Friday, November 30, 2012

The White House Politicizes... a Calendar

    Last week, I noted that the Obama administration had instituted new Enhanced Information Techniques on the White House public schedule for the president.  What used to be a simple calendar of notable events involving the president was pressed into political service by incorporating campaign-like language into the daily entries.  Now it appears that particular weekly schedule was not an aberration.  Here are the entries for Wednesday, November 28th:

    These are the two items that illustrate the new normal:
11:35 AM
The President delivers remarks at an event at the White House with middle class Americans who would see their taxes go up if Congress fails to act to extend the middle class tax cuts
4:45 PM
The President and the Vice President attend a meeting with business leaders to discuss the actions we need to take to keep our economy growing and find a balanced approach to reduce our deficit
     I found "if Congress fails to act" to be an especially nice touch.  This is the way everyone does a calendar, right?
10:00 AM - Dentist appointment to have the cavity filled that I got from not flossing
12:30 PM - Lunch with my stock broker who is going to have me in the poor house if he keeps making such bad recommendations
3:15 PM - Pick up kids from school if they haven't done something dumb and gotten an after-school detention
    Sure.  Just a typical calendar.

State Department White Paper on Libya: "Civil War, State Collapse," and "Security Vacuum"

    On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech entitled "U.S. and Europe: A Revitalized Global Partnership" at the Brookings Institution  in Washington, D.C.  As is obvious from the title, the focus of the speech was the relationship of the United States and Europe, but to make her case, Mrs. Clinton chose to highlight several issues, including the military action in Libya to topple Qadhafi:
Next week, I will make my 38th visit to Europe as Secretary... Today, I’d like to discuss briefly how these efforts have helped the United States and Europe meet a number of key security challenges: the war in Afghanistan, the crisis in Libya, Iran’s nuclear program, and strengthening our strategic defenses.
    While the degree of success of all four of these challenges is up for debate, the recent events in Benghazi have drawn special attention to the Libya intervention.  Secretary Clinton mentioned Libya several times later in her speech:
When the Libyan people demanded their freedom and Qadhafi threatened to hunt down the people of Benghazi like rats, we responded. And we all shared the burden. Early on, the United States knocked out Libya’s integrated air defenses, and later we provided other crucial assets...
We can all also agree that we are better off working together on this issue [Israel and Palestine], just as on the others that I have mentioned. Imagine what the world would look like if we did not. A Libyan dictator, left to his own devices, slaughtering his own people. A safe haven for terrorists in Afghanistan. Iran leveraging its oil supply to underwrite a nuclear weapons program. That is not a world in which Americans or Europeans or anyone else would be better off.
    Mrs. Clinton comes off as rather pleased with how the Libya missions was carried out and seems somewhat sanguine about post-Qadhafi Libya.  But just a day before Mrs. Clinton's speech, a report issued by her State Department's Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) is less than optimistic about Libya's prospects in the wake of Qadhafi's ouster.  The full report is only available to OSAC subscribers, but the summary sounds dire enough:
OSAC Annual Briefing 2012 White Paper: Security and State Collapse: Libya and Syria
Over the past two years, both the Middle East and North Africa have experienced enormous political change. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, mass uprisings led to the fall or resignation of autocratic regimes; in Libya, a civil war brought down decades of dictatorship under Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi. In Syria, a mass uprising turned civil war, has the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad fighting for survival. Despite significant changes throughout the region, the deterioration into civil war, state collapse, and subsequent emergence of security vacuums in Libya and Syria raises the question as to whether the two countries will experience similar turmoil during the post-conflict period.
    In her speech, Mrs. Clinton failed to mention the Benghazi attack on the US Consulate which killed four Americans or any of the other signs of "deterioration" in Libya cited in the OSAC summary.  Arguably, it is this "accentuate the positive" approach that led to the State Department and the Obama administration being unprepared for the Benghazi attack in the first place.  Ironically, it was a 9/6/12 memo issued by the OSAC, the same organization now sounding this alarm, that was one of the most explicit State Department pronouncements downplaying the threat of the type of terrorist attack that took place in Benghazi on 9/11/12.

    U.S. interventions in the past few decades have had mixed results (Greneda, Bosnia, Iraq, Libya) and have often been political footballs depending on which party occupied the White House at the time.  Recent events in Egypt have demonstrated the risks of cheering and/or assisting the removal of the-devil-we-know in favor of not-the-devil-we-know.  Now that the events in Benghazi have led to a diminished U.S. presence in Libya, it remains to be seen if Qadhafi's removal will indeed, in the long run, have left that country "better off."  Mrs. Clinton's legacy as Secretary of State may well depend to some extent on the eventual answer.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Future is Now

    At the White House Press Briefing yesterday, Jay Carney was answering questions about the president's role in the "fiscal cliff" negotiations when the following exchange took place:
MR. CARNEY: ...The President, as he said, is not wedded to every detail. But it demonstrates the President’s fundamental commitment to making tough choices in order to get something done.
Q He’s going to press Democrats to accept something like that by the end of the year?
MR. CARNEY: I think he’s made clear, as he has in the past, that he will be in the future willing to lead members of his party in the effort to achieve a sensible, balanced compromise.
    Later in the briefing, another reporter referred back to Carney's words:
Q I wonder -- it sounded like, in answer to Jim’s question when he was saying, do you have to do entitlement reform by the end of the year, your answer was in the future. And I noted that when the President spoke today --
MR. CARNEY: No, I didn't say it was in the future.
Q -- would pressure -- when asked about pressuring Democrats, you said, he has vowed to do that in the future.
MR. CARNEY: No, he’s done it in the past and he will do it in the future.
Q We have a record of what you said. But --
MR. CARNEY: Right. I meant "the future" as also in the present tense.
    Carney's statement reminded me of an old Soviet Union era joke I had just read in an article at National Review:
“In the Soviet Union, the future is predictable,” goes an old dissident joke. “It’s the past that keeps changing.”
    Now at the Obama White House, the future is the present.  Got that?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Tipping Point

    Much has been written about the 2,700 pages of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of which Nancy Pelosi famously said before its passage, "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it."  I have posted several times recently about various proposed regulations regarding ObamaCare that are beginning to be issued at an increasing rate as implementation draws near.  Here is a passage from a single 81-page document containing some of those proposed regulations for the IRS, the Labor Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services:
    The Department of Labor regulations are proposed to be adopted pursuant to the authority contained in 29 U.S.C. 1027, 1059, 1135, 1161–1168, 1169, 1181–1183, 1181 note, 1185, 1185a, 1185b, 1185d, 1191, 1191a, 1191b, and 1191c; sec. 101(g), Public Law104–191, 110 Stat. 1936; sec. 401(b), Public Law 105–200, 112 Stat. 645 (42 U.S.C. 651 note); sec. 512(d), Public Law 110–343, 122 Stat. 3881; sec. 1001, 1201, and 1562(e), Public Law 111–148, 124 Stat. 119, as amended by Public Law 111–152, 124 Stat. 1029; Secretary of Labor’s Order 3–2010, 75 FR 55354 (September 10, 2010).
    The Department of Health and Human Services regulations are proposed to be adopted, with respect to 45 CFR Part 146, pursuant to the authority contained in sections 2702 through 2705, 2711 through 2723, 2791, and 2792 of the PHS Act (42 U.S.C. 300gg–1 through 300gg–5, 300gg–11 through 300gg–23, 300gg–91, and 300gg–92) prior to the amendments made by the Affordable Care Act and sections 2701 through 2763, 2791, and 2792 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 300gg through 300gg-63, 300gg-91, and 300gg-92), as amended by the Affordable Care Act; with respect to 45 CFR Part 147, pursuant to the authority contained in sections 2701 through 2763, 2791, and 2792 of the PHS Act (42 U.S.C. 300gg through 300gg–63, 300gg–91, and 300gg–92), as amended by the Affordable Care Act.
    Did you catch that?  Here, let me repeat it:
     The Department of Labor regulations are proposed to be adopted pursuant to the authority contained in 29 U.S.C. 1027, 1059, 1135, 1161–1168, 1169, 1181–1183, 1181 note, 1185, 1185a, 1185b, 1185d, 1191, 1191a, 1191b, and 1191c; sec. 101(g), Public Law104–191, 110 Stat. 1936; sec. 401(b), Public Law 105–200, 112 Stat. 645 (42 U.S.C. 651 note); sec. 512(d), Public Law 110–343, 122 Stat. 3881; sec. 1001, 1201, and 1562(e), Public Law 111–148, 124 Stat. 119, as amended by Public Law 111–152, 124 Stat. 1029; Secretary of Labor’s Order 3–2010, 75 FR 55354 (September 10, 2010).
    The Department of Health and Human Services regulations are proposed to be adopted, with respect to 45 CFR Part 146, pursuant to the authority contained in sections 2702 through 2705, 2711 through 2723, 2791, and 2792 of the PHS Act (42 U.S.C. 300gg–1 through 300gg–5, 300gg–11 through 300gg–23, 300gg–91, and 300gg–92) prior to the amendments made by the Affordable Care Act and sections 2701 through 2763, 2791, and 2792 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 300gg through 300gg-63, 300gg-91, and 300gg-92), as amended by the Affordable Care Act; with respect to 45 CFR Part 147, pursuant to the authority contained in sections 2701 through 2763, 2791, and 2792 of the PHS Act (42 U.S.C. 300gg through 300gg–63, 300gg–91, and 300gg–92), as amended by the Affordable Care Act.
    If ObamaCare is not the tipping point for government overreach, then the beast may have grown too large to ever tip.  The very idea that anyone could even write the above paragraphs and retain his sanity, much less that anyone could ever hope to decipher, understand, and enforce the regulations, is ludicrous.  It is difficult to say what can be done to move the public to revolt against this nonsense.  Perhaps the Congress should pass a bill requiring doctors' offices to hand out a copy of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (and accompanying regulations) to each patient to read along with the unavoidable clipboard of documents to read, fill out and sign that every doctor requires.

    Or will the answer come through the wallet from where most revolutions trace their origins?  I noticed this sign which, from the date, was posted shortly after ObamaCare passed in 2010:

    Doctors, as altruistic as we would like to believe them to be, are in the business to make money, without which they cannot stay in business.  Whatever a 2,700 page law (and accompanying regulations) might say, there will always be loopholes.  How much of the American people's money will have to be sucked into those loopholes before Washington hears a collective "Enough!"?

My2K Versus What $40 Means

    Last year, as the payroll tax holiday neared its expiration, the Obama White House invited the American people to let Congress know What $40 Means.  This year, both the president and the GOP Congress agree that the so-called Bush Tax Cuts should be extended for everyone earning $250,000/year or less, but the GOP believes the rates should be extended for all taxpayers.  So this year, the White House has put together a new campaign, My2K, and is urging Americans to "Tell us what $2,000 means to you and your family," to try to bully the Congress into going along with him plan by implying Congress wants to raise taxes on families by $2,000.

    What makes this so remarkable is that the payroll tax holiday is once again expiring, but this time, the Obama administration has no plans to extend it.  So while last year's What $40 Means campaign remains on the White House website even now, the Obama administration has launched a smokescreen My2K campaign to ostensibly protect taxpayers from a $2,000 increase that neither the Democrats or Republicans are planning.  President Obama himself today deceptively declared that with his plan, "That means 98% of Americans and 97% of small businesses wouldn't see their taxes go up by a single dime."  In reality, the passage of the president's plan (or the GOP's plan) would "save" average taxpayers $2,000 by preserving current rates while costing them $1,000 from the payroll tax holiday expiration.  The bottom line is $1,000 less net pay in 2013 for average taxpayers, who will soon discover What $40 Means.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Death of Insurance

    The debate over ObamaCare has often devolved into a gripe session on the failures of health insurance industry.  Liberals and Democrats have argued that the insurance industry is interested only in making money, not helping sick people.  At times, the rhetoric used calls into question whether the concept of insurance is even understood.  Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, recently addressed the National Summit on HIV and Viral Hepatitis Diagnosis, Prevention, and Access to Care.  While discussing the need for better detection, prevention and treatment of the conditions in question, she said the following about the health insurance industry:
For years, we had a health insurance market in which insurers made profits by trying to avoid sick people.  This was great for insurance companies, but it was terrible for the people with the greatest health needs, including those with HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis.  In effect, the people who needed health insurance the most were the ones shut out of the market.
This wasn’t right, and the health care law is bringing these days to an end. Starting in 2014, the law bans insurance companies from turning anyone away because of their health status.
     Secretary Sebelius is the highest government official in the United States responsible for overseeing the health insurance industry, and yet her first sentence above, meant to sound disparaging, is the very definition of how the private health insurance market works.  This is no more terrible than saying we have a life insurance market in which insurers made profits by trying to avoid people who are about to die.  And how many homeowners policies were insurance companies writing as Hurricane Sandy roared up the coast last month?  None.  It would have been irresponsible.  And yet, as Secretary Sebelius notes, beginning in 2014, this is exactly what health insurance companies will be required to do.

    I have written recently about proposed ObamaCare guidelines HHS has released for public comment.  One group of provisions specifically addresses the changes to which Secretary Sebelius referred:
Health insurance issuers in the individual and small group markets would only be allowed to vary premiums based on age (within a 3:1 ratio for adults), tobacco use (within a 1.5:1 ratio and subject to wellness program requirements in the small group market), family size, and geography.  All other factors – such as pre-existing conditions, health status, claims history, duration of coverage, gender, occupation, and small employer size and industry – would no longer be able to be used by insurance companies to increase the premiums for those seeking insurance.
    These restrictions are mind-boggling.  Existing insurance companies must have their underwriters working overtime trying to figure out how they can possible stay in business in the long-term.  (Short-term, they may benefit from the flood of new customers, although that remains to be seen.)  But how could anyone contemplate starting a new health insurance company knowing where the bar has been set?  I do not know the statistics on health insurance startups, but I'd be willing to bet as long as these restrictions are in place, they will be rare.  So rare, in fact, that as other companies exit the market in the coming years, a shortage will develop that will increase calls for European-style national health care.  Which, come to think of it, was likely the goal of ObamaCare all along.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The White House's Latest Tax and Switch

    Today, the National Economic Council and the Council of Economic Advisers weighed in on the Middle Class Tax Cuts with a 14-page campaign pamphlet report complete with color photos, charts and graphs.  As the president himself has done for months now, the report wastes no time in giving a false impression the president's record on taxes and his plan for 2013.  The introduction begins as follows:
President Obama  is committed to  growing our economy from the middle out by ensuring  a strong, secure, and thriving  middle-class.   That’s why his top priority is  promoting jobs and growth while reducing our deficit in a balanced and responsible way.
Since taking office, President Obama has repeatedly cut taxes for middle-class families to make it easier for them to make ends meet.  A typical family making $50,000 a year has received tax cuts totaling $3,600 over the past four years – more if it was putting a child through college.
Now we face a deadline that requires action on jobs, taxes and deficits by the end of the year. If Congress fails to act, every American family’s taxes will automatically go up - including the 98 percent of Americans who make less than $250,000 a year and the 97 percent of small businesses that earn less than $250,000 a year. A typical middle-class family of four would see its taxes rise by $2,200. 
    So if President Obama has saved the average middle class family $3,600 over the past four years, how is that same family facing an increase of $2,200 in 2013?  The answer is that the two amounts are entire unrelated.  The president has repeated cited the $3,600 figure throughout the campaign, sometimes even giving the impression that it was an annual savings.  The details on that $3,600, however, were given rather infrequently.  Interestingly, the clearest explanation I found was in a previous National Economic Council report from July 2012.
A typical family making $50,000 a year has seen their taxes cut by $3,600 over the last four years, $800 in each of 2009 and 2010 due to the Making Work Pay tax credit and $1,000 in each of 2011 and 2012 due to the payroll tax cut.
    The $3,600, therefore, is composed of the Making Work Pay tax credit which expired after 2010, and the payroll tax holiday, set to expire at the end of 2012.  As I have detailed extensively recently, the president has gone out of his way to give the impression that if his plan is passed, middle class families won't see their taxes increase a single dime.  Indeed, the NEC and the CEA in today's report assure us:
President Obama has stood for providing certainty to more than 100 million middle-class families that their taxes will not go up on January 1st.
    But since the payroll tax holiday extension is not currently part of the president's plan, this statement is patently false.  Even if the GOP completely caves and passes the president's plan as presented to preserve the Bush Tax Cuts only for those earning under $250,000, that average middle class family will still see a $1,000 tax increase.

    This hidden tax increase which today's report completely ignores undercuts the entire argument of the report.  The premise of the report is the economic damage that will be caused by a middle class tax increase, and indeed may even be caused by the mere threat of such an increase due to the uncertainty of the "fiscal cliff" negotiations.  But if the threat of a $2,200 tax increase is damaging, certainly a $1,000 payroll tax increase is nothing to sneeze at.  In fact, towards the end of the report, the following is presented:

    Is $2,000 a "substantial hit," but $1,000 is not?  The chart could be revised to read:
 One month of mortgage payments on their home
 Six weeks of food and groceries.
 Nearly two semesters of college textbooks and supplies.
 Nine months of electric bill payments.
 Two months of car payments.
    Besides all this, the payroll tax increase will hit everyone, even the working poor.  Someone earning only half of the "average middle class family" ($25,000) would be hit with a $500/year increase in payroll taxes.

    In 2011, the payroll tax holiday warranted the What $40 Means campaign from the White House which produced thousands of stories of near destitution that its expiration would cause.  Unless the White House is holding the extension in its back pocket as a trump card to outplay the GOP in the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, it will be interesting to see how the public reacts to suddenly smaller paychecks in January 2013 when everyone was kept under the illusion that "President Obama has stood for providing certainty to more than 100 million middle-class families that their taxes will not go up on January 1st."

    Time is running out for taxpayers, and time is also running out for the GOP to take the initiative on this issue.  At the moment Republicans seem to be going soft on the 20 year old Grover Norquist tax pledge, they have a chance to expose the president's charade and reaffirm that this is not a time to raise anyone's taxes.  John Boehner needs to get in front of every camera in Washington he can find and ask, "Why is President Obama trying to sneak through a tax increase that hits the middle class and working poor the hardest?  Which is worse: Extending current tax rates for everyone?  Or taking $500 from a poor working family or $1,000 from a middle class family?  Is this part of the "fun" Jay Carney was talking about?"

    It's time the tables were turned.  Let's see the White House on the defensive for once.  At the very least, it will provide some catharsis for November 6th.  At best, it will spare Americans a tax increase and show that Republicans really do have all Americans' best interests at heart.

Just Call Me A Resultist

    While I cannot say for sure that this mindset is unique to insurance under ObamaCare, I found the following example in proposed regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services to fit the stereotype of what one would expect from the government.  This example is part of the explanation for section §54.9802-1 - Prohibiting discrimination against participants and beneficiaries based on a health factor [emphasis added]:
 Example 5.  (i)  Facts.  In conjunction with an annual open enrollment period, a group health plan provides a premium differential based on tobacco use, determined using a health risk assessment.  The following statement is included in all plan materials describing the tobacco premium differential: “Stop smoking today!  We can help!  If you are a smoker, we offer a smoking cessation program.  If you complete the program, you can avoid this surcharge.”  The plan accommodates participants who smoke by facilitating their enrollment in a smoking cessation program that requires participation at a time and place that are not unreasonably burdensome or impractical for participants, and that is otherwise reasonably designed based on all the relevant facts and circumstances.  The plan pays the cost of the program.  Any participant can avoid the surcharge by participating in the program, regardless of whether the participant stops smoking.
     After all, results are so... resulty.  Can't punish someone for trying!  By the way, what do you want to bet that buried somewhere in the regulations there's some kind of statement that says something to the effect of: Coverage may not be cancelled, however, regardless of whether the participant pays the surcharge.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

I'm Just a Government Who Cain't Say 'No'

    In case you hadn't heard, Benefits.gov is celebrating its 10th anniversary.  (Don't worry, I think there's still time to get a card.)

    As you can see, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis already beat you to it with her best wishes, but better late than never.

    According to a recent Washington Post story, 96% of Americans have received benefits at one time or another.  In case you are one of the 4%, here's your chance!  Benefits.gov describes itself as "the official benefits website of the U.S. government, providing citizens with an online eligibility prescreening tool to help you find government benefits that you may be eligible to receive".  I decided the best way to celebrate this milestone (the "Tin" anniversary for you traditionalists) was to use the handy Benefit Finder to see not what I could do for my country, but what my country could do for me.

    Just to make things interesting, I decided to answer the questions in such a way that would limit the possible benefits as much as possible.  I ran a few scenarios, finally settling on the one I believe produces the minimum returns.  However, if anyone can beat my low score, I'll link to you (within reason.)  I am linking to my full list of responses to the questions, but in the interest of space, I'll briefly summarize.

    The composite I created (let's call him Benny Seeker) is a 32 year old, single white male.  He has a master's degree, no debt to speak of, and earns $500,000 per year.  He has 12 years experience in his field, is already eligible for retirement, and has never worked for the government.   Benny has no dependents, no disabilities, and no military service, and no one in his family is disabled or has any military service either.  He has no health problems and is fully insured.  Finally, I left his citizenship in doubt by selecting "other" for citizenship status.

    In a perfect world, the website would return a "Get lost, you gold digger!" and find a way to phish for Benny's email address and send a bill for the wear and tear on the website.  However, in the real world, Benny is given a list of 37 (count em, 37) possible benefits for which he is eligible.  While the website contains the disclaimer that it "cannot guarantee your eligibility for any program," it is also quick to point out that it "is not designed to be a comprehensive listing of all programs for which you may be eligible."  What is going on here?

    Among the possible benefits returned are 4 under the category of "Career Development Assistance" despite Benny's master's degree and his $500,000/year after 12 years of work.  There are three under Child Care/Child Support despite Benny's complete lack of spouse, dependents, and/or (and this one seems fairly important) children.  Another head scratcher is the Loan/Loan Repayment result of 13 in the face of Benny's professed lack of debt.

    So is Benefits.gov a government Ado Annie who "cain't say no", but is really just leading on people like Benny?  In other words, are most of these 37 possibilities useless?  Frankly, I prefer that option to the alternative.  If Benny is really eligible for even a quarter of these possibilities, that makes nine public spigots Benny can hook up to.  With results like that, the 96% in the Washington Post story will be 100% in no time.  Come to think of it, based on Benny's murky citizenship status, maybe more than 100%.  Happy Anniversary to us.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Fiscal Clift

    Eleanor Clift, writing at the Daily Beast, gamely tries to split the difference in the "fiscal cliff" debate, suggesting that voters are far ahead of the politicians in seeing the need to address entitlements as part of the solution to the ongoing budget debate.  But she begins her argument giving the president far too much credit:
The voters gave President Obama a second term, and now he’s counting on them to help him resolve the fiscal cliff in a responsible way...
Obama spent the better part of this year campaigning for a balanced approach to bring down the deficit. That means reining in the country’s most cherished entitlement programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—in addition to raising taxes on the top 2 percent of households. 
    In fact, the president's "balanced approach" consisted largely of raising taxes $3 for every $1 in promised spending cuts, with the accent on "promised."  Entitlement reform largely received lip-service, mainly vague promises to cut Medicare and Medicaid costs by simply paying providers less.  (This is like a family reforming "housing costs" by sending the mortgage company $100/month less, without actually securing the bank's agreement first.  Doctors may not have as much sway over the government as banks have over a mortgagee, but they won't just sit and take it either.)  Social Security reform is virtually invisible on the White House's agenda.  If entitlement reform made it into the great electoral conversation at all, Paul Ryan, whom Clift does not even mention, deserves the credit.

    Clift goes on to site the president's challenge:
The expectation is that the real faceoff is between Obama and the Republicans over taxes, but the president faces an equally daunting challenge to convince liberal groups that they too will have to yield.
    However, there is no evidence that President Obama has any intention of challenging the AFSCME, SEIU, and NEA (three unions Clift lists,) or any other group on the left.  After all, they were part of the e pluribus coalition that gave him another four years.  More than six million voters from 2008 deserted Barack Obama in 2012, but not the unions.  And as Clift notes:
AFSCME, SEIU, and NEA—three powerful unions—launched an ad campaign this week in several states aimed at key senators calling for “Jobs Not Cuts,” urging that Medicare, Medicaid, and federal funds for education be protected.
    So what does Clift see as the game changer?  In spite of acknowledging that "the election results are being read by many Democrats as evidence that Obama should hold firm and resist any meaningful changes to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid," Clift seems to see promise in the Third Way:
That’s where Third Way comes in as the only Democratic leaning group that is actively working toward a major deal, or grand bargain. Beginning in August, Kessler and his colleagues visited 100 congressional offices on Capitol Hill, 90 Democrats and 10 Republicans, making the case for increased tax revenue, spending cuts, and entitlement reform...
[E]ven that party’s most left-leaning members no longer say entitlements are off the table, a sea change in partisan thinking. “I could be hallucinating,” [senior vice president for policy at Third Way Jim] Kessler concedes, but he finds the Democratic caucus moving toward acceptance of changes in the programs they hold dear, bolstered by an increase in moderate New Democrats. They went from 42 before the election to over 50, making them a quarter of the caucus and a potentially decisive voting bloc. 
    The addition of a whopping 9 or so "moderate New Democrats" does not exactly strike me as a mandate for entitlement reform.  (To be fair, Kessler did admit "I could be hallucinating.")

    Clift and Kessler do deserve credit for highlighting the extent of the entitlement crisis:
 In the mid '60s, when these programs [Great Society, New Frontier] came into being, federal investment outpaced spending on entitlements 3 to 1; in 2012, that ratio was reversed, and in 2020, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says spending on entitlements will dwarf government investments 6 to 1.
    But the reality is that Democrats and President Obama have shown little if any inclination to seriously address the growth of entitlements.  Republicans, with the addition of the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit during George W. Bush's presidency, have often been no better.  But if there is to be any benefit derived from the 2012 election, it should be that a serious plan to reform entitlements was set forth by the Republican party via its vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, and that the result was not electrocution by that proverbial third-rail topic.  Perhaps it's difficult to claim a mandate by saying, "We proposed entitlement reform and didn't lose in a landslide," but it may be the GOP's best argument.  Now we just need some more Republicans with the guts to say it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Saxby Chambliss: When a Pledge is Not a Pledge

    Today, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., announced he was abandoning his long-standing pledge against new taxes.  In the 1990s, Chambliss and many other Republicans signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge as formulated by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.  Chambliss explained his decision thusly:
"I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," he told WMAZ-TV. "If we do it his way then we’ll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that."
     Hmmmm.  Twenty years ago is 1992.  What is so familiar about 1992 and taxes?  Oh, yes, now I remember:

"Read my lips: no new taxes."

    Technically, of course, George Bush said this during the 1988 campaign.  But 1992 is the year that incumbent George Bush received less than 38% of the popular vote revealing that the American electorate had actually taken him seriously.  Saxby Chambliss is up for reelection in two years and may well find that 2014 will be his 1992.

With Friends Like These

    On Wednesday, November 21st, the White House published this summary of President Obama's phone call with President Morsi of Egypt:
President Obama spoke to President Morsi today. The President thanked President Morsi for his efforts to achieve a sustainable ceasefire and for his personal leadership in negotiating a ceasefire proposal.  President Morsi expressed appreciation for President Obama’s efforts in this regard.
President Obama and President Morsi agreed on the importance of working toward a more durable solution to the situation in Gaza.
President Obama reaffirmed the close partnership between the United States and Egypt, and welcomed President Morsi's commitment to regional security.  
    The next day, the following news broke (New York Times):
With a constitutional assembly on the brink of collapse and protesters battling the police in the streets over the slow pace of change, President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree on Thursday granting himself broad powers above any court as the guardian of Egypt’s revolution, and used his new authority to order the retrial of Hosni Mubarak.
President Mohamed Morsi’s actions set off stark accusations that he might become a new strongman.
Mr. Morsi, an Islamist and Egypt’s first elected president, portrayed his decree as an attempt to fulfill popular demands for justice and protect the transition to a constitutional democracy. But the unexpected breadth of the powers he seized raised immediate fears that he might become a new strongman. Seldom in history has a postrevolutionary leader amassed so much personal power only to relinquish it swiftly.
“An absolute presidential tyranny,” Amr Hamzawy, a liberal member of the dissolved Parliament and prominent political scientist, wrote in an online commentary. “Egypt is facing a horrifying coup against legitimacy and the rule of law and a complete assassination of the democratic transition.”
Mr. Morsi issued the decree at a high point in his five-month-old presidency, when he was basking in praise from the White House and around the world for his central role in negotiating a cease-fire that the previous night had stopped the fighting in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas.
    No word yet from the White House on a follow up phone call regarding President Morsi's newfound flexibility and how that affects Egypt's "close partnership" with the United States.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Permanent Campaign

    For a president who perfected the permanent campaign, I am surprised that the Obama team didn't come up with this idea sooner.  The White House publishes the public schedules of the president and vice president, though rarely in advance for obvious security reasons.  However, archives of the schedules go all the way back to July 2010.  A cursory review of the archived schedules reveals a fairly dry recitation of the events of the day.  September 8, 2010 is a good example:
9:45 AM - The President and the Vice President receive the Presidential Daily Briefing
12:05 PM - The President departs the White House en route Andrews Air Force Base
12:20 PM - The President departs Andrews Air Force Base en route Cleveland, Ohio
1:30 PM - The President arrives in Cleveland, Ohio
2:10 PM - The President delivers remarks on the economy
3:50 PM - The President departs Cleveland, Ohio en route Andrews Air Force Base
5:00 PM - The President arrives at Andrews Air Force Base
5:15 PM - The President arrives at the White House
5:20 PM - The President meets with senior advisors
    However, it appears that last week someone at the White House got tired of the same old-same old and decided the schedule was a missed opportunity.  Here's the new and improved White House schedule:

    So on Tuesday, rather than the boring "11:30 AM - The President and the Vice President attend a meeting with leaders from the labor community and other progressive leaders," the permanent campaign has tacked on "to discuss the actions we need to take to keep our economy growing and find a balanced approach to reduce our deficit."  This looked so good on Tuesday, that entries for Wednesday and Friday were enhanced with a similar message.  Even a visit to inspect storm damage in the North East was billed as "The President views storm damage, talks with citizens who are recovering from the storm and thanks first responders who put their lives at risk to protect their communities."

    Is there anything wrong with these Enhanced Information Techniques?  Nothing that I can see.  But it is instructive to note that even though President Obama often declared over the last several months that "This is my last election," his campaign is likely to continue for another four years... at least.

Voter Freud

    The news that voters in the city of Philadelphia went for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 85% to 15% was not that surprising.  Further news that in 59 Philadelphia voting divisions, Mitt Romney got zero votes was more startling, but not unprecedented.  John McCain received zero votes in 2008, and even George Bush, when reelected in 2004, racked up zero votes in five districts.  Charges and suspicions of voter fraud were quick and plentiful, but is that the likeliest explanation?

    Even those of us who live relatively politically insulated lives have trouble imagining that extreme lack of diversity.  Many of my friends and acquaintances share my political leanings, but my neighborhood (based on yard signs and some conversations) is at least somewhat of a mixed bag. The consistency of the exclusive voting preference in these districts in Philly does nothing to diminish how remarkable this level of uniformity is.  Actually, when viewed along side the consistent poor quality of life in some of these neighborhoods over decades of virtual one-party rule in the city, the loyalty of those voters is stunning.

    Philadelphia has had Democratic mayors since 1952, and Democratic City Council Presidents have presided since the current form of city government was established in 1951.  A look at the current make-up of the City Council shows only 3 of 17 members are Republicans.  The following excerpt from a Philadelphia Inquirer article at Philly.com from November 13, 2012, reads like a search for the Loch Ness Monster (or perhaps the local legend from across the Delaware River, the Jersey Devil):
In the entire 28th Ward, Romney received only 34 votes to Obama's 5,920.
Although voter registration lists, which often contain outdated information, show 12 Republicans live in the ward's third division, The Inquirer was unable to find any of them by calling or visiting their homes.
Four of the registered Republicans no longer lived there; four others didn't answer their doors. City Board of Elections registration data say a registered Republican used to live at 25th and York Streets, but none of the neighbors across the street Friday knew him. Cathy Santos, 56, founder of the National Alliance of Women Veterans, had one theory: "We ran him out of town!" she said and laughed.
James Norris, 19, who lives down the street, is listed as a Republican in city data. But he said he's a Democrat and voted for Obama because he thinks the president will help the middle class.
A few blocks away, Eric Sapp, a 42-year-old chef, looked skeptical when told that city data had him listed as a registered Republican. "I got to check on that," said Sapp, who voted for Obama.
Eighteen Republicans reportedly live in the nearby 15th Division, according to city registration records. The 15th has the distinction of pitching two straight Republican shutouts - zero votes for McCain in 2008, zero for Romney on Tuesday. Oh, and 13 other city divisions did the same thing in 2008 and 2012.
Three of the 15th's registered Republicans were listed as living in the same apartment, but the tenant there said he had never heard of them. The addresses of several others could not be found.
On West Albert Street, Duke Dunston says he knows he's a registered Republican, but he's never voted for one.
    One suspects a survey of hepatitis carriers might come up with more respondents willing to own up.  So what kind of return do these loyal voters earn on their electoral investments?  According to a recent State of the City report on Philadelphia by the Pew Trusts, not much:
Philadelphia’s economic recovery has not been particularly strong, although the number of jobs in the city did grow in 2011 by 2,100. Overall employment in the city is still below what it was in 2008, before the global financial crisis. That is also true for the nation as a whole.
Unemployment among residents fell one percentage point to 10.5 percent at year’s end, mirroring a drop in the state jobless rate. The decline was slightly less than the drop in unemployment nationally. At the same time, the percentage of individuals over age 16 not in the labor force, 42.1 percent, is one of the highest of any major city, a long-term drag on
economic growth.
* * * * * * * 
 Crime is much on the minds of Philadelphians these days; our poll found that 75 percent of them view it as a “serious” or “very serious” problem in their neighborhoods, up from 64 percent a year ago. It is not hard to see why—the number of murders in the city rose in2011 from 306 to 324. While violent crime as a whole was down 2 percent, major crime,which includes burglary and theft, was up a little more than 1 percent. All of these numbers had been dropping between 2006 and 2009.
The systems that provide K-12 education in the city face a time of continued uncertainty. The School District of Philadelphia is grappling with huge budget problems and a dwindling enrollment, now down to 146,090, as it seeks to close some schools and take other steps to downsize its operations. Also faced with fewer students, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is shuttering 11 of its 65 schools in the city, after initially proposing to close many more.
* * * * * * * 
And there is poverty, which has plagued the city for decades. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the severity of the recent economic downturn, the share of Philadelphians classified as poor grew from 25 percent to 26.7 percent in the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, again making Philadelphia one of the poorest big cities in the country. 
The local poverty rate is 31 percent for families with children and 47 percent for families
headed by a woman. It is 31 percent for African Americans and 41 percent for Hispanics.

    So what is going on?  In a mirror image of the infamous sentiment of Marie Antoinette, it is almost as though the residents of Philadelphia were crying out "Let us eat cake!"  Do they really believe this is as good as it gets?  Are the Democrats just giving out enough "gifts" as Mitt Romney recently postulated to keep the voters coming back for more?

    Instead of jumping to the voter fraud conclusions, perhaps the GOP needs to engage in some Monday morning psychoanalysis and probe the deeper reasons that its message isn't getting through to vast segments of the population.  Even if future elections could be won by a better ground game and turning out a higher percentage of the GOP base, is that the best answer?  Can the future of America be as secure when the big cities of America are impervious to conservative and Republican political ideas and ideals?

      GOP candidates need to begin engaging these Democratic enclaves personally and demonstrate that the party has not written them off.  Sure, it's likely to be a frustrating and lonely job, one that is certainly too big to complete in four years for the 2016 election.  But for the good of the Grand Old Party, and more importantly for the future of the United States, the time to begin is now.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Proposed ObamaCare Rules: Self-Esteem Edition

    Now that the election is over, the floodgates are opening for ObamaCare implementation.  An HHS Fact Sheet was released today on new proposed rules for, among other things, employer-offered "wellness" programs.  These rules borrow from the Everyone Gets a Trophy and We Don’t Keep Score mindset that has been the standard in children’s sports programs for years now. Under the heading of "Protecting Consumers" [emphasis added]:

In order to protect consumers from unfair practices, the proposed regulations would require health-contingent wellness programs to follow certain rules, including: 
Programs must be reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease. To be considered reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease, a program would have to offer a different, reasonable means of qualifying for the reward to any individual who does not meet the standard based on the measurement, test or screening.  Programs must have a reasonable chance of improving health or preventing disease and not be overly burdensome for individuals. 
Programs must be reasonably designed to be available to all similarly situated individuals.  Reasonable alternative means of qualifying for the reward would have to be offered to individuals whose medical conditions make it  unreasonably difficult, or for whom it is medically inadvisable, to meet the specified health-related standard
Individuals must be given notice of the opportunity to qualify for the same reward through other means. These proposed rules provide new sample language intended to be simpler for individuals to understand and to increase the likelihood that those who qualify for a different means of obtaining a reward will contact the plan or issuer to request it.
    Besides being struck with the invasiveness, complexity, and near impossibility of policing such policies, one almost expects to find the standard sweepstakes fine print: "No purchase necessary to enter or win." Of course, not included would be the equally standard sweepstakes fine print: "Open to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia."  That would just smack of "unfairness."

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Loud and Clear: "Make Our Lives Better"

    A secret video taken by a waiter at a fund raising/donor event for Barack Obama contains the following shocking quote from the president:
"That’s the message I heard loud and clear in the election: Work as hard as you can to make our lives better."
Just kidding!  Kidding about the secret video, not about the quote.  The quote is real and came from the President's weekly address.  It was tweeted out on Barack Obama's Twitter account today:

    Mitt Romney brought justifiable grief on himself and his campaign with his now infamous and oversimplified 47% comments.  Romney had something worth saying about the culture of dependency in America, but managed to express it rather inartfully, as they say.  And yet here is the President of the United States basically paraphrasing Romney's remarks as if this were what the election was all about.

    Granted, the president's address contained references to "your hard work and sense of decency" and "the good people of this country work as hard as you can to meet your responsibilities."  But when it came down to choosing a quote to represent the address, what did the administration choose?  "[T]he message I heard loud and clear in the election" was "make our lives better."  Is it any wonder that the president's detractors heard "You didn't build that" the way we did?

Spot the Differences: The Tax Increase Version

    In activity books for young children, it's not uncommon to find a game called Spot the Differences.  Two pictures appear, almost identical, but with subtle differences, such as this:

    This week, President Obama has presented the American people with a grown-up, higher stakes version of the same game.  Here are his remarks on the "middle class tax cuts" from this past Wednesday's news conference:
The other option is to pass a law right now that would prevent any tax hike whatsoever on the first $250,000 of everybody’s income.  And by the way, that means every American, including the wealthiest Americans, get a tax cut.  It means that 98 percent of all Americans, and 97 percent of all small businesses won’t see their taxes go up a single dime.  The Senate has already passed a law like this.  Democrats in the House are ready to pass a law like this.  And I hope Republicans in the House come on board, too.
    And here's what he said in his Saturday weekly address:
The other path is for Congress to pass a law right away to prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of anyone’s income. That means all Americans – including the wealthiest Americans – get a tax cut.  And 98 percent of Americans, and 97 percent of all small business owners, won’t see their income taxes go up a single dime.   The Senate has already passed a bill like this. Democrats in the House are ready to pass one, too. All we need is for Republicans in the House to come on board.
    Yes, there's "option" in the first and "path" in the second.  But that one's about as obvious as the moons in the children's illustration above.  There are several like that.  The difference I am talking about is more subtle, but at the same time enormous.  Give up? (At this point, my youngest daughter would cry out, "No, no, no, no!  Don't tell me!")

    OK, spoiler alert.  Here it is.  That six letter word, "income."  At his press conference, the President said that most Americans "won’t see their taxes go up a single dime."  But in his weekly address, he said "won’t see their income taxes go up a single dime."  Now why did the president add that word?

    If I suffered from delusions of grandeur, I might believe someone at the White House read my blog post on Friday, "'Not a Single Dime' Versus 10,000 Dimes" and developed a guilty conscience.  More likely, the administration has simply realized a need for technical cover for the implicit decision not to extend the payroll tax holiday.  As of January 1st, 2013, millions of Americans will head over their own personal fiscal cliffs as the average middle-class family earning $50,000 sees a net decrease in take-home pay of $1,000.  Last year, the White House presented this scenario as a dire, grocery/heat/gasoline-endangering crisis, but that was before the election, and apparently poor and middle class taxpayers are now well positioned to absorb the blow due to the "recovery," such as it is.

    What continues to amaze me is that six weeks away from this tax increase, it continues to approach virtually unnoticed.  While the Obama administration certainly exploited the issue last time around, the effect on paychecks is real and the primary impact is certainly not on the "rich."  Unless the administration is holding the payroll tax extension as its trump card to outmaneuver the GOP in the fiscal cliff talks, it is difficult to imagine how President Obama will escape the blame for this stealth tax increase.  A Great Depression song is about to be reincarnated as "Brother, Can You Spare 10,000 Dimes," and the answer will undoubtedly be a resounding, "No!"

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Ultimate in GovernmentSpeak: Keeping Tax Rates the Same Equals "Negative Savings"

    This morning, the Treasury tweeted a link to a graphic illustrating "how the President’s plan raises $1.6T in revenue."  Part of the graphic is a detailed listing of how the $1.6 trillion breaks down:

    There are several aspects of this chart worth noting.

    First, these "savings" are "10 year" savings, which comes to $160 billion per year.  For those keeping score at home, the last four years have seen deficits of $1 trillion or more per year, so these "savings" barely amount to addressing 15% of the annual budget deficit.

    Second, the term "savings" itself is dubious - almost all of the items listed here are tax increases.  Under what perverse reasoning could these be considered "savings"?

    The third and final item I want to highlight is the first item on the list which actually lists a negative $359 billion: "Tax cuts for families, individuals, and businesses." Notice the parenthetical after that: "(negative savings)".  George Orwell has got to be kicking himself over that one.  Does this make a tax increase a "positive savings"?  And what is next?  An increase in spending will be a "negative spending cut"?

    By the way, these "tax cuts for families, individuals, and businesses"?  These are nothing new, simply an extension of the "cuts" that have been in effect since 2001 and 2003 during the Bush administration.  And one final by the way... this $1.6 trillion is only concerned with federal income tax revenues.  Since payroll taxes (Social Security and Medi-care) fall outside of this definition, the "positive savings" (read "tax increase") that the Obama administration has planned by allowing the payroll tax holiday to expire doesn't need to be included in the above chart.  Surprise!

"Not a Single Dime" Versus 10,000 Dimes

    Even as the White House continues to champion the cause of the middle class, the average middle class family will be facing a $1,000 tax increase effective January 1, 2013.  The front page of the White House website urges citizens to contact Congress to "Pass the Middle Class Tax Cuts," but this is doubly deceiving.   President Obama is simply planning to maintain current federal tax rates on those making under $250,000; there is no "tax cut" to be passed.  And on top of this, none of the proposals from the White House currently includes extending the Social Security payroll tax holiday that was instituted for 2011 and 2012.  This means a family making $50,000 a year will see a $1,000 decrease in take home pay beginning January 1st no matter what.  

    The last time I can find a record of the administration being asked about the payroll tax holiday was on October 27, 2012.  Deputy Press Secretary John Earnest was asked the following aboard Air Force One [emphasis added]:
Q    Josh, is the White House crafting an alternative to the payroll tax cut, as The Washington Post reported this morning?
MR. EARNEST:  I saw the -- I read The Washington Post story today.  I can tell you that the report is not correct -- the administration is not contemplating at this time a tax cut as the way that it’s described in the Post.
     What I can tell you is that when the President ran for office in 2008, one of the central planks of his agenda was cutting taxes for middle-class families.  That's a promise he made good on.  Middle-class families over the course of the President’s first year [term] in office have enjoyed a tax cut of about $3,600. [see here for more on this]
     Moving forward, the President does believe that cutting taxes for middle-class families is an important part of his economic agenda.  It’s something he’ll continue to push for.  And if we see Republicans in Congress sharing the same commitment to cutting taxes for middle-class families that the President has, then the House will do what the Senate has done, and that's to extend tax cuts for middle-class families.  In fact, it will actually cut taxes for 98 percent of American families, 97 percent of American small business.
That's something that we should all be able to agree on pretty quickly.  It’s a way that would provide certainty to middle-class families all across the country.  And it’s exactly in line with the President’s -- with the emphasis that the President has placed on reducing the tax burden for middle-class families.
     Q    Given your emphasis on the phrase "as described," is there something new in the works?
     MR. EARNEST:  I’m not trying to be clever.  I’m trying to be as clear as I can, which is to tell you that that Post report today is not correct.
What is accurate is the President does believe that we should have as our priority tax cuts for middle-class families.  There are a variety of ways to do that, and it’s something that the President will continue to push for.  The most important way right now, in the President’s view, is to extend the Bush tax cuts for middle-class families.  That's something the Senate has already done.
And again, if Republicans do share the priority that the President has for cutting taxes for middle-class families, then what they’ll do is they will come back into session, either before Election Day or right after, and move quickly on legislation that the Senate has already passed, to pass tax cuts for middle-class families and 97 percent of small businesses.
    Mr. Earnest, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, indeed does appear to be trying to be clever. He continues to imply that the middle class will receive additional tax cuts rather than just an extension of current rates, and he ignores the clear implication that the payroll tax holiday will expire resulting in higher taxes not only for the middle class, but all wage earners as even the wages of the poor are subject to social security taxes.

    I have written extensively (most recently here) on the White House's What $40 Means campaign that was used to push through the payroll tax holiday last year.  This year, the silence from the White House is deafening on this issue, and despite this week's press conference with the President, the media have been relatively silent as well.  The President at his press conference even briefly mentioned the payroll tax holiday ("payroll tax extension") but only as a reference to what was done in the past.  However, he delivered the following whopper relative to middle class taxes in 2013:
Step number one that we can take in the next couple of weeks, provide certainty to middle-class families -- 98 percent of families who make less than $250,000 a year, 97 percent of small businesses -- that their taxes will not go up a single dime next year.  Give them that certainty right now.  We can get that done. 
     Unless the payroll tax holiday is extended in 2013 or replaced before the end of the year with a comparable cut, the average middle class family certainly will see their taxes go up to the tune of 10,000 dimes.  As I have noted, the Republicans are not excited about extending the payroll tax either, and perhaps this is one reason the GOP is not calling attention to White House hypocrisy on this issue.  But there is no excuse for the press to allow the President to get away with this.  If by some miracle a compromise is achieved before December 31st and the country finds itself able to back away from the dreaded "fiscal cliff," the middle class is going to be rather shocked to find they will still come up $1,000 short in 2013.  Perhaps then we'll all find out what $40 means.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

CIA Detention: Executive Order or Executive Suggestion?

    James Taranto, in Today's Best of the Web, explored "The Somali Connection" in the Benghazi affair of September 11, 2012.  He noted that in 2011, The Nation and The New York Times had both run stories about a rumored CIA black site in Mogadishu, Somalia.  As has often been the case over the last four years, the left has treated the Obama administration's foreign policy, especially its anti-terror policies, like a hair in its soup - it's distasteful, even disgusting, but maybe not worth embarrassing the host by bringing it up in front of all the guests.  In keeping with this protocol, the Mogadishu stories received little notice.

    However, given the reports now brought to light by Paula Broadwell's involvement in the festering Benghazi scandal smorgasboard, those 2011 reports of a secret CIA prison may take on new significance.  A sentence that, at the time, received relatively little attention from a Fox News report on October 26th was highlighted by Broadwell in remarks she made that same day at the University of Denver:
According to a source on the ground at the time of the attack, the team inside the CIA annex had captured three Libyan attackers and was forced to hand them over to the Libyans.
    A new Fox News story on Monday of this week clarified and expanded upon this report:
A well-placed Washington source confirms to Fox News that there were Libyan militiamen being held at the CIA annex in Benghazi and that their presence was being looked at as a possible motive for the staged attack on the consulate and annex that night.
According to multiple intelligence sources who have served in Benghazi, there were more than just Libyan militia members who were held and interrogated by CIA contractors at the CIA annex in the days prior to the attack. Other prisoners from additional countries in Africa and the Middle East were brought to this location.
The Libya annex was the largest CIA station in North Africa, and two weeks prior to the attack, the CIA was preparing to shut it down. Most prisoners, according to British and American intelligence sources, had been moved two weeks earlier.
    Taranto notes that a CIA spokesperson swatted down this notion:
The agency issued a categorical denial: "The CIA has not had detention authority since January 2009, when Executive Order 13491 was issued. Any suggestion that the agency is still in the detention business is uninformed and baseless."
Executive Order 13491, issued on President Obama's second full day in office, provides: "The CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future."
    Assuming that the CIA's statement is the full denial (as delivered to Eli Lake of the Daily Beast,) perhaps it is not as categorical as it seems.  The denial appears to have been delivered directly to Lake via email or verbally as the text of the denial is not found on any government website.  Skepticism runs high at a denial from any government entity, and one could be forgiven for smelling conspiracy in a denial from the CIA (the "spooks", as those at the CIA are routinely called.)  Note that the statement does not say the "CIA has not had any detention facilities," but rather "has not had detention authority."
The second sentence seems equally cagey, referring to the CIA not being "in the detention business," not that the CIA does not detain.

    Further, the executive order itself seems to leave wiggle room.  As noted above, it says [emphasis added] "CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities."  An email correspondent of mine notes that it is unlikely that this CIA facility in Libya existed in 2009 when the executive order was issued, which is a fair point.  But this Benghazi CIA station could have been established for entirely different purposes originally and was pressed into service later as a detention facility.  Indeed, the executive order acknowledges that CIA detention is not entirely avoidable.  This clause in the executive order further clarifies the detention prohibition:
    (g) The terms "detention facilities" and "detention facility" in section 4(a) of this order do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.”
    So if persons were truly being detained at the Libya facility, it may come down to how far one can stretch "short-term, transitory basis."  As the Fox News story noted, "Most prisoners, according to British and American intelligence sources, had been moved two weeks earlier."  Could this had been an attempt to stay within the "short-term, transitory basis" boundary?

    Even further wiggle room might be found in another executive order issued the same day as the one noted above:
   Sec. 3. Closure of Detention Facilities at Guantánamo. The detention facilities at Guantánamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order.
    This one even had a (famously unkept) deadline of one year, while the terms of Executive Order #13491 were “as expeditiously as possible.”  An Executive Order does not have the force of law, so if the President has allowed Guantánamo to remain open nearly three years after the date called for in his order, he may have granted a waiver, either explicitly or implicitly, in the matter of CIA detention as well.

    Although I alluded above to a whiff of conspiracy about this whole issue, I generally try to take events at face value.  However, if the CIA felt it needed to publicly deny the detention story for national security purposes, at least the justifications I outlined above might give it cover in a later investigation.  But if the stories turn out to be true, and even worse, as Taranto puts it, the four killed in Benghazi "paid with their lives for Barack Obama's moral and political posturing," the ramifications will surely test the strength of the president's supporters' stomachs.  Finding a hair in the soup is one thing.  Finding a dead rat at the bottom of the bowl is quite another.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Tolerance: Edina, Minnesota Style

    A story on the website of Minnesota Public Radio asks the question: "What did the election mean? Look at Edina."  The story begins with a focus on a man and his 22 year old son who are described as follows:
Edina resident Dan Atkins, left, and his son Nick Atkins, 22, consider themselves right-leaning independents who voted for Democrats in the last election because they don't like the Republican Party's focus on social issues and the marriage amendment. 
    The son speaks first:
Edina resident Nick Atkins, 22, was among those dissatisfied with the status quo.
"There's literally no sense of compromise," he said. "The greatness of the independents is you can go to either side. You can be like, 'Hey, let's work, let's find some middle ground.' The problem is, there is no middle ground. There are just heads bashing. Nothing productive is being accomplished."
    The father then sharpens the focus on the real issue, which as the rest of the article lays out, is the Republicans, and especially the social issues:
He describes himself a fierce independent, as does his 53-year-old father, Dan Atkins, who for most of his life thought of himself as a Republican. In recent years, the elder Atkins said, he had no choice but to claim a new political identity.
"The Republicans did that, actually," he said. "The social conservatives' insistence on hammering through what they think is right basically made me not a Republican.
    But it was the elder Atkins's comment on the "progressive" shift in Edina that caught my eye, though it passes unremarked upon in the article.
Atkins' shift is representative of Edina's growing unpredictability at the polls. He and many of his neighbors are fiscally conservative, but socially liberal. Edina is now considered a swing district, even though Atkins recalls not too long ago, it was a reliably Republican area.
"I remember walking around the Creek Valley Elementary School when I was in 4th grade," Dan Atkins said. "It was 1968. And kids were chanting, 'Nixon, Nixon, he's our man! Humphrey belongs in the garbage can!' Seriously, you would never see that now. It's very progressive socially. If you bullied somebody at Edina High School because they were gay, you'd get beat up. That's how progressive it is. What's not tolerated is ignoramuses."
    So now it is "progressive" to be intolerant  of "ignoramuses"?  How much of a stretch it would be for religious people, people who believe in low taxes, and people who believe abortion is wrong to be labeled “ignoramuses”?  If so, tolerance isn’t necessary.  Maybe even a good beating would be in order.  On one hand, "tolerance" isn't what it used to be.  But apparently in Edina, Minnesota, quite literally this is your father's tolerance.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day

Source: http://circlethewagons.net/
    When I was 18, I spent the summer at the New Jersey shore, working during the day, spending some time on the beach, and playing PacMan and DigDug video games on the boardwalk occasionally in the evenings.
    When my father was 18, he was on the deck of an ocean liner (1944) crossing the Atlantic, making sure the rest of the soldiers stayed below deck for their own safety.
    I was trying to make sure we had all 168 episodes of Hogan's Heroes videotaped.
    He began the trek across Europe, rounding up shell-shocked German soldiers, rousting them from their foxholes and into makeshift POW camps.  The first night they'd draw a line in the dirt around the camp.  If any of the prisoners crossed it, they would be shot.  They added barbed wire later, and eventually loaded the prisoners on train cars to be moved to more permanent camps.
    I began thinking about college and how I would prepare for my career.
    My uncle (now deceased), around the same age, fought his way across France a few days behind the D-Day invasion.
    Up to and including today, millions of men and women gave and are giving their lives, their youth, the innocence of their minds forever stained by the horror of war, that the rest of us might live free.  May we always be grateful for their service and sacrifice.

A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

    On Sunday, Jim Geraghty of National Review posted the following painful numbers on just how close the United States came to "President Romney." (Yes, I know, the milk is spilled, but we can cry a little, can't we?)
On Wednesday, I added up Obama’s margin in a few key states, to get a sense of just how agonizingly short the Romney campaign finished from 270 electoral votes. 
Some of those straggling precincts have reported, and so here is an updated set of numbers, according to the results this morning on the New York Times’ results map: 
Florida: 73,858
Ohio: 103,481
Virginia: 115,910
Colorado: 113,099 
Those four states, with a collective margin of, 406,348 for Obama, add up to 69 electoral votes. Had Romney won 407,000 or so additional votes in the right proportion in those states, he would have 275 electoral votes.
    As regular readers of this blog know, I had been considerably overly optimistic about Romney’s chances in the election.  I wrote a blog post called “One in Fourteen” which was the number of Obama voters from 2008 who would have had to switch sides in the 2012 election for Romney to win (national popular vote.)  In that piece, I noted:
On at least a few occasions, the Obama campaign has expressed concern about this very thing.   In Florida in September, Michelle Obama said this at a campaign rally:
“Think back to what happened in this state in 2008. Back then Barack won Florida by 236,000 votes. Now, that might sound like a lot, but here’s what it looks like when you break it down—that’s just 36 votes per precinct … So get that number in your head, because that could mean just one vote in your neighborhood, in your dorm. Just one vote in your apartment building could make the difference.”
    While I did not include this next one in my post, Michelle Obama also said a similar thing about Virginia:
“We won Virginia by 235,000 votes [in 2008]. Now, that’s wonderful. And while that might sound like a lot, think about this: When you break that number down, that’s just 100 votes per precinct. Now think about that—100 votes. That could mean just a couple of votes in your neighborhood, just a single vote in your apartment building.
    Based on Michelle Obama’s numbers and the margins Geraghty listed above, Virginia actually came down to 49 votes per precinct.  Florida came down to eleven votes per precinct.  While I did not calculate the numbers for Ohio and Colorado, they must be distressingly similar.

Source: http://nbcsports.com/
    In any case, the numbers back up my contention in "On Second Thought" that this election was much closer than the Obama campaign or the media in general are saying.  The electoral vote tally ended with 332 for Obama and 206 for Romney, but that 126 vote difference is a mile wide and an inch deep (or 407,000 votes, one-third of one percent, deep.)  Sure, it's enough for the win and even an electoral college shellacking.  But this win for the Obama team seems more like a buzzer beater than a blow out. Perhaps the GOP can learn some lessons from the President's wife.  Every vote really does count.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Jeeps to be Manufactured in Italy for Export to U.S.

    Lost in all of the hubbub of the Romney/Obama/Chrysler/Jeep/China kerfuffle of the past few weeks was this story out of Italy reported by Autonews.com [emphasis added]:
TURIN - ...  In 2014, Fiat introduces the 500X, a replacement for the current Sedici small crossover likely to be built at its Melfi plant in Central Italy alongside a "baby" Jeep Wrangler small SUV for European and U.S. markets. Alfa will launch the 4C spider and possibly a large sedan, a possible substitute for the discontinued 164 sedan. Maserati will begin sales of the Levante luxury SUV, based on the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
    The story was also reported elsewhere, such as Autoblog:
In a bid to fill some of its empty Italian production capacity, Fiat plans to build a pair of small SUVs at its plant in Melfi starting in 2014, according to Automotive News Europe. With most Chrysler plants running at or near full capacity, the Melfi facility will probably build the new Fiat and Jeep SUVs for export to North America. The final decision could come as soon as this weekend. The new small Jeep is expected to replace the Patriot and/or Compass, which are both produced in Chrysler's Belvidere, Illinois plant...
In addition to these new Fiat and Jeep SUVs, the upcoming Chrysler 100 hatchback could also be built in Italy at Fiat's Cassino plant.
    While Italy is not China, Chrysler and the Obama administration pushed back hard against the idea that any Jeep production was being shifted overseas.  At the height of the controversy and a week before the election, Chrysler chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne wrote a blog post.  In part, he said:
Jeep is one of our truly global brands with uniquely American roots. This will never change. So much so that we committed that the iconic Wrangler nameplate, currently produced in our Toledo, Ohio plant, will never see full production outside the United States.
Jeep assembly lines will remain in operation in the United States and will constitute the backbone of the brand.
It is inaccurate to suggest anything different.
    Marchionne, though not a politician, seems to have chosen his words carefully and precisely.  For instance, "the iconic Wrangler nameplate, currently produced in our Toledo, Ohio plant, will never see full production outside the United States."  He went on to say, "Jeep assembly lines will remain in operation in the United States", and not "Jeep assembly lines will remain in operation only in the United States."  As I noted in my original post on this story (before national attention became focused on it,) Marchionne's comments in 2011 regarding Jeep and especially the Wrangler were a bit more sweeping:
“This [Toledo, Ohio] plant has been at the heart of what we’ve done. I’ve said publicly that I would never build the Wrangler outside the U.S. and outside of Toledo. These are things that are unthinkable — to assemble a Wrangler somewhere else,” Marchionne said in November, 2011.
 So what is this "'baby' Jeep Wrangler" planned for the Melfi plant in Italy for export to the U.S.?  Will Chrysler give it a different name to keep Marchionne's pledge technically intact?  Wasn't one of the ideas that made foreign production of Jeeps so unthinkable was the importing of those Jeeps with "uniquely American roots" into the United States?  But that sounds very much like Fiat's current plan.  And if that's not enough, there's the more ominous albeit less clear statement in the Autoblog story that says "The new small Jeep [built at the Melfi, Italy plant for export to North America] is expected to replace the Patriot and/or Compass, which are both produced in Chrysler's Belvidere, Illinois plant."  A foreign-built Jeep exported to the U.S. to "replace" an American made model?  How could that be spun as good news for U.S. jobs?

    There is no question that Jeep production in the U.S. is thriving and that it appears no current Jeep-related Chrysler jobs in the U.S. are in direct jeopardy.  However, the argument could be made that if Jeeps are being made in Italy for export to the U.S., those vehicles and the jobs created to build them could be American made cars and jobs.
     Perhaps in an effort to deflect criticism from the Romney campaign, Chrysler overshot the truth in its claims just as the Romney campaign did with their initial claim that "all Jeep production" was going to be shifted to China.  Unfortunately, the Romney campaign never fully retracted its candidate's original erroneous statement, choosing to simply switch the focus to more general assertions that the U.S. automaker was creating jobs overseas.  It remains to be seen if Chrysler will set the record straight about its plans for Jeep production, particularly the Wrangler brand, and how that squares with Marchionne's public statements.