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ELECTING DE BLASIO WAS CERTAINLY A MOVE IN THAT DIRECTION: Is New York the Next Detroit?

The core problem is that returns have not tracked with the city’s optimistic projections. In 2012, the city finally lowered its projected return to 7 percent from 8 percent, but after decades of excessive optimism, that left it with a giant hole; the payments had to be stretched out over more than two decades in order to minimize the fiscal hit. Yet this still may not be enough; it’s possible that 7 percent is still too rosy.

Like many state and local pension funds, the city has tried to make up the difference between its projections and what the market actually delivered by plunging into higher-risk investments. Those more complicated investments came with higher fees . . . and the possibility of big losses. The city seems to have taken at least one major bath, on a private equity fund that closed in 2011.

A lot of people would like the city to return to more conservative investments managed by in-house managers; former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg . . . oversaw an effort to move in that direction a few years back. But one major thing is standing in the way: politics. It’s not just the fiscal hit that the city would take from adopting a less risky, more realistic approach; it’s also opposition from unions. . . .

In New York, reports the Times, the unions don’t want to move to more conservative pension accounting, because if they do, the city will be required to put more money into the pot . . . and the taxpaying public might mobilize against the union workers who put them in this spot.

Of course, putting it off will ultimately just make the problem worse; the inexorable logic of compounding is just not very forgiving.

The Gods Of The Copybook Headings will not be denied. And the motto for this decade seems to be “something that can’t go on forever, won’t.”

USA TODAY: Deficits drop but debt bomb ticks on.

The Tea Party is the reason deficits dropped after 2010. But we’re still adding debt — and even during the “surpluses” of the Clinton era, the debt continued to climb. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

DER SPIEGEL: Green Fade-Out: Europe to Ditch Climate Protection Goals.

The European Commission wants to forgo ambitious climate protection goals and pave the way for fracking — jeopardizing Germany’s touted energy revolution in the process.

The climate between Brussels and Berlin is polluted, something European Commission officials attribute, among other things, to the “reckless” way German Chancellor Angela Merkel blocked stricter exhaust emissions during her re-election campaign to placate domestic automotive manufacturers like Daimler and BMW. This kind of blatant self-interest, officials complained at the time, is poisoning the climate.

More here:

At the heart of the matter is the simple fact that renewable energy comes at a premium, and the costs for propping it up have been passed along to consumers, both industrial and residential, in the form of higher electricity costs.

Yet this turn towards green energy has produced a browner energy landscape. Germany produced more energy from coal in 2013 than it had in nearly a quarter century, and its emissions actually rose. . . .

German businesses are considering jumping ship for cheaper energy prices in the developing world or (gasp!) the United States. For households, these subsidies have acted like a particularly regressive tax: The poor feel the bite of higher electricity bills than do the rich. Germany’s new energy and economy minister Sigmar Gabriel is expected to announce a plan to cut renewable energy subsidies later this week in an effort to keep electricity prices down. That will be a step in the right direction, but significant damage has already been done.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

LATE-STAGE SOCIALISM: Venezuela’s House Of Cards. “Just how big of a problem is inflation in Venezuela? The implied annual inflation rate in Venezuela is actually now in the triple digits, coming in at a whopping 283%, as shown in the chart below. What’s more, the implied monthly inflation rate has now ramped up to 36%, as shown in the chart below. That’s dangerously close to the hyperinflation threshold of 50% per month. This is due to an accelerating depreciation of the bolivar, reflecting Venezuelan’s deteriorating economic outlook.” The same actions produce the same results. And something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

SOMETHING THAT CAN’T GO ON FOREVER, WON’T: Everyone Wants To Go To Export Heaven.

What’s interesting is that we’re having exactly the same ritualistic spats that we were having 10 years ago, when I first started writing for the Economist. Japan, China and Germany are entirely dependent on exports to keep unemployment to a low roar. The U.S. is running a persistent current account deficit and, in fact, hasn’t been in the black since 1990.

No one thinks this is sustainable. But none of the big players wants to end it, either; Americans aren’t ready to actually start saving like a grown-up nation, and the export powerhouses are desperately trying to accumulate a massive hoard of IOUs before their entire populations age into Centrum Silver territory.

Yet unlike Germany, Japan and China, the U.S. feels the need to actively argue in favor of its own position. China doesn’t go around trying to get other nations to export a quarter of their gross domestic product. In fact, China would rather not have the competition. But the U.S. has to complain. And I have to wonder if we don’t feel a bit guilty about our running tab with, well, the rest of the world. We’re like a drunk who wants to reform but knows he lacks the willpower, so he urges the bartenders to close down and take up haberdashery. Which is a good guide to how effective the whole thing is.

Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be. Debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Plan accordingly.

A SOBERING GRAPHIC: The Reality Of America’s Finances.

Once again: Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be. Debt that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Make your plans accordingly.

HOPEY-CHANGEY: U.S. Adds Two Times More Debt than Economic Output in Last 2 Years. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

SOMETHING THAT CAN’T GO ON FOREVER, WON’T. DEBTS THAT CAN’T BE REPAID, WON’T BE. PROMISES THAT CAN’T BE KEPT, WON’T BE. Debt Limit, Huh: Unfunded Liabilities Dwarf $16.7 Trillion ‘Ceiling.’

IT’S NOT REALLY A “CEILING” IF YOU KEEP RAISING IT: Washington Post: A recent history of America’s debt ceiling, in one interactive graphic. “If lawmakers and the White House can reach an agreement to raise the debt ceiling this fall, it will be the 40th time the limit was raised since 1980.” Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Make your plans accordingly.

MORE ON THOSE UNDERFUNDED / OVERGENEROUS PUBLIC PENSIONS. MOSTLY OVERGENEROUS, IT SEEMS. California public pension payouts doubled after bump in benefits.

The average retirement payout for new retirees in California’s biggest public pension system doubled between 1999 and 2012, according to CalPERS data, and initial monthly payments for one group nearly tripled in that period.

State and local cops and firefighters benefited the most.

In the 14 years covered by the data analyzed by The Sacramento Bee, average first-month pensions to state police and firefighters went from $1,770 to $4,978. California Highway Patrol officers’ first-month retirement payments doubled from $3,633 to $7,418, and local government safety employees’ pensions went from $3,296 to $6,867.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be.

PUBLIC PENSION CRISIS UPDATE: San Bernardino 1, Calpers 0.

San Bernardino just received the judicial go-ahead to declare bankruptcy more than a year after its initial bankruptcy filing. The ruling, delivered by a federal bankruptcy court on Wednesday, concludes a long legal battle between the city and Calpers, which was fighting to keep the city out of bankruptcy in order to keep its funds flowing into the pension coffers. It now looks like Calpers will have to get in line with the city’s other creditors, meaning it will probably have to take a haircut just like everyone else. . . .

The bankruptcy of one of California’s biggest cities is a major story in its own right, but even more important is what this tells us about Detroit, the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy case. Followers of that saga will note that Detroit’s pension funds are using tactics very similar to those of Calpers, fighting in court to keep the city out of bankruptcy. The Times is careful to note that the two cases are different, and that San Bernardino’s case is not precedent-setting for Detroit. But this is nonetheless an early indicator for how federal bankruptcy courts might treat these cases moving forward—and it gives Detroit’s public pension funds plenty more to worry about.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be. Debt that can’t be repaid, won’t be.

PUBLIC PENSION UPDATE: Salon Warns Public Workers: Your Pensions Are Not Safe. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be. Plan accordingly.

NOAM SCHEIBER: Yes, BigLaw Really Is Dying. “The point is not that, of the top 250 firms in the country, only 25 will survive the next decade, period. It’s that only 25 will be doing roughly what they do today—using the same business model, charging roughly the same hourly rates (or more), with roughly the same proportion of partners to associates to clients.”

I think that’s probably right. My colleague Ben Barton has just finished a book for Oxford University Press on what’s happening to the legal profession, and he makes a similar point quite persuasively with reams of data.

Plus, a more general warning: “One final point worth keeping in mind any time someone points to history and insists the future will look pretty similar: Historical arguments tend to be right up until the moment they’re not. To take one random example, consider the insistence by so many people in the mid-2000s (many of them tied to the real estate industry) that housing prices couldn’t fall across the country all at once, since it had never happened before. That didn’t work out so well then, and you’d think it would give Big Law defenders pause now. You can’t just look at historical patterns. You’ve got to look at the reasons why the patterns existed. And if those reasons no longer apply, you’re going to find yourself in real trouble. Just ask all the happy people who bought condos in Ft. Lauderdale back in 2006.”

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. That’s the defining sentence for this decade, I believe.

DETROIT’S PROBLEM:

Detroit’s situation seems almost unprecedented, and it’s not clear how the city can best respond to it. The unions’ biggest problem is that Detroit simply cannot pay their pension claims without destroying city services. Detroit doesn’t have the money to provide even minimal services to its current population while paying off the large numbers of retired workers, many of whom hail from times when the city was larger and richer.

Because there is no money, there is no solution that gives the unions the relief they seek. Total obedience to the state constitutional mandate might not be possible, and that’s a problem. The government can pass a law saying that everyone has a constitutional right to a free trip to the moon, but if it doesn’t build the spacecraft that can get you there the right is void.

While the principle that federal law trumps state law on most issues is pretty clear, there are real arguments on both sides in this complicated case. But if the state constitution is unenforceable as well as being in conflict with federal law, it would be that much harder for the state constitution to block the execution of federal bankruptcy law.

However the courts eventually decide, decades of misgovernance, the criminal corruption of the Democratic Party in Detroit, and the depraved indifference of politicians at every level as crooks and hacks conspired together to loot and wreck a great American city have brought us to a place where Detroit’s problems seem almost beyond solution. The saddest part of this story is that there is still much, much more pain to come for a lot of people. Both the residents of current day Detroit and the cops, teachers, firefighters and others who trusted in the promises of Detroit politicians and union officials face a world of hurt.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be.

DENMARK RECONSIDERS THE WELFARE STATE:

The 36-year-old single mother, given the pseudonym “Carina” in the news media, had more money to spend than many of the country’s full-time workers. All told, she was getting about $2,700 a month, and she had been on welfare since she was 16.

In past years, Danes might have shrugged off the case, finding Carina more pitiable than anything else. But even before her story was in the headlines 16 months ago, they were deeply engaged in a debate about whether their beloved welfare state, perhaps Europe’s most generous, had become too rich, undermining the country’s work ethic. Carina helped tip the scales. . . .

“In the past, people never asked for help unless they needed it,” said Karen Haekkerup, the minister of social affairs and integration, who has been outspoken on the subject. “My grandmother was offered a pension and she was offended. She did not need it.

“But now people do not have that mentality. They think of these benefits as their rights. The rights have just expanded and expanded. And it has brought us a good quality of life. But now we need to go back to the rights and the duties. We all have to contribute.”

In 2012, a little over 2.6 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 were working in Denmark, 47 percent of the total population and 73 percent of the 15- to 64-year-olds. . . . In addition, the work force has far more older people to support. About 18 percent of Denmark’s population is over 65, compared with 13 percent in the United States.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

TIMELY REMINDER: A Deposit In A Bank Is Not A Riskless Form Of Saving. Plus this: “When states become insolvent, the piper must ultimately be paid. Fatal, embarrassing insolvency is not a problem that can be perpetually or painlessly deferred.”

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t, to coin a phrase.

RELATED: German Bailout, Russian Haircut.

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: Total Student Loan Debt Has Nearly Tripled Since 2004.

Total student debt stands at $966 billion as of the fourth quarter of 2012, the N.Y. Fed said in press materials, with a 70% increase in both the number of borrowers and the average balance per person. The overall number of borrowers past due on student loan payments has grown from under 10% in 2004 to 17% in 2012.

Fewer people with student loans are buying homes, according to data in the report. Of borrowers ages 25 to 30 who are taking out new mortgages, the percentage of those with student debt has fallen by half, from nearly 9% in 2005 to just above 4% in 2012.

“The higher burden of student loans and higher delinquencies may affect borrowers’ access to other types of credit and the performance of other debt,” the fed report concluded.

Educational debt is now the largest consumer liability after mortgages.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: WHAT COMES AFTER THE BLUE MODEL?

Briefly, the idea is that after World War II America was organized around a group of heavily regulated monopoly and semi-monopoly companies. AT&T was the only telephone company; there were three big networks, three big car companies and so on. There was very little foreign competition, and these companies were able to offer stable, lifetime employment to most of their workers. The workforce was heavily unionized, and the earnings of the big companies were divided between shareholders, managers, workers and government in a predictable way. An intellectual and administrative class of planners, social scientists and managers ran the big institutions and administered the government.

Several forces came together to break up this system. Foreign competition, first from rebuilding Germany and Japan after World War II and then from low wage newly industrializing countries around the world, eroded the market position of companies like the Big Three auto manufacturers. The rise of offshore banking eroded the tight financial controls of the postwar era. Growing consumer impatience with the high prices and poor quality offered by monopoly companies like the telephone monopoly led to political pressure to deregulate and introduce more competition. Technological change, especially in information processing and communications, led to disruptive changes that shifted the advantage to nimble and lean companies and left the bureaucratic, slow moving giants of the Blue Age behind. American society became increasingly individualistic, with both the left and the right rebelling against the authority of experts and bureaucrats.

As a result, the old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore. Some of the changes—like the multiplication of gadgets and rise of the internet—are widely considered to be wonderful things. Others, like the rise of instability in financial markets, the polarization of incomes and the consequences of the collapse in manufacturing employment for blue collar employment and wages, are much less popular. But the reality is that there is no going back to blue; Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall and he can’t be patched up. The question is what do we do now.

Obama’s answer is more of the same, only bigger. I don’t think that will work. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

SOMETHING THAT CAN’T GO ON FOREVER, WON’T: Michael Barone: History Suggests That Era Of Entitlements Is Nearly Over.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Cliff Deal Shows Obama’s Weakness, Not Strength: “If a newly re-elected Democratic president can’t muster the political will and capital required to do something as straightforward and relatively popular as raising taxes on the tiny fraction Americans making over $250,000 when those same taxes are scheduled to go up already, then how can Democrats ever expect to push taxes upward to levels that would make our existing public progams sustainable for the long run?”

They can’t, because those programs are unsustainable at any level of taxation. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

Plus: “There is a significant constituency among Congressional Democrats that was already uncomfortable with the $250,000 threshold and wanted to push it higher — all the way to a million dollars, if a certain influential New York Senator had his way — and the possibility that these Democrats might go wobbly in a post-cliff scenario gave the White House a reason (or an excuse) to concede ground that Obama had once promised to defend unstintingly. Nor is this tax-wary caucus likely to grow weaker with time: It exists because many Democratic lawmakers represent (and are funded by) a lot of affluent professionals in wealthy, high-cost-of-living states, and that relationship is only likely to loom larger if current demographic and political trends persist.”

That’s the problem with that whole war on the rich. Obama’s enemies are the small-business Kulaks, who vote Republican, but he can’t go after them without hurting the nobles who support Democrats financially.

I’d push 5% per year cuts in federal spending across the board — no “flexible freeze” BS — and do it each year until the deficit was under control. I think this would sell fairly well politically, too. Nobody believes that any federal department couldn’t cut costs 5% without impacting performance.

MORT ZUCKERMAN: Brace For An Avalanche Of Unfunded Debt: The fiscal cliff isn’t as scary as the looming deficit and debt crisis about to swamp the country.

The greatest fiscal challenge to the U.S. government is not just its annual deficit but its total liabilities. Our federal balance sheet does not include the unfunded social insurance obligations of Medicare, Social Security, and the future retirement benefits of federal employees. Only in the small print of the financial statements do you get some idea of the enormous size of the unfunded commitments. Today the estimated unfunded total is more than $87 trillion, or 550 percent of our GDP. And the debt per household is more than 10 times the median family income.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be. Make your plans accordingly.

IN BRITAIN, A DAWNING REALIZATION: The truth is that politicians are telling lies: Government is simply unaffordable. “The immediate emergency created by the crash of 2008 was not some temporary blip in the infinitely expanding growth of the beneficent state. It was, in fact, almost irrelevant to the larger truth which it happened, by coincidence, to bring into view. Government on the scale established in most modern western countries is simply unaffordable.”

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Debt that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be.

SOMETHING THAT CAN’T GO ON FOREVER, WON’T. “My main consolation is that the change will uproot many of the delusions that have sprouted up. My main fear is that history shows this is never, ever, a peaceful process.” One way or another, the Gods Of The Copybook Headings will have their due.

Related item here.

NITA GHEI: An End To European Bailouts.

The desire to keep on spending in the face of economic crisis is universal. In Greece, parliament voted Wednesday to implement $17 billion in spending cuts, and the reaction was swift and violent. Public-service employees and others affected by the proposal erupted in riots on the streets of Athens.

The move to trim the indebted nation’s outlays cleared the way for the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund to send a check for $40 billion. This bailout cash will give Greece some breathing space and enable government employees to cash their paychecks. It also leaves unresolved the cause of Greece’s vast debt, currently estimated at 175 percent of gross domestic product. That’s particularly troubling because it appears there will be no country left in the European Union (EU) able to bail out Greece — or any other ailing nation — the next time bills come due.

Sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Debt that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: CalPERS Goes After Compton. “California’s pension crisis is metastasizing. Last week we noted that the California public pension fund CalPERS was at loggerheads with the city of San Bernardino, which was using its bankruptcy filing as grounds to default on its obligations. This week, CalPERS sued the city of Compton, which owes $2.6 million to the fund. One detects its desperation here. . . . Spin it as you like, but math wins in the end. California’s retirement numbers just don’t add up, and clinging grimly to failing policies and dying institutions is not the way forward. CalPERS can sue every city in California, but that won’t fix the pension crisis — and it won’t get the California economy on track for the kind of growth that would make the tradeoff between pensions and services a little less dire.”

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Debt that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be.

NIALL FERGUSON: What Joe Biden Doesn’t Want You To Know.

The reality is that the real distributional issue the country faces is not between percentiles but between generations. As Paul Ryan put it in a powerful peroration, which temporarily silenced the ranting to his right, “A debt crisis is coming. We can’t keep spending and borrowing like this. We can’t keep spending money we don’t have.” Already a staggering $16 trillion, the debt represents nothing less than a vast claim by the generation currently retired or about to retire on their children and grandchildren. . . . What we saw last week was not just a contrast between Irish-American political styles. We saw the opening round in the clash of generations that will soon dominate American politics.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Debt that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Promises that can’t be honored, won’t be.

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: Meet the High Priest of Runaway College Inflation (He Regrets Nothing). This sounds comforting: “Students have more debt than ever before. But the university president who helped propel a tuition arms race says schools are just getting started.”

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

ROBERT SAMUELSON: Romney’s Chance To Challenge The Welfare State:

The fact that roughly half of Americans receive some government payment to which they feel morally entitled is a big part of our budget paralysis. It’s an inconvenient fact, but it’s still a fact.

Dealing with it ought to define the next president’s mission. Somehow, he must question the status quo without insulting the roughly 150 million Americans who receive federal benefits. Who deserves support and why? How much and under what conditions? Unless we ask these questions and find grounds for trimming some benefits, the budget impasse will continue and risk dangerous outcomes: a future financial crisis; crushing tax increases; or draconian cuts in programs (defense, research, highways) that aren’t payments to individuals.

This is arithmetic, as Bill Clinton might say. In 2011, payments to individuals were 65 percent of federal spending, up from 26 percent in 1960. America has created a welfare state, whether Americans admit it or not.

Actually, the share of people who receive federal benefits exceeds Romney’s 47 percent. Based on its Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), the Census Bureau estimates that in mid-2011 — the latest available figures — the number of people with benefits came to 149.8 million, or 49 percent of the population. But this figure is too low, because SIPP doesn’t include several major programs (farm subsidies and college loans and grants). With these, the total probably exceeds 50 percent.

This will end when the federal government’s finances break down beyond the ability of the current Fed/Treasury jiggery-pokery to conceal it. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. It’s important not only to try to bring things under control before a collapse, but also to explain what’s going on so that if the collapse happens anyway — say because Obama gets reelected — people understand what’s happening and why. Romney/Ryan can lay down markers there, too.

LOWER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: Progressives Sour On Chicago’s Teachers. “The Chicago teachers’ strike and the coming pension crisis has even progressives worried that public-sector employee costs are bankrupting the city: Matt Yglesias is arguing that the teachers’ union’s proposal to raise taxes to pay for their pension programs may divert funds from more important programs. . . . The larger problem here is that blue policies simply can’t be made to work. Higher taxes won’t fix the problem of an overpriced, underperforming school system; indeed, they will just drive out even more of the city’s tax-generating economic base. The city is now on a course to make all its problems steadily worse. Chicago is slowly bankrupting itself to sustain a school system it can’t afford that doesn’t educate its kids very well.”

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. That observation, from economist Herb Stein, is likely to be the sum-up aphorism of this decade.

NICK GILLESPIE: Terrifying: Increases in Real Per Capita Federal Spending Over The Past 35 Years. “This is no way to run a country. But it might be a great way to wreck the economy.”

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

DEFICIT TOPS $1 TRILLION: “CBO, which releases estimates each month, said the government ran a $192 billion deficit last month. That’s the highest deficit ever for August, which is not traditionally a major month for running in the red. That deep monthly deficit powered the government well past the $1 trillion mark for the fiscal year. With a month still to go, the government is already running $1.17 trillion in arrears.”

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

SOMETHING THAT CAN’T GO ON FOREVER, WON’T:

What is monumentally new about the American state today is the vast empire of entitlement payments that it protects, manages and finances. Within living memory, the federal government has become an entitlements machine. As a day-to-day operation, it devotes more attention and resources to the public transfer of money, goods and services to individual citizens than to any other objective, spending more than for all other ends combined.

The growth of entitlement payments over the past half-century has been breathtaking. In 1960, U.S. government transfers to individuals totaled about $24 billion in current dollars, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. By 2010 that total was almost 100 times as large. Even after adjusting for inflation and population growth, entitlement transfers to individuals have grown 727% over the past half-century, rising at an average rate of about 4% a year.

In 2010 alone, government at all levels oversaw a transfer of over $2.2 trillion in money, goods and services. The burden of these entitlements came to slightly more than $7,200 for every person in America. Scaled against a notional family of four, the average entitlements burden for that year alone approached $29,000.

A half-century of unfettered expansion of entitlement outlays has completely inverted the priorities, structure and functions of federal administration as these were understood by all previous generations.

It is not only financial capital that is distorted by this, but moral and social capital as well.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Tim Turner writes: “This article is a great start on the current state of our national finances. It is too bad that they did not finish the accounting by noting that these transfer payments consume 100% of federal tax revenues, leaving nothing at all to pay for any of the actually legitimate functions of government.”

MORE ON THOSE UNDERFUNDED / OVERGENEROUS PUBLIC PENSIONS: Moody’s Triples Pension Debt Estimates.

As we follow the evolving story of collapsing public pensions, one of the trickiest issues is the lack of reliable estimates of future returns on investment. Many of the biggest offenders among pensions assume returns of 8 percent or higher. These numbers may seem reasonable by historical standards, but they’re hopelessly optimistic today. Even plans that have revised their estimates downward still project returns far above what most analysts expect. If these estimates don’t come through, taxpayers will be left holding the bag, and either pension payouts will have to shrink or other services, including education and law enforcement, will have to.

Unions have long claimed that these worries are mere alarmism, but now Wall Street is stepping in to say it, too: pension investment projections are far too high. A new estimate from Moody’s anticipates average pension returns of 5.5 percent rather than the traditional 7 or 8 percent investment projection. The result of this estimate is a tripling of national pension debt, from $766 billion to $2.2 trillion. This is a major increase, but many analysts believe that it is accurate, or at least more accurate than previous estimates.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Debts and obligations that can’t be paid, won’t be.

MEN: Defective, Or Just Unnecessary? “Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? A report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way— and its vast cultural consequences.” Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Public Pension Cutbacks Spread Across The Country. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

EUROPE: Employees at Just One Paris Hospital Are Owed 2 Million Vacation Days. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

Related: Britain: The busiest online shopping day of last year was the day of a mass public sector strikes.

INDEED: The Spenders Won 2011: Republicans fell for Obama’s backroom budget trap. But something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

GOOD QUESTION: The Law School Bubble: How Long Will It Last if Law Grads Can’t Pay Bills? “In 2010, 85 percent of law graduates from ABA-accredited schools boasted an average debt load of $98,500, according to data collected from law schools by U.S. News & World Report. At 29 schools, that amount exceeded $120,000. In contrast, only 68 percent of those grads reported employment in positions that require a JD nine months after commencement. Less than 51 percent found employment in private law firms.” Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

MORE ON THOSE UNDERFUNDED / OVERGENEROUS PUBLIC PENSIONS: Public retirement ages come under greater scrutiny.

After nearly 40 years in public education, Patrick Godwin spends his retirement days running a horse farm east of Sacramento, Calif., with his daughter.

His departure from the workaday world is likely to be long and relatively free of financial concerns, after he retired last July at age 59 with a pension paying $174,308 a year for the rest of his life.

Such guaranteed pensions for relatively youthful government retirees — paid in similar fashion to millions nationwide — are contributing to nationwide friction with the public sector workers. They have access to attractive defined-benefit pensions and retiree health care coverage that most private sector workers no longer do. . . . With Americans increasingly likely to live well into their 80s, critics question whether paying lifetime pensions to retirees from age 55 or 60 is financially sustainable. An Associated Press survey earlier this year found the 50 states have a combined $690 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and $418 billion in retiree health care obligations.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: A Mortgage With Every College Graduation. “In order to have a healthy housing market you need to have a steady employment base and also a low level of distressed properties. Both of these prerequisites unfortunately are not applicable to the current economy. One albatross of future buyers is the now increasing burden of student loan debt. While virtually every other debt sector has contracted since the recession hit student loan debt is the only segment that has increased dramatically. . . . Just look at the data; in 2000 student loan debt was roughly 2 percent of all household debt. Today student loan debt makes up over 7 percent of total household debt. Many future buyers are going to have their purchasing power curtailed by the amount of debt they are carrying with student loans.”

Yeah, as I’ve been saying for a while, if you graduate college with the equivalent of a mortgage already, you’re not going to be so quick to take on another one.

And check out this graphic:

Others, equally disturbing, at the link. Moral: Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. This can’t go on forever.

RICHARD EPSTEIN: Why Progressive Policies Always Fail.

We have rigged our tax policies so that, depending on the year, close to 40 percent of the income tax revenue comes from the 1 percent of the population that controls 20 percent of the wealth.

Close to half the population pays no federal income tax at all. This is a political disaster in the making.

The American economy is currently stagnating for two main reasons. At the top of the system, a relentless program of redistributive taxation undermines incentives for long-term investment and growth.

Yet from this vain pursuit of economic equality, we get declining standards of living for all. Simultaneously on the ground, excessive regulation of labor and real estate markets chokes off growth — employer by employer and house by house.

Our lopsided structure cannot last. Stock market losses cut the total income of so-called “one percenters” by around 30 percent between 2007 and 2009, with the greatest losses in the top 0.1 percent.

Higher tax rates will drive that overall level of wealth lower still, given that so little government revenue comes from the bottom half of the income distribution. Low tax revenues plus shiny new entitlements create an unsustainable situation where 40 percent of current expenditures are funded by long term debt, on which principal and interest payments will soon come due.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: Law School Stimulus: $54.3 Billion Student Loans Through 2020. The graphics on graduate debt levels are just plain scary. Just remember: Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

SOMETHING THAT CAN’T GO ON FOREVER, WON’T: CBO: U.S Deficit Ran $240 Billion For First Two Months Of Fiscal 2012.

SOMETHING THAT CAN’T GO ON FOREVER, WON’T: Americans’ Incomes Flat, Spending Up. Yeah, the returns on savings are — by design — nonexistent, but I don’t think we’ll get an economic recovery this way. Just call me one of these critics: “Critics say the Fed is punishing those who play by the rules — those careful enough to set aside money for savings or people who built up a nest egg and are living on fixed incomes that depend on interest.”

I repeat — if this were a Republican administration, the press would be full of sob-story reporting about senior citizens eating dog food because their CD rates are so low.

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: Student Loan Debt Hits Record Levels. “The amount of student loans taken out last year crossed the $100 billion mark for the first time and total loans outstanding will exceed $1 trillion for the first time this year. . . . Students are borrowing twice what they did a decade ago after adjusting for inflation, the College Board reports. Total outstanding debt has doubled in the past five years — a sharp contrast to consumers reducing what’s owed on home loans and credit cards.” Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. This can’t go on forever.

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: In The Atlantic, The Debt Crisis At American Colleges.

How do colleges manage it? Kenyon has erected a $70 million sports palace featuring a 20-lane olympic pool. Stanford’s professors now get paid sabbaticals every fourth year, handing them $115,000 for not teaching. Vanderbilt pays its president $2.4 million. Alumni gifts and endowment earnings help with the costs. But a major source is tuition payments, which at private schools are breaking the $40,000 barrier, more than many families earn. Sadly, there’s more to the story. Most students have to take out loans to remit what colleges demand. At colleges lacking rich endowments, budgeting is based on turning a generation of young people into debtors.

As this semester begins, college loans are nearing the $1 trillion mark, more than what all households owe on their credit cards. Fully two-thirds of our undergraduates have gone into debt, many from middle class families, who in the past paid for much of college from savings. The College Board likes to say that the average debt is “only” $27,650. What the Board doesn’t say is that when personal circumstances go wrong, as can happen in a recession, interest, late payment penalties, and other charges can bring the tab up to $100,000. Those going on to graduate school, as upwards of half will, can end up facing twice that.

A fact of academic life is that the tuition-debt nexus keeps most colleges going.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. This can’t go on forever.

SOME WILL SEE THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY: 1/2 Say Spending Cuts Will Lead To Violence. From the comments: “The half saying there will be violence is probably the same half that has their hand out.”

The threat of such violence is used by bureaucrats and various representatives of the looter/moocher classes to extract payments, of course. But it doesn’t matter. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t, and current expenditures can’t go on forever, so they won’t. If that leads to violence, then there will be violence. But I don’t believe that violence in a broke country with limited financial options and limited political patience will receive the same payoff as violence in a rich country with lots of options and extensive patience.

NEW YORK POST: So Who’s Playing Politics With The Debt?

The president went to great pains yesterday to stress that raising the $14.3 trillion debt limit “is not a vote that allows Congress to spend more money. . . . [It] simply gives our country the ability to pay the bills that Congress has already racked up.”

Bushwa.

Washington spends more than it takes in — and that can’t continue.

Indeed, it was reported yesterday that the US Treasury now has an operating cash balance of $73.8 billion — $2.4 billion less than the cash that Apple, the computer giant, has on its books.

The reason is simple: Apple collects more cash than it spends. With Washington, it’s the other way around. And increasing Washington’s revenues via higher taxes does nothing to rein in spending.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Debt that can’t be repaid, won’t.

JIM MANZI: CHANGE IS COMING:

If you had asked me at a New Year’s Eve party in 2006 what I thought the odds were of the U.S. government taking a controlling interest in the largest bank, the largest car company, and the largest insurance company in America, I would probably have laughed at you. Yet within 36 months, this is exactly what had happened.

My friends who are more liberal than I probably should not make the analogous mistake of imagining that benefit reductions that seem absurd politically right now might come to seem less absurd, and surprisingly quickly.

If you think about it, any real solution to the federal deficit problem is currently politically impossible; yet we know mathematically that, barring a productivity miracle, the situation cannot persist indefinitely. Therefore, we know that some change that currently seems politically impossible is all-but-certain to happen sooner or later.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: Liberal Arts Heading For A Crash?

Our business model is built on all kinds of assumptions that don’t hold anymore,” said Richard Holmgren, associate dean and CIO at Allegheny College. “Over the last 40 years of the last century, we built a model based on the assumption that net revenues per student would go up every year.…We have a culture built on that assumption,” Holmgren said. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve been struggling because net revenues have been flat.”

None of the participants in the daylong business-model workshop that followed seemed to dispute the basic premise that liberal arts programs are plagued by twin threats of inertia and economic unsustainability. To make matters even more grim, one self-described envoy of “the corporate world” — Kit Stinson, a vice president at the telecommunication giant Avaya — spoke up early on in the conference to testify against the truism that liberal arts graduates make for more creative and critical-thinking workers, setting off a parallel discussion about whether today’s incarnation of liberal education, sacrosanct to many, actually increases students’ employability outside academe.

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Plus, bringing tuition shock home: “Eugene Tobin, a program officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and former president of Hamilton College, agreed that faculty members tend to hold relatively unsophisticated views of the business of higher education until their children begin applying to college.”

INDEED: Normal Interest Rates Would Be A Disaster For U.S. Debt. “And that’s why the Federal Reserve is buying U.S. Treasuries. If they didn’t, the U.S. would have to pay higher interest rates on its debt, and we can’t afford to. None of this can go on forever.” Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

TYLER COWEN: The Fiscal Illusion: “As we fail to make progress on entitlement reform with each passing year, Professor Buchanan’s essentially moral critique of deficit spending looks more prophetic. We are fooling ourselves most of all. United States government debt in public hands is now more than $9 trillion, but most people still don’t realize what it will take to pay that off. . . . The famous Keynesian rejoinder, ‘In the long run we are all dead,’ is less comforting when that long run comes into sight.”

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. That’s going to be the theme for this decade, I suspect.

SUDDENLY NOTICING REALITY AT THE NEW YORK TIMES: State Workers and N.Y.’s Fiscal Crisis.

At a time when public school students are being forced into ever more crowded classrooms, and poor families will lose state medical benefits, New York State is paying 10 times more for state employees’ pensions than it did just a decade ago. That huge increase is largely because of Albany’s outsized generosity to the state’s powerful employees’ unions in the early years of the last decade, made worse when the recession pushed down pension fund earnings, forcing the state to make up the difference.

Although taxpayers are on the hook for the recession’s costs, most state employees pay only 3 percent of their salaries to their pensions, half the level of most state employees elsewhere. Their health insurance payments are about half those in the private sector. . . . To point out these alarming facts is not to be anti- union, or anti-worker.

Do tell. If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.

WORRIES ABOUT THE GROWTH IN “populist resentment of public employees.” Now where could that come from? Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. The current system of public finance can’t go on forever.

AN END TO THE EURO? “I hear all the reasons that this has to muddle through. But I remain worried. Already, I am not hearing great things about the German economic team; the economists are having a harder and harder time persuading the politicians that this is a good idea and the voters are getting madder and madder. Angela Merkel is fiercely resisting expanding Europe’s emergency fund. Meanwhile, so are voters in Ireland who don’t see why they should have to pay through the nose to bail out foreign banks. As Herb Stein said, if something can’t go on forever, it won’t. And this can’t go on forever.”

DO YOU THINK? “The ongoing increases in college tuition and fees make the housing price bubble seem pretty tame by comparison, and we should therefore be very concerned about the possibility that we might now be facing an unsustainable higher education bubble.” If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.

ERIC S. RAYMOND: Timing the Entitlements Crash. “The fundamental problem is that income-transfer programs (and the interest service on the debt purchased to keep them running) are spending wealth in higher volumes than the economy can actually generate, and demand for that spending is rising faster than the economy is growing. Thus, raising tax rates is no longer a way out, if it ever was.” Remember, if something can’t go on forever, then it won’t.

NOBODY LOVES DONALD: Or at least, there’s a sudden wave of anti-Rumsfeld sentiment from people who have been supportive in the past. Jules Crittenden called for Rumsfeld’s resignation earlier this week (he also wants Cheney to resign and be replaced by Condi); on Tuesday the four military papers (Army Times, Navy Times, etc.) will call for Rumsfeld to be replaced, and it’s hard to avoid a sense that the buzzards are circling. On the other hand, this December Vanity Fair article — conveniently made available just before the election — suggests that the issue isn’t so much Rumsfeld as President Bush, though the critics, especially Ken Adelman, get in plenty of swipes at Rumsfeld, too.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. Rumsfeld’s a polarizing figure, and antiwar people have been talking smack about him for so long that legitimate criticism tends to get lost in the fog of politics. But this critique of Rumsfeld’s management style from Michael Ledeen is more troubling, because it’s specific.

Bush, of course, has said that Rumsfeld isn’t going anywhere — and if he’d wanted to manage a political subject-change before the election, replacing Rumsfeld would have been a way to signal a new direction and perhaps win over some doubters, so how likely is it that he will change his mind afterward? At any rate, who would replace Rumsfeld? Harold Ford, Jr. suggested Sam Nunn, but I don’t think that’s very likely.

My concerns about losing momentum in the war on terror really go to the top — if Bush wanted more action, I think Rumsfeld would be delivering it. He certainly has in the past.

UPDATE: Reader Len Smith is unimpressed with the criticisms:

Read the critique on Rummy and felt it was not specific enough for me to judge whether or not he is performing well. It actually sounded like a lot of grousing I hear in corporate break rooms. No direction, Boss is sending me on a wild goose chase again, etc., etc.. Pretty common comments in a dynamic environment. My boss and I once decided not to put any “goals” on my annual review because it was a worthless exercise. In my business, what is important today is old news tomorrow. So I tend to discount these type of complaints.

What I want to know is:

Are the goals of the US military clearly stated to both the administration and the troops?

Are we better today than we were yesterday?

Are the risks, both military and geopolitical, clearly defined and communicated up and down the chain of command?

Can we fight a 3 block war in the Middle East and a conventional war in Korea?

Is our logistics system better than WalMart’s?

Are we prepared for today’s mission and tomorrow’s threat, what about the next decade?

What are our plans to fight the informational war?

These are the kind of things I would like to know before I pass judgment on SecDef’s performance. My son is an enlisted grunt with the Marines so I hear every gripe about “management”, and yet he can not wait to deploy to Iraq in a couple of months. I personally prefer to look at retention numbers as a good measurement of performance. When the guys that live in the organization keep coming back for another 4 years, one has to ask “what are we doing right?”

I can not say with any certainty that Rummy is performing well. I do know that I don’t want the job. Too many whiners!

Yes, our political system is very efficient at delivering those. And Greyhawk emails:

The “four military papers” aren’t military publications – they are the publications of Gannett’s Military Times Media group. Gannett is America’s largest newspaper publisher in terms of daily circulation. In addition to numerous “local papers” (here’s a list http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gannett_Company ) they publish USA Today. Army Times is an official Army publication in the same way USA Today is an official USA publication.

“Trade journal” might be an apt description, but circulation of the papers has never been very deep among individual service members. “Office copies” abound.

Yes, I realized that they’re not official, but I still thought it somewhat significant. But it’s worth mentioning this in case others didn’t know.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Michael Ledeen says that Vanity Fair misrepresented him:

Readers of NRO know well how disappointed I have been with our failure to address Iran, which was, and remains, the central issue, and it has been particularly maddening to live through extended periods when our children were in battle zones where Iranian-supported terrorists were using Iranian-made weapons against Americans, Iraqis and Afghans. I have been expressing my discontent for more than three years. So much for a change of heart dictated by developments on the ground.

So it is totally misleading for Vanity Fair to suggest that I have had second thoughts about our Iraq policy. But then one shouldn’t be surprised. No one ever bothered to check any of the lies in the first screed, and obviously no fact-checker was involved in the latest “promotion.” I actually wrote to David Rose, the author of the article-to-come, a person for whom I have considerable respect. He confirmed that words attributed to me in the promo had been taken out of context.

And reader Frank “Varifrank” Martin emails:

Anyone who thinks Rumsfeld is doing an awful job doesn’t understand his job or his mission from the President. Rumsfeld [doesn't] just hold a position in the cabinet, his mission from the President was to literally transform the Military. In terms of organizational culture, there is no culture in the world more institutionally resistant to change than the Military. Add to that, the difficulty of cutting or changing the various lines of revenue to industry that are naturally going to be impacted by that change, and you get a wicked combination of people who are very unhappy at the start that you’ve appeared on the scene.

Rumsfeld is not a nice guy and he has no ambitions beyond this job. He’s not looking at this job as a way to trade up for Presidency someday. That makes it difficult for anyone to “influence” his decisions, which means they go to “plan B” by attacking him at every turn in an attempt to make his job harder, in hopes that he will ask them to knock it off, and give them some form of favor in return. He of course, doesn’t give a damn, which in their minds is what makes him the ‘most dangerous man’ in Washington.

The Military needs transformation, everyone agrees on that, not because the people in it are bad, or that the men and women in it are bad, but its an organization built for a job that’s changed tremendously with world events. It hasn’t changed, and it wont, without someone forcing that sort of institutional transformation. Its a hard job and its rarely successful.

The Military cannot change itself, no organization can do that. Imagine your company or organization suddenly saying that it needs to change to meet business challenges because that’s what the CEO read in a magazine over the weekend. How’s that work? You spend months on “Mission statements” and going on useless employee retreats and in the end, the same lame-o fatass managers run the same asininely redundant departments only with different titles and cost centers. How do you get a company to change? You don’t change because you want to, you change because the competition forces you to change. You get creamed in a quarterly result, or you get merged with the competition. So what happens to us if our Military gets creamed in combat or “Merged”? In that respect, Rumsfelds transformation doest seem so bad now does it?

The Military cannot change itself. Air Force screams at the Navy, Navy screams at the Army, and everyone screams at the Marines, and the Coast Guard continues to go on unfunded. Congress just sits squirms in its seat every time someone wants to do something simple like close an air force base, Private Industry? Oh sure that will work out fine, no self interest there, right?

So what do you do? You get a man just exactly like Rumsfeld, who’s been around forever, knows exactly what works and what doesn’t work, knows where all the bodies are buried at every level of the chain of command and you let him loose by putting him at the top.

Rumsfeld is uniquely and highly qualified to do exactly what he is doing. He is an institutional nightmare to the lifetime bureaucrat. Think of Rumsfeld as one of those CEO’s that gets hired to turn around a company in bankruptcy court, or like Tom Peters without the PR team. This is not to say that the Military is “bankrupt”, but it has lost its way in some places. Do we really need a dozen more Seawolf submarines or should we have 50 more C-17s and C-5s? F-22′s or MV-22′s?, Airborne Laser Missile Defense or another 10 brigades of Marines and Special Forces? I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I know better than to ask Admiral Chuck “Seawolf” Hardmore if we need more Seawolf submarines.

That’s why we are lucky to have him, and that’s why everyone hates him, because in the end Rumsfeld will be remembered as the greatest change agent of all time.

I certainly hope so.

MORE: David Frum also says that Vanity Fair is misrepresenting his position:

My most fundamental views on the war in Iraq remain as they were in 2003: The war was right, victory is essential, and defeat would be calamitous.

And that to my knowledge is the view of everybody quoted in the release and the piece: Adelman, Cohen, Ledeen, Perle, Pletka, Rubin, and all the others.

(Not that it matters, but this fight is very personal for many of those people. Cohen and Ledeen have both had children serve in Iraq, Cohen’s in the Tenth Mountain Division, Ledeen’s daughter in the civil administration and his elder son in the Marines. As a civilian adviser in Iraq, Rubin displayed impressive personal courage living solo for long periods of time in the Shiite zones of east Baghdad.)

Vanity Fair then set my words in its own context in its press release. They added words outside the quote marks to change the plain meaning of quotations.

Vanity Fair dishonestly shilling for the Democrats just before an election? Who’da thought it?

MORE: And here’s more from Michael Rubin, who was also quoted in the piece:

Some people interviewed for the piece are annoyed because they granted interviews on the condition that the article not appear before the election. Vanity Fair is spinning a series of long interviews detailing the introspection and debate that occurs among responsible policymakers every day into a pre-election hit job. Who doesn’t constantly question and reassess? Vanity Fair’s agenda was a pre-election hit job, and I guess some of us quoted are at fault for believing too much in integrity. What the article seeks to do is push square pegs into round holes. Readers will see that the content of the piece does not match the sensational headlines. Were people gathered around the author gripping about Bush? No. Were people identifying faults in the implementation? Yes. Are people sick of the autodafe whereby pundits demand “neocon” confessions to fit their own silly conspiracy theories? Yes. Have those interviewed changed their mind about the war? I have not, no matter how self-serving partisan pundits or lazy journalists want to spin it. I can’t speak for others. . . .

We cannot go around the world betraying our allies—in this case Iraqis who believed in us or allied with us—just because of short-term political expediency. This is not just about Iraq: If we abandon Iraq, we will not only prove correct all of Usama Bin Laden’s rhetoric about the US being a paper tiger, but we will also demonstrate—as James Baker and George H.W. Bush did in 1991—that listening to the White House and alliance with the United States is a fool’s decision. We can expect no allies anywhere, be they in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, if we continue to sacrifice principles to short-term realist calculations. It’s not enough to have an attention span of two years, when the rest of the world thinks in decades if not centuries.

Vanity Fair apparently feels otherwise.

STILL MORE: A reader who prefers anonymity emails:

There is no “loss of momentum” in Iraq.

The deliberate, carefully thought-out mission there is to force the Iraqis to build up a military/security apparatus strong enough to defend the country. If we try to “crush” the insurgency ourselves, the Iraqis will have no incentive to fight. They will sit back and let us battle the unending waves of jihadis, Ba’athists, and Shi’ite militias. We will have to stay there forever while the government enriches itself in the traditional Arab style.

The ball is in the Iraqis’ court. We took away the obstacle to their freedom. If they choose to embrace death, corruption, incompetence, lethal religious mania, and stone-age tribalism, then at least we’ll finally know the limitations of the people in that part of the world.

The experiment had to be made.

Hmm. Some support for this notion — and for the idea that attrition is running in the U.S.’s favor — can be found in this analysis. But for better or worse, the so-called “three year rule” is well-known to U.S. planners — U.S. voters will support a war for three years, but then get antsy for a conclusion. This attitude may be bad, especially as applied to “messy small wars,” but it’s a reality. If the Bush Administration embarked on a strategy that was going to bring this into play, it should have worked much harder on the domestic side, and it hasn’t done that.

On the other hand, it’s also true that if democracy can’t work in Iraq, then we should probably adopt a “more rubble, less trouble” approach to other countries in the region that threaten us. If a comparatively wealthy and secular Arab country can’t make it as a democratic republic, then what hope is there for places that are less wealthy, or less secular?

MORE STILL: Tom Bevan reprints a letter from a reader:

I just came from three years in the bowels of the Pentagon and the SECDEF is generally though of there as tough but fair. Have mistakes been made? Sure, they always are but the professional military learns from it’s mistakes.

Rumsfeld should have probably committed more soldiers to the peacekeeping in Iraq. We didn’t need more to win the battle but to pacify the country afterward. Problem is the services are so small after the Clinton years that there just aren’t enough forces to go much above 140K on a continuing basis. And no one here wants a draft. It would have been nice to get further international support, but that didn’t work out, especially after Madrid. I think everyone in the Pentagon, if not the entire DOD hoped the Iraqis would take more responsibility for themselves and not destroy their country’s infrastructure and their countrymen. But unfortunately they are not.

The Army Times op-ed probably won’t change a single mind in the services. We’re all pretty hard-headed and don’t generally take our cues from the press. We wouldn’t be in the Service if we did.

Read the whole thing. Also, here’s a response from the Pentagon to the Army Times, etc. editorials.

EVEN MORE: Reader Chip Fussell emails:

My son is a USMA educated (ranked 50th in a class of almost 1,000) CPT in Army Special Forces. On January 3, 2005 his team was ambushed in Afghanistan, he was seriously wounded and came as close to dying as I think possible and not die. One of his men, a John Kerry educationally challenged SGT who had a BS in Chemistry and was an NCAA cross country champion was killed, and another of his team members ultimately lost a leg. The IED that initated the ambush did the damage, the team repelled the small arms follow-up with what I imagine was over whelming ferocity. My son recovered in time to return to his team on the Pakistan border and accomplish quite a lot in the war on terror.

Having said that, I voted for President Bush in large part so that Rumsfeld would remain as Sec. of Defense, and I continue to support the President and the Secretary as does my son and almost everyone with whom he has contact in the Army.

For the record, I am a registered Democrat and have always been, although my Dad, retired from the Air Force to Harrison, Tennessee, left to join the Repubs and my son, more influenced by my Dad, is a Republican.

Further thoughts from Elephants in Academia. It seems that some people love Donald after all. Meanwhile, Pierre Legrand thinks Rumsfeld should be asking for more money. “Defense spending in 2006 remained at 3.7% of GDP a level not far from the lowest point of the Clinton years and which we were led to believe by Candidate Bush was too low.” And Kurt Hoglund sends this link, and this one.

FINALLY: Various lefty bloggers keep linking to this post for the “more rubble, less trouble” language and misrepresenting that as something I’m advocating. In fact, of course, I’m advocating exactly the opposite as should be clear to anyone who is not deeply dishonest or hopelessly incapable of reading comprehension. The “more rubble, less trouble” phrase refers to what Victor Davis Hanson calls a kind of “punitive isolationism” that I think we’ll see if we give up in Iraq — and that was presaged by the Clinton Administration’s cruise-missile-based antiterror policy. It’s what I hope to prevent, not what I hope to see, and it’s the likely consequence of doing what the lefties want in foreign policy.

THIS IS A RECONSTRUCTED POST: My open-comment thread letting people liveblog the speech vanished — the server was overloaded and was having problems before they restarted, and that may have something to do with it. Anyway, some of the comments were saved by readers, and here’s a good chunk. Click “more” to read the post and comments.

Continue reading ‘THIS IS A RECONSTRUCTED POST: My open-comment thread letting people liveblog the speech vanished –…’ »

STEVE DEN BESTE WRITES ABOUT POSTWAR MALAISE in the blogosphere. I know what he means. In fact, as I said a while back, Kaus put it best:

You’re completely sick of the war — sick of watching cable, sick of reading the paper. The military campaign’s basically been won. The adrenalin is leaving your body. The overwhelming urge is to breathe a sigh of relief and get back to normal life, only more so: normal life minus current events. Yet this is just the moment when it’s probably most important to pay attention to what is going on in the Middle East, because these are the weeks when we will or won’t make the mistakes that will cost us the benefit of all the sacrifice of life and treasure.

That’s why I didn’t take a vacation like Andrew Sullivan, or Bill Quick. (Or, sadly, like Nick Denton). But it’s been a struggle. It’s been made worse by the difficulty of getting a big picture. Yeah, there are lots of media reports suggesting that things aren’t going that well. But they’re mostly from people who were declaring the war a quagmire after 15 minutes, and who peddled the bogus looting stories. Others are from more credible sources, but even those are hard to place in perspective. Europe and Japan looked pretty crappy for quite a while after World War II — ordinary people were putting food on the table via prostitution for quite some time after the war, something now largely forgotten except for vague jokes about nylons and chocolate bars. Things aren’t nearly that bad in Iraq. And in some places they’re quite a bit better. We also faced efforts at subversion by the Russians in Japan and Germany that were far more serious than anything we’re likely to face in Iraq, which is smaller and has — I think — actually got more U.S. troops occupying it per-capita than Japan had in 1946. (I haven’t checked this, but a usually reliable reader emails that fact.)

My waitress at dinner was a Kurd, who reported that relatives in Northern Iraq (she hadn’t been back for a couple of years) say that things are much better since Saddam’s fall. Mark Steyn reports that things look pretty good to him. Phil Carter, meanwhile, is less positive: he has argued pretty persuasively that we had enough troops to win the war, but not enough for the occupation. (He also thinks we’ll see Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.)

But as Salam Pax says,

Everyone expected a civil war, but now that’s not happening. Actually, the situation is much better than we imagined before the war… People who before the war sold tomatoes now suddenly offer satellite phones on the open street…

And, actually, even this is probably good news:

One thing is sure: No one is relying on the Americans. No one expects
that they will do anything for us.

Low expectations are better than too-high ones, and self-reliance is better than dependence. I think that this has been a deliberate strategy in the occupation, though we may have overplayed it. On the other hand, Baghdad has free Internet now, via self-help. That’s a good sign, I think. But a too-disengaged approach is likely to breed more resentment than an overbearing one, actually. As Osama says, people (especially Arab people) tend to want to back a strong horse. So it’s important to look strong.

On the broader scale, things look pretty good. We had anti-Al Qaeda demonstrations in Morocco, and Syria seems to be feeling the heat. There have been some signs of self-examination and skepticism toward fundamentalist Islamism even in Saudi Arabia, though the Saudis remain unimpressive on this front. The Iranian mullahs are nervous (though not nervous enough), and — though I remain skeptical — there are some things that could be interpreted as progress with regard to Israel and the Palestinians, though I doubt it will be possible to achieve peace there as long as Arafat is alive. And, over all, Al Qaeda has faced many, many arrests, and we’ve gone over 18 months without a significant Islamic terrorist attack in the United States.

That’s all pretty good news, and far better than we feared in September of 2001. In fact, the big news so far is that things are a lot better than we feared in September 2001.

I certainly agree with Paul Wolfowitz that:

I think the two most important things next are the two most obvious. One is getting post-Saddam Iraq right. Getting it right may take years, but setting the conditions for getting it right in the next six months. The next six months are going to be very important.

The other thing is trying to get some progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

I think the two are connected. Getting things right in Iraq is very important, and it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be obvious how things are going overnight. (It’s not obvious how things are going in Russia, and it’s been well over a decade since the end of the Soviet Union). I think it’s very important that we work at it, and I think it’s ironic that some of the people who were critics before the war saying “we’ll just put in a friendly dictator and leave” are now pushing arguments and criticisms that imply just such a course of action when the Administration is obviously committed to something more. We want a peaceful, free and prosperous Iraq. Claims that Arabs are somehow incapable of that sort of thing seem a bit dubious to me, especially when they come from people who call themselves “progressive” — and it’s especially unimpressive when those people say “Iraq is ungovernable” with ill-concealed glee at the prospect of what would be, in practice, a far bigger disaster for the Iraqi people than for George Bush. But they don’t care about the collateral damage if they can see Bush hurt.

As for the Palestinian problem, well, I tend to see that more as a symptom than as a disease — it’s a vehicle for Arab despots to use in distracting their citizens. But denying them that vehicle wouldn’t be such a bad thing. And getting rid of Saddam, both because it undermined Arab fantasies and because it deprived the suicide bombers of a very significant subsidy, can only help that.

So overall, I’d say that it’s too early to say how well things are going, but that things in general look pretty good. And though there are predictions of doom aplenty, it’s worth remembering that the doom-predictors have a pretty lousy record so far.

I think, though, that both Iraq and Israel are currently tests for the Arabs. If they can’t achieve a reasonable degree of peace and freedom here, if they sink back into theocracy and thuggery, then it’s going to be easy for the rest of the world to give up on them — as the “progressives” already have — and say “what can you expect from the wogs?” as it turns a blind eye to another generation of dictators’ brutality. I don’t want that, and I don’t think that the Iraqi people, or even the Palestinian people, really do.

But as I said before, and Roger Simon says now: “Patience, patience — now of all times.”

UPDATE: Dave Winer has a notably nasty post on this. It begins “Amazingly, Glenn Reynolds is still covering the war,” and then goes on to blast warbloggers. Um, you’d rather I ignored this, Dave? Or do you just not like the way I point out that “progressives” never gave a damn about the Iraqis, and still don’t? I think you’ve proved that, anyway. And probably provided an answer to Marduk’s question for war opponents:

Given the choice which would you prefer:

A. George Bush is proven correct. Peace in Iraq. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Bush re-elected.

B. George Bush is proven incorrect. No peace in Iraq. No peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Bush defeated.

The answer to that one is pathetically obvious. “Pheh” right back atcha, Dave.

ANOTHER UPDATE: It’s interesting to contrast the antiwar folks’ self-justifying kvetching with this rather thoughtful post from SgtStryker.com:

After the fireworks are over, people like me are sent out unto the world to do all the hard work in support of peacekeeping and all that mess. It doesn’t make for good TV like war does, but war sells. It’s got death, ‘splosions and all that other cool stuff people like to watch. Peacekeeping, on the other hand, isn’t exciting at all. It’s long, boring and never goes as fast as everyone wants it to. It’s kind of like construction. Those buildings they put up always seem to take forever to build and the work isn’t exactly glamorous. I-beam by I-beam, concrete block by concrete block, these buildings slowly rise from the remains of what was there before and begin to take shape. It’s done right out there in public so everyone walking by can give their take on the whole deal and criticise the design, the materials used or how things would go so much better if everyone just listened to them.

But at the end of the thing, the workers have a sense of accomplishing something solid that’ll remain for while. Everyone always gathers around and watches those dramatic building demolitions. The walls explode, the building collapses into a cloud of dust, people clap and then everyone heads off to the next big thing. It’s a brief, transitory moment of excitement, but that’s about it. Building stuff is a hell of a lot less glamorous then blowing it up, but at least you have something to point to years down the road when someone asks what the hell you were doing all that time. It’s kind of hard to point at nothing, no matter how dazzling its collapse may have been.

That’s what I’m writing about, Dave. Sorry it doesn’t interest you.

SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA is out of communication and lost from radar. It should have landed three minutes ago. At this point, it can only be presumed to have been lost on reentry. CNN has photos of it above Dallas, with no obvious problems.

Is there a connection with the presence of an Israeli astronaut? Probably not, but who knows?

UPDATE: Just saw CNN play the video from Dallas — I was going earlier on something they had said that I guess I misunderstood — and it looks as if it shows the Shuttle breaking up. A single trail breaks up into multiple vapor trails as it moves. They’re gone. May they rest in peace.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here’s the CNN.com report. People have phoned CNN to report a “loud impact.”

Here’s Spaceflight Now’s real-time update page. At the moment it notes rather optimistically that search and rescue forces are being deployed.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Now, more realistically, NASA is asking people to stay away from any debris that they find, as they may be hazardous.

“At least they got to go into space,” observes my daughter. Well, yeah. It still sucks, though.

MORE: Why it’s probably not terrorism: (1) if you planted a bomb, you’d want it to go off on takeoff — that’s when everyone is watching, and there’s less time for stuff to go wrong, since you’d have to wonder whether a bomb would work after spending an extended time in space; (2) it’s basically impossible to shoot down a reentering space shuttle because of its speed and altitude; (3) there are so many things that can go wrong with shuttles, especially Columbia, which is the oldest, without invoking terrorism. I suppose it’s conceivable that a saboteur did some sort of subtle structural damage calculated to cause this sort of a failure while remaining unnoticed during ground checks, but that strikes me as unlikely for a variety of reasons.

From the video it looks like structural failure, followed by an explosion as the spacecraft disintegrated. That’s unlikely to be the result of sabotage. Most likely it was failure in a wing spar or some other component, probably brought on by age and fatigue, though possibly caused by tile zippering and burn-through, or damage on launch. We’ll see. No point getting ahead of things here, but plenty of reason to think it’s not terrorism.

Prediction: This won’t traumatize people the way Challenger did because (1) it’s not the first time; and (2) we’re at war now, and people’s calculations of such things — especially post-WTC — are different. I hope, however, that we’ll look at moving beyond the elderly and unreliable Shuttle now.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A woman from Huntington, Texas is reporting lots of debris and a “burning rubber” smell, after hearing a rumbling sound at about 9:15. Debris is reported, via police scanners, in Jasper and Moffett counties, too.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Boy, that didn’t take long. Reportedly, a Canadian Broadcasting Company interviewer has blamed “American Arrogance” for the crash. Follow the link for more information, and a link to the CBC Ombudsman. I’ll let you know if I find out more on this.

MORE: President Bush will be addressing the nation.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Here’s a link to live streaming video from MSNBC.com.

Meanwhile ModerateLeft responds to the reported charge of “arrogance:”

Well, if this is arrogance–exploring space for science, pushing the envelope of the human experience, doing what our species has always done–then I support it. If it is arrogant to want to learn, we are arrogant. If it is arrogant to want to explore, we are arrogant. If it is arrogant to risk our lives for the possibility of a better future for all mankind, we are arrogant.

Mankind is arrogant. We believe foolish things–that we may one day cure cancer, that we may one day develop new forms of energy, that we may one day walk on Mars. We believe these foolish things, and we dedicate ourselves to achieving them. How ridiculous. How arrogant.

And people die for these things. And people are injured for life. The astronauts of Apollo 1, and the Challenger, and now, sadly, the Columbia have died for the arrogant belief that we can be more than we are, that we can walk on the moon, that we can touch the stars.

So call us arrogant for building the space shuttle. Call the men and woman who gave their lives today arrogant for believing they could fly to space and return to tell about it. But don’t call us wrong. For this arrogance defines humanity. And I would rather our species be arrogant than afraid.

And that last is the sentiment that the critics can’t understand.

UPDATE: Here, via The Corner, is Reagan’s Challenger speech. And here is the text of the speech written by William Safire for Richard Nixon, in the event the Apollo XI crew was lost:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

I got it here, but the site loads slowly enough that I doubted it could handle the traffic from a simple link. Here’s another in case that one is dead.

MORE: Rand Simberg has some useful observations. Excerpt:

The entire NASA budget is now in a cocked hat, because we don’t know what the implications are until we know what happened. But it could mean an acceleration of the Orbital Space Plane program (I sincerely hope not, because I believe that this is entirely the wrong direction for the nation, and in fact a step backwards). What I hope that it means is an opportunity for some new and innovative ideas–not techically, but programmatically.

Once again, it demonstrates the fragility of our space transportation infrastructure, and the continuing folly of relying on a single means of getting people into space, and doing it so seldom. Until we increase our activity levels by orders of magnitude, we will continue to operate every flight as an experiment, and we will continue to spend hundreds of millions per flight, and we will continue to find it difficult to justify what we’re doing. We need to open up our thinking to radically new ways, both technically and institutionally, of approaching this new frontier.

I had actually been invited to the Monday teleconference on the new NASA budget, but I imagine that’s off now. Rand also has some useful speculation (which he’s careful to label as such) about what might have gone wrong.

Meanwhile, the Times of India is proud of Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla:

Kalpana Chawla, who is feared to have perished in the Columbia space shuttle mishap along with six others, had done India proud when she embarked on her first space mission on November 19, 1997.

The Karnal-born Chawla, the first Indian American astronaut, began her career at the Ames Research Center at Nasa in 1988.

A graduate in aeronautical engineering from the Punjab Engineering College she began work at the Ames in the area of fluid dynamics.

They should be proud. Ilan Ramon’s presence has gotten more attention, but Chawla’s presence is more representative.

MORE: Jim Flowers is setting up a blog (metablog?) that will track blogosphere coverage of the Columbia loss.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Canadian reader Peter Ash emails:

As a Canadian, I sincerely hope that no one in the States draws the conclusion that other Canadians share the bad attitude (and exceptionally poor taste) of the journalist you cited. Trust me, I’ll be looking for verification that what was implied was in fact implied, which will be followed by an acidic letter or twenty to the appropriate parties.

I still remember where I was when Challenger happened (I was in grade four, no less). Several Canadian astronauts have ridden the Shuttle, and right now Canadians are feeling the pain with their cousins to the south. If you would, please do convey to your readers that the overwhelming majority of us feel as awful about this as all of you do.

On the technical side, you’re right. The Shuttle is too old and rather poorly designed. In some ways it’s surprising that this hasn’t happened before. They’re not going to get much out of the crash debris, the re-entry forces will have reduced most of it to charred lumps. Look for replays on the launch footage, and focus on the piece of insulation that fell of the External Tank and allegedly hit the left wing. There will probably be an inquiry as to why more wasn’t done to check on the integrity of the wing before the space shuttle was allowed to re-enter. After all, if closer inspections revealed trouble, awkward as it would be, the Shuttle could have been left up in orbit until such time as another Shuttle, or a Russian Soyuz module, could have been sent up to bring down the crew.

Indeed, there could have been repairs made in space if need be, with the Shuttle eventually brought down by a skeleton crew or perhaps even on automation.

This is going to be somewhat problematic for the current occupants of the Space Station. NASA might have to pay the Russians to use one of their modules to bring them down, since they’re likely going to ground the Shuttle fleet for a year or two. Oh, and obviously, look for that renewed initiative to send another teacher into space to quietly disappear. And given that NASA’s only other two space tragedies (the Apollo fire and the Challenger disaster) occurred in late January, I would expect that there won’t be any more late January/early February flights again for a long time. Not that the NASA scientists are suspicious, but the pilots who fly their Shuttles just might be.

All interesting. And, I should stress, we don’t take the all-too-frequently anti-American twits of the CBC to represent general sentiment among Canadians. And I presume that if the reports about that remark are false, that will show up when the CBC ombudsman replies, or when transcripts appear. But I have no reason to doubt the report at the moment. LATER: Fraters Libertas blogs more mean Canadian comments — from C-SPAN, this time.

MORE: A reader sends this link to a NOAA radar image that seems to show the debris trail. I don’t know what else that long orange streak could be. LATER: I’m watching MSNBC, which says the streak is debris. STILL LATER: I should note that the plume looks so big and dense because it’s full of vaporized/powdered aluminum and other metals, which will register far more strongly on weathe radar than the water vapor it’s designed to measure. I mention this at the behest of several readers, in the vain hope of heading off conspiracy theorists.

ANOTHER UPDATE: It’s a big deal in India, but not in France:

Just thought you might be interested in knowing that none of the major French channels (TF1, A2, FR3, M6) have, as of this moment, even bothered to interrupt programming to announce the Columbia news. I live in Switzerland and have been zapping back and forth between CNN, MSNBC, BBC and various Swiss, German and French channels. The French apparently haven’t noticed yet (or don’t care?)

Best regards from Lausanne,

James Wade

Hmm. That’s representative, too. LATER: Bill from MerdeinFrance emails:

I’m definitely not one to defend the French but with regards to French news coverage of this disaster it is true that LCI TV (owned by TF1), 24 hour French language news available only to cable viewers, has covered this non-stop since the story broke. Other channnels, it is true, have not broken for any coverage.

So there you are. It’s also showing up on the websites for many French TV stations and newspapers.

MORE: Here is a report of debris on the ground. Excerpt:

NACOGDOCHES, Texas (AP) — Residents said debris, including bits of machinery and pieces of metal, were found strewn across the city Saturday morning, hours after NASA lost contact with space shuttle Columbia.

“It’s all over Nacogdoches,” said James Milford, owner of Milford Barber shop in downtown Nacogdoches. “There are several little pieces, some parts of machinery … there’s been a lot of pieces about 3 feet wide.”

There’s a photo, which doesn’t look very impressive. But then debris isn’t, usually.

David Janes has lots of links, including one that led me to this piece by Doc Searls on the Challenger tragedy, which is still very much worth reading.

Okay, I’m closing out this post. New developments will be reported above.