A News World Without Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart, the long-time star of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, shocked his audience yesterday by announcing that he would be leaving the show this year.  In a sign of just how important Stewart and The Daily Show are to modern America, his impending departure from what is, at bottom, a consistently funny comedy show was headline news at such diverse websites as the BBC and CNN Money.

Stewart has sat at the anchor desk of The Daily Show since 1999 — an extraordinarily long tenure in the modern world.  For many young adults, he’s been an immutable part of the social landscape for as long as they can remember.  With Stewart as the motivating force, The Daily Show has launched the careers of other comedy stars, like Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver, but more importantly it has become an essential cultural and political touchstone for a huge swath of the American population.  It is amazing, but true, that a large percentage of young Americans routinely get their exposure to news from The Daily Show and identify Stewart as more trusted to provide accurate information than networks like MSNBC.

Commentators may moan that such survey results are a sign of America’s illiteracy — and the growing irrelevance of broadcast and print journalism — but the reality is that people just get their news in different ways now.  Stewart and The Daily Show became trusted  because they mixed the humor with a healthy dollop of news footage, factoids, and actual interviews of Presidents, political and cultural figures, and world leaders.  And, although The Daily Show unquestionably came from a general liberal perspective, Stewart and his crew weren’t afraid to skewer racial politics, the disastrous roll-out of the healthcare.gov website, and other causes and developments on the left end of the political spectrum.

With Jon Stewart leaving The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert taking over for David Letterman, where will younger Americans turn to get their tolerable daily exposure to the world’s events?  There’s no guarantee that the new host will capture their confidence, and the risk is that they won’t turn to other sources for such information at all.  That should be a significant concern for those who have used The Daily Show to reach the Millennials.  If those Millennials (and members of the next generation, which hasn’t yet acquired a catchy title) who have some interest in politics and news aren’t watching The Daily Show, how do you engage them?  Jon Stewart’s replacement will have awfully big shoes to fill.

A Reporter Resigns

Sharyl Attkisson, an investigative reporter with CBS News, resigned from her position today. Her resignation is one of those stories where your reaction to it may well depend on your political inclinations.

By any measure, Attkisson was an accomplished television journalist. She was regarded as one of the top investigative reporters on TV, and in her career she had won five Emmys — for reports on the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking program, the Red Cross, Republican fundraising, TARP and the border patrol. She’s going to finish writing a book, tentatively entitled Stonewalled: One Reporter’s Fight for Truth in Obama’s Washington, that apparently will focus on the challenges of reporting critically on the Obama Administration.

Those ever-present anonymous sources, though, say there’s more to it than a desire to complete a book. According to the Politico article linked above, some people say Attkisson was fed up with a perceived liberal bias at CBS and tired of the lack of support for investigative reporting on the network. Other sources contend that network executives thought Attkisson lacked impartiality and that her reports were increasingly motivated by a bias against President Obama.

I don’t know the truth, of course, although I’m a bit skeptical of the unnamed sources. When reporters are reporting on fellow reporters, you wonder whether the sources end up being other reporters gossiping with each other. We’ll probably never know the real back story.

But, we do know this: there are too few investigative reporters on TV to begin with, and Attkisson’s resignation means that the count of capable investigative reporters has just decreased by one. I don’t care what her political views are — any loss of a skilled broadcast investigative reporter is a loss for everyone. We need more of them, not less. I hope she finds her way back to TV soon.

A Mean-Spirited Obituary — Or A Cathartic Moment?

My mother always taught us that if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.  That notion should apply, especially, to obituaries.

So what does it tell you when an obituary written about a woman by one of her 8 children pointedly says that she died “alone,” that she spent her lifetime “torturing” them “in every way possible,” and that her children “celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the afterlife reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty, and shame that she delivered on her children”?  The obituary, of a woman named Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick, appeared in the Reno Gazette Journal and is an amazing document.  Among other things, it says:  “Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.”

There’s obviously a back story here, and the Reno paper apparently pulled the obituary after it was first published and is doing an investigation.  In the meantime, the original obit has gone viral, and other news outlets are reporting on the history of this woman and her children — which apparently includes foster homes, a case decided by the Nevada Supreme Court, and legislation that allows children to terminate parental rights.

I’m sure there is a lot more to this story of apparent human misery.  One line in the obituary reads:  “Her surviving children will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure.”  I find myself wondering what terrible things must have happened to cause a child to write such words about her own mother.

Don’t Mess With The Lincoln Memorial

In a world of senseless violence, ethnic wars, random kidnappings, and suicide bombings, why get angry about some green paint splashed on a statue — particularly when the paint can be cleaned and the statue returned to its former glory?

But the vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial does make me angry.  I hope they catch the twisted person who did this, and I hope they make him pay.

The Lincoln Memorial, like the rest of the National Mall, says a lot about America.  Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents, and one of our greatest Americans, period.  His story tells a lot about this country, and his perseverance through the awful bloodshed of the Civil War does, too.  Most Americans have seen the Lincoln Memorial, on fifth grade trips to the Nation’s Capital or on family visits there, and it is an awesome temple to the American Idea — noble and grand, humbling and moving, with Lincoln’s careful words carved on the walls and his craggy, wise head looking down upon us.  We leave the Lincoln Memorial, and we feel good.

So why in the world would some idiot splash paint on Lincoln’s statue?

And while we are figuring out the answer to that question, let’s also answer this question:  how could the vandal do this and get away?  I hate to suggest even more surveillance cameras in this country, but the Lincoln Memorial needs to be protected.  Now that this pointless act has occurred, we don’t want to give terrorists any ideas.

Helping Out Hollywood, NASCAR, And Anyone Else Who Can Afford To Hire High-Powered Lobbyists

We’re starting to learn more about what was in the “fiscal cliff” measure that the President supported and Congress cravenly passed at the eleventh hour.  Of course, the information shows that the legislation is loaded with targeted provisions, tax breaks, and loopholes for special interests — just as any rational person predicted.

For example, the bill included a film production tax credit for Hollywood that allows deduction of millions of dollars in production costs if a TV or movie production occurs in an “economically disadvantaged area” — whatever that is defined to mean.  Supporters say the tax credit helps to keep productions from going overseas and “helps get investors who would like to have a significant impact in their taxes reduced.”  Sure, sounds good!  Let’s make sure that Hollywood fat cats get a bit fatter, so producers, directors, and actors can continue to make sober public service announcements that lecture us not to engage in the crazed gun violence that every Hollywood production seems to glorify.  And I’m sure we can all be confident that the millions of dollars that the Hollywood moguls and “stars” have contributed to political campaigns had nothing to do with Congress’ reasoned judgment to extend this tax break.

In the bill there’s also a tax break for NASCAR, to allow accelerated (no pun intended) depreciation for anyone who builds a racetrack.  Apparently all of the races on TV and gear that you see people wearing are misleading and, in reality, NASCAR is struggling and needs all the help it can get.  Perhaps the tax break recognizes that high gasoline prices have hit the owners of those powerful, gas-guzzling cars even harder than they hit the rest of us.

IMG_2787As the Washington Post reports, the fiscal cliff legislation also includes tax breaks, tax credits, and subsidies for banks and multinational corporations, Manhattan apartment developers and railroads, and even manufacturers of plug-in two-wheeled electric scooters.

With our current system, it’s all about who you know, who you can afford to hire to lobby for your cause, and whether they have the access and power to make sure that, when the last-minute deal goes down and an emergency bill is passed that the vast majority of members of Congress haven’t even read, your pet provision is included.

It’s a great system, if you are one of the people who can afford to play the game.  If you’re one of the rest of us, who can’t afford a gold-plated lobbyist to represent your interests, you’re left defenseless.  Of course, average citizens are supposed to have representatives in Washington, D.C.  They are called Senators and Representatives, but who can count on them to protect our interests?  Most of them didn’t even read the entire bill that they voted on.

Time To Activate The Sarcasm Font, America!

Our leaders have done it!  The Senate has approved a package of tax hikes, in order to keep our country from tumbling over the “fiscal cliff.”  The vote to approve the bill was 89-8.  Let’s all bask in that warm bipartisan glow!

The deal was brokered by negotiations between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Republicans.  We should all take comfort that such intellectual titans were doing the heavy lifting on this crucial matter!  Aren’t you relieved that brainy, detail-oriented statesmen like Biden and Senate leaders scrupulously evaluated the wording of the new taxes and their potential economic impact and the loopholes that inevitably must have been part of the deal?  There is every reason to be confident that this carefully considered legislation will not produce any unintended consequences.  After all, the Senate proudly calls itself “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.”  I bet they deliberated on this bill for a few minutes, and maybe even longer!  Oh, and Harry Reid is in favor of it.  What more do we need to know?

There’s lots of new taxes in this proposal:  increased estate taxes, increased capital gains taxes, and increased income taxes for those people who, purely through dumb luck and undeserved good fortune, make more than $400,000 a year.  What’s important, though, is that the draconian spending cuts that everyone wanted to avoid would be delayed for two months under this proposal.  Thank God!  That will allow the President, the Senate, and the House even more time to really roll up their sleeves and come up with meaningful spending cuts that wouldn’t be ruinous.  Once the tax increases take effect, of course, our leaders will be eager to make tough spending decisions that will incur the ire of government workers and the special interest groups that are invested in the continuation of every federal program, no matter how ill-conceived, bloated, or unsuccessful that program might be.  Maybe, after two months of thoughtful analysis, our leaders also might decide that what they should really do is impose more taxes on us, and further shore up the revenue side of the budget.  And we can be sure, too, that our leaders won’t wait until the last minute to take action.  Long before the two-month extension period expires, our leaders will have agreed upon well-reasoned spending reductions and program cuts and “revenue enhancements” that will delight every American.

Of course, this well-crafted Senate proposal still needs to be approved by the House of Representatives.  With this kind of quality legislation pending, though, why would any member of the House of Representatives vote “no”?

How Many Journalists Fake It?

Richard, in his very interesting Twitter feed, points to a thought-provoking and troubling story.  It’s a New York Times piece about another journalist who apparently has fabricated sources, quotes, and, therefore, stories.

The reporter was a 30-year veteran who worked for The Cape Cod (Mass.) Times.  She had covered the police and courts beats tor the paper and was held in high regard by those she’d covered.  However, she wrote an article about a Veterans’ Day parade that struck her editor as just a little too pat, yet unbelievable.  When the editor tried to identified the people quoted in the article, she couldn’t.  The newspaper, to its credit, then undertook a careful review of the reporter’s human interest feature stories, found other indications of non-existent sources, and reported the fact on its front page as part of an apology.

The Cape Cod (Mass.) Times‘ straight-up response to this makes this former journalist proud; its response speaks well of journalistic ethics and responsibility.  It also shows why newspapers staffed by skeptical, fact-checking editors still should play an important role in our democratic society.  Favorite news websites are nice, but how much of their content is reviewed, considered thoughtfully, and checked by someone as careful as the editor in this case?  And for those who complain that the newspaper should have uncovered the problem earlier than it did, isn’t the affirmation of journalistic skepticism shown by this story reassuring — and don’t most of us agree with the saying that it is better late than never?

The tale nevertheless makes you wonder how much fabrication may occur in our nation’s newsrooms.  If a respected reporter who’d worked for the paper for 30 years makes things up, how rare can it be?

Candy Crowley’s No-No

Moderating last night’s slugfest of a “town meeting” debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney was no enviable assignment.  Did CNN’s Candy Crowley overstep her proper role when she intervened during the candidates’ disagreement about Libya?  I think she did.

The exchange came as the candidates were arguing about the Obama Administration’s statements that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was precipitated by a YouTube video, and specifically whether the President had labeled the attack an “act of terror” in remarks he made shortly after the attack.  When Romney tried to pin the President down on that point, the President responded that Romney should get the transcript.  Romney replied that it took the President 14 days to call the attack a terrorist act.  Crowley then interjected that the President “did in fact” call it an act of terror, the President said “”Can you say it a little louder, Candy?” and the Obama supporters in the audience applauded — and thereby broke the rule that the audience should not respond to any statements.  A transcript of the full debate can be viewed here.

Were Crowley and the President right in their interpretation of the Rose Garden statement?  The official White House transcript of the remarks is available here, and I think the interpretation of those remarks is highly debatable.  The President did mention “acts of terror” — in paragraph 10 of the 13-paragraph statement — by saying:  “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”   But is that lone reference, which refers to multiple “acts of terror” and restates a time-honored presidential theme so oft-repeated that has almost become a platitude, really labeling the Benghazi attack a terrorist act?  Moreover, the President earlier states, in the fourth paragraph:  “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.”  The statement about “denigrat[ing] the religious views of others” seems to be a reference to the YouTube video, and typically you would not call a planned terrorist act “senseless violence.”

My point is not to argue who was right or wrong in their characterization of the statement, but rather to note only that it is a debatable issue and to observe that Crowley stepped outside of her proper role in her interjection.  By purporting to state what the President “in fact” did, Crowley presumed to act as a judge.  She tossed the President a lifeline of sorts — which the President eagerly grabbed by asking Crowley to repeat herself — and she caused partisans in the audience to violate the “no applause” edict.  I think Crowley herself realized that she had blundered, because she immediately tried to even the ledger by saying that Romney was right in some of his criticism.  The proper course, however, would have been to say nothing, and let the people decide for themselves.

Crowley’s interjection was unfortunate for a larger reason: it feeds into an increasingly prevalent view that the news media is biased and can’t be trusted.  People who have that view and watched last night’s debate will conclude that if a member of the media can’t refrain from stating their personal interpretation even while moderating a presidential debate, the media can’t be trusted, period.  That’s bad for our country, because we need the press, warts and all, to ferret out the news and report it — and for that process to work we need for people to believe that the press is doing so fairly and objectively.

Should “Foreign Policy” Be Off Limits In A Presidential Election?

After the storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Mitt Romney condemned the attack but also criticized a statement by the embassy that condemned “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”  Romney called that statement “disgraceful,” and he was criticized by the Obama Administration, and others, for “launching a political attack” on that issue.  The tiff raises the question of whether criticism of an Administration’s handling of foreign policy issues is fair game in a presidential election.

There may have been a time when politics “ended at the water’s edge” and the parties spoke with one voice on foreign policy, but that era ended long ago.  All of the presidential campaigns I can remember — from the days of Vietnam War protests, to the Iranian hostage crisis, to the more recent debates about how to proceed in Iraq and Afghanistan — have involved some kind of foreign policy issues.  Indeed, often one of the presidential debates is devoted exclusively to “foreign policy.”  And the Obama Administration obviously feels that foreign policy issues are important; the recent Democratic convention emphasized the killing of Osama bin Laden and sounded the theme that the United States is more secure and respected abroad under the President.

The President is our Commander-in-Chief and establishes our foreign policy by appointing and instructing ambassadors.  It’s obviously an important role — and in a world made ever-smaller by technology and advanced weaponry, where many countries and groups have targeted America for harm, some argue it is the most important responsibility the American President has.  In view of that, how can anyone reasonably argue that the President’s approach to foreign policy shouldn’t be considered and debated during a presidential campaign?

That leaves the issue of whether Romney can fairly be criticized about the tone and timing of his comments.  Is it too harsh to call the mewling statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo disgraceful, and should he have waited until a day or two later before voicing his views?  I don’t think so, in either case.  Romney had every right to strongly criticize the official statement of an American embassy, which struck an unseemly appeasing tone that seemed to undercut the core American value of freedom of speech.  If Americans don’t stand up for our freedoms, they won’t be our freedoms for long.  And as far as timing goes, the Obama Administration itself quickly disavowed the embassy statement, too.  In view of that, and the fact that the embassy statement apparently wasn’t officially sanctioned, why shouldn’t Romney also be permitted to have his say?

I’m all in favor of robust free speech.  So long as Romney isn’t leaking state secrets or giving aid and comfort to the enemy, he should be free to voice his views about foreign policy in whatever way he sees fit — and American voters then have the right to agree or disagree with his statements and vote accordingly.  That’s how our system is supposed to work.

What Lessons Are Being Taught By The Chicago Teachers’ Strike?

I have a lot of respect for teachers — what educated person doesn’t? — but I think the strike in Chicago is doing nothing except harming the public image of teachers and public employee unions.

Years ago, people used to compare what a professional baseball player was being paid to the average salary of teacher, and then ask, rhetorically, what the huge difference said about our society and its values.  Since those days, there has been a concerted effort to increase salaries, and teachers have been successful in bargaining for all kinds of benefits and rights, arguing that they are doing so “for the sake of the children.”  Eventually, people started to wonder whether teacher demands weren’t really more about benefiting teachers rather than benefiting students.

The Chicago Teachers Union strike will continue that trend.  In a time of high unemployment, the median salary for Chicago teachers is $67,974, and the union went on strike even after receiving an offer that would have produced average salary increases of 16 percent over four years.  The offer also would have frozen health benefit cost increases for two-thirds of union members.  The principal sticking points apparently are evaluations — the district wants a process that is based on student standardized test scores, the teachers call that approach unacceptable — and what happens to teachers who are laid off.  As the teachers walk picket lines, thousands of students are left without a school to attend, and parents are scrambling for alternative child-care arrangements.

Richard worked in the Chicago Public School system as a tutor; I’d be interested in his thoughts on this issue.  In the meantime, I would guess that the strike is unlikely to find a very receptive audience anywhere.  Chicago teachers already make more than most people do.  How many people are going to be sympathetic when the strike is primarily about how those teachers are evaluated and their job security — and the strikes leaves the kids teachers profess to speak for in the without schools to attend?

President Obama Gets The Last Word — For Now

President Obama brought the Democratic National Convention to a close last night with a much-anticipated speech accepting his party’s nomination for re-election.  As always, the President gave a well-delivered address that addressed concepts that have become familiar from the 2008 campaign and his four years in office, and that sought to stir some of the same emotions that made his 2008 a crusade for so many people.  The burden for the President, I think, is that every speech he makes is compared to some of his prior addresses to rapturous audiences; for many it will be hard for him to approach, much less equal or exceed, his efforts four years ago.  He has set a high bar for himself.

The President’s speech reminded me of President Clinton’s speech the night before in that it was heavy on brief references to a host of issues and policy concerns.  The President mentioned a number of matters — job training, renewable energy, investment in education, climate change, women’s health, oil and gas exploration, and countless others — and then moved on quickly.  The speech included lots of round-number goals (“100,000 math and science teachers” or “a million new manufacturing jobs”) and future dates (“over the next decade”).  It was as if the President wanted to touch every conceivable base.  It certainly seemed that he did so, but talking, however briefly, about disparate issues makes it more difficult to knit together and present broad, unifying themes.

The President acknowledged the difficulties in achieving his promises from the 2008 campaign, without getting into specifics of discouraging data on  unemployment, foreclosures, and the federal deficit.  He spoke of “hope tested by political gridlock,” said he never said it would be easy, called our recent economic issues the “Great Recession,” and added that it is clear that it will take more than a few years to solve the problems.  He referred to his failings, and said he was moved by the hope that ordinary Americans gave to him, not the other way around.

The speech was more pointed in its criticism of his opponent than you typically hear in addresses by incumbents, who often attempt to appear above the fray and largely ignore their adversaries.  He said Republicans don’t want Americans to know their plans, which consist only of lower taxes and reduced regulations as the remedy for every malady.  He noted the lack of foreign policy experience of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, accused them of being in a “Cold War time warp,” and chided Romney for purportedly “insulting” Great Britain, “our closest ally,” during a recent visit to that country.  From such remarks, I think we are safe to say that we are in for a hard-fought, and probably personal, campaign.

The President sought to address the charge that he views more government as the solution to every problem.  Not all of our problems can be solved by government programs, he said — but our problems can be solved.  Thereafter, however, every proposal and solution he offered seemed to involve some form of government program, benefit, or subsidy.  He talked about “nation-building here at home” through construction of roads and bridges, which sounded like a pitch for another “stimulus” effort.  It’s tough for President Obama to argue that he isn’t for bigger government, because he obviously believes that, as he says,”government has a role.”  That belief makes it difficult to convince him that some government programs don’t work and that government spending often is wasteful.  Last night, at least, there was no talk of eliminating any specific programs or spending as part of a plan to balance our budget.

The overarching challenge for the President is that, as he observed at one point during his speech, “I am the President.”  Unlike 2008, he has a performance record to explain and defend, and it is hard to sound lofty themes when your opponents are constantly bringing the debate back down to earth with statistics about unemployment, home foreclosures, or declining median family incomes.

This year the Democrats had the luxury of following the Republicans, which gives President Obama the last word — for now — but Republicans will have their say soon enough.  For all of their apparent differences, President Obama and Mitt Romney do seem to agree on one thing:  to use President Obama’s formulation from last night, this election offers the “clearest choice in a generation” between candidates with “fundamentally different visions of the future.”  With the conventions done, we now move into the final phase of this ridiculously long campaign — a time of more rallies, more attack ads, and eventually debates that will let the competing candidates go toe-to-toe.

Clint’s Stint

No one who watched Clint Eastwood’s short appearance at last night’s Republican National Convention, where he talked to an empty chair supposedly occupied by President Obama, will ever forget it.

It was a high-wire act, an incredibly bizarre performance that obviously was a radical departure in tone and style from every other speech at the convention, an apparently improvised stunt by a haggard looking Eastwood in a kind of Christopher Walken hairdo — but it was memorable, and I would bet that today more people have talked about Eastwood’s appearance than anything else.  Was it carefully scripted and intentional, or just ad libbing gone awry by an aging, forgetful American icon?  Was it an unforgivably vulgar effort that crudely diminished the office of the Presidency, or just an edgy lampooning of a very-full-of-himself President?  Is Eastwood losing it and on the edge of senility, or was he in character and portraying an average American reacting to what he considers to be a record of arrogance and failure?

Who knows?  I watched it again today — it’s only about 11 minutes long, although watching it last night it seemed longer — and I’m convinced that it was a highly intentional, controlled performance by Eastwood.  But, whatever its intent, the presentation was, as Kish observed, incredibly creative . . . and it got people talking about some of Eastwood’s plain-spoken criticisms and judgments.  The internet today was full of discussion of it, and of the points Eastwood was trying to make.  Don’t you think that was exactly what Eastwood was hoping for?  What are people going to remember from the 2012 Republican convention:  John Thune’s address, Rick Santorum’s remarks, or Clint Eastwood’s pungent, rambling star turn with an empty bar stool?

Why Fret About A $2 Million Federal Internship Program?

A few days ago the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an audit report on the Office of the Chief Information Officer’s FY 2011 and 2011 Funding Received For Security Enhancements.  It’s a report by the USDA’s internal watchdog about how one section of the USDA spent part of its budget — a look at how a tiny fraction of the sprawling federal government actually used our tax dollars.  A copy of the report is available here.

The executive summary of the report notes that, in 2010, Congress more than tripled the budget for the CIO, from an $18 million baseline to $62 million, to enhance information technology security for the agency.  In 2011, the budget was set at $40 million, more than double the $18 million baseline, for that same purpose.  The CIO therefore received $64 million in additional money over the two-year period, and it funded 16 projects with that sum.

Of the $64 million, $6.7 million — or more than 10 percent — was spent on projects not proposed to Congress.  For example, $2 million was spent on a two-year internship program that purportedly was intended to “develop and sustain a highly skilled IT security and computer technology workforce.”  The CIO spent $686,000 developing a “networking website” for the program, and another $192,000 for housing.  Only one full-time intern was hired, however.  The audit report also noted that the internship program “did little to further the more pressing objective of improving USDA’s IT security.”  Stripped of the bureaucratese, therefore, the $2 million was wasted.

Some might argue, why should we care?  It’s only a few million dollars in an overall federal budget that now amounts to trillions.  For some of us, however, a few million dollars is still a few million dollars.  We don’t want to see it wasted — particularly when, in our current deficit-spending posture, we have to borrow from somebody else, and pay them interest, as part of the ugly, wasteful bargain.

More importantly, the story of the internship program reveals a deeper truth about the bureaucratic mindset.  Why would anyone charged with enhancing IT security think an internship program was an appropriate use of the money in the first place?  The real answer, I’d wager, is empire building.  Bureaucrats want to have ongoing programs they can administer and people they can supervise; those programs get built into their job descriptions, become part of their goals and objectives for the year, and help them to move up the government wage scale.  We can only imagine how the proponents of the internship program touted their development of the “networking website,” their selection of housing, and their development of the selection process as key performance successes during the year.

This is the fundamental problem.  In a government of bureaucrats looking to build their departments and pad their resumes, the spending of tax dollars is not a significant concern on the radar screen.  That culture needs to change, so that when a mid-level administrator suggests an internship program as a proper way to improve IT security, the suggestion is met with incredulity and promptly quashed.  We need tightwads, not empire builders, in our federal agencies.

The inspector general report on the USDA CIO spending shines a light on one small part of our government, and what it illuminates is a deeply troubling cultural concern.  If we ever hope to get our spending and deficit problems under control, that culture needs to change — now.  Unfortunately, neither President Obama, nor our current Congress, is doing anything to bring about that necessary cultural change.  That is why, I think, many people are considering whether we need change at the top of our government, too.

An Election About Something Concrete And Fundamental

I haven’t yet read the Supreme Court opinions issued on the constitutionality of the “health care reform” act.  From news reports, I understand that the 5-4 majority characterized the individual mandate as a tax and therefore within Congress’ constitutional power.

Because I haven’t read the opinions, I can’t comment on their merits.  One result of the Court’s action, however, is that the stakes for the upcoming election will be both heightened and sharpened.  Almost immediately after the ruling, I received emails from the Democratic Party and its candidates lauding the decision and the act it upheld.  From the Republican side of the aisle came commitments to repeal the statute and expressions of concern about the increasing role of government.

Since the days of the Revolutionary War, American history is full of debates about fundamental questions that were resolved through the political process and at the ballot box.  I’d rather have the focus of this year’s election be on the role of the federal government and the merits of the “health care reform” statute than on ginned-up issues like the investments made by Bain Capital when Mitt Romney worked there.

Voters now know far more about the “health care reform” statute than we did when it was being pushed through Congress in a process characterized by hastily written language, backroom deals, and votes cast by members who hadn’t even read the bill before them.  We’ve seen actual actions taken by the federal government pursuant to the statute — including the regulations that have upset the Catholic church and other religious groups — and we know the funding mechanism for the statute is properly viewed as a broad tax.

As a result, the debate to come will be far more concrete than the debate that occurred several years ago — and the voters will decide who wins that debate.  That is a good thing.

Eight Months, And $844,500,000,000 More In The Hole

The Treasury Department has announced that our federal government, in May, racked up a deficit of $124,600,000,000 — $124.6 billion.  That brings the deficit for the first eight months of the October 1 to September 30 fiscal year to $844,500,000,000.  I use the full numbers because the long strings of zeroes better convey the colossal scale of the spending hole that we continue, relentlessly, to dig for ourselves and the Americans of future generations.

The Congressional Budget Office forecasts that this year’s deficit will be $1,170,000, 000,000 — $1.17 trillion.  That breathtakingly huge number comes on the heels of the $1,300,000,000,000 deficit in the last fiscal year.  Our deficits topped $1,000,000,000,000 during each of President Obama’s three years in office.

No rational person can believe such deficits are sustainable or that it is a good idea to go farther into hock without doing anything about it.  Yet that is precisely how our federal government has responded.  Where responsible people would be cutting non-essential programs, reducing payrolls and salaries, developing rational revenue policies, and taking the practical, meaningful steps necessary to bring revenue and spending into balance, our government does . . . nothing.

There’s plenty of blame to go around.  Congress has shirked its responsibility to pass honest budgets and specific spending bills, administrators have wasted tax dollars, and huge segments of the American public have an apparently insatiable appetite for federal benefits and perks.  But I have grown sick to death of President Obama’s constant attempts to dodge his share of the blame for the ignominious failure of the government that he — and he alone — heads.  Successful Presidents are able to lead and work within our political system to deal the issues of the day.  President Obama, in contrast, throws out unrealistic budgets that don’t even receive the votes of members of his own party in Congress and then blames his predecessor — the one who left office more than three years ago — for our mounting debt problems.  Meanwhile, the spending and deficit binge continues.  I don’t view President Obama’s approach as quality leadership.  In fact, I don’t view it as leadership at all — and if a President doesn’t lead, he has failed on the most fundamental part of his job.

Many of us have known people who appeared to live well beyond their means.  We wonder how it can continue, and then, inevitably, the crash comes and the entire house of cards collapses with awful results.  If you’ve seen that scenario, you can’t help but be uneasy about the direction in which our country is heading.  The many zeroes in those trillion-dollar deficit numbers are like the lead weights on the chains binding Marley’s ghost, dragging us slowly and inexorably downward to a fate we fear will be filled with terrible consequences.