Category Archives: Government Ethics

This Is Your Government

As our readers can no doubt see, things have moved to a snail’s pace here. I’m not sure I expect that to change soon [at least for me].

However, I came across this post at TJIC, referencing a post at Coyote Blog, that is an absolute must read.

This is a government that is arbitrary, capricious, and exists not to protect the rights of the governed, but to aggregate power unto itself.

When you ask me why I don’t trust government to do anything, that post is a pretty good example of my answer.

Why I Don’t Listen To Jenny McCarthy — Or the CDC

The journalist responsible for the original uproar about the MMR vaccine and autism has been shown to have produced very shoddy research, and widely discredited. He was even recently banned from the practice of medicine in the UK. This has, of course, not quieted the debate. In fact, it’s gotten even worse, with his vaccine supporters claiming the science is settled, and vaccine opponents acting as if this is all a big cover-up.

The problem with this debate, for most people, is that they don’t have the training to actually view the real research and make an informed decision. They’re trying to decide whether to listen to their usual source of information, an emotionally-charged celebrity (Jenny McCarthy) or to trust the authorities, who just naturally have that stink of “they must be hiding something” about them. Add a dash of humanity’s propensity to swallow conspiracy theories, and nobody knows what to believe.

As a parent, I decided it was my job to educate myself and make the decision for my kids, regardless of what the CDC said. Nothing is riskless. It is my job to weigh the risk of vaccinating against the risk of not vaccinating, both for specific vaccines, for the age of administration of those vaccines, even to the level of possibly discriminating against brands of vaccine based upon ingredient levels (you may laugh, but I have asked my pediatrician which brand they use).

Some anti-vaccine folks in my extended family supplied me with the crackpot books they’ve read (i.e. books where the author was denouncing the entire germ theory of disease as bogus), and it was clear reading these that the authors had an axe to grind. A book written from an ideological perspective is not necessarily a disqualification, but books where the ideology trumps the science are out of the question.

I ended up on a book published by my kid’s pediatrician. I chose it because it seemed to honestly and neutrally discuss the relative diseases guarded against, the ingredients of the vaccines in question, and the safety record of the vaccine. The author supports vaccination, but it was clear that he did his level best to offer the evidence without bias, separate from his own recommendations pro/con on each vaccine.

I ended up choosing the vaccine schedule that I put my kids through based on that information — i.e. a cost/benefit analysis of the likelihood my child might contract the disease in question, the severity of the disease if he did catch it, and the relative risks of the vaccine in relation to the above.

As an example, I chose that my children get the polio vaccine. While it’s a rare disease, it’s a particularly nasty disease, and the vaccine is one of the safest available. I also chose to get vaccines such as HiB and Rotavirus, because they’re relatively harmful diseases, particularly in infancy, and also diseases that my kids aren’t that unlikely to contract.

On the other hand, I chose against MMR. While measles, mumps, and rubella are common, they’re also typically mild diseases. The vaccine has a higher prevalence of adverse reactions than most, and there is a worry that some of the vaccines for “mild” diseases can lead to complications later in life, with a more virulent and dangerous form of a disease affecting the individual in adulthood. Thus I didn’t believe taking risks to protect my kids from diseases that seemed relatively innocuous in most kids made a lot of sense, especially since the long-term effect is unknown. I had the same rationale for the chickenpox vaccine.

I also opted for a more spread-out vaccine regimen (i.e. not necessarily later in life, but more visits and less shots per visit), because I think the likelihood of an adverse reaction may be increased when you subject a body to the stress of several vaccines at once.

This, of course, is done with the unique attributes of my family taken into account. It’s a low-risk household, with the kids breast-fed until 12 months, no day care, and not a huge amount of interaction with hordes of other youth. Further, they’re well-nourished and healthy kids, so I feel they’d be far better than “average” at weathering the storm of a disease like measles or chickenpox. This, of course, also makes them less likely to have an severe adverse reaction to a vaccine, so it affects the risk/benefit of vaccinating just as much as not vaccinating.

I know that this decision is my responsibility as a parent. I know that I am weighing some risks against others, and that there’s a chance that things could go wrong. It is because of that responsibility that I read 3 books cover-to-cover on the subject, discarding two of them as trash and settling on one that I thought trustworthy before making my decisions. At the end of the day, I feel like I made the best decision I could, given the evidence I had, and I and my family are going to be the ones who have to live with the consequences, right or wrong. That’s a heady weight, and one that most parents probably don’t want to bear. But that’s the responsibility that comes with raising a child.

The problem will come when the kids need to go to school. The schools typically demand that you’re current with all or most of the vaccines on the CDC schedule. Most public schools will allow you to let your unvaccinated child attend if you claim a philosophical objection to vaccinations. It’s a major hassle, but they do allow it. The problem for me is that I don’t have a philosophical objection to vaccination (especially as an atheist — no religious reasons for me). One of the pieces of evidence against a philosophical objection is to give your child any vaccines — i.e. my piecemeal approach is not philosophical.

I do have a philosophical objection to bureaucratic one-size fits all government mandates, though, and thus I don’t accept that the government should be the one demanding that I follow their cost-benefit analysis for “most” kids when it doesn’t fit my family’s particular situation. My philosophical objection is being forced to take risks with my children that the CDC wants me to take, when I’ve evaluated the research myself and I disagree. That objection, though, is less well accepted in California than Scientology.
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Quote Of The Day

From the LA Times, a story about the LA City Council. Electronic auto-voting allows council members to avoid actually attending council meetings, much to the chagrin of voters:

Still, their physical absence frequently infuriates members of the public who show up to testify only to find themselves addressing one or more empty chairs.
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“We go there to talk to the full City Council,” said Ziggy Kruse of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council. “If you get eight people in their seats, you’re lucky.”

Oh, you naive citizen… You’re assuming they actually give a shit what you say.

Hat Tip: Reason

How To Shrink The Size Of Government

It’s very simple… Just require federal employees to follow the law, and they’ll make themselves ineligible for service:

`SUBCHAPTER VIII–INELIGIBILITY OF PERSONS HAVING SERIOUSLY DELINQUENT TAX DEBTS FOR FEDERAL EMPLOYMENT

`Sec. 7381. Ineligibility of persons having seriously delinquent tax debts for Federal employment

`(a) Definition- For purposes of this section–

`(1) the term `seriously delinquent tax debt’ means an outstanding debt under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 for which a notice of lien has been filed in public records pursuant to section 6323 of such Code, except that such term does not include–

`(A) a debt that is being paid in a timely manner pursuant to an agreement under section 6159 or section 7122 of such Code; and

`(B) a debt with respect to which a collection due process hearing under section 6330 of such Code, or relief under subsection (a), (b), or (f) of section 6015 of such Code, is requested or pending; and

`(2) the term `Federal employee’ means–

`(A) an employee, as defined by section 2105; and

`(B) an employee of the United States Postal Service or of the Postal Regulatory Commission.

`(b) Ineligibility for Federal Employment- An individual who has a seriously delinquent tax debt shall be ineligible to be appointed, or to continue serving, as a Federal employee.

`(c) Regulations- The Office of Personnel Management shall, for purposes of carrying out this section with respect to the executive branch, prescribe any regulations which the Office considers necessary.’.

(b) Clerical Amendment- The analysis for chapter 73 of title 5, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following:

`subchapter viii–ineligibility of persons having seriously delinquent tax debts for federal employment

`7381. Ineligibility of persons having seriously delinquent tax debts for Federal employment.’.

Sounds like it’s time to get some folks with clout to push this. Get Ron Paul on board, get Jeff Flake on board, and get the TEA Party folks on board. I say we make this happen.

Hat Tip: Reason

Would C-SPAN Make The Healthcare Bill “Worse”? Define Worse.

I’ll blockquote Peter Suderman over at Reason blockquoting the CAP’s “wonk room” blog on this one:

The short version of the argument is that C-SPAN’s coverage would put pressure on legislators to perform for the cameras and thus make the bill worse:

C-SPAN is grounded in the belief that transparency produces superior legislation. And maybe a certain level of transparency does. But if one actually considers the tone and tenor of the televised health care debate of 2009, filming the conference negotiations seems counterproductive.

…On the whole, C-SPAN’s coverage informed and entertained the viewer. But did it improve the underlying bill?

The post suggests pretty strongly that the answer is no. But how you answer this last question depends quite a bit on what you mean when you say “improved.” If you asked me, I’d say that anything in the health care bill that increased individual control and responsibility for their health care improved it. But when anyone at CAP asks whether something has been “improved”, I think it’s fair to say that what they’re asking is whether it made the bill more progressive — ie: does it cover more people, spread costs across a greater share of the population, offer larger subsidies for care, and move more power away from private enterprise and toward centralized government authority. The implicit argument here is that not filming the negotiations will push the bill in a more progressive direction. I agree, but I think that’s a bad thing. And I also think that as excuses go, shutting out C-SPAN and other media because doing so would limit opposition to the progressive agenda is pretty weak.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that CAP is asking whether it made the bill more or less progressive. There are multiple definitions of “worse”, and Suderman is projecting his definition of worse vs. improved onto CAP.

I think a more fair question, particularly when political grandstanding is involved, is this:

Does C-SPAN televising the debate make it easier or harder for Congress to write a bill accomplishing its objectives with a minimum of bad elements?

There are a lot of ways to define “bad elements”. Peter Suderman and I would say that a public option or an individual mandate are bad elements. CAP would probably say that these are desired elements and dropping the subsidies from 400% to 300% or the Stupak amendment are bad elements. All involved would probably say that greasing the wheels of Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieux are bad elements.

The uncharitable way to read CAP’s question is to suggest that getting the debate out in front of voters, news media and bloggers prior to reaching a final bill gets the debate out of Congress and into public opinion, where voters might object to necessary provisions or add bad elements through the political process. But the charitable way to read this is that televising the debates on C-SPAN leads to overt politicization and a necessarily “worse” bill by addition of things that both Democrats and Republicans would consider bad elements. Whether policy is good or bad is not defined by its public popularity.

I like the idea of C-SPAN televising the negotiations, but not because I think they’ll improve the bill. Frankly, I think greater public awareness and pressure might lead to a further public opinion shift against the bill and potentially damage it before the votes come back to House & Senate on the compromise legislation. Any damage to this intrusion of government on freedom that I can get, I’ll take. But I don’t think televising the debates will in any way improve the bill. As the wonk room states:

Turning the conference committee into another Senate floor debate won’t improve health reform legislation. The televised conference hearings will become a drawn out theatrical sideshow — the real discussions will still occur behind closed doors.

They’ll just give a bunch of Congressional blowhards a forum to grandstand, and provide fodder for cable news and the blogosphere to excoriate them in public. Great fun, mind you, but since all the substantive negotiation occurs off-camera anyway, it’s not exactly useful.

Quote(s) Of The Day

Both relate to Ben Nelson being bought off to provide the Democrats’ 60th vote. Oh, and what a bribe it was!

First, David Kotok over at The Big Picture:

Senator Nelson of Nebraska sold his vote in return for special treatment for the Mutual of Omaha insurance company and for perpetual Medicaid funding for his state. He has just set a record for pork. I have not seen the present discounted value of an open-ended perpetual funding for Medicaid for all Nebraskans. Believe me, the other 49 states would like to have it. And if you are a taxpayer in the other 49 states you are going to pay for it.

Now if the good Senator had bargained the abortion issue out of his pure conviction, I would not have agreed with him but I would have respected him for having the courage and honesty to practice politics because of policy. He argued he was maintaining his position out of conviction for an ideal and a belief. But the reality is, he sold his 60th vote for money. He practiced political prostitution.

Infinite future full federal Medicaid funding for Nebraskans? Well, I’ll say one thing for Ben Nelson — he doesn’t come as cheap as Mary Landrieu.

Of course, Ezra Klein (or in this case @ezraklein) thinks this is just tit-for-tat:

Every Republican whining about the deals made to pass health-care reform should demand repeal of Medicare Part D immediately.

Okay. I’m in. Let’s repeal it immediately. Granted, I’m a libertarian, but I think I can speak for many Republicans who were pissed off that their party in Washington ever passed Medicare Part D.

Grassroots Republicans were upset that politicians were being bought off to pass Medicare Part D, a bill we didn’t want in the first place. Did it ever occur to Klein that perhaps we voted Republicans out of office because they were acting too much like Democrats? Grassroots Democrats, however, are pissed off that Ben Nelson was paid so dearly for a bill that didn’t go far enough. I don’t think any Democrat is upset at buying off Ben Nelson, but they’d probably have preferred that Reid at least got a public option or Medicare buy-in if they had to pay him off.

Hubris – Above The Law

I hate excerpting entire blog posts, but this one at Radley Balko’s place is short and can’t be done justice without the full text:

If you follow with any regularity the police misconduct stories I post on this site, you’re no doubt familiar with the phrase “paid administrative leave.” No matter how serious the alleged misconduct, cops nearly always get paid while they’re being investigated, a period that typically takes months.

But last week Stockton, Utah police officer Johsua Rowell was actually put on unpaid administrative leave.

His transgression? He issued a traffic citation to the son of Stockton Mayor Dan Rydalch.

Go ahead and read the news account linked… It’s as bad as (or worse than) Radley makes it sound.

The Institute for Justice Challenges Unjust Law Banning Compensation for Bone Marrow

In January 2008 I wrote a post calling for the repeal of the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984. As I mentioned in the post, many thousands of lives are being sacrificed because of the moral hang-ups of certain individuals who think its icky to sell organs to people who need them. How dare they.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, bone marrow is included as part of the ban. The act of paying an individual for his or her bone marrow is a felony which is punishable for up to five years in prison for everyone involved in the illegal transaction.

The Institute for Justice has decided to challenge this most absurd provision of this absurd bill. Below is a video from the organization explaining their lawsuit against U.S. Attorney General’s Office:

For the sake of the Flynn family, here’s hoping that the Institute for Justice wins the day.

Hat Tip: The Agitator

Transparency No Longer* In Vogue in Democrat Controlled Congress

Gosh, it doesn’t seem like all that long ago the American public was promised hope, change, and a more open, transparent, ethical federal government if we only elected Obama the next President of the United States. Before that, in 2006 Pelosi and Co. made many of the same promises. Now the Democrats have the House, the Senate, and the White House. The “dark days” of the “most secretive administration in American history” (i.e. the Bush Administration) and the “culture of corruption” of the G.O.P. controlled congress are over…right?

As Congress lurches closer to a decision on an enormous overhaul of the American health care system, pressure is mounting on legislative leaders to make the final bill available online for citizens to read before a vote. […]

[…]

At town hall meetings across the country this past summer, the main topic was health care, but there was a strong undercurrent of anger over the way Congress rushed through passage of the stimulus, global warming and bank bailout bills without seeming to understand the consequences. The stimulus bill, for example, was 1,100 pages long and made available to Congress and the public just 13 hours before lawmakers voted on it. The bill has failed to provide the promised help to the job market, and there was outrage when it was discovered that the legislation included an amendment allowing American International Group, a bailout recipient, to give out millions in employee bonuses. […]

[…]

The [Sunlight Foundation] has begun an effort to get Congress to post bills online, for all to see, 72 hours before lawmakers vote on them.

“It would give the public a chance to really digest and understand what is in the bill,” Rosenberg said, “and communicate whether that is a good or a bad thing while there is still time to fix it.”

A similar effort is under way in Congress. Reps. Brian Baird, D-Wash., and Greg Walden, R-Ore., are circulating a petition among House lawmakers that would force a vote on the 72-hour rule.

Nearly every Republican has signed on, but the Democratic leadership is unwilling to cede control over when bills are brought to the floor for votes and are discouraging their rank and file from signing the petition. Senate Democrats voted down a similar measure last week for the health care bill.

Hope.

Change.

Transparency.

Damn…just…damn.

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The NEA Con-Call; There’s Not Much “There” There

On August 10th, a conference call occurred, including folks from the White House, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the arts community. The purpose of the call was to “rally the troops” of artists who had spent time working for the Obama campaign, enlisting their help to push national service initiatives. The revelation of this call was the follow-up by Andrew Breitbart to the ACORN scandal, and as a fellow contributor to his “Big Hollywood” site put it, was pretty damning.

Monday, we have the NEA under the microscope. The Obama Administration was caught red-handed (is that “racist”?) funneling tax payer dollars into an official propaganda department. I can’t wait to see what the excuse will be this time.

Yeah, that’s pretty damning — if true. If there are taxpayer dollars being funneled into the arts community as a walking campaign for Barack Obama, there’s definitely something to be concerned about.

Thankfully, though, this is the internet age. Some anti-government crank in California like me can look at the transcript of the call (available here, courtesy of the very same Andrew Breitbart site), and piece together exactly what happened and what this means.

Because this is going to be a long post, let me set my thesis up front. I don’t like this call. I don’t like what it means. I view what occurred on this call as more properly being the domain of the DNC than the NEA or White House. But I don’t think any laws were broken, I don’t think this is really a walking Barack Obama campaign ad, and what was discussed on the call is not outside the mandate of the NEA.

So let’s look at the call:

Main Participants:
Mike Skolnic: Organizer of call. Independent filmmaker now Political Director for Russell Simmons, asked by United We Serve to arrange this call due to his extensive contacts within the art community.
Buffy Wicks: White House Office of Public Engagement (actual title not disclosed)
Nell Abernathy: Outreach Director for United We Serve
Yosi Sargent: Director of Communications, National Endowment For the Arts
Various artists: Mainly artists already engaged in Democratic activism, some who worked for Obama campaign.

Purpose of Call:
United We Serve is an initiative managed by the White House and the Corporation for National & Community Service, a federal agency formed in 1993 (as an outgrowth of existing agencies) to administer programs like SeniorCorps and AmeriCorps, and expanded in 2002 by George W. Bush to include USA Freedom Corps. United We Serve is an initiative looking to publicize and coordinate community and volunteer service through their Serve.gov web site. The conference call was intended to publicize this site and the United We Serve initiative to influential artists to help them further this in their communities. As such, the call was directed at furthering United We Serve primarily (although assuredly benefiting Barack Obama is a secondary benefit for the White House).

Potential Issues Raised by the Call:
There are several things that could be improper about this call, some of which I will accept and some of which I hope to dispel.

  • Using the National Endowment for the Arts, a funding arm for art and art education, in the furtherance of partisan goals of Barack Obama.
  • Similar to the above, the use of taxpayer funds for the same.
  • Direct influence of the White House Office of Public Engagement on the NEA.

So, again, we need to look at the transcript of the call to hash a lot of this out, because looking at the purpose of the call as I state it above compared to the potential issues raised by the call leaves a lot of room for subtlety and nuance. So if you didn’t click over already, I suggest you read the transcript itself. The advantage of the internet tends to be great access to primary sources, and you do well to make yourself familiar with them before forming a full opinion.

So let’s dispel a few things right up front.

Are taxpayer funds being used?
As far as I can tell, no. There was never a single mention that I could find in the transcript of offer or even discussion of the NEA providing grants or funds for these programs. It was rather one-sided, inasmuch the artists were pretty much told “you’ve shown previously that you care about X, here are some ways that YOU can help make X happen in your community and how Serve.gov will help you do so.”

Is this about partisan legislative efforts and Barack Obama’s agenda?
Again, no. The topic of the call was community service and volunteerism, and the furtherance of Serve.gov rather than legislation. A question was asked by one of the artists at the very end of the call regarding Organizing for America, and Nell Abernathy on the call very expressly stated that the two groups are different, unrelated, and that United We Serve has no intention of using the assistance of the artists for anything other than the furthering of community service and volunteerism. It was left by Nell along the lines of ‘the most I can do is tell you who to contact at OFA, but that’s a ball they need to run with.’

Alternatively, the language from Mike Skolnic (who, as he points out, is not employed by the government) was a bit more open. But I think it was clear that he was speaking not as a voice of United We Serve, the NEA, or the Office of Public Engagement when he made his statements in this manner.

Is the White House exerting partisan pressure on the NEA?
This, again, I don’t really see. It is clear that the NEA is signing up to help United We Serve, but the implications of that are far more interesting.

This is an excerpt (some portions cut to remove unnecessary language) from Yosi Sargent’s portion of the talk. It immediately suggested to me that the NEA was overreaching its mandate to further the arts and art education. The language here is arguably the most objectionable of the entire call (emphasis added):

This is what we fought for. We fought for a chance to be at the table and not only at the table but we’re setting the table. And now the official rule of National Endowment for the Arts, as director of communication and say, We here at the NEA are extremely proud to participate in the president’s United We Serve initiative.

This is a chance for us to partner with the White House and the corporation for national community service along the arts community in immediately affecting some change in our communities.

Really I want to emphasize, and I know that other people have brought it up already, but I want to just hearken back to it really quickly in that this is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government. What that looks like legally, we’re still trying to figure out the laws of putting government Web sites on Facebook and the use of Twitter.

This is all being sorted out. We are participating in history as it’s being made. So bear with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely and we can really work together to move the needle and to get stuff done.

He is quite clearly saying that the NEA is excited to be joining in a partnership with United We Serve and the Corporation for National & Community Service. He is clearly saying that the NEA will be working not just to promote the arts, but to promote actual Federal government programs outside the arts.

Now, this seems to go beyond the NEA’s mandate as explained in their “About Us” page:

The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation’s largest annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases.

You see, nothing there says that they should be serving the government’s agenda. Their mandate, according to this very short blurb, is to promote the ARTS, not the government. So, on its face, it appears that the NEA will be going too far…

…but that doesn’t take into account the legislation forming the NEA (PDF), and what mission it was truly tasked with. From Title 20 U.S.C. § 954:

(o) Correlation and development of endowment programs with other Federal and non-Federal programs; expenditure of appropriations. The Chairperson shall correlate the programs of the National Endowment for the Arts insofar as practicable, with existing Federal programs and with those undertaken by other public agencies or private groups, and shall develop the programs of the Endowment with due regard to the contribution to the objectives of this Act which can be made by other Federal agencies under existing programs. The Chairperson may enter into interagency agreements to promote or assist with the arts-related activities of other Federal agencies, on a reimbursable or nonreimbursable basis, and may use funds authorized to be appropriated for the purposes of subsection (c) for the costs of such activities.

What does this mean? The Corporation for National & Community Service is a federal agency, and United We Serve is a portion of that agency that may need arts-related activities. Thus, the National Endowment of the Arts, per the actual founding legislation created by Congress, is well within its authority to use its power, through funding or without funding, to help United We Serve achieve its goals. The NEA is not overstepping its bounds here. Those bounds may be farther out than we realized, but there’s nothing I see that suggests they cannot be doing this.

Now, as a libertarian, I don’t expect myself or most conservatives to like what was discussed on this call. There are reasons to object, largely based on the appearance of impropriety and the fact that the government views these artists as vessels to promote its agenda. There’s a fundamental view of the relationship between the government and its citizens that I believe gets confused. This administration seems to see a path to self-actualization for all Americans through collectivism organized by government. But I don’t see this as anything different, new, or particularly “damning” knowing what we already know about this administration. This is certainly less of a “gotcha” than the ACORN tapes, in factual terms, but I suspect that if you listen to the Glenn Becks of the world, they’ll make a mountain out of a molehill.

Obama Repeals NAFTA

Okay, that’s probably a bit of an overstatement… But I don’t think that starting a trade war with the Americans who say “eh” and “aboot” Canadians is a really good idea. Via co-blogger Jason Pye at his personal blog:

Canada’s six NHL teams are scrambling to find alternative travel arrangements south of the border after the U.S. Department of Transportation banned Air Canada’s charter fleet from flying between U.S. cities.

In a furious exchange with the Obama administration over the mid-August ruling, Canada has launched its own investigation and will soon close its skies to U.S. sports team charters in retaliation, warns Transport Minister John Baird.

The sticking point is an eight-year-old exemption that had allowed sports and celebrity charters to make several pit stops in American cities. Under existing open skies agreements, regular Canadian airline flights can only visit one U.S. city before returning.

The ruling also side-swipes musicians and other artists on tour.

The matter was pushed by the U.S. Air Line Pilots Association. It had demanded an investigation of passenger lists on the NHL flights, which found a few examples of injured players, personal trainers and team owners boarding the charter south of the border and departing at another U.S. city in a technical violation of the agreement.

Emphasis added to point out — as Jason does — that this is more about appeasing a union than anything else. This isn’t about safety. This isn’t about the NHL or Canada. This is about protecting an American union from competition. And if economic inefficiency is the result, so be it. If trade retaliation is the result, so be it. Campaigns don’t finance themselves, people! Ya gotta take care of your friends.

UAW = Unions Accepting Welfare

Hmm, I guess we can see once again that our Congress is not in any way trying to manage our car companies (and their unions) for political gain:

The latest example is the $10 billion taxpayers will be asked to shell out to prop up the United Auto Workers’ retiree health insurance program.

That provision is tucked deep into the bill passed by the House.

In effect, it would ask every taxpayer, regardless of whether they’ll have health insurance coverage themselves after they retire — and most won’t — to chip in to maintain the UAW’s coverage, which even after the union’s givebacks is still better than what the average American worker receives.

The helping hand is a recognition by Congress that the union’s volunteer employee benefit association, or VEBA, can’t possibly stay solvent if it is asked to cover all of the union workers taking early buyouts from the Detroit automakers.

So the union’s supporters added language to the House’s gargantuan health care bill that requires the federal government to pick up most of the cost of catastrophic claims for union retirees age 55 to 64.

The biggest beneficiary would be the UAW, which got $60 billion from the Big Three in exchange for taking on the obligation for retiree health care.

I don’t suppose I’ll be getting a gift basket from the UAW thanking me for my generosity. I’ll bet quite a few Congressmen will, though.

Hat Tip: John Stossel

Reelection Is More Important Than Legislation

In the health care debate, the question has somewhat changed within the Democratic party from “what do we want?” to “what can we actually pass?” Because they’re relatively sure there’ll be no help from Republicans, this puts them in an awkward spot, and as Bruce of QandO points out, highlights a point showing how all politicians are duplicitous self-serving assholes (emphasis added):

But the exclusion of Republicans doesn’t mean smooth sailing for Democrats. Numbers-wise they certainly have the majorities they need in both houses to pass legislation. This particular legislation, however, has become fraught with political danger. Many Democrats are very wary of it because of the demonstrated unhappiness of their constituencies and the probable 2010 impact that may have. This is especially true of more conservative Democrats, even those is primarily Democratic districts. And “Blue Dogs” who managed to win in historically red districts are terrified.

That sets up the conflict of political interests the Democrats face. They believe, now that they’ve brought it up and the president has made it one of his signature issues, that unless they pass it (or something they can call “health care reform”) they’ll have set him up for failure. However, they are also coming to realize that passing something now despite a majority of Americans saying slow down and start over could be hazardous to their political health – and majorities.

I’d say that a majority of both Democrats and Republicans believe that they know better what is good for us mere citizens than we do. It’s clear that Democrats have been waiting for the opportunity to vote for health care ever since 1994, and I’d say that sentiment likely extends to many of these Blue Dogs. In fact, I’d go one step further and suggest that there’s more than a handful of Republicans in the House and Senate who’d like to join them, because megalomania knows no party lines.

So I think it goes without saying that likely a majority of House and probably a supermajority of the Senate (when counting Snowe, Collins, etc) support health care reform, and when pressed probably including a public option.

So why is it faltering? Because these politicians who speak of the selfless sacrifice they make for the nation are too afraid to make a vote that might get them tossed from office. Getting reelected is more important than doing what they think is right.

Cocontributor Doug Mataconis posted at his home blog, Below The Beltway, a quote from Eric Massa (D-NY) speaking of the voters in his district that I have to at least respect his honesty:

Massa: I will vote against their opinion if I actually believe it will help them.

He’s blatantly admitting that he thinks he knows better than us, and that he intends to live up to that promise. That’s admitting to his megalomania, and as we all know, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

But how cowardly is it to see a politician who honestly believes he knows what’s right for you but lacks the stones to vote for it? If you believe, as far too many in this country do, in delegating the power to run your life to a ruling elite, don’t you at least expect that ruling elite to follow their convictions? Congress holds themselves up as philosopher-kings whose job is to make everything in this nation better, and yet they’re so wedded to power that they won’t even vote for their own prescriptions.

I’m sure I’ve made it clear from my many writings that I don’t support gov’t healthcare, and that I don’t believe any of the fools who inhabit the Capitol Building are qualified to make my decisions. I am, for better for worse, an individual and I take full ownership of the decisions I make in my life — and the consequences thereof.

But not our politicians. They talk during their campaigns about how they’ll make tough decisions, and use words like sacrifice and service to describe what they do in Washington. They talk about their principles and their ideals. They prominently display a platform of platitudes on their web sites. But when that tough decision comes, when that principled vote that might anger some of their constituents is laid at their feet, they fold. They show that their only principle is staying in Washington, and no promise or ideal will ever rise above that one single purpose.

These are the cowards that you have elected to “represent” you. They’ve built fiefdoms of staffers and interest groups around them to protect themselves from your disapproval, and constantly shovel pork-barrel spending into their district to buy whatever votes are for sale. And when they’re actually faced with doing what you elect them to do, they fail. And what happens if you finally get fed up with them? You fools replace the R or D you have with the same mealy-mouthed sycophant, but who represents the opposite letter. And you actually expect things to change.

America’s been long headed down the road to serfdom. I guess I should only be happy, then, that our government has the top speed of a snail and is prone to breakdowns. Someday I hope that we can realize that rather than riding that jalopy to the end, we should all get out and walk — all in our own direction. But I doubt it, we’ll keep throwing on new used parts and inch along until the whole structure collapses. Then, instead of considering the folly of the destination, we’ll simply hit the used car lot to continue the same tired journey.

The Nuance Of Medical Marijuana Raids In California

One of Obama’s campaign promises was to stop federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries which were allowed by state law. Many pundits (myself included) have been lambasting him for not living up to that promise based upon stories like these:

Police raids on medical marijuana dispensaries continue–and continue with federal help, despite an Obama promise to end federal raids on state-legal medical pot dealers.

Of course, Obama gave his Justice Department a loophole, with Attorney General Eric Holder saying back in March that his DEA’s resources would “go after those people who violate both federal and state law….Given the limited resources that we have, our focus will be on people, organizations that are growing, cultivating substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that’s inconsistent with federal and state law.” This was a way to live up to Obama’s promise that federal raids on people who were not violating their own state’s law regarding medical marijuana would cease.

Unfortunately, so far it’s hard to know how serious to take this promise in relation to these latest L.A. raids, since the federal agents’ role in the raids on two Westside pot dispensaries (and their owners’ private homes) is still unexplained as of this writing. As the San Jose Mercury News reports.

Authorities are not saying why they raided two medical marijuana clinics and arrested the operator at his Los Angeles home. Jeffrey Joseph was free on bail Thursday, one day after local and federal agents searched his home and the dispensaries in Los Angeles and Culver City. Agents seized 450 plants and hundreds of pounds of marijuana products.

Spokespeople for the Drug Enforcement Administration, Los Angeles police, and the U.S. attorney say they don’t know what Joseph was book on. County prosecutors released no details.

Distributing medical pot is legal under California law but it’s a federal crime. However, the U.S. attorney general has said he wouldn’t target distributors unless state and federal laws were broken. County prosecutors say the task force was acting on a state warrant.

There’s a little history here. Medical Marijuana dispensaries have become much more common in Los Angeles over the last few years due to several loopholes and exemptions that made it possible for them to open quickly. The city council has been trying recently to cut down on these loopholes in order to reduce the number of operating dispensaries, but their own legal exemptions are making it very hard to do this quickly.

So how to close these shops without having to go through arduous examinations of dispensaries’ “hardship exemption” applications? Simple, prove they’ve been doing something else to break the guidelines. On the bright side, they can then call in the big guns at the DEA to lend a hand! It’s win-win for the City Council and the Feds (and a big LOSE for the dispensary owners and their customers, of course).

Sadly, many of the dispensaries are making the job easy on the city. A personal acquaintance of mine is a CPA and runs the books for several of these dispensaries, and this is his take on the matter:

The more I interact within this industry the more I realize how illegal most of these operations are. The state attorney general set up specific guidelines, as did the state board of equalization, that would allow an owner to operate freely without fear of raids & prosecution. The key issue in these operations is transparency, which most dispensaries fail to realize. Those operations that have their doors and books open to state and city regulators are never harassed. The clubs that operate outside of the guidelines are always targeted. And from a accounting and tax standpoint, it’s extremely simple to figure out who is operating by the book and who’s not.

I tell all my new clients to always be aware of the fact that the board of equalization is keeping a close eye on the industry to ensure that every sale is taxed and that every penny is sent to the state. The state BOE is in bed with the Feds and have no problem calling for the leg-breakers (the IRS) when they feel they’re being ripped off; which in most cases they are.

These raids are a violent and disruptive elucidation of one critical aspect of business in our government-dominated world — your business exists at the pleasure of the state. If they want to find a reason to come after you, they will find a reason to come after you, or manufacture one. There are a lot of regulations attached to any business, and even more to the medical marijuana industry. If they’re watching, they’ll catch you breaking one of them:

The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.
-Ayn Rand

This is the modern equivalent to catching Al Capone on tax evasion, when there wasn’t enough to bust him on the charges of bootlegging (and everything else he was involved in). Obama’s not technically breaking his promise here, but he’s still offering to bring in the big guns and prosecute pot dispensaries if they violate tax laws. He’s violating the spirit of the promise.

Control Without Responsibility

At Cafe Hayek, a letter to the editor by Andy Morriss to the Wall Street Journal is posted:

Holman Jenkins asks “Does Obama Want to Own the Airlines?” (Business World, July 8). I am sure he does not. Rather than own them, the president and his congressional allies want to control the airlines — a crucial difference as ownership implies taking responsibility.

As Mr. Jenkins notes, the Justice Department’s belated intervention against Continental’s efforts to join the Star Alliance appears aimed at extorting concessions for the Democrats’ union allies. That is not the action of an owner of airline assets but of someone determined to redistribute wealth from airline passengers and shareholders to favored special interests.

One of the many benefits of free markets is that the people who own something are the ones who experience the benefits or losses accruing from their use of it. When considering how some property is going to be used, an owner and non-owner may have very strong opinions. The non-owner, who has less to lose, will be less careful and prudent in their decisionmaking. Moreover, often the non-owner will gain more from the misuse of the item than from its prudent use.

One does not have to look to hard to see this phenomenon in action. The attempt by GM to close dealerships, and thus reduce its losses was overridden by Congressmen interested in using GM’s wealth to buy votes by keeping the dealerships open. And that is one example of literally millions of instances that take place every year from all levels of government.

Obama, leading democrats and some very influential economists have repeatedly expressed the idea that increased government control of the medical industry would reduce costs without sacrificing quality. In their vision selfless government officials will ensure that people receive high quality treatment regardless of the cost, while the market power of government as a customer will ensure that costs will stay low. Against this charming vision stands a great body of evidence from public choice theory; government officials – or their private counterparts in the private-public partnerships in vogue today – will be able to exert control without any consequences. Just as medicare and medicaid administrators proved willing to authorize higher and higher treatment prices – to the point where it threatens the budget of the federal and nearly every state government – the administrators of any new government program will behave in similar uneconomic ways.

Control without responsibility is a very bad idea.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.

Government Abandons Lying; Resorts To Pure Naked Threats

I’m at a loss. I don’t know what world can justify this, and can only hope that my readers will be just as appalled as I am, because I have nothing to add.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson testified on Thursday that he pressured Bank of America Corp. last year to go through with its plans to buy Merrill Lynch but didn’t tell the bank’s chief to hide potential losses from shareholders.

Paulson acknowledged that he warned the bank’s CEO, Kenneth Lewis, that Lewis could lose his job if he dropped the deal. Paulson also said he pledged government aid to the bank but declined to put that promise in writing because the details would have been vague and would have to be disclosed publicly by the Treasury Department.

In testimony to the committee, Paulson said he told Lewis last year that reneging on his promise to purchase Merrill Lynch would show a “colossal lack of judgment.”

Paulson said that “under such circumstances,” the Federal Reserve would be justified in removing management at the bank.

“By referring to the Federal Reserve’s supervisory powers, I intended to deliver a strong message reinforcing the view that had been consistently expressed by the Federal Reserve, as Bank of America’s regulator, and shared by the Treasury, that it would be unthinkable for Bank of America to take this destructive action for which there was no reasonable legal basis and which would show a lack of judgment,” Paulson said.

Paulson said he believed his remarks to Lewis were “appropriate.”

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has denied threatening to oust Lewis and said he never told anyone else to, either. But another Fed official suggested otherwise in an e-mail obtained by House investigators.

Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, said in a December 2008 e-mail that Bernanke had planned to make “even more clear” that if Bank of America backed out on the deal, “management is gone.”

Paulson said Bernanke never asked him to relay the message. But, he added, he believed he was expressing the Fed’s opinion that dropping the deal “would raise serious questions about the competence and judgment of Bank of America’s management and board.”

I’ve previously covered this type of activity by Paulson & Bernanke here and here.

California’s problem is taxation

Instapundit links to a NYT Magazine propaganda piece about governing California, and the part about taxation reads as if it were written by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, right down to euphemistically renaming taxes “revenue”:

In the view of many, the origins of the mud slog began with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the landmark referendum that capped property taxes. “Over 50 percent of our revenue is dependent on personal income tax, and that’s a very important part of explaining the boom-and-bust cycle,” according to another Republican candidate for governor, Tom Campbell, an immaculately credentialed policy marvel who graduated from Harvard Law School magna cum laude and who later studied under the conservative economist Milton Friedman before going on to represent Silicon Valley for five terms in the United States Congress.

This dependence on income tax was the first thing Dianne Feinstein mentioned when I asked her to assess California’s problems. “In most states, it’s one-third property tax, one-third sales tax and one-third income tax,” Feinstein said. “It’s 55 percent income tax in California. And 45 percent of that comes from the top brackets.”

When the economy is booming, the stock market soaring and jobs abundant, relying on income taxes is not a problem. That was the case in the years after Schwarzenegger first became governor in 2003, and he was hailed as a “postpartisan” leader who cut taxes and appealed to Democrats by aggressively tackling issues like global warming. But in today’s cratering economy — in which California faces a decline in personal income for the first time since 1938 and unemployment sits at 11.5 percent — the state’s coffers have shriveled up quickly, along with the governor’s popularity.

Passing a budget or increasing revenues in California is dicey in the best of times. The state constitution requires that two-thirds of the Legislature agree on a budget or higher taxes — the kind of overwhelming political consensus, in other words, usually reserved for amendments to the federal Constitution. (California is one of just a handful states that require a two-thirds vote to pass a budget.)

These words were written not by Speaker Bass, but rather by the Times’ own Mark Leibovich. He gets some of the facts right, but draws from them a woefully wrong conclusion. Where Liebovich sees a state that would be better off if only politicians could increase property taxes without limit or one party had total control of the budgeting process, I see a state that manages to overtax its citizens despite some pretty robust taxpayer protections in the state constitution. What’s the difference between me and Mark Leibovich? I actually have to pay for the excesses of Sacramento.

Let me list out for you the taxes and fees I remember having to pay in the last year:

  • Income tax
  • Sales tax
  • Property tax
  • Gas tax
  • Vehicle License fee

This doesn’t include the various line items about government surcharges and fees on every utility bill I pay, some of which I’m sure is attributable to the state. Even so, the taxes and fees I listed above still amount to about 25% of my income. On top of the 30% of my income that goes to Washington D.C., that’s more than half my income.

You might think that such a fate could only happen to someone who was rich enough not to worry about only having 55% of his income go to Washington and Sacramento. You’d be wrong. I’m very solidly in the middle class, and it would be even harder making ends meet if California’s political class could force me to surrender even more of my hard-earned income. I hear the same from nearly everyone I know.

I’m a Californian, and I pay more for government than I do for anything else. From the perspective of a citizen, California’s problem is taxation–too much, not too little.

Diplomacy

Congress has been taking quite a few junkets on the taxpayer dime. Not a surprise, I know but the rate of increase (50% increase in last two years, 10x increase since 1995) is a bit of a shocker.

Spending by lawmakers on taxpayer-financed trips abroad has risen sharply in recent years, a Wall Street Journal analysis of travel records shows, involving everything from war-zone visits to trips to exotic spots such as the Galápagos Islands.

The spending on overseas travel is up almost tenfold since 1995, and has nearly tripled since 2001, according to the Journal analysis of 60,000 travel records. Hundreds of lawmakers traveled overseas in 2008 at a cost of about $13 million. That’s a 50% jump since Democrats took control of Congress two years ago.

The cost of so-called congressional delegations, known among lawmakers as “codels,” has risen nearly 70% since 2005, when an influence-peddling scandal led to a ban on travel funded by lobbyists, according to the data.

Lawmakers say that the trips are a good use of government funds because they allow members of Congress and their staff members to learn more about the world, inspect U.S. assets abroad and forge better working relationships with each other. The travel, for example, includes official visits to American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just a quick note to the Obama administration… If you want to improve the world’s opinion of America, letting them meet Congress is not going to do it.

H/T: Reason

A Vote for Revenue

Politicians are usually most revealing when speaking off-the-cuff, and so it was with Karen Bass:

Q: How do you think conservative talk radio has affected the Legislature’s work?

A: The Republicans were essentially threatened and terrorized against voting for revenue. Now [some] are facing recalls. They operate under a terrorist threat: “You vote for revenue and your career is over.” I don’t know why we allow that kind of terrorism to exist. I guess it’s about free speech, but it’s extremely unfair.

The California Assembly Speaker was talking about California’s budget crisis. There is a simple problem here. Decades of runaway spending by both the democratically-controlled legislature and voters during the boom years has the state government scrambling to meet its commitments now.

The solution, however, is more complex. Democrats have been the majority party in the legislature for decades, and this budget mess falls squarely on their backs. The solution, deep cuts to wasteful and often useless state bureaucracy, is simply not an option to them. Cutting the bureaucracy would be a loss of political capital for the Democrats, making the entire enterprise of state government less profitable. Instead, we have people like Karen Bass pulling stupid politician tricks:

The Golden State is one of only three in the nation which requires a two-thirds majority vote to raise taxes. This is forcing Democrats in Sacramento to try to recruit a handful of Republicans to pass their current plan to close the state’s gap with a combination of cuts and taxes. So far, no GOP legislator has broken ranks.

Then came Plan B. This week, the Democratic leadership mustered enough support to pass a series of budget bills with a simple majority, hoping to send them onto Governor Schwarzenegger.

Some of these bills do raise revenues, but legislators believe they can avoid the necessary two-thirds majority by reclassifying some taxes as “user fees”, while raising taxes elsewhere and claiming the end result is “tax neutral”.

A call to the Legislative Counsel’s office pointed to the part of the State Constitution which explains the need for a two-thirds majority: “any changes in state taxes enacted for the purpose of increasing revenues collected pursuant thereto whether by increased rates or changes in methods of computation must be imposed by an Act passed by not less than two-thirds of all members elected to each of the two houses of the Legislature, except that no new ad valorem taxes on real property, or sales or transaction taxes on the sales of real property may be imposed.”

But when pushed for an explanation as to where the law allows a simple majority, by creating “revenue neutral” taxes and exchanging a tax for a user fee, we were directed to the Assembly Speaker Karen Bass’s office.

Her office did not return calls or emails (though the emails were read). Other calls asking for guidance were met with silence, and another reference to the section of the state constitution cited above.

So, this is what Karen Bass means when she says Republicans have been terrorized into voting against revenue? Let’s revisit her quote and fill in what’s actually happening:

The Republicans were essentially threatened and terrorized against voting for a law that deliberately violates taxpayer protections in the Constitution. Now [some] are facing recalls. They operate under a terrorist threat: “You vote for a law that deliberately violates taxpayer protections in the Constitution and your career is over.” I don’t know why we allow that kind of terrorism to exist. I guess it’s about free speech, but it’s extremely unfair.

Karen Bass is saying that pressuring politicians to simply follow the law is terrorism. As Instapundit would say, the state is in the best of hands!

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