Thursday, May 28, 2009

This is Your Government on Drugs

Sitting through the litany of risk warnings that accompany TV pharmaceutical ads -- including the dangers of the 4-hour erection -- one wonders why companies bother running them. These ads are supposed to tout the virtues of their wonder products, but government mandates and lurking trial lawyers mean that they also must warn viewers, ad nauseum, about the risks they present, including blindness, stroke, hemorrhaging, heart attack, death, the heartbreak of psoriasis.

In some of the ads, more than half the 60-second spot seems devoted to reading the warning label. I now know more about how Brand X can destroy my liver than I do about what it does to help my ulcer. Whether that makes this a safer society, or me a more "educated consumer," is doubtful. I'll still rely on my physician to recommend a drug, weighing the risks versus the benefits. I treat these warnings like I treat the seatbelt demonstrations before a flight, or announcements in the terminal about the homeland security threat level. It's just background noise after a while.

I'm for honesty in advertising, up to point. This, however, seems like alarmism in advertising.

Drug companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars highlighting the dangers their products present to the public. Yet that isn't enough for the Food and Drug Administration. Hot on the heals of its attempt to declare Cheerios a drug, based on the allegedly misleading health claims made for the cereal (wait till they get hold of Wheaties!), the agency now is taking real drug-makers to task for using deceptively upbeat background music and "distracting images" to downplay those disclosures.

Reports Reuters:

US warns of TV drug ads' distracting music, images

WASHINGTON, May 26 (Reuters) - Television ads for drugs and medical devices should avoid distracting images and music that can reduce viewers' comprehension of potential side effects, U.S. regulators advised in guidelines proposed on Tuesday. Advertisements also should use similar type styles and voice-overs when conveying benefits and risks, the Food and Drug Administration said.

The guidelines follow complaints that manufacturers use various techniques in their widely seen television ads and other promotions to downplay risks while emphasizing potential benefits. Leaving out or minimizing side-effect information is the most frequent violation the FDA cites in letters to companies complaining about misleading promotions.

The guidelines FDA is providing "are not mandatory," notes Reuters. Not yet. But they are troubling. The federal government rarely limits itself to moral suasion for long when mandates are available. And it's not hard to imagine a day when the agency will demand script approval and "creative control" over every drug ad on television.

More Reuters:

"The [agency's) advice covers techniques ranging from the use of contrasting colors to highlight information, the location and timing of risk details and other factors that can influence how well viewers understand a product. Prescription drug ads have drawn fire for portraying healthy-looking, active and smiling patients while explaining benefits and then rushing through or providing distractions when required risk information is conveyed.

At a congressional hearing last year, a Schering-Plough Corp ad for allergy drug Nasonex drew criticism for featuring a bee that flew around during a description of side effects but simply hovered while benefits were explained. In the new guidelines, the FDA said busy scenes, frequent scene changes and moving camera angles "can misleadingly minimize the risks of the product being promoted by detracting from the audience's comprehension. "The FDA also warned against speeding up an announcer's description of risks. "If risk information is considerably more difficult to hear and process than benefit information because it is presented at a much faster pace, the piece will not convey an accurate impression," the agency said.

Rather than call the meddling ridiculous, or sue on First Amendment grounds -- steps that risk bringing down the wrath of congressional committees or federal regulators on their heads -- the companies are doing what most American companies do in such circumstances. They're groveling. The industry remains committed to producing "responsible, balanced promotional materials," and they've adopted voluntary guidelines that say risks "should be presented in clear, understandable language without distraction," a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America told Reuters.

Does the agency really expect drug makers to continue buying ad space to promote the dangers, rather than the benefits, of their products? Apparently. But the companies don't have the stomach to fight it, so the government's demands will become more insistent, and more extreme, over time.

Just imagine an America in which every advertiser has to follow similar "guidelines." Here's a car commercial, circa 2012:

"Driving this or any other automobile in an unsafe manner, and failure to obey all road signs and postings, may result in crushing injuries, dismemberment, defenestration or death. Following too closely can lead to rear-end collisions. Objects are closer than they appear in mirrors. Failure to properly maintain this vehicle -- to regularly refuel it and check the oil -- can result in poorer performance than these images convey. Do not smoke, light matches or play with fire during re-fueling. Riding on the hood of this vehicle at high speeds is not recommended. Don't drive this vehicle when distracted, inebriated, angry, suicidal, morose, or while listening to heavy-metal music. Keep four wheels on the pavement at all times. Having sexual relations in this vehicle without adequate precautions can lead to pregnancy, STDs, marriage or heartbreak. Do not stand behind this vehicle on a steep grade unless the parking brake is engaged. Do not speed into fog banks. Do not careen around corners. This vehicle is not waterproof and will sink if driven off a bridge. If you don't know how something works, consult your car care professional. If you don't know how to drive, seek driver's training. If you have problems with your warranty, or need more information about the dangers this vehicle presents under certain circumstances, please contact the office of the federal car czar."

Barack Obama's FDA shows early signs of being addicted to the most potent and dangerous drug of all: the drug called "Power." It doesn't come with a federally-approved warning label, unfortunately. The side effects have to be discerned by consulting history books.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kudos to Coffman

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman is a Marine, not U.S. Army. His congressional district is in the Denver area, not Colorado Springs. That means he easily could have ducked out of the donnybrook over possible future expansion of the Piñon Canyon training site, and side-stepped unnecessary controversy by remaining mute on the issue. That's something a typical politician would do.

But the former Colorado state treasurer can see far enough beyond purely parochial concerns to grasp the potential long-term implications for the country and the state if Gov. Bill Ritter signs HB-1317, a measure designed to drive another nail in the coffin of the expansion plan. The Marine in Coffman isn't afraid of a fight, even when the odds are stacked against him. His battle to keep Ritter from signing the bill shows that Coffman isn't your typical self-protective politician, but is willing to take the risks that come with showing real leadership. And it's something that those of us who aren't his constituents appreciate.

The Denver Post today has a write-up on Coffman's continuing fight against HB-1317. Unlike a few others in Colorado's congressional delegation, who either support the measure or are straddling on the issue, Coffman understands that the outright closure of Fort Carson isn't the only thing at stake, once the perception gets around that Colorado is unfriendly to the military. Here's the Post:

"The buzzards are already circling Fort Carson, a major employer in Colorado Springs, Coffman said.

At a recent Armed Services Committee hearing, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, told Pentagon officials that his state would be happy to have the Army if Colorado doesn't want it, offering up an underused training area where "you would not be sued by private property owners."

While the Army has not publicly suggested it would downsize Fort Carson without the training area expansion, military officials privately told Coffman's staff that at least one brigade combat team is in jeopardy. Army officials have made similar, if less precise comments to other members of Colorado's delegation, congressional staff say.

Any decision to downsize the base is likely years away, but Coffman said the Army's immediate plan to add another brigade to Fort Carson (1,920 troops) is more immediately at risk — especially if budget cuts reduce the number of brigades the Army had planned to add at all bases by 2011 from a total of three to two or even one.

"If they don't do all three, which is likely, Colorado is not in the hunt," he said . . . .

. . . . . Publicly, the Army has said that the expanded training range is vital and still an important priority, though recently it shifted money to pay for the expansion in the Pentagon budget this year to another base in Louisiana.

Coffman said that any effort to downsize Fort Carson may not start with the Army at all, but with officials from other states, who could put together incentives to lure the brigades now stationed in Colorado, including promises to provide infrastructure.

And he said the Army's growing frustration with the political climate in Colorado could be decisive.

"I don't think that the Army will make the first move. It will be other members of Congress that take a look and see an anti-Army feeling among a lot of key elected officials" in Colorado, Coffman said.

"There is going to be blood in the water soon."

There's still an opportunity for Ritter to do the right thing, for Colorado and for the country, by vetoing the bill. That won't make expansion inevitable; that's still a long shot, in my view, considering the political forces arrayed against it. But it will send a signal back to Washington, and to out-of-state members of Congress, that Coloradans aren't taking their win-win partnership with the Pentagon for granted -- and that the rational people, not the radicals, are still in charge here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fatal Conceit

It might be tempting to joke that Barack Obama's unilateral overhaul of federal fuel economy standards (isn't Congress supposed to have a say in such matters?) is a full employment program for crash test dummies, and trauma room physicians, since the lighter, less-crashworthy vehicles that result will almost certainly increase the risk of serious injuries and fatalities for motorists. But it really isn't a laughing matter that the Automaker-in-Chief is treating the rest of us like crash test dummies.

And dummies Americans are if they aren't alarmed by the ramifications of what's going down in Washington and Detroit, where federal tax dollars and raw power are being used to coerce a consensus on Obama's latest regulatory onslaught -- a point made by The Denver Post's David Harsanyi in this excellent column.

It's interesting that the reflex-regulators in the Democratic Party will spare no public expense or government effort in trying to ameliorate some statistically insignificant public health threats on the one hand, while shrugging off the additional safety risks that result from the federal government's meddling with fuel economy standards on the other.

If there's a 1 in 6 million chance that trace levels of arsenic in drinking water could theoretically give someone cancer someday, as determined by lab rats, the regulate-firsters are demanding that something be done, no matter the costs and burdens of compliance, no matter the tenuousness of the causal links involved. Yet the well-documented fact that lighter vehicles are also more dangerous vehicles -- meaning that forcing motorists into smaller, lighter vehicles increases their risk of serious injury or death on the roadways -- has never been a deterrent to those who believe they can save the planet by making use all drive Yugos.

Kudos to USA Today for at least noting that Barack's Obamamobile won't come without trade-offs, not just in higher costs but also in lives lost:

"The National Academy of Sciences, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Congressional Budget Office and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have separately concluded in multiple studies dating back about 20 years that fuel-economy standards force automakers to build more small cars, which has led to thousands more deaths in crashes annually. Even though the standards were updated in recent years to reduce the incentive for automakers to sell more small cars by allowing different fuel-economy targets for different vehicles, the fastest way to make cars more fuel-efficient is to make them smaller. Some safety experts worry that the administration's green focus could reverse progress made in reducing the highway death toll.

But otherwise, there's been precious little mention of Obama's fatal conceit in the "mainstream" media. A panel "discussion" on the subject on CNN Tuesday had a former colleague of mine, Sam Kazman, who heads up the Death by Regulation Project at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, trying to make this very point, while being snapped at and sneered at by the host and 5 other panelists, none of whom took these points seriously. "No bias"? What bull.

If Obama had done something that carried even the slightest chance of endangering polar bears or spotted owls, these same panelists would be gnawing their fingernails and wringing their hands. But the fact that people might die as a result of Obama's regulatory zeal just didn't compute. The possibility that misdirected government action might actually cause harm or decrease public safety just boggles their minds -- it's like a pony pondering a Rubik's cube. But that's America for you.

The Obamatons deny that these mandates put Americans at risk.

"The Obama administration maintains the new fuel standards can be met without forcing more small cars into the market. "Because every (size) category has to get more efficient, if the soccer mom wants to buy her minivan, it will be a more fuel-efficient minivan. If someone wants to buy a big SUV, it will be a more fuel-efficient SUV," said Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change. She said companies can use advanced technologies to improve fuel efficiency without dramatically changing their fleets."

Right, right: All we need to do is order companies to comply, and throw enough money at the problem, and anything is possible. We put a man on the moon, didn't we? (Well, yes, back in 1969 -- but we'd have a hell of a time repeating that feat today).

This is Field of Dreams policy-making: Mandate it and it will happen. Just like we'll be generating 20 percent of our electricity from windmills by 2025. Just like we'll grow our way to energy independence with ethanol. Just like we'll find a better way to store nuclear waste than Yucca Mountain. Just like we'll reduce America's "carbon footprint" to 1990 levels by 2020 -- or whatever the pie-in-the-sky promise of the day is. And just like we'll erase the federal budget deficit tomorrow by passing $3 trillion budgets today.

Carol Browner says there's nothing to worry about because the mandates apply across the board. Everyone will be downsizing simultaneously. But surely she's heard of something called the used car market. Not everyone can simultaneously get into a sleek new Obamamobile, especially since these mandates will come with a hefty price tag, so many bigger, heavier, gas-guzzling Bushmobiles will remain on the road for decades to come. And what happens when one of these lighter, more fuel-efficient Obamamobiles meets head-on with a bigger, heavier, gas-guzzling Bushmobile? Riders in the Obamamobile in most cases will get the worst if it.

But they'll go to their graves, or to the emergency room, with their minds at ease, knowing that they've done their part, and made the ultimate sacrifice, in order to help curtail greenhouse gases.

Unless Super President can revoke the laws of physics -- which just might be possible in his case -- the next round of government-mandated downsizing will lead to more fatalities than would otherwise occur. But apparently this, in the eyes of Obamatons, is an acceptable price to pay for lowering our dependence of foreign oil (which won't happen, in all honesty, because an ever-increasing number of American drivers will continue to push demand for oil and gas higher, even if they all drive Obamamobiles, overwhelming any efficiencies realized through these mandates) and reducing our carbon treadprints.

Hey all you crash test dummies out there! Don't forget to buckle up. There's one messy car crash waiting at the end of the Obama thrill ride.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why Charter Schools Should Fear "Card Check"

Efforts by teachers unions to infiltrate, take over and destroy charter schools from within are at this point scattered and sporadic; something confined to a few urban areas, like New York City and Chicago, where the unions are honing their tactics and rhetoric. But expect these brushfire battles for the heart and soul of charter schools to become a full-scale assault -- an inferno that could consume the charter school movement itself -- if a federal "card check" measure (more formerly and ironically called the Employee Free Choice Act) is approved by Congress.

The focus of most debate on the issue has been card check's ramifications for the country's business climate -- on whether making it easier to unionize the workplace, by taking away secret balloting, will lead to the resurgence of a union movement that only a few years ago seemed on the ropes. But an even greater concern should be what card check will do to U.S. charter schools, which unions haven't been able to stop but are now intent on co-opting and corrupting.

Card check's implications for U.S. public education is something that hasn't been adequately examined.

The lack of union influence is one of the defining characteristics of a charter school. It's part of what allows them to innovate and excel and hold teachers accountable for performance in the classroom. It's one secret to their success. But teachers unions that long scorned the schools, and tried to block or marginalize them, now understand that the charter school movement isn't going away, so they've adopted a new strategy: If you can't beat 'em, wreck 'em.

Instead of sabotaging charters from the outside, the new gambit is to undermine them from within, by burrowing in, organizing the staff, and letting union-inspired inertia do the rest. The passage of card check would greatly facilitate and hasten that process, laying the groundwork for an all-out, national assault on charter school independence.

Where can we look for a preview of what card check might mean for charter schools? We can look to Chicago, where one effort to unionize 3 charters is making headway, helped along, not coincidently, by a card check system in Illinois that would go national if Congress passes the bill. This report on the Chicago Public Radio Blog, recounting the efforts of one charter school company to fend-off a union takeover, tipped me off to the wider, national implications.

The company that operates the charter schools is appealing the union takeover to the National Labor Relations Board, claiming it isn't legit because there was no secret balloting, which violates (current) federal law. The unions argue that Illinois law -- which doesn't require a secret vote, but simply that a requisite number of pro-union signatures be gathered -- should apply. These are the rules that will be in force nation-wide if card check is approved.

"Under federal law, the three charter campuses fighting for union representation would have to hold an election to determine whether teachers want the union," according to the report. But "state law doesn’t require an election at the schools, because a majority of teachers have already signed union cards."

While the card check debate is now mostly viewed as a battle between unions and business, backers of the measure may have an even bigger trophy in mind -- the debasement, denuding and eventual destruction of the greatest recent innovation in American public education. Perhaps if the growing number of American charter school families come to realize that they have a dog in this fight -- and that their charter school could become just like every other public school if card check passes -- the tide can still be turned against this terrible piece of legislation.

Short Sighted and Self-Defeating

I imagine that a good number of Fort Carson personnel live in the Pueblo area. Many shop and eat and party there. Some may choose it as a retirement spot. That means Pueblo and Colorado Springs, those famously feuding cities, would seem to share a common interest in keeping the Mountain Post off future base closure lists, by supporting efforts to ensure it remains a viable training facility. So what, other than a belly full of anti-Colorado Springs bile, explains The Pueblo Chieftain editorial page's continuing efforts to cheer on the forces seeking to permanently slam the door on future expansion of the Pinon Canyon training site?

Colorado Springs and El Paso County obviously reap the greatest direct economic benefit from Fort Carson. But Pueblo, as close as it is, must also look at the base as an economic engine of importance -- not to mention a military asset of continuing value to the entire country. But the Chieftain, acting it seems out of blind spite for anything that might benefit Colorado Springs, has thrown in with those in Southern Colorado who began by expressing legitimate fears about the Army's use of eminent domain, but who have since adopted an angry, take-no-prisoners attitude, adamantly opposed to Pinon Canyon expansion under any circumstances.

The latest lashing-out at the U.S. Army wasn't a bill designed to restrict the use of eminent domain, but one aimed at blocking the state of Colorado from selling or leasing land to Fort Carson in the event that it had private parties willing to sell Fort Carson more acreage. That's a radical shift of emphasis from the issues that sparked this controversy, as the Denver Post's Vince Carroll pointed out a few days back. Opponents have continued shifting the goal posts, and re-casting their objections, and launching new attacks on a downsized and re-worked Army proposal, in what's morphed into a case of knee-jerk, anti-military obstructionism.

The Army hasn't completely giving up on expansion, reportedly. But its recent shifting of funds to another facility is one clear (and potentially ominous) signal that it will direct future resources to more hospitable places.

Perhaps The Chieftain and other expansion-bashers are delighted by the Army's retreat. Nothing short of a complete and unconditional surrender will satisfy some folks. But the gloating will end in Pueblo soon enough, if Carson's inability to train additional troops, and to provide adequate training space for the fighting force of the 21st and 22nd Century, land it on a future base closure list. The gloating will end when all those dollars and jobs go away.

It won't impact the ranchers-turned-activists down south. They're content living a 19th Century existence and don't want their little island of economic and cultural isolation disturbed. But Pueblo will feel the pain -- and perhaps come to regret the short-sighted, anti-military signals that the city's daily newspaper is sending out to the rest of the country.

Colorado dodged a bullet in the last base closure round. Carson was fortunate to actually benefit from the process. Yet Colorado showed little gratitude when the Army raised the possibility of expanding the training site to accommodate a bigger mission and more troops. What the Pentagon got in thanks was hostility, vilification, statehouse measures aimed at fragging the proposal -- what amounted to a rolling-up of the welcome mat in Colorado.

One can't help wonder whether folks back in Washington are having regrets about shifting additional assets to Carson in the last go-around. One can't help wonder if they're taking note of Colorado's anti-military attitudes. You can be sure that bases in more military-friendly states, and their representatives in Congress, are taking note.

They might even be clipping these Chieftain editorials for future reference.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Save Michigan; Nominate Granholm

I'm really conflicted about the prospect that Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm might be Barack Obama's first pick for the Supreme Court.

As a native Michigander, who has watched Granholm's reign of error, even from a safe distance, with dismay, I think it would be a blessing for my home state. The woman has been a disaster. Replacing her with a Shetland pony would be a step up. Barack Obama would be doing all Michiganders a favor if he took Granholm off to Washington, where she can live out her days, entombed in that marble mausoleum, posing as a legal scholar -- posing being what Granholm seems to do best. Her clerks would steer her clear of the most extreme bouts of stupidity. She might even bring a little comic relief to the stodgy and cerebral proceedings. Her political career thankfully would end. We'd see little of, and hear less from her. Her absence wouldn't necessarily save Michigan. That still rests with voters making better choices. But it's a potential start along the road to recovery.

Don't I think she'd make a terrible Supreme Court justice? Of course I do. But almost anyone Obama picks will do the same. It's a gimme that he'll pack the court with Bozos, since gender and race and overactive "empathy" glands are the primary litmus tests he'll apply to potential nominees. I'm resigned to the purging of all common sense, and all originalists, from the court. It's change Americans voted for with Obama and it's change Americans deserve, good and hard. Hoping the court will save us from disaster is just another straw to grasp. Give it up, already. It's over. Find something else to focus on, like macramé or oil painting.

On balance, therefore, I would rather have Granholm embarrassing herself as a Supreme Court justice, as one vote among nine, than have her continuing along in her political career, dragging my home state further down in the mire. By seeing her in the news less, I can more easily imagine she doesn't exist. By imagining she doesn't exist, I can sleep better at night. And by sleeping a little better at night, I can maintain some semblance of sanity in these absurd and insane times.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Politics of Pinon Canyon, Part 2

There's no more waffling, straddling, hedging, obfuscating or equivocating on U.S. Rep. John Salazar's part. He's declared that the U.S. Army will never make a compelling-enough case for Fort Carson expansion to win his approval, according to today's Pueblo Chieftain. Pinon Canyon expansion isn't going to happen while he's in Congress, Salazar says he told the Army's chief of staff, who had asked the congressman to keep an open mind on the issue. Salazar's mind is officially closed, apparently. End of story. Take your soldiers elsewhere to train. Preserving cattle culture in Southeastern Colorado must take precedent over national security and military preparedness, in his view.

Salazar also said -- and this might be the real news in the story -- that he's certain Gov. Bill Ritter, also a Democrat, will sign HB1317, a bill passed by the Colorado statehouse that attempts to erect yet another obstruction to expansion by barring the state from selling or even leasing state lands for that purpose. "I spoke with Governor Ritter this week and he indicated he will sign the state lands bill," Salazar told the newspaper -- which is a pretty definitive statement on the subject.

I also believe Ritter will sign the bill, for reasons presented in an earlier post. But this situation does present Republicans with a potential wedge issue to use against Salazar and Ritter when reelection time comes around. Former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican who once represented Salazar's district and is planning a run at Ritter in 2010, recently laid down a marker on the issue, by publicly urging Ritter to veto HB1317, in the interest of preserving future options and not sending anti-military signals back to Washington. If he can paint Ritter as just another anti-military Democrat, who's indifferent to the fate of important military bases (and jobs generators) in the state, McInnis might get some traction out of the situation.

How the issue plays for -- or against -- Salazar is a little more fuzzy. Clearly, Salazar is counting on his anti-expansion stance winning him votes in rural Southeastern Colorado and in the Democrat stronghold of Pueblo, where the Chieftain's editorial page has egged-on the obstructionism. But not a huge number of votes come from Southeastern Colorado. Pueblo can't be completely indifferent to the long-term fate of Fort Carson, due to proximity, and since many Carson soldiers live and shop there. And whether Salazar's pandering to anti-Army sentiment plays well in other parts of his sprawling district, especially the more conservative Western Slope, is an open question.

Remember: That was, until relatively recently, a Republican-leaning district, represented by McInnis. And the former congressman's continued open mind on the issue, in contrast to Salazar's now-adamant opposition to expansion, which could strike many of his constituents as unpatriotic or anti-military, could leave Salazar vulnerable if Republicans can put up a good challenger and frame the issue correctly.

It seems to me, early though it may be, that Pinon Canyon might be shaping up as a pivotal issue in at least two key Colorado races in 2010, if somewhat demoralized, on-the-defensive Republicans can bring effective fire to bear on the Democrats who seem to care more about cows than about combat-readiness.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Budget Charades

There are plenty of empty and annoying rituals in official Washington: the pompous playing of "Hail to the Chief" when the president materializes; tiresome standing ovations during the annual State of the Union address; the State of the Union address itself. But among the most silly, at least in modern Washington, is the ritualistic axing of wasteful and superfluous federal programs in the president's budget.

Every president in recent memory, no matter the party, proposed bringing the hatchet down on wasteful, duplicative, anachronistic programs. And each president, when he did so, knew full well that none of the targeted programs would be eliminated or even cut, once Congress intervened. The best any bona fide budget hawk can hope for, realistically, is holding the growth of such programs to 5 or 10 percent in the next budget cycle.

Barack Obama late last week joined the pantheon of recent presidents to go through these meaningless motions, by offering up his own list of 121 program cuts or eliminations -- many of which I recognize from my days fighting wasteful government spending at Citizens Against Government Waste, back in the mid-1990s. That's how long some of these cutting-edge ideas have been around. It's especially incongruous (and cynical) in Obama's case, however, since he, like his Republican predecessor, is simultaneously proposing expenditures that will grow government and lead to Mount Everest-like deficits for as far as the eye can see.

Here's how the charade unfolds, in three acts. First, the president inserts the program cuts into his budget blueprint, generating straight-faced coverage in the mainstream media. Millions of Americans read the stories, uncritically, and conclude that the president is watching their backs -- that not everyone in Washington is a free-spending scoundrel. In Act 2, media and congressional skepticism build. Act 3 of the charade takes place when Congress rises up in opposition to the cuts, acting out of protectiveness (over these "critically important" federal programs) or territoriality (by asserting the "power of the purse strings").

That's all, folks. Show over. Bring the curtain down. Come back next year for a replay.

This all unfolds just as the president knew it would before Act 1 began. But that's OK. The president henceforth can claim that he tried to eliminate wasteful spending, even though, in the case of Obama and Bush, he is blowing the lid off all fiscal restraint. Presidents in this way can feign frugality, and show solidarity with the beleaguered taxpayer, all the while knowing that these cuts don't have a snowball's chance of actually occurring.

Many of the proposed cuts merely get handed down from president to president, like chipped pieces of White House china. The Wall Street Journal's coverage at least noted that many of Obama's proposed cuts came from a predecessor's list. "White House officials acknowledged the similarity between Mr. Obama's 121 program cuts and consolidations and $17 billion savings and Mr. Bush's 151 programs and $18 billion savings proposed for 2009," reported the Journal. "About 40% of the programs Mr. Obama has targeted for elimination or consolidation come directly off a similar list proposed by Mr. Bush over the past two budget seasons on Capitol Hill. Congress largely ignored those proposed cuts."

Much as Congress will largely ignore these proposals, in pursuit of parochial ends. One of Obama's cuts, for instance, would eliminate a way over-budget, way behind-schedule effort to build not 1 or 2 or 3 new presidential helicopters, but 28 of them, at an estimated cost of $13 billion. But New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey, in whose district the program means jobs, "vowed to force the White House to accept delivery" of the helicopters, reports The Washington Post. "The helicopter program, which cost $835 million this year, supports 800 jobs in Hinchey's district." "I do think there's a good chance we can save it," said Hinchey.

And so it goes, all down the line. Almost every program Obama targeted has a small but vocal constituency, and powerful congressional patrons, who will fight like Comanches to keep it alive. Some do it because they sincerely believe these programs serve the national interest, but most do it because it serves their self-interest, as in Hinchey's case, and because they can.

It's a power thing, according to David Williams, Vice President for Policy at Citizens Against Government Waste, who by now knows the ritual by heart. “This is the same dance that is done every year with the President and Congress; the President proposes budget cuts and Congress ignores them," says Williams. "This has less to with political affiliation and more to do with Congress refusing to relinquish any control of spending. Even with both chambers and the executive branch run by the same party, spending money in Washington D.C. is still the ultimate expression of power. And Congress will not give up that power willingly. The bottom line is: that the less money Congress has to spend, the less power it has.”

And that's not a dynamic that even Super President, Barack Obama, can change.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Let's Do Things Differently This Time

I strongly agree with Barry Noreen's Wednesday column, which called on Colorado Springs officials to conduct any renegotiation of the USOC headquarters "deal" in a more open, public-friendly fashion than the first "deal" was conducted. Many of the problems with the "old deal" stem in part from the hushed and hurried way it was approved.

Here's how Barry put it:

"A looming question now is whether the new deal will be consummated in a back room, as the first ill-fated USOC deal was, or whether City Hall will bring a doubting community in on the discussion.

About 13 months ago, city officials unveiled a done deal, a $53 million package already tied up with a pretty bow. They talked about it as if it were a tremendous accomplishment, a gift, even.
There was no way to talk about it without being guilty of being a Monday morning quarterback, because when the game is already over, all one can do is look back.

Now that the old deal has gone awry, some of us must be excused for wanting to see the new deal before it's final."

The original arrangement, which has now fallen apart (leading to a lawsuit, acrimony and more backroom intrigue than seems healthy), was negotiated in secret, sprung on the public on a Friday and rubber-stamped by City Council the following Monday. The "public process" consisted of City Council members, joined by those who had negotiated the deal, patting themselves on the back for "saving" the USOC. There was virtually no public examination of, or debate about, the agreement's fine print or potentially hidden costs, some of which -- like whether the developer enjoys a property tax waiver -- are only belatedly coming to light. And a little more due diligence, and public debate, might have raised red flags about whether the city had selected the best possible partner in Ray Marshall and LandCo.

A more open and public process, and better public buy-in, is especially important if the "new deal" is going to require an even greater commitment of taxpayer dollars than the original -- something that everyone already suspects will be the case. But that's the problem when so much of the process is conducted behind closed doors, leaving the public in the dark.

Secrecy breeds suspicion. The city's negotiators may be making promises and commitments that the public won't support when the details become public. Citizens will be much more alert now than they were back in March of 2008 about the fine print and devilish details. And fear of public rejection -- of public meddling in their carefully- crafted compromise -- may push the mayor and council members to shortcut the public process again, creating even more public relations problems for the city and USOC.

It's a vicious circle, in other words, that City Hall hopefully won't repeat, now that it has an opportunity for a re-do. So far, as Barry point out, it seems they're following the same playbook they did the first time around. Reasonable people recognize that some level of secrecy is required in certain negotiations. But the sooner the process is opened to the public, and the sooner the details are made known and aired out, the better the chances are that public buy-in will occur.

Let's hope City Hall understands that the second time around.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Union Connection

Many factors are dragging down the "old media," from falling ad revenues to the free content culture of the Internet. But unions are an often-overlooked part of the equation, as I've noted here before.

The unions that are sucking the productivity and profitability out of The Boston Globe are making last-minute concessions in a bid to forestall the death of another great American newspaper, reports Wednesday's Washington Post. But as with so many other heavily-unionized American industries that have been going the way of the Dodo, it's almost certainly too little, too late.

Note in the story that one of the sticking points in the negotiations was a "lifetime job guarantee" enjoyed by some company employees -- a level of job security that only members of the federal bench and members of Congress can rival. "Nearly 470 employees across six unions have the guarantees, including about 190 Newspaper Guild members," reports the Post. "Most got the promises in a contract ratified in 1994, shortly after the Times Co. bought the Globe for $1.1 billion, in exchange for other concessions at the time. Workers can still be fired for cause, but the newspaper says the guarantees reduce its ability to pare its operational structure."

Let's not forget, when writing the obituary for the American newspaper industry, the significant role that unions played in its demise. Other factors matter, of course. Even non-union papers are struggling and failing, it's true. But it also seems evident that the more heavily-unionized the paper, the faster it is sinking. Yet the union connection rarely gets mentioned when the post mortems are done.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Politics of Pinon Canyon

I admire and applaud the last-ditch effort by some area officials (joined by former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, who currently has his eye on the governor's job) to get Gov. Bill Ritter to veto HB -1317, a bill aimed at throwing up yet another hurdle to the possible future expansion of Fort Carson's Pinon Canyon training area. The arguments they make in favor of killing the bill -- as presented in today's Gazette -- are compelling. They echo many I made in this space not long ago.

But I would be amazed if Ritter showed the political fortitude and foresight required to veto the bill.

Though he was elected to represent the entire state, and though the entire state has an abiding interest in maintaining a strong partnership with the U.S. military, Ritter cares little about, and owes even less to, the Republican stronghold of El Paso County (which also happens to be where most of the state's military activity is centered). Vetoing the bill would not only draw fire from the virulently anti-Army drum-beaters in the ranching communities of Southern Colorado, and from statehouse Democrats who have demagogued the issue to death, but from the editorial page of The Pueblo Chieftain, which has egged-on the anti-Pinon Canyon crowd, if only because anything that benefits Colorado Springs must be bad.

Ritter draws a lot of votes from Pueblo. Therefore, he's loath to get crosswise with The Chieftain. And few Democrats in leadership positions (not the Salazar brothers, not Mark Udall, and certainly not anyone under the golden dome) have shown a willingness to counter the knee-jerk opposition to expansion coming from certain quarters. Plus, let's face it, a stubborn skepticism about the Army's plans undoubtedly plays well with two key Democrat Party constituencies, including environmentalists, who oppose real-world military training activities that interfere with butterflies and bunnies, and unreconstructed peaceniks, whose disdain for the military seems encoded in the party's DNA.

Cold, hard political calculus argues against Ritter vetoing the bill. That's why it's highly unlikely he'll do it. But it's good to lay down a marker on the issue now, and put the governor on the spot, since he's up for re-election in less than 2 years. McInnis is obviously gambling that Ritter's perceived indifference to Fort Carson's future, and to maintaining good relations with the military, could be a winning issue for him in 2010, at least here in El Paso County. And with Ritter's polling numbers suggesting vulnerability, perhaps he's on to something.

The question is how this issue translates, politically-speaking, beyond Southeastern Colorado, and whether McInnis can use it to paint Ritter as anti-military, and as indifferent to the economic benefits military bases bring to Colorado. But this has to at least give Ritter pause, before be blithely signs this terribly short-sighted piece of legislation.

No More Business as Usual for the GOP?

Just when you think the GOP is destined to wander the political wilderness for 40 years, paying penance for having lost its moral and ideological compass, a glimmer of hope emerges that the party might still regain its bearings. Although it's been in the public domain for a week, I just stumbled across this incisive and important op-ed by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, in which he calls on his party to distance itself from the creeping Chamber of Commerce socialism on the march in Washington and elsewhere.

Although they've long been caricatured by their enemies as the tools of big business, Republicans actually won elections in the 70s, 80s and 90s by preaching the gospel of political and economic liberty, according to DeMint. And the party won't regain public support, or its soul, until its leaders make a clean break from the business and political elites behind the corporatist convergence currently taking place.

Wrote DeMint:

"For decades, the Republican Party has been portrayed by liberals (and the media) as a political country club - interested only in serving the interests of oligarchic corporate elites, insensitive to the needs of "real" Americans in the bottom 95 percent.

And for decades, Republicans consistently won elections - because the caricature was false. From President Richard Nixon's silent majority through President Ronald Reagan's realignment and the Contract With America, Republicans were not a party of economic elites as much as they were a party of economic freedom. They represented a clear, philosophical contrast to the watered-down socialism of the Democrats. Even when Republicans fell short on their promises of limited government, Americans believed the promises to be sincere nonetheless.

I doubt many Americans believe the promises anymore.

For the past eight years, the Republican experiment in big government hollowed out our core identity. In battles over immigration, spending, education and other "compassionate conservative" priorities, small-government conservatives were attacked by leading Republicans for choosing principle over poll-tested politics. It was in these battles that the long-alleged marriage between the Republican Party and corporate America was finally consummated . . . .

. . . . The road back to Republican success is not to reinforce our weakened coalition of corporate interests, but to drop it altogether. Republicans shouldn't be the party of business any more than they should be the party of labor - we're supposed to be the party of freedom. We should get out of the business of picking winners and losers in the marketplace. We should not care who wins in fair fights between Microsoft and Apple, between CitiGroup and community banks, or between Home Depot and mom-and-pop hardware stores. All we should demand is a fair fight.

If Goliath beats David, so be it - just so long as he does it without corporate welfare.

Similarly, we should not tip the legal scales for either side in negotiations between Ford and the United Auto Workers. Instead, both sides should simply know that if their contract leads to competitive disadvantage, layoffs or bankruptcy, there will be no federal bailouts there to reward their mistakes.

It is none of the government's business - let alone the Republican Party's - whether banks make or deny risky loans, but only that we ensure lenders and borrowers bear the consequences of their own decisions.

When free markets are allowed to work by punishing failure and rewarding success, everyone benefits. The results are higher quality, lowered cost and innovative breakthroughs. But in a system of corporate welfare, those who suffer most are Americans who pay higher taxes funneled to well-connected companies.

A party of freedom is not a party of any one competitor, but a party of competition itself - what you might call the true "spirit of enterprise."

Republicans will succeed again when we realize our true allegiance is not to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but to free markets, free people and freedom itself."

Whether DeMint's Declaration of Independence from creeping corporatism will be heard by fellow Republicans -- and heeded by leaders in the business community as well -- is unknown. The problem, from the standpoint of the "practical" politician, is that this is where most of their campaign funds come from. But if the Republican Party is going to successfully reinvent itself, and wants to offer a real alternative to the party now in power, DeMint seems to be pointing it in the right direction. The GOP won't regain lost ground by offering socialism lite, or statism lite (if you take umbrage at my use of the "S" word), but by redefining itself as the party that champions economic, political and personal freedom -- even when that puts it on a collision course with the corporate welfare-chasers at the country club.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Boo Radley Abandons the Bench

It's back to Walden Pond for David Souter. But can anyone say he'll be missed? How can you miss an apparition? How can you miss a phantom?

Souter was hyped at confirmation as an Abe Lincoln-like figure, but he actually seems to have more in common with Boo Radley. At least Abe Lincoln went to the theater (much to his eventual regret). Souter wouldn't fly on an airplane. He didn't give interviews or use a personal computer. He ate his apples core and all. He never unpacked after relocating to Washington. The only time he made news was by getting mugged. If Obama values continuity in a replacement, perhaps he should pick J.D. Salinger.

Souter's judicial legacy is just as illusive. He made as lasting a mark as a jurist as his hush puppies made padding up the court's marble steps for 20 years -- none, as far as I can tell. Little will change if the president picks a "liberal" replacement, since George Bush Sr. got sold a bill of goods with the "conservative" Souter. His bona fides were touted by Warren Rudman. That should have been a red flag.

Souter consistently voted with the activist faction -- including on the outrageous Kelo ruling, which had property rights activists back in New Hampshire trying to seize his farm through eminent domain, so they could convert it into a Bed and Breakfast (and make a point about the monster that decision unleashed). The effort failed, unfortunately, so Souter has a home to return to.

He did resemble "honest Abe" in at least one respect: he recognized virtually no limits to the expansion of federal power, at the expense of the states. But that, too, made him unexceptional on the Supreme Court and among most colleagues on the federal bench.

Justice Souter, we hardly knew ye. Yet somehow, we aren't racked with regrets.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Something's Come Between Us

It's official. There's a new governing body with taxing and regulating authority along the Fountain Creek watershed between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Gov. Bill Ritter signed a bill yesterday creating the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District. It's being hailed, at birth, as the herald of a new era of cooperation and comity between the famously feuding cities -- as something that will turn the Fountain into an "amenity" which both cities can share pride in. We'll sing camp fire songs together along the banks of the bucolic Fountain -- and hope that an errant turd doesn't float by to spoil the moment.

The best laid plans of mice and men.

Here's what the new district can do, and spend, according to today's Pueblo Chieftain:

"The 60-page measure would establish a nine-member board that would oversee the flood plain from Fountain to Pueblo.Under it, four district boundaries would be created with varying degrees of authority. While the full boundary of the district would include all of Pueblo and El Paso counties, any fees imposed by it would apply only to a smaller area encompassing the watershed.

The panel also would have some land-use authority, but only on a small tract right along the river.

Under the bill, the district would have the ability to impose fees, and place before voters in both counties a new tax to help pay for improvements. It is, however, limited to asking voters for no more than 5 mills, which could raise about $30 million a year.

The district also is to get about $50 million from a Southern Delivery System mitigation fund, which is to be used to get a matching federal grant that could bring in another $150 million."

If the power of a governing body is measured at least in part by its bankroll, this one is beginning with a bang, with $200 million in the pipeline -- so to speak -- and the ability to levy up to $30 million more a year. Its regulatory clout seems modest enough, according to this description. But for people who own land in that "small tract right along the river" -- which may be the most valuable tract they own -- having this new entity looming over them might in time become a major headache, and significant property rights threat, making them nostalgic for the days before the district was formed.

Unmentioned in the story is whether the new district will have any regulatory of legal power over the waters flowing through it -- which would effectively give it regulatory power over every drop of water the city of Colorado Springs releases into the Fountain. What it will have is a bully-pulpit on which to stand and brow-beat El Paso County and Colorado Springs any time a stormwater event or sewage spill occurs (a bully pulpit paid for, in part, by Colorado Springs ratepayers). And these will occur, in spite of whatever precautions we take or infrastructure improvements we make.

Nothing in the story indicates whether the new district will have the ability to sue the city of Colorado Springs or El Paso County for actions it deems harmful to Fountain Creek. Just imagine the wag-the-dog situations we'll see if that comes to pass.

All new government entities are created with noble intentions and modest missions. But the nature of all governments, even ones initially limited in scope, is to grow, increase in power, demand more resources and, in time, become a tool of coercion, higher taxation and oppression. That means that, in time, the FCWFCGD (it really needs a shorter acronym) could become a battle zone rather than a buffer zone; a curse rather than a blessing to land owners along the creek; and yet another bone of contention between the cities -- defeating the purpose for which it was conceived.

Cynical thoughts, pouring cold water on what should be a happy occasion? Perhaps. But there is no "Law of Unintended Consequences" -- only the law of unanticipated ones. And anyone who spends any time watching governments might well worry that the seeds of such a scenario were planted yesterday.

Whether they will bear bitter fruit, or just sweet-smelling flowers, only time will tell.