Archive for April, 2011

First Amendment? Who Cares?

Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech. Heady words to be sure, but apparently in Dearborn, Michigan, ones to be honored more in the breach than the observance. As most of you recognize, they are some of the words of the first amendment, guaranteeing all Americans the right to speak publicly about the issues that concern them. And it is equally binding against state and local governments, thanks to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the fourteenth amendment.

That is, of course, unless you’re Terry Jones and want to protest in Dearborn. Then, the local authorities will demand a “peace bond,” and if you don’t provide one, they arrest you and put you in jail. To be clear, Jones didn’t protest. He did refuse to pay for the peace bond, which is when the judge tossed him in the klink. In effect, he was jailed for a thought crime; he was jailed for something he might do, not something he did. Even more egregiously, he was jailed for what someone else might do.

The prosecutors put on evidence that Jones’ protest would be likely to breach the peace. According to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, the complaint — based on a 19th-Century law — was an attempt to prevent Jones from breaching the peace. “We thought it was important because of public safety,” a spokesman for Worthy said. The prosecutor put on no evidence that Jones’ protest would breach the peace, however. The evidence they produced did show that others would breach the peace, though.

During morning testimony, Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad said there had been at least four serious threats made against Jones from metro Detroiters, raising the likelihood of violence if the protest were held. Haddad testified that Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, who heads the Islamic Center, told him that for some members of his mosque, burning the Quran was considered a major crime. Qazwini expressed concern about how some young members of his mosque might react to Jones, Haddad testified. Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Robert Moran said in court that Qazwini talked about how some feel Quran-burning “is worse than more than 1,000 deaths. That’s what the citizens of this society believe.”

The number of things wrong with the prosecution go way beyond their failure to understand the rules on hearsay evidence. They do include a failure to understand clear and consistent Supreme Court rulings on free speech, as well as an inability to differentiate between America and other “societies.” The Supreme Court has made it clear that threats against a speaker are not grounds for violating the first amendment, nor are general threats of violent reactions to the speaker’s message. And Moran suggesting that “citizens” of this “society” believe that burning a book is worse than 1,000 deaths is simply appalling. What society does he mean? He certainly doesn’t mean Americans; nobody could make a case that that was an American belief. Does he mean Muslims? If he does, is he suggesting that they are citizens of a different society? He is, among other things, guilty of pandering to a minority, as well as butchering the English language. And who cares what the members of a mosques consider a major crime? We don’t, in America, allow private bodies to decide what are crimes, whether major or not.

All the foregoing pales in comparison to the damage the Wayne County prosecutors have done to the Constitution. In the name of placating a violent minority, the authorities in Michigan have decided to strip a citizen of his rights. This is so major a problem that even the ACLU, normally reticent to defend anything right of center, has joined in the chorus of voices excoriating Judge Somers, the Wayne County prosecutors, and the police chief.

Wayne State University professor Robert Sedler, an expert in constitutional law, said the trial was “bizarre” and that Worthy “should have known better.” “The judge should have thrown out the case,” Sedler said. If protesters intend to be peaceful and are expressing their views, the government can’t make them pay in order to express their First Amendment rights, he said. And the ACLU of Michigan attacked all parties who sought to restrict Jones — Dearborn police, prosecutors, and the district judge who oversaw the trial.

“This is a complete abuse of the court process, and all those involved should be ashamed,” said Rana Elmir of the ACLU Michigan office. “The prosecutor’s office and the Dearborn court turned the First Amendment on its head. What happened today should never have happened.”

Aside from that, there is the problem of what commentator Pamela Geller calls Dearborn’s “soft bigotry” of low expectations: “The city of Dearborn’s position is that Muslims are so violent and irrational that they won’t be able to control themselves if Jones holds a protest? And he has to pay for damages? Why wouldn’t the marauding Muslim hordes pay the damages if they are doing the damage? And if they get violent, why aren’t they in jail?”

Looking at the larger perspective, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch puts it succinctly:

“Yet it has been done now, and the precedent set that a man has been arrested, jailed, and fined for the Orwellian crime of planning to hold a politically incorrect protest. Whatever one may think of Terry Jones and his book-burning (and I am not a fan of book-burning myself), every free citizen should be supporting his right to protest in Michigan. Muslims should not be immune from criticism and protest in America any more than anyone else is. To restrict Jones’ right to protest in front of a mosque is to send the signal that violent intimidation works, and that those who killed people in Afghanistan because of Jones’ Koran-burning have achieved their ultimate goal: to make Islam immune from criticism because every potential critic will be afraid to speak out.”

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Put Up, or Shut Up!

Tax day is here, and I have sent out the check to the IRS. Passing over the irony of tax day being delayed for “Emancipation Day,” there were two interesting news stories making the rounds over the weekend. Neither one of the stories alone is all that surprising, but taken in concert, they illustrate exactly what I believe our current “tax or reduce spending” debate is all about.

The first story was that 45 per cent of all households pay no federal income tax. They are what I call “net consumers” of federal tax dollars. Roughly 70 percent of these households make less than $50,000 per annum. Only 5 percent make more than $250,000. The other 55 per cent, who pay federal taxes, are “net payers.” I am excluding FICA, Medicare, state, and local taxes from this figure. By net consumer, I mean someone, who at the end of the year, has contributed no money to the treasury. Contrast that with the net payer, who has contributed some of his or her wealth to the common weal.

The second story concerned the net payers, and how much they paid. It turns out that, on average, those households earning $250,000 or less pay about 9.3 percent of their gross income in federal tax. Those households earning above that number pay about 17 percent of their gross income. That’s about twice the percentage paid by those in the first group. Note that these figures are based on gross income, and therefore don’t include deductions and credits.

These stories tell me one thing. That is that class warfare is alive and well in America. We are barraged by news stories about the rich failing to pay their fair share. Our president claims that the fortunate should pay more than they currently do. The liberal blogosphere is all atwitter over Paul Ryan’s budget proposals, and the conservative blogosphere is likewise all agog over Obama’s budget speech. The op-eds go on about whether we should cut spending or increase taxes. The Nation has a headline in the May 2 edition, “Obama’s ‘Shared Sacrifice’ Hits the Poor and Middle-Class Hardest .” That reminds me of the William F. Buckley quip that if the world were to end tomorrow, the N.Y. Times headline would be: “World to End, women and minorities hardest hit.”

What we fail to realize, or at least mention publicly, is that half of America is footing the bill for the whole thing, including a large portion of transfer of wealth payments to the other half. The top 5 percent of earners pay more than 60 percent of income taxes. The top 10 percent of earners pay more than 70 percent. And the top half of earners pay just shy of 100 percent of income taxes. The half that pays no tax has an economic incentive to vote in the way that maximizes their wealth, just as the half that pays tax has an economic incentive to vote in the way that maximizes their wealth. Obama recognizes that, as do most liberals, who realize that the lion’s share of the “net consumer” group vote left. Consequently, Obama can rail about shared sacrifice while giving the net consumers a nudge and a wink.

As long as half the electorate has an economic incentive to vote to continue to receive, public policy is skewed in that direction. Resulting in, mirabile dictu, a 14 trillion dollar national debt and a 1.4 trillion dollar budget deficit.

So here’s my solution to the problem. Not the immediate, this year, problem, but the long term problem of “economic-interest” voting.

First, only net payers get to vote. If you don’t have cash on the table, you don’t get to play. If you want a say in how GE, for example, is run, you buy stock and vote at the shareholders meeting. If you want a say in how America is run, you “buy stock” in America and you get to vote. Net consumers of tax dollars don’t get a say any more than mere buyers of GE light bulbs get a say in GE’s affairs.

Second, no tax change can take effect until an election has intervened. Same policy as we have for congressional raises. That gives the electorate a chance to veto congress over this issue.

Third, no more voice votes. Voice votes are a way for congress to weasel out of responsibility. They can voice vote something in, and then deny it with no record. Make them accountable, make every vote a recorded vote.

Fourth, single subject legislation. No more burying IRS issues on a health care bill, or public policy issues in a budget bill. Force our representatives to vote on single issues, with a recorded vote, and prevent them from saying, “I would have voted yes, but for…” Make congress accountable, make their votes public, and make their votes about one thing at a time.

These ideas may not fix all our problems, but they’ll go a long way to reining in our ever-growing spending. By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a “net payer.”

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The Obama Doctrine, Mexico, and Guns

Vigorously defending the first war launched on his watch, President Barack Obama has declared that the United States intervened in Libya to prevent a slaughter of civilians that would have stained the world’s conscience and “been a betrayal of who we are” as Americans.

“Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different,” Obama said. “And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” More than 8,000 Libyans aligned with the rebel movement that rose up against Muammar Gaddafi have been killed in the revolt against his rule, a spokesman for the rebel movement told Al Jazeera Sunday. “Our dead and martyrs number more than 8,000 killed,” Abdel Hafiz Ghoga said. Granted that the number comes from the AlQaeda affiliated rebels, and was reported by Al Jazeera, but let’s not quibble over the exact number.

Many commentators have declared this to be the “Obama Doctrine.” We will take action in foreign countries, regardless of Congress, provided some extra-territorial authority like the UN or OPEC authorizes it, and provided it fits the ideological leanings of Obama. Which is why we are involved in a “kinetic military action” in Libya, but not in Cote d’Ivoire. We are a bigger presence in Afghanistan, but not in Nigeria.

But of more curious interest is a little closer to home. Apparently 8000 dead Libyans is a tragedy that “stains the world’s conscience,” but 34000 dead Mexicans is a mere inconvenience, hardly worth mentioning. That’s the number of people killed in the Mexican drug cartel wars. To be fair, some of those are Americans, and I’m sure some are citizens of other countries. The subject is in the news recently because of the border shootings, where an American was killed, and the bus kidnapping where two Americans were killed.

Conspicuously absent from any of the media coverage has been Obama’s invocation of America’s inability to turn a blind a eye to the tragedy. Worse than his inactivity on the Mexican issue is the fact he may be complicit in at least some of the slaughter.

Some of those killed have been ATF and ICE(formerly Border Patrol) agents. And the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms has been running an operation called “Operation Gunrunner.” According to the ATF, which really sounds like a great convenience store, the point of Gunrunner was to “deny firearms, the “tools of the trade,” to criminal organizations in Mexico and along the border.” According to its critics, some of the media, and one former manager of the operation, Gunrunner has been supplying guns to the cartels.

George Gillett Jr., assistant special agent in charge of the ATF’s Explosives field office in Phoenix, has met with congressional investigators and is expected to provide crucial information about how dozens of U.S. guns may have been transported with the ATF’s knowledge into Mexico. Under Project Gunrunner and the Phoenix off-shoot, dubbed Fast and Furious, the ATF encouraged gun store owners to sell to straw buyers — consumers who they suspected of working on behalf of Mexican drug cartels. Project Gunrunner purposely allowed the straw buyers to illegally buy and export guns only to see where they surfaced in Mexico. Using this investigative technique, the ATF hoped to take down the entire gun trafficking organization. Instead, records show it allowed more than 1,700 guns, including hundreds of AK-47s and high-powered, armor-piercing .50-caliber rifles to be trafficked to Mexico.

When asked about it, Obama, Eric Holder, and Hillary Clinton all denied any knowledge of the operation. In an interview with Univision, Obama said, “I did not authorize it; Eric Holder, the attorney general, did not authorize it. He’s been very clear that our policy is to catch gun-runners and put them into jail.” Obama has, however, proved he has a sense of humor when he said Holder has asked the Justice Department to investigate.

The ATF forced gun dealers – against the dealers’ better judgment – to sell weapons to prohibited individuals with known connections to gun-smuggling operations. ATF agents who were on the ground then came forward to testify against this disastrous project, but were blacklisted by senior ATF and Justice Department officials. To top it off, this comes while ATF press releases continue to spread the flat-out lie that over 80% of all the guns used in Mexico’s drug war come from the United States. And now, officials all the way up to the Obama White House are denying any knowledge of the operation.

There has been an awful lot of propaganda from the Obama camp, before and after the election, about how evil the firearm industry is, how irresponsible firearm dealers are, and in general, how bad guns are. At the very same time Obama, Holder and Clinton were brazenly lying about guns smuggling, the ATF was coercing gun dealers into selling to suspicious buyers. That the ATF was manufacturing the very crimes that they were demanding more authority to stop is typical of the behavior of this administration. Aldous Huxley said, “Continued crisis breeds continued control.” The Obama administration seems to have taken that maxim to heart.

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Koran Burning and Killing

This past week, a minister decided to, and then did, burn a copy of the koran. It was his copy, that he owned. I believe, although I have no proof, that he knew the burning would be provocative. I believe that he had reason to suspect that muslims would be offended and voice their displeasure. I am not certain that he anticipated the level of violence that erupted. I am certain that he did not expect that his actions would threaten the US constitution.

After the burning, the president, a high ranking general, and two US senators all castigated this minister, with some going as far as to suggest he had acted treasonously and that there might need to be limits on the first amendment during times of war.

Senator Lindsey Graham said: “I wish we could find some way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war. During World War II you had limits on what you could do if it inspired the enemy.” Notwithstanding the fact that we’re not really in a war, Graham’s impulse is scary. So is Senator Harry Reid’s. “Ten to 20 people have been killed,” Reid said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We’ll take a look at this of course. As to whether we need hearings or not, I don’t know.”

The Florida minister has done us a great service, I think, although not necessarily in the way he intended. He has reminded us all of the scope and intent of the first amendment, and he should be thanked for that. I have said many times that the first amendment wasn’t put there to protect daily pleasantries. It was put there to protect speech that was offensive, and unpleasant, and disruptive. And the minister’s book-burning episode was all three to a lot of people.

What I find disturbing is the rush to blame him for some deaths in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the middle east. Petraeus condemned him for putting the lives of soldiers in danger, while the Obama administration was a little more nuanced. After Obama publicly castigated the minister, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “One, we absolutely condemn the burning of a holy text. We think it’s un-American and inappropriate. Two, nothing justifies — absolutely nothing justifies the kind of violence and fatal violence that we saw that took the lives of workers at the United Nations in Mazar-i-Sharif — absolutely nothing.” Aside from the weasel-word “inappropriate,” the administration is clearly absolving the minister of any culpability for the deaths in the middle east.

And that’s as it should be. I get that the muslims are upset. I don’t care, but I understand it. After all, I was upset about Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili, but I got over it without burning anything, rioting, pillaging, or killing anyone. And both Serrano and Ofili made it a point to say they were being provocative and inflammatory. As a matter of fact, there were a couple of inconsequential threats made to them, but nothing of any substance, and they didn’t have to go into hiding, or stop being “artists.” Violence-prone packs of Christians did not roam the streets of Paris, or London, or Frankfurt, or Madrid, or New York calling for their heads..

And that is really the crux of the issue. When Jones burned the book, muslims rioted, burnt, and killed. They also put a fatwa on Jones’ head, ala Rushdie, to the tune of 2.2 million dollars. Some, quite a few, actually, apologists were blaming the deaths and the rioting on Jones. They were quick to say that he knew what would happen, and that he was trying to incite things. Maybe so. I don’t know him, so I can’t claim to know what he was thinking, although it was reported that he said he was trying to “stir the pot.”

But to suggest that the muslims who rioted and killed over a perceived slight were goaded into it, and that Jones bears any measure of responsibility, is to commit a fallacy that can be fatal to not only human life, but the life of our society as well. Suggesting that the muslims were driven to this violent excess is tantamount to saying that they lack full moral authority over their actions. This denies to muslims recognition of their full humanity, and reduces them to automatons, programmed to react with violence to every thing that offends them. The history of western civilization is one of exactly the opposite approach, ascribing to each actor the responsibility for their deeds.

And this is the difference between the two world views, the west on one hand, and the east on the other. The west, based on Judeo-Christian principles, believes that God imbued us all with free will, and we must make choices, and take personal responsibility for our actions. The muslim view is that allah is a capricious god and commands certain things, and that to do other than what allah commands results in eternal damnation. Islam rejects free will in the same way it rejects democracy and liberty.

It is a clear concept that people are responsible for their conduct. In this case, the people responsible for the deaths in the mid-east are the people who actually did the killing. Those who suggest otherwise are reducing the muslim world to little more than animals, incapable of acting rationally. Only if we hold them fully accountable can we be said to be treating them as equals. Jones may be wrong-headed, a poor Christian, thoughtless, and insensitive. But it does not make him responsible for what people half a world away do.

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Cui Bono, Wisconsin, Cui Bono?

Two union workers are talking. One says to the other, “I like our union boss, he really cares about the working class.” The other one responds, “Of course he does, that’s how he avoids belonging to it.”

Boy, has this been a busy couple of weeks. Obama invades Libya, the NY Times accuses GE of not paying enough tax, Terry Jones burns a book, and Scott Walker is denounced as the devil incarnate by union members far and wide. Enough to keep me busy for a while.

After I posted a link to an article on National Review Online about the Wisconsin mess, starting a flurry of comments, one of my friends (a member of the friendly opposition) wondered why I hadn’t written a blog about the Wisconsin union fight. I opined that I was too poorly informed to make a meaningful contribution to the issue, and that I needed to learn a bit more. Yes, I know that many of you are now snickering that I am always too poorly informed about everything. Objections noted. So I undertook to educate myself a bit, and I did some thinking, and I came to a few conclusions.

As I understand it, Scott Walker is the duly elected governor of Wisconsin, and the legislature that sits in the capitol is also the duly elected legislature. Both the governor and the legislature were elected by majorities of the respective electorate, in accordance with state law. It’s not like Walker sits in Avignon.

Scott Walker has suggested that the state of Wisconsin, like many other government entities, is undergoing a budget crisis. In response to that crisis, Scott Walker introduced a budget repair bill. This bill is, give or take, 144 pages long. It deals with an entire host of things. The things that have gotten people heated, and gotten various Republican lawmakers death threats, is a section that makes five changes to the current system of public-sector labor-management relations. To hear the assorted people opposed to the bill, it is nothing less than the end of labor unions in America. I have been told it will gut OSHA, bring back child labor, and eliminate the EPA. I am not kidding about that.

What are the provisions in the bill that raise so much ire? I sat down one evening, and read the bill. 144 pages of legislation is a chore to read in the best of cases, but budget bills are even worse. Worse still is the fact that a bill of 144 pages makes reference to hundreds of other pages, so it was a long night of reading. As best as I can make out, here is what the bill does to public sector unions, and only public sector unions. It makes no difference to private sector unions.

The bill would:

require government workers to pay half the cost of their pensions – still less than private employees pay for their pensions

require government workers to pay 12% of their own health insurance premiums – the national average for the private sector is over 20%

end collective bargaining for government unions for pensions and benefits, allowing bargaining only for raises that are less than inflation

end forced union dues, collected by the state, allowing workers to stop the state from collecting dues on behalf of the union

allow union members to vote yearly on whether to keep their union.

None of these requirements seem all that onerous, and the package of benefits would still be in excess of that offered to the average private sector worker. There is nothing in the bill outlawing unions, or preventing them from negotiating workplace issues like grievances and unfair labor practices. Faced with a monetary shortage, they are being asked to contribute a small percentage towards their own benefits. Benefits that are significantly higher priced for the taxpayer.

That having been said, what’s really at stake here? As the Roman philosopher and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero told us to ask two thousand years ago, “Cui Bono?” Who benefits from the status quo? Let’s see.

After he took office, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels used an executive order to end collective bargaining for public workers—a power granted by former Governor Evan Bayh. The number of state public employees has since fallen to 28,700 from 35,000. Perhaps equally important, however, the vast majority of those employees stopped paying union dues. Today, 1,490 state employees pay union dues in Indiana, down from 16,408 in 2005. Similar declines have played out in Washington State and Utah, when those states gave members the freedom to choose. Of course, with substantially less money coming into their coffers, union bosses have plenty to worry about—as do the beneficiaries of their largesse, Democrat lawmakers and candidates. AFSCME, SEIU, and the NEA don’t give money to Republicans.
This is why teachers issue death threats and labor leaders encourage the boycotts of local business owners who won’t join them at protests. The Dane County district attorney says 26 year old Catherine Windels from the village of Cross Plains sent threatening e-mails to 15 Republican state senators. The e-mails threatened, among other things, “We feel that you and your Republican dictators have to die. I as well as many others know where you and your family live,” and a group was planning on “putting a nice little bullet in your head.”

People are willing to believe that the government manipulates people, that corporations do, that republicans, or the rich, or the Illuminati manipulate people, but are unwilling to believe that unions do. I find that just a bit cognitively dissonant.

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