• November 30, 2005 | 2:11 AM ET

Funny, but not long after Rep. Murtha's outburst on the war, we're seeing a bipartisan consensus that a cut-and-run approach would be disastrous.

Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, just back from Iraq, writes in the Wall Street Journal:

I have just returned from my fourth trip to Iraq in the past 17 months and can report real progress there. More work needs to be done, of course, but the Iraqi people are in reach of a watershed transformation from the primitive, killing tyranny of Saddam to modern, self-governing, self-securing nationhood--unless the great American military that has given them and us this unexpected opportunity is prematurely withdrawn.
It is a war between 27 million and 10,000; 27 million Iraqis who want to live lives of freedom, opportunity and prosperity and roughly 10,000 terrorists who are either Saddam revanchists, Iraqi Islamic extremists or al Qaeda foreign fighters who know their wretched causes will be set back if Iraq becomes free and modern. The terrorists are intent on stopping this by instigating a civil war to produce the chaos that will allow Iraq to replace Afghanistan as the base for their fanatical war-making. We are fighting on the side of the 27 million because the outcome of this war is critically important to the security and freedom of America. If the terrorists win, they will be emboldened to strike us directly again and to further undermine the growing stability and progress in the Middle East, which has long been a major American national and economic security priority.
Here is an ironic finding I brought back from Iraq. While U.S. public opinion polls show serious declines in support for the war and increasing pessimism about how it will end, polls conducted by Iraqis for Iraqi universities show increasing optimism. Two-thirds say they are better off than they were under Saddam, and a resounding 82% are confident their lives in Iraq will be better a year from now than they are today. What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will and, in the famous phrase, to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory.

A colossal mistake -- and, in some cases, a political move by those who don't care if America is defeated, so long as Bush is.  For others, it's a simple case of cowardice.  As John F. Kennedy noted when he wrote his book, Profiles in Courage, physical courage of the battlefield variety is much more common than political courage, and we're seeing both Democrats and Republicans go wobbly in places.

Republican Senator John McCain says that people who talk about premature withdrawal are "aiding and abetting" the enemy.  McCain writes:

A date is not an exit strategy. To suggest that it is only encourages our enemies, by indicating that the end to American intervention is near. It alienates our friends, who fear an insurgent victory, and tempts undecideds to join the anti-government ranks.
Think about this for a moment. Imagine Iraqis, working for the new government, considering whether to join the police force, or debating whether or not to take up arms. What will they think when they read that the Senate is pressing for steps toward draw-down?

Are they more or less likely to side with a government whose No. 1 partner hints at leaving?

McCain and Lieberman are right.  A lot of the weak-kneed Senators in both parties who supported the resolution he criticized are now having second thoughts, especially in light of new polls that show that Americans aren't impressed, something that has to give even the most narrow-minded partisan worries:

Seventy percent of people surveyed said that criticism of the war by Democratic senators hurts troop morale -- with 44 percent saying morale is hurt "a lot," according to a poll taken by RT Strategies. Even self-identified Democrats agree: 55 percent believe criticism hurts morale, while 21 percent say it helps morale.
Just three of 10 adults accept that Democrats are leveling criticism because they believe this will help U.S. efforts in Iraq. A majority believes the motive is really to "gain a partisan political advantage."

By reminding war critics that they won't escape blame if America loses, this may concentrate people's mind on what John Kerry said back in 2003:  " The only exit strategy is victory."

November 29, 2005 | 10:29 AM ET

Executive pay and General MotorsGM's problems are likely to produce more political posturing about executive pay.  Much of this will be dumb political pandering, but that doesn't mean there's nothing more there.

High executive pay isn't bad in itself.  Just think what it would be worth to GM to have a staff of executives who could turn the company around — it would be worth a lot.

The big problem, though, is that executives get high pay whether or not they do a good job.  This article in The Economist makes the point well:

But while unionists and left-leaning politicians are worried about social equity, investors typically have a different sort of concern. They are happy to pay for exceptional performance; but less delighted when mediocre managers get lavishly rewarded. The contrasting cases of James Kilts and Michael Eisner make the point.

Mr Kilts, the boss of Gillette, has publicly accused critics of the $165m bonus he got for selling his firm to Procter & Gamble for $53 billion of "unsubstantiated, inaccurate and irresponsible criticism" and of treating him like a "piñata"—a sweet container that American children bash at parties.  Piñata Jim may have a point. He did a lot to restructure Gillette—allowing it to be sold for a fancy price, to the huge benefit of its shareholders. It is when vast payments are the reward for poor performance that it is time to cry foul. Michael Eisner was an outstanding manager during the first part of his more than 20 years at the top of the Walt Disney Corporation. But as Leo Hindery points out in a new book ("It Takes a CEO"), he was also paid $800m over a 13-year period during which the company's shareholders would have done better by investing in Treasury bonds.

Unfortunately, there's way too much of that out there.  Management gets paid a lot not for the reasons that, say, writers or athletes do -- because of demonstrated talent -- but because of their proximity to the corporate pursestrings.  And as the Economist article notes (you should read the whole thing), efforts to limit executive salaries over a decade ago led to the substitution of stock-option based compensation, which many think led to many of the corporate financial scandals of recent years.

I'm not sure what to do about the problem, but I suspect that it will be a political issue in the coming election year.  Stay tuned for a lot of pandering and, just maybe, a few good ideas.

And as a followup to my last couple of posts, check out this article on GM by Michael Barone. As with most of his stuff, it's a must-read.

November 28, 2005 | 1:31 AM ET

Readers on GM's problems

My earlier post on GM's latest round of problems generated a lot of email. Here are some replies:

Name: Chris Hoey
Hometown: Staten Island, NY
An officer of the UAW once boasted to me that if a company could not afford to pay what the UAW had determined to be the industry standard for wages and benefits, it should be put out of business.  This was in 1962, when we were losing US auto companies, and before the Japanese invasion was in full swing.  A major difference between Japan's companies and the USA was that in Japan unions were "vertical," i.e., they bargained only for the employees in the individual companies, not per an industry standard arbitrarily set by an industry-wide union, as in the USA.  For example, under Japan's labor laws Toyota's union employees and its union bargained with only that company.  Management and labor then shared a selfish interest, which was to keep their company competitive and fiscally sound.  To the contrary, at GM, just as at Studebaker, Packard, Nash, etc., the UAW leaders were more interested in maintaining industry labor standards and practices than they were in the fiscal or competitive health of the individual companies whose workers they represented.  If those companies could not meet their demands, it was preferable they close rather than suborn the "industry standards" the UAW had set.  (Remember the "suspense" when the UAW would single out the lead company of the Big Three to commence bargaining, and with which they would settle the basic package for the industry?)  One can contend this principle of the UAW has stifled realistic domestic competition, smothered startups, and has saddled the domestic industry with labor conditions, archaic work rules and costs that are helping to destroy it today.  (47 years of practice as a labor lawyer, including a seven-year stint at the NLRB in the late 50's and early 60's should qualify one as able to comment on GM.)

Glenn writes:  The unions have been shortsighted.  But it's not just the unions:

Name:  Roger J. Buffington
Hometown:  H
untington Beach, CA
I believe that GM's troubles are essentially an agency cost rooted in flawed corporate governance.  Generations of GM management collected mammoth salaries and bonuses essentially by selling out the future of the company; specifically, by acceeding to successively, incrementally worse labor contracts.  Foreign companies seem able to dodge this problem for reasons that are not completely clear.  But what is clear is that GM has been horribly managed for generations, all the while rewarding its dreadful executive team with salaries bearing no relationship to their stewardship of the company's future.

Name: Paul Cruce
Hometown:  Okalnd, CA

The problems at GM are deeper than work rules, costly union contracts and outrageous health benefit costs.  Remember the fabulous cars GM made in the immediate post-World War II years to mid-1950s?  That was when the "car guys" ran the company.  But by the end of the 1950s, the "car guys" were no longer running the company.  The Financial Staff (FS) in New York was calling the shots and naming the company presidents.  It was the FS that gave us cars like the Chevrolet Vega, produced at the notorious Lordstown, Ohio plant at a rate of 100 cars an hour.  The build quality on that car was so bad that it is joked that the Vega was the only car ever built that was guaranteed to rust out while still on the showroom floor.  It was the FS that forced the engineers to produce the Oldsmobile Diesel built on an engine block designed for gasoline engines.  The engineers told them it wouldn't work, the combustion pressures of a diesel will destroy the engine, but the FS said build it anyway, we don't want to spend the money to build a diesel from scratch.  The diesel warranty claims cost GM over 400,000,000 and ruined Oldsmobile as a brand.  It is the FS that gave us the "cookie cutter" cars where the GM brands lost their distinctiveness.  Remember when it was discovered that Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs were being powered by Chevrolet engines?  Thank the FS.  The troubles at GM are a textbook example of what happens when you let the accountants run a car company instead of people who know and love cars.

Glenn writes:  Yeah, my dad had one of those horrible GM diesels.  The only upside was that after about 30,000 miles you could generate a James Bond-like smokescreen just by pushing the accelerator to the floor.

Then there's this:

Name: D.A.Snider
Hometown: Napanee, Ontario

Although vehicle attractiveness —style, cost, reliability— are the major problem, employer share of health care costs are also a significant concern.  For the life of me I cannot understand why GM, Ford and D-C management (as well as other major American manufacturers who make employer contributions to health plans) do not come out foursquare behind a Canadian or British style health care system.  It would make such a positive impact on their bottom line.  Perhaps ideology is clouding their better judgement.

Glenn writes:  I'm sure that GM -- and other companies -- would like to offload their health costs on to the taxpayers.  On the other hand, Canada and Britain aren't exactly havens of entrepreneurial vitality, are they?

And I recently watched the documentary Dead Meat on problems with the Canadian healthcare system (you can see a Web site with the trailer here) and I'm not persuaded that we'd come out ahead.

I think the problem has more to do with the fact that they make lousy cars:

Name: James Hellem
Hometown: Alpharetta, Georgia

Mr Reynolds: The current issue with GM isn't costs....GM products are priced as low or lower than competitors products.  The problem is quality and because of the lower quality, resale values are lower.  I currently own a Lexus and 2 Hondas and have the opportunity to rent cars on a regular basis and many are GM products.  There is simply no comparison in the quality levels between Lexus and Honda products versus GM.  I would love to be able to buy a GM or Ford product but there is simply no comparison in quality.

Glenn writes:  I think that's right.  I recently bought a Toyota Highlander hybrid (my impressions are here) and I would have been very happy to buy an American vehicle.  But there wasn't anything comparable, really, in terms of quality.  That's too bad, but it's true.

Can GM be turned around?  I'm not sure.  I doubt it, unfortunately.

November 26, 2005 | 11:40 AM ET

The problem with GM

With G.M.'s troubles getting a lot of attention, Mickey Kaus observes:

I tend to blame Wagner Act unionism--especially productivity-sapping work rules--for GM's decline. It's hard to blame globalization--the usual suspect--since Honda, Toyota and Nissan all assemble cars in North America with (non-union) North American labor and they're all still beating GM.
High materials costs? The Japanese transplants face those too. The health care explanation also seems bogus.

There's plenty of blame to go around. As Kaus notes, you can't blame union work rules for the fact that GM's cars are (with the exception of the Pontiac Solstice and a very few others) appallingly ugly. But there's something to the work-rules issue, too. I remember when I was in law school, the hallways were often dim. Why? The janitors weren't allowed to replace light bulbs. Instead, because of union work rules, you had to have an electrician replace the light bulbs, and they only came around once a month because they were so expensive the university couldn't afford to send them around any more often.

Unions got a bad reputation when they seemed to go from being about making more money for doing the work -- something Americans generally approve of -- to being about getting more money for not doing the work, which Americans don't approve of. We're far more impatient about bureaucratic barriers to getting the job done.

Of course, G.M.'s lousy management is also about making a lot of money without getting the job done, as G.M.'s financial situation makes clear. I hope that when G.M. goes bankrupt, as seems increasingly likely, its management will suffer along with the shareholders and workers. They've earned it.

November 23, 2005 | 9:40 AM ET

I'm thankful for a lot of things this year.

Glenn Reynolds

I'm thankful that my wife is still with me.  She had a freakish heart attack six years ago, and then last winter developed dangerous heart arrhythmias.  Her heart actually stopped several times during a diagnostic procedure.  Now she's got an implanted defibrillator (and a cool t-shirt), but it's never had to fire because she's also on a new drug called Tikosyn. So I guess I'm thankful to Pfizer, too.

I'm thankful that we have the Internet, and that free speech on the Internet may last a while longer, though we'll have to fight to keep it.

I'm thankful for the sacrifice and bravery of our troops in Iraq and elsewhere, and for the House's vote to support them, rather than cut-and-run, last week.

I'm thankful for digital photography.  And wi-fi!

I'm thankful that I live in the United States in the 21st Century, instead of, say, Siberia in the fifth.

I'm thankful for the blogosphere.

And most of all, I'm thankful just to be here again, posting another Thanksgiving post.  Enjoy your Thanksgiving, too!

November 20, 2005 | 12:35 AM ET

Congress rejects Iraq withdrawal

Talk about pulling the troops out of Iraq reached a put-up-or-shut-up moment when Congressional Republicans called the Democrats' bluff:

The House voted 403-3 to reject a nonbinding resolution calling for an immediate troop withdrawal.

"We want to make sure that we support our troops that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We will not retreat," Speaker Dennis Hastert, R- Ill., said as the GOP leadership pushed the issue to a vote over the protest of Democrats.

It was the second time in less than a week that President Bush's Iraq policy stirred heated debate in Congress.  On Tuesday, the Senate defeated a Democratic push for Bush to lay out a timetable for withdrawal.

Mickey Kaus, meanwhile, wonders if Rep. Murtha, who was leading the Democratic withdrawal talk, knew that the Pentagon was planning to reduce troop levels next year anyway and wanted to take credit:

Someone who works for Ralph Nader once described to me a brilliant technique of his: When he heard a rumor that the government was about to do something, he immediately called a press conference and demanded that it be done.  Is that what Rep. Murtha has now done?

Could be.   Bloggers certainly knew about this weeks ago.  But as Kaus notes, Murtha's technique is counterproductive:

Murtha has now established exactly the worst context for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. By making his (understandable) teary concern about the injuries to our soldiers his central motiviation, he makes it seem, if we pull out now, that the Sunni/Zarqawi strategy has worked--that we've been run out of Iraq because we couldn't tolerate the casualties the insurgents were inflicting. That will encourage Al Qaeda operatives around the globe.  Isn't it a lot better if we start to withdraw, after a successful Iraqi election, while plausibly claiming that we've done our job?  That's why Hastert's stunt yesterday to put down Murtha's proposal was amply justified.

Yes, the floor vote provided a moment of clarity, and may have short circuited what Fred Hiatt says was the Democrats' policy of undermining the war effort without admitting it:

"Iraq's is a life-or-death agenda -- how to build a democracy," Mahdi said. "Others' are political agendas."

Whether Iraqis are in fact committed to a life-or-death struggle for democracy will become clear as its army does, or does not, continue to shoulder a greater burden. But the aptness of Mahdi's view of the United States is already evident in Congress, which pours most of its Iraq-related energy into allegations of manipulated intelligence before the war.

"Those aren't irrelevant questions," says Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). "But the more they dominate the public debate, the harder it is to sustain public support for the war."

What Lieberman doesn't say is that many Democrats would view such an outcome as an advantage. Their focus on 2002 is a way to further undercut President Bush, and Bush's war, without taking the risk of offering an alternative strategy -- to satisfy their withdraw-now constituents without being accountable for a withdraw-now position.

Perhaps Hiatt's too cynical, but then again, perhaps not.  Either way, up-or-down floor votes have a way of clarifying things, and this -- with a crushing 403-3 outcome -- certainly did that.  Perhaps we can move on to more constructive things, now.

November 18, 2005 | 10:25 AM ET

Much ado about, well, somethingSenators are struggling over the renewal of the Patriot Act.  I'm not sure what I think.

I was thoroughly opposed to the Act when it passed.  I have to say, though, that it hasn't been as big a threat to civil liberties as I feared.  On the other hand, I haven't seen much evidence that it's been especially helpful in catching terrorists, either.  (Orin Kerr, a law professor who blogs at The Volokh Conspiracy, has an analysis.)

Much ado about something that we're not sure does much good.  That's of a piece with the whole Homeland Security effort, which has cost a lot of money, created considerable inconvenience (I'm writing this in the Cincinnati Airport, on a trip in which I've been wanded, "shoed," searched, etc. -- even to using plastic utensils in the restaurant -- all efforts that I'm pretty sure wouldn't really do much to stop a determined terrorist, but which have cost millions of wasted hours of people's lives.

I can't help but feel that most of this stuff was largely intended to make us feel safer, and to spread around some pork.  (Here's something I wrote on September 14, 2001, predicting that this would be the case.)  I think, though, that we're less likely to see a reevaluation of things like airport security.  When I went through security at LaGuardia, there were over a dozen security people just standing around.  And every one of them votes, which will make changing things hard, at least if we do so in a way that might eliminate some of those jobs. 

What can you do?  Er, besides fly less, and wear slip-on shoes when you do?  (And pack a laptop with wireless Internet!)  Not much, I'm afraid.  But maybe I'll be wrong, as I was, in some ways, about the Patriot Act.

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