CPAC Changes

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For the second consecutive year, Rep. Ron Paul won the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). This may seem like a minor trend; but, in fact, there are a lot of changes afoot at CPAC — which was an important staging area for Ronald Reagan’s political ascendancy in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Does this mean that the elder Paul is the next Reagan? Probably not. But the changes at CPAC are worth a look.

As usual, pundits in the establishment media focused on some clownish details (Donald Trump’s appearance and some headline-seeking quotes from a couple of collegiate anarchists in attendance) and pasted these to some lazy generalizations about the “stubborn libertarian streak” within the Right. And, as usual, these lazy regurgitations of conventional wisdom missed the more interesting story.

The Campaign for Liberty (CforL) — the political action organization born from the pieces of Rep. Paul’s last presidential campaign — has made a concerted effort to influence CPAC. CforL has developed a partnership agreement with CPAC’s owners, whereby CforL can offer its members discounted tickets to the Conference. This arrangement has worked for CPAC; it’s accounted for between a third and a quarter of all recent attendees.

The arrangement has also helped CPAC achieve some other goals. Since CforL focuses its membership recruitment efforts on people under 25, the deal has broughtdown the median age of the conference crowd. This youth movement is a good thing for CPAC, which could use the change. On this point, I can offer a bit of color to illustrate. About five years ago, a twenty-something Silver Lake Publishing author went to CPAC to promote his book. Overall, the reception was chilly; and, in one panel discussion, he was on the receiving end of some barbs from the execrable Ann Coulter — who dismissed libertarians as “hippies who just want to smoke pot all day.” Her line got a lot of applause from the sensibly-shod audience.

The author was chagrined. Afterward, on the phone, he asked me: “Do these people realize that Reagan was a lifelong reader of The Freeman?”

Anyway, those sensible shoes may be shuffling elsewhere. This year’s CPAC was boycotted by several groups — including the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association — who objected to the presence of GOProud (a gay conservative group) and the growing ranks of Paul supporters. Some of the boycotting groups have announced plans to launch a “family values” conference to rival CPAC.

So be it. Maybe CPAC will become a more open-minded place, with people who remember that Reagan built his political identity on libertarian ideals.

Finally, the arrangement between CPAC and CforL also explains — almost precisely — Ron Paul’s straw poll victory. He was the first choice of 30% of the Conference attendees; and, since CforL accounted for between a third and a quarter of the people in the halls, it’s safe to assume those people danced with the one who brought them.

Second place went to Mitt Romney (in its CPAC coverage, Fox News led with this point and barely mentioned Paul). Third place was a tie between former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. This is a hopeful sign for those libertarians who see Johnson as a better media presence — and, therefore, a stronger prospect in a national campaign — than Rep. Paul. Other popular names (including Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, both of whom honored the “family values” boycott) trailed far behind.

Many observers point out, correctly, that presidential straw polls such as CPAC’s get some attention yet rarely predict the nominee accurately. I’m less interested in presidential horse race handicapping than in the ideas being discussed at conferences like CPAC. There was talk in the halls this year about taxes as the worst form of statist coercion.

I’m not sure that’s true. War is worse than taxes. But I’m glad the CPAC attendees were having that discussion — instead of nodding and clapping to the halfwit populism of Mike Huckabee or the empty screeching of Ann Coulter.




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Hyper-Chutzpah

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“Chutzpah” is a great Yiddish term for nerve — as in having the nerve to ask something outrageous. The classic illustration of chutzpah is a man who murders his parents, then at trial throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.

But what word would you use to describe the person who not only murders his parents but consumes their body parts, then goes to an adoption agency in search of new ones? I suppose the best we can do is say he has “hyper-chutzpah.”

This is about the best description possible of Bob King, the new head of the United Auto Workers union. A recent Wall Street Journal piece recounts how King is trying to present the UAW as a helpful partner, deserving of adoption by the workers and management of foreign automakers with plants in the US (mainly located in the right-to-work states).

King’s pitch is pure hyper-chutzpah. He avers, “Our mindset is not adversarial. Our agenda is a positive one of shared responsibility and shared prosperity.” His pitch is part of the UAW’s attempt to unionize the foreign-owned plants, something it has consistently failed to do over the past three decades.

It is doubtful that many workers will fall for this transparently duplicitous pitch. Most workers understand that the UAW has a pernicious history. Yes, it got “great” concessions out of the domestic producers: not just outrageously high compensation packages but unsustainable pension and health plans. Also, the UAW extorted contracts that enabled work rules protecting lazy, drunken, or otherwise incompetent workers, as well as featherbedding — including obscene rules that required workers laid off from any plant that should happen to be closed down to be kept on at full pay, sitting around playing cards in holding tanks.

The UAW has nearly destroyed the domestic auto industry. Two of the three companies it drove to the wall had to be rescued at the cost of tens of billions in taxpayer dollars, a transfer from all of our pockets to the pockets of the UAW thieves. In so doing, it has hurt itself. Its membership, once as high as a million and a half, is now only about a third of that. And if its Fairy Godpresident, Obama, loses in 2012, the next administration will be far less willing to rip off the taxpayers and creditors and give it whatever it wants.

In the face of broad public (and worker) awareness of its destructive behavior in the past, the precipitous decline in its membership over the past few decades, and the rapid deflation of the power of its political ark (i.e., the Democratic Party), the UAW is offering some olive branches. It has backed off from the demand for card check legislation (which would eliminate secret ballots in unionization votes), and is offering to help get the long-delayed free-trade agreement with South Korea though Congress.

All this is like Obama’s recent assertions that he wants to work with business, perhaps lowering regulations and corporate taxes a bit. But in truth, it is all a bunch of BA — bland assurance. It is empty happy-talk by people who despise business and the free market economy in which it thrives. The UAW has permanently crippled our domestic auto industry, handing over a major area of manufacturing, in which we once led the world, to foreign companies. Worse, it has used workers' union dues to finance the election of an endless number of leftist Democratic politicians, who have been crucial in crippling our energy industry, taking over our health industry, and hobbling other industrial sectors as well.

We can only hope that workers and management at the healthy foreign-owned auto companies will give the UAW the cold shoulder it deserves. The nation needs to tell this greedy, soulless, statist, power-hungry, job-killing gang of kleptocrats what Cromwell told the Rump Parliament: “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”




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That Would Be "Oops!"

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Here’s a wild and amazing bit of news: the Wall Street Journal reports that after a ten-month investigation of the mysterious cases of unintended acceleration reported in Toyota vehicles last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) (with the help of NASA engineers) has discovered the cause of these events. The vast majority of them were . . . driver error!

Yes, after all the hysteria whipped up by the media and Congress — a hysteria that had the hidden goal of harming Toyota and helping the recently nationalized GM — it turns out that the most common problem by far was that drivers were hitting the accelerator pedal instead of the brakes. Yes, in some cases it was sticking accelerator pedals and improperly cut floor mats that were at fault — and both defects were quickly addressed in a recall by the company — but driver error was the big problem.

In short, Toyota suffered what Audi did many years ago: a media-driven hysteria for something primarily caused by drivers handling their vehicles improperly. In 1986, a number of people sued Audi, claiming that their cars had inexplicably accelerated, despite the brakes being depressed. A wave of prejudicial publicity followed. In the end, however, the NHTSA found that the majority of cases were clearly caused by the drivers pressing the accelerator while thinking they were hitting the brake.

In 2010, leading the charge in bashing Toyota was the Democrat-controlled Congress. Most of the congressmen sitting on the committee that investigated Toyota were recipients of UAW campaign money. Even more out front was DOT head Ray LaHood, who opined at the time that Toyota owners should immediately stop driving their cars.

Questioned about the new report, the now-discredited LaHood got annoyed and refused to use the phrase “driver error.” But he was forced to concede: “We feel that Toyotas are safe to drive.”

This simply will not do. LaHood has been proven unfit for his position. He deliberately hyped a problem the cause of which he was utterly clueless about, scaring the hell out of a lot of consumers, and costing Toyota a fortune in tangible and intangible assets.

If he had even a semblance of dignity, LaHood would resign immediately.




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Federalism in Action

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The greatly imperiled traditional view of federalism has it that among the other mechanisms for the balancing (and hence constraining) of powers in our government, the states require substantial power to balance that of the federal government.

One of the benefits of federalism is that it allows the various states to experiment. If Texas wants to try fiscal discipline while California engages in fiscal incontinence, the rest of the states can watch and judge which fiscal policy is most productive of wealth and happiness for citizens generally.

We see this happening now before our very eyes, as most of the states grapple with budget deficits. Different states are pursuing different policies.

We see, for example, Illinois jamming through a two-thirds hike in personal income taxes and a nearly 50% rise in state corporate taxes to deal with its budget deficit. But in Georgia, a bipartisan tax commission has recommended to the state legislature that it cut its personal and corporate tax rates from the present 6% down to only 4%. As one of the commission members — economist Christine Ries of Georgia Tech — put it, “Our over-riding goal was to get the income tax rate down as low as possible, because the evidence is so clear that this is the biggest driver of growth and jobs.” The commission proposes to cover the tax loss by expanding the application of Georgia’s 4% sales tax to many purchases (such as groceries) now exempt from it.

Shifting corporate and personal income tax to consumption tax seems like an economic no-brainer if you want to encourage the creation of jobs, although as the Wall Street Journal notes,the logical thing would be for Georgia to eliminate the income tax altogether (as nearby Florida and Texas have done).

Again, it is nice to be able to contrast the behavior of, say, California with Utah. Newly-installed California Jerry Brown, the aging Moonbeam whose original decision (1978) to let public employees unionize and collectively bargain was a major reason for the state’s massive overspending today, and who owes his election to massive spending by those same unions, has proposed a plan to deal with the state’s budget deficit. It calls for dramatic increases in taxes and some cuts in spending, but does nothing to address the ridiculously bloated salaries and pensions that state employees receive. He intends to use the prospect of cuts in services to cow the citizens into raising taxes.

This is the typical statist ploy: threaten cuts in public service to get what you really want, which is always more taxes, while leaving the underlying problem (ballooning compensation and pensions for government workers) untouched. At least the miserable Governor Schwarzenegger tried, at the beginning of his regime, to address the public employee pension problem, by floating an initiative that would have put all new hires on defined contribution plans (such as 401k), before being whipped into a girly-liberal by the public employee unions.

Illinois is another case of the statist response to the pension crisis. Governor Pat Quinn, just a month before the November election and in the face of a huge state budget deficit, gave the public employee unions a guaranteed two years of no layoffs and even cost of living increases. With their support he squeaked through to reelection. After winning, he jammed through massive tax increases.

Now, Utah has taken a different tack. The state pension plan was fully funded back in 2007, but suddenly, by 2009, it fell to only 70% funded, meaning that the state faced a pension funding gap of $6.5 billion. This gap was one and a half times the debt allowed by the state constitution. But the constitution makes changing the pension plans of current workers virtually impossible.

So the Utah legislature made a reasonable choice, under the circumstances. It set up a defined contribution plan for all hires, starting this year, the state donating a generous 10% of the employee’s salary. The plan allows employees a defined benefit option — but again, the state’s contribution is capped at 10%.

For workers, the nice thing about the plan is that they have a fully portable plan, and one whose assets they own personally, so they can’t be “borrowed” by government and used to buy votes in the way that Social Security funds are, or appropriated by a union and used to buy politicians.

The nice thing for taxpayers is that this plan will eventually cost them only about half what the old system would. It shields them from having to cover the costs of any future stock market declines.

Legislatures in Montana and a dozen other states are looking at this model.

That, dear reader, is truly federalism in action.




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Rousing the Rubes

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Sarah Palin interested me during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, for two reasons.

First, she occasionally seemed to embody the “West coast” style of libertarian political philosophy, based more on practical life experience than on academic training.

Second, her flashes of libertarianism seemed in tension with her claims of evangelical religious faith.

Either of these matters could have made her a compelling public figure. I hoped that she’d bring the first into mainstream political consciousness and offer some resolution to the second. But things didn’t work out that way. Quickly, Palin’s public figure had more to do with persona than philosophy.

Then, in fairly short order, her ticket came in second in the presidential election, she resigned as governor of Alaska halfway through her first term, and she signed a contract with the Fox News Channel to appear regularly as a commentator. She also released two books and starred in a short-lived “reality” television show.

In the coming presidential election cycle, I expect that Jon Huntsman — who’s recently resigned his position as U.S. Ambassador to China and taken the initial steps toward candidacy — will be the person who might raise the issues I’d hoped that Palin would.

Meanwhile, Palin remains on the scene. Her cult of personality is still strong. And her cult of animosity may be even stronger.

I’m not the first to note how closely she resembles the character Emmanuel Goldstein in Orwell’s 1984 — in respect to oppositional politics, if not to intellectual power. Establishment Left groups use her name or image to incite passionate response in readers, donors, and other constituents. We’d need someone like Freud to explain the reasons why Palin resonates so strongly with the Left. But there’s little doubt that she’s marketing gold — a lip-rouged bogeyman who drives clicks to leftwing websites and sells magazines and books.

There we might leave the discussion. And yet . . . the intensity of Palin-hate that small minds on the Left feel is worth considering in some detail. It’s instructive of the state of political discourse.

In late January, the New York Times ran an opinion column by one if its lesser agitators. The piece was highly critical of Rep. Michele Bachmann, who’d recently delivered a semi-official Tea Party response to the president’s state of the union speech. The agitator mocked Bachmann’s manners and makeup but, more than anything else, she presented Bachmann and Palin (by ham-fisted logic since, to that point, Palin had said little publicly about Obama’s speech) for Two Minutes of Hate.

There’s little doubt that Palin is marketing gold — a lip-rouged bogeyman who drives clicks to leftwing websites and sells magazines and books.

And hate the Times readers did. It’s easy to ignore, or forget, how childish and emotional some Americans are about politics. The internet is great for illuminating things like this. Here are some excerpts from the scores of comments that appeared afterward on the newspaper’s website.

“Michelle Bachmann is as ridiculous a political figure as Sarah Palin. The question, however, is why we are covering either one of them. Both Palin and Bachmann know virtually nothing about the important political issues facing our nation, are not qualified to serve in any sort of high level political office, and do little more than degrade the level of political discourse in our nation.”

“The GOP is ignorant about history. The GOP is ignorant about Europe (Paul Krugman’s piece yesterday). The GOP combines that ignorance with an agenda to misinform the public in such a way that voters, against their own economic interests, support policies that benefit a wealthy elite that is getting richer by the day. . . . If only Obama had been the people’s leader we thought we were getting.”

“When I think of Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin I always think of mud wrestling. Even Michelle’s description of the lovely outfit she was wearing years ago . . . doesn’t dislodge the frame by frame fixation I have of her and the former half-governor from Alaska in a mud pit, pulling each other’s hair, calling each other names, slipping and sliding in the sticky brown goo.”

Such keen insights are hard to top, but here are two more:

“I just don’t get it as to why do so many people respond favorably to people like Palin and Bachmann? And add to them Glen [sic] Beck and Limbaugh fueling their fire along with others trailing in their wake like Ryan and Boehner. They mock and are sarcastic with religious fervor. To me they are so off the wall and ridiculous that whatever they say is total nonsense. . . . I tremble. I want a brainy President like Obama and brainy people around him.”

She serves as a scapegoat, in the original sense of that term: she carries off the failings that her haters fear in themselves.

“Bachman and Palin are the bullies in the kindergarden [sic] of Republican politics and no other kid in their class will stand up to them. Could their behavior be a portent of the approaching death of the party of the rich old white well educated ruling elite and the emergence of a new party of servants of the rich — probably labeled the New Stupids, but just as much in the pockets of the monied [sic] class . . .”

Bear in mind that all of this was posted, in a public forum, just a few weeks after the “brainy” Barack Obama had called for more civilized rhetoric in the nation’s political debate.

I’m no Freud, but even I can see the psychological themes in the Palin-hate. It’s projection. And she serves as a scapegoat, in the original sense of that term: she carries off the failings that her haters fear in themselves. Ignorant, ridiculous, stupid, bullying, mocking, sarcastic, a stupid servant of others, of elite political forces,and . . . ridiculous. Clearly, her haters don’t feel very good about themselves.

And they worry — a lot — that they’re ridiculous.

Perhaps with good reason. “JF” from Wisconsin believes that the GOP’s wide-ranging ignorance empowers it to bamboozle the nation’s voters. And consider the political order, as interpreted by “Annie” from Rhode Island: in her view, three pundits and a junior congresswoman dictate the political agenda to the Speaker of the House. And there are thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of these mail-order Aristotles out there — all desperate to show that they are so very much smarter than Sarah Palin.

I have no idea whether Palin will run for president in 2012 — though I doubt she will go very far if she does. But I’m glad she’s still on the scene. The response she evokes in the rubes is rich.




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A Gargantuan Gift to the Unions

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After his decisive defeat in the recent congressional elections, President Obama is now trying to portray himself as a born-again centrist, verbalizing vague sympathies for small business and lighter regulation, not to mention capitulating to the Republicans’ demands to renew the Bush tax cuts for two more years. He is even feigning admiration for President Reagan.

But Obama is one of the most artful deceivers in the history of an office well known for attracting deceivers. As I have urged before (“Obamalaise,” Liberty, May 2010), you have to look at what he does, not merely at what he says. And what he is actually doing is continuing to advance his leftist agenda.

A particularly disgusting illustration is his recent decision, almost completely ignored in the mainstream media, to allow TSA employees (the airport screeners) to unionize.

When the TSA was set up, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the TSA administrator was given the authority to choose whether to give the employees the right to collective bargaining. Until now, the TSA has not done so. But Obama’s choice to head the TSA, John Pistole, changed that policy. Now the TSA’s 40,000 airport screeners — those paragons of efficiency and decorum, so eager to guard our privacy rights — join the ranks of public employees who are already in unions. The TSA employees will vote in March between representation by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union.

John Gage, president of the AFGE, crowed, “Today marks the recognition of a fundamental human right for 40,000 patriotic federal employees who have been disenfranchised since the inception of the agency.” Well he might crow, since these events will add 40,000 new employees to the public employee unions, which saw a drop of about 250,000 members in 2010. They will thus add an enormous amount to union dues, which will be spent on (among other things) electing Democrats in the next election cycle. In line to get the lion’s share of those union dues will be Pistole’s boss, Obama. It is very convenient.

Pistole says that the TSA workers won’t have the right to strike or engage in work slowdowns — as if we could tell whether these people are staging a slowdown or not. He also says that the workers won’t have a say in any matter that concerns airport security.

The devil is in the details.

In any case, if Obama is reelected, you can bet that these presumed restrictions will be loosened or eliminated. In the meantime, after the TSA workers unionize, we can expect their wages and benefits to skyrocket, adding significantly to our national deficit. Worse, disciplining lazy or inefficient workers will soon become incredibly difficult, rather like trying to fire incompetent tenured teachers, with the obvious effects on our collective security.

Let us now praise moderate men.




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Blow Hot, Blow Cold

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The Rural Electrification Act of 1936, one of the New Deal’s proudest accomplishments, is often cited as an example of government’s ability to do good and generate progress. In 1910, nearly 50 million rural residents (over half the country) lived without electricity. By 1950, 45 million of those formerly "unhooked" were "on the grid," thanks to the REA. Or so the story goes.

Commercial electric utilities, with low voltage transmission lines and facing huge infrastructure investments for universal service, were loath to extend power to far-flung homesteads. Additionally, these were regulated monopolies with prices fixed by the government. But Charles Kettering, developer of the electric starter for automobiles, sensed an opportunity.

After selling his company, Delco, to General Motors, Kettering introduced the Delco-Light Farm Electric Plant in 1916. The small gas-powered engine coupled to a 32v DC generator and a set of batteries came with an entire line of optional peripherals: lights, appliances, well pumps, and electric motors. It was an instant hit. By 1936, nearly 150 companies were selling farm electric plants and more than 600,000 rural homes and businesses were generating their own power.

Meanwhile, according to Craig Toepfer’s just-released The Hybrid Electric Home (Schiffer, 2010), a bunch of radio enthusiasts in Ohio were giving birth to the renewable-energy industry.Fine Homebuilding, a respected journal of the building trades, reports that the first wind generators were made by Great Plains farmers whose living-room radios were hooked up to car batteries that they got tired of lugging into town to be recharged so the farmers could listen to “the Clicquot Club Eskimos, the Ipana Troubadours, or WLS’s National Barn Dance.” So they mounted homemade propellers onto car generators, stuck them on a pole, and wired them to their radio batteries.

Other entrepreneurs sensed more opportunities. In 1930, the Jacobs Wind Electric Company opened its first factory in Minneapolis. Eventually, more than 20 companies were making wind generators. Ever frugal farmers, faced with scarcer funds, soon hooked up the wind generators to their oil-based farm electric plants to save fuel, creating the first hybrid generators.

But then Congress passed the first Rural Electrification Act in 1936, effectively killing the nascent off-the-grid power generating industry. As Toepfer argues, “In a monumental act of irrationality, justifiable only by a lack of knowledge or understanding, the federal government decided to do what no investor-owned utility would even begin to consider doing, extending the central station wires from the major urban centers to every rural and remote part of the nation.”

According to the stipulations of the Rural Electrification Administration, hookups performed under its aegis required the removal or destruction of wind and oil-based farm electric systems. The rationale for this misguided policy was that the only way to increase profitability for regulated monopolies with government-fixed prices was to increase demand, and this was most expedient method of reducing REA subsidies to electric utilities.

The REA doubtless improved the lives of millions of Americans. But Toepfer argues that for the $210 million that the government spent under the REA act, it could have provided every electricity-deprived homestead with a farm electric plant and a wind generator, and still not have spent all its money. Although there is no question that the REA supplied a much greater amount of power than the basic, self-reliant technology that was just getting off the ground, Fine Homebuilding opines that “we put all our eggs in one energy basket, committing the country to an inefficient electric grid, sanctioning tremendous environmental damage in the process, and squelching what could have been an enormous start for alternative energy."

Instead, 90 years later, the federal government’s industrial and energy policies see fit to reverse course and channel taxpayer funds into the same industries that it once saw fit to destroy. Go figure.




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Cronies Forever — Dude!

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In a recent reflection, I noted a number of instances of what is fairly clearly corruption on the part of this Administration. (I was actually adding to a list of instances first given by the Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carrey).

But — such is my declining memory in my declining years — I missed a particularly egregious example of Obama’s Chicago School of Economics (which is definitely not to be confused with the Chicago School of Friedman and his co-workers).

The signature bill for which Obama will be remembered (or cursed) is his healthcare act, the eponymous Obamacare. One of the provisions of this monstrosity is the requirement that all healthcare plans must raise their annual limits to at least $750,000. (In 2012, that minimum allowable limit rises to $1.25 million; it then rises to $2 million in 2013.) Naturally, this requirement forces companies whose employee insurance has lower limits to raise them and thus pay higher premiums, or to cancel their employee health plans. The only way not to obey it is to go hat in hand to the Department of Health and Human Services — run by the Obama regime, remember — and get a waiver, which the HHS Department will grant or deny, as it sees fit.

The number of these waivers has been rising rapidly, with well over 700 companies and unions now having obtained them. And, behold! An amazing pattern is emerging about who gets the coveted waivers: disproportionately, they seem to be going to the regime’s supporters.

To be precise, as David Freddoso documents, 40% of the workers affected are in union plans. (In fact, of the 14.6 million unionized workers in this country, nearly a million are now conveniently exempt from the provisions.) But do I have to add that these unions are all huge donors to Democratic campaign coffers in general and Obama’s coffers in particular?

And I’m willing to bet that of the companies that got exemptions, a large percentage have also contributed to Democratic political campaigns.

That’s Obama’s Chicago School of Economics, or what I call neo-socialism. The regime doesn’t actually own all major businesses, but it controls them tightly and exacts tribute from them. More succinctly, it’s “play for pay, the Chicago way”!




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A New Record of Folly

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A new report that hasn’t gotten much play in the afterglow of President Obama’s state of the union address was the Congressional Budget Office estimate for the budget deficit this year. The CBO estimates that the deficit will hit a new record of $1.5 trillion. And it projects that the 2012 deficit will be $1.1 trillion. Even though this will be the third year of trillion-buck-plus deficits, and it will top last year’s record-setting deficit of $1.4 trillion, no doubt Obama will continue to blame Bush (whose largest deficit was a little over $400 billion in 2008). But that rhetorical trope is working less and less well for Obama.

Obama seems now to be aware that the populace is becoming increasingly alarmed at these unprecedented budget deficits. His speech proposed a meager deficit reduction — about $400 billion over ten years.

The big question is how much stomach the Republicans have to push for steeper cuts. The public is now aware of the problem but is still fiscally incontinent: it favors cutting the budget generally but opposes cutting specific popular programs. Even Tea Party members typically support the major entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) that are metastasizing most rapidly.

There are slight signs that the Republicans may strap on some stones and step up to the plate. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has once again proposed a balanced budget amendment, stronger than the amendment that failed by one vote in the Senate 14 years ago. Hatch’s version would require a two-thirds majority for Congress to raise taxes. But while a dozen Republican senators have signed on, no Democrats have, indicating that this has little chance of passing.

Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) has raised the deficit issue in a different way. He has asked the administration to provide actual figures on the drop in offshore drilling revenue collected by the federal government. That information would show us just how much the Obama slowdown of offshore drilling has and will cost the government in revenues, and hence added to the deficit. One calculation puts the amount of lost revenue due to lower production in the Gulf at about $3.7 million a day.

But most interesting is the legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) that would cut the deficit by $2.5 trillion over ten years. Some of the savings would come from the elimination of a number of programs and agencies, such as the US Agency for International Development (savings: $1.39 billion a year) and from cutting the subsidies of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($445 million a year), Amtrak ($1.5 billion a year), and high-speed rail ($2.5 billion a year). But most of the savings would come from rolling back all non-defense discretionary spending to 2006 levels across the board, and keeping it there until 2021.

It is unlikely that this proposal will even come to a vote in the Senate, much less be signed into law by Obama. Even if it did, as exemplary as it is, it would not address the real threat, which is the “Entitlement Explosion” — the ballooning costs of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, costs that are going to drive the country’s economy to the wall as the Baby Boomers quite predictably age, retire, and sicken. In fact, the CBO just reported that this year Social Security will run a deficit of $45 billion (or $130 billion, if the cut in payroll taxes is included), and will continue to run deficits until the bogus “trust fund” is exhausted in 2037. As late as last year, please note, Social Security was projected to run surpluses until 2016.

The entitlement programs are what really endanger the country (and I haven’t even mentioned the state employee pension fund liabilities). The American people haven’t yet reached what I call the public-choice tipping point, the point at which a problem becomes so large that it is no longer rational for the average citizen to be ignorant of it. So the Republicans may do a little by way of deficit reduction, but I wouldn’t hold out hope that they will do a lot — the public isn’t there quite yet.

Give it a few more years, and a bout of high inflation . . . and that may finally do the trick. By then, of course, the economy will be in ruins. Rational ignorance is such a bitch, isn’t it?




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Shot — Countershot

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Four years ago, a Chicago real estate agent by the name of John Maloof discovered a large collection of candid “street” photographs taken in the 1950s and 1960s by a Chicago nanny named Vivian Maier. Helped by the internet and a carefully calculated public release, Maier’s work is now attracting tremendous popular interest, catching the eyes of both scholars and photographers.

I first encountered Maier’s work while searching the web for articles on photography and photographic equipment, as is my habit. Upon finding a blog with Maier’s work and self-portraits prominently displayed, my first thought was, “These photos look like they were taken by the world-famous Diane Arbus."

Granted, I'm no expert on Arbus’ photography, but I've heard things about it that always return to the words “surreal” and “weird” as a way of describing its peculiar quality. Beyond simply the strange appearance of many of her subjects, I guess it's a kind of instantaneousness in her photos that makes them appealing, something about how life can start to look strangely discordant when chopped into little temporal slices by the click of a shutter. That weirdness is certainly there in Maier's work, too. Often, Maier’s style — resulting from her close proximity to her subjects and the “avant-garde” timing and framing of her shots — seems nearly identical to that of Arbus.

It takes a kind of brusqueness and self-driven ability to get past strangers’ personal barriers and produce this kind of photo, an attitude somewhere between the “interested observer” and the “invader of privacy.” It's a psychological barrier that I struggle with, as do many other photographers. In my copy of “The Honeywell Pentax Way” (a 1966 guidebook intended for amateur users of Pentax 35mm single-lens-reflex cameras), the author advises photographers not to wait until a scene is devoid of human content, but to shoot pictures of people “without hesitation . . . [I]f they object, tip your hat and smile.”

The only times I've been able to break that barrier are when I’ve been shooting photographs of political protests or street scenes in foreign countries. In both cases, the barrier is easy to cross. Usually, no one cares about what you’re shooting (or even notices that you’re doing it). As for photographs taken in foreign parts, a practitioner of “subaltern” theory would say that tourists are simply practicing the “hegemony of the foreigner” when they snap a picture. Take the theory for what it’s worth; I’ve never paused long enough behind the camera to ask myself, “Am I being hegemonic?” Whether that question ever crossed Arbus’ or Maier’s mind, we may never know. If it did, it wouldn’t have helped them break any barriers, personal or artistic.

Whenever I think about their kind of photography, I remember an incident that took place when I happened to be on the other side of the camera, the subject side. My family and I were taking a trip to Death Valley and Las Vegas on one of those quirky tours run by a Chinese travel agency, and tailored specifically for Chinese wallets and efficiency — that is, we were given only 15 minutes per scenic vista, were housed in cheap hotels that reeked of equally cheap cigarettes, ate third-rate buffets for almost every meal, and were herded on and off the bus like cattle.

At one buffet stop — and these were all Chinese buffets — we were turned out of the bus in some Nevada country town, approximately in the middle of nowhere. We were waiting outside while the guide went in to secure tables, when a scrawny, dark-haired teenager with inverted baseball cap suddenly glided up to us on his skateboard. He produced a Pentax 35mm film camera with a 50mm lens, of the type ordinarily used by high school photo students and starving artists. He started to take pictures of us, moving down the line of tourists, all of whom gawked back at him. Watching him snap away, I realized that if I were in his position, and didn’t have the embarrassment I usually have about photographing strangers, I might have taken the same pictures. And it was a real Diane Arbus moment — a bunch of Asian tourists waiting outside a run-down buffet, in an equally run-down strip mall with an otherwise deserted parking lot.Weirdness and discord!

In this case, however, the subjects resisted — at least some of them. When the teenager skated up to my family and started to photograph us from close range, my dad bristled. “Don't give that punk the benefit of a smile,” he said in Chinese. We all scowled at the kid — but he didn't let up. He just snapped and grinned maniacally at us (I suppose that’s what Arbus looked like, when she was working) until he skated away. I imagine that somewhere, in some art gallery, there is now hanging a beautiful black and white print of us, an angry-looking family of Chinese tourists waiting impatiently outside a country town buffet. The photograph is probably entitled “Untitled No. 4,” or “The Visitors,” and the teenager has made a lot of money out of it. One might say that he, Arbus, and Maier were all cut from the same cloth — or perhaps printed from the same negative.

But were they? I think not. As photographers and persons known or unknown, they were all individuals in their own right, for better or for worse. After all, there is “human content” on both sides of the lens.




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