Monday, November 25, 2013

Black Friday becomes Franksgiving

It's coming. In fact, it's almost upon us. After we---the citizens of the United States--spend a day with friends and family giving thanks for what we have, we get to suffer through the nightmarish hell of a day that is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Or at least, that's how the template had existed. Now, it's even worse. But first, some backstory.

The idea for Black Friday is not a new one, at all. It extends far back into the twentieth century, at the very least. What I mean by that is that the idea to have a huge sale on the day after Thanksgiving is not new. The name--Black Friday--is also not as new as many people tend to believe, as it was used as early as the sixties in reference to post-Thanksgiving sales events.

What turned this day into a prime choice for having sales events is easy enough to understand, however. Prior to the Civil War, Thanksgiving could be--and was--celebrated on different days in different States and locations. In some years--prior to the Lincoln Presidency--it was not officially celebrated by the Federal Government at all. But in 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation that declared a Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday in November. And from then on, Presidents followed his lead. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress officially established this in law by making Thanksgiving Day the fourth Thursday in November (which is usually the last Thursday in November, though not always; it won't be in 2017).

FDR's 1939 Thanksgiving. Source: National Archives
Interestingly enough, Roosevelt first tried to change the date to the third Thursday of the month in 1939 (a year--like 2017--with five Thursdays in November), as a means to help store-owners by "creating" more Christmas shopping days. It wasn't a well thought out move on Roosevelt's part. He failed to realize the impact such a change would have on college football--which had become quite popular--nor did he anticipate the backlash from the public, with respect to a President haphazardly changing something many had come to regard as sacrosanct. But Roosevelt--certain that he was right, that the earlier date was somehow helpful--stayed the course and made the same declaration in 1940 and 1941, that of Thanksgiving being on the second-to-last Thursday of November.

In all three years, there were thus two Thanksgivings, events which indicate just how partisan people were in the past by the way:
FDR's proclamation of the date of Thanksgiving had the force of law only in the District of Columbia and the territories of Hawaii and Alaska. A few states mandated that Thanksgiving be marked on the date set by the president, but in most states governors issued pro forma ratifications of the date the president proclaimed.

Now, however, the celebration became a political hot potato. Governors had to read public opinion, examine the local business climate, consider political loyalties, and decide which date to select as the official Thanksgiving.

Do they stick with tradition and celebrate Thanksgiving on Nov. 30, or follow FDR's lead and change the date to Nov. 23? It wasn't long before people started referring to Nov. 30 as the "Republican Thanksgiving" and Nov. 23 as the "Democratic Thanksgiving" or "Franksgiving."
But as the author of the above piece rightly notes, the supposed benefits of an earlier Thanksgiving never materialized. That--coupled with the continued public outrage over Roosevelt's arbitrary action--was enough to convince Roosevelt to abandon his experiment, thus leading to legislation passed by Congress and signed by Roosevelt in December of 1941 mandating that Thanksgiving would be an officially recognized Federal Holiday that occurred on the fourth Thursday of November.

Obama: the non-ideological ideologue

In the a fund-raising trip to the West Coat--mostly in order to benefit Nancy Pelosi--the President told people in attendance that he's "not a particularly ideological person." According to The Hill, Obama doesn't even consider himself much of a partisan and is only concerned with improving things. And in that regard, he believes there's general agreement with regard to "solutions" that is stymied by the politics of it all:
"I’m not a particularly ideological person," Obama said, according to the White House pool report. "There’s things, some values I feel passionately about." Those include, he said, making sure "everybody gets a fair shake" and "everybody being treated with dignity or respect, regardless of what they look like or who they are." 
Congress, Obama said, is the "biggest barrier and impediment" to achieving progress. He added that, without politics, there’s strong agreement on how to tackle infrastructure, immigration reform, early childhood education and investing in science and research.

"More than anything, what we’re looking for is not the defeat of another party, what we’re looking for is the advancement of ideas," he said.
Apart from the silliness of a hardcore ideologue pretending to be non-ideological, what really gets me about Obama's remarks is the arrogance--and ignorance--with regard to what people expect and want from the government. In the fantasy bubble world of Obama and his sycophants, everyone--at least everyone allowed an opinion--is in complete agreement on the nature of government, what it should do, and how far it's reach should be.

Consider the second to last topic mentioned by Obama: early childhood education. In his mind, there's really no disagreement on what to do here, what is needed to "fix" things. Much of the President's agenda in this regard--the one he assumes everyone shares--involves universal preschool. His vision in this regard is laid out on the White House website:
In his State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to expand access to high-quality preschool to every child in America. As part of that effort, the President will propose a series of new investments that will establish a continuum of high-quality early learning for a child – beginning at birth and continuing to age 5. By doing so, the President would invest critical resources where we know the return on our dollar is the highest: in our youngest children.
There is no doubt that educating children--young children--is a good thing, but what doesn't follow from this simple standard is the need for the Federal Government to oversee, much less mandate, such education. What also doesn't follow is the need for such education to be under the auspices of the state in general, at all. This blog entry from the White House explains the underlying assumptions of the President's views in further detail. Consider this portion:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Why Congressional approval numbers are in the toilet

Congress' approval numbers are at all-time lows, much lower than the President's numbers (that are nonetheless at an all-time low for him). The latest numbers from Gallup have that rating at just 9% approval. Translation: fewer than one in ten Americans is happy with the way Congress is doing its job. Look at the numbers for Congress since 2008 (according to Gallup):


That spike in early 2009 is easy to explain: it's right after Obama took office with a majority in both Houses of Congress, prior to Congress or Obama actually doing much of anything. But once Congress got down to work, the number starts to drop. Outside of that moment, approval numbers for the legislative branch tend to be below 25% in this period, as a matter of course.

Of course, that's partly a consequence of a reality that does not impinge on Presidential approval numbers: since Congress has members from both political parties in it and is usually not under the control of a single party, there are big chunks of partisans who are going to always disapprove of some Congressional actions. Moreover, the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009/2010 added another pepper to this gumbo: many Tea Party supporters are unhappy with both parties in Congress.

If we add up all of this near-automatic antipathy towards Congress--people on the left unhappy with Republicans in Congress, people on the right unhappy with Democrats in Congress, and libertarians/tea party-types (and some progressives, to be fair) unhappy with all of Congress--it really isn't unsurprising that Congress rarely has high approval numbers. Under these conditions, anything over 40% is a near impossibility.

If one listens to the media, to the "expert" commentary from various talking heads, none of this is explained. Instead, the low approval numbers are either a consequence--wholly and completely--of Republican obstructionism or Democratic overreach (usually the former, thanks to our biased media elites). Moreover, these low numbers have been "historic" lows for some time now as well,
 according to these same experts. Listening to them and reading what they write, one gets the impression that before the Obama Presidency, Congressional approval numbers could be and were substantially higher, that the drop after Obama assumed office was a consequence of just anti-GOP sentiment. To be fair, there may be some truth here, as the same media elites commenting on such things were and are the ones ginning up that sentiment, by and large. But again, the drop in numbers is far more attributable to the rise of the Tea Party movement in the populace (coupled with the weak economy, of course), in my opinion. It tracks better and is more easily defended.

Underestimating complexities or the eternal failure of the technocratic mind

Speaking before the Wall Street Journal CEO Council on Wednesday, President Obama said the following with regard to the rollout of the ACA website (my boldface):
What I have learned, though, with respect to setting up these marketplaces--which are essentially mechanisms where people who are currently in the individual market or don’t have health insurance at all can join together, shop, and insurance companies will compete for their business--setting those things up is very challenging just mechanically... 
The challenge has been just making sure that consumers are actually able to get on a website, see those choices, and shop. And I think that we probably underestimated the complexities of building out a website that needed to work the way it should.
I quoted the first paragraph above just to make a little political hay, insofar as the President talks about what he has learned here as if the entire ACA rollout is just something he can do on the fly, as if his learning something in the process is a notable achievement. Get that? Initiating a program that impacts the lives of millions upon millions of Americans taught the President something when things didn't go as he had hoped. Super.

But the real meat is in the second paragraph, the portion in bold: "we probably underestimated the complexities of building out a website." Building a website to coordinate all of the elements involved
here was is no doubt a very complicated endeavor. I couldn't do it, I lack the expertise. Most people could not in fact do it, especially in a limited time frame, even one encompassing several years. But let's get serious: there are plenty of people--teams of people--who could do it. And if you asked such people about it, they would tell you what would be required, in terms of time, labor, and equipment. They would tell it would be complicated, but hardly impossible or even herculean.

So how exactly did Obama and his team underestimate the complexities here?

The answer is simple: Obama and his fellow technocrats always underestimate complexities, yet always assume they have total command and control of all systems, no matter how vast and/or complex they are. I've spoken of this mindset previously; it's one I call the Great Conceit. Briefly, it's the belief that one has perfect knowledge with regard to how the economy operates, that the economy is fully dependent on government, and one can therefore exercise control over that economy via the mechanism of government policy/action. It's the key ideological component of the technocracy movement, with the caveat that the necessary knowledge is held only by the experts:
The driving idea behind it is that things are too complicated, too diversified when it comes to government policies and laws for typical people to understand, thus decisions should be left in the hands of the experts in a given field. As a "for instance," consider climate change and the question of what--if anything--should be done about it. For the technocrat, the answer is simple: climate scientists should decide, end of discussion.
But what happens when the technocrats actually get their way, when their expert knowledge is allowed to actually dictate policy on a massive scale? Well, we already have that answer, as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and its consequences represent the perfect case study. As most people--not blinded by partisanship--no doubt remember, that monstrous piece of legislation was supposed to ignite the economy, spur it into a state of rapid growth and cause the unemployment rate to tumble below 8% in short order. Four years later, the unemployment rate has indeed settled below 8% (though the LFPR keeps going down, as well), but not because of the Act. And the economy has never really taken off. It's remained mostly sluggish, at best, since the Act.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Arne Duncan starts a war he can't win

In what might very well be the stupidest comment to come from any member of the current Administration since Obama first took office (Joe Biden and Ray LaHood are excluded, for obvious reasons), Secretary of State Arne Duncan (of Sequester-stupidity fame) said the following while addressing a meeting of the Council of Chief State Schools Officers Organization:
It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary. You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.
The "pushback" he is referencing is the widespread opposition to various elements to and consequences of the Common Core Standards initiative. I've addressed Common Core in some depth previously. First to note how specific nation-wide standards for things like literature are just a bad idea (for several reasons):
I'm not prepared to suggest there is some sort of nefarious plot here, that this [Common Core approved reading] list amounts to an indoctrination of sorts into a particular category of group think, but here's the problem: once the standards are in place and informing education nation-wide, what's to prevent those in charge of setting them from arbitrarily removing a given text so as to replace it with a "better" one? Plus--again--there is the issue of what has been sacrificed in order to expand the "informational" reading lists. Why is it better for students to read Executive Order 13423 than for them to read Henry Miller's play "The Crucible" or J.D. Salinger's novel Catcher in the Rye?  
Student A, who shows a particular aptitude for environmental engineering, might very well benefit from a deeper exploration of EPA standards. But Student B, who excels at creative endeavors, might benefit more from reading and studying Miller's play. Moreover, students in Arizona might have strong reasons to delve more into Spanish and Mexican literature, while Students in Maine might benefit more from nautical-themed readings, fictional or non-fictional...  
The point is, there's nothing wrong with designing these kind of standards as general guidelines to help States manage their education systems. But once they become mandatory in fact or in practice via the Federal Government, they create a whole host of problems. Big problems. Critical problems. Because it's simply not the purview of the feds to establish such standards. Maybe the Constitution--and not just the Bill of Rights--needs to be on the list... 
And second, to demonstrate--with actual evidence--why such initiatives are unlikely to be successful and how the people supporting this initiative are largely clueless in this regard (and would, themselves, fail to meet Common Core Standards when it comes to critical thinking):
[Charles Blow, in his column] liberally cites the widespread support for the program and concludes that it is therefore likely a "sure thing." But why is it a sure thing? Because it sounds like a good idea, that's why. No other real reason, no actual empirical evidence to make the case. Amazingly, Blow notes the need to teach critical thinking, then proceeds to make an argument devoid of any critical thinking whatsoever! He goes on to idealize the role of teachers, ostensibly suggesting that great teachers are the real solution to the problem, though he fails to explain why adopting the Common Core Standards will create great teachers.

Worse still, he notes in passing what is likely one of the real keys to the problem: parental involvement. That and the fact that a certain percentage of schools--mostly inner city--are simply failing their students and their communities actually go a long way towards explaining things. There are an ample number of studies demonstrating the latter. As to the former, the lack of parental involvement is most evident in those same failing schools, along with those schools on the edge. This is, in my opinion, due to a host of factors revolving around socio-economic issues, the breakdown of the family unit, and a failure to prioritize learning. Thomas Sowell has provided ample evidence to back this up, as has--more recently--Charles Murray in Coming Apart (which I've mentioned a number of times in past pieces).

But setting all of that aside, the fact remains that evidence clearly shows more Federal programs and spending are not the answer. They never have been. Yet, those who think they know better keep pushing for more of both. When, I wonder, will they finally educate themselves?
The Common Core initiative was used as a carrot by the Administration, wherein States needed to adopt the standards in order to easily access Federal dollars for education. Needless to say, most States signed off on the initiative rather quickly. But since then, some of the realities of Common Core have come to light. And it's implementation in schools throughout the land is generating a great deal of criticism, both because that implementation is uneven--to say the least--and because the Common Core-based materials appearing in the classroom are just not all that good and sometimes downright bad.

A wave no one can ride? How does that work?

The 2010 election cycle was a watershed moment in American politics. There's no way around this reality. Whether one is pro-Tea Party, ambivalent about the movement, or virulently opposed to it, the consequences of it were felt throughout the nation, as candidates who openly voiced support for the movement--and sometimes accounted themselves members of it--had a profound effect on the elections, at Federal, state, and local levels. Tea Party candidates won seats in the House, the Senate, state houses, and city councils throughout the land. A number of governorships also went to pro-Tea Party candidates, most notably Nikki Haley in South Carolina.

While Tea Party influence can be said to have waned in the 2012 election cycle, many Tea Party-affiliated office-holders were re-elected and some new ones were still victorious, like Senator Ted Cruz in Texas. Despite various  attempts to proclaim the movement dead, it remains a significant force in politics. This reality is borne out in polls assessing how the movement is viewed. As is apparent from the trends in the Pew data, the Tea Party Movement has grown in significance. In 2010, 42% of those polled had no opinion/had never heard of the movement. Now, that number has been cut in half. True enough, there are more people with an unfavorable view of the movement than previously, but still nearly a third of those polled are pro-Tea Party. That's a substantial block of voters, one that must be reckoned with, especially with regard to specific regions where such support is heavily concentrated.

Still, 2010 was the big moment, the wave that swept Tea Party candidates into power. And make no mistake, despite the obvious infighting in the Republican Party brought on by Tea Party successes, those on the other side of the aisle very much want--and are seeking--something to counter the influence of the Tea Party Movement. For a time, there was hope in liberal/progressive land that the Occupy Movement--brought on by Occupy Wall Street--might fill this void on the Left, might represent a counter to the Tea Party Movement that could be exploited by the Democratic Party. But things didn't turn out that way. Despite the attempts by various progressive pundits and activists to turn the Occupy Movement into an electoral force, it's impact on the 2012 elections was negligible, at best. The only real "Occupy candidate" to succeed in the voting booths was faux-Indian Elizabeth Warren. Many other politicians gave lip service to the movement, no doubt, but have never really advanced the pseudo-goals of the Occupy Movement.

With the 2014 election cycle now on the horizon, the question is whether or not the Tea Party Movement will have a significant impact, whether or not it is more or less played out. Remember, the movement is a general one, not linked directly to an all-encompassing platform, but based on some simple standards like having fiscally responsible governments, controlling debt, and not using tax increases as a means of funding unwanted/unnecessary government initiatives. The continuing decline of the President's approval numbers and of the popularity of Obamacare, along with various scandals involving the White House (like Benghazi and the IRS) suggest that the movement may still pack a bit of a punch, may still have a significant impact on the upcoming elections. But we will not know for certain until the elections are upon us.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The 2013 Hurricane Season: something of a dud

No, this isn't about the University of Miami Hurricanes, though it easily could be, as the football team started the season strong but now has dropped three games in a row, including yesterday's loss to Duke, the first time the Blue Devils have beaten the Hurricanes since the latter joined the ACC. But I don't want to talk about that, about Hurricane football, because it's just too painful right now.

What this piece is about is the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, the one that began on June 1st and will officially conclude in just about two weeks, on November 30th. Forecasters predicted an above average season this year. Dr. Gray at the Colorado State Department of Atmospheric Science predicted 18 named storms, with 9 of those reaching hurricane status, and 4 of those 9 reaching major hurricane status: 18 S, 9 H, 4 M. Forecasters at North Carolina State predicted 13-17 S, 7-10 H, 3-6 M. At Florida State University: 12-17 S, 5-10 H (they do not break out major hurricanes in their models). The Tropical Storm Risk consortium--a group of experts on modeling and risk management--predicted (after rounding) 16 S, 8 H, 4 M. Finally, the forecasters at NOAA predicted 13-20 S, 7-11 H, 3-6 M.

Overall, the predictions suggest at least 13 named storms, of which at least 7 would become hurricanes. And of those 7 hurricanes, the expectations were for at least 3 major (category 3 or higher) hurricanes. So how are they doing? Not too well. So far, there have been 12 named storms in the Atlantic basin (a number of which barely attained the required strength for naming and degenerated shortly afterwards). But only 2 developed into actual hurricanes: Humberto on September 8th in the far eastern Atlantic, and Ingrid on September 14th near the gulf coast of Mexico. Humberto was a category 1 hurricane for all of four days and never threatened land. Ingrid was a category 1 hurricane for only two days, yet it did do substantial damage when it made landfall in Le Pesca, Mexico (make no mistake, hurricanes are serious business, no matter their category).

Given that there seems little chance of realizing the predictions for hurricanes and major hurricanes, we should all--especially those of us on the Atlantic seaboard--breathe a sigh of relief. After all no one, or least no sane person, hopes for dangerous storms, wants to see more hurricane activity.

That said, we should be concerned about the apparent across-the-board failures of the predictive models in use here. No one did a good job predicting the 2103 hurricane season. Dr. Ryan Maue at WeatherBell Analytics maintains a running total of Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE), worldwide and by region. ACE is based not only only the strength of storms, but also on their longevity, how long they last. A look at the current totals indicates just how much various experts over-estimated the 2013 season. To date, the total ACE for the Atlantic basin is only 29, just 29% of the average year-to-date ACE of 99 for the years 1981-2012. The second chart on this page shows the average ACE on each day of the hurricane seasons. As should be obvious, late November is not a period that tends to add much to the total ACE. Thus, it is likely that the end total will remain close to where it is now, at around 30% of the historical average for ACE.

Yet forecasters and their models predicted an above average year for 2013. Given that the year has not only been below average--and far below predictions--in terms of numbers of storms and hurricanes, but has been deeply below average in terms of ACE, it seems reasonable to question the bases of these various models, to ask if the models are actually working in the least. I'm no expert on this stuff, just an interested observer, but it seems to me that the knowledge base of the experts--all of them--is lacking in some way. I know their models take into account a large number of variables, but maybe they're missing some. Maybe--just maybe--they've been missing some all along and have never really had a firm grasp on how to make these predictions, except in a superficial way. Maybe worldwide weather events are a little more difficult to predict, months before they are supposed to occur.

Cheers, all.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Saturday night philosophy: time and time again

We all have a basic understanding of the the concept of time, at least with regard to how it impacts our personal lives. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, these are periods of what we call time, how we perceive our existence. There are a number of theories about the nature of time--which we will explore presently--but first it's important to note something that most philosophers of time fail to note, almost as as a matter of course: time--to you, me, and everyone else (and to animals, as well)--is inexorably wound up in the concept of memory. Think about it. You're reading this sentence. You just read the previous one. You know these things because you remember doing them. It is through our short-term memory that we understand and experience the passage of time. But we'll return to this in a bit...

Back near the beginning of the Twentieth Century (1908), the philosopher J. M. E. McTaggart published a paper entitled "The Unreality of Time," and in so doing set the stage for an ongoing debate between philosophers with regard to the nature of time, whether or not it actually exists, and--assuming it does exist as a real concept--how exactly it should be understood.

McTaggart argued that the general idea most had of time, wherein the constant changing nature of reality we experience happens from moment to moment, is flawed, that careful analysis demonstrates such views to be self-contradictory and therefore unsustainable. In this regard, McTaggart posited that there were two ways in which time could be generally understood: the A-series view and the B-series view. Each view now serves as a basis for the competitive philosophies of time that have developed since McTaggart published his paper. Philosophers of time tend to be "A-theory" proponents or "B-theory" proponents.

The A-series sets all moments, all points in time, as relative to the present. Events occurred, occur, or will occur at moments so defined. Thus, every event has a definable time/moment associated with it. The "times" in this series are described in this way: two days ago, an hour ago, now, in another week, next year. Time is truly ordered on a line in the A-series. And it is the A-series that serves as a basis for how we generally measure time and record events. It is what allows the creation of calendars and the numbering of years. If I say "on the morning of December 7th, 1941, the naval base in Pearl Harbor was attacked," that is very much based on the A-Series. For it fixes the moment of the event at a specific point relative to the present. As the present "moves" forward in time, the past moment retains its description/dating and simply becomes more distant. But it is always the same moment in the past, always measurable in time with regard to the present. It is through this view that change can occur or at least be perceived.

McTaggart argues that--according to this view--every moment of time has to be simultaneously past, present, and future. For depending where one is on the time line, the attack on Pearl Harbor--on the morning of December 7th, 1941--could be a past event (and past time), a current event (happening now), or a future event (and future time). And he claims that this is what makes the A-series contradictory: a given time cannot be past, present, and future, it cannot possess all three properties, for they are incompatible with each other, by definition. The date itself is functionally useless; all that matters is the relation of the moment to the changing present.

The B-series described by McTaggart does not (seemingly) suffer from this problem. McTaggart describes this means of ordering time as that wherein all times. all events, occur relative to each other, as opposed to occurring at moments relative to a "present." Thus, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the date of December 7, 1941, can be understand only as being after the days and events that preceded it and before the days and events that follow.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Bill Walsh: reincarnated as a talking head at MSNBC

Let me get a couple of things out of the way, before going anywhere with this bit that move seem more than a little inflammatory. First, Bill Walsh is one of the all-time greats in the pantheon of NFL coaches. He--along with Joe Montana--radically changed the game and led the San Francisco 49ers to three championships. Moreover, Walsh mentored many men who would go on to become great--or at least very good--coaches, as well. Second, Bill Walsh was--by all accounts--a decent guy. His death from leukemia in 2007 was a sad and tragic thing.

All that said, Bill Walsh was--without a doubt--one of the absolute worst broadcasters ever hired and retained by a major network to cover NFL games. He joined NBC Sports in 1989 and was given the analyst position on the lead broadcasting crew for the NFL, opposite Dick Enberg. He graced our Sundays for several years, before mercifully returning to coaching in 1992.

He was just awful to listen to. Because of his bona fides, he spoke with a great deal of authority; Enberg deferred to him as a matter of course, just as Summerall deferred to Madden. In truth, I think NBC was hoping that with Enberg and Walsh, they had something of a response to CBS's Summerall and Madden, but Walsh was no Madden. Hell, Walsh was no Theismann, and that's really saying something. He had a great deal of knowledge to share, but clearly lacked the ability to communicate it during a game's broadcasting. He said a lot of inane--even stupid--things, too.

To this day, I remember something he said during a Redskins game that made me want to put my head through a wall. The Redskins had the ball and it was, I believe, second down. They ran a form of the old counter trey, a running play, that netted a loss of a couple of yards. That's something that can happen with a delayed run, if the defense stays at home or sniffs it out. And that's what happened here, a good play by the defense. But Bill Walsh, after the play was over, declared that it was pointless call, that the Redskins decided to "just take that play off."

Coaches and players in the NFL don't intentionally take plays off. The Redskins didn't run that play because they didn't care how it worked out, they ran it hoping to catch the other team off-guard, to at least gain some yards, if not break off a big run. It didn't work in this case. Walsh, in actually saying what he said, sounded like an idiot. And I don't think Walsh is an idiot. What I think is that he just wasn't cut out for offering instant opinions on what was happening. I think he might have meant to say something more along the lines of the Redskins running a play that would give their lineman a break from pass defending, or the like. I should note that the coach of the Redskins at the time was Joe Gibbs, not a man known for taking plays--or anything else--off.

Boko Haram crosses into Cameroon

Two days ago--on November 13, 2013--the United States Department of State officially designated Boko Haram and Ansaru as "Foreign Terrorist Orgamizations." From State's press release:
The Department of State has announced the designation of Boko Haram and Ansaru as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended, and as Specially Designated Global Terrorists under section 1(b) of Executive Order 13224. Boko Haram is a Nigeria-based militant group with links to al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that is responsible for thousands of deaths in northeast and central Nigeria over the last several years including targeted killings of civilians. Also operating in Nigeria, Ansaru is a Boko Haram splinter faction that earlier in 2013 kidnapped and executed seven international construction workers...

Boko Haram has been conducting an ongoing and brutal campaign against Nigerian military, government, and civilian targets. Among its most lethal attacks, Boko Haram carried out indiscriminate attacks in Benisheikh, Nigeria in September 2013 that killed more than 160 innocent civilians, including women and children. Boko Haram has also conducted attacks against international targets, including a suicide bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja on August 26, 2011, that killed 21 people and injured dozens more, many of them aid workers supporting development projects across Nigeria.

Ansaru’s attacks have focused on Nigerian military and Western targets. In November 2012, Ansaru raided a police station in Abuja, killing Nigerian police officers and freeing detained terrorists from prison. Also in January 2013, Ansaru attacked Nigerian security services when its members ambushed a convoy of Nigerian peacekeepers. Ansaru has also conducted several kidnappings of foreigners living or working in Nigeria.
Father Vandenbeusch. Source: France24.
On that very same day, Boko Haram members in northeast Nigeria crossed the border into Cameroon and abducted a French priest--one Father Georges Vandenbeusch--from his church in the small town of Nguetchewe. As of yet, Boko Haram has made no demands, nor offered any explanation for their actions. But it's easy enough to grasp their motivations: as I noted in a recent piece, Ansaru, the Boko Haram splinter group also designated as an FTO, that is apparently tasked with financing Boko Haram operations via kidnappings and the like has become more closely linked with elements of AQIM--Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb--which has a heavy presence in Mali.

The continued involvement by the French government in Malian affairs is likely the reason for this targeting, along with the fact that the priest was an easy target, as many so-called "experts" are of the opinion that Boko Haram activities are largely restricted to Nigeria, proper. As the above article--from France24--notes, AQIM members have recently claimed responsibility for murdering two French journalists. The dots here are, in my opinion, obvious and easy to connect, something that I also did in another piece. Boko Haram to Ansaru to AQIM, all are operating in concert to some degree.

Once upon a time, Boko Haram was an independent organization, concerned only with establishing control over Nigeria and in eliminating all westerners and western practices in the region it controls. This is no longer the case. While it was hoped that the break-off of Ansaru indicated a weakening of Boko Haram, this turnes out not to be the case, at all. Regardless of whether or not the initial impetus for the splintering was true disagreement, Ansaru now represents a substantial link between Boko Haram and AQIM. As major leaders of both Boko Haram and Ansaru have been caught or killed, new leaders have stepped in, leaders who are far less independent-minded, when it comes to relations with AQIM.

Spanish Moss

There are stars in the Southern sky
Southward as you go
There is moonlight and moss in the trees
Down the Seven Bridges Road...
So opens the song Seven Bridges Road, written and recorded by Steve Young in the 1960's, then covered and made famous by The Eagles in 1980. It's something of a minor anthem in the genre of Southern rock, a genre that is near to my heart, as frequent readers of this blog no doubt know. Young was inspired to write the poetically gorgeous lyrics of the song by his travels in Alabama, but the imagery--from the moonlight to the moss to the multiple bridges--fits in well with most of the southeastern United States.

Source: UNC School of Education
The moss he writes about is commonly called Spanish moss--scientifically, tillandsia usneoides--and is found throughout the southeast, but particularly in humid areas, making it a common sight in trees along riverbanks, near bridges, in areas not too close to the coast and heavy with vegetation. It is technically not a moss at all, but instead is a kind of angiosperm, a flowering plant that actually has tiny flowers and fruit. Oddly enough, it is in the same plant family as the pineapple, of all things.

The sight of Spanish moss is, for me, an indelible memory of my childhood. Growing up in Virginia along the brackish James River, there was no Spanish moss to see. Rather, my experiences with it stem from trips in the family station wagon--thankfully not a metallic pea one--to the west coast of Florida, in the days before I-95 had been fully completed. As my father drove south, we would invariably exit I-95 somewhere in Georgia in order to take U.S. Route 301 for the remainder of the trip. Spanish moss would begin to appear in trees as we cruised south, but then disappear as we crossed into Florida and traveled around Jacksonville.

But soon enough, it was back with a vegeance, with our passage into central Florida en route to the retirement communities dotting the states's gulf coast. For we were on our way to visit my grandparents who at the time lived in Fort Myers. It was--to be sure--a long and mostly boring trip. The occasional stops for gas or food were the highlights of each day. There were no handheld video games to play, no iPods to enjoy, just the tedium of the open road and the wavering signals of various FM radio stations (which I know made my trip far less boring than those taken by my parents when they were young).

To pass the time, I read books, colored, just looked out the window, or pestered my parents with the perennial questions "Are we there yet?" and "Can we stop soon?" There was one momentary period wherein the scenery always served to hold my attention: the portion of the drive from the lower part of North Carolina to the border of South Carolina. That stretch of I-95 was--and still is--home to numerous billboards advertising the famous (infamous?) South of the Border rest stop, just past the border between the Carolinas. The signs were big and goofy, humorously so to a child, and served their purpose well: I asked to stop there every single time we took that route. I think my parents agreed to stop just once.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The New Politics: Can America Survive?

"Can America Survive?" That was the question posed--humorously--on the faux "Newsworld" magazine cover at the end of the classic 1981 comedy Stripes. Featuring a smirking Bill Murray, the question was based on the idea of an army populated by ne'er-do-wells like Murray's character in the film, John Winger, people more interested in a good time than pretty much anything else. And again, it wasn't a serious thing at all; we know that the Armed Forces are not home to such people, that the men and women who serve do so with honor, courage, and dignity far more often than not.

But I'm using this cover and the question on it as something of a jumping off point, insofar as the future of America--the United States--is not so firm as many might hope it to be in my opinion, at least with regard to its past form and role in the world.

In the movie, John Winger and his fellow miscreants end up being the heroes of the story, rescuing their fellows from a Soviet base and then escaping from behind the Iron Curtain. Their lack of respect for the military and its culture that characterized their time in basic training remains, however. They are--throughout the movie--always looking to use the military, never serve it. In many ways, Murray's character in Stripes is no different than his character in Ghostbusters, who--as noted by the Dean of the college he is at when the story begins--regards science "as some sort of dodge."

All of this makes for fun times, paves the way for Murray's sarcasm, unserious nature, and non-stop ridiculing of pretty much everyone else in the movie, even his pals. John Winger's closest confidant in Stripes is Russell Ziskey (played by Harold Ramis), who willingly involves himself in Winger's escapades, even as he complains about them. Thus, Ziskey's moments of seriousness in the film--when he seems to register an inkling of respect for the military, appears almost ready to actually live up to the oath he took (as did Winger) when he enlisted--are constantly undone in short order by his decisions to participate in whatever shenanigans Winger dreams up.

The very basis of the movie, after all, was Winger's decision to join the Army because his life was falling apart. Ziskey goes along with him to the recruitment center and joins as well, apparently because he had nothing better to do. I can't help but wonder if there isn't an opportunity to make a similar movie, but with are two intrepid ne're-do-wells being citizens in, say, Pakistan who join al Qaeda for lack of a better option. But I digress.

Most of the other men in the platoon are just as unserious as Winger or just as willing to go along with ideas they know are less than wise. There are fools, psychopaths, and morons galore surrounding Winger in the film. Oddly though, the love interests in the film--two female MPs who take a liking to Winger and Ziskey--seem to be professional soldiers, from beginning to end. I say "oddly" but it's really not odd, at all. These two characters--Stella and Louise, played by P.J. Soles and Sean Young, respectively--are little more than cardboard-thin eye candy. Their attraction to Winger and Ziskey is so unbelievable as to be unnatural. But hey, it's a screwball comedy, right (one of my favorites, actually), so who cares whether or not it's believable?

If only the same was true of the current political environment in the United States. If it was just a screwball comedy--and not actual reality--we'd all be better off. But it's not. It's real, all too real. And we've got all the same sorts of characters: people in government who don't actually believe in the idea of government or--conversely--believe in an idea of government wholly unrelated to the one established by the Constitution, seemingly intelligent people who nonetheless hitch their wagons to such clowns, supposed leaders who are little more than eye candy or are purposefully portrayed as such by their political foes, and a collection of followers and yes-men (and women) who seem almost unhinged at times.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Historical approval ratings and why Obama's numbers just don't fall

Take a look at Gallup's job approval numbers for President Obama. In recent weeks, there have been all manner of stories out there on these numbers--and those from other polling orgs--with regard to how low they were. In most instances, Obama's approval rating was at an all-time low and/or his disapproval rating was at an all-time high. For Gallup, it is not quite at an all time low (38%), but very close (latest numbers have it at 39%). Still, going by Gallup's three-day rolling average or by the RCP average of multiple sources, Obama's approval numbers remain at or above 40%.

That's not good, of course, but it's hardly catastrophic, as compared to many past Presidents. Reagan, for instance, dropped down to 35% at the start of his second year as President. George Bush (the first one) saw his numbers go down to 29% in his last months in office. In contrast, Clinton's low point was 36%, a low that occured in the early months of his Presidency. George W. Bush, of course, had terrible numbers in the latter part of his second term, 25% being the lowest of these many lows.

Look at the numbers for the above Presidents throughout their time in office, though, and you will see some ebb and flow to the numbers, based on events and situations of the moment. Reagan's approval number went as high as 71% during a period in his second term, largely because the economy was swimming along (earlier lower numbers appeared when the economy was still struggling). The Iran-Contra affair, though, pushed the number down. The first Bush--still riding that economy and further aided by the success of the First Gulf War--actually saw an 89% approval rating, but as the economy began to turn a little, that number fell rapidly.

Clinton came in to office with big ideas and big promises, but the early months of his Presidency led to little improvement on any front and his numbers reflect this. But then--as the economy really began to hum--Clinton's numbers went up. I realize that many on the Right are not fans of Clinton in the least, but the reality is that he largely--and rightly--got out of the way of the economy, a choice that led to consistently strong approval numbers throughout his second term, as there were no truly major incidents to change this dynamic.

George W. Bush's numbers are--to me--the most interesting, as after 9-11 they skied up to 89% (the same level reached by his father), but then began to drop. Consistently. The unpopularity of the Iraq War, the unpopularity of the Patriot Act (and the TSA), and the slowing economy all contributed to this. For the last year of his term, George W. Bush's numbers never topped 40%.

Here are the charts:



Saturday, November 9, 2013

From Benghazi to Bosnia: a tale of two liars

There's a lot of egg on the faces of people at CBS News, Lara Logan in particular, because of a late October segment on 60 Minutes wherein Logan interviewed one Morgan Jones, a security officer who claimed to be at the Benghazi compound during the September 11th, 2012 attack, the attack that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Morgan Jones is actually the nom de plume (pen name) of Dylan Davies, an employee of Blue Mountain Group (a UK-based security contractor), who parlayed his presence in Benghazi into a book deal. That book--The Embassy House--has since been suspended by the publisher because it turns out that the Davies' eyewitness account of the attack, the one he gave Logan on 60 Minutes--is nothing but a pack of lies.

CBS News has pulled the interview clips from its website, Logan and executives there have publicly apologized for airing the story, and have promised to do better in vetting their sources for these kinds of things in the future.

Davies' deception came to light last week when it was revealed that he gave very different accounts of the events to the FBI and to his employer in an incident report. In both cases, Davies made it clear that neither he nor anyone else was able to get anywhere near the compound during the attack, much less enter it and engage enemy combatants there. Here's a quote from the book that makes the deception apparent:
It was a night upon which I would fight my way into the besieged Benghazi Mission three times over, largely against orders, in an effort to find my American brothers-in-arms and to stand with them against the terrorist horde. It was a night on which I should have died many times over.
At first, Davies claimed he had lied in the incident report to his company because he was told not to go to the compound by superiors, but did not want them to know he disobeyed these orders. He claimed--then--that he told the FBI the same story that is in the book, the same story that he told Logan. But that claim has since been refuted, as the story he told the FBI was not consistent with the one in his book or the one told to Logan at all:
The information he provided in an F.B.I. interview was described Thursday by two senior government officials as completely consistent with an incident report by the Blue Mountain security business, which had been hired to protect United States interests in Benghazi. The officials who spoke said they had been briefed on the government investigation.
It seems quite obvious that Davies dreamed up the story in his book in order to sell the book proposal to a publisher, that he thought he could get away with the charade, become famous, and make some money as well. But Davies' fifteen minutes of fame has bought him very little. The book was no bestseller, is now no longer available, and Davies himself is persona non grata pretty much everywhere.

Obama knows what's best for you, even if he doesn't understand economics

The President, appearing on NBC yesterday, "apologized" for his misleading claims about the consequences of the ACA. He didn't really apologize, rather he expressed sympathy for people who have had their health insurance plans cancelled, plans they actually wanted to keep and were told--by the President--they could keep. As bad as this is, the President said a couple of other things in the same interview that I think are even more troubling:
Keep in mind that most of the folks who are going to who got these cancellation letters, they'll be able to get better care at the same cost or cheaper in these new marketplaces because they'll have more choice, they'll have more competition. They're part of a bigger pool. Insurance companies are going to be hungry for their business.  
 So, the majority of folks will end up being better off. Of course, because the website's not working right, they don’t necessarily know it right [now].
Let's take the second part first, the bit about most people being better off, even if they don't realize it. The hubris of Obama is striking. He's saying that most people--or at least a majority of them--who have their policies cancelled will benefit from this, even if they think they won't. Obama knows better, he knows what makes people "better off," even if they are not smart enough to realize it, themselves. So, if your plan is cancelled, chances are the replacement one will be better, apparently even if it costs more, has a higher deductible, and/or forces you to get coverage you don't want (like, say, maternity coverage, even if you're a fifty-year-old man who has had a vasectomy).

Of course, in Obama's fantasyland--the one were economies function according to rules based on faulty premises and assumptions--this isn't going to happen, as the first part above makes clear. In Obama's fantasyland, the "new marketplaces" will over better plans for less money as a matter of course.

Why?

Obama imagines it is because there will be more competition and that fact alone will produce the benefits he is promising. But note the underlying reality Obama is either wholly ignorant of or is purposefully ignoring: in these new marketplaces, the plans being sold have to meet various requirements established by the ACA. These new requirements will necessarily drive up average costs. Additionally, the "bigger pool" Obama is counting on will be heavily displaced by people with pre-existing conditions, again driving up average costs.

Then there's the added bureaucracy and paperwork created by the ACA, both for insurers and healthcare providers, both of which will add to costs. Finally there is the cost of healthcare, proper. Nothing in the ACA will drive down actual healthcare costs; exactly the opposite. For instance, the ACA includes the infamous medical device tax and when this goes into effect, it will increase--not decrease--the actual cost of healthcare. That cost will have to be borne by someone and there's no reason to suppose it won't be passed on to the patients.

Really, the same lack of understanding (whether willful or not)--when it comes to economics--on display here is exactly what was behind Obama's previous promise to citizens that led to his "apology." Not only is Obama terribly wrong in all of this, he also has no learning curve to speak of, or simply feels he can mislead the public at will. Given how his sycophants in the media respond to most of his claims, I guess I can understand how he might come to believe the last: he lies because he knows he can get away with it.

But either way, it's a troubling thing, having a clueless President when it comes to economics, or having a President who is unconcerned with the truth. Perhaps it's a little of both.

Cheers, all.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The fantasy metric of job creation continues its reign

The latest numbers are out on employment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate ticked up to 7.3%, but some 204,000 jobs were still added. This is being presented as good news by the typical pundit, as it is being viewed through the prism of expected bad news because of the October shutdown. The New York Times:
Defying predictions that the government shutdown would sap job growth, private employers added more than 200,000 positions in October, well above even the most optimistic estimates on Wall Street...

In addition to the healthier-than-expected number for job creation last month, the Labor Department also revised upward the number of hires in August and September by 60,000.
From WaPo:
The U.S. economy added 204,000 jobs in October, according to data released Friday morning, defying expectations of a weak labor market in the face of the federal government shutdown.

The Labor Department report showed strong hiring in industries such as retail and hospitality, manufacturing and health care. State governments added 8,000 jobs, but that was offset by declines in federal and local employment.
But the WaPo story does note the following, unlike the NYT piece:
The number of folks who have given up looking for work helped drive the labor force participation rate down to just 62.8 percent.
That number--the 62.8 percent--is the lowest one for the LFPT since 1978! It means, in context, that a lower percentage of Americans who could be working, who are a part of the "labor force," are working, as compared to any time in the past 35 years. Here's a graph of the LFPR since January of 2003:

That's pretty ugly, from the perspective of the current Administration. Because despite all of the supposed "job creation" under President Obama, the LFPR has basically been dropping since he took office. His policies have done nothing to arrest the fall. As Tyler Durden notes over at Zerohedge, the October numbers that caused the latest drop amount to nearly one million people moving out of the labor force in just October, alone:
But more importantly, the number of people not in the labor force exploded by nearly 1 million, or 932,000 to be exact, in just the month of October, to a record 91.5 million Americans! This was the third highest monthly increase in people falling out of the labor force in US history.

At this pace the people out of the labor force will surpass the working Americans in about 4 years.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The beginning of the end for New York City?

The election for the new mayor of New York City was something of a walkover, as Democrat Bill de Blasio easily defeated Republican Joe Lhota by garnering over 73% of the vote. In many ways, it was an historic victory, not only because de Blasio will be the first Democratic mayor of NYC since David Dinkins (who left office in 1993), but because de Blasio is an openly self-described Progressive in a very real ideological sense. As such, he has the full support of pretty much every major progressive across the land, all of whom are anxiously awaiting his reign to begin. Witness Robert Reich's effusive praise for de Blasio in his "analysis" of yesterday's elections:
The biggest game-changer, though, is Bill de Blasio, the mayor-elect of New York City, who campaigned against the corporatist legacy of Michael Bloomberg -- promising to raise taxes on the wealthy and use the revenues for pre-school and after-school programs for the children of New York's burdened middle class and poor.

Those who dismiss his victory as an aberration confined to New York are overlooking three big new things:

First, the new demographic reality of America gives every swing state at least one large city whose inhabitants resemble those of New York.

Second, de Blasio won notwithstanding New York's position as the epicenter of big business and Wall Street, whose money couldn't stop him.

Third, Americans are catching on to the scourge of the nation's raging inequality, and its baleful consequences for our economy and democracy.
The issue of inequality is fundamental to the Progressive movement; those in it believe--quite earnestly in my opinion--that they can substantially level society through policy and that such a goal is a noble and worthwhile pursuit. De Blasio's victory speech is rife with the same kind of talk:
Tackling inequality isn’t easy; it never has been, and never will be. The challenges we face have been decades in the making, and the problems we set out to address will not be solved overnight.

But make no mistake: the people of this city have chosen a progressive path, and tonight we set forth on it, together, as one city...

I’ve spoken often about a Tale of Two Cities. That inequality – that feeling of a few doing very well, while so many slip further behind – that is the defining challenge of our time. Because inequality in New York is not something that only threatens those who are struggling.

The stakes are so high for every New Yorker. And making sure no son or daughter of New York falls behind defines the very promise of our city.

New York is the brightest embodiment of the idea behind American greatness: It doesn’t matter where you were born what you look like what your religion is, or who you love.

If you have brains and heart and guts and faith, this city – more than any other in the world – will offer you a real chance at a better life.
He goes on to note the legacy of boot-strapping in New York City--how people came to the city with nothing and made their way to the top--and to do some more ego-stroking of New Yorkers in general, to talk about how great they are, how compassionate and bold the people of the City have been and remain today. Much of the latter is typical victory speech stuff, no matter if one has just won a race for city council in a small town or won the Presidency. That said, there is some truth in the first part, when it comes to New York City: the opportunities there have been greater and more available for rags-to-riches stories than any current American city. Indeed, they have been greater there than in any city in any country across the last eighty years or so. And there's a very clear and obvious reason for this, a reason that has nothing to do with the character of the city or its inhabitants, whatsoever.

Yes Virginia, there is a McAuliffe Clause

The results are in for yesterday's elections. In Virginia, a new governor was elected as veteran campaigner Terry McAuliffe (Democrat) defeated current Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (Republican) and attorney Robert Sarvis (Libertarian). The final totals have McAuliffe with 47.9% of the vote, Cuccinelli with 45.5%, and Sarvis with 6.6%.

No one was shocked or even surprised by McAuliffe's victory. He has been leading in the polls--often by double digits--since September. But the narrowness was a bit surprising to some, as McAuliffe went in to the election with an average lead over Cuccinelli of nearly seven points. Now, after the fact, there are a lot of explanations as to why the race ended up far closer than the polls indicated. Politco runs through some of the more obvious in this piece.

At the top of the list is Obamacare. Prior to the website fiasco and the news of all of the cancellations due to the ACA, the issue wasn't a strong one for Cuccinelli in Virginia, despite it being a central feature of his platform, i.e. getting rid of Obamacare, possibly because most Virginians understood that as Governor of Virginia, he really couldn't make that happen. But after all the bad news about the ACA--which pushed the shutdown issue out of the spotlight, an issue that was good for McAuliffe especially in regions with a heavy Federal worker base--McAuliffe's support of the ACA likely turned some voters against him. The Politico piece also notes that McAuliffe's supposedly huge majority among women voters (a 24% advantage, prior to the election) turned out to be no different than the advantage enjoyed by Obama in the last Presidential Election (9%).

Despite the surprising closeness of the race, some are actually claiming McAuliffe's victory to be a rejection of "Tea Party Extremism." It was a rejection of Cuccinelli, no doubt. But hardly a sound one. After all, McAuliffe failed to garner a majority of the votes. If there had been no third party candidate, who knows what the final results might have been.

But while the Governor's race grabbed all the headlines in Virginia, let's not forgot about all of races for the Virginia House of Delegates. If there was going to be a rejection of Tea Party types, this would be the real battlefield. Because after all, it's where the Tea Party is strongest, at its best, at the local and grass roots level. So what happened there? Well, going in to yesterday, the Republicans controlled the Virginia House with 67 seats (out of 100). After yesterday's election, they now appear to have maintained this same advantage, despite two incumbents losing, because they won the seats of two retiring members, one a Democrat and one an Independent. Net change: zero.

So it would seem there is very little to the idea that Virginia voters rejected Tea Party extremism or pretty much anything else.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The President makes a fair point...

The Affordable Care Act is bad news. It has been since the beginning. Why? Because it's not going to improve healthcare, healthcare delivery, or even healthcare access for the vast majority of Americans who have needs in these arenas. Why? Because the ACA--Obamacare--is first and foremost about expanding health insurance via government mandates. And of course, when insurance is mandated it ceases to be real insurance, becoming nothing more than a fee that may or may not provide service value equal to or greater than cumulative payments. Who wins in such a situation? Why, the "insurance" companies do.

Already, millions upon millions of Americans are getting policies cancelled, policies that will end up being replaced by more expensive policies. This is being justified under the rubric that the old policies were flawed, did not provide sufficient coverage, and the like. But people knew what they were getting when they signed up for these policies, didn't they? Now, they will have to pay more money for things they didn't want and may not even be able to utilize. Again, it's a huge win for the insurance companies. By this time next year, I expect to see all manner of studies demonstrating that the average premium paid for health insurance has increased dramatically.

At the same time, the website--Healthcare.gov--created by the ACA to help citizens find health insurance has been a complete train wreck. It's had more bugs and crashes than Windows ME (and that's really saying something) and has failed to attract a significant number of enrollees. People trying to use it in good faith have been constantly stymied, to the point that it has become something of a punchline for comedians and critics of both the Administration in general and Obamacare in particular.

Needless to say, the Administration is pushing back--or trying to push back, at any rate--on both of these issues, the widespread cancellation of policies and the awfulness of the website. With regard to the first, Obama is being forced to "recalibrate" the truth, as he sold this legislation under the promise that if it passed, Americans would be able to keep their policies if they so desired. Obviously, that's not what has happened. The recalibration involves Obama going back in time and claiming that what he said was not what he said, that there was an unspoken caveat to his promise. But I've come to expect such things from Obama, so I don't really see the point in dwelling on this; his fanboys and sycophants in the media are unable to admit to reality here, regardless.

As to the second issue, the problems with the website, Obama--and most everyone else in his Administration--is playing the role of a shocked overlord, admitting that the problems are unacceptable and the like, promising to get to the bottom of things, suggesting that heads may even roll. Of course, the last is just rhetoric. No one--of any significance--is going to really get axed for all of this, especially not Sibelius.

Monday, November 4, 2013

History Lesson, Part III: from The Birth of a Nation to a Federal Income Tax

Odd tangents, moments of strange intersections, events seemingly unrelated but with a thread pulling them together: this is the theme of this post (Part III), the final one in this series that began with Part I and Part II several weeks ago.
As promised at the end of Part II, this post will delve into some of the background story, with regard to the Sixteenth Amendment, which was formally adopted on February 25th, 1913 after being ratified by three-fourths of the States. The proposal for the Amendment had been drafted and passed by Congress in July of 1909. At the time of ratification, William Howard Taft was still President of the United States, but was preparing to step down for Woodrow Wilson, who would assume office a mere week (March 4th) after the the official pronouncement of the the ratification of the Sixteenth.

But before going further into this matter, allow me to briefly sum up Part I and Part II, for those who may have forgotten what was discussed therein.

Part I was largely about D.W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation (which premiered in 1915) and how it became the primary source of the mythos behind the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the years after its release and into the 1920's, a rebirth that culminated in the infamous "Klanbake" at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. In this regard, we met several important players, with regard to our larger narrative: President Woodrow Wilson, Senator Oscar Wilder Underwood of Alabama, 1924 candidate for the Democratic nomination William Gibbs McAdoo, and future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Of the four, only Underwood stood in clear opposition to the Klan. The others tacitly accepted the Klan at the very least (Wilson), cultivated its support (McAdoo), or were actual members of it (Black).

Part II was concerned with the passage of the Revenue Act of 1913 (the Underwood Tariff Act) and the roles of Senator (than House Majority Leader) Underwood and President Wilson in that regard, two men apparently on the same page when it came to revenues and taxes, but on very different pages when it came to the Ku Klux Klan. I delved into the specific nature of the legislation, with regard to the progressive income tax it established and ended with a question about Underwood's support of this tax and opposition to the Ku Klux Klan:
Here's a question, predicated on the assumption that Underwood--being a smart guy--knew the income tax was an easy sell because it targeted a very small group and knew that it would expand over time: why was he concerned about protecting marginalized groups on the one hand while he was engaged in explicitly creating them on the other?
The issue here, the one that maybe people are missing, is the identity of the marginalized group created by the institution of a progressive income tax. Because it's not the rich. Exactly the opposite. It's the very poor, the ones who would--over time--lose their stake in the system, would become a permanently dependent class. Thanks to the rapid urbanization partly caused by Reconstruction, this group would also predominantly be composed of the very same people targeted by the Ku Klux Klan.

The passage of the Revenue Act of 1913 was possible only because of the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, quite obviously. A previous attempt to initiate a limited (and progressive) Federal income tax had already been set aside by the Court, since it violated the Constitutional requirement for any direct tax to be proportional according to population. Any income tax--which was based on a percentage of income, whether progressive or not--violated this requirement. And of course that was the very intent behind having such a requirement in the Constitution.

Too little is made of this point, I think. The reasoning behind not having an income tax was not based on some sort of "protect my wealth" hatred of income taxes in general. Such things were fine at a State level for the Framers, if that was how States chose to collect their taxes. Rather, the issue was--based on an understanding that not all States were or would be equal in terms of wealth--about power, about the presumption that having the cost of government borne inequitably would creates expectations by those (States and individuals) bearing that cost, since the existence of States alone created factions. And based on history and the experiences of the Framers themselves, it was quite an understandable point of view.

But over time, the Federal government expanded--despite the best efforts of the Framers to stifle such growth via checks on Federal power--and the issue of funding it became more important, especially during wartime, when tariff revenues were both insufficient and often declining. The attractiveness of an income tax as a means to fill this need was based on the presumption that such a tax could be targeted at a a narrowly limited portion of the population: the very rich. By and large, in the United States of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this economic class existed almost exclusively in the Northeast. And it was in the Northeast that the opposition to an income tax originated, as well.