May 14, 2011

A working definition of a good job

On Thursday, Matthew Yglesias blogged:
... new research appears to indicate that anti-anti-racism is now the default view of white Americans who see themselves as a persecuted, put-upon minority that happens to hold over 90 percent of political offices, corporate executive jobs, and other positions of power and prestige.

For example, in his father Rafael Yglesias's profession of screenwriting, only 6% of screenwriters of studio movies are minorities (and who knows whether that's counting Yglesias Sr.).

Most of the really good jobs in America, such as screenwriting or being a CEO, are, legally-speaking, Special Snowflake Jobs that are considered so unique that the statistical logic of disparate impact discrimination lawsuits are assumed not to apply to them. A firm only has one CEO, so it's hard for the EEOC to mount a statistical case showing that the firm's CEO hiring practices have a disparate impact on legally protected groups: the sample size of CEOs hired by the firm is too small to demonstrate statistical significance.

In fact, a working definition of somebody with a good job is somebody who doesn't have to worry much about quotas. People who do have to worry a lot about quotas therefore, by definition, don't have good jobs and, thus, are nobodies who can and should be ignored.

So, the people with the really good jobs in America tend to be fairly clueless and apathetic about how the system works for people competing for average jobs, like, say, fireman.

On Friday, the Chicago Sun Times reported:
City must hire 111 bypassed black firefighter candidates, court rules
By FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter May 13, 2011 7:34PM
The Chicago Fire Department must hire 111 bypassed black firefighter candidates — and distribute “tens of millions of dollars” in damages to 6,000 others who will never get that chance — a federal appeals court ruled Friday, upholding a landmark ruling. 
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 9-to-0 decision, that, contrary to the city’s contention, African-American candidates hadn’t waited too long before filing a lawsuit that accused the city of discriminating against them for the way it handled a 1995 firefighter’s entrance exam. 
On Friday, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling and sent the case back to the trial court to implement what it called the “hiring remedy” the city has been stalling. 
Plaintiffs’ attorney Joshua Karsh said ... “The city gave a test back in 1995 that did not measure the ability to be a firefighter. It made it more than six times more likely that white applicants would be hired rather than African Americans with no job-related justification. Nothing about getting a high score on that test predicted anything about whether you’d be a superior firefighter.” 
When results from the 1995 entrance exam were disappointing for minorities, the city established a cutoff score of 89 and hired randomly from the top 1,800 “well-qualified” candidates. 
In 2005, a federal judge ruled that the city’s decision had the effect of perpetuating the predominantly white status quo, since 78 percent of those ‘‘well-qualified’’ candidates were white. ... 
One of those expected to be vying for the coveted 111 jobs is Handy Johnson, a 49-year-old personal trainer whose dream of becoming a Chicago firefighter was put off for so long that he’s now 11 years above the city’s age limit for new firefighter hires of 38 years old. That age limit won’t apply to the 111 new hires because the discrimination occurred before the cutoff was established. ... 
Crawford Smith, 35, isn’t interested in cashing out, either. He still wants a job with the Chicago Fire Department. 
“My grandfather was a fireman. My father was a fireman. I’ve got an uncle and a cousin who are still firemen. The Fire Department raised me. It’s a dream I’ve always had,” Smith said. ...
Friday’s ruling exacerbates a city budget crisis that Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, who will be sworn in on Monday, will inherit from Mayor Daley.

My June 2, 2010 VDARE column explained the back story of this 16-year-long case:
Well, it’s kind of hard to make this sound plausible … but in 1995 Mayor Daley, hoping to diversify the Chicago Fire Department, used a hiring test designed by a black psychologist in order to hire more blacks. But according to district judge Joan B. Gottschall’s 2005 decision in favor of the 6000 black applicants who scored poorly, the black psychologist’s test wasn’t good enough, so therefore a huge amount of money should be paid to blacks. 
Daley set out to create an objective, relevant test that would also get rid of the racial gap. He would pay big money for cutting edge civil service exams that would not discriminate against blacks and Hispanics. 
Daley gave a large contract to a black consultant named Dr. James Outtz, who positions himself as a psychometrician who could come up with tests that minorities would do well upon. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2009, "The ‘95 exam was drafted by an African American with an eye toward diversifying the Fire Department." 
In 2005, finally, Judge Gottschall, a graduate of Stanford Law (LSAT range 168-172), issued her ruling: total victory for the black plaintiffs. Chicago should just pick randomly among anybody scoring at the 16th percentile on up. 
She offered multiple reasons for junking the test: the "chaotic" nature of the black consultant’s video, her assumption that anybody who scores at the 7th percentile of the white distribution of scores is good enough for the job, and the fact that in the Horan case brought by white firefighters passed over for promotion, the city had defended its use of overt racial quotas for promotions: in effect, any compromise on one case will be used against you in the next. 
In 2006, Chicago finally gave another firefighter’s hiring test. To avoid disparate impact, it made the test so easy that 96 percent of whites passed it. Then it chose randomly from all who passed.

Finally, a "Law & Order" case in real life

The Law & Order dynasty of TV shows has a voracious appetite for ripped-from-the-headlines stories about Great White Defendants committing violent crimes. Unfortunately, the supply is not equal to the demand, so L&O constantly rewrites news stories to make them more politically correct.

But now, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, age 62, the head of the International Monetary Fund and frontrunner for the Socialist Party's nomination for President of France in 2012, was arrested in the first class cabin of an Air France jet at JFK. He was on his way to a meeting with German leader Angela Merkel when he was hauled off by NYPD on charges of raping the maid in his $3,000 per night NYC hotel suite. 

A few reactions:

- Wow, some guys have a lot of energy. Just reading about Strauss-Kahn's lifestyle is exhausting. (Although, I have to say that this line from the NY Post article -- "Strauss-Kahn... has a special arrangement with Air France that allows him to get on any flight and sit in first class, the sources said" -- does sound like a relaxing set-up. Why go through all the hassle of making reservations and then rushing to the airport when instead you can just show up anytime and your national flagship carrier says, "Yes, Mr. Future President of France" and bumps some poor frequent flier upgrade off the flight for you?)

- You know who else has a lot of energy? Strauss-Kahn's arch-rival, President Sarkozy. I don't mean anything by that. Just sayin' ...

- When L&O rips this story from the headlines, what changes will they make? Well, the maid will be dead, the country will change from France to Germany, the party from left to right, and the name from Dominique Strauss-Kahn to something like Franz Josef Strauss.

May 13, 2011

Why does the government do this?

The Washington Post reports:
Tens of thousands of would-be immigrants may be unable to move legally to the United States after the State Department said Friday that a computer glitch is forcing them to scrap the results of an annual worldwide lottery for U.S. visas. 
More than 14 million applicants entered a lottery last fall for one of 50,000 visas distributed as part of the annual Diversity Visa Lottery, designed for people who would otherwise have little chance of legally entering the country. The program doesn’t require applicants to have a family or employer as a sponsor.

So, there are 280 applications for every visa? 
Each year the State Department selects about 90,000 applicants and trims the list to 50,000 through an extensive series of interviews, background checks and medical exams. 
The lottery has been conducted by computer since its inception in 1994, according to State Department officials. 
David Donahue, deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services, said the glitch discovered earlier this month prompted the computer program to unfairly select people who submitted applications in the first two days of the 30-day application process that ended Nov. 3. 
“These results are not valid because they did not represent a fair, random selection of the entrants as required by U.S. law,” Donahue said ...

So, there are 280 applications for every visa and we select them randomly? And then hand out visas for, essentially, free?


Fortunately, the article provides the answer:
Congress established the lottery program to attract immigrants from countries with lower rates of immigration to the United States. Residents of countries with larger rates of U.S. immigration — including China, El Salvador, Haiti, India and Mexico — are not eligible for the program.

You see, the intention is for immigrants to be attracted from countries that don't send as many immigrants.  How could I have overlooked a simple, sensible, downright tautological explanation like that? When you think of it that way, of course the U.S. must randomly pick out one out of each 280 people who apply and give them free lifetime residency in the U.S. What else could the government do? This way, we can jumpstart chain migration from even more countries. Have you noticed how immigrants from Indonesia, population 230,000,000, haven't really begun flooding in yet,? Well, our government has a plan to fix that problem!

In fact, the government should also give each of the 900,000 winners over the last 18 years (plus their spouses, adult children, parents, and and their spouses' parents, adult children's spouses, parents' adult children, and the rest of their entourages, people of the caliber of Hesham Mohamad Hedayet) a free tour of Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

It's the least we can do.

Another thing we should do for those 900,000 is have the Bureau of Engraving print up $1,000,000 in cash for each one and give it to them in Gucci suitcases. C'mon, it's just like immigration: I mean, how much does the paper and ink cost? Not much, right? It's the same thing with American residency, right? We just printed up 900,000 green cards. How much could that have cost?

Debt Peonage

The concept of debt peonage (a.k.a., debt bondage or pawn slavery) is one that has largely disappeared from Americans' conceptual vocabulary in recent years, but it's time for a revival with changes in American society. Now we've got features like the proliferation of college loans that can't be discharged in bankruptcy. (Here's a brief Wikipedia page about how widespread debt peonage has been in human history.)

When I was a kid, poor Mexicans were often referred to as "peons," because debt peonage was a major feature of Mexican history, such as during the Porfirio Diaz era in the four decades leading up to the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. But that term was declared racist. So, the most vivid reminder of the concept of debt peonage disappeared from American thought. 

In Francis Fukuyama's new book The Origins of Political Order, which I've reviewed for the upcoming issue of The American Conservative, he talks about the "Law of Latifundia," or the tendency of the rich to get richer and poor to get poorer. 

It's basically a form of Gambler's Ruin. Casino gambling would not be a good idea for you or me even if the casino's games weren't rigged so the casinos tend to win (e.g., there are a couple of zeros on the roulette wheel). The problem is that the casino has more money than you or I do, and it's playing more games at once. Hence, even if the games paid back on average 100% of what you bet, you are more likely to have a ruinous streak of bad luck than the casino is and have to quit while you are behind or borrow at ruinous rates to keep playing.

Here's a 2003 article that illustrates how this works, which has implications for the increasing casinoization of American life in general:
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ—A beaming Donald Brant, general manager of Bally's Atlantic City, reported that the casino had "an unbelievable night" Monday, cleaning up at the blackjack table, on the slot machines, and elsewhere. 
"Man, we were on fire all night," Brant said. "It seemed like every time a casino patron pulled that slots lever, it came up a loser. Whenever somebody told the blackjack dealer to hit on 12, they drew a 10. We could do no wrong." 
By the end of the night, the casino walked away a major winner, up $515,274. 
"I had a sense that we were doing pretty well," Brant said. "So I checked around with the pit bosses, and it turned out that nearly all the dealers and croupiers were way, way ahead. It was amazing. A night like that only comes along five, six times a week, tops."

While most players are content to focus on one or two games, the casino participated in every available coin-operated machine and table game, including roulette, blackjack, craps, Spanish 21, pai gow, baccarat, and Let It Ride.

"We've got a system," Brant said. "Our strategy is to bet against all the customers who come in here. Then we spread our bets around to each and every table and machine in the casino and keep at it for the long haul. We were down about $200 at one of the roulette tables, but were up on everything else, so we came out pretty much ahead. Actually, more than half a million ahead."

Bally's even fared well at the slot machines, an area that traditionally yields the lowest rate of success.

"You know how they say your worst odds are on the slots?" Brant said. "Well, we made over $33,000 in slots last night. Can you believe it? We were unstoppable."

Brant attributed his casino's impressive showing to a combination of luck and old-fashioned horse sense.

"We try not to play stupid," Brant said. "We never gamble more than we can afford to lose. And we try to never lose our heads. We leave that to the customers. We set aside a certain amount to gamble—that's our kitty—and if we double our money, we only play with our winnings after that. Right now, the kitty stands at around $176,500,000."  
Bally's is in the midst of an impressive winning streak, coming out ahead an astonishing 6,753 nights in a row.  -- The Onion

Is Tiger juiced out?

Yesterday, Tiger Woods withdrew in pain after playing the first nine holes of the The Players' Championship in 42 strokes. (Hey, I've shot 42 for nine holes!) TPC is the fifth most important golf tournament of the year, so quitting isn't something Woods takes lightly. His body appears to be falling apart at an oddly early age. Why?

Back in a May 2009 column in Taki's Magazine, Tiger Juice, I was among the first to publicly raise the possibility that Tiger Woods had been using performance-enhancing drugs. (This was a half-year before the bimbo eruptions, back when his mastery of the media was nearly complete, other than one bizarre article starring him in Men's Fitness.) By 2008, his last major championship victory, he was massively more muscular than when he was a wiry 24-year-old in 2000, when winning three majors.

Tiger's future is mildly interesting, but coming to a more accurate understanding of his past is more important. There's a fundamental intellectual issue that persuades me to work at trying to make sense of the career of the most famous American athlete since Michael Jordan. It's always been obvious that much of the appeal of sports is as a test of masculinity, in the basic sense of muscularity. On the other hand, we also like to believe that sports are something more than just that: a test not just of masculinity / muscularity, but of manliness, a broader, nobler concept. The emerging evidence over the last generation that so many famous athletes were triumphing by buying more masculinity / muscularity in a bottle is a little too reductionist even for my tastes. Fortunately, I could always point to golf as a sport where the guy with the biggest muscles didn't have a huge advantage. Sure, it's not a terribly masculine sport, but that allows manliness to play a larger role.

Or, at least that's what I thought, Well ...

What's wrong with Tiger besides the wounds to his psyche? (Golf fans really do take respectability seriously, unlike NBA fans. For example, in 2001, Bill Clinton's feelers for membership at prestigious Westchester County golf clubs like Winged Foot were repeatedly rejected, in part because of Monica Lewinsky -- he ended up at the Century , a Jewish club with a fine but not very famous course. For whatever reason, Jewish country clubs tend not to host big tournaments. Are they discriminated against by the very WASPy USGA, or do they not like to share? For the last 20 years, the USGA has required a quota system for membership of private clubs hosting USGA tournaments -- all memberships must be integrated, e.g., have at least one black member -- and perhaps Jewish clubs don't want to deal with quotas. I don't know. It's an interesting topic, but not one that is discussed much other than off-the-record out on the course.)

Tiger's body appears to be falling apart at an age, 35, when most golfers are in their primes. In early 2008, I had calculated that Woods was on track to smash Jack Nicklaus's career record of 18 pro major championships with a total of 26. Today, he's still stuck on 14. His last major championship victory was at age 32 in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he played in pain.

In contrast, the primes of other golfers appear to be getting longer on average. Vijay Singh, for example, won 12 tournaments before turning 40 in early 2003 and 22 in his forties, more than Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer did combined. Walking six miles per day on soft grass is not normally a physically debilitating lifestyle. It's like an ideal hunter-gatherer lifestyle -- walk 200 yards and throw a spear at a rabbit -- without the part where the woolly mammoth tries to toss you with his tusks.

In the Wall Street Journal, John Paul Newport comments:
Physically, after years of bodybuilding and exceedingly high-torque swinging, Woods is an old 35. Mentally, after decades of on-course domination and little in the way of comeuppance (golfwise, at least), he’s an immature 35. He doesn’t know how to adapt to decline. 
If Woods wants to win again, given his increasingly apparent physical limitations, he doesn’t need to reengineer his swing, as he has been trying to do with coach Sean Foley. He needs to reengineer himself, as a crafty veteran. With 71 PGA Tour victories and 14 majors under his belt, he’s got more wile, experience and golf smarts at his disposal than anyone playing the game – way more than enough to win tournaments with imagination alone. 

In contrast, Phil Mickelson appears to be as big an idiot on the course as he is rumored to be off the course (colossal sports gambling debt, illegitimate child, etc etc -- just rumors, of course).
Bubba Watson was right last week when he said, “I think Tiger is going the wrong way. I think he’s so mental right now with his swing. Just go out there and play golf.” If and when Tiger’s body heals enough to start playing regularly again, he needs to let go of the search for a perfect swing and learn to play “old man” golf: put the ball out there somewhere in or near the fairway, and then let the wizard within take over.

Ben Hogan won six major championships in his forties after a horrific car crash that left him permanently shuffling about. Lee Trevino was a 5'7" Mexican who got fried by lightning at age 35, permanently messing with his back, yet battled back to lead the Tour in stroke average in 1980 at age 40, win a last major at age 44, and then dominate over-50 Senior golf for a few years. 

Golf isn't that hard, physically. Or at least it didn't used to be. On the other hand, perhaps improvements in clubs and balls have reduced the element of guile in the game, making it more of a test of whose body can hit the ball longest and straightest. 

For example, Trevino in his prime was famous for playing a fade that curved left to right with some backspin. This sacrificed length but kept the ball from rolling into trouble. In his Senior Tour days, he switched to a draw that curves from right to length with some topspin to get more length after the ball hit the ground. But these days, most players have their driver and ball choice optimized by video and computer analysis to hit it long and straight. All that shaping the shot stuff sounds very 20th Century.

McCain voters smarter than Obama voters

There was a popular webpage after the 2000 and 2004 elections showing purported average IQs in Blue States (e.g., Connecticut 113) and Red States (e.g., Utah 87). Of course, that was a hoax. But it received tens of millions of page views because it met a deep need among Democrats to feel smarter than Republicans.

Audacious Epigone has crunched the numbers from the latest release of the ongoing General Social Survey to find out whose supporters in 2008 did better on the GSS's 10 word vocabulary quiz (the scores from which correlate surprisingly well with genuine IQ tests. 

Posting vocabulary scores on an IQ scale, McCain voters scored 102.5 versus 99.9 for Obama voters. On a real IQ test, the gap might have been even larger because the GSS vocab quiz shows only about a 10 point W-B gap. I suspect that McCain did better than Obama among people with higher performance than verbal IQs. (I'm trying to think of anything in Obama's biography, a hobby or whatever, that suggests a knack for something not involving words, and I'm drawing a blank: when a state senator, he was good at winning at poker against lobbyists, so I guess we'll count that. McCain loves casino gambling, which is a lot dumber than playing poker with people with expense accounts for making you feel good.)

On the other hand, the kind of people who misremember whom they voted for probably tend to score badly, and Obama's number might suffer from a post-facto bandwagon effect among dopes.

Of course, what white people care about is the difference among white voters. And there Obama won, but very narrowly: 103.2 to 102.9.

All this fits in with a lot of exit poll data from elections over the last decade showing that years of education among supporters tend to be very similar between the Republican and Democratic candidates, while Republicans do better on income (and the effective gap is even larger because Democrats tend to live in high cost of living states).

Recent postings mulched

Google's Blogger was down for much of yesterday and today. It now seems to be working, but the last couple of days of my posts and your comments have vanished. You get what you pay for.

P.S. Thanks to a reader for posting the text in the comments here. I'll see if Google revives them with your comments. If not, I'll repost them for completeness sake.

May 12, 2011

Nobody ever learns anything

From Bloomberg Business Week:
A Renewed Crackdown on RedliningIn the wake of the subprime implosion, the Obama Administration has stepped up its scrutiny of disadvantaged neighborhoods' credit access
By Clea Benson 
Community activists in St. Louis became concerned a couple of years ago that local banks weren't offering credit to the city's poor and African American residents. So they formed a group called the St. Louis Equal Housing and Community Reinvestment Alliance and began writing complaint letters to federal regulators. 
Apparently, someone in Washington took notice. The Federal Reserve has cited one of the group's targets, Midwest BankCentre, a small bank that has been operating in St. Louis's predominantly white, middle-class suburbs for over a century, for failing to issue home mortgages or open branches in disadvantaged areas. Although executives at the bank say they don't discriminate, Midwest BankCentre's latest annual report says it is in the process of negotiating a settlement with the U.S. Justice Dept. over its lending practices. 
Lawyers and bank consultants say regulators and the Obama Administration are scrutinizing financial institutions for a practice that last drew attention before the rise of subprime lending: redlining. The term dates from the 1930s, when the Federal Housing Administration drew up maps using red ink to delineate inner-city neighborhoods considered too risky for lending. Congress later passed laws banning lending discrimination on the basis of race and other characteristics. "The agencies have refocused on redlining because, in the wake of the subprime explosion and sudden implosion, they are looking at these disadvantaged neighborhoods and not seeing any credit access," says Jo Ann Barefoot, co-chair at Treliant Risk Advisors in Washington, D.C., which consults with banks on regulatory issues. 
The 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) requires banks to make loans in all the areas they serve, not just the wealthy ones. A Bloomberg analysis found the percentage of banks earning negative ratings from regulators on CRA exams has risen from 1.45 percent in 2007 to more than 6 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Because banks' 2007's credit practices should be a model for all eternity.
At the Justice Dept., a new 20-person unit dedicated to fair lending issues received a record number of discrimination referrals from regulators in 2010 and has dozens of open cases, according to a recent agency report. Potential penalties can reach into the millions of dollars. "We are using every tool in our arsenal to combat lending discrimination," Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Div., told a conference of community development advocates in Washington in April.

How'd that work out last time anyway?

Nigerian with 107 wives

About once every decade or two, the LA Times runs an article on some old guy in Africa with 100+ wives. I remember reading about a Kenyan in 1981, and another one in 1999. They're worth waiting for. In today's LA Times:
Always groom for one more
An Islamic faith healer in Nigeria has married 107 women. The wives seem happy, but religious authorities are not amused.
By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times 
Reporting from Bida, Nigeria 
He fell in love with his first wife because she was sincere and eager to please. His second wife, a cousin, was irresistible because she did everything he wished and nothing he didn't. "That alone made me love her." His third wife won him because she submitted to his every request. "I saw her, I liked her. I went to her parents and asked for her hand in marriage." 
Wife No. 4 was very obedient. So was wife No. 5. Wife No. 6, the same. As were wives 7 and 8 and 9 and … 
Well, by then — it was the late 1980s — things had taken off for Bello Maasaba, an Islamic faith healer in this city in Niger state. He went from a wedding every few months to one every few weeks. 
All told, the 87-year-old has married 107 women, which, even in a society with a tradition of polygamy, is on the high side. 
Three years ago, Islamic authorities in Niger, a majority Muslim state with Sharia, or Islamic law, ordered that Maasaba divorce 82 of his wives, keeping four. He refused and was ordered by the Sharia court to leave town. (Muslim scholars generally agree that the Koran allows up to four wives, provided each gets equal treatment.) ....
With so many wives, how does he meet their romantic needs? 
He smiles. Everyone asks him that.  

Here's my 2002 article "The Problem with Polygamy," which was inspired by the 1981 article.

May 11, 2011

Melinda Gates's Secret Plan

Once upon a time, rich people like the Rockefellers and Bushes donated a lot of money to population limitation charities. Now, that is vastly out of fashion because it's considered racist.

What if, though, the efforts of Bill and Melinda Gates to force every child to go to college are really a triple bankshot superduper secret effort to implement the traditional philanthropists' goal of lowering birthrates among the poor? But, this time, the rich are trying to do it much more indirectly by inducing underclass NAMs to waste time in college before having children?

Here's a 2008 NPR interview with Melinda Gates:
Melinda Gates Calls for More Emphasis on Education 
Q. Can we reasonably expect 100 percent of high school students to become college students? 
A. Yes, I think we can. And, in fact, I'm here today in the Chicago school district visiting with students – huge number of Latinos and African-American populations, and guess what? I'm in schools where 95 to 98 percent of these kids are going on to college, and it's because they started freshman year with teachers who believe in them and said, 'These kids can do it.' And maybe they are not coming in with the right reading or math skills, but we are going to bring them up, and we are going to have high expectations of them. And guess what? Those kids are succeeding, and those kids are getting into college. 
Q. That would be a dramatic increase of the share of high school students, if 100 percent went on to college. I mean, you would be effecting an enormous social change if you could reach – 
A. Correct, and that is the idea.

Does Microsoft Bobette have a plan? A clue? Beats me.

One important fact that is almost never talked about is that African-American fertility rates fell sharply in the 1990s, and that, basically, nobody is unhappy about that. The problem is that virtually nobody talks about why that happened. It's not the kind of thing you are supposed to study for lessons about how to reduce Mexican-American fertility down toward replacement levels. My vague impression from what readers have told me is that spread of the Depo Provera shot was not unimportant in the 1990s decline of black fertility. That sounds a lot simpler than sending everybody to college. But, you aren't supposed to know this kind of stuff; so who knows what really happened?


I received a scan of that fugitive Tom Stoppard article I was looking for from a reader. Thanks to him, and thanks to everybody else.

Luxury taxes on cars?

Something that's obvious to me living in California is that the level of tax cheating in the state is now extremely high. Whether from serving on the jury in an Iranian immigrant used car dealer tax evasion case or observing the expensiveness of the cars on the road, it's clear that there is a vast tax evasion economy in California.

A state needs a wide variety of taxes to reduce the payoff from figuring out how to game any single one. 

Southern California is not (yet) the old Ottoman Empire where people lived in seeming shacks with opulent interiors to keep the Sultan's tax farmers from noticing and then squeezing them. There's still an if-you've-got-it-flaunt-it attitude that's especially visible in car purchases. Thus, the most straightforward way to tax gray market income would be through a luxury tax on car purchases. For example, besides the existing taxes, you could establish a simple incremental luxury sales tax on new and used car purchases that would be zero percent up through $10,000, then add 1 percentage point for each $10,000 of sales price over that. 

Thus, a $20,000 car (e.g., a nice, big, new Ford Fusion or Hyundai Sonata, 4 cylinder, automatic transmission, power everything), would cost an extra $100 in luxury tax.

Price       Tax
$30,000 - $300
$40,000 - $700
$50,000 - $1,200
$60,000 - $1,800
$70,000 - $2,500
$80,000 - $3,300
$90,000 - $4,200
$100,000 - $5,200

Or, you can put the starting point wherever you like, presumably at whatever you think is the most expensive car you'd buy. An $80,000 car won't get you from Arleta to Azuza any faster than a $40,000 car or a $20,000 car, so taxing more heavily social climbing cars doesn't cost society much in lost efficiency, just as major league baseball's luxury tax on the Yankee payroll doesn't mean that Alex Rodriguez quits baseball to take up a more lucrative career as a personal trainer.

Of course, cheating on this anti-cheating measure would happen -- dealerships would make kickback arrangements with seemingly 3rd party shops to add $4,000 wheels, and the like. But, this seems like a pretty reasonable way to catch a little of the tax evasion that is going on at low cost to the honest and thrifty.

Winning The Future, globally

The United Nations has released new population projects. Instead of peaking at 9 billion, as had been predicted, world population is now expected to exceed 10 billion in 2100.

Judge Richard A. Posner writes:
On May 3, the United Nations issued its 2010 Revision of World Population Projections, which, according to the media, predicts that the world’s population, expected to reach 7 billion by the end of this year, will be 10.1 billion by the end of the century. But the media reports have tended to be imprecise. The UN report offers three predictions—a high, medium, and low—depending on different assumptions. The high is almost 16 billion and the low 6.2 billion (which is actually lower than the current world population) ... 
The fall in population in countries with birth rates below replacement levels is expected to level off, which seems plausible, but what mainly drives the 10.1 billion 16 billion predictions of total population at the end of the century is the assumption that birth rates will continue to be very high in the countries (mostly in Africa, Asia, and South America) that currently have high birth rates.  ... 
But suppose world population will reach 10.1 billion by the end of this century. Would that be a good or a bad thing? Arguably a good thing, on several grounds. ... Third, the more people there will be, the more high-IQ people there will be ...

Not necessarily.

Thumbing through the U.N.'s graphs is an eye-opening experience. For one thing, the U.N. puts their 2010 projections (in red) alongside their 2008 projections (in dashed blue), so it's interesting to see that, in some cases, not only is the future not what it used to be, but neither is the past. For example, Afghanistan recently found more people had been living in the country than had been realized for the last 20 years. (And I'm sure Afghanistan's 2010 numbers were collected with scrupulous accuracy.)

So, your actual mileage may vary.

Nonetheless, Judge Posner's optimism about "the more people there will be, the more high-IQ people there will be" seems a little overconfident. When I was a college sophomore, it was common to debate whether George Orwell or Aldous Huxley would turn out to be the more accurate prophet. Judging from these graphs, however, the prophet most respected by 2100's college sophomores may be Mike Judge. Of course, that assumes there will still be college sophomores debating Big Questions, or colleges. 

For example, the population of Afghanistan is projected to rise from about 12 million in 1990, after the Recent Unpleasantness with the Soviet Union, to 111 million in 2100. Swell! 

Afghanistan's national slogan will be modified to: "I against my brother, my brother and I against our 110,999,998 cousins."

Let's look at some other highlights from the U.N. population projections:
Guatemala: From 5 million in 1970 to 46 million in 2100. Do you think they'll stay there?
Japan: not plummeting in population quite as fast as thought!
Mexico: Now expect to peak around 145 million instead of 130 million, as was expected back during the American Housing Bubble. Perhaps there's a connection?
Here's the Big One: Nigeria is heading for about 390 million people in 2050 and 720 million in 2100. Fortunately, all those new Nigerian astronautical engineers that Judge Posner's logic foresees should have the human race well on its way to colonizing Alpha Centauri by then. If you don't believe me, I've got an email that proves it.
Noam Chomsky typically books his worldwide lecture tours two years in advance. Host organizations ask him: what should we put on our schedules as the tentative title off your talk? He always replies: well, I like to stay topical and talk about what's in the latest news, so you can put down "The Crisis in the Middle East." Looks like Professor Chomsky can book those 2100 A.D. lectures right now.
Yeah, yeah, I saw that Orson Welles movie, too. The Swiss have only given us cuckoo clocks and chocolate. That, and minding their own business.
Don't tell the neocons that Tanzania is expected to have well over 300 million people, or they'll start running worried conferences about the Emerging Threat in East Africa.
Due to rapid population growth, America will stay larger than Tanzania. 

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

May 10, 2011

"The Beaver"

My new Taki's Magazine column is an overdue tribute to Jodie Foster:
Movie folks think they are better than you or me, and sometimes they are right. Jodie Foster, for example, isn’t the world’s best director, but she may be the bravest. Who else would have the brass to direct her old buddy from 1994’s Maverick and today’s leading object of collective hatred, Mel Gibson, in The Beaver, a good dramedy about hereditary manic depression?

Read the whole thing there. I discuss the oddest of many odd things about Jodie: this calmest, most calculating of stars' enduring relationship with nuts, both onscreen and off. 

WTF is causing rising disability

David Brooks writes:
As my colleague David Leonhardt pointed out recently, in 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work. 
According to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has a smaller share of prime age men in the work force than any other G-7 nation. The number of Americans on the permanent disability rolls, meanwhile, has steadily increased. Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household. ...

Fortunately, Dave has a long list of suggestions about how to Win The Future:
It will probably require a broad menu of policies attacking the problem all at once: expanding community colleges and online learning; changing the corporate tax code and labor market rules to stimulate investment; adopting German-style labor market practices like apprenticeship programs, wage subsidies and programs that extend benefits to the unemployed for six months as they start small businesses. 

A reader comments:
Wow, a fifth of men out of the workforce. Dave is waxing speculative about redirecting some huge tranche of resources from the welfare state as a result. What's the one huge factor, which would have a much cheaper solution, that he dare not mention? 

I don't know ... Sunspots? Continental drift? Fluoride? I'm as baffled as Dave. What could be causing all these American guys to develop bad backs who are expected by people like me and Dave who type for a living to compete with illegal immigrants for $9 per hour jobs lifting stuff? Mercury in vaccines? It's a complete mystery. Global warming? Yeah, it's usually global warming.
Really, are establishment Republicans so cowed that touching the Medicare third-rail looks better than coming to Jesus on immigration and the national question?

Well, it looks like a lot of Republican politicians are developing cold feet on privatizing Medicare for under 55s. But, yeah, cowed is the right word.

Meanwhile, President Obama is crowing about the success of his plan to discourage new illegal immigration through high unemployment and how therefore the health of the economy depends upon putting illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship and voting Democratic. Or something like that. Frankly, beginning in 2001, every couple of years (e.g., 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2011) the President announces some gibberish about how it's a national priority to amnesty illegal immigrants, so we can Win The Future.

WTF is the right acronym.

Old Blue Eyes

From FOXNews:
Scientist: All Blue-Eyed People Are Related  
"If you've got blue eyes, shake the hand of the nearest person who shares your azure irises: He or she may be a distant cousin. 
Danish researchers have concluded that all blue-eyed people share a common ancestor, presumably someone who lived 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. 
'Originally, we all had brown eyes,' Professor Hans Eiberg of the University of Copenhagen said in a press release. 'But a genetic mutation affecting the OCA2 gene in our chromosomes resulted in the creation of a 'switch,' which literally 'turned off' the ability to produce brown eyes.'"

Me, Peter Brimelow, Norman Podhoretz, Mrs. Paul Krugman, and Jorge Ramos of Univision should schedule a family reunion!

A request

Benjamin Franklin said you get people to like you by asking them to do you a favor. So, here's a request. I'm looking for an autobiographical article written by playwright Tom Stoppard that appeared in the first issue of Tina Brown's now long defunct magazine Talk in September 1999. It began on p. 190. (Did magazines used to have 190 pages? Wow.) It was reprinted in the UK in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine on October 10, 1999, pp 14-21.

I want to write another essay about Stoppard, and this is the key piece of the puzzle.

I don't think it's readily available online.

May 9, 2011

A mother-in-law's opinion of the First Lady

Here's a paragraph from Janny Scott's biography of the President's late mother, A Singular Woman, that seems like a fair depiction of Michelle Obama:
The new girlfriend Obama had brought with him to Hawaii the previous Christmas was different from Ann. ... Her father, Fraser Robinson III, a descendant of slaves, had been employed as a maintenance worker, later a foreman in a city water-filtration plant; her mother, Marian, had stayed at home with Michelle and her brother when they were young. The family was hardworking, churchgoing, and close-knit. As an undergraduate at Princeton and as a law student at Harvard, Michelle Robinson had been active in black student organizations. She moved systematically through life, making sensible, carefully considered decisions, each building to the next. "I would say Michelle is much more like our grandmother, [Obama's half sister] Maya told me. "And I would say that my mother and my grandmother really were also opposites." After the Christmas visit, Ann reported back to Surakusuma. "She is intelligent, very tall (6'1"), not beautiful but quite attractive," Ann wrote of Robinson. "She did her BA at Princeton and her law degree at Harvard, But she has spent most of her life in Chicago." Ann, who prided herself on raising her children to have a global perspective, described Robinson as "a little provincial and not as international as Barry." But Ann liked her. "She is nice, though," she said. If Robinson and Obama were to marry after he graduated from law school, Ann told Suryakusuma, she would not be unhappy.

By potential mother-in-law standards, "not ... unhappy" is pretty high praise.

I want to put a word in here for Michelle Obama.

She got put on an elite track that she wasn't cut out for by 1) affirmative action, 2) her older brother Craig's popularity as a star basketball player and well-liked personality at Princeton, and (I would imagine) 3) recommendation letters from the man she babysat for: Rev. Jesse Jackson. (Her long friendship with Jackson's daughter might help explain why she had a hard time, during the dizzying heights of Obamamania, agreeing with everybody else that her husband was all that: compared to Jesse at his peak of charisma a generation ago, Barack is kind of dull).

There's so much good will in modern America toward respectable black people like Michelle and Craig Robinson that it winds up sometimes embarrassing one of them by pushing her forward until she finally crashes and burns upon contact with something objective, publicly confirming her deepest worries about herself. It's not surprising that she vaguely resents the many favors white people have done her. As Ben Franklin pointed out, doing favors for people just makes them resent you. (Have them do you a favor instead.) 

So, after her super-duper Princeton-Harvard education, her law career at a big time firm was a bust: she didn't pass the easy Illinois bar exam on her first opportunity. It became quickly apparent to all concerned that she wasn't going to make partner. Soon, she was working for Valerie Jarrett in Mayor Daley's office doing whatever it is that people in The Machine do. (I never wanted to ask.) After awhile, she got ensconced on the Diversity & Political Connection/Corruption track. 

It's a living.

As a First Lady, she's been fine. Nancy Reagan told people to Just Say No. Laura Bush said to Read Books. Michelle Obama says, Don't Get Fat. These days, that's a pretty good thing for a First Lady to say. And she has to put herself on the line: Laura Bush wasn't going to stop reading books, and if she did, nobody would notice. But if Michelle stops exercising and gets fat, everybody is going to know.

Obama's mom on his choice of racial identity

There had been a lot of subtle evidence available before about Dr. Stanley Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro's psychological hurt over her son's choice to identify solely as black, but it's historically valuable to have it now all spelled out in Janny Scott's new biography of Ann Dunham, A Singular Woman. Now, we learn (via Jacob Weisberg's review in Slate) what the President's own mother thought about her son's choice of racial self-identification. From Scott's biography:
"She felt a little bit wistful or sad that Barack had essentially moved to Chicago and chosen to take on a really strongly identified black identity," recalled Don Johnston, Ann's colleague at Bank Rakyat Indonesia. That identity, she felt, "had not really been part of who he was when he was growing up." She felt he was making what Johnston called 'a professional choice' to strongly identify himself as black."

Scott's revelations are not just important for what they say about the President of the United States of America, but, more essentially, for what they say about modern America.

David Axelrod's version of Barack Obama's Narrative as the racial transcender always had one obvious weakness: the politician himself self-identifies as black and only black (as he chose to do on the 2010 Census). When this inconvenient fact has been brought up, it has usually been explained away by noting that white racism wouldn't allow poor Obama to identify as both black and white. The One Drop Rule, you know.

Yet, the existence of part-black celebrities, such as Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter, who take a less dogmatic view of how to self-identify racially, has seldom been mentioned in the press in relation to Obama's choice. Further, Obama's Hawaiian upbringing in the laid-back 1970s, where he was thought of as "just another mixed kid" at his highly mixed prep school, is also ignored.

Another implicit suggestion of the Axelrodian version of The Narrative is that being half-black made the rise of Barack Obama harder. If he were white, presumably, an amazing talent like Obama would have been President at 37 instead of 47.

The subversive counter-narrative is that Obama figured out fairly early on that his path to power would be much easier in modern America if he self-identified only as black. (He made a mid-course correction in  whom to target his Narrative to after his humiliation by Bobby Rush in the 2000 House primary taught him that black voters, who are more savvy about matters of black identity, would not recognize him as "black enough" relative to other black candidates, but that clueless white people would.)

When Obama was elected head of the Harvard Law Review in 1990, he banged the paternal race gong hard in the ensuing PR, to his mother's bemusement. You can read this important account from Scott's book on Google Books.
"A longer article a week later in The Boston Globe went into greater detail. "What seems to motivate Barack Obama is a strong identification what what he calls 'the typical black experience,' paired with a mission to help the black community and promote social justice," the Globe reported. It described "his unusual path, from childhood in Indonesia, where he grew up, he says, 'as a street kid [with several servants looking after him],' to adolescence in Hawaii, where he was raised by his grandparents." The article dwelt at some length on the influence of Obama's father, who, it said, was born in Kenya, "studied at Harvard and Oxford [?] and became a senior [?] economist for the Kenyan government." In high school, the article said, Obama began a regular correspondence with his father, "whose heritage was to be a major influence on his life, ideals and priorities." One of Obama's most valued possessions, the article said, was the passbook that his grandfather, a cook for the British before Kenyan independence, was required to carry. "He said that even though his heritage is one-half white, and although has had a mixture of influences in his life, 'my identification with the -- quote -- typical black experience in America was very strong and very natural [?] and wasn't something forced and difficult," the article said. Of Ann, it said little more than "His mother, who is white, is a Kansas-born anthropologist who now works as a developmental consultant in Indonesia." 
In an even longer article in the Los Angeles Times a month later, Ann was described simply as "an American anthropologist" and "a white American from Wichita, Kan." 
The marginal role to which Ann was consigned in those accounts did not go unnoticed. She had raised Obama, with the help of her parents, after his father had left for Harvard when Obama was ten months old. She had been his primary parent for the first ten years of his life. 
She had returned to Hawaii to live with him when he was in middle school. She had moved back to Hawaii from Indonesia for several months during his senior year. Yet in those accounts, Obama had been "a street kid" in Indonesia, then sent back to Hawaii to be "raised by his grandparents." Yang Suwan, Ann's Indonesian anthropologist friend, recalled Ann returning to Jakarta around the time of the Harvard Law Review election. As always, she was extraordinarily proud of her son. But on another level, she seemed crushed. 
"'His mother is an anthropologist,' Ann told Yang, quoting an article she had seen. "I was mentioned in one sentence." ... 
When Ann told Made Suarjana that Obama was graduating from Harvard Law School, he said, "So, he's going to be a billionaire." Ann corrected him: No, she said, he wants to return to Chicago and do pro bono work. Because Suarjana knew that Obama was interested in politics, and because he felt he knew something about American public life, he said, knowingly, "Okay, so he wants to be president." 
To his surprise, Ann began to weep. ... 
"No, not this time," she answered, according to Suarjana. "He's going to be a senator first."
Had they already talked about it, Suarjana wondered later. ... 
"She felt a little bit wistful or sad that Barack had essentially moved to Chicago and chosen to take on a really strongly identified black identity," recalled Don Johnston, Ann's colleague at Bank Rakyat Indonesia. That identity, she felt, "had not really been part of who he was when he was growing up." Ann felt he was making what Johnston called "a professional choice" to strongly identify himself as black." It would be too strong to say that she felt rejection," he said. But she felt, in that way, "that he was distancing himself from her.""

This may offer clues for some of the missing pieces in the puzzle of Obama's life, such as why he wound up at Occidental College, a fine liberal arts college but not exactly the Ivy League. And he came from an academically ambitious family: his father had gone to Harvard, his mother was working on her Ph.D., his grandmother's sister was a statistics professor at (I believe) the University of North Carolina, and his grandmother's brother was an executive in the U. of Chicago libraries. 

Similarly, Obama seems like a smart guy, but not only didn't his PSAT score at his prep school allow him to make National Merit Semifinalist (a very high bar, one that few recent Presidential candidates would have cleared), but he didn't even make the much lower bar of National Achievement Scholar, the affirmative action version of National Merit Scholar for blacks. 

Then, after two years at Oxy devoted largely, in his own account, to smoking weed and and hanging out with rich Pakistani Marxists, he suddenly transferred to the Ivy League.

What happened? 

Well, one thing we know happened at Oxy was that he changed the first name he went by from Barry to Barack. Perhaps, he also changed his racial identity as well?

Maybe on the PSAT and on his college applications he didn't check the "Black" box? If he didn't, college admissions officers would have looked at an application from some kid named Obama in Honolulu and figured he maybe was another Japanese kid, and they already had lots of applications from affluent East Asians with better grades than this Obama character.

His mother, who had lived with him in the fall of his senior year in high school when he would have been thinking about his college applications, recalled, "That [black] identity, she felt, 'had not really been part of who he was when he was growing up.'"

Maybe his idealistic mother suggested it wouldn't be fair for a privileged preppie like him to claim affirmative action benefits? Who knows?

Granted, this would sharply contradict Obama's own race-obsessed version of his teenage years. Accounts by his high school friends vary. Most of his friends remember him as a mellow pothead. His half-Japanese half-black friend Keith Kakugawa (whom Obama fictionalized as the all-black and bitterly anti-white "Ray" in Dreams from My Father) recalls Obama as being far more paranoid about white prejudice than he was. (Another character fictionalized in Dreams also told the LA Times that the anti-white views his character expressed in the book sound more like Obama's literary self-projections). But Kakugawa also said that the main emotional turmoil in Obama's life was caused not by race but by his feelings of abandonment by his parents.

Of course, Kakugawa is an ex-con, so who are you going to believe? The jailbird or the President? The guy who couldn't talk his way out of prison or the guy who talked his way into the White House?

Quite possibly, Obama's own view of his racial identity was subject to the usual teenage emotional flux.

White Flight in Finland

The global press was baffled by the success of an anti-immigration party in last month's Finnish elections. Only dumb people ever worry about immigration, but Finland has the highest test scores in Europe: Does Not Compute!

Why in the world would Finnish voters, which has had the least immigration of any European country that hasn't been Communist, be worried about immigration?

From the Helsinki Sanomat:
Pasi also emphasises the attraction of the neighbouring area, but in addition to the attractive factors there are other features that made the mother from Metsälä refuse to consider a school in Maunula. 
      “Undoubtedly we all want to live in a multicultural and tolerant atmosphere, but the fact is that if there are many children who do not speak Finnish, the teacher’s time is spent on them”, the mother of two says. 
      She does not know any children who have actually attended school in Maunula, but she has “heard stories”.
The stories are spread as mothers meet for coffee during the day, but few bother to examine whether or not there is any truth to these mental images that people have. The result is mass flight. 
      Pasi also has an impression of the Maunula school. “Normal education does not work there. There are many children who should not be in first grade at school. When your own child is at stake, you have to be careful.” 
      The large number of immigrant children is a concern for him. “It’s damn hard to teach if the group doesn’t speak any language. They just yell in their cultural agony.”

May 8, 2011

Team Obama's Odd Ineptness

The Administration of George W. Bush made us used to a federal government that messed up frequently in the real world, but showed impressive marketing skills and message discipline in the world of spin. This past week has shown us, strangely, an Obama Administration succeeding very nicely in the real world, but then delivering a long series of disabling shots to its own collective foot.

While the military execution was pretty damn good -- kill bin Laden, spare most of the women and all of the children, grab records, evade the Pakistani Air Force -- it's pretty clear that the politicians didn't think through what their responsibilities would be afterwards.

At least the politicians didn't impose a bunch of regulations on the SEALs -- say, first ask bin Laden to surrender in Arabic, Pashto, English, and International Sign Language -- that might have endangered the mission. But they didn't seem to ask themselves what kind of questions they were inevitably going to get asked afterwards, so they ended up improvising contradictorily with lots of now obviously risible inventions. 

A reader writes:
McCain painted Obama as a celebrity, happy to hear applause. He did little in his first 2 years to change that opinion. 
Ideally, Obama would have said little about bin Laden, leaving us with the impression he gives orders like this all day long. That would make him look really powerful. That would earn back a lot of the voters he had in 2008, but lost in the interim. 
Instead his aides said too much about the raid, much of which they are revising. He's waffling on providing a picture of a dead Osama, leading some 9/11 families to demand a photo. In contrast to the strong confident president we saw Sunday night, we are learning he kept his generals waiting. 
The contrast between Obama, and the victorious Seal Team is striking. We know a lot about what Obama did, but we may never learn about the Seal Team members until too it's late. 
The American people gave him a great chance to reinvent himself, and what did he do? He reinstalled the fake greek columns.

The strong, silent approach would have been the best choice:

Osama bin Laden, the man behind 9/11, is dead. Last night, American forces raided his compound deep inside Pakistan and killed him. Vengeance is ours. Good night and God bless America.

But, Team Obama couldn't resist chatting up a storm.

Getting facts wrong is unavoidable. I, for example, accepted the Google Maps identification of the wrong compound in Abbottabad. (Sorry, Mr. Anonymous Rich Pakistani!) But, by now, I think we can start to figure out the non-random reasons behind all the changes in story.

The White House politicians never seemed to think through the contrast between what they were doing -- sending men to, more or less, execute a mass murderer -- and their desire to make this the grand kickoff of Campaign 2012 by making it seem like Obama was totally involved minute by minute. 

Notice the contradiction? The idea of the President watching the daring raid on bin Laden from the Situation Room sounds cool . And the idea of the President cold-bloodedly ordering the execution of the man that ordered the murder of 3,000 Americans also sounds cool. 

What doesn't sound cool, however, is the idea of the President watching his lethal order being carried out on live video feed. That's kind of creepy.

That may explain why we were suddenly told that, in the grand tradition of Rosemary Woods, the President somehow didn't see the key 20 to 25 minutes of video feed when bin Laden was killed.

If so, the real mistake was in not thinking things through during the months that evidence was accumulating that they had found bin Laden.

There were also all the usual Obama constituencies of NPR subscribers and Euroweenies who give Obama Nobel Prizes (he still hasn't won the Nobel for Literature). Thus, this story on Death Penalty News:
The death of bin Laden was not an "execution" and does not call into question Europe's opposition to the death penalty, the European Commission said today. 
In the wake of a statement from Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso welcoming his death as a "major achievement" which ensured his crimes did not go unpunished, a spokeswoman insisted the EU's underlying values of justice were not called into question. ... "This in no way questions the basic principles and values we have always supported ... this was not the execution of a death sentence, it was something completely different. We continue to be against the death penalty."

My guess would be that the White House gave the SEALs trigger-pullers lawyerly instructions that technically gave Obama an out from having precisely ordered OBL's death -- e.g., if bin Laden surrenders in a particularly cowardly method that his entire life, which you've got to admit does show courage, makes unlikely, well, then you don't have to shoot him. (Or, maybe they really didn't expect the SEALs to shoot him.)

The first sign that the White House hadn't thought things through was the quick announcement that they had dumped the body in the ocean. When I first heard that I couldn't believe they would botch the aftermath so badly, so I blogged that they should bury OBL on completely secure Diego Garcia.

Presumably, in all the years Obama had been publicly advocating this type of raid (and give him credit for doing that), neither he nor his brain trust had thought much about what to do with bin Laden's body.

There were a couple of obvious interacting issues: after years of the world being told by American and Pakistani government officials that bin Laden was holed up, perhaps in a cave, in remote Waziristan, he turned out to be living in a three story house near the Pakistan Military Academy. Clearly, somebody official hasn't been truthful. The very location of the raid, Abbottabad, meant that there would be lots of questions from disillusioned people. This meant that OBL's body would be important as evidence that they really got him.

The instructions to the SEALs, you'll notice, were therefore sensible in this situation: take bin Laden's body and leave the other bodies. So, they thought it through that far.

But, it appears they hadn't thought much about what state OBL's corpse would be in, either from illness or bullets, facts that pictures or an autopsy would reveal. So, the initial stories out of the White House made it sound like OBL had gone down like Tony Montana in Scarface, guns blazing. Those then had to be walked back.

A commenter calling himself "Incompetence in Chief" (I think he or she chooses a catchy new name each time, a practice which I would recommend to other commenters rather than generic "Anonymous") writes:
People claimed that Bush and his people were dumb as dirt, but the Obama team's main job was handing the messaging of this raid. This WH has more serially inept than anything I can recall for any POTUS.

Here's the famous picture released by the White House:

Now look at it again. 

What a terrible picture. The President looks insignificant, hunched-over, not in control, like the least important person in the photo. The military man is sitting in what should be the President's chair: the big one with the high back. Which chair would President Reagan have sat in?

And that's the one photo the White House picked out of however many the White House's full time professional photographer took.

Obama's body language looks pretty depressed. The word "power" repeatedly comes up in Dreams from My Father, but Obama's experience of exercising power has been mostly at the cancelling-somebody's-grant level. This is what real President-level power looks like: killing people. And the Obama in this picture looks like he's just realizing what that means. (When it was over, he made his usual speech about how "I" did this and "I" ordered that.)

The commenter continues:
Now I'm trying to decide how much each of the following factors explain Obama's team total incompetence: 
1) They are inherently dumb as dirt (relative for such a high profile operation) and promoted way beyond their abilities 
2) They have the clever sillies - basically intelligent but made stupid by anti-reality PC dogma and their lack of natural curiosity to explore obvious inconsistence of PC 
3) They've grown incredibly lazy and arrogant knowing the Pravda MSM will parrot their obvious lies and errors without question or comment, enough to brainwash 51% of the electorate. 
4) They have little to no experience dealing with the real - have never had to make an arguement, sell an idea or meet minimum standards of logic/facts outside the echo chamber of likeminded ideologues.  
5) They are rank amatuers in all this business. One sign of their novice ignorance - they are sending out many conflicting and illogical stories trying to be all things to all people never thinking that this would cause a problem.

Good questions.

I would lean toward #3. How many tough questions has Obama been asked over the years? His campaign staff didn't even ask him any tough questions about Rev. Wright. Through sheer luck (I presume), Rev. Wright happened to be out of the country on a cruise when this long-looming scandal finally surfaced, so the Rev. wasn't around to respond to Obama's gassy Philadelphia race speech.

What Obama didn't realize was just how interesting Navy SEALs shooting bin Laden would be, and how, therefore, the press, for once, wouldn't be able to stop itself asking questions. Americans have been well trained over the decades to not be interested in Rev. Wright-type stuff, to accept whatever explanation Obama stayed up all night to dream up. But we can't help being really, really interested in this kind of action movie stuff.

So, Obama's instinct was that this event would be like most of the others in his life: he and his people would get to talk all they want, but nobody else would ask any tough questions about everything they said.

Still, the most obvious comparison is to Bush, who was completely clueless, apparently, that OBL was living in Greater Islamabad from 2003 onward. By that standard Obama looks awfully good.