31 October 2009

Happy Halloween


AP Article Notes That Third Parties Exist, Have An Impact

AP: Third party challenges in NJ, NY are warning sign

Third party candidates could upend two major races in elections Tuesday, and the success of those candidacies is a warning shot fired at both major parties by voters angry at government and disillusioned by politics as usual.

But the impact of those candidacies on the high-profile contests points to an anti-incumbent, anti-establishment sentiment that could be a prevailing theme in the 2010 congressional elections and beyond.

"What it says is the public is looking for less self-interested parties and candidates who can reflect the needs of a very frustrated public," said Douglas Astolfi, a history professor at Florida's St. Leo University. "We have two wars and we're in a recession that neither party seems to address in any positive way. There's a deep sense that government has abandoned the common man. People are frustrated and angry."

Indeed, a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released last week found that trust in government is at a 12-year low, and half of all Americans now support the creation of a new political party.

Both parties ignore such sentiment at their peril in 2010 and perhaps into the 2012 presidential race.

Some argue against new political parties simply by stating that no new party has been able to overcome the two main parties since 1856. That is true only until someone does it.

Politics is just about what people think. There is nothing more to it. If everyone woke up tomorrow and decided that the Dems or the GOP were over, then that would be it. There is nothing physical there, no obstacle, nothing other than people's perceptions.

Admittedly that is hard to change, but the powers-that-be seem hell bent on making sure that it happens.

Modern Whig Party Continues to Gain Momentum

Modern Whig Party: Gaining Momentum

The Modern Whig Party continues to experience another surge in membership. Initially revived by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, this national grassroots movement is attracting mainstream Americans from all political stripes who value common sense, rational solutions ahead of partisan bickering and ideology.

In addition, the credibility of our leaders and the quality/viability of our candidates is creating numerous opportunities for our national membership. At the same time, various people from both the entrenched partisan groups as well as the fringe groups have begun to lash out as they begin to view our development as a threat to their agendas.

But the Modern Whig Party and the Whig National Committee is pushing back with nothing more than our message of common sense rationality, along with our viable and credible approach, and this in turn is building this organization even faster than the founding members could have imagined.

Scozzafava Drops Out of Congressional Race

Republican Scozzafava Suspends New York Congressional Campaign

Republican state Assemblywoman Dierdre Scozzafava has suspended her campaign for upstate New York's 23rd Congressional seat, leaving Democratic nominee Bill Owens and Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman in the race that will conclude Tuesday, Fox News has confirmed.

The move comes on the heels of a new poll that showed Scozzafava had fallen behind her two competitors in a race too close.

Well, hell. I had been working for two days on a post about how the Republican Party was about to split in two, etc, etc. I was continuing to research it when I saw the above story was just recently posted by Fox News.

So here you go. I have heard that Hoffman has said he would re-join the Republican Party after the election, so they avoided a show down.

However, the larger issue remains of the direction of the Republican Party. Will they go down the path of purity, or a broad coalition? I believe that the drive and the energy of activists will continue to move the party further to the right, alienating moderates.

Attention alienated moderates! The Modern Whig Party welcomes you with open arms.

Some Suprising Optical Illusions

Don't believe your lying eyes. Video at the link.
Rather, neuroscience research tells us that we only ever see what proved useful to see in the past. Illusions are a simple but powerful example of this point. Like all our perceptions, we see illusions because the brain evolved not to see the retinal image, but to resolve the inherent "meaninglessness" of that image by continually redefining normality, a normality that is necessarily grounded in relationships, history and ecology.

Leak Reveals Far Larger Number of Ethics Investigations Than Previously Disclosed

WSJ: Leak Offers Rare Peek at Congressional Ethics Probes

The accidental leak of a congressional ethics watchdog's report offers a rare glimpse into the internal workings of one of the most secretive bodies on Capitol Hill, revealing that the panel has dealt with a far larger number of lawmakers than previously publicly disclosed.

A confidential report disclosed by the Washington Post suggests the panel either spoke with, or examined behavior by, at least 30 lawmakers in July as part of several inquiries into whether lawmakers violated congressional rules.

The committee has long been criticized for being too secretive, and critics ask whether lawmakers can be sufficiently aggressive about investigating their own colleagues. "The record of the ethics committee is not one of transparency," said Lisa Gilbert, a spokeswoman for U.S. PIRG, a consumer-advocacy group that has pressed the panel to make more information about its operations public.

Critics of the congressional ethics process say the panel is a toothless internal watchdog. They say it rarely sanctions lawmakers and airs little information about its activities.

"The fact that they are considering so many people doesn't mean that they are going to do anything ," said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and now executive director of the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "The ethics committee doesn't have a very strong track record."

Paris Eco Bike Program Meets Reality

Just as Le Corbusier’s white cruciform towers once excited visions of the industrial-age city of the future, so Vélib’, Paris’s bicycle rental system, inspired a new urban ethos for the era of climate change.

Residents here can rent a sturdy bicycle from hundreds of public stations and pedal to their destinations, an inexpensive, healthy and low-carbon alternative to hopping in a car or bus.
But this latest French utopia has met a prosaic reality: Many of the specially designed bikes, which cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.
With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program’s organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche.
“The symbol of a fixed-up, eco-friendly city has become a new source for criminality,” Le Monde mourned in an editorial over the summer. “The Vélib’ was aimed at civilizing city travel. It has increased incivilities.”

At least 8,000 bikes have been stolen and 8,000 damaged so badly that they had to be replaced — nearly 80 percent of the initial stock, Mr. Asséraf said.
“We miscalculated the damage and the theft,” said Albert Asséraf, director of strategy, research and marketing at JCDecaux, the outdoor-advertising company that is a major financer and organizer of the project. JCDecaux must repair some 1,500 bicycles a day. The company maintains 10 repair shops and a workshop on a boat that moves up and down the Seine.

Media Reports on Health Care Reform Costs Are Misleading and Incomplete

I posted on this a couple of days ago, but it is worth repeating. The health care reform numbers reported on TV are based on Congress cutting payouts to doctors that they have shown a historical unwillingness to do. My apologies to Reason Online for copying the entire post.

Reason Online: CBO Health-Care Score Assumes Congress Sticks to Its Promises, Which Probably Won't Happen, Says CBO

The House released its health-care reform bill yesterday morning, and by afternoon, the Congressional Budget Office had released a score. The big headline estimate is that the bill would result in a net reduction of the federal deficit by $104 billion by 2019, and that the bill would continue to slightly reduce the deficit over the following decade. But as always, the real story is the passage at the end of the CBO's summary:

Those longer-term projections assume that the provisions of H.R. 3962 are enacted and remain unchanged throughout the next two decades, which is often not the case for major legislation. For example, the “sustainable growth rate” mechanism governing Medicare’s payments to physicians has frequently been modified to avoid reductions in those payments, and legislation to do so again is currently under consideration in the Congress.

The bill would put into effect (or leave in effect) a number of procedures that might be difficult to maintain over a long period of time. It would leave in place the 21 percent reduction in the payment rates for physicians currently scheduled for 2010. At the same time, the bill includes a number of provisions that would constrain payment rates for other providers of Medicare services. In particular, increases in payment rates for many providers would be held below the rate of inflation (in expectation of ongoing productivity improvements in the delivery of health care).

This is about as strong a warning as I can imagine coming from the extremely reserved and cautious CBO, and it essentially amounts to the office saying (once again) that the only way this bill might prove deficit neutral is if it's followed to the letter—and that's unlikely to happen.

More analysis from the American Spectator:

The CBO estimate doesn't include the more than $200 billion it will cost to prevent scheduled cuts to doctors' payments under Medicare, which Democrats intend to pass through separate legislation.

The bill would also add 15 million people to the Medicaid rolls, costing states an additional $34 billion over 10 years.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the CBO report doesn't say anything about whether the bill actually bends the health care cost curve. To be clear, while it estimates -- with caveats -- that the bill will reduce deficits, that isn't the same thing as reducing national health care expenditures, which is how people derive all those statistics about how high of a percentage of GDP we spend on health care compared with other countries. If you hike taxes high enough, you can get the CBO to say it reduces deficits on paper, but that's a lot different from bringing down the actual costs of health care to our nation.

30 October 2009

Our Political Class Is Unimaginative, Stupid, Callous

WSJ: We're Governed by Callous Children
Americans feel increasingly disheartened, and our leaders don't even notice.

The most sophisticated Americans, experienced in how the country works on the ground, can't figure a way out. Have you heard, "If only we follow Obama and the Democrats, it will all get better"? Or, "If only we follow the Republicans, they'll make it all work again"? I bet you haven't, or not much.

This is historic. This is something new in modern political history, and I'm not sure we're fully noticing it. Americans are starting to think the problems we are facing cannot be solved.

Part of the reason is that the problems—debt, spending, war—seem too big. But a larger part is that our government, from the White House through Congress and so many state and local governments, seems to be demonstrating every day that they cannot make things better. They are not offering a new path, they are only offering old paths—spend more, regulate more, tax more in an attempt to make us more healthy locally and nationally. And in the long term everyone—well, not those in government, but most everyone else—seems to know that won't work. It's not a way out. It's not a path through.

It is a curious thing that those who feel most mistily affectionate toward America, and most protective toward it, are the most aware of its vulnerabilities, the most aware that it can be harmed. They don't see it as all-powerful, impregnable, unharmable. The loving have a sense of its limits.

When I see those in government, both locally and in Washington, spend and tax and come up each day with new ways to spend and tax—health care, cap and trade, etc.—I think: Why aren't they worried about the impact of what they're doing? Why do they think America is so strong it can take endless abuse?

I think I know part of the answer. It is that they've never seen things go dark. They came of age during the great abundance, circa 1980-2008 (or 1950-2008, take your pick), and they don't have the habit of worry. They talk about their "concerns"—they're big on that word. But they're not really concerned. They think America is the goose that lays the golden egg. Why not? She laid it in their laps. She laid it in grandpa's lap.

They don't feel anxious, because they never had anything to be anxious about. They grew up in an America surrounded by phrases—"strongest nation in the world," "indispensable nation," "unipolar power," "highest standard of living"—and are not bright enough, or serious enough, to imagine that they can damage that, hurt it, even fatally.

We are governed at all levels by America's luckiest children, sons and daughters of the abundance, and they call themselves optimists but they're not optimists—they're unimaginative. They don't have faith, they've just never been foreclosed on. They are stupid and they are callous, and they don't mind it when people become disheartened.

They don't even notice.

Stimulus Jobs

The Obama White House said the $787 billion economic stimulus plan approved early this year had saved or created 640,329 jobs.

Wow!

If you believe the Obama numbers, that's only $1,229,055.68 per job! How many jobs do you think an entrepreneur could create with $1.2 mil? Maybe more than 1?

Call To Expand Size of Congress

CS Monitor: As US population increases, Congress must adjust

Growth in the nation's population is resulting in ever larger Congressional districts that reduce minority voices, increase the power of the wealthy, and pose a problem for members of Congress to truly represent the people of their district.

The Constitution created 65 seats in the House of Representatives, set a minimum size of 30,000 residents for a Congressional district, and mandated a reapportionment after each census. As new states entered the union and the nation's population grew, the size of the House increased every decade until 1912, when it reached the current size of 435 and the average district had 210,000 residents. Today the average district has a startling 650,000 people. The largest district – Nevada's Third – has 960,000 residents, and the smallest – Wyoming's single district – has 493,000.

These disparities will continue to grow. By 2040 the average district will have more than 900,000 residents. Districts could range from as few as 500,000 residents to more than 1.7 million. Almost one-third of the states in the "People's House" could have only one or two representatives. How can one person adequately represent the diversity encompassed in such a large district?

Congress might also consider a system that increases the size of the House by the growth of the population each decade (or, half of the growth to start slowly) and continue to leave the actual allocation among the states to the Census Bureau, as is now the case.

Given current population projections, there would be about 44 new seats in 2010 and 41 more in 2020. The House would increase gradually as our population grew. Another option is to determine the number of members based on the size of the smallest district – using this system we would have about 600 members today.

We can and must debate the size of the "People's House." The equity and effectiveness of a "government of the people, by the people and for the people" is at stake.

Previously:

10 October 2009: Increase The Size Of Congress

18 September 2009: Expand the House of Representatives

8 July 2009: What To Do About Our Distant And Unresponsive Representatives?

8 June 2008: Increase the Size of Congress

Obama Administration Runs Spoils System

USA Today: Top Obama fundraisers get posts

More than 40% of President Obama's top-level fundraisers have secured posts in his administration, from key executive branch jobs to diplomatic postings in countries such as France, Spain and the Bahamas, a USA TODAY analysis finds.

Twenty of the 47 fundraisers that Obama's campaign identified as collecting more than $500,000 have been named to government positions, the analysis found.

Overall, about 600 individuals and couples raised money from their friends, family members and business associates to help fund Obama's presidential campaign. USA TODAY's analysis found that 54 have been named to government positions, ranging from Cabinet and White House posts to advisory roles, such as serving on the economic recovery board charged with helping guide the country out of recession.

Nearly a year after he was elected on a pledge to change business-as-usual in Washington, Obama also has taken a cue from his predecessors and appointed fundraisers to coveted ambassadorships, drawing protests from groups representing career diplomats.

Culture of Corruption: Congressional Ethics Probe Expands

Washington Post: 7 on defense panel scrutinized
Separate probes focus on ties to lobbying firm founded by Hill aide

Nearly half the members of a powerful House subcommittee in control of Pentagon spending are under scrutiny by ethics investigators in Congress, who have trained their lens on the relationships between seven panel members and an influential lobbying firm founded by a former Capitol Hill aide.

The investigations by two separate ethics offices include an examination of the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), as well as others who helped steer federal funds to clients of the PMA Group. The lawmakers received campaign contributions from the firm and its clients.

A document obtained by The Washington Post shows that the subcommittee members under scrutiny also include Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.), James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) , C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) and Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.).

Together, the seven legislators have personally steered more than $200 million in earmarks to clients of the PMA Group in the past two years, and received more than $6.2 million in campaign contributions from PMA and its clients in the past decade, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The Post reviewed earmark and campaign records and found that the seven had each supported funding for PMA clients and also received donations.

North Korea, Hell On Earth

Fox News: Analysis: A Tale of Two North Koreas

The first report is a blunt and bleak assessment of North Korea's human rights situation prepared by Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Bangkok law professor who works pro bono as the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea is known.

Forbidden by North Korea from visiting the country, he relies on refugee and local human rights reports to paint a grim picture of the country's "stifling political environment and stultifying developmental process, compounded by a range of stupefying cruelties."

Among them:
• "Citizens who fail to turn up for work allocated to them by the State are sent to labor camps."
• "There are reports of public executions and secret executions in political detention camps."
• "Although torture is prohibited by law, it is extensively practiced."
• The role of lawyers "is to pressure the accused to confess to a crime rather than to defend his client."
• There are plenty of crimes to confess to: citing human rights legal sources, Muntarbhorn says there are "14 types of anti-State crime; 16 types of crime disruptive of national defense systems; 104 types of crime injurious to the socialist economy; 26 types of crime injurious to socialist culture; 39 types of crime injurious to administrative systems; 20 types of crime harmful to collective life; and 26 types of crime injuring life and damaging property of citizens."
• Punishment is collective: "Where the parents are seen as antithetical to the regime, the child and the rest of the family are discriminated against in their access to schools, hospitals and other necessities."
• Forcible child labor, sometimes on state poppy farms, and forcible separation of children from their parents is far from uncommon.

On an even more sinister front, Muntarbhorn notes the regime's practice of "kidnapping a number of foreign nationals," sometimes to steal their identities for use by North Korean spies. Many remain unaccounted for. The report says over 10 countries have been affected by DPRK's extraterritorial crimes (at a press conference, Muntarbhorn later raised the precise number of countries where DPRK kidnappers operate to 12).

When it comes to such basics as food, the regime's strategy is brutally direct: provide it only through state distribution where possible, after the ruling elite takes as much as it wants. Muntarbhorn refers to the regime's stance as a "military first strategy," as opposed to a "people first" strategy in which civilian needs matter.

The Economist: Hell on Earth
The West still turns a blind eye to the world's most brutal and systematic abuse of human rights

Yet the focus on nukes comes at the cost of other things worth noting about North Korea. Human rights, for instance. In recent years the outlines of daily life, and the state’s miserable part in it, have become plain.

So long out of sight, out of mind. Yet the emerging picture is horrendous, especially for ordinary people in the lesser cities and hardscrabble northern provinces. Take a slice of daily life from the bulletin of a South Korean aid outfit, Good Friends. It is plausibly consistent if unverifiable. Around Wonsan city, more than 70% of residents survive on a corn porridge mixed with grass.

It is known that the state ranks the population by its loyalty to the dictator, Kim Jong Il, and about half are “wavering”. Some 150,000-200,000 political criminals (including whole families branded as counter-revolutionaries) are reckoned to be incarcerated in five huge camps. Many do not come out alive.

At some point the West will need to address its shame of not facing up to the abuse sooner and more viscerally. In the meantime President Barack Obama hardly sent the right message by taking eight months to appoint his special representative for human rights in North Korea. Still, the question is what to do about the place.

Government Solution Stuck in the Past

WSJ: Obama and the Old Hat People
People thought something small, agile and smart was coming to government, but so far it's turning out to be just big-box politics.

In a world defined by nearly 100,000 iPhone apps, a world of seemingly limitless, self-defined choice, the Democrats are pushing the biggest, fattest, one-size-fits all legislation since 1965. And they brag this will complete the dream Franklin D. Roosevelt had in 1939.

The culture still believes the U.S. has a hipster for president. But the Obama health-care bill, and maybe this whole administration, is starting to look totally out of sync with the new zeitgeist, the spirit of the age.

The health-care bill is big, complex, incomprehensible and coercive—all the things people hate nowadays.

It's easy to make jokes about how insubstantial the millions of people seem to be who are constantly using technologies like Twitter. But these new digital and Web-based technologies, which have decentralized virtually everything, now occupy most of the average person's waking hours at work or at home. Mass media is struggling to stay massive in a world whose people want to break up into many discrete markets.

The one lump that won't change is government. Government in our time is looking out of it. It'd be one thing if government were almost cool in an old-fashioned way, but it's not. When everyone else's job gets measured by performance, its hallmark is malperformance—whether in Congress, California or New York.

We define the past 25 years in terms of entrepreneurs and visionaries in places like Silicon Valley who took a small idea and ran with it. Congress does the opposite. It take something already big . . . and make it bigger.

We've got Medicare for the elderly, with spending claims out to Mars, so let's create Medicare for All! One of the least noticed parts of the health-care legislation is its intention to make Medicaid even bigger, when Medicaid's cost is arguably the main thing destroying California.

If we were really living in the world of leading-edge politics that many people thought they were getting with Barack Obama, he would have proposed an iPhone for health care—a flexible system for which all sorts of users could create or choose health-care apps that suited their needs. Over time, with trial and error, a better system would emerge.

No chance of that. Our outdated political software can't recognize trial and error. What ObamaCare is doing with health care—the "public option"—may be fine with the activist left, but I suspect it's starting to strike many younger Americans as at odds with their lives, as not somewhere they want to go.

People thought something small, agile and smart was coming to government, but so far it's turning out to be just big-box politics.

The article rang true with me, as it is something I have mentioned before. The technological changes that have affected all of us in our personal lives and in our jobs have not reached our politics.

The easy flow of information, the flattening of hierarchies, the flexibility, the reduction of pretension found elsewhere in our society just hasn't registered yet. And it's high time.

A Lot Of Money For Not Very Many Jobs

Even if the Administration's figures were correct, spending $787,000,000,000.00 to get 30,000 jobs doesn't seem like a very good deal to me. What's that come to -- $26 million for each job?

AP: STIMULUS WATCH: Stimulus jobs overstated in report

29 October 2009

The Coming Republican Party Crackup Delayed

The GOP got lucky when their candidate bailed out on Saturday up in New York. But the big problems facing the Republican Party are not resolved, and they are not going away. Like most problems ignored, they will only be getting worse.

The GOP’s Generational Time Bomb

The youth vote won’t be a big problem for the GOP in 2010 because chances are very few young people will bother going to the polls. But in the decades to come, the cohort that voted strongly for Obama in 2008 is likely to continue to vote Democratic, which will have larger consequences once they start going to the polls more regularly as they age.

The GOP won’t be able to offset that trend by rallying around the dead-end politics of George W. Bush, even repackaged in the shape of Sarah Palin. Any success the party enjoys in the near term only postpones the reckoning that must come.

HuffPo: Present at the Cremation: The Long, Slow Death of the GOP?

Nowhere is it written that major political parties will live forever.

We are witnessing today, however, an unmistakable emergence of deep fissures within the Republican Party. These are serious indications of a momentous, generational shift underway in the American political landscape not seen in almost a century. It begs the question, are we watching the beginning of the end of the Republican Party--the long, slow death of the GOP?

What should have been a low-visibility, off-cycle special election to fill a vacant Congressional seat has erupted into full-fledged Republican civil warfare--with serious national implications for the future of the GOP.

All of this infighting currently revolves around ideological warfare, but when you dive even deeper into the cross-currents of American politics, the structural signs of the future viability of the Republican Party are equally as bad.

Vaccine Shortage Undermining Confidence In Government?

NY Times: Shortage of Vaccine Poses Political Test for Obama
Now, despite months of planning and preparation, a vaccine shortage is threatening to undermine public confidence in government, creating a very public test of Mr. Obama’s competence.

Republican Purges Begin!

If you don't agree with Sarah Palin on everything, you are a left-wing saboteur and are to be purged from the Republican Party. The GOP isn't a political party anymore, interested in putting together a majority, but an echo chamber for the ideologically pure.

The push for ideological purity has tied the Libertarian Party into knots over the years, and the Republicans are headed into the same place. When they are done, they can have fun sitting in a box and agreeing with each other.

Gingrich calls GOP support for Hoffman a 'purge'

Yes, Newt, the GOP should be “purged” of left-wing saboteurs

Voters Get It Right -- Stimulus Helped Large Banks, No Help To Regular Folks


Huffington Post: Public Sees A Tilted Playing Field

A paltry 13 percent of those interviewed for the September 2009 survey said that the average Joe and Jill have been "helped a lot or a fair amount" -- compared to 65 percent who think regular folks have gotten little or no assistance from the government. Fully 54 percent of respondents said Wall Street investment companies have been helped - and nearly two-thirds said the large banks have been taken care of.

The voters seem to have gotten it about right.

"In relative terms, the perceptions are dead-on: the big winners so far are the bailed-out bankers. Meanwhile on the jobs and housing front, things get worse," says University of Texas economist James Galbraith. "You can make an argument that everyone has been helped by the fact that the economy hasn't collapsed even more completely," Galbraith added, but that does not "cut any ice with the population at the moment. What they see is that a top-down bailout works on the top and doesn't go very far down. And they are right."

The stimulus has not kept the unemployment rate at or under 8 percent, as Obama officials originally claimed it would. Instead, last month it reached 9.8 percent, and would have broken 10 percent except for the fact that hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers -- 571,000 in September alone -- have given up looking for jobs altogether. Applications for Social Security were 23 percent higher last month than a year ago, suggesting growing numbers of workers are taking early retirement. Disability claims have risen by roughly 20 percent.

And there are reports that some key programs to help struggling working and middle class Americans are not working out as well as expected. The Washington Post on October 24 reported that the federal program to help homeowners whose property is substantially "underwater" - worth less than the mortgage - refinance under more favorable terms "has so far reached fewer than 3 percent of those targeted, with many struggling borrowers deciding that the benefits of a new loan aren't worth the closing costs."

Nationwide, ProPublica, the investigative news website, found that stimulus money has been distributed with little or no regard for unemployment and poverty concentrations. "Stimulus spending is literally all over the map," the authors of the study wrote. "Some battered counties are hauling in large amounts, while others that are just as hard hit have received little."

While the benefits flowing to the average worker, including those down and out of work, have been haphazard, the same cannot be said about aid to the nation's large banks and other "too big to fail" institutions, along with many smaller banks.

Comparing the Length of America's Wars

Go check out this graphic on the length of America's wars, at Congress.org.

Palin Supporters A Vocal Minority

CQ Politics Poll Tracker: Palin For President? With Poll Numbers Like This?

Sarah Palin may be rich, thanks to her book deal, but she's not popular, according to an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll conducted Oct. 22-25 and a CNN poll conducted Oct. 16-18.

CNN's poll found that a whopping seven in 10 Americans surveyed don't think that the Republican Party's 2008 vice presidential nominee is qualified to be president.

The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll tracks Palin's general popularity, and found that at a new low, with 11 percent of those surveyed having very positive feelings toward her and another 16 percent having somewhat positive feelings about her.

Cheap Chinese Imports Endanger Health and Safety

NPR: Toxic Chinese Drywall Creates A Housing Disaster

Along the Gulf Coast and across the country, it's being called a "silent hurricane." Between 2004 and 2007, an estimated 100,000 homes in more than 20 states were built with toxic drywall imported from China.

Emissions from the drywall corrode plumbing and electrical systems. Homeowners also blame them for headaches and respiratory ailments. Replacing Chinese drywall in the United States could cost $15 billion to $25 billion, according to National Underwriter, an insurance industry publication.

That discoloration of copper, brass and other metal surfaces is one of the telltale signs of toxic drywall.

The problem began to emerge about a year ago. Tests found that Chinese drywall imported during the peak years of the building boom emits sulfide gases. The gases corrode copper coils in air conditioning systems and wiring in appliances and electrical outlets.

Those are the known effects. Federal and state health officials are trying to determine what the health effects might be for people who live in houses with the toxic drywall.

MSNBC: With Chinese tires, it's buyer beware
Amid trade tiff over Chinese tire imports, some concerns about quality

[T]here have been some safety blips in Chinese-made tires.

Last year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation into defective tire valve stems produced by a subsidiary of Shanghai Baolong Automotive Corp. The company sold 300 million valve stems which were susceptible to cracking, potentially causing the tire to deflate, a problem which led to one fatality, according to NHTSA.

Two fatalities were attributed to defective tires made by Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber Co. because of tread separation. The tire importer issued a recall for the 450,000 tires it had sold.

But with tires, as with many other products, it's buyer beware — you get what you pay for.

“Chinese-branded tires are a whole different world,” reported Car and Driver technical director Dave VanderWerp. “You absolutely get what you pay for, which, as we found in our test, is capability that is nothing short of scary. The Ling Longs in our test scored less than half the performance-based points than even the next-best, eighth-place tire. That’s how far they are off the pace.”

NY Times: Recalls of Chinese Auto Parts Are a Mounting Concern

Child restraints that may come apart in an impact. Fuses that could catch fire when overloaded. Tires susceptible to tread separation.

Those are some of the dangers American consumers face as Chinese manufacturers increase the number of automotive parts they are sending to the United States, according to consumer and safety advocates. They parallel problems with some other products from China ranging from medicine to pet food to children’s toys.

[T]oo many Chinese companies are unfamiliar with — or don’t care about — safety standards in the United States and thus don’t meet them.

For consumers, that means automotive equipment made in China is less likely to comply with safety standards than the same product made in the United States, Mr. Ditlow said.

Don't forget, nearly all of our prescription drugs and vitamins come from China, where standards are lax and they are not inspected very often by the FDA.

And, just in time for Halloween: Chinese candy recalled due to excessive lead

You Knew This Was Going To Happen

The government will never get rid of GM now. They can use it for a piggy-bank, a job bank, whatever they need.

Mixing business and politics is almost as bad as mixing religion and politics. The temptation of corruption is just too great to resist. Politics corrupts everything it touches.

WSJ: Politicians Butt In at Bailed-Out GM

Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg was no fan of the $58 billion federal rescue of General Motors Co., saying he worried taxpayer money would be wasted and the restructuring process would be vulnerable to "political pressure." Now the lawmaker says it's his "patriotic duty" to wade into GM's affairs.

Along with Montana's two Democratic senators, the Republican congressman is battling to get GM to reinstate a contract with a Montana palladium mine nullified in bankruptcy court. "The simple fact is, when GM took federal dollars, they lost some of their autonomy," Mr. Rehberg says.

Federal support for companies such as GM, Chrysler Group LLC and Bank of America Corp. has come with baggage: Companies in hock to Washington now have the equivalent of 535 new board members -- 100 U.S. senators and 435 House members.

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota persuaded GM to rescind a closure order for a large dealership in Bloomington, Minn. In Tucson, Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords did the same for Don Mackey, owner of a longstanding Cadillac dealership with 80 employees. Rep. Giffords argues it made sense, even for GM, to keep the Mackey dealership, which sold 750 cars last year. "All I did was to help get GM to focus on his case," she says.

In addition to the dealership issue, lawmakers have jumped into a union fight that pits GM and Chrysler against two trucking companies that haul new cars around the country. The auto makers want to give some of the work to cheaper nonunion contractors. But that raised the ire of lawmakers who support the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Meanwhile, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, is spearheading a push within the Senate to get GM to rejoin an environmental program that removes mercury from cars headed to the scrap heap.

I don't think GM's going to make it. I feel no rancor towards GM. In fact, I always hoped they would make it. But if this keeps up for very long, they are done for.
As our deficit shows, our political class has no concept of financial management.

You know how it is with these promises/Made in the heat of the moment/They're made to be broken in two/Sometimes the only thing to do

Obama: Health care will be written on C-Span. Video at the link.
Candidate Barack Obama: “When I’m elected president you’re going to see this health care legislation written in the open. It’s going to be on C-SPAN, and you’ll be able to see all the different people arguing to see whether they’re on your side or they’re on the side of the drug companies and the insurance companies and so on. But you’ll be able to see that process on C-SPAN.”

The Folly of Budget and Trade Deficits, and How to Avoid the Next Crisis

Foreign Affairs: The Dollar and the Deficits (registration required) An excellent article, well worth reading in full. A few excerpts from a very long article. I want to take articles like this and staple them to the foreheads of the Congress.

Even as efforts to recover from the current crisis go forward, the United States should launch new policies to avoid large external deficits, balance the budget, and adapt to a global currency system less centered on the dollar. Although it will take a number of years to fully implement these measures, they should be initiated promptly both to bolster confidence in the recovery and to build the foundation for a sustainable U.S. economy over the long haul. This is not just an economic imperative but a foreign policy and national security one as well.

If the rest of the world again finances the United States' large external deficits, the conditions that brought on the current crisis will be replicated and the risk of calamity renewed. ... And even if the United States were lucky enough to avoid future crises, the steadily rising transfer of U.S. income to the rest of the world to service foreign debt would seriously erode Americans' standards of living.

As soon as the U.S. economy recovers from the current crisis, it is imperative that U.S. policymakers restore a budget that is balanced over the economic cycle and, in fact, runs surpluses during boom years. Measures that could be adopted now and phased in as growth is restored include containing the cost of medical care, reforming Social Security, and enacting new taxes on consumption.

The U.S. government's continued failure to responsibly address the fiscal future of the United States will imperil its global position as well as its future prosperity. The country's fate is already largely in the hands of its foreign creditors, starting with China but also including Japan, Russia, and a number of oil-exporting countries. Unless the United States quickly achieves and maintains a sustainable economic position, its ability to pursue autonomous economic and foreign policies will become increasingly compromised.

The only healthy way to reduce the United States' external deficits to a sustainable level is to raise the rate of national saving by several percentage points. Such an increase could be achieved with a combination of increased private saving and a reduced federal budget deficit.

This would seem to leave two plausible policy tools. The first is to shift the focus of U.S. taxation from income to consumption; this might not only generate sizable budget revenues but also create incentives for private saving. The second option is to create a mandatory savings scheme, a measure that has proved effective in countries such as Australia and Singapore and is now being launched in the United Kingdom.

There are at least three reforms that fall under the category of "decide now and implement later." The most important is containing long-term medical costs, an integral component of overall health-care reform that could save several percentage points' worth of GDP. The second is comprehensive Social Security reform, including gradual increases in the retirement age and an alteration of the benefits formula to reflect increases in prices rather than in wages. When fully phased in over a couple of decades, such changes could take another one to two percent of GDP off the deficit. The third measure is raising taxes on consumption, which would both generate needed revenue and provide new incentives for private saving.

Major procedural reforms will be needed as well. One essential step is the implementation of "pay-as-you-go" rules, which require that all increases in spending or tax cuts be financed by savings elsewhere in the budget.

It might even be time to reconsider passing a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a provision that exists in nearly all U.S. states and is now being pursued in a somewhat analogous form by the European Union. Whatever the specific policy approach, the underlying objective should be to create a system that will achieve a balanced budget over the course of the economic cycle.

In trade negotiations, the United States should seek to reduce foreign barriers to its exports, especially in its highly competitive service sector. U.S. tax policy must create incentives for both U.S. and foreign firms to locate their production in the United States by cutting corporate tax rates and treating offshore income no less favorably than do many other major countries.

28 October 2009

FBI In Detroit Mosque Shootout

Detroit Imam Killed During FBI Raid

The African-American leader of a Detroit mosque was fatally shot Wednesday during a Federal Bureau of Investigation raid on what authorities called a criminal gang run by U.S. converts to Islam.

An FBI spokeswoman said six men were arrested in the raid on a suburban warehouse and two Detroit homes. The men were arrested on suspicion of a variety of offenses, including illegal possession of firearms, trafficking in stolen goods and altering vehicle identification numbers. Three suspects remain at large.

Luqman Ameen Abdullah, 53 years old, who had previously been known as Christopher Thomas, refused to surrender. He shot a police dog before he was fatally shot by authorities, the U.S. attorney's office in Detroit said in a statement.

Mr. Abdullah was imam of the Masjid Al-Haqq mosque and was connected to a group known as "Ummah," a brotherhood that seeks to establish a separate state within the U.S. that would be ruled by strict Islamic or Sharia law, the U.S. attorney's office said.

FDA Tells Small Business To Go Shuck Themselves: Raw Oysters To Be Banned

FDA to ban sale of raw oysters from Gulf of Mexico

Federal officials plan to ban sales of raw oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico unless the shellfish are treated to destroy potentially deadly bacteria — a requirement that opponents say could deprive diners of a delicacy cherished for generations.

The plan has also raised concern among oystermen that they could be pushed out of business.

The Gulf region supplies about two-thirds of U.S. oysters, and some people in the $500 million industry argue that the anti-bacterial procedures are too costly. They insist adequate measures are already being taken to battle germs, including increased refrigeration on oyster boats and warnings posted in restaurants.

About 15 people die each year in the United States from raw oysters infected with Vibrio vulnificus, which typically is found in warm coastal waters between April and October. Most of the deaths occur among people with weak immune systems caused by health problems like liver or kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, or AIDS.

Some oyster sellers say the FDA rule smacks of government meddling. The sales ban would take effect in 2011 for oysters harvested in the Gulf during warm months.

The anti-bacterial process treats oysters with a method similar to pasteurization, using mild heat, freezing temperatures, high pressure and low-dose gamma radiation. But doing so "kills the taste, the texture," DeFelice said. "For our local connoisseurs, people who've grown up eating oysters all their lives, there's no comparison" between salty raw oysters and the treated kind.

A Gulf Coast oyster — or better still, a plate of a dozen oysters on the half-shell — is a delicacy savored for its salty, refreshing, slightly slimy taste. Some people add a drop of horseradish, lemon or hot sauce on top for extra zest.

Treated oysters are "not as bright, the texture seems different," said Donald Link, head chef and owner of the Herbsaint Bar and Restaurant in New Orleans. "This is an area the government shouldn't meddle in," Link said. "What's next? They're going to tell us we can't eat our beef rare?"

The FDA is promoting a ban because high-risk groups are not heeding warnings about raw oysters, and millions of other people may not know they are vulnerable.
If federal officials require post-harvest treatment, they "will be ruining an industry that has been around for centuries," said Sal Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oyster Co., a French Quarter oyster wholesaler.

"We've been doing this the same way since the 1920s," said his brother, Al Sunseri, as shuckers in rubber gloves worked their way through piles of raw oysters destined for oyster bars and restaurants. "We're located in the French Quarter. We're not going to get the permits we need to do post-harvest processing. We don't have the space for it."

In Plaquemines Parish, the Louisiana "boot" that juts into the Gulf south of New Orleans, 49-year-old oyster harvester Peter Vujnovich Jr. said the FDA was "totally out of its mind."

Anita Grove, executive director of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce in Florida, said a ban would be crushing. She said oyster harvesters, shuckers, truckers and dealers are "the backbone to our economy. It's always been that way."

Avery Bates, vice president of the Organized Seafood Association-Alabama, predicted two-thirds of Alabama's 50 "mom-and-pop oyster shops" would close, mostly because of the cost of treating oysters.

"We see more people die each year from peanuts, chicken, E. coli, beef," he said. "It's like singling out a certain section of the food industry."

Like a High School Football Coach, You Want Politicians Smart Enough To Do A Good Job, And Dumb Enough To Think It's Important

Commentary for the Chair of the Modern Whig National Committee: The fine line of being "too intellectual"

During the 1952 presidential election, Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson in part because Stevenson was labeled as "too intellectual." It always struck me as odd as to what exactly is wrong with being "too intellectual" for the White House.

Unfortunately, I am now seeing the problem with having an ultra intellectual in the oval office. Case in point is Afghanistan. The past few days have been absolutely brutal as October becomes by far the deadliest month since the 2001 invasion. Prior to the recent death toll, we saw the brazen assault of the isolated Army outpost in eastern Afghanistan, among other attacks.

Meanwhile, Obama has been prudent and thoughtful. Those are all good enough, but one important word is missing. That word is action. I'll also throw in decisiveness. This lack of conviction and decisiveness has effectively neutered any benefits we could gain from Obama's intellectualism.

Short Term Solutions Forever!

Melting Pot Project figured out what our political leaders could not. The first-time home buyers tax credit is only moving future purchases to the present. So what happens in the future? A housing crisis!

Just like our deficit (and the cash-for-clunkers giveaway) it is an attempt to shove today's problems into the future.

Ah, sure, tomorrow will never come, will it?

Breaking News: First-Time Homeowners Can Only Own Their First Home Once
The only alternative is to continuously dole out larger and larger tax credits to more and more people, artificially propping up demand until doing so isn't artificially propping up demand anymore. If this sounds like a bit of a shaky plan, worry not - our fearless leaders in Congress support it, and when it comes to housing, they're never, ever wrong.
Congress is the one group that would welcome a zombie virus outbreak to divert attention.'

UPDATE: I wouldn't call it a surprise:
New home sales take surprise tumble
Effect of the soon-to-expire, first-time buyer tax credit begins to fade

Ares 1-X Rocket Launched Today

Harris County Stands Up To Houston On Collecting Red Light Fines

Houston Chronicle: County still not ready to join city on red-light fines

For the second time in a month, Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday postponed a vote on an agreement with the city to block vehicle registrations for red-light camera violators who do not pay their fines.

Court members said they would not consider the $36,000-a-year contract until it is approved by City Council, and even then made no guarantees they would OK the arrangement.

State law gives the county the power to deny vehicle registrations and renewals to red-light camera violators until they pay the $75 civil fines.

County Judge Ed Emmett said he also would like to see evidence that cameras do not incorrectly record right turns on red lights as violations.

Commissioner Jerry Eversole wanted assurance that the money would cover the cost of checking for fines and placing holds on scofflaws.

The city's red-light camera program began in May 2006 and includes 70 cameras. To date, the city has issued 607,000 violations and collected $21.3 million in fines...

Political Pandering To Cost $14 Billion

An analysis of Obama plan to send every Social Security recipient an extra $250: A Drop in the Wrong Bucket

If you wanted to help the economy and you had $14 billion to bestow on any group of people, which group would you choose:

a) Teenagers and young adults, who have an 18 percent unemployment rate.
b) All the middle-age long-term jobless who, for various reasons, are not eligible for unemployment benefits.
c) The taxpayers of the future (by using the $14 billion to pay down the deficit).
d) The group that has survived the Great Recession probably better than any other, with stronger income growth, fewer job cuts and little loss of health insurance.

The Obama administration has chosen option d — people in their 60s and beyond.

Indeed, the politics are attractive. People over 65 vote in large numbers. Saying no to them is never easy.

And therein lies a problem that’s much larger than one misguided $14 billion proposal.

With the economy gradually improving, members of Congress and White House officials are just starting to think more seriously about the budget deficit. Fifty-three senators voted down a narrow health care bill last week, with many citing its potential impact on the budget. On Monday, Christina Romer, the chairwoman of Mr. Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, gave a speech in which she said the deficit was “simply not a problem that can be kicked down the road indefinitely.”

Just about everybody agrees that solving the deficit depends on reducing the benefits that current law has promised to retirees, via Medicare and Social Security. That’s not how people usually put it, of course. They tend to use the more soothing phrase “entitlement reform.” But entitlement reform is just another way of saying that we can’t pay more in benefits than we collect in taxes.

“If the long-term issue is entitlement reform,” says Joel Slemrod, a University of Michigan economist, “the fact that the political system cannot say no to $250 checks to elderly people is a bad sign.”

In the 1930s, [the elderly] had little safety net and frequently struggled to meet their basic needs. Four decades later, they were the only group of Americans with guaranteed health care and a guaranteed income.

Just consider: The real median income of over-65 households rose 3 percent from 2000 to 2008. For households headed by somebody age 25 to 44, it fell about 7 percent.

Economic policy, like most everything else, is about making choices. Mr. Obama is choosing the elderly, rich and poor, to be more worthy of $14 billion in government checks than struggling workers or schoolchildren. Republicans have pandered in their own ways, choosing to oppose just about any cut in Medicare and, in effect, to stick your grandchildren with an enormous tax bill.

In a way, I understand where the politicians are coming from. We voters may say that we are in favor of cutting the deficit, but usually mean it in only the theoretical sense. Who wants their own benefits cut? For that matter, who is even willing to have their Social Security checks hold steady?

Don't Let Your Kids Find Out About This

Living for Candy, and Sugar-Coated Goblins

It is possible, it seems, to live on candy.

Mr. Rudnick is the living proof. At 51, 5-foot-10 and an enviably lean 150 pounds, Mr. Rudnick does not square with the inevitable mental image of a man who has barely touched a vegetable other than candy corn in nearly a half-century.

An invitation to take him to lunch hit a wall. He does not really eat meals, he said, more of a so-called grazer.

For example, what he ate over the course of a recent, typical day was this: a plain bagel, a three-pack of Yodels, a small can of dry-roasted peanuts, some Hershey’s Kisses, and some breakfast cereal, which he eats by the handful, dry, out of the box.

Stoning Adulterers: Sharia Law Introduced in Aceh, Indonesia

NY Times: Extremism Spreads Across Indonesian Penal Code

Under Islamic law, or Shariah, the religious police have administered public canings for such things as gambling, prostitution and illicit affairs. But under a new Islamic criminal code that goes into effect this month, the Shariah police will be wielding a new and more potent threat: death by stoning for adulterers.

Most of Indonesia still lives up to its reputation for a moderate, easygoing brand of Islam, and Islamist parties suffered heavy losses in this year’s national elections. But how Aceh went from basic Islamic law to endorsing stoning in a few short years shows how a small, radical minority has successfully pushed its agenda, locally and nationally, by cowing political and religious moderates.

Poll Reveals Economic, Political Gloom

WSJ: Gloom Spreads on Economy, but GOP Doesn't Gain

Americans are growing increasingly pessimistic about the economy after a mild upswing of attitudes in September. But Republicans haven't been able to profit politically from the economic gloom, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

The survey found a country in a decidedly negative mood, nearly a year after the election of President Barack Obama. For the first time during the Obama presidency, a majority of Americans sees the country as being on the wrong track.

But a dark national view of how everybody in Washington is conducting the public's business appears to be preventing Republicans from benefiting from concerns about the direction of the country or the Democrat-led government's handling of the economy, as the minority party often does.

In fact, disapproval of the Republican Party actually has ticked upward, along with the public's general pessimism. Asked which political party should control Congress after next year's midterm elections, Democrats now hold a clear edge over the GOP, 46% to 38%, a month after the Republicans were nearly as popular. In September, the Democratic edge was 43% to 40%.

"The mood in America may be blue, but attitudes toward Washington are just jet black," [pollster] Mr. Hart said.

Just 42% said the economy will get better in the next 12 months, down from 47% in September. In contrast, 22% said things would get worse, up from 20%, and 33% said the economy would stay in the same condition, up from 30%.

That pessimism has fed into what Mr. Hart called "total disgust" with Washington. Just 23% said they trust Washington to do what is right most of the time or just about always, a level not seen since 1997, 1995 and before that 1982, the last time unemployment reached the current level.

The Republicans cannot benefit because they have no credibility on the economy.


The two main political parties present us with a choice between those that caused the problem, and those who are unable to solve it. No wonder people are unhappy.

What we need are more viable political choices.

Proposed Financial Reform is More of the Same

Forbes: Familiar Flavor To Financial Reform Bill

Proposed system to regulate firms too big to fail features council that looks remarkably similar to existing advisory group.

More than a year after the U.S. government began bailing out the nation's biggest financial firms, a key congressional committee has unveiled a bill to prevent companies from becoming too big to fail.

The draft of the bill, released by the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday, is designed to minimize the threats from firms that are so big or interconnected that they pose a "systemic risk" to the overall economy. It also sets forth a plan to wind down troubled non-financial firms, blunting the impact that the failure of those companies can have on the economy.

As proposed, at the pinnacle of the new system would be a panel of top regulators dubbed the Financial Services Oversight Council. The membership would be a who's who of Washington's regulators (take a deep breath before reading the list out loud):

  1. The Treasury secretary,
  2. the chairman of the Federal Reserve and
  3. the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as
  4. the heads of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission,
  5. the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation,
  6. the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency,
  7. the Federal Housing Finance Agency and
  8. the National Credit Union Administration.

Only one regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision, is getting the ax in this proposal.
The Treasury Secretary would chair the council. One state insurance regulator and one state bank regulator will also get non-voting seats.

The council of regulators is remarkably similar to an advisory council that already exists: the President's Working Group on Financial Markets, which includes the Treasury secretary, Fed chair, and the heads of the SEC and CFTC.

Putting all these regulators in a room didn't provide much early warning about the crisis in 2008. In the 1990s, Brooksley Born, then the chair of the CFTC, sounded an alarm about the unregulated derivatives market, but the other regulators in the working group disagreed with her and so her efforts went nowhere--the sort of mistake a new council could easily repeat.

Moderate Democrats Not Supportive Of Public Option In Healthcare Bill

Washington Post: Centrists unsure about Reid's public option
Citing principle and pragmatism, moderate Democrats stay on fence

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's risky decision to bring to the chamber's floor a health-care bill containing a government insurance plan was met with skepticism by moderate Democrats, who said they still do not know whether they could support a public option on a final vote.

Reid said he will take things one step at a time. "There are a lot of senators, Democrat and Republicans, who don't like part of what's in this bill," he told reporters. "We're going to see what the final product is. We're not there yet."
He also played down Lieberman's comments. "I'm sure he'll have some interesting things to do in the way of an amendment," Reid said. "But Joe Lieberman is the least of Harry Reid's problems."

Indeed, Reid's more immediate concern may be Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who, unlike Lieberman, has not pledged to vote for debate to begin. Nelson told reporters that he wants to see the bill and a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office before deciding. Although he has not ruled out supporting a public option, Nelson said he wants to make sure it would not become a "government-run, big-government insurance" company.

In addition to the proposed public plan, Nelson said he is concerned about tax provisions and a separate proposal to create a new public insurance program for long-term care, known as the CLASS Act (short for Community Living Assistance and Support Services).

Ethics Showdown Over Charges Against Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.)

The Hill: OCE, House ethics committee fight over release of document

The House ethics committee and a new entity created to help it police lawmakers are engaged in the first major showdown in an ongoing turf war. Board members and staff of the quasi-independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) laid down the gauntlet this week and challenged the ethics committee to meet a Friday deadline or face the consequences.

Watchdogs also joined the OCE in demanding that the ethics committee on Friday release the OCE’s original report on ethics charges against two members: Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

They called it a critical test of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) commitment to raising ethical standards in Congress.

“Friday is the first benchmark of the new transparency that was promised in the creation of the OCE on the heels of Speaker Pelosi’s commitment to ‘the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history,’ ” the groups said. “We look forward to this milestone in the OCE’s brief history.”

Neither the OCE nor the ethics committee indicated what allegations had surfaced against Graves. He has said it focuses on testimony before the Small Business Committee, and media reports have focused on charges that Graves invited a friend and neighbor, Brooks Hurst, to testify at a hearing on renewable fuels without disclosing that his wife and Hurst are investors in renewable fuels plans in Missouri.

The New York Times and other newspapers questioned Waters’s role in directing up to $50 million in special bailout money to BankOne when her husband had served on the bank’s board of directors until early last year and has owned at least $250,000 in stock in the institution.

The Relentless Demand Of Fundraising

NY Times: Obama’s Fund-Raising, in His Best Interest

Yes, Mr. Obama is embroiled in a health care debate. He is also moving closer to saying whether he intends to send more troops to Afghanistan. But despite those tasks, other challenges weigh on the White House: protecting Democrats in Congress and fighting the curse of history, where the party in power traditionally loses seats in the midterm elections.

In his own presidential race, particularly during the primary fight, money began flowing in through his campaign Web site, sharply reducing the number of audiences he had to appear before to ask for money. Yet in his new role as the leader of the Democratic Party, Mr. Obama’s advisers have come to the conclusion that the benefits of raising money — and keeping his Congressional majorities — outweigh any negative optics of attending so many fund-raisers.

Back in March, when he raised money for the first time in office, the White House was peppered with questions about the propriety of such an event, given the country’s unemployment rate and bleak economy.

Now, it has just become part of Mr. Obama’s routine, even though critics say it stands in contrast to his campaign pledge to change the ways of Washington. While he does not personally accept contributions from lobbyists or political action committees, the party’s House and Senate committees do, so some of his rules have little practical effect.

27 October 2009

Reid, Democrats Go For It: Public Option Part of Health Care Reform

The hard left has fantasies of the rich sitting in a public waiting room at a decrepit public clinic, waiting their turn with the poor and unwashed, and seized with this idea, their brains, fevered with majorities in both houses of Congress, can find solace only in the realization of their delirium.

So the Democrats in Congress, with Harry Reid leading the charge, are going for the "public option." At one time, I had high hopes that Congress would address our health care crisis in a responsible and reasonable manner. But they have this notion in their heads of the National Health Service in the U.K., and they can't let it go.

Never mind that most countries do not use that approach, and still cover everyone at reasonable expense. It is a failure of imagination. Sigh. So they want the government to run it.

First, despite all the money the proposed system will cost, it still will not cover everyone. Other options would cause more universal coverage, at a more reasonable cost, and with less disruption to the health care industry.

Second, the public option is expensive and personally instusive. The current Medicare/Medicaid system is unaffordable and unviable. In effect, even more will be placed into a similar system. How can we afford this? The usual "remove waste and inefficiency" argument will not make up for the hundreds of billions that will need to be found.

Third, the proposal still connects health care with your place of employment. Employers, instead of being relieved of their burden, are now being saddled with even greater obligations. All this during a severe recession, while we are facing higher taxes to pay for the huge deficits. Employees need to be freed from reliance on their employers for health care. Individuals should be empowered to make their own decisions, not forced into a government plan.

Fourth, it is unclear how the growth of medical expenses will be countered. Health insurance premiums will increase nearly 15% next year. What provisions are there for slowing this rate of growth?

Fifth, state opt outs? Huh? If the Democrats had the courage of their convictions, they would not have included this provision. One can only suppose that the Democrats have so little faith in their proposal that they had to make an out in case it leads to disaster. There is a logical inconsistency here. They are not interested in universal coverage if they let states opt out!

AP: Health care issues: Penalties for no insurance
AP: Senate moderates voice concern over public option
MSNBC: Behind Harry Reid's Bid for a Public Option
Bloomberg: Reid Gambles on Democratic Unity With Public Option

Previous posts from THE WHIG on health care reform:
Swiss Healthcare System: Part III
Do You Want The Same Health Care That Congress Gets?

Houston Mayoral Race: Taking A Look At The Four Leading Candidates

The race for Houston's mayor is wide open. There are several candidates, but four are leading:

Roy Morales -- the only candidate who advocates lower taxes and lower spending. In the debate, he gave a good performance. Unfortunately for him, he has the least experience in city government, has raised the least money, and it is doubtful he will make the runoff. Interestingly as the only Hispanic candidate, he took the strongest stance against illegal immigration, specifically stating that he supported efforts to screen prisoners at the city jail for their immigration status.

Gene Locke -- former black nationalist student radical (long ago and far behind him), he became a noted attorney, and served as City Attorney. He is tied in with Houston's legal and business elite, who have donated to his campaign. Think of him as the establishment candidate, who has a reputation for getting things done. He gave an excellent performance at the debate, and appears very knowledgeable about city government. If you like the way the city is working now -- and let's face it, it works better than a lot of big cities -- then here is your candidate.

Annise Parker -- is the current City Comptroller, where by all accounts, she has done a good job. In the debate, she did very well, as she emphasized fiscal responsibility and demonstrated her knowledge of city finances. Although she is openly a lesbian, she stated in the debate that she was not interested in reversing City of Houston policy of not extending benefits to gay partners, citing financial implications. As a candidate, she appears focused on the practical, and keeping the city on a sound financial footing. She doesn't have a lot of campaign cash for TV ads, but her yard signs are legion, showing a lot of support.

Peter Brown -- has a lot of support because he is using his wife's money to buy a lot of ads. He has been accused of trying to buy the race, (notably by Gene Locke) and he is. His ads present him as a practical businessman, but in reality he is far to the left and is outside of Houston's mainstream. As people learn more about him, I expect his support to drop. The question is, how many of the few who will bother to vote will also bother to learn more about him?

He would seek to throttle Houston's growth, and is interested in implementing land-use restrictions (code for zoning). The lack of zoning in Houston, and it's lax attitude towards development, is largely responsible for Houston's affordability and dynamic and flexible economy.

In the debate I watched last weekend, his performance was the weakest, and he did not seem very knowledgeable about city operations. His put-out attitude seem annoyed that he had to run to obtain what he has bought and paid for.

Who am I voting for? I haven't decided yet. I go back and forth between two of the candidates. But in the runoff, I will be voting for whoever is running against Peter Brown.

Russian Motives On Iran Explained

PJM: What Does Russia Hope to Gain By Being Soft on Iran?

Moscow views the prospect of a nuclear Iran as a threat to Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular, and less of a threat to itself. And while a nuclear Iran would create tension in the Middle East and likely lead to the nuclearization of the region, Russia would use the opportunity to reemerge as the major mediator between the various countries — i.e., Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Russia would then enjoy replacing the U.S. as the primary mediator in the Middle East.

In the near future, Russia will seek additional American concessions, while here and there it releases a statement supporting tougher measures against Iran. But in the end, if the U.S. or Israel seek to prevent the Iranian ayatollahs from acquiring nuclear weapons, they cannot look to Russia for meaningful support.

Republicans Not Only Ones With Infighting

House liberals use outside muscle to bolster 2010 position against Blue Dogs
The head of a not-for-profit organization affiliated with House Democratic liberals plans to raise $1 million next year to give liberals an edge in public policy battles with the conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

With Barack Obama in the White House, the stakes in the ideological battles within the Democratic Party have increased. When it became increasingly apparent last year that Democrats would win the White House, liberals inside and outside of Congress decided to bolster their influence on the Hill.

That decision has proved prescient as liberals and centrist Democrats battle this year over the policy provisions of climate change and healthcare reform legislation.

Uncertainty Hampers Small Business

WSJ: Political Uncertainty Puts Freeze on Small Businesses

The economy remains unsteady 22 months after the recession began, with banks restricting credit and consumers hunkering down. For these small businesses, and many others across the country, there's an additional dark cloud: uncertainty created by Washington's bid to reorganize a wide swath of the U.S. economy.

The economic contraction is of course the prime force driving companies to lay off workers. But a health-care overhaul grinding through Congress could bring unknown new obligations to insure employees. Bush-era tax cuts are set to end next year, and their fate is unclear. Legislation aimed at tackling climate change might raise businesses' energy costs. Meanwhile, a bill aimed at increasing transportation spending is stalled.

Many companies say they have responded by freezing hiring, cutting benefits and delaying expansion plans. With at least 60% of job growth historically coming out of the small-business sector, according to the government's Small Business Administration, that kind of inertia could impede an economic recovery.

Already, 7.2 million jobs have been lost during the recession, and forecasts show little or no job growth expected for the rest of the year.

Afghan Opposition Candidate Abdullah Abdullah Backs McChrystal Recommendations

The Hill: Afghan candidate says 'dramatic' surge needed, backs McChrystal assessment

Afghanistan's opposition candidate backed Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recommendations for more troops Sunday, saying "the future of the country is at risk" without a "dramatic increase" in troop levels.

An ideal strategy would lead to decreases in the number of troops "a few years down the road," Abdullah said on Fox, but action is needed in the country to stabilize the security situation.

"The future of this country will be at risk and the future of enagagement of the international community will be at risk," Abdullah said."This situation requires a sort of dramatic increase in the number of troops in order to stop it from further deteriorating and reversing it."

Christians Hunted and Killed in Somalia

Economist: Somalia's embattled Christians Almost expunged

Even Somalia’s supposedly moderate government is loth to protect them

WHERE is the hardest place in the world to be a Christian citizen? North Korea, perhaps? Saudi Arabia? Try Somalia. There are thought to be no more than a thousand Christians in a resident population of 8m people, with perhaps a few thousand more in the diaspora. The Islamist Shabab militia, which controls most of southern Somalia, is dedicated to hunting them down.

Christian men attend mosques on Fridays, so as not to arouse suspicion. Bibles are kept hidden. There are no public meetings, let alone a church. Catholic churches and cemeteries have been destroyed. The last nuns in the smashed capital, Mogadishu, were chased out in 2007. The year before, an elderly nun working in a hospital there was murdered. The only Christian believers left are local Somalis.

Catching and killing them is useful propaganda for the Shabab, not least for indoctrinating its young fighters and suicide-bombers in the belief that America, Britain, Italy, the Vatican, along with Ethiopia and Kenya, are all “crusaders” trying to convert Somalis to Christianity. The UN lurks nefariously behind. Israel, of course, is also doing its bit to undermine Islam.

The shaky transitional government led by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, whose writ runs weakly across the territory the Shabab does not yet run, is unlikely to speak up for any of its citizens caught with a bible. Though professing moderation, he promotes a version of sharia law whereby every citizen of Somalia is born a Muslim and anyone who converts to another religion is guilty of apostasy, which is punishable by death.

Every month several Somalis are killed for being Christian.

Well, Spank Me Silly! Alabama Judge Acquitted!

I guess you could say he "beat the rap."

I know, I know.

CNN: Alabama judge not guilty of sexual abuse of inmates

A former Alabama judge accused of checking male inmates out of jail and forcing them to engage in sexual activity was found not guilty Monday on charges of sexual abuse, attempted sodomy and assault, his lawyer said.

Attorney Robert Clark said former Judge Herman Thomas was found not guilty on several charges and the judge in the case granted a directed verdict of acquittal on all the other counts.

Is NY 23rd A Bellweather Race?

On Sunday, I posted on the race in New York's 23rd as a battle over the direction of the Republican Party. Here's a different take.

Slate: Soul Search
What next week's congressional election in New York won't tell us about the Republican Party.

More on the NY 23rd here: Pawlenty bucks GOP, endorses Hoffman

Reading The Whig On Their Laptops, Obviously

Time To Wake Up, Over
How did those Northwest pilots manage to ignore an hour of radio calls?

26 October 2009

On Being A Whig

The sovereign idea which inspires those who have used the name Whig has always been the same: a belief that the paramount public value is the freedom of the individual.

Since the first Whigs developed in England, we have pursued this great and simple idea. We Whigs believe in a society in which every individual is free to do their best. For Americans today, it means each citizen living his or her own life, and doing the best for himself and herself. The one idea which has united Whigs for nearly four hundred years is that of freedom. While staying true to our legacy, we must address old problems with a fresh mind, as well as addressing new challenges unencumbered by the weight of old prejudices and certitudes. The central task of a Whig, from which all else follows and upon which all else depends, is to maximize the freedom of the individual.

"We have realised that men and women are not just ciphers in a calculation, but are individual human beings whose individual welfare and development must be the main concern of government … We have learned that the right answer is to set the individual free, to aim at equality of opportunity, to protect the individual against oppression, to create a society in which rights and duties are recognized and made effective.” -- Robert Menzies

Likewise, Whigs must be "a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea."

So are Whigs liberal or conservative? These two terms are overused so much that their original meanings are obscured. Here, by liberal I am referring to what in American we now call "classical liberalism." Aside from the confusion of language, there is a deeper reason why classical liberalism and conservatism are so often confused.

Our public values – personal freedom, toleration of diversity, equality of opportunity, the rule of law – are classically liberal values. In striving to preserve them, the Whigs share the conservative’s instinctive suspicion of change – but not his reasons.

Defence of a classically liberal society is the defence of liberalism, not conservatism, but in that endeavour, Whigs and conservatives will find common cause. This is the point made by F. A. Hayek in his superb essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative”, which forms the postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, quoted at length below:

At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom are likely to expend their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the time on the same side as those who habitually resist change

… But, though the position I have tried to define is … often described as ‘conservative’, it is very different to that to which this name has been traditionally attached. There is danger in the confused condition which brings the defenders of liberty and the true conservatives together in common opposition to developments which threaten their different ideals equally.

…Let me … state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.

…Since the development during the last decades has been generally in a socialist direction, it may seem that both conservatives and liberals have been mainly intent on retarding that movement. But the main point about liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still.

… (I)t has never been a backward-looking doctrine. There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions.

… The difference between liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that … it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established … but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.

What Hayek captures is the central ethical problem of conservatism: its relativistic nature. As one of conservatism’s most articulate contemporary exponents, Andrew Sullivan, says “We see the world from where we are, and our understanding of the universe is intrinsically rooted in time and place.”

The American scholar Samuel P Huntington described conservatism as a “positional ideology” which may be “employed to justify any established social order, no matter where or when it exists, against fundamental challenge to its nature or being … The essence of conservatism is the passionate affirmation of the value of existing institutions.” It was thus possible, as Huntington points out, for conservatism’s most eloquent exponent, Edmund Burke, simultaneously to “defend Whig institutions in England, democratic institutions in America, autocratic institutions in France, and Hindu institutions in India”, because “(h)e was concerned not with the substance of institutions but with their preservation.”

Elevating to a virtue its distrust of what it commonly calls dogmatism, and favouring scepticism about social change over the question of the desirability of change, conservatism lacks a set of a priori principles against which to assess the justness of a society; the fitness of its legal, economic and social arrangements; and the direction of reform. Conservatism has a deeply sophisticated, and in many ways attractive, theory of the nature of society but, in its hostility to what Sullivan calls “the arrogant Reason of the Enlightenment”, it lacks the moral clarity to make the most fundamental judgments about right and wrong.

Classical liberalism, recently described as “the Enlightenment’s most authentic political creation”, has such a central guiding principle – respect for the freedom of the individual, his dignity and his autonomy; his right, so far as is consistent with the equal rights of others, to make his own choices and be the architect of his own life.

But the essentially ambulatory nature of conservatism means that, while in one era it may share territory with those whose political beliefs spring from a profound respect for the freedom of the individual, in a different place or time it may set its face against those very same values. In the words of Huntington:

“Just as the aristocrats were the conservatives in Prussia in 1820 and slaveowners were the conservatives in 1850, so the liberals must be the conservatives in America today … In preserving the achievements of American liberalism, American liberals have no recourse but to turn to conservatism.”

And so it must be for the modern day heirs of classical liberalism, the Whigs. While today Whigs and conservatives may adopt common positions, the very reason that we are now united in defending a society whose fundamental values are classically liberal is because of the victories won over conservatives in decades and centuries past in the cause of advancing the freedom of the individual.

Despite their differences, there is one thing about which Whigs and conservatives will always be in agreement: their shared hostility to ideologies which seek to impose a pattern on human conduct, and seek to bend human beings into shape in the service of a determinist theory of history or some rationalist notion of perfectibility.

The one political philosophy – or ideology, if you will – which is not susceptible to the criticism that it is willing to crush human beings by seeking to impose a pattern upon history, is classical liberalism. For the very point of the Whigs is to promote the freedom of every individual, to liberate them from whatever threatens their autonomy or inhibits their freedom of choice, whether it be the pattern of existing social customs - which a conservative would generally support - or the patterns in the minds of metaphysicians, utopians and historical determinists - in opposition to which conservatives and liberals unite. And so we come back to the essential flaw of conservatism – its ethical relativism. A conservative, no less than a liberal, is horrified by the thought that human beings might be crushed in the name of an abstraction, yet we often find him indifferent, or even an apologist, when human beings are actually being crushed by an existing political system or social order.

There usually is not a conflict between Whigs and conservatives. But there are points of tension when there is and, as we know, in politics it is the points of tension that matter. The points of tension occur when the rights of individuals or minorities come into conflict with existing laws and prevailing social customs. When this occurs, merely weighing the rights of the individual in a balance against the mainstream attitudes of society is not an adequate response for a Whig. For as John Stuart Mill said:

“It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation. … To give any fair play to the nature of each, it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives. In proportion as this latitude has been exercised in any age, has that age been noteworthy to posterity … (W)hatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it be called and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.”

It is these beliefs that set us apart as Whigs. It is time once again to renew our commitment to the values of our Revolution, which made us Americans. That is our legacy. That is our purpose as a political movement.

This post is paraphrased and adapted from a speech by Senator George Brandis, entitled "We believe" for the 2009 Alfred Deakin Lecture, at The University of Melbourne, Thursday 22 October 2009, published in The Australian, October 26, 2009.