January 2010 Archives
You won't notice a difference! As you know, I try to be cheerfully sanguine about the whole racket in Washington, D.C. This business about a three-year freeze on discretionary spending is the kind of thing that makes me forget myself. It won't work, it's misdirected, it won't last, it's cynical, it's inconsistent, it's an idea the President rejected and mocked as a candidate, it's a potential moral hazard and it's the kind of "solution" that perpetuates the problem. There is nothing at all to recommend it, or like about it.
It won't work. It's hard to compare federal government spending with one's own budget, insofar as one has to pay one's bills with actual money, but when you read that "the freeze would cut the [$1.4 trillion, with a 't'] deficit by between $10 billion and $15 billion in fiscal 2011," you can imagine making your own ends meet by getting Burger King drive-thru one fewer time a month.
It's misdirected. "The freeze would not apply to the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, or to the foreign operations budget of the State Department," we're told. Far be it from me to suggest the government ought to rein in defense spending before or in lieu of domestic spending, but is there a principled argument to be made other than "we don't want to hear it from neocons" that there is no realistic way to not trim the budgets but freeze increases in spending to these departments? Picking half a dozen countries to maintain a military presence in and bringing everybody else home would probably solve the budget crisis by itself.
It won't last. If it does, anywhere but in campaign ads run by Republicans in Congressional races this fall, I'll eat my hat.
It's cynical. I remember right before G.H.W. Bush's speech to the Republican National Convention in 1992, a campaign awfully short on ideas came up with what it thought was a show-stopper: Let's give everybody a chance to "donate" a dollar on their tax returns to reduce the deficit! That was phony, assumed voters were maroons and was one of those ideas you or someone at your company gets occasionally that looks and smells like a good idea but collapses like a flan in a cupboard once it's out in the open. It brims with condescension. You can only believe for a moment it will get people excited if you assume those people are idiots. It's the Pontiac Aztek of ideas. It's the statesmanship equivalent of bringing Jay Leno back.
It's inconsistent. Don't take my word for it. If you believe -- I don't, but the administration surely does -- that stimulus packages and bailouts and such aren't just graft, but rather are keys to jump-starting economic recovery, what on earth are you doing spending less than you might otherwise? You're going to make progressives think you really don't have any idea what you're doing, and you're going to make the rest of us wonder aloud at how vital you think "stimulus" spending really is to making the world a better, more productive place.
It's an idea the President rejected and mocked as a candidate. Surely you remember the third debate; I wasn't paying much attention by then, and I do. There are a couple possibilities, here: Either the administration doesn't think people will remember Obama scoffing at McCain's silly "spending freeze" idea, or everybody's just stopped trying to pretend there's any relation between what candidate Obama said and what President Obama does. A third, more sinister possibility: the administration is trying to flashy-thing the country. I'm not playing with you, K. Have you ever flashy-thingied me?
It's a potential moral hazard. I know, I know, as though Congresses and Presidents need enabling to spend money and keep themselves in power, but there is something dangerous about spiking the deficit and money supply and then turning around and announcing a "discretionary spending freeze" to make it all better. It doesn't make it all better.
It's the kind of "solution" that perpetuates the problem. On a purely political level, responding to potential voters' concerns about the size and scope of government and runaway spending by freezing selected programs from an increase reinforces the idea that we're currently at or near some baseline of federal control and spending that's acceptable, as long as we rein in its growth, a little bit, temporarily. Prosperity and liberty would boom with no appreciable loss of "services" if the size and scope of the federal government were cut by about 40%. Considering freezing increases in some spending for three years a solution to anything but plummetting poll numbers obscures the real problem, which isn't mow much more the government plans to spend next year on domestic programs, it's how much government there is right now.
ADDED LATER: It's a lie. Chris Edwards demonstrates that 2009's superhumungous spending spike will "slosh over" into the years of the Great Freeze, as, for example, only 18% of the stimulus bill spending was actually spent in 2009.
No, I'm not going to read Mr. Justice Stevens' 90 page dissent in Citizens United v. FEC, I found myself skimming parts of Swingin' Tony Kennedy's opinion of the Court as it is. I do recommend Mr. Justice Thomas' opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, for a sober, persuasive argument against laws requiring donors to make their names, street addresses, places of business and the like public, and the chilling effect such can have on the exercise of First Amendment rights to speech and association. And he doesn't even mention the extent to which laws like that make people reluctant to donate for fear of winding up on a mailing list.
So rather than discussing the particulars of the opinions, which I e-mailed to my Kindle and read on there, which is AWEsooommmme!, I think a broader point can be made. At their root, don't arguments in favor of restricting corporate and union speech prior to an election assume that voters are incapable of evaluating the information communicated in terms of its veracity and persuasiveness? And yet!, to make that kind of argument, don't you have to make the judgment, correct in the abstract or not, that all such speech/communication is suspect because of its source?
Which leads to my real question: If it's so obvious to you that corporate or union election ads are so suspect as to be worthy of removal altogether from public discourse, what makes you think it won't be obvious to anyone who might see/hear it if it weren't against the law?
Are you that much smarter than everybody else?
What serves representative democracy better, protecting voters from suspect speech, or treating them as though if given as much information as candidates and supporters are willing to give, they are capable of making their own decision?
But do I understand the thinking behind extortion/blackmail law? Neeeiiiggghhh.
From what I can gather having casually observed this case, in which a CBS news producer sought the American dream of making lots of money without doing lots of work, specifically by asking Dave Letterman to pay him $2 million not to go public with details of Dave's extramarital affairs with interns, the producer, Robert Joel Halderman, threatened to
- say something
- which was true
- for which he had proof
but would agree not to say it if Dave paid him. This seems like it could be a good deal for somebody like Dave, under the right circumstances. If it's worth $2 million to him for the true, verifiable information not to be made public, he wins, and certainly Halderman wins.
But, you say, nothing prevents Halderman from coming back later and asking for more. That's true, but is only true because what he did was against the law, and I don't understand why that is, so that's a bit circular. If it weren't against the law, Dave and Halderman could enter into a legally binding agreement with non-disclosure provisions and heavy penalties if Halderman reneged on them. Alas, promising not to say something true that you can prove if satisfied financially is against the law, so such a contract wouldn't be enforceable. I really have never gotten it, this extortion/blackmail business.
The Supreme Court of the United States today declined to act when pressed into service by the vanguard of our nation's defense against an invasion by freshwater fish. They will have to live with their own consciences when fish take over Michigan and other, more impressive Great Lakes states.
The court rejected a request by Michigan for a preliminary injunction to close the locks temporarily while a long-term solution is sought to the threatened invasion by the ravenous fish. The one-sentence ruling didn't explain the court's reasoning.
Such is often the case when the Court agrees on a result (like the bunch of fish-loving patsies they are) but not on the reasoning. Fortunately for posterity, you can go to www.supremecourtus.gov to see rejected draft opinions in per curiam cases like this. Among the opinions a majority of Justices could not agree on in this case:
It's fish. This is the Supreme Court. What is the matter with you people?
This Court declines to enlarge the penumbra of rights emanating from the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to include a right to be free of carp. Plaintiffs must seek their penumbra enlargement through the Army Corps of Engineers. Which we understand after the revolution will be called the Army Carps of Engineers.
I concur in the Court's decision but write separately to say HOLY LIVING CRAP, WE'RE BEING INVADED BY FISH!
When the carp are threatening to occupy Chicago and submerge the ferris wheel at Navy Pier this Court will regret not having stood up to the nascent fish threat.
I'm sure Gail Collins, wringing her hands in the New York Times, doesn't think she's the first ever to complain about how the way the federal government does things isn't always or even ever based on majority rule, but I'll admit this is the first time I've seen the complaint cast as so:
There are 100 members of the Senate. But as Brown is currently reminding us, because of the filibuster rule, it takes only 41 to stop any bill from passing.
U.S. population: 307,006,550.
Population for the 20 least-populated states: 31,434,822.
That means that in the Senate, all it takes to stop legislation is one guy plus 40 senators representing 10.2 percent of the country.
People, think about what we went through to elect a new president -- a year and a half of campaigning, three dozen debates, $1.6 billion in donations. Then the voters sent a clear, unmistakable message. Which can be totally ignored because of a parliamentary rule that allows the representatives of slightly more than 10 percent of the population to call the shots.
Why isn't 90 percent of the country marching on the Capitol with teapots and funny hats, waving signs about the filibuster?
Ignore for the time being the tired old "you must not really mean what you say because otherwise you'd agree with me" trope at the end there, and even ignore the implication that currently "one guy plus 40 senators representing 10.2 percent of the country" are standing in the way of anything.
Ignore even that without the filibuster rule one guy plus 50 Senators from the 25 least populous states could block something.
Ok, I know, what's left? Well, I guess just the observation, which after the last ten years or so should be as tired as the shouldn't-the-majority-get-its-way complaint, that lots of things about the way the federal government is structured and run are meant to make it harder for the majority to do things. It's not a bug, it's a feature.
How about the context? Collins is writing about the Massachusetts special election, and Scott Brown's mantra that he will be the "41st Senator" and will therefore derail health care reform. Collins must be aware that 90% of the country is not exactly banging the drums for the health care reform the administration and Congress have come up with. At this point, scuttling the whole thing would reflect the "majority will" a lot better than passing it.
So is that bit about the election of Obama the real point? "The voters sent a clear, unmistakable message," which is in jeopardy of being "totally ignored" if Brown is elected in Massachusetts. Again, it can't be that she means a majority of Americans want the House and Senate to send health care reform to the President, or even everybody who voted for President Obama.
Does this just boil down to "the side I was on won the election in November, 2008, so everything else I want to happen for the four years after that should happen?" I hope that's not a new rule. Obama voters who are cool to the health care reform basting in Congress right now would probably have a say, and it's certainly not a rule I could imagine Gail Collins getting behind during the Bush years.
How I vote: Unless there's a compelling reason not to, I vote against the incumbent. In our republican government it's a given that one vote doesn't mean a thing, in fact, plenty of people will tell you that the effort you use to understand the issues, select a candidate and then physically vote is wasted; there's no reasonable chance you'll get any kind of return on your investment. But I do it anyway, and to be honest, the last 10-15 years it's been primarily to set an example for my kids. But if voting is wasted effort, why try to teach your kids it's important? Well, now you sound like you want to get into why you should vote in the abstract. I don't, right now. I will just say for now that I also vote because the people I am voting for and against almost certainly don't subscribe to the idea that voting is a waste of time, and if all I accomplish with my vote is making the candidates act like they want me and people like me to vote for them, the closer we get to truly representative government.
What might be a compelling reason to vote for an incumbent? Unfortunately, the President of the United States, say, sets and executes policies that affect my daily life. I wish this weren't the case, and I'm certain it wasn't meant to be by the Founding Persons. A City Council or Board of Education election can certainly affect my daily life, and so more care is exercised deciding whether the devil you don't know would make things better or worse. Same is true, I believe, in a Presidential election.
Another reason would be that ideally, I want a divided government. I'll go further and say I would favor increasing the size of Congress by four or five times, which would start to "dilute" it with minor party candidates, and make things more difficult to do. The more difficult it is for, I suppose we're primarily still talking about Congress here, to pass laws, I reckon the better off we all are. Thus my vote -- twice -- for Saxby Chambliss this last time.
And so while I don't get a vote, I'm obviously for Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race. I would be no matter how tin-eared, thuggish, mendacious and incompetent his opponent was, but I admit it would be a thrill at a more visceral level to see him win because of those things. Bill Clinton lost control of Congress in the 1996 mid-terms; imagine Barack Obama effectively losing the Senate almost a year before mid-terms. I want to be on that ride.
The troubling question whether federal prisoners may be detained indefinitely after their sentences are up if the government determines they are likely to commit sexual crimes if released was before the Supreme Court yesterday. A broad-brush treatment of the issue is here, and an analysis of Tuesday's oral arguments by Ilya Somin is here.
The difficulty arises of course because no one in their right mind wants a sexual predator free to commit (more) crimes; beyond a dispassionate sense of due process and justice, the only real counterweight involves the identification of these dangerous inmates in the first place. Freedom loving Americans have railed against Bush-era detentions of enemy combatants based on classified evidence, or the President's judgment, or both, and I've been with them when they come at the problem from that angle. I don't see how you can be less concerned in a situation like this.
I've written before about the due process issues arising from sex offender registration, especially (because I don't have any interest in writing in defense of sex offenders) when there's a lot of daylight between the behavior that triggers the requirement to register and an actual molestation. In the case of registration, at least states call it part of the punishment for a crime. In the Comstock case, argued yesterday, the government appears to have conceded the argument that detention after a duly imposed sentence is served is some kind of actual punishment. Instead, the Solicitor General appears to be arguing that the power to detain somebody indefinitely post-sentence is Necessary and Proper to the federal government's power to run a criminal justice system. I suppose we could argue whether that's an enumerated power at all, but hopefully, the extreme open-endedness of the claimed power, no matter its justification, will be enough to make it go away.
The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti, was hit with a 7.0 earthquake Tuesday afternoon. "Most of Port-au-Prince," the capital, "is destroyed":
Associated Press reporters toured city streets in Port-au-Prince late Tuesday and early Wednesday and described scenes of severe and widespread damage and casualties. It was clear that many people had died and thousands were left homeless, they said.
They saw women covered in dust clawing out of debris and wailing. Stunned people wandered the streets holding hands, they said, while many gravely injured people sat in the streets early Wednesday, pleading for doctors. Thousands of people gathered in public squares late into the night, singing hymns and weeping.
When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit, my $50 went to Catholic Relief Services, which has an outstanding infrastructure in the affected area. They appear just as capable and effective in the Caribbean, so if you're looking for an organization to put a donation to good use, here's a recommendation from me. The Red Cross is also soliciting donations, and according to this you can text HAITI to 90999 to donate $10 to the organization's relief efforts.
Haitian musician Wyclef Jean was urging people to text Yele to 501501, charging a $5 donation to your cell phone bill and helping the Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund. Jean told CNN that "the majority of [Haiti's] 8 million residents live on less than $1 per day. Unemployment is close to 80 percent, and more than half the population is under 21 years old. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere."
Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids during part of his career, including his happy-magic 1998 season when he and Sammy Sosa restored our faith in America. Reaction has run the gamut from derision to contempt. Not much of a gamut, you say. Well, ok.
Many people don't know, or ignore, that using steroids wasn't against the rules of baseball until a few years ago; the ones who do know that tend to consider the fact a hypertechnicality.* I don't begrudge anybody those kinds of opinions, I suppose. McGwire was an adult human when he shot up and had a choice. He made the one he thought would help him hit more homers and make him more money, and not for nothing, it does seem to have worked out the way he expected. If I seem to have sympathy for him as the dogpile grows, it's really just my inborn sense of justice.
*In a sense, they're right: The illegality of it involved taking prescription drugs without a prescription, which baseball could have punished, provided it could get the union on board with a testing regimen to prove it; it never tried, mostly because the juice was helping fill stadiums and making people learn to love the game again. But on.
I have a hard time making a qualitative distinction between performance enhancing drugs and things like advanced training methods, routinely performed surgical procedures that weren't even imagined 50 or even 25 years ago, and even the kind of data and information sharing players and teams avail themselves of now that players 50 and 25 years ago didn't have access to. When you can study hours of video on a pitcher before you face him, are you "cheating"? No, and the reason why not, to me, applies equally to performance enhancing drugs that weren't against the rules when taken.
That being said, I have no problem making steroids and similar performance enhancing drugs against the rules, as a consumer of baseball games. I want the most talented baseball players to pursue baseball careers. If some were to decide not to pursue baseball careers because it's difficult to compete with steroid users without using yourself, based on a completely understandable aversion to long-term side effects, then the product I consume wouldn't be as enjoyable. I don't think there's a parallel there to intense training, injury repair and video scouting.
But baseball didn't make steroids and similar performance enhancers against the rules until Congress leaned on them. Like McGwire, the people running the sport had a choice, and they chose the happy-magic of assaults on home run records. I am also quite sure, admittedly without proof, that many beat writers who had access to Major League locker rooms knew exactly what was going on but saved their hand-wringing features about the stain of steroids on the game till after the cat was out of the bag. Another choice: Don't rock the boat or you might lose access to players and front offices. Fine, but you'll pardon me if I don't lap up your newfound indignation now.
So, right, statistics, awards, the outcomes of games, seasons and Series were all influenced by what is likely to have been a widespread use of performance enhancers during what's being called the "steroid era" in baseball. I doubt the people who want to discount or disregard parts of that era want to discount Babe Ruth's career because he didn't face African American players or Walter Johnson's because he pitched during the dead ball era. Far more likely, they are perfectly capable of evaluating performance in context. Why are they so unsure that they or anybody else will have trouble putting Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens in similar context?
UPDATE: Joe Posnanski FTW.