H.L. Mencken, Where Have You Gone?

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At least in the most obvious sense, my title poses a dumb question. Where has H.L. Mencken gone? He’s been dead for more than 50 years. But though he’s long gone, and we won’t see his like again, many of those who cherish liberty wish they could call him back. America could use another like him, perhaps now as never before.

My introduction to the Sage of Baltimore came in my sophomore year of high school. Sharon Morrow, a teacher I wish I could personally thank today, extolled his virtues to our journalism class. To us, he was just an old dead guy. If a teacher liked anybody famous, the poor soul was automatically consigned to the purgatory of the uncool. But to suck up, this aspiring journalist read A Mencken Chrestomathy — a huge anthology of his essays and columns. Read it, and wrote a report.

I expected the project to be a chore, but I’ve seldom enjoyed a book so much before or since. Some of the pieces were dated, lampooning or lambasting people and notions nobody has heard of since the Roaring Twenties. But many could apply as sharply to today’s events as to those of times long past. What wicked and delicious fun Mencken would have had in 2012!

Henry Louis Mencken hated sham. He made mincemeat of hypocrites. He had a curmudgeonly love for this country, and he often spoke harshly to his American audience. But always with a twinkle in his eye. He could bring a reader to vein-popping outrage in one paragraph and pants-wetting laughter in the next.

He was a staunch libertarian before anybody knew what the word meant. “The government I live under has been my enemy all my active life,” he once wrote. “When it has not been engaged in silencing me it has been engaged in robbing me. So far as I can recall I have never had any contact with it that was not an outrage on my dignity and an attack on my security.”

Mencken certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

The young Ayn Rand regarded Mencken as an inspiration, remarking in 1934 that he was “one whom I admire as the greatest representative of a philosophy to which I want to dedicate my whole life.” If anybody ever stood up against Leviathan and refused to blink, it was he. In the feverish days leading up to World War I, he sacrificed his job as a newspaper columnist to denounce President Woodrow Wilson’s manipulation of public opinion in favor of entering the conflict. As Franklin Roosevelt amassed unprecedented power and craftily angled the US into World War II, Mencken earned FDR’s ire by opposing him and, in the process, lost another job.

His bedevilment of Roosevelt started during the Great Depression. “The New Deal began,” he famously observed, “like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flophouses and disturbing the peace.”

What might he have to say about our apparently endless War on Terror? Or — given his merciless mockeries of Prohibition — about our even more interminable War on Drugs?

About the first national crusade for sobriety, he had this to say:

Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

Mencken was my introduction to libertarian thought. Not only to its thought per se, but to its attitude. I sensed even then, in the Carter years, that if he were to be miraculously resurrected (a notion at which he, a lifelong unbeliever, would cackle), he would give our moribund nation a much-needed kick in the pants. He had no use for whining or victimhood, and the spectacle of a president lamenting our “malaise” would be met with appropriate scorn. He certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

“On some great and glorious day,” predicted the Sage, “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

He knew a coverup when he saw one, and made sure it didn’t stay covered up for long. Campaign seasons were sources of neverending merriment to him. Never a partisan cheerleader, he treated his readership to what he saw as the unvarnished truth about both sides. And when a public servant displayed the integrity to do what was right, against overwhelming opposition, Mencken was likely to be the one voice in the press to point it out. Even though, about ambitious office-seekers in general, he remarked that “a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”

What we lack today, in the mainstream media, is people who simply observe and comment without owing automatic allegiance to either side. Or observe and report with no preconceived agenda. Fox News, billing itself as “fair and balanced,” may see a different angle from its competitors, but it still sees only one angle. Like the blind men in a well-known Buddhist parable, some think the elephant is all trunk, while others reduce it to its giant posterior.

A people fit to govern itself needs to keep its baloney-detectors in keen working order. The people need to know when they’re being duped. They need to know how to recognize their own best interests. This requires sharp thinking on the important issues of the day. In our own day, journalists with the courage and wit to perform this service are in woefully short supply.

From 1899, as a cub reporter, until 1948, when he was felled by a stroke, Mencken did his utmost to help Americans understand the human drama and recognize the players for what they were. I owe him my rambunctious love for liberty, deep appreciation for the written word, and taste for fine cigars. I can’t personally thank him, any more than I can my high school journalism teacher. This essay will need to suffice.

“In every unbeliever’s heart there is an uneasy feeling that, after all, he may awake after death and find himself immortal.” Mr. Mencken, your great soul is immortal indeed. Too bad it can’t drag itself back here and knock some sense into us.




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David vs. Goliath

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After two months of misleading and conflicting White House statements explaining the Benghazi fiasco, more questions have been raised than have been answered. No one should be astonished, therefore, that the recent resignation of CIA Director, David Petraeus, a central figure in the controversy, would be any different in its effects. Only days after the presidential election and only days before he was scheduled to testify at Senate and House Intelligence Committees hearings, the revelation of an extramarital affair abruptly forced Petraeus to step down.

The affair was discovered during an FBI investigation that began in June 2012. Mr. Petraeus first learned of the investigation on September 14. Since the affair had ended in July, Petraeus knew there was no blackmail threat. And he would have known there was no security threat — that no classified information had been leaked to his paramour. Thus, on October 29, Petraeus was not surprised when he was told by the FBI that he would not be charged. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, he planned to stay at his job, believing that his affair, now known to the FBI and Attorney General Eric Holder, would never become known to the public.

Petraeus' adulterous episode had nothing to do with Benghazi — except for the date, September 14. That was the day when, in briefings to both the House and the Senate oversight committees, Mr. Petraeus described the Benghazi attack in a manner consistent with the administration's video-incited mob story. Why would the director of the CIA mislead Congress? As Charles Krauthammer observed, “Here’s a man who knows the administration holds his fate in its hands and he gives testimony completely at variance with what the Secretary of Defense had said the day before, at variance with what you’d heard from the station chief in Tripoli, and with everything that we had heard. Was he influenced by the fact that he knew his fate was held by people in the administration at that time?”

Why would the FBI wait until election day to inform the director of national intelligence about an investigation the Justice Department had decided not to pursue weeks earlier?

Evidently satisfied that the Obama administration would protect him, Petraeus traveled to Libya, where he conducted his own review of the attack. He told friends that he was looking forward to testifying before Congress. But on the day President Obama was reelected, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told him to resign.

Why would the FBI wait until election day to inform Clapper about an investigation the Justice Department had decided not to pursue weeks earlier? We are expected to believe that, with the election approaching and almost daily reports pointing fingers of blame at the CIA, it was a trivial matter, not worthy of notifying Congress or the president himself. But as soon as the polls closed, it somehow became critically important for Petraeus to resign. The post-election usefulness of Petraeus is now a White House secret, tightly held by Eric Holder and Barack Obama.

President Obama secured his second term by cynically pushing campaign-damaging problems such as the Benghazi investigations past the election (to name a few others: Fast and Furious, the WARN Act lay-off announcements, the Iranian attack on a US drone, the additional flexibility for Vladimir Putin, the Fiscal Cliff, and the debt ceiling). The Benghazi debacle alone could have ruined his chances.

Prior to the Benghazi attack, the White House promoted President Obama as a bin Laden-slaying leader who had captivated the Arab Spring while deftly engineering widespread al Qaeda attrition. With Libyans ingratiated by Obama's conciliatory Middle East policies, Ambassador Stevens could attend diplomatic meetings and openings of cultural centers in Benghazi, unshackled by boorish security details. Everything was running smoothly. As we were told, often, “al Qaeda was on the run."

The attack revealed that nothing was running smoothly in Benghazi. The sanguine, fictional portrayal was abruptly contradicted by the ugly reality of the murders of Stevens and three other Americans — by terrorists. But President Obama and administration officials (Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, James Clapper, David Petraeus, and such surrogates as Jay Carney and Susan Rice) blamed unruly demonstrators, spontaneously provoked by a "disgusting and reprehensible" video. This was their story. They stuck with it for eight or more days.

Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

Recall that during the attack and its immediate aftermath, intelligence information flooded the White House. There were reports from the Benghazi mission and the CIA station; real-time audio from the mission to Charlene Lamb at the State Department; real-time video from a Predator drone. All of it indicated organized terrorism. Navy SEAL Ty Woods certainly recognized a terrorist attack when he saw one. And there was a State Department email alert sent at 6:07 pm, less than two and a half hours after the attack began, stating, "Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibilty for Benghazi Attack." The FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-affiliated militias. Even Libyan President Mohammed Magarief called it a “pre-planned act of terrorism.”

Accordingly, the White House waspresented with the following possibilities for explaining the attack to the public: (A) planned attack by al Qaeda terrorists, (B) planned attack by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, (C) planned attack by terrorists of unknown affiliation, or (D) we don't know. Rejecting these explanations, the Obama national security team fabricated its own scenario — one of a spontaneous attack by neighborhood protestors. To account for the spontaneity aspect, it was embellished with the anti-Muslim video. No evidence of either the flash mob or the video was contained in any of the reports from Benghazi. Yet the White House went with the video-incensed flash mob story.

The Obama administration's duplicity in garnering credibility for this farce was such that the White House flagrantly altered information reported by Mr. Petraeus. In his testimony to Senate and House Intelligence Committee hearings last Friday (November, 16, 2012), Petraeus stated that on September 11, he immediately knew it was a terrorist attack and described it as such in his intelligence assessment. He further said that after providing the assessment to the White House as talking points, his reference to "al Qaeda-affiliated individuals' was replaced with the term ‘extremist organizations.’"

Why did the White House deliberately advance a synthesized story it knew to be false? Some have suggested fear that news of an al Qaeda attack would be viewed as foreign policy failure. But Mr. Obama believes that his "Light Footprint" strategy will prove the best approach to protecting US interests in the chaotic Middle East, dismissing incidents such as the Benghazi attack as "bumps in the road." It is more likely that the frantic clumsiness was driven by the fear that Obama's indecisiveness would be viewed as leadership failure. For example, an attack thought to be executed by protestors could be expected to end before military support would arrive. An attack thought to be executed by organized terrorists would be expected to last throughout the night (as it did, continuing to the CIA safe house — a facility that would be unknown to mere demonstrators), offering no excuse for refusing to send military forces immediately.

Indeed, it may be the cover-up of indecision that lies at the heart of the Washington DC side of Benghazi. The failure of a president motivated more by politics than concern for American lives had to be covered up at all costs. When their video-as-catalyst excuse began to crumble, the White House moved to a "fog of war" excuse that produced "conflicting accounts" from intelligence sources. With the White House shifting blame to the CIA, and the FBI investigating his romantic affair, David Petraeus may have sensed that he was becoming the scapegoat when, on October 26, he stated, through a CIA spokesperson, "No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” If not Petraeus, who did decide against sending military assets to rescue the besieged Americans? Only the commander-in-chief has the authority to order military forces into another country.

Ironically, Petraeus appears to have been the most honest witness in the scandal— if only by Washington standards.

President Obama has said that he ordered his national security team to do whatever was needed to save American lives. However, what he actually did is another White House secret. In a recent press conference, in which he chastised Republican senators who criticized UN Ambassador Susan Rice for her role in disseminating the White House's anti-Islam video story, Obama said that "they should go after me" instead. But when asked (in the same press conference) what he had done to protect American lives in Benghazi, Obama had no answer, referencing investigations and muttering, "We will provide all the information that is available about what happened on that day." Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

During the Intelligence Committee hearings, lawmakers sought to identify the individuals who replaced Petraeus' al Qaeda references, the apparent basis of Susan Rice's vigorous promotion of the video-incensed flash mob story. None in attendance (representatives of the State Department, Defense Department, intelligence community, and FBI) could say. The Obama administration, not represented at the hearings, knows. But it's not talking — still another White House secret.

Atthe second presidential debate with Mitt Romney on October 17, Obama — incredibly — said he knew on September 11 that it was a terrorist attack, but this was not a secret he had kept for over a month. It was something we all should have known since September 12, after parsing his Rose Garden comments that mentioned, generically, an act of terror.

David Petraeus, with career and marriage regrettably in shambles, is gone. Ironically, he appears to have been the most honest witness in the scandal, but only by Washington standards. He will likely be back for future hearings. But, given the deluge of Obama administration blame, excuses, and rebuffs to obscure the truth, use of his tarnished reputation to impugn his testimony would not be beneath White House tactics.

There is no urgency to uncover the truth, beyond that expressed by a handful of Republican Senators and Representatives. Democrats, none of whom have left the wagons encircling the president, excoriate them for “politicizing” the tragedy. And the media, for the most part, has disgracefully shown greater interest in distractions such as the sexual escapades of generals and the so-called Susan Rice attack than in the Benghazi attack and the four murdered Americans.

Future hearings, therefore, are likely to proceed at the same exasperatingly slow pace, but now burdened by White House secrets, under the shadow of plausible deniability. Constant, blatant deceit has been the essence of the White House Benghazi story.

Goliath is winning.




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The Loss and the Future

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Obama won reelection, and the Left is utterly jubilant. Obama — jubilant himself — obviously views this as a mandate for four more years of bigger government, higher taxes, more Fed money-printing, more regulation, more war on fossil fuels, more socialization of industry, and more welfare programs.

He made this clear in his characteristically arrogant “my way or the highway” talk regarding the looming fiscal cliff, where he said that the voters have made it clear they want to soak the rich with more taxes. In his hubris, he reminds me strongly of Nixon after his reelection. And I suspect he is headed for the same fall.

Leftist “pundits” are full of advice for Republicans about how to grow beyond their “prejudices” — and embrace leftist ones! This would be convenient for the Democrats, one would think.

I want to sketch, briefly but more accurately, the reasons for the Republican loss, what it portends for the future, and some suggestions (from one on the inside) on how to fix it.

First, I am not as impressed with Obama’s victory as most of the leftist pundits are. The Electoral College totals typically overstate matters, of course. Obama won, but with fewer votes than he received last time, and there were 2 million fewer votes cast in this election than in 2008. As Michael Barone points out, every president reelected since Andrew Jackson won reelection with a greater popular vote percentage than he received in his first run, except Obama. Last time he won 53% to 46%, as opposed to 50% to 48% now. As Jim Geraghty notes, had Romney received about 407,000 more votes in as few as four of the battleground states, he could have won the Electoral College vote. Gallup and other accurate polls showed that just before the handy hurricane Sandy, Romney had a slight edge, but it was eroded by the photo ops of Obama conspicuously “caring” about the victims. It was an ill wind that blew Obama a lot of good. Considering the huge advantage any incumbent president has, the wealth of financial resources available to Obama, and the lock he had on his key voting blocks — in 59 black precincts of Philadelphia, Romney got zero votes! — Obama hardly waltzed to victory.

The markets were similarly unimpressed. They dropped 2% to 3% on the following few days. And now with the certainty that Obamacare will be fully inflicted upon the country, businesses are doing exactly what it was predicted they would: cutting their full-time workforces to avoid the costs of giving full-time workers government-mandated insurance or pay the fines, as well as the taxes that Obamacare will bring. Companies large and small are accelerating the shedding of full-time jobs in favor of part-time workers and contractors. These include: Abbot Labs; Applebee’s; Boston Scientific; Covidien; Dana Holding; Darden Restaurants; Kinetic Concepts; Kroger; Lockheed-Martin; Medtronic; New Energy; Papa John’s Pizza; Smith & Nephew; Stryker; TANCOA Janitorial Services; and Welch Allyn. As person put it, “We own a small business and we have 100 employees, we will lay off many and put many on part time status due to [Obamacare]. Ironically, many of our employees voted for the man who will put them out of a job.”

That will only accelerate in the new year, as the mandates loom.

Obama won and Romney lost for a variety of reasons, some of which the Republicans can overcome, and some of which they will have to figure out how to circumvent — if they have the will and skill. These include:

1. Obama’s massive negative campaign — really, classic negative associative propaganda. The strategist behind it was formulated by Jim Messina. He bet six months before the election that Romney would win the primary, and followed the strategy enunciated by Dick Morris: if the public doesn’t know a candidate, run massively negative ads to create an initial impression which later positive ads will not overcome. While Romney was still forced to battle primary opponents during an unreasonably long primary period, getting attacked in a seemingly endless series of debates (typically moderated by leftist Democratic “journalists”), Obama was free to start running hundreds of millions in attack ads against Romney. The ad that alleged that Romney was responsible for some guy’s wife dying of cancer, for example, was a Goebbels-like pearl of vicious mendacity. The ads bashed Romney for exporting jobs, wanting to enslave women, put blacks in chains, and so on. This wasn’t so much a Chicago-style attack campaign as a Berlin-style one. Only a man of Obama’s metastasized narcissism could gloat over such a low victory.

Every president reelected since Andrew Jackson won reelection with a greater popular vote percentage than he received in his first run — except Obama.

2. There was a concomitant campaign by the Obama-worshipping mainstream media of deliberately arousing the anti-Mormon hatred long endemic in American culture, a campaign involving dozens of articles in major publications, including Newsweek just before the election. (Romney chose not to allow his surrogates to explore Obama’s own controversial church, something I suspect Obama counted on.) Obama could have ended the deliberate enflaming of anti-Mormon prejudice with just one utterance, but he cheerfully let it proceed.

3. Romney failed to hammer home more powerfully the massive corruption of this regime. I would have run hard-hitting ads naming names and showing pictures of each of the legion of wealthy Obama campaign bundlers whose useless green energy companies received tax dollars.

4. Romney didn’t do a good job of rebutting the bogus narrative put forward ceaselessly by Obama and his media courtesans about how bad the economy was when he took office. The recession ended in 2009, and the recovery was the weakest in recent memory, not because the recession was so severe, but precisely because of Obama’s policies. The Romney campaign just took it for granted that everybody remembered the Reagan recovery, not realizing that most young people don’t. He needed to connect those dots to counter the media’s clear mission to push their false narrative.

5. True to his Chicago roots, Obama used OPM (Other People’s Money) liberally to buy votes to an unprecedented degree. Despite the recovery, Obama added 15 million new people to the food stamp program alone (hitting 47 million, or 14% of the total population). You can bet the vast majority of those became his loving supporters. And by 2011, 70.4 million people were on Medicaid — a record 22%, or one out of every five Americans. Hell, even the government-subsidized cellphone program for the poor (the “Lifeline” program) was turned into an effective vote-buying scheme. The number of people getting “free” phones rose from 7.1 million in 2008 to 12.5 million in 2012 — a 76% jump!

This is public choice lumpen theory in action. Give a cellphone — and maybe a bottle of Gallo wine! — to the voters, and then truck them to the polls. The Chicago way, indeed!

In fact, it was a thoroughly public choice theory election: give the voters enough “free” health care, “free” food, “free“ cell phones, “free” storm assistance, “free” contraceptives, “free” student loans, and they will vote for you, even if it costs them long-term in lost jobs, prosperity and freedom itself.

It would appear that we are all Greeks now.

6. Obama’s campaign of changing the subject was a classic of successful misdirection. He was able to convince many voters that Romney hated women. Here Obama was helped by the primary win of one Todd Akin, a wingnut with some loopy theories on rape. Really, this was a wonderful example of a dirty trick: Akin’s opponent, Claire McCaskill, had run ads attacking Akin's primary opponents and building him up as a strong conservative, cleverly ensuring that the sane (and stronger) candidates would lose out to the nutjob. Romney and the Republican establishment tried in vain to get this bastard to drop out, and distanced themselves from him when he wouldn’t, but they were all bashed for being closet Akinites. McCaskill coasted to victory, never having to defend her awful record in Congress.

The Romney campaign just took it for granted that everybody remembered the Reagan recovery, not realizing that most young people don’t.

It was hard to decide who was more reprehensible: Mr. Akin, because after making his ignorant remarks, he refused to do the honorable thing and resign, or “Senator” McCaskill, for her filthy trick in pushing the wingnut to become her opponent out of fear of explaining to the voters why she deserved their votes.

7. There is no way in hell that Romney or any other candidate could have won any appreciable number of black voters in this election, obviously. But he really hurt himself with Hispanics by positioning himself to the right of Gingrich and Perry on immigration (and not choosing Rubio for VP candidate). He should have thought through the issue more carefully, and articulated a more pro-immigration policy that does justice to the real, genuine concerns of immigration opponents, but one more in keeping with our national history. (I have a rather lengthy and detailed piece on this subject coming in these pages soon.)

8. Romney failed to pound home the failed policy of Obama in Libya. Bush had settled with Gaddafi, obtaining his mustard gas and nuclear weapons technology, in exchange for his not invading Libya (this was in the first week or so of the Iraq war). Obama helped overthrow the admittedly evil Gaddafi, and recently denied extra protection for our ambassador in Benghazi, while boasting of his own killing of bin Laden. The result was a successful al Qaeda attack, which Obama had the audacity to blame on some obscure video.

Can future Republicans prevail? Certainly. The Democrats recovered very rapidly after massive defeats by Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984, landslides next to which this election was as nothing. But it would help things if Republicans did some reasonable things.

1. Get clear on the purpose of your party, as opposed to the purpose of your faction. In contemporary politics, the Democratic Party is the big-government party; the Republicans should be the smaller government party. Be transcendentally clear on what that means. Democrats are not (usually) communists, they just want an ever-larger government — they are neosocialists, rather than socialists. This is because the party is primarily a coalition of groups that get money from government or progressive government policies. The key constituents of the party are public employees, especially teachers; people on welfare or other forms of public assistance; attorneys who sue businesses for a living; unionized workers in private industry; and young people who get government benefits but pay little for them (in taxes).

Republicans aren’t (as Obama so often insinuates) anarchists; they just want government restrained to its most effective and indispensable core functions: defense; internal security; a fair judicial system; only such regulation as stops significant negative externalities and other market failures. And Republicans are also aware of the everpresent risk of government failures.

2. The Republicans, again, need to understand with transcendent clarity that people don’t vote their interests, but their perceived interests. People can be mistaken about these interests, and often are. In public choice parlance, this gives rise to democracy failure, or as I term it, voter failure. Indeed, in my view, this election involved a huge amount of voter failure.

So it is that many poor people vote for weakened welfare requirements, unable to see that it is their communities that will suffer the most from the expanded cycle of poverty. Many elderly people support the federal government’s taking control of healthcare, unable to see that in countries with national healthcare systems, the elderly are put at the bottom of the list for scarce procedures.

For that reason, Republicans need to hammer home cases of government failure, not just here, but elsewhere as well. That means that in the coming two years, Republicans at all levels need to keep pressing this administration about its failures, both in the past and as they mount rapidly over the next two years. Remember, the costs of Obamacare were carefully structured to occur after the 2012 election. Every Republican politician should point out every case where a business lays off workers, cuts back hours, or charges customers more, to pay for Obamacare — as an owner of a large chain of Denny’s just announced he is doing (raising prices and cutting hours to 28 per week per worker). Keep pointing out the costs of each and every new tax imposed by that law. Since the Republicans still control the House, they should run hearings on these costs, as well as (for that matter) on each crony capitalist deal from the past and going forward.

The Republicans need to understand with transcendent clarity that people don’t vote their interests, but their perceived interests.

In particular, Republicans in Congress need to resist the temptation to say of Obamacare, “Oh, well — it’s now the law of the land. Let’s try to make it better.” No — make Obama, Pelosi, and Reid own it. And do so with loud publicity.

3. The Republicans need a much shorter primary season. Romney ran short of money early in the race — right after winning the primaries — because he had to spend so much on campaigning so long. While he spent his campaign cash against Gingrich and Santorum, Obama spent his attacking Romney. When Romney finally clinched the nomination, he was virtually out of cash, and could not answer the vicious onslaught of attacks.

4. Republicans should not allow mainstream media commentators to moderate during the Republican primary debates. Pick only conservative and libertarian journalists to do that job. In the primary debate “moderated” by ex-Clinton aide and partisan Democratic hack George Stephanopoulos, he introduced the phony “war on women” meme (as he was no doubt instructed to do by the Obama team) by out of the blue bringing up birth control — the legitimacy of which none of the candidates had ever denied.

And in the general debates, eliminate the single media moderator format. In the debate that Candy Crowley moderated, she shamelessly took the side of Obama, interrupting Romney dozens of times (and Obama fewer than ten times), and at one point actually told the audience that Romney was “wrong” on the facts about whether Obama had called the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism. In fact, while Obama used that phrase in his earlier news conference, it did not clearly apply to the attack, and for the following two weeks he and his spokespeople advanced the false narrative that the assault was a spontaneous demonstration aroused by a video.

Going forward, insist on having true balance by having panels of moderators, panels that are themselves well balanced between left and right.

One final observation is worth making here. It will be hard for half of this country to watch the insufferable arrogance of the president as he continues his quest to push the country to the left. But as John Steele Gordon recently noted, most presidential second terms have been cursed by scandal, war, and battles with Congress. Obama, who has already seen all of those during his first term, will likely find things even worse in his second term.

Why? First, even his own estimates show him running the national debt up to $20 trillion — an estimate based on rosy projections. The final tab may well hit $22 trillion. Sooner or later, this will trigger inflation or increases in the interest the country must pay to service the debt. This will hurt his popularity.

Second, he will not be able to sweep the problem of Iran’s nuclear weapons program under the carpet much longer. He has claimed that his rather weak sanctions program will prevent Iran from developing nuclear capability, and that his Republican critics are warmongers. This is rich, considering that he used our military to overthrow Gaddafi, bragged openly about killing bin Laden (a boast that likely motivated the killing of the four Americans in Benghazi by the resurgent al Qaeda), and has himself said he will not permit Iran to go nuclear.

Most presidential second terms have been cursed by scandal, war, and battles with Congress. Obama, who has already seen all of those during his first term, will likely find things even worse in his second.

We’ll see. I suspect that the sanctions won’t work — without the support of Russia and China, how could they? And have they worked at all so far? Either Iran will go nuclear — in which case Obama will be revealed as having made a truly Carteresque blunder, and in the same country, allowing our bitterest enemy to achieve game-changing power which will surely lead it to expand its terrorist operations against us — or else he will use force, which will make the anti-American Left and isolationist Right bitterly angry.

Third, the effects of Obamacare will hit. If the death panels start ruling out heart valve surgery for Grandpa, there will be heat. If millions of people lose their preferred health insurance (because their employers find it cheaper to pay the fine instead of furnishing the more expensive federally mandated insurance), there will be heat. And if millions of Americans lose their jobs (or get knocked down to part-time status), there will be profound disappointment.

Finally, Obama is now pushing for $1.6 trillion in tax increases. If he shoves them through Congress, and this further chokes off economic growth, swelling the numbers of the unemployed and perhaps pushing us back into outright recession, there will be fury.

Obama, in running one of the dirtiest campaigns in history, made a deal with the Devil to cling to power. We will see what price the Devil will exact in return.

/p




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The Fog of Cover Your Ass

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The White House spent almost two weeks in clumsy and confusing attempts to blame an obscure, anti-Muslim video for the attack on the American Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi, Libya. By the time it finally admitted that terrorism was the cause, a much larger, immensely more damning, problem emerged: almost daily, reports from security officials and intelligence sources on the ground in Libya began to suggest deep incompetence and negligence in the loftiest offices of Washington DC. The new questions, which focused on security lapses leading up to the attack, were answered with equally delusive attempts at escaping responsibility, as the White House resorted to blame-shifting (we didn't know, we weren't told), stonewalling (wait until our investigation is complete, long after the election), and feigned indignation (that the tragedy could be politicized).

And there is also, of course, "the fog of war," invoked to absolve any national security malfeasance that may have occurred in the chaotic, terrorist hotbed of Benghazi. “Fog” was supposed to excuse the administration's clownish laxity during the attack and to explain the repeated denials of requests for enhanced security in the months leading up to it. But the repeated refusals (by the Department of Defense and the CIA) of military support during the attack are even more troublesome. Absolution for failing to help Americans under siege is obtainable, but absolution for failing even to try, despite the fog of war, should not come easy.

The attack, which lasted over seven hours, began around 3:40 pm ET. Contrary to White House claims of nebulous intelligence information, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb was monitoring an audio feed of the attack (in real time, from its inception), and email alerts of the attack began arriving at 4:05 pm ET (at, among other places, the White House Situation Room). CIA Director David Petraeus was no doubt immediately alerted by the Benghazi CIA safe house. President Obama met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at 5 p.m. ET. The first of two unarmed Predator drones arrived in Benghazi at 5:11 ET.

President Obama's national security team was being inundated (again in real time), with phone calls, emails, radio transmissions, and video from Benghazi. In a recent CNN article, “What really happened in Benghazi?”, William Bennett posed the most gravely consequential question: "Why was no additional military aid sent to secure our personnel, like the president claimed he directed?" Significant military resources were located within one to two hours of Benghazi, some in the city itself. None was dispatched. Bennett's article was aptly subtitled, "The Obama administration fiddled while Benghazi burned and four Americans died.”

Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied.

The gunfire that rang out in the Situation Room was also heard by former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, who was stationed at the CIA safe house about a mile from the Mission. Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied. He was twice told to "stand down."

Disobeying the orders, Woods and his five-man team left for the Mission where they rescued several people and returned to the safe house with the body of Ambassador Stevens’ colleague, Sean Smith. Woods again requested military backup and was again denied. He was soon joined by Glen Doherty, also a former Navy SEAL, in a heroic defense of the safe house. Both were killed by a mortar shell four hours later, nearly seven hours after the attack on the Mission began.

As the truth about Benghazi security lapses leaked into public knowledge, Secretary of State Clinton was first to blame the fog of war. To her credit, she was also the first to show a little backbone. Amid the growing perception that both the White House and State Department lacked concern for the safety of diplomats, Mrs. Clinton bravely stepped forward to shift blame away from the White House, saying, "I'm in charge of the state department's 60,000-plus people . . . the president and the vice-president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals . . ."

Describing an "intense, long ordeal" for State Department staffers as they struggled to find out what was happening, Clinton said the buck stopped with her and not the White House. Ironically, she expressed this concern in an October 15 CNN interview, her first since the attack over a month before, while she was attending a conference on women and entrepreneurship in Lima, Peru — at a time when Barack Obama was attending a fundraiser in San Francisco. The empathy didn't shine through the fog; the buck failed to stop at the State Department.

Initially, David Petraeus appeared to be toeing the Obama line of blaming video-incited demonstrators for the Benghazi attack. On September 13, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-affiliated militias. The very next day, incredibly, Petraeus described it as being tied to a demonstration — one he knew did not occur. However, in the case of the safe house attack, he would later state, through a CIA spokesperson, that the CIA had nothing to do with the decision to deny backup requests. Call it the fog of war, but this assertion sent the buck wafting back towards its rightful stop (the president). If Petraeus didn't refuse support, who else had the authority to do so?

On the day of the attack, numerous US military aircraft, including fighter jets and Specter AC-130 gunships, were stationed within an hour's flight of Benghazi. A Marine contingent and two separate Tier One Special Operations forces, including Delta Force operators, were less than two hours away. And there were other, much closer capabilities in the region: armed drones that monitor chemical weapon sites, F-18's, AC-130 aircraft, and helicopters. Indeed, there were British security forces stationed in Benghazi who were more than willing to assist. According to Fox News, the British were frustrated that they were not summoned. Said one, “We have more people on the ground here than the Americans and I just don't know why we didn't get the call."

Had these forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved. Yet Leon Panetta had the forces all stand down. Within the fog of war, he said, “the basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.”

But he did have "real-time information." As we now know, Obama's national security team was notified within minutes of the consulate attack — an attack that began in late afternoon, Washington time, when all team members were available. And he had a large window of opportunity in which to insert military forces highly trained in counterterrorism and rescue operations. Panetta also knew, early on, that the threat was not a mob of demonstrators that would soon tire and disperse; it was terrorists — very well organized, armed, and trained — who would execute their attack throughout the night until their objective was achieved.

Had forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved.

We are left to wonder what really went on in the White House situation room that day, the ominous anniversary of 9/11. How did Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus assess the events of Benghazi? What rescue plans did they consider? Which of them concocted the anti-Muslim video narrative? What recommendations did they offer President Obama? And although such questions are important, the overriding question is Obama’s own role. As commander-in-chief, he, and only he, could have made the decision to withhold the military forces. But, as the story unfolds, it seems that nothing gutsy or courageous happened — only a fretful, indecisive, seven-hour wait for the window of opportunity to close. No military forces were sent to rescue the Americans stranded in Benghazi. Not early. Not late. Not a single aircraft. Not a single unit. Not even an attempt.

Alas, there will be no dramatic Situation Room pictures (such as those of the bin Laden raid, which saturated the media for weeks) of President Obama surrounded by his national security team, making the tough decisions. The following morning, in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama decided not to explain his failure, in his own words, to "make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to." After a brief statement eulogizing the four Americans who died in Benghazi, he decided to fly to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus stood by, hapless and indecisive, as other Americans died. Ty Woods, unlike his superiors in Washington, did not hesitate. He risked, then sacrificed, his life to save others. Marine and Special Operations units nearby would have done the same. But what should be done when Americans are being killed by terrorists only hours away from American forces (minutes away from allied forces) that could possibly rescue them? There is no doubt that any decision to place military forces in harm’s way is fraught with risk. There is also the risk of failure and the fear of political fallout. Then, of course, there is morality and honor. Finally, however, there is the fog of war, which will cover the asses of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus, the people who didn't even try.




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The Intelligent Person's Guide to Presidential Politics

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The tradition at Liberty is to introduce every presidential election witha symposium of libertarian views about whom to vote for: the Democrat, the Libertarian, the Republican, and No One at All. This year, we are happy to follow the tradition with commentary by four expert analysts, each well known to our readers: Drew Ferguson, Jon Harrison, Wayland Hunter, and Gary Jason. There's enough here to get anyone's blood boiling. —Stephen Cox

* * *

The Case for Johnson

By Andrew Ferguson

I’m here to exhort you, reader, to vote Libertarian in the upcoming election. Specifically, I’m urging you to vote for Gary Johnson, rather than sitting out the election entirely, or writing in “Donald Duck” or something similarly hilarious.

Since I’m writing to an ostensibly libertarian audience, I assume that those are the options you’re considering. Because your individual vote contributes to the totals about as much as a decent piss does to the ocean, why bother disrupting an otherwise productive day to cast a vote in favor of either major party? They don’t care about your vote; in fact, they go as far out of the way as possible to disclaim any “libertarian” viewpoint or content in their campaigns. And whichever candidate wins, he’s going to screw you more or less in the same way: more taxes to fund more wars; more kickbacks to benefit more cronies; more tariffs to feed nativist ignorance and hike prices for consumer goods . . . in short, more for DC, and less for all the rest of us.

If those were my only two choices — as all the major media seem to believe — I’d certainly exercise my right not to vote. And in fact, I’ve done exactly that in the past two election cycles: with the major-party candidates, as always, being unconscionable, and the LP candidates being, respectively, naïve and loathsome. But this year . . . this year is different.

I am on record saying that Gary Johnson is the strongest candidate the Libertarian Party has ever recruited to head its ticket; likely, he is the strongest candidate who ever will carry the LP torch. I knew this within the first 15 seconds of my interview with him at the LP Convention, when he quickly showed himself to be neither naïve nor loathsome, nor — and this by far the most important — the sort of personality who seeks guru status, or who inspires (and accepts) cultish devotion.

Johnson will not win. And he will not place. But he must show, and show strong, to indicate that there is a future for libertarian thought in American governance.

Of course, he is in no way a perfect candidate. (Such politicians are illusions, reflections of a better universe, in which each person has the rule of his or her own house alone, and is free there to enact his or her own image of the perfect ruler.) But an America under Gary Johnson would be an America that doesn't maintain or extend its imperial military presence around the world; an America that doesn’t haul off and invade Iran or any other country on someone else’s say-so; an America that doesn’t exude a rhetoric of hatred, fear, and absolute moral certainty. His America wouldn’t lock up hundreds of dissenters or millions of victimless criminals; wouldn’t starve poor countries to prop up farm subsidies; wouldn’t hand economic policy over to Goldman Sachs to impoverish the unconnected; wouldn’t court a new Depression by inciting trade wars and deepening international divides.

Clearly such an America is too badass a country for the cultural elites to allow even a fleeting image to lodge in the minds of most American voters. But if such a vision is to get any foothold in this great land — if we are to pull back from the ledge at any moment before we fling ourselves pell-mell over it — we must show in this election that there is some opposition left, some coherent alternative to wars and prisons and empire.

With every election that goes by, the militaristic oligarchy that controls these United States grows stronger, conducting its business and screening itself from criticism behind the farcical pretense of partisan politics. Whichever party takes the present contest will further the agenda and then, since this will take our nation still closer to bankruptcy, lose big in 2016. The party assuming control at that time will misrepresent a normal response to failure — kicking the bums out — as a “mandate” to enact legislation that does yet more harm. Then matters will repeat in 2020, and 2024, and ever after, until we find out just how much ruin there is in a country — or until we shake things up, and crash the comfortable party.

So let’s get this straight: Johnson will not win. And he will not place. But he must show, and show strong, to indicate that there is a future for libertarian thought in American governance. This election, don’t waste your vote on the big guys. And don’t let it pass into nothingness. Give it to someone who can actually use it, someone who can channel the voices of millions of Americans who are fed up with the system and its phonies, its cronies, and its crooks. Vote Gary Johnson.

* * *

The Case for Obama

By Jon Harrison

I find this assignment, to make the case for voting for Barack Obama, somewhat distasteful, because I am neither a Democrat nor a strong supporter of the president. I am turned off by both of the major parties — so much so that I haven’t voted in a federal election since 1988. I could perhaps make the case for not voting. I must admit, however, that if my home state of Vermont were in danger of going Republican, I would get out on November 6 and vote for Obama.

I would’ve been happy to make the case for voting Libertarian, because I think the LP’s 2012 ticket is the best it has ever fielded (although John Hospers was a fine choice as the party’s first presidential candidate in 1972), and the party platform is one I can live with although I disagree with some of its planks. But as I believe the LP is an exercise in futility, and that libertarians would do well to devote their energies to working within the major parties in order to transform them into something like true liberty-loving movements, I can’t honestly make the case for voting Libertarian.

I can’t possibly make the case for voting Republican this year, given the manifest danger to liberty the party represents. The party is both beholden to, and largely divided between, two groups of radicals: ultracapitalists on the one hand, and protofascist populists on the other. Establishment Republicans, such as John McCain and David Brooks, are a shrinking minority within the party, and increasingly irrelevant to its deliberations. And even these people tend to hold dangerous neocon views on foreign policy.

Recall that the Republican Party gave us No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, exploding deficits, and two wars financed entirely on credit. Paul Ryan, the party’s candidate for vice president and the darling of the far right, voted for all these things in Congress. And Ryan, like so many Republicans, is a notorious reactionary on social issues, with a 1950s attitude toward homosexuality and women’s reproductive rights. Do we really want such a man a heartbeat away from the presidency? Do we really want a party that contains people like Todd Akin (he of “legitimate rape”) and Allen West (“there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party”) running the country?

The state of the party is such that its candidate, Mitt Romney, had to become a serial liar in order to gain the presidential nomination. Romney is basically the Massachusetts moderate he was accused of being during the Republican primaries. Whatever he may say now, the fact is he pushed through Romneycare in Massachusetts, and he would keep important aspects of Obamacare on the books. He is for progressivity in the tax code. He is in favor of shoring up the welfare state, not radically restricting it. If elected, he will rely upon the Democrats in Congress to keep his own party from moving policy too far to the right.

Romney’s greatest fault is that he lacks the courage of his convictions. He should be denied the presidency because he is a man without principle: he is willing to say and do almost anything to become president, to an extent that puts even Richard Nixon in the shade. Thus we have the Mitt of the 47% recording, and the Mitt of the first presidential debate, both dwelling within the same fleshly envelope. A Janus such as this in the Oval Office would almost certainly create havoc in the body politic. Add to this his formidable ignorance of foreign affairs, and you have a man who simply must be kept from the highest place, lest we descend once more into Bushworld.

The Obama record is unquestionably a mixed one, and yet the worst has been avoided. This is no small thing, given the situation that prevailed at the beginning of 2009.

Now to the current occupant of the White House. The president has been craven on such issues as the deficit and entitlements. He has done nothing to reverse the Bush administration’s unconstitutional domestic surveillance programs. The former dabbler in illegal substances has shown neither courage nor compassion in dealing with America’s tragically misguided policy toward drug use and abuse. He allowed Congress free rein to craft a stimulus bill that amounted to the biggest pile of pork ever made into law. He responded poorly to the housing crisis, adopting a middle course that proved the worst of all worlds for real estate, and seriously hampered a recovery of the economy. He also temporized with regard to the shenanigans of the big banks, a policy that may eventually prove disastrous. He came into office even more unprepared than the man he was often compared to, John Kennedy, and he has not grown in office to anything like the extent JFK did. And yet . . .

And yet the worst has been avoided. This is no small thing, given the situation that prevailed at the beginning of 2009. I was opposed to Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, yet we must admit that it probably prevented an economic disaster (on this see Bruce Ramsey’s “Assessing the Bailouts”). The American war in Iraq has ended, and the war in Afghanistan is finally being wound down (Obama’s Afghanistan “surge” was a mistake, it now seems clear, yet unavoidable given the pressure he was under from the Republicans and certain quarters of the military). Bin Laden is dead. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been abolished, with no noticeable effect on the morale or combat capability of the military. Above all, we have not plunged into the folly of pulling Israel’s chestnuts out of the fire in Iran. An American war to stop Iran’s nuclear program would be a catastrophe economically, causing energy prices to soar to unprecedented levels. Add to this the cost in blood and dollars of such a campaign, and the growth of radicalism in the Muslim world that it would provoke, and you have a situation even worse than the final years of Bush. We are more likely to avoid such a fate under Obama than Romney.

The Obama record is unquestionably a mixed one. The man, though personally engaging and far more “cerebral” (as former Secy. of Defense Robert Gates put it) than his predecessor, has been a mediocre first executive. Moreover, he appears worn and seems to lack fresh ideas for the future. How then to justify a vote to reelect him?

Bloomberg conducted a poll on the presidential race at the end of September. In its report it quoted a self-described libertarian, one Stephanie Martin of Virginia, who said the following:

If I have to choose between the two, I prefer Barack over Mitt. I think Mitt Romney is just so out of touch. It’s mostly a protest against him and the Republican establishment; it’s not that I think Obama has done such a great job.

Stephanie, I’m with you.

* * *

The Case for Romney

By Gary Jason

I will be cheerfully (though not enthusiastically) voting for Mitt Romney. While I don’t expect the following sketch of my reasons to convince many readers who don’t already favor him, the case is worth stating.

Let me begin by stating the obvious (but not the always recognized): in our system, voting for a third party candidate is almost always just wasting your vote. Since I have written at length on this elsewhere in this journal, let me simply reiterate that while I would favor something like a ranked voting system, in the absence of such a system, to vote for a third party is merely political theater.

Put another way, the reply to “I’m tired of voting for the lesser of the two evils” is that when you vote third party (or refuse to vote) you are helping the greater of two evils to triumph. Seems pointless, right?

Moreover, Romney (while admittedly a moderate) has a number of strong points (especially when he is compared with Obama) that make me positively want to vote for him. The most obvious of them include superior managerial competence, deeper economic understanding greater disposition to freedom, more realistic vision, and better character.

Superior managerial competence: Begin with the fact that our nation is in an enduring economic malaise, with unemployment still around 8% even after several years of recovery, and debtlevels soaring. Romney seems clearly more qualified to turn this around.

  • Romney, who earned an MBA from Harvard and had an outstanding career in business, views free market capitalism as the key to prosperity. In contrast, Obama continues his college professor rants against businesses and wealthy people, which only discourages economic expansion. In this Obama recapitulates the errors of his hero FDR, who (as Amity Shlaes has argued in The Forgotten Man) managed to extend the Depression through his class warfare rhetoric.
  • Romney is less likely by far to raise taxes. Obama in a second term would surely use his power to force increases in taxes at least on wealthier citizens.
  • Will Romney lower all tax rates by 20% and eliminate deductions? It will be great if he does, and he did do so when he was governor of Massachusetts. One of the advantages of Romney’s plan is that it would lessen the deduction of state taxes for the wealthy, which I strongly favor even though I live in the tax hell called California, because it is immoral to force citizens of low-tax states to carry part of the burden of state taxes in the irresponsible high-tax states. However, I don’t know whether and to what extent Romney’s party will control Congress, so I don’t know whether he will succeed. If he just keeps the present rates in place that would be enormously helpful.
  • Romney’s masterly handling of Bain Capital and the Olympics showed an innate talent for running organizations competently.

Deeper economic understanding: Romney shows reasonable understanding of the need for free trade, free markets, and free labor mobility — not to as great a degree as I would hope, but surely infinitely better than the economically ignorant Obama.

  • Romney will at least be open to free trade, especially with South America. I have suggested elsewhere that he should start with Brazil. An FTA with Brazil (and one with India) would do wonders. Obama by contrast started trade wars with our close partners Mexico and Canada, stalled for three long years the three FTAs he inherited from Bush, and has taken no steps to enter into FTAs with any other countries.
  • Romney clearly seems to favor free markets in energy. He would end the war on fossil fuel waged by Obama and the environmentalist ideologues he placed in power at the EPA, the Department of Energy, and elsewhere. Romney will almost surely sign off on the Keystone Pipeline. He will very likely allow more leases on federal land and offshore. He may even succeed — finally — in opening up ANWR, through (again) that will depend upon his control of Congress.
  • More generally, Romney will doubtless lighten up on regulation. Can he repeal and replace Dodd-Frank? God, I hope so — why not just repeal it and reinstitute Glass-Steagall? Again, it depends on Congress. But at least he will not push new regulatory mischief.
  • Romney seems more inclined to allow free mobility of labor, aka immigration reform. He seems sincere when he expresses support for expanding legal immigration of skilled labor, though I am not entirely sure of the depth of his feeling in that regard. But while Obama talks as if he favors comprehensive immigration reform, he really doesn’t. He had complete control of Congress for two years, and never bothered to introduce a bill. At least Romney has promised to increase the H1-B Visa limit for skilled immigrants, which is something.

Greater disposition to freedom: Romney seems to want to roll back the encroachments on freedom imposed by Obama’s expansion of the progressive liberal welfare state.

  • I am very sure that Romney will carry through his promise to try to repeal ObamaCare, and if he succeeds, it will be hugely important. It would be the first major defeat of the ever-advancing progressive welfare state since 1932, and would stop the process of nationalization of healthcare which, when it has happened in other countries, has proven impossible to reverse. It would also prevent a wave of built-in tax increases, such as the new federal tax on the profits from home sales, and the new tax on medical devices.
  • Regarding education, again the choice is clear. Romney favors expanding school choice, while teacher union tool Obama ended the meager DC Voucher program, and did little to expand charter schools.

More realistic vision: Regarding foreign policy, I view Romney as simply more realistic.

  • Yes, both major candidates favor withdrawing from Afghanistan, but Romney seems to recognize that to simply turn the country back over to the Taliban would not prevent future attacks. Taking the time necessary to train a proper Afghan force may take longer, but it saves lives in the long run.
  • I won’t rehash Obama’s policy of being overly attentive to Russia (in canceling the missile defense system we had arranged to put in Poland, for example) and getting nothing in return, or in tossing the tyrant Mubarak under the bus in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood — a huge mistake with ever more disturbing unintended consequences appearing every day (for example, the recent announcementby one of the Brotherhood’s leaders that he favors instituting Sharia law). Just ask the Copts — which will be easy to do, since very soonall of them will live here. And the inconsistency is breathtaking: we aided the Libyan rebels — even though Col. Gaddafi had in fact turned over his weapons of mass destruction (including an advanced nuclear program) to our country the week when Bush invaded Iraq, and ended his support of terrorists, in exchange for our tacit agreement not to invade him — but we have refused to give armed support of the Syrian rebels — even though the government they fight (the Assad regime) is a devoted supporter of Iran, which funds terrorism against us. Go figure.
  • The naiveté and hubris of Obama’s foreign policy has been evident from the day he accepted the Nobel Prize for “peace,” after doing nothing but say that he wanted peace. The sheer dishonesty of his foreign policy is sufficiently exemplified by recent events regarding Libya. Naivete, hubris, and dishonesty are assets to no one, even people who favor the president’s announced goals of peace and international harmony.
  • I can imagine the responses from some readers: You are a dirty neocon! No, in matters of foreign policy I obey a law older than neoconservatism: realism. We can’t withdraw into Fortress America, and we never could. But on the other hand we certainly shouldn’t take on the role of Captain America, world policeman. We need to exercise practical wisdom — what the Greeks called phronesis — to distinguish (among other things): vital national interests from mere national preferences; sending weapons from sending troops; encouraging alliances from establishing empires; supporting the lesser of two evils (such as Mubarak) from supporting the greater of two evils (the Brotherhood); and maintaining peace through free trade from courting war through protectionism.

Better character: Can anyone doubt that Romney has superior character to Obama?

  • Obama has proven himself to be arrogant, snarky, cheap, infantile, and narcissistic. Romney seems none of those things, appearing essentially modest, decent, and generous — actually having given $50 million of his own money to charity — as well as mature.
  • The mainstream media have been trying to dig up dirt on Romney for many months now, and cannot find one iota of dirt to display. Hence their pathetic attempts to use his wealth and Mormonism to attack him.
  • We might also mention Obama’s disgusting corruption — learned no doubt as a community organizer and player in Chicago’s political cesspool. In numerous cases, government loans and grants have gone to companies headed by prominent cronies of Obama. Not a scintilla of this has ever attended Romney’s tenure in any of the enterprises (for-profit, non-profit, or governmental) that he has run. Maybe knowing you can earn a quarter of a billion bucks legally and honestly makes you less inclined to corrupt dealings.

I know many people are nervous about Romney, especially those on the political right. Romney may possibly be lying across the board. Maybe he will not sign Keystone, not try to repeal ObamaCare, let all the tax increases happen, not allow more skilled immigrants in, block free trade agreements, and go all wobbly Green by opposing fossil fuels. Maybe — but the point I would make to the ultra-pure rightists is that Obama has shown that he will do all these things.

Nor am I under any illusion that Romney is Hayek redivivus. He has what seems to be a congenitally moderate nature, one that doesn’t adhere to a purely classically liberal ideology –more’s the pity. So I don’t expect him to get school vouchers enacted nationwide (as Sweden did years ago), or to end all farm subsidies (as New Zealand did years ago), or to enact a truly low flat tax with no deductions allowed (as Russia and numerous other countries did years ago), or to privatize Social Security (much less Medicare), or to create a vast free trade alliance of all democratic countries. I myself deeply desire all of these things, although I believe I will live to see none of them.

For this I won’t blame President Romney but my fellow Americans. They are too addicted to the welfare state, and will only change when the major welfare state programs finally fail. But Romney can do some moderate good in limiting the depth of our decline, instead of willfully accelerating it, and for this he will have my vote.

* * *

The Case for None of the Above

By Wayland Hunter

When I walk past my local polling place, I see people coming out with little stickers on their shirts, saying “I Voted!” As if that were something to be proud of.

I’m not saying that I’ve never voted, or that I feel some kind of quasi-religious objection to the secret ballot, à la 19th-century anarchist Lysander Spooner. I’m not an anarchist. I remember, maybe 30 years ago, Reason ran a poll asking its readers all sorts of things. One of them was, Are you an anarchist? Another was, Do you vote? The results were something like 40% on the first question and 90% on the second. So much, I thought, for libertarian anarchism.

I have no such “principled” objection to voting. If I find an election in which I think my vote matters, in the right way, I’ll go ahead and vote.

But right now, I feel as if I were channeling R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal. I don’t know whether, or how often, Mr. Bradford may have voted. (Seldom, I suppose.) But I recall his exposure of the “handful of votes” myth. He showed, beyond any possibility of confutation, that virtually no elections, however petty, are decided by the proverbial “handful.” The possibility of any election being decided by one vote, your vote, is similar to that of Columbus, Ohio being obliterated by a meteor strike.

There is no practical reason to vote.

But what about the alleged moral reason? Good libertarians remind us, every four years, of the categorical imperative: you must act in such a way that if everyone acted in that way, it would be good, or there would be good effects, or better effects than worse ones, or no really bad effects, or something. In other words, you shouldn’t throw your cigarette onto the sidewalk, because if everyone threw a cigarette onto the sidewalk, what would the sidewalk look like?

If you don’t see how silly that is, I’ll try to explain it, or at least to extend its logic into the absurdity it’s heading for.

Just think: if everyone ate a hamburger at every meal, every day, no cows would survive. If everyone went to the symphony, tickets would be priced out of sight. Don’t become a guitar repairman, because if everyone becomes a guitar repairman, the world will starve to death. If I don’t have children, it means I am decreeing the depopulation of the earth.

Not convinced? But why should you be? It’s a silly idea. If I had a cigarette, I would look for a decent receptacle to put it in. I wouldn’t throw it on the sidewalk. Why? Because littering is wrong in itself. I don’t care how many people do it; it’s ugly and therefore wrong. Now show me why it’s wrong in itself not to vote. Is it only wrong because if everybody else refrained from voting, that would be wrong? Have we gone in a circle here?

One of Obama or Romney will win, and the election won’t turn on my single vote. But does either of them provide enough reason for me to go to the polls and pull the lever for him? That question answers itself.

But there’s another reason why not voting is not equivalent to littering the gutters. Not voting is not doing something. If nobody voted, well, the parties would have to nominate candidates whom somebody would go ahead and vote for, willingly and unthreatened by false moral theory — and that would be a good thing, right?

To support my view, I don’t need to go in the Randian-anarchist direction and talk about how awful it is to give my “sanction” to some candidate who isn’t ideologically perfect (“moral”) by voting for him or her. All I have to do is point to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. One of them will win, and the election won’t turn on my single vote. But does either of them provide enough reason for me to go to the polls and pull the lever for him? That question answers itself.

Well, what about the Libertarian Party nominee?

Please. When I vote LP, what am I voting for? An organization that, in forty years, has never won a significant election. An organization that occasionally appears to have thrown the election to a Democrat, rather than a Republican. This is not a compelling reason to go to the polls.

Oh, but by voting Libertarian you would be voting for your principles!

Would I? You who say that — have you read the LP party platform? Neither have I. Neither has anyone else — including, I suppose, the people who wrote it. In this case, principles are irrelevant.

I rest my case. If all the paid staff members of the Libertarian Party, and all the unpaid volunteers whom they try to organize, would devote themselves to nonelectoral work for specific libertarian causes, who would deny that more would be accomplished? So if, by not voting, I am somehow objectively voting against the LP — as the old Marxists used to say when arguing that if you don’t participate in the workers’ struggle, then you are objectively in favor of fascism — aso be it. But I don’t think I am voting against the LP. I think I am voting for the LP activists to go out and do something productive. Even the devotees of the categorical imperative should be proud of me for saying that.

And that is all I need to say.



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The Pains of Proflish

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A student taking an advanced degree at a world-renowned institution sent me a news item about a math professor at Michigan State University who (allegedly, always allegedly) took off his clothes in the middle of class and ran around naked, shouting things like, “There is no f*cking God!”

No, I’m not going to claim those words as an invitation to comment on the linguistic habits of scientific atheists. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, I could do that, but it would be wrong. But I’m not sure how wrong it would be to take it as a commentary on the linguistic habits of college professors (of the which I am one). It seems to me that during the past 30 years we’ve done a lot of running around naked, intellectually speaking, and what has been revealed has not been impressive.

I can’t say I was surprised by the news my fellow Watcher sent me. What did surprise me was the reported reactions of the professor’s class. (No, I didn’t mean “were the reported reactions”; I meant was; the number of the verb follows that of the subject, which is what, and which is singular.) “We were literally scared for our lives,” one student said. “The police took about 15 minutes to get here, and during this time he continued walking around screaming.” The complaint was echoed by another student: "It took them more than 15 minutes to arrive. It could have turned into something very bad if he had a weapon on him. It was pretty infuriating to have to wait that long." And that second student wasn’t even in the professor’s presence; the professor was out in the hall, by that time, and the student was in a classroom.

The fact that the troubled pedagogue was naked didn’t seem to have allayed these young people’s fears. And as for the 15 minutes: I’m no fan of the police, but look at your watch and picture yourself getting a call, leaving your office, traveling across one of the nation’s largest college campuses, locating the place where an incident is taking place, clambering upstairs, and confronting some nut who’s running around naked . . . Now look at your watch again. Think you could make it in 15 minutes? Think that somebody has a right to complain bitterly at this complete abdication of police responsibility? Think that you and I and a bunch of fit young college kids concerned with a naked, middle-aged man possess a right to have cops show up in less than 15 minutes?

I think I’d rather take off my clothes and run around like a maniac than to utter the complaints of those college students.

But if you’re thinking just about words, and not about guts, the worst part of this report is the eight words that say, “The professor’s name has not yet been released.” Not released by whom? And why not? Everybody on the scene knew who he was. Their reactions were reported at length. A blurry picture of his apprehension was included in the news report. So why not his name?

During the past 30 years we professors have done a lot of running around naked, intellectually speaking, and what has been revealed has not been impressive.

Pity? Perhaps. But this pity, this verbal delicacy and restraint, is by no means evenly distributed. If Joe Blow from Kokomo has a fight with his girlfriend, gets a little drunk, drives down the street, and gets nailed by a passing cop, no one will withhold his name from publicity — or his mugshot either, in some jurisdictions.

The day after the scary incident, anonymous students identified the professor as a certain John McCarthy. The day after that, the really loony thing happened. An article about the affair appeared in the MSU student newspaper. You can tell MSU standards of journalism by contemplating the following sentence, which is about the weekly meeting of the “steering committee” of the university’s president: “At the Steering Committee meeting Tuesday, the conversation turned to mathematics professor John McCarthy, which students said he had a mental breakdown during a class Monday.”

“Which students said he had a mental breakdown . . .” OMG — now we know what kind of grammar MSU is teaching.

Well, let’s see what intellectual level MSU’s president is operating on. For other people, the serious issue introduced by the professor’s actions might be, “Did MSU know that at least one of its senior professors might be crazy? Does MSU have any way of discovering how many of its senior professors actually are crazy?” But that was not the issue that President Anna K. Simon wished to discuss. For her, we learn, “an incident Monday brings in to [sic] question the impact and role of social media.”

Huh? As far as I can make out from Simon’s murky remarks, murkily reported, the problem is information control: “’The complication of social media, with everyone with a camera and a cell phone, is one that we continue to struggle with in terms of information because the event would not, under (normal) circumstances, trigger one set of alerts,’ Simon said. ‘There’s also the need for more crisp communication about what the outcome was. Whether that would have controlled some of the rumors, tweets and other things, I’m not quite sure.’”

Did Michigan State know that at least one of its senior professors might be crazy? Does Michigan State have any way of discovering how many of its senior professors actually are crazy?

Let’s look at this in another way. Suppose you’re concerned about the quality of some public institution. You want to find out whether there’s any quality control. You learn that a teacher, policeman, bureaucrat, or other publicly employed personality, may have done something egregiously stupid and wrong, and perhaps illegal, while exercising his or her official duties. She’s said to have told her students to vote for Obama. He’s said to have beaten a homeless person for “resisting” some “order.” She’s accused of making a “questionable” transfer of city funds. He allegedly takes off his clothes in front of his students and runs around screaming.

You’d like more facts. But how long do you have to spend just trying to confirm this person’s name? A week? A month? Three months? Forever? Unless there’s a miracle, the information control artists will keep you from knowing what it is until virtually everyone has forgotten the episode — and then the data will be stored in a closed file, no longer accessible to the public. In the meantime, you will be informed that personnel regulations do not allow release of that information, or, pending possible legal action, the city cannot comment on this case, or some other nonsense that never applies to a normal person in a normal job (or didn’t, until the “standards” of “public service” bureaucracies spread into big private companies). And, to top it off, some CEO will entertain the media by looking at her navel and meditating about how tough the times are, what with all these cameras and phones and computers around, ready to convey the truth to anyone online . . .

So what do you think? What are we supposed to say about that? What are we able to say, since if we do comment we can always be told that we do not have all the facts?

The chair of John McCarthy’s department presumably has all the facts. These facts lead him to be concerned “about the way some people made jokes about the incident. An incident like this often teaches us who we are and what we represent. I hope we can all use what transpired after this incident to reflect on our values and our role as members of an institution that strives to be among the best of the world.”

Gosh, don’t you feel guilty? Your making jokes about a figure of authority at an institution that strives to be among the best of the world has hurt the feelings of an institution that strives to be among the best of the world. Or something.

But to continue with college professors, which I can easily do, considering that I am one, have you been following the curious case of Professor Amy Bishop? She’s the one who was recently convicted of killing three of her colleagues and wounding three others at a meeting of the Biology Department at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. That happened in 2010, and there were plenty of witnesses, because she didn’t manage to kill them all, but it took two and a half years to convict her. I don’t know why, except that it may have something to do with the cultural and verbal universe in which she lived.

Perhaps the EEOC is still trying to find out whether the woman who wasted her brother and killed or did her best to kill six of her colleagues is in “unstable mental health.”

In 1986, in Massachusetts, where’s she’s from, she killed her brother Seth with a shotgun, then went to a local auto dealership and tried to commandeer a car so she could escape. Apparently because of her family’s ties to the local power structure, she wasn’t even questioned about the shooting for 11 days. Then it was called an “accident.” Eight years later, she was implicated in an attempt to pipe bomb an academic supervisor in Boston. He had suggested she was “mentally unstable.” Four months after the attempted bombing, investigators finally showed up at her house. She was uncooperative, and the investigation was inconclusive. It went away. Seven years later, she was arrested after assaulting a woman in a fight over a high chair at an International House of Pancakes in Peabody, MA. She was sentenced to probation and an anger management class (which she probably didn’t take). In the restaurant, she had yelled, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Amy Bishop!”

Now she gets to the University of Alabama, Huntsville, where she is known as “difficult” by “some.” A good piece of reporting tells the story. Bishop didn’t publish very much; she listed her children as first and second authors on one of her publications; a student filed a grievance against her; she was detested by almost everyone.

Then, as our reporter says — and this is the cream of the jest:

In September 2009 Bishop filed a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Someone on her departmental tenure committee had called her "crazy" in her tenure review, and would not retract the statement when an administrator gave him a chance to back down. The anonymous professor maintained that Bishop's unstable mental health was apparent on their first meeting.

The EEOC is still looking into that complaint.

I have been unable to learn whether the federal agency is still looking into it. Perhaps it is still trying to find out whether the woman who wasted her brother and killed or did her best to kill six of her colleagues is in “unstable mental health,” or, in plain terms, insane, bonkers, off her rocker, completely gone, in the zone, out of her skull, a desperate lunatic, and otherwise, well, crazy, or if she is, whether anyone should have said it.

A Martian appears in your kitchen and tells you that the folks back on the slopes of Olympus Mons have been following the Amy Bishop story on their nightly news. He wants to know what is so weird and touchy about that word crazy. He wants to know how somebody who uses it in its clearest and most self-evident application could possibly be investigated by a government of 300 million people (which presumably ought to have other things on its mind), because the word might have been discriminatory against the woman who killed four people. What words would you use to explain this?

Maybe you wouldn’t be able to find them, but we professors would — or at least keep anyone else from doing so.

On October 2, I was watching a CNN segment about why more security wasn’t provided to our diplomatic installation in Benghazi, when it was obvious that the place might be in danger from fanatic Muslims. The interviewer asked a professor — or someone who talked so much like a professor that he should immediately be given tenure — what he thought about all the warnings that came in, and apparently were not adequately heeded. Well, he said, “you have to parse the different kinds of violence that were taking place.”

That was his response.

What would you have to do to interpret that for your Martian friend?

I suppose you would start by noting that the key word was “parse.” In normal English, “parse” means to identify the grammatical functions of the words in a sentence. But in Proflish, the professor tongue, which is the status language of planet earth, the language to which all other languages aspire, “parse” means anything you want it to mean. In this case, it appears to mean something like “look at.”

Well, says the Martian, why can’t he just say “look at”?

That’s sort of a puzzler, but I can think of two, related reasons. One, he would be understood immediately, and that is not the goal of anyone speaking Proflish. Two, he would reveal the fact that he is saying nothing. Suppose I do look at or inspect various kinds of violence. Suppose I go further, and distinguish one kind of violence from another. So what? That isn’t enough. I haven’t really said anything. But a word like parse will keep everyone, or at least the interviewer, impressed with me. And that’s the point of talking, see? Ya see?

Yes, says the Martian. I’m parsing it all.


Editor's Note: Word Watch will comment on the presidential and vice presidential debates after the disease has run its course.



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Sticking It to Wall Street

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Hardly a day goes by without President Obama blaming our economic woes on the "failed policies of the past." He has made Wall Street reform a top priority. In contrast to the George Bush economic delinquency that abandoned Main Street, his policies will stick it to Wall Street. He will (allegedly) prevent the financial shocks of credit bubbles and real estate booms. Ever-watchful of deceptive mortgage lenders, he will hold them and all other greedy plutocrats accountable for their financial shenanigans.

In truth, the policies of the past engendered regulations that were ignored, unimplemented, unenforced, and, more recently, applied against the wrong people. This travesty was compounded by politicians, regulators, and DOJ lawyers who failed as well. They failed miserably, yet suffered no consequences. Only the people whom regulations were supposed to protect suffered. But this time, as he campaigns for reelection, Mr. Obama tells us, incessantly, he has our back.

The policies that created the too-big-to-fail banks and the scurrilous practices that collapsed the housing market were enacted in the late 1990s, during the Clinton administration. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was responsible for the 1999 reversal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had previously separated retail and investment banking. Its repeal legalized the formation of today's giant banking conglomerates. Rubin's successor, Lawrence Summers, then gave us the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA), which exempted derivatives from regulation.

With energy derivatives, Enron went on to perpetrate the largest corporate fraud in history. With collateralized debt obligations, giant banking conglomerates (Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, etc.) went on to become giant contributors to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Robert Rubin went on to earn over $126 million at Citigroup for a tenure spanning the company's Enron involvement and "merga-mania" phase and proceeding to its near bankruptcy in 2008. This was around the time when candidate Obama began blaming President Bush for the financial crisis. Obama went on to form an economic team led by people who helped create the crisis — economic geniuses such as Rubin protégésLawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner. As Washington Postwriter Steven Pearlstein put it: “The ultimate irony, of course, is that just as Rubin and Co. at Citi were being bailed out by the Bush administration, President-elect Barack Obama was getting set to announce a new economic team drawn almost entirely from Rubin acolytes.”

As an attorney, Obama represented "affordable housing" slumlords, one of whom evicted 15 poor families from their apartments in the dead of a subzero Chicago winter, two months after turning off their heat and water.

What qualified Obama to assemble a team that would, supposedly, stick it to Wall Street? As the Washington Examiner discovered in its 'The Obama You Don't Know” exposé, it was also during the Clinton years that Obama developed his knowledge of real estate and finance. In the early 1990s, heleft the community organizing business for the housing market — as an attorney representing "affordable housing" slumlords, one of whom evicted 15 poor families from their apartments in the dead of a subzero Chicago winter, two months after turning off their heat and water. This experience no doubt proved invaluable when, as president, he led our nation's efforts to recover from "the worst financial disaster since the Depression" — by selecting and relying on the very people who caused the disaster.

Geithner, who became Obama's treasury secretary, was recruited from the New York Federal Reserve Bank, where, as chairman, he was the principal government official responsible for regulating Citigroup. After years of doing nothing to deter the antics that almost bankrupted that firm, he helped forge a deal (with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, another Rubin colleague) that stuck it to taxpayers: a $45 billion bailout with an additional $306 billion guarantee against toxic assets.

Unfortunately, Geithner wasn't the only regulator asleep at the switch. All of them were. All of the 18 or so financial regulatory agencies charged with protecting us from Wall Street's sordid schemes failed abysmally. And they did so despite repeated warnings by the Bush administration, from April 2001 throughDecember 2007. At least the Bush administration suspected the coming crisis.

Maybe the regulators thought that Christopher Dodd and Barney Frank,the nation's top Wall Street watchdogs, would actually bark. But this fatuous duo thwarted the Bush attempts to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Under their feckless supervision, the capital inadequacies of the two government-backed mortgage giants crippled the housing market. And as homeowners and the real estate industry lost trillions of dollars, Barney Frank took it upon himself to cause further damage. In July 2008, when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock was selling for $10.25 a share and $9.00 a share, respectively (down from $60 and $67, in January), the ever-vigilant Barney proclaimed, “I think they are in good shape going forward.” How did this ringing endorsement pay off for the many thousands who subsequently scarfed up these stocks? Today, they are selling for about $.25 a share.

For his signature Wall Street reform law, president Obama turned to Messrs Dodd and Frank, entrusting the two who didn't prevent the last crisis with preventing the next one. In a just world, they would have been impeached for the harm caused by their feckless oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But in Obama's world of social justice and economic fairness, they stuck it to us with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — an oppressive 2,300 page regulatory monstrosity that exacerbates the dominance of the "too-big-to-fail" oligopoly, reduces the competitiveness of smaller banks, and passes its immense compliance costs on to consumers. And it exempts from regulation — wait for it — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

While 8 million private sector jobs have been lost, inane regulators still hold theirs, further rewarded with raises and promotions brought by the flood of new Dodd-Frank regulations.

Obama brays at the Bush trickle-down policies, but the benefits of Dodd-Frank are illusory, especially to Middle America, which remains stuck in the nightmare of Obama's regulatory trickle down: a stagnant economy, horrific unemployment, and the specter of a returning recession. Regulators are paid obscenely high salaries to protect supposedly powerless investors, bank account holders, and consumers from the wrongdoings of banks and financial institutions. Yet the latter have, in the main, gone unharmed, and so have the regulators. While 8 million private sector jobs have been lost, inane regulators still hold theirs, further rewarded with raises and promotions brought by the flood of new Dodd-Frank regulations.

If the bailout wasn’t reward enough for risky Wall Street practices, immunity from prosecution will make up the difference. After over three years of relentless investigation, Obama's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force has not convicted a single Wall Street miscreant of a single crime, even the imaginary crimes that regulators like to invent. Instead of the stereotypical wolves of Wall Street, Eric Holder has chosen to go after the likes of a Connecticut women who allegedly conducted a gifting table Ponzi Scheme, and a Nevada group accused of trying to control condominium home owners’ associations. Scrambling to comply with Dodd-Frank regulations, big banks are firing, not high level executives likely to commit widespread fraud, but thousands of low-level employeeswith jobs far removed from significant transactional crime. For example, Wells Fargo recently fired a 68-year-old customer service representative after discovering that he had been convicted of using a fake dime in a laundromat in 1963. Meanwhile, the legal fees for lawsuits against executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which received over $150 billion in taxpayer bailout money) now exceed $109 million. Those fees are paid by — again, wait for it — the taxpayers.

The banking oligarchy is doing quite well under President Obama. So too is his ever-expanding regulatory leviathan. The rest of us are left to struggle through the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression. It is a struggle exacerbated by stifling regulations, unprecedented compliance costs, and the knowledge that none of the people responsible for the financial crisis (certainly corrupt Wall Street executives, but also incompetent politicians and inept regulators) are in jail. All the sticking has been to us. Still, as the election approaches, many believe that Obama is the right man for the job. They fear Mitt Romney, who wants less regulation. Obama, of course, demands still more — especially after the shock that his Dodd-Frank reforms failed to prevent the MF Global and JP Morgan scandals. Evidently, he needs four more years to deal with Wall Street. Perhaps his supporters believe that, with his brilliant legal mind, he will find enough laws to do so. After all, he got the slumlord off with a $50 fine.




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The Shape of Things to Come

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On August 1, the City of San Bernardino, California, filed for protection under Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Chapter 9 is designed for municipalities and other local governments; the federal government can’t declare bankruptcy. At least that’s what most bankruptcy experts claim.

City officials gave media outlets the same explanations that CEOs of bankrupt companies often do: the mayor explained that the City would continue to meet its payroll and pay essential bills. He said that the main reason the City was seeking bankruptcy protection was to prevent lawsuits from being filed by a couple of angry creditors.

Asked to explain the cause of the crisis, San Bernardino officials passed the buck. They said that, because of budget shortfalls at the federal and state level, California Gov. Jerry Brown and the state legislature had made changes to vehicle tax money and redevelopment agencies that stripped local governments of hundreds of millions in state funding.

One of the most destructive qualities of statism is its tendency to turn good intentions into disastrous results.

This was true. But not everyone accepted the official explanations as the whole truth. Some conspiracy-minded sorts hinted darkly about criminal wrongdoing in City offices. Others looked through San Bernardino’s filing and pointed to one of its largest creditors: the City owed the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) some $143 million in unfunded pension obligations.

For its part, CalPERS claimed that San Bernardino was using a misleading “actuarial” calculation of its obligation and actually owed something closer to $320 million.

Now, that was a fiscal emergency.

San Bernardino also drew media attention because it was the third California city in as many months to file for bankruptcy protection. In June, Stockton had sought bankruptcy protection because it couldn’t come to agreement with its employee unions on a plan to close the $26-million gap in its general fund; in July, the ski-resort town of Mammoth Lakes had filed bankruptcy (its story was slightly different, though; the Mammoth Lakes meltdown was triggered by a court judgment the town couldn't pay).

Welcome to the late stages of American statism. Government and quasi-governmental agencies battling in bankruptcy court. Political rhetoric piling high. Bureaucrats talking evasively about where tens or hundreds of millions of dollars have gone.

* * *

On July 26, San Bernardino’s Interim City Manager, Andrea Miller, and Director of Finance, Jason Simpson, delivered to the mayor and city council a report called the Budgetary Analysis and Recommendations for Budget Stabilization. The report lays out the City’s problems and various possible solutions — including several that might have avoided bankruptcy. It’s a dense and important document, a harbinger of trouble ahead for spendthrift municipalities and states.

At the start, the report notes:

The City of San Bernardino has been affected by the serious economic recession as have other cities and has taken steps over the last several years to reduce costs. Nevertheless, costs continue to outpace revenue due to increased operational expenses and significant rapid declines in property tax revenues as a result of a drop in property values and decline in sales tax revenue. Deficits of major proportions are projected in all five years of the forecast created as part of this project. To ensure basic operational service levels are maintained and anticipated cash flow requirements are met, steps will be needed immediately to reduce costs. . . . If these measures do not achieve immediate and substantial cost savings, then the City will have to explore other alternatives to deal with its fiscal crisis.

They didn’t. And, less than a week later, the city council decided to declare bankruptcy.

A quick side note: I’ve read Miller and Simpson’s report numerous times in the preparation of this piece; and, each time I read through it, I’m more impressed. It’s an honest assessment of how a municipal government (or, by extension, any government) can stumble into insolvency, despite the best intentions of several generations of leadership — including leadership that fancied itself reform-minded. Indeed, one of the most destructive qualities of statism is its tendency to turn good intentions into disastrous results. That tendency is on full display in the San Bernardino story.

While the report does take off on some tangents of bureaucratic jargon, most of its 49 pages are a fairly common-sense narrative of what happened. And what needs to be done to get the City back on an even financial footing.

This is how the report describes San Bernardino’s financial circumstances:

Reserves in the General Fund were exhausted years ago, reserves in the internal service funds were also depleted and the City has encumbered itself with various debt obligations and labor agreements putting additional and unnecessary risk on the General Fund.

The City has declared numerous fiscal emergencies based on fiscal circumstances and has negotiated and imposed concessions of $10 million per year and has reduced the workforce by 20% over the past 4 years. Yet, the City is still facing the possibility of insolvency due to a variety of issues including accounting errors, deficit spending, lack of revenue growth, and increases in pension and debt costs. . . .

Over the past several years, the City has utilized General Fund reserves, asset sales and one time revenues to maintain City services. To address the projected deficits in previous fiscal years, the City has reduced positions, negotiated compensation reductions, and implemented new revenue measures. Unfortunately, the decline in taxable sales and property values over the last several years has resulted in revenue losses of $10 to $16 million annually.

In other words, it had used the usual one-time, off-budget legerdemain and accounting gimmicks that spendthrift governments — and spendthrift people — instinctively employ when they expect some future windfall to make everything okay. In San Bernardino’s case, the one-time tricks had been played . . . and there was no windfall coming.

According to the report, for the 2012–13 fiscal year, the City’s expenditures would exceed revenues by $45 million. And that annual shortfall would only increase over time.

The report lays out some of the most critical financial weaknesses facing the City:

  • Because the City has used reserve funds to balance previous budgets, there are no reserves in place to balance current and future budgets.
  • Budget choices made in previous years have left the City with high capital lease balances for equipment — and no effective way to refinance or otherwise resolve those expenses.
  • Because of the loss of federal and state redevelopment funds, the City has insufficient economic development programs in place to project stronger tax revenues in the future.
  • Since the City has a current deficit in its General Fund, it does not have sufficient unrestricted cash available to pay its ongoing obligations.
  • The City has an unemployment rate above state and county averages.
  • The City has an unusually high ratio of public safety costs to overall General Fund revenues.
  • The City’s expenses were over budget in FY 2011–12 and would be massively more so in 2012–13 and following.
  • The City’s failure to complete its FY 2010–11 budget audit on time delayed necessary budget reductions, further depleting cash.
  • The starting General Fund balance has been erroneously stated for each the previous two fiscal years.

In mid-July, the San Bernardino County sheriff’s office announced that it was involved in a multi-agency criminal investigation of the City government. The sheriff’s announcement didn’t indicate whether the investigation was related directly to the City’s bankruptcy filing. It referred to “allegations of criminal activity within departments of the San Bernardino city government” and confirmed that it would focus on those General Fund balances, which had been “erroneously stated.”

And, then, the hardest truth: “It is atypical practice for cities to have adopted [sensible] budget policies” like these. That may be the biggest problem that the United States faces today.

But the City’s financial problems aren’t (or aren’t entirely) the result of malfeasance. Many of its problems are structural. San Bernardino’s population is approximately 211,000; that number has been increasing rapidly since the 1970s. Because the City is a bedroom community and has never had a substantial commercial or industrial base, its population growth has outpaced growth of tax revenues needed to provide essential services.

According to the report, the largest employers in the City — in roughly descending order — are local government agencies, California State University San Bernardino, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and San Bernardino Community Hospital. The common thread? There’re all either government agencies or government-dependent entities, relying directly or indirectly on public money for the majority of the revenues.

* * *

An important strategy for avoiding structural budget deficits is to adopt a budget philosophy that can serve as a meaningful framework for maintaining financial discipline.

This may sound elementary: Reporting on a government entity’s finances clearly and for public discussion is a way for the fiduciary responsibilities of elected officials and executive managers to be understood by the public and organization. But many government entities have become so decadent that they no longer look at financial reporting in that way.

The San Bernardino report describes some “best practices” in public-entity financial management:

  • Structurally Balanced Budget. The annual budgets for all City funds should be structurally balanced throughout the budget process. Ongoing revenue should be equal to or exceed operating expenditures in both the proposed and adopted budgets. If a structural imbalance occurs, a plan should be developed and implemented to bring the budget back into structural balance.
  • Multi-Year Financial Forecasting. To ensure that current budget decisions consider future financial implications, a five-year financial forecast should be utilized by the staff and Council. The annual General Fund proposed budget balancing plan should be presented and discussed in context of the five-year forecast. Any revisions to the proposed budget should include an analysis of the impact on the forecast out years.
  • Use of One-Time Resources. One-time resources (e.g., revenue spikes, budget savings, sale of property, and similar nonrecurring revenue) should not be used for current or new ongoing operating expenses. Examples of appropriate uses of one-time resources include rebuilding reserves, retiring debt early, making capital expenditures (without significant operating and maintenance costs), and other nonrecurring expenditures.
  • Established Reserves. San Bernardino has multiple funds, based on different revenue sources and requirements. Because there are risks (both known and unknown), it is important that reserve levels in all funds be maintained as a hedge against such risks. Without proper reserves, there can be major disruptions in services when unforeseen financial demands emerge, requiring immediate attention.
  • Debt Issuance. A municipality should not issue long-term (over one year) debt to support ongoing operating costs (other than debt service) unless such debt issuance achieves net operating cost savings and such savings are verified by appropriate independent analysis. All debt issuances shall identify the method of repayment (or have a dedicated revenue source) without an impact to operations.
  • Employee Compensation. Negotiations for employee compensation should continue to consider total compensation bargaining concepts and focus on all personnel services cost changes (e.g., step increases and the cost of benefit increases). Compensation costs should be included in the five-year financial forecast to ascertain affordability to the municipality, within context of expected revenues.

Summing up these points, the report concludes:

To resolve its structural budget deficit and prevent a recurrence in the future, the City needs to adopt a budget philosophy similar to the measures above to help elected and appointed officials maintain the financial discipline crucial to a growing community like San Bernardino.

And, then, the hardest truth: “It is atypical practice for cities to have adopted budget policies” like these.

That may be the biggest problem that the United States faces today.

* * *

For decades, the City of San Bernardino — like many of its residents — counted on rising real estate prices to subsidize the shortfalls in its day-to-day operations. For the City, these subsidies took the form of sharply increasing property tax revenues; the rising revenues allowed the City’s senior officials to grow sloppy.

Warren Buffett has a famous quote that’s relevant to this sloppiness (though it pains me some to quote such a chiseling crony capitalist): “It’s only when the tide goes outthat you discover who’s been swimming naked.” When the southern California real estate market collapsed, the tide went out. And San Bernardino was caught without its shorts.

The report takes a hard look at the City’s prospects for regaining some of the property revenues it lost to the collapsing California real estate bubble:

There are actually two bottoms for housing. The first is new home sales, housing starts and residential investment. The second is sale prices. Sometimes these can happen years apart.

Calculaterisk.com [an economics web site cited by one of the City’s property tax consultants] reports that the first housing bottom was spread over a few years from 2009 until 2011. They believe the second bottom, prices, hit in March 2012. This doesn’t mean prices will increase significantly any time soon. Usually, toward the end of a housing bust, normal prices mostly move sideways for a few more years. Real prices adjusted for inflation could even decline for another 2 or 3 years. . . .

Because we do not anticipate much growth with housing new starts or employment in the near future . . . we should assume construction-related permit activity will also be flat or possibly continue with its decline. Permit activity within most California cities has been very volatile with trends pointing to decreasing activity.

This is an interesting and useful discussion of cycles in the real estate market. But it hints at one of the many problems that come when a government agency tries to “time” a market. If San Bernardino’s consultants are right and a real estate market has a two-part bottom — and if those two parts occur years apart — predicting trends in property tax revenues at or near the bottoms is practically impossible.

In the end, all the report could conclude is: “The rate of revenue growth has not been sufficient to meet the contractual and debt obligations of the City.”

* * *

Every financial crisis — whether it involves a municipality, a company or a family — has two parts: expenses that are too high and revenues that are too low. The drop in property tax revenues was only half the reason for San Bernardino’s lurching deficit. The other half was the City’s expenses. And expenses are the thing bankrupt entities of any sort have to address first when they’re trying to emerge from their crises.

Here’s how the report describes San Bernardino’s expenses:

Roughly half of the annual deficit is attributed to unfunded liabilities in City Retiree Health, Workers’ Compensation and General Liability accounts.

The remaining half is attributed to increasing operational costs and the end of employee concessions. As early as FY 2009–10, expenditures exceeded revenues and the City had begun to utilize prior year fund balances to avoid service cuts or delays in projects. Because expenditures continue to exceed revenues, fund balances have been depleted and have reached a critical point in 2012–13 where the City will begin the year with an actual deficit and significant cash flow constraints.

Put into perspective, this projected deficit in 2012–2013 represents almost 38% of the General Fund budget for that year. The remaining fund balances cannot pay for ongoing operating costs and large sustained reductions will be required. Reducing ongoing expenses must largely come from ongoing reductions in personnel costs since these costs represent about 75% of total General Fund expenditures. Of the personnel costs in the General Fund about 78% are for public safety.

City of San Bernardino Public Safety and Fire expenditures consume the majority of the budget, some 73% of the General Fund in FY 2011–12. And personnel costs in total account for about 85% of the General Fund.

When the southern California real estate market collapsed, the tide went out. And San Bernardino was caught without its shorts.

“Public Safety” is, of course, bureaucratese for “police.” The problem that San Bernardino and other bankrupt local governments face is that the most essential service they provide citizens is police and law enforcement. Everything else — education, parks, growth management plans, performing arts centers, and sports stadiums — pales in comparison to keeping cops on the streets. And crime to a minimum.

Here’s the report’s suggestion for cutting the cost of law enforcement in the City:

To substantially reduce costs in the public safety services, the City will need to reduce staffing, or seek out contract opportunities for the City’s Police Department to provide services to adjacent communities. In recent years, several municipal police departments have provided services to others under contracts for service. In fact, its common place for public safety departments to share dispatch services.

This is an important point to consider for the future of local governments. Cities, at least smaller ones, may not be the most efficient mechanism for financing law enforcement. As the report suggests, a regional law-enforcement infrastructure may be more cost-effective. This suggestion won’t sit well with many mayors and city councils, since their authority over the local constabulary is often their strongest source of political power.

But, when a bankrupt city like San Bernardino has three-quarters or more of its financially unsustainable budget dedicated to “public safety” expenses, it has abdicated the political power that comes with being the boss of the cops.

* * *

The San Bernardino report notes that “reductions to the expenditure side of the budget are not going to produce the level of savings that will be needed to balance the budget.” And, to boost revenues, it suggests increases in or additions of the following municipal taxes:

  • Real Property Transfer Tax
  • Utility User Tax
  • Sales Tax
  • Transient Occupancy Tax
  • 911 Communications Fee
  • Fees for Recovering Paramedic Costs

With bureaucratic resentment, the report notes that “all would require voter approval.”

In the meantime, the City has to find other, more immediate, ways to raise money. In this effort, the report circles back to an idea that it’s already admitted is bad for the City’s long-term fiscal health. Even though the report warns against paying for ongoing expenses with one-time transactions, the authors can’t ignore the quick money available from privatizing real estate:

Currently the City [owns] 294 parcels with total book value of $300 million and a likely sale estimate of less than $100 million dollars. Given the City’s 18% of the property assessment, the sale of these parcels would generate roughly $18 million dollars. The City may also wish to explore selling or leasing some of the parcels at below-market rates in order to incentivize developers and other business interests to spur additional economic development and development-related revenues.

Selling assets doesn’t improve the financial prospects of a city — or a business, or an individual — in the long-term. But insolvent entities don’t have the luxury of making the long term a priority. They need to survive the near term. So, they sell things.

The report tries to inject some wisdom into the breathless discussion of raising taxes and selling off real estate. On these matters, it concludes:

. . . the pursuit of new revenue sources and/or increasing existing revenues is a strategy that can no longer be ignored. However, seeking to increase revenues that are subject to large fluctuations should not be treated as a cure-all. As was the case with revenue received during the real estate boom, some increased revenue could be short-lived.

Therein lies the problem. Governments at any level are rarely able to see past the short-term. Even — or especially — when their press releases talk about the importance of long-term vision, statist entities rarely have it. Twenty years ago, hundreds of books and thousands of articles were written about the long-term vision of Japan’s mighty Ministry of International Trade and Industry. How the mighty have fallen. MITI doesn’t exist any more.

* * *

All of this discussion is really just a warm-up act for the 800-pound gorilla at the center of San Bernardino’s problems: the expanding amount of money required to maintain the pensions owed to retired City employees. Here’s how the report describes this issue:

. . . the City is faced with increasing pension costs, as CalPERS adjusted the investment returns increasing retirement costs to all its members starting in FY 2013.

The City’s costs for employee retirement have increased from $1 million in FY 2006/07 to nearly $1.9 million in FY 2011/12. By FY 2013/14 the annual cost will be over $2.2 million. To put this into perspective, the City was spending about 9% of its General Fund budget on retirement costs in FY 2006/07. In FY 2011/12 it will need to spend 13% of the budget on those costs, and by FY 2015/16 it will require 15% of the budget for retirement obligations. [This] is basically an overhead cost over which the City has little control over in the short term.

California law grants CalPERS extraordinary powers (essentially, taxing powers) by which it can demand payments from cities, counties, schools districts, etc, if it runs short of the money needed to meet its defined-benefit pension distributions. Kind of like a cash call to members of business partnership.

This creates a great deal of moral hazard. The San Bernardino report describes this in painful detail:

To address growing public safety pension obligations, the City issued pension obligation bonds (POBs) in 2005. This is a common strategy to reduce unfunded liabilities through the issuance of fixed-rate bonds. . . . the City’s annual pension costs were reduced by $2 million after the issuance of the bonds. However, at the time of the issuance of bonds and subsequent deposit of bond proceeds into the City’s public safety account, CalPERS lost a significant amount of its pension portfolio. The market losses have negatively impacted the City beyond the losses of its deposited funds and have completely reserved all the saving realized from the issuance of POBs.

So, CalPERS’s shoddy investments negated any advantage for the City in issuing pension bonds. The City is still responsible for paying back its bonds…and CalPERS can demand additional money from the City to make up for CalPERS’s bad investments.

It’s as if you refinance your home mortgage to get a lower interest rate. But, after agreeing to the refi, the bank reneges and raises your interest rate back to where it was before and then increases the principal amount of your loan because it lost money on an investment scheme involving Greek bonds.

Twenty years ago, hundreds of books and thousands of articles were written about the long-term vision of Japan’s mighty Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Today, MITI no longer exists.

CalPERS divides the payments that it demands — which it calls “rates” but which aren’t “rates” in any insurance or actuarial sense — into two parts: employee rates and employer rates. According to the San Bernardino report:

It has been a common practice for San Bernardino and many other agencies to pay both parts of the rates. However, recently the City was able to negotiate with the employee groups for all new hires after October 2011 to pay the full employee share. . . . The City could negotiate with current employees to pay all or a portion of the employee share. Further, the City could negotiate any level of sharing with its employees and is not limited to [traditional formulas]. Some cities are planning for [their employees to pay] a greater share of PERS costs than what has commonly been referred to as the “employee share.”

This is an overlooked point. CalPERS can raise the “rates” it demands from local governments as much as it needs to; and those local governments can simply pass CalPERS’s higher demands onto their workers. Or file bankruptcy.

In the years leading up to its bankruptcy filing, San Bernardino did what conventional wisdom suggested for getting its pension obligations in order. It negotiated a “two-tier” retirement benefit program wherein newly-hired employees receive a smaller retirement benefit than more senior employees. But the effects of these new deals are still years away. According to the report:

Savings under this program will build with workforce turnover, as employees under the current system retire and are replaced by employees at the new rate. Therefore, initial cost reductions are minimal but savings to the City in the long term will be significant.

Long-term solutions for near-term problems — the opposite of what a prudent financial manager should propose. In the meantime, the City was still desperate to cut costs. Immediately.

As California’s local governments downsize their employee bases, even slightly, a shrinking number of remaining employees end up paying CalPERS “rates” to support the pension demands of a growing number of retirees. This system is not sustainable. In fact, it’s a bubble . . . if not a Ponzi scheme.

Some senior elected officials in California — including, to his credit, Gov. Jerry Brown — have started to discuss “pension reform” as a pressing issue for the state. But their talk remains rather academic; in the real world, for San Bernardino, annual pension costs have grown from $1 million in FY 2006-07 to $2.2 million in FY 2012-13. That’s a shocking increase in a sunk cost — and one that’s not affected by anything the City does today, including layoffs, restructurings, assets sales, etc.

As the report notes: “costs are increasing at rapid rates significantly beyond increases in revenue and are no longer affordable to most public agencies.”

* * *

So, downsizing local government workforces is a Gordian knot.

The layoff program used by most local governments and public agencies in California is referred to as the “Golden Handshake,” made available under the California Public Employees Retirement Law (Gov. Code, 20903). The Golden Handshake, also as known as the “CalPERS Two Years Additional Service Credit” benefit, requires a local government to provide two additional years of service credit for the calculation of pension benefits to “employees who retire during a designated window period because of imminent demotions, mandatory transfers or layoffs.” While it can provide some short-term savings, this arrangement adds to a city’s future retirement costs and limits management flexibility. For example, the Golden Handshake requires an employer to establish a “window period of at least 90 days and no more than 180 days” to solicit early retirees.

This is a kind of madness. Cities on the verge of bankruptcy don’t have six months to wait for workers to come forward for early retirement. So CalPERS’s union rules end up being largely irrelevant in the circumstances where action is needed, like the ravings against “greedy corporations” of a 30-year-old graduate student at a bottom-tier university.

As the San Bernardino report notes:

The cost-effectiveness of these programs must be examined within the context of an aging workforce. . . . the program [must] be carefully managed to ensure that the option is only offered in instances where a financial justification exists. If that is not the case, the City could be put itself in a situation where additional layoffs are needed to pay for early retirements.

That last line reads like something out of George Orwell. Or: the beatings will continue until morale improves.

Out of this Orwellian muck, the City has to keep streets open and police on them. The essential elements, to most people, of the social contract. So, for the foreseeable future, local governments like San Bernardino will be faced with firing some workers . . . or firing more. Faced with an existential threat to the notion of “city” itself. As the report concludes:

The revenue forecast shows that significantly lower costs will be required for the foreseeable future. During this period of time, it has been noted the that Council, residents and businesses in the City expect and deserve a well well-maintained street network, nice manicured parks, cultural opportunities, well-maintained neighborhoods, in addition to fundamental public safety services. The challenge to the City will be to identify what it can afford and how that relates to the type of community services it wants to provide.

Indeed.

* * *

These problems are only going to get worse in the coming years. As the federal government reaches the limits of its borrowing capacity, it will be forced to cut back on block grants and other disbursements to the states. As the states have to deal with these cuts — and structural problems of their own — they’ll cut payments to cities and counties.

And the cities and counties will go bankrupt.

Even in bankruptcy, California’s cities and counties won’t be able to correct their economic models without restructuring the pensions that they promised public employees in more prosperous (or what seemed like more prosperous) times. According to a February 2012 Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research report, public-employee pension spending in California grew an average of 11.4% a year between 1999 and 2010. That’s twice as fast as spending growth for essential budget items like public safety, health and sanitation.

These problems aren’t limited to California. As Reuters recently noted:

CalPERS has long argued that pension contributions cannot be touched even in a bankruptcy. But firms that insure municipal bonds have strenuously objected to the idea that pension payments should come ahead of bond payments. The outcome of how CalPERS and bondholders are treated as creditors . . . and whether CalPERS receives preferential treatment . . . will have broad implications for local governments around the country.

In the weeks since its bankruptcy filing, San Bernardino has slogged along. It made payroll in August and September. Miller and Simpson are still in their jobs, trying to keep things running in some semblance of order.

The City plans to layoff more employees and shut down libraries and has reduced its annual shortfall from about $45 million to $7 or $8 million. But this still isn’t sustainable.

The multi-agency criminal investigation hasn’t produced any results. Yet. Some locals say that it has more to do with political theater (specifically, a feud between San Bernardino’s mayor and city attorney) than any prosecutable crimes.

Even in bankruptcy, California’s cities and counties won’t be able to correct their economic models without restructuring the pensions that they promised public employees.

The real battle remains between San Bernardino and CalPERS. And this is a battle that neither side seems particularly interested in joining. The City, like many bankrupt debtors, seems to believe that the longer it delays a resolution of the money it owes CalPERS, the lower the final number will be. CalPERS, on the other hand, seems to be concerned that the San Bernardino bankruptcy will expose it as another of Warren Buffett’s naked swimmers. Or, more in line with its haughty history, an emperor with no clothes.

CalPERS lawyers can cite statute and weep well-rehearsed tears over pabulum like “fairness” and “austerity” but they can’t get blood — or $320 million — from a turnip.

And the City of San Bernardino is merely the first of many turnips ahead.

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Civil Noncompliance

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As a piano technician I come across many unusual requests, but none so bizarre as one I received some time ago from a man whom I’ll call Mr. Green. Could I, he asked, strip the ivory from the keys of a Steinway grand piano?

I was appalled. Applying ivory to piano keys is a fine art. The ivory on each key is two separate pieces that have been color matched, cut, and glued together so carefully that there is no visible seam, then clamped exactly over a special wafer of cloth impregnated with white pigment that gives the translucent ivory a white, lustrous hue. To ask me to undo this fine craftsmanship was preposterous. It would be like asking me to slash the Mona Lisa or blow up Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. I asked Mr. Green why he wanted me to perform this sacrilege.

His answer was the law demanded it. After searching all over North America, Green had found precisely the right piano for his concert pianist wife. It was located in Canada’s province of British Columbia. As he made arrangements to have it shipped to his home in Connecticut, he learned that the piano would not be allowed into the United States because the ivory of its keys is prohibited by a law that bans the importation of ivory. Hence the need to remove the ivory from the keys.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “The piano was made in 1970, twenty years before the ban came into effect. Surely there is an exception for things made before the ban was adopted?”

“I can’t find out about that, it’s really crazy,” he sputtered. “I’ve called and called. I’m going out of my mind, I’m not getting any sleep. It’s a nightmare.”

Unable to get any straight or useful answer from U.S. Customs, he had retained a customs broker, who wasn’t able to find a way around the problem, either. The seller of the piano had, for his part, contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which supposedly administers the ban, and had received only a vague and equivocal response. If there was a way of applying for an exception, it was buried so deep in the bowels of bureaucracy as to be inaccessible to human beings. At his wit’s end, Green decided to have the ivory stripped off the keys, ship the piano to Connecticut, and then have the keys recovered with plastic.

The Death of Common Sense

The problem Mr. Green faced is familiar. The accumulated weight of regulation today is so great that we bump into its inane and counterproductive demands all the time. Author Phillip Howard focused on this problem in his 1995 book, The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. “Modern law,” he says, “has not protected us from stupidity and caprice, but has made stupidity and caprice dominant features of our society.” His book surveys the mountain of regulations that “crushes our goals and deadens our spirits.”

To ask me to undo this fine craftsmanship was preposterous, like asking someone to slash the Mona Lisa or blow up Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

Social scientists have also noticed the issue. Their research into the many ways that laws go awry has prompted them to formulate the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” This generalization, first popularized by sociologist Robert Merton in 1936, ranks along with death and taxes as one of the few certainties of social life. It holds that every government effort to improve life has unexpected and harmful side effects. In many cases, these harmful effects are so severe as to defeat the original purpose of the law.

The ban on ivory is a good illustration of this dysfunctional pattern. From a distance, the problem seemed simple. Poachers kill elephants for their tusks, thus reducing the numbers of elephants — and, in certain areas, possibly driving them to extinction. The theory was that a law against the importation of ivory would deprive poachers of their market, and the killing of elephants would stop.

Alas, the world is always more complicated than it seems to those who make laws. Now, poaching and overhunting of elephants still takes place, but thanks to scarcity the practice is more lucrative than ever. Before the ban, ivory was selling for $200 a kilo; now the black market price is over $2,000.

But this is only part of the problem. Some African countries have too many elephants. These beasts overgraze and destroy the habitat in wildlife preserves, threatening plant and animal species with extinction. In these cases, wildlife experts recommend culling elephants to reduce their numbers. In other places where elephant population is too high, these animals destroy crops of poor farmers. This problem is managed by cooperative arrangements that cull some elephants, and reimburse farmers for crop losses with money gained from selling tusks of the culled animals. A ban on ivory undercuts these arrangements and thus encourages farmers to kill them secretly.

Before the ban, ivory was selling for $200 a kilo; now the black market price is over $2,000.

Another point that the ban does not take into account is that ivory has positive, non-substitutable human uses. Piano and organ keys are a case in point. Plastic piano key tops do not give the same feel as ivory. When dry, they are too “sticky,” not allowing the fingertips to slide from note to note. When wet with perspiration, plastic key tops become too slippery. A total ban on ivory, then, means that musical performances at the highest level are compromised.

These are just a few of the complexities that the law against the importation of ivory overlooks. Distant publics and shallow-minded legislators suppose that such a law is like a meat axe, and that one swing will fix, simply and finally, the problem they have in mind. But in its actual operation, it is more like a grenade, doing damage in many different directions that no one could predict when it is first put into effect. That the ivory ban would require the sacrilege of stripping ivory from the keys of a Steinway grand piano illustrates the kind of unanticipated, harmful side effects that come with every law.

Democratic Dead End

How do we fix this problem of laws that make a mockery of common sense? One answer might be to use the democratic process. That’s what the civics books recommend: if you don’t like a law, then you write a letter to the editor, or to your congressman. This advice might have made sense in an age of small government and few laws, but it is painfully unrealistic today. The mass of regulations now in place represents the accumulation of many decades of lobbying, coalition-building, administrative interpretation, and judicial precedent. The idea that an individual could even be noticed in this quagmire, let alone clear it up, is fanciful.

Furthermore, the democratic process gave us these laws. Politicians promised them as the solutions to problems. Sure, they ignored the harmful side effects, but this is the way the system works. The modern politician’s goal is not to make things better. It is to display good intentions, to gather kudos from a shallow media and curry favor with single-minded pressure groups. Politics has become theatre, where the politician-actor struts upon the stage playing the hero, and the audience applauds his performance.

The modern politician’s goal is not to make things better. It is to display good intentions, and to curry favor with single-minded pressure groups.

Thus, within democratic politics, there is no way of stemming the tide of shortsighted laws. If you go to the legislators and point out that a certain law has backfired, they are not going to repeal it. Lawmakers passed the ban on ivory in order to look good. They are hardly going to agree to offend the environmental pressure groups by reversing themselves (Headline: “Senator Endorses Slaying of Elephants”). If the politicians do anything, they will pass additional laws to try to fix the problems they caused with the first law — giving rise, of course, to more unintended consequences.

In the Tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King

Is there nothing that we can do to counteract foolish and destructive laws?

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau elaborated the principle of civil disobedience, the idea that it is right for an individual to disobey an unjust law. Though a familiar concept for abolitionists and others who objected to government power on religious grounds, Thoreau's work proved revolutionary in separating civil disobedience from specific religious traditions, allowing men to appeal not to any higher power, but to the reason of his fellow man. Following in Thoreau’s footsteps, Mohandas Gandhi developed civil disobedience into a method of political reform. With his mass protests in South Africa and India, Gandhi showed the world that law need not be treated as a god. When laws contradict our sense of morality and decency, it is right to disobey them. Later, Martin Luther King, another of Thoreau’s disciples, grounded the American civil rights movement on the same principle.

Civil disobedience points the way to a tactics of reform, but it will not itself address the problem of overregulation. Civil disobedience is a tactic of mass protest. It assumes a single, objectionable law so prominent that large numbers of people can be marshaled to demonstrate in the streets against it.

The problem we face with law in the modern state is that there are tens of thousands of silly regulations, and no single one merits a high-profile campaign. To take Mr. Green’s case, imagine the difficulties we would have in trying to attract crowds, and the media, to a “piano-importing protest” at a U.S. customs check point on the Canadian border. To resist and counter the regulatory regime, we need a small-scale, convenient strategy that can be applied in thousands, even millions, of instances. I call it “civil noncompliance.” Its aim is to counter a destructive law by finding a quiet way to evade it. This was what I used to counter the unjust effect of the law on ivory importation affecting Mr. Green.

To resist and counter the regulatory regime, we need a small-scale, convenient strategy that can be applied in thousands, even millions, of instances.

My sister and I drove to Canada for a round of golf. While she played, I visited the home of the seller, took the piano apart, removed the keys and put them in a cardboard box which I put in the back of my station wagon. Then I put the piano back together, ready to be shipped to Mr. Green in the ordinary way, sans ivory. I picked up my sister at the golf course, and drove to the border.

The U.S. customs agent was friendly. What was the purpose of our visit to Canada?

“We played golf.”

“How did you do?”

I said, “Don’t ask!”

He laughed and waved us through. The next day I shipped the keys to Mr. Green, to be put back in the piano when it arrived. Travesty avoided!

The Polite Reform

By calling the tactic “civil” noncompliance, I mean to emphasize the element of social responsibility. I do not advocate disobeying laws just because one can get away with it. One must have a helpful, socially constructive purpose in mind. For example, you shouldn’t run red lights as a general practice. Even if there were no policemen to notice it, that behavior would be both rude and dangerous; that is, uncivil. But if you were driving an injured child to the emergency room late at night when no other cars were about, driving through the red light would be an act of civil noncompliance.

By using the term “noncompliance,” I mean to emphasize that this is a polite disobedience. It is not confrontational, and certainly never violent. Civil noncompliance does not presume a battle with government officials enforcing the law. The idea is to be unnoticed by them, or to receive their tacit support in avoiding a regulation’s requirements. The idea that officials may be willing to “look the other way” is an unusual point, for we are accustomed to portray bureaucrats as rigid, power-mad enforcers who enjoy making life difficult for ordinary people. There are undoubtedly some in this category, but most government employees are ordinary human beings who want to be friendly and helpful.

Government officials often see that regulations are irrational and harmful. Out of sympathy, or embarrassment, they can become allies.

I’m sure readers can cite cases of officials who helped them evade some destructive regulation. My favorite episode took place years ago in Peru when, as a student, I was applying for a residency visa. After filling out the form, I went to the cashier, who said the charge would be $1,800! Of course I couldn’t pay this astronomical fee (which had been set with oil company executives in mind). I was directed to the head of the agency. After hearing my plight, he looked at my form.

“Since you’re not 21 years old, you only have to pay the fee for a minor of age, which is $25.”

“Oh, but I’m afraid I’m over 21,” I replied. “My birthday was—”

“You don’t understand,” he said firmly. “Look here,” he tapped his finger on the form. “See, you’re not 21.”

I finally got it through my thick skull that he was trying to help me. “Oh, yes. I see. Right! Thank you!”

He called over to the cashier and told her, “Es menor de edad.”

She nodded and told me the charge was $25.

Government officials often see that regulations are irrational and harmful. Out of sympathy, or embarrassment, they can become allies in the tactics of civil noncompliance. In fact, sometimes they can be the leaders. Take the case of wolves in Idaho. The state’s environmentalists, hunters, and ranchers had worked out a modus vivendi for dealing with wolves, a system that involved compensation for ranchers who lose stock to wolves, and some hunting to cull the wolf population. This system ran afoul of the federal courts and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which in 2010 banned wolf hunting in Idaho. That decision no doubt made urban treehuggers happy, but it thoroughly disgusted Idahoans. In response, Idaho governor Butch Otter practiced civil non-compliance: he ordered state officials to stop investigating wolf kills.

A Quiet Revolution

Civil noncompliance is more than a strategy for getting by in an age of over-regulation. It affords an avenue for remaking social governance along new lines.

The political approach to addressing problems and managing social life is running out of steam. Generations ago, idealists believed that politics held the key to building a new society. Candidates, parties, and revolutionary movements — from communists to progressives, fascists to democratic socialists — were energized by the conviction that control of government would give them the power to set the country on the path to their dreamed-of Utopia.

No informed person now looks at politics in this way. Government today is more like an ineffectual goo, a spreading blob of noise and hypocrisy that can be neither directed nor reformed. Journalist Jonathan Rauch made this point in his 1994 book Demosclerosis (revised and expanded in1999 as Government’s End; Why Washington Stopped Working): “Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients, but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”

It is also clear that the system cannot be overthrown. At bottom, the public wants big government. Yes, most people are aware that government fails miserably time after time, and they realize that most of the politicians who make the laws are shortsighted and hypocritical (when not downright corrupt). Nevertheless, the public clings to government as an object of worship. Government fills the human longing to believe in a higher power that cares for us, a God-like force that can answer our prayers in troubled times. Government also fills the need for heroes to worship, for famous figures the public can ooh and aah over. Finally, politics provides the excitement of competition for a nation of bored, media-hungry couch potatoes. To get an idea how difficult it would be to do away with big government, imagine trying to abolish God, Santa Claus, and the Super Bowl all at once.

We will have the show of politics, then. We will have candidates promising, lawmakers denouncing, and pressure groups nagging. But as civil noncompliance is increasingly practiced, this posturing will have less effect on the real world. The end point — Utopia, if you will — would be a society where politicians provide entertainment with their posturing, passing laws that promise this and prohibit that. Meanwhile citizens quietly ignore these laws in their daily lives and do what is right and helpful.

Such sensible times may yet be far off. But as I drove away from the customs checkpoint with those ivory piano keys rattling in the back of my car, I thought, I have seen the future, and it works!




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Taking Aim

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What I would like to talk about today is two themes that come together. The first is what is wrong with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the second is what’s wrong with Independence Institute President Jon Caldara.

Michael Bloomberg has created a faux grassroots organization called “Mayors Against Illegal Guns.” Financially, it is by far the economic center of the gun prohibition movement in this country today. It is very wealthy and employs lots and lots of lobbyists in DC and in state capitals around the country. George Soros put some money in it as well; they’ve got some bucks.

But it’s not exactly what it seems. There are 12 people who got their names off this list of supposedly “Mayors against illegal guns.” These mayors said, “I never signed up for this; you just put my name on this without asking me. Or you told me his group is against illegal guns. Well, there are not too many people for illegal guns, so I signed up. It turns out you’re just against guns in general.”

There are another 19 mayors, actual members of “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” who now have left office because of felony convictions or because they are under indictment or because charges are pending or because they had to resign and the prosecutor was nice and didn’t bring a case. With 19 identified criminals in “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” Michael Bloomberg’s organization has a much higher crime rate then do people who have permits to carry handguns for their own protection.

In the interest of truth and advertising, the proper way to refer to this group is “Illegal Mayors Against Guns.”

But I would say they have done one important service. There are a lot of people who wonder if there is an afterlife or not. How could you ever know for sure? Well, one mayor who was in this group and genuinely signed up for it passed away, and yet afterwards “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” was distributing letters from him lobbying on the gun issue — anti-gun letters signed by this deceased mayor. So if there any doubt, well, doesn’t that prove there is an afterlife?

I’m not sure if writing anti-gun letters is the ideal way to spend it. Probably this mayor enjoyed it.

What we consistently see out of Michael Bloomberg and his crowd, including in their attempts to exploit the recent murders in Aurora and Wisconsin, and really every day, is undifferentiated hostility towards gun ownership and especially toward people who own firearms for protection.

With 19 identified criminals in “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” Michael Bloomberg’s organization has a much higher crime rate then do people who have permits to carry handguns for their own protection.

This is rather hypocritical because when Michael Bloomberg says people shouldn’t have guns for protection, he must have his fingers crossed or he has a mental reservation. Apparently if you can get an entire New York police security detail carrying machine guns to accompany you every second, that’s OK. Because after all, he isn’t personally owning a gun for protection. So maybe he feels there is some kind of difference there.

And they put out these terrible malicious, libels against people — like when they say the only reason the person would own an AR-15 rifle is because they want to be a mass murderer.

What a horrible thing to say about the literally millions of Americans who have made the AR-15 the most popular, best-selling rifle in the United States of America, and what a malicious falsehood to say about our police who frequently carry an AR-15 in their squad cars for those circumstances where they might need a rifle for backup.

Neither the Americans who use their AR-15 for target shooting, for home defense, for hunting game up to the size of deer (it’s not powerful enough for anything larger than that), nor the police who use AR-15s, want to harm a lot of people. They have these firearms for legitimate purposes and especially for protecting themselves and other people.

At the Independence Institute, in our legal work on the gun issue, we almost always file joint amicus briefs with police organizations. We represented a huge coalition of police organizations in the Supreme Court amicus briefs we filed in Heller and McDonald.

Just last week in Woollard v.Gallagher, in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, our amicus brief was filed not only for the Independence Institute but also for the two major organizations which train law enforcement in firearms use. These are the policemen who are the trainers for all the rest of the police: the International Law Enforcement Educators & Trainers Association and the International Association Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors.

What we consistently say with the police is that there is one key principle which has two manifestations. One is that guns in the wrong hands are very dangerous, and so we need strong laws to try to keep guns out from the wrong hands; and if they get in the wrong hands we need strong laws to punish misuse and to put misusers away so they can no longer endanger innocents.

The second part of the principle is that guns in the right hands protect public safety. They help the police to protect people; they help civilians protect each other; they sometimes civilians help protect the police. So we are also in need of strong laws to make sure there are guns in the right hands, to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens to purchase, own, use, and carry firearms.

Forty years ago there were virtually no gun laws of any sort in Colorado or in most of the United States. The reason the gun debate in this country has finally settled down after four decades, as it also has in Colorado, especially after Columbine, is that we’ve come to a Colorado consensus and a national consensus based on a common sense. We have added a lot of laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands and we have added a lot of laws to protect the rights of law-abiding people.

Because of the right to carry law, Jeannie Assam, a church volunteer, was lawfully carrying a handgun. She stopped the killer.

The most important of these laws in Colorado, which is the same thing we are supporting in the Woollard case in Maryland (Maryland being one of the nine holdout states on this issue), is the right to carry. Colorado’s right to carry law was written by the County Sheriffs of Colorado. It insures that a law-abiding adult who passes a fingerprint-based background check and a safety training class can obtain a permit to carry a handgun for lawful protection.

That’s our single most important post-Columbine reform. At the Independence Institute we worked on this issue for a decade to make it become law, and what a difference it’s already made.

You know what happened in December 2007 when an evildoer went into the sanctuary of the New Life megachurch in Colorado Springs. Seven thousand people were there. He had already murdered four people, two in Denver, two people in a parking lot, and he went in there intent on mass murder. Because of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, because of the right to carry law, Jeannie Assam, a church volunteer, was lawfully carrying a handgun. She stopped the killer. Pastor Brady Boyd said she saved over a hundred lives that day.

We want laws like that everywhere in the country. We have them in 41 states. Maryland is coming soon. It is essential that the right to bear arms be protected nationally, as all national civil rights should be.

Another thing we are going to be promoting very much at the Independence Institute is stronger laws on mental health. There are lots of ways government spending can be cut, starting with corporate welfare, which is illegal by four different clauses of Colorado constitution. We should cut every penny that goes toward corporate welfare and spend it on proper government services.

At the next session of the legislature we are going to explain the importance of better funding for mental health services — not only because of sensational crimes like in Aurora, but also because of the many homicides that happen and that never get camera crews from other continents out here. In Colorado and around the country there are so many murders perpetrated by people who are seriously mentally ill — people who 30 years ago or 50 years ago would have properly been institutionalized, but today there are no beds for them and no support system. We want to change that. We want to take money out of the hands of corporate welfare, away from special interests and put the money into the community interest of a better, stronger system of mental health in Colorado.

So that’s what’s wrong with Michael Bloomberg on the gun issue, but let me tell you what’s wrong with Jon Caldara, our president at the Independence Institute. In his opening remarks today he referred to the alcohol, tobacco, and firearms we’re celebrating at this party as the “perks of adulthood.” That’s fine to characterize alcohol and tobacco in those terms, but it’s not right on the firearms side.

Let me tell you about two different places in the world. One is Western Australia. There was a study done of aborigines in Western Australia who were in prison for felonies. One group of the imprisoned criminals had misused guns in a crime. The second group also had guns; but they had never misused a gun against a human being.

What was the difference between the two groups? The criminals who never misused a gun against a person had been taught about guns by an older authority figure such as father or an uncle. They had learned about shooting sports and acquired an attitude of treating guns with responsibility. They saw guns as something you use to shoot some game but not something you use to try to harm an innocent person.

Another study comes from Rochester, New York, on the other side of the world. They did a longitudinal study to try to find the 16-year-olds who are the most likely to become juvenile delinquents and then criminals. This means they didn’t study girls at all. If you want to study crime, and you have only so many people you can study, you focus on the males; that’s just a sociological fact. They tracked these young people over the years.

The youths who at 16 illegally owned a gun (maybe they bought a handgun from somebody on the street) had in future years a very high rate of being arrested for serious crimes, including gun crimes. The youths who at 16 legally owned a gun (say they had a shotgun that their parents given them, or went hunting with their dads or rifle shooting with their uncles), they had essentially no crime of any type. So how young people are socialized about guns is hugely important in future outcomes.

Now contrary to this socialization that some of the young people in Western Australia and in Rochester had is the desensitization that comes through too much of our media, particularly television entertainment and movies. The people who produce these horrible grotesque pornographic celebrations of violence, like Quentin Tarantino’s movies, will tell you, “Oh, it doesn’t affect people; movies and TV have no influence on people.”

I’m sure that’s true for the large majority of folks. But if you say that what is on television has no effect on what people do, isn’t it kind of odd that they sell advertising? What a waste of money that must be, because apparently what you see never affects what you do.

How strange it is that these movies and TV shows have sold product placements. Where they say “Oh, if Coca-Cola pays us some money, we will have a character drinking a Coca-Cola.” But apparently on the other hand what the people see on TV and the movies never has any effect on them.

Likewise, in the ongoing culture war against smoking, you’re not supposed to show characters smoking in a movie that young people are going to see. So the producers do think that what people see does have an effect.

So now Hollywood says “We are going to make sure that when a 15 year old goes to a movie he is never going to see somebody lighting up a cigarette, but he is going to see mass violence and gun misuse.”

We’re not for censorship at the Independence Institute. But we are for counter-programming and that’s part of what the ATF Party is about. It is about introducing some of you to shooting sports, giving others the opportunity to participate more often, and hoping that all of you go out and introduce your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors and especially some young people you know to responsible shooting. Which is, as you know, a culture of safety, responsibility, self-control, self-discipline — of so many things that exemplify exactly what’s right about America.

Youths who at 16 illegally owned a gun had in future years a very high gun crime rate. But those who legally owned a gun at 16 committed few crimes of any type.

Some of the things that we are handing out today come from our friends at the NRA. Founded in 1871, the NRA is America’s oldest civil rights organization, and one of America’s oldest mass educational organizations as well. They’ve been teaching people about shooting safety and responsibility, with a special focus on young people, ever since 1871. So there are lots of materials you can take with you.

One of those I especially recommended is the NRA Qualification Program. It’s about the size of a magazine and it shows how you can practice and improve your gun proficiency on your own, whether you like air guns or sporting clays or .22 caliber rifles or revolvers or whatever. The Qualification Program has courses of target shooting you can go through and earn yourself these cool little patches and medals as you work your way up in proficiency. It’s a self-paced thing, so everybody can do it and we encourage you to do it yourself and hope you introduce as many people to it as possible.

On the gun issue we are not only on the pro-choice side; we are on the pro-life side as well. What we are doing on ATF day and what we do every day at the Independence Institute is to fight for those life-saving values of safety, responsibility and American constitutional rights.

We are not just protecting rights in Colorado; in the long term, we are making sure that those rights are protected nationally, as we did in the McDonald case.

We look forward to the day when even the people in the most oppressed parts of the United States — under the sweltering heel of Michael Bloomberg — will regain their rights to smoke a cigarette or a cigar, to drink a Big Gulp soda, and to own and carry a handgun for lawful protection, because it is a civil right of every American.

Thank you.


Editor's Note: This article is adapted from a speech given at the Independence Institute’s 10th annual Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms Party. The ATF Party speeches were broadcast on C-SPAN.



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