Tuesday, April 28, 2009

If At First You Don't Succeed . . . . . . . . . Quit

I received two reports in recent days of a phone poll being conducted on city ballot measure 1A.

Yes, that's the same ballot measure that went down to resounding defeat, 62 to 38 percent, in the April 7 election. Polling before an election is standard operating procedure, if you have money to burn (which the backers of 1A did, thanks to all the developers, builders, realtors and banks who were hoping to get the taxpayers to bankroll local corporate welfare projects -- here's a reminder of who they were: Link). But conducting polls after an election, focused on an issue that was soundly defeated, is highly irregular, and raises questions about the motives of those behind it.

One possibility is that the backers of 1A had some extra cash to blow after being blown away at the ballot box, and that they want to understand what went wrong. If I had donated to a campaign that took such a beating, even after amassing a $170,000 war chest, I might also want an explanation for how opponents, with just $4,000 to spend, carried the day. (I might also ask for a refund, given how ineptly the pro-1A campaign was run -- but that's another blog post.) But that's an unlikely explanation for the after-election polling.

A second, more ominous possibility is that somebody out there didn't get the message, won't take "no" for an answer, and is planning a second run at the taxpayers' wallets, possibly as early as November. This poll is meant to help refine the message, or alter tactics, in a way that will fly next time.

One person who tipped me off to the poll said he thought it was conducted by a firm called Central Research. "It was a fairly lengthy poll," he said. "I would guess about 20 questions. The first question was how I voted on 1A. When I said I voted 'no,' I got a lot of questions about why. Did I vote no because I didn't like the ballot language? Was it too vague? Or did I vote no because I oppose all incentive deals? Did I vote no on all of the ballot issues, or did I mix some 'yes' votes and some 'no' votes? Did the AIG scandal make me vote no? Did the bank bailouts make me vote no? Did the news about the USOC deal with the city make me vote 'no'? Where did I see advertising that urged a no vote? Where did I see advertising that urged a “yes” vote. What do I remember those ads said?"

I'll be sniffing around in the next few days to find out who is paying for the poll, and exactly what purpose it serves. But if my hunch is correct, it may be the first sign that 1A will be back before too long, traveling under a slightly modified guise. I don't look at the possibility with dread, however. It was so much fun helping smash 1A that crushing "Son of 1A" will be icing on the cake.

Maybe I won’t throw out to those slightly-battered “Fight Corporate Welfare” signs I have stacked in the garage, just in case.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Charter Schools at Risk

The New York Times on Monday offered a compelling portrait of Kashi Nelson, who teaches at a Brooklyn charter school targeted for takeover by teachers unions. Nelson first opposed and then embraced and then opposed unionization again, personifying a struggle for the heart and soul of charter schools taking place across the country.

Explains the Times:

"Ms. Nelson’s shift from union skeptic to supporter and back again provides a glimpse of the complicated and tense dance between charter schools and unions unfolding across the country.

As the number of charter schools in New York City and elsewhere swells, unions have become increasingly aggressive in trying to organize their teachers. These two major forces in education politics, having long faced off in ideological opposition, have begun in some places to enter tentative and cautious partnerships, and in others to engage in fierce combat. New York City’s teachers’ union now runs two charter schools in Brooklyn and workers have organized at many more, including more than a dozen across New York State.

Some of the most adamant supporters of charter schools say that the teachers’ union is simply trying to stymie their growth by increasing the regulations on their operation; union leaders, on the other hand, say they are just trying to ensure that teachers are given fair pay and clear guidelines for how and why they could be dismissed."

Having largely lost the battle to stop the schools, unions have adopted a new strategy -- of destroying them from within by infiltrating and organizing their staffs. And with legislation pending before Congress that would make unionizing the workplace as simple as gathering enough signatures -- the so-called card check bill -- this assault on the independence of charter schools is only likely to spread and escalate.

Freedom from union influence is one of the distinguishing characteristics of charter schools; indeed, it's one of the secrets to their success. It's what leaves the teachers free to teach, without constant reference to what's "in the contract." It's what leaves school administrators free to manage, without butting heads with obstructionists within. Absent is the adversarial relationship between "management" and "workers" that unions feed upon. These schools put the interest of students first and teachers second. And that's why unions want to obliterate that distinction.

Teachers have a choice of working at a charter school or a conventional public school. They're intelligent enough to understand the trade-offs involved. Many choose the former over the latter because of the apathy and antipathy unions frequently bring to the workplace. Thus, the idea that unions are coming to the rescue of beleaguered charter school teachers is ridiculous.

Many of these teachers have fled to charters to escape the unhealthy and unproductive influence of unions, as Nelson was when she took the job in Brooklyn. But the unions refuse to let charter schools and charter school teachers (not to mention charter school students and parents) go their own way, insisting that uniformity, conformity, lethargy and mediocrity permeate public education in America, without exception.

If allowed to go unchecked, the union takeover of charters schools threatens to undermine and eventually destroy one of the few real innovations American public education has enjoyed in recent times.

But a more practical, bottom-line motivation also lurks behind the takeovers. The popularity of charters has the tide turning decisively against unions. It represents a steady drain on union membership, union dues and union power -- which is all most unions care about anyway. Unless they find a way to co-opt charters, not only will unions experience a continuing decline in membership and money, but America will before long have two public school systems existing side my side.

One system, free from union influence, will be succeeding, while the other, anchored down by union dominance, will be failing. And that will be the most glaring evidence yet of the cancerous influence these organizations have had on American public education.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Is Moral Superiority a Winning Strategy?

Barack Obama was at CIA yesterday, preening about America's restored moral superiority, which his administration demonstrated by airing the spy agency's dirty linen in public, with release of the so-called "torture memos." He stood there, with the Book of Honor as a backdrop -- each star there representing a CIA operative killed in the line of duty -- offering those assembled forgiveness for the misdeeds they had done on a previous president's watch.

He was an exorcist, purging Langley's demons, so its agents can go out into a ruthless and nasty world not as morally-compromised spies, doing dirty deeds for noble causes, but as moral crusaders, bearing the shield of "American values." Have we had a modern president, have we had any president, including Clinton, who was such a shameless poseur?

Whether moral superiority will work as an anti-terror strategy remains to be seen. When the next mass murder occurs, the pendulum will swing wildly back, no doubt, as an enraged and fickle public demands to know why stronger measures aren't being taken against the enemy. We'll be thrown back to 9/12/2001. We'll care less about moral superiority when they're shoveling up the body bits. "American values" will seem less important than American survival. Obama's school master routine will stand exposed for what it is -- undiluted naiveté.

And what of those torture memos? Do they really demonstrate that "enhanced interrogation" techniques, more than just being morally repugnant, simply don't work? Not according to this op-ed in today's Washington Post. Marc Thiessen -- whose association with that administration makes anything he might say on the subject suspect, at least among the liberal lumenati -- points out that a close reading of the documents suggests that such measures did produce actionable intelligence.

Thiessen writes:

"In releasing highly classified documents on the CIA interrogation program last week, President Obama declared that the techniques used to question captured terrorists "did not make us safer." This is patently false. The proof is in the memos Obama made public -- in sections that have gone virtually unreported in the media."

Then he goes on to detail how interrogation uncovered terror cells and foiled plots, before concluding:

Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship." In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can -- and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.

This is the secret to the program's success. And the Obama administration's decision to share this secret with the terrorists threatens our national security. Al-Qaeda will use this information and other details in the memos to train its operatives to resist questioning and withhold information on planned attacks. CIA Director Leon Panetta said during his confirmation hearings that even the Obama administration might use some of the enhanced techniques in a "ticking time bomb" scenario. What will the administration do now that it has shared the limits of our interrogation techniques with the enemy? President Obama's decision to release these documents is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible acts ever by an American president during a time of war -- and Americans may die as a result.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Property Rights Don't Grow on Trees

The college town of Boulder -- where predations on property owners are commonplace --reportedly is considering the use of eminent domain to take land it says is needed for a bike path. But what really has locals enraged isn't the land grab, or the violation of civil rights this entails -- but the fact that some trees might have to be removed to make way for the project.

That's Boulder for you.

Of the 58 comments posted in response to the Boulder Camera story as of 9:45 this morning, the last time I looked, only 4 expressed concerns about the trampling of property rights, and the abuse of government power, this involves. Most of the rest expressed anger about the trees.

But trees grow back. Do property rights?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Obamanomics in Action

I've blogged before on the fact that much of Barack Obama's so-called economic stimulus package is actually a supplemental government spending bill, designed to grow federal agencies and pad federal budgets rather than boost private sector jobs. This recent news story confirms it.

Former Colorado Senator and now-Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar just unveiled some of his stimulus spending priorities. But how they will boost the economy at large is mystifying, unless Salazar is pushing a full employment program for seismologists, geologists and biologists. Here are some of Salazar's "recovery act" spending priorities, all of which benefit the U.S. Geological Survey, as listed by GovExec.com:

$15.2 million to modernize equipment at volcano observatories

$14.6 million to upgrade 7,500 stream gauges

$14.6 million to remove cableways, groundwater wells and stream gauges no longer needed to make sites safer for the public and support local economies

$29.4 million to address deferred maintenance at laboratories and make them more energy efficient

$29.4 million to modernize the Advanced National Seismic System

$17.8 million to improve wildlife and environmental research centers in Maryland, Missouri and Wisconsin

$14.6 million to improve imagery mapping used for emergency operations, natural resource management and flood control

$488,000 to the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory to digitize and publicize bird banding data, which has applications in disease research

Wow. Can you imagine the economic shot in the arm America will get when our volcano observatories take delivery of all that cool new equipment! Laugh if you like, but volcano observatories serve as an under-appreciated cornerstone of the American economy. And even though nothing they do can accurately predict volcano eruptions, or prevent them from happening, just knowing that these facilities are there, monitoring volcanoes and serving as a place for grad students to hang out, is reassuring.

And how about Salazar's upgrading of stream flow gauges? Don't tell me that won't come as a relief to stream flow gauge salesman everywhere. Just the other day I noticed that another "Gauge Mart" had closed. Hopefully this will put an end to that.

Wildlife research centers are also critically important to the U.S. economy, and a prime generator of good-paying wildlife research center jobs, which we neglect at our peril. So it's good to see Salazar is addressing the wildlife research center slump we've been in.

Finally, the half million dollars for the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory is sure to come as welcome news to the 67,000-member American Brotherhood of Bird-Banders (which endorsed Barack Obama for president and donated heavily to his campaign, just coincidently). Too many bird-banding jobs have been outsourced to other countries. It's time we brought more of those jobs back home. Our economic security depends on the maintenance of a domestic bird-banding capability. This is obviously a wise use of stimulus dollars.

Actually, it's all just an obvious administration ploy to boost agency spending, for things that ought to be funded through the normal appropriations process. It's not what most Americans had in mind when the measure was passed. It makes a mockery of the idea that the goal is economic recovery. And it confirms that Obamanomics, Keynes on steroids, recognizes no distinction between the private and public sectors.

Only bird brains would spend economic stimulus funds on bird banding.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Barry, Barry, Quite Contrary

Perhaps there were some national organizations that helped get the word out about, or capitalize on, the April 15 tea parties. Perhaps Fox News was savvy enough, in the marketing department, to realize that giving the parties coverage, and piggy-backing on what was happening, was good for ratings. Perhaps a few opportunistic politicos, like Newt Gingrich, hoped to seize the moment to advance their personal ambitions.

But I didn't get a sense, as a speaker and participant, that I was serving as the pawn of any organization or individual, as columnist Barry Noreen suggests in today's Gazette. If I had that sense, I wouldn't have participated.

The Gazette's (somewhat snide) reporting on the event indicated that attendees were, at least in the reporter's eyes, a bunch of loose cannons, shooting in all directions. That seems to counter Barry's thesis -- that we were collectively advancing some narrow and particular agenda, like puppets on strings.

Obama was certainly the focus of much ire (just as George Bush was the focus of so much vitriol and ire over the past eight years -- some of it deserved, in my personal opinion). That at times gave the event the tone of a Republican rally. And a few people were over the top. But Obama is the president now, and he has done some radical things. Some of the "change" he's bringing makes people uncomfortable, quite understandably in my view. Some in the media apparently think that Americans should just stuff their contrary opinions and give the new president the extended honeymoon he, in their view, deserves. I disagree.

Barry may have confused cause and effect here. This Tea Party idea all began with an unscripted outburst from a cable TV commentator in Chicago, which somehow gave voice to the alarm many Americans were feelings about the radical economic "fixes" the new administration is proposing. It spread like wildfire, thanks to YouTube and other "new media" vehicles, sparking what to me appears to be a genuinely grassroots effort.

Did certain savvy organizations jump aboard once they saw the momentum building? Sure they did. Did Fox News recognize potential audience members in the crowds that would be gathering? Of course. And because Fox could almost guarantee that the "mainstream media" would either ignore the events or dismiss the crowds as right-wing crackpots, instead of giving them the respect they deserve as concerned Americans, all the better for Fox News. Did cagey politicians like Newt Gingrich wonder whether they might also tap into the situation. Yes, again.

But I think these groups and individuals were just jumping on the bandwagon, rather than pulling it or steering it. You can't get people to turn out in such numbers unless there's a strong grassroots component to what's happening. And as a speaker and participant, I didn't feel that it was advancing any organization's agenda.

I was there to help get the word out about Limited Government Week and Local Liberty Online to like-minded folks. But I certainly didn't feel like my organization or any other was orchestrating what occurred. Quite the contrary, we were all just surfers on a wave that built largely of its own accord.

Julie, the woman who invited me to speak, was a complete neophyte, as far as I could tell. She wasn't with any of the organizations Barry mentions, or with any I am familiar with. She was new to this, and was moved to action out of concern for the country. But she and a few others managed (with minimal help from the MSM) to turn out several thousand people, mainly through viral marketing and word of mouth, for a very successful event. And that success was replicated all across the country.

And now Barry seeks to diminish that accomplishment, and scoff-off the meaning of what occurred, by suggesting that she, and we, were all the pawns of larger forces.

I've been a watcher or participant in journalism and politics for more than 25 years, and this is as close to a grassroots event as I've seen in that time. It was far more spontaneous, in origin and organization, than most other rallies that garner national attention -- virtually all of which are organized and scripted by parties or special interest groups. Barry has spent even more time as a political observer: perhaps he can provide a better example of a truly grassroots event of this magnitude.

I want to thank and applaud everyone who spoke or attended or helped organize the event. Don't let the cynics in the media -- including my friend Barry Noreen, to whom I owe a case of Mexican beer -- curb your enthusiasm or diminish your accomplishment.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What a Party

The Gazette's minute-by-minute blog coverage of the Taxpayer Tea Party in Acacia Park at one point estimated a crowd of about 200. What a crock. 200 times 10 or 15 is more like it. I had 300 fliers promoting Limited Government Week in my hand when I arrived on the scene, and they were gone, snapped up like hotcakes, before I waded very far into the throng. That's what you get for being a pessimist.

Congratulations to all those who made this event such a success. They did it with scant "mainstream media" coverage or attention. The unmistakably snide coverage -- Gazette - simply confirms that the denizens of most news rooms are far from "mainstream" themselves. The reporter mischaracterized the crowd as angry. While there may have been a little of that -- some of it justified, in my view -- most of the people I saw or encountered were smiling, having fun and simply exalting in their freedom to air their beefs about the way the country is going. That's as "mainstream" American as baseball and apple pie. They seemed no more "angry" than the people who attended Barack Obama campaign rallies, belittling and denouncing the former administration and screaming for "change."

I was honored to participate as a speaker. What I had to say can be boiled down to a few bullet points, though they may have been garbled in transmission given my meandering ways as a speech-giver.

The problem isn't just in Washington or Denver or in City Hall, I pointed out. It's with We the People -- and especially people who have double standard about government spending -- those who think "pork" can only be found in other congressional districts -- and can't recognize that everything Washington "gives" them, it takes from them with the other hand. "The bucks start here," I said, "and the buck needs to stop here, too, if we want to collar runaway government."

I said change won't come to Washington until we in the hinterland begin to rediscover the old American virtues of self reliance, self-determination, and self-discipline. The second American revolution will only happen when we rediscover the virtues of limited government. The more we ask of government, the larger it becomes and the more it takes from us.

The second American Revolution doesn’t require violence or upheaval. It begins quietly, when each of us begins asking less of the government and looking more to ourselves for the answers and solutions. The first tea party, in Boston, was about taxation without representation. Today the problem is different. Today we have over-taxation with over-representation -- meaning that Washington now wants to do for us what we should do for ourselves. We’re asking more than we ought to of Washington, which gives it license to tax us and regulate us at will.

Some people laugh off the idea of limited government as an anachronism. But limited government has a flip side, I said. Limited government liberates and empowers people. Unlimited government enslaves them. It's something the founders understood. And it's as true today as it was back then.

I had selected three quotes, from a varied (and bipartisan) list of luminaries, to underscore the point, but I wandered off the script and they never made it in. Here they are, taken from the archive of quotes kept at LocalLibertyOnline.org.

John F. Kennedy: "Every time that we try to lift a problem from our own shoulders, and shift that problem to the hands of the government, to the same extent we are sacrificing the liberties of our people."

Ronald Reagan: ""Man is not free unless government is limited ... As government expands, liberty contracts."

And, finally, I had planned to use this beautiful quote from Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon here was writing about Athens, not Rome. But the lessons have universal relevance: "In the end more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free."

I was particularly moved when the crowd, near the end of the program, sang "My Country Tis of Thee," something I hadn't sang since elementary school, I realized, and rarely if ever hear any more.

Those are the points I tried to make today, even if something got lost in translation once my mouth started motoring. I was honored to speak. I hope Taxpayer Tea Parties becomes an April 15 tradition.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Horrors of Prosperity

One county official called the scene "absolutely disgusting," and said laws must be changed to put a stop to it. Another, stunned by what she saw, called it "way out of character" with community norms. All gawked in amazement as they toured the area by bus.

What was it that evoked such a reaction? A ride through the tenderloin district? The growth of an open-air crack market? A messy sewage plant mishap, maybe? No. This was the reaction to that scourge of middle class suburbs everywhere, the "McMansion," which are springing up like garish eyesores in the "once-modest" Millcreek neighborhood outside Salt Lake City, according to this story in yesterday's Salt Lake Tribune.

"It was a sightseeing tour of the stars -- not of the sprawling estates of Hollywood celebrities, but of the practically palatial living that has crept into once-modest Millcreek neighborhoods and prompted a political movement to stop the spread of so-called monster homes.

Several Salt Lake County Council members boarded a miniature school bus Wednesday for a guided tour through this township torn by an ongoing debate over oversized homes. They wanted to see for themselves the two- and three-story McMansions that critics say have squeezed up to property lines, obstructed views and disrupted the character of this unincorporated burb of 65,000 people.

"That is absolutely disgusting," said Councilman Joe Hatch as the bus rumbled to a stop beside a 6,500-square-foot home that dwarfed its single-story neighbors. "We should have a zoning change to prevent that."

The Millcreek Township Planning Commission has proposed a change that includes black-and-white restrictions on home heights and masses along with grayer provisions that would allow bigger homes as long as they are compatible with the neighborhood."

Homes that are incompatible with the neighborhood? A lack of uniformity and conformity? Overt displays of income disparity? What is Millcreek coming to? It's not the Millcreek I knew as a youngster! And these county commissioners aren't going to stand for it, I tell you.

Three council members -- Jani Iwamoto, Jim Bradley and Hatch -- spent two hours Wednesday surveying neighborhoods interrupted by 4,000-, 5,000- and even 6,000-square-foot homes.

They paused at a more-modest house that offered 3,100 square feet and a second floor but fit under the proposed standards. They snaked through an upper-scale neighborhood in east Millcreek that would accommodate bigger homes, based on the plan's more flexible sections.

"I can't even see the top from here," said Diane Angus, a west Millcreek community councilwoman who accompanied the council tour, as the bus stopped beside an enormous pair of red-brick homes.

"You have to use the periscope," quipped county planner Tom Schafer.

Iwamoto stepped off the bus without a staked position on the proposed building ordinance. What was clear, she said, is that something needs to be done. "What is allowed in some of those areas is way out of character with the community."

It's a debate that has proven particularly sensitive in Millcreek, where residents are split over the rights of property owners to build and the rights of neighbors to protect themselves from oversized homes that erode privacy and reshape skylines."

Can you really "reshape the skyline" in suburbia? Manhattan has a skyline. Chicago has a skyline. But does Millcreek have a skyline, that can be thrown out of kilter by a two-story home? And aren't so-called invasions of private a two-way street? If you build a house next door with windows looking into my yard, you must not mind me looking in your windows. And how much privacy does anyone really expect, and is someone entitled to, in such a neighborhood? If you want to live in seclusion, build a cabin on Walden Pond. If you hate having neighbors, buy that rat hole next door and tear it down.

But why reason the issue through. It's not about skylines or privacy. The hatred of "McMansions" is mostly about envy, on the part of the offended and insecure neighbors, and about pandering to envy and exercising control, on the part of local officials. I mean, just imagine the anxiety and disharmony it creates in Millcreek when the modest people living there, modestly, in their modest middle class homes, suddenly find their house looking rather dingy and dumpy, next to the stately McMansion some nuevo riche yuppie (probably an escapee from Wall Street) slaps up right next door! Imagine the shame. Imagine the humiliation. Imagine the envy this is generating in once-modest Millcreek.

This disparity in domiciles is humbling to some, and ego-gratifying to others, depending on which side of the fence you stand -- a visual reminder that we remain a nation of "haves" and "have-nots." But there's no escaping it, unless you live in a glass tower in the city, or some cookie-cutter Levittown where every home is exactly the same (not that there's anything wrong with that).

And there's nothing wrong with it, and no need for local officials to correct it, since wanting a slightly bigger and better house than the dump next door is part and parcel of the American dream, at least as many Americans define it. And it's that American dream which has made it possible for so many of us to live in "McMansions" that they've become a "problem."

Other countries should have such problems.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Barack Obama's Staff Infection

Federal employee unions hate the idea of outsourcing "government work" to the private sector, so Barack Obama, slave that he is to unions, has signed executive orders bringing more of those jobs "in house." How this will increase efficiency or cut costs or improve performance is a mystery, since it's universally recognized that the private sector does just about everything better than the public sector can. But this is a political payoff, disguised as a government reform effort, so stop trying to make it make sense.

In Obama Nation, the impossible becomes the unstoppable. In Obama Nation, a bigger federal bureaucracy will be a better federal bureaucracy. In Obama Nation, the public sector leads and the private sector follows. The laws of gravity are suspended. The sun rises in the west and sets in the east. And the Pentagon will run a tighter ship by firing all the private contractors and growing its bureaucracy by 30,000.

In the first major federal hiring binge since Obama effectively put an end to outsourcing, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced today that he would be adding 30,000 new pentacrats in the next 5 years, in an effort to improve the department's weapons acquisition programs. Reports GovExec.com:

"Among the most far-reaching changes [Gates] recommended were reducing the number of support service contractors from the current level of 39 percent of the workforce to the pre-2001 level of 26 percent and replacing them with full-time government employees.

"Our goal is to hire as many as 13,000 new civil servants in 2010 to replace contractors and up to 30,000 new civil servants in place of contractors over the next five years," Gates said.
In addition, he said the department would increase the size of the defense acquisition workforce, converting 11,000 contractors and hiring an additional 9,000 government acquisition professionals by 2015, beginning with 4,100 in 2010.

Bringing back in-house more support work and expanding the acquisition workforce are essential to restoring accountability to the procurement process, Gates said."

And he said it with a straight face, as far as I can tell.

I'm no expert on weapon procurement. But I've seen and read enough to understand that the Pentagon's "system" for developing and buying weapons is scandalously dysfunctional. Gates is taking a positive step by seeking the cancellation of some programs -- including the VH-71 presidential helicopter program, which is building 23 helicopters (to service 1 president) for an astounding $6.5 billion -- and the restructuring of others (assuming Congress doesn't countermand him).

But implicitly blaming this all on private contractors, by bringing more of those responsibilities "in house," is not just unfair but insane, since an honest appraisal of the problem would undoubtedly point back to poor contractor oversight by the Pentagon itself. Expecting better results by adding more federal bureaucrats is like trying to drink yourself sober.

But this is just the beginning of the bureaucratic bloat to come under Obama. Brace yourselves for the Oprahfication of every other federal agency as well.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Beware the Blank Check

Those caught up in the heat of every campaign tell voters the outcome will be pivotal. Therefore, one risks sounding cliche, and a little like the boy who cried wolf, by saying this in regard to the city election now entering its final days. But I think the decision involving ballot issue 1A really could be pivotal, in at least two ways. That's why I've been working so hard to defeat it.

The most obvious problems with 1A, as a policy prescription, have already been highlighted. No point in repeating them at length (click on the "panhandler in pinstripes" at LocalLibertyonline.org if you're that interested). It's just not a smart way to do economic development. It will crack open a can of worms the city will have a hard time keeping a lid on.

But it's a less obvious danger from 1A I'll focus on today. And that's the fact that it's a blank check.

It's a point of frustration with many local political and business leaders, but a point of pride for me personally, that voters in Colorado Springs and El Paso County have been notoriously reluctant to issue blank checks. When you step forward with a tax increase proposal around here, you had better have specifics to offer about how the money will be spent. Just crying poor won't cut it. And scare tactics can backfire, as those supporting a county sales tax hike found out last fall.

But if you do your homework, and if you make a convincing and detailed case, you'll be rewarded with a "yes" vote. We've seen that happen with RTA. We've seen it happen with TOPS. We've seen it happen with a cops and firefighter tax. It's unfair to say locals are robotically or reflexively anti-tax. They just have higher standards, and a healthier dose of skepticism, than a lot of voters do.
They won't be played for suckers. They won't be stampeded by scare tactics. They won't be shamed into giving more of their hard-earned money to government than is necessary. And I think that's a strength rather than a weakness, a virtue, rather than a vice.

But that could all change if 1A is approved. 1A is the ultimate blank check. There's no plan, and no specifics, for how the money would be used. It's a half-baked idea, cooked up by a few people on the city's Sustainable Funding Committee and hurriedly slapped on the ballot by City Council. Backers of the proposal are betting -- and betting big, given the significant money they're pouring into it -- that they can win without specifics, without a plan.

They believe that glossy mailers, deceptive ballot language, big billboards and vague promises will be enough to get the taxpayers to issue the city a $51 million blank check, breaking with long precedent. They believe a down economy, and the anxiety it brings, might lead voters to suspend their normal skepticism, drop their guard and buy into the panacea they're pushing.

On Tuesday we'll find out if local voters will hold with tradition, and reject tax increases that aren't accompanied by detailed plans and specifics, or whether they'll break with tradition and issue blank checks. If it passes, 1A will have demonstrated that you can overcome the natural caution and common sense of local voters with an empty slogan -- "jobs now" -- and a slick media blitz. And that will indeed be a pivotal -- but not promising -- moment in local politics.