Thursday, May 30, 2013

Nobody rides for free: Michael Grunwald, NPOs, and broken clocks

Michael Grunwald is a skilled writer and investigative reporter. Let's stipulate both of these things from the beginning. But neither one means Grunwald's own opinions on politics or anything else are  necessarily well-informed, much less automatically correct. I've taken Grunwald to task here twice before: once for his economic ignorance and once for his rather pathetic and ill-informed defense of the Solyndra loan. With regard to the first--the "economic ignorance"--Grunwald had written a book (The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era) that was basically an attempt to justify the Obama Administration's Stimulus Bill. Fellow journalists on the left were quick to praise Grunwald's analysis because--like Grunwald--they really don't understand economics, or at least those aspects of economic theory that come into play when discussing the Stimulus Bill.

Today, Grunwald has a new piece out at Time's Swampland wherein he argues for getting rid of tax-exampt statuses for charities across the board, as well as tax deductions for charitable contributions. But before I get in to congratulating him for being 100% right in this regard, I first need to point out his inconsistency on the matter. For when Grunwald jumps to the defense of the Stimulus Bill--either in a book or in an article--he is quick to point out how a good portion of the bill was devoted to...tax deductions and tax breaks:
Most of the Recovery Act consisted of straightforward aid to states and to the vulnerable, infrastructure spending, and tax cuts.
And as Grunwald makes very clear, the Stimulus Bill--in his mind--was undoubtedly a Good Thing. True, he wanted it to be bigger, like the other neo-Keynesians out there, but he takes it as a given that the bill did stimulate the economy, did jumpstart a recovery, and did prevent a depression. Quote obviously, all of those tax breaks in the bill played a huge role in this regard (if one accepts his kind of thinking, which of course I don't).

So one can't help but wonder where the logical consistency is in Grunwald's mind with his new call to get rid of all kinds of tax breaks. Note how he characterizes charitable deductions:
But as long as I’m using my chain saw, the charitable deduction, which costs the Treasury nearly $50 billion a year, is another perk for folks who want hospital wings in their name. You can’t take advantage unless you’re rich enough to itemize. The higher your tax bracket, the more you benefit from the deduction.
See that? According to Grunwald, such deductions cost the government money, meaning the money belongs to them first, the individual second. And if such deductions did not exist, introducing them would necessarily result in economic stimulus, by his way of thinking. The lack of intellectual rigor is staggering.

I could go on and on, but as I noted above part of the raison d'ĂȘtre for this bit is to congratulate Grunwald for getting something right. And what does he have right? It's the central premise of his piece: we need to get rid of tax exempt statuses across the board. Charitable deductions on income tax returns can go, too.

But these things don't need to go because they cost the Treasury--and therefore the Federal Government--money. Because they don't. Such claims are based on a static view of reality, on the idea that if there were no tax exempt orgs, the current ones would have the same structures, assets, and potentially taxable events. No, the reason why these things need to go is because they are wrong, end of story. It doesn't matter if the government ends up with less revenue or more from such changes, wrong is still wrong.

Grunwald specifies some tax-exempt orgs in his piece (my boldface):
In 2012, the U.S. had 1,616,053 tax-exempt organizations, 10 times the number of fast-food restaurants. Harvard University is tax exempt even though it has a $31 billion endowment; it’s basically a huge hedge fund with a lucrative merchandising operation attached to a school. The NFL is also tax exempt, to help its owners keep more of their profits away from Uncle Sam. The Prostate Cancer Fondation doesn’t pay taxes either, although it did pay its CEO $1.2 million. You may or may not like the Heritage Foundation or Planned Parenthood, the Chamber of Commerce or the AFL-CIO, the Boy Scouts or the NCAA. But the tax dollars you send to Washington help ensure that none of those groups has to send any tax dollars to Washington.
The last line is undoubtedly true. Look at the orgs he mentions. They are big money businesses. And like any other business, corporation, or citizen they utilize public resources and infrastructure. They should be on the hook for taxes--to fund resources and infrastructure--just like the rest of the country. Churches and other religious orgs are in the same boat. Proponents of tax exempt statuses argue that forcing theses orgs to pay taxes will limit what they can do or even cause them to go under.

So what?

Why should my tax dollars subsidize resources used by, say, the NFL? Or the American Cancer Society? Or the Catholic Church? And if taking away the tax deductions for charitable contributions causes me to lower my contributions, what does that really say about me as a person?

This kind of nonsense--the creation of special tax loopholes, exemptions, and deductions--is part of why we have a skyrocketing debt, true. Getting rid of all the nonsense might possibly increase revenues (though it might not), true. But the fact of the matter is that taxes are not supposed to be monies paid in tribute to the government, but rather monies paid for services--or potential services--rendered. As I explained in the piece linked to above:
Taxation has a simple goal: to fund the government. And it is based--in nations founded on a social compact theory--on a simple standard: pay for service rendered. Taxation is not tribute. Taxation is not punishment. Citizens pay taxes because the government serves their interests, provides security, and manages the laws and rules of society. That's all there is, there isn't anymore.
This is the foundation of the social contract theory of government; government must be funded to work and everyone who is a part of the society being governed is obligated to pay their fair share. No one--no group, no org, no company--is special; none should be above the law or this simple requirement. Nobody rides for free. So yeah, Grunwald is right, even if for the wrong reason.

Cheers, all.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Rosen-gate: know the playas, hate the playas

This is the story that started the most recent train wreck involving Attorney General Eric Holder. It was written by FoxNews reporter James Rosen in June of 2009 and it eventually led to an investigation of James Rosen and his unnamed source, who was revealed to be former State Department employee--and current Senior Analyst at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory--Stephen Jin-Woo Kim. Kim was charged with leaking classified material under the Espionage Act in August of 2010. Politico detailed the specifics back in 2011, including his relationship with James Rosen and the questionable actions of the FBI in that regard:
Kim's lawyers also claim that the FBI set a "perjury trap" by asking Kim about meetings with a journalist, apparently Rosen, when the FBI already knew about the meetings. Justice Department guidelines suggest that perjury or false statement charges should not be brought when the only false statement a suspect made amounts to a denial of another crime. In other words, prosecutors shouldn't gin up an extra charge against an alleged drug dealer simply by asking him if he's a drug dealer and getting him to deny it.
What was less than clear then--and now is quite clear--is how the FBI came to know so much about the specifics of these meetings. The FBI was culling the e-mail account of James Rosen, thanks to a search warrant approved by Federal Judges in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (the DDC). That warrant was applied for by Ronald Machen, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia--appointed by Obama in December of 2009 (confirmed by the Senate in February of 2011)--in May of 2010.

The warrant was initially approved by Magistrate Judge Alan Kay, but with the proviso that the subject of the e-mail search--James Rosen--would be informed once the records were unsealed (Judge Kay agreed to keep the records sealed for a a time). Machen objected to this conclusion: he did not want to be forced to reveal to Rosen that the latter was being targetted, so Machen took the ruling to another Judge in hopes of getting that element changed.

This second Judge in the chain was Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola. Unfortunately for Machen, Judge Facciola concurred fully with Kay, writing:
Such notice may be delayed, as Magistrate Judge Kay has provided, according to 18 U.S.C. § 3103a(b) and that period of delay may be extended upon motion to the Court for such extension. Nevertheless, eventually, the subscriber of the e-mail account to be searched shall receive a copy of the warrant as notice pursuant to rule 41(f)(1)(c).
For purposes of understanding the above, here is the relevant statute from the U.S. criminal code:
(b) Delay.— With respect to the issuance of any warrant or court order under this section, or any other rule of law, to search for and seize any property or material that constitutes evidence of a criminal offense in violation of the laws of the United States, any notice required, or that may be required, to be given may be delayed if— 
(1) the court finds reasonable cause to believe that providing immediate notification of the execution of the warrant may have an adverse result (as defined in section 2705, except if the adverse results consist only of unduly delaying a trial) 
(2) the warrant prohibits the seizure of any tangible property, any wire or electronic communication (as defined in section 2510), or, except as expressly provided in chapter 121, any stored wire or electronic information, except where the court finds reasonable necessity for the seizure; and  
(3) the warrant provides for the giving of such notice within a reasonable period not to exceed 30 days after the date of its execution, or on a later date certain if the facts of the case justify a longer period of delay.
Section 2705 spells out the valid reasons for requesting a delay in notification, but generally limits such delays to ninety days, at which point another application is required--showing cause--to continue the delay.

Machen, still not satisfied (because he simply did not want Rosen to know about the search), appealed the decision again, this time coming before Judge Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge of the
DDC. And from Judge Lamberth, Machen got exactly what he wanted: the ability to indefinitely postpone notifying Rosen of the search.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A dying hound with a streak of Rin Tin Tin

There's still a pile of scandals on the front steps of the White House. From Benghazi, to the IRS, to the First Amendment, none of them have been resolved, at least not to the satisfaction of President Obama's political foes and critics (and people engaged in rational thought). To his supporters and panegyrists in the media? For most of them--though not all--there never were any scandals to speak of. Benghazi for instance is much ado about nothing, an unfortunate situation that was ultimately unavoidable. All the Administration and the nation can do--in the agile minds of such people--is pick up the pieces and move on. The IRS targeting stuff? Even for those on the left that see problems with what went down, those problems begin and end with a handful of people at the IRS, proper. There's nothing--again, in their minds--to indicate the Administration had any role, direct or indirect, with the targeting and nothing to indicate it knew about what happening earlier than the general population. Ditto for the assault on the First Amendment, via subpoenas for phone records and the like from FoxNews and the AP. Holder--the head of Justice--was blissfully unaware of what was going on in his own agency (kinda like with Fast and Furious) so the Administration can hardly be expected to have known, either.

Thus, the essential response to all of these scandals from the President and his people is encapsulated in one word: ignorance.

The Administration was ignorant of the changing dynamics and growing dangers in Libya prior to September 11th, 2012 (despite the reports of Chris Stevens detailing such changes). It was ignorant of goings on at the IRS and at the Justice Department, despite the fact that both agencies answer directly to the executive branch, despite the fact that Holder is an Obama appointee who has been under heavy scrutiny for years and that the former head of the IRS--Doug Shulman--made more trips to the Obama White House (over one hundred) than any other IRS chief in recent history.

By the way, as a side note take care not to buy into the spin out there on Shulman. It is true he was appointed by George W. Bush in 2008, but his name was put forward by Democrat Max Baucus, who basically left Bush with a choice: Shulman or no one (Baucus has been chair of the Sentate Finance Committee since 2007).

But back to the ignorance of the current Administration.

Here's the thing about ignorance as a defense: there's no counter, other than noting it. If someone admits to ignorance, what can be done in reply, absent some sort of "smoking gun"? Such arguments play themselves out on messageboards and the like on a near-constant basis, both with regard to those who defend the ignorant and those who use their own ignorance as a defense (and occasionally both at the same time).

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ambassador Stevens is still dead

I don't enjoy being so brutally blunt, but the point needs to be made, again and again and again. The sitting U.S. Ambassador to Libya--Chris Stevens was assassinated (not just killed) in Benghazi, Libya on September 11th, 2012 by Islamic terrorists linked to al Qaeda in a pre-planned attack on the U.S. mission in that city. And after months of obfuscation, misrepresentation, and stonewalling by the State Department and the Obama Administration, investigations into the whys and hows of all this have failed to produce much of anything.

This is unacceptable, in my humble opinion.

Yes, there is a big story--and a clearly deep-seated problem--at the IRS. There's also a similar one at the EPA, though it's getting limited attention. Then there's the apparent contempt of the current administration--perhaps shared by previous ones, to be fair--for the First Amendment and investigative reporting. All of these things are important, they deserve the attention of the citizenry and by extension the media, because they all represent unacceptable incursions on liberty by the Federal Government in general and the executive branch in particular.

But none of them--none of them--involve the assassination of a top government official and the attempt to cover up the incompetence that led to that assassination.

Luckily, there are some people in elected office still aware of this distinction, still continuing to focus and press on the Benghazi situation. And I'm going to name them: Senator John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham, and Senator Kelly Ayotte.

As frequent readers of this blog might know, I'm no fan of Senator McCain in general. But I have never and would never question his patriotism and commitment to keeping America safe. Whatever  faults he has, he is consistently on the right side of things when it comes to national security. Graham I respect a great deal. Ditto for Ayotte who has quickly proven to be one of the most serious-minded elected officials in all of DC. As a group, these three have been all over the Benghazi situation from the beginning, so when they speak on the issue, people--all people--would do well to pay attention. Yesterday, the three issued a joint press release that details what we know and what we don't know about Benghazi. The things we still don't know:
We do not know whether the President was made aware of the classified cable that, according to published media reports, Ambassador Chris Stevens sent in August 2012, stating that the U.S. Mission in Benghazi could not survive a sustained assault from one or more of the threatening militia groups that were operating in eastern Libya.

We do not know whether the President’s national security staff made him aware of the attacks on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi that occurred in April and June of last year and the assassination attempt on the British Ambassador in Benghazi around the same time.

If the President was informed, we do not know what actions, if any, he ordered.

We do not know who within U.S. Special Operations Command, Africa ordered a U.S. special forces detachment in Tripoli not to go to Benghazi to assist the Americans under attack, and why that “stand down” order was given, as the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Tripoli, Gregory Hicks, testified to Congress.

We do not know why, on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history, after multiple attacks last year on U.S. and Western interests in Libya, and with rising insecurity in countries across the Middle East, U.S. military units and assets in the region were not ready, alert, and positioned to respond in a timely fashion to what should have been a foreseeable emergency – despite the fact that there is a U.S. military base in Souda Bay, Crete, which is a short flight to Benghazi.

We do not know what the President did or who he was in contact with during the seven hours of the attack, and we do not know why the President did not reach out to Libyan President Magariaf during that period of time.

We still do not know the names of the survivors of the Benghazi attack, and they have not been interviewed by the Congress.

We do not know why the testimonies of the U.S. personnel who were evacuated from Benghazi on September 12, 2012 – eyewitnesses who knew there never was a demonstration outside the U.S. Mission – were not shared in a timely way with, and immediately factored in to the judgments of, our intelligence community.

We do not know whether this failure reflects obstacles that still exist to the free sharing of information across executive branch agencies, which was a key concern of the 9/11 Commission.

We do not know why the Administration did not do more to support and assist the new Libyan government that took power after the fall of Qaddafi, including in the establishment of civilian-led national security forces that operate under central government control, a counterterrorism force that is trained and equipped to combat Al Qaeda and its affiliates, national justice and prison systems, and effective control over the immense stockpiles of weapons and dangerous materials that exist across Libya. The result of this ‘light footprint’ approach was that Al-Qaeda, its affiliated groups, and local militias were able to establish sanctuaries almost uncontested in the ungoverned spaces of eastern Libya. Some of these individuals were involved in the attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi.”

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Vindication and justification for the Tea Party movement in one fell swoop

For many people on the left, the Tea Party movement remains something of an enigma; since the beginnings of the movement, such people have never been able to come to terms with it, to process it, to understand the real "why" behind it. And this lack of understanding quickly morphed into misunderstanding, when various individuals and groups attempted to co-opt the movement for their own political goals, even attempted to assume leadership roles of the movement.

This is an important thing to understand. I've discussed the actual roots of the Tea Party movement previously, so I'll simply quote myself in this regard:
The tea party movement is rooted not in opposition to Barack Obama--something so many otherwise intelligent people just cannot accept--but in the last months of the Bush Administration and the Bailout bill, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. It wasn't called the tea party movement yet, but the people "riled up" by this bill are the same ones that showed up at the earliest tea party-style protests on tax day in 2009. Rick Santelli, of course, is the one who thrust the idea of a tea party into the national conscience with his off-the-cuff remarks a few months earlier--February 19, 2009--live on CNBC (of all places) at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
Here's Michelle Malkin--from way back in 2009--summarizing the real start of the movement, as a Tax Day/Stimulus Bill protest event:
Keli Carender, who blogs as “Liberty Belle” spread the word about a grass-roots protest she was organizing in Seattle to raise her voice against the passage of the trillion-dollar stimulus/porkulus/Generational Theft Act of 2009. It’s the first time she had ever jumped into political organizing of any kind. She is not affiliated with any “corporate lobbyist” or think tank or national taxpayers’ organization. She’s a young conservative mom who blogs. Amazingly, she turned around the event in a few days all on her own by reaching out on the Internet, to her local talk station, and to anyone who would listen...

On Feb. 21, the grass-roots Internet group, Top Conservatives on Twitter, founded by Michael Patrick Leahy and powered by Rob Neppell, announced “simultaneous local tea parties around the country, beginning in Chicago, and including Washington DC, Fayetteville NC, San Diego CA, Omaha Nebraska, and dozens of other locations” on Feb. 27. Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor was one of the rare national MSM reporters who attended one of the tea parties (Atlanta) and provided a fair and balanced look at protesters mad at both parties.
There's no question that the Tea Party movement originated among conservatives--fiscal conservatives--and libertarians. It was not a Republican thing at all, but politically savvy and opportunistic Republicans were quick to hitch their wagons to the movement, just as Democrats (and some libertarian-types) would later do with the Occupy Wall Street movement. And under that rubric, various groups and people more properly characterized as social conservatives (like the "religious right") became a part of the Tea Party movement, often thrusting their own non-Tea Party issues into events and the movement, proper.

As this occurred, those on the left unable to process the "why" behind the movement suddenly had workable explanations within their non-thinking grasp: the Tea Party was just another branch of the religious right, it was an astroturfing movement funded by powerful (and of course evil) conservatives like the Kochs or the Heritage Foundation, it was made up primarily of neolithic racists, and the like. And as these arguments were repeated ad nauseam in the echo chamber that is the mainstream media, year after year, they became accepted gospel among the majority of the left.

But now, in the matter of just a week or two, that phony narrative may very well collapse in a heap, thanks to our friends at the IRS.

For the root message of the Tea Party movement remains a simple one: more government means less freedom. And Tea Party folks take it as a given that more freedom is preferable to more government. Hence, they are opposed to excessive government spending, excessive taxation, and excessive government interference in daily life. Put simply, they desire a limited government.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Deflection, round three: the scandals could hurt the Republicans

Round one in the deflection game so often played by the mainstream liberal media was simple: pretend there are no scandals. This was evidenced in various news reports and articles that questioned the very existence of any "scandalous" activity in the aftermath of Benghazi, in the subpoena from Justice for AP phone records, or in the improper targeting of conservative groups by the IRS. As late as yesterday, the always entertaining Ezra Klein at WaPo was still holding firm on this angle. He attempts to play the part of neutral observer, dissecting each "scandal" to show why each is no such thing.

In each case though, Klein neglects to note key facts or components. For instance, he argues--with regard to Benghazi--that:
The inquiry has moved on from the events in Benghazi proper, tragic as they were, to the talking points about the events in Benghazi. And the release Wednesday night of 100 pages of internal e-mails on those talking points seems to show what my colleague Glenn Kessler suspected: This was a bureaucratic knife fight between the State Department and the CIA.
And that:
So far, it’s hard to see what, exactly, the scandal here is supposed to be.
He attempts to slough off the real-time issues that remain unresolved, why State and the military refused to send aid, who told them to stand down, most likely because he knows there's a major problem in there for the Administration, given the past claims that Obama is the "most sophisticated consumer of intelligence" the world has ever seen. Obviously, such was not the case in Benghazi, where neither the President nor the Secretary of State was dialed in to what was actually going on. And with regard to the talking points, Klein completely ignores the fabricated portions that blamed the attacks on a nothing YouTube video.

Klein's pseudo-analysis on the other two scandals lead him to similar conclusions. It's an effective tactic, ignoring the problematic elements of these stories, pretending they don't exist, then arguing that there is no scandal. But by and large, this tactic has failed; too many people are aware of the facts Klein is pointedly ignoring so he's now largely preaching to an empty choir.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Toobin attempts to excuse the IRS, looks uninformed

Noted legalist and supposed intellectual heavyweight Jeffrey Toobin has a new column out on the current IRS scandal; you know, the one where the IRS made it a matter of policy to apply additional scrutiny to conservative organizations applying for tax-exempt status. Toobin argues that maybe the IRS really didn't do anything wrong, that it was justified in zeroing in on certain groups--based on their name or objectives (which where conservative/libertarian in orientation)--because of the kind of exemptions they were looking for:
Some people in the I.R.S. field office in Cincinnati took the names of certain groups—names that included the terms “Tea Party” and “patriot,” among others, which tend to signal conservatism—as signals that they might not be engaged in “social welfare” operations. Rather, the I.R.S. employees thought that these groups might be doing explicit politics—which would disqualify them for 501(c)(4) status, and set them aside for closer examination. This appears to have been a pretty reasonable assumption on the part of the I.R.S. employees: having “Tea Party” in your name is at least a slight clue about partisanship.
Toobin goes into some detail about the nature of 501(c)(4) status as well, noting that one of the advantages of this status is not having to disclose donors. And thus, Toobin demonstrates he really doesn't know what he's talking about, since part of this scandal includes demands from the IRS of the names of donors, among other things, to the groups being scrutinized:
Here are some of the weirdest and most notable questions and requests that ABC found in roughly half a dozen IRS questionnaires sent to tea party groups from 2010 to 2012: 
  • “Provide a list of all issues that are important to your organization. Indicate your position regarding each issue.” 
  • “Please explain in detail the derivation of your organization’s name.” (in a letter to the Ohio-based 1851 Center for Constitutional Law) 
  • “Please explain in detail your organization’s involvement with the Tea Party.” 
  • “Provide details regarding your relationship with Justin Binik-Thomas.” (a Cincinnati-area Tea-Party activist) 
  • “Provide information regarding the Butler County Teen Age Republicans and your relationship.” 
  • “Submit the following information relating to your past and present directors, officers, and key employees: a) Provide a resume for each.” 
  • “The names of the donors, contributors, and grantors. … The amounts of each of the donations, contributions, and grants and the dates you received them.”
Now that's just a partial list of the questions. And none of them are appropriate. The IRS has already admitted as much. So what is Toobin talking about?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Detroit nears collapse, public employee unions remain in denial

The latest news on the financial situation of the city of Detroit is not good. But it's pretty much what everyone--or almost everyone--expected. Several months ago, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed a bankruptcy lawyer--one Kevyn Orr--as the city's emergency manager. New laws in the State--enacted with cities like Detroit and Flint in mind--have given Orr an unusually large amount of power, something that roused protests from residents when the appointment was made. Nonetheless, Orr has been functioning at his post for over a month now. And today, he will deliver a full report on the city's financial situation to the State Treasurer, former speaker of the State House Andy Dillon (who, though appointed by Snyder, happens to be a Democrat).

In this report, according to the New York Times, Orr details the financial shortfalls of the budget, long-term unfunded liabilities brought about by unaffordable pension and healthcare plans, as well as physical plant failings, deep-seated mismanagement, and corruption:
Mr. Orr found that the Detroit Police Department, led by five chiefs over the last five years, suffers from “extremely low” efficiency, effectiveness and morale, and said its equipment and technology were out of date. The Fire Department has 52 facilities across the city, but as many as 12 may be essentially out of service on any given day, Mr. Orr said, because of “staffing and equipment constraints.” Meanwhile, he said, at least 60,000 parcels of land across the city are vacant, as are 78,000 buildings.

“The city’s operations have become dysfunctional and wasteful after years of budgetary restrictions, mismanagement, crippling operational practices and, in some cases, indifference or corruption,” he wrote. “Outdated policies, work practices, procedures and systems must be improved consistent with best practices of 21st-century government.”
This is not how a major American city is supposed to be run. But this is Detroit and it has been this way for far too long, which has led to a large-scale abandoning of the area by people capable of getting out, leaving the tax base shrunken and inadequate. As Orr says:
The City of Detroit continues to incur expenditures in excess of revenues despite cost reductions and proceeds from long-term debt issuances. In other words, Detroit spends more than it takes in — it is clearly insolvent on a cash flow basis.
Yet, there remain some in denial, most notable union officials in Detroit who are rightly fearing that part of the solution there will be a major restructuring of the contracts for city workers, something that represents a huge percentage of the excess expenditures (not unlike many of the cities and municipalities in California that have also been entering or nearing bankruptcy of late). The Times piece even quotes a local union official of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in this regard:
“It’s not as bad as what they’re trying to make it out to be,” Edward L. McNeil, a local official for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said on Sunday. Mr. McNeil had not viewed a copy of Mr. Orr’s report, which was not made public until late Sunday, but he said he had grown accustomed to overly negative assessments of Detroit by the state and its representatives.

“All of this was a cooked deal for them to take control of the city and take the assets,” Mr. McNeil said. “This has been a sham.”
As the new report makes clear, as various news reports on the finances of Detroit have made clear, these problems are not new. It's been apparent that Detroit was in deep waters--financially speaking--for many years now. The signs--the shrinking tax base, for instance--were available for all to see a decade ago, if not longer. Yet as recently as 2011 and 2012, stupidity abounded in Detroit, with regard to financial decisions and union rules.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Benghazi: this is not your father's Oldsmobile

With the latest Benghazi hearings now a matter of public record, there is actually quite a bit of clarity with regard to the whole sordid affair. I say "sordid affair" as a literary device alone, as an editorial choice. Because the proper way to characterize the matter--the attacks in Benghazi--is as THE ASSASSINATION OF A SITTING U.S. AMBASSADOR. Why no one seems willing to call it what it really was--on either "side"--is beyond me: the purposeful killing of a high-ranking government official by enemies of that government is an assassination, period.

But I digress.

As I was saying, the storyline, following the testimony of Gregory Hicks, Eric Nordstrom, and Mark Thompson, is quite clear. It's the storyline everyone with a clue new would turn out to be the case months and months ago. Tom Bevan at RealClearPolitics does an excellent job summing up the facts that have been known (though publicly disputed as "facts" by the Administration until after the 2012 Election) for a while know and specifying the two key pieces of information gleaned from the testimonies on Wednesday:
We did learn at least two new, relevant facts from yesterday's testimony. One is that Beth Jones, an official in the State Department, sent an email on September 12 bluntly acknowledging terrorists participated in the attacks (“The group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.”) The other is that Hicks said his “jaw dropped” when he heard Rice make her claims about spontaneous protests. Hicks testified that he later confronted her about the comments, and shortly thereafter he was demoted.
Bevan correctly and precisely expresses the only logical conclusion one can draw from all of this, with regard to the Administration's behavior:
So, while we may not have been treated to any “bombshell” revelations Wednesday, the testimony of Thompson, Hicks and Nordstrom and a fair reading of the record leads to an obvious conclusion: The president and his administration clearly misled the public about what happened on Sept. 11, 2012.
"Misled" is, of course, a nice way of saying "lied to." The President, the Secretary of State, and others lied every time they cited a nothing YouTube video as somehow related to the events in Benghazi. They lied by omission every time they failed to label the perpetrators "terrorists." And they lied yet again when they claimed they were waiting on information in order to properly characterize the attacks.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sanford v. Colbert Busch: the first domino refuses to fall

There was hope, real and serious hope, about the special election for South Carolina's first congressional district. It pitted deeply flawed--as a human being--former South Carolina governor (and former holder of this very seat) Mark Sanford (R) against relative unknown Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D). Sanford, we may recall, made huge headlines in June of 2009 when--while Governor of South Carolina--he "disappeared" for about a week; no one seemed to know where he was, including his security detail. In the end, he turned out to be in Argentina in the company of a woman who was not his wife (a woman he is now engaged to, for what its worth).

His actions--which aside from infidelity, also included openly lying about his whereabouts and using state funds to finance his adulterous trysts--led the State House to threaten impeachment and to ultimately censure Sanford. He served out the remainder of his term quite ignobly, as his wife filed and completed divorce proceedings and Sanford became a virtual pariah in state, local, and national politics.

In some ways, Sanford is very much a Clinton-esque figure, for despite his adulterous ways, many still admired his governing style; the Cato Institute even ranked him as one of the top governors in the nation in 2010, with regard to fiscal policy. Sanford was also an outspoken and leading critic of the Obama Stimulus Bill, refusing to accept federal dollars unless the State would match the monies and use them to pay down the State's debt. Prior to the events detailed above in 2009, Sanford was very, very popular. He won his first gubernatorial election by six points in 2002 and his second by over ten points in 2006. He was--at the time--a darling of the national Republican party and the conservative movement within the same, having taken control of the RGA (Republican Governors Association) in November of 2008. Many expected him to be a serious contender for the Presidential nomination in 2012 and some thought he might have even been the right pick as McCain's running mate in 2008.

This special election represented an attempt at rebirth on the part of Sanford, but he received almost no help from the RNC or from most national figures on the right, particularly after his ex-wife files a complaint against him for trespassing in February of this year. So it is hardly unsurprising that the DNC smelled blood.

There was talk for some time that comedian Stephen Colbert might actually run against Sanford, but in the end it was his sister--Elizabeth Colbert Busch--who decided to run and easily took the nomination as all other potentially legitimate candidates bowed out or opted not to run. Colbert Busch was--and really still is--a political novice when she entered the fray. Her entire campaign was largely based on her being Stephen Colbert's sister and on her not being Mark Sanford. But the powers-that-be in the DNC clearly thought this would be enough.

In the end, they were wrong, horribly wrong. Despite polling data that showed the race being a dead heat (and earlier data that showed Colbert Busch way out in front), Sanford won easily by nearly nine points. It really wasn't a race at all. If the RNC hadn't abandoned Sanford, his margin of victory would likely have been even larger.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

No more motes: 3D-printing the return of self-provisioning

There is lot of interest--and a lot of hand-wringing angst--over the reality of 3D-printed guns. As the above article notes, anyone with access to a decent 3D printer can now basically make their own gun by using these blueprints. For those unfamiliar with the technology, 3D printing allows the manufacturing of actual solid objects from digital models or information. In most cases, this is done in steps, with the object created via layers of material (plastic, paper, ceramics, or even metals). The process can take days, depending on the equipment used and the size and complexity of the object being manufactured. Objects with working parts are created by "printing" each part, then assembling the final version by hand, as is the case with the 3D-printed gun.

The hand-wringing over this development comes from the anti-gun crowd, who worry about the apparently emerging need to "regulate" such activities, a "license to print" as it were. But the idea of an individually sculpted weapon is nothing new. In the movie In the Line of Fire, the antagonist--played by John Malkovich--constructs a gun from plastic resin, to avoid security checks. As the movie makes clear, though, this was no easy feat. It required time and a great deal of skill. The new "printed" gun requires substantially less of both.

The creator of this weapon, Defense Distributed, has chosen an historically interesting name for the weapon: the Liberator. In World War II, there was a never-fully-acted-on initiative to drop massive quantities of a single-shot, cheaply made handgun--the FP-45 Liberator--throughout occupied Europe to help arm resistance efforts against the Nazis. The guns were actually made, a half-million of them in fact, but U.S. military staff never fully bought in to the air-drop idea.

Choosing the name "Liberator" is clearly intended to be provocative, but I think it is very much inappropriate, insofar as 3D-printed guns reflect a very different trend, as compared to the original Liberator, the FP-45. Again, that gun was cheaply made and mass-produced in factories via government monies, not by end-users at all. Every gun was therefore basically the same, like most modern firearms. The 3D-printed gun actually hearkens back to an earlier time, when guns--like most everything else--were made individually, one at a time. They could be very similar, but each was ultimately unique, especially when comparing ones made by different craftsmen.

Good guns were made-to-order things in many cases, no different in this respect than other weapons like swords in the even-more-distant past. And again, this was just as true of all sorts of other things: tools, clothing, homes, the list is endless. Pre-industrial civilization was far more self-provisioning than the current world as a matter of course (something that is still the case in some parts of the world, to be fair). More often than not, advances in technology have ultimately led to a decrease in self-provisioning, after the application of such advances to manufacturing and mass-production processes.