Friday, March 30, 2012

The Individual Mandate and its implications

It appears that the individual mandate was a legislative overreach. The reaction from the left is interesting. Some are complaining about the idea of a limiting principle and wondering where that came from? (Answer: the Constitution). A few days ago a column appeared on Slate questioning why we even needed legislative review by the Supreme Court. After all, Speaker Pelosi was asked about the constitutionality of the mandate and dismissed it. Shouldn't that be enough?

The individual mandate is a tricky animal. The law's supporters insist that it is necessary to keep people from gaming the system. This puts them at odds with an earlier version of themselves. Just a few years ago they painted insurance companies as heartless for not accepting preexisting conditions. Now they acknowledge that this is a significant cost for insurance companies.

So, what to do about it? There are multiple ways that this could be handled. One would be to reform the relationship between insurance and your employer. Currently you get a significant tax break for insurance paid by your employer. For tax purposes, this isn't even income. You cannot get this tax break if you buy your own insurance. This is a relic from the 1940s wage controls. A few changes in tax law could change this so that your employer paid you your total compensation and you could take the insurance deduction from your personal taxes. That would eliminate many of the anxieties in the current system but it would make life harder for the insurance companies. Instead of signing up large employers they would have to compete for individuals, just like auto insurance.

A different way of handling preexisting conditions would be for the government to compensate the insurance companies through taxation. This was suggested during the Supreme Court hearing.

The reason that the government went with the individual mandate is that it hides the cost and gives credit for bringing coverage to 30 million uninsured. What goes unsaid is that many of these people were uninsured by choice - young, healthy people who are not likely to need insurance for years. The individual mandate is a way of taking money from those with the least money and the least need for insurance and giving it to those who do need insurance. It is a transfer of wealth but it is coming from the poor.

When you look at it this way you wonder why any liberal would ever support the individual mandate? It is nothing but a disguised, regressive tax that is being hidden by being processed by insurance companies. Instead of being straightforward about the costs, they are being hidden under the guise of fairness - making people who will eventually need insurance pay for current costs.

Health care reform (actually health insurance reform) is such an important issue to the left that they are willing to overlook how regressive its funding is or the expansion of government power that it implies. In the modern world, nearly everything affects interstate commerce somehow. Giving Congress the power to demand participation in markets gives it unlimited power. A couple of days ago I pointed out the similarities with 16th century England where people were forced to buy wool caps in order to stimulate the wool and knitting industries. Our Constitution was written to prevent this sort of abuse.

One red herring in the proceedings is the argument that the penalty for not complying is low. There is nothing to stop a future Congress from raising the penalty or turning it into a crime. It is unlikely that this would trigger a future hearing before the Supreme Court.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Obamacare and Obama's Legacy

According to multiple reports, President Obama came to the White House determined to leave a major legacy. This is not surprising. He was already being compared to Lincoln and FDR. He had openly compared himself to Reagan. The newly-minted president also had a high opinion of himself and his abilities. In the space of four years he had gone from being an obscure Illinois Senator to President of the United States. Someone who could accomplish that could do anything.

But frustration awaited the President. The economy had crashed the year before and was still in a delicate state. This also cut tax revenues and boosted the deficit. After trillions in bail-outs, the populous was shell-shocked and not in a receptive state to new spending initiatives.

It was suggested to Obama that his legacy should be saving the country from a second Great Depression. No, Obama said. That was too small. He wanted something big. He wanted Health Care.

But where to go from there? Several proposals had been floated during the campaign. Obama's own plan was fairly modest compared to Hillary Clinton's which included an individual mandate to buy insurance. Obama ran ads rejecting that as too intrusive.

A couple of options were off the table. One was a massive plan written by the White House. Hillary had tried that during her husband's administration and it had flopped. Obama would make sure that Congress was deeply involved.

Another option that was never considered was the plan that Republican challenger John McCain had advanced. This called for severing the relationship between insurance and the employer. This would make insurance portable which was one of the top concerns. Doing this would weaken the unions which made it untouchable.

Obama had some ideas of his own. A study on medical effectiveness had impressed him and he wanted to expand this and use it as a basis for all medicine in the country. Everything would be evaluated and only the best and most cost-effective treatments would be allowed. This ran into complaints about "death panels" and was scaled back to a small pilot program that would offer voluntary guidelines. Even this turned out to cost billions.

Next came a round of horse-trading. What started as a general overhaul of health care was cut back repeatedly. Trial lawyers are as important to the Democrats as unions so there would be no reform of malpractice suits. Cost controls on prescription drugs was dropped in exchange for support from the major drug companies. A similar deal was cut with medical professional organizations to keep doctors' independence in exchange for their support.

The big stumbling block was preconditions. The government wanted the insurance companies to cover everyone regardless of preconditions. The insurance companies complained that they could not afford to cover this without an individual mandate.

That sounded good to Obama. He could accomplish two goals at once. He could eliminate anxiety about preexisting conditions and he could expand coverage to 30 million people who were currently uninsured.

So health care reform became health insurance reform.

From there on, the White House took a hands-off approach to the contents of the legislation. Obama indicated that he would like a public option (a competing insurance program run by the government) but he would not fight for it.

The Republicans made it clear that they did not like the way things were going so all of the negotiations were between Democrats. It got messy. With every vote needed, deals were struck to essentially buy votes. Many of these deals were later dropped.

Public resistance grew. A series of town hall meetings to sell the legislation turned ugly.

Senator Kennedy died and was replaced with a Republican who promised to stop Obamacare. Obama and the Congressional leaders refused to let the legislation die. Eventually it was passed using some legislative maneuvering and without a single Republican vote.

All of this took 18 months. During that period the polls showed that unemployment and the economy were the public's top concern. Preexisting conditions were low on the list and insuring the uninsured didn't even make the top ten.

The public wanted to know that the government was doing everything it could to help them. Instead, the Democrats were stuck on health care.

Even though Obamacare was unpopular, the President was convinced that once the legislation passed it would become popular. He told the Democrats that they only way they could maintain their majority was to pass the legislation. If it failed then the voters would punish them the way they had punished the Clinton administration in 1994.

It worked the other way. The slaughter in 2008 made the 1994 election look mild. The Democrats still controlled the Senate but they lost the House and a record number of state and local offices. Without their the House and a Senate supermajority, there would be no second chance on Obamacare.

In the scramble to get something passed, Congress ignored warnings about the constitutionality of the law. The CBO pointed out that this would be a major expansion of the government's power. It didn't matter. The whole thing fell apart without the individual mandate so it had to include it.

Two years after passage, the Supreme Court heard arguments against the individual mandate. From the questions asked, at least five justices do not agree with this expansion of power. It is likely to be struck down when the Court rules in June. The only question is if they will strike out the entire law or only portions of it. One justice likened having to go through 2,600 pages of legislation to cruel and inhuman punishment.

In the meantime, the economy continues to lag. The Obama administration assumed that such a steep decline would be followed by a quick recovery giving a "V-shaped" recovery. That would allow them to take credit for the inevitable robust recovery in time for reelection.

Obama's economic policies have mainly centered on Wall Street in what seems like a modern variation of Trickle Down economics. House values continue to decline and people continue to lose their homes without much notice from the White House.

Obamacare itself contributes to economic uncertainty. Small and medium businesses are unsure what it will cost them to add new employees so they are putting off hiring.

With the presidential election looming, Obama's legacy looks like it is in tatters. Some or all of Obamacare is likely to be struck down meaning that the time and effort that went into passing it were wasted effort. This also contributes to the impression that Obama mismanaged the recovery.

Even if Obama wins reelection he is unlikely to have the supermajority in Congress that was needed to pass the original Obamacare so the idea that he can pass a more radical version is a fantasy.

This almost plays out like a Greek tragedy. By obsessing on his legacy, Obama squandered his presidency.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Limits to Commerce

After deciding the Obamacare is not a tax and therefor not constitutional through Congress's authority to tax, the only justification for the individual mandate is the Commerce Clause. This gives Congress the right to regulate interstate commerce.

Congress has used torturous reasoning to stretch their authority. At one point they declared schools to be weapons free zones. Their reasoning was that weapons in schools discouraged learning which led to a less educated populous which could affect interstate commerce. The Court did not buy this argument.

In the case of Obamacare, the argument is that not participating in commerce affects it. While this is true, it is a troubling expansion of Congress's power.

In the 16th century wool began becoming important to the English economy. In order to promote the wool trade, several laws were passed. Clothing had to be made from wool. Even burial shrouds had to be wool. Things went a step further in London where the knitters guild got a law passed requiring every resident to own a flat wool cap.

If Obamacare's individual mandate is allowed to stand then there is nothing stopping Congress from passing this same type of legislation.

This is where the disconnect lies between liberal and conservative. Liberals have no problem with an all-powerful government. They see the government as the solution to all problems. Conservatives want a government with well-defined limits and distrust centralized planning.

Obamacare itself is an argument against an expansive government. No one in their right mind would call it a great piece of legislation. It is a series of compromises and bargains balancing the most that some Democrats would accept against the least that other Democrats would accept. The Republicans were not even part of the negotiations.

Four of the justices seem untroubled by expanding governmental authority. Not surprisingly, these four were appointed by Presidents Clinton and Obama. They see the Constitution as an out of date document. Like President Obama, they would prefer a much longer document that spells out positive rights. If they were to draw up a new constitution then this case would never have come to court because their new document would have embedded a clause for mandatory health care.

The other five see the dangers. No matter how tempting it may be to let this case through it sets the precedent for laws that are less desirable.

The government would have been on more solid ground if the law had somehow managed to differentiate itself so that a clear line could be drawn between this and future laws. The government's attorney tried to argue that this is a unique case because health care affects everyone. Justice Kennedy (the most likely swing voter) pointed out that most people will need health care in their life but everyone will die and be buried. What would stop the government from requiring burial insurance?

No matter what you think about Obamacare itself, the larger issue is the continuance or abandonment of limited government. If Obamacare passes the court then we might find ourselves wearing wool caps.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Narratives and Agendas

Through last weekend there was one main narrative about the fatal shooting of Treyvon Martin - that George Zimmerman, a "neighborhood watch", stalked Martin and executed him, possibly fulfilling a life-long desire to kill a black man then literally got away with murder by claiming self-defense.

Reporters poured through 911 records and pronounced that Zimmerman had a fear of blacks in hoodies based on three calls (out of 26 pages of transcripts). Nearly every account mentioned that Martin had just bought a packet of Skittles.

Many details were left out or outright wrong. Some accounts said that Martin was returning to his father's house. Actually his father lived in Miami and Martin was visiting his father's girl friend who lived near Orlando. The fact that this was a gated community lead many to assume that it was an affluent, white neighborhood. It was a mix-race neighborhood of condos. Some questioned if Zimmerman was actually a member of the neighborhood watch or just a busy-body. Zimmerman's race was seldom mentioned (he is half-Hispanic). The main picture shown of Martin has been touched up. Among other things, his skin has been lightened. The picture and another one of Martin in his football uniform make him appear small when he was actually 6'2".

More recently other details have emerged. Previously the only public account came from Martin's girlfriend who said she was on the phone with him at the beginning of the fight. Witnesses have emerged who said that Martin approached Zimmerman from behind and threw the first punch, knocking Zimmerman to the ground then sitting on his chest and banging his head against the ground. Zimmerman is supposed to have suffered a broken nose and needed stitches in the back of his head from this treatment.

Initial reports said that Zimmerman was questioned at the scene and released. Later reports say that he was handcuffed and interrogated without a lawyer before being allowed to seek medical aid.

Martin's character has suffered. He was able to be in Orlando because he had been suspended from school for two weeks, his third suspension. There is also a report that the school found some women's jewelry in his backpack that he could not explain but nothing was done about this. This last is important because it indicates that Martin might not have been as innocent as his supporters make him out to be.

In the meantime, activists across the country have continued to call for Zimmerman's arrest and conviction. In some cases they have bordered on calling for his assassination. Black activists are using this as an example of the violence that all whites do to all blacks. Anti-gun advocates are using the incident to try to repeal Florida's Stand and Defend law (which may not apply here). Anti-police activists are using this as an example of police-sanctioned killing. Even the President commented that his son would look like Treyvon before calling for more investigation. Congress is holding hearings.

Would any of these people care is the races had been reversed?

In many ways this is a mirror image of society in the early 20th century. Back then, if a black man killed a white man in self-defense he would have been lynched. That could easily happen to Zimmerman (especially after Spike Lee Tweeted his home address).

Everyone who contributed to this atmosphere of hysteria should be ashamed. Facts are still dribbling out. Take a deep breath and remember the Constitution's presumption on innocence.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Who wins elections?

Rick Santorum's biggest argument for the nomination is that only a true conservative can win. He claims that moderates like Dole and Ford lose. I think that he is overlooking a more important point - resume. Here's a breakdown of the elections since 1960:

Nixon/VP&senate vs Kennedy/Senator - Kennedy
Goldwater/senator vs Johnson/president - Johnson
Nixon/VP vs Humpfrey/VP&senate - Nixon
Nixon/president vs McGovern/senator - Nixon
Ford/president&house vs Carter/governor - Carter
Reagan/governor vs Carter/governor - Reagan
Reagan/president vs Mondale/VP&senate - Reagan
Bush(41)/VP&senate vs Dukakis/governor - Bush
Bush(41)/president&senate vs Clinton/governor - Clinton
Dole/Senator vs Clinton/president - Clinton
Bush(43)/governor vs Gore/VP&senate - Bush
Bush(43)/governor vs Kerry/senator - Bush
McCain/senator vs Obama/senator - Obama

There is a pattern here. The losers all have their roots in Congress. In 13 elections, a challenger from Congress has never defeated an incumbent. The two incumbent presidents who were defeated were defeated by governors. What is more, an incumbent VP with roots in Congress does poorly against a governor.

This should come as no surprise. Governors have executive experience, members of Congress do not.

It also demolished Santorum's argument about moderates.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The EPA and the Court

A couple of days ago the Supreme Court ruled against the EPA. In case you missed it, here's what the case was about:

In 2007, a couple bought some land near a lake and began building a 3-bedroom house. Before they got very far the EPA notified them that they had damaged a wetland. They were to stop all construction and repair the damage. Failure to do so could result in a fine of $25,000 per day.

The couple tried to challenge this in court but ran into an obstacle. The EPA had not actually issued a ruling against them, it had only warned them that it would. The EPA considered their compliance to be voluntary and would only allow them to take the case to court after an EPA review on the merits of the case.

In other words, the only way that they could challenge the ruling would be to continue construction until the EPA actually levied ruinous fines. Then they could take a chance on winning their case in court and having the fines waived or losing and being responsible for fines that they could never pay.

The property owners argued that they should be able to sue based on the original order. The EPA argued that allowing people to challenge them in the court would slow the EPA's good works and hurt everyone.

The Court sided with the property owners 9-0 that they should be able to take the EPA to court.

On one hand this was a no-brainer. Who would expect the highest court to support an argument against taking arguments to the courts? The Justices had a vested interest which probably explains their unanimity.

On the other hand, the EPA was using a variation of the same argument that the government will use in justifying the Individual Mandate. This holds that the Mandate does so much public good that it's legality should not be questioned. It you listen to the supporters, this is the essence of their argument, that the whole thing falls apart without the Individual Mandate so it has to be upheld. The fact that this is a significant expansion of the government's authority is waived aside as immaterial.

Will the Court agree or will it rule that Congress exceeded its Constitutional limits? The EPA ruling shows that the Court does not always accept the argument in favor of giving up liberty in the name of the common good.

Santorum endorses Obama!


"You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who's just going to be a little different than the person in there," said Santorum. "If you're going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate of the future."

Santorum has previously made it clear that he does not care about economics. Romney's economic plan and Paul Ryan's budget are nearly interchangeable so economically Romney is mainstream Republican. No, Santorum is talking about social policy where he is not only to the right of Romney, he is to the right of the majority of the country (including Catholics who have been voting for Romney).

Santorum probably realizes that he cannot win the nomination this year so his best hope for becoming president is for Obama to win reelection. That would provide an open election in 2016 (or even better, Biden would be the Democratic candidate).

Losing a primary and regrouping worked pretty well for Romney. It gave him exposure and he learned a lot from the experience. He is a better candidate now than he was in 2008. Santorum might do better in four years. I doubt it, several current governors will be looking at the White House by then, but it is Santorum's best chance at becoming President.

So, when he says that we should stay with Obama he means that this would be best for him, not the country.

Santorum will probably be living down this statement for a long time. People still remember when Ralph Nader said in 2000 that Bush and Gore were indistinguishable.

I hope that this gaff finally forces Santorum out of the race. He is not going to win and he is just poisoning the water for all Republicans.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gaff of the Day?

It is amazing what people are calling a campaign gaff these days. Everyone knows that Romney is rich but it is considered a major gaff to admit that his wife drives a couple of Cadillacs. More recently, one of Romney's advisers was talking about the difference between a primary campaign and the presidential campaign. Everyone knows that during the primary Republicans lean right and Democrats lean left as they try to appeal to their core constituents. Once the primaries are over, the candidates each moderate their campaigns and try to appeal to the swing voters. That makes this a fair statement:

Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.

If Santorum or Gingrich were to win the nomination then they would do the same thing. That makes them hypocrites for waving Etch a Sketches and claiming that Romney has no fixed values. It's almost like they would prefer Obama to one of their own.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Malia and the Press

When the Obamas moved into the White House, they wanted their daughters to have as normal a life as possible. They quickly established a rule that the daughters are off-limits to the press unless they are with their parents. This is a fair request. It would have been nice if the press had respected a similar boundary with the Bush twins. Instead, every time they got caught with alcohol while still 20 it made the evening news and Leno's monologue.

In practice, the rule on the Obama girls means that the President can use them for political gain but they are otherwise off-limits. That rule has been stretched a bit so that there was almost no press coverage when the girls went skiing in Aspen in February with their mother.

The rule was strongly enforced last week when Malia went on a trip to Mexico with a dozen classmates and 25 Secret Service agents. At the White House's insistence, the wire service story about this trip was pulled in order to give the kids some privacy. The trip came back into the news after an earthquake but only to say that Malia is safe and unharmed.

There are some aspects of this that make me uneasy. I agree that it is inappropriate to send reporters along with the trip but why is it out of bounds to simply report that she went on the trip? This was a minor story (at least until it was pulled) and did not invade on her privacy. I wonder if the story was pulled for political reasons rather than because of issues of privacy? So far this year Malia spent Christmas break (or is that Winter Holiday?) in Hawaii with her parents, then went skiing in an exclusive resort with her mother and sister. Now she is off on an international jaunt. At a time that her father thinks that the rich are keeping too much of their earnings, it looks bad for the President's daughter to be living like the 1% at taxpayer expense. Was the story really pulled over privacy or because the Obamas' lavish lifestyle looks bad? Did the White House kill the story on Malia's behalf or on Barack's?

I am also worried about the power of the White House to pull stories internationally. It started with a French wire service and was picked up by the London Telegraph. Both killed it. What other, more important, stories has the White House killed?

I am not worried about Malia's destination. Some people including Santorum questioned the wisdom of sending the First Daughter to a country that the State Department has issued warnings against. Mexico is a big country and several places are quite safe, especially with a Secret Service escort. I expect that the State Department vetted the destination.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

An Unprepared President

The more behind I read about behind the scenes in the White House the more I think that Barack Obama's background left him utterly unprepared to be president.

Obama made it clear during the campaign that he saw differences in opinion as something that could be easily smoothed over. That was the basis of his offer to meet with the leaders of hostile countries without precondition. Domestically, Obama believes that all political differences can be resolved by getting people together. If they meet in good will and with the country's interests at heart then they will come to a reasonable consensus. It never occurred to him that instead of coming to a consensus, their views might harden and become non-negotiable. This has happened within his own cabinet.

I suspect that what Obama really believes is that a gathering of well-intentioned people will eventually come around to his way of thinking and is mystified when they do not. This leaves the President totally unprepared for the concept of principled opposition. Since he does not understand it, he attributes it to base motives. When Republicans opposed the stimulus and tried to explain their position, he lectured them about listening to Rush Limbaugh. When the Tea Party formed he blamed it on racism. When the Republicans had a landslide election in 2010 he blamed it on Fox News.

This is also why he keeps thinking that diplomacy will convince Iran to give up their nuclear program. Again, he can't grasp the idea of a fixed ideology so different from his own.

Obama is a believer in class warfare. One of his goals has been to raise taxes on the rich, not because it would increase revenues, but simply because he believes that they get to keep too much of their income.

President Obama means for green energy to be his signature, long-term accomplishment along the lines of Kennedy's commitment to a moon landing. That has led to billions in tax money wasted on failed technologies. When critics question the spending on green technologies, Obama complained that they were not forward-thinking and compared them to flat-earthers.

More then most residents of the White House, the Obamas live in a bubble. They consciously decided that they would not make any new friends when they went to DC because these could be people with agendas. Obama only has a few advisers he trusts. He dislikes Congress and does not have a personal relationship with anyone in Congress, not even the Democratic leaders he depends on.

Obama dislikes socializing and politics. He spends most evenings at home, eating dinner with his family. While this is admirable for most people, it puts him at a disadvantage.

Another casualty of Obama's dislike of Congress is his disdain for the separation of powers. He often complains about how powerless he is to accomplish anything. The EPA has expanded its authority to mandate automobile fuel standards and power plant emissions without Congressional approval. His Justice Department has made the case that "due process" required before executing an American citizen abroad does not have include the judiciary.

While Obama expects others to put the nation first, this is not in his temperament. He prefers to set political traps rather than to govern. After the Republicans made a proposal for reforming Medicare, Obama and the Democrats decided against offering their own reform. Instead they painted themselves as the defenders of the current system and ran ads showing the Republicans literally throwing seniors over a cliff. Obama will not even admit that there are severe structural problems in the entitlement programs. His policy on these and other problems is to "kick the can down the road" in the hope that eventually looming problems will be so immense that they can no longer be ignored.

Worst of all, Obama is so convinced of his own innate superiority that he does not recognize his shortcomings and try to correct them. Instead of addressing the concerns of the Tea Party, he wishes that he was as accepted in the US as he is in Europe. In other words, he blames his shortcomings on us for not recognizing his superiority.

All of this makes Barack Obama singularly unprepared for the office that he inhabits.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

State of the Primary

Santorum won Mississippi and Alabama. So who came out ahead and behind?

Surprisingly, Romney came out ahead although you would never know it from the coverage. He won Hawaii and American Samoa. Even in the two states he lost, he still got some delegates. The result is that he picked up 42 delegates while Santorum only won 38.

Gingrinch was the big looser. As the only southerner in the race, he had hoped to win big in Mississippi and Alabama. Instead he barely beat Romney for 2nd in those states.

While the press continues to talk about Romney's weakness, it is becoming obvious that he will win the primaries. He has the best campaign staff, by far. Santorum is having problems even filing full slates. He came up short in Ohio and Illinois. He didn't even make it onto the ballot in Virginia.

Santorum and Gingrich cannot match Romney's campaign. The experience of having run in 2008 also helps him. This is the first national campaign for Santorum and Gingrich. Ron Paul has experience but lacks wide appeal.

This also gives Santorum the best chance against President Obama of the four contenders. Obama will have a first-rate campaign staff and can only be beaten by a similar campaign.

That does not mean that Romney will win. Originally he was running on his record as a governor and businessman. Thanks to Newt's attacks on Bain Capitol and the Occupy movement's attacks on rich people in general, Romney seems almost afraid to mention that he got rich by fixing a lot of broken companies. It's considered a major gaff for him to mention that his wife drives a couple of Cadillacs (he's a self-made multimillionaire, what's she supposed to drive?). Without a compelling personal story, Romney doesn't have anything left except going negative against his opponents.

Obama offers plenty of negatives but Romney will need more to convince people to vote for him.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Afghanistan - where do we go from here?

Let's face it, we aren't making friends in Afghanistan. Let's pause a moment to remember why we are there.

Days after 9/11, the FBI concluded that it had been planned by the terrorist group al Qaeda which was, at the time, headquartered in Afghanistan. At the time Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban and we asked them to turn over al Qaeda. They refused and threatened us. So we invaded and overthrew the Taliban. Our only beef with the Taliban was that they were sheltering al Qaeda. Granted, they were oppressive, especially to women, but other governments have done worse and we haven't bothered to overthrow them.

It turned out that the Taliban was very weak. A few weeks later and the Taliban had vanished. So had al Qaeda.

We assembled a government and make promises about building Afghanistan a proper infrastructure. Then we pulled the army to go attack Iraq.

In the interim, the Taliban reassembled and began counter attacking.

In 2004, the Democrats complained that President Bush had taken his "eyes off of the ball" and that Afghanistan was where the real war against terror was taking place. After the success of the Surge in Iraq, both candidates in the 2008 election promised to do the same in Afghanistan. After being elected, President Obama did authorize a surge although it was less than what the military requested and it had a politically-inspired end date.

The Afghan surge did not go so well. Things worked out in Iraq because the surge coincided with the Awakening movement - the realization that the members of al Qaeda who had gone to Iraq to fight the Americans were not really the friends of the Iraqis. Nothing like that has happened in Afghanistan. Instead, the Afghans are increasingly seeing the Americans in an unfavorable light.

The drone war hasn't helped. Drones have become Obama's favorite weapon but it is hard to prove that the group you killed with a drone-based missile was really a group of terrorists.

Plus we expanded the war into Pakistan where the drones are really a touchy subject. This got trickier when we invaded their country in order to kill bin Laden.

Obama had trouble with his commanders. One had to resign after an article indicated that his private opinion of the President was less than enthusiastic. He does not get along with the President of Afghanistan, either. Neither man trusts the other.

The events of the last couple of weeks have made our position even worse. First, it came out that some holy writings including copies of the Koran were included in papers that were burned. This is understandable when you realize that the troops doing the burning cannot read Arabic.

Then a disturbed soldier committed an unthinkable act and killed a number of civilians, mainly women and children.

So, where do we go from here? Al Qaeda is long-gone. The Taliban controls a good bit of Afghanistan. We are trying to protect a government that we consider corrupt long enough to equip an Afghan army. It is questionable if this army will ever be strong enough to stand on its own and if we will be able to trust it if it can.

Our fight started out against al Qaeda but morphed into a fight with the Taliban.

We are not winning any friends by staying but if we leave we will seem weak.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Rush and Fluke

Rush Limbaugh said something that he shouldn't have and eventually apologized. Why are people still making a fuss over it? Because they see this as a chance to eliminate Rush. This has been a dream of the left for twenty years. Many liberals want to see the "fairness doctrine" restored to radio. This would require equal time for dissenting opinions and would shut down talk radio. This is known as the "Flush Rush Bill". Since TV favors liberals, there is no corresponding movement to shut down the Daily Show.

What about Sandra Fluke? What was it that she said that set Rush off? You can find a transcript of her testimony here. After reading it, I am tempted to agree with Rush. I take issue with many of her points.

The biggest issue is completely hidden - it is the assumption that contraception always equals birth control pills. There are other contraceptives and many of them do not require a prescription (and presumably would not be covered by any plan). Further, the standard advice to unmarried women with multiple sexual partners is to use condoms to prevent the spread of disease. That makes birth control pills redundant.

Condoms are also an inexpensive method of birth control for married couples. Granted, they have a higher failure rate than the pill but this means that someone who cannot afford the prescription is left completely without contraception.

The most heart-wrenching part is the story of a woman who needed to take birth control pills to prevent cysts. This is a read herring. The woman was unable to convince her insurance that she needed the pill for medical reasons unrelated to contraception. Yes, it would have simplified her life if a prescription for the pill was accepted without question but that is not why she needed it. The woman did develop a large cyst and had to have her ovary removed. This is where the heart-wrenching part comes in:

Since last year's surgery, she's been experiencing night sweats and awaking and other symptoms of early menopause as a result of the removal of her ovary. She's 32 years old. As she put it: If my body indeed does enter early menopause, no fertility specialist in the world will be able to help me have my own children. I will have no choice at giving my mother her desperately desired grandbabies, simply because the insurance policy -- that I paid for, totally unsubsidized by my school -- wouldn't cover my prescription for birth control when I needed it.

This woman was not going to give her mother any grandbabies, regardless. She is 32 so she is past her prime fertility. She is gay. Most important, she had to take birth control pills for a medical condition. How could she have children if she couldn't stop taking the Pill?

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Krugman's Horse and Cart

In a recent column, Paul Krugman came up with an explanation for why the recovery has been so slow compared with the Reagan recovery. It seems that it is all the government's fault for not spending enough.

A reasonable person might protest that the federal government is not on an austerity budget. Despite bipartisan talk about the deficit, government spending continues to rise.

Krugman's answer to that is that he is not talking about federal spending. He is talking about state and local spending. If they had been jacking up spending instead of cutting back then everything would be great.

There is one flaw in Krugman's argument - he is calling for deficit spending from entities that are required to balance their budgets. The only way that a state or city can spend more is to raise taxes (which many have done just to cover the shortfall caused by the recession). Even then we are talking about zero sum spending where government entities redistribute money. Unless you believe in the magic stimulus fairy, taxes represent as much drag on the local economy as spending increases it. Keynesian theory is based on government borrowing which states and cities cannot do except on a limited scale for capitol projects (like roads). Only the federal government can borrow to meet general spending.

Krugman's argument rests on the fact that state and local spending were higher at this point in the Reagan recovery so he figures that the spending must have caused the recovery. He has it backwards. The recovery happened independent of government spending. Instead, the expanding economy provided more tax revenue which accounts for the increased spending. Many of these entities had raised taxes during the lowest part of the recession so when things returned to normal their revenue was greater than it had been.

Of course, these entities never cut taxes to their pre-recession levels. They simply spent more. Columbus raised taxes from 1.5% to 2% in the early 1980s then raised them to 2.5% during the current recession. Doubtless they will raise it to 3% the next time a deep recession hits. All of this causes a drag on the economy which Krugman ignores.

When looking at ways to speed the recovery, Krugman will need to look further than government spending.