Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Talk About a "Crash Course"

The Washington Post reports that House Democrats went back to school Monday afternoon, sitting still, without talking or interrupting, while congressional staff led a tutorial on what's in the 1,000-page overhaul of the American health care system that's been floating around the chamber for weeks.

This way, when they're home for August recess, members can speak coherently about the bill -- almost as if they understand it.

Explains the Post:

"The rough draft of the bill ("America's Health Choices Act") runs more than 1,000 pages, with amendments yet to come. Last week the Democrats decided that they needed to know more about the legislation before they go back to their constituents for the August recess. Hence the teach-in, an unusual basement seminar that lasted five hours with one break for procedural votes on the House floor."

But shouldn't members of the majority party have undergone this tutorial before, rather than after, the bill was written and introduced? And what does this say about the cluelessness (and sheer recklessness) of the people ostensibly in charge; and about the power wielded by unelected staff (and the lobbyists they're chummy with), who draw-up legislation first and educate their bosses about the details later, weeks after the bill is introduced?

More from the Post:

"Some members had a printout of the entire bill. Others used a 34-page cheat sheet . . . . To make matters somewhat easier for members, the packet of information handed out at the door included a glossary of health-care terms, including:
Adverse Selection
Capitation Comparative
Cost Shifting
Duel Eligibles"

What a scary story. What an alarming situation. The county is being run by a gang of morons -- and their nameless assistants. Congress is about to attempt an overhaul of the American health care system -- based on a "cheat sheet."

Time to head for the lifeboats.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Global Cooling Could Have Dire Consequences

Super President Barack Obama already has many triumphs to his credit. He saved the economy. He ran the lobbyists out of Washington. He vanquished Somali pirates. He made Americans popular in Europe again.

And now, according to this piece in the Chicago Tribune, he has reversed global warming in the Windy City. Obama also has brought record cool temperatures to Indianapolis. Louisville is feeling the effects, as is Ohio and Georgia. Obama's blessings haven't been bestowed equally; a few parts of the country are still suffering the ravages of global warming. But most of the nation is feeling cooler and Obama's only been in office six months!

Perhaps he ought to slow things down a bit: If he's not careful, the super president could dial the temperatures back so fast he could plunge us into a mini-Ice Age. And there's a downside to this situation many of us didn't anticipate.

Urban gardeners and "localvores" are having a miserable time trying to keep their dinner tables brimming with home grown, pesticide- and chemical-free veggies. Obama's successes with climate change have hurt seasonal tourism and slowed crop production, reports the Associated Press. Air conditioning use is down, according to USA Today, and shirts aren't sticking to our sweat-soaked bodies like they should; that hurts profit margins for energy companies and dry cleaners. People aren't visiting local pools as much as they were when global warming was going full throttle, hurting concession stand sales. "Fewer families mean less lemonade and nachos sold at the concession stand," reports

Obama's amazing talent for turning down the heat, although a boon to polar bears, is doing harm to an already fragile economy, threatening to undermine the stimulus plan and put pool concession staff out of work. Tens of thousands of climate researchers, professional environmental activists, government regulators and alternative energy company executives -- virtually the entire eco-industrial complex! -- also stand to lose if climate change goes away as an issue. An end to weekly climate change conferences will hurt air carriers, hotels and the event planning business. And let's not even think about what it would do to hybrid vehicle sales.

Global warming had it's dangers, but the cooler climate Obama is bringing carries potentially greater risks. A blue ribbon panel should be empowered by Congress to determine the ideal temperature for the United States; something that won't endanger polar bears yet still protects jobs in global warming-dependent industries. The great one should then use his powers to maintain that optimum temperature, allowing for federally-approved seasonal fluctuations only.

It's wonderful having a super president in the White House. But his extraordinary powers should be kept in check, and applied responsibly, lest the demise of the global warming craze lead to a global cooling crash. If we're not careful, and don't manage this carefully, a perfectly good crisis could go to waste.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

More Meddling in Government Motors

Examples already abound of how members of Congress intend to micromanage business decisions inside the new, government-owned General Motors -- a level of meddling that guarantees the company will remain of permanent ward of the state.

But it won't be long before governors are getting into the act, judging from this editorial in The Missoulian, which lionizes Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer for tossing a tantrum over GM's decision to import raw materials, rather than get them from a mine in Montana. Schweitzer has enlisted Montana's congressional delegation in the crusade, aimed at forcing GM to adopt a mine-America-first policy, even if that drives up the costs (and drives down the competitiveness) of GM products.

A bankruptcy judge is allowing GM to break its contract with Montana's Stillwater Mine, and procure the materials, more affordably, from suppliers in South Africa and Russia. But that hasn't quelled the political storm.

The first question to ask isn't why GM wants to break the contract, but why GM can procure these materials cheaper from countries half way around the world than they can be procured from a mine in Montana. Should GM be forced to "buy American" raw materials, and pay more for them -- further driving up the cost of its already unpopular products -- in order to prop up an American mine that can't compete with foreigners (and can't survive, apparently, without its GM contract)? Can you successfully run a multinational corporation, operating in a global economy, according to the mercantilist dictates of American oligarchs?

Members of Congress seem to think so. Montana politicians seem to think so. Editorial writers in Montana seem to think so. And President Barack Obama seems powerless to call a halt to all the political meddling, despite his pledge, given at the time of the taxpayer takeover, that Washington would let GM operate strictly as a business.

It's an impossible situation. The only way GM is ever going to free itself from the clutches of the federal government is to change its wasteful ways of doing business, trim overhead, and take the painful steps necessary to improve its competitiveness and turn a profit again. But that can't happen as long as politicians believe they have the right to meddle in GM's day-to-day business decisions, on everything from which dealerships should close to where the company gets raw materials.

The Soviet model doesn't work. But the Soviet model is what we've adopted under Barack Obama, with a disastrous modification. Instead of the central committee giving the orders, and guiding industrial policy, we have hundreds of politicians aspiring to be car czar. Each is grabbing for the steering wheel, as "Government Motors" careens toward disaster. And no one seems capable of imposing the discipline necessary to avoid the crash just ahead.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"Yucca Mountain Syndrome" Infects Colorado

Some people call it "cognitive dissonance." I call it the Yucca Mountain Syndrome. And I'm sorry to report that strains of it are sweeping parts of Western Colorado.

Symptoms of the malady are as follows: It's a fear- and phobia-based psychological disorder in which the infected party understands, on an intellectual level, that public safety will be enhanced if dangerous substances are stored in a secure centralized repository, yet opposes the placement of such a repository in their vicinity, based on an irrational belief that this will do them harm. Sufferers of Yucca Mountain Syndrome (or YMS) deeply care about public safety on one hand, yet refuse to take the steps necessary to improve public safety, if those steps are viewed as threatening to their individual wellbeing.

They want contradictory things but recognize no contradiction. Reasoning with a YMS sufferer isn't possible. And no amount of scientific education or official reassurances will allay their superstition-like fears. In fact, the more one tries to put their apprehensions to rest, the more hysterical their demands for reassurance become.

In individuals, the effects of an outbreak may be relatively benign: the person who lives in a cockroach-infested home because he fears a can of Raid more, for instance. But a mass infection of YMS can have paralyzing consequences for modern society, which depends on citizens acting rationally and having a measure of trust in science and technology.

YMS seems to have its origins in Nevada, stemming from a now-aborted proposal to build a nuclear waste storage facility in the state (at a place called Yucca Mountain). Even many of the leaders in that state -- including members of Congress -- have been infected, clouding their judgments on certain policy matters.

But a new strain of the syndrome has cropped up in Western Colorado, around Grand Junction, in response to a proposal to put a federal mercury repository in the area. And it's already infected the thinking of some state leaders, including Gov. Bill Ritter, who began showing symptoms after the mercury storage issue hit the headlines.

There is no known cure for YMS. We may just have to let the mania run its course -- like the Salem witch hunts ran their course -- and hope that reason is restored in time to avert the calamity that's sure to occur if the nation refuses to deal rationally and responsibility with hazardous waste management and storage.

Until a vaccine is developed, the best we can do is reason with YMS sufferers and hope their fevers eventually pass.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Getting Serious about States Rights

You hear more about "states rights" these days than you have in recent years, as some governors react to events in Washington (especially the stimulus package) that seem designed to obliterate what remnants of the federalist system remain. But it’s hard to get a handle on how seriously people take this.

Texas recently caused a stir, for instance, when leaders there suggested that they might secede from the union in response to what’s taking place in Washington. Resolutions passed in other, mostly Republican-controlled states (like secession-happy South Carolina) have vaguely asserting state sovereignty, hinting at nascent rebellion. And I have written in recent years about the rise of what I call "neo-federalism" -- an emerging assertiveness on the part of states, stemming not from the hyperactivity of the Obama administration but from the paralysis that is much more the rule in Washington.

As someone who believes in the federalist system established by the founders, and who cheers almost any sign of its resurgence, I've watched these developments with hope and interest. But I've reluctantly come to believe that much of the most recent states rights talk is mere posturing and saber-rattling, done for rhetorical effect only, to advance narrowly partisan ends -- which threatens to trivialize the serious constitutional issue of how power is apportioned in the country.

Both major parties cynically evoke it when it gives them tactical advantage in the skirmish at hand, but neither takes it seriously enough to apply in a consistent or coherent way.

Yesterday's fight in the U.S. Senate over an amendment designed to expand gun rights offered a good example of what I'm talking about. So blatant was the flip-flopping and position-switching on the issue that even the New York Times picked up on it:

"The debate forced senators to wrestle with issues of states rights, sometimes in ways that seemed to clash with the general philosophies of their parties. Many Republicans, who typically favor limiting the ability of the federal government to dictate to states on social issues, voted in this case to limit the ability of states to insist on their own rules for concealed weapons carried by people from other states . . ."

. . .Critics of the amendment argued that it would undermine state and local gun-control laws, and accused Republican supporters, typically staunch defenders of states’ rights, of hypocrisy.

In their floor speeches and in the lead-up to the vote, Republicans repeatedly sought to rebut that accusation by saying that gun carriers would still have to obey state and local laws."

Typically, the Times focused on Republican hypocrisy, but Democrats are guilty of it, too, since they normally are enthusiastic supporters of expanding Washington's power and control, over virtually every corner of the country, but in this case -- in a laughably cynical fashion -- took the position that the amendment in question would trample states' rights.

The arguments for moving the nation back in the direction of its federalist origins are compelling, in my view, even if the political obstacles to doing so are daunting. And I won't abandon my hopes for a neo-federalist revival, spurred by the desire of states to chart their own destinies and escape Washington's long shadow.

But that effort won't gain real traction as long as Republicans and Democrats continue to trivialize and play games with the issue, batting states rights around like a political beach ball.

Lights, Cameras, Backlash

Whether or not it makes economic sense, Hollywood's invasion of the American hinterland, in search of taxpayer handouts, is driven on by a second factor -- the thrill some Americans get from any brush with celebrity. So star struck are some of us, apparently, that we'll gladly pick our own pockets to help pay the freight for Hollywood fat cats and wealthy film studios, just to say that a "star" came to town or that we served as props in some direct-to-DVD box office flop.

But the thrill seems to be wearing off in Las Vegas, New Mexico, a town that's become a magnet for movie-makers thanks to a retro ambiance and generous tax breaks offered by the state. A backlash appears to be building there and elsewhere against arrogant Hollywood invaders and the inconveniences they bring. Not everyone enjoys the fruits of the economic windfall they purportedly bring the state. And some "townies" have gone from welcoming to resentful.

Reports the L.A. Times:

"The filming has brought in a surge of money, but it has also brought tension. Store owners in Las Vegas, complaining that filming hurts their businesses, have clashed with film supporters, even calling for a moratorium on all productions.

As more and more movie production leaves California, sensible small towns across the country are getting a taste of Hollywood glitz -- and it isn't always sweet. "They act like they own the town," said Bob Korte, the owner of Korte's Furniture and Bicycles, who helped lead the effort in Las Vegas.

Other towns in New Mexico have moved to control filming, including Village of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, which banned production after neighbors complained about disruption when several television shows filmed there."

It remains to be seen whether the backlash will spread to the 40 other states that have jumped on the Hollywood welfare bandwagon, each vying with the others to see who can pour more taxpayer money into the pockets of movie moguls. So strong is the public's fascination (or is it "obsession"?) with celebrity that it may take years before the thrill wears off elsewhere -- and average Americans begin to seriously question whether subsidizing movie-makers makes dollars or sense.

Until then, Hollywood will squeeze everything it can out of the suckers out here in "fly-over country."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How Predictable

How could I have predicted, as I did in my previous blog post, that the U.S. Forest Service would waste no time in closing the Rampart Range Road shooting area, in response to an accident that occurred there Saturday? It didn't take a crystal ball.

I predicted correctly because it was completely predictable.

These days, every tragedy that makes the papers generates a disproportional regulatory response from the safety uber alles crowd. Politicians and regulators are constantly scanning the headlines, looking for tragedies or "crises" they can turn into legislative or regulatory "fixes." If a family in Aspen dies of carbon monoxide poisoning, we'll within a week have a law moving through the statehouse, mandating that every new home in Colorado be built with carbon monoxide detectors. If some nut tries to set-off a shoe bomb in an airplane, we'll all henceforth have to put our shoes through a scanner at the airport (thank goodness he didn't use an underwear bomb). If a mismanaged pit bull mauls a child, pit bulls must be banned, or registered as lethal weapons.

Any excuse will spur the safety uber alles crowd into an irrational overreaction. All it took in this case was a complaint from the shooting victim's grieving father, who would rather blame the Forest Service for the death than his son's companion. And the papers generate a steady stream of similar excuses to act. This is how the freedoms of responsible people get whittled away, one "crisis," one tragedy, at the time.

Also easily predicted was the Forest Service's haste in closing the range -- though I've never, in my decades of watching federal bureaucracies in inaction, seen one move so fast on anything before. That's because the agency increasingly seems to view the public as a threat to the public lands -- as a hassle to be tolerated, controlled and told "no" -- rather than the rightful owners of these areas.

More people out enjoying the public lands means more work, more hassles, more potential headaches for forest service bureaucrats, so they are increasingly using "protection" as an excuse to close trails, close ranges, close areas and limit public access to public lands. Almost any excuse will do. And the justification for closing the shooting range came Saturday.

The agency also is succumbing to an attitude I describe as recreational correctness; it's the idea, somewhat analogous to political correctness, that only certain forms of "light on the land" recreation are to be allowed on public lands. Hiking is tolerated, because it's just about the only form of recreation that doesn't have environmental extremists (who today really give federal land agencies their marching orders) up in arms or bringing lawsuits. But all forms of motorized enjoyment of these lands, from snowmobiles to personal watercraft to off-road vehicles of various stripes, increasing are finding the welcome mat rolled up on them by federal land managers.

The continuing battle over snowmobile use at Yellowstone National Park -- see latest developments -- is one example of recreational correctness at work. Here's another recent example of recreational correctness in action.

Hunters are tolerated in national forests, at least for now, but they'll see restrictions and bans eventually, once the less powerful groups have been evicted. And how do shooters rate in this era of creeping recreational correctness? They occupy just about the bottom rung, from this perspective -- they're viewed as irresponsible redneck yahoos who are scaring away the birds and deer with their loud booms and are bound to get themselves or someone else killed, sooner or later.

And sure enough, a deadly mishap occurred at the Front Range Road shooting area Saturday, giving the agency an engraved invitation to do what it's been itching to do for some time. The irrational overreaction was completely predictable, given the factors I cite above, even if it's completely unfair, and bespeaks a double standard, since the Forest Service doesn't string barbed wire around a lake or river every time a boating accident occurs. And that's how I predicted it.

No crystal ball required.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Range Mishap Doesn't Justify Shoot-From-The-Hip Response

Kiss the Rampart Range Road shooting range goodbye.

A deadly mishap occurred there Saturday, when 25-year-old Otis Frieson was mistakenly shot as he and a friend were stowing firearms. And because every headline-generating tragedy must be met with a disproportionate regulatory response in modern America -- because we have come to believe we can legislate (or regulate our way to) immortality -- this is all that critics of the range probably will need to shut it down. Responsible people will be deprived of a relatively safe place to shoot simply because Frieson's companion made a terrible mistake.

What happened at the range was a tragedy -- the sort of accident that can happen just about anywhere firearms are handled. Yet the victim’s father is turning his grief into a cause and calling for the shooting range to be shut down. "I thought this was a supervised club, and now I am finding out that this place is a garbage dump, basically," the elder Frieson told the Associated Press. "If you don't have supervision in a place like that, it is dangerous. It absolutely should be shut down."

The U.S. Forest Service undoubtedly will jump at the suggestion, since it's been clear for a while that the agency would like to rid itself of this responsibility and occasional headache. But whether public safety will be enhanced by a closure is doubtful. Giving shooters a designated place to practice their skills better than having them picking and choosing their public lands "plinking" spots at random. Complaints about the site have been heard before, but such incidents are actually (and fortunately) very rare.

We could just ban shooters from the forests completely, of course, or try to, which would please firearms-phobes. Or we could ask the Forest Service to play a supervisory role at the range, which it probably lacks the resources and manpower to do.

Or, conversely, we could accept that tragedies happen, even in the most supervised of situations, hope other users of the range will learn from the mishap, prompting more caution in the future, and resist calls for a regulatory overreaction to this incident.

Many places are potentially dangerous without "supervision," including our public lands. Not a week goes by that someone isn't hurt or killed while enjoying unsupervised use of a national forest. Boaters drown, rock climbers fall, mountain bikers tumble, snowmobilers are swept away by avalanche, skiers hit trees, hikers get lost and die from exposure. It's impossible to prevent such accidents and tragedies from occurring without banning these activities, and impractical to supervise everything done across vast tracts of public land, so we let them go on, with the people involved accepting the risks of participation.

Why shouldn't we apply the same principles of self-supervision at the shooting range?

We don't close rivers or lakes in national forests when boating mishaps occur. We don't call a halt to all rock climbing when a climber falls to her death. We don't close the ski resort every time a skier hits a tree (and I'm betting that far more people die each year on national forest lands leased to ski resorts than die at public lands shooting ranges). Why, then, must we shut down a shooting range simply because an accident occurs?

It's an irrational response, stemming simply from the fact that firearms are involved -- and firearms freak some people out in America.

If Frieson and his shooting companions felt at risk at this admittedly hardscrabble range, they could have turned around and gone elsewhere. That wouldn't necessarily have prevented this mishap, since firearms accidents occur even in highly supervised situations. But the victim chose to stay and participate, judging that the risks were acceptable if proper care were taken. Proper care wasn't taken, however, resulting in a fatal mishap that will hopefully remind future users of the range -- if it remains open -- to follow every possible precaution.

That's where we should leave things. But that's not where things will be left, of course. Instead, we'll likely get a shoot-from-the-hip regulatory response, which will create the illusion of enhancing public safety by depriving responsible gun owners of the use of this relatively safe place to shoot. It’s in this manner that the freedoms of responsible people are whittled away, one overreaction at a time.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Is Sotomayor Soft on Property Rights?

We now know where Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor stands on the wisdom of Latinas. But where does she stand, and what does her record say about her position on property rights? On that subject, too little has been said and written in my opinion.

One person who's studied the issue closely, and come to some ominous conclusions, is Ilya Somin, an assistant professor of law at George Mason University. Here's a link to his July 16 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, for those who want a lengthy and detailed analysis of the nominee's record on the issue.

Somin judges Somotayor a "capable jurist with an inspiring life story," but finds her positions on property rights "troubling" and "disturbing."

"Cash for Clunkers" an Instant Edsel

An editor at The Pueblo Chieftain recently decided to give the federal "Cash for Clunkers" program a test drive. He discovered, not surprisingly, that it's a lemon.

It sounds great on paper, of course. Every plan Washington draws up does. Americans driving clunkers can get a $4,500 check from Uncle Sam when they dump their old gas hog for a ride that's more environmentally correct. But when the rubber meets the road, that's where the blowout occurs, as the Chieftain's Juan Espinosa discovered.

Here's the piece:

Cash for Clunkers an enticing notion


Finally, a government program for those of us who have never bought a new car - the Cash for Clunkers program. Sounds like a dream come true. Trade in our old gas-guzzling clunkers for more efficient new vehicles and the government kicks in between $3,500 and $4,500 into the deal.

The program has lots of appeal. It gets some gas hogs off the road and gives the ailing auto industry a boost. I'm pretty sure my 1989 Ford Bronco qualifies. It’s less than 25 years old. It had an estimated rating of 18 mpg, or less, when it was new and has been licensed and insured for the past year.

Under the Cash for Clunkers program, if I bought a new vehicle rated to get 10 mpg better than the Bronco, I would get the maximum incentive cash from the federal government as a trade-in toward my new ride. I paid only $1,700 for the Bronco two years ago in the first place. I’ve put another $300 or $400 in it since, so a $4,500 cash trade-in would be more than double what I have invested in the Bronco.

With $4,500 practically burning a hole in my pocket, I went surfing on the ’net for a replacement vehicle. To replace the size, and 4-wheel capabilities of my Bronco, and achieve the required mpg increase, I would have to spend about $30,000, leaving me with a balance of over $25,000 after my government bonus. I would end up with a monthly car payment of around $450 for 60 months.

But think about all the money I would save on gas, right? I drive the Bronco less than 10,000 miles a year and probably average around 14 mpg. That means I buy about 714 gallons of gas a year, which at the current rate of about $2.35 a gallon, equals $1,678 per year.

If my new vehicle got 28 mpg (probably unrealistic), it could cut my gas bill in half, to $839 a year, leaving me another $839 in savings to apply on my car payments. Another way to look at it is I would be spending about $4,500 a year to save $839 in gas. Talk about robbing Pedro to pay Pablo.

My paid-for Bronco with its 350-cubic-inch V-8 engine, 4-wheel drive, removable hardtop, surround-sound system and equally great sounding dual exhaust is starting to look better than ever. Throw in the fact that it is the kind of muscle ride with which my generation has had a lifelong love affair and it seems like a sacrilege to have it melted down to make cars that look like tennis shoes.

The truth is, I own three clunkers, a 1998 Chevy S-10 I’ve paid for at least three times, a 1995 Chevy pickup short-bed, V-6, and the Bronco. Both Chevys get better mileage than the Bronco and as a result are driven more often. Even with the additional cost of license plates, insurance and maintenance, my three paid-for clunkers cost less than one new vehicle would, even with the Cash for Clunker program.

No, thanks. I think I’ll have to pass up the Cash for Clunkers program and just drive the Bronco fewer miles. Maybe I should just retire it except for those rare visits to a remote mountain top or off-road adventure. It could last another 25 years and even increase in value as more and more clunkers become extinct.

Juan Espinosa is The Chieftain night city editor. He may be reached by calling 404-3756, or by e-mail at .

Espinosa's experience isn't unique. Many Americans apparently are having similar frustrations with the $1 billion, just-off-the-assembly line initiative, which officially launches July 24. Reports the St. Petersburg Times:

"What appears to be a well-meaning program aimed at improving the environment and boosting the auto industry is causing more than a little confusion and frustration among those trying to use it — car dealers and customers alike.

Many who think they should qualify are finding they don't. And for those who do qualify? Good luck finding a dealer that will let you drive your new car off the lot before the program's rules are finalized.

The bill, officially named Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save (CARS) Act of 2009, was signed by President Barack Obama for a July 1 launch. But the details of the $1 billion program, which runs through November or until funds run out, won't be final until July 24.

Because of this, many car dealers are skittish about cutting buyers the $3,500 or $4,500 break, fearing the rules might change and they'll lose that money.

"Frankly, we're somewhat confused," said Frank Scarritt of Scarritt Lincoln-Mercury in Seminole. "Why would they come out with a program when it doesn't have all the rules in place?"

Why ask "why"?

Isn't it enough to explain that it's a federal program?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Real CIA "Hit Squad" Scandal

Today's Washington Post reports that CIA Director Leon Panetta (I still don't see what qualified this man for this job) pulled the plug on the agency's Al-Qaeda hit squad plan when it threatened to move from talk to action. But I enthusiastically endorse what the CIA was planning -- and I think the real scandal here is that the pusillanimous putzes in the Obama administration killed a program designed to kill or capture Al-Qaeda.

Didn't we all assume -- and all hope -- in the wake of 9/11, that this is precisely what the agency ought to be doing, and was doing -- sending out teams of operatives to track down and kill AQ? Isn't this the kind of bold action we said we wanted from an agency that was perceived as too legalistic, too cautious and too technocratic in its approach to the spy trade?

What's shocking here isn't that such a plan existed; it's that such a plan took so long to move from the talk phase to the implementation phase. What's shocking here isn't that such a plan existed (since everyone in Congress knew, and most of the American public assumed, that assassinations of AQ had been given the presidential green light in the wake of 9/11); it's that the program was killed by the ninnies in the Obama administration, just as the rubber was going to meet the road.

This suggests to me that this country, and this agency, still aren't equipped to deal with the threat at hand. It suggests to me that the CIA still hasn't gotten its act together when it comes to taking the fight to the enemy -- except when it comes to launching long-range shots in the dark from drones. The CIA has made measurable progress when it comes to wiping out Afghan of Pakistani wedding parties: Bravo! But it's evidently no closer to the infiltration and in-close killing of AQ than before 9/11.

And the Obama administration's evidently OK with that. Instead of just informing Congress that this on-paper program was moving forward, and apologizing for the extra secrecy, Panetta and Obama pulled the plug. And isn't that, rather than whether Congress was thoroughly briefed on the program, the real shocker here?

I wonder how average Americans will view this episode in the wake of the next act of AQ mass murder on our shores? Won't they once again be asking what aggressive steps the CIA has taken to deal with the threat? Won't they be bemoaning our continued vulnerability? Won't the same Congresspeople now calling for an investigation be castigating the CIA for its lack of results?

Let's just hope, when that day comes, that Americans look back on Panetta's plug-pulling as I do -- as an act of defeatism and retreat, which signals a return to the sort of sanitized, white-gloved, gizmocentric spycraft at CIA that set the stage for the surprise of 9/11. I don't find the existence of such a program scandalous. On the contrary, I find its non-existence to be the real outrage.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mystery Solved

Just returned from a family vacation to the Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota), which might help explain the paucity of recent posts to this blog (I'm sure readers could have used the break as well). But it was during one of several driving legs of the journey that clues were uncovered to one of the great mysteries of American political life.

I have long wondered why the otherwise intelligent, prudent, disciplined, down to earth and thoroughly decent people of Minnesota -- people who would seem, in terms of fundamental outlook and inclination, to sit comfortably with small C conservatives on the political spectrum -- consistently elect liberal Democrats, ala Al Franken, Paul Wellstone and (of course) Hubert Humphrey, to high office. I've developed a few pet theories over the years, but none satisfactorily solved the mystery.

Then, while channel surfing in the rental car, as we meandered through rural stretches of eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, the answer came to me with a jolt, like a fat black "moosquito" hitting the windshield.

It's NPR. National Public Radio. The network that doesn't just bring you the homespun musings of Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" radio show, but dishes up great spoonfuls of left-wing pabulum each day with "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and a host of other predictably left-of-center programming, which comes courtesy not just of "listeners like you," but of the taxpayers, too, since it is "publicly supported."

The airwaves out there are saturated with it, leaving locals with no where else to turn on the radio dial for balanced, politically-neutral, intellectually-honest news and analysis. At one point, while scanning for anything other than the fishing report or Casey Kassem's American Top 40 to listen to, I found that every third station I hit was broadcasting the same NPR show, in which the interviewer and a guest (an academic, of course) talked in the usual sonorous tones about the guilt we all feel, deep down inside, as participants in the dog-eat-dog free-market system.

In fact, looking back on my radio walkabout in that part of the country, I heard little else in the way of news or information, except for NPR. And this, according to my new theory (which I'll stick with until someone with more smarts comes up with something better), helps explain why otherwise sensible, salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners elect so many raving left-wing loons to high office.

Relentless, day-to-day exposure to NPR agitprop incrementally kills off the common sense they're born and raised with. Over time, it seeps into their pores and poisons the bloodstream, robbing them of the power to resist, to question, to debunk the distorted view of the world they get from listening to NPR. And this translates at the ballot box into votes for complete yahoos like Al Franken.

I was cruising the FM dial almost exclusively, it's true, and it's possible that the AM band was just as saturated with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and other conservative commentators (not that I count these people as reliable sources of unbiased information, mind you). And it's not like there aren't TVs and PCs out there, which might provide Minnesotans with more balanced sources of information than NPR, if they sought it out.

But these points seem to poke holes in my premise, and I'm still not fully recovered from my "vacation," or thinking clearly, so let's set them aside for now and go with the theory we have.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Land of the Free?

Today, when Coloradans celebrate Independence Day, and their freedom, they’ll be living lives markedly and irrevocably less free, and less independent, than they were just a few days ago, when the 57 new laws approved during the 2009 legislative session went into effect.

It’s one of the great ironies that Americans still make such a fuss about Independence Day, even while their elected representatives shackle them down, and incrementally destroy their autonomy and self-reliance, by cranking out news laws in assembly-line fashion, most of which will prove to be Edsels.

Few if any of Colorado’s 57 new laws increase our freedom; on the contrary, I would bet that the vast majority of them are designed to inhibit liberty in some way. And what about the 51 new “fees” of various kinds that also took effect a few days ago, in a roundabout way to extract from us the fruits of our labors without having to say the word “tax”? How do they increase our independence and liberty?

These 57 new laws and 51 new fees were approved over a three month span by a part-time “citizen” legislature. Just imagine the volume of new laws being crank-out annually in states with full time legislatures. Add to that all the new laws that Congress is manufacturing each year, back in Washington, and the creeping tyranny of make-work legislating becomes shockingly apparent. In a truly free country, legislators would be rescinding 4 demonstrably-worthless laws for every new one they reluctantly approve.

I share the views of Tacitus, who said, “The more corrupt the state, the more it legislates.”

Happy Independence Day, everyone. But you’re celebrating something that’s incrementally being stolen away from you, right before your eyes.

Now go have a hotdog.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Director Defends "Public Enemies" Tax Heist

Gangster John Dillinger, subject of the new Johnny Depp movie "Public Enemies," needed a machine gun to get his hands on other peoples' money. Not so Michael Mann, the film's director. All he and other filmmakers need to pull off a heist is to flash a little Tinseltown glitz and say the magic word -- "jobs" -- and star-struck state legislators will roll out the red carpet and open other peoples' wallets for them.

Many states now pay film industry subsidies, which strikes me as the most egregious form of corporate welfare there is (as I've blogged about before). And those states that don't are feeling intense pressure to jump on the bandwagon. Even flat-busted-broke California is getting into the act, launching a new program that will give $500 million in tax breaks to movie-makers over the next 5 years.

But it's debatable whether these efforts pay any long-term economic dividends, since most of the jobs generated are short-term in nature. Being a movie extra, or catering on-the-set lunches, may put a few extra dollars in the pockets of locals. Having a movie star parachute into "fly-over country" injects a little excitement into the hinterland humdrum. But this isn't anything to build an economy on. And I'm skeptical about the jobs-generating potential of film-set tourism, since I've yet to plan a vacation based on the backdrop of some film I saw.

It's too early to tell whether Public Enemies will kill at the box office. But Mann already pulled off a respectable robbery of sorts, thanks to Wisconsin taxpayers who helped subsidize the film.
After questions were raised about whether the state can afford to be so generous, and whether the program generates a return on investment, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle wisely took a stand against the practice, vetoing a legislatively-approved cap on the giveaways. That's led to some whining among those who imagine that Wisconsin will reinvent itself as movie star Mecca. But it was the fiscally-correct thing to do.

Mann recently called cutting the subsidies "short-sighted," pointing out that he filmed more days than he intended to in the state thanks to the $4.6 million in tax credits he received. He would have filmed there even without the payouts, he conceded, but they prolonged his stay. And this can't all be reduced to some crass cost-benefit analysis, protested Mann. "The point is not just the dollars and cents we spend," he said. "It's what happens when the state is displayed that way to the world."

But wait. This is a gangster movie, set in the 1930s, in which the arch-outlaw blasts his way through bank jobs (and gets blasted in return by the FBI, eventually). Is that really any way to "display" the state of Wisconsin to the rest of the world? I'm sure kids all across America are just begging their parents to take them to Wisconsin next year, over Spring break, so they can see the actual spot where Johnny Depp, playing John Dillinger, blew someone away.

When Dillinger took other people's money, at least he did it honestly, at gun point. The massive tax heists being pulled off by filmmakers are almost more dishonest, and outrageous, because they act like they're doing us a favor even while they're picking our pockets.