Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The New Blacklist

I think this sort of behavior, when done by folks on the political right, used to be called "blacklisting."

Sunday, April 24, 2011

New Deal Dinosaur

The National Labor Relations Board is one of those Depression-era dinosaurs that still roams the Earth, long after it ought to have gone extinct, but which has suddenly burst back into the news, with Jurassic Park-like ferocity, thanks to a union-friendly White House that likes to use surrogates to do its dirty work.

The NLRB's first iteration, hatched in 1933, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court -- a blow against socialism that helped prompt FDR's infamous court-packing scheme. The second iteration, created in 1934, somehow survives to this day, though most Americans don't even know it exists or understand what it does.

That's something current board members obviously intend to change through increasingly-provocative actions like last week's demand that Boeing shelve plans for a new plant in South Carolina, because it will be a less union-friendly workplace than the company's other facilities in Washington State. Reported the New York Times:

"In what may be the strongest signal yet of the new pro-labor orientation of the National Labor Relations Board under President Obama, the agency filed a complaint Wednesday seeking to force Boeing to bring an airplane production line back to its unionized facilities in Washington State instead of moving the work to a nonunion plant in South Carolina.

In its complaint, the labor board said that Boeing’s decision to transfer a second production line for its new 787 Dreamliner passenger plane to South Carolina was motivated by an unlawful desire to retaliate against union workers for their past strikes in Washington and to discourage future strikes. The agency’s acting general counsel, Lafe Solomon, said it was illegal for companies to take actions in retaliation against workers for exercising the right to strike...

...Boeing said it would “vigorously contest” the labor board’s complaint. “This claim is legally frivolous and represents a radical departure from both N.L.R.B. and
Supreme Court precedent,” said J. Michael Luttig, a Boeing executive vice president and its general counsel. “Boeing has every right under both federal law and its collective bargaining agreement to build additional U.S. production capacity outside of the Puget Sound region.”

It is highly unusual for the federal government to seek to reverse a corporate decision as important as the location of plant. But ever since a Democratic majority took control of the five-member board after Mr. Obama’s election, the board has signaled that it would seek to adopt a more liberal, pro-union tilt after years of pro-employer decisions under President Bush."

An unelected board dictating to a private company where it can or can't locate an assembly line -- that sounds like an edict out of Stalin-era Russia, or Maoist China, not the United States of America in the 21st century. And so it is. But it's not altogether shocking with this union-friendly president in the White House -- a president who enjoys using surrogates to advance agendas he knows Congress won't codify (his use of the EPA to push for carbon controls being another prominent example).

How Congress will respond to this outrageous act of overreach remains to be seen. House Republicans ought to place the defunding and disbanding of this arrogant little anachronism, this embarrassing New Deal relic, high on their list of priorities. The only fitting home left for the NLRB is in a display case at The Smithsonian.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Crazy has Consequences

Turns out that there's only so much crazy some companies can take. That's all for the better of the sane, and all the worst for the crazy.

I like to think of it as economic Darwinism.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

New App Turns Your Phone into a Whistle

I have a lot of silly and pointless applications (or "apps") on my smart phone. Some are remarkably useful. Most are just distracting drains on the battery. But imagine the transformative possibilities of a phone app that allows you, as an alert citizen and taxpayer, to instantly blow the whistle on the government waste, fraud and mismanagement that you see first-hand as you go about your daily lives.

No more need to complain to a hard-to-reach council member or commissioner. No more getting bounced from bureaucrat to bureaucrat, in search of someone in charge. No more calling into a"hotline" that no one ever answers. Just punch a button and report what you see, as a citizen-watchdog, knowing that the report -- and the accompanying video -- will reach someone who might actually do something about it.

The city of Philadelphia is experimenting with just such a concept, reports the Philadelphia Daily News, a smart phone application, dubbed the PhillyWatchdog, that "that allows citizens to report fraud or government misconduct directly to the controller's fraud unit."

"City Controller Alan Butkovitz yesterday unveiled an iPhone app that allows citizens to report fraud or government misconduct directly to the controller's fraud unit.

"Our Philly WatchDog app allows citizens to play a crucial role in protecting their tax dollars by reporting fraud, waste and abuse," Butkovitz said during a news conference.

Using the application, available for free through iTunes or the App Store on the iPhone, residents can report sightings of fraud or city workers goofing off and send in pictures or videos. Messages can be sent anonymously.

Butkovitz said that the app, which the office developed for $5,400, is the first of its kind in the nation. Butkovitz and his staff said that residents might capture examples of bribery by city workers, or city workers napping on taxpayers' time.

The office gets between 75 and 100 such reports from citizens each year, but the app certainly could boost that number."

The story doesn't say what happens to reports or tips that don't rise to the level of fraud. But how useful would this potentially be for a city manager or mayor who us seriously interested in weeding-out waste, improving city services or just keeping city employees on their toes? It potentially turns every citizen into a deputy watchdog, providing city officials with hundreds of extra eyes and ears out on the streets. It's affordable, empowering and gives average people a stake in the improvement of their government. And it's something we could easily and affordably do in Colorado Springs.

The city auditor's office already has a waste and fraud hotline. But that's so 1950s and too few people even know it exists. Adding a higher-tech twist would be a good opportunity to re-launch and republicize the effort, while highlighting the important work this often-overlooked city office does.

The first mayoral candidate to add the creation of a "Springs Watchdog" phone app to his campaign platform can claim all the credit. That he read it here first will be our little secret.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Great Big Toll Booth in the Sky

Years ago, while working as a journalist in Washington, I wrote a few short pieces about how then-newfangled technologies, being developed by a few universities with grants from the federal government, were going to crack open the door to a whole new method of taxing motorists by the mile -- something I described back then as The Great Big Toll Booth in the Sky.

Instead of taxing us by the gallon, a longstanding practice that just isn't meeting the government's insatiable demand for revenue, the then-emerging ability to track every vehicle's every move from space, via satellite, might one day allow authorities to impose a mileage tax, I warned, possibly in addition to, not in lieu of, the good old gas tax.

Back in 2001, when I did the stories, it all seemed like a nutty fantasy, dreamed-up by some mad technocrat in the bowels of the department of revenue. But it's no futuristic fantasy now. Now, it's very much on the verge of becoming a reality, as this news story out of Minnesota attests:

"GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- The Minnesota Department of Transportation is looking for 500 people to test technology that could someday be used to collect a mileage-based user fee.

Mn/DOT anticipates a fee on road usage might someday be necessary as more fuel efficient and hybrid cars are on the road, decreasing revenue from the gas tax.

"This research will provide important feedback from motorists about the effectiveness of using technology in a car or truck to gather mileage information," said Cory Johnson, project manager.

"We are researching alternative financing methods today that could be used 10 or 20 years from now when the number of fuel efficient and hybrid cars increase and no longer produce enough revenue from a gas tax to build and repair roads."

So, is The Great Toll Booth in the Sky really 10 or 20 years off? It's probably half that far off, if we're lucky -- and unless people rebel.

And isn't it odd that the same government prodding and pushing Americans to be more fuel efficient, by urging us to choose more environmentally-friendly rides, is at the same time hatching new schemes to squeeze more money out of us, as our "reward" for conserving? It's not odd at all, given the fickle nature and constant desire to tinker among social engineers.

It's probably too much to expect that Minnesota's mileage tax guinea pigs will grasp the fuller implications of this demented experiment and refuse to participate, as conscientious objectors to the next great innovation in taxation. So our only hope of derailing this idea is to warn the people of what's ahead and hope they raise hell.

I tried to do it back in 2001, even if it then seemed far-fetched. I'll try to do it again now, when it's just around another bend in the road. Apply the brakes now if you want to stop this from happening.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Under Suspicion

Careful, everyone. Talking too much about "sovereignty" could land you on the FBI's domestic terrorism watch list.

The Casper Star-Tribune, in its investigative series about the so-called sovereign citizen movement, presents the tell-tale signs of a movement member as follows:

"The sovereign citizen movement often shares the same views of the tea party movement, and its emphases on the Second and 10th Amendments:

* Opposition to taxes -- especially the federal income tax.

* Opposition to regulations and regulatory agencies.

* Loathing of President Obama.

* "Take America back" rhetoric.

* Christian spirituality.

* And property rights."

Holy crap! This sounds like me and most of my friends. Maybe we all belong on the FBI's domestic terrorist watch list.

I wouldn't say I "loath" President Obama, which means I can't quite check that box (though I certainly don't like him much). I'm not heavily into "Christian spirituality," so that isn't a perfect fit. And I'm not quite sure who America should be taken back from, or who took it from whom, or who American belongs to these days, or what that really means, so there's no check mark there either. But I have to admit that some of the warning signs of a sovereign citizen sympathizer hit pretty close to home.

Of course, they might also describe most of the founding fathers, as well as many millions of middle-of-the-road Americans, past and present, living and dead, who simply take the ideas ensconced in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution seriously. Is that really all it takes, these days, to qualify as a potential domestic terrorist in the eyes of the FBI?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Necessary Measures

A lot of howling will be heard and some fur may fly over a budget deal rider that removed federally-reintroduced wolves from the endangered species list. But in this case the ends really did justify the means.

This science fair project gone mad shows that the Endangered Species Act is hopelessly broken -- that it's just a playtoy in the hands of litigious nature-worshipers. Western states can't continue to operate under a wolf-related regulatory regime that changes almost month to month, based on the latest court ruling or judicial whim. Wolf numbers have grown far beyond the original goals, yet a de-listing was impossible to get. And impacted states are perfectly able of manage the packs in a responsible and sustainable way, without federal meddling. But the law is impossible to reform or repeal, so extraordinary measures were in this case warranted.

Using a legislative rider isn't an ideal way to set things right, admittedly. But an unworkable law and unreasonable people pushed us to this point.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Can't You Just Hear the Howling Now?

One lesser-known provision of the shutdown-averting budget agreement will remove reintroduced federal wolves from the endangered species list, ending a long-running battle that not only highlighted the absurdity of one of the nation's most powerful environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act, but showed how a lone agenda-driven federal judge can hand down dictates that tie an entire region in regulatory knots. I may not condone the means, but I loudly applaud the ends, since we can't have one activist judge and a gaggle of radical greens standing in the way of common sense and sound science forever.

It's a shame this couldn't be done legislatively, but a much-needed repeal or overhaul of the ESA by Congress just isn't in the cards, given the lobbying clout of Environmentalism Inc. The West shouldn't have to live in a perpetual state of regulatory conflict and uncertainty, with listing decisions seemingly changing on a monthly basis, just because Washington can't muster the courage to overrule arrogant judges, address the law's glaring flaws or bring an end to this impasse.

I can almost hear the howling this will generate in certain circles. But at this point, it's music to my ears.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

True Tales from a Shutdown Survivor

Somewhere in the dark recesses of my closet hides a threadbare memento of one of the most harrowing experiences of my Washington years, second only to Sept. 11, 2001. It's a tee shirt bearing the boast, "I Survived the Government Shutdown of 1995."

It's true. I was there. And I lived to tell the tale.

As the nation stands once again on the brink, facing the first government shutdown since then, I feel I must speak out about the horrors I experienced first-hand there at ground zero. Those who survived have an obligation to share our stories, so that it never, ever, happens again.

I remember it as if it were yesterday, driving to work one bright winter morning, past a glitzy Northern Virginia megamall, wondering why the hell the parking lot was spilling over on a day when most of the city was normally at the office, shuffling papers and looking busy. Then it hit me. It must be that government shutdown thing I'd been reading about. Our worst fears have finally been realized. It was actually unfolding, right before my eyes.

The malls were jammed with federal workers, out doing some early holiday shopping and enjoying the day off. So overflowing were the parking lots that day -- this is true – that some had to go to another shopping mall five miles away. Other than that, all seemed eerily normal as I went about my routine that day.

Traffic signals worked. Jets flew in and out of Reagan International. Gas stations were open. I caught glimpses of the subway -- it appeared to be running. State troopers were in their usual frenzy, ticketing High Occupancy Lane violators along the beltway. Buses swooshed past. Buildings were brightly lit and appeared to be heated. No panic was evident. It was absolutely creepy.

And this went on not just for a day or two, but maybe three. Each day the malls were buzzing like hives, as off-work federal employees stripped the shopping racks bare, before the rest of us, who weren’t getting any days off, even had a chance to get our shopping done! The federal workers were enjoying an extended holiday, while the rest of us wage slaves were still schlepping away, working for The Man. It was horrible. It was unnerving. It was an experience that scarred me.

But we in Washington didn’t see the worst of it. According to media reports, passport offices were closed, which really screwed-up a few vacations, and some national park visitors were turned away at the gates. They too can testify, first-hand, to the shock, the madness, the momentary inconveniences of the great government shutdown of 1995.

This is all tongue-in-cheek, of course, because there was no real government shutdown of 1995, as far as I recall, as someone who was living in the belly of the beast at the time. So there is no commemorative tee-shirt in my closet. There are no post traumatic stress symptoms. Most of my memories of the “shutdown,” in fact, are happy ones. Having thousands of idled federal bureaucrats out shopping, or at home, rather than doing whatever they do, meant less congestion on my daily commute. There were fewer cars clogging the roadways; fewer frowning faces on mass transit. That fewer bureaucrats were manning their posts was actually a comfort.

I venture to guess the experience was the same for all but a tiny number of Americans, who either had delays in getting their passports or were turned away at park gates. The vast majority of us didn’t notice, weren’t even slightly impacted, and so probably have no real recollection of that completely unforgettable alleged crisis. It wasn’t a shutdown, or even a brownout. And life went on uneventfully. It was the greatest non-event since Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vaults.

What really happened was this. The Clinton White House ordered some selective closures, and pushed on a few pressure points, in order to maximize the public outcry and make Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolutionaries flinch first. The media blew minor inconveniences into major disruptions, manufacturing a sense of hardship and crisis. This tactic even became known as "the Washington Monument strategy," because this iconic mall attraction was one of the few federal facilities actually padlocked.

And this all worked beautifully. Gingrich backed down and the Republican revolution of 1994 at that point died, by my calculation, based on the view from front row seats. When people ask me when I think the Republican Party went astray, and lost its soul, or when Republicans in Congress began taking on the worst attributes of the Democrats they ousted in the 1994 coup, I point to this as a turning point. Whether history will repeat itself depends on the next few moves in the game of budget chicken unfolding now.

That’s more than you can put on tee-shirt. But it’s all that really happened. If another impasse comes, President Obama will take a chapter from the Bill Clinton Handbook and do some selective shutdowns, designed to maximize screaming and garner media attention, while most of the rest of the government, and life in America, plods on as normal. He’ll bet that Republicans will retreat when enraged passport recipients or locked-out park visitors tell their sob stories to the media, and the media uses those stories to generate a sense of crisis. It’s all the fault of Republicans and the Tea Party: that will be the line from the White House, congressional Democrats and most in the media. Republicans will have to do some ferocious counter-spinning to win the blame game.

Will Republicans again blink first? Only time will tell. It depends on whether, and what, if anything, they learned from the last so-called shutdown. The stakes may be high for political parties, but the American people have little to fear from this piece of political gamesmanship and theater, since neither party has the nerve to truly shut down the federal government, or even shrink it significantly, as recent history shows. The fear of potential disruptions, not disruptions in fact, is what the White House will count on to carry the day.

But there’s another reason why no real shutdown of the government will happen. What Washingtonians of both parties fear most of all about a real shutdown is that the rest of America won’t care, or notice, and that we might even cheer – that we might just shrug it off, adapt, and find that we can get along perfectly well (and maybe even better) without omnipresent Washington.

Just imagine if that happened. The game would be up for both parties.