligence and perseverance aren't intrinsically linked. But as one of Ricochet's favorite Presidents once said:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

And persistence and determination are precisely the qualities President Obama lacks.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

President Kludge

The story goes that in WWII, a machinist's mate on a battleship fended off any work details by keeping constantly busy making a very important piece of equipment that would increase the ship's fighting efficiency. No one but he was allowed to see it.

One day, the ship's captain informed the machinist's mate that the Admiral would be inspecting the ship the following week and that he was to present his very important invention at the inspection. The mate worked feverishly to the deadline, and as the Admiral was being piped aboard, he picked up the item and rushed up to the deck.

He ran across the deck to where the Admiral was waiting, but slipped and fell, and the marvelous thing went over the side. Everyone in the crew heard it hit the water with a loud "KLUDGE!"

This is supposedly how the slang term "kludge" came into existence. It now has the connotation of something thrown together in haste, held together with chewing gum and baling wire, and just barely able to fulfill the function for which it was intended in the most inelegant and inefficient way. That's one way of looking at the Obama Administration: a huge jury-rig that's shaking itself apart.

But listening to President Obama talk about his Big Jobs Plan and how he's getting it ready for unveiling on Labor Day, it reminded me of the story of the goldbricking machinist's mate and how his fortunate stroke of bad luck ensured he'd never have to present his work for inspection.

Friday, August 12, 2011

How will "petroshekels" change the world?

The standing joke among Jews is, "If we're the Chosen People, why didn't God promise us some land with OIL under it?" As it turns out, He did.

Recent discoveries -- over the past several years -- put the amount of natural gas reserves in Israeli territorial waters at as much as 26 trillion cubic feet. That's roughly triple what Israel will consume over the next 20 years, meaning much of it can be exported. But compared to Egypt's 77 tcf of gas reserves, Israel's natural gas discoveries are not quite Earth-shaking.
Currently, Israel imports coal for domestic electricity, supplemented since 2004 by natural gas from the offshore Mari-B field twenty-five miles from the southern port of Ashdod. More gas comes from Egypt, arriving near Ashdod via an undersea pipeline. Indeed, despite the excitement over the Leviathan field, Israel signed a new twenty-year gas purchase agreement with Egypt earlier in December to supply several industrial entities, including the Dead Sea Works and the Haifa refinery.

If the riches of the Leviathan field are confirmed, production could begin by 2016. In that scenario, Israel could eventually become a net energy exporter despite still needing to import oil to refine into gasoline and other products. Apart from notional energy independence, using natural gas from its own fields would save Israel $4 billion in imports annually while boosting gross national product. Plentiful indigenous hydrocarbon supplies could also prompt the development of new industries. For the time being, though, Israel must resolve a variety of problems before it can begin reaping the full benefits of the new discovery.
However, Israel sits atop another energy resource: oil shale. Up until the end of 2010, it was believed that Israel had about 4 billion barrels of oil in extractable oil shale. Given that the Saudis produce just under 10 million bbl/day, those 4 billion bbl are equivalent to about 400 days of Saudi Arabia's production.

But new discoveries of oil shale in Israel and new techniques of extraction put the latest estimates of available oil from Israeli shale at 250 billion bbl - just shy of Saudi Arabia's proven reserves of 260 billion bbl.
What is less well-known, but even more dramatic, is the work being done on this country’s oil shale. The British-based World Energy Council reported in November 2010 that Israel had oil shale from which it is possible to extract the equivalent of 4 billion barrels of oil. Yet these numbers are currently undergoing a major revision internationally.

A new assessment was released late last year by Dr. Yuval Bartov, chief geologist for Israel Energy Initiatives, at the yearly symposium of the prestigious Colorado School of Mines. He presented data that our oil shale reserves are actually the equivalent of 250 billion barrels (that compares with 260 billion barrels in the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia).

Independent oil industry analysts have been carefully looking at the shale, and have not refuted these findings. As a consequence of these new estimates, we may emerge as the third largest deposit of oil shale, after the US and China.

Moreover, Israel is developing extraction techniques that take the oil out of the shale while the shale remains underground, at per-barrel costs of $20 or less.

What would it mean to the world if Israel were able to produce oil at rates similar to Saudi Arabia?

1) Lower oil prices overall. More supply would allow oil prices to fall to levels more consistent with historical patterns. Cheaper oil would help the world's industrialized economies to grow.

2) A loosening of OPEC's stranglehold on world oil markets. Any significant non-OPEC production reduces OPEC's leverage and provides a safety valve against production restrictions by one or more OPEC nations.

3) A flip in American foreign aid payments. Israel would no longer need aid from the USA and would be able to buy American military hardware for cash.

4) A revision in geopolitical and global military postures. Unlike oil from the Persian Gulf that has to transit the Suez Canal or circumnavigate Africa, Israeli oil can be delivered to tankers in the Mediterranean. Consider the way Europe reacted to the potential disruption of oil production in Libya, an unstable and hostile producer in the Mediterranean; the value of a politically stable and friendly oil source in the Mediterranean would cause the West to put more pressure on the Arab world to declare peace with Israel and cease threatening a valuable energy exporter. It would also change the calculus with respect to the threat Iran and its nuclear program pose to Israel.

5) A potential recession in global terrorism. If the West uses Israel's rise as an oil exporter as an impetus to stand up to Iran, the Iranian regime may find it too costly to continue exporting terrorism via Syria to Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups around the world. Without Iranian sponsorship, jihadist movements in many places would become too weak to stand up to more moderate movements. And to the extent that Israel's competition with Saudi Arabia in the oil markets and its new geopolitical importance made life harder on Saudi and other Gulf oil sheikhs and emirs, they would have less disposable income to spend on al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Not surprisingly, Hezbollah wants to throw a monkey wrench into Israel's plans by prodding Lebanon to claim part of Israel's territorial waters for its own. But Israel has plenty of gas for its own use in undisputed waters and has the technology to defend its claims against Hezbollah attacks by missiles or suicide boats. And Hezbollah can't make any claim over Israeli oil shale.

Let's hope this brave new world opens up soon. We will all benefit.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Golem

One of the strangest legends of Jewish mystical folklore is the story of the Golem. The best-known example is the story of the Golem of Prague, made by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel to protect the Jews of Prague from Christians incited by sermons at Eastertime. Eventually, after performing its defensive duty, the Golem stopped obeying Rabbi Judah Loew's orders and the Rabbi was forced to destroy it.

From the Hebrew word for "formless mass," golem refers to the product of a mystical procedure that turns a shapeless lump of clay or mud into a living being, capable of performing service for its maker. The procedure relies on the power of words to create and destroy: the maker imbues the golem with life by speaking or writing words related to the names of God into the formless mass, and it takes shape and gains the power of movement -- but not of speech. When its usefulness is at an end (or when it develops a dangerous will of its own), the golem's maker can destroy it by repeating the words in the reverse order or erasing their written form.

In 2006, columnist Froma Harrop noted that Barack Obama described himself in his second autobiography, The Audacity of Hope: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views... my treatment of the issues is often partial and incomplete."

Today, in August 2011, Froma Harrop has made some interesting headlines by calling TEA Party movement members "terrorists" -- this while heading a project called Restoring Civility for the National Conference of Editorial Writers. But what's been overlooked in the kerfuffle over her name-calling is the topic of the column in which the name-calling appeared: Democrats Also Need a Presidential Primary in 2012. It concludes:
But Democrats would do themselves a huge favor if they had a living, breathing leader as their presidential candidate in 2012. Won't someone step up?

And she's hardly the only Progressive lamenting the failure of Obama to fulfill their ambitions. On Slate, Jacob Weisberg paints a lurid image of Obama as passive and ineffectual:
It has been astonishing to watch Obama's sheer unwillingness to give up on his opponents after their refusal to work with him on the stimulus package, health care reform, or the extension of the Bush tax cuts last fall. A Congress dominated by mindless cannibals is now feasting on a supine president. But surely even he now realizes there's no middle ground with antagonists whose only interest is in seeing him humiliated.

And in the New York Times, Drew Westen, professor of psychology at Emory University, writes that Obama seems passionless and even rudderless:
A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there — the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.

It seems clear that Obama was flattering himself when he described himself as a blank screen. He is a golem: a shapeless mass of unformed political opinions and feel-good slogans who animated himself into national political life with the power of words. He began with his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then followed with The Audacity of Hope (mirroring the way he used Dreams From My Father to become a statewide politician in Illinois), and finally with his campaign speeches in 2007-2008. And along the way, his formlessness allowed both Progressives and more moderate voters to believe that he was assuming the form of their faithful servant, a being that would do the heavy lifting of fixing a broken nation and creating a cross-party coalition behind his preferred solutions.

But having spoken himself into being, President Obama had no idea what he existed for. He assumed that slogans, pronouncements and speeches would be as effective in creating public policy from his shapeless mass of ideas as it was in turning him into a President-like figure. Amazingly, in thirty months in office, he hasn't learned that incantations are not sufficient to the task of negotiating policy decisions with Congress. Even very recently, his press secretary Jay Carney expressed exasperation on Obama's behalf at press suggestions that the President might be expected in the course of his job to write down comprehensive proposals to implement his policy positions.

The final evidence that Obama is no blank screen but an animated being is that the Progressives now realize that they can't change him merely by changing a channel or projecting a different image onto him. In fact, they can't control him at all -- and the fact that they are so outraged to realize that fact indicates that they indeed saw themselves, not him, as the makers of the Golem. They believed that they called him into being and thus should be able to uncreate him, but they are learning that they were merely swept along in his process of self-creation and that they are now powerless to stop him from lumbering aimlessly, crushing their Progressive ideals.

The story of the Golem was made into a so-so Roddy McDowall movie in 1967. But that was a masterpiece compared to the Obama version.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mr. Multi-Tasker (sort of)

Yes, the "hard pivot to jobs" is back, for the umpteenth time. The RNC notes that this is the 15th time that the Administration has announced its focus is shifting to job creation. Ben Smith at Politico (hat tip: The Campaign Spot) takes issue with the specific count, but has to admit that the observation is valid:
February 2009: In a speech to Congress, Obama says his economic plan will be focused on jobs.

November 2009, during the lull in health care debate: “This is my administration's overriding focus.”

January 2010: “What they can expect from this administration, and I know what they can expect from you, is that we are going to have a sustained and relentless focus over the next several months on accelerating the pace of job creation, because that's priority number one.”

April 2010: Post health-care, Obama goes on a bunch of “Main Street” tour stops to talk about jobs in April and May.

June 2010: The beginning of recovery summer.

December 2010: “And I think we are past the crisis point in the economy, but we now have to pivot and focus on jobs and growth.”

January 2011: Obama’s State of the Union focuses on jobs and afterward he makes a big jobs push (even though Egypt is taking up his, and the world's attention), launches “Startup America” initiative.

Obama's spokesman Jay Carney realized something really important about the pivot talk and tried to counter it:
Q: The President has repeatedly pivoted back to jobs, as he did again yesterday. Why is this time any different? Why should the Americans have any confidence this time?

MR. CARNEY: Well, let’s be clear. The President has been focusing on jobs and the economy since the day he was sworn into office, during a month that saw the loss of 800,000 -- nearly 800,000 American jobs in just one month. And that was the situation that he encountered when he took the oath. And that has been his focus since he became President.

There is no question that as President you have to deal with other problems. And in this case, the debt ceiling crisis, if you will, was a manufactured crisis. It was a self-inflicted wound. It was the linkage between something that Congress absolutely has to do -- which is extend the borrowing authority of the United States government -- to specific legislation that one-half of one body of Congress wanted passed.

So Carney's claim is that Obama doesn't need to pivot back to job creation because he's always been focused on it. Good attempt... but Carney then sabotages his own spin by admitting that because Obama had to "deal with other problems," he couldn't make any headway on job creation. He reiterates it later in the briefing:
What the President is saying now, and what you will be hearing him saying, is that you, the American citizen, have heard a lot of talk in Washington about debt ceilings and deficits; and while those are important issues -- very important -- and they have -- they are important in relation to our economy, and they are important in relation to jobs if they are addressed appropriately -- there are other things we can do directly that affect jobs and economic growth.

And that’s what he’s saying. This is not a -- I think “pivot” is not an appropriate word. It’s refocusing. It’s continuing the focus that we’ve had and allowing us to focus even more intently now that we have reached the compromise that was reached with Congress a couple of days ago.

Now, I seem to recall a moment in the 2008 Presidential campaign when John McCain suspended his campaign and called for postponing a debate so that he could go back to Washington to help deal with the burgeoning financial crisis. I also recall that Obama dismissed the call to postpone the debate derisively:
“It’s my belief that this is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who in approximately 40 days will be responsible for dealing with this mess,” Mr. Obama said. “It is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.”

So, riddle me this: how is it that the President who came into office knowing he had to be able to deal with more than one thing at once never seemed to be able to keep dealing with the unemployment crisis whenever some other problem arose? Where's that multi-tasking skill been for the last 30 months, Mr. President?

Maybe Obama's multi-tasking capability means he can deal with only one thing at a time in his day job as President while carrying a full fundraising schedule.