Wednesday, March 24, 2010


"Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake."
-- Napoleon Bonaparte

There is a man to whom I would like to introduce you. Some of you will have heard of him. His name is Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, Field Marshal of the Prussian Army at Waterloo, and in my opinion the unsung hero of that battle.

He had already had a long and distinguished career in the Prussian Army, a career that included the distinction of being one of the few generals to have gotten the better of Napoleon, at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. But in 1815 his luck hadn't run quite so well. Napoleon had returned from his exile at Elba, and was back in charge in France. Von Blucher marched to meet Napoleon's army, acting in concert with his British allies under Wellington, but Napoleon got there first. While leading a charge at the Battle of Ligny, von Blucher's horse was shot out from under him, and he was trapped under the animal's body for several hours.

Most men would have called it a day after that. Gebhard von Blucher was, most decidedly, nothing like most men. Once his aides had hauled the carcass off of him, von Blucher poured some brandy on his wounds, drank the rest, gathered what was left of his army, and led them on a two-day forced march. On the 18th of June, 1815, von Blucher arrived at Waterloo with the battle hanging in the balance, just in time to pay Napoleon back, with interest.

It is worth noting that he was seventy-two years of age.

Now, I say all of this by way of prologue, since there's been a lot of blather lately about the health care bill being Obama's Waterloo. I think the comparison is apt, just not in the way that conservative pundits had surely intended it a few weeks ago. Metaphorically, Obama did not play the part of either Napoleon or of Wellington. He played the part of von Blucher, the closer. He may have showed up late to the campaign, he may have suffered an early reverse, but he rallied when it counted.

Additionally -- and somewhat tangentially -- there are a few things I find interesting about reactions to the bill.

One: I hear a lot of blather about "death panels" and "rationing" ... I find that as grimly amusing as I did last summer. As I said then, when you have a finite good and an infinite demand, you will have rationing. Medical care is a finite good: there are only so many doctors and nurses to go around. Medical care isn't quite in infinite demand, but we all want to live longer and healthier. The question is, how do we allocate those resources? One extreme is to allocate purely on the basis of the ability to pay, the other extreme is pure first-come, first-served. As I said earlier, I find both extremes unsatisfactory, for slightly different reasons. I think the new bill strikes a better balance than the one we had previously, though.

Two: The other complaint I hear is that people object to paying for the care of deadbeats and freeloaders. I'd have some sympathy for this viewpoint ... if we weren't paying for it already. If you're uninsured, and you have a serious medical problem, where do you go? To the emergency room. Emergency rooms can't turn anyone away for lack of ability to pay, that's the law. Now, doctors and hospitals have to make up that budget shortfall somewhere. They have to. Otherwise, they go under, which does none of us any real good. So, they pass that cost along to anyone they can. Those of us who can pay, do, and we find that our fees for services and procedures are inflated slightly. We also pay higher county taxes, to support the public hospitals that are shouldering the burden. More people insured means less of this nonsense. It may mean that I have to shell out a little more tax money, to pay for those premiums. Fine. At least that way, I see the bill up front, and not as a hidden cost that I can never really know. Maybe I'm weird, but I prefer to take my lumps where I can see 'em.

Three: I suspect this will have blown over by November. Understand this isn't to say that the Democrats won't take a thumping in November. I believe that's still in the cards, since a roaring, booming recovery is somewhat unlikely between now and then. Lots of people out of work translates into an angry, discontented electorate. Like it or loathe it, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; the Republicans were on the receiving end in '08, and since the Democrats are wearing the "in power" hat, it's their turn in '10. They will lose seats in the House and the Senate, the only question is how many. Intrade is quoting a 55% chance the Democrats will retain control of the House, and 75% that they'll keep the Senate. That sounds about right, given what we know today. If Pelosi keeps her job, she'll have a knife-thin majority, and will have to do some fancy dancing to get anything done legislatively.

Four: Even if Pelosi loses her job, health care reform is here to stay. There's simply no way the Republicans can capture enough seats to win a super-majority in both houses, which is what they would need to pass a repeal over a Presidential veto. And as the weeks go by, they'll discover that while the bill may poll poorly, the actual pieces of the bill will poll quite well, and their constituents won't want those bits repealed. Even though they'll blather on endlessly about repeal, understand that they have no real intention of actually doing it.

Five: It strikes me that a big part of Obama's modus operandi appears to consist of not interrupting his opponents while they make mistakes. At any point in this process, the Republican caucus could have proposed an alternative plan, or participated in the crafting of the bill. If they had, they probably could have gotten parts of their plan in the bill. Instead they elected to stonewall, betting that they could derail the whole thing ... with the result that they had to eat the whole thing. Mind you, he's not perfect, and he's as prone to mistakes and miscues as anyone. But for all that, even his mistakes are a move or two ahead of the other player's. It is an education, watching this man operate. Whether you love him or hate him, there's no denying he's fiendishly effective. He's a master of the left-hand dagger, of the sucker-punch you never saw coming.

Six: Speaking of which, I think it's fairly apparent that the Republicans are out of airspeed, out of altitude, and out of ideas. They're running on rage at this point. Rage is a useful servant but a perilous master ... and angry people make stupid mistakes. Until they take the time to figure out what they're really for as opposed to what they're against, they're going nowhere with great sound and fury. For the next few years, it's all aboard the Crazy Train. I would like to be disproven on that. Virtually everything is cyclical, and they're bound to regain power eventually; it's vitally important that they work through their fit of the howling crazies before that happens.

And that's about it for a very eventful week ... possibly the biggest we'll see in quite some time to come.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Video Del Fuego, Part XXV

Here's a nifty video of a simulated Mars mission, made with a freeware space simulator, Orbiter. Orbiter can be as easy or as hard as you want to make it. There's a spaceplane with an autopilot so good that it'll fly itself into orbit, letting you enjoy the ride; and there's a faithful reproduction of the Apollo spacecraft -- complete with realistic control panels -- that lets you experience the Moon landings like nothing else.

The video parallels the Stephen Baxter novel, Voyage, which was a fairly interesting read. The architecture made me itch, though; they move stuff around waaay too much for my taste. If something went wrong with any of those transposition maneuvers, the crew is utterly screwed.

Still, I want this mod, so I can try it myself.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Primary 2010 Post-Mortem: We Put the "Goober" in Gubernatorial

What a chore that was.

We have about ten million elected offices here in Texas. Between local, county, state and school board offices, I'm not sure I can even count high enough to enumerate the number of offices I vote for on a regular basis. I know people who vote only for a couple of races at the top of a ticket and skip the rest of the ballot, but I can't roll that way. I have to read each and every bit of the ballot, and make a decision. Which means that it usually takes me a good five, ten minutes to mark the ballot, even when I'm basically picking half of the races at random. (Skipping, picking randomly, same difference ... in the end, those races always get decided by the handful of voters that actually vote for a reason, so the rest of us do no real harm.)

I was wrong about the Republican primary, by the way; it didn't turn on class, but on discontent. Somehow, Perry was able to turn lingering voter discontent against Washington against Hutchison, while simultaneously playing on his experience at the expense of Debra Medina, who was trying for the Tea Party vote. In the end, all Medina ended up doing was to come close to forcing a runoff that she wouldn't have been part of. For all my doubts about Perry's mental acuity, there's little wrong with his political instincts; that was a rather deftly-executed pivot. His commercials set my teeth on edge -- there's that damned outdoorsy jacket again, it comes out every campaign -- but there's no denying their effectiveness. He'll be using that riff for November. Count on it.

But the Democrats aren't running a faceless apparatchik this time. Bill White, the former mayor of Houston, was in a six-man race, but his seventy-plus-percent vote sure doesn't reflect that. A successful businessman, then a successful mayor of Texas' largest city, he's liable to give Perry a run for his money. It's going to be hard to paint White as a tax-hungry business-hater, given that he not only got his start as an entrepreneur, but cut taxes every year while Houston's mayor. It will be curious to see where the lines of attack develop.

The victory speeches give us some clues. Perry will probably keep fanning the flames of discontent towards Washington. White, on the other hand, pointed out how much debt has been added to Texas' balance sheet on Perry's watch. (Mind you, the governor has damn-all to do with that, but the recriminations will be fun to watch.)

Meanwhile, David Dewhurst, the incumbent Lieutenant Governor, cruised unopposed to the Republican nomination, and will face Linda Chavez-Thompson in the general election. This race, as always, will slide completely under the radar even though the Lieutenant Governor is an extraordinarily powerful office by comparison with their colleagues in other states. As I've said before, it's the Lieutenant Governor that really runs the Legislature. A trained monkey could probably do the Governor's job...

Now, to look ahead to the Fall elections ... one thing hasn't really changed from two years ago. The General Election will turn, as the last one did, on voter discontent. Rightly or wrongly, that's probably going to attach to the Democrats. It's happened to the party that's held the Presidency in two previous mid-term elections during economic downturns: 1982 and 1994. In 1982, the Republicans took a drubbing, and in 1994 the Republicans took the House. Bush avoided this in 2002, owing to a lingering rally-round-the-flag effect. That notwithstanding, the trend has generally been for the party that owns the White House to pay a stiff penalty for not turning things around quickly enough. It ain't right or fair, but it is what it is.

That said, the pieces are all on the board for a recovery. So, any talk of a Republican resurgence in 2012 is at best premature. Even if they win majorities in one or both houses, Obama will be able to tack to the center and make them look like loonies. If anything resembling a strong recovery is underway by spring 2012, he'll enjoy all the advantages of incumbency. Our last three two-term Presidents -- Reagan, Clinton, and Bush -- enjoyed improved economic conditions late in their first term that boosted their re-election bids.

Let the Tea Party rave as they will. The economic news between now and early 2012 will set the stage for the next election. If the Dow's up and unemployment's down, it's going to be rough sledding for the Republicans.