Saturday, December 31, 2011

Judges Behaving Badly

   Much has been made of Newt Gingrich's recent comments on the judiciary.  His ideas have been called "dangerous, ridiculous, outrageous, totally irresponsible."  But what is this ruling, the one Gingrich was specifically referring to, if not "dangerous, ridiculous, outrageous, totally irresponsible"?  Gerald Shargel scolds, "What Gingrich ignored last night ... is that under Article III of the Constitution, federal judges are appointed for life. Only personal misconduct can result in impeachment and removal."  What does Article III actually say?  "The Judges...shall hold their Offices during good Behavior."  And what exactly is "good behavior?" How often can a judge hand down decisions with no basis in the Constitution that he has sworn to uphold and still be on "good behavior?"  The argument is made that bad decisions by judges can be overturned on appeal.  True enough, but only by other judges.  Is judicial self-policing the only recourse left to We the People?
   Judges should be above reproach, not above accountability. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales pays lip service to "scrutiny" for judges, but then says "...the notion of bringing judges before Congress like a schoolchild being brought before the principal to me is a little bit troubling." This quote illustrates how judges have been exalted beyond measure.  Individuals are routinely called before Congress without regard to their rank or position, be they administration officials, bureaucrats, CEOs of corporations, or private citizens.  Does that imply that they are "schoolchildren?"  Are judges are free to hand down ludicrous rulings with impunity because they are really the "adults?"  No wonder the judiciary has a reputation for elitism.
   In more than 225 years, only 14 judges have been impeached by the House.  Does this record indicate we are on the verge of a judicial massacre if rogue judges are called to account for certain decisions?   Is the "separation of powers" a one-way mirror with the judiciary on one side and the Executive and Legislative Branch on the other?  Once a judge passes through the veil of confirmation, has he joined an exclusive club making Oz-like pronouncements from behind the mysterious curtain?
   Certainly unseating a judge should not be easy.  Indeed, we recently witnessed how difficult it is to impeach a president who had not only lied on live TV to the American people, but also under oath in court.  The bar is set high, as it should be for an irrevocable penalty like impeachment.  But the power of the judiciary has unarguably ballooned since the Constitution was ratified.  Only those who prefer the unaccountable force of the judiciary to accomplish their political or societal goals could object to steps to restore equilibrium to the power wielded by our three branches of government.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Huntsman Sets a Presidential Primary Record

Future Headline for January 4, 2012:  John Huntsman breaks new ground in presidential election history by garnering a negative 18% of the vote in the Iowa Caucuses on Tuesday.

UPDATE:  I was off by 18.6%.  At least he beat Herman Cain and Buddy Roemer... who aren't running anymore.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Common Sense Breaks Through the Noise?

   Although I am not weighing in on issue as a whole, it is refreshing to see someone get past the marquee talking points and hit an issue that has real world, short-term impact.  Although it comes about a week into the debate, Rep. David Camp has spoken out about the nonsensical two-month extension to the payroll tax reduction that I addressed in an earlier post.  Apparently many are content to hand the Democrats a victory in this battle which has been disingenuously framed as a "tax cut" when all it would do is maintain the status quo.  It is similar to the fight in 2010 over extending the Bush tax cuts.  As President Obama said at the time, "For the next two years, every American family will keep their tax cuts."  Because by all rights, taxes should be higher...  OK, OK, I said I'm not weighing in on the issue as a whole...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Best of the Final 1/24th of 2011

   Stay tuned.  In January, I am planning a Best of the Last Half of December list that will include all the items that most publications miss in their "[fill in the blank] of the Year" lists because they are rushing them out early to try to beat everyone else to the punch.

UPDATE:  Never mind... seemed like a good idea at the time.  Maybe after I hire staff...

Monday, December 19, 2011

What a Difference a Decade Makes

"We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." -- George W. Bush, 9/20/01

"Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy." -- Joseph Biden, 12/15/11

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Clueless in Congress

   Congress is often justifiably criticized for being oblivious or indifferent to real-world impacts of their legislation.  While more egregious examples exist, this recent proposal provides a simple, practical illustration of how lawmakers blatantly flout common sense.
  The payroll tax rate reduction that was instituted in 2011 is due to expire December 31st.  Since neither Congress nor the President wish to hit millions of voters with a tax increase in an election year, negotiations are under way to extend the cut through 2012.  Negotiations have hit a snag, however, so the Senate has proposed extending the cut for 2 months to buy time.  The expectation is that some deal will be struck and the cut will indeed be extended for the entire year.
   But suppose it is not.  Did it occur to anyone in Congress that 941s, the form businesses use to report wages and taxes to the IRS, is filed quarterly?  Did anyone consider the havoc that would be wreaked by requiring the first quarter 941 for 2012 to include one rate for two months and a different rate for the third month?  To my knowledge, this would be unprecedented in the history of payroll tax filings.  Not only would the IRS have to revise the form, the software millions of business use would have to be patched in some way to allow this anomaly to be handled properly.  Most likely a patch would not even be an option for many small businesses using off-the-shelf software, and consequently require the forms to be completed by hand.  Costs in dollars and man-hours, although not staggering, would be completely unnecessary and were totally avoidable with a modicum of Congressional foresight.
   The mere suggestion of the two-month extension should have resulted in a chorus of objections, but it appears no one involved in the process considers the day-to-day concerns of business worthy of serious attention.  If two months was simply arbitrary to allow time for a final deal, why not give a nod to businesses and make it three months, thereby communicating that Congress is not just the stereotypical, out of touch, inside-the-Beltway institution everyone says it is?  Perhaps because it is just that.

UPDATE (Monday, 12/19):  John Boehner is rejecting the two-month extension on the grounds that "doing tax cuts in two-month increments doesn’t give the economy certainty."  While this is not an explicit recognition of the problem discussed above, Boehner implicitly acknowledges the effects on business that can result from the convoluted machinations of Congress.

UPDATE #2 (Monday, 12/19): Now Congress has no excuse.  The National Payroll Reporting Consortium has sent a letter to Congress highlighting the difficulties presented by the two-month extension.  Additional changes in the legislation not discussed in my original post contribute further to the potential fiasco businesses face, so much so that extending the two-month to an entire quarter is only the third most desirable solution proposed by the Consortium.  The cluelessness was worse than I thought.

UPDATE #3 (Monday, 12/19): It occured to me that the National Payroll Reporting Consortium might have had some interest in the full-year payroll tax rate cut that was in effect for 2011, and indeed, they issued a letter after the fact to Congress in January 2011.  The letter spelled out the challenges faced by businesses in general and their industry specifically by the passage of the rate cut so late in 2010. Personally speaking, my company had to scrap our payroll program completely and find and implement a new one for all fifty or so of our payroll clients within a matter of weeks last December/January.  Not only did we have to purchase new software, we had to implement it with little time for testing and hope for the best.  As a result, we have spent 2011 working the bugs out of a hasty system change caused by Congress's tinkering.  It appears Congress learned nothing from the experience since the challenges presented by the current legislation are arguably greater than the 2011 full-year cut.  Let's hope Boehner is successful in killing this current boondoggle.

Occupy Wall Street: Has the Movement Found a Cause?

   I am curious about how articles such as this recent CNN piece come about.  Does a CNN editor think, "Hmmm... Occupy Wall Street protestors are starting to occupy foreclosed homes... I wonder what a couple of law professors think about that?"  Or do a couple of law professors who recently published a book sense an opportunity when Occupy Wall Street protestors start to occupy foreclosed homes and call CNN and offer to do a disinterested-third-party analysis of this latest development?
   In any case, the piece is more advocacy than analysis. The authors place Occupy as the latest in a series of social protests employing occupation:  "A straight line runs from the 1930s sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan, to the 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins to the occupation of Alcatraz by Native American activists in 1969 to Occupy Wall Street."  On closer examination, however, the claim is dubious.  The 1930s strikes took place in the location (factories) where conditions were being protested, as did the lunch-counter sit-ins, and were carried out by those being affected by the property owners actions. The Alcatraz occupation is arguably a better match for the current Occupy movement, but in the most unflattering way.  That occupation degenerated into a fiasco (drugs, crime, property destruction) that was echoed in local Occupy movements throughout this past Fall.   (This might explain why the authors extensively recount the details of the first two examples and virtually ignore the third.)
   So how does occupying foreclosed homes fit the pattern of these forerunners?  Whose homes?  Families are not being returned to their own foreclosed homes.  Do they even know in which bank's properties they are trespassing?  The authors declare that "the bankers' claims to foreclosed properties are morally suspect", but at least the banks shelled out the money to originally buy the homes.  The squatters have no stake, either moral or financial.  How long, once the attention dies down and the crowds move on, will these poor people be allowed to remain?
   No doubt there are some true believers who believe their actions will bring down Goliath and everyone will have a bought-and-paid-for (by someone else) home.  But from the port shutdowns (which are related to banks how?) to the prominent message of support from legendary leftist icon and cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal on the OWS website, the Occupy movement appears to simply be the latest incarnation of the left's attack on America.  If I can borrow the authors' phrase, the real "heroic acts of imagination" are their own tortured attempts to paint Occupy Wall Street as on the road to joining the gallery of "the most effective occupation movements of the past century."

Note:  The final paragraph of the article refers to "political objections" when clearly "political objectives" was intended.  How long will it take for someone at CNN or the authors themselves to recognize this and correct it?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Why Didn't WE Think of That?

This is a strange story to begin with, but the last line is especially good:
ANDERSLOV, Sweden -- Several blond residents of a southern Swedish town were left with green hair after an unusual reaction between the water supply and the shower system of a number of new homes.
Authorities began investigating when a number of inhabitants of Anderslov complained that their hair suddenly turned green, Swedish newspaper Skanskan reported.
They tested the water supply in several homes to see if there was a high level of copper -- known to turn hair green -- but recorded only normal levels of the metal.
However, when hot water was left in the houses' water systems overnight, the amount of copper in it was found to increase to five or 10 times the normal amount.
Investigators concluded that the hot water must have peeled copper from the pipes and water heaters. The copper then was absorbed into the water, causing the shock hair color change when residents showered.
The problem was found to be worst in new homes, where pipes lacked coatings.
"The samples we took from older houses have lower copper levels," environmental engineer Johan Pettersson told Skanskan.
Residents were told wash their hair in cold water or live in an older house to avoid the problem.
Your new house will eventually be old, your green hair will turn grey, or you'll go bald.  Problem solved.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

John Corzine: Some Perspective

John Corzine has got to be scratching his head as he returns for a third appearance before a Congressional committee.  Sure, there's a paltry 1.2 billion dollars that has gone missing with nothing to show for it.  But his old pal President Obama "invested" $800 billion of taxpayer money with nothing to show for it, and no one has called him before Congress.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Al Gore's Arm

Is it just me, or is the graphic that accompanies this Wall Street Journal article the creepiest thing you’ve ever seen?  

It’s a cross between the Incredible Hulk and a zombie!  One can only imagine what the entire body would look like.  Is this truly the image of environmentalists that Al Gore wishes to promote?  I suppose it is possible the authors did not give pre-approval for its use.  Maybe someone in the WSJ's graphics department is just having fun.

While the graphic caught my eye (which, I imagine was the point,) the article itself does not disappoint.  Among the treasures awaiting readers:

  • There is this classic tautology:  “Mr. Serafeim and his colleague Robert G. Eccles have shown that sustainable companies outperform their unsustainable peers in the long term.”
  • The repeated use of words such as “incentivize”, “metrics” and “short-termism” make the zombie-like arm in the graphic seem truly inspired.  The more I read, the more I felt my humanity slipping away.
  • Then there is this definition:  “sustainable capitalism: a framework that seeks to maximize long-term economic value by reforming markets to address real needs while integrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics throughout the decision-making process.”  Rarely do so many words say so little.
  • Even if one is able to make grammatical sense of this sentence, one is still left wondering what it actually means: “Because ESG metrics directly affect companies' long-term value, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, foundations and the like—investors with long-term liabilities—should include these metrics as an essential aspect of valuation and investment strategy. ”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Good news! Taxpayers only foot 42% of bill for unemployment benefits!

I noticed this gem this morning in a CNN story titled Unemployment benefits extension: What's at stake: “Jobless Americans have collected $434 billion in unemployment benefits over the past four years. Taxpayers have footed about $185 billion of the bill.”  Obviously, I was curious about the source of the remaining $249 billion, being under the apparently na├»ve impression that nearly all government money comes from taxpayers.  I followed the helpful link to their December 5th story Cost of federal unemployment benefits so far: $434 billion.  In the second paragraph, the answer appears:  “State and federal taxes on employers cover the rest.”  Imagine my relief.  The working man finally gets a break since taxes on employers don't impact regular folk.  Besides, there would be no unemployed if those greedy businesses would just give everyone jobs.  Serves them right.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Resurgence of the "But I didn't mean to!" defense

   We all remember the stark denials of Bill Clinton regarding "that woman" and more recently Anthony Wiener's unequivocal declarations of innocence.  Both of course were lying through their teeth, and the undeniable facts soon came to light. The current crop of scandal-plagued politicians, who perhaps did not get far enough ahead of the curve to make the lies believable, have taken a different, albeit time-tested approach. John Corzine recently stated “I never intended to break any rules” despite the disappearance of more than a billion dollars of client funds. Rod Blagojevich, who admittedly tried the Clinton/Wiener strategy first and only recently pivoted, pleaded for mercy at his sentencing by saying, “I never set out to break the law. I never set out to cross the lines." And then Eric Holder, when confronted in a congressional hearing about whether or not he pulled a Clinton in his prior testimony helpfully explained that "it all has to do with your state of mind and whether or not you had the requisite intent to come up with something that would be considered perjury or a lie."  The proximity of these three incidents is undoubtedly coincidental but their similarity is striking.  Could it be a trend?  Might the Obama administration claim that it did not set out to bankrupt the country, things just turned out that way?  "Good intentions" are credited with paving the road to hell, but with today's obsession with rehabilitation (see Anthony Wiener,) politicians even seem intent on rehabilitating good intentions themselves.  I'm sure they have the purest of motives.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Unexceptional View of Conservatives

   When one finishes reading Dave Lake's CNN opinion piece "Is America exceptional? Liberals, conservatives agree -- and disagree," one is tempted to look around for the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion. In less than 1,000 words, Lake's flying rhetorical monkeys have decimated the domestic-government-hating, foreign-policy-government-loving conservative straw man.  He writes that in the conservatives' eyes, "Economic or social policy at home may be distorted and even captured by 'special interests,' but foreign policy remains pure and reflects the high morals of the American people." Does Lake seriously believe conservatives are that unsophisticated? Lake does not even limit this fanciful view to when the president shares the conservatives' ideology. Does he really think conservatives are unwavering, enthusiastic proponents of the Obama administration's foreign policy?
   Conservatives' views on the role of government, which Lake ostensibly contrasts with the views of liberals, are what determine their attitudes towards the actions of any administration, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democratic.   As the preamble to the Constitution eloquently says, our present form of government was formed to "...establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..."  While both sides generally agree on the justice system and law and order as fundamental functions of government, liberals have elevated the least action-oriented statement in the Preamble, "promote the general Welfare," to government's primary (and certainly most expensive) function.  Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that words matter, and that the Founders chose their words carefully.  Consequently, "provide for the common defense" and "secure the Blessings of Liberty," which manifest themselves largely through foreign policy, should consume a greater proportion of the government's attention and resources.  "Provide" and "secure" clearly call for more direct action than "promote."  But even given the justifiable preference conservatives give to the foreign policy role of government, the suggestion that conservatives blindly cheer foreign policy however it is implemented is baseless.
   Lake chooses to close out his essay by reprising his earlier sentiment: "How [conservatives] can believe that the will of the people is always distorted at home but flawlessly translated into policy abroad is, well, exceptional."  Rather than give conservative views a fair hearing, Lake resorts to caricature with words like "pure," "always distorted," and "flawlessly."  Using such distortion of the views of conservatives to bolster liberal arguments sadly is not exceptional, but a recycled tactic pressed into service once again, this time (surprise!) to promote liberalism as the true reason for American exceptionalism.

Medical Marijuana 2.0

   A rose by any other name smells as sweet, but if roses were called "dregs," I doubt they’d be as popular on Valentine’s Day. So for all you medical marijuana advocates out there: maybe you just have a marketing issue. I ask you: if doctors were writing out prescriptions for “Hillybilly Heroin” or “Kicker” instead of “OxyContin”, and hospitals were using “Miss Emma” or “Dreamer” instead of “Morphine” for pain management, the public would be up in arms, right?
   Let's face it. "Marijuana" has gotten a bad name over the years. Make that bad names. The public is on to "pot". "Mary Jane" is too cute, and besides there's that candy with the same name. "Grass? I don't think so. "Reefer?" Please. Even "cannabis" has been tainted. "Weed" is out of the question. What's left? OK, remember you heard it here first: “legalization of tetrahydrocannabinol." Who could object to that? It sounds so medicine-ish. (You have to admit the "tetra" is a nice touch.) Most people couldn't even pronounce it much less oppose it.
   The bottom line is that once people stop associating marijuana with long-haired, tie-dyed, dope-smoking hippies, legalization will be a slam dunk!
   Next up: renaming your advocacy organizations with acronyms that correctly spell real words ("NORML"?  Seriously?)  It might take your credibility to a new... um... high.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Unemployment news

It was interesting today to note how major news organizations headlined the unemployment news:
 Employment growth picked up speed in November, the Labor Department reported Friday.

Jobless Rate Falls: 120,000 New Jobs Added

Jobless rate plummets - 
The unemployment rate fell to 8.6% after employers added 120,000 jobs in November, the Labor Department reports. The jobless rate in October had been 9%. 
Unemployment rate falls to lowest since March 2009

Jobless rate falls to 8.6 Percent  HIDING BAD?  315,000 American Quit Job hunt
Unemployment rate drops to 8.6%
Jobless rate at lowest level since March 2009, as employers added 120K jobs
in November - but 315K gave up looking for work

Jobless rate falls to 8.6 percent as hiring picks up
WASHINGTON - Employment growth picked up speed in November and the jobless  rate dropped to a 2-1/2 year low of 8.6 percent, further evidence the economic recovery was gaining momentum.

All of the stories contain basically the same information from the Labor Department.  But while Fox and CBS highlight the downside, 
the Reuters headline seems almost enthusiastic.   Yet in their article is this paragraph:  “Analysts were unperturbed [really? all of them?] by the exit by 315,000 people from the labor force last month, noting that more people had piled in over the last three months. Excluding this drop, the unemployment rate would have edged down to just 8.9 percent.” The article also notes: “The retail sector accounted for more than a third all new private sector jobs in November as shops geared up for a busy holiday season.”  So for all practical purposes, a statistically insignificant decline of one-tenth of a percent due in large measure to hiring for the holiday season is headlined as “further evidence the economic recovery was gaining momentum”.  Ironically, the Fox News story is also Reuters story, but what a difference a headline makes.

Also classic is the Reuters sub-headline of the closing section of the article on Fox News:  “PRIVATE SECTOR SHOULDERS BURDEN.”  What kind of country do we live in where the private sector is burdened with the responsibility of employing its citizens?