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.

Waiting On The Court

Deep in the marbled chambers of the majestic Supreme Court building, members of the High Court and their clerks are hard at work on the opinion — or more likely, opinions — to be published when the Court decides the constitutionality of the “health care reform” legislation.  The opinion(s) will be issued within the next week or two as the Court wraps up its work for the year.

The issues swirling around President Obama’s signature legislative achievement have dropped off the public’s radar screen recently, but you can bet that they remain front and center at the White House, the Romney campaign headquarters, and on Capitol Hill.  Whether the Supreme Court upholds the statute, or strikes it down in whole or in part, its decision will be like a bomb going off in the middle of the presidential campaign.  I can’t remember another situation like this, where the Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of major, controversial legislation — and do so only a few months before a presidential election in which the Court’s decision itself will almost certainly be an issue.

The timing of the Court’s decision will be interesting for two reasons.  First, both carefully scripted campaigns will be knocked off message, for a few days at least, and will be required to respond on the fly to the Court’s decision and the stated rationale for that decision.  The unpredictability of the Supreme Court’s decision means we might just get an honest, candid reaction from a candidate or a Congressman for a change — before the talking points get drafted and everyone adheres to the accepted party line for their side.

Second, and more important, Supreme Court opinions are serious documents written by serious people.  The Justices know their opinions will be carefully read and critiqued, for their intellectual and legal merit, immediately and for decades to come.  They will be working to make those opinions as persuasive and carefully reasoned as possible.  The opinions will address fundamental issues about the structure of our government and the extent of federal power, taking into account the language of the Constitution, the history of our republic, and the decisions of prior Courts.  They will grapple with those issues in a sober, respectful manner, with the majority and dissenting opinions acknowledging, and responding to, each other.  What a refreshing change from the shouting, bullet point blather that passes for political discourse these days!

This will be an exciting time for our country and our Constitution.  It’s another reason for us to step back, admire the foresight of the Framers, and see that our 225-year-old Constitution still works, and works well.

Keep The U.N. Away From The Internet

Some countries are pushing a proposal to give the U.N.International Telecommunication Union (“ITU”) more control over the internet.  The proposal will receive a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives next week.

Currently the internt is “governed” (if you can call it that) by a a collection of non-profit entities.  The result has been a lot of freedom and not much regulation.  Governments, however, are concerned that they don’t have sufficient control over this massive, still developing communications medium.  The U.N. proposal, backed by governments in China, Russia, Brazil, India, and other countries, would give the ITU more authority over cybersecurity, data privacy, technical standards and the Web’s address system.

This is such an awful idea that there appears to be bipartisan opposition to it in Washington, D.C., with both the Obama Administration and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressing opposition.  Imagine — a proposal that is so obviously terrible that our splintered representatives can agree that it sucks!

And, it does suck.  The last I checked, the internet wasn’t broken.  We can write what we want, and read what we want, without concern that some ponderous and corrupt U.N. regulatory body will try to stop or direct us.  Indeed, the internet is one of the few international activities where cooperation has managed to produce tremendous growth — economic growth, growth in access to information, growth in communications, and growth in freedom.  That’s why repressive governments hate the internet.  Why would we want to hand repressive regimes a tool they can use to silence critics and punish dissidents?  Let’s all hope Congress does the right thing and tells the U.N. to keep their hands off the internet.

Masters Of The Obvious

If you’ve watched many TV “news” shows lately, you know they don’t really report much traditional news anymore.  You don’t see footage of reporters on the scene interviewing witnesses or the newsmakers themselves.  Instead, you see a suit in a studio, discussing the “news” with a suit in another studio.  Virtually everything is filtered through the mouth of some talking head.

This situation becomes worse as elections near.  Then, the talking heads fall into two categories:  those with an agenda, and those who state the obvious.  As an example of the latter, consider the headline on a Gallup release yesterday:  “National Mood a Drag on Obama’s Re-Election Prospects.”  The folks at Gallup have consulted their polls, see that the polls indicate that people are unhappy with the economy, aren’t satisfied with the direction the country is heading, and lack confidence in the President’s ability to turn things around.  From this, they conclude that the President’s re-election prospects are “uncertain.”

Wait a second — you mean citizens might actually decide how to vote based on prevailing economic factors and their respective confidence in the candidates’ ability to fix the problem?  They might actually hold the incumbent accountable if they think he’s done a poor job?

What an amazing insight!  I wonder if these guys could express a view on the challenging question of whether night follows day?

Let A Pig Be A Pet

In Houston, a Texas district court judge has declared that Wilbur, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, is a “household pet” who can remain in his owners’ home. The case addressed whether Wilbur violated the local homeowners association rules.

Wilbur was a Christmas gift from Alex Sardo to his wife, Missy, and he quickly became a member of the family.  A few months later, a neighbor brought the pig to the attention of “The Thicket at Cypresswood Community Improvement Association,” which concluded that Wilbur was not the kind of “common” and “traditional” pet permitted by association rules and sent the Sardos a letter saying Wilbur had to go.

The Sardos went to court, and on Monday Judge Mike Engelhart ruled that a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig is a household pet not bred for commercial purposes.  He also noted that “Homeowner’s associations are there, on one hand, to maintain a neighborhood in a particular way, but they also have responsibilities not to infringe too much on homeowner’s use of their land the way they see fit.”

Hear, hear!  The ruling is a victory not only for pot-bellied pigs, but also for people who yearn to be free from the nosy intrusions of busybody neighbors who want to control how other people live.  This isn’t a case of people raising hogs in their backyard or having a lion for a pet.  Wilbur was a well-mannered pig who was kept in the home, didn’t cause trouble, and brought some joy to the lives of the Sardos.  Why should neighbors raise a stink, rather than doing the neighborly thing and keeping their opinions to themselves?  If Wilbur’s story causes even one homeowner’s association to back off, he’s served the interests of mankind.

Somewhere, a spider named Charlotte and a rat named Templeton are happy that Wilbur was judicially recognized as “some pig” — and no doubt “humble” as well.

The Tanning Test

When should people intervene to stop the potentially destructive behavior of another?  A New Jersey situation raises that delicate question — on two levels.

The story involves a mother, Patricia Krentcil, who was arrested and charged with second-degree child endangerment.  Police claim that she took her fair-skinned, red-haired five-year-old daughter to a tanning parlor, exposed her to a tanning bed, and gave the girl a sunburn as a result.  Krentcil denies the charge and says the child got the sunburn playing outside on a warm day.  She says she brings her daughter with her to the tanning parlor, but the girl waits nearby while only Krentcil gets into the tanning bed.  She suspects that a teacher overheard her five-year-old say that she went to the tanning parlor and reached the wrong conclusion.

In my view, it’s hard to justify the state arresting and charging a mother with child endangerment under such circumstances, which apparently involves just one incident, no pattern of behavior, and a condition — a child’s sunburn — that has an entirely plausible, innocent explanation.

But look at the picture of Ms. Krentcil.  She admits to excessive tanning, and judging from the grotesque, leathery appearance of her skin, perhaps she even has an addiction to it.  How can the tanning parlor, to say nothing of her husband and her family, continue to allow her to expose herself to UV rays under such circumstances?  Shouldn’t tanning parlor attendants, like bartenders, have an obligation to cut people off when they’ve had enough?

Businesses often complain about “unnecessary” government regulations, but businesses can be as responsible for regulatory overload as overzealous bureaucrats.  If New Jersey tanning parlors are fine with taking money from misguided folks and then allowing them to tan, tan, tan until they look like an old shoe at the back of the closet, the tanning parlors shouldn’t be heard to complain when the state decides it needs to step in.

Trying To Value What You Take For Granted

This morning I cursed inwardly when, for the thousandth time, Kasey and Penny got tangled and we had to stop our walk and sort things out.  A few moments later I grumbled again when an undetected jogger startled me by announcing her presence when she was right behind me and ready to pass by.

Then my thoughts wandered to what’s happening in Syria and other troubled places, and I thought:  I’m lucky to live where I can take my dogs for a quiet walk in the pre-dawn hours without risking life and limb.

The walls in our town aren’t riddled with bullet holes.  I don’t see syringes or broken crack pipes on the doorstep when I walk outside.  I don’t hear gunshots or the sound of fistfights when darkness falls.  My friends and family members haven’t been blown to bits by suicide bombers.  Armed gangs don’t roam my neighborhood.  And I don’t have to worry about jackbooted soldiers kicking in our door or destroying our house with shelling.

When I hurt my back a few weeks ago and every sudden movement was intensely painful, I realized as I had never realized before how wonderful it is to be able to move without pain.  It’s one of those things, perhaps, that you cannot fully appreciate until it’s gone and you understand how awful the alternative can be.

Personal security, I think, falls into the same category.  If you are safe and snug in your tidy neighborhood, it’s hard to fathom what it must be like to have to worry constantly about the smallest things and then try to earn a living or function as a family.  I imagine the people in the war-torn parts of the world would give just about anything for a chance to take a peaceful walk with dogs.

Mike Wallace Signs Off

Mike Wallace died over the weekend.  He was 93 years old, and he left behind a true broadcast journalism legacy.

Wallace was synonymous with the CBS show 60 Minutes, where he was a regular contributor for more than 30 years.  His hard-hitting stories helped to make the broadcast the most popular show in the land, because watching Mike Wallace relentlessly drill down on a sweating interview subject was great television.  I’m confident that every sleazy politician, corporate executive, or head of a charity who got a phone call that Mike Wallace was doing a story and wanted an interview felt a cold chill and inward pucker, knowing the jig was up, the awful truth would be exposed, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Although people associate Wallace with his tough on-air persona, he also was a very capable journalist.  Unlike most modern broadcasters, he wasn’t all about theatrics.  His interviews and stories were usually thoroughly researched and carefully presented.  His approach followed that of radio and early TV newsmen who sourced their pieces just like print reporters did; they were simply using different technology to present the story.  At some point, broadcast “news” veered off into the land of preening personalities, titanic egos, empty suits, ambush interviews, and advocacy stories that never would have made it past an old-line editor.  Does anyone think that Katie Couric, Bill O’Reilly, Diane Sawyer, or Brian Williams — or any other modern newscaster — is comparable to Mike Wallace?

Wallace’s death not only marks the passing of a broadcast icon, it also marks the final and unfortunate end of an era.

At A Supreme Court Oral Argument

I’m glad people are paying attention to the arguments to the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of the health care law, and I think it’s great that some people waited in line for days to sit in the seats reserved for the general public.

I’ve had the privilege of watching oral argument to the Supreme Court on two occasions.  It is an awesome experience, from the long walk up the front steps and through the towering pillars to get into the building to the post-argument post mortem that begins as soon as the lawyers walk down those same front steps, debating the potential meaning of the questions posed by the Justices.  In the majestic chamber where arguments are presented, the Justices appear from behind a curtain to take their seats at the long bench, with the Chief Justice seated in the middle.  The lawyers present their positions, the members of the Court ask their probing hypotheticals — often jousting with each other in the guise of questioning the advocates — and the lawyers respond as best they can.  The entire process occurs with great dignity and solemnity, befitting the role of the highest court in the land.

After the arguments on the various legal issues presented by the health care law are concluded later this week, we’ll hear pundits talk about which side gave the better presentation, and we’ll know how the Court rules by the time its term ends in June.  For now, however, I hope people appreciate the marvelous nature of the process.  The fate of a hugely significant and hotly debated law will be decided by unelected judges based in part on oral arguments presented in measured tones in a quiet chamber that is open to all.

I wish more people went to see a Supreme Court argument when they visit Washington, D.C., because it tells you something very positive about our government and the central role of the rule of law in our country.

Still Searching For Amelia

Believe it or not, they’re getting ready for another expedition to search for the wreckage of Amelia Earhart’s plane.  Has any other individual ever been the subject of as many searches?

Earhart was a famous pilot and women’s rights pioneer who set a number of flight records back in the days when people paid attention to such things.  In 1937, she attempted to fly around the globe at the Equator.  In July, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Papua New Guinea, lost contact with the Coast Guard cutter assigned to track their plane, and were never seen again.  In the ensuing decades, there have been repeated searches for Earhart’s plane, at locations across the Pacific.  All of the search parties have returned empty-handed.

The location of the new search will be on Nikumaroro, part of the Kiribati Islands, located north and east of Australia.  The expedition believes that an old photo of the island shows part of the wreckage of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra plane.

Lots of people have disappeared over the years.  Isn’t it interesting that, of all of those who have vanished, Amelia Earhart is the one who still commands the attention and resources for yet another search expedition?

Intervention Fatigue

Events in Syria are taking a turn for the worse.  Every day brings a new report of a gruesome massacre of civilians by government forces, and efforts by the international community to arrange for a cease-fire have failed.

Some have argued that America should take military action in Syria to stop the killing.  Senator John McCain is one such voice.  So far, however, the Obama Administration has resisted any military intervention, hoping instead that international pressure will eventually topple the Assad regime.

I’m with the President on this one.  The reports of cold-blooded civilian killings in Syria are heart-breaking, but America simply can’t take military action anywhere and everywhere that despotic governments are killing and mistreating their citizens.  Military intervention should be reserved for what should be rare instances implicating our vital national interests.  As tragic as events are in Syria, it’s hard to see how crucial American interests are at stake there.

It sounds cold-blooded to talk of money at a time when innocents lives are being lost, but the United States also needs to consider its financial situation.  The missiles, airplane fuel, ordinance, and military personnel that would be used in any Syrian intervention would cost money that we just don’t have right now.

We need to start making choices as part of getting our fiscal house in order, both domestically and abroad.  This is an instance where the choice should be to stay our hand.  If there is to be military action in Syria, let it be led by the Arab League states.  They should use their oil revenues to police their own neighborhood.

On A Romantic, Court-Ordered Date At Red Lobster

In Florida, a judge hearing a domestic violence charge has ordered the husband accused of the misconduct to take his wife to dinner at Red Lobster and then bowling.

The case arose when the man failed to wish his wife a happy birthday.  They got into a fight, and she says he pushed her against a sofa and grabbed her neck.  The judge noted that the husband had no record and concluded the incident was “very , very minor.”  So, rather than setting a bond or requiring jail time, the judge ordered the husband to buy flowers and added, “then he’s going to go home, pick up his wife, get dressed, take her to Red Lobster. And then after they have Red Lobster, they’re going to go bowling.”  The couple also will be required to get counseling.

Grabbing someone’s neck doesn’t seem “very minor” to me — although, in fairness,  I haven’t heard the evidence or presided over countless domestic violence cases — and a husband who doesn’t remember his wife’s birthday has committed an unforgivable sin.

In any case, the sentence seems ill-advised on other grounds.  For example, why would you order a husband who has been accused of domestic violence to stoke up on fried foods at Red Lobster and then take his wife to a place where the guy will be provided with 16-pound projectiles and expected to hurl them with as much force as he can muster?

The case raises other questions, too.  Will the couple’s attorneys accompany them on the date?  (“Honey, I think I’ll order the Ultimate Feast.”   “Objection!  That’s the most expensive entree on the menu!”)  As between the generic dinner options available in suburban America, how did the judge decide that Red Lobster was more romantic than, say, Olive Garden or Outback Steakhouse?  And finally, how many people eating at Red Lobster on any given evening are there by reason of court-ordered punishment?

What To Do With A Road Rage Warning?

The most recent edition of This Week New Albany — our local suburban newspaper — has a story about a road rage incident in our community and a warning from the police.

The incident involved two cars stopped at an intersection.  The drivers exchanged words — the police don’t know exactly what was said — then one of the drivers showed the other a gun.  When the threatened driver backed up, the driver with the gun leaned out of his car window and fired a shot.  Fortunately, he missed.

The article states that the police “cautioned people to be aware of letting verbal altercations escalate.”  No kidding!  But isn’t the big challenge of a road rage incident that you are dealing with a driver who is enraged and not thinking clearly?  No rational person would respond to any comment by a stranger in a nearby car by firing a shot.  How can you possibly predict whether the person who cut you off, or who you honked your horn at because he hasn’t moved after the light turns green, has just lost his job, broken up with his girlfriend, or experienced some other action that has driven him over the edge of reason?

I don’t argue with other drivers, and I try to avoid eye contact with people I think are driving erratically.  However, you can’t drive safely without interacting to some extent with other cars — and their potentially unbalanced drivers.  You just have to keep your fingers crossed and hope that you don’t run across someone who has lost it, is armed, and is ready to act out his frustrations.

Newt And Freddie

It’s amazing that Newt Gingrich has been able to depict himself as a “Reagan conservative” and surge to the top of the Republican field.  After all, soon after he left public office he began to do “consulting” work for Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant at the center of the housing crisis that crippled our economy.  Freddie Mac paid Gingrich’s consulting firm at least $1.6 million from 1999 to 2008.  It’s not the kind of resume that you would expect to find in a Tea Party favorite, given the Tea Party’s disdain for the cash-soaked, insiders culture of Washington, D.C.

Gingrich’s firm has now released one, but only one, of its contracts with Freddie Mac.  The contract covers only one year, which is curious.  Has the Gingrich Group really misplaced the other lucrative contracts?  If so, what does that tell you about Gingrich’s managerial abilities?  And if he really has misplaced the other contracts, why not just get copies of them from Freddie Mac and produce them all, so we can see what the entirety of the arrangement was?

The article linked above reprints the one contract that Gingrich’s firm produced.  It’s not scintillating reading — few contracts are — but it reveals that Gingrich’s firm reported to the Freddie Mac Public Policy Director, whom the Post article identifies as a registered lobbyist.  The firm was paid a retainer of $25,000 a month, which means its compensation wasn’t tied to how much work it actually did.  The description of what Gingrich’s firm was supposed to do is found in Exhibit 2, which states only that the firm was to provide “consulting and related services, as requested by Freddie Mac’s Director, Public Policy.”

However, Section 2(b) of the contract says that Gingrich’s group was to submit “an invoice that includes a detailed description of the Services performed” in order to get paid.  I hope a reporter somewhere is using public records requests and other methods to try to get those invoices, which might shed light on whether Gingrich really acted as a historian, as he states, or as a lobbyist and influence-peddler, as his opponents contend.  Interviewing the people that Gingrich reported to, and who requested the “consulting and related services,” would be a good idea, too.

I suppose it is possible that Freddie Mac paid more than $1.6 million for Gingrich to serve as a kind of historian.  After all, Freddie Mac was not exactly a paragon of fiscal responsibility, so it may well have spent $25,000 a month for unspecified historian duties even though its business involved mortgages, not histories.  Or, perhaps, Freddie Mac paid the former Speaker of the House to do other things.  It would be nice to know where the truth lies.