Thursday, January 31, 2013

Jobless claims up, GDP down, the Great Recovery continues...

It's basic stuff, simple stuff. On the jobless claims:
Initial jobless claims rose 38,000 in the week ended Jan. 26, the most since Nov. 10, to 368,000, the Labor Department reported today in Washington. Economists forecast 350,000 filings, according to the Bloomberg survey median. The increase followed a combined 45,000 drop in the prior two weeks.
At best, what this shows is stagnation in the job market, especially when coupled with the following:
The number of people who continue to collect jobless benefits climbed by 22,000 to 3.2 million in the week ended Jan. 19. The continuing claims figure does not include workers receiving extended benefits from the federal government.

Those who’ve exhausted their traditional benefits and now are collecting emergency and extended payments jumped by about 418,000 to 2.11 million in the week ended Jan. 12.
As to the GDP:
The U.S. economy posted a decline of 0.1% at an annual rate last quarter, shocking experts although there was an expectation that growth would be lower than the 3.1% gain in the third quarter, the government said Wednesday.

It's the first decline in GDP since a -0.3% decline in 2009's third quarter. A survey of economists by Bloomberg had expected growth of 1% in the fourth quarter, held back by a plunge in defense spending and business inventories along with the impact of Superstorm Sandy, among other factors.
Experts are quick to point to point out "factors" in this case, aren't they? But they're much less likely to do this when there's supposed growth. Then, the growth is simply taken as a given, as it was in the previous--the third--quarter of 2012. Look at this chart from Zerohedge:


Those lamenting and blaming the drop in government expenditures for the Q4 GDP numbers ignore  some things:

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Menendez, prostitutes, eye doctors, and Big Money

Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey is in some serious hot water, that much is certain. Now in his third term as a U.S. Senator (the first term being only one year, as he took office via an appointment from Jon Corzine), Menendez is no stranger to scandal. But those scandals that have afflicted him thus far have been of a minor sort, more or less. During the last election, the scandal that never was involved a Menendez volunteer staffer who was both an illegal (expired visa) and a registered sex offender in his native Peru. I say "scandal that never was" because even though the individual in question was known to authorities at the ICE in October, he was not taken into custody until after the November elections at the request of the DHS:
Authorities in Hudson County notified ICE agents in early October that they suspected Sanchez was an illegal immigrant who was a registered sex offender and who may be eligible to be deported, according to the AP. ICE agents in New Jersey notified superiors at the Homeland Security Department because they considered it a potentially high profile arrest, and DHS instructed them not to arrest Sanchez until after the November election, one U.S. official told the AP. ICE officials complained that the delay was inappropriate, but DHS directed them several times not to act, the official told the AP.
Menendez claimed he was unaware of the staffer's status and frankly there is no reason not to believe him. However, the incident does suggest that there was no proper vetting going on at Menendez's HQ. And having the DHS intercede on the matter was a remarkable piece of good luck, because the issue would have made great fodder for Menendez's opponent.

While all of this was not going on, The Daily Caller came up with another Menendez scandal, apparently all on its own, that involved prostitutes in the Dominican Republic:
In interviews, the two women said they met Menendez around Easter at Casa de Campo, an expensive 7,000-acre resort in the Dominican Republic. They claimed Menendez agreed to pay them $500 for sex acts, but in the end they each received only $100.
So Menendez not only uses prostitutes, he also shortchanges them. The Menendez campaign refused to comment on the story at the time, aside from calling it a "completely false accusation." Various other media sites more or less sloughed off the piece at The Daily Caller, treating it as no big deal, a blatant attempt to smear Menendez, or a story that just had no legs. The Atlantic Wire rightly notes that prostitution is legal in the Dominican Republic (say, isn't that the same place Charlie Rangel had a second home?) and that Menendez is himself no longer married, suggesting that even if the story was actually true it would be no big deal.

Yeah. Sure. If it had been an unmarried Republican so accused, would it still be no big deal? No, of course not. The liberal counter to that: "well, if it had been a Republican, chances are it would make him (or her) some sort of hypocrite." The problem with that counter: Menendez would also be a hypocrite if it were true, as he most definitely took exception to Secret Service agents hiring prostitutes in Colombia.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The killing of Independent George

Many pundits on the Left are--right now--happily talking about the demise of the Republican Party. Some are crediting Obama with this destruction and urging him to push forward, to somehow vanquish the Grand Old Party. Others are talking about how the Republicans are destroying themselves, all on their own, and need little help from Obama or the Democrats. And there are pundits on the Right saying pretty much the same thing, pundits like Mark Levin (who I actually think is worth listening to, most of the time) and Sean Hannity. Meanwhile, others on the Right are urging Republicans--or conservaitives--to pursue better strategies.

Throughout all of these discussions on the Right is a common thread: the idea that conservatives within the Republican Party (real conservatives, though it's unclear who gets to make that call) need to do a much better job of getting their ideas across to the rest of the country. James Taranto (who I also think is someone worth reading) spends an entire column on the topic, though he ultimately is far less certain about the idea of "better messaging" than are many of his cohorts:
So maybe conservatives should snap out of it. If the left emerged triumphant from the slough of despond in barely a year, there's no reason the right can't do it too. But it's no clearer now than it was then that the answer lies in better "messaging." (Incidentally, maybe if you want to message good, you shouldn't use nouns as verbs.) And talking about the need for better messaging isn't going to win any elections. To be sure, neither is writing about talking about messaging. But we promise never to run for anything.
I think much of this talk about needing to be better at delivering messages is a consequence of Rush Limbaugh relentlessly pounding out his message, that conservatives always win in the arena of ideas. He's been saying that for more than a decade and I think he has been--unlike the GOP--quite effective in pushing the proposition.

Thus, for Limbaugh and many other pundits on the Right (like those noted above), the Republican Party fails because it has too many politicians leading it, too many faux conservatives (RINOs) who aren't really prepared to deliver a conservative message because they don't really believe in one. That may be a valid point, to some degree.

Meanwhile, over at Leftwing central (meaning MSNBC, MediaMatters, et al), the exact opposite narrative is accepted as a given: the GOP is in trouble because a bunch of extremist fanatics (i.e. conservatives) are pushing out all of the more moderate voices and making any kind of bipartisan action an impossibility. And frankly, there's some validity here, as well. Consider Sharon Angle, Tea Party favorite and former opponent of Harry Reid in the 2010 Senate Elections. There's little question that her particular extremism turned what could have been a Republican gain into a Democratic hold. The same is true of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware.

Don't misunderstand me, I have no problem with either of these candidates, insofar as both won their primaries and earned the right to run as the Republican candidate for their respective State's Senate seat. But again, reality is what it is. Both were simply not good candidates for State-wide elections because both could too easily be labeled as extremists, based on what they said and did. The Republican voters who put them in the race voted their consciences, I must assume, thus I have no truck with them, either.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Don't need a weatherman in California

I've devoted a number of pieces to California over the past year, detailing how the most populous State in the Union--right now--is losing its middle class, how it's ceasing to grow economically and electorally, and how it is steadily descending into something of a feudal state. Some key points:
But here's something to consider: in every Apportionment since 1900, California has gained at least two additional seats, until 2000 when it gained just one and 2010 when it gained...none. Most of the gains for the West were fueled largely by a booming California in the past. Not so in 2000 or--obviously--2010. Now, the growth in the West is in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Washington...
And this, by the way, indicates something often ignored or not understood by people generalizing about the housing bubble--or housing crisis--in the United States: it was initially limited by location. Note that most economists, politicians, pundits, and the like talk about the bubble as having started around 2001. But in California--and some other places--it started much earlier. In fact, trouble was already brewing in the California housing industry long before the sub-prime crisis, long before the housing bubble is said to have "burst."

The evidence very clearly suggests what Sowell claimed: restrictions on land use and development are being used to maintain a lifestyle for the rich, white, older residents of Marin County. Middle and lower class peoples are being kept out, except when they are needed for work. And not-so-oddly, Marin County is a liberal and Democrat stronghold.
This situation is not limited to Marin County, alone, in California. But it would appear there are consequences for maintaining such limiting structures. According to Joel Kotkin, many young families have had enough of the gatekeeper mentality of California's wealthy elitists...
To combat it's various budgetary problems--created by California's progressive and Democratic leadership via out of control spending for decades--the State has opted to increase taxes on the wealthy. And of course, this is a part of the Democratic playbook being championed by the current President, who believes the same sort of "solution" would be appropriate for the nation as a whole, who looks at California as some sort of model State, representing the ideal.

But Obama--along with the leadership of California--are missing the obvious problem for the State: people don't have to stay there. Indeed, as I've noted previously middle class families are heading for the door in droves. California's population is only growing on the low end of the income scale. And from the middle class springs the upper middle class and the wealthy. California is steadily destroying the primary source of its tax revenues in this regard.

The current crop of rich folks are also not tied to the Golden State. They're also free to leave. And many have done just that, finding States like Florida much more hospitable, moved themselves, their families, and their businesses right out the door. But this isn't all that new of a phenomenon; it's being going on for decades, particularly among the uber-rich professional athletes who were born in California or at least once called it home.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Non-Euclidean morality

During the third and forth centuries BCE, the Greek philosopher and mathematician Euclid codified the basics of mathematics in series of books known collectively as Euclid's Elements. These writings still remain a principle source for the studying and teaching of mathematics, particularly with regard to the branch of geometry. Euclid, in laying out the foundations of mathematics, sought to proceed from as few as possible assumptions and then derive all of the formulas and theorems which thinkers of the time recognized as true.

For mathematics in general, he began with five axioms, fundamental truths that could not otherwise be proven via mathematical argument. When he got to geometry, he added five additional postulates--which are also axioms for Euclidean geometry--as the basis of his system. To whit, he postulated the following must be possible:
1. To draw a straight line from any point to any point.  
2. To produce a finite straight line continuously in a straight line.  
3. To describe a circle with any center and distance.  
4. That all right angles are equal to one another.  
5. That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines makes the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles.
Note how the first four are short and precise, unlike the fifth postulate (also known as the parallel postulate). Various mathematicians since Euclid have attempted to "clean up" the parallel postulate, with limited success. The problem is that it is simply not as intuitive as the others. Euclid knew this; the first twenty-eight theorems he derived in his geometry were based wholly on the first four postulates. Indeed, there is a geometric system--called absolute geometry--that is limited to only the first four postulates and the theorems that can be deduced from them.

And there are also other systems--called hyperbolic geometry and elliptic geometry--based on a different fifth postulate. One of the ways of rewriting the fifth is the following (the Playfair postulate):
Through any given point can be drawn exactly one straight line parallel to a given line.
If we allow that, instead of one parallel line, more than one parallel line could be drawn through the given point, we end up with hyperbolic geometry. If we allow that no parallel lines could be drawn through that point, we end up with elliptic geometry. Thus, these two geometries have come to be known as non-Euclidean geometries, since they both violate one of Euclid's postulates (absolute geometry is not non-Euclidean, since it doesn't actually violate the parallel postulate).

What is significant about the existence of these geometries is that they are fully functional; the same theorems that are true for Euclidean geometry that don't require the fifth postulate remain true in non-Euclidean geometry. And drawings can be made, shapes constructed, and problems--including real-world ones--solved with these geometries.

There's a lesson here, as well. For centuries upon centuries, Euclid's postulates went largely unchallenged. There was no geometry but his; to suggest otherwise was near-blasphemous, a strange thing in the world of science. Thus, Euclid's assumptions came to be taken as wholly foundational: the five postulates for his geometry were accepted as absolute truths; there were not merely theoretical truths, they were truths of nature, of the physical world as well. They were--to return to the Greek world and Aristotle--a priori truths, requiring no empirical evidence for verification. And all of the theorems subsequently derived from them were the same. In total, they were taken to be the only rules that actually could and did describe reality.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Intrasession v. Intersession: understanding the D.C. Circuit's decision

Back in January of 2012, President Obama made the decision to go ahead with three recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, even though the Senate was not technically in recess, but rather was in a pro-forma session (which consists of the Senate being called to order then dismissed by gavel every three days, even if the bulk of the Senate is not present). Such sessions are generally business-free since a quorum (51 Senators) is unlikely to be present.

The White House has argued that a pro-forma session is a procedural "trick" and does not qualify as a part of a real session, thus the President is free to ignore it, for purposes of recess appointments. But today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against the Administration, finding that the three appointments violated the Constitution because--specifically--they were not recess appointments, as outlined in the Constitution, proper. According to the D.C. Circuit such recess appointments can only occur in between official sessions of Congress, intersession periods, not intrasession periods.

There is a great deal of confusion--intentional or otherwise--on the ruling, on its basis and what it means. Some--like the folks at MediaMatters--have it all wrong. They seem intent on pointing out that intrasession appointments have been fairly common since World War II--which the decision of the D.C. Circuit does indeed note--and thus this decision represents a radical move, as it apparently isn't about pro forma sessions, at all.

This is an incorrect reading of the decision. An intrasession period is--by definition--a break during a called session of Congress. Traditionally, each Congress meets for two sessions, one each year, for this is the minimum number of meetings mandated by the Constitution in Article I, Section 4:
The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.
The Twentieth Amendment subsequently changed the above date to January 3rd. Thus, Congress must be called into session once each year. But when does such a session officially end? Simple, when Congress votes to end it. To do so, it (each House, actually) votes for an Adjournment sine die (meaning an adjournment without a designated date of return). But note this: there is no limitation on how many individual sessions a particular Congress can hold, as long as it has an adjournment sine die. Rather than hold multiple sessions a year, Congress has opted to simply adjourn for breaks of various lengths at different times during the year. Such breaks could be--and still often are--quite long, particularly during election years (got to have time to campaign, after all).

Thus, intrasession periods have ranged in length from a handful of days to multiple weeks. In the more distant past of the nation--prior to World War II--such periods were almost never used by the President to make recess appointments (three times over at least 80 years). And that's because they were understood to not be the periods for doing so, per the Constitution. As the decision rightly notes, the power of the President to appoint lackeys to federal office was seen as a dangerous one; it was a power to be checked, to be curbed, to be limited. At the same time, the Framers recognized that there would be times of great emergency. This is the sole reason for allowing recess appointments, not as a means of getting around an obstinate Congress.

Sorry Nick, Hillary Clinton is nothing like Oliver North

Over at Reason, Nick Gillespie has a piece entitled "3 Incredibly Outrageous Evasions by Hillary Clinton About Benghazi." He quite fairly takes issue with 1) Clinton's claim that she "takes responsibility," 2) her attempt at avoiding that responsibility by noting the million+ cables her office receives, and 3) her slimy "what difference at this point does it make" rhetorical question.

Clinton really isn't taking responsibility; she's shirking it with every fiber of her being. She's letting people lower on the food chain take the real heat, people who were likely hamstrung--when it came to requests for more security--by Clinton and the Administration. But if that's the case, the truth will likely never come out. If it does, it will be years--if not decades--from now, at which point it will most certainly not make any difference.

And citing the number of cables that her office receives--1.43 million, interesting that she can cite that very close approximation at will, isn't it?--is just so obviously disingenuous, it's scary that people think she should possibly be President in four years. As Gillespie rightly notes, Clinton is running State, she's not supposed to handle everything herself. But she is supposed to make sure all those cables end up on the right desks and she has plenty of help in that regard. And frankly, given the focus on events in Arab Spring-land, it's highly unlikely that she didn't know about the requests for more security in Benghazi and Libya. In other words, she's most likely lying about that.

The idea that none of this matters now, that it makes no difference, is equally deceptive. Clinton is a former Senator; she understands the concept of oversight. Whether she likes it or not, Congress is doing its job by probing this matter, if only to understand where things went wrong and how to avoid a repetition of the Benghazi incident, wherein a sitting U.S. Ambassador was assassinated while on the job, a point that is often minimized with "four americans killed" talking point. This is not to say Stevens' life was more valuable than that of others killed in Benghazi, only that such an incident represents something more than just a tragedy.

I have to admit, however, that Clinton has done a fair job at State, given the Administration she is a part of. Many times, she's been one of the only adults in the room. But that doesn't excuse her actions here. And we all know she can be something of a liar. Remember that nonsense about landing under sniper fire in Bosnia, then running for cover? Remember how the story was shot down by the comedian Sinbad? Years from now, she'll no doubt tell tales of being physically assaulted by Republicans, while she tried to give testimony.

All that said, Gillespie opens his piece with the following comparison:
The scene reminded me of nothing so much as Oliver North's appearance before a joint Congressional committee investigating Iran-Contra back in the 1980s. Not because of anything Clinton said but the way that she carried herself and the ease with which she wrapped herself in the flag and tragedy to obscure the simple fact that she wasn't going to answer anything. North famously showed up to testify in a military uniform that had nothing to do with his day job of subverting the U.S. Constitution from the basement of the Reagan White House. Clinton couldn't repeat that fashion statement but she was able to pound the table and choke up at all the right moments to evade serious discussion not simply of major screw-ups, but major screw-ups that will go unaccounted for.
When North went before Congress in 1987, I was in college. I watched much of the proceedings with hundreds of others on a big screen television at the student union. Nick is about my age, so I'm guessing he likely saw the proceedings, as well. Yet, we seem to have very different memories of them.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

From wolves to dogs: a diet of domestication

I have two dogs, a mutt and a pure-bred Siberian Husky. The mutt---named Ranger, from the Latin Powerus Rangerus--is mostly Lab, though he might have some Boxer in him as well, along with who knows what else. We got him from a shelter some years ago (he's about 9 or 10 now, I think). He's lovable, but not particularly bright. The Husky--Shadow--we got from a Siberian Husky rescue org in Florida (people often buy Huskies as puppies, not knowing their needs as adult dogs). She's wicked smart and a stone cold killer, when it comes to animals--any animals--entering our property without permission. And she's still quite young (5 or 6).

My youngest one has decided, however, that we only have one dog (my wife would like us to have zero, by the way): the mutt, Ranger. For according to her--she's five--Shadow is not actually a dog. Shadow is a wolf. And of course, Shadow does look quite wolf-ish, being a Husky and all, because Huskies are one of the oldest breeds of dogs in the world. And they were bred as working dogs, for strength and stamina, so it's no wonder their wolf-like qualities have persisted, since we know that domestic dogs--all of them, every breed--are descended from wolves.

Still, the question of how exactly domestic dogs evolved from their wolf forbearers remains an open one. It's now a generally accepted fact that the modern dog traces back to a particular species of wolf, the Eurasian grey wolf (the similarities in appearance to dogs like the Husky are obvious, as can be seen with the above picture of my dog and the one of the grey to the left). The issues of where and when, however, are still disputed. Many geneticists argue that the original domestication of wolves occurred primarily in Southern East Asia, in the regions around and just South of the Yangtze river basin.

I'm no geneticist, but I've always found these arguments convincing, insofar as I am able to understand the data. They are based on the level of genetic diversity--along with specific genetic markers--being much higher among dogs in East Asia than in other parts of the world (note: appearance is not, in and of itself, indicative of diversity). Similar evidence--levels of genetic diversity--is used with regard to explaining the "races" of mankind by establishing the where and when of primitive man's initial exodus from Africa.

However, though the above theory continues to be dominant, it is not the only one being advanced. Recently, the idea of domestication occurring first--or at least independently--in Africa, not East Asia, has been gaining traction:
The team found genetic diversity among African village dogs is just as diverse as that of East Asian dogs, leading them to question the hypothesis of an East Asian origin for dog domestication.  
Dr Boyko told BBC News: "I think it means that the conclusion that was drawn before might have been premature. It's a consequence of having a lot of street dogs from East Asia that were sampled, compared to elsewhere. 
"The reason that East Asia looked more diverse than elsewhere was not because East Asia as a continent had more diverse dogs than elsewhere but because non breed street and village dogs are more diverse than breed dogs."
The issue of sampling strikes me as a fair one to raise and I can't help but notice a kind of researcher bias potentially also at play: Asian-based geneticists and researchers seem fixated on an Asian origin, African-based ones on an African origin, and European ones on an European origin. There is apparently a bit of pride in this regard, as unscientific as that may be.

The last--the theory that domestication occurred in Europe--is largely out of favor now, though. Genetic analysis does not support the hypothesis, though oddly enough archaeological evidence clearly does, as the first link above notes. But the author--in arguing for a Southeast Asian origin--then allows this is a result of geographical bias on the part of researchers focusing on Europe, which is exactly what those arguing for an African origin are saying about the Southeast Asia crowd.

It's a little comical, in some ways. But then it may very well point to a different truth also accepted by some researchers: domestication occurred in multiple places and at multiple times in history; there's no reason so suppose there was a single region--geographically speaking--that was primary in this regard. Of course, such diplomatic conclusions rarely pay the bills.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Inaugural funding: from Big Change to No Change

In December of 2008, after defeating Senator McCain in the General Election, President-elect Obama's campaign began sending out requests for donations to its supporters (or to anyone who was on their mailing lists). These e-mails read as follows (after a first-name salutation):
On January 20th, our journey to bring change will officially begin.

We're organizing the most open and accessible inauguration in our nation's history. And we're doing it without contributions from Washington lobbyists or big corporations.

Just like we did on the campaign, we're relying entirely on supporters like you -- ordinary people giving whatever they can afford to make this an event for all Americans.

I know we've asked a lot of you. But changing the way business is done in Washington will take a commitment from all of us. Right now, you can help give this administration a strong start.

And if you make a donation of any amount before midnight tonight, you could be selected to come to Washington, D.C., and be part of the welcome ceremony, the swearing in, the Inaugural Parade, and the Inaugural Community Ball.

Make a donation of $5 or more and be part of the historic moment you made possible:

[link to donation page]
 
We have a long road ahead of us, and we're going to face some major challenges as soon as we start. But I know I can count on you every step of the way.

Thank you for everything you've done and happy New Year,

Barack

P.S. -- You could be there for this historic moment even if you cannot make a donation. You can show your support by sharing what this inauguration means to you. Learn more here:

[link to donation page]
And so the "journey to bring change" to Washington, D.C. began, with inaugural events funded totally by individuals (donations capped at $50k per indivividual), with no dirty corporate money. For this approach, Obama was showered with praise from people in the media--and his political supporters--throughout the land. Team Obama wanted this praise, too. They were damn proud of what they were doing, of the change they were bringing:
A spokeswoman for the inauguration, Linda Douglass, said the Obama organization has taken unprecedented measures to ensure transparency and limit influence, banning direct corporate donations, limiting bundled totals to $300,000 and making donors' names public. "We have the broadest restrictions on fund raising that have been applied to any inaugural in history," she said.
There we have it: "the broadest restrictions on fund raising," ever. And why not? It was a part of the platform of the President in 2008, no lobbyists, no special interests, no corporate favoritism. Barack Obama was to be a true man of the people and his administration was to be the most open and transparent in the history of the nation.

In that same light, in 2009 the inaugural committee made a point of staging events that would be more welcoming to the general public. But some still criticized the effort, noting that much of the record-setting money raised for the festivities in 2009 came from the same heavy-duty "bundlers" who always seem to be leading the charge. And even though no corporate money was accepted, many of the top donors--writing the $50k checks--were corporate executives from Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and yes, Hollywood. Still, Team Obama defended what was happening, insisting that it represented true change, monumental change:
“It’s the same well-connected big-money people who are now funding the inaugural,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist with Public Citizen. “What they get is a chance to influence policy or get government contracts or earmarks.” 
Linda Douglass, a spokeswoman for the Obama inaugural committee, disputed that notion and said donors could not buy access.  
“No one who has contributed to President-elect Obama has ever been led to believe that they’re going to have any special influence with him,” Ms. Douglass said. “He is passionately committed to changing business as usual and breaking the grip of special interests on government.”
To be fair to the President and his efforts here, this was change. There most definitely were far more individual donors for the inaugural events then there were for past Presidents in the modern era. And the events themselves were attended by far more people, as well, many of them just average citizens. An estimated 400,000 people attended the inaugural events for Bush in 2005, Over 1.5 million were on hand for Obama's in 2009. Sorry critics, that's change.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The other side of the coin: what Obama got right

My previous piece on the President's second Inaugural Address was pretty harsh. And that's because some of the things the President said were pretty ridiculous. And pretty deceptive, in service to the President's own ideology. But he said some things that were spot on, that are not only true but are also things that many Republicans and conservatives need to hear, need to understand, and need to accept. This portion is what I'm talking about:
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.
Not all of the above is right and true, but some of it most surely is. And I've broached one of those issues before. My words, from back in January of last year:
Many of the Republican hopefuls--like those in the tea party movement--recognize this, I think. But at the same time, they also spend what is in my opinion an inordinate amount of time on specific issues that--in the context of the most important problems--are just not that significant. I'm speaking of abortion and same-sex marriage.  
The libertarian in me says "let it go, people have a right to make choices." For no matter what anyone says, an abortion is a medical procedure and it can be justified. Is it a "good thing"? No. But it must be allowed though not encouraged. And same-sex marriages will take place in defacto form if the States do not allow them. The struggle against them is pointless and--again, in my opinion--deeply wrong-headed, since people must be allowed to seek happiness, especially when that happiness promotes social cohesion with no cost to others.
Obama is wholly and absolutely correct on this issue; the continued opposition to gay marriage among many Republicans and conservatives is useless and stupid. Look at what the official Republican Party platform says about this issue:
We recognize and honor the courageous efforts of those who bear the many burdens of parenting alone, even as we believe that marriage, the union of one man and one woman must be upheld as the national standard, a goal to stand for, encourage, and promote through laws governing marriage. We embrace the principle that all Americans should be treated with respect and dignity.
What a bunch of doublespeak. "All Americans should be treated with dignity and respect" unless they're gay Americans and want to live as a family. Really, I'm categorically opposed to almost all "laws governing marriage." It's not the Federal Government's business to make such laws. No where in the Constitution is it given such authority, anymore than it is given the authority to mandate how and when political speech takes place or the authority to arbitrarily limit the scope of the Second Amendment. Too many Republicans and conservatives see the truth of the latter two issues, but refuse to grasp the truth of the former. So Obama is indeed correct when he calls for equal treatment for "our gay brothers and sisters."

Twilight of the Libertines: we're gonna need a bigger hammer

Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” 
 
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.
With these words, Barack Obama began his second Inaugural Address and his second term as President of the United States. The speech is being heralded as great, historic, and the like by many of the usual Obama fanboys in the media. Personally, I thought it was well-written and well-delivered. Like most inaugural speeches. Let's remember that people who become President even once, let alone twice, tend to be able to deliver a decent speech when the occasion demands it.

In the rest of the speech, the President more or less laid out his direction for the nation across the next four years, his hoped-for direction at any rate. In that regard, there were two key passages near the end of the speech, each beginning with "We, the people" (an excellent rhetorical construct, by the way) that require closer examination. First:
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Let's be crystal clear here: the President--via Obamacare, alone--has already driven up the cost of healthcare and increased the deficit. The facts are pouring in and speak for themselves. Insurance premiums are rising, not falling. And this is because "basic measures" are being arbitrarily increased by the government, not in response to overall needs, but in response to very specific ones we are all --those of us paying insurance premiums, I should say--being forced to fund.

As to "hard choices" and "the size of the deficit," people would do well to remember President Obama's first Inaugural Address and what he said therein (my boldface):
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works--whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Four years under Obama and the question as to whether or not his policies work in this regard has been answered. The middle class has been losing income across the last four years. Job growth has been at the expense of these income earners, as the great majority of "created jobs" under the Obama Administration have been low-paying ones that have gone to people at or near retirement age or people just entering the workforce (mostly the former). Yet now, Obama fails to recognize these consequences of his policies, instead choosing to assume things are somehow headed in the right direction.

As to the part in bold from his first Address, what is there really to say? It's never happened. Those managing the public's dollars are not being held to account when they fail miserably in this regard. Obama has won a second term and Harry Reid is still in office with a Democratic majority in the Senate. It's somewhat surreal. In this second Address, Obama says almost nothing with regard to controlling spending and addressing the deficit, just the bit about making "hard choices" above. But what choices? Where are they?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Algeria, Mali, and deals with devils

In the early morning hours of January 16th--less than a week ago--a heavily armed group of (on the eastern edge of Algeria, very close to Libya) terrorists took control of the Tigantourine gas facility just outside of In Aménas, Algeria . These terrorists were under the command of one Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a native Alegerian, a supporter of the Afgan mujahideen, and a former al Qaeda  leader (in Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM). Belmokhtar spilt from AQIM to form his own terror-group, the Mua'qi'oon Biddam Brigade (westernized as "Those Who Sign in Blood" or "The Signatories in Blood"), though he continues to claim allegiance to the international al Qaeda, proper.

Belmokhtar's reasons for the attack and subsequent hostage-taking at the facility were expressly given as a response to French intervention in Mali, for the "humiliation of the Algerian people's honour...by opening Algerian airspace to French planes." For war-torn Mali has its own problems with AQIM, one of the principal groups at the head of the Islamist rebellion there.

But aside from this link--the Islamist one--there are other connections between Belmokhtar and Mali, between Algeria and Mali. The chief one is the ethnic group known as the Tuareg, an historically nomadic group of the larger Berber peoples who populate much of the Saharan regions of Africa, including parts of Algeria, Libya, Mali, and Niger. Belmokhtar has several Tuareg wives and recruits from them heavily.

Why? In Mali and other nations, the Tuareg have been actively calling for a Tuareg state for decades. And truth be told, the Taureg are one of those groups victimized by European Colonialism. As the map indicates, there is a very definite region populated by the Tuareg, a region needlessly fractured by European-drawn boundaries. In Mali, proper, Tuaregs--under the leadership of The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (the MLNA)--successfully took control of the Northern half of Mali in early 2012, naming it Azawad.

But the success of the MLNA came with a price: the group accepted the assistance of Islamist groups like Anser al-Dine and--ultimately--AQIM whose goals were about the establishment of a strict (Sharia-based) Muslim state, not a Tuareg homeland. And the Islamists ultimately wrested control from the MLNA, prompting a more aggressive government response. It was at this point--in late 2012--that France decided to intercede on behalf of the internationally recognized Malian government.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: Shakespeare Miami's Twelfth Night

Like me, my kids enjoy their movies. One of their favorites--all three of them, ages 5, 12, and 15--is the comedy She's the Man, a 2006 teen romp starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum, and based on William Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night. For some reason, She's the Man isn't a favorite among critics; maybe they just don't get comedy, I don't know. Regardless, when a friend informed me that there would be a a performance of Twelfth Night at a nearby outdoor facility (Pinecrest Gardens, née Parrot Jungle), I figured it would be a great opportunity to expose the kids (not the youngest) to a little high-class culture for a change.

The play is being put on by Shakespeare Miami, a theater troupe and cultural promotion organization that has the audacity to hold free performances, as well as hold various free workshops and discussion groups. My one great sorrow here is that this review is not following my attendance on opening night--that was last week--but on the second to last night. Hear that kids? There's only one show left, today at 5:00 (Sunday, January 20th). And it's free. Free, do you hear? Shakespeare for everyone!

But is it any good?

In a word, yes. We took our seats--front row, by the way--in the small amphitheater, my older two kids and I along with their twelve-year-old cousin, and patiently waited for the show to begin. There was no curtain, the set was minimalist with the few set pieces being a couch/bench and a bar. Oh, did I mention that this production was set in the Roaring '20's? There's fun for ya. The actors were quite close; it was very intimate. Not only did they enter and exit scenes from stage right and stage left, but also from the audience, itself. In a few scenes, actors spoke their soliloquies from the audience.

In keeping with the setting, the performance was interspersed with a few popular songs from the era, along with a couple of tangos. Despite the Shakespearean language--they stayed true to the original in this regard--these additions worked very well, as did the overall setting.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why the gun debates matter

Full disclosure: I do not own any handguns. Nor do I own any assault-style weapons with large magazines. What I do own is a shotgun, an antique shotgun actually, though still in working order. I do not have a concealed-carry permit (and am very much opposed to such permits, as a matter of course) and I am not currently a member of the NRA. And I have no intentions to change any of these things in the near future. The debates on gun control have not sent me rushing out to stock up on weapons or on ammunition and I certainly do not feel a need to have a gun with me at all times "just in case." And quite frankly, it wouldn't bother me in the least to see handguns go the way of the dodo, when it comes to private ownership of the same. I am, in short, a poor poster-child for staunch advocates of the Second Amendment, with regard to how I live my life.

That said, I am a staunch advocate for a very traditional interpretation of the Second Amendment; I am very much opposed to increased Federal measures designed to limit access to and ownership of various kinds of firearms.

What is happening now in this nation, some of the steps that are being taken--or are being recommended to be taken--by the Federal Government via the current administration, are bad news. They won't solve any problems and they won't magically lead to a decrease in violent deaths, gun-related or otherwise.

Following Sandy Hook, President Obama directed Vice-President Biden to fashion a set of recommendation--encompassing executive and legislative actions--to address the now-supposedly-critical issue of gun violence. But before looking at them, let's talk a moment about how this became a supposed crisis.

Sandy Hook was a great tragedy. I, myself, considered pulling my kids from school when the news broke. My middle child was deeply disturbed by the events, so much so that he left school early the next day, do to all the talk in his school. And while it is true that Sandy Hook was not the first tragedy of this sort--just as it's true that the events in Aurora or in Virginia Tech were not the first of their type either--the specifics of Sandy Hook still give one pause, given the ages of the children killed.

That said, there is no evidence--none--that this is reflective of some sort of trend. Yet, it's being sold that way, even by people who have done the research. For instance, here is a very detailed piece at Mother Jones on mass shootings. It's problematic, insofar as it only goes back to 1982, but nonetheless it is instructive. Look at the chart, below:


There just isn't a meaningful trend here, especially if one factors in population growth. Yet another article in Mother Jones--by the same author and drawing on the article above--opens with this (my boldface):
It is perhaps too easy to forget how many times this has happened. The horrific mass murder at a movie theater in Colorado on July 20, another at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on August 5, another at a manufacturer in Minneapolis on September 27—and then the unthinkable nightmare at a Connecticut elementary school on December 14—are the latest in an epidemic of such gun violence over the last three decades.
Epidemic? Minus four specific incidents--Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sand Hook, and Aurora--there's a pretty steady line to be drawn, with the occasional small spike. Even with these four, there is again no true trend, much less an epidemic. This reality has been pointed out by a number of other writers, though it continues to be roundly ignored by much of the media and those in government fixated on limiting access to firearms.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"Funding" and "Caring" are not the same thing

Yesterday, the House passed an aid package for Hurricane Sandy, totaling some $50.5 billion dollars. And in that regard, there are some things that are not in doubt:
  • Hurricane Sandy caused extensive--and near-catastrophic in some places--damage, to private and public property. 
  • The States and the Federal Government are responsible for repairing all of the damage to public property and public infrastructure. 
  • It is entirely appropriate and fair for States and the Fed to help citizens as well, with money, vital goods, and services.
Really, I haven't heard anyone dispute the above points. But what I have heard are claims that any supposed delay from Congress in passing legislation is indicative of a lack of caring on the part of those who were holding things up (i.e. Boehner and the Republicans). What I have heard are claims that anyone who brings up the issue of paying for this package doesn't care about people, doesn't care about how they are suffering.

And this kind of response is all too common, whenever someone--anyone--questions money spent on any sort of entitlement program or other government-funded handout, disaster or no disaster.

"We need to reform Welfare."

"You don't care about people."

"Extending unemployment benefits indefinitely is not a good idea."

"People are suffering and you don't care."

And so on. The mindset of the critics here is simple: questioning the funding of a given program or initiative--either with regard to the funding itself, or even just the amount of funding--is equivalent to not caring about other people. It marks one as a heartless bastard. And a good portion of the population is easily moved to agreement with such characterizations, because they are easy to make and play well. Those who make them get to mount a moral high horse with relative ease.

Why? Because the funding--the money--they are championing is not coming directly out of their own pockets or those of anyone else. It's coming from the government, which of course always has money to spend. It's a pitifully easy--and disingenuous--position to take, which I guess explains why so many people are quick to take it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cultural suicide by...suicide?

On December 14th of last year, two brothers--twins, actually--were euthanized in Brussels, Belgium:
Distraught about going blind, 45-year-old deaf twin brothers from Belgium chose to be euthanized because they couldn't bear not to see one another, according to reports from Flanders.  
Marc and Eddy Verbessem of Putte died Dec. 14 by lethal injection at Brussels University Hospital. Voluntary euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since September 2002.
Their elder brother and parents were with them, just before the end. There is little doubt that they were facing a hard future, that they would require a great deal of help. I cannot rightly say how I would feel if I found myself in a such a situation; I can imagine circumstances wherein I might want to end my own life, so I don't want diminish their perspective and their choice.

That said, the idea of voluntary eunthanasia (or assisted suicide)--sponsored by the state--troubles me greatly. Many argue that such a program is both just and humane, that it allows people the ability to end their own lives with dignity, as opposed to doing the same via means that may be painful, gruesome, and not always effective (thus possibly creating a situation where one is even worse off than before).

The Belgian law, as noted above, has been in force since 2002.  A similar law was enacted in Switzerland in 2003, in the Netherlands in 2001, and in Luxembourg in 2009. The laws in these four nations are not the only ones that allow assisted suicide, but they are--by far--the most open and extensive. They permit individuals to essentially make their case, to convince doctors that they are or soon will be suffering terribly, either physically or psychologically. In the United States, both Oregon and Washington have laws allowing assisted suicide, but those eligible are terminally ill patients only who have little time left to live.

This report from the European Institute of Bioethics gives an overview of the law in Belgium, how it works, how it has been applied, and various statistics in that regard for the past ten years. Of particular note are the numbers of assisted suicides under this law in each year:
2003 = 235 declared cases of euthanasia
2004 = 349 declared cases of euthanasia
2005 = 393 declared cases of euthanasia
2006 = 429 declared cases of euthanasia
2007 = 495 declared cases of euthanasia
2008 = 704 declared cases of euthanasia
2009 = 822 declared cases of euthanasia
2010 = 953 declared cases of euthanasia
2011 = 1133 declared cases of euthanasia
That's a pretty obvious trend. And one can't help but notice how the numbers jump in 2008, as compared to 2007, and continue going up rapidly after that point. Of course, this coincides with the world-wide recession. But even apart from that, the numbers are still large. Belgium was already one of the countries with the most suicides per capita. One can't help but assume this law has pushed Belgium higher on that list. And indeed, data compiled from 2006 to 2009 suggests Belgium has--far and away--the highest suicide rate of any first-world nation, certainly of any European nation.

Why?

I can't say I know--with certainty--the answer to this question, but it is most certainly one that should be asked. Beyond that, however, is the issue that we started with: state-sponsored assisted suicide. Is it a good thing, a noble thing, or not? I noted some of the obvious arguments offered in defense of it. And truth be told, these arguments are not easy to overcome; we do, after all, own our bodies, each of us is responsible for our own lives. If we no longer want to live them, why should we not be able to bring them to an end?

Why Lance Armstrong matters

Stories are out that Armstrong has finally come clean and admitted what everyone even remotely familiar with him and the sport of professional cycling has know for some time now: he cheated, he "doped" to improve his ability to compete in things like the Tour de France:
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey that is scheduled for broadcast on her network on Thursday, Lance Armstrong confessed that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career, according to two people briefed on the interview, which was recorded Monday in Austin, Tex.
That was typical of the initial batch of stories following the taping of Armstrong's interview and his apology to the people at the Livestrong Foundation. Since then, something of a caveat has emerged:
“He did not come clean in the manner I expected,” Oprah said during a segment promoting the interview, which will be aired over two nights on the OWN Network. “It was surprising to me. I would say that for myself, my team, all of us in the room, we were mesmerized by some of his answers. . . .
As the first story notes, Armstrong is reportedly preparing to name names, himself. He may offer testimony against officials in the International Cycling Union--the governing body of the sport--as well as against people involved with his team, the one sponsored by the USPS, including its owners. This all suggests that Armstrong's "confession" may be one steeped in justifications and excuses, as opposed to a simple mea culpa.

And make no mistake, there are plenty of people out there willing to give Armstrong a pass on all of this. Some argue that doping in professional cycling is so widespread as to make it meaningless to single out Lance Armstrong or anyone else. Of course, this ignores a simple reality: widespread is not equivalent to universal. If even one cyclist competed without doping (and most people in the sport are quick to point to Cadel Evans as an example of such a person), then the argument fails.

Others argue that issues like drug use--for whatever reason--should not even be under consideration, with regard to athletes in various sports. They argue that drug usage is a) simply a personal lifestyle choice and/or b) a choice available to all. With regard to a), there is some validity here when it comes to recreational drugs (some, not a lot), but not with performance-enhancing drugs. With regard to b), that's true about pretty much everything, as given. But the ability to make a choice doesn't mean there are no wrong choices; such a standard is just silly.

Because the truth is that Armstrong was cheating. He knows he was cheating, he did everything he could to prevent people from finding out that he was cheating. Armstrong has consistently lied in this regard, over and over again (until yesterday, apparently). Did other cyclists cheat, as well? Sure. Many have been caught and punished in that regard. Armstrong's punishment was far more severe than those of others, it is true, but then other cheaters didn't win seven Tour de France titles and parlay that success into millions and millions of dollars.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Of Kierkegaard, Seinfeld, and Political Gimmickery

Yes, Kierkegaard really did say "Once you label me, you negate me." Dick Van Patten might have said it too I guess, but Kierkegaard said it first, no doubt about it. The meaning of the quote is not all that difficult to comprehend: labeling a person as means of defining who they are strips them of their individuality.

But is it true? If I use the word "liberal" with reference to some politician--if I label them a liberal--is that unfair as a matter of course? Is it similarly less than helpful to do so? The answers to these questions depend on my purpose with such a label. If I am using it as a means of dismissing whatever that politician says or does, then my labeling is indeed unhelpful and unfair, for it indicates that I am not actually considering what is being said or done, but rather am purposefully ignoring such.

And truth be told, people do this all of the time. Private citizens do it, media people do it, and politicians do it: "he's a liberal, so of course he's lying," "she's a conservative, so whatever she says is only about establishing a theocracy," and so on. Such specifics lead, themselves, to over-arching generalizations: "liberals don't understand the economy," "conservatives think all government is bad," "Democrats want to punish success," "Republicans hate poor people." And this creates a body of such generalizations, with regard to each political label, that establishes a set of core assumptions about that label for those who oppose it; even when they know some of these generalizations are extreme or hyperbole, the general ideas creep in and informs predispositions.

The end result: cheap rhetoric replaces critical thought, more often than not. So there is a great deal of truth in Kierkegaard's words, such labeling does tend to lead to negations of the individual.

But this is not the only way labels are used. They also serve as a means of simple categorization, for purposes of understanding with regard to day-to-day existence. For instance, if I use my re-gifted Label Baby Junior and apply labels to all things in my home, those labels negate nothing. My footstool is labeled "footstool" because it really is a footstool. My eldest child is labeled "eldest child" because she really is my eldest child. The idea contained in such labels is that of a Platonic Form--for lack of a better way to say it--insofar as there is a theoretical set-defining concept for each label. Sometimes these forms represent sets of one, like "my eldest child," and sometimes they represent sets with many members, like "chair." Both labels can be taken as legitimate and informative, both are Aristotelian categories (though not Kantian ones).

When it comes to the rest of the world outside of my home, such labeling remains useful. In that respect, labeling someone a "liberal" or a "conservative" is entirely legitimate; it negates no one but serves as means to categorize a particular individual for purposes of general understanding and reasoning. In such cases, the individual is likely to accept the label, even use it for purposes of self-identification, both to express an ideological point of view and membership in groups, both theoretical and real.

Some time ago, I created a Facebook Group, the "No Groups Group." I did so with tongue firmly in cheek; the group's description was "this group is for people who don't want to join any groups." I think it peaked at around three hundred members; not bad for a group that didn't exist in a philosophical sense. And I'm sure most who joined did so as a joke, for the idea of a group made up of people who are not members of any groups is as flawed as the idea of the set of all things not in any set: both are logically untenable, mathematically impossible.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Chris Christie isn't the answer, never has been

Chris Christie 2016. There seem to be an awful lot of people that both see this as a real possibility and as a pretty good idea. Granted, Christie kicked ass on the unions in New Jersey. And granted, Christie stood tall in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (I categorically refuse to call it "Superstorm" Sandy; it was a hurricane). Christie is also pompous enough and right often enough to look really good on occasion. Of course, when he's wrong he can look really bad.

The Daily Caller, in reviewing Christie's chances for the big time in 2016, notes just how bad--to actual fiscal conservatives--Christie looked when he criticized Boehner for not voting on the Sandy relief package fast enough to suit Christie:
But when the Congress considered a $60 billion relief bill, there was something amiss: As the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board pointed out, the bill contained “$150 million for Alaskan fisheries; $2 million for roof repair at the Smithsonian in Washington; and about $17 billion for liberal activists under the guise of ‘community development’ funds and so-called social service grants,” among a slew of other waste.

“Far from being must-pass legislation,” the NYC-based Journal continued, “this is a disgrace to the memory of the victims and could taint legitimate efforts to deal with future disasters.”

But if anyone thought that Mr. Christie gave a damn about the fiscal obligations the House has to taxpayers across the country, his comments following the delay of the bill dashed that hope. By not rushing ahead with billions in pork-barrel spending, the House, Mr. Christie said, had “failed that most basic test of public service.”
Christie ultimately backed down a little, seemingly content with the $9 billion bill for Sandy-related aid that the House ultimately passed, a far cry from the $60 billion in the pork-laden original bill. But it's the initial emotion-driven response that tell the true tale: Christie doesn't have the temperament to sit in the Oval Office. His emotions overrode his intelligence here. As someone that took the Governorship of a State with dire financial problems due largely to waste, pork, graft, and corruption, as someone who claimed to oppose all of the above, he failed miserably when he went after Boehner, with regard to staying true to his supposed principles.

Of course, this moment endeared him to many "moderates" and earned rave reviews from many liberals and progressives who were no doubt close to wetting themselves over the perceived conflict in Republican-land. Because at the end of the day, they know Christie--if stays on this kind of course--is a loser in a national election; he'll never get enough support from the left and he'll lose significant amounts from the right, making the election easy pickings for whomever he is running against Christie (Ms. Clinton, perhaps?). And that's the real lesson from 2008.

But I said "supposed" principles, didn't I? For while I respect much of what Christie has done as Governor in New Jersey, I also have a fully functioning memory. Thus, I know that Christie is not the answer if the problem is how to restore fiscal sanity and properly limit the Federal Government into the future. For it was Chris Christie, back in 2010, who decided that a good way to help the State of New Jersey with its budget woes would be to go after unused gift cards:

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lew: mild-mannered pit bull. So what?

Recently, I talked about President Obama's choice for the office of Secretary of Defense, the always exciting former Senator, Chuck Hagel. I cited several pieces about that selection from people truly upset about it, people who think it's just a terrible--if not a dangerous--choice. Me, I think it's within Obama's purview to make the selection and I don't see anything about Hagel that should absolutely disqualify him from the job. If that's who Obama wants, then that's who he should get. But again, I don't see the appeal. Hagel just isn't special; he has no particular skill set that makes him a good choice, anymore than one that makes him a bad choice.

Hagel's a "blah" choice. And I would contrast this with Obama's initial and final choices to replace Clinton as Secretary of State: Susan Rice and John Kerry. Neither was a "blah" choice. The first was a bloody awful choice, because the Benghazi situation made it clear that Rice would not be up to the task. Running State requires something more than a simple yes-man. The latter--Kerry--was a fair choice. I may dislike Kerry's politics, but he's more than capable of filling the shoes being vacated by Clinton. And it's not like Obama was going to select a Bolton-type, anymore than he would select a Scalia-type to fill a seat on the SCOTUS.

For no matter what else, Obama is the current President of the United States. His preferences for filling various offices do matter. Those of us on the other side of the ideological spectrum must accept this reality. It's pointless to bitch and moan about--much less try to obstruct--nominations when they involve fully qualified candidates, just because those candidates are on the other team (or have been selected by the other team), so to speak.

So what about the latest unveiled "likely" nomination, Jacob (Jack) Lew as Secretary of Treasury? Jeff Sessions is literally having a cow over this:
Jack Lew must never be Secretary of Treasury. His testimony before the Senate Budget Committee less than two years ago was so outrageous and false that it alone disqualifies…

At this time of unprecedented slow growth, high unemployment, and huge deficits, we need a Secretary of Treasury that the American people, the Congress, and the world will know is up to the task of getting America on the path to prosperity not the path to decline. Jack Lew is not that man
"Must never be Secretary of Treasury." Harsh and unequivocal words. And why? Because according to Sessions, Lew--as director of the OMB--misled Congress and the American people in 2011 (February 13th on CNN, to be precise) with regard to the consequences of the Obama budget. What Lew said:
Our budget will get us, over the next several years, to the point where we can look the American people in the eye and say we're not adding to the debt anymore; we're spending money that we have each year, and then we can work on bringing down our national debt.
And a few days later--on February 15th, 2011--Obama repeated the same claim:
What my budget does is to put forward some tough choices, some significant spending cuts so that by the middle of this decade our annual spending will match our annual revenues. We will not be adding more to the national debt. It's -- so, to use a -- sort of, an analogy that families are familiar with, we're not going to be running up the credit card anymore.
Incidentally, during debt-ceiling fights pundits and politicos on the left tend to get bent out of shape when those on the right use credit-card analogies, but here we see Obama doing the exact same thing. Regardless, Politifact's "Truth-o-meter" examined the President and Lew's claim, rating it false. Empirical data since then has proven it to be false, as well. And the President's projected budget deficit for 2013--then $768 billion--looks to be in jeopardy already, with only one quarter of the year gone and an accumulated deficit of over $300 billion.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Reid Captivity: Day 1351

April, 2009. That's when the last budget resolution was passed by the Senate. Since then, all spending by the Federal Government has been authorized by unhinged appropriations bills, as Byron York explains:
The budget passed by large Democratic majorities in the first months of the Obama administration had hugely elevated levels of spending in it. By not passing a new spending plan since, Reid has in effect made those levels the new budgetary baseline. Congress has kept the government going with continuing resolutions based on the last budget signed into law.
York--along with many other people--also notes that the Senate is required to pass a budget, as a matter of law, per the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. And strictly speaking, that's true. The Act does require Congress to pass a "concurrent budget resolution" each year, no later than May 15th. But the requirement is more of an internal rule for Congress than it is a law. There is wiggle room here. And Reid--via his budget puppet Kent Conrad--has used up every bit of it that is available.

Last year, Conrad took to the floor of the Senate to defend the apparent lack of a budget from the Senate by arguing that a budget was, in fact, passed:
When they say there is no budget for the United States, they know that is not true. How do I know it is not true, and that there is a budget? Because I remember what we voted on, and it is in writing. It is a law. It is called the Budget Control Act. The Budget Control Act passed last year and contained the budget for 2012 and 2013. Some say that is not a budget. Let's look to the language of the law itself and see what it says. 
Here is what it says: “For the purpose of enforcing the Congressional Budget Act of 1974…including section 300 of that Act, and enforcing budgetary points of order in prior concurrent resolutions on the budget, the allocations, aggregates, and (spending) levels set…shall apply in the Senate in the same manner as for a concurrent resolution on the budget...” 
What they are trying to do is mislead the American people by saying we have not passed a budget resolution. What they failed to tell people is that instead of a budget resolution, we passed a budget law. What is the difference? A resolution is purely a congressional document. It never goes to the President for his signature. So instead of a resolution, we passed a budget law called the Budget Control Act. It set out spending limits not just for 2012 and 2013, it actually set out, on the discretionary side of the budget, limits for 10 years.
And Conrad is right, insofar as the Budget Control Act of 2011 does say "for the purposes of enforcing the Congressional Budget Act of 1974." The problem is, just because the language is there, it doesn't mean it's true. This, I think, is a major problem shared by many of our elected leaders. For instance, just because a bill says "for the purposes of creating jobs," it doesn't follow that what is in the bill is actually about creating jobs, much less that it will create jobs. Similarly, just because a bill is given the title "the Patriot Act," is doesn't follow that only non-patriots could oppose it or any part of it. Moreover, that Act was passed in August of 2011. At best, then, it could serve as a substitute for one year's budget resolution. That still leaves two--and soon to be three--years unaccounted for.

The requirement in the 1974 Act is for Congress--House and Senate--to formulate a basic budget for each upcoming fiscal year, a plan consistent with the CBO and the President's budget (with respect to the parts accepted by Congress) that shows money coming in and money going out. The Budget Control Act of 2011 doesn't do these things. In fact, it can't do these things with respect to future budgets. And no matter what Conrad--or Reid--claims, future Congresses are not bound by the limits set by this Act, especially not ten years down the road. That's just stupidity--or ignorance--in spades.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Hagel: I don't get the appeal

President Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense is drawing a great deal of criticism. Bret Stephens at the WSJ takes issue with the idea of Hagel's much lauded courage, specifically his political courage, by noting how Hagel's record in the Senate appears to be that of someone who simply went with whatever was in the wind, more often than not:
In each case, Mr. Hagel was articulating a view that was exactly in keeping with received Beltway wisdom. In each case, he was subsequently disproved by events. In no case was Mr. Hagel ever held to any kind of account for being wrong. In no case did he hold himself to account for being wrong.
Pulling even fewer punches, Jennifer Rubin hammers Hagel on the issues of Israel and anti-Semitism, essentially accusing Hagel of the latter:
There is no other meaning to Hagel’s phrase “Jewish lobby.” The declaration from Hagel that he is not “the senator from Israel” (Who said he should be?) is again a direct attack on Jews’ fidelity to the United States. For decades this kind of venomous language has been gaining acceptance in Europe. But never in America. In elevating Hagel the president in a real and troubling way moves us closer to Western Europe. Indeed the most disturbing aspect of Hagel’s nomination is not his impact on policy (President Obama has and will continue to make one blunder after another), but what it says about the U.S. president’s willingness to embrace a man espousing the world’s oldest hatred.
Richard Cohen, however, comes to Hagel's defense. Cohen agrees that there are problems with the choice, but some of the criticisms are unfair. For instance, he points out that Hagel has recanted his previous display of homophobia, though Stephens' point was that Hagel only did so because it became politically advantageous to do so. But it is the charge of anti-Semitism that really perturbs Cohen:

Monday, January 7, 2013

Corporations are bodies, but are they people?

There's being clever, then there's being stupid in an attempt to be clever. A California man clearly falls into the latter category with his rather pathetic attempt to make a point about corporate personhood. Pulled over by police for driving in the car pool lane (which, by the way, is a moronic thing all by itself), Jonathan Frieman from San Rafael had an excuse:
He waved his corporation papers at the officer, he told NBCBayArea.com, saying that corporations are people under California law.
Of course this was all a set-up, an attempt to get before the court to make has point:
Frieman doesn't actually support this notion. For more than 10 years, Frieman says he had been trying to get pulled over to get ticketed and to take his argument to court -- to challenge a judge to determine that corporations and people are not the same. Mission accomplished in October, when he was slapped with a fine...
Frankly, this stunt--as a means of challenging the idea of corporate personhood--is about as stupid as attempting to marry a corporation to make the same point. And it actually fails on its face, since while corporate papers define what a corporation is to some extent, they are not the physical embodiment of the corporation itself, anymore than the U.S. Constitution is actually the totality of the Federal Government. Just because I have a copy of the latter in my car, it doesn't follow that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are in the car with me.

Still, the driver here--Mr. Frieman--thinks he has a legitimate point. The above story even links to an op-ed written by the same back in 2011, laying out his arguments. Through the use of some faulty logic, he ultimately deduces that corporate personhood leads to the legalization of slavery. But it's too silly to get into. Instead, let's talk about the underlying concept here: corporate personhood.

As a legal doctrine, corporate personhood has been around for a long, long time. It wasn't conceived in the United States and today it exists in most other countries besides the United States, so have a care not to fall for some of the hype out there. The fundamental idea behind it is that a corporation (or really, any chartered organization) can be legally treated as a person in specific situations. For instance, this doctrine is what allows corporation to own property. Without it, property ownership is limited to individuals and the state (though a state could arbitrarily assign ownership to a corporation, I guess).

In the United States, proper, there is a body of legal decisions with respect to corporate personhood, dating all the way back the the eighteenth century where--in 1790--future Supreme Court Justice John Marshall argued a case before the Virginia Supreme Court. Bracken v. The Visitors of William & Mary College was about whether or not the Board of the school had the authority to change the core curriculum (to a law school) therein and terminate professors to that end. Marshall argued that it did, that the charter of the college created a legal entity whose internal decisions--made by the Board of the school--were generally valid as a matter of course and that some of the protections in the Virginia Constitution extended to the school, with regard to government interference.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Coming soon: means testing for Social Security

In a new study published in Demography (a journal published by the Population Association of America), academics Samir Soneji and Gary King investigate how the SSA forecasts its future spending needs as a means of properly structuring current spending and revenue sources. They determine that the SSA estimates are flawed, that longevity is essentially being low-balled (meaning people are living and likely will continue to live longer on average than the SSA predicts). Thus, the point at which the SSA Trust Fund (theoretical though it may be, but more on that in a moment) will be depleted is coming sooner than expected:
For example, by improving only mortality forecasting methods, we predict three fewer years of net surplus, $730 billion less in Social Security Trust Funds, and program costs that are 0.66% greater for projected taxable payroll by 2031 compared with SSA projections.
Currently, the Federal Government and the SSA are operating under the belief that 2033 is the "drop dead" date for Social Security, when the Trust Fund zeros out and when revenues from the Payroll Tax (which fund Social Security payments) will need to be supplemented directly by the Federal Government in order for the SSA to meet its obligations (assuming no changes are made to the current system).

This is a critical moment, not only for the tangible realities that will impact the SSA and the Federal Government, but also for what it means from a theoretical standpoint. Heretofore, the Social Security system has been a self-funded one, supposedly a supplemental retirement program for the citizenry at large. Everyone--who is working--pays into the system and with those funds, people who have retired are provided with a stipend (varying in amount, based on how much one put in to the system prior to retirement). As a separate system, Social Security monies are not tabulated as a part of the Federal budget, per se; they're essentially "off-budget."

And that's the correct way to manage the SSA, it's exactly why the SSA has been able to function properly for so long. This is no mean point. Regardless of one's ideological opinions about the existence of Social Security as a mandatory program, it cannot be denied that the program has been effectively structured and managed since basically it's inception. In 1983, the increasing longevity--current and projected into the future--of the citizenry was addressed by increasing FICA taxes slightly, upping retirement ages more quickly than previously planned, and adjusting payouts based on the last. The current huge balance in the Trust Fund (some 2.7 trillion dollars) was a direct consequence of these adjustments, minor though they were.

At this point it's worth noting the fiscal myth that is the Social Security Trust Fund. Some say it doesn't actually exist, that its a mere accounting gimmick, since the monies collected by the SSA via increased FICA taxes since 1983--the $2.7 trillion--have all been spent by the Federal Government. Others--on the Left, like Kevin Drum and Paul Krugman--insist the Trust Fund does actually exist, but their arguments in this regard are more descriptive of a notation on a P&L report than of a "Trust Fund," as most understand the term. Because in that light, there can be no argument: there is no Social Security Trust Fund from which one might buy and sell assets, manage a portfolio, or anything like that. And this is because the Trust Fund contains unmarketable securities. They cannot be sold to just anyone, no matter the offered price. They can only be sold to the U.S. Treasury. In other words, the Trust Fund is nothing but a big pile of IOUs, from the Federal Government to the SSA.

But regardless, what is of primary concern here is what happens when the Federal Government is forced to use general funds in order to meet SSA obligations on a month to month basis. Simple, Social Security will no longer be a separate system from the rest of the Federal Government. Since FICA taxes would cease to be the only source of funding for Social Security payments, such taxes would necessarily become nothing more than another budget line, another tax in the litany of those already imposed by the Federal Government.