FDR and Bush

We launched the Big Project Monday and amazingly little happened; it just kinda worked. Amazing and nice when that happens!! So while I’ve been sitting at my desk as a part of the Tiger Team, and doing nothing, I’ve been catching up on my blog reading.

And I notice a nice thread that I want to use to tie back to a point I made earlier about what Bush hasn’t done well.

The basic thread was “Why was FDR considered such a great President?” Over at Volokh, David Bernstein opens:

Something I’ve always wondered about, too. Why is Hoover infamous for presiding over four years of Depression, not terribly uncommon in American history, while Roosevelt is much-beloved for presiding over an unprecedented two more presidential terms of Depression, while much of the rest of the world economy was recovering [edit: at a faster pace]?

Matthew Yglesias replies:

When David put it that way, I got pretty interested in the question, too. After all, everyone knows Roosevelt was popular, and that his popularity has been lasting. He even managed to show up on the conservative list of Greatest Figures of the Twentieth Century (though he made the list of the worst as well). So, shall we inquire?

The short answer, as it turns out, is that Bernstein has his history wrong. Take a glance over at the chart below, if you will. Turns out that while the economy didn’t re-obtain its pre-Hoover size until the war was under way, economic growth resumed almost immediately after FDR took office, and continued apace (at least looking at the annual figures, quarterlies may have more hiccups) pretty consistently throughout his time in office.

David replies with references to other economists who challenge the causes of economic growth during FDR’s presidency, and who suggest that a number of his fiscal and monetary policies actively contributed to the Depression.

I’ll suggest two things to these guys:

First, you’re overlooking one of the core reasons why FDR is so beloved – because he won the freaking war. FDR was not only a Depression president, he was also the WWII president.

Second, and strongest of all, you’re overlooking FDR’s great ability to sell the public on his strategy and policies. Great leaders create faith and hope. In truth, those are probably more important than the exact policies they establish (although those obviously have significant impacts) because faith and hope are what drive people to make positive, future-oriented decisions, and to stick it out through the tough times.

From what I’ve read (and obviously it’s not everything, nor is it as good as having actually been there) FDR managed to do a hella good job of selling both his policies and the war.

People were left feeling like there was a corner that we might turn, and that it was worth it to keep going to get there.

So now we move to another issue: Did he always tell the truth??

Pretty obviously not. He ‘sold’ his policies, as most leaders do, with some measure of misdirection and puffery.

You can see where I’m going with this.

Yglesias says:

Wunderkinder Scott has an instructive response to an argument I made here regarding Bush’s deceptive rhetoric in the build-up to war:
Politicians strive to “ensure that the public is well-informed”? Please! I’m not going to argue that I was shocked when President Clinton challenged the definition of “is”. I mean, that’s “pushing the limits” of honesty about as far as possible. It’s also politics. When you’re making a case, you use all the relevant facts at your disposal, and you paint them in the best way to the public. This goes whether you’re excerpting economic studies for a tax plan, or making the case for war.

The case of Bush and the war, however, is quite different. For one thing, unlike the Paula Jones trial it concerned a public policy debate. For another thing, unlike a debate about economic policy it concerned information to which the president had special access. When we debate tax policy we expect our politicians to be nothing more than sources of argument concerning which policy to adopt. When we debate going to war, however, we rely on the President of the United States to accurately portray the intelligence he has received, for the White House is our only source for this information. The public simply cannot deliberate on how to respond to American intelligence if we are being deliberately misled about the contents of that intelligence.

I’m certainly prepared to cut Bush more slack than he is on this; where he sees misrepresentation, I see puffery and misdirection. I think Matthew is acting naive – and I know he actually isn’t – in suggesting somehow that the American history of debates about war (any war) is an unbroken record of contemplative public debates based on pure fact. Or that any other debate about war in any other nation is handled that way.

But I do think, as I’ve said over and over and over again that Bush is vulnerable (which in turn makes the war effort vulnerable) because he’s done a bad job of selling his policies and overall strategy to the public.

Is this in part because of a ‘disloyal media’, and does Bush thereby get a pass?? Yglesias has the best reply of all (in a post about Joe Conason’s new book):

I worry that folks on the left are growing far too concerned with “the right-wing propaganda machine” as a source of our woes. Certainly, sans propaganda machine the GOP wouldn’t be doing nearly as well as it does, but at the end of the day complaining that your political opponents have a propaganda machine is like complaining that the jockey you’re riding against has a horse … that’s just the way the game is played. Moreover, it’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools and I’d much rather see liberals working on perfecting our own strokes than on worrying about what the other guy’s doing.

(emphasis added)

(fixed embarassingly omitted links)


From the N.Y. Times:

A suicide bomber attacked a crowded bus in Jerusalem today, killing at least 18 people and wounding scores more, Israeli officials said. Two Palestinian militant groups hastened to take responsibility for the attack, which threatened to imperil the fragile Middle East peace plan.

“The suicide bomber blew up in the center of the bus,” Jerusalem’s police chief, Mickey Levy, told Israel Radio, according to Reuters. “We are talking about a big bomb, and there is a large number of casualties, including dead.”

There were conflicting estimates of casualties. The police said at least 18 people had been killed, while the head of the Israeli emergency medical service told reporters earlier that 20 people had died and 105 people had been wounded.

My first thoughts, as always, are for those killed and wounded and for their families.

After taking a deep breath, my second one is that we’re not done seeing this, or anywhere close to it. But for the first time, I can begin to see a path through the problem.Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the alphabet soup of their competitors in terror don’t work for free.

My phrase for this (borrowed from ‘The Right Stuff’) has always been “no bucks, no booms.” While the hatred may be indigenous, the resources behind these attacks are foreign.

They have been, up to now, the poorly-paid proxies of the Arab governments (as well as, back in the day, the Soviets) in their war against Israel.

And as I’ve noted, one strong reason to support the invasion is to dry up the resources – cash, materiel, and support – that the Arab states are giving these proxy armies. Iraq certainly is limited in what it can pay; as soon as Saddam runs through the cash hoard he is doubtless carrying around with him, he’s out of business. I have to hope that the other funding states – Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya – are thinking seriously about the wisdom of financing this kind of a war.

At least on a limited basis, Instapundit links to a Post column:

BARRING a last-minute miracle, the pan-Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party, one of Jordan’s oldest political organizations, is expected to file for bankruptcy within the next few weeks.

I’d love to know what the books look like for Hamas and Islamic Jihad these days…I’d have to believe that the days of making an easy living in terror are behind us.

UPDATE: Nitin of Hawken Blog comments, with links to some Oxblog posts.

Distributed Defense?

As noted below, Jeff over at Caerdroia has a good post on the logic of distributed systems and redundant networks, and how we can apply some of that thinking to combating terrorist attacks. I’ll take his idea, that:

bq. “the government needs to encourage the population to arm itself with handguns and long arms; to offer training in spotting bombs, recognizing vulnerabilities, emergency medical care, planning in advance for contingencies and the like; and to give us the information we need to understand and react to threats

…and differ in two places: [1] I’m reluctant to ‘encourage’ people to arm themselves without some measure of training (as opposed to ‘not interfering’), and [2] I think that the giving of information needs to be a two-way street. I think that the government needs to come up with some good communications channels that can go from citizen upward, as well as from local agency upward, since the local sheriff or firefighter is likely to be the first on the scene in the event of any kind of threat or attack.

Over the last few days, I’ve had some experience on how that shouldn’t be done. Let me tell you a story.I have a long commute from Thousand Oaks to the South Bay; one of the perks is that I get to ride my motorcycle through the Santa Monica Mountains, which have some of the most beautiful (and entertaining) roads in the nation.

About a week ago, I was commuting home up one of the canyon roads, and started closing on a car. Looking up, I saw that it was a big white car. As I got closer, I noticed that it was a Crown Victoria (a model of Ford favored by law enforcement). I slowed my progress, looked more closely and realized that it had a civilian license plate, as opposed to the ‘exempt’ plates police cars and other local agency public cars have. I looked, and decided that it probably wasn’t a police car, and so was safe to (illegally) pass, and moved up still closer. And saw that it had a cage (barrier in between the front and back seats), spotlights, and an antenna. Definitely not a civilian, but what? I have a fair amount of experience with law enforcement; two of my dearest friends are a working LEO and a retired one. UC cars don’t have cages, and typically aren’t Crown Vics. Command cars have exempt plates, and some agency markings on them. I puzzled for a moment, then decided not to pass and fell back and followed the car until it turned up into a driveway. I rode away going “huh?” and forgot about it.

Until the following Tuesday, when I drove in to work, and happened to catch the tail end of a news story about someone at large who had been imitating a police officer, and who drove – a white Crown Vic. A bell went off in my memory, and I wondered what to do. I’d decided to call one of my LEO friends and ask, when I pulled up next to a LA Sheriff patrol car. I beeped, rolled my window down, and asked for a moment of his time.

Note: when you do something like this, obey their instructions, and before he gets out of the car, roll your window down and make sure both forearms are on the sill…why make the officer nervous?

I told him what I’d seen and heard, asked him what to do, and he replied that frankly, he had no idea, but he’d pass my contact info on to the detectives when he went off shift. I gave him my card, and drove off.

No one called, and I put it out of my mind, until Saturday, when the L.A. Times ran a story:

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is investigating reports that a group of about six men masquerading as law enforcement agents … and calling themselves “the posse” … has been falsely arresting and robbing motorists in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

OK, now I’ve got to do something, I called my LEO friend at home, and told her what I’d seen, asking if maybe it was something she knew about…LEO vehicles with civilian plates. She berated me for not getting the plate, and said that yes, I should call it in to the San Bernardino Sheriff ASAP, particularly as I’d seen it drive up a driveway and could probably find it again.

So I called. No one could take a message on a Saturday, and I didn’t have the name of a detective to ask to be sent to his or her voicemail.

This morning, I called again. I was told that I couldn’t be transferred to the Detective Bureau, they didn’t take calls. After protesting that I was calling in response to a story in the Times about a crime they were investigating, I was transferred to the Public Affairs Division, whose mission is to serve:

as a departmental emissary by fostering relationships between the organization and the communities. Division staff works closely with media sources, citizen groups, labor units, residents, schools, and the faith community to facilitate the flow of information between the Sheriff’s Department and the citizens we serve.

In other words, I left a message about an active investigation with the guy who I’d ask to come speak to my son’s second-grade class.

Now, based on my knowledge of cops, they take the crime of ‘imitating an officer’ damn seriously, as they should. I have no reason to believe that the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department feel any differently.

But it’s pretty obvious that they don’t have a clue…and here I’ll bet they aren’t alone…on how to take information from the public that’s not of the 911 call variety.

I have no idea whether the car I saw was legitimate, or might have been associated with the investigation they have underway. But I can tell you for sure…and I have two sworn police officers who I’ve discussed it with who agree with me…that it’s information that the investigating officers ought to have.

And until we can build structures that make that kind of communication easy, useful, and pervasive, the kind of distributed defense that Jeff discusses, and Instapundit pushes aren’t going to be able to leverage on the existing safety and security infrastructures. Instead, we’ll get centralized bureaucratic systems that will shut out the information they aren’t interested in hearing.

And when that doesn’t work, they’ll get more and more intrusive and sadly, they won’t work any better.

As for my mystery car, I’m having lunch with my LEO friend tomorrow, and she’ll call San Bernardino when she goes back to the office; when she calls, they’ll listen.

(cleaned up grammar)

It’s Not Just the California Budget

Over at Armed Liberal, I’ve got some comments up about the budget issues.

Two points:

California isn’t alone…go Google “state budget crisis 2003″, in the first three pages, you’ll see references to California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.


I’m thinking about a budget and tax strategy (I don’t know enough detail, except in a very few areas, to actually propose tactics), and I’ll propose two basic goals:

1. Budget Integration. We need to look at State, county, and city budgets in some integrated way, to deal with the – transfers – between the levels which tend to mask spending and growth in a number of areas.

2) Tax stability. California is mandated to carry a balanced budget. We need to relook at our tax programs to attempt to get a more stable revenue stream for the state. This implies that we shift from personal income to corporate income, sales, and property taxes. This is pretty obviously nontrivial is so many ways…but I’ll suggest one point in each of these three areas that could make a difference.

The overall issue of the ‘structural fiscal crisis’ is a major one, and may be worth some thought itself.

Budget (yawn) and Taxes (yawn)

In case you’ve been napping, California is broke. California isn’t alone…go Google “state budget crisis 2003″, in the first three pages, you’ll see references to California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Now I’m no budget or tax analyst, but a few things ought to be obvious.
If everyone’s having the same problem, that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem – but it does mean that you have to look to systemic, rather than specific factors to understand what’s going on.
Before you get all up in my face about “Well if it’s a systemic problem, why are you for recalling Davis? It wasn’t his fault!” let me point out that what I expect from elected officials at a level above the minor-city-scandal-level is some form of behavior better than that shown by John Belushi in his tender, romantic scene with Carrie Fischer in the Blues Brothers:

Jake Blues: No, I didn’t. Honest. I ran out of gas! I had a flat tire! I didn’t have enough money for cab fare! My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners! An old friend came in from out of town! Someone stole my car! There was an earthquake! A terrible flood! Locusts! IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!”

…which is pretty much what we’re seeing right now. A decent Governor would have stood up last year – before the election – and told the truth. Davis didn’t.
I can’t testify to the other states, but what’s been going on in California is simple: We’ve been running deficits in the $10B range for about two years, since the dot-com implosion. We assumed that our straightened state was a temporary one, and that the revenues would come back Real Soon.
They didn’t. They aren’t going to, anytime soon.
And meanwhile, we have two bothersome tendencies: We keep trimming back on taxes, because it buys votes, and we keep hiring new state employees, because that’s what bureaucracies do.
We’ve faked our way through this like a bankrupt Web designer clutching a LOTTO ticket, sure that salvation was coming next Saturday. And we’ve borrowed against the credit cards…and worse, we’ve borrowed against the kid’s cards as well.
I’m not talking literally about the future inhabitants of our great states, I’m talking about the dependent governments below the state level – the counties, townships, and cities.
What’s gone on is a massive transfer of obligations from the feds to the states – so the Federal budget looks better, because the high-cost, high growth programs are suddenly state programs. And the states, dancing for their fiscal lives, are transferring programs downstream to the counties and cities in a series of budget “realignments“.
Now, three things are clear: Revenues don’t meet expenses, which means we have a fundamental fiscal discipline problem (we need to raise taxes or lower expenditures); we’ve faked it over the last several years with a series of creative financial mechanisms which essentially involve hypothecating assets (vide. the Tobacco Settlement) or future income in order to cover current shortfalls, with the notion in mind that things have to get better – or at least the current legislators won’t be on the hook any longer.
In the case of California, one of the issues has been the over reliance on income tax revenues from the highest-income Californians. This is a good thing in the sense that they can afford to pay more taxes (after all, their income has overall grown a whole lot faster than the income of the lowest 20%); it’s a bad thing in that the income is somewhat volatile, and worse because the ever-diminishing pool of taxpayers is altering their behavior – even moving out of state, like Layne, to minimize the tax burden.
I’m thinking about a budget and tax strategy (I don’t know enough detail, except in a very few areas, to actually propose tactics), and I’ll propose two basic goals:
1. Budget Integration. We need to look at State, county, and city budgets in some integrated way, to deal with the – transfers – between the levels which tend to mask spending and growth in a number of areas.
2) Tax stability. California is mandated to carry a balanced budget. We need to relook at our tax programs to attempt to get a more stable revenue stream for the state. This implies that we shift from personal income to corporate income, sales, and property taxes. This is pretty obviously nontrivial is so many ways…but I’ll suggest one point in each of these three areas that could make a difference.
From the California Budget Project:

Over the past two decades, the burden of funding state services has shifted from corporate to personal income taxpayers. The personal income tax is forecast to provide 48.9 percent of state General Fund revenues in 2003-04, up from 34.8 percent in 1980-81. Corporate tax receipts are expected to provide 9.2 percent of General Fund revenues in 2003-04, down from 14.4 percent in 1980-81. New, increased, and expanded corporate tax breaks are responsible for the decline in the share of state revenues provided by the corporate income tax. Tax reductions enacted between 1998 and 2002 alone will reduce 2002-03 revenues by $4.6 billion.

We hammer corporations with regulations and worker’s comp costs, but they save on Prop 13 property taxes (business property changes hands less often then personal property, and so is reassessed less often) and corporate income taxes. We need to look at the level of corporate income taxes, and more importantly specific corporate income tax expenditures (targeted tax breaks) very carefully and consider eliminating the breaks and raising our overall level of tax collections.
Sales taxes are anathema to progressives, because they are inherently regressive…lower-income household have to spend most of their income to survive, and so wind up paying a far higher percentage of their income in sales taxes. But they are stable, and more importantly, they are the means whereby those who earn in the cash economy contribute their share. Simply put, we ought to bump the state sales tax by a fairly significant amount, and rebate it back to lower- and middle-income taxpayers, possibly by covering some portion of their payroll taxes with it. Note that some burden will fall on lower- and middle- income taxpayers; that can’t be avoided, although it can be meliorated. Further note that those who live in the cash economy – who include illegal immigrants – will be disproportionately affected. Good; they need to pay their share, too.
On Prop 13, one major loophole is the ability of commercial property holders to keep properties in partnerships and corporate ownership, and to restructure or sell the corporation or partnership, thereby selling the property without triggering reappraisal. I believe that Prop 13 is untouchable in the near and intermediate future, but this is a shopping-center sized loophole that needs to be closed.

Some Things Speak for Themselves

From today’s L.A. Times:

A member of the Biotic Baking Brigade, a loose network of San Francisco pie-throwing politicos, said Wednesday that he did not believe that anyone from the group was responsible for the pastry flung in the face of Ralph Nader on Tuesday.

The brigade tends to target rich oppressors of working men and women and “wouldn’t get involved in progressive politics infighting. It’s not our bag,” said the operative, who goes by the moniker Agent a la Mode.

The group has pied San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, former Chevron Chief Executive Ken Derr and others.

“I do want to stress that anyone with a pie and a vision of a better world can deliver just desserts,” said Agent a la Mode. “But in the espirit de pie of the Biotic Baking Brigade, [Nader] is not a worthy target. He’s not deserving of a pie…This is one of the first times in recent history that I’ve actually cringed and said, ‘Oh my God.'”

Nader was pied – though some media reports said the dessert looked more like a cake – as he endorsed Green Party candidate for governor in the recall campaign. Camejo quickly blamed Democrats, who had lashed out at Nader for drawing liberal votes away from Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race. But a California Democratic Party spokesman suggested that it was internecine Green Party pie-fare.

OK, when do these guys start training Hamas in how to protest?

Advising Arnie

So I’ve been emailing my friends in Sacramento as they get ready to come back into session, and one of my big issues, as noted before, over at WoC, is “what do folks think of Cruz”. My informal poll – one elected, three staffers, and a journalist elicits two basic themes:
1) Not the sharpest tool in the shed (“box of rocks” was used, but I think that person was a bit overwrought);
2) Enmeshed in the special-interest culture.
His trial balloon – cut the car tax while raising cigarette taxes and taxes on the wealthy – doesn’t exactly rock my world. Increasing “sin taxes” to unsustainable levels can only raise so much, and encourages the state to injure it’s citizens by promoting the sins (lotto, gaming) in order to get the revenue. The 44,000 California millionaires can only pay so much in taxes before they all join Ken Layne and move to Reno. What will we do then?
Weintraub had a great column on the state’s overdependence on tax income from the wealthy 0.5%:

Nobody knows how those wealthy taxpayers would react to such an increase. If they stayed in California, and didn’t change their behavior, the state treasury and those who rely on it for services would be better off. And certainly a tax increase of a few thousand dollars on someone making a half-million a year would seem unlikely to drive them from the state.
But if the increase prompted just a few thousand of the wealthiest taxpayers to flee California, then the revenue decline it would cause could make the past year’s drop seem mild. The truth is you could put thousands of laborers to work at good wages and probably not compensate for the lost income tax from one departed millionaire.
Even if it worked as intended, raising taxes on the wealthy would push California out on a fiscal limb that everyone already knows is weak. Had the higher rates been law during the late 1990s, the revenue growth the state experienced would have been even greater. And the decline, when it came, would have been even steeper.
Going further in that direction would make the state’s masses even more reliant on the good fortune of a few than they are today. And as the last few years have shown, in the long term that can be a very risky proposition.

So it looks like my support, at least, is up for grabs (and I’m guessing that I’m pretty typical), and if Arnie does a few things right – he’ll get it.
He did one right thing today; he got prominent investor and Democrat Warren Buffett to agree to act as his fiscal advisor. His presence raises some interesting issues, since CALPRS and CALSTRS, the large public employee and teacher’s pension funds doubtless are deeply intertwined with Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s investment company.
Here’s what I see as his “issues” and some quick steps he could take to make them go away.
1. Race.
Arnie is a rich white guy who lives in Brentwood, and makes his living in an industry that has lots of minorities everywhere except the executive suites.
He supported Prop. 187.
It won’t be hard to paint him as a guy who sees Latinos as gardeners and blacks as drivers. His own history of rising from a penniless immigrant won’t protect him against that, and in the key suburban counties in Southern California and the Bay Area – where the soccer mom and dad votes are – many moderates will be turned off if he’s seen as Pete Wilson redux (more on that in a moment).
He can easily immunize himself against that; to do so, he needs to do three things:
1) Find his own Condi Rice and Colin Powell. There are smart ethnic neoliberals in California, and there ought to be a few of them publicly advising Arnie from key strategy and policy roles. Let’s get this done next week, please. I’ll do some digging and propose some names over the next day or so.
2) Come up with his own message to the Latin and Black communities. Talk about how he wants to create real lasting opportunities for them in education (where he has some track record) and small business and jobs. Talk about what he’ll do to reduce what racial barriers may exist, and how he’ll challenge their kids to meet high, rather than low, expectations. Talk about how they in their communities are the most vulnerable to crime, and how he’ll work with progressive law enforcement to make sure that murders in South-Central get investigated as aggressively as those in Brentwood.
3) Take the message to the media that will reach the communities – go on KKBT and talk to Steve Harvey (hell, make him one of your advisers). Go on KSCA and KSSE and don’t wait to be challenged on the issue, take your case to the public and put it to rest.
2. Experience
John F Kennedy once said about experience

“One hundred years ago Abraham Lincoln was not running on a platform of experience. It was clear that his opponent had far greater experience, as Lincoln’s experience was confined to a few obscure years in the House of Representatives. But the country was then suffering from a President with experience, James Buchanan, who had been Congressman, Senator, Ambassador, and Secretary of State. He had been in public service for almost 42 years.
Herbert A. Garth, the historian, has written, and he mistakenly believed that he had been learning all the time [laughter], “I don’t think experience necessarily counts” [applause].
The three great qualities which characterized Lincoln’s Presidency were leadership, courage, and foresight, the three qualities that the next President of the United States is going to need in full measure if this country is going to meet the challenges at home and abroad.”

Your case to the public is that those three qualities – the ability to lead and unite the people of California in facing the severe problems we face today; the courage to challenge the web of special interests that has bound our state like Gulliver in Lilliput; and the foresight to create and sell a dream of what California can become – are qualities that you have. Can you show them?
More than anything else, this recall election is about people’s disgust with the machinations of interest group politics, in which unions, businesses, and other large interest groups manage to tilt the table so that they get what they are looking for and the state as a whole suffers.
You have to oppose that, and start to explain how electing you will start the painful process of breaking that machine.
3. Character
This is shorthand for ‘immunity to sleaze’. You have two answers to that – your wife, who needs to take the issue on publicly as your proxy – demonstrating that whatever you may have done, it was done within the context of a permanent and loving relationship; and people you have done business with for years who ought to be able to testify as to your reliability and willingness to build and work within long-standing relationships. If you can’t make those two things happen, this is going to be a large hole through which you will take water.
4. Partisanship
The news today is all about your dependency on Pete Wilson and his core group of advisers. If Davis or Bustamante can paint you as a ‘pretty face on Pete Wilson’s politics‘, you’re in trouble. You shouldn’t run against the GOP, but you have to make it clear that you transcend traditional California partisanship.
There are a couple of disaffected Democrats out there you ought to be able to capture, and you not only need their endorsement, you need them to be seen visibly working as a part of your policy and campaign team.
That’s a start. There’ll be more over the next few days.

Potato-Potato*: Harleys in Europe

Den Beste puts his Europhobic glasses on and writes about the emasculation of Harley-Davidson as a metaphor for Europe’s intended emasculation of America. All bloggers have viewpoints, and all bloggers tend to opine about things they know little or nothing about – isn’t that what blogging is for?

But in this case a) he touches on something close to home for me – motorcycles; and b) he does so in a way that allows me to make a point about those who persist in seeing things about Europe and the U.S. too negatively and rigidly. And c) I get to defend government regulation as a freebie. He writes:

(On Screen): An American institution is looking to expand its sales in Europe. Harley Davidson is the quintessential American motorcycle maker, and for about 3 decades it was the only one (though that has changed). Once there were many but all the others went out of business, fallen in commercial competition with Honda, Kawasaki, BMW, Suzuki, Yamaha.

Harley survived and prospered. It was seen by Americans as the ultimate motorcycle, the one you bought when you refused to make compromises. Harley earned a degree of brand loyalty that few companies could even dream of. Harley wasn’t just a bike, it was a lifestyle. One didn’t just buy a Harley, one became Harley. Harley wasn’t just a brand, it was a brotherhood. Adapting to a market is good marketing, but what price victory if you lose your soul? Harley Davidson is changing everything that makes Harley Davidson what it is. To satisfy Europe, they will make them smaller, lighter, wimpier, less powerful, quieter, less in-your-face, more effeminate. Harley is trying to find its inner wuss.

These bikes will be Americans the way that Europeans wish Americans were, more like European men. And they’re probably going to sell extremely well, as European men everywhere take pleasure in riding on a castrated American bike.

Here’s where knowing your subject can be useful.

The ‘new bike’ he’s talking about is the V-Rod, the first overhead-cam, water-cooled mass production Harley (it’s based on a limited production, highly unsuccessful sportbike called the VR1000). For the gearheads in the crowd, I’ll point out that in 2003, all the other Harleys are still air-cooled, pushrod OHV engines – a design Japan and Europe largely abandoned twenty or thirty years ago. So let’s go to the stats (source: Motorcyclist Magazine):

bq. H-D Dyna-Glide: has 62.5hp and 76.3ft-lb of torque; turns the 1/4 in 13.5 seconds

bq. H-D V-Rod: has 109.3hp and 74.3ft-lb of torque; 1/4 mile in 11.31 seconds

For comparison:

bq. Triumph Sprint ST (my main bike, made in the UK): 99.8hp and 62.0ft-lb; 1/4 mile in 11.52

bq. Suzuki GSXR1000: 152.1hp and 78.0ft-lb; 1/4 mile in 10.08 seconds.

“…less powerful, quieter, less in-your-face, more effeminate.” Steven?

The loud part of most of the cruisers one sees on the street is aftermarket pipes, which manage to be illegal, annoying, and often actually reduce the available power…substituting the sensation of speed and power for the real thing.

Actually, Harley is in a kind of a pickle, It is very difficult to meet noise and pollution regulations with air-cooled engines; particularly large-displacement air-cooled engines. Regulations already on the books in Europe and California will make it difficult for them to sell their existing products over the next ten to fifteen years. The interesting business challenge (and the reason I’d short H-D stock) is to convert their customer base, built on tradition and style, to a new platform.

Now before we complain about the inherent unfairness of regulation in this case, let’s start with this: Harley-Davidson exists today because of government intervention in free markets. The Japanese started making transportation devices … mopeds and scooters, and by the 70’s had begun to develop good big-bore (which back then was over 500cc) motorcycles. Harley was owned at the time by AMF, a leisure and sporting-goods conglomerate, and they were building motorcycles which effectively represented the peak of 1950’s technology. They went to the mattresses:

In September of 1982, Harley-Davidson petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) for relief from the importation of heavyweight motorcycles and power-train subassemblies (an engine part). The petition was filed under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974, known as the “Escape Clause,” which allows an industry to request import relief from foreign competition when increasing imports are causing or threatening serious injury to the domestic industry. In these cases, the ITC investigates the claim and then reports to the president. If the finding is affirmative, the executive branch examines the matter and the president makes a decision within 60 days.

They got their tariff, and the Japanese and Europeans were effectively shut out of the big-bore motorcycle market.

They used their period of protection effectively, beginning a process of re-engineering their motorcycles and building a strong retail brand – using mainstream retailing and brand-building techniques.

De gustibus non disputum est (there’s no accounting for taste) is certainly true in the world of motorcycling. I’ve ridden most of the existing Harley models, and haven’t chosen to spend my money on them, because, like many riders, I feel they are overpriced, underpowered, handle and brake poorly, and have a reputation (which they are well on their way to shedding) for unreliability. And, bluntly, because instead of buying a motorcycle to ride, I would feel like I was paying an expensive initiation into a club.

Europeans ride. They ride a lot, both as cheap and economical transportation in their congested cities, and as recreation where they ride like absolute loons on their mountain and country roads. Tenacious G and I did a tour of Northern Italy, Corsica and Sardinia on motorcycles, and the people there ride damn well, hard and fast.

So I think I can pretty comfortably state that there just aren’t a lot of facts to support Steven’s thesis; and that, in fact, the post says more about him and his pre-judgment of Europe and the relations between them and us than about the reality of the motorcycle industry.

I’ve said before that they are not our allies except on a case-by-case basis. But we are going to need them in this case – we need them now. And the more we can see and respect them as they are – hard-riding, good engineers, with qualities that we can at times learn from – the better chance we have of getting them to see and respect us as we are as well.


N.B. * = For those who don’t know, the idle of a Harley is typically sounded out as ‘potato, potato’. Harley, in fact, unsuccesfully attempted to trademark the sound.

* “That’s Mister Euroweenie Biker To You!”: As reader Jon Hendry notes in the comments, some of those Euro bikers carry shoulder-launched missiles.

* More deeply informed commentary from Mike Hendrix, who knows a thing or two about bikes himself. He’s less pleased by the changes, or the regulations, but he makes good points and notes some important subtleties. He follows that up with a good response to this article.

* Capitalist Lion says: “soul must eventually give way to innovation.”

He’s One of The Smartest Pols In America

Political quote of the day:

bq. “San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown observed to a TV reporter last week: “The people in California – as in many places – are pretty sick of people like Willie Brown. They’re pretty sick of politicians, smooth operators, who claim they’re going to do something and they don’t do it.”