Friday, January 11, 2002

As the scent of Enron grows ever more pungent, it's fun to watch the ripples spread. For instance, take their accountants. Last year, at about this time, the former consulting branch of the Arthur Andersen firm rebranded itself Accenture, as part of a messy divorce with the accountants in which the accountants got to keep the name. But after the revelation that the accountants destroyed documents related to Enron, in the wake of fraudulent Andersen audits of Sunbeam and Waste Management, the consultants are probably toasting the divorce and their former bad luck.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman reminds us that Enron wasn't the only large organization in Texas that indulged in questionable accounting practices:

For example, in 1999 the governor of Texas --- yes, him --- justified new corporate tax breaks with a budget that not only understated Medicaid costs by $550 million but hid regular payments for nursing care and other services by moving them from the last month of fiscal 2001 to the first month of 2002.

This was part of a pattern of state tax cuts (many pushed through by Republican governors) in the boom of the late '90s, many of which were based on similar tricks --- Republican Governor James Gilmore of Virginia, for instance, booked the value of all future payments in the tobacco settlement as current revenue.

The states are now feeling the squeeze, since they're heading into deficits, and, in most cases, their constitutions won't let them borrow to cover.

That's as opposed to funny-money tax cuts at the federal level, where borrowing is allowed and the squeeze can compound for quite some time.

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. Yes, it's the sale of the Boston Red Sox, the auction where the bidders are vetted, the deadline is past, the winner is announced, and yet the bids just keep rolling in.

The reviews haven't been good; state AG Tom Reilly, still guarding the interests of the charitable trust that gets most of the proceeds of the sale, calls it a "bag job" and a violation of a "public trust".

And yet, the show goes on. As the anointed friends of Bud were presented as heirs apparent at the Boston Baseball Writers' Dinner, spurned bidder Charles Dolan upped his own bid to $740 million, well in excess of the winning $700 million dollar bid, though still not close to the $790 million bid by New York lawyer Miles Prentice.

This is, of course, just one aspect of Major League Baseball's general campaign to raise its loathsomeness profile, as I've earlier discussed. The campaign proceeds apace on other fronts, as noted in this scathing commentary on business dealings between Commissioner Bud and Carl Pohlad, owner of the Twins; Pohlad guaranteed a loan to Bud's Brewers, and now Bud is apparently returning the favor by offering to contract the league by buying out the Twins at a $50 million premium over their estimated $100 million market value.

In the big picture, this is setting things up for a perfectly ghastly lockout once the collective bargaining agreement runs out, and the ruination of the sport. I don't know why they're trying to destroy their own business like this, but they must have a reason. After all, these are private businessmen, who surely wouldn't work against their own financial interests without a reason, as if they were just, well, dumb. Would they?

So, the Vatican has announced that it is setting up new procedures to deal with accusations of sexual abuse by priests --- procedures which allow it to try the priests in total secrecy, in processes directed by the Vatican directly. And it seems that some cynics are deriding the move:

...several critics within the Roman Catholic church, none of whom wanted to be quoted by name, said the new rules were unfortunate because they seemed to focus on protecting potential perpetrators rather than their victims, who have long complained that the church's steps to address the problem were inadequate.

Since we've got one of these cases in our own backyard, I'm in a bit of a position to comment. As this article notes, Cardinal Law transferred all-but-convicted pedophile John Geoghan into a new parish job "after being warned that he could be putting more children in danger".

Why would he do such a thing? Clearly the problem is that he didn't have an alternative process to follow. Now that he's got a process which directs him to do something different, his flock has nothing to worry about. Right?

Thursday, January 10, 2002

Bill Safire chimes in today with the chorus of cackles at Palestinian denials that those arms on the Palestinian Authority ship, the Karine A, were bought and paid for by them. But the more interesting story, in some ways, is at the other end of the shipment, where Iran was loading those weapons onto the boat.

The Bush administration had actually been trying to build some kind of entente with the Iranians, building on the enmity between the Shiite Iranians and the Sunnis running the Taliban. Quoth another story in the Times,

Growing signs of cooperation between Washington and Tehran had emerged in recent months. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell says Iran has been generally helpful in the war in Afghanistan. Iran agreed in October to rescue any American troops in distress in its territory. Many refugees fled to Iran from Afghanistan, and Iran provided a port for shipping American wheat into the war zone.

"By and large, the Iranian role diplomatically has been quite constructive," Richard N. Haass, the State Department's director of policy planning, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. Iran sent observers to the talks in Bonn on forming the coalition government, and its diplomats played a key role behind the scenes, he said.

Which is just plain dumb. It's about time that the deep thinkers at Foggy Bottom realized that local thugs are like cheap beer and the Texas Legislature --- they can't be bought, only rented, and it isn't always pretty when the rent comes due.

Fortunately, as the Times story also reports, the Iran-Washington axis is coming apart, as the Iranians are looking with increasing alarm at the pro-Western tilt of the interim Afghan government. But if the Karine A reminds our own deep thinkers that the pro-Western kids demonstrating against the Ayatollahs will probably make better long-term friends than the government they are demonstrating against, that is all to the good.

Meanwhile, back in Israel, the Israeli government is demonstrating its moral superiority to the Palestinians, by responding to their lethal pointless violence (an attack on an Israeli outpost which killed four soldiers), with non-lethal pointless violence of their own, bulldozing a few dozen houses --- a shopworn retaliatory tactic which, at this point, has clearly had no effect beyond building up Palestinian resentment.

Tom the Dancing Bug presents...
John Ashcroft at the Constitutional Convention.
It's neat what you can learn from online polls. ZDnet UK ran a poll to ask its readers to choose the best web services platform. They found out that Microsoft .NET is the choice of two out of three Microsoft employees.

Or something like that.

I've knocked Libertarian Samizdata's commentary on the gun issue, but every so often, they have a point. Like when Perry argues that

The reason I am so keen to prevent the attempted disarming of American society is that this is a wonderful litmus test of civil society's health...

That is so right.

You know, I'll admit that I actually have been a bit concerned about the declining health of American civil society. When Christopher Hitchens pointed out that as a resident alien, he can be arrested, tried, convicted (without the right to see or contest the evidence against him), and executed with no public notice, I was letting that get to me. Entirely without justification.

When I read about expanded wiretap authority, and new rules that allow law enforcement agents seeking wiretaps to shop for the most compliant judges in the country, and apply their warrants anywhere, I used to get a bit worried. When I noted that the same bill allows all sorts of special powers for "terrorism" cases, I got even more concerned, particularly when I remembered that the conviction of a drunk and disorderly airline passenger was counted as a terrorism case in a DOJ report.

I was also worried that we'd never learn about abuses of these new authorities, at least not from an administration which is trying to use the mantle of executive privilege to hide the reasons why the FBI allowed an innocent man to serve 30 years for a murder which its agents knew he didn't commit. Particularly when the same administration is encouraging its officials to fight FOIA requests, and gutting the Presidential Records Act by fiat. But hey, that's just their thing --- Bush is also trying to seal public records of his term of Governor of Texas. So why fret?

What raised my spirits away from preoccupation with these minor matters? The heart-warming case of Timothy Wagner. Mr. Wagner came to the attention of the authorities when he entered a dry goods store soaking wet, carrying a loaded .357 Magnum and several bags of bullets in a briefcase, explaining that he was trying to soak out the deadly chemicals with which his enemies were trying to poison him. (As don't we all?) This led to an encounter with the police, and a Kafkaesque trip through the legal system, in which crypto-fascist cops wound up trying to take away his concealed carry permit for no better reason than that he happens to be a paranoid schizophrenic.

But they have been denied! A state appeals court has ruled that mental illness cannot be considered in deciding fitness to carry a concealed weapon. And they are rightly applauded in this ruling by, among others, state Sen. Lyda Green, who sponsored the removal of mental illness language from the state gun law in 1998, and Joseph Nava, a gun-rights advocate who literally lives on NRA Lane in Fairbanks, who says, "I don't want to give the Department of Public Safety any discretion. I want the rules to be black and white." We can give the government discretion with regard to tax audits, prosecution, which crimes count as terrorism, who gets committed to a loony bin (the NRA spokesman's answer to what should happen to Mr. Wagner, no doubt at state expense), FOIA requests, warrantless snooping through ISP records --- heck, at least with regard to the Presidential Records Act, which laws they want to follow --- because none of that affects the health of civil society, as measured by Perry's wonderful litmus test.

Yes, FBI agents now have authority to read our email headers and run packet filters without seeking a search warrant, but have no fear. Remember the litmus test. As long as folks like Mr. Wagner can carry concealed firearms to guard himself, and the rest of us, from the evil government forces that implanted that chip in his head, we can rest easy. The health of civil society is assured.

I feel so much better now.

(For the sake of the idiots who will read this as support of a gun ban: I favor regulated sales of firearms to law-abiding citizens, precisely because it would allow for some discretion in dealing with the likes of Tim Wagner, while a flat gun ban --- with the concomitant illegal market, as now seen in Britain --- allows for none. Back in my high school, any student that wanted it had ready access to illegal pot, but not to regulated beer. It's not that I expect the regulations to be perfect, or perfectly enforced --- but in this case, I think you can reasonably expect them to be better than nothing, which is clearly the NRA's preferred option).

At ESPN, John Clayton grades the AFC. He awards our New England Patriots an A+. How kind. Particularly when he's giving their likely playoff opponents, the Oakland Raiders, who lead their division with a 10-6 record, a D.

Seattle, second place in Oakland's division with 9 wins and 7 losses, gets a B-, as do perennial losers the Cincinnati Bengals, whose record stands at 6-10. And the Buffalo Bills, with three wins all season, got a gentleman's C.

You need a qualified professional to give you this kind of insightful, innovative commentary. You won't get it from amateurs scribbling on the net.

Wednesday, January 09, 2002

CNN is a little embarrassed about a spot which touted their new hire, Paula Zahn, as "a little sexy", accompanied by the sound of a zipper opening.

They want everyone to know that they evaluated Zahn using the same criteria as for Andrea Thompson, who was hired as CNN Headline News anchor based solely on her sterling journalistic credentials.

Remember those big whirling tape drives that used to mean "computer" in the movies?

Well, if you happen to still own one, you have less than a week left to order tape for it:

eMag, the last manufacturer of open reel (9-track) tape, is announcing its end of life program for users of this product. eMag, which has produced open reel (9-track) tape in its Graham, Texas facility for over 30 years, has determined that the significantly decreased demand for this once dominant magnetic media format mandates an organized end of life announcement and program.

In order to properly prepare for our final build of this product, eMag will review and accept final orders for open reel (9-track) tape now, and through January 14, 2002.

Tuesday, January 08, 2002

Enough with "pundit".

InstaPundit was a cute name. QuasiPundit was a cute play on that name. MuslimPundit was straining things a bit; SmarterPundit was pretentious; DailyPundit was just lame (particularly since it replaced the much more clever name, "Blogical Suspect").

And Happy Fun Pundit has clearly jumped the shark.

Come on, folks. Let's show some originality here!

Christopher Hitchens doesn't think much of the Ashcroft DOJ's handling of the Moussaoui arrest either, let alone what it has "learned" from its mistakes:

Here is how the official police-mentality syllogism currently runs. Before September 11 we asked for infinite antiterrorism budgets and spouted continuous national security rhetoric. Meanwhile, we rolled ecstatically in the same bed as the Saudi and Pakistani secret police forces, which were the paymasters and armorers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. As a direct result, a group of spoiled Saudi sadists and fanatics were able to rehearse the subversion of American civil aviation. They were then able to carry it out. Frantic calls from flight schools to the FBI, warning of odd characters using the jumbo-jet simulator, were coldly ignored. Several such characters, whose names were actually on the terrorist watch list, were able to buy their own airline tickets on September 11 without even using a false ID. Quite obviously, these facts allow only one conclusion. From now on, FBI agents should have untrammeled power over all civilians living in the United States, and all their private movements and communications.

Monday, January 07, 2002

Avedon Carol (from today; sorry, no perma-links) is surprised that the Washington Post would print a letter praising Richard Nixon and Andrew Johnson for running effective presidencies despite investigations and impeachment, even though Johnson is regarded by most historians as an abject failure, and the achievments cited by Nixon's latter-day defenders all came before Watergate.

Why the surprise? This same paper just printed a column lauding Art Modell (he of the midnight ride out of Cleveland) as a model of responsible sports team ownership.

Speaking of which, the commissioner's office still says that they absolutely did not steer the Red Sox sale away from the high bidder, toward friends of Bud. The attorney general, charged with seeing that charities with a stake in the team got fair value, still doesn't believe it, in part because the story from the team and the commissioner just keeps getting murkier.

But this is Boston. We have traditions to uphold in these matters.

A lot of blogs are picking up the Occidentalism piece from the current New York Review.

They're missing the real gems from that issue --- a chilling analysis of the twisted theology of the hijackers' operations manual (killing passengers was described as a ritual sacrifice to Allah), and a review of bureaucratic blame-shifting at the CIA.

Last week, the guys at Quasipundit were arguing about why Zac Moussaoui gets an ordinary trial, and not the, shall we say, expedited process of the spanking-new tribunal system. I was wondering about that when the indictment was announced. Ashcroft stonewalled that question at the press conference, and time has made it no easier to answer.

But I was also wondering about why there wasn't more aggressive followup about Moussaoui at the time of his arrest --- when a few quick questions about whether other flight schools had students who didn't care whether their planes ever landed could have saved us all a whole lot of trouble. At the press conference, that one got some ludicrous evasion from Mueller, and time has shed no light on it either.

And now we find out (via Little Green Footballs) that a Jordanian prisoner with al-Qaeda ties may have given them an even more specfic warning about attacks on New York.

(This guy has been "whisked to an undisclosed location", while "all traces of his presence in the system have been removed from the Department of Corrections web site." That just gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling, doesn't it?)

The DOJ's public response to September 11th was to ask for new toys --- roaming wiretaps, judge-shopping for wiretaps, access to ISP billing records and email headers without a warrant, et cetera, ad nauseam. Given the administration's war on accountability, which I've been meaning to discuss more thoroughly for a while now, all we can on the outside can do is stand around and hope they're doing something to clean house internally.

Via Reid Stott, this photograph, from which I'll just quote the caption:

Rea, a police dog, helps rear two tiger cubs along with her own puppies in the Belgrade's Zoo, Friday, Jan. 4, 2002, as its trainer Mirko Matic watches. Rea adopted the little tigers after their mother tried to eat them. Serbia's police transferred Rea to the Belgrade's Zoo to feed the little tigers. As a sign of gratitude Zoo's management decided that one of tigers will be named SAJ which stands for Special Anti-terrorist Units - Serbian police crack squad. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Seems like the humans in that part of the world could learn a little from the dogs. (And perhaps the tigers have learned a bit too much from the humans).