Sunday, June 30, 2013

More Good News from Illinois

Yet another example of why it was so wise to hire Illinois politicians to run the country:
Moody’s Investors Service reported that Illinois’ true unfunded pension liability in fiscal year 2011 was nearly 65% higher than the state’s official estimate.

In its report titled “Adjusted Pension Liability Medians for U.S. States,” Moody’s calculated the unfunded liabilities for Illinois’ three largest state-run pension plans at $133 billion, compared to the state’s official calculation of $81.3 billion.

Illinois’ pension funds use overly optimistic assumptions in calculating their unfunded liability, including an expected 8% yearly average investment return. The new Moody’s methodology uses more realistic market rates based on high-quality corporate bonds. The rate Moody’s used for fiscal year 2011 was 5.67%, resulting in a $52 billion increase in the state’s unfunded liability.

Moody’s has yet to publish their report on fiscal year 2012 liabilities. However, the market rates they’ll use to calculate the unfunded liability have already been determined. As of June 30, 2012, that rate was equal to 4.13%. That means Illinois’ official $97 billion underfunding is set to approach $200 billion under the new Moody’s methodology.
Somehow, I don't think Sammy is going to be able to bail Illinois out, either.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Great Moments in Headlines

When life imitates Monty Python:

You'll be stone dead in a moment
The byline does suggest something else, though.

Although it must be said -- all headlines going forward are playing for second place to this eternal classic from "America's Fastest-Growing Newspaper":

Friday, June 28, 2013

Hollywood Swinging

Or, to be more precise, dangling:
Three letters have been giving the payroll-services industry fits for several months now: ACA. That's the semi-acronym for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, and it's up to the payroll industry -- which cuts checks to production workers and offers related financial services to TV and film studios -- to help educate its clients on the rules before a good portion of the law kicks in Jan. 1.

"It's a morass of regulations and requirements, and everyone's trying to figure out what their exposure is," says Eric Belcher, president and CEO of Cast & Crew Entertainment Services. Adds Mark Goldstein, CEO of Entertainment Partners, which has held 16 seminars to help studios understand ACA: "It's going to be a very big deal."
And since the only law that Washington consistently passes is the law of unintended consequences, how might all the regulatory confusion affect the film industry?
One of the unintended consequences, say some industry insiders, is that it could lead to productions running to foreign countries, given that ACA doesn't apply to U.S. citizens working abroad. Some also say the number of production days in the U.S. are likely to be cut due to ACA because there's a 90-day waiting period before productions must either pay a penalty or offer health insurance to full-time workers. That rule provides big incentives for a production to wrap in less than three months. While big-budget movies and season-long TV shows might not have such a luxury, smaller films or TV pilots could easily rush their schedules to make sure they come in at under 90 days.
Yes, people do respond to incentives. The film industry is just one of many industries that will increasingly seek labor on a contract basis, rather than hiring people full-time and having to incur the costs. And since productions would be turning around more quickly to avoid the 90-day requirement, it means that people who work in the film industry will find their lives to be even more chaotic, as they'll have to be constantly hustling to find new work. I blame George W. Bush.

"Non-Scandal" Update

You might have heard that the IRS was also targeting progressive groups, not just the Tea Party. Every lefty friend I have on Facebook posted something to that effect, and Ace Commenter Rich made an allusion to it earlier in the week. So we were assured that the IRS scandal involving harassment of the Tea Party was really a non-scandal, non-story, and that we should forget about it and concentrate on something more important, like anything else.

Liberal groups seeking tax-exempt status faced less IRS scrutiny than Tea Party groups, according to the Treasury Department’s inspector general.

J. Russell George, Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, told Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) in a letter dated Wednesday that the IRS did not use inappropriate criteria to scrutinize groups with “progressives” in their name seeking tax-exempt status.

“Our audit did not find evidence that the IRS used the ‘progressives’ identifier as selection criteria for potential political cases between May 2010 and May 2012,” George wrote in the letter obtained by The Hill.
But what about the Tea Party groups?
The inspector general stressed that 100 percent of the groups with “Tea Party,” “patriots” and “9/12” in their name were flagged for extra attention, while only 30 percent of the groups with “progress” or “progressive” were highlighted as potentially political. George’s letter does not say why the progressive groups were given extra scrutiny.
I blame George W. Bush.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Dave Thompson is In

Sen. Dave Thompson has announced that he's running for governor:
State Sen. Dave Thompson launched his campaign for governor Wednesday, calling for lower taxes, smaller government and sweeping changes to Minnesota labor laws and school funding.

“I’m doing this because I believe in the state of Minnesota and I believe in Minnesotans,” said Thompson, who kicked off his campaign at the State Capitol, where he has served for the past three years. “I believe in the individual … As governor, my goal will be to get out of your way.”
While I still wish he'd decided to run against Al Franken instead, Thompson immediately jumps to the front of the list of potential candidates on the GOP side. He's an attorney by profession and has also been a longtime talk show host for various stations in the Twin Cities, but in that role he was never a bomb thrower. I suspect his opponents are going to have a difficult time trying to paint him as an extremist, although I'm sure they'll try. He has been a consistent, measured voice for limited government and his voting record has been pretty good. If he gets through the process, he'd be able to draw clear distinctions in a race against Mark Dayton. Of the announced candidates for the office, he and Jeff Johnson are the two worth watching.

Before he's gone

By the time you read this, Nelson Mandela may have breathed his last. I think it's almost impossible to overstate how rare an individual he is. South Africa has its problems, as does every country, but it is by and large one of the best countries in the world. Just as George Washington set the tone for our country with his leadership, Mandela did the same in South Africa as he guided his land from the apartheid system into a free society. It was a pretty remarkable feat.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Supremes Punt

Quickly -- my takeaway of today's announcement:

As I've said before, I'm not sad about DOMA going away, but I think punting on Prop 8 was a very bad thing to do. Basically what it means is that the referendum and initiative system in California is a dead letter if (a) you can find the right federal judge and (b) the governor decides to abdicate the responsibility to defend duly enacted laws. That's going to bite California in the butt and it will have implications everywhere else. It's no damned good if government officials can simply ignore laws they don't like and get by with it. It's even worse if they use federal judges to backstop them.

Fearless prediction -- someone is already preparing a lawsuit to send to the 9th Circuit that would make Prop 13 unconstitutional. Have fun with that one, California.

The Supremes and Gay Marriage

The decisions on gay marriage are likely to come down from the Supreme Court mountaintop either today or tomorrow. For what it's worth, this is how I hope things happen:

  • The Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act; and
  • The Court upholds Prop 8 and slaps down the Ninth Circuit
The way I see it, there are two issues here, both related to federal overreach. DOMA, which essentially proscribes most federal benefits for gay couples, was and is an overreaction and too broad. If it is found unconstitutional, no one should shed a tear.

The Prop 8 issue, at least to me, is less about the underlying issue of gay marriage and more about the idea that a single federal judge can overturn the will of the people, as expressed by a ballot measure, and declare an amendment to a state constitution as unconstitutional. That's what happened in this case and it sets a bad precedent, even if the Ninth Circuit rubber stamped what the judge did. I would imagine that if a ballot initiative to repeal Prop 8 were to come to the voters of California now, it would pass, and that would be the proper remedy for the underlying issue. And if you're comfortable with giving federal judges that power because it achieved a policy goal, imagine a judge on a more conservative circuit striking down a ballot initiative you hold dear and his/her fellow judges rubber stamping the decision. Would you be okay with that?

A decision by the court to toss out essentially all the other existing state laws on gay marriage would be much like what happened in Roe v. Wade. And it would be a bad idea. We've just passed gay marriage in Minnesota. The legislature debated the matter and passed the bill and the governor signed it into law. No matter what you think of the merits of the law itself, it was done properly. Our elected representatives acted and as a citizen, I can hold my representatives to account if needed. The Supreme Court? Not so much.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Ryan Winkler Gets What He Always Wanted

It's long been known that Ryan Winkler wanted to make a name for himself nationally. He sure did today. Fraters Libertas has the trail of tweets, including the one that got ol' Ryan in trouble:

Winkler's in a lot of trouble. Couldn't have happened to a nicer fella. The best tweet in response?

When the heavy hitters of your party are backing away, it's a safe bet that you haven't made a good career move.

Cleanup on Aisle Dilettante

We got our power back on Sunday afternoon, following an impressive effort by a crew from Ameren Energy  of St. Louis, which drove 12 hours with a lot of heavy equipment to get to the Twin Cities.

As a reminder, here is what the scene looked like on Saturday (all pictures courtesy of staff photographer Fearless Maria):

A familiar look to Twin Citians
One of the things we learned is that the oak tree was hollow and likely a condominium for various squirrels and other urban wildlife. This view is along our lot line and shows how the pole got snapped.

On Sunday morning, the trucks arrived:

It takes a lot of trucks to get the job done

And eventually, so did the new pole:

Swinging the pole into position

And then the crew got to work. This last picture does a nice job of showing one of the reasons why this particular storm has been so difficult to deal with. The boom crane on this truck got tangled in my neighbor's ash tree, which made it difficult to get the pole onto the giant Bobcat-style device that Ameren had brought up from St. Louis. Our neighborhood was built in the 1960s and the trees are all mature now. Unfortunately, when the utility poles were built on the back line of our respective lots, the folks who developed the land planted a lot of trees that are now a real impediment to getting access to the power poles.

There are a lot of neighborhoods like ours in the Twin Cities. New Brighton looks a lot like Fridley, which looks a lot like Maplewood, which looks a lot like Roseville, which looks a lot like St. Louis Park, which looks a lot like sections of Plymouth. Suburbia, especially the Twin Cities variety, is often a very pleasant place to live, but some of the things that were done back then are problematic now. We're likely always going to have power poles in our neighborhood, because the cost of burying the lines would be astronomical. It would take billions to bury all the power lines in the metro area and there's no way that customers are going to be willing to foot that bill.

The good news is that we're back to normal. I hope that our friends in other parts of town who are still waiting get relief soon.

Pretty much

Walter Russell Mead on the situation that Obama finds himself in re: Edward Snowden:
It appears that Putin is no longer content with just kicking sand in John Kerry’s face. With NSA leaker Edward Snowden in hand, Moscow is now giving wedgies and making the Obama administration eat bugs.

Today, “exasperated” Obama administration officials urged Russia to expel Snowden, the New York Times reports. ”We do expect the Russian government to look at all the options available to them to expel Mr. Snowden back to the United States,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington. Yak, yak, yak. Blah, blah, blah. Bluster, bluster, bluster.

Mr. Putin is apparently not quaking in his boots at these stern words from the White House, and Russia still seems more interested in watching Washington twist in the wind than in helping to end one of the most embarrassing spectacles in recent history.
Another triumph of "smart power." And it fits a pattern:
Fortunately for the US, Russia is not the power it wishes it were. Russia’s successes in making America look weak and untrustworthy are more symbolic and moral than real at this point, but symbolism counts. Putin’s successes in foiling the US and holding it up to ridicule dent American prestige in places where it counts for much more: China, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Israel. As they watch our Syria policy dissolve into chaos and the fumbling and bumbling over the Snowden episode, leaders in the capitals of all those countries are busy downgrading their estimates of American competence and forcefulness in foreign policy. And they are revising their strategies accordingly.
The good news? We're still the world leader in drone strikes.

I Don't Believe in Zimmerman (Trial)

We've got more important things to talk about, so I won't be discussing the Zimmerman trial here.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Buyers and Zellers

Kurt Zellers is in:
Attacking Gov. Mark Dayton for “super-sizing” government, former Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers said Sunday he will challenge the incumbent Democrat in next year’s election.

Standing on a neighbor’s front lawn in Maple Grove, Rep. Zellers attacked the $2 billion tax increase Dayton signed into law, and took credit for stopping Dayton’s initial tax hike proposal.

He's the latest in a long list of people who want to take Dayton down. I don't have a dog in this fight but my first impression is that Zellers isn't the right guy to do this job. But I could be persuaded.

The next candidate up is apparently Dave Thompson, the state senator from Lakeville who has been the most effective spokesman for the Republicans in the last session. I still think Thompson would be a better candidate to run against Al Franken, but he's set his sights on the governor's race, if reports I've read are true.

Remember -- while Dayton's approval ratings are supposed sky high at the moment, the taxes that were passed in this session are not yet in effect. In a year, things are going to look very different in Minnesota.

Where's Snowden?

That's the question, it seems. Is Edward Snowden in Hong Kong? Guess not. Is he is Moscow? Seems so. Where is he headed? Hard to say. Is he headed for Ecuador? Maybe.

You know what? I don't care where he is. I'm still far more interested in what he and his handlers are going to reveal about the NSA program.  That's still the story here.

Speed is Life

The longtime CEO at my one of my former employers used to say that "speed is life." What he meant by that is that getting to the moment of decision quickly and making the decision is generally better than dithering. It's evident that Congress has adapted this thought process when it comes to certain legislation, especially the immigration bill that's been going through the Senate.

I haven't written much about the immigration bill because I don't know what's in it. And neither do you. The bill is about 1200 pages as amended and no one has read the bill in its entirety. It could be a beneficial bill that will finally solve our long-standing immigration problems, especially along the southern border. It could be an unmitigated disaster. It could be something in between those extremes. No one knows.

Which is, of course, why we must vote on it right now:
The fate of the Senate's immigration bill likely comes down to a vote today. If it fails, it will all but guarantee that immigration reform is dead. If it passes, it will all but ensure a clear path to the finish line in the Senate, which has struggled for years to find a compromise on the controversial and emotional issue.

The pivotal vote is on a border security compromise chiefly drafted by Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota.
Ah, it's a compromise! We'd better slam that home, then!

Or should we? The problem with these bills is that they are fiendishly complicated, as William Jacobson points out:
One of the things I learned from Obamacare was that each section of the law could take many hours to understand because of cross-references to other sections and other laws.  Amendments make the problem even greater.

Put that problem into a 1000+ page  bill, and it is almost impossible to uncover all the mischief — intentional and unintentional — buried in the language, something we are learning after the fact with Obamacare.

The rush to pass the Gang of 8 1000+ page bill is another example.  As if that weren’t bad enough to start, Sen. Bob Corker last night unveiled his 1190-page amendment, and Harry Reid is rushing the first test vote to Monday.  We have seen this movie before.
So what we're talking about, yet again, is another example of where we'll have to pass the bill to find out what's in it. Nah, I'd rather not.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Live from Ramsey County Library

We've had some very bad weather around here lately, including a really nasty thunderstorm that came through about 8 last night. Our neighbor's oak tree took a direct lightning strike and split in half. The strike also took out the power poles that run behind our house, knocking out power to many people in the neighborhood, including us. Here's a look at the damage:

It's not nice to fool Mother Nature....

As a result, I would fully expect that posting is going to be very light for the next few days, as it could be a while before Xcel Energy can back there and repair the damage, to say nothing of replacing a power pole in saturated ground. It could be today, it could be Tuesday, it could be a week -- no way to know. Put it this way, Xcel has plenty on its plate at the moment: here's a screen shot of the power outages in our area as of right now:

One of those dots is Mr. D's Neighborhood

I'm sure there are outrageous political developments and thrilling sporting exploits happening someplace in the world, but somehow I suspect the world will get along just fine without my opining on it until things get back to normal. Long and the short of it -- don't expect much blogging for the next few days.

I'm not complaining, either. If that lightning strike had been fifty feet to the north, I wouldn't be worried about the food in my refrigerator going bad or bailing water out of the sump basin to keep the basement from flooding -- I'd be worried about where to go because my house would have been destroyed. Nothing is promised in this life, but we're all healthy and that counts for a lot.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Wrong Osborne, Sir

George Osborne has ruled out performing a duet with namesake crooner Jeffrey Osborne, after US President Barack Obama repeatedly got their names mixed up at the G8 summit.

Mr Obama, a fan of the soul singer whose 1980s hits included On The Wings of Love and Love Power, called the chancellor Jeffrey several times.
This guy apparently isn't a government official:

Nor is this guy:

Or even this guy:

Hope we cleared that up for you, Mr. President.

Cause and Effect

Perhaps you understand this, even though the governor and the lege don't -- people respond to incentives. More importantly, they respond to disincentives. And how:
In advance of having to collect online state sales tax, said Tuesday that at the end of the month it will sever ties with its Minnesota-based affiliate websites that receive a fee for referring shoppers to the retail giant's online store.

The move comes less than a month after Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law requiring certain online businesses with a physical presence or affiliates in Minnesota to charge sales tax on items it sells to the state's residents. The law takes effect July 1, one day after Amazon's move.
Oops. And yes, the Minnesotans who ran affiliated websites are hurt:
There are about 5,200 affiliates in Minnesota that make money from online advertising, said Rebecca Madigan, executive director of the Performance Marketing Association, a trade group that represents the affiliates.

Those 5,200 don't just work with They may be affiliates of Cabela's or Blue Nile or other sizable Internet retailers.

The change in Minnesota's state law affects about 1,000 online retailers -- not just -- Madigan said. The 5,200 affiliates in Minnesota generated a total of about $500 million worth of business in 2012 and paid about $35 million in state income tax, she said.

Because of the new online sales tax law, "the state is actually going to lose money" from the affiliates, Madigan said, "because they'll lose that income tax revenue." About three-quarters of the businesses have fewer than four employees.
Perhaps these folks can recoup their livelihoods by driving around the state to tout electronic pulltabs or something.

On the other hand, we're told that Mark Dayton has a 57% approval rating, so perhaps Minnesotans are cool with ham-handed regulatory adventures that cost people jobs.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Still Waiting

If you want a thoroughly depressing look at the potential future of health care, consider this tale of malfeasance from the U.K., as reported by the Telegraph:
The Care Quality Commission (CQC) is accused in a report being published today of suppressing an internal review that uncovered critical weaknesses in its inspections, which may have cost the lives of mothers and babies.

Regulators deleted the review of their failure to act on concerns about University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust (UHMB), where police are investigating the deaths of at least eight mothers and babies.
I'm reminded of the immortal words of David Byrne, circa 1980:

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don't do what I want them to

And what are the facts? Well. . . .
Concerns about the maternity unit at Furness General Hospital in Cumbria came to light in 2008, but the CQC gave the Morecambe Bay trust the all-clear in 2010.

A report has found that the health watchdog bosses were so concerned about how damning the review would be that they ordered it should never be made public and that it should be destroyed.
Ya, ya, I must destroy ze evidence. But what was the evidence? An example:
James Titcombe’s baby son Joshua died aged just nine days old in Furness General Hospital in 2008 after staff failed to spot and treat an infection, sparking a police investigation.

Mr Titcombe said that the report showed a “multitude of very serious failures” and was “quite hard to believe”.

He said there were wider questions about the NHS, claiming evidence was given to the Francis Inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire scandal that there was “possibly ministerial pressure on the CQC not to cause trouble at that period of time”.

“These aspects haven’t been looked at in the detail that I believe they need to be looked at,” he said.
The case of Joshua Titcombe was just one example. And when a report prepared by the accounting firm Grant Thornton documented more of the same, the response was classic bureaucratic turf protection, except worse:
The official who had written the internal CQC report said to the Grant Thornton review team that he had been told his work must be deleted because it was damaging to CQC. He said he felt he was “being put in a very difficult position” and asked to do something that he felt was “clearly wrong”.

The report says the same senior manager “said that he felt very uncomfortable about the apparent weight that was being given in the meeting to the potential media impact and reputation damage his report findings might cause CQC. His view was that the focus instead should have been on patient safety and the protection of service users.”

The same official said he was then asked to write up a different review removing any references critical of the watchdog. “In effect, he had been asked to omit anything that could be considered damaging for CQC,” the new report says.

The original internal review had been ordered after questions were asked about why CQC had given the NHS trust a clean bill of health in April 2010 – registering it without any “conditions”, helping it to win elite “foundation” status later that year – despite serious concerns about the safety of its maternity services.

The decision was taken despite a number of serious incidents, including the deaths of babies and mothers, and a warning by the CQC’s regional director of “systematic failures” in the hospital maternity services which could lead to further tragedy.

It was not until September 2011 that the trust was finally warned that the failings were so serious that it would be closed down without major changes. By then the trust had the highest mortality rate in the country, with 600 “excess deaths” in the previous four years.

The song I referenced earlier is titled "Crosseyed and Painless." That would be an improvement.

There's more, a lot more, at the link. And remember, the NHS is the model that many people would like to bring to our shores.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Nope. Next!

While there's been a fair amount of talk concerning potential challengers to Mark Dayton in 2014, so far the list of potential challengers to Al Franken is pretty short. A potential candidate emerged yesterday:
State Rep. Jim Abeler said that he is exploring a run against Democrat U.S. Sen. Al Franken....
Abeler is a long time state representative, who has specialized in human services issues, who has evinced a tender heart for the needy but a libertarian streak regarding government intrusion. Abeler, who supported a gas tax increase when then Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it, endorsed Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul last year.

He is a chiropractor who hails from Anoka, which has an strong independent streak. 
Abeler has confused the Star Tribune. What kind of streak was that again? A libertarian streak or an independent streak? And does Abeler have a strong independent streak, or does Anoka? And can Anoka run for the Senate? Fortunately, my friend and ace radio host Brad Carlson is able to translate:
In my opinion, Abeler would be a tough sale amongst Republicans. Despite endorsing Ron Paul for President in 2012, Abeler is notorious for supporting bigger government in the form of mass transit subsidies, the new Vikings stadium and the MN Health Exchange. However, Abeler may appeal to some social conservatives since he voted "yes" on the MN Marriage Amendment two years ago and then, in one of the more passionate defenses of traditional marriage, voted "no" to legalize same-sex marriage last month. Again, given that history as a state rep, it seems an odd juxtaposition that he endorsed the libertarian Paul.
So he's a big government libertarian who supports traditional marriage. No, he's not confused. He's just like Walt Whitman:
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
Franken would chew this guy to bits.

I think there's a better candidate out there to run against Franken, but my understanding is that he's more interested in running for governor. Now that the Star Tribune is telling us that everybody loves Dayton, maybe my suggested candidate might reconsider his options. Just a thought.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Lightning Round - 061813

The insatiable maw of the internet demands more content that few people will ever read, so here goes:

  • You could read this Politico article if you'd like, but if you value your time and would prefer not to, I'll boil it down the essence: get off my side.
  • Brian offers an excerpt of the deep thoughts of Edward Snowden, who has built up an impressive list of enemies for a man who is not yet 30 years old.
  • The Vikings are apparently becoming an outplacement service for former Packers. There's a reason, actually multiple reasons, why these guys are available.
  • We've discussed the Solyndra debacle a few times over the years, but while the particulars of that boondoggle rankle, I've never begrudged companies that pursue the solar energy market. Having said that, here's a cautionary tale.
  • The impending bankruptcy in Detroit is getting contentious. Watch carefully, because this could the future in a lot of other places soon.
  • Ron Fournier, writing for the National Journal, takes a temperature check.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The beginning of commuting hell

We live a few miles away from one of the more important interchanges in the Twin Cities highway system, the intersection of 35W and 694. The stretch of 694 that runs between 35W and the Mississippi River is about seven miles and a major construction project is about to begin there, which will have traffic down to one lane at times.

I've seen various estimates on the amount of traffic that comes through this stretch, but it's well over 100,000 vehicles a day. More importantly, there aren't very many options for crossing the Mississippi in the north metro, so it's going to be awful for most of the summer. And since Mrs. D uses this road to get to work, she'll especially enjoy the fun involved.

The work was supposed to begin this morning, but the Star Tribune is reporting that we might have a one-day reprieve. We'll have to see how it works, but I suspect that we're due for a very rough summer when it comes to getting around the north metro.

No Change

A reminder -- it doesn't really matter one bit if Iran has a new president and it matters even less if that individual is said to be a "moderate." Control of the country remains firmly in the hands of the mullahs, especially Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who still has the final say.

Walter Russell Mead offers a good explanation for why the Iranian theocratic system has lasted:
Iran’s revolutionary system has proven so durable (already lasting almost half as long as communism did in the Soviet Union) in part because its political system is intelligently designed. Elected politicians compete for office and take responsibility for a lot of what governments do: economic policy, schools, fixing potholes and so on. They also dispose of a lot of patronage and give a lot of government business to those they wish to reward. That makes Iranian politics more interesting to voters than the typical immobility of autocratic states. The Supreme Leader keeps ultimate power in his hands, but if the city government hasn’t fixed the road in front of your house, you don’t blame him.

In other words, Iran has a ‘deep state’ where the real power lies and a ‘shallow state’ where politics happens. This is a form of government that has a long history in the region, and to some degree it is what we see today in countries like Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan. (Until recently we saw it in Turkey as well.) It offers a more flexible and perhaps more durable political system than a pure dictatorship, but at the cost of allowing more public input into relatively trivial issues it solidifies the hold of the real rulers on the issues that count.
And since so many people are dependent on the state for patronage, it makes the job of reformers doubly difficult, because it makes so many people complicit in the happenings of the government. If you have your niche, no matter how meager, you'll fight like hell to keep it.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Still out there

We're now most 70 years past World War II and yet those who were involved in atrocities are still among us. As it turns out, at least one might be closer to us than we realized:
A top commander of a Nazi SS-led unit accused of burning villages filled with women and children lied to American immigration officials to get into the United States and has been living in Minnesota since shortly after World War II, according to evidence uncovered by The Associated Press.

Michael Karkoc, 94, told American authorities in 1949 that he had performed no military service during World War II, concealing his work as an officer and founding member of the SS-led Ukrainian Self Defense Legion and later as an officer in the SS Galician Division, according to records obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request. The Galician Division and a Ukrainian nationalist organization he served in were both on a secret American government blacklist of organizations whose members were forbidden from entering the United States at the time.

Though records do not show that Karkoc had a direct hand in war crimes, statements from men in his unit and other documentation confirm the Ukrainian company he commanded massacred civilians, and suggest that Karkoc was at the scene of these atrocities as the company leader. Nazi SS files say he and his unit were also involved in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, in which the Nazis brutally suppressed a Polish rebellion against German occupation.
For his part, Karkoc isn't talking:
Karkoc now lives in a modest house in northeast Minneapolis in an area with a significant Ukrainian population. Even at his advanced age, he came to the door without help of a cane or a walker. He would not comment on his wartime service for Nazi Germany. 
"I don't think I can explain," he said.
I suppose not.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Just so we're clear. . .

. . . this is a very, very bad idea.

Carry on.

Let it Snowden

I don't know what to think about the case of Edward Snowden right now. So we'll let things develop for a few days and then check back in on the story. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail provides the news you can use about Snowden's girlfriend, with the requisite subtlety.

Help Me Rhonda

Tom Emmer has an opponent in CD6:
Anoka County Board chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah launched her congressional campaign Wednesday, saying she is “uniquely qualified” to take the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.

“Washington is full of people who talk and talk and talk,” said Sivarajah, who announced her candidacy in an auto body shop repair bay, flanked by family, friends, flags and a pickup truck hoisted aloft in the background.” We need to send people there who will actually deliver real results.”
If the name sounds familiar, it's possible that you remember that Sivarajah was also planning a run for lieutenant governor in 2010, alongside Emmer's opponent in the 2010 gubernatorial cycle, Marty Seifert.

Brad Carlson, who lives in CD6 and understands the political terrain well, thinks the challenge is useful:
I've said from the outset that it's a very good thing for frontrunner Emmer to be pushed a bit. And given that CD6 is an R +10 district, both candidates will try to outflank each other on the political right.
I agree. We've talked about Emmer's lackluster 2010 campaign before and his penchant for coasting at times. Sivarajah has a fair amount of support in Anoka County, which comprises a significant portion of the CD6 electorate, while Emmer's base is Wright County. To win the district, a candidate has to be able to understand the electorate in both Anoka and Wright counties, but also Washington County (where the incumbent Michele Bachmann lives) and the St. Cloud area as well. While there's a common bond of conservatism generally in the district, these are all very different places. A good campaign will only help the candidate who emerges from the process.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Just so you know

Noted civil libertarian Al Franken, on the NSA matter:
I have a high level of confidence that this is used to protect us, and I know that it has been successful in preventing terrorism.

There are certain things that are appropriate for me to know that is not appropriate for the bad guys to know.
All righty, then.

Meanwhile, in Florida

The Obama scandal breaker story is not moving according to the script:
Attorneys in the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin struggled to put together a jury on Tuesday, as it was hard to find people who hadn't heard something about the case.

One juror told attorneys they could only hope they find residents who could keep an open mind.

"I haven't lived under a rock for the past year," juror B-51, a white, female retiree, said. "It's pretty hard for people not to have gotten some information."
I suppose it is. How hard?
By the end of Tuesday, the attorneys had questioned 14 potential jurors in person, and more than 40 jury candidates had been dismissed after filling out a questionnaire.

Only four candidates from a pool of hundreds were questioned in court on Monday.

Court officials in Sanford have summoned 500 residents of Seminole County to appear before the judge, prosecution and defence and will choose a panel of six, with four alternates. In Florida, 12 jurors are required only for criminal trials involving cases when the death penalty is being considered. Zimmerman is charged with second degree murder, for the shooting of the unarmed black teenager in February 2012. He has pleaded not guilty.
One mustn't lose hope, though, for we have potential in the jury pool:
A woman interviewed when court resumed on Tuesday, juror B37, told prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda that she had not read into the case in the newspapers because, she said: "I just don't think [newspapers are] truthful. They're a lot better use in the parrot cage." The married woman, a volunteer at an animal shelter who said she looked after "one parrot, one crow with one wing, three dogs, four cats, and a couple of lizards", added that she was sure that there had been riots in Sanford over the case. Last year's protests in the central Florida city passed off without incident and there were no arrests.
Before too long, it might be time to summon the lizards.

Meanwhile, in Istanbul

Things are getting ugly:
Riot police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets in day-long clashes that lasted into the early hours Wednesday, battling protesters who have been occupying Istanbul's central Taksim Square and its adjacent Gezi Park in the country's most severe anti-government protests in decades.

The crisis has left Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looking vulnerable for the first time in his decade in power and has threatened to tarnish the international image of Turkey, a Muslim majority country with a strongly secular tradition, a burgeoning economy and close ties with the United States.
For his part, Erdogan has figured out who he wants to blame:
The demonstrators, he said, " are being used by some financial institutions, the interest rate lobby and media groups to (harm) Turkey's economy and (scare away) investments."
Watch out for that interest rate lobby, folks. It's comin' to get ya.

Here's a pro-tip for Erdogan -- do you really want to know what scares away investments? Countries that do this sort of thing:

A refreshing blast of water cannon
A lot is riding on Turkey, since it and Indonesia are the best examples of how a secular Muslim country can operate. Erdogan has been trending more hard core lately, which has led to the protests in Istanbul. And since Turkey is part of NATO, there's a real hesitance to say much about what Erdogan is doing. This bears watching.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Snowden and Brandeis

In the day or so since we've learned the identity of Edward Snowden, it's increasingly clear that nothing is clear about this case. The only thing we know for sure, or think we know, is that he's on the lam:
As Justice Department officials began the process Monday to charge Edward J. Snowden, a 29-year-old former C.I.A. computer technician, with disclosing classified information, he checked out of a hotel in Hong Kong where he had been holed up for several weeks, according to two American officials. It was not clear where he went.
Well, he's not at my house. Beyond that it's tough to say.

I'm having a tough time wrapping my mind around what Snowden has done and what to believe about it. My libertarian instincts are that he's done everyone a favor by calling attention to the current scope of the surveillance state, a project that has been underway since the time of Woodrow Wilson. At the same time, a whistleblower usually stands his ground, which suggests something different about this case.

Writing for the Daily Beast, Michael Moynihan neatly encapsulates the problems we have in interpreting what we've learned:

Dare I suggest that a small dollop of skepticism is required here? There is an instinct, indulged by journalists and activists, to reflexively anoint the leaker—or the whistleblower, depending on your point of view—saintly status. And the braying mobs of Snowden supporters, who nicely overlap with the passionate Julian Assange fans and Ron Paul devotees (Snowden himself donated $500 to Paul’s campaign in 2012), will doubtless dismiss any incertitude as the grumblings of Obama-administration flunkies or Bush nostalgics.

Well, no. Even a generous reading of the programs exposed by Snowden should deeply trouble those of us who are skeptical of the ever-growing American security state. And even if the administration’s explanations and justifications of the NSA’s snooping programs are to be trusted—the program foiled terror attacks, was focused only on foreign nationals, and no calls were listened to, etc.—it nevertheless raises ethical and moral issues that demand further public debate, as Snowden said an interview with The Guardian.

But even after Snowden’s disclosures, do we even understand what, exactly, the NSA is engaged in? As journalist J.M. Berger rightly points out, “the information we lack vastly outweighs the information we have. We should be cautious in interpreting data summaries we don’t fully understand.”
That seems right. I don't understand everything that the NSA is doing, or not doing, and neither does anyone reading this feature. At the same time, it's not necessary to know every detail. What matters more are the parameters, the rules of engagement. And what matters even more is whether the NSA recognizes any parameters.

As for Snowden, we're likely to learn more about his motivations in the coming days. Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian writer who has been Snowden's transmitter, promises more revelations in the coming days. That's a good thing. As Justice Brandeis so memorably put it:
"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."
And, even more on point:
“Experience teaches us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent.”

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Falcon and the Snowden (and the frog and the scorpion)

You've got nothing to hide, right?
We now know the identity of the person who gave Glenn Greenwald the information concerning the NSA's enormous database. Edward Snowden is his name. And he has his reasons:
Edward Snowden, the self-revealed whistle-blower at the National Security Agency, explains that part of the reason he decided to come forward was because President Obama did not roll back the surveillance measures put into place by the Bush Administration.

“A lot of people in 2008 voted for Obama. I did not vote for him. I voted for a third party,” Snowden said in an interview with the Guardian. “But I believed in Obama’s promises. I was going to disclose it [but waited because of his election]. He continued with the policies of his predecessor.”
Of course he continued with the policies of his predecessor. It was silly to believe he would do anything different. If you believe that government should be large enough to solve intractable problems, you have to make your peace with a state that is large enough to identify anyone who gets in the way, or could potentially get in the way. There's no such thing as a big government libertarian.

It's all very disappointing for those who love Big Government. Consider Ron Fournier, who shares his distress in a column for the National Journal:
I like government. I don't like what the fallout from these past few weeks might do to the public's faith in it.

First, you don't need to be a liberal Democrat to root for government efficiency, transparency and solvency. Even tea party conservatives expect certain things from Washington: a strong military; pensions and health care for the aged; student and small-business loans; safe food and drugs; secure borders; and, of course, federal police protection against terrorists, both foreign and domestic.

The core argument of President Obama's rise to power, and a uniting belief of his coalition of young, minority and well-educated voters, is that government can do good things -- and do them well.
So much for that notion. Fournier does an excellent job at cataloging the ways his faith has been undermined in recent weeks and it's worth hitting the link to read. Meanwhile, a few thoughts:

  • Is Snowden a hero? Or is he a traitor? You could argue it either way and probably be right. The larger question is whether the government he has certainly betrayed is worth defending.
  • We argue a lot about the First and Second Amendments in our normal discourse. Meanwhile, the Fourth Amendment is in tatters right now. It's worth remembering the specific language of the Fourth Amendment:  The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. I don't know how you square the NSA database with the plain meaning of the Fourth Amendment.
  • As Ann Althouse points out, this issue has made temporary allies out of Glenn Beck and Daniel Ellsberg, who played the Snowden role in the Pentagon Papers case during the Nixon era. I suspect this tells you more about Beck than it does about Ellsberg.
  • The larger point is one that Gino made in a comment on the blog over the weekend -- it is the nature of government to expand and protect itself. We shouldn't have been surprised that the government would attempt to build something like the NSA database. What ought to happen is that we stop and ask if it's wise for the government to aggregate that much information. But my guess is that we'll go back to sleep and talk about something else.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

If an Underling Is Thrown Under the Bus, Does She Make a Sound?

Sometimes the underlings contradict the story:
An IRS staffer in Cincinnati told congressional investigators that a Washington official was the driving force behind the targeting of Tea Party organizations in 2010, and showed unprecedented interest in those groups’ tax-exempt applications.

Elizabeth Hofacre, the Cincinnati staffer, said that she started receiving applications from Tea Party groups to sift through in April, 2010. Hofacre’s handling of those cases, she said, was highly influenced by Carter Hull, an IRS lawyer in Washington.

Hofacre said that she integrated questions from Hull into her follow-ups with Tea Party groups, and that Hull had to approve the letters seeking more information that she sent out to those organizations. That process, she said, was both unusual and “demeaning.”

“One of the criteria is to work independently and do research and make decisions based on your experience and education,” Hofacre said, according to transcripts reviewed by The Hill. “Whereas in this case, I had no autonomy at all through the process.”
Guess she wasn't the "rogue agent." For good measure, Hofacre adds this little bon mot:
Hofacre told investigators that officials trying to blame the Cincinnati office were misleading the public on purpose.

“I was appalled and I was infuriated,” Hofacre said. "Because they are inaccurate, and everybody that has been making those statements should know they are inaccurate.”
So there's an insight into why ol' Lois Lerner exercised her Fifth Amendment rights.

So, this is pretty important stuff, right? It calls the original story into question, right? Did you know about that, especially if you get your news from the respectable media? On that topic, Ann Althouse asks a good question:
I wanted to see how the [New York Times] covered this story. Using the NYT's own search engine, I got zero hits for "Carter Hull" and only one for "Elizabeth Hofacre," a May 17th article, "Confusion and Staff Troubles Rife at I.R.S. Office in Ohio." Obviously, the May 17th article is telling the story of the low-level people screwing up, and not even out of a political agenda. . . .

Has the NYT ever explored any alternative version of the events? I use the search "I.R.S." in the time period of the last 7 days, and get some reports on the spending on conferences, a piece about a poll on what Americans think ("Americans were divided over whether blame for the scrutiny of conservative groups should extend to the Obama administration..."), and some things about GOP strategy ("While some in the G.O.P. aim to scar the Obama administration... "Some Republicans See I.R.S. Troubles as Means to a Big Goal: Tax Overhaul").  I'm not finding anything that varies from the original story of the confused, overworked staffers.
All the news that's fit to print, you understand.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

The Wisdom of R. Lee Ermey and Dennis Green

From the Telegraph in London, two observations from columnist Matthew Norman, including an admission:
This, so Barack Obama used to say in his stump speech of 2008, “is not who we are”, and the thousands who ecstatically cheered that slightly glib line instinctively knew what he meant. “This” was shorthand for George W Bush, and for those oppressively dark and fetid corners of government activity with which his name was synonymous: Guantanamo Bay, drones, the surveillance powers granted to the state by the Patriot Act, and the other measures taken in response to the atrocities of 9/11.

As for the “we”, in its royal or imperial usage that of course meant “I, Obama”, but it also referred to the wide-eyed disciples who worshipped him as a deus ex machina, floating down from his Illinois Olympus to cast healing sunlight on all those dirty little nooks and crevices, and allow America to call herself the land of the free without inviting sardonic smirks.
So how did that turn out for you, Mr. Norman?
Five years on, Guantanamo Bay survives, the teenage computer gamers of the US military guide ever more drones to deliver remote control destruction, and we now learn that the government’s use of electronic surveillance is so wide-ranging that the default adjective of Orwellian barely seems adequate.

There is no form of communication or online activity – phone calls, emails, web page visits, Skype, social networks, and so on – that the National Security Agency, under its Prism programme, may not follow as and when the fancy takes. It can track users’ activities in real time. Assuming it has the technical capability remotely to activate lap top cameras, the age of the telescreen has arrived.
Having experienced the epiphany, Norman senses the conquest:
The tension between a centre-Left politician’s core beliefs and the expedient demands of power inevitably leads to something snapping, and almost invariably it is the liberal principles espoused as a candidate. There is no denying the disappointment of this inveterate Kool-Aid guzzler. Obama has proved neither a bad president nor a bad man, but simply all too human. No president ever elected, least of all that bellicose Cold Warrior John F Kennedy, would have overridden the apocalyptic warnings, and reversed his predecessor’s policies. Yet he encouraged us to view him as superhuman with the grandiose talk of pushing back the rising seas, and fuelled his insurgent campaign with high octane promises to curtail surveillance that has dramatically increased on his watch.

“To all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world,” he declared in his victory speech in November 2008, “a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.” Many of us blubbed at that along with the Rev Jessie Jackson, staring tearfully up at the dais in Chicago Park, and will feel foolish for the naivety today.
You know what his moment calls for?

I remember watching that speech in November, 2008, and the naivete that was on display. It was obvious that we'd reach this moment. Norman explains why and yet clings to his desire to give his hero a pass, all in two paragraphs!
There was a time, and not so long ago, when the internet was held up as the great bringer of freedom – a tidal wave of democratisation that would sweep away the creeping dominion of states by empowering their peoples with unfettered access to information and the freely expressed thoughts of one another. And there was a time, even less long ago, when Barack Obama was idolised as the great redeemer of liberties that had become compromised under the wretched aegis of Mr Bush.

The demise of both fantasies is easily understood. It is a fact of life that every form of technology will be used to its maximum capacity, for both good and for ill, by those with the power to do so. And it is an equally certain fact of political life that all leaders, however noble their initial intentions, will be spooked out of their wits by the doom-laden warnings of their intelligence advisers. No doubt Obama had barely planted his bum in the Oval Office chair before a succession of grave voices assured their young and inexperienced new president that closing Guantanamo, restricting or abandoning the use of drones, and jettisoning surveillance would guarantee a sequence of calamities on the scale of 9/11.
Emphasis mine. You see, it wasn't really his fault. Blame the grave voices. I'll bet they found a way to pipe in the voice of Dick Cheney subliminally. There's a response to this notion, courtesy of another fellow who had learned the ways of Chicagoans:

Yes, they are who we thought they were. Let 'em off the hook if you'd like.

Ammonium Nitrate

Just wanted to make sure the NSA was paying attention. Enjoy your morning, Gen. Alexander!

Friday, June 07, 2013


The revelations concerning the scope of the government's data collection practices perhaps shouldn't be as surprising as they are likely to be for most people. I've always had misgivings about the Patriot Act because it was evident from the start that it would give the government the ability to do essentially whatever it wants. So when we learn the following from the Washington Post, should we be surprised?
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.

The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. It may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.

Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”
Now, I currently use 7 of those 9 providers (get outta here, AOL) and chances are good you use many of them as well. I don't suspect the gubmint will learn anything useful from my YouTube usage, although those episodes of "Hogan's Heroes" and "Get Smart" that I watched with Fearless Maria the other night might raise some suspicions. Still, it's difficult to see why much of the information is being collected.

What bothers me more is this -- you and I may not have any secrets, but the gubmint certainly does:
Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.
Emphasis mine. The broad point of this morning's revelations is pretty simple -- we all stand naked in the public square, but our government does not. It's not a Republican/Democrat issue, either, since the programs began under the Bush administration and have continued apace under Obama. If there's a political point to be scored here, it's that there really aren't too many consistent civil libertarians on the field these days, and that the Fourth Amendment is pretty close to a dead letter, for this and other reasons. We're overdue for a national conversation about that sort of thing.

il miglior fabbro

The Onion, getting right to the point:
 “Honesty and openness have always been the hallmarks of my presidency, which is why I believe that everybody should have free access to this essential information,” the president said at a press conference, encouraging the public to visit a newly created online database containing the time, duration, and location of every wireless and landline phone call made by all 315 million Americans. “We—all of us—are laying our cards on the table here. Now, everyone in the country will know who’s calling whom, and when, and how often, and for how long. My administration doesn’t have any secrets, and from now on, neither will you.”
Make sure to click the link to get the punchline at the end.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Emmer is In

Tom Emmer is the first in to replace Michele Bachmann:
“I have never felt more compelled in my life to serve,” Emmer said Wednesday to at least 100 supporters at a park in Delano, his hometown. During a brief dry spell in the daylong rain, Emmer ticked off his reasons for running: the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, the Justice Department’s search of reporters’ records and what he termed out-of-control spending.

“Is this the legacy we want to leave to our children?” he said. “The answer obviously is no, and the time to act is now.”
Emmer was the GOP standard-bearer in 2010, narrowly losing the governor's race to Mark Dayton after enduring one of the most scurrilous series of attacks I've ever seen on a politician. Since he won't have to worry about Alida Messinger's money or facing the voters of Hennepin and Ramsey counties in this election, he should have a much easier time of it. The question is whether anyone else will get into the race at this point. There are plenty of ambitious Republican pols in CD6, and there are certainly some residual misgivings about Emmer because of the way his campaign worked in 2010. Emmer had ample opportunities to punch back hard against Dayton, but he ran a Marquess of Queensbury sort of campaign while he was getting his eyes gouged out. I would assume that he's learned from that experience and will return fire if needed. Put it this way -- he'd better.


Will Wilkinson, writing for the Economist, looks at the likelihood of young people being willing to sign up for Obamacare:
So, yes: if you are older, but too young for Medicare, or if you have pre-existing conditions, you're very probably going to do better buying an individual plan under Obamacare. And, yes: if you are healthy, young and shopping on the individual market for insurance, Obamacare certainly means you will pay more. Obamacare's champions like to take the edge off this fact by disparaging the basic level of insurance provided by inexpensive catastrophic policies. As Mr Krugman puts it, "these plans are cheap not just because they’re only available to the very healthy but because they don’t provide much insurance". Which is to say, the young and healthy will experience some "rate shock" at the Obamacare exchange not only because they will be subsidising those with a much higher cost of care, but also because they will be required to purchase more coverage than they might want or need.

Nobody actually disagrees about any of these facts, as far as I can tell. So why not be frank about the fact that Obamacare is going to stick it to the young and healthy on the individual market?
Considering we were told we'll have to pass the bill to see what's in it, being frank hasn't been a primary selling point up to now. We're now approaching the time where it will no longer be possible to hide that reality.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

What the IRS Scandal is about

And note well -- she got a letter from Lois Lerner herself.

The Conductor Wears Black

Don't act surprised if he tells you where you're going
On this train, the conductor wears black

-- Rank and File, "The Conductor Wore Black"

The conductor might wear black, but the numbers are in the red:
American high-speed rail boosters often yearn that the rail networks of Europe and China could be brought to our shores. A look across the pond suggests that some of these “model” high-speed rail systems aren’t doing so hot. Consider the Netherlands, which is now dealing with the fallout of its own botched high-speed rail project.

The Dutch plan began modestly, as an attempt to increase travel speeds between Amsterdam and Brussels, two important cities that are only 127 miles apart. When the system was unveiled in late 2012, however, it immediately became an “utter debacle,” in the words of one labor leader. After less than a month of operation, the service was shut down due to repeated mechanical failures, software malfunctions, and poor maintenance which frequently left passengers stranded in the middle of the route.
Oh, about those numbers:
The Dutch state pays ProRail and Infraspeed about €10m per month to operate the line, which it expects to regain through payments from train companies that use the line, said Rob Goverde, a railway expert at Delft Technical University. The NS won the contract to operate Fyra in 2001 by offering to pay the state €167m per year, a bid considered far too high by independent experts, and which was sharply reduced last year when the Fyra appeared at risk of bankruptcy.
As usual, Walter Russell Mead asks the proper question:
This is an embarrassment for the countries involved, but it is also a bad sign for similar projects in the US. If high speed rail isn’t working in one of the most densely populated and affluent corridors on Earth, and if Europeans with decades of experience can’t keep the service running, what does this tell us about California’s chances?
Nothing good. On the bright side, the current projected cost of the line in California is only $78 billion.

Game Changer

The man who helped to deliver Al Franken is not running for reelection in 2014. Mark Ritchie is going away:
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie decided that eight years of long hours, accusations of stolen elections and the occasional death threat was enough. On Tuesday the Minneapolis DFLer announced he will step down at the end of next year, setting off an immediate scramble for an office that both Democrats and Republicans are eager to control.
That line, "an office that both Democrats and Republicans are eager to control," is a pretty significant understatement. Since the Secretary of State plays a huge role in the voting process in this state and can put his/her thumb on the scale in any number of ways, it's a hugely important office. This is one to watch.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Just a reminder

An actual news organization wouldn't employ this guy:
“We have the facts and the evidence that an assistant district attorney and a state trooper did this,” Mr. Sharpton said. He called Gov. Mario M. Cuomo a racist and warned that powerful state officials were complicit. When asked whether Ms. Brawley would speak with the state attorney general, Robert Abrams, Mr. Sharpton said that would be like asking someone in a concentration camp to talk to Hitler.

But, as the meticulously researched Retro Report points out this week, it was all a hoax. After seven months, 6,000 pages of testimony and 180 witnesses, a grand jury found Ms. Brawley’s story to be a lie. Neither the police officer nor the district attorney accused by Ms. Brawley and Mr. Sharpton had been involved in any way, the report concluded.

A Sharpton associate told the news media at the time that Ms. Brawley’s lawyers, C. Vernon Mason and Alton H. Maddox Jr., and Mr. Sharpton were “frauds from the beginning.”

Talking Turkey

I won't even pretend to understand the vicissitudes of Turkish politics, but it's evident that something is up and it could be a pretty big deal:
A 22-year-old man died during an anti-government protest in a city near the border with Syria and officials gave conflicting reports on what caused his death, as hundreds of riot police backed by water cannons deployed around the prime minister's office in the capital Tuesday.

Thousands have joined anti-government rallies across Turkey since Friday, when police launched a pre-dawn raid against a peaceful sit-in protesting plans to uproot trees in Istanbul's main Taksim Square. Since then, the demonstrations by mostly secular-minded Turks have spiraled into Turkey's biggest anti-government disturbances in years, and have spread to many of the biggest cities.
Walter Russell Mead takes a stab at reading the game program, but his explanation hardly clarifies matters:
Do the protesters really represent “the entire spectrum of Turkish society,” as Haaretz reported yesterday? Or is it “young people from the country’s mainly upper-class,” as Zihni Özdil writes for Muftah? These demonstrations, Özdil continues, “represent one of the last convulsions of the old ‘secular’ elites, who have been waging, and losing, a bitter battle against the rising Anatolian nouveau-riche that make up Erdogan’s AKP.” Erdoğan has other enemies too, and they’ve become more active recently. “[N]ationalist groups despise Erdoğan for initiating a peace process with the PKK,” writes the prominent Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, “while communist groups condemn him for being ‘an American collaborator,’ and an enemy of the Assad regime in Syria, which they hold dear.”
Got that? Me neither. Even though it's a very foreign movie, I suspect that we'd better start getting used to reading the subtitles.

Monday, June 03, 2013

But What?

I'm generally a big fan of Walter Russell Mead, whose Via Meadia blog is one of the smartest places on the internet. But not on this post:
The cost of the meltdown in Syria and of the regional eruption of sectarian war will be felt for some time to come. Many Americans look at the mess the way our grandparents and great-grandparents looked at the mess in Europe in 1939, thinking that all that trouble over there couldn’t possibly affect us over here, and believing that common sense dictated that we stay out. The longer we sat out the war, the uglier it got and the higher the price we ultimately paid. The Sunni-Shiite war now engulfing the Middle East will not mestatasize into a WWII-style challenge to national survival, but in the months and years ahead many moments will come when we will wish that the US had done more to stop the war in its early stages.
Riddle me this: what "more" could the US have done? We don't have any good options in Syria. While I wouldn't dispute that the war in Syria is causing problems that will affect the United States, picking sides in this conflict doesn't seem likely to improve matters, either.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

So which is it?

Two views of the situation. First, cartoonist Tom Toles of the Washington Post:

I'm Chip Diller and I approve this message
Then, there's Constantine von Hoffman, writing for CBS Moneywatch:
Increasing housing prices and the stock market''s posting all-time highs haven't helped the plight most Americans. The average U.S. household has recovered only 45 percent of the wealth they lost during the recession, according to a report released yesterday from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

This finding is a very different picture than one painted in a report earlier this year by the Fed that calculated Americans as a whole had regained 91 percent of their losses. The writers of the report released yesterday point out that the earlier number is based on aggregate household-net-worth data. However, this isn't adjusted for inflation, population growth or the nature of the wealth. Further, they say much of recovery in net worth is because of the stock market, which means most of the improvement has been a boon only to wealthy families.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Godspeed, Speed

Speed Gibson is hanging it up:
An old joke tells of actors lamenting how long it's been since they landed a part, then wishing they could get out of show business.  For whatever the reasons, it's similarly hard to call me a blogger anymore, having posted precious little the past year or so.  It's just not where I'm at anymore, so I will be closing down Speed Gibson sometime next week.
I've enjoyed Speed's work; he's a sharp observer of the scene and he did fine work keeping track of events on the local level, especially regarding the activities of his local school district (Robbinsdale). Priorities change, though, so after nine years of high-quality blogging, he's taking things in a new direction:
Perhaps the biggest reason is that I want to focus on my continuing weight loss journey.  I have accumulated a lot of knowledge in nutrition, health, fitness, and some of the related politics.  So, I will soon be starting a new blog, maybe even a podcast, to recount my efforts and share what I've learned.  The biggest lesson seems to be that there is too much unproven and counterproductive information out there and that will be my focus.  To cut the fat, you first need to cut the crap. I'll keep you posted via Twitter, continuing there as SpeedGibson.
Once Speed has things set up for his new endeavor, I'll post the links.