Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Celebrities rush to defend carpenter Sam Schnuckatelli

By Donald Sensing

Hollywood's glitterati have rushed to support a retired carpenter named Ed to prevent him from being transported by law-enforcement personnel from Green Bay, Wisc., to Charleston, W. Va. to face sentencing for rape of a minor.

Sam Schnuckatelli, 76, was taken into custody Monday in Des Moines, Ia., where he has lived for more than 31 years after fleeing a sentencing hearing in Charleston. As part of a plea bargain in 1977, Schnuckatelli admitted to charges of statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl and charges related to plying her with alcohol and depressant prescription drugs before committing the rape.

Taking a new life in Des Moines, Schnuckatelli settled in to his old vocation of carpentering, winning the admiration of Iowans for miles around for his skill in "whole cabinet" construction. In 2003 he was actually named the recipient of the coveted Best Carpenter in the Universe award for his rehabilitation of a Louis the VXI chest on chest that had fallen to near ruin. A friend accepted the award on his behalf because the presentation was made back in Charleston, and Schnuckatelli darn sure wasn't going back there.

(So grateful was the French government for Schnuckatelli's salvation of the kingly furniture that it offered Schnuckatelli permanent asylum, even saying it would work something out to get him a home in Gstaad. But Schnuckatelli reportedly refused, saying, "Buncha of frogs, they need to shave their legs and pits. I ain't going.")

However, Monday Schnuckatelli made the fateful error of driving his 1981 Chevy Suburban from Iowa, whose authorities had told the West Virginians to "stuff it," to Green Bay, Wisc., to attend a Packers game. And that, as they used to say back home, is where he dropped his molasses jug. Apparently not realizing that Brett Favre (or as Schnuckatelli pronounced it, "Favor") left the team years ago, Schnuckatelli pitched a conniption fit when he learned Favre was playing for the Vikings.

So raucous was Schnuckatelli that stadium security was called, who learned through running a name check that the West Virginia warrant was still valid. Figuring that they could toss their problem over to Mountaineers, state police held Schnuckatelli in custody to await extradition.

Schnuckatelli used his one phone call in jail to call Woody Allen, who was outraged that drugging and raping a minor child would not be forgiven by West Virginia prosecutors. Allen emailed all his Hollywood friends and within hours, a massive movement among the most glittering stars, directors, producers and key grips had sprung up.

Whoopi Goldberg, who used to be funny, said on her TV show The View that Schnuckatelli should immediately be set free because drugging and raping a minor child isn't, you know, really rape:



By today,

More than 100 film industry figures have now signed a petition calling for the release of Schnuckatelli, the acclaimed maker of bookshelves, side commodes and rocking chairs.

They include leading Hollywood figures Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Pedro Almodovar, Tilda Swinton and Monica Bellucci.

One celebrity supporter, the actress Debra Winger, said it was a "three-decades-old case that is dead but for minor technicalities. We stand by him and await his release and his next masterpiece." Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein said Schnuckatelli was a "gifted carpenter" who had been the victim of a "miscarriage of justice". He said: "We will have to speak to our leaders, particularly in West Virginia. I'm not too shy to go and talk to the Governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin III, and to ask him once and for all to look at this."
Patrick Goldstein of the LA Times piled on, too:
But at a time when West Virginia is shredding the safety net that protects the poor and the unemployed, not to mention the budget of the public school system, you'd hope that Charleston prosecutors had better things to do than cause an international furor by hounding a carpenter for a 32-year-old sex crime.
Though not a popular stand, the Hollywood elites' closure around Schnuckatelli continues their long tradition of standing up for the little man even at risk of their reputations and profits.

"None of us had even heard of Schnuckatelli before this week," confessed Hollywood mogul David Lean Goldmayer. "But if we don't stand with him, who will? This isn't about us. It's about Sam Schnuckatelli. We're just navel lint."

Monday, September 28, 2009

We want your kids all the time

By Donald Sensing

"More school: Obama would curtail summer vacation:"

WASHINGTON – Students beware: The summer vacation you just enjoyed could be sharply curtailed if President Barack Obama gets his way.
Obama says American kids spend too little time in school, putting them at a disadvantage with other students around the globe. ...

"Our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working the fields today," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
I was a key player in two grassroots groups in Williamson County, Tenn., that successfully batted down attempts to convert schools to a year-round calendar. The second tiem the advocates pulled a switcheroo by calling it a "balanced" calendar, thinking that was more palatable, but the so-called balanced calendar would have put our kids in class all or part of 11 months of the year.

Eventually our group, which started by two other parents and me, grew to several hundred. One of the advocates' arguments that we continually had to refute was the absolutely false assertion that the traditional calendar, running roughly the first week of September to the end of May, is an "agrarian" calendar, dating from a time when agriculture dominated America's economy.

There is no historical foundation for this claim, yet it even being repeated today by the US Secretary of Education.

Anyone who has lived or worked on a farm, as I have, knows that spring planting and fall harvest are the busiest times on a farm. The agrarian calendars of the past gave children long breaks in the spring and fall so they could help out on the farm. The "balanced" calendar more closely approximates the agrarian school calendars of the past.

After 1950, as the manufacturing and service industries became more important to the U.S. economy than agriculture, the agrarian school calendar was abandoned in favor of the modern traditional calendar. If there is a "throwback" to the agrarian past, it is the balanced/year-round calendar.

The shibboleth that the modern calendar is agrarian was promulgated years ago by the National Association for Year Round Education, intended to make parents think that the present and now-traditional calendar is antiquated and old fashioned, thus obsolete. In fact, the hardest farm work is done during the spring, when planting and calving are done, and the fall, when the harvests are taken in.

Here's more on why the "balanced" calendar is more suited to agrarian America than the modern calendar. Excerpt from The Daily News Journal, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, February 19, 2001, by Scott Broden, Staff writer:
In 1932, students took a vacation lasting three to six weeks to pick cotton. ...

Many call the traditional approach that starts the school year in mid-August an outdated agrarian calendar, yet the Depression-era board policy to start sooner was made for agricultural reasons, according to Nell Blankenship, past president of the Rutherford County Historical Society.

"They went (to school) for six weeks and got out for cotton-picking season," Blankenship explained.

Students picked cotton for three to six weeks, and board members determined how long the break would be for their own districts. After returning from the harvest, students would take more breaks for the holidays but stay in class until the end of the school year in March in time for the planting season.

That was as agrarian calendar," said Blakenship, noting it wasn't until the 1950s when the school year started after Labor Day. "We've just gradually worked back to July. Each year we go a little bit further back to that calendar of the 1930s."
But as the NY Post's article points out, foreign schoolkids are actually spending less time in class than American kids, not more:
Obama and [Education Secretary] Duncan say kids in the United States need more school because kids in other nations have more school.

"Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here," Duncan told the AP. "I want to just level the playing field."

While it is true that kids in many other countries have more school days, it's not true they all spend more time in school.

Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the U.S. (180 days).
The AP report attempts to make a case that longer classroom periods would be helpful, as well they might. But the time and the money for them have to come from somewhere. Today, my daughter arises at 6 a.m. to leave for school well before 7. Classes dismiss at 2:20 p.m., then she has soccer practice to 4:45, sometimes til 5. Then home shower, supper and homework until between 9-10. The to bed to do it all over again the next day.

To lengthen the class day means cutting the amount of time available for:
  • extracurricular activities, whether sports or clubs
  • family time after school
  • homework
  • sleep
To paraphrase economist Milton Friedman, "There ain't no such thing as a free hour." And of the above four time payers, which is least likely to be the payer? That's right, homework, when our kids are buried in it now.

Besides, as ABC News explained in 2006, the biggest thing holding American school kids back is not that they spend too few days in school. It's that American public schools are a government-run monopoly.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Obama to World: Love, Love Me Do

By Donald Sensing

The Washington Post's Michael Gerson on President Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly:

Obama’s rhetorical method in international contexts -- given supreme expression at the United Nations this week -- is a moral dialectic. The thesis: pre-Obama America is a nation of many flaws and failures. The antithesis: The world responds with understandable but misguided prejudice. The synthesis: Me. Me, at all costs; me, in spite of all terrors; me, however long and hard the road may be. How great a world we all should see, if only all were more like…me. ...

The world, of course, has its problems, too. It has accepted “misperceptions and misinformation.” It can be guilty of a “reflexive anti-Americanism.” “Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.” Translation: I know you adore me because I am better than America’s flawed past. But don’t just stand there loving me, do something.

I can recall no other major American speech in which the narcissism of a leader has been quite so pronounced.
Well, psychiatrist turned syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said long ago that Obama's personality is narcissistic (click and click).
Obama is a three-year senator without a single important legislative achievement to his name, a former Illinois state senator who voted “present” nearly 130 times. As president of the Harvard Law Review, as law professor and as legislator, has he ever produced a single notable piece of scholarship? Written a single memorable article? His most memorable work is a biography of his favorite subject: himself. ...

After all, in the words of his own slogan, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” which, translating the royal “we,” means: “I am the one we’ve been waiting for.” Amazingly, he had a quasi-presidential seal with its own Latin inscription affixed to his podium, until general ridicule — it was pointed out that he was not yet president — induced him to take it down.
Gerard Van der Leun offers an illustration:



Further evidence, as if any was needed, that our president seems to believe the world began anew on January 20 is found in Obama's response, alongside French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British PM Gordon Brown, to Iran's admission that it has a secret uranium-enrichment facility. Stephen Hayes explains.

It's looking more and more like this is the Barack Obama theme song.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Buy insurance or go to jail

By Donald Sensing

Un. Believe. Able.

Under the government's plan to micromanage individual lives "reform" health care being considered by Congress, not only will health insurance be mandatory, anyone who fails to buy it will be subjected to both a $25,000 fine or a year in jail.

How close we are to how someone described the old Soviet Union: "that which is not forbidden is mandatory."

It get's better (cough): if you buy insurance that the feds think costs too much (meaning you buy a better plan than the government thinks you should have) you will pay a special tax on that insurance.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The country's in the very best of hands

By Donald Sensing

Here is a stunning video of hapless Federal Reserve Inspector General Elizabeth Coleman unable to answer even the simplest questions about her duties while testifying before a Congressional committee. The incredulous questioner is first-term Democrat Alan Grayson.

As Daily Bail blog says, "There are no words to describe" the apparently complete lack of accountability by the Fed of what is happening to our money.

Now we know

By Donald Sensing

Econopundit:

Howard Dean:

The reason tort reform is not in the [health care] bill is because the people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers in addition to everybody else they were taking on. And that's the plain and simple truth...
As In pointed out last month, skyrocketing malpractice premiums are paid not only by doctors but by all hospitals and medical institutions.
Like physicians, hospitals also must purchase medical malpractice insurance that covers their staff plus any physicians employed by the hospital. Hospitals report that the growing premiums are cutting into their operating budgets and threatening to drain money away from other areas of the hospital. The survey shows that hospital medical malpractice insurance premiums, as a portion of total hospital operating budgets, have nearly doubled in the last four years.
In fact, 10 percent of the costs consumers pay for medical care goes directly to pay medical malpractice premiums. The total amount of medical malpractice awards amounts to a tiny fraction of the total healthcare costs of the country. Even if you could by fiat reduce malpractice awards to zero, total healthcare spending would decrease by a barely noticeable amount. But that's not the point. The deleterious impact of high malpractice premiums is their effect on hospitals' and physicians' budgets, of which they consume a large and increasing percentage. This is money better spent on providing better care or reducing costs than on insurance.

Another scary internet picture

By Donald Sensing

Continuing my series of really scary pictures on the internet, there is now another contender. I think it moves into the number two spot. As I've said before, I don't see how anything can displace number one.

The others:
here
here
(shudder) here

The source of the new contender is here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Praise Allah for faulty maintenance"

By Donald Sensing

Omar at Iraq the Model has a story that demonstrates why there are no permanent enemies. Can't excerpt it, just go read.

Health care reform is not about health

By Donald Sensing

Practicing physician Mark Siegel explains why two-thirds of doctors are opposed to the health care "reform" bills in Congress, and that about half are so opposed that they will quit practicing or retire early if the present proposals become law. "Why doctors hate BamCare" discusses the various effects that even the so-called "moderate" bill of Sen. Max Baucus would impose, but here Dr. Siegel gets to the heart of the matter:

In short, doctors fear "health reform" because it's not really about health care; it's about catering to the prejudices of the politicians and the lawyers who've already made such a mess of our health-care system.
Indeed.

Is there any organizing principle of the Obama administration?

By Donald Sensing

I asked the same question of George W. Bush's administration back in January 2004:

My question: Is there an organizing principle to this president's administration in the way there was for Reagan's? I'm not seeing one. While Bush started off cleaving to the main points of the platform, ISTM more and more that he has jumped on the presidential horse and rode off in all directions.
A number of commentators, not just bloggers, have been saying that Barack Obama is Carteresque. I think so, too, though I am focusing here not on policy but on process. It's becoming increasingly clear that Barack Obama is, as James Fallows observed about Jimmy Carter, a man of Great Ideas but no Big ideas. Fallows served on Carters's staff.
Carter, said Fallows, was an enormously intelligent man with great intellectual curiosity. He was a man of Great Ideas. The problem was that Carter had twenty Great Ideas every day before lunch and his staff, from the chief of staff on down, spent their time zinging off on new tangents all the time. Yesterday they were charging off to solve homelessness and improve America‛s energy self sufficiency. Today they are redirecting to improve America‛s technical competitiveness and forge security links with east Asian countries. Tomorrow - who knows?

There was, Fallows observed, no real organizing principle to Carter‛s administration, just one Great Idea after another, unconnected with one another. ...

Fallows wrote that under Carter, the administration‛s leaders many days literally did not know what they were supposed to be doing in their office to move the administration's goals forward. The reason was that there were so many goals, and they changed all the time.
This was a "ricochet rabbit" presidency, pinging from one thing to another. Today's hot-boiling issue is tomorrow's back-burner simmer. On the other hand, said Fallows,
Reagan was not a man of Great Ideas. He was a man of Big Ideas, of which there were precisely three: decrease taxes, "get government off the backs of the people," and build up the military. That was Reagan‛s 1980 campaign platform in a nutshell, and Reagan ruthlessly stomped on campaigners or, later, his administration‛s officials, who tried to divert him or his administration from doing those three things.
Fallows was neither approving of Reagan's policies nor condemning Carter's, but comparing how they managed and led their administration. (Actually, it would be hard to criticize Carter's policies because, as Fallows explained, you never knew exactly what those policies were.)

Comes now The Anchoress with cogent observations about the Obama administration that urge the question: is there an organizing principle?
Is Obama our ADHD President? He seems to have lost interest in the economy, or in the job creation we desperately need. Then, in the middle of his hyper-intensive push for healthcare reform, (and his odd fighting with his generals, aiding Manuel Zelaya, etc) he’s suddenly demanding that the world create a “new world order” economy, and oh, yeah, suddenly the climate, the climate, the climate! And empty words about Carbon!

You know, if Obama would just settle down and focus on our economic issues, and seriously follow the lead of Germany and Sweden and cut taxes to create jobs, etc, maybe he’d get listened to.
Sorry, the many links therein didn't transfer, but read the post. As far as I can tell, the only thing that seems to organize the White House's frenetic activities is to get the president personally on TV as much as possible. Which can't be surprising since the working model is "Narcissism without bounds; to infinity and beyond."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

David Warren's Ten Commandments

By Donald Sensing

It's not everyone who can start by quoting Lenin ("What is to be done?") and end up with 10 modern commandments for rightful living in the 21st century. But Canadian journalist David Warren does, although he calls them the "Ten suggestions." Well, okay, he does not claim divine authority, but he can claim wisdom.

Want to live a better life? Go read.

What has NATO done for us redux

By Donald Sensing

Alas, I write too calmly. Last October I pointed out that NATO's raison d'etre had disappeared with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and that in the face of Isalamist terrorism, NATO has pretty much rolled over and gone back to sleep, excepting Canada and Britain.

What NATO has not done, even under Article 5, is actually fight al Qaeda or the Taliban (again, except for Britain and Canada). For example, Germany sent an entire special-forces detachment to Afghanistan. They literally never left their base camp for a whole year, then Germany brought them home. Except for Canada and Britain, this is typical of the NATO troops, paltry as they are, in Afghanistan. (NATO, qua NATO, had no involvement in Iraq.)

But let us imagine that al Qaeda mounts a truly devastating attack against a NATO capital city, killing thousands. Just how can NATO respond? It can't, certainly not for any response that would require self-lifting across strategic distances. The strategic transportation of NATO has always been oriented one way: US and Canadian forces flowing into Europe to defend it from the USSR, not forces flowing out of Europe to somewhere else in the world. NATO forces cannot go anywhere in the world in substantial force without the US Air Force or Navy carrying them.

Let us then ask the pointed question: Just how does continued NATO membership actually benefit that United States? I can think of only one way - forward stationing of US forces as a deployment point to locales farther east or toward the Middle East.

That's it. Is that worth the cost of national treasure and aggravation we have with the alliance, and which show no sign of abating?
Well, no, it's not. Comes now The Gorgomons blog with "Afghanistand By," making much the same points, though more pithily.
Unfortunately, none of the European NATO countries had a backup plan if the Soviet Union would—inconceivable!—go away, that Russia would turn its attentions elsewhere, and that America would need their help now. NATO is like that jerk friend who calls you up everytime he moves to a new apartment, and has you carry up sleeper sofas, pianos, and boxes of books up three flights of stairs while he carries a couple of pillows up the elevator; then, when you sell your place, he is nowhere to be found that weekend.

Except Canada. They still help whenever they can. But Europeans pissed away their defense budgets on socialized healthcare, housing, and welfare absolutely convinced that if the Soviets ever invaded, it wouldn’t matter a jot whether you had an army a million strong or fifty strong, because you would get crushed in the first 24 hours until the Americans pushed some button on some computer somewhere and the Soviets disappeared in a blue but slightly pleasant flash of light.
Well, as I said, add Britain. It needs be added as well that Poland and most of eastern Europe have also been steadfast with the US, though not as part of a NATO commitment even though Poland and the Czech Republic are NATO members. Poland sent a substantial contingent to Iraq, for example, which practically no Americans ever learned.

All this is one reason why I am not nearly as inflamed as many others about President Obama's cancellation of missile defenses for Europe, to have been emplaced in Poland and the Czech Republic. On one hand, as I wrote here, the cancellation of the deployment was in itself a good decision.
In my view, Bush erred substantially when he ordered the deployment of the missile defenses to eastern Europe. Vis-a-vis Iran, there was no need for the rush with which the deployment was ordered. If Iran was actually seen as the threat, rather than signaling Russia, then there was plenty of time for the North Atlantic Council to proceed with a European-based initiative for such a deployment, even time for Russia to be included in a consultative process, though certainly not with veto authority.

As it was, Bush hurried to demonstrate against Russia and make the deployment a done deal before his term expired. I am reminded of the old aphorism, "decide in haste, repent in leisure."
Yet the amateurish clumsiness with which this administration cancelled the deal is simply breathtaking, so much so that it's hard to pass it off as unintended. There is a difference between valuing Europe and questioning the value of the NATO alliance. It's becoming more and more apparent that President Obama values neither.

I am the Wizard!

By Donald Sensing

Well, it would have been pretty cool to have been the Scarecrow, but this is me:



Which Wizard of Oz character are you?

I post this in recognition of the fact that a special-release, Hi-Def edition of The Wizard of Oz is being shown tonight (only) in select theaters around the country. I would go but the nearest theater to my home is more than 35 miles away. Since the showing start at 7 p.m., and I'll be working tonight until that hour, I'll not make it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My radical tax reform proposal

By Donald Sensing

Forbes offers good explanations of why the tax codes and financial programs of various kinds actually penalize work and making more money ("When Work Doesn't Pay For The Middle Class"):

Eighteen months after being laid off, Judith Lederman, a 50-year-old divorcee who lives in Scarsdale, N.Y., is ready to consider jobs paying half the $120,000 she earned as a publicity manager at Lord & Taylor. That's mostly because she's desperate, but it also makes sense when you consider how this country punishes work effort. While the first $60,000 of her income would be lightly taxed, the next $60,000 would be hit with what is in effect a 79% tax rate. Given a choice between a part-time or easy job paying $60,000 and a demanding, stress-ridden job paying $120,000, Lederman would be wise to take the former
That's only one example of many. Tax rates are not the only issue, of course. Almost anyone who has had a child apply for college financial aid knows that the more money you have on hand, the less aid you will be awarded. At first, this makes sense because it apparently saves aid money for those who most need it. But what it has done is completely disincentivize saving money for college by rewarding applicants who have the least money on hand. So after foregoing a car and an active social life in high school to save for college, a student discovers that the hot rodders and social animals get more aid awarded than he does.

I don't really know what can be done about that. Perhaps financial aid could be dollar-matched to personal savings available for college costs, or fractional matched, anyway. But I dunno.

However, the taxation rate problem can be attacked and should be. It's been exhaustively reported in recent months that almost half of American adults actually pay no income tax at all. Instead, they receive refunds equal to their withholdings or even greater, based on which Congressionally-favored class of American they happen to be.

For a long time I favored a flat tax for several reasons. One is that unreported American income is so much that it's greater than the defense budget. "Progressive" tax rates incentivize hiding income from the IRS, that is, cheating. Another reason for the flat tax is that it is inherently egalitarian while at the same time being inherently progressive.

So here is a thought experiment to answer this question: "How do we remove the tax code's disincentives to make more money and reward thrift and creating wealth?"

Get ready, this will peel your eyelids:

We tax all income at a flat rate (say between 5-10 percent) from $10K-$25K, and then exclude from income tax every dollar from $25,001-$45,000. Income above that would be taxed at a never-increasing flat rate. In various flat-tax proposals that have floated around over the years, a 17 percent rate seems about the average proposed.

Now, some low-income earners are actually claimed as dependents on someone else's return, such as a college student (this is the case in my family). In that case, their income below $10k would be subject to the ~7.5 percent tax rate. Only actual "breadwinners" would have the first $10K excluded.

Right now we have a tax code that perversely rewards making less money and punishes making more. Why not flip it? Make it so that the way to pay less taxes (up to a point) is to make more money.

Like I said, a thought experiment.

Christian Fundamentalist Racism

By Donald Sensing

Gerard Van der Leun has identified the locus of racism of Christian fundamentalist churches: "I've been told, over and over, for decades that America is a racist nation. This week I came to believe it. I just never expected to find it in the place where I did."

Gaza myths and facts

By Donald Sensing

Fish. Barrel. Bang.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Car crashes then and now

By Donald Sensing

This car crash test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hits (heh) a little close to home for me. The IIHS offset crashed a 2009 Chevy Malibu into a 1959 Chevy Bel Air. As the video shows, despite being made of heavy gage steel, the Bel Air folded up like tin foil. The impact would have killed its driver instantly, while the Malibu's driver would have suffered a slight knee injury.



Why does this hit close to home? Because I survived with practically no injury a 70 mph, one-car crash of my 2004 Malibu in Interstate 40 in December 2007.

Hard rain, a shallow left turn, I-40 West at Tenn. mile marker 171, near Dickson, 1:30 Saturday afternoon. I pretty quickly figured out that my control inputs were not doing any good. Looking through the windshield at other westbound traffic behind me was one clue. (Fortunately, the nearest traffic was 200 yards or so away.)

In one gestalt moment, I realize that I am wrecking at interstate speed and surely will not survive.

"Jesus, it's your automobile."

There were two or three high-speed revolutions on the road surface. All I heard was whizzing of the tires skidding across first the pavement and then the grass. The windshield went opaque from water and thrown mud. I hear two loud bangs and the car suddenly stops. I am surrounded by pine trees. I smell and see smoke. The car's on fire! Seat belt off, pull the door handle. Nothing happens. The door's jammed. I see shattered glass all over me and feel cold air against my face. The driver's side window is shattered. Even if the door worked, it wouldn't open more than two inches because of the trees. Great: I lived through the crash to burn to death.

But the smoke smells different than smoke from burning petroleum or rubber. It smells explosive. Then I see the deflated air bags and realize they are the smoke's source. Relax. I feel no pain. The front of the car is buckled upward. Nothing penetrated the passenger compartment, which did not deform.
I drive a 2005 Volvo S-60T now, a make whose safety is legendary. I tried to find another used Malibu but the prices were out of reach. It's a popular car for excellent reasons.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cash for Clunkers "a complete waste"

By Donald Sensing

As analysts predicted, now the the "Cash for Clunkers" program is ended, auto showrooms are as crowded as a church on Monday morning.

Now, customers at dealerships like Silko Honda in Raynham are few and far between, and inventory is once again accumulating.

Manager Adam Silverleib said business was “pretty intense’’ as a result of the federal stimulus program, with the dealership hustling to accommodate customers and handle the piles of paperwork required for them to receive reimbursement on vouchers. “Now we’re kind of back to where we were in the spring,’’ he said. ...

"It as probably, in the end, a complete waste of taxpayer money,’’ said John Wolkonowicz, a senior auto analyst at IHS Global Insight, Lexington forecasting firm. “The dealers, who were supposed to be the primary beneficiaries, many were forced into cash flow problems because the government didn’t pay them in a timely fashion."
Robert O’Koniewski, executive vice president of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association, said, "Dealers are reporting that showrooms are pretty dead right now."

Exactly what analysts said would happen.

Friday, September 18, 2009

No missiles to Poland a deal for Iran strike?

By Donald Sensing

I linked yesterday to Information Dissemination's post about Vladimir Putin's curious warning to Iran. Analyst Galrahn wrote,

Putin's comments are interesting because he makes it clear he understands the powder keg here, but appears to direct his comments at Iran who would be attacked instead of Israel who would be the attacker.

Reads to me like a signal Russia has no plans to help Iran if they get attacked by Israel. Kind of an odd comment really, and it is entirely possible he said much more and the media simply didn't report it. On the other hand, might be we are seeing all there is.
Yesterday, the Obama administration cancelled deployment of anti-missile defenses to Poland and the Czech Republic with the putative reason that Iran's missile threat against Europe is not nearly as serious as once thought. The defenses, planned first by the Bush administration, have been widely seen as directed as much against Russian expansionism as Iran's missile programs. Hence,yesterday's decision to cancel the deployment has been attacked by critics as a capitulation to Russian protests against the defense. The Russian government praised the cancellation.

The administration says that the decision rests on its own merits and that there was no quid pro quo asked for or offered by Russia, nor asked for by the US. But almost immediately the Middle East Twitterers and conspiracy theorists (which is to say, almost everyone) became abuzz that there was a secret deal between the US and Russia for the cancellation: Russia stands back while Israel bombs Iran's nuke facilities into oblivion.
The rumors, now buzzing on conservative radio, Israeli chat forums, and whispered discussions, suggest that the President’s move to pull the missile shield out of the Czech Republic and Poland might be crazy—crazy like a fox.

The rumor, which you may have heard, is that Obama has struck a deal with Russia: if we pull the missile shield out of Europe, Russia will stand back while Israel launches a major military strike on Iran. Possibly quite soon. ...

Further, there was Bibi Netenyahu’s very secret trip to Russia earlier this month. Why would the Israeli PM sneak off on a private jet, meet in private with unnamed Russian top dogs, and then sneak back? Some speculate that it was the precursor to the Obama green light deal.

The Arab world is abuzz with the latter event, with many Arab pundits concluding that he went to stop a potential sale of Russian anti-air rockets to Iran, which might be used against Israel should the latter attack the former. So, even if the first theory was false, the second theory is just as confirming.
One of the cardinal rules in the Mid East is that if you explain something without a conspiracy theory, you haven't really explained it. So this kind of troika between Obama, Putin and Bibi seems a real stretch to me. There's nothing in it for Russia. And since the present administration is almost universally viewed as a weak horse in international relations, there's no incentive for Russia to make back room deals in the first place.

I am of two minds about the cancellation of the missile defenses. On the one hand, Poland and the Czech Republic are both NATO allies. Commitments made by the US government, even under a previous administration, should not be so casually unmade. As others have pointed out, the clumsiness of the Obama administration is demonstrated all the more by announcing the cancellation on Sept. 17, the anniversary day of Russia's invasion of eastern Poland under the terms of the then-secret pact between Hitler and Stalin to divide the country between them. No wonder that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk refused to accept a phone call from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she called to give him the news.

Whether the missile defenses were actually directed against Iranian threats, as the Bush administration claimed, or whether they were (nod, nod, wink, wink) actually intended to signal Russia that moves like it made against Georgia last summer wouldn't be tolerated toward the West is not the point. The Poles, Czech, almost every other eastern European country and the Russians themselves believed the latter.

The cancellation of the defenses, no matter how thoroughly argued by the administration on the basis of Iran, cannot be seen by the Poles and Czechs as anything but abandonment of American security assurances.

On the other hand, I have written before that NATO is a dead letter and that our interests are not served by binding ourselves militarily even more than we already are. After all, what has NATO done for us? Pretty much nada. And some European defense and policy officials are starting to say the same thing.

In my view, Bush erred substantially when he ordered the deployment of the missile defenses to eastern Europe. Vis-a-vis Iran, there was no need for the rush with which the deployment was ordered. If Iran was actually seen as the threat, rather than signaling Russia, then there was plenty of time for the North Atlantic Council to proceed with a European-based initiative for such a deployment, even time for Russia to be included in a consultative process, though certainly not with veto authority.

As it was, Bush hurried to demonstrate against Russia and make the deployment a done deal before his term expired. I am reminded of the old aphorism, "decide in haste, repent in leisure." I reiterate:
I think the United States should reassess whether the NATO alliance really is serving American interests. I don't think it is, and I don't think it will do better in years to come. Though we must stay politically engaged, I think we'd be better off withdrawing from the military alliance, and work toward building an Anglosphere military alliance in its stead.
And so I can't find great fault with the administration for its decision, though its ham-handed handling of it was stupid, amateurish and wholly irresponsible. There was no need to rush it, either. A more professionally competent diplomacy ( and surely you didn't think Mrs. Clinton would bring that to Foggy Bottom with her) would have worked under the radar with Poland and the Czech to build up to an joint announcement with them of the suspension of the deployments, followed by announcement of what could be done instead to address the (nominal) threat, then followed announcement of the cancellation.

instead, on this as on so many things, the administration did its usual "Do Not Pass Go" routine and blew it. Welcome, once again, to the Obama amateur hour.

Update: Never Yet Melted has a roundup of analyses.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Give capitalism a chance!

By Donald Sensing

So writes David Frum in writing about how health insurance companies, who get worse press than Qadaffi, don't have enough clout: "But this truly is a case of capitalism failing because it has not been tried. Before we substitute government for free enterprise, let's at least give enterprise a fair chance."

Putin to Iran: You're on your own

By Donald Sensing

Is that what Vlad Putin was telling Iran about Russia's response if Israel attacks Iran's nuclear facilities?

Really scary redux redux

By Donald Sensing

On the first of this month, I posted links to the three scariest pictures on the internet.

I have another candidate. I don't think it can displace number one - I don't think any photo ever could - but should it displace either number two or three? Here are the links:

Number three.

Number two.

The Number One scariest picture on the internet.



Now, gird up your loins, or something like that, and get ready for the New Contender. Don't say I didn't warn you! Click here.


Is this scarier than no. 2? No. 3? Leave a comment.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Doctor shortages and health-care price controls

By Donald Sensing

I wrote earlier of questions that health-care reform advocates need to address effectively before passing the proposed legislation. In that post, I cited Paul Howard's piece in City Journal of "a 2006 survey finding that as many as half of all physicians have either stopped accepting new Medicaid patients or limited the number they’ll see because reimbursements are so low."

And today Investor's Business Daily reports the results of a new survey of physicians: "45% Of Doctors Would Consider Quitting If Congress Passes Health Care Overhaul."

The reason for both these phenomena - one actual, one potential - is the direct result of price control.

The fundamental rule of economics is that someone is able to buy only is someone else is both able and willing to well. This is true no matter what kind of economic system is at work, from command-economy totalitarianism such as the old Soviet Union's or to a full free-market economy such as America's used to be.

However one might describe the economic system of American health care, "full free market" ain't it. Probably the best description of how we get medical care is that it is brokered to us: "Health care does not equal health insurance."

The costliness of health care rests largely on the fact that its provision became brokered long ago by insurance companies. We buy "coverage" from insurance companies instead of medical care from providers. The insurance company is intermediate between the consumer and the provider. Unlike say, stock brokerages, which have to compete with each other for consumers and so lower both costs and price, health insurance companies operate in monopolistic fashion. The competition between health-insurance companies is so low that there are no competitive pressures to reduce price, only internal costs. The result? Lower reimbursements to providers and higher premiums to consumers.
We have almost a doubling effect of price controls in play here. First, the government, command rations medical care by controlling the prices its insurance programs will pay, especially Medicaid but also Medicare. Then we have health-insurance companies effectively price controlling medical care because they often, if not usually, tell doctors that they won't pay more (or much more) than the Medicare rate. As Healthsymphony.com puts it, Medicare is such an important part of the health-care economy "because of the precedence set by its claims payment practices."

The inevitable result of price controls, no matter by what mechanism implemented, is shortage of the price-controlled good or service. That doesn't mean that the service is scarcer, that is, physically rarer. Medicaid's low payments schedules have not reduced the total number of doctors. It has produced a shortage of medical care available to patients by halving the number of doctors who will accept Medicaid payments.

The distinction between scarcity and shortage is crucial to think through reforming health care. Presently, we have shortages of care (not uniform shortages across the country or across all medical disciplines) because of:
  • price controls by Medicare and Medicaid and
  • second-level price controls by health-insurance companies that follows the precedence set by Medicare.
Shortages are phenomena of prices. When prices paid by consumers (and insurance programs are the actual consumers in America, not you and me) are not synchronized with costs of providers, then you get things like a shortage of Medicaid-providing doctors even though there is no scarcity of doctors.

Well, there may be no supply-scarcity doctors who could treat Medicaid patients but that doesn't mean that there's not an overall scarcity of doctors. The NYT's John Tierney reports,
The A.M.A. may be one of the most trusted voices by the public in the health-care debate, but some economists argue that it helps perpetuates one of the largest problems with the American system: a cartel that limits the number of doctors. Mark J. Perry, an economist at the University of Michigan, argues that “we would probably go a long way to solving our ‘health care crisis’” if the “medical cartel” hadn’t prevented medical schools from expanding to meet students’ demands for more places. ... whereas medical schools shrunk instead. As a result, their rejection rates rose, frustrating students who wanted to be doctors. The result was fewer doctors to care for the growing population... .

Ms. [Shikha] Dalmia, a senior analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, says “that the net effect of A.M.A.-type restrictions hasn’t been to make better quality doctors available to more people, but to reduce existing options, especially in rural and other under-served areas.” She concludes:
Obama and his fellow Democrats blame the current health care mess on the free market. But a free market can’t exist when a cartel with the ear of the government is allowed to control a key input for its own self-aggrandizement. If the president is serious about lowering health care costs instead of advancing an ideologically driven government takeover of the industry, he should be doing everything in his power to disband it–not cozy up to it.
The link to Ms. Dalmi's article is here.

So on the one hand we have price controls mandated by the government. Price controls always create shortages even if there is no actual scarcity of supply. But on the other hand we have an actual supply scarcity of medical-care providers (see Ms. Dalmia's article for more).

What is the effect? MSNBC tells it straight:
As Massachusetts' experience shows, extending health care to 50 million uninsured Americans will only further stress the system and could force many of those newly insured back into costly emergency rooms for routine care if they can't find a primary care doctor, health care observers said.
Massachusetts, home of the nation's most ambitious health care law, has seen the need for primary care doctors shoot up with the addition of 428,000 people to the ranks of the insured under a 2006 law that mandates health care for nearly all residents.
To keep up with the demand for primary care doctors, the country will need to add another 40,000 to the existing 100,000 doctors over the next decade or face a soaring backlog, according to Dr. Ted Epperly, president of the Kansas-based American Academy of Family Physicians.
"It's like giving everyone free bus passes, but there are only two buses," he said.
The need for more primary care doctors comes as the country's shortage of all doctors is expected to worsen, according to a study by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which found the rate of first-year enrollees in U.S. medical schools has declined steadily since 1980.
If current patterns persist, the study shows the country will have about 159,000 fewer doctors than it needs by 2025.
That last prediction should have read, "the country will have about 159,000 fewer doctors than it needs by 2025 unless adjustments are made to the way that doctors are paid." The presumed supply scarcity of physicians does not have to occur. It is not inevitable.

But that's not all - we also have a supply scarcity of private health-insurance companies, even though there are more than 1,000 such companies operating in the country today. The reason is that health-insurance companies are restricted from operating across state lines. So there is a supply scarcity of insurance put into effect by law.

The upshot of this hodgepodge is:
  • patients are not the real medical-care consumers, insurance companies are.
  • market corrections relative to supply, demand, price and costs simply do not occur. Instead, we have rationing by government price mandates, amplified by private insurors.
  • Non-competition by insurance companies for premium-paying patients means that patients are basically  caught in monopoly markets and have no recourse to rising premiums except to pay them or reduce coverage.
  • Supply scarcity means that doctors don't compete, either. Instead patients have reduced choices of doctors except in a small number of locations. The number one question patients have to ask before selecting a doctor is neither how good the doctor is nor what are his prices, but whether s/he accepts the patient's insurance plan.
  • Supply scarcity also means that patients pay non-financial prices for medical care. Stories are legion of lengthy waiting times in doctors' offices for scheduled appointments and long waiting time to get an appointment in the first place. (For some reason, though, I rarely have waited more than 15 minutes past my appointment time to see my own doctor. Seems to be a very competently-run office.)
So, a thought experiment - suppose these things all happened reasonably close together (ain't gonna happen, that's why it's a thought experiment rather than a proposal):
  1. Insurance companies could compete across state lines. Remember what Karl Marx (no friend of free-market capitalism he) said, that when greater competition becomes possible, it quickly becomes necessary.
  2. Medicare lifted payment limits to doctors, but with these provisions: First, doctors must post in their offices their price schedules for the medical services they provide. Second, patient co-pays cannot be waived by the doctors.
I am not an economist, but my understanding of the dismal science makes me conclude that the first option would result in greater coverage choices of insurance by consumers at lower costs. The second would buttress patients, not insurance companies, as consumers and result in a leveling of price, demand and costs. Doctors would have to answer first to patients for prices rather than simply accept whatever payment schedule the insurance companies laid down. This would be even stronger if medical savings accounts programs were expanded so that all Americans could take advantage of them.

As for the supply of medical-care providers (who might not necessarily be actual M.D.s) I think that these two influences would cause the supply to be increased.

Update: See also, "Understanding rhe Causes of Health care Inflation."

Comments on, read the comments policy first.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Don't get cocky redux

By Donald Sensing

In my open letter a month ago to the leadership of the Republican Party, "Advice to Republicans," I admonished them not to get cocky over the tea parties and town hall meetings going on to protest the policies of the Obama administration and Congress.

The fact is that the tea partiers and the townhall protesters are not turning out to support the Republican party. Most definitely, they are against the Democrat party or, since these protests occurred with full energy and numbers in heavily Democrat districts, an awful lot them are Democrats or voted that way last year.

No indeed, Michael Steele and company, you have not made legions of new converts. In fact, hardly any. Do not count me as one. George W. Bush killed my Republicanism, and that before the '04 election. Well before that year's election, I made it clear on my first blog (reposted here) that I could not endorse GWB for reelection.
Courtesy Instapundit, here is a video from Reason TV of interviews with the protest marchers in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12 that illustrates exactly what I was talking about.





Note that some of the interviewees describe themselves as former Republicans, and the sentiment expressed on the t-shirt of a man and his wife: the initials EMG, standing for "Everyone Must Go."

I still say that for next year's Congressional elections, we will see Democrat incumbents running against Obama as much as against their Republican opponents. But Republican incumbents won't be driving down Easy Street. They'll have to defend the indefensible record of their party before constituents who are becoming more hostile to incumbents of either party. There's plenty of time yet for the most popular election motto to become, "Throw the Bums Out," whoever the bums happen to be. It will be the best opportunity for challengers of either party than we've seen since 1994, probably longer.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

DC rally? What DC rally?

By Donald Sensing

Here is what happened in Washington, DC, yesterday, according to the UK Daily Mail:

Up to two million people marched to the U.S. Capitol today, carrying signs with slogans such as "Obamacare makes me sick" as they protested the president's health care plan and what they say is out-of-control spending.

The line of protesters spread across Pennsylvania Avenue for blocks, all the way to the capitol, according to the Washington Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
People were chanting "enough, enough" and "We the People." Others yelled "You lie, you lie!" and "Pelosi has to go," referring to California congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.
Okay, that's how a leading British media outlet reported it. What about American media? (Click on all images for larger view.)

Remember, this was a crowd of people from all over the country estimated at up to two million. (And as Chicago Boyz blog points out, "Two million people with jobs…".) That makes the demonstration yesterday one of the largest ever held in the capital, if not the largest. Even if the two million estimate is 100 percent off, it's still a million people, still ranking as one of the largest ever.

So getting up to two million people to show up in DC at the same time for the same purpose - no matter what that purpose might be - has got to be a story of foremost newsworthiness, right? Right?

Here is the front page of the web site DC's own hometown newspaper, The Washington Post's site this morning:


The Chicago Tribune:


CNN:


The New York Times:


Fox News, dreaded media leader of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy:


And here is CBS News:


And MSNBC:


ABC News:


March in DC? Nothing to see here, move along.

The voice crying in the wilderness: the conservative-leaning Washington Times:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Well, now we know: health care is not a right, it's a coerced requirement

By Donald Sensing

I asked in an earlier post whether, if health care was a human right, we would have the right not to exercise that right: "If health care is a right, will persons have a right not to receive it?"

In other words, knowing that today several million of the uninsured people could easily afford health-care insurance but decline to buy it, will they be allowed under Obamacare to decline it?

And the president answered that question explicitly tonight: No.

Now, even if we provide these affordable options, there may be those — particularly the young and healthy — who still want to take the risk and go without coverage. ... That's why under my plan, individuals will be required to carry basic health insurance — just as most states require you to carry auto insurance.
So health care has quickly morphed from being a human right to a coerced requirement. Now to be fair to the president, I have not heard him personally claim that health care is a human right, but plenty in his party have. They have a curious view of what constitutes a right - we have to buy insurance that they approve (self insurance will cease to exist) or be punished by fines.

However, no state in the union requires auto insurance remotely like you want to require health insurance. I have known literally hundreds of fully-employed adults who quite legally did not carry auto insurance. Why? They did not own an auto. The state's requirement to purchase auto insurance is conditional on the prior, free decision made by the individual to buy or lease a car.

Our big cities are full of people who live quite well for years without ever buying auto insurance. They hail cabs and use buses and subways and els, but no car and no car insurance. And the government does not care. Its their decision.

John Hinderaker at Power Line points out another point of departure:
Traditionally, it was liability insurance that drivers were required to carry, not to protect themselves, but to protect others from their possible negligence. It is only because of no-fault laws that most states now require drivers to carry insurance that includes first-party coverage. There are some similarities, but many differences, between automobile and health insurance.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

If health care is a human right, there are some questions

By Donald Sensing

For those who insist that health care is a human right, rather than a contracted service, here are some questions I think you should try to answer.

Before going to the list below, think about the question I posed yesterday about the Constitutionality of the health care bills in Congress.

1. "How much health care is a human right?" I put the question in quotes because it was first posed by Philip Niles, who continues,

Does one person have a right to $100,000 per year health care over society's right to use that money on other health care expenditures? What if it were $1,000,000 (which is not an unrealistic figure in the US)? Would you rather spend $1,000,000 on curing one person's otherwise terminal disease or on 100,000 people's flu shots? Collectively, we make such decisions, in other words we already practice rationing. While I can understand that the concept of a "human right" being price-dependent is unsettling, it is important that we become comfortable with rationing if we are to have a sustainable system. Yet every politician and their mother is avoiding the "R"-word.
Note that I have not avoided using the "R-word" at all, because rationing is just a another way of saying "allocating" or "distributing." Every economist knows that limited goods are will be distributed somehow. After all, the basic definition of economics is that of Briton Lionel Robbins: "Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses."

Because we tend to think that scarce means "rare," I prefer using "limited" in its stead. And anyone who thinks that heath care is somehow not limited is not connected with reality.

So, back to Niles' question: if health care is a right, is that right limited in the same way that our other rights are? We have a right to free speech but not under some circumstances, said the Supreme Court. We may want to remember Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous dictum, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.” Where, if anywhere in health care provision, is the another person's nose? How shall it be established and how enforced?

2. If health care is a right to receive, does that mean that doctors may be compelled to treat? Paul Howard writes in City Journal of "a 2006 survey finding that as many as half of all physicians have either stopped accepting new Medicaid patients or limited the number they’ll see because reimbursements are so low."

Should doctors be compelled by law to treat patients regardless of the rate of reimbursement? If receiving health care is a right, that is.

3. If health care is a right, does that mean that people have the right to every kind of medical care equally? Is there an equal right to dermatology as oncology medicine? And if so, should the government have:
  • the power to assign doctors to locations to practice?
  • the power to assign medical specialties to medical students rather than let them self-select?
  • the power to draft qualified college students into medical education and practice if there is a shortage of doctors?
4. Does someone have the right not to exercise a right? Example: we have a right to vote, but 40-50 percent of us don't in national elections. In some other democratic countries voting is mandatory by law, but not here. We have a right not to exercise our right to vote.

So - if health care is a right, will persons have a right not to receive it? Before you answer, consider this:
Health care reform, as currently envisioned by Democratic leaders, would be built on the foundation of an expanded and more intrusive IRS.

Under the various proposals now on the table, the IRS would become the main agency for determining who has an “acceptable” health insurance plan; for finding and punishing those who don’t have such a plan; for subsidizing individual health insurance costs through the issuance of a tax credits; and for enforcing the rules on those who attempt to opt out, abuse, or game the system. A substantial portion of H.R. 3200, the House health care bill, is devoted to amending the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 in order to give the IRS the authority to perform these new duties.

The Democrats’ plan would require all Americans to have “acceptable” insurance coverage (the legislation includes long and complex definitions of “acceptable”) and would designate the IRS as the agency charged with enforcing that requirement.

That means the personal tax information of millions of Americans would enter the system whether they want it to or not. “There’s a mandate to buy insurance,” says one Republican House aide. “You have to buy it. You have millions of people who can’t buy it without a subsidy, so they will have no choice but to accept the subsidy in order to buy insurance, and then the Health Choices Commissioner will have access to their tax records.”
Do you believe this is fair and just? If so, why? And make sure you explain how someone's rights are protected by restricting their individual freedom to choose their own course, reduction of personal privacy and greater exposure to government control.

What about Sen. Max Baucus's proposal to fine people $3,800 for failing to carry health insurance? Does that make health care a right or a compulsion? Can we truly be forced to exercise our rights and still be considered a free people?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Does morality trump legality?

By Donald Sensing

A simple question: "Where in the Constitution is Congress granted the authority to (fill in the blank)?"

The blank here is, "take money from one set of taxpayers and give it, as charity, to others."

I know many people, probably heavily over-represented among my colleagues in the clergy, who will answer about the moral imperative to care for the poor, to give aid to those in need, and so forth. Those points I do not dispute. What I do dispute is that the Bible presents this as the proper role of government as opposed to the divinely-directed duty of adherents to the covenants of the Jewish or Christian faith.

However, that's not the discussion I am really trying to start here. I doubt that my colleagues from the conservative to the liberal wings of our churches would dispute that Christians are commanded by the tenets of our covenant to love our neighbors as ourselves. (And I note that the Good Samaritan took matters into his own hands, with his own money, not pawning the battered, broken traveler off onto society at large or the government.)

My question is this: Do the limits of the US Constitution actually mean anything here? Where in the text does it grant the Congress the power to take from you and me and give it, as charity, to others?

This is not a question about Congress's power to tax. It is about its authority to use taxation for purposes not enumerated in the Constitution.

We already know Democrat Sen. Mark Warner's answer: the Constitution doesn't grant Congress the authority to pass the healthcare bill before it, but it doesn't matter because Congress has trampled on the Constitution so long that there's no reason to stop now.

I am confident that some persons would answer that the Constitution is a "living document." As best as I can determine, what that means in practice is that its text and enumeration of powers can be ignored in order for the Congress to do what it wants. Occasionally the federal courts, including SCOTUS, hold this tendency in check, but not very well or often. And at least as often, the courts themselves have taken the "living document" approach rather liberally.

My answer is that the Congress has no such authority granted it. If indeed the state of health care is so dire that public monies must be used to pay directly for medical care of some people (and eventually everyone), then let Congress introduce a proposed amendment to the Constitution so the people and states may grant that authority. That Congress has already been paying for such care for decades doesn't change the question or the principle at stake.

I might even support such an amendment provided there were appropriate checks and balances built into it. Neither the power granted to Congress nor its authority to tax for this or any other purpose can be unlimited.

Like it not, there is no authority in the Constitution giving Congress the power to spend public monies for charitable purposes, as President Grover Cleveland understood well. In vetoing a bill using public funds for drought relief in Texas, he wrote,

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should I think be steadfastly resisted to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the government the government should not support the people
This present-day town haller knows this also:



So the question again: Does the healthcare emergency (if such it really is) trump the limits of the Constitution? If so, does it mean that any situation Congress thinks is an emergency - say national security during wartime - also trumps the Constitution? If not, why not?

If we cleave to the Constitution and law to order the powers of our government, we will never achieve a perfectly just ordering of the goods of society. Rough justice, in Reinhold Niebuhr's phrase, will be the best we will ever do. But human freedom and flourishing will be protected as much as they can be, as long as the laws are just.

If we decide now to have a government of wants, not laws, the end will be anarchy and gross inequalities among classes of the people based on power and political influence. The poor's plight will not be relieved, just shifted to a new set of "outs." Cronyism and demagoguery will become the routine ordering of political life after immutable principles are discarded.

Treating the Constitution as pliable rather than directive brings our legal system into its own Alice in Wonderland, where power, not justice, is the point:
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more or less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master--that's all.'
It is through the Constitution that the people of our country remain sovereign. If we permit Congress to divorce its lawmaking from Constitutional limitations, we the people will no longer be sovereign. We will be subjects.

Shall we have a government of laws or of passions of the day? That is the real question before us.

Update: As for whether the administration or Congress think that reforming health care is an emergency, the answer is self-evidently, "no," since, as Thomas Sowell reminds us, the bill, if passed, will not even take effect until 2013.

Monday, September 7, 2009

"Punching back twice as hard"

By Donald Sensing

Remember when top White House aides told Democrat senators that in the battle over the health care bill, "“If you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard"?

The day has come, but from an unexpected quarter and an unforeseen target: from No. 10 Downing Street, London, directed at the president himself and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The UK's MailOnline reports, "No.10 turns on Obama and Clinton for criticising decision to release Lockerbie bomber."

Downing Street has hit back at Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for attacking the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber.

President Obama and the US Secretary of State fuelled a fierce American backlash against Britain, claiming Abdelbaset Al Megrahi should have been forced to serve out his jail sentence in Scotland – but a senior Whitehall aide said their reaction was ‘disingenuous’.

British officials claim Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton were kept informed at all stages of discussions concerning Megrahi’s return.

‘The US was kept fully in touch about everything that was going on with regard to Britain’s discussions with Libya in recent years and about Megrahi,’ said the Whitehall aide.

‘We would never do anything about Lockerbie without discussing it with the US. It is disingenuous of them to act as though Megrahi’s return was out of the blue.

'They knew about our prisoner transfer agreement with Libya and they knew that the Scots were considering Megrahi’s case.’
Of course, this might be Prime Minister Gordon Brown CYA-ing, too. He has deservedly come under fierce fire for Megrahi's release. Though I've little doubt that Brown is trying to run for cover, or at least get President Obama to wear part of the blame bullseye, it is hard to believe that Gordon's government would not have at least tried to bring the White House aboard on the release. Did the president and the SecState signal acquiescence, perhaps by omission rather than policy? We'll probably never know.

Text of Obama's school speech is released

By Donald Sensing

The as-prepared version of President Obama's talk to the nation's schoolkids has been released by the White House. ABC News has it here.

Compare to the text of the TV talk that President George H.W. Bush gave the country's schoolkids in 1991. That transcript is here.

What strikes me is how similar they are: stay in school study hard, do your homework and prevail against difficulties and obstacles. That's pretty much it. I would say that Obama's talk emphasizes a lot more how tough kids have it these days, and how much is working against them outside the classroom. Bush talked about that too, but his emphasis was different. Obama's speech sympathizes with tough personal circumstances. Bush's exhorts overcoming bad influences. But the basic tone is very similar.

However,  fault both presidents for encouraging education for mere extrinsic reasons: get a better job, contribute to society, etc. That's all well and good, but what about the intrinsic rewards of learning? Not mentioned.

Update: Conor Friedersdorf at The Daily Beast says that presidents, regardless of party, need to stay out of the classroom lest they become too popish: "I object to the automatic elevation of presidents generally to the role of 'trusted moral leader.'"

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The raw images of war

By Donald Sensing

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has fired a blistering letter to Tom Curley, president and chief executive of the Associated Press, for publishing a photo of a dying Marine on an Afghan battlefield. The Marine, who died of his wounds, was Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard,21. He was struck by an RPG last month near Dahaneh.

The UK's Daily Mail's web page shows the photo in full. I shall not present it here. Instead, here is Lance Cpl. Bernard doing his duty about an hour before he was killed.


What makes the photo in question so shocking is that Bernard's lethal wounds are bloodily evident and the stricken warrior's face is clearly visible.

The AP has admitted that it published the photo over the objections of the family, with whom the AP checked beforehand.
Before sending the package to its newspaper clients, AP sent a reporter to Maine to talk with the victim's family 'out of respect', said Michael Oreskes, AP's senior managing editor.

But the father, John, a former Marine, asked the newswire not to publish the picture, saying it would only hurt the family more.

In an advisory to clients, AP said its articles and photographs 'offered vivid insights' into how the battle was fought, and into Bernard's character and background.
With little or no government control (that is, censorship) of war-zone reporting, I am surprised it took this many years for such a photo to appear. Or maybe we might ponder that a photo of battlefield dead might have appeared long before now if the Defense Dept. had instituted some sort of censorship program.

During World War 2, censorship was imposed, though compliance was technically voluntary. American combat began on Dec. 7, 1941, but the first photo of American battlefield dead did not appear until September 1943. It was a Life Magazine photo of three American soldiers lying dead on the beach of Buna.


This photo shocked America. Iconic Photos blog explains,
The above photo, therefore, was unusual: it was the first time an image of dead American troops appeared in media during World War II without their bodies being draped, in coffins, or otherwise covered up. ...

Taken by George Strock in February 1943, it was not published until [Life's] September 20th 1943 issue. In that September, this photo and other equally gruesome and graphic pictures of WWII were finally OK’d by the Office of War Information’s censors, in part because President Roosevelt feared that the American public might be growing complacent about the war and its horrific toll. Even than, in the picture, the Americans’ faces were not shown–a practice continued until Korean War to preserve soldiers’ privacy in death.

At the time of the publication, these pictures shocked many readers. The Washington Post argued that the pictures “can help us to understand something of what has been sacrificed for the victories we have won.” Images of dead soldiers appeared regularly after that. Efforts were made to crop the photos or obscure the victims’ faces, name tags and unit insignia. The caption to Strock’s photo, “Three dead Americans lie on the beach at Buna,” told Life’s readers that they did not need to know the names of the dead in order to appreciate what they had done.
After that day, images of the war approved for publication or newsreel use became steadily more graphic. Photos and film of dead enemy were even more graphic. By the Vietnam War censorship was a dead letter and the film and photos brought to American living rooms played a major part in forming popular opinion about the war.

During 1991's Gulf War, this photo of a dead American soldier, wrapped in a body bag, and his wounded buddies rocked the country.


Again, the dead soldier is unidentifiable, but the obvious anguish of one buddy and the sightlessness of the other exposes the dark side of war like few photos ever have. My recollection is that this photo was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography.

Back to the photo of Marine Bernard. I credit the AP with decency for sending someone to discuss its release with the family. My own Marine son returned safe from Iraq in 2006 but had circumstances turned out differently, I know a photo like this would have been agonizing for us.

But this has been a septic war. The very real suffering of the troops deserves to be displayed and explained (but not, I think, this nakedly). Yet if the AP wishes to show its readers the anguish of war, being "fair and balanced" would lead it to present the heroism and profoundly stirring sacrificial spirit among our men and women in uniform. As is, this photo sadly continues the media's tradition of presenting our troops as victims.

Lance Cpl Joshua Bernard fell in battle, but he was not a victim. He determined at the hazard of his life to be honorable in his young adulthood, to make sure of his duty, and to leave everything else for later, though later ever came. He gave over to hope his chance of lifelong happiness and the uncertainty of final success, and in mortal danger he relied only upon himself, his buddies and the Corps itself. He chose to risk death young as a free man rather than live long as one conquered. And when fearful lethality loomed he resolved to resist and suffer, rather than flee to save his life; he ran away not from danger but from dishonor. On the battlefield he stood steadfast, and in an instant, at the height of his resolve, he passed away from this life but not from our lives or the destinies of generations yet to come.

Such was the end of this man's life. We need not desire a more heroic spirit than his, although we do pray that others and their families suffer no such fate. The value of his spirit is poorly expressed in words. Anyone can speak to you about the advantages of such devotion, but you know about that already. Instead I hope that we can fix our eyes upon the greatness of our country and of Joshua Bernard's love of it and reflect that this country was established and has been preserved by men and women who knew their duty and determined to do it even at cost of life. We should make them our examples. Their courage is our freedom and our freedom is our happiness.

There are numberless chances to which lives of men and women are subjected: none of us is promised even to see our own homes tomorrow or ever. This Marine's service ended in his honorable death and his family's honorable sorrow. But his deaths was not tragic, for tragedy is found in futility and selfishness, never by selfless service for freedom's sake. In gratitude we should offer him praise which does not grow old, and acknowledge he occupies the noblest of all tombs. I speak not of that in which his remains are laid, but of that in which his glory survives and is proclaimed whenever people protect their freedom or are liberated from tyranny. For the whole world is the memorial of this American; he signed the earth itself with his blood and honor.

The prophet Micah wrote that the time will come when God will judge between all the peoples and will settle disputes between strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. All people will be at peace, and no one will make them afraid (Micah 4:3-4).

Let us pray that day comes quickly. Until then may the Lord watch over those who serve today, to make them instruments of justice, enablers of peace, and finally to see them safely home. To our Gold Star families, may God bless you and keep you and comfort you, from this day until the ending of the world.

They will not grow old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them nor the year condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them. 
From, "For the Fallen," Laurence Binyon, 1914


Endnote: the closing tribute to Lance Cpl. Bernard is adapted from my address to Gold Star families of September 2005.

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