Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Proposal: Tying Voter Registration to Firearm Background Checks

    Republicans have long expressed skepticism about the extraordinary efforts to register as many people to vote as possible.  The 1993 Motor-Voter law mandated offering voter registration at DMV offices, and applications for welfare and other government benefits are often accompanied by solicitations to register to vote as well.  More recently, voter registration popped up in the draft version of an Obamacare application.  While the (mainly) Democrats who propose such ideas contend they are simply trying to make sure the franchise is not denied to any citizen, the GOP has often accused the Democrats of mostly trying to pad their own voter rolls.
    Recent gun control legislation, however, could provide an opportunity to test the sincerity of the Democrats' professed altruistic motives.  The recent push in Congress for universal background checks has been primarily a Democratic party idea.  The GOP should propose an amendment requiring that all background checks also include an opportunity to register to vote.  Since 1998, even with all the current exceptions, over 167 million background checks have been run.  The Democrats should be thrilled at this opportunity to broaden participation in our democratic process.  As Jay Carney said in March defending the inclusion of voter registration in the Obamacare application, “I'm not sure that it's such a terrible thing that people might want to register to vote.”
    From the Republican perspective, according to a 2008 election exit poll, gun ownership among Democratic voters was less than half of that of Republican voters, so the GOP has nothing to lose by offering this amendment.  If the Democrats reject the amendment, they expose their hypocrisy on voter registration.  If the amendment passes and Democrats ultimately win passage of the legislation, at least the GOP could find consolation in the two-to-one advantage in new voter registration solicitations. Sometimes, clouds need a little help with a silver lining.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Six Miles of National Park Highway to be Repaved at $400 per Foot

Photos of Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This photo of Newfound Gap Road is courtesy of TripAdvisor     
    A search for the words "crumbling roads" turns up so many hits on White House website that it's a wonder Americans have not been forced to resort to pack mules and wagon trains to travel from place to place.  Throw "bridges" into the mix, and one might think the word "ford" will become less familiar as a car brand and more common as a way to cross rivers.  The President and his administration have been talking about repairing this country's infrastructure for half a decade now, but apparently we haven't gotten very far.
    A contract recently awarded to repave a six mile stretch of two-lane highway in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee sheds some light on at least one reason.  It's expensive.  How expensive?  Try $408.52 per foot.  That's $34 per inch.
    To be fair, the work goes a little beyond paving.  Here's how the project was described when first put out for bids in October 2012:
 The project consists of the rehabilitation and resurfacing of approximately 6.1 miles of Newfound Gap Road from TN Milepost 6.3 to TN Milepost 12.4, including roadside pullouts and parking areas. The work includes asphalt pavement milling, full-depth pavement patching, shoulder stabilization, Superpave asphalt concrete pavement overlay, stone masonry and guardwall repairs, steel-backed timber guardrail, drainage, and other miscellaneous work.
    Initially, and somewhat optimistically it appears, "the cost of the entire project expected to fall within the price range of greater than $10,000,000."  In the end, the contract award was for $13,157,725.58.  And although the cost of projects I researched vary greatly, this contract is by no means out of line.
    While $13 million sounds like a lot, consider this: The US Highway system consists of 160,000 miles of highway.  While not all highways are two lanes, using the 160,000 miles as a base number and the $408.52 per foot price tag for the Great Smoky Mountains job, the entire highway system could be repaved for a mere $345 billion.  Again, sounds like a lot; but on the other hand, the entire federal government currently blows through $345 billion every month.  For taxpayers tired of spending trillions with little to show for it, at least fixing the highways would yield concrete results.  (Pun definitely intended.)

Friday, April 26, 2013

Does President Obama's Red Line for Syrian Chemical Weapons Only Cover "Civilian Populations"?

    Is President Obama creating some wiggle room on the “red line” for Syria?  Both John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have indicated that the Syrian forces under control of President Assad may have used chemical weapons.  Today, President Obama acknowledged that currently intelligence is being gathered and analyzed to determine if that indeed is the case.  But he framed his remarks and his answers to reporters' questions in such a way that might indicate that the use of chemical weapons would have to violate a yet unstated prohibition in order to be considered crossing the red line.
    The president made an appearance with King Abdullah II of Jordan for bilateral talks, and briefly addressed reporters.
[Y]esterday, some of you saw that I asked my people to brief Congress about the fact that we now have some evidence that chemical weapons have been used on the populations in Syria.  Now, these are preliminary assessments; they’re based on our intelligence gathering.  We have varying degrees of confidence about the actual use, but there are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used...
We have to act prudently.  We have to make these assessments deliberately.  But I think all of us, not just in the United States but around the world, recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations...
...knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used...
    What is unclear is what the president intended by "civilian populations."  Does he mean the line has not been crossed if chemical weapons were used on armed militants?  Otherwise, why would it matter “how they were used”?  Is there a distinction between dropping chemical weapons on a neighborhood of private homes and launching them in a battle directly against an active fighting force?  What actually constitutes a "game chang[ing]" use of chemical weapons?

    The president went on to say:
...for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues...
     Again, "on its people" could mean civilians, or could be interpreted more broadly to mean any Syrian people whether or not they have taken up arms.  Congress will likely be pressing the administration for answers as the credibility of the United States is at stake, not only in Syria, but in North Korea and Iran as well, where other "red lines" have been drawn.  A world already on edge due to North Korea recent saber-rattling and Iran's nuclear ambitions will be anxiously waiting and watching.

Who is Responsible for the "Mess" Now?

    President Obama attended the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas this week.  James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal attended the ceremony and recorded his observations is an article entitled "The Difference Between 43 and 44? Not So Much."  While making the case that more parallels exist between our last two presidents than President Obama would care to admit, Taranto recalls one of the talking points from the current president's first term:
The Bush-was-the-worst myth served a political purpose for Mr. Obama, enabling him to excuse his own shortcomings of leadership by blaming them on the "mess" he had "inherited." (Never mind that Mr. Obama was not some crown prince but an elected politician who aggressively pursued the office he now holds.)
    During the 2012 presidential campaign, I noted (as did Taranto) the stark contrast in the president's willingness to take responsibility versus his penchant for pointing his finger at others.  On October 16, 2012, I wrote:
    The president already suffers from a reputation for blame-shifting that from an analysis of his words as recorded on the White House website seems well earned.  The last time the words "I take responsibility" appear on the website is July 6, 2011, in the transcript of the president's Twitter Town Hall.  By contrast, during that same time period, the phrase "got us into this mess in the first place" appears 86 times, referring almost exclusively to the previous administration.  Even when the president speaks of "fault," it is often in the context of placing the word in the mouths of his critics, as in "They say the economy is bad and it's Obama's fault."
    It is interesting to note that the phrase "got us into this mess" has completely vanished from the president's vernacular.  The last time the phrase appears on the White House website is November 2, 2012... just before the election.  In nearly six months, the president and the White House press office have not used the phrase once.  One must conclude either we are not in a “mess” anymore, or, if we still are, the president recognizes at this point in his second term who bears the responsibility for keeping us there.

    By the way, the last use of "I take responsibility" on the White House website?  Still July 6, 2011, almost 22 months.  However, in a debate with Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign, the president did say relative to the Benghazi, Libya terror attacks, "I'm the president. And I'm always responsible."  The date of his statement?  October 17, 2012, the day after Taranto and I published our articles.  Coincidence?  Let's just say I'm willing to take responsibility.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Congress Prepares Flu Vaccine Tax [Clarification added]

    Congress is preparing to take action on a bipartisan proposal to raise taxes on flu vaccines. This is not a tax on the wealthy, but rather on a broad swath of Americans, or at least those who choose to be immunized against the flu.
    In February, identical bills were introduced in the House and Senate to add seasonal flu vaccines to the IRS code as taxable.  The legislation would exact a 75¢ per dose tax on any "vaccine against seasonal influenza."  Given that the Centers for Disease Control projects that 135 million doses of flu vaccine will be used this year, the government's take on flu vaccines alone is over $100,000,000 per year.
    Along with taxes on other vaccines, this tax would fund the Vaccine Injury Compensation Trust Fund.  The fund is a "no-fault alternative to the traditional tort system for resolving vaccine injury claims that provides compensation to people found to be injured by certain vaccines."  However, the fund is by no means in the same kind of trouble that other government "trust funds" are.
    The balance in the fund (as of November 2012) was more than $3.5 billion.  Since the program's inception in 1988, the fund has paid out only $2.5 billion in 25 years for cases involving all vaccines, not just the flu vaccine.  This means the balance in the fund could conceivably last another 25 years with no further tax revenue.
     The House bill (H.R. 475) was submitted on February 4th by Republican Jim Gerlach with Democrat Richard Neal co-sponsoring, and the Senate version (S. 391) was submitted by Democrat Max Baucus and co-sponsor Republican Orrin Hatch.  The same legislation had been introduced in the 112th Congress just months ago.  The House version died in committee, but the Senate version actually passed by unanimous consent the day it was introduced.
    Now, a posting on the Senate website reports that the Senate has reached an agreement on the current legislation. Although this flu season is winding down now, the tax could easily be in place by next winter if the House follows suit and the president signs it:
The Senate reached an agreement that if the Senate receives H.R.475 from the House of Representatives and the bill is identical to the text of which is at the desk, then the bill be read three times and the Senate proceed to a vote, at a time to be determined by the Majority Leader in consultation with the Minority Leader, with no intervening action or debate. H.R.475, a bill to amend the internal Revenue Code of 1986 to include vaccines against seasonal influenza within the definition of taxable vaccines.
    As is the case with all government "trust funds," there is no cash set aside to pay out claims.  According to the November 2012 report on the vaccine trust, the $3.5 billion balance is invested in "US Treasury Securities."  In other words, financing a portion of the $16.5 trillion national debt.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

The current IRS code definition of a “taxable vaccine” already includes “Any trivalent vaccine against influenza.”  The new law reads that “Subparagraph (N) of section 4132(a)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 is amended by inserting 'or any other vaccine against seasonal influenza' before the period.”  This is to make sure that all future flu vaccines are taxable in addition to the current ones.  Some interpreted my original article to mean that no flu vaccines were previously taxable, and now they would be.  The discovery that previous flu vaccines have ben taxable all along is not likely to assuage the anger many have expressed, especially in light of the $3.5 billion balance in the "trust fund."

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The U.S. Mint's "First Spouse" Gold Coin Series

    The White House website includes a page entitled "The First Ladies" with links to biographies of the 46 woman who have held that title.  The folks at the U.S. Mint, however, are a little more forward thinking than their White House counterparts.  The website for the mint includes a special selection of coins under the heading "Fi
rst Spouse Series."  The online catalog offers an assortment of gold coins as well as lesser metals.  The half-ounce gold coins currently sell for upwards of $900:

    It turns out the Obama administration is not trying to make a political or social statement.  Rather, the coins are minted based on a 2005 law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush.  With speculation already circulating in 2005 about the possibility that Hillary Clinton would run for the nation's highest office, perhaps Congress was just being proactive in case the Unites States found itself in the position of having former president Bill Clinton christened as the first First Spouse.  Of course with President Obama's recent endorsement of same-sex marriage, the days of the term "First Lady" may be numbered anyway, and not just at the U.S. Mint.

Anthony Weiner's 14 Missing Ideas for New York City

    Perhaps buoyed by Mark Sanford's unlikely political resurrection, former Congressman Anthony Weiner is slowly raising his public profile in an apparent bid for mayor of New York City.  Earlier in April, Weiner launched a website where he presents a virtual pamphlet (paid for by Weiner for Mayor) entitled "Keys to the City - 64 Ideas to Keep New York the Capital of the Middle Class."  On Monday, Weiner's first tweet from a brand new Twitter account was a link to this document:

    However, a closer inspection of the website reveals that "64 Ideas" might not be a first draft.  A look at the embedded text in his website says: “Keys to the City - 78 Ideas to Keep New York the Capital of the Middle Class - By Anthony D. Weiner ”.  (It pops up on a Google search also.) Here's a screencap of the source code:

    One can't help wondering which fourteen ideas didn't make the cut.  Perhaps Michael Bloomberg's Big Gulp ban was originally Weiner's plan.

Monday, April 22, 2013

FDA: "Making Health and Health Care Equal for All"

    Liberals have long been accused of wanting to "level the playing field" by dragging everyone down to the same level rather than giving everyone equal opportunity by securing the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  A recent post on the website of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is only going to reinforce that notion.  The post is titled "Making Health and Health Care Equal for All" and explains the mission of the Office of Minority Health (OMH), established by the Affordable Care Act:
What exactly are health disparities? And how can they be reduced or eliminated? 
At the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), achieving equality in health and health care is part of the mission of the Office of Minority Health (OMH). The office was established in 2010 by the Affordable Care Act to help the agency address the needs of Americans who may be more vulnerable because of their race, ethnicity or other factors...
There can be many causes of health disparities, says [OMH Director Jonca Bull, M.D.]. They range from underlying genetics to socio-economic status, lack of insurance and lack of access to quality health care, including preventive care and follow-ups when a disease is diagnosed. And this can be complicated by limited English proficiency, which can affect the quality of a patient's interaction with a health care professional.
    The article lists several diseases and conditions that have higher rates of incidence among certain ethnic groups, and notes that "minority populations ... also have higher rates of obesity, asthma, preventable hospitalizations and infant deaths."

    So what is being done?
    FDA works in partnership with its counterparts in [Health and Human Services] but as a regulatory agency, its role is unique in bringing about changes that could help level the playing field when it comes to health and health care. 
Essentially, everything FDA's OMH does is related to fighting racial and ethnic health disparities[.]
    Again, talk of working to "level the playing field" and "fighting... disparities." But what about improving health?  Here are the four bullet points in the article:
  • Enhancing diversity on FDA's scientific advisory committees is one area of focus, involving the recruitment of independent experts who have a scientific background in related health fields and expertise in the areas of minority health and health disparities. These advisory committees provide advice on health and science policy issues.
  • In December 2012, the Summit on the Science of Eliminating Health Disparities attracted more than 4,500 people and featured more than 100 workshops. The summit was led by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and co-sponsored by OMH and HHS. Highlights of the conference will be featured in a future publication on best practices for reducing health disparities on a broad scale.
  • OMH works with health care professionals and patient advocates to increase minority representation in clinical trials of medical products.
  • The office partners with universities to advance the study of, and research into, health disparities and the regulatory science that is the foundation of FDA's decisions.

    With the possible exception of the third point, none of these address actually improving the health or healthcare of anyone.  Even the third point ("increase minority representation in clinical trials of medical products") could be counterproductive if increasing minority representation skews the population sample away from one that reflects the population as a whole.

    Not until the very end of the article is there a statement about “ensuring the best health outcomes for all Americans.”  But from the very title of the article, it's a dubious assertion.  The FDA's aim is not equal access to good healthcare, but rather "Making Health and Health Care Equal for All."  If the focus is on increasing diversity and reducing disparities, the outcome is less likely to be the "best health outcomes for all Americans" and more likely to be the lowest common denominator for all.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Cambridge, Massachusetts Gets Back to Business

    Perhaps a sign of the relief at beginning the return to normalcy, the following message was posted on the website of the City of Cambridge less than a half hour after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured by police in nearby Waterton where he was hiding in a boat:
A good ending to a terrible situation. Still we keep in mind the lives that were lost or severely impacted due to these horrible acts of violence. We thank our law enforcement officials for their outstanding work during this unbelieveable event. We are Cambridge and Boston strong and proud. Rubbish and recycling for those who have a Thursday & Friday collection will take place Saturday, April 20.The Apr. 20 Recycling drop center will be open normal hours. Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day is cancelled. Some other city programs that were previously cancelled may resume. Please check with specific agency. MBTA service is resuming. Keep watching local media for latest updates.
     The announcement about "rubbish and recycling" without even a paragraph break is at once poignant and funny.  This town is ready for something as pedestrian as when the trash will be picked up.  Let us all pray that God grants the Boston area a restful stretch of boredom in the coming days and weeks.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Twitter Account: 'Probably the Only Chechen Dude You Know'

    A website that places a "value" on Twitter accounts has increased the estimated value of suspected Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's from $37 to more than $62,000 as of late Friday night due to the tens of thousands of new curious followers.  Multiple news organizations reported the existence of the account Friday afternoon even as the manhunt continued.  While Tsarnaev's current Twitter icon is a picture of a roaring lion, a cached version of the site shows his previous icon was a photo of himself (right.)
    The cached version of the Account-Market site also shows that Tsarnaev's bio used to read "lazy but i get **** done" instead of the current "Salam aleikum," which means "peace be upon you" in Arabic.  An even earlier version of his bio read "probably the only Chechen dude you know."

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Gov't Awards Contract on IED Detection to Northeastern University in Boston

    In what may be just an eerie coincidence, the Defense Department posted a contract award notice today to Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts for research into "Methods for Explosive Detection at Standoff." Of particular concern are Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that have become a favorite among terrorists and gained widespread attention during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  According to the solicitation first issued in October 2012:
DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] is soliciting innovative multidisciplinary research proposals to rapidly develop and demonstrate non-contact methods to detect explosives embedded or packaged in opaque media with high water content (e.g., water, mud, meat/animal carcasses) at standoff.
    Accompanying documents further explain the purpose and goals of the research:
A. Background/Vision
Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are persistent threats that manifest themselves in
almost innumerable forms. Their detection and safe disposal is a formidable challenge.
Over the past two decades, much progress has been made to address this challenge with
the development of technologies with ever increasing levels of sophistication. These
range from indirect methods to detect packaging, wiring, or fusing to more direct
detection methods. Indirect methods such as these are outside the scope of this program...
The vision of this program is to develop methods that permit rapid detection of bulk
explosives embedded within an opaque medium with high water content. This will
preclude the use of trace detection methods and bulk methods where significant
penetration into the medium is not possible. In addition, the use of ionizing radiation,
other than possible employment of backscatter technology must be excluded because of
health concerns to military personnel and civilians in proximity to the area of concern...

B. Program Objectives and Metrics
The goal of the MEDS program is to develop and demonstrate non-contact methods to
detect explosives embedded or packaged in opaque media with high water content such
as mud, meat, animal carcasses, etc. Because detection/imaging methods have not been
developed or applied to this regime, proposals for a proof-of-concept program with
emphasis on demonstration of feasibility are solicited. Objectives are intended to
demonstrate feasibility and are not intended to reflect an operational environment. 
    A revision to the original solicitation on April 8 appeared to postpone the award notice until October 15, 2013 from the original date of Monday, April 15:
The purpose of this Modification 1 to DARPA-BAA-13-01, Methods for Explosive Detection at Standoff (MEDS), is to change the proposal closing deadline from April 15, 2013, 4:00PM, ET to October 15, 2013, 4:00PM, ET.
    However, the award notice was posted this morning without further explanation.  Earlier awards were made to the University of ArizonaBAE Systems, and Quasar Federal Systems under the same solicitation heading.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

WH Budget Director: $5 Trillion in Deficits "Shows How We Can Live Within Our Means"

    Jeff Zients, the Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget, recently wrote an op-ed that appeared in newspapers around the country, and was also reproduced on the White House blog.  Zeints touts the 2014 budget belated released last week by President Obama:
The President’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget is a concrete plan to create jobs and cut the deficit. We do not need to choose between these two priorities. The President’s balanced, compromise plan proves we can do both.
    Much of Zients's article focuses on what the president and Congress have done to reduce the deficit in past few years, and that Preasident Obama's leadship already has put "us more than halfway toward the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say is needed to put us on a fiscally sustainable path."  Zients closes with this sanguine observation:
The President’s Budget provides a specific and responsible plan for continuing this progress. It shows how we can live within our means while further growing the economy, strengthening the middle class, and securing the nation’s future.
   "Live within our means" would seem to imply not spending more than one is taking in.  However, according to the White House's own budget tables, the 2014 budget alone has a $744 billion deficit.  The smallest deficit in the 10 year projection is $439 billion, and that does not come until 2023.  Over those 10 years, a total of $5.27 trillion would be added to the nation's debt.  This gives "live within our means" a whole new meaning.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Kerry: Guns in U.S. "Scare" Foreign Students, Yet They Keep Coming

   In an interview broadcast on CNN Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that one of the reasons foreign students are increasingly avoiding the United States is the fear of gun violence:
We had an interesting discussion about why fewer students are coming to, particularly from Japan, to study in the United States, and one of the responses I got from our officials from conversations with parents here is that they're actually scared. They think they're not safe in the United States and so they don't come.
    CNN adds:
[Kerry] noted Japan's restrictive gun laws – which prevent private ownership of nearly all firearms, including handguns – and said the country was safer "where people are not running around with guns." 
    CNN also noted an Institute of International Education (IIE) report enumerating the decline in students from Japan coming to the United States: 
In 2011, Japan sent 21,290 students to study in the United States, making it the seventh largest country of origin for international scholars. That was down 14% from the previous year, according to numbers from the Institute of International Education. 
Figures have shown international study is down markedly among Japanese students to all destinations, including the United States. Experts have attributed the decline to Japan's low birthrate, the expense of foreign study in a poor economy, and a desire among Japanese young people to remain at home rather than venture to other countries.
    What neither Kerry nor CNN noted, however, were the other statistics reported by the IIE (via Bloomberg):
The total number of international students in the U.S. climbed 4.7 percent in the 2010-2011 academic year to 723,277, with the fastest growth coming from China [23 percent increase to 157,558] and Saudi Arabia, which sent 22,704 students, a 44 percent increase.
    The increase from China is a stark contrast to Japan's decrease.  Both Asian countries have restrictive gun laws, yet students in China do not seem to harbor the same anxieties about gun violence that Kerry attributes to those in Japan.

    An even broader measure of foreigners attitudes, the Japanese in particular, towards travel to and residence in the United States can be gleaned from a July 2012 report issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) [emphasis added]:
During 2011, there were 159 million nonimmigrant admissions to the United States according to DHS work-load estimates. These admissions included tourists and business travelers from Canada, Mexican nationals with Border Crossing Cards, and I-94 admissions.  I-94 admissions accounted for 33 percent (53.1 million) of the total admissions (see Figure 1). The majority (87 percent) of I-94 admissions were temporary visitors for business and pleasure, while 6.4 percent were temporary workers and families and 3.4 percent were students. The leading countries of citizenship for I-94 admissions were Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Japan.
    Although the DHS report says that some of the increase can be attributed to the way entries and re-entries by the same individual are counted, by almost any measure in this DHS report, visitors to the United States are on the rise.  Secretary Kerry's remarks on gun violence come at a time the Obama administration and its supporters are increasing pressure on Congress to pass gun control legislation.  A more comprehensive look at the facts behind Kerry's remarks does not bolster the administration's case as well as the secretary may have intended.

Note: I had this post ready to publish last night, but Glenn Kestler, Fact Checker Extraordinaire at the Washington Post, beat me to it this morning.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The ACLU's Versatile First Amendment

    The ACLU has long been the target of critics who claim that, with a few exceptions, the organization is far more concerned with liberalism than liberties, its name notwithstanding. Two recent posts on the ACLU website will bolster the arguments of the critics, of whom I count myself one.   On April 3, 2013, the ACLU weighed in on a case currently before the Supreme Court:
Yesterday, we filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Supreme Court in a case called United States Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, opposing the so-called "Anti-Prostitution Pledge." The Pledge is a requirement that public health organizations who wish government funding for their work combatting AIDS and other diseases make a formal statement "opposing prostitution." 
The Pledge puts organizations in a quandary: On one hand, they can take the government's money and say something they might not really believe, have no opinion about, or see as a complex social issue irreducible to anything as simpleminded as "opposing prostitution." On the other hand, they can take a principled stand against the Pledge, forfeiting a share of billions of dollars in government aid that they could otherwise put to good use curbing disease and relieving human suffering. 
As we argued to the Supreme Court, the Constitution forbids the government from engaging in such moral compulsion. The First Amendment is, at its core, a shield against government intrusions into belief. When the government attempts to compel adherence to its view on any issue, it invades our very minds.... 
... the Supreme Court has made it clear that – whatever else the government may do – it may not dictate personal thoughts or beliefs. Any attempt to do so does violence to human dignity and distorts public debate.

    A conservative, especially a religious one, might be inclined to Amen the characterization of the First Amendment as "a shield against government intrusions into belief." The ACLU, however, finds that shield to have limited application on the judicial battlefield.  Contrast the stirring defense of "personal thoughts or beliefs" with the position the ACLU takes on the "contraceptive mandate" that is part of the Affordable Care Act:
[T]he ACLU and the ACLU of Illinois filed a friend-of-the-court brief in two additional appeals challenging the Affordable Care Act's ("ACA") contraceptive coverage rule... 
The contraceptive rule, which requires health plans to include coverage for contraceptive care without a co-pay or deductible, ensures that millions of women will have access to affordable birth control, and represents one of the greatest advancements for women's health in decades. Ignoring this fact and the fact that the contraceptive rule is constitutional, the companies and their owners argue that providing health insurance coverage for contraception to their collective 1,168 employees imposes a "substantial burden" on their religious exercise. We strongly disagree... 
As we noted in the brief, the contraceptive rule does not compel or coerce employers to use or purchase contraception themselves. The rule simply requires employers to provide their employees with a comprehensive health plan.

    The ACLU has taken a constitutional stance that allows no conditions to be imposed on an organization receiving taxpayer money, yet permits the government to coerce an organization to spend its own money in violation of its beliefs.  The values and priorities of the ACLU have created this ludicrous pairing of positions that would be comical if the stakes were not so high.  The First Amendment "shield" is not strictly a defensive weapon for the ACLU, but, depending on the objective, can be used as a bludgeon as well.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In Spite of Sequester: $63K for Russian Walrus Skin Biopsies

    While Vice President Biden's limo and hotel costs certainly attracted a lot of attention a few weeks ago after my Weekly Standard posts, those expenses arguably served national security purposes.  But while Drudge is currently headlining "Bagpipes for Homeland Security," my current personal favorite sequester-busting government spending example involves the Fish and Wildlife Service's latest contract award:

    Although the description is a little different, the bid solicitation a few months back explained a little more about the need to sample the skin of the large marine mammal:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a requirement procuring all necessary permits and working with our Russian partners to coordinate all Russian logistics associated with conducting a biopsy sampling program in the Bering and Chukchi Sea in the spring and summer of 2013.
    I'm not a marine biologist so I do not know how large a sample is taken from a walrus for a biopsy.  But it's a safe bet that most taxpayers won't believe a pound of flesh from a walrus is worth a pound of theirs.

Labor Department: 'Faith-Based Argument for Raising the Minimum Wage'

    In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed raising the minimum wage to $9.00/hour.   In support of this initiative, the White House has blogged about it and published a "fact sheet", as well.  Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris has even conducted a "minimum wage tour" to draw attention to the issue.  The latest salvo, however, comes from the director of the Labor Department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  Phil Tom has written an article on the Department of Labor's official blog entitled "The Faith-Based Argument for Raising the Minimum Wage":
In the faith community, we know and teach that how we treat the weakest among us – those most in need, and who are doing the right thing but still struggling – affects the well-being of us all. My agency, the Labor Department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, works with leaders of many faiths to ensure that low-wage workers are treated equitably and with dignity. This includes receiving compensation that enables them to afford the basics, like rent, transportation, doctor visits and food...
The religions of the world teach that people should be treated with dignity and equity, and also that we’re all connected. Even those of no particular faith understand that we’re all in this together. Increasing pay for those at the bottom of the pay scale is an investment in workers’ dignity as well as an investment in our communities. 

    Mr. Tom also says that although readers "might even understand if I took a condescending and condemning tone, and blamed the greed of others for the struggles that so many hardworking Americans face," the bottom line is that the minimum wage is "good for the economy."

Note:  This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

NAACP Drops "Superstar-Studded" from War on Drugs Headline

    A group of 175 "artists, actors, athletes, elected officials and advocates" presented an open letter to President Obama this week urging him to end the "war on drugs."  The NAACP promoted the cause with a blog post and the letter on its website:
Today, a coalition of over 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials and advocates, brought together by hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and Dr. Boyce Watkins, presented an open letter to President Obama, urging him to double down on his efforts to change the United States’ criminal justice policy from that of a punitive, suppression-based model to one that favors evidence-based prevention and rehabilitation. 
This coalition included: Russell Simmons, Dr. Boyce Watkins, Sir Richard Branson, Will Smith, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Scarlett Johansson, Ron Howard, Jennifer Hudson, Demi Moore, Eva Longoria, Michael Moore, Mark Wahlberg, Harry Belafonte, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cameron Diaz, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Chris Rock, Russell Brand, John Legend, DJ Pauly D, Mike Tyson, Rick Ross, Jon Hamm, Natalie Maines, Ludacris, to name a few.
Although the full list of supporters includes civil right advocates, business leaders, and "academic & thought leaders," the list above consists almost entirely of movie, TV, and music stars. This emphasis on pop culture figures appears intentional, particularly given the original headline of the blog post.  Here is a screencap of the current post:

    However, the original post (the link is now broken, but the cached page is available here) looked like this, but was revised within hours:

    The NAACP blog post was drawn from a press release from sponsors of the effort, the Global Grind.  On its website, the Global Grind frames the letter rather immodestly:
A list of the most powerful people in the world have written a letter to Obama.
    Perhaps the less visible most powerful people in the world (the non-"superstars") objected to the headline, prompting the change.  In any case, the Global Grind seems the recognize the value of face recognition.  Let's just say there aren't a whole lot of "civil rights advocates" and "thought leaders" in the group photos:

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

U.S. Embassy in Macedonia Hosts Fashion Show

    Last week, the US Embassy in Macedonia hosted a fashion show "with a goal of supporting Macedonia’s economic development, the fashion and textile sectors, and youth entrepreneurship." While the continuing sequester had White House Press Secretary Jay Carney speculating that the "damage" done by the sequester might not be immediately known, that "damage" will apparently not include the Macedonian fashion scene.  According to the Washington Post, the sequester cut the State Department's diplomatic functions by $650 million.  However, the day after Carney's comment, the US Embassy put on the fashion show for the second year in a row.  Called “POP! Fashion”, the show was held on a runway constructed in the atrium of the embassy building:
Ambassador Wohlers opened the “Pop! Fashion” fashion show yesterday as part of Skopje Fashion Weekend. Government ministers, donors, and invited guests from the business, fashion, textile, and media communities attended the event that was hosted in the Embassy Atrium. Working with Fashion Weekend Skopje, the Embassy selected a mix of fifteen established and new designers from thirty two applications, with a goal of supporting Macedonia’s economic development, the fashion and textile sectors, and youth entrepreneurship.
The embassy's Facebook page included numerous photos of the event:

    The local Macedonian Information Agency reported on the event as well, providing some additional photos of the fashions on display.

    An email to the embassy inquiring about the cost of the event was not immediately returned.

Note: The article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Friday, April 5, 2013

White House Repeats Jobs Mantra: ‘More Work Remains to Be Done’ Nine Months in a Row

    When the monthly employment report came out Friday morning, Alan Krueger, Chairman of President Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, quickly commented on the White House blog.  He began with the observation that "more work remains to be done":
April 4, 2013 - "While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression. It is critical that we continue the policies that are helping to build an economy that creates jobs and works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007."
    If the words sounds familiar, there's a good reason.  After a brief respite in March, Mr. Krueger used the same two opening sentences in the April post that were used in the preceding seven Employment Situation blog posts (although to be fair, Megan Slack is credited with the November 2012 entry.)
March 8, 2013 - "While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides evidence that the recovery that began in mid-2009 is gaining traction." 
February 1, 2013 - "While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression. It is critical that we pursue the policies needed to build an economy that works for the middle class as we continue to dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007." 
January 4, 2013 - "While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression. It is critical that we continue the policies that are building an economy that works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007." 
December 7, 2012 - "While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression. It is critical that we continue the policies that are building an economy that works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007." 
November 2, 2012 - "While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression. It is critical that we continue the policies that are building an economy that works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007." 
October 5, 2012 - "While there is more work that remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression. It is critical that we continue the policies that are building an economy that works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007." 
September 7, 2012 - "While there is more work that remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression. It is critical that we continue the policies that are building an economy that works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007." 
August 3, 2012 - "While there is more work that remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression.  It is critical that we continue the policies that build an economy that works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007."
    Further searches reveal that these popular sentence appeared before, as well.  For example, May 2012.

    While copy/pasting is quite a common blogging practice, Mr. Krueger has certainly opened himself up to charges that he is phoning in his monthly responses to the disappointing job situation in the country.  It is the same charge that has been leveled at his boss, President Obama, often in the last four years as his priorities have taken him in many other directions.  If there is "more work to be done," the American public could be forgiven for asking where those jobs are.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Next Up for AP Stylebook Change: "Right-Wing Extremist"?

    The Associated Press's announcement that its famed stylebook would no longer include "illegal immigrant" created quite a stir.  The news organization's Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll gave some of the reasoning behind the change:
Also, we had in other areas been ridding the Stylebook of labels. The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of schizophrenic, for example. 
And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to “illegal immigrant” again. 
We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance. 
So we have.

    Carroll went on to acknowledge that the change will likely spur talk of other changes that might be warranted:
I suspect now we will hear from some language lovers who will find other labels in the AP Stylebook. We welcome that engagement.

    Out of curiosity, I conducted a search of the AP's website for the term "right-wing extremist." The Google search returned 33 results with a total of 67 when duplicates were included.  On the other hand, a similar search for "left-wing extremist" returned precisely zero results.  Searches for the terms "right-wing" and "left-wing" returned 11,100 and 10,100 results respectively, so the difference lies not in the existence of the wings, but rather the purported extremism on the right.

    Since the AP encouraged engagement on the issue, I emailed the following question along with the search results: "If there is no such thing as a 'left-wing extremist' (or at least they do nothing newsworthy,) doesn’t that call into question the value of the label 'right-wing extremist'?" As of this writing, I have not received a response.  I'll post an update if/when I hear anything.  Until then, all you right-wing extremists are just going to have to be patient.  Try to stay out of the news.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

President Obama: "There Are Well-Meaning Republicans Out There Who Care About Their Kids"

    Wednesday night, President Obama spoke at two Democratic party fund raising events in California. A common theme was the challenge he faces in working with Republicans in Congress.  At the home of Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor, the president gave Republicans a rather backhanded compliment:
Look, my intention here is to try to get as much done with the Republican Party over the next two years as I can, because we can’t have perpetual campaigns.  And so I mean what I say.  I am looking to find areas of common ground with Republicans every single day.... I want to find some common-sense gun safety legislation that we can get done.  And I do believe that there are well-meaning Republicans out there who care about their kids just as passionately as we do.
    Later in the evening, at the home of philanthropists Gordon and Ann Getty, the president was somewhat more generous, observing that "I believe that Republicans love their kids and their country as much as we do."

Note: The article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

President Obama: "We Still Waste Money in All Kinds of Things That Don't Work"

   At a Democratic National Committee fund raising event in Atherton, California Thursday morning, President Obama declared that the United States government still needs to get its fiscal house in order:
We still waste money in all kinds of things that don't work, and we have the capacity to shift those dollars into things that do work and that will grow our economy.  And we can reduce our deficit, stabilize our debt, and do so without sacrificing the kinds of investments that are going to be required to grow.
    During his remarks, the president spoke of the need to invest in education, meet environmental challenges, catch up on "$2 trillion in deferred maintenance," invest in science and research, and invest in new energy sources of the future.

    He did not cite any examples of how the government is currently wasting money.

Note: The article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Language Study in Fluffya? Thas Redicliss!

    The University of Pennsylvania's online news source, the Penn Current, noted this week the results of a study presented in the March 2013 edition of Project MUSE:
If you say, “wooder ice,” when you order a water ice treat or scream, “Go Iggles!” when the Eagles are playing the dreaded Dallas Cowboys, chances are, you’re from Philadelphia—or as some residents call it, “Fluffya.” 
A new Penn linguistics study shows that traditional Southern inflections associated with Philadelphia native-born speakers are being affected by Northern influences.
     A co-author of the study, William Labov, professor in the Linguistics Department at Penn and director of Penn’s Linguistics Laboratory, explains some of the findings:
“This is a breathtaking view of language change over a long period of time,” Labov says. Approximately 1,000 people were involved in the study, and 380 individuals have been analyzed so far. 
Nearly one million measurements show that two-thirds of Philadelphia vowels are in the process of changing. In one instance, the vowel used in the word “ate” has steadily moved closer to the vowel of “eat,” particularly in speakers who were born between 1888 and 1992. The change equally affects people of all educational levels, and men and women alike. 
“A ‘snake’ in the grass becomes a ‘sneak’ in the grass as the long vowel ‘a’ is pronounced with the speaker’s jaw in a higher position,” Labov says.
    The study, begun in 2009, was funded by the National Science Foundation at a cost of $255,363.  Or, "too-hunnert-fify-figh-thousan ollas," as someone from Philly might say.  The abstract provided by the NSF hints at the practical application of the study by noting that "[d]ialect diversity is one of the major factors limiting the success of automatic speech recognition."

    Whaddya, kiddin' me?  Thas redicliss!  We've been tooken fer a ride.  Dat's all.

Note: Thanks to PhillyTalk for some help with spelling.

Compassion, New York Style

    The CBS affiliate in New York City has a story about a horrific subway attack (via Drudge.)
Police were asking for the public’s help Tuesday in finding a man who assaulted and robbed a woman on the stairs at an elevated subway station in Borough Park, Brooklyn. 
The woman got off a southbound F train at the 18th Avenue station around 2:40 a.m. March 9, when the man attacked her, police said... 
Once they reach the bottom of the stairs, the man grabs the woman, throws her to the ground, kicks her, stomps on her and bangs her head against the wall, before emptying what appears to be her purse. The man then runs out the swinging door that leads to and from the staircase. 
When the victim tries to escape, the suspect pursues her again.

    Further into the story comes this insight into what passes for compassion, at least for some, in the Big Apple:
Riders who frequent the station said they were sickened by the senseless attack. 
“Just grab the bag and go. That’s how I see it,” Steve Pena told CBS 2’s Hazel Sanchez. “You know, there’s no need for punching and kicking. That’s uncalled for.” 

Just grab the bag and go.  Words to live by, Steve.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Feds Sign $6M Helicopter Contract for 'Wild Horse and Burro' Program

    As the sequester bore down on Washington, the dire warnings from the Obama administration gave the impression that wild horses couldn't drag another dime out of the treasury for a whole host of vital government services.  Aircraft carrier refueling, the Head Start program, and White House tours were among the high profile victims.  However, as it turned out, wild horses, with a little help from burros, managed to drag $6,000,000 out of the taxpayers' wallets for Helicopter Flight Services two weeks after the sequester went into effect.  The same government website that posted the contracts for Vice President Biden's London and Paris hotel costs and Paris limo costs has the details:

    Related documents show that the purpose of the contract is to provide
on call helicopter flight services to support transportation of personnel and/or cargo in support of natural resource missions along with other administrative and related activities as directed by the Government in support of the Wild Horse and Burro (WHB).

When asked for clarification on the contract, Joshua Carter of the Interior Department replied via email:
The contract awarded to Skyhawk Helicopter Services is an indefinite delivery indefinite quantity type contract, which means that while the Government knows they will need these services at some point over the course of the next year, we don't know exactly when we'll need them nor do we know exactly how much of the service.  Actual services will be ordered via the issuance of task orders for specific amounts and timeframe.  The $6M figure is the contract ceiling meaning that the total of all orders issued over the life of the contract will not exceed $6M.  So while the contract is considered a $6M contract, the likelihood of the actual workload reaching that amount is minimal.

    According to a Bureau of Land Management budget document, a total of $76,758,000 was included for the National Wild Horse and Burro Program in the Fiscal Year 2012 continuing resolution passed by Congress and signed by the president.

    Days after the sequester took effect, a two-day Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board Meeting was held at the Sheraton Oklahoma City Hotel in Oklahoma and included discussions on Population Growth Suppression, Ecotourism, and Herd Area Repopulation.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard (minus the photo.)