Saturday, March 31, 2012

HHS Mandate is Good News for School Choice

    School choice and a government mandate regarding contraceptives may seem like an odd couple. However, several writers have recently paired the controversial Health and Human Services insurance mandates with past decisions about school choice or voucher programs, including David Brooks of the New York Times and Libby Sternberg at Hot Air.  Religious institutions have gotten the short end of the stick in both cases, and somehow the First Amendment has failed to afford the protection it seems to promise.
    The Obama administration has attempted to explain how the consciences of religious institutions and their members can remain clear even while the employees of those institutions are provided services by employer-paid health plans that violate the institutions' religious beliefs.  However, these tortured justifications have inadvertently opened a line of reasoning that could invalidate the objections that say that government-provided vouchers or scholarships amount to a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution. The key part of the latest version of the proposed HHS rule reads as follows:
[T]he Departments intend to propose a requirement that health insurance issuers providing coverage for insured group health plans sponsored by such religious organizations assume the responsibility for the provision of contraceptive coverage without cost sharing to participants and beneficiaries covered under the plan, independent of the religious organization, as a means of meeting these goals. 
The basic structure of the argument is this:
  • A religious employer pays premiums to the insurance company for health insurance.
  • The insurance company puts the money from the premiums in Account A.
  • The insurance company takes money from Account B, which contains funds from a source other than the religious employer, and pays for the objectionable benefits for employees of the religious employer.
  • The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion is intact.
The objection to school vouchers has been that government funds going to religious schools violates the separation of church and state and amounts to an establishment of religion.  Using the Obama administration argument outlined above, the school voucher concept can now be freed from the entanglements of the religious issue:
  • The government remits funds from a government-sponsored voucher program to a deserving recipient family.
  • The family puts the money from the government in Account A.
  • The family takes money from Account B, which contains funds from a source other than the government, and pays the tuition to the religious school.
  • The First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion is intact.
Of course this sounds like a parody, and it would be were it not for the identical glorified money-laundering scheme that the HHS has proposed to resolve the religious objections to their health insurance mandate.  In reality, the validity of the two issues has been flipped.  School choice voucher programs are not a government establishment of religion, while the proposed HHS "compromise" truly does restrict  religious freedom.  But the silver-lining could be the exposure of the fallacy of both arguments; and the harder the Obama administration pushes its HHS "compromise," the weaker its position against vouchers will become.

This post was originally published on March 30, 2012 at Blogger News Network.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Read My Lips: No More Elections

    While reading Charles Krauthammer's column in the Washington Post about the comments President Obama whispered to Dmitry Medvedev that were picked up by a reporter's microphone, a further thought occured to me that I did not address in my earlier post on the subject.  These comments were made in a public setting in front of what I imagine were dozens of people, if not more.  There were TV cameras, microphones, still cameras, reporters, and the president could not have harbored the slightest expectation of real privacy.  Yes, there is a lot of background noise on the audio, but I believe I can say without sounding too cloak-and-dagger that lip-reading is not unheard of even in the modern era.  Every Sunday during football season we see NFL coaches talking into their headsets with their play-books over their mouths to prevent spies from the opposing team from gathering intelligence.  Surely even if the President thought the microphones and cameras were off and the noise would drown out his whisper-diplomacy, he should have realized that the stage he shared with Medvedev was not the place.
    So what was going on?  Are we to believe the President's assurances that this message being passed along to Vladimir Putin was completely innocuous, despite the fact that the explanation he gave later was, as Krauthammer put it, "rubbish?"  Or was it a Biden-like gaffe?  Or was it simply hubris that must come so easily when one is the most powerful person on the planet, an over-confidence that says, "I can conduct superpower business right here in front of the whole world.  Just watch me."
    We may never know the true reason.  But beyond the quest for an immediate explanation is another more chilling notion.  If this is the kind of thing the President will say in a public setting with the world's press corps in the room, what on earth will he say behind closed doors?  One need not be a conspiracy theorist to feel a knot in one's stomach when contemplating that thought.

Liberal-run AP Easily Distorts Obama Budget Vote

My post title above is a take-off on the Yahoo News Headline on this AP story about the House vote last night on President Obama's budget proposal:
GOP-run House easily rejects Obama budget 
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican-run House has overwhelmingly rejected President Barack Obama's $3.6 trillion budget for next year after a vote forced by GOP lawmakers to embarrass Democrats.
Republicans have opposed Obama's budget all year, criticizing its tax increases on the wealthy and saying it lacks sufficient spending cuts.
Democrats have defended Obama's budget priorities but they largely voted "no" Wednesday night.
Republicans said Democrats were afraid to vote for Obama's proposed tax increases and extra spending for energy and welfare. Democrats said Republicans had forced a vote on a version of Obama's budget that contained only its numbers, not the policies he would use to achieve them.
The vote was 414-0.
The vote came as the House debated a GOP budget that contains far more deficit reduction than Obama has proposed.

Obviously, the headline wasn't the only problem.  There is also "a vote forced by GOP lawmakers to embarrass Democrats" stated as fact, not as the opinion of the Democrats in the House.  And then there's "Democrats ... largely voted 'no' Wednesday night."  "Largely?"  How about unanimously?

Nothing new as far as media bias goes, but the headlines do not always make me laugh out loud as this one did, so I figured it was worth sharing.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Scalia Widely Misquoted as "We're Not Stupid"

    Once exchange that received a lot of attention from Tuesday's Supreme Court session was between Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Elena Kagan.  The transcript available at Politico records the exchange as follows:
6 JUSTICE KAGAN: And this is especially true,
7 isn't it, General -­
8 GENERAL VERRILLI: — because that's the
9 judgment Congress has made.
10 JUSTICE KAGAN: — Verrilli, because in this
11 context, the subsidizers eventually become the
12 subsidized?
13 GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, that was the point
14 I was trying to make, Justice Kagan, that you're young
15 and healthy one day, but you don't stay that way. And
16 the — the system works over time. And so I just don't
17 think it's a fair characterization of it. And it does
18 get back to, I think — a problem I think is important
19 to understand -­
20 JUSTICE SCALIA: We're not stupid. They're
21 going to buy insurance later. They're young and — and
22 need the money now.
"We're not stupid" appears to be a rather harsh come back from Scalia, and perhaps even defensive or petulant.  The problem is, that is not what Scalia said.  Carefully listening to the audio reveals that Scalia said "These people [the young and healthy] are not stupid."   The Daily Caller, who has linked to the audio and originally repeated the same mistake (as evidenced by the URL of the Daily Caller link: "were-not-stupid/",) has now corrected its transcript.  But a Google search of the past 24 hours (as of 1:35 PM Wednesday) returns 3,830 hits on "we're not stupid" and only 150 on "people are not stupid".)  Even Drudge as of late morning (see screenshot) still had "We're not stupid..." linking to the Daily Caller story, although it had been removed as of this posting. This is a good example of how an urban legend can get started.  We'll see how well the media does today in correcting themselves.

Update:  Even the transcript on the Supreme Court's own website made the correction: "These people not stupid."  Many news sites and blogs, however, continue to report the wrong version.

This post (before the update) was originally published on March 28, 2012 at Blogger News Network.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Peace in Their Time

From Yahoo News:
Annan says Syria accepts peace plan, fighting enters LebanonBEIJING/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria has accepted a ceasefire and peace plan drawn up by U.N. and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, his spokesman said on Tuesday, even as Syrian troops thrust into Lebanon to battle rebels who had taken refuge there.
The headline sounds like a modern day version of "Chamberlain says Hitler accepts peace plan, Germany invades Poland."  Certainly Assad does not have the means or inclination to launch a global war as Hitler did, but let us hope Annan and other negotiators do not have the gullibility or naivety of Chamberlain either.

The Pipeline 'Round the World [Updated]

    President Obama has a habit of making grand-sounding claims that shrink under closer examination.  I have previously written of such claims relative to deficit reduction and the cutting of regulations.  In both cases, reality was but a shadow of the president's extravagant language.  Recent remarks in Columbus, Ohio continued the tradition as the president talked about the energy needs of this country and what his administration has done to make sure we have an affordable, reliable, and consistent supply.  At one point, while ticking off examples of the way he has reduced dependence on foreign oil, increased domestic production and opened new areas to energy exploration, he said, "We’ve added enough oil and gas pipeline to circle the entire Earth and then some."  This is an effective word picture since even in the era when we often hear "the world is getting smaller all the time," everyone can still maintain a healthy respect for the a tremendous distance a circuit of the earth covers.
    But what is the context?  The circumference of the earth is about 25,000 miles.  So, if we've added 25,000 miles of pipeline in the past three and a half years (let's say 30,000 to take into account President Obama's "and then some,") how much existing pipeline was there to begin with?  According to a chart on the Department of Transportation website, in 2003 there were 2.3 million miles of existing pipeline.  The president's Pipeline-Around-the-World (and-Then-Some) has added to the total by a whopping 1.3%.  In three and a half years.  That comes to a .37% increase per year, or about 8,500 miles.  Now the word picture becomes a pipeline from Washington DC to somewhere in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 miles short of Sydney, Australia, in the neighborhood of where the airplane in the TV series Lost went down.
    I have emailed the White House requesting the source of the president's claim, but have not yet heard anything.*  Perhaps the President is referring to a certain kind of pipeline that would make the progress of the last 42 months seem more significant.  Or perhaps this rate of progress in adding pipeline is typical under current environmental and regulatory conditions.  Or even better than typical.  However, the president's penchant for vague but impressive sounding delineations of his administration's accomplishments lead me to believe the portrait he has painted owes a great deal to artistic license.  To put the president's annual pipeline output in perspective, the distance from earth to the moon is about 240,000 miles.  When one has made five round-trips to the moon, a flight from Washington DC to Australia that ditches in the Pacific Ocean loses much of its allure.

*UPDATE:  I have now received a response from the White House in the form of a 700+ word letter from President Obama.  However, imagine my disappointment when I discovered I was not the only one to receive such a response.  Barry Stevens at his Barry on Energy blog posted a very similar letter from the president that he received in response to a letter he sent in September 2011, and when I say "similar letter" I actually mean "identical."  I guess I should take some comfort in the fact that I got a response in one day while Mr. Stevens waited six months.  However, my disappointment is compounded by the fact that in the 700+ words there is nothing to address the simple question I asked in my email to the White House, "What was the source for the President's statement, 'We’ve added enough oil and gas pipeline to circle the entire Earth and then some.'"

This post (before the update) was originally published on March 27, 2012 at Blogger News Network.

Monday, March 26, 2012


    From ABC News:  This exchange between Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and President Obama caught by a hot mic this weekend in South Korea is likely to end up on a campaign T-shirt like Joe Biden's Obamacare hot-mic comment from two years ago, but this time for the Republicans and not the President:
At the tail end of his 90 minute meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev Monday, President Obama said that he would have “more flexibility” to deal with controversial issues such as missile defense, but incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to give him “space.”
The exchange was picked up by microphones as reporters were let into the room for remarks by the two leaders.
The exchange:
President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.
President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…
President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.
If the Republicans have anything to say about it, President Obama will have more flexibility after January 20, 2013 than he knows what to do with.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Name It. Change It. Or Not.

    "Name It. Change It." is a website with a mission to "work to end sexist and misogynistic coverage of women candidates by all members of the press—from bloggers to radio hosts to television pundits."  According to their website, they are a "non-partisan project of WCF [Women's Campaign Fund] Foundation, Women’s Media Center, and Political Parity."  A recent post on the site by Leigh Ann Renzulli called out Slate’s Hanna Rosin for insinuating that "women only care about 'women's issues.'"
In a blog on Slate’s DoubleX Factor that was probably meant to demonstrate how important these recent issues are to women, Hanna Rosin seems to be saying that women only care about women’s issues (read: birth control) and not, say, the economy.
There is a moment in every recent election when issues that women care about become the critical issues of the campaign. This moment might arise because of a candidate’s mistress (Clinton) or because a women is on the ticket (other than Clinton, Sarah Palin)…This was supposed to be an election about the economy.
Rosin, a founding editor of DoubleX, clearly cares about women’s representation in the media, but she probably could have found a better way to discuss the role of women in the election.
So where might Hanna Rosin get the idea that women only care about women's issues ("read: birth control")?  On the home page of the Women’s Campaign Fund website (yes, the same WCF that sponsors Name It. Change It.) is their mission statement that reads in its entirety:
Women’s Campaign Fund (WCF), a nonpartisan organization, is dedicated to dramatically increasing the number of women in elected office who support reproductive health choices for all [emphasis added.]
So who is suggesting that women need only concern themselves with women's issues ("read: birth control")?  The very sponsors of Name It. Change It!  But not to worry.  I have used the reporting form on the Name It. Change It. site to alert them of this egregious example of sexism.  Now that I've Named It, let's see if they Change It.  Or not.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Mandate (Let Us Help You Learn To Help Yourself)

    Beginning on Monday, the Obama administration will argue for the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court.  If the Obama administration is completely convinced of the constitutionality of both the mandate and the fine that will be assessed on individuals choosing to defy the law and not purchase coverage, then why not simply make the fine large enough to cover the premium and buy coverage for them in the private health insurance market?  If the success of the plan is contingent upon everyone having health insurance and that in turn bringing down costs, then the ability of a certain percentage of the population to pay a small fine and avoid coverage will undermine the rationale for the entire program.  Government purchase of coverage on behalf of those who refuse voluntary participation would certainly place no greater burden on individual freedom than the mandate itself.  So why not a larger "fine"?
    Would the size of the fine determine its constitutionality?  Of course not.  The Obama administration is in fact counting on a certain segment of the population declining coverage and paying the fine because generally speaking, that segment (mostly the young and healthy) will not access the healthcare system in large measure anyway.  The fine is merely a revenue generator that the government keeps rather than being surrendered to an insurance company as would be necessary if the fine were actually purchasing coverage.  It provides a convenient revenue stream with no related costs (other than enforcement.)
    This policy maneuver is similar to the dynamic at work with cigarette taxes.  The government refuses to actually make cigarettes illegal, and yet heavily taxes them in order to ostensibly reduce their usage and thereby reduce the associated health risks and costs.  But the government benefits from the taxes paid by those cigarette users to such a degree that it would be fiscally damaging to wipe out smoking altogether. The government has done a cynical cost-benefit analysis to keep the money flowing.
    Cigarette taxes and ObamaCare are both examples of money and power grabs disguised as compassion.  While the public has diminishing sympathy for a "right" to smoke (and understandably so,) the right to make decisions about health insurance still enjoys widespread support with 56% in favor of repealing the ObamaCare mandate according to Rasmussen's latest poll.  Now the Supreme Court will have to decide if the government's need to "regulate commerce" in this heavy-handed manner trumps individual freedom to make choices about one's own health.

This post was originally published on March 23, 2012 at Blogger News Network.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Pipeline to Nowhere

    CNN reports today that President Obama will endorse the permitting of the southern half of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline:
President Barack Obama plans to announce in Cushing, Oklahoma, on Thursday that his administration will expedite the permit for the southern half of the Keystone XL pipeline, a source familiar with the president's announcement told CNN.
In January, the Obama administration denied a permit for the 1,700-mile-long Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would stretch from Canada's tar sands development to the U.S. Gulf Coast. That decision was met by persistent Republican criticism that the president has not been doing everything possible to create jobs and combat high gas prices.
Late last month, TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL Pipeline, announced it would move forward with the process to build the southern half of the pipeline, which would begin in Cushing - the president's third stop on his two-day energy tour. The White House praised the move.
Senior administration officials would not confirm the president's plan to unveil the effort to cut red tape for the project, though one senior administration official acknowledged the need to deal with the glut of oil in Cushing, where oil from the Midwest hits a bottleneck as it is transported to the Gulf of Mexico.
    It's a far cry from what the pipeline's backers had sought, and the timing of the announcement has led to suspicions that the Obama administration is seeking a way to blunt criticism of the January rejection of the full project.  The recent rise in gas prices also has had the president looking for ways to show that he is trying to help bring down the cost of energy even while claiming a general inability of government to do so.  Needless to say, there will be mixed reactions to this partial permitting announcement.  NPR reports:
What's clear is that Obama's announcement won't be met with cheers from oil executives. The heads of four big energy companies — Continental Resources, Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy and Sandridge Energy — said as much in an an open letter to the president published in The Oklahoman.
Their message to the president: Approve the entire XL pipeline, now. They write:
"Approval of the entire Keystone XL pipeline should happen now — not after the election. Yes, we are pleased TransCanada decided to build a critical section of the project from Cushing to the Gulf Coast. We note that this section doesn't require State Department approval. However, America's greatest benefit will come when we can transport oil from our best energy partner, Canada, and oil-rich North Dakota and Montana."
    Although most would have to acknowledge some benefit to the partial construction of the pipeline, the section being fast-tracked is only a fraction of the total project.  As the general election season draws near, will the Keystone XL Pipeline turn into the 2012 version of Sarah Palin's support for the Bridge to Nowhere that was resurrected as an issue when she was named John McCain's running mate?  Except in this case, it wouldn't be support for an expensive government project with questionable benefits, but rather the government's lack of support for a private sector project with multiple unquestionable benefits, not the least of which would be thousands of jobs.  The president can only hope that the parallel doesn't catch on.

This post was originally published on March 21, 2012 at Blogger News Network.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Yes, New York, There is a Grand Forks

As all the buzz about Marilyn Hagerty’s  Olive Garden review begins to fade, Mrs. Hagerty seems to be keeping her feet firmly planted.  It’s been a two-week whirlwind for her, but she has returned home after a New York trip with interviews and TV appearances.  She met all her deadlines for the Grand Forks Herald during all the hubbub and seems content to resume her 85th year of life right where she left it when the internet intruded. Many writers similarly situated would be milking it for all it’s worth (probably myself included,) but Mrs. Hagerty seems to recognize that these days, Andy Worhol’s 15 minutes of fame is often an exaggeration.  I believe she has represented her newspaper, her state, and her fellow Americans well, and I wrote her the following email today to give her my reflections on her odyssey:
Dear Mrs. Hagerty:
Your recent experience reminded me of the classic “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” story.  Those predatory bloggers who mocked your writing and called your column “pathetic” are Virginia’s nasty little friends who tried to tell her there was no Santa.  Your review of Olive Garden was a reminder that this country is not just New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, but rather Grand Forks, ND; Salisbury, MD; and thousands of other “small” towns in between.  To quote Francis Church in his letter to Virginia, “They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.”  Indeed, “how dreary would be the world if there were no” Grand Forks, if all of life was really Gawker, Youtube, politics, and the Kardashians.  Perhaps your review went “viral” to begin with because of cynicism (of which I myself am often guilty,) but I believe it continued because it resonated with most people in this country who live in a chicken-Alfredo-and-warm-breadsticks America.  So, the borrow from Francis Church again, “Yes, New York City, there is a Grand Forks and an Olive Garden. They exist as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”  Long after the website hits fade away, life will go on in fly-over country.  “Is it all real? Ah, [New York,] in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.”
Although today is the first day of spring, it may be that this season and the circumstances surrounding Marilyn Hagerty and her review cannot bear the weight of Mr. Church’s soaring prose the way Santa Claus and Christmastime could.  And yet this is as good a time as any to remember that the simple things are often the most meaningful and most enduring.  Sometimes, even in Grand Forks, when they offer you raspberry lemonade, you just need water.  Thank you, Mrs. Hagerty, for the reminder.

This post was originally published on March 20, 2012 at Blogger News Network.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Capitalism is Finally Cool!

    Finally, capitalism has its own hip movement!  After languishing in the shadow of "flash mobs" and Occupy Wall Street, we read this in USA Today in an article entitled "'Cash mobs' descend on small businesses, snap up merchandise":
It's a mob scene at some mom-and-pop retailers across the country.
Organized groups of do-gooders — "cash mobs," modeled after public-spectacle "flash mobs" — are descending upon small businesses, snapping up merchandise and rallying at pubs afterward to celebrate their pro-community mission.
The shopping sprees have taken place in dozens of cities from San Diego to Buffalo. The packs organize on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, where they get details on where and when a strike will occur.
Farmers markets, toy retailers and hardware stores have been on the hit list. Mob members typically spend at least $10 to $20.
Economists and social scientists have a name for this type of behavior where consumers make a choice to spend their own money in the business of their choice to purchase goods of their own choosing: "shopping."  More technical terms are "commerce" and even "capitalism."  Recently I have noticed this phenomenon numerous times at the supermarket, Wal-Mart and even the local mall.  To a country increasingly accustomed to being told what they can and cannot buy, what they must buy and where they must buy it, and even what they must give away free of charge, this new behavior may seem shocking and even seditious.
    So where will this movement take us as a country? Is there a nascent Occupy Hotel Rooms movement waiting in the wings? Imagine people walking into hotel lobbies, paying for a room, and then staying there as long as they want. And if they wish to extend their stay, they pay more. Occupy Motel Rooms, Occupy Bed and Breakfasts, and even Occupy Campgrounds might catch on, too. It gives one the chills.
    Ancient writers such as Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman theorized about economic activities like this, but it is exciting to actually see their ideas taking hold.  If this concept of businesses selling goods to willing, paying customers gains traction, there's no telling where it might take us.  Call me crazy, but I envision a 30-year-old law student testifying before Congress and pleading with our representatives to allow insurance companies to sell health insurance that covers those treatments and medications that the consumer and the company have agreed upon.  I know, social utopianism is a false promise.  But I can dream.

This post was originally published on March 16, 2012 at Blogger News Network.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Unofficial Campaign

    The president has been whipping up the Democratic base recently with his fiery campaign rhetoric.  Wait, what's that?

Sorry, let me start over.  The president has been responding to his Republican critics with reasoned arguments, most recently in an official speech at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md.
    Actually, the president has grown increasingly strident as gasoline prices, the budget deficit, and the national debt all continue to rise.  Come to think of it, despite the dizzying rhetorical heights to which candidate Obama soared in Minnesota in June 2008 ("I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the ... moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow"), apparently even the sea level continues to rise unabated.  The president's approval ratings  and fund raising, on the other hand, have bucked the trend and are heading south.
    In an attempt to reverse the trend in the latter two items, President Obama tore into Republicans in general as backward-looking naysayers who like gas guzzling cars and wouldn't recognize a clever use of algae if their lives depended on it. His words were both scripted and off the cuff as the crowd responded approvingly.  In the words of Politico:
Those same people, Obama said, would’ve thought the Earth was flat, that television wouldn’t last, that the automobile was only a passing fad.
In truth, it's the President's political and cultural allies who think it's the earth that won't last, who wish the automobile had been a passing fad, and have so corrupted television that in large measure we'd be better off without it.  The president even included a poorly researched slam on Rutherford B. Hayes as losing a spot on Mount Rushmore for failing to recognize the potential of the telephone.  While one would like to give the president the benefit of the doubt that the Mount Rushmore reference was tongue-in-cheek, his willingness to attack his political enemies in extreme terms gives one pause.
   The Obama 2012 campaign has obviously taken stock of the political landscape.  Despite the bruising battle that the Republicans have been in during a long primary season that is months from ending, Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina issued a fund raising appeal this week that said flat out, "If the general election were held today, President Obama would lose to Mitt Romney." Whatever level of confidence that President Obama continues to exude about his remaining "five years," this fund raising letter has a ring of desperation.   If the political earth were as flat as the Flat Earth Society imagined the real earth to be, the Obama campaign would be justified in fearing that it is headed over the edge.

This post was originally published on March 16, 2012 at Blogger News Network.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Better Off Not Asking

    In 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked what has become a staple question in presidential campaigns: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”   The feckless Jimmy Carter was woefully unprepared to answer that question when Reagan posed it in a debate shortly before the election. A week later, the American people answered with a resounding “no” that translated into one of the biggest landslides over a sitting US president in history.

    Over a period five days in early March of this year, CBS News conducted a telephone survey of over 1,000 adults. Among the generally bad news for the president from the survey results was this:
Just 20 percent of Americans feel their family’s financial situation is better today than it was four years ago. Another 37 percent say it is worse, and 43 percent say it is about the same.
    Fully four out of five respondents believe they are no better off or are worse off than they were four years ago. A review of the survey reveals that “four years ago” was not precisely defined. In other words, the survey did not ask specifically about March 2008, but simply used the more broad measure of “four years ago.” Given this context, a reasonable assumption is that most people recall 2008 as the year of the great financial collapse and are framing their answers with that in mind. If 80% of the country does not see themselves as better off now than they were when the Great Recession devastated the economy, the Obama 2012 reelection campaign had better be stocking up on antacids.

    If this news is not bad enough for the president’s campaign, the eventual selection of a Republican candidate and the consequent redirecting of the GOP’s attention and attacks away from the internal struggle and back towards the president could be calamitous. One campaign ad that Republican strategists might already have in the can would play off of an October 2008 ad from then candidate Obama. In the ad called “Defining Moment,” Reagan’s old question was given new life and a new twist:

“At this defining moment in our history, the question is not, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ We all know the answer to that,” Obama narrates. “The real question is will our country be better off four years from now? How will we lift our economy and restore America’s place in the world?”

    We are now nearing the four year mark since Barack Obama asked the fateful question.  A preliminary verdict is in and 80% of the American people as represented by this survey say “no.” Despite the Herculean efforts of the president’s boosters to convince everyone that the economy is “starting to show signs of gaining strength,” the message is starting to wear thin.  Time is running out to persuade voters that they should reconsider their conclusions.

    In 1980, Jimmy Carter was facing an economy on life support and an Iranian foreign policy debacle. President Obama and the Democrats might begin to feel an eerie sense of deja vu as November 2012 approaches. If the eventual Republican candidate can look into the camera this October and pose the question once again with a modicum of Reagan’s effectiveness, the White House is sure to have a new occupant come January 2013, and citizen Barack Obama will be left wondering why he ever raised the question in the first place.

This post was originally published on March 14, 2012 at Blogger News Network.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Standing Up for the 80.9% [Updated]

    Recently, the Obama-Biden 2012 campaign came out with a new web ad with a photo of the first family with the slogan "Help the Obamas stand up for working Americans."  Three problems came to light almost immediately.  First, the Obamas are sitting down in the photo.  

OK, yes, kind of nitpicky, but still, this is public relations/Madison Avenue stuff that is supposed to come second nature to the Obama team.  This is sort of the reverse of Joe Biden in 2008 calling on a supporter in a wheelchair to "stand up, Chuck!"  There is a Keystone cops feel to it that doesn't foster confidence.
    Second, the Obamas have been very insistent that their daughters remain shielded from the political fray, but here they are in a campaign ad in the midst of the election season.  Obviously, it's their choice, but it is seemingly at odds with the wall of separation between daughters and politics that the Obamas have built in the past.
    Third, the photo itself was the subject of scrutiny because it was taken by the official White House photographer, and such photographs are generally off limits for campaign literature.  As Politico notes, the photo (still available on Flickr) continues to carry this warning:
This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.
Oddly, the warning leaves open the possibility that opponents of the president could legitimately use the photo since it only proscribes uses suggesting "approval or endorsement." (Could I be in violation since I am not a "news organization" in the traditional sense?)  Presumably no opponent would be foolish enough to use the photo in a negative way, especially with Michelle and the daughters in picture.  But it would arguably be less of an infringement than the Obama campaign's usage.
    But there is a fourth problem that has gone largely unaddressed, and it has to do with the appeal to "help the Obamas stand up for working Americans."  Is this an implicit acknowledgement that the president has thrown in the towel on the unemployed and will only stand up for those Americans who are working?  Again, this might seem nitpicky, but perception is reality in politics.  With the president's less than stellar record on jobs, does the campaign really want the 19.1% un- and under-employed wondering is the president is "standing up" for them?  It’s quite possible that this unintended message occurred to the Obama campaign also, because not only does a search of the campaign website for the slogan come up almost empty, but the one place where the picture still appears has been scrubbed of the "working Americans" reference.
    With the president facing low approvals, high disapprovals, a struggling economy, and growing foreign policy headaches, a well run campaign will be a must.  This stumble out of the gate cannot be encouraging to those looking for another four years for the president.  No doubt they will be hoping for a change.

UPDATE:  Based on this story in the Washington Free Beacon, it would appear that the US International Longshoremen’s Association agrees with my interpretation of the slogan:  UNION NAMES CHINESE PREMIER 'BEST FRIEND OF AMERICAN WORKER'

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sausage, MSM, and Redistricting

    The state of Maryland recently went through a somewhat contentious redistricting process to determine the new boundaries for Congressional districts based on the 2010 census.  Every state has either gone through the same process or is currently doing so.  Given that population shifts are constantly occuring and populations are rarely if ever spread uniformly throughout a state geographically, the process is sometime tedious and, depending on the political climate in a given state, more often than not, controversial.
    According to the Census Bureau, whose work is responsible for producing the data used to determine Congressional district boundaries, "[e]ach congressional district is to be as equal in population to all other congressional districts in a state as practicable."  How states accomplish this varies widely.  The federal constitution is silent on the matter, only providing the census as a means of apportioning Representatives among the states, not determining how those representatives are chosen.
    Some states have chosen to use their counties as a means of drawing district boundaries, such as Iowa, shown here:

Oklahoma follows this system as a general rule, although some county lines and Congressional district lines diverge:

And then there's Maryland...

There are those who would argue that the relatively small size, the shape, and large population of Maryland does not lend itself to the tidy and relatively simple configurations achieved by states such as Iowa and Oklahoma.  But it is difficult to look at the outcome and not have other images come to mind.  Given the recent attention paid to the much reviled MSM (no, not "main stream media" - that other reviled MSM, mechanically-separated meat,) this is the mental picture of the process that I see:

(Hat tip to Tail 'o the Rat for the photo)

Although as the Washington Post helpfully points out, this photo (or I should say the non-rainbow original) is actually mechanically-separated-chicken, but chicken is meat in my book, so there's no need to split hairs.
    Otto von Bismarck is credited with observing, "To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making."  I would add "Congressional districts" to the list, but just to be safe, one might not even want to see them when they are done.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Forward... or Back... to the Dark Ages!

During the debate in the Senate this week on the Blunt amendment, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) stretched the bounds of reason with the following hyperbolic riff:
“The Republicans want to take us forward to the Dark Ages again … when women were property that you could easily control, even trade if you wanted to,” Lautenberg said. “It’s appalling we are having this debate in the 21st century.”
And today, James Taranto in his column at the Wall Street Journal noted another voice chiming in with similar rhetorical overkill.  The Orwellian-named Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) ran an ad in the New York Times that was noted by Catholic League president Bill Donohue:

Never has there been a more vicious anti-Catholic advertisement in a prominent American newspaper than the one in today’s New York Times by Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) ... Here is how the ad begins: “It’s time to quit the Roman Catholic Church. Will it be reproductive freedom, or back to the Dark Ages?”
 Leaving aside the embarrassing lack of harmony in their diatribes (is it "forward to" or "back to" the Dark Ages?), is this kind of over-the-top polemic actually intended to change minds?  Is this what President Obama had in mind when he said at his Tuesday press conference:

We want to send a message to all our young people that being part of a democracy involves argument and disagreements and debate... [a]nd we want you to be engaged, and there's a way to do it in a way that doesn't involve you being demeaned and insulted.
Reading the entire FFRF ad does nothing to restore one's faith in the legendary "civility" for which the president continues to call.  It appeared this week that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. missed the civility memo as I noted earlier this week.  But if you can endure to the end of FFRF's ad, you will be rewarded with some delightful irony.  For those wishing to donate to the cause, a membership application with a listing of dues is provided at the bottom.

There are various levels available starting with $25 for a student.  A lifetime membership will set you back $1,000.  But if you really want to make a stand against religion, plunk down $5,000 and the "After Life" membership is yours.  Is it just me, or does that smack of the Catholic innovation during the Dark Ages of selling indulgences?  Apparently what the FFRF lacks in civility they make up for in nerve.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Starck Raving Mad

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article entitled "A Starck-Looking Electric Car for Fun". French designer Philippe Starck introduced the latest entrant into the beleaguered field of electric cars at the Geneva Auto Show this week. The headline writer at the Wall Street Journal apparently could not resist the play on words with Mr. Starck's name (nor could I,) but "whimsical" would have been a more accurate description. The Onion could be forgiven for thinking the Wall Street Journal is horning in on its territory, but the article is on the up-and-up and is even written without irony.

The vehicle, pictured below, looks as though a country club employee lost control of a golf cart and plowed through the swimming pool area. Even the designer describes it as “a kid's soap box cart with four wheels.” Save for the windshield, the vehicle is open to the elements, and the wheels are reminiscent of a Segway rather than a true roadworthy car.

But the real fun begins when one looks at the vehicle's specifications. The range is 37 miles on a fully charged battery. The top speed is 40 MPH. And the price? Starck says he expects the retail price to be about $40,000, which is roughly the price of a Chevy Volt, and roughly the price of eight motorized golf carts! (But that's before the Volt's $10,000 tax credit. It is unclear if this new vehicle would qualify for the credit, but given the Obama administration's infatuation with non-fossil fuel powered vehicles, it wouldn't be out of the question.) But even though the Chevy Volt is also electric, at least it looks like a real car, with windows, doors, and seats that do not look like beach chairs. One is almost tempted to ask if Starck's vehicle comes with a remote control.

But it’s the two final lines of the story that really got me. “[The vehicle] recovers 50% of its charge in two hours by plugging into any socket; a full charge takes six hours. ‘You visit a friend's house and recharge while you're having dinner,’ Mr. Starck says.” Brilliant! This will help me avoid that awkward situation I have found myself in countless times of having to say to friends, “Thanks for dinner! Now do you mind if I siphon a few gallons of gas out of your tank so I can get home now?” Isn't technology great?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Outrage at RFK Jr.'s "Call Girl" Comparison

From Politico:
Leave it to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to one-up Rush Limbaugh in the name-calling department.  "Speaking of prostitutes, big oil's top call girl Sen Inhofe wants to kill fuel economy backed by automakers, small biz, enviros, & consumers," the New York-based environmentalist wrote Tuesday on Twitter
Kennedy was targeting Inhofe for a letter the Oklahoma Republican sent last week to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that questions the Obama administration's fuel economy and air pollution policies.

Senator Harry Reid's office immediately issued a strongly worded statement condemning Kennedy's words.

Mr. Kennedy's salacious comparison of "call girls" to Senator Inhofe is unfair and reprehensible.  Especially in these tough economic times when jobs are scarce, the world's oldest profession (and one that is quite popular in my home state of Neveda) should not be subject to such insults.  Mr. Kennedy owes the taxpayers of the State of Nevada an apology.  (And, by the way, Sen Inhofe should stop trying to kill fuel economy backed by automakers, small biz, enviros, & consumers.)
OK, I admit it, I made that up.  But I am sure we can expect such a statement any minute now given that Republicans and oil companies top the Extreme Undesirables list of the Democrats.

    Seriously, though, it is interesting that in Reid's comments on the Limbaugh controversy in an interview with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, he studiously avoids mentioning the insulting words and is muted in his criticism of Limbaugh.  Frankly, the words he managed to get out were fairly incoherent:
““Even in the Rush Limbaugh world, there’s certain things you can’t say.... Women are entitled for contraception, so their contraceptives of their choice. That’s what this was all about,” Reid told O’Donnell. “We should never run into the firestorm that we did, that people calling this fine woman, by all means.”
And there you have it.

A Contrast in Religious Tolerance

    From October 10, 2011:  Not a Single Christian Church Left in Afghanistan, Says State Department from CNS News:

There is not a single, public Christian church left in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. State Department.
This reflects the state of religious freedom in that country ten years after the United States first invaded it and overthrew its Islamist Taliban regime.
In the intervening decade, U.S. taxpayers have spent $440 billion to support Afghanistan's new government and more than 1,700 U.S. military personnel have died serving in that country.
The last public Christian church in Afghanistan was razed in March 2010, according to the State Department's latest International Religious Freedom Report. The report, which was released last month and covers the period of July 1, 2010 through December 31, 2010, also states that “there were no Christian schools in the country.”

    On the other hand, from USA Today on February 29, 2012:  Number of U.S. mosques up 74% since 2000:

The number of Islamic places of worship in the United States soared 74% in the past decade.
While protests against new mosques in New York, Tennessee and California made headlines, the overall number of mosques quietly rose from 1,209 in 2000 to 2,106 in 2010.
And most of their leaders say American society is not hostile to Islam, according to a comprehensive census of U.S. mosques and survey of imams, mosque presidents and board members released Wednesday.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What Rush Limbaugh Should Have Called Sandra Fluke

     This week, Sandra Fluke, a third year law student at Georgetown University in Washington DC, spoke before Congress's Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.  She was denied the opportunity to testify at an earlier hearing regarding religious liberty relative to the new mandates in the Affordable Care Act because her remarks were deemed irrelevant to the topic.  In her opening remarks, Fluke presented herself as primarily speaking on behalf of other women at her school, saying, "I am here to share their voices." The remarks that followed would probably have passed largely unnoticed, but unfortunately, Rush Limbaugh used a caricature of her testimony on his radio show to label Fluke with some rather vulgar and unflattering epithets.  Some bloggers used dubious claims from Fluke's speech to create a sex-crazed-students scenario at Georgetown and Limbaugh ran with it.  I will not go into detail, but regardless, the impression given of her remarks bore little resemblance to Sandra Fluke's actual testimony.
    Indeed, reading a transcript of Fluke's testimony, one would hardly make the connection between birth control and sex.  Fluke told of a friend who was ill-treated by the insurance company who refused to cover the birth control medication to treat ovarian cysts.  In this case, the Georgetown policy actually covered the prescription for non-contraceptive purposes, but for whatever reason the insurance company disputed her claim.  Serious medical complications resulted after her friend stopped spending the $100+ per month out of pocket for the prescription.  If the insurance company truly denied a legitimate claim, it should be called to account, and since Georgetown is a law school after all, there should be plenty of opportunity to file a lawsuit.  But did this 32-year old woman seriously have no other options (family, credit card, public health facility) other than giving up a prescription she knew was vital to her health?  And in any case, the story says more about the insurance company claims process than it does about birth control coverage since the policy included coverage for non-contraceptive reasons.
    The most heart-rending story involved a woman who had been raped and did not even go to the doctor because she said "she knew birth control wasn’t covered, and she assumed that’s how Georgetown’s insurance handled all of women’s sexual healthcare."  Were the police even called after this woman was assaulted?  Surely they would have provided information that would have dispelled such a misguided notion and gotten her the medical attention she desperately needed and that her insurance would surely have covered.  At a minimum, the federal Violence Against Women Act requires states to provide a forensic medical exam to sexual assault victims free of charge. This story is horribly tragic, but again, it says less about birth control insurance coverage than it does about the woman's family and friends whose apparent ignorance did this woman a grave disservice.
    So what about this coverage that Georgetown students are offered?  Georgetown University lists details about student health insurance on the Student Affairs section of their website.  Students are given the opportunity to obtain coverage through the school, or they can maintain other coverage if it meets certain minimum criteria as follows:
You may waive the Premier Plan offered by the University during the Open Enrollment Period, if you have other adequate health insurance which meets the following criteria:
  • Coverage of at least $100,000 per illness and $100,000 per injury; 
  • Plan in effect no later than the last day or your applicable Open Enrollment Period; and 
  • Plan will remain in effect for the remainder of your academic year.
Note what is missing.  Students are not required to certify that "my plan does not cover birth control."  Students may maintain their own policy with whatever coverage is provided as long as it meets those three simple criteria.  They are not being forced into Georgetown's plan in spite of the impression left by Fluke.
    But what if a student goes with the school's plan?  The Premier Plan policy indeed excludes birth control.  It also excludes, among other things, any type of treatments for infertility for both men and women (see page 29.)  Is Georgetown anti-baby as well as anti-women?  Is this another example, as Fluke puts it, where "a woman’s health takes a back seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her body"?  Nonsense.  Decisions about coverage and benefits are based on a broad criteria including risk, demographics, and cost, not the whims of employers or insurance company underwriters.
    And what about the cost?  Fluke testified that birth control can cost a woman $3,000 during three years of law school, or $1,000/year.  So how much does the Georgetown University student health insurance policy cost that according to Fluke should be forced to include contraceptives and birth control free of charge?  According to Georgetown University's website, their Premier Plan for a single student has an annual premium of $1,895 (higher for coverage of a spouse and/or children.)  Does Fluke seriously believe a contract would be offered to a woman for $1,895/year when over 50% of that premium is guaranteed to be spent on contraceptives?  Is our society completely ignorant of the concept of "insurance"?
    What is most unfortunate in this week's events is the lost opportunity to show the real agenda behind the Democrat's exploitation of Fluke.  Demagogues have hijacked the situation and have used Limbaugh's imprudent language to further cloud the issue and obscure the true threat to religious liberty that the Affordable Care Act and its mandates represent.  Perhaps conservatives can again shift the focus now that Limbaugh has offered a rare public apology for his ill-advised attempt at (as Limbaugh puts it) "illustrating absurdity by being absurd."  Some die-hards are claiming Limbaugh should not have "backed down," but he did the right thing.  And as for Fluke:  how about "propagandist?" or "patsy?" or, most charitably, "naive?"  Certainly not complimentary names, but at least more polite and infinitely more deserved.