Cut Taxes, Save the Poor

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Usually the debate between tax-and-spend liberals and cut-taxes conservatives is a fight about raising taxes on the rich or lowering taxes for the rich. Instead of wading into those troubled waters, I would like to propose a policy of cutting taxes on the poor and the lower middle class. As a byproduct, the system would fund charity to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and provide medical treatment for the poor and mentally ill.

State and local sales and property taxes hit the poor hard, while the tax laws ensure that only the prosperous benefit (though not very much) from donating to charity. I would change this, as follows:

1. Congress should pass a law providing a federal income tax credit equal to the amount of sales taxes and property taxes paid at the state and local level. Sales taxes hurt the poor: the rich don't notice them, but the poor and the middle class feel them painfully. The rich can afford to pay property taxes, but they bleed other homeowners dry, meanwhile driving up rents and home prices. States and localities are involved in providing essential public services, but the federal government can cut taxes on the poor by defunding nonessential federal programs. For people too poor to pay income taxes, a cash tax refund should be issued in the approximate amount of their sales and property taxes. This would effectively repeal those taxes. Technology exists to track how much sales tax a poor or middle-class person has paid. To assuage the fears of privacy advocates, tracking sales taxes could be an opt-in feature chosen by people who want the rebate for it. Or people could keep their own records of what sales tax they paid and report it to the IRS.

Sales taxes hurt the poor: the rich don't notice them, but the poor and the middle class feel them painfully.

2. Add the charitable deduction on top of the standard deduction, thus drawing in people who don’t itemize deductions and encouraging everyone to give more to charity and less to taxes.

3. Limit eligible charitable deductions to charities that feed the hungry, house the homeless, or provide medical treatment to the poor or the mentally ill. This will funnel charitable dollars to the vulnerable and needy, lessening the ability of liberal politicians to exploit government power in the name of need. Within the realm of such vital services, remove all red tape to make it easy for any charity to gain IRS status for the right kind of donations.

4. By statute, eliminate liability for a charitable donor's honest errors in estimating the cash value of goods and services he has donated. Create a safe harbor so that if any reasonable person could have purchased the donated goods or services for $X amount, then the IRS may not challenge or litigate when the donor claims a tax deduction of $X. This will set the middle and lower middle classes free from the fear of using charitable contributions to avoid paying taxes.

Funneling charitable dollars to the vulnerable and needy would lessen the ability of liberal politicians to exploit government power in the name of need.

5. Institute a charity multiplier of 2x or 3x. For example, if someone donates $300 to a charity, he avoid paying $900 of federal income taxes. This will encourage people to donate to vital charities while achieving a massive de facto tax cut.

This policy package, if passed in its entirety, would help the poor by cutting taxes on both rich and poor. Congress should do this, and we libertarians should advocate it.




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I Need a Land Line!

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Don’t get me wrong — I’m into big tech. I use my pocket-sized computer about nine hours a day, according to Apple’s built-in surveillance report — which I never asked for and would be perfectly happy never to see again. It’s as bad as having to see the calorie count when I’m standing in line at Cinnabon.

But here’s the deal: my cellphone is no longer a phone. I can type on it, write articles on it, make lists on it, communicate with my family all over the world via text message and email on it, watch TV and movies on it – heck, I can even make movies on it. But try to talk on it? Like a phone? Forget about it. A phone needs a tower — a tower that communicates with the phone.

I haven’t been able to talk to my mother for at least five years because she doesn’t do texting or social media and my phone doesn’t do phone. Oh, it tries. But it doesn’t succeed. Halfway through a sentence it cuts out, leaving my mother to think that I just hung up on her. (Not only does she not speak text, she does not understand that cellphones don’t speak phone.) My sister, who lives in the 20th century with my mother, wrote me a scathing letter last year complaining that my kids keep hanging up on Grandma without saying goodbye. I tried to explain, but they don’t get it. Not enough cell coverage? They use a land line.

We want all our perks and benefits, but we want someone else to provide them.

It’s especially problematic in New York, where skyscrapers bounce signals off the walls, and in southern California, where the residents suffer from NIMBYism (among a multitude of other sanctimonious social ills). I have homes in both places, and it’s driving me crazy.

NIMBYism — Not In My Back Yard — is just one of many symptoms of the growing fascination with socialism. We want all our perks and benefits, but we want someone else to provide them. We want our cellphone reception to be clear and constant, but we don’t want an unsightly, and potentially dangerous, cell tower within ten miles of our darlings. (I find it ironic that people don’t want a cell tower installed within ten miles, but they give said darlings cellphones from infancy and sleep with their own phones under their pillows.)

Hence, I need a land line.

So here’s my offer to AT&T. You can put your cell tower in my backyard. I live at the top of a hill overlooking a canyon. People will benefit from my cell tower for miles around. And if you hide it inside one of my majestically towering juniper trees, no one will even see it.

People don’t want a cell tower installed within ten miles, but they give their children cellphones from infancy and sleep with their own phones under their pillows.

All I want in exchange is lifetime phone, internet, and cable service for me and my family in perpetuity. And a new phone every two years for free, as you used to do. That’s it, and you can have the top of my juniper tree. Deal?

I tried to call you with this offer, but my phone kept cutting out. So send me a text. Or better yet, let’s do lunch.




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Vivid and Explicit

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  • “As two masked and armed men broke in, Susan Gonzalez was shot in the chest.”
  • “When three armed intruders ... broke into the home of a single woman [Feng Zhu Chen] at 3:44 a.m., she dialed 911. No answer . . . [She] held a phone in one hand and took up her pistol in the other and began shooting. She fired numerous shots . . . After the shooting was over and two of the armed suspects got away and one lay dead, she did get through to the police. The home security camera video is dramatic.”
  • “Nothing in the Second Amendment makes lethality a factor to consider . . . The Second Amendment does not exist to protect the right to bear down pillows and foam baseball bats. It protects guns and every gun is dangerous.”
  • “In the late-15th Century, Leonardo Da Vinci designed a 33-shot weapon.”

These quotations are examples of how US District Judge Roger Benitez used unusually vivid language and illustrations in declaring that a high-capacity magazine ban in California is unconstitutional. The case, Virginia Duncan v. Xavier Becerra, began with a preliminary injunction in July 2017. It is an ongoing battle over banning high-capacity magazines. The latest news, as of this writing, is that his order of March 29, 2019 has been stayed pending appeal. So California can continue to prohibit buying and possessing magazines with a capacity greater than ten cartridges.

As far as I can tell, California first defined and regulated high-capacity magazines by the Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989. The act generally bans magazines with a capacity of more than ten cartridges. The law is absurdly complex, with exceptions for previously acquired weapons (grandfather provisions), for Olympic sport shooting, for active military moving to California, for film industry uses, for people traveling through California, etc. The same act imposes firearm-related rules relating to everything from the length of barrels to the use of shotshells in handguns.

If you did not get rid of your high-capacity magazines, you would become a criminal by simply keeping something that you had legally acquired and owned.

When this law went into effect you could no longer buy high-capacity magazines, but you could keep any that you already owned. The grandfather provisions allowed people who had lawfully acquired high-capacity magazines before the prohibition to keep them. In 2016 the state eliminated that exception. If you legally had high-capacity magazines, you would have to get rid of them. If you did not, you would become a criminal by simply keeping something that you had legally acquired and owned.

In May 2017, the plaintiffs sued in federal district court. They were people who owned high-capacity magazines and people wanted to own high-capacity magazines. The plaintiffs wanted to eliminate the ban entirely.

In June 2017, Judge Benitez issued a preliminary injunction blocking the change in the law that eliminated the grandfather provisions. You could keep your old high-capacity magazines and you could buy new ones.

In July 2018, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the preliminary injunction. You could continue to keep your old high-capacity magazines and buy new ones.

Heller was the first decision ever to recognize that the 2nd Amendment proclaims an individual civil liberty. The extent of that right will be fought over for a generation at least.

The defendants appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals en banc. In April 2019, District Court Judge Benitez stayed part of his own order pending appeal. The effect of the stay is that current law travels back to a time in 2016 before the grandfather provisions were eliminated. You can now keep your high-capacity magazines, but you can’t get new ones.

Be prepared to see litigation like this for decades to come. It’s surprising to realize that the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision, Heller, was the first ever to recognize that the 2nd Amendment proclaims an individual civil liberty. The extent of that right will be fought over for a generation at least. In California alone, two important cases, this one about magazine capacity and Peruta, about concealed carry permits, have been going on for years. Some jurists say that the Constitution is a living document. That has become code for doctrines that change with the times rather than hewing to original intent. The Heller opinion relied on original intent and historical analysis. Duncan v. Becerra refers to Heller and gives us a vivid and explicit 2nd Amendment with no need for a “living document.”




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The Unbearable Burden of Meaning

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“Life imitates art,” said Oscar Wilde. He was right about many things; maybe he was right about that, too.

On April 16, a sad confirmation came from Rolling Stone, that repository of everything that is dumb and faux and anti-art — and thus, if Wilde was correct, anti-life. In its article about the burning of Notre Dame de Paris, Rolling Stone said this:

For some people in France, Notre Dame has also served as a deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of “the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times.

Exemplifies, eh? I’ll tell you what’s being exemplified. This passage exemplifies the weird combination of ignorance and arrogance that gives current journalism its distinctive smell.

The Eiffel Tower is 130 years old. It was being satirized as a tourist trap as long as 68 years ago.

Just who are “some people”? Are there 30 of them, or is there one? By whom, exactly, and how many of whom, have the cathedral and the old city “been viewed” as such and such? Pray tell us, Rolling Stone; we presume you know. Maybe you can also tell us what “if nothing else” is doing in the third sentence, and why the second two sentences — when you actually read, rather than merely whiff them — aren’t tracking with the first sentence, which they’re meant to support.

The words about “exemplification,” of course, are just one more example of the wacko, your-engine-block-is-no-longer-attached commentary we expect from any of the outlets that make it to the first five on Google’s top stories list. Tour Eiffel is 130 years old. It was being satirized as a tourist trap as long as 68 years ago, when Alec Guinness made The Lavender Hill Mob. Effing Hitler was proud to pose in front of it. Modernity? The joy of life? Change? Change from what to what?

So that’s all meaningless. The Wilde moment comes in the first part, where we hear those lovingly quoted chicken cacklings about “liberation” from “meaning” itself. It’s an echo — certainly unconscious, or comatose, like everything else in the passage — from the world’s most popular book about architecture, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), in which Ellsworth Toohey, an expert on architecture, attempts to destroy all meaning in the world, so that he can enjoy liberation. To many readers, this idea has seemed too absurd to put in a novel, but now we find that it’s not. Life now imitates art; Rand’s over-the-top satires are now reality. We’ve always heard of people killing themselves because “there’s no meaning left in the world.” Now we find that to other people, the thought is liberating.

Well, as Alexander Pope said, “Peace to all such!” They felt overburdened. Now they feel free. But I’m not that way. I’d rather live in a world that’s full of more meanings than I can ever live to enjoy. And this, I believe, is the world we live in. I thank God that when I contemplate a Sumerian statue, a poem of Yeats, a panel from an Egyptian tomb, a chorus from Sophocles, any line from King Lear, I sense more meaning than I can fully appreciate. I need to stipulate, however, that I do not feel that way about Rolling Stone.

Life now imitates art; Rand’s over-the-top satires are now reality.

Few current authors or commentators are overtly following the program of Ellsworth Toohey, intent on freeing the world from meaning, although I can think of damned few who follow the program of those despised nonmoderns, the authors and public figures of the 18th and 19th centuries who set the standards of intelligent utterance. They labored to fill every sentence with as much meaning as a sentence could take. Read The Federalist. Read Hume. Read Tennyson. Read a hundred more of them. Read, even, the speeches of William Jennings Bryan, to cite a politician whose ideas do not happen to conform to mine — at all. But do not, whatever you do, read the utterances of today’s savants and politicians.

Consider the oracles momently delivered by the intellectuals’ candidate for president, Peter Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. By what process of logic he persuaded himself that his talents are needed in the White House, I cannot guess. I suppose it involved a stream of images without any meanings attached, because that’s what we find in his public sayings. Buttigieg is in favor of a scheme — some scheme or other — to mandate national service (i.e., enslavement, as Lori Heine points out) for all young men and women. Here are the mighty arguments by which he justifies his proposal:

We really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era. One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it, if not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody after they're 18 spends a year in national service.

Never mind the bad grammar and syntax. Let’s see what we can do with the meanings, alleged or real. Start with “we.” “We,” in this place, is a cunning way of saying “I,” which is sort of different. Then we have “social cohesion.” Who knows what this “cohesion” might mean, or why it is so particularly desirable, or why “this era” has so damaged it, or why national service would “change that.” The underlying image is probably that of millions of young men and women caught up in a harmonic convergence induced by two years of compulsory calisthenics, but maybe I’m putting too much content into the mayor’s words. I have a very clear idea about what enforcing “a social norm” might mean, and it seems strange to me that Buttigieg, as a gay person, would think that idea is swell. So maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he didn’t have any meaning in mind.

By what process of logic Buttigieg persuaded himself that his talents are needed in the White House, I cannot guess.

If you take Buttigieg’s inspiration seriously enough to ask why, if it’s such a great idea, nobody else is pushing for it, he provides a still less meaningful parade of words:

It’s one of these ideas that everybody kind of likes, but it was always important and never urgent. How would that ever kind of hold on [sic] its own in a policy debate where we deal with kids in cages and we have to deal with climate change and there are all these pressing, burning issues?

To this, one is virtually invited to respond, “Gosh. I don’t know. How would it?”

There is no meaning to be found here — no meaning of any kind, to be discovered in any way. “We,” who are debating “issues,” do not include me, or, I’ll bet, you. “We” — here intended, I think, to mean “ordinary people” — do not “have to deal” with “kids in cages,” or “climate change.” Those are non-issues, invented issues; they are life imitating the art of the press release. The other “pressing, burning issues” are created by Buttigieg with the same wave of the hand by which teenagers summon meaningless concepts: “Like, all these subjects I gotta take, I got, like, issues with them.” What are they? Again, who knows? Meanwhile, “pressing, burning” is the lowest form of cliché. What does it mean for an issue to press and burn you?

This is simple illiteracy — not unusual in the house organ of the We Know Better than You Do movement.

But let’s look at universal service, which is “one of those ideas that everybody kind of likes.” No, it’s not. I was born a few miles from South Bend. I have spent lots of my adult life in South Bend. Neither there nor in any other place have I met anyone who said that he or she was in favor of national service. In the words of the great gospel song, “No, not one; no, not one!” Buttigieg is — literally, in the literal meaning of the word literally — a nobody talking about nothing.

Of course, expulsion of meaning need not occur on the exalted intellectual level where Buttigieg attempts to situate himself. Here’s a headline from the Washington Post (May 11):

Trump’s interest stirring Ukraine investigations sows confusion in Kiev

Pardon me? Did you say something? What is that supposed to mean? This is simple illiteracy — not unusual in the house organ of the We Know Better than You Do movement. It’s just possible that being a stuffed shirt doesn’t automatically give meaning to your words.

Smugness creates no meanings, and neither does smarminess. There’s a guy who features in ads for Trivago, a company specializing in cheap hotel reservations. The guy was arrested for drunk driving. So what? What’s the deep meaning in that? Nothing; there isn’t any. But the company felt a compulsion to provide one, right away, and in the process . . . Well, take a look.

At this stage, we do not have the full details of the situation, but we want to make clear that Trivago treats such incidents very seriously and strongly condemns drinking and driving, which poses a risk to others and goes against the Trivago culture.

“The Trivago culture” is presumably one and the same with “the Facebook culture,” “the Tumblr culture,” “the Acme Widget culture,” and any other culture that wants to portray itself as absolutely loaded with meaning. Unfortunately, this “culture” is the exact opposite of culture. Culture conserves meanings; “culture” annihilates them. Not only is it empty of meaning; it’s a vacuum cleaner, sweeping up the last remains of the meanings around it. Sensing that, its operators insist all the more that they do so mean something. They mean it seriously and strongly; they mean it very seriously and strongly. . . . Are you still there? Are you still reading? Should we say it even more seriously and strongly?

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that people who uttered such claptrap would notice what it is, and notice what other people think of it. They don’t — and why not? A cause is suggested by a comment made by the 18th-century rhetorician Hugh Blair. Speculating about what was wrong with James Macpherson, author of the Ossian poems, which are as close to being empty of meaning as 18th-century literature could get, he said that Macpherson “must be miserable,” because he was “absolutely void of curiosity.”

Culture conserves meanings; “culture” annihilates them.

It wouldn’t take much curiosity for Professor del Real to find something of continuing interest in the cathedral of Notre Dame. It wouldn’t take much curiosity for Mayor Buttigieg and the Trivago flack to find some words that mean something. It wouldn’t take much curiosity for the Ivy League graduates at the Washington Post to observe that their words may be impossible to figure out.

Admittedly, a little curiosity might dispel some of this world’s alluring mystery, thereby, I suppose, dispelling some of its meaning. But it can protect one from exposure as the kind of person who has never noticed any meaningful objects lurking more than 12 inches away from his nose. At the moment, I’m thinking about the first George Bush, who marveled at the way items are scanned at supermarket checkout counters (he’d never seen it before), and Hillary Clinton trying to hide her confusion about how to get into the New York Subway (the Senator from New York had never done it before). I’m also thinking about that constant source of merriment, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who on May 6 reported to her Instagram audience about her latest existential crisis. No, it wasn’t “climate change”; it was — well, here it is:

OK everyone, I need your help because I just moved into this apartment a few months ago and I just flipped a switch and it made that noise and it scared the daylights out of me. This D.C. apartment is bougie [bourgeois-y] and has things I’ve never seen before. Like what is a garbage disposal really for? Is it better or worse than throwing something in the garbage? More importantly why is it so loud and yelling at me?

Why indeed? When that happens, there’s ground for suspicion. What is a garbage disposal really for? Imagine all the possible meanings! And none of them good!

Take this as a warning: If Notre Dame is so bougie that it’s overburdened with meaning, and you’re happy to get rid of it, you may still be threatened by your garbage disposal.




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Russiagate, Version 34.2

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In 1884, a Republican (and Protestant) demagogue called the Democrats the party of "Rum, Romanism, and rebellion."

Nice start. But today, if he wanted to denounce that party, he could add "racism and Russianism" to his mantra.

No Russian collusion? Bah! Humbug! There has been Russian collusion since the 1930s! At least since the Franklin Roosevelt administration recognized the Communist dictatorship, there has been collusion, including, for example, Soviet agents deep within the FDR administration, such as Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White (to name but two). Scientist Robert Oppenheimer eventually lost his security clearance because of his affiliations with Stalinists.

There has been Russian collusion since the 1930s, since the Franklin Roosevelt administration recognized the Communist dictatorship.

During the Truman administration, there were still more charges that federal officials and employees were agents of Soviet imperialism. People wondered, for instance, how the communist forces in Korea seemed often to know in advance about "United Nations" military actions and plans.

John Kennedy's last well-known sexual escapade was with a German woman suspected of being a spy for the Soviet empire. Lyndon Johnson did so much damage to the same United States that he might as well have been a Soviet sleeper agent, but probably wasn't. With presidents like that, we didn't need foreign enemies.

During Ronald Reagan's presidency, Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy privately asked the Soviet Union to help him defeat Reagan. President Barack Obama very famously, on that notorious open microphone, sent a message via Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Vladimir ("Ras") Putin to just hang on, that he, Obama, would have more leeway after his second term began.

John Kennedy's last well-known sexual escapade was with a German woman suspected of being a spy for the Soviet empire.

And now, after quiet speculation, there is more open and public consideration that "The Dossier" might well be the result of, yep, Russian disinformation. Via willing, nay, eager Democrats (and Republicans).

So don't buy any of that Trump-supporter nonsense that there has been no Russian collusion. Yes, there was.




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The High Priesthood

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Americans could be forgiven for thinking that a high priesthood existed in our government. Regardless of the office to which politicians aspire, they seem to be running for high priest. Politics and religion have become so enmeshed that it’s impossible to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

This can’t be constitutional. Nor does it benefit either politics or religion. It’s especially degrading to the latter.

Those who would serve the people would, if responsible, bid us to examine our own behavior — “our own” including their own and their voters’. If they were genuinely concerned about morality, they could do nothing else. Our politicos, however, constantly focus our obsessions on the behavior of other people. Government is all about making people do things or forcing them not to do them. There is no way to square that with “Take the plank out of your own eye before you take the splinter out of your neighbor’s” (Matthew 7:3–5).

Regardless of the office to which politicians aspire, they seem to be running for high priest.

President Trump is a strange choice for high priest. Cheating on his (third) wife with a porn star, then paying the woman to keep quiet, is hardly the sort of behavior the religious Right claims to countenance. But Trump is their man, so they’ve backed themselves into that corner. They have revealed that their real priority is not holiness but power.

Personally, this leaves me cold. I’m not interested in whether people addicted to political power think I’m a sinner, or whether they believe I am a Christian. Their opinion means nothing to me, nor should it.

The moralizers tell us that “society” needs morality. But “society” does not reason, and makes no rational decisions on its own. Only individuals do that. Individuals need morality, but politicians can do nothing to give it to them. Politicians deal not with the individual, but with the collective.

And in those dealings, they are profoundly immoral. Politics are all about lying, coveting, and stealing. But we members of society are also at fault. We dare not examine our own consciences if we’re going to be influenced collectively. We must concentrate on the splinter in our neighbor’s eye.

Our politicos constantly focus our obsessions on the behavior of other people. Government is all about making people do things or forcing them not to do them.

Democrats are not learning from the religious Right’s mistakes, but merely copying them. They want to make people do things. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is staking his reputation on his “progressive” Christianity. His big idea is a year of national service for every young adult in the country — “if not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody after they're 18 spends a year in national service.” Having begun as a crusade against slavery, “progressive” Christianity now advocates slavery.

I must admit to a certain satisfaction when I hear an openly gay man boldly and unapologetically attest to being a Christian. I’m openly gay, and I am also a Christian. My faith has been hijacked by identity politics, and I like to see someone outside the religious Right standing up to claim it. But Pete Buttigieg has merely claimed it for another tribe, just as bound by identity politics as those of the religious Right. I, on the other hand, don’t want to make anyone do anything.

How do we reclaim our faith without permitting someone else to copyright it? The answer, it seems to me, can be found in the libertarian response. We are individuals who have no right to impose our religious strictures on others. That’s the way to peace. It makes harmony between individuals possible.

Religion remains the plaything of politicians and lobbyists, to the neglect of the individual and for the benefit of the tribe.

Government has no business deciding who can or cannot be Christian. Politicians can’t answer the question, regardless of which side they take. They shouldn’t conscript biblical principles for the sake of secular policy. Nor should young people be conscripted into involuntary servitude for the sake of a political vision, however public spirited it claims to be.

The religious Right still dominates the politics of religion. “Progressive” Christianity merely plays by the rules established by its adversaries. Religion remains the plaything of politicians and lobbyists, to the neglect of the individual and for the benefit of the tribe. No politician, of any stripe, can remedy this problem.

The one good thing to come out of Pete Buttigieg’s embrace of religious faith is that it shows those who support him are tired of the religious Right. The conversation has been broadened. But only when it’s tired of the politics of religion will the public remove a plank from its own eye.




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Some Dare Call It Treason

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On May 17, President Trump sent forth the following idiotic tweet:

My Campaign for President was conclusively spied on. Nothing like this has ever happened in American Politics. A really bad situation. TREASON means long jail sentences, and this was TREASON!

The president’s tweet responded to the constant, equally idiotic accusations of his highly placed enemies that he himself was guilty of treason — supposedly for colluding with the Russians, actually for committing lèse majesté against the political class. But that doesn’t mean he’s right to take up their theme. “Treason” has a definition, and one of the worst things that can happen to the republic is for definitions to be widened by people in power until suddenly, anyone can be accused of anything.

It’s not a complicated matter. Anyone who can read the Constitution can understand the treason clause.

In The God of the Machine, Isabel Paterson pointed the significance of Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution:

The treason clause remains unique in all the long record of political institutions. In the first place, it declares that there is no such crime as treason in peace time. “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Nothing but armed rebellion or joining with an enemy nation — and nations are, by definition, enemies only when at war — can be treason.

That’s it. It’s not a complicated matter. Anyone who can read the Constitution can understand the treason clause. As recent years have shown, however, practically no one in power has ever read anything more challenging than slogans and donor lists.




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The Trump Cuba Chronicles

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On April 17, 2019, the 58th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, John Bolton, America’s National Security Advisor, announced what may turn out to be the death knell for Cuba’s socialist government. (By contrast, at the same time NPR recounted and gushed about the 60th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and his visit to New York and Harlem in April 1959.)

No matter the ultimate outcome of Bolton’s announcement, this policy change will create the mother of all litigation, securing full employment for lawyers throughout Europe and the Americas on multiple lawsuits of greater length and complexity than Charles Dickens’ fictional Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Truth is stranger than fiction.

This saga began in January 1996, when José Basulto, head of Brothers to the Rescue, flew into Cuban airspace — twice — and dropped half a million anti-Castro leaflets over Havana. Basulto hated the regime. He was a Bay of Pigs veteran and had spent two years in Castro’s prisons. He had founded Brothers to the Rescue, a group of volunteer pilots, to scour the Florida Straits for wayward “rafts” (crafts often no more than inner tubes cobbled together with twine) overloaded with refugees escaping Cuba — the sort on which Elián Gonzales was found.

No matter the ultimate outcome of Bolton’s announcement, this policy change will create the mother of all litigation, securing full employment for lawyers throughout Europe and the Americas.

But this time his hate got the best of him. Fidel was not amused by the leaflets caper. He ordered the next incursion of Cuban airspace neutralized. The following month, on February 24, Brothers to the Rescue flew a routine search mission. While outside Cuban territorial waters — and without warning — a Cuban Air Force Mikoyan Mig-29UB shot down two of the Brothers’ unarmed Cessna Skymasters, killing 3 pilots. The third Cessna, piloted by Basulto, escaped.

While the Cuban pilot exulted, “We blew his balls off! He won’t give us any more fucking trouble,” the US populace, Congress, and President Clinton were outraged. Two Republican Congressmen, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Representative Dan Burton of Indiana had, two years previously, introduced legislation to tighten the screws on the Castro regime. But the Helms-Burton Act, as it came to be known, was tabled following Democrat filibusters in support of President Clinton’s efforts to improve relations with the island.

Following the downing of the two private planes on a humanitarian mission, Helms and Burton immediately reintroduced their bill. It was passed by both houses of Congress on March 6, only ten days after the cold-blooded murder.

Fidel was not amused by the leaflets caper.

Helms-Burton was the latest installment on a trade embargo first declared in October 1960 by the Eisenhower administration in retaliation for the nationalization without compensation of American-owned oil refineries on the island. The Cuban regime responded with the nationalization of all remaining American businesses and most American privately owned properties. Again, no compensation was offered for the seizures. Additionally, a number of US diplomats were expelled from Cuba. The US then severed diplomatic relations with the socialist regime.

Title III of the Helms-Burton Act authorized US nationals whose property in Cuba had been confiscated to file suit in US courts against persons who might be "trafficking" in that property. However, the act granted the president the authority to suspend the lawsuit provisions if it was necessary to the national interest of the United States and would expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba.

Private European companies, which had been investing in Cuba through joint ventures with the Cuban government, raised holy hell, creating a serious European Union trade dispute with the US. In response, President Clinton exercised the suspension authority through a nonbinding declaration of intention, approved in April 1997 in order to settle the brouhaha. That suspension has been renewed by every US president since.

And then along came Donald J. Trump. In June 2017, he impetuously declared, "Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba."

The Cuban regime responded with the nationalization of all remaining American businesses and most American privately owned properties. No compensation was offered for the seizures.

But before making any changes, President Trump and Vice President Pence decided to meet with the members of the Cuban exile community in Little Havana, especially the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. According to Carlos León, the second youngest member of the invasion Brigade 2506 and later to become the Association’s historian and Interim president (he was already this author’s cousin), Trump and Pence met with a select group of the veterans for four hours — much longer than the meeting had been scheduled for.

Very few of the veterans had supported Trump during the election but, according to Carlos, they found Trump and Pence to be good listeners and receptively involved in the give-and-take of the discussions. Most of the vets had supported most of Obama’s Cuba policies. They succeeded in tempering Trump’s proposed changes down to two minor initiatives all could agree upon.

The policy changes tightened US citizens’ travel to Cuba by more closely vetting the already approved travel categories — a step that in practice meant little, especially for the independent travelers flouting US regulations by departing from Mexico, Canada, and the Bahamas. And they sought to curtail American spending on the island to prevent proceeds from benefiting the Cuban military, government, and intelligence services. The latter basically made it illegal for US citizens to stay in government hotels, a change that benefitted the island’s burgeoning private B&B industry. The litigation suspension clause was not mentioned.

Until now.

Proposed policy changes (even under the unconventional Trump administration) are usually discreetly floated, to test reaction. When Carlos heard about the change to Title III of Helms-Burton, he invited John Bolton to officially make the announcement at the Casa de la Brigada in Miami. Ambassador Bolton accepted and, on April 17, the 58th anniversary of the failed invasion, before the assembled surviving veterans of the Bay of Pigs, he opened the floodgates of litigation against entities profiting from the uncompensated stolen properties in Cuba by the Castro regime.

It’s not just today’s joint ventures that are in Helms-Burton’s crosshairs. Past joint ventures and foreign companies with management contracts are potentially liable.

I asked Carlos his impression of Bolton. “For such a giant mustache, I expected a big man. Instead, he’s surprisingly small [5’7”].”

“Coño, Carlos! I mean his character,” I groused.

“The man is a straight-up guy — listening, engaged and transparent,” he answered.

Foreign private company joint ventures with the Cuban government — which always retains a 51% interest — have roller-coastered since they were first proposed. The 1990s were their heyday, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba was desperate for cash. In the early 2000s, after Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela and began subsidizing the Cuban economy, Cuba reverted to centralizing its economy, and foreign investment dried up. About 200 foreign joint ventures folded. In 2010, some 300 Spanish firms were begging for the payments they were due. As of 2011, about 250 joint ventures remained viable.

But it’s not just today’s joint ventures that are in Helms-Burton’s crosshairs. Past joint ventures and foreign companies with management contracts — any entities profiting in any way from expropriated properties — are potentially liable.

On May 2, Miami-based Carnival Cruise Line became the first US company sued for using property confiscated six decades ago by Cuba’s revolutionary government.

"There could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims . . . and that value could very easily be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

According to the Washington Post, “The actions, in federal court in Miami, were filed by two U.S. citizens whose parents owned commercial docks in Havana and in the southeastern Cuban city of Santiago. ‘The communist government,’ the claim said, ‘nationalized, expropriated, and seized ownership and control’ of the properties when their families fled the island in 1960.”

Kimberly Breier, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters last month, “The most recent estimate we have from 1996, at the time that the law was enacted, [is] that there could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims . . . and that value could very easily be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

With Venezuela imploding and the specter of the liability of billions of dollars facing foreign investment in the island, Cuba faces a second “special period in Time of Peace” that will test the regime’s survival.




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Votes Nix Free Digs

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I see that voters in Denver have rejected a ballot measure that would allow homeless the right to eat, sit, sleep, and camp out in public parks and highway rights-of-way, and on public sidewalks. Voters rejected it by a vote of 81% to 19% — four to one! — despite its warm endorsement by the local Democratic Party, the local American Civil Liberties Union, and a group called Occupy Denver.

I guess the voters of Denver didn’t want to be occupied. I don’t want to be, either, except that I live in Seattle, a city that already is. Here the homeless eat, sit, sleep, pitch tents, park their ramshackle motor homes, steal grocery carts, and chuck garbage in a lot of places. At the park near my house the cops do clear them out from time to time, but they come back. Around some freeway interchanges near downtown their trash-strewn encampments seem to be permanent.

The problem is not that he abuses drugs; some of the people in the houses abuse drugs.

Denver’s ballot measure was called the “Right to Survive Initiative.” This “right” included “the right to rest in a non-obstructive manner in public spaces,” “the right to shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces,” and “the right to occupy one’s own legally parked motor vehicle.” All winter, as I went for daily walks, I passed several of these vehicles in the city park. They were in the park for months, conveniently located near the covered cooking areas and the restrooms.

I resent this. Not so much because it is dangerous to the public health. That is the reason politicians cite, but it’s a political reason, a lawyer’s reason. Some of the encampments may be a health hazard, but some of them near public restrooms and garbage cans may not be. Health is an issue, but it’s not the central one. The park near my home is an urban amenity. It is in an area of some of the most expensive real estate in the Pacific Northwest — real estate that is far too expensive to be used as a campground of any sort. Campgrounds belong on cheap land away from the city, in the desert or out in the woods. The park I’m thinking of is surrounded by million-dollar houses. Some of the owners of those houses are paying more than $10,000 a year property tax, to say nothing of their house payments. They need to work, full-time, at intelligent and stressful jobs to be able to live in such houses, and they treat their houses and yards with care. And right across the street, or a few blocks away, some suntanned, unshaven vagrant waddles up with a stolen Safeway cart overflowing with bags, pitches a tent that the welfare people gave him, and sets up housekeeping while paying nothing. The problem is not that he abuses drugs; some of the people in the houses abuse drugs. It’s not that he pees in the bushes. Dogs pee in the bushes. It’s that he’s there at all.

For years there have been signs in the windows of businesses saying, “Now Hiring.” There is a sign like that within a block of my house. Work is available.

I can hear the apologists: “You’re just a bourgeois.” Damn right. And no apologies. But I do not limit my solicitude to the owners of million-dollar houses. My neighborhood has townhouses, condos, apartments, and old houses cut into rental units. There are garages converted to mother-in-law units, some of them legal and some not, and there are houses shared by single tenants. I know of an old junk shop with a room in the back. I don’t object to any of those. I draw the line at sleeping in doorways and camping in the park.

Again, I can hear the apologists: “They’re homeless. Where are they supposed to go?” Hey, that’s their problem. It’s a problem that every adult has, and until recently everyone has been able to solve. It’s not that difficult. You ask, where can they go? The social welfare people regularly visit the homeless and offer them space in shelters — and they refuse to live there. And that’s fine: they can go to work. The unemployment rate in America is the lowest in 50 years, and it’s lower in Seattle than almost anywhere else. For years there have been signs in the windows of businesses saying, “Now Hiring.” There is a sign like that within a block of my house. Work is available. A few miles from my house is a Home Depot where a line of Mexicans stand every day, waiting for work for strangers who drive up in cars. These Mexicans are poorly dressed. Probably they speak only a little English, if any. Maybe many of them are illegal. But they are willing to work.




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Meddle Not!

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . . . that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

That’s the theory of the Declaration of Independence.  This is my deduction: If a government has no just power to exist, anyone is morally free to go to work and try to shut it down. We should not assume, however, that everyone should start trying that stunt, right here and right now. It’s possible that foreigners, for example, should mind their own business. Here’s a principle that used to be honored in America: our government shouldn’t meddle with the affairs of other countries, unless it has a self-defensive reason for doing so.

That principle has been interpreted to mean that all governments are created equal, and that their so-called rights should always be respected. In other words, “We have the Bomb, but, to be fair, why shouldn’t North Korea have the Bomb as well?” I can tell you why North Korea shouldn’t have the Bomb, but you know it already.

Now to my subject. Venezuela is ruled by a socialist dictatorship that is as mean and oppressive and just plain stupid as you would expect a socialist dictatorship to be. Very well. What follows from that?

Does it follow that our government should try to remove the government of Venezuela? That it should plot with the Venezuelan military to remove the country’s dictator? That it should, in effect, wage war against Venezuela as currently constituted?

This, it appears, is what our government is doing.

It’s not as if Venezuela had the Bomb. It’s not even as if Venezuela constituted an economic threat to us, now that we have enough of our own oil not to need any more of Venezuela’s. Besides, the socialists have wrecked the country’s oil industry. If crass self-interest were our guide, we would be happy to lose a competitor, in the political as well as the economic realm. The best advertisement for capitalism and limited government is the hideous failure of Venezuelan socialism.

It is reported that the vast majority of Venezuelans think it’s impossible for them to remove their own government, and that they want some foreign power to do it (guess which). I admit that if I were a Venezuelan, I’d probably be praying for an American invasion. In the current crisis, I probably wouldn’t have enough presence of mind to remember how badly the interference of “international Boy Scouts,” as Isabel Paterson called them, has turned out for some of the intended beneficiaries. But the truth, the truth on which self-interest and moral principle agree, is that the Venezuelans got themselves into this mess, and they need to get themselves out of it.




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