Friday, July 29, 2011

$15 Trillion in Hundreds

Here's an interesting graphic made by designer Oto Godfrey.  It shows what $15 trillion dollars (a little more than the national debt limit) would look like if stacked-up in hundred dollar bills.

$15 trillion USD

It's a lot of money, whether or not it dwarfs the Statue of Liberty, but the graphic puts it into an interesting perspective.

Cain Repents

Herman Cain has apologized for his anti-Muslim comments.  The GOP presidential candidate had previously claimed that communities had the right to prohibit Muslims from worshiping within the community.  As was argued last week here at ANR, Cain's commentary and understanding of the constitution was not only wrong but "unfortunately damaging to legitimate Republican candidates who have been unfairly linked to this Islamophobic mentality".

Fortunately, Cain has seemingly received the message after meeting with a Virginia-based Muslim group.  Cain released a statement saying:
While I stand by my opposition to the interference of shariah law into the American legal system, I remain humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends.... I am truly sorry for any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it. Muslims, like all Americans, have the right to practice their faith freely and peacefully.
Thankfully, his Muslim counterparts believe that his change of heart is sincere.  Leaders from the Muslim group say that Cain was able to clear up some of the misinformation that had been fed to him, enabling Cain to draw fruitful parallels between the plight of Muslim-Americans today and that of African-Americans during Cain's childhood.  This was a linkage Cain had refused to making in his original discussion with Fox New's Chris Wallace.

It is laudable that he realized the errors in his thinking and comments - hopefully it will stick.  America is far too torn by divisiveness for this type of behavior to continue.  Furthermore, Republicans have far too much to accomplish in reforming this country to be distracted by demagoguery that is not only hurtful but far removed from the realm of serious issues.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Entitlement State

The Wall Street Journal provides what they call "a short history of the entitlement state."  Unsurprisingly, the essay concludes, "The looming debt downgrade only confirms what everyone knows: Congress has made so many promises to so many Americans that there is no conceivable way those promises can be kept."

The Journal is right to peg so much of our dire fiscal straights on the over-inflated welfare state.  Beginning under FDR in the 1940s, the WSJ tracks the growth of entitlements through LBJ's Great Society and the Social Security problems of the 1970s and then onto Obama's profligate spending today.  While correctly arguing that the left's counter-argument of military spending is a red herring ("But national defense spending was 7.4% of GDP and 42.8% of outlays in 1965, and only 4.8% of GDP and 20.1% of federal outlays in 2010. Defense has not caused the debt crisis."), the editorial is fair to pin some of the blame on the GOP.
Mr. Bush and Republicans did prove after 9/11 that the Washington urge to spend and borrow is bipartisan. Republicans launched a Medicare drug benefit, record outlays on education, the most expensive transportation bill in history, and home ownership aid that contributed to the housing bubble. The GOP's blunder was refusing to cut domestic spending to finance the war on terrorism. Guns and butter blowouts never last.
Whatever nuanced disagreements one has with this argument, the fact is clear that the federal government is spending far beyond its means.  Much of this is arguably the by-product of a process that encourages a lack of forward-thinking.  The American system - and to some degree human nature - encourages politicians to dole out perks today while placing the costs on future citizens.  As time progresses, entitlements are increasingly piled on and rarely are forward-looking politicians able to remove these newly constructed "rights".  Political and moral arguments are marched out to defend these handouts and so the fiscal burden grows.

To be fair, the blame cannot solely lie with politicians, but must also lie with the electorate who votes for politicians who swing perks their way.  Individuals and groups across the political spectrum lobby politicians for special treatment, not realizing or simply not caring that someone else will have to pay for it.  Even the most stalwart small-government folk are resistant to relinquishing the handouts that they receive (Medicare?).

This is a losing mentality - a short-sighted and fatal way-of-life.  Americans have, for far too long, thought about the benefits they receive from the government separately from the costs that are required to pay for these perks.  It has always been someone else or some other generation that will pay.  But this model of government has proven it cannot endure for any prolonged period of time.

The fiscal sanity of our government and the future of the state demands that we, as a nation, rework our way of thinking.  We have become far too comfortable, as individuals and a society, living beyond our means, but it cannot continue.  Citizens need to reevaluate what they expect to have and what they want others to provide for them.  Remember the government does not produce anything.  Whatever is provided by the government comes in one end and, with some loss along the way, goes out the other.

Government should be restructured to perform the essential duties for which a government is needed; namely providing certain common goods (roads, defense, rule of law) that all citizens benefit from and are unsuccessfully provided by the private market.  It should largely cease its role as a wealth re-distributor, both across time and class.  Whatever the argument one has about this program or that program, the fact is they are unsustainable in our society.  The welfare state has only been maintained over the past seven decades because of the wool over America's eyes - it has been stomached because nobody has been paying for the full extent of the entitlement state.  This ultimate grand bargain has allowed politicians to appease both those who want more and those who do not want to pay more (oftentimes the same people).  But the free lunch has ended and Americans must reconcile themselves to reality - we can never over the long-run get more than we produce.  Americans must realize that government is not a magical tool to solve society's woes or to enact some vision of morality, but a limited means of coordinating essential services that a society needs.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Not Such a Hard Deadline

According to a New York Times report, August 2nd is not really the "hard deadline" that the administration has been arguing will signify the end of the federal government's ability to pay its bills.  For months pressure has been building to raise the debt limit by this date to avoid the catastrophic event of default.  However, as the Times reports it seems that there is at least another week of cash available to pay the government's bills.
It turns out the federal government is sitting on some extra cash.  
Thanks to an inflow of tax payments and maneuvering by the Treasury Department, the government can probably continue to pay all of its bills for several days after Aug. 2, providing potentially critical breathing room for Congress to raise the debt ceiling, according to estimates by several Wall Street banks and a Washington research organization.  
The consensus is that the government will not run short of money until Aug. 10, when it would be unable to cut millions of Social Security checks without borrowing more money. ...The government will exhaust its ability to borrow more money on Aug. 2, which is equivalent to maxing out a credit card. But there still will be cash in the federal wallet.  Some Republicans have expressed skepticism about the Aug. 2 deadline, describing it as an artificial line drawn by the Obama administration for political reasons. Analysts emphasize, however, that the deadline is real; it’s just the date that is inexact.
Obviously this does not obviate the need for some deal to, at least in the short-run, raise the debt ceiling with concomitant cuts in spending and some tax reform.  It does however provide the markets with some much needed time before "crisis" hits.  If these numbers are legitimate, it would be prudent for the White House and congressional leaders to seize upon them to quiet market psychology.  Winning a political battle is not worth sinking the economy.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Redefining Poverty

There is a problem of definitions in American politics.  Although not a new phenomenon, it is unfortunately one that is rarely discussed.  In many instances, challenging the accepted political definition of certain words leads to harsh, acerbic, and often unwarranted attacks by those who wish to defend a political definition for their own partisan uses.

In a recent report, the Heritage Foundation has courageously taken a stand against the definition of one of these words - "Poverty".  The abstract to the full report states the following:
For decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty,” but the bureau’s definition of poverty differs widely from that held by most Americans. In fact, other government surveys show that most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs, including medical care. Some poor Americans do experience significant hardships, including temporary food shortages or inadequate housing, but these individuals are a minority within the overall poverty population. Poverty remains an issue of serious social concern, but accurate information about that problem is essential in crafting wise public policy. Exaggeration and misinformation about poverty obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem.
The report continues by discussing the standard of living experienced by most "poor" Americans and how high these are, both in historical comparisons and vis-à-vis other countries.  It makes the key argument that there is a need to separate the truly destitute (eg. those that chronically lack shelter, food, or clothing) from those that are just defined as poor.  Due to limited resources, this expansive definition of poverty has not only injured the truly destitute but provided for those that are arguably not needy.

The U.S. Census Bureau, which determines the poverty thresholds, bases their calculation of these thresholds on a 1963 study that looked at the Department of Agriculture's low cost food plan.  Surprisingly, it was not designed to reflect the daily needs of an individual or family.  "...[They] did not develop the poverty thresholds as a standard budget... a list of goods and services that a family of a specified size and composition would need to live at a designated level of well being." 

While the Census Bureau's "poverty thresholds" are only used for statistical purposes, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) further complicates issues by setting forth "poverty guidelines" for administrative purposes.  While these are generally based on the Census Bureau's numbers they are modified for various programs (for instance scaled up by some percentage).  These guidelines are what are used in most welfare programs.

Arguably both the Census Bureau's and HHS's definitions are exceedingly arbitrary.  As the Heritage report empirically supports, far too many are able to achieve substantial luxuries while nevertheless being deemed poor by the government.

A secondary source of definitional challenge comes from politicians who often use the term "poverty" in a relative sense.  A relative definition of poverty signifies that poverty is determined by some distance from a measure of "middle-class" - for instance the median income. This necessarily implies that the problem of poverty can never be solved, unless all incomes become very narrowly distributed around a median income.  Taken to its logical conclusion, in some perverse world, poverty could easily be eradicated by evaporating the wealth of the richest in a country without any concomitant change in the position of the poorest. By thus diminishing the "wealth gap," relative poverty would no longer exist. Obviously such a precept is laughable - no state would be better off by removing wealth from society - but it nevertheless is the natural conclusion of a doctrine of relative poverty.  In reality, "relative poverty" is nothing but a euphemism for "income inequality."

Instead, poverty should be measured in relation to what a person needs to achieve certain necessities, such as food, shelter, and clothing. By using an such an absolute measure, poverty is defined by essential characteristics not an arbitrary statistical formulation or relative comparison. This is undoubtedly a more just definition of poverty and puts the state in a better position to provide resources to alleviate poverty. It also provides proponents of the welfare state with a better position from which to defend the need for state assistance in eradicating poverty.

[By claiming the American definition of poverty is wrong, one does not mean there are not people who truly are in need, nor that there are not those who are truly poor in America.  But it does imply that a changed definition can have significant implications for welfare policies.]

It is to be expected that vested interests will attempt to avoid any discussion, let alone any changes to the definition of poverty.  Expansive definitions of poverty allow numerous constituents (particularly but not exclusively of the Democrats) to gain benefits at the expense of others.  It is unlikely that recipients of handouts (whether low- or high-income) will be willingly to abdicate their lucrative positions.  This is unfortunate and unfair.  In such times of economic difficulty and budgetary disorder it is necessary to carefully study if our current definitions and resulting policies have stepped beyond what is appropriate and into the realm of social and economic largess.

Arguably, much of our welfare state has become a system of wealth redistribution rather than a social safety net.  This is not so much a critique of the concept of the welfare state but of its abuse to fulfill abstract notions of social justice.  As Heritage points out, our working definition of poverty has become one much more about "income 'inequality'" than one of need.  This has arguably caused the state to venture far outside of its appropriate bounds and has indubitably contributed to our expanding fiscal woes.  According to the authors of the study, "President Obama plans to make this situation worse by creating a new 'poverty' measure that deliberately severs all connection between 'poverty' and actual deprivation... giving the President public relations ammunition for his 'spread-the-wealth' agenda."  A redefinition of "poverty" to more accurately reflect individuals' needs may not only help alleviate America's budgetary problems but allow a misappropriation of the system to revert to its moral underpinnings.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Cain and Un-Able

Herman Cain should be ashamed.  In a weekend interview with Fox's Chris Wallace, the Republican presidential candidate argued that communities have a right to ban the construction of mosques.  Cain argued that
[o]ur Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. Islam combines church and state. They're using the church part of our First Amendment to infuse their morals in that community, and the people of that community do not like it. They disagree with it.
Cain's interpretation of the First Amendment is undeniably erroneous.  The separation of church and state is meant to both protect religious institutions from undue influence from the government and protect individuals from undue influence from a state religion.  It was never meant to be used as a weapon by communities to persecute or restrict those of another faith.

Even if one assumes that Cain's understanding of Islam is correct - namely that as a religion it is unable to separate its religious doctrines from its conceptualization of the rule of law - his remedy is far from appropriate.  Religions or other groups that profess ideologies that run counter to precepts in the constitution are not to be repressed due to their beliefs.  Every Muslim may want to turn the United States into an Islamic state (most assuredly do not), yet that would not warrant preventing them from practicing or even preaching their ideas. 

Instead, it is the responsibility of the state to disallow violations of the constitution.  The courts, for instance, should strike down laws and regulations that violate the precept of separation of church and state, whether such laws are based in sharia, Christian or Jewish law.  If such checks function properly (and they largely do), from the perspective of the First Amendment there should be little reason to interfere with the religious practices of any group in America.

Protection of minority religions is precisely why the concept of separation of church and state is necessary.  Muslim-Americans should be protected by it not persecuted under it.  Whatever their beliefs may be, as long as they stay within the community and are not being forced upon others they should have the right to worship as they see fit.  Only when such forms of worship cross the line and lead to religiously-based law should the state step-in to prevent such behavior.  A mosque in Tennessee is absolutely acceptable; a law requiring the donning of burqas is not.

Cain's understanding of the constitution and his comments are an embarrassment to all Republicans.  Not that this long-shot candidate was every taken seriously, but his perspective is unfortunately damaging to legitimate Republican candidates who have been unfairly linked to this Islamophobic mentality. Republicans need to disavow such candidates and rhetoric if they hope to be taken seriously amongst the pivotal independent voters.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Obesity Isn't Abuse

The media has been aflame with a recent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that advocates removing severely obese children from their parents.  People are right to be concerned about unjustified state intervention within the family.  Children should not be removed from the home except under the most excepting situations.

However, when one pushes aside the media firestorm and actually reads the original JAMA commentary, the author's claims are less "nanny state" than some pundits choose to portray.  The authors state:
...[P]oor parenting is analogous to secondhand smoke in the home—a condition associated with adverse health consequences for the child, but not warranting legal intervention.   
...State intervention may serve the best interests of many children with life-threatening obesity, comprising the only realistic way to control harmful behaviors. Child protective services typically provide intermediate options such as in-home social supports, parenting training, counseling, and financial assistance, that may address underlying problems without resorting to removal. These less burdensome forms of legal intervention may be sufficient and therefore preferable in many cases. 
...In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable from a legal standpoint because of imminent health risks and the parents' chronic failure to address medical problems. 
...Nevertheless, state intervention would clearly not be desirable or practical, and probably not be legally justifiable, for most of the approximately 2 million children in the United States with a BMI at or beyond the 99th percentile.
The authors clearly address that such instances of overt state intervention should be severely limited.  They are also correct in stating that "[d]espite a well-established constitutional right of parents to raise their children as they choose, the state may intervene to protect the child's interests."  One of the primary roles of the state is to protect individuals from abuse or injury caused by others.  This constitutional protection has to be extended to children as well - few would dispute such an argument.

Nevertheless, while the author's argument is much more narrow than the media has thus far portrayed, it does venture a bit outside of what is acceptable.  Obesity isn't abuse.  At most, obesity may be an indicator of potential abuse.  There are numerous causes of obesity in children.  Accordingly, in cases of morbid obesity it may be appropriate to investigate a home situation to determine if abuse - whether neglect or emotional or physical abuse - is occurring.  However, obesity alone should never be justification for the removal of a child from his or her parents.  This, as many have pointed out, gives the state far too much power to determine what is and what is not right for an individual. 

Jonah Goldberg stated the problem aptly.  "Once you establish the idea that the state can take away kids from loving parents because the state thinks they're not good parents, you really are off to the races."

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Message from Chaz

Charles Krauthammer sends a message of warning to the GOP to not take the debt limit fight to the cliff.  Arguing that Obama has politically "outmaneuvered" the Republicans, he believes that the GOP needs to forgo a large reform package in order to "call Obama's bluff".  Instead they should opt for a short-term package and then address the reform issues later, putting the burden of failure on the Democrats.
If conservatives really want to get the nation’s spending under control, the only way is to win the presidency. Put the question to the country and let the people decide. To seriously jeopardize the election now in pursuit of a long-term, small-government, Ryan-like reform that is inherently unreachable without control of the White House may be good for the soul. But it could very well wreck the cause.
This seems to be sage advice.  As John Podhoretz reports at Commentary, a recent Quinnipiac poll suggests that if the US defaults on its debt, Republicans will be blamed by a margin of 48-34.  Republicans are right to be angry at the left's intransigence and unwillingness to seriously address our crumbling fiscal condition and are correct in the prescribed medicine of entitlement and tax reform.  Nevertheless, they must not lose perspective of the broader conflict.  It will be impossible to make the needed ideological shifts in our government, if the GOP cannot maintain a position of leadership.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The McConnell Escape Plan

Poor Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is getting slammed for what he has called "a sort of last-choice option[in the debt debate]."  The senate minority leader has proposed what seems to be a reasonable way for the Republicans to escape from the stalled negotiations over the debt limit, while putting the Democrats on the defensive.  Yet, very few seem to be thrilled with McConnell's proposal.
The proposed plan would allow Obama to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling at set times and set amounts with Congress possessing the right to prevent an increase with a 2/3 vote.  This would go into effect without any deal on taxes, entitlement reform, or spending cuts.
At first glance, such a proposal appears to be a timid withdrawal and much of the far right base is livid.  Over at RedState, Erick Erickson calls McConnell "Pontius Pilate" for his "historic capitulation".  Michelle Malkin howls that it is "another mortifying McConnell head-banging-against-the-wall moment."

While the base is right to be angry at missing the opportunity to really reform the system, their anger is woefully misplaced.  McConnell's plan certainly is not optimal.  Any ideal plan should reform both the tax and entitlement systems.  However, it is a second-best backup plan - one that is preferable to realizing too late that the Democrat's truly are willing to sink the country's economy in order to maintain a surfeit of entitlements.

The Wall Street Journal spells out the logic the best.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday he's concluded that no deal to raise the debt ceiling in return for serious spending restraint is possible with President Obama, and who can blame him? 
The debt ceiling is going to be increased one way or another, and the only question has been what if anything Republicans could get in return. If Mr. Obama insists on a tax increase, and Republicans won't vote for one, then what's the alternative to Mr. McConnell's maneuver?  
Republicans who say they can use the debt limit to force Democrats to agree to a balanced budget amendment are dreaming. Such an amendment won't get the two-thirds vote to pass the Senate, but it would give every Democrat running for re-election next year a chance to vote for it and claim to be a fiscal conservative.  
Even if Mr. Obama gets his debt-limit increase without any spending cuts, he will pay a price for the privilege. He'll have reinforced his well-earned reputation as a spender with no modern peer. He'll own the record deficits and fast-rising debt. And he'll own the U.S. credit-rating downgrade to AA if Standard & Poor's so decides.  
We'd far prefer a bipartisan deal to cut spending and reform entitlements without a tax increase. But if Mr. Obama won't go along, there's no reason Republicans should help him dodge the political consequences by committing debt-limit harakiri.
Essentially, if no deal is possible then McConnell's plan lets Obama take the fall for raising the debt ceiling without cuts (a surefire way to look like an economic dunce), absolve the Republicans of charges of being obstinate and causing economic turmoil, and salvage the economy in the short-run in order to fight the entitlement battle another day.  The alternatives?  Sign on to the Democrat's plan or allow the economy to run off a cliff.  If a deal with the Democrats truly isn't possible, the McConnell plan seems like a healthy way out.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dying Gasps of American Liberalism?

Modern American liberalism is far from dead - there are still far too many willing to blindly accept its maxims whole cloth.  Nevertheless, a recent speech by Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison clearly displays the intellectual turmoil that is undermining the far left's worldview and reveals that even the stalwarts may be choking for air.

In a speech at the Campus Progress National Conference (see video below at 16:30), Ellison accuses conservatives of "want[ing] mom to get back in the kitchen, and take her shoes off, and get pregnant....  [Conservatives] are offended by a strong, powerful women [sic]."  Ellison's desire to harp on such tired and outmoded rhetoric speaks volumes about the left's waning star.

The unavoidable fact is that today's conservatism undeniably does not ascribe to such sexist notions.  The left, however, needs to drum-up conflicts between women and men (just like between races) because its intellectual foundations are firmly rooted in such assumptions.  Modern American liberalism views the world through a lens of conflict between the powerful (who are morally culpable in their mind) and the oppressed. 

But as progress has demonstrated, the old-fashioned view of the world as a battle between underdog and "overdog" has been proven false.  Because of this, nothing is more threatening to the far left than a successful conservative women (or minority), who simply by existing not only disproves the powerful-oppressed dichotomy but soundly rejects leftist ideology.

As Ellison demonstrates, this leads the most ideologically-blinded liberal through severe cognitive contortions in order to maintain their long-held but misguided beliefs.  Ellison concludes his argument by stating, "And here is the sad part, some of them are women themselves - Michele Bachmann being an example."  There is nothing more laughable than arguing that strong, empowered, confident and successful, conservative women have achieved so much (and daresay are running for president) in order to put themselves "back in the kitchen".

Such statements should be easily dismissed except for the fact that they shed so much light on the state of the far left.  The movement, which had its shining moment some four decades ago, struggles to maintain relevance by consistently reinventing bogeymen.  After defeating a number of entrenched enemies (sexism and racism) in the 1960s, they are compelled to deny their own successes in order to justify their continued existence.  Such thinking is backwards and detrimental and the likes of Ellison should be embarrassed; not so much for the lunacy of this argument but for the fact that it nakedly displays the bankruptcy of their ideology.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Taxing Mentality

Tensions have been mounting as the White House and congressional leaders have failed to agree on a package to resolve the impending debt-limit crisis.  Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, have all resolutely stood firm in opposing any tax increases as part of a deal to raise the debt-limit.

The GOP leadership is absolutely correct in their obstinacy.  While ultimately some short-run tax increases may be necessary to pay-off the monumental heap of debt this country has imprudently managed to accumulate, the Democrats seemingly do not understand the need to spend less than the federal government takes in.  Until the Democrats show an understanding of what taxes are for - namely to pay for the essential services required by this country - no tax increases should be considered.

Mona Charen highlights the backwards thinking of the left in an editorial at NRO.
It is becoming a verbal tic — the tendency on the part of the president to tell wealthy Americans (“people like me,” he’s always careful to add) that they have made more than enough money and will have to cough up more of it for the government. Speaking for himself on July 11, the president offered that he had “hundreds of thousands of dollars that I don’t need.” 
The president is of course welcome to donate as much of his extra money as he likes to the federal treasury. He knows Timothy Geithner personally and can probably get a guarantee that his check will be cashed without delay. And since the president is so ready to impute unpleasant motives (like greed) to those who oppose tax increases, perhaps we should impute some sort of moral failing to him for not having thus far contributed his spare change to the government.
The government should never be in a position to determine who has "enough" and thus claim a moral right to take "excess" from an individual.  The government's place is to provide a set of essential services - military, police force, infrastructure, and arguably some minimal safety net (to minimize social disruption).  The need for taxes should be based not on some arbitrary definition of "enough" but on the predetermined needs of the state to properly function.

The Democrats' reliance on the notions that the government can take because people have to much and that the government should provide because people want, shows a flagrant disregard for the purpose of government and taxes.  Tax reform may be necessary (loopholes should be closed), but it cannot succeed (and shouldn't be part of a "grand bargain") until this country's approach to spending and taxes is reevaluated.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Profiling At the Airport - Dry Bones

Following up on the recent post Body Bombs and the TSA, the Dry Bones blog has a rather humourous but appropriate comic.

This was written in response to the recent attempted "fly-in" protest by Palestinian activists to Israeli airports, who were trying to stage an "Air Flotilla" against Israel's policies towards Gaza.  However, using such techniques such as profiling and do-not fly lists, Israel has so far been successful in stopping the intended mass disruption to air travel.  At 200 to 300 activists were prevented from coming into the country, another 60 have been arrested upon arrival.

The US should learn a few tricks from the Israelis, who do an excellent job at preventing terrorist activity and maintain a superbly safe air travel system.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Escape Clause

In light of today’s meeting between congressional leaders and the White House over the debt ceiling and entitlement cuts, two Republican senators have voiced strong support for a balanced budget amendment. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Jim DeMint (R-SC) state that:
A constitutional amendment to balance the budget is imperative if we are to provide continuity of fiscal responsibility, and ensure we never return to the recklessness of the past and present. It's time Congress passed the amendment and gave the states—and "We the People"—their say.
The senators’ argument not only has wide support amongst the base and Republican politicians; all 47 GOP senators have endorsed such an amendment; but is sound and well articulated. The irresponsibility of continuous spending beyond our means is ruinous for the economic future of the United States. As Snowe and DeMint argue, “the only way to compel lawmakers to maintain their [fiscal] responsibility forever is a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.”

However while the merits of such an amendment are clear to nearly all on the right and the more sensible on the left, there is at least one potential drawback that needs to be considered in the language of any acceptable proposal. While in nearly all instances there really is no reason to maintain an imbalanced budget, there are a few possible exceptions to the rule. Any balanced budget amendment must include an escape clause in order to prevent hamstringing future leaders (or daresay lead to a repeal of this amendment).

The most obvious exception is the case of major war or national catastrophe. It would be extremely difficult for any country to wage a large scale war, like WWI or WWII, without resorting to debt. Not only would such a restriction be impractical, but it would arguably be immoral to prevent our leaders from taking necessary measures to protect the country.

Concomitantly, there is an argument to be made that the costs of such a war (WWIII) should be spread over multiple years, if not multiple generations. After all, the sacrifices of those who fought in WWII were not just for the benefit of their generation but their progeny as well. It may be impossible for future generations to shoulder past sacrifices in terms of lives; however, it is possible to spread the financial costs. Utilization of debt is a prime tool to balance the costs of such conflicts over multiple years and generations.

Obviously, such instances are exceptionally rare and thus the use of an “escape clause” would only be warranted under extreme circumstances. Nevertheless, the point remains that debt or even a deficit is not always a bad thing. In certain other instances such as significant national projects (how to define the worthy ones is a tough issue) and severe economic decline, deficit spending might have beneficial uses. Just like the responsible use of debt by the individual – a homeowner who takes on a mortgage or a student who takes out loans to pay for college – there are instances where government debt is acceptable, even beneficial.

Debt isn’t intrinsically bad. The excessive abuse of it is the problem. Funding programs (and entitlements) that the government should not even be involved in is bad. The current mentality of spending more than we produce on a yearly basis even goes beyond the Keynesian economics it purports to be based on (Keynes argued for deficit spending during economic downturns with surpluses in upturns, not deficit spending every year). Such a mentality needs to be eradicated and the balanced budget amendment is a fabulous way to do so. Politicians should just be careful that in their haste to solve a serious problem they don’t create a new one by failing to consider the potential benefits of debt. It is a shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Public Unions vs. Private Unions

In the ongoing struggle between public-sector unions and debt-laden states, the left has rallied around the unions and their so-called collective bargaining rights.  The states, which have been forced to target excessive benefits in order to shore-up their fiscal situation, have too often been painted the bad guys for stripping workers of their "rights".  But as many recognize, the likes of Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey and Scott Walker in Wisconsin should be commended for their tough stances.

In an editorial in the Star-Ledger, Tom Moran draws a clean distinction between public- and private-sector unions.  He writes:
To the unions, and to their allies in the Democratic Party, collective bargaining rights are sacred — and pinching them like this is unforgivable.

So let’s look at collective bargaining, starting with the good stuff. Bargaining is what gave us an eight-hour workday, weekends off, basic workplace safety and wages that helped build the middle class in America. We owe all that to the unions, and they did it at the bargaining table.
But those gains were made by private sector unions. And the public sector is different in key ways.

For one, public worker unions have political power and can hand pick the people on the other side of the bargaining table. With money and volunteers, they can dominate local politics, especially in low-turnout elections.
Another big difference: Governments don’t go bankrupt, or move to Mexico. When auto workers negotiate with GM, they know that if they get greedy, they could lose it all. The cops in Edison[, NJ] have no such fears. So why not press for that deal that gives you and your family free health care for life?

Here’s one final difference: In the public sector, the people who pay the bills are the common folk, not the fat cats. The class-warfare language of the private labor movement doesn’t fit here.

Ask yourself this: Is it progressive to ask a senior on a fixed income to pay higher property taxes so that a cop or teacher can avoid paying a reasonable share of their health costs?
While Moran is somewhat more generous to private-sector unions than ANR generally feels comfortable with, his arguments regarding public-sector unions are dead-on.  The logic seems impossible - for both those on the right and the left - to avoid.  Hopefully, Americans will understand this before our budgetary mess permanently destroys our futures.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Body Bombs and the TSA

TSA has released a warning that terrorists are attempting to bring explosive devices onto planes by surgically implanting them into the bodies of suicide bombers.  While no specific plot has been discovered, TSA has released the statement in order to bolster airport security.  This is in spite of the fact that experts say current security measures are largely unable to detect explosives under the skin.

While discussions of these methods in terrorist circles is not new, the desire to employ such extreme tactics draws into question the entire approach to security that we currently rely upon.  The TSA is constantly playing catch-up to an innovative and determined network of terrorists.  This not only puts us on the defensive, able only to respond, but has steadily placed greater restrictions on our freedoms.  With TSA removing the diapers of 95-year old grandmothers and excessively and unsympathetically patting-down little girls, it is becoming questionable if our security methods are really protecting us - or letting the terrorists win by forcing us to drastically change our way of life.

Security is essential and we should all be willing to give up some freedoms to protect ourselves - that is the primary role of government.  Little girls can, unfortunately, not be exempt from pat-downs as such a rule would inevitably lead to terrorist use of children to carry their weaponry.  However, there is a need to find balance between security and freedom.

The first thing to understand is that we cannot continue to have knee-jerk reactions that restrict passengers behavior after every "chattered," or even attempted, terrorist plot.  A determined enemy will always strive to find new ways around our security.  While we should attempt to stay ahead of them, thwarting plots and instituting new security measures, security officials must be careful to understand the probability of such terrorist schemes actually working.  For instance, the terrorist liquid plot failed yet travelers are still burdened with not being able to bring liquids on planes.

The response to discovered or thwarted plots does not always need to result in greater restrictions for the traveler.  The more we continue to restrict ourselves in fear of that rare one-time event, the less the terrorists have to succeed to severely alter our way of life.  Instead, there must be a greater focus on winning the offensive battle.  Dedicated terrorists will never cease trying to destroy or injure the West.  Probability alone dictates that in playing a defensive game of catch-up we will lose at some point.  Instead we must rid the world of dedicated terrorists, both by directly killing or otherwise stopping current terrorists and preventing the creation of new ones through the use of our soft- and hard-power. 

Admittedly, this alone is insignificant to protect us.  Some will always be "out to get" the West and the TSA needs to continue doing a good job maintaining security.  However, in order to achieve this we need to jettison the outmoded thinking of non-profiling.  As Isaac Yeffet, former head of security at El Al, has said, it is essential to use profiling tools to screen for the greatest threats.  Random searches of, say, grandmothers are a waste of time and resources and ultimately a threat to our security. 

Such use of profiling is not about racial discrimination but about being smart in our approach to security, creating the least amount of inconvenience, and appropriately using our resources.  Profiles are not a simple call to perform invasive searches on every Muslim- or Arab-looking man, but the use of a compilation of looks, behaviors, actions, and other statistically- and expertly-derived characteristics to screen for the most obvious threats.  Such a profile will indubitably change, and it is the responsibility of security services to adapt accordingly.  Our terrorist enemies would be foolish to present their foot-soldiers in the same readily identifiable form.  Nevertheless, profiling will help us stop the clear threats while easing the burdens on the vast majority who offer no threat.  Since technology seems to offer little to solve the problem of "body bombs" we seem to be left with a choice to reevaluate our methods or turn to drastic measures, such as invasive surgery, to maintain our security.