Category Archives: Politics and government

The Taxman Cometh

Great Horned Owl taken 12-8 on Angela's garageThe calm of a waiting predator, watching.

Great Horned Owl taken 12-8 on Angela’s garage
The calm of a waiting predator, watching.


I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins.

I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof.

Psalm 102: 6,7

“When you’re 50 you start thinking about things you haven’t thought about before.”  Eugene O’Neill

Still in our early twenties, we withheld some of our Federal income taxes for 1969, the year we lived in Boulder, to express our displeasure at the conduct of the war in Vietnam.  Woefully naïve on several counts, I wrote a note with our tax return clearing up in excruciating detail why we were doing so.  Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were dead, and the world seemed bleak. Returning to Massachusetts with our infant daughter, we were living temporarily with my parents waiting for a cheap winter rental to open up on Mashnee Island off Cape Cod.

How they found us remains a mystery, but as I was coming home from work one evening driving my hand painted 1956, flathead six Chevy pickup truck, two tired looking gray men in rumpled suits pulled into my father’s driveway driving a dirty gray Ford Crown Vic.  Apparently, they had been waiting for me.  The younger of the two had a black band fedora; the older one had a close cropped fringe of salt and pepper hair with nothing on top.  I had a lot of hair and jeans stained from climbing trees.

The older one in charge, whose name has long receded, gave me his card and explained that they had no issue with our political views, which were our prerogative to hold, nor did they care to debate – very clear there would be no debate.  However, they had come to collect the taxes due plus penalties and interest.  It wasn’t a lot of money, but taxes were taxes after all and not an option.  He rattled off his bullet points unapologetically by rote without a smile or a threat or an alternative.  First they would attach and drain, if necessary, our checking and savings accounts.  If we had no such accounts, they would garnish my wages.  If I lacked a job, they would lien our house.  If we had no house, they would take our truck.  He looked over at the Chevy pointedly.  Which would I prefer?

 And so it goes.

Raushenberg's "Canyon"

Raushenberg’s “Canyon”

A story in this week’s WSJ reminded me of this incident for some reason.  Lifelong art dealer, Ileana Sonnabend, died in 2007 leaving her considerable collection to her heirs, Nina Sundell and Antonio Homem.  The heirs were forced to sell about $600 million dollars worth of their heritage to pay the $471 million in death taxes due on them.  ($600 million was more than was due, but of course, taxes were owed on the proceeds from selling them – capital gains taxes on the death taxes.)  Of course, there was a catch with one of the pieces: Robert Rauschenberg’s “Canyon”, created in 1959 and appraised at $15 million by the IRS.

The collage legally couldn’t be sold because it contained a stuffed bald eagle; selling it would violate the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty.  That Rauschenberg before his death filed a notarized letter in 1988, stating that the eagle had been killed and stuffed by one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders long before the 1940 law was in effect, made no difference.  The art work could not be sold; the auction house said it was worth nothing as a sale item.  The family filed an affidavit claiming that due to the inability to sell it, there was no value, and therefore no taxes were due on the inheritance for it.  Aha, responded the IRS, since there was a “gross understatement” of its value by the owners, the IRS value had now been upped to $65 million, so the tax bill was $29.2 million plus $11.7 million in penalties for understating its value.   Plus interest.

After five years of expensive legal wrangling, the painting, which had been on permanent loan for display by the owner at the Metropolitan Museum, was donated to the Museum of Modern Art, also in New York.  The painting had been exempt from Wildlife Service penalties as long as it was on loan to the museum, so now it passed with the same waiver to the MOMA.

And so it goes.

The hang up on avoiding the fiscal cliff is the tax rate on the top 3% of earners, not the tax dollars paid, but the tax rate.  While President Obama has proven to be a poor to middling CEO in his role at governance, he is a near genius at politicking, perhaps learned through political infighting during his bureaucratic years as a community organizer.  The tax rate increase he has drawn as a line in the sand has little to do with revenue – the dollars that would be collected are a little spot of yellow in a great snow drift.  The tax rate increase has everything to do with driving a wedge and causing as much consternation as possible amongst his political enemies.

Bear with just a few numbers.  In 1958, the top 3% of earners paid marginal rates as high as 91%, a progressive erotic dream, but almost no one paid those rates because of the pages of loopholes and deductions available.  The total income of the top earners was 14.7% of all income earned, and they paid 29.2% of all federal income taxes.  Many of the loopholes have been closed or capped already, and in 2010 the elite 3% earned 27.2% of all income; their percent of all taxes paid rose to 51%.  Middle and lower income earners (the bottom two thirds) earned 41.3% of all income and paid 29% of all taxes in 1958.  In 2010, their share of earned income had fallen to 22.5%, but their share of taxes paid plummeted to 6.7% of all taxes.

So, indeed, the rich have gotten richer, and their relative tax burden reflects that proportionately, but almost 50% of the rest of us pay no federal income taxes whatsoever.   The compulsion of the progressive liberal is not about “fairness”, it is about redistribution, punitive measures against the successful and ideology.  But even more so, it is about casting chaos into the opposition and twisting the knife.

And so it goes.

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered.  “They’re trying to kill everyone.”

“And what difference does that make?”


“That’s some catch, that catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Catch 22, Joseph Heller


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Sing, But Keep Going

winston-churchillA story is told about Winston Churchill that may or may not be apocryphal, however the significance for us is timeless.  After the war was over and Sir Winston unceremoniously voted out when his indomitable gift of leadership and candor became politically inconvenient, he was invited to speak at a gathering at Cambridge University.  He sat through the formal dinner with his bulldog visage unreadable, silently contemplating the tribute that dominated one wall, memorializing the long list of Cambridge alumni and students who laid down their lives to protect their country from being brutally incorporated into the Third Reich.  The dean finally concluded his endless extravagant introduction lauding Churchill, and how his soaring rhetoric saved the British Isles.  An expectant hush settled on the listeners, awaiting inspirational brilliance.  Sir Winston stood wearily and looked out over hundreds of fresh young faces, survivors whose brethren would never return.  Glancing once again over to the wall, he spoke, “Never give up, never give up, never give up.”  Churchill settled back into his chair.

The usually laconic, if not truly morose, Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, burst out laughing when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner proffered the Obama administration’s “compromise” solution to avoid jumping over the “fiscal cliff” on January first.  Without a scrap of compromise or one inkling to slow down spending, its raison d’etre was taxes, taxes and then, again, more taxes, and even those barely cover a couple of weeks of Federal expenditure. Not a serious proposal, only more political posturing and dialectic of class struggle. To add to the comic relief, the proposal suggested that Congress should abdicate its responsibility to approve debt ceiling increases.  “Leave it to us and avoid the unseemly bickering,” suggested the Executive Branch.  Perhaps that is the rub that incited McConnell’s rarely seen mirth.

The administration kicked off the reign of the 44th president with an unprecedented level of unstimulating stimulus spending at the staggering level of $800 billion larded on in 2009.  The unprecedented soon became business as usual with spending levels sticking at the newly established benchmark, resulting in undreamed of deficits, over $1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion) a year.  This deficit and the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling resulted in the beggar’s choice deal that dug the chasm looming ahead and deemed by a gleeful media as a “fiscal cliff”.  $16 trillion in debt (and counting), and the compromise solution only addressed asking more from the taxpayers with the rhetoric about fairness and redistribution.  Not a syllable about specific proposals to curtail diarrhea profligacy.

One provision, raising the estate taxes on the “wealthy” from 35% to 55%, would result in the breakup of long held family ranches and farms.  Ranches and farms are by definition illiquid, with their “wealth” consisting of hundreds or even thousands of acres of agricultural land – land owned for generations.  Every nickel of the income derived from these businesses and the income of their owners has already been taxed, every acre taxed each year with property taxes.  Yet when the principle owner lacks the good sense to stay alive, the heirs are subject to the “death tax”.  Their only option is either taking on insupportable debt or selling off some land to pay the taxman.  Estate taxes are deeply rooted in progressive egalitarianism and antipathy to any attempt to pass along the hard earned net worth of the successful to their heirs.  Not just the oft cited Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian excesses, but privately held farms, ranches and businesses are to be crushed with burdensome taxes at the passing of the owner.

Perhaps the least understood and therefore mostly avoided debt discussion is not the fiscal deficit that shows on the Federal balance sheet.  The debt that is held “off the books” is far worse.  Like Enron, which sealed its own ruin by concocting sophisticated accounting to hide liabilities, the Federal debt that isn’t declared on the balance sheet is shocking to comprehend.  Think icebergs.

The promises made to those who have paid into the system their whole working lives are not stipulated in Federal deficit reports.  The mostly unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare and federal employees’ future retirement benefits already are over $86.8 trillion, 550% of Gross DP.  Much has been made of our stated deficit of $16 trillion crossing the line of 100% of GDP. Quick addition of both the stated and unstated deficits is $102 trillion or about $310,000 for every man, woman, child and transgendered person in the country.  You only thought you had worked all your life to pay off your mortgage and credit cards.  Think again.

Secretary Geithner stated unequivocally that Social Security is not on the table in any debt discussion under any circumstances.  Why?  My cousin, David, is an unrepentant Connecticut/Manhattan progressive, yet somehow remains very intelligent and a good guy.  I have full confidence that he and I could sit down with a halfway competent accountant and come to an agreement to fix Social Security funding for the foreseeable future over a couple of beers.  Eliminate the cap (satisfies taxing the rich), stop the ridiculous pandering of cutting the Social Security contributions of all of us employees, gradually continue to raise the retirement age to reflect the increased longevity of our citizens, and we’re just about done.  How about another beer?  Why can’t our elected officials do the same?

 Nearly 49% of the voting population chose Door “B” to common sense and responsibility.  We lost, but cannot surrender.  Never give up, never give up, and never give up.  For the sustainability of this noble Great Experiment of ours.  To remain true to our ideals and consciences.  For our children and grandchildren.  Sing, but keep going.

“Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety….So, then, brothers (and sisters), let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors.  You should sing as wayfarers do – sing but continue your journey… Sing, but keep going.”  St. Augustine

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A chess match ends as a win, a loss or a draw.  A draw can be agreed to by the persons playing the white and black pieces.  Certain situations are deemed a stalemate, which is a draw by definition.  No one wins.  The rules defining a stalemate have application to real life.  If one player on either side is not in checkmate, but has no legal moves, the game is a stalemate and drawn.  If both players have moved fifty times without a pawn moving or a capture being made, that’s a stalemate.  If a position has been repeated three times with every piece on the exact same square for both sides, that’s a stalemate and drawn.  It matters not if the positions are repeated sequentially, so long as they are reproduced exactly.   Only the side in the weaker position poised for a loss would declare the repeated position and draw.

“If a tie is like kissing your sister, losing is like kissing your grandmother with her teeth out.”  George Brett

At the end of drawn out, bitterly contested campaigns, we find ourselves shell-shocked weary with virtually no change in the balance of power in Washington.  Hundreds of thousands of words have been and will be written about changing demographics, debate performances, issues false and true, ground games and early media blitz bets placed in swing states.  The essential question, however, is where do we go from here?  Can the Republicans tweak their base and make inroads into the new demographic coalitions of Latinos, single women, citizens of Asian origin and other minorities?  Have we reached a “tipping point” such that those relying on government and “in the wagon” outnumber those contributing to tax revenues and “pulling the wagon”?

“When the people find they can vote themselves money–that will herald the end of the republic.”  Ben Franklin

Can we avoid repeating our exact position or making fifty moves with no progress to break the potential of stalemate?  Will common sense prevail over ideology and a compromise be crafted to avoid the “fiscal cliff” of large across the board tax increases and devastating cuts to our defense that the Congressional Budget Office tells us will script us directly into over 9% unemployment and a new recession?  Other than a textbook definition, did we ever truly climb out of the last one with the prolonged anemic “recovery”?  Will the now assured full implementation of Obamacare with its assured tax increases and enormous expenditures make cutting our deficit structurally impossible over the next decade and trip us into a recession anyway?  What the hell was David Petraeus thinking?  So many questions to answer, we can be easily overwhelmed.

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”  Attributed, but not fully documented, to the late former minority leader, Senator Everett Dirksen

There is some certainty in the real numbers, however, and they are worth understanding as we discuss everything else.  Let them speak for themselves.  The deficit that deeply troubles so many of us and will beggar the future of our children can be grasped quite easily with a minimum of sophisticated fiscal knowledge by using this table from a Wall Street Journal article:

U.S. Deficit Growth (from US Treasury Dept and CBO records)
Total federal revenue, outlays and deficits,
fiscal years 2007-2012, in billions of dollars.
Year           2007        2008        2009        2010        2011        2012
Revenue  $        2,568  $    2,524  $    2,105  $    2,163  $    2,302  $    2,449
Spending  $        2,729  $    2,983  $    3,518  $    3,456  $    3,599  $    3,538
Deficit          ($161)       ($459)    ($1,413)   ($1,293)    ($1,297)    ($1,089)
% of GDP           -1.2%        -3.2%      -10.1%      -9.0%       -8.7%        -7.0%

Let these numbers roll around the back of your head for just a little while.  As revenues dropped (and are now just starting to recover), spending exploded and set a new benchmark frozen at an unprecedented level. No serious attempt has been made to curtail the profligacy of Washington as they buy our votes and the campaign contributions of special interests. Our deficit in the Obama years as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (the sum of our total economic activity as a nation) has never been less than double the worst year of the Bush administration, which was fighting the same two wars.  And the actual dollars of deficit have never been less than double the worst of the Bush years.

The Republican caucus insists on paring back the out of control spending; President Obama’s supporters such as those in the public unions and insist on reducing the deficit by raising taxes.  His proposal in last year’s debt ceiling negotiations was to raise them by about $82 billion a year, which is still only 7% of last year’s deficit.  This week he has upped the ante to double that with no mention of trying to reduce spending.  Stalemate.  Many believe he would be content to let the economy go over the fiscal cliff and blame the Republicans for the new recession while satisfying his left base which demands higher tax rates and very few cuts.  Next year he could negotiate from the now higher rates.  Stalemate, and playing political brinksmanship with our fragile economy.

Unsustainable is a clichéd buzz word, but sometimes clichés are the best we can do.


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The Scribes and The Pharisees

Just behind sex, food, shelter and clothing in the hierarchy of human drives is the pharisaical impulse – that most ardent desire to write down and impose the minutiae of stultifying rules and regulations upon the spirits of our fellows.  Jesus put it this way: They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matt 23:4) John the Baptist was more succinct: “You brood of vipers!” (Luke 3:7)

We have advanced exponentially in the technological competence to distribute and enforce these regulations, but not a whit, it seems, in controlling the inclination.  In the twentieth and twenty first centuries, the prime movers of regulation are the progressives or liberal political parties (or tyrannies), most especially exemplified currently in the United States by the Obama administration.

Just a couple of examples from the most prolific regulations generators in American history:

  • In 2010, the administration headed the charge to fulfill Rahm Emanuel’s admonition (former White House chief of staff, now Mayor of Chicago) to never let a serious crisis go to waste by signing into law the Dodd Frank financial reform bill.  When any bill is passed, it then falls to the bureaucrats to promulgate the regulations defining how it will be enforced.  And propagate the new bureaucrats necessary to enforce it.  Propagating bureaucrats is something at which progressive government is particularly talented.  Consisting of 2,319 pages, Dodd Frank has generated over 8,000 pages of new Federal Register regulations.  And counting.
  • The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was worse yet, imposing over twenty new taxes, over 2,700 pages in length, it has generated to date almost 12,000 pages of new regulations.   Eighteen pages of these went just to define the term, “full time employee”.  No kidding.  Any reasonable person could have defined the term in a well constructed sentence.  11, 327 pages in July so far.  And counting.

The far from conservative and long esteemed magazine, “The Economist” wrote this about Dodd Frank: “(the bill) will smother financial institutions in so much red tape that innovation is stifled and America’s economy suffers.”  Given the tepid recovery, barely above horizontal since the recession ended in early 2009 – the slowest post war recession recovery –and the record breaking low velocity of money turn over, “The Economist” was prescient, albeit with an obvious prediction.  Banks are sitting on enormous reserves of cash that are not being put to use.

 Financial institutions are struggling to understand and implement the 8,000 pages of Dodd Frank, and are increasingly timid to put their cash back into growing the economy.  Businesses, also concerned with compliance and future tax implications, are reluctant to borrow the money necessary to grow and hire new employees.  Fear and the fearful levels of work necessary to comply are two sea anchors that an economy just beginning to see the wind pick up from the doldrums doesn’t need.  Experts approximate that the 8,000 pages so far are about 30% of what will ultimately be imposed.    The House Committee on Financial Services calculates that the law will take private companies 24 million labor hours a year and require that businesses hire 26,477 employees to comply.  In that sense, it is, I suppose, a jobs bill.  Of course, not one of those 26,477 expensive employees will contribute an iota to growing the business or the profits necessary to hire more people.  Au contraire.

What does this new bureaucracy look like, and how much does it cost the already overburdened taxpayer?  One section (there’s a lot of sections in 2,300 pages) of Dodd Frank was the original brainchild of Elizabeth Warren (Harvard professor and Senate candidate running against Scott Brown in Massachusetts). Dodd Frank established a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (bureau being first two syllables of ‘bureaucrat’).  Sounds lofty and helpful, doesn’t it?  The CFPB has a budget of over $447 million for fiscal year 2013, ladles on 958 new federal employees, 60 % of whom make over $100,000 in salary, and has authority to draw up to $550 million directly from the Federal Reserve with no Congressional oversight and just a one page letter to the Fed describing why it needs the money.  Five percent of the employees make over $200,000, which is more than a sitting cabinet member.  The “administrative assistant” (secretary) of the director, Richard Corday, makes $165,139. They spent $40 million (40% of it borrowed in the deficit) on office renovations.

In contrast to those exalted salaries, the median American taxpayer makes $50,054, an amount that has decreased against inflation every year of the Obama administration, including 4% last year.  So far, we have seen the CFPB produce such gems as Consumer Alerts (such as the mandatory small print in things like credit card terms and conditions) published in 187 languages at taxpayer expense, including Somali and Tamil – spoken predominantly in northeast Sri Lanka.  How many of us have read the terms and conditions in the existing credit card statements?  The Tower of Babel had nothing on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The Labour Party government in post WWII Great Britain left in place many of the wartime restrictions and regulations; this is typical of the progressive Pharisee: once in place, regulations tend to grow brothers and not ride off into the sunset.  A report was commissioned in the fifties to investigate the benefits of closely managing the youth.  Here are some excerpts: Special agencies, called Citizen’s Advice Bureaus, are set up to steer the bewildered through the forest of rules, and to indicate to the persistent the rare clearings where a private person may still make a choice…(the ordinary citizen) spends great stretches of his waking hours going through motions that have been predetermined for him by directives in whose framing he has had no part, whose precise intention he seldom understands, and of whose appropriateness he cannot judge.  (They are) so acclimatized to that state that they seldom plan and carry out under their own steam any new….enterprise.  He thus looks forward to no future period at which a sinewy faculty of responsibility is likely to be of service to himself or others.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to work for a micromanager experienced the slow sapping of creativity, energy, commitment and joy that results.

At his inauguration, President Obama promised “hope and change” and to “fundamentally change” America.  Many did not understand the degree to which he wanted to change us, nor exactly how he would go about it.  This time during the election process, we do.

(Powerful central government) covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd.  The will of man is not shattered but softened, bent and guided… Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrial animals, of which government is the shepherd. “Democracy in America” Alexis de Tocqueville.

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Hercules and the Giant

520 BC – Hercules slays the giant, Alcyoneus

 Hercules Industries drew first blood against an overwhelming giant this week when Colorado District Federal Judge John Kane granted a preliminary injunction against the imposition of the Obamacare mandate which requires private companies to provide insurance at no cost to their employees that will supply embryocidal chemicals, contraceptives and sterilization procedures.

 Hercules manufactures and distributes HVAC (Heating-Ventilation-Air Conditioning) products to contractors throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and parts of Wyoming and Utah.  The company was founded in 1962 by William Newland, and he and his family still run it, employing over 265 full time workers.  As a privately held company, the Newland family holds deeply held convictions, born of their Catholic faith, that inform and provide a moral structure for their business. Mission statements are seemingly de rigueur in current business practice; most are trite and laden with regurgitated buzz words.  Hercules appends an unusual emphasis, “We will nurture and maintain the culture of a family owned business in which our employees grow financially, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.”

“Profit is a regulator of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral factors must also be considered, which in the long term are at least equally important for the life of a business.”  Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II

The Newlands, as did many Catholic hospitals and universities, filed suit against Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.  This scary group is defended by Eric Holder’s Department of Justice.  The Greek mythical warrior, Hercules, hardly faced more formidable odds.  Declaring that the mandate violates not only their consciences, but their religious beliefs and First Amendment rights, Hercules went to battle and won the first skirmish.

 The DOJ response to the motion for injunction ran for 76 pages, but it came down to this: Plaintiff’s challenge rests largely on the theory that a for-profit, secular corporation .. can claim to exercise a religion and thereby avoid the reach of laws designed to regulate commercial activity. Matt Bowman, attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, who helped represent the family, said, “The bottom line is that Congress and the Constitution explicitly protect all religious freedom.  They don’t exclude family businesses.”  Judge Kane (appointed by Jimmy Carter) found that the Department of Justice arguments “are countered, and indeed outweighed, by the public interest in the free exercise of religion.”

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
John Adams

Irrespective of whether the full Colorado District Federal Court upholds or strikes down Judge Kane’s ruling, either Hercules or Holder will appeal, and the Roberts Court will decide ultimately once again.  Since the rough shod ride over the First Amendment is undeniable, perhaps the Roberts Court will find this abridgement of fundamental rights of conscience is somehow justified by the compelling interest of the State to pay for its citizens to kill their young or mutilate their bodies with sterilization, thus saving the bill once again.

What is not surprising in the bill is the relentless effort of Secular Progressives to not only prevail over the people of other faiths, but to silence in the Public Square the voices and actions of conscience by dissenters from the creed of Secular Progressivism.  The intent of Freedom of Religion enshrined in our Constitution is upheld by all Americans: that there will be no state sanctioned official church of any kind.  To insist that moral decisions, conduct of personal business (including commerce) and political choices should not be influenced by human consciences is merely silly.

“Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.”  George Washington

ObamaCare is a glimpse into the Progressive soul, which finds in the State not only the sole solution to complex human problems, but that dissent is heresy of the worst kind.  When President Obama slips into rare, unguarded candor with statements about private sector business like “you didn’t build it” or that the small business owner was not successful because they were “smarter or worked harder”, we see another glimpse into his soul – the Progressive’s deepest convictions. When he thinks about hard working middle class, faith filled Americans, he sees a people “clinging to their guns and Bibles.”  Really.  And when he thinks about those who have worked hard and become successful, his soul glimpse and driving impulse is to “spread the wealth around.”

A deluge of bewildering regulations from every Executive Agency from EPA to IRS to HHS to Labor is costing business billions to figure out,  a distressing reality that favors large businesses which can afford to hire staff to comply.  If this administration cannot convince the American people to change a law which doesn’t fit the President’s agenda, they act by arrogant fiat and refuse to enforce them, thereby breaking their solemn oath to do so.  (e.g. Defense of Marriage Act, current immigration law, the Clinton welfare reform that required recipients to work, etc).  Our only relief from this usurpation is in November, just a hundred days away.

Among the twelve labors imposed on Hercules as punishment by the gods was to clean the Stables of King Augeas, who owned more sheep, horses and cattle than any other person in the world — to clean the Augean Stables in a day – an impossible task.  Hercules accomplished the impossible by hewing out large holes in either end of the Stables and rerouting the Alpheus and Peneus Rivers through the breaches, washing out years of horse pucks, sheep dip and bull excrement in a day.

If Hercules Industries can prevail over ObamaCare, may I suggest to these dauntless businessmen a trip to Washington?  The Potomac is a very big river……

“It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life….  Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately.  It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.”

“Democracy in America”, Alexis de Tocqueville


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Compromise and Ideology

Blind Lady Justice

Are there two less understood concepts in the lexicon?  “Ideology” derives from the “science of ideas” and “philosophy of the mind”.  “Compromise” derives from “a mutual promise”.  In our post modern usage, ideology is usually depicted as bad and compromise as good.  The current media blockbuster of the Supreme Court’s narrow 5 to 4 decision to uphold Obamacare is a case in point.  Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, a hybrid compromise of sorts allowed the ill advised, cumbersome law to stand.  At least temporarily.

Some conservatives took some consolation in the Court ruling definitively that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution could not justify Congress passing legislation that coerced  a private commerce transaction (i.e. purchasing health insurance).  This is a tinny and Pyrrhic small victory.  However, the Court decreed, Congress, under its constitutional powers, could tax those not buying insurance.  As Justice Antonin Scalia scathingly noted during the hearings on the bill, if a law citing the Commerce Clause could order a citizen to buy health insurance, what would prevent a law being passed under similar rationale to order us to buy broccoli?  Or, I suppose, to not buy sugary drinks, eight cylinder cars or microwave ovens.

Under this ruling, the Commerce Clause cannot be used to order us to not buy microwaves, but it could tax us into impecuniousness for doing it.  The Supreme Court put its imprimatur on all such future laws and widely exposed us to incursions through the tax code on any liberty inconvenient to a social agenda.  The Supreme Court rewrote what the legislature did by declaring the mandate a tax, which the legislators and the President explicitly denied that it was  on many occasions during its debate.  We haven’t seen such blatant judicial legislating and constitutional rework since Roe v Wade.  Charles Krauthammer called the Court’s tortured reasoning a “great finesse”.

This convoluted compromise performed a Heimlich maneuver on bloated legislation, but it left proponents with all the unresolved problems of the bill.  Obamacare now has been deemed by the highest court in the land as the biggest tax increase in our lifetimes, again something the President promised over and over he would not do to anyone making under $250,000.  Obamacare, even with the huge tax increase, will still add to our deficit a staggering one trillion dollars over its first ten years.  Obamacare will add millions to the lists of the insured through its provisions, and according to an exhaustive Price Waterhouse study, raise insurance premiums for the average family by 40%.  Since it will be far cheaper for the young and healthy to pay the tax than to buy insurance, and because they now can sign up for insurance at any time irrespective of their health and previous conditions, what will prevent them from waiting to buy it until insurance is a desperate and expensive necessity?  Nothing.

The economic underpinning of the bill relies on the assumption that younger, healthy people will buy policies and support the expenses of the old and sick.  Of course, the solution would be to raise the penalty tax even higher, and the authors of the new bastardized system clearly love taxes.

Occasionally compromise is not possible without splitting the baby in two in some Solomonic solution.  How, for instance, is it possible to reconcile a fundamental divide on an idea such as “fairness”?  For many, fairness involves a person getting to keep, spend and reinvest the gains earned by their hard work, risk, intellect and talent.  When President Obama was asked by Charlie Gibson of ABC News in 2008, “If you knew – not believed, but knew — that lowering the capital gains tax rate would raise more (tax) revenue (through increased economic activity), would you still favor raising them?”  Obama answered that he would because of “fairness”.  OK, then.  Explain, please, how a “moderate independent” would find a principled compromise for this gap in the very understanding of the concept of fairness.  Or abortion (a baby is a baby only some of the time)?  Or racist policies such as ‘affirmative action’ (it’s ok to discriminate in favor of some minorities, but not in favor of others)?

A compromise trying to gap that deep a divide of standards is like both camps starting from either side of a ten mile ravine to build a bridge.  Each builds five miles and stops, waiting for the other.  The complication is that they started fifty miles apart on their side of the abyss.  Both get to the end of their side of the bridge with nowhere to go and no plan to complete the span. (Thanks to Jonah Goldberg’s new book, “The Tyranny of Cliché’s” for the metaphor.)

If compromise is not always good, how about ideology?  Ideology is often depicted as akin to some unidentified sticky substance under our shoes in a discount movie theater.  Originally the word connoted a worldview: a set of learned suppositions and principles based on experience and observation that informs our decisions and understanding.  Edmund Burke, the Irish born long serving British House of Commons member, is remembered as a strong supporter of the American Revolution and passionate opponent of the French version.  He decried the blood-spattered extremes of Jacobin ideology and was the intellectual father of modern conservatism.  Burke perceived all “ideology” as the province of Utopian madness determined to create a man made Heaven on earth, sort of a political religion based on the fallacy of the perfectibility of man.  Not really dissimilar to how many conservatives view leftish ideology even today.
A radical ideology renders a left leaning partisan obviously incapable of holding a reasonable idea not based on totalitarian impulse.

More recently, it is the left that decries the ideology of conservatives as bigoted, if not actually racist, small minded and reactionary – certainly not “progressive” or “pragmatic”, which is a code word for utilitarian ethics.   A benighted ideology renders a conservative obviously incapable of holding a reasonable idea not based on “clutching their guns and Bibles”.

Just as some ideas are bad and some are good, so similarly are ideologies.  Is it reasonable to conjure up ghosts of Himmler and Hitler when debating those who expound a worldview that favors smaller government, personal responsibility and fewer subsidies based on race?  (The dogmatic error that Nazism was other than a movement of the Left notwithstanding.)   Is it reasonable to allude to Lenin or Mao when debating those who insist that government should solve complex problems with higher taxes, deficit budgets and bureaucratic mandates?    Would it not be a step up for all to take a step back, articulate our ideas without invective and do the best we can in good faith to understand other American’s ideas with the assumption that the loyal opposition is just that?  Perhaps we can find no compromises without abrogating our principles, but we can treat each other with civility and respect.

“Every social order rests on an ideology.”  Friedrich Hayek


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The Fourth Greatest President in American History – Part 3

Barry and Genevieve, high school sweethearts

Barack Obama’s well written autobiographical, “Dreams From My Father” portrayed his youth as a series of permanently mind altering revelations at Occidental College, Columbia and Harvard that formed his belief system and character.  His high school career was commonplace.  He drank beer, smoked dope, dated and hung out with friends, mostly white.  In Hawaii with so many of mixed race, there was no stigma and he experienced rare, if any, discrimination.

At Occidental College and Columbia Barry Obama transformed to “Barack”, became radicalized, and it was a journey he avidly sought out – he found his mission; he found his role.  Adolescent insecurities were morphed or sublimated, as with us all.  The narcissism and hubris so evident today took root and blossomed.  In “Dreams” he described incidents and conversations that led to these epiphanies; the troubling element is that some of the characters in the book were composites or didn’t exist at all according to the newly released biography, “Barack Obama: The Story”.  David Maraniss, the author, is a Washington Post reporter and an Obama supporter, so one expects a positive perspective, which it presents for the most part.

In “Dreams”, Mr. Obama writes of how he reinvented himself.  In reality, he was “inventing himself inventing himself.”  Andrew Ferguson’s review of Maraniss’ “The Story” (“meticulously researched, well footnoted, carefully written”) wrote this, “What’s dispiriting is that throughout Dreams, the moments that Obama has invented are precisely the occasions of his epiphanies – precisely those periodic “aha!” moments that carry the book and bring its author closer to self-discovery.  Without them not much is left: a lot of lovely writing, some unoriginal social observations, a handful of precocious literary turns….  As Obama’s best biographer, David Remnick, observed, this wasn’t the stuff of Manchild in the Promised Land; you couldn’t use it to make … the Autobiography of Malcolm X.  So Obama used the drama inside himself, and said he’d found there an experience both singular and universal, and he brought along nonexistent friends like Regina and Ray to goose the story along. He did in effect what so many of us have done with him.  He created a fable about an Obama far bigger and more consequential than the unremarkable man at its center.”

From “Barack Obama: The Story”: The character creations and rearrangements of the book (“Dreams from My Father”) are not merely a matter of style, devises of compression, but are also substantive.  The themes of the book control character and chronology.  Time and again the narrative accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles in his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happened to be white.

 Oh yes, I’m the great pretender
Adrift in a world of my own..’
  “The Great Pretender” (The Platters)

It appears President Obama may persist in his self absorbed attempts to reinvent himself as he would prefer to be. Or his publicity flacks, campaign staff and even his national security advisors are doing it for him.  Peggy Noonan’s editorial in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal asks the question, “Who Benefits From the ‘Avalanche of Leaks’?”   In the article, she writes about David Sanger’s new book, “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power”, as well as the sensational New York Times articles that expose sensitive and ongoing American covert intelligence operations, putting our own operatives and those of our allies at great risk.   Who benefited from these revelations was a president perceived as “weak, a one man apology tour whose foreign policy is unclear, unsure, and lacking in strategic depth”.   President Obama would rather reinvent a warrior and a “do over” from a walking, inept, act of contrition.  No lesser light from the Left than Senator Dianne Feinstein, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called these an “avalanche of leaks” and said that her “heart stopped” reading the stories:

  • A Pakistani physician, Dr. Shakil Afridi, who assisted the CIA by taking DNA samples trying to locate Osama Bin Laden’s lair was exposed by the stories, arrested within days by Pakistan agents, tortured and convicted of spying for America.  He was sentenced to 33 years in prison.
  • A sophisticated infusion of trackable video cameras was inserted into Pakistan to enable satellites to identify and find terrorist leaders hiding there.
  •  The double agent in Yemen planted deep in Al Qaeda who provided key information about the new, more deadly, airline destroying underwear explosives.
  •  The joint Israeli American covert Stuxnet virus, a cyber attack, which disrupted the operation of Iranian centrifuges – a cyber attack that could easily be construed as an act of war and used to justify all manner of retribution.
  • And others, most of which could only have come from the recesses of the White House situation room.  Indeed, unnamed White House officials were quoted liberally in the stories.

Before he left the administration, former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, originally a holdover from the Bush White House, visited Obama national security advisor Tom Donilon’s office.  “I have a new strategic communications approach to recommend,” he said.  “What?” asked Mr. Donilon.  “Shut the f*%$ up!” replied Mr. Gates.

Two choices: either the President inexplicably declassified these ongoing operations, which put covert intelligence operatives in mortal danger, betrayed our allies and authorized their leaking to the press OR someone very close to him should be prosecuted for treason.

President Obama has shown himself to be defined by a self reinvented narrative to suit his ambitions.  He has proven to be a gifted campaigner and an inexperienced, ideologically hidebound, manipulative chief executive.  It is not a far stretch of the imagination to envision him as again up to what he’s best at.

There is something childish in it: Knowing secrets is cool, and telling them is cooler.”  Peggy Noonan

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The Problem with Socialism

An article by Kevin Williamson earlier this month in National Review points out the fallacy of thinking Barack Obama a socialist because of his enthrallment with “spreading the wealth”.  Advocacy for large government deficit spending and tax policies tilted towards income redistribution are definitive of all modern liberalism and “progressive” politics, but they don’t make anyone a socialist.  The nucleus of socialism is central planning.  The Obama characteristic that firmly plants him in the socialist camp is his fixation with centrally planned solutions for the nation’s ills, irrespective of their consistent record of disappointment.

Few differences exist between the old five year plans of the Soviet Union for potato or wheat harvests and the “planned” objectives of 50% renewable energy or tax credits to increase purchases of electric cars or health care mandates. What will achieve real progress are competitive and practicable means of renewable energy sources, producing electric cars that anyone actually wants to drive at reasonable prices and facing squarely the many conundrums of modern health care.  Not arbitrary policies implemented by a cumbersome bureaucracy.

The European Union economies of Greece, Spain, Italy and even France are foundering not just because they spend more than they generate in wealth for entitlements, early retirements and “social justice” programs (although that is what is happening), but the root cause of failure is central planning itself.  Collapse occurs not because there aren’t plenty of brilliant true believers doing the planning, but because the premise of central planning is deeply flawed and unworkable.

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal carries an instructive editorial by Alberto Mingardi, the director general of the Intsituto Bruno Leoni, a Milan free market think tank. Link to editorial here.  In it, Mr. Mingardi cites Frederich A. Hayek’s Nobel Prize winning economic writings debunking the central planning myth.  Dr. Hayek is the author of the celebrated “Road to Serfdom”.  Central planning may have been feasible when humankind lived in small, insular groups which shared common values and metrics for measuring relative worth and achievement.  In modern, multifaceted states, there are too much data, too many variables, too many unknowns and too many destabilizing influences. Computer models are not capable of predicting the behavior of or the outcomes for small groups and individuals within this complexity.  Grandiose plans and goals predicated on these models are built on shifting sands.

The inherent waste and inefficiencies in outsized bureaucracy multiplies cost and diminishes the competence of any enterprise.  Corruption, internal wrangling and cronyism exacerbate the ineffectivness of solutions that do not solve and analgesics that do not relieve.  Our path out of the swamp cannot be found in unsound theories.  Socialism reads a lot better than it lives.

Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.

Thomas Sowell


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The Fourth Greatest President in American History (Part 2)

President Obama’s claim that the achievements of his first term ranked his presidency as the fourth greatest in American history initiated these posts.  This edition will focus on the administration’s tendency toward fiat, executive orders and ignoring the more inconvenient aspects of the constitution.

President Obama has written and spoken about flaws in the constitution.  He also has publically promised that his main goal is to “fundamentally transform” America.  Even more recently, he pledged to accelerate his agenda by executive orders and rules whether or not Congress was prepared to follow.  If the legislative branch chooses to deliberate, vote, advise and consent on his plans, as is their constitutional responsibility, he will do what he wants to do and let God sort it out.   Here are a few instances where he already has demonstrated his predilection.  There are many more across all executive departments.

  • After the infamous Section 1233 mandating “end of life” counseling was voted out of the final Obamacare bill, it was reinstated by stealth regulation in November 2010 tucked amongst hundreds of new Medicare rules.  Friday night ‘document drops’ of hundreds of regulations and disclosures camouflaged on the slowest day of the news cycle has been an administration mainstay.
  • The Interior Department in Secretarial Order 3310 gave itself the authority to designate public lands as “Wild Lands” taking them off limits to such things as domestic oil exploration. Previously, such designations had been the exclusive prerogative of Congress.
  •  Before the outcry shut it down, after the “cap and trade” bill was defeated in Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency drew up regulations enacting the same anti-carbon measures rejected by the legislature.
  • While many presidents have employed recess appointments, President Obama has made it an art form. When the Senate could not see its way to approving Craig Becker, an AFL-CIO and SEIU lawyer, to the National Labor Relations Board, he was made a recess appointee. After all, the unions had contributed over $400 million almost entirely to Democrat candidates in the previous election, and where was the quid for the quo?  Although after the appointment ran out, Becker was rejected by the Senate and left the board, during his tenure the NLRB prevented Boeing from building a new factory in South Carolina, a right to work state.  The president made other recess appointments when the Senate was actually in session, which was remarkably unconstitutional.  He ignored the protests, challenging the Senate to a constitutional crisis, which Harry Reid declined to pursue.
  • Recently, we’ve seen an Amish farmer put out of business selling raw milk to neighbors, which his family had done for generations.  We once bought such milk from a local farmer in Maine, and it was healthy and the best milk we ever had.
  • Last week we read about a four year old in North Carolina, whose mother made her a turkey and cheese sandwich with a banana and apple juice lunch.  Citing a regulation put in place under the umbrella of Obamacare, the school confiscated the child’s lunch as not meeting their guidelines and gave the girl the prescribed chicken nuggets, then charged the mother for it.  This was put in place as part of an executive order from the president to retrain American citizens by ‘behavior modification.’  Nanny state, indeed.

A recent furor boiled up over Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius enforcing regulations mandating that Obamacare health insurance coverage for all employees of private companies include abortifacient drugs.  There was no provision for conscience exemptions.  When the Catholic Conference of Bishops objected to this unprecedented crushing of First Amendment protections for churches, the president offered a ‘compromise’ wherein he simply ruled by fiat that, should church organizations demur, their insurance companies must offer at their own expense free coverage for these services.  This transparent ruse has become typical of the administration.  If an awkward constitutional issue blocks their way, declare it a non issue and override the niceties.

The United States Preventative Services Task Force, under Obamacare, makes all decisions on coverage such as the contraception decision.  Empowered to evaluate all preventative health services and decide which will be covered by insurance, the task force rates services “A” through “D” or “I” for “Insufficient Evidence”.  Under Obamacare, services rated “A” or “B” such as colon cancer screening for adults between 50 and 75 must be covered in full without co-pays.  Services rated “C” or “D” such as screening for ovarian or testicular cancer could end up not covered at all.  We first became aware of the task force’s new powers buried within the 2,500 pages of the bill, when it recommended that women ages 40-49 shouldn’t get routine mammograms, men shouldn’t get routine screening for prostate cancer, nor should women be screened for the viruses that cause cervical cancer.    It is one of the few Federal agencies with no review or appeal process defined; they have no requirement for public deliberations and are the only Federal health agency mandated to take cost into account when evaluating medical decisions.  What further restriction, mandate and cost cutting awaits an aging nation remains to be seen. It’s a Brave New World.

Embedded in the thousands of pages of the Obamacare, stimulus and financial reform bills is the power to issue regulations and executive orders to interpret and implement them.  This administration has embraced this control with great enthusiasm in order to “fundamentally transform” America and modify the behavior of Americans.  Without even the modest restraint of a reelection, what will a second term bring?  If this fails to give you pause, you aren’t paying attention.

Psalm 118:  It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.


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Free Speech is Not Always Free

Last Thursday at the Rhode Island Statehouse, the Occupy Providence folks joined by the “professionals” from Occupy Wall Street finally clarified their muddled message a bit while shutting down the Rhode Island Right to Life Committee’s annual rally in the rotunda.  Apparently greed is bad; abortion is good.  Abortion is so good, even though it already ends 23% of pregnancies in Rhode Island, there needs to be more of them, and indeed killing our unborn children should be an entitlement paid for with public tax dollars, breaching both tradition and the law in Rhode Island.

The governor, Lincoln Chaffee, recently issued an executive order to create the health benefit exchanges mandated by Obamacare.  When the state senate refused to pass the exchanges allowing abortion funding, the good governor took it upon himself to design them with the mandated payments for abortion.  This executive order is being challenged in the courts.  The Occupiers, like the governor, prefer administrative fiat and publically funded abortions, seizing by edict that which must be the legislature’s prerogative.  This strategy of executive strong-arming is exactly what President Obama explicitly has promised us should he be reelected.  The legislature be damned.

To reinforce their message, the Occupiers engaged in brown shirt thuggery and exercised their First Amendment rights by booing down the free speech of those who would exercise theirs.  Palpable anger, whistles, bumping, bullying grandmothers and children, fist pumping and pelting the high school girls of LaSalle Academy with condoms were taken, it seems, from the playbook of dilettante revolutionaries.  The well planned, orchestrated and slowly intensifying commotion started with signs and escalated with incremental crowding of the podium and intimidation of especially young pro life speakers to the point of making further speeches or prayers impossible.

They hooted down Barth Bracy, Executive Director of RIRTL, when he was telling them they weren’t part of the 99%, but a remnant of the survivors in the 77% of their demographic who dodged the abortionist.  Father Bernard Healey, who represented the Diocese of Providence, was prevented from leading the closing prayer.  The diocese actually implemented the homeless shelter that the Occupiers have been demanding ineffectually for months from the City of Providence.  Father Healey, an affable, intelligent man with a ready sense of humor, would have liked to pray for the mothers, the babies and the Occupy Providence mob, but was prevented from doing so.

These “revolutionaries” will eventually take showers (one would hope – those nearest them at the rally told us that personal hygiene was not their strong suit) and go back to their classrooms at Brown to check on their trust funds, but in the meanwhile they played winter camping out in tents in Burnside Park and disrupted the orderly gatherings of those with whom they disagree. Perhaps the Brown University Swearer Center for Public Service would consider setting up a homeless center themselves with the dorm capacity vacated by the Occupiers.  However, I suspect the Brown public service community is more comfortable with the theoretical when it comes to helping the homeless; the messy details are best left to other than the chardonnay crowd.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras should follow the lead of the more courageous leadership in New York and Boston.  The time is past due for the Providence police to don their Tyvek hazardous material suits and filtered masks, clean out the tents and disinfect the area for use by the 99% of Providence residents and taxpayers who used to enjoy the park.

Freedom of speech is not a sometimes thing, available only to the loud and noxious.  The vast majority of Americans greatly value the right of peaceable assembly to express to their lawmakers their most heartfelt views on critical issues.  Pity the few who don’t so value the First Amendment and overrun that right for the rest of us with adolescent tantrums.

To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.  Frederick Douglass


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