View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Tuesday, December 31, 2002
One of NRO's Corner's bloggers, I can't remember who, expressed dismay with Karen Armstrong's chracterization of Muhammed's relations with the Jews, and the resulting distrust of her scholarship.

He's right.

I was browsing in the neighborhood used book store, and found a copy of In The Beginning, her interpretation of Genesis. Leaving aside her theological credentials for the moment, the thing was hostile, hostile, hostile. I read through her section on Noah, and she does note that Noah barely protests the destructions of Earth, in comparison to Abraham's pleading on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. So far, ok. Then this gem: " seems that even God does not yet fully comprehend the nature of human goodness." God is assuaged by the smell of Noah's sacrifice, not the sentiments that sacrifice represents. And to those who would defend God, she claims that God's destruction of almost all human life makes it easier to defend human kings who've tried the same thing.

Look, I'm not claiming she's utterly and completely off-base here. But rather than making these questions, something that might yield useful and insightful answers, she's content to diminish God. Such childishness and ignorance does not recommend her as the expert on the West's religions that she claims to be.

Monday, December 30, 2002
The Washington Post Online has a Home Page Story about Al Queda's maritime activities. It's a fine effort, well worth reading. In my days as a Beltway bandit, I did some work on this issue, working on a computer program to help track ships. The article covers most of the countermeasures that the bad guys can take to escape surveillance.

More than that, there are a number of choke points that most shipping traffic passes through: the Straits of Malacca in Indonesia, for instance. The bad guys don't care so much about time lines, and could send their shipping outside of established lanes. If they were worried about perpetrating attacks at sea, those target-rich environments are well-known.

Sunday, December 29, 2002
I've also been reading Rabbi Daniel Lapin's Thou Shall Prosper, his effort to ground business success and the whole system of Democratic Capitalism in the Jewish ethical and religious tradition. In it, and interesting passage paraphrasing Warren Buffett:

Let's say it was 24 hours before you were born, and a genie appeared and said, "You look like a winner. I have enormous confidence in you, and white I'm going to do is let you set the rules of the society into which you will be born. You can set the economic rules and the social rules, and whatever rules you set will apply during your lifetime and your children's lifetimes.

And you'll say, "Well, that's nice, but what's the catch?"

And the Genie says, "Here's the catch. You don't know if you're going to be born rich or poor, white or black, male or female, able-bodied or infirm, intelligent or retarded. So all you know is that you're going to get one ball out of a barrel with, say, 5.8 billion balls in it. You're going to participate in what I call the ovarian lottery. It's the most important thing that will happen to you in your life, but you have no control over it. It's going to determing far more that your grades at school or anything else that happens to you. Now, what rules do you want to have?"

Now, quoting Lapin, "Buffett predicts that you're going to want a system that creates ever more wealth....[one that]provides incentive for the most able and creative people to keep working long after they no longer need to work."

If this sounds like Rawls's classic "veil of ignorance" thought experiment, it is. The guys over at Powerline had a discussion a couple of weeks ago when Rawls died, focusing in the notion that philosophical systems can be put to arbitrary political use. The liberals had just assumed (along with Rawls) that the veil of ignorance implied a liberal, socialist system. They assumed that people would be substantially risk-averse. Mr. Buffett is not a reckless investor. Yet he is, in this instance, more willing to tolerate the risk of inequality in return for a system that gives him a maximum chance to succeed. One might argue that, having succeeded in this system, he obviously sees its vrtues over its flaws, but I'd wager that the majority of Americans, at a fundamental level, agree with him.

I've been reading V.S. Naipaul's Among the Believers, one of the main reasons he won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. He starts off in Iran, in August 1979, before the hostages, and one gest the distinct sense of a revolution hijacked by Khomeini and the radicals. This is pretty much the story of every non-Anglospheric revolution, of course. The people in Teheran he interviews don't want a mullocracy. They're happy to see the return of core values, and hate the Shah, but most of them don't know what they want to take his place. Those that do, seem to want a Turkish-style system, without the military aspect. It's in Qom, city of the Ayatollahs, that the Committee for Public Safety takes over, and hijacks things.

This suggests two things. First, Khomeini, not bin Laden, is the greater evil. He played the part of Lenin more closely that we know. He subverted a popular movement to get rid of a tyrant. He then turned his country into a base - the main base and patron - of a Revolution without borders of his own. He provided hope and inspiration, as well as logistical support, for radical Islam all over the globe. With unintended irony, his hanging judge is quoted as saying, "the communists will go on following their Lenin, we will follow our Khomeini." We should be harder on him than we are.

Second, maybe the Iranians will be able to get it right this time, since the leaders of the burgeoning rebellion seem pro-West, and not led by any -ology or -ism. We need them, and they need us more.

Friday, December 27, 2002
Took a quick trip yesterday down to Garden of the Gods. I'll have pictures up at some point soon. GoG is a group of red sandstone formations at the foot of Pike's Peak, which towers over Colorado Springs. The formations are pretty dramatic, and on a sunny day, you can get terrific contrast between the red rock and the blue sky. Blue and Red aren't complementary colors, but the do speak highly of each other and work well together.

Thursday, December 26, 2002
Our friends at Real Clear Politics has a link to an op-ed by John F. Kerry of Taxachussetts arguing for a cut in the payroll tax. He makes the case on redistributionist grounds: the tax is regressive (which is clearly true), so exempting the first $10,000 will result in "an immediate savings of $765" to all workers. It's a good idea, one that should be part of the President's tax-cut package. But the reason it's a good idea has nothing to do with the extra $15 a week workers will see. And the arguments that Kerry puts forth are so tendentious and economically ignorant so as to disqualify him for serious consideration for President, regardless of how Presidential his hair is.

First, he assumes the Class Warfare mantle that his political class is so well-known for. He decodes a Republican complaint about redistributionist taxes to mean that the "rich" shouldn't be subsidizing the middle-class's cars and mortgages.

Secondly, he argues that the cut should come from general revenue, not from Social Security or Medicare. Except that these are exactly the programs that the payroll tax funds. I know he's never been a deficit hawk, unless it was Republican deficits under discussion, but this essentially takes the Federal Budget shell game to new levels. Before, we would subsidize deficits from the Social Security "fund." Now, we're just going to divert that money, like a Colorado river in a B-Western, before it even gets there, and fund the shortfall in Social Security and Medicare from general revenue. This, in and of itself, doesn't bother me, but instead of making part of a larger plan that just lumps Federal spending together on the books, it tries to preserve the accounting fiction, while obliterating the actual distinction in revenue.

Third, the money would come to $15 a week, exactly the kind of money that the Democrats routinely ridicule when Republicans propose tax cuts.

In the course of his class-warfare arguments, he doesn't mention whether or not businesses would get their half of the tax recuded, as well. Businesses pay half the payroll tax for employees, another $765 on that first $10000. If businesses do get a reduction, it provides benefits long-, near-, and mid-term. In the near-term, their own cash flow improves by that $765 per employee. Since consumers have been holding up their end of the economy, this will help provide the cash that many near-break-even companies need to increase their capital spending. In the mid-term, at least some of that savings will wind up in employees' pockets. As the labor market tightens, employers will once again find themselves competing for qualified employees, and will have the cash on hand to bid up the price a little.

The kind of business that can least afford the payroll tax is the small entrepreneurship. I've started businesses myself, and it's a whole new world. Yes, you get all sorts of deductions, but you also get an immediate 7.65% increase in your personal tax burden. Given that the biggest challenge facing small companies is the need for cash, this hurts most where new companies can least afford it - cash flow. If the tax is regressive on individuals, it's also regressive on businesses, with small companies feeling it the most. Entrepreneurs and small businesses are in increasingly important part of that economic engine, and any help we can give them would be doubly appreciated. But there's nothing in Kerry's bag for them.

This is not entirely a surprise. If MEMRI is Indispensible, Project Vote-Smart is invaluable. In 2001, Kerry scored a 0 from the National Association for the Self-Employed, a 17 from the National Federation of Independet Business, and a 0 from the Small Business Survival Committee.

At least Kerry seems to realize that the tax structure is no longer supported politically by the very people it's supposed to benefit. But if he really wants to increase income to the working class, he might consider switching hair stylists.

Wednesday, December 25, 2002
According to a cute Reuters story about possible chemical attack, Saddam fired 31 scuds at Israel in 1991. The actual number was 39.

Then again, since, according to Reuters, one man's terrorist is another man's drunken Super Bowl reveler, maybe they thought the other 8 were fireworks.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002
On the subject of shutting down religious institutions, Concordia University has finally taken steps to shut down an offending student religious group on its campus. Naturally, it's Hillel.

Both The Jewish Week and Hillel are following the controversy, which seems to revolve around some pamphlets left at Hillel's table urging students to go join the IDF. The Jewish Week article does a decent job with the details, noting that the University administration is pleading powerlessness in the face of the Student Union action. (They claim that the Student Union is the same thing as a labor union, which can only mean that these guys have been out of school for a long time.) The vote itself appears to have violated by-laws by taking place without a quorum. Hillel claims it didn't know anything about the pamphlets, and the Jews on campus had the guts to hold an Official Hillel Channukah Party, anyway. Good for them.

Now the CSU has agreed to reinstate Hillel if it signs a pledge to oppose a theoretical "war," presumably meaning that it shouldn't encourage Jews in Israel to defend themselves. It doesn't appear they're asking any Muslim student groups to oppose actual violence, somewhat, er, closer to home.

The Washington Post reports on the rapid rise of Evangelical Christianity in China. While it's no threat to the existing power structure, the Communists are having a harder time closing down Protestant churches than abusing the Falun Gong, for instance.

Monday, December 23, 2002
The new Commentary Magazine is out; may have been out for a little while. It's got a fine article by Hillel Halkin about the war between Yiddish and Hebrew, and a somewhat disappointing effort by Efraim Karsh about the misdirection provided by the Palestinians.

Karsh First. He's normally terrific, and I found his Fabricating Israeli History to be a powerful rebuttal of the anti-Zionist notion that Israel was formed with the intent and effect of ethnically cleansing the Palestinians Arabs. (See Review.) Nevertheless, his argument here is, essentially, that 1) the Arabs don't really care about the Palestinians and would rather use them as a vehicle for their own interests, and 2) Saddam is just as cynical and opporunistic in this as the rest of them. All this has been said before, and it's not clear what Karsh's article adds to the debate. The fact that he's right doesn't mean that he's satisfying.

Halkin is much better, especially since this is a topic that most non-Jews will not have been aware of. The linkage of Hebrew with Zionism and Yiddish with Diasporism is fascinating reading. Yiddishism went beyond that, of course, and the Yiddishists of the early 20th century never meant to deny the importance of Israel, only the usefulness of Hebrew. The two languages co-existed because they dealt with different realms, and their respective cadences, voices, and vocabularies bear this out. Halkin contrasts a passage from the same story, in Hebrew and in Yiddish, in parallel versions written by the original author, and shows how different they sound. But Jews knew both of them, used both of them, and claimed both of them as their own. Eventually the Soviets and Germans killed Yiddish. Even if the political battle rages on in Israel (see Yoram Hazony's The Jewish State), it does so entirely in Hebrew.

Those interested in the rise of Hebrew are advised to look at Robert Alter's The Invention of Hebrew Prose and Benjamin Harshav's Language in Time of Revolution.

The New York Jewish Week comments on the controversy surrounding "ethicist" Randy Cohen and his call for an effective business boycott of Orthodox Jewish men who follow the custom of not shaking hands with women. Cohen, a Reform Jew who barely attends temple himself, evidently feels qualified to pass judgment on Jewish Law, and claims that this is based on a rabbinic fear that the man will be "whipped into a sexual frenzy."

Look, there's appropriate contact, and inappropriate contact. Many Orthodox businessmen shake women's hands to avoid embarassing them. But many don't, and Cohen's disrespect for strict religious observance should offend people of any faith.

Cohen professes to be an "ethicist," but the only ethical principle he gives credence to is absolute egalitarianism. Utilitarian arguments might suggest that an economy and a society function better if people don't take offense at everything. A Kantian might argue that reversibility requires the woman to be respectful of others' religious obligations; just as she would want hers respected. There are plenty of Western ethical constructs that would find some solution short of condemnation.

But at a more basic level, Cohen just hasn't bothered to do his homework. The Orthodox man in this case isn't refusing to shake the woman's hand out of contempt, but out of a decent respect for relations between the sexes as he sees them. Jewish ethics imposes an obligation, observed to differing degrees, to observe some separation. But apparently, Cohen has no room for those ethics in his analyses.

The trip pictures are up. You can get to them here.

It's a litte old, but the Florida chapter of CAIR has a press release giving us all the skinny (so to speak) on Muhammed's wives. It defends him against the charge that his wives were either attractive or young, except in one case where he's accused of preceding Humbert Humbert by a few centuries. It certainly is a relief that Muhammed was hanging out with a better class of woman, at least ones old enough to buy a drink if they hadn't been Muslim. Although, to be honest, I don't know of anyone who knew of the charge, or would have cared had they known. We Americans are pretty willing to give holy men of any religion the benefit fof the doubt. But then, this:

To avoid the kind of excesses that we saw in Nigeria, both Muslims and non-Muslims need to know the traditions of the other more thoroughly. Perhaps one place to start is with the figure of Muhammad.

No, Mr. Ahmed. To avoid the, ahem, "excesses" of Nigeria, Muslims need to realize that the proper response to blasphemy is a humorous letter to the editor, not a molotov cocktail and a fatwah. Your letter to the editor wasn't particularly humorous, but at least it wasn't wrapped around primer cord when you send it, so I guess it's a step in the right direction.

Sunday, December 22, 2002
The Jerusalem Post is reporting that the PA has officially decided to postpone the January 20 elections, now saying that it needs three months after an IDF pullback to effect elections.

They've said this before, but the timing is clear both an attempt to influence Israeli elections, in which the chief enemy of Israel has all but endorsed the Labor candidate, and in response to polls shows Labor closing on Likud. The elections were a response to intense US and Israeli pressure. If the PA is postponing them, it's using them as a bargaining chip, and trying to encourage the Israelis to vote for a pull-out so the elections can take place.

It was only re-occupation of the West Bank that allowed internal Palestinian opposition to force the elections in the first place. By mangling not only the Palestinian future, but also throwing away what they had gained, Arafat forfeited his shrinking popularity. Now, with Mitzna promising to return Gaza and part of the West Bank to Palestinian control without an agreement, Arafat hopes he can put off the elections forever.

More proof that a Sharon government is the best thing not only for the Israelis, but also for the Palestinian people.

The Indispendible MEMRI is reporting that the leaders of the students opposition movement have rejected government calls to focus on Israel and the Palestinians. The nature and the vehemence of their statement, along with their use of the word "terrorist," and explicit reject of hostile rhetoric towards Israel, are cause for hope. It suggests that government can no longer gain support by diverting attention to the Palestinians. It also suggests that it is possible for serious, religious Muslims to come to terms with Israel's existence.

Friday, December 20, 2002
Memo to Patty Murray: I don't think Osama actually built any hospitals or roads. The Saudis, on the other hand, have been pretty active in that department. They and Hamas then use those hospitals and schools as venues for propaganda and recruitment. I assume that hanging an American flag on that US-taxpayer-built hospital would be too high-profile and jingoistic for you. But it doesn't matter who funds them, it matters who staffs them. When you go back for remedial arithmetic, make sure to take your textbook from a UN-funded Palestinian school with you.

The Israeli polls had been showing Likud sinking, because of an internal corruption scandal. That may be enough to make formiing a government hard. But today, Labor gave Likud a new lease on life by unveiling its own Road Map to Surrender. Now the last time Labor tried to give away half the store, the mobs outside preferred to smash the windows and take everything, anyway. It would appear that this lesson made less than a clear impression on Labor.

They are now proposing:

  • A unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, creating a safe haven for terrorists and their Katushiya rockets.
  • Immediate talks, giving the current regime a new lease on life, and recreating the impression that Israel is near to collapse.
  • A partial withdrawal from the West Bank, if no progress is made, guaranteeing that no progress will be made
  • Ceding large sections of Jerusalem. We saw how well that worked in Berlin.
  • Sharing administration of the Temple Mount, with people who have proven themselves manifestly unable to share.

    This, of course, it nuts. It is a repeat of the "peace psychosis" that we've seen for years from the Israeli and American Left. Needless to say, the Palestinians praised it as "a step in the right direction," (one presumes they mean a step nearer to the cliff), and have proposed delaying their own January elections until the Israelis pull out. Apparently, they now see this step of their own as unnecessary, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about negotiating with Arab fanatics.

  • Wednesday, December 18, 2002
    Another matter. Is now a good time for airlines to re-evaluate the hub system? I realize there are economies of scale that accrue, but the practice seems to make the whole system more fragile. Until it hit the iceberg, TWA (Teeny-Weeny Airlines) had one hub - St. Louis - which meant it also had a single point of failure. If the weather over Missouri was bad, TWA's whole operation shut down. I once arrived in Atlanta at 4:00 AM, and another time had to be re-routed completely to get to NY before Shabbat.

    Southwest operates without a hub, but you also end up making a number of stops as you hop your way across the country. It would appear that, with larger planes, the bigger airlines could also survive without hubs, and still keep many direct flights. With the FAA approving open skies routing (fly the shortest route, or go around storms, rather than sticking to established airlanes), this would seem to be a good time for one of the big boys to try this.

    Open skies, by the way, is not nearly as dangerous as it sounds. In fact, it's probably safer. Planes won't have to worry about converging at those waypoints where routes intersect, and the sky is very, very big, while the plane is very, very small.

    United Airlines has got to be one of the most mismanaged companies on the face of the planet. If it weren't for the damage that DIA would sustain by losing it as a tenant, I would say good riddance. It looks more and more every day as though Boeing made the right decision by co-locating near Chicago and American rather than here.

    The bankruptcy committee is going to include representatives from the unions, who are largely responsible for this mess in the first place. Of course, management didn't have to put them on the board to begin with. But once there, they proved the Great Socialist Flaw by voting themselves generous packages, not only sucking off United's cash, but also seriously distorting the pay scale for the entire industry. I can understand creditors being on the committee, but the unions? And now, United is going back to the unions, specifically the machinists, who almost dragged the whole company to its own hari-kiri party a few weeks ago, and asking for more concessions.

    And remember, this is an airline which has consistently been accused of predatory pricing on routes to and from its hubs, something I've seen in action. Greedy, lazy management. Greedy unions. If the whole ship sinks without a trace, I won't feel sorry for one of them. Aside from my good friend Robert Allen, who really did try harder.

    The whole thing also raises serious questions about the entire principle of operating under Chapter 11. I have had occasion over the last year or so to rent cars a few times. Almost invariably, Alamo wins on price. Alamo is operating under Chapter 11, which means that it doesn't have the same interest payments as its competitors. I know that the bankruptcy judge ends up approving pretty much everything the company does, which seems a heavy regulatory burden. But this really seems to be a competitive advantage wrung from the fruits of poor management. Companies which are better-run, and maybe working hard to get by in a tough economy, suffer.

    If Delta, which has always treated me well, and American have to compete against United that has creditor protection, they may never be able to match fares. So the bad guys may make it, at the expense of the good guys.

    Go Frontier!

    I'm officially hooked on the Teaching Company CDs. I just finished listening to Robert Greenberg's course on understanding Opera, and I can't wait to order the next ones. I've always loved classical music, but never really taken to opera. But Greenberg takes you right through the history, showing its development as an art form, and the various national schools of opera. The guy knows his stuff, and is hip-geeky in a Regis Philbin kind of way. It's a terrific survey course, and now that I know what I'm hearing, I'm planning to listen to some while I ride the bike in the morning.

    Hugh Hewitt is referring to Trent Lott as a latter-day George McClellan, since he won't fight. Maybe Bush should send him a note asking if he can borrow the Senate for a while, since Lott's obviously not using it.

    Bill Clinton is at is again. Evidently, he's accusing Trent Lott of just waying in public what Republicans say all the time "on the backroads." This is clearly part of an orchestrated campaign by the Democrats. It's somewhat hamhanded, but it's not only Clinton.

    Somehow, I've gotten onto the fundraising mailing list for the DNC. Leave aside that they can't get my name right. I'm "J. Sharnoff" to them. They're sending out emails saying exactly the same thing, and tying it in with the non-existent but ubiquitous Republican "voter intimidation."

    First, this is about as hamhanded as you can get. Secondly, I've also been getting fundraising emails from the Republicans. While the Democrats routinely talk about "stopping the extremist Republican agenda," the Republicans just talk about the agenda. As long as this difference exists, the Democrats will continue to hold onto a minority at every level.

    Saturday, December 14, 2002
    Spent yesterday driving around, scouting out sites for hikes and photos. The time is really limited when you realize that what you want are sunrise and sunset shots. I found some possible hikes, but not for now, for the spring when the snow melts. That may end up being the story of the trip, but, if so, at least I'll have some idea of where to go then.

    The Gemenid meteor shower was a little disappointing, and, while it continues early this morning, may not be good enough to justify getting up. The moon moves back at the rate of about 1 hour per day, and had more or less just set during last night's peak. I did get to see some meteors, and some were quite nice, but nothing like the intensity or rate of the Leonids, even with the moon for competition.

    For those interested, the cabin is quite nice. Although it lacks a shower (it does have a bath), it isn't cramped at all, and makes full use of its room. One of my dreams is to have a nice cabin out in the woods someplace, and my cabin search for this vacation also helped me scout for locations and ideas. There are several immediate needs, phone, for example. I'd also like it to back up to wilderness or Forest Service land, to be able to hike out the front door. Of course, I'd almost certainly need a 4WD vehicle first, too. So the proposition begins to look like a long-term plan, not just financially.

    Thursday, December 12, 2002
    Vacation Begins

    Since this is the first time in a while I'm working at home and not in school, I decided to take a week in a cabin, alone with the dog. The cabin is in a tiny settlement called Wetmore, between Pueblo and a small town called Westcliffe. The cabin itself is quite nice, and older A-frame with the bedroom upstairs, and a second bedroom up a few more stairs. We paid to get a phone line hooked up for the duration, primarily for Internet access. The only TV, probably for the best, is ABC and CBS.

    Westcliffe is a tiny town, the sort where all the Thursday night excitement is at the bowling alley, and downtown is one block long with a 15 MPH speed limit. There are cabins and houses available nearby for $115,000, and the movie theatre has a sign out front thanking patrons, and letting them know that the next movie will be in January.

    The reason for this particular weekend is the Geminid meteor shower due Saturday morning at 3:00 AM. But the primary reason for the trip is to get away, do a little snowshoeing and hiking, take some pictures, and get some work done at night.

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