Follow by Email

Thursday, October 28, 2010

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AND ISLAM: AGAIN

Yet another member of the “tiny minority of Muslims who are radical jihadists” has been arrested in Virginia for plotting to bomb Metro stations in the nation’s capital. Farooque Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan was arrested Wednesday. The Washington Post reports that: “According to the indictment, in April Ahmed began to meet in hotels in Northern Virginia with people he believed to be affiliated with a terrorist organization. He agreed to conduct video surveillance of the stations, suggested the best time to attack and the best place to place explosives to maximize casualties, the indictment alleges. “

This event comes just days after the controversial firing from National Public Radio of long time political analyst Juan Williams. Williams,made two “unforgivable” mistakes; he appeared regularly on the FOX network, often as a liberal counterpoint to conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly and he offered a personal moment in which he admitted to a feeling of unease when boarding an airplane and seeing individuals in “Muslim garb”. He went on to say he realized that it was not fair to collectivize all Muslims in this regard but it was too late. The gods of political correctness were offended; another minority had been “unfairly” stereotyped and their acolytes at NPR had to take action. Of course the CEO of NPR had excuses. Williams had been “warned” not to express personal opinions on other networks before so this was the final straw. The fact that NPR is demonstrably liberal in its content and staff, including Williams, and management was no doubt offended by him offering his services part time to FOX, is hard to dismiss as not playing a role in his termination. But the choice of his comments about Muslims on airplanes as an alleged offense is ludicrous. Williams’ comments, taken as a whole, were not offensive and indeed, not commentary at all. He was sharing a personal feeling which he himself labeled as a weakness. This same uneasiness is no doubt shared by millions of other Americans and foreign citizens given the bloody history of 9/11. Of course the left wing media and blogosphere were quick to pounce and showed that even a life long liberal and African American political analyst sensitive to the plight of minorities is an ideological apostate if they a abandon the purity of political correct thought. Williams was widely labeled as a bigot and irrational for his expressed “unease” in airports. But the billions the world has spent on security measures for air travel since the 9/11 hijackings show these insults for what they are, knee jerk demagoguery.

Now comes Farooque Ahmed to remind all those with minds unclouded by the absurdity of political correctness that concern about those who by their appearance identify with a host of violent jihadists operating world wide is an understandable, even if not a perfectly logical, reaction. Of course not “all” 1.3 billion Muslims, no matter how they dress, are terrorists. But concern, whether it rises to a level of fear or not, is a natural human emotion and is not the same thing as bigotry.

At his first hearing in federal court Ahmed appearing in a full beard, as is common in some Muslim cultures and even required in others, and his wife appearing in a full hijab, did nothing to deflect the association by non-Muslims of terrorism with the Muslim religion, the small percentage (but significant numbers) of actual participants notwithstanding. Indeed, how big must a “minority who are extremists” be before generalized assumptions about their identity and belief systems can be made. The violent actions of tens of thousands of “non-terrorist” Muslims throughout the world with regard to simple cartoons of Mohammed are clearly documented. Calls for jihad, fatwas, and death threats against journalists and authors are hardly isolated incidents.

The Washington Post reminds us of other recent terrorist incidents just in the U.S. The Christmas Day airline bomb attempt in 2009, and the more recent Times Square bomb attempt by Connecticut native Faisal Shahzad; both would have killed and injured hundreds. Hosam Smadi, a Jordanian tried to blow up an office tower in Dallas, and Michael Finton, aka Talib Islam, a Muslim convert tried to blow up a federal office building in Illinois. In fact, the Post reports that just since 2009, more than sixty American citizens have been charged or convicted of terrorist acts. These folks weren’t Presbyterians or Hassidic Jews. Juan Williams is to be applauded for both his honesty and his recognition that separating the Muslim terrorists from the wider Muslim population while necessary is very difficult.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

ELECTION FATIGUE

With only (or still) two weeks to go before the mid-term congressional elections the process is beginning to feel like a forced march with a bad hangover. The public policy part of the debate, which never had much depth, seems to have faded into background noise as the candidates at all levels are engaged in desperate acts of profound stupidity and vicious personal attacks. In terms of “policy” it’s pretty simple: Republicans want to cut taxes, cut government spending, and reduce government’s size and intrusiveness. Democrats want to tax the “rich”. Both sides want to “create jobs”. Except for taxing the rich, few details have been provided for the rest of the promises. No where is there a serious discussion of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, although they continue to consume billions of dollars and create thousands of casualties. In fact, the wider scope of U.S. international security issues, especially Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, has received little to no attention in televised debates, a distinct failure on the part of media hosts. Enormous trade deficits and environmental issues are peripheral at best. Candidates are more busy trying to demonize their opponents with largely exaggerated and mostly irrelevant character assassination euphemistically known as “negative ads”.

We have the following spectacles. In California, an economic basket case, the issue “de jure” has been the use of the word “whore” in a private phone conversation by a staff member of gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown. Also, in California, Democrat Barbara Boxer’s campaign has charged Republican senate candidate and former CEO of international electronics giant HP (Hewlett Packard) with “creating jobs over seas”, a truly shocking procedure for an international company.

In the senate campaign in Kentucky, Democrat candidate Jack Conway, who is behind, thinks he will catch up by charging his opponent Rand Paul, with being anti-Christian and sexist because of some college pranks Paul participated in about twenty-six years ago. Paul was so offended that he refused to shake hands with Conway after the debate, and of course voters have to view the “analysis” of this shocking and important event by the talking heads of cable news.

Activists and candidates would have us believe that all Democrat candidates for any office are closet “socialists” and all Republican candidates are “right-wing extremists” beholden to the purveyors of “corporate greed”. Many Republicans seem to be running against Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama and in true time warp tactics, many Democrats are still running against George Bush.

In many cases, the candidates themselves are providing the grist for the political mill of absurdity. In the hotly contested Nevada senate race, Republican candidate Sharon Angle told a group of Hispanic students that some of them looked “like Asians”. Why she would say something as dumb as this, politically and otherwise, in a state like Nevada, which has a large Hispanic population will probably never be explained. On the other side, Democrat Harry Reid’s campaign thinks they have discovered Angle’s political “Achilles Heel”. In a recent ad they accuse her of “living off her husband’s government pension” and being “covered by Medicare”. That’s it; strange but true.

The infliction of chronic, perplexed head shaking on the voting public continues in Delaware where Republican and Tea Party anointed candidate Christine O’Donnell, after having earlier cleared up voters fears that she was a witch, and calling evolution a “myth”, expressed surprise in a debate that the First Amendment to the Constitution’s Bill of Rights required separation of church and state. O’Donnell perhaps is to be forgiven for missing too many eighth grade civics classes but while on the job training is a wonderful thing, this particular gaffe occurred in front of a group of law students and professors who were understandably dismayed. O’Donnell continues to make the news for her entertainment value but is suffering from a double digit deficit in the polls.

But the governor’s race in New York takes the prize for the Mardi Gras in November award. The Republican candidate, Carl Paladino who has been providing the entertainment so far by threatening to use a baseball bat on the state legislature and angering the large homosexual population of the state with irrelevant anti-gay remarks, actually looked pretty normal compared to the colorful fringe candidates that were inexplicably invited to participate in a recent televised debate. Particularly amusing, sort of, was the fast talking Jimmy McMillan a.k.a. “Papa Smurf”, representing The Rent is 2 Damn High Party. Yes, that’s the real name of the party, although Papa Smurf may well be its only member. McMillan, with his strangely exaggerated sideburns and beard resembles Billy Goat Gruff wearing black gloves, had only one theme, of course; “The rent is too damn high”, but no solutions. Then there was Kristin Davis, the former “madam” of a “ house of ill repute“, not the House of Representatives, another one, with perhaps less ill repute and more to offer. She is running as the Anti-Prohibition Party (legalized prostitution) candidate and says she has experience in delivering the goods. All in all there were seven candidates at the debate which was laughable unless you remembered that it was the only debate for the New York’s governor’s race and New York runs a close second to California in terms of dysfunctional government.

The Tea Party Movement was supposed to bring voters an alternative to “politics as usual” and it seems to have lived up to its billing, but desperate Democrat candidates have joined the side show and November 2nd will come none too soon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

IS PROHIBITION OVER? AGAIN?

Prohibition, the illegal manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages was overturned by constitutional amendment in 1933 after a 13 year experiment. Now there is a similar widespread movement to legalize another popular drug, marijuana. Currently 14 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the sale of marijuana for “medical” purposes. The Obama Administration has announced that it will not enforce federal laws against the sale of the drug in states where it has been legalized. These policies open the door to some important questions:

1. Is this an unstoppable trend or just a few cases of permissive politics in socially liberal states?
2. Does this mean that the questions about the medical efficacy and side effects of the use of marijuana have been settled?
3. Have the social implications of legalized drug use been sufficiently studied and found to be benign?
4. Will the decriminalization of marijuana have a beneficial effect on primary and secondary crime connected with it’s consumption?
5. Will decriminalization of marijuana lead to increased use of other illegal drugs and/or a movement to decriminalize other drugs?
6. Will a growthProhibition, the illegal manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages was overturned by constitutional of more conservative government at both the state and national levels retard or reverse the trend?

While 14 of 50 states does not seem to be a large percentage (28%), the number of states legalizing pot has been steadily increasing since California was the first (no surprise there) in 1996. The record shows that new states were added to the list on average every one to two years. The mix seems to be one of recognized “liberal” states besides California i.e. Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island and Nevada along with more conservative/libertarian states i.e. Alaska, Montana, Maine. Other states defy simple ideological labels, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, New Jersey. So ideology may not be the driving force in the legalization process although it is probably safe to say that some states are so conservative as to be unlikely candidates in the future i.e. Oklahoma, Arkansas.

With respect to the medical issues, both supporters and detractors have expert opinions on their side. Respected medical authorities and research institutes seem to be split on the effectiveness and desirability of cannabis for treatment of the most common medical uses which are the effects of chemo-therapy (nausea) and chronic pain in any of a number of instances but mostly associated with cancer, especially cancers associated with AIDS.

The social implications of increasingly widespread marijuana use don’t seem to have been widely studied. The standard response of advocates is that “it is no worse than alcohol use”. This argument seems to have a built in weakness. While most users of alcohol do so responsibly, alcohol remains a potentially, debilitating, addictive and dangerous drug. Families are destroyed, worker productivity diminished, violence is precipitated and automotive fatalities abound as a result of the use of alcohol. The advocates of legal pot use might have a better argument if marijuana was likely to replace alcohol use. Society might then be no worse off, but that is not the case. Legalizing pot adds another narcotic on top of alcohol use, often in combination with that use, and thus logically increases the problems from irresponsible use.

In addition, it remains to be seen if legalization of drug use changes the public perception of it, making it more acceptable and thus encouraging its use by minors. This issue becomes even more important when combined with the question of marijuana being a “gateway drug” leading to experimentation and eventual addiction to harder and more harmful drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines. This issue remains unsettled and is irrelevant with regard to actual use of marijuana for medical purposes.

If there is a specific and measurable benefit to legalization, it is going to be the decriminalization of the possession of the drug itself and the reduction, if not the elimination of the crime associated with its importation and sale. Current laws seem virtually unenforceable, because like alcohol prohibition of the 1920’s and 1930’s, demand creates endless supply. In addition, law enforcement efforts have filled U.S. prisons with drug offenders, many of whom plied their trade with marijuana. MJ is also a significant component of the cross border smuggling and drug cartel violence. Cocaine and heroine will still be significant problems in this respect but taking MJ out of the mix should reduce the illegal market and the violence.

Decriminalization of marijuana might indeed give some impetus to the current minority movement to decriminalize harder drugs but since the medical and social arguments supporting marijuana use will not be credible for these drugs, that movement will have to rely on the issue of crime prevention, a serious consideration but a much tougher sell politically.

National politics is now consumed by the issues surrounding the economy but polls show a marked movement of voters to the Right. Conservative politicians in, or supported by the Tea Party, are not only fiscal conservatives but social conservatives. The implications of this for state laws and federal enforcement would seem to indicate a slow down on new states passing marijuana friendly laws. It is too early to look forward with much clarity to 2012 but a Republican president and thus a Republican Department of Justice, might have a very different opinion about enforcing existing federal laws.

In addition, the marijuana legalization movement has some obvious credibility problems. Legalization in the 14 states and District of Columbia is based quite specifically on the “medical use” of the drug. Few people believe that the bulk of the marijuana being consumed in these states is for genuine medical reasons. No doubt, there are actual medical patients using it in connection with AIDS and other debilitating diseases but some statistics show a different trend. In Colorado Springs, CO, the web site WeedMaps identifies 92 retailers of pot (but only 34 MacDonald’s restaurants). This is in a city of less than 400,000 people. Boulder, CO, a city of 100,000 and home of the University of Colorado, boasts 50 marijuana retailers. A recent survey of registered users of medical marijuana in Colorado not surprisingly, finds that the highest percentage of users live in the ski resort areas and college towns, not the usually abodes of the aged and infirm. Applications for state issued user permits is running at 400 per day yet the New York Times reports that less than 1% of those 65 and older nationally, smoked marijuana in 2009 and only 4% of people 50 to 65 used it last year. Also, according to the Times, Dr. Seddon R. Savage, President of the American Pain Society has said that “Under almost al circumstances, there are alternatives that are just as effective.”

Pot shops offer such “medicines” as Skinny Pineapple, and Early Pearl Maui as well as pot laced brownies, lollipops, and butter. Pot is expensive, some types running $375 to $420 per ounce, much more than most prescription pain killers One estimate of “medical users” for the Colorado in 2010 put the figure at 15 thousand. The population of Colorado, consistently cited as one of the healthiest and youngest states in the nation, is only 5.1 million with only 15% over 65 in 2005.. Marijuana stores advertise “early bird specials” and other enticements. Clearly, recreational use is driving the market. Once publicly acknowledged, that fact changes the nature of the debate. It’s that simple and that invites a higher level of political controversy. Still, Prohibition failed and in today’s political environment of reaction against intrusive government, pot shops may someday be as ubiquitous as the aforementioned MacDonald’s.

Friday, October 1, 2010

THE REPUBLICAN PLEDGE: POLITICS AND POLICY

The Congressional Republican “Pledge to America” has been announced. While it was instantly derided by Democrat officials and liberal pundits it is at least a window into what a Republican controlled House and/or Senate might look like in January, 2011. Admittedly, coming just weeks before the November elections it is at least a part election ploy or “tactic” if one seeks a kinder label. But it is also a good idea since the few Republican legislative initiatives offered in the current Congress have been lost in the obscurity of subcommittees, and majority Democrat offerings. Democrats have convinced some voters that the Republicans are the “party of no” who have no ideas. The ideas in the Pledge are few and mostly general in nature but worth examining.

Republicans in Congress and in the general public, along with numerous independents have expressed unhappiness with President Obama’s health care reform act and several states are suing in federal court to overturn it. The Pledge states it’s intention to repeal the act and replace it with a new, simpler version. While this is a good idea, it is, in the current time frame, just electioneering. Even if Republicans gained majorities in both the House and Senate which is unlikely, any such repeal legislation would be first filibustered to death by Democrats in the Senate and even if somehow ultimately passed, would face certain veto by Obama. Since overturning a veto takes a two thirds majority in both houses, this part of the Pledge will have to wait for a Republican president which can’t happen before 2013, following the 2012 election. Still, the prospect of a framework for a simpler health care reform is interesting. The Republicans would retain the most desirable parts i.e. not allowing insurance companies to deny coverage for previous conditions and disallowing lifetime limits on coverage. The creation of “high risk” pools for the chronically ill and previously uninsurable has already been accomplished in several states. The further emphasis on tax deductible health savings accounts and tort reform to reduce health care provider’s exposure to enormous medical liability claims also make sense.

However, the ideas for health care reform change do not specifically address two important areas: the reported 35 million citizens who are uninsured and the high costs of both health care and health insurance coverage. The fact that the Obama plan doesn’t address the costs issues specifically does not make the Republican ideas any better in this respect.

In terms of “government reform”, the ideas are interesting and mostly positive but also mostly window dressing. They would require the sponsors of bills to cite the Constitutional authority which allows their bill. Much of Constitutional authority is based on federal court interpretations of “implied” powers” making such a legislative requirement impractical and subject to further endless interpretation. This part of the Pledge is clearly aimed at much of the Republican base who feel that government has usurped too much power in opposition to the Constitution’s promise of limited government.

A more common sense proposal also in the Pledge is that of limiting the scope of bills to their primary purpose and not allowing numerous extraneous amendments intended to “buy” the votes of hesitant members.

The Pledge also addresses government spending, as it should. It suggests a freeze on government hiring in “non-security’ areas and cuts to the Congressional budget. It would also freeze discretionary i.e. non-entitlement, spending. Job creation data nation-wide shows that most of the jobs added in the last few months have indeed been government jobs, not private sector jobs which actually produce goods and services. Freezing discretionary spending is a start but most of the federal budget is consumed by entitlements i.e. Social Security, MediCare which are both expanding at dangerous rates and are political “hot button” issues. Exempting security related expenditures takes cuts to the Defense Dept. off the table in terms of political debate but with a defense budget in excess of 700 billion dollars, that part of overall federal spending will have to be addressed no matter which party controls Congress.

Republicans would also stop further spending already authorized under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) passed during the Bush Administration and the “stimulus” bill passed under the Obama Administration. This is an interesting proposal since much of these funds have yet to be spent and are “back loaded” in terms of job creation in the near term. It is worth revisiting these bills to judge whether the costs to the ballooning federal deficit and debts can be justified by the benefits of the expenditures specifically authorized, many of which have been identified as simple “pork” targeted towards parochial interests.

National security has historically been a Republican owned issue and the Pledge makes a couple of token promises in this area. First, tapping into public sentiment, they promise no civilian criminal trials for terrorists and second, no non-germane amendments to the Defense Appropriations bills. This a clear shot at Senate Majority Harry Reid who attached a citizenship for college attendance or military service amendment for illegal aliens who had been in the country before their 16th birthday and another repealing the military’s current ban on openly gay service members. A third promise is to fully fund a missile defense system. None of these issues is high on the list of financially strapped voters but they “keep the faith” and are intended to draw a distinction between the Republicans and Democrats who support the opposite positions. Republicans also want to keep the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay open which makes sense and anyway Obama hasn’t been able to find anywhere to transfer the prisoners.

On jobs, which is the major issue in this year’s campaign, Republicans promise to keep the so called “Bush tax cuts” arguing that more money in private hands stimulates the economy. They would also reduce federal regulations on businesses and allow “small businesses” to deduct the first 20% of business income from tax liabilities. These are common sense positions but may not be broad enough to stimulate much enthusiasm by themselves. Many Democrats say that “tax cuts for the rich” would add a huge amount to the deficit but then they are arguing for another massive stimulus of government spending to create jobs which would do the same thing. A deficit wary public may find the Republican’s less dramatic solutions more attractive.
In a swipe at the Obama Administration’s opposition to the Arizona immigration law and lawsuit against the state, the Pledge states that it would “reaffirm the authority of state and local law enforcement to assist in immigration enforcement. Since federal immigration control is ineffective and under staffed this is another common sense position, but the federal courts have taken over the debate about local participation and that is where the issue will ultimately be decided. However, with large majorities of American voters supporting Arizona’s legislation, this is a political savvy addition to the Republican’s political statement.

The remainder of the Pledge is standard conservative feel good rhetoric: “honor the Constitution, especially “original intent” and the 10th Amendment which implies limited federal powers. The Republicans also seek to dramatize the difference with Democrats and again excite their base on the social issues: “honoring families” i.e. “traditional marriage, “life”, an anti-abortion position, although no specifics are stated, and finally support for private faith based organizations.

The major omission in the Republican plan is a strategy for dealing with the ballooning deficits, now running @$1.3 trillion and the accumulated federal debt which hovers around $13 trillion. The Pledge contains a commitment to reduce spending by $100 billion annually but doesn’t provide specifics. Democrats have offered no credible strategy either, preferring to quibble about “extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich”, whom Obama defines as anyone making in excess of $250,000. Removing these taxes will supposedly add $700 billion to federal coffers over ten years, certainly not enough to deal with the deficit or retire the debt. Eventually, both parties will be forced to face this politically dangerous issue, but not in the months leading up to an election. The unpleasant realities are that the entitlements, Social Security and Medicare, which Republicans and Democrats all swear to protect, have to be adjusted to account for the increasing number of elderly entering the programs. Eligibility will have to be delayed and benefits reduced somehow, sometime. However, such changes will just slow the growth of the deficit and debt. To reduce those obligations revenues will have to be increased. That means additional taxes, there is simply no way around it. With only half of federal tax filers actually paying taxes, more broad based taxes will need to be considered. A gasoline tax and/or a federal sales tax will have to be on the table at some point but it will take politicians of unusual courage to stray from the easier strategies of tax cuts to “grow economy” and thus produce more tax revenue (the Laffer Curve of the Reagan era) and more taxes on the “rich” who pay most of the taxes now.

So what the Pledge essentially does is restate some familiar, general conservative themes while throwing in a few specifics to counter the accusation that the party offers no meaningful ideas to deal with the economic crisis. It should serve that purpose by bringing some comfort to moderates and independents who are looking for an excuse to vote their anger at the Democrats who have been in charge of Congress for four years and at all levels for two years and can no longer run away from the persistent problems of the country by simply saying “Bush did it.”