The way things look ...
rose madonna on bedroom dresser brick pedestrian arch cat on bed seen through doorway basil plant in kitchen window deer startled in cemetery

 12/10/13 -- Bells Will Be Ringing, the Glad, Glad Tune ... 
Need a little Christmas boost? This year's Christmas Spirit Index indicates you're one of the few who haven't already had plenty. Visit this year's Christmas Page and see. While you're there, feed your inner Quasimodo with the exciting history of church bells. Plus, find out what The Byrds were really singing about.

 12/3/13 -- The Forecast: Cloudy and Overcast, But the Sky Was Never Falling ... (Yet) 

With the government shutdown and all, fiscal year results have been slow to seep out. But a CBO report has now revealed that federal revenues were up and spending down for the second year in a row. And the deficit has now stayed flat or shrunk each year since 2009. Get the picture, trend-wise?

Congressional Budget Office

The ritual decrying of Obama's wastrel ways, which always was nonsense, has audibly subsided amid the continuing dearth of corroborating evidence. A few diehards like John Boehner dutifully bring runaway spending up from time to time like a mantra to accompany their litany of national outrages, but it lacks the conviction of their courage. Boy, the debacle came along just in time, didn't it?

Not that Congress's year-end hijinks didn't do damage. Gallup estimates the shutdown cost the economy $24 billion in lost GDP.

Actual FY'13 budget results vs. CBO's May estimates

The CBO tactfully observes that corporate [and individual] tax receipts were a combined $34 billon lower than its May projections, "largely reflecting an unexpected slowing in the growth of those receipts in the last several months of the fiscal year."

Not that there isn't significant work to be done. Social security's old age and survivors insurance fund, with its current revenue and payout streams, will be broke in 30 years. This was a known risk well before Obama, but the parties simply can't bring themselves to talk about it.

Social Security's disability insurance fund will go broke sooner—next year. With a chronically weak job scene it has become a de facto retirement plan for long-term unemployed too young for old age benefits. It was never designed for that role.

The other huge expense nightmare? Rising health care costs. This isn't just a big deal to you. The federal government already pays for over 50% of all health care treatment costs. And they just can't afford to continue.

Other postings on this page ...
The Beltway's new 150 lb. gorilla
Look, We're on the Jumbotron!
Wait Til Next Year
The mission was to drain the swamp.
It was really sad, but he was really scared.
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.
Tunes to set the seasonal mood. (Like you needed that.)
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am.
The Platters: When rock and roll was new.
Gentlemen: priorities, please.
Things aren't as they appear, Jafar told Aladdin
CPAC Presidential Straw Poll
Wayne LaPierre is not a straight shooter.
A republic, if you can keep it.
The debt: still river-deep mountain-high, but the future is bright. and try to play nice and get it wrong.

Beyond its much-ballyhooed focus on health insurance, the Affordable Care Act promotes any number of cost control initiatives, some of them quite innovative, all of which would be lost if its opponents ever succeeded in eviscerating the program.

There are all kinds of ways to fix these things that don't involve shutting programs down, but all involve different kinds and levels of pain for the electorate. And that explains why nobody on either side of the aisle is remotely interested in approaching these bothersome matters.

These are more matters for people actually interested in shoring up the national financial footing, as opposed to vilifying the other side as a way of finding a firm campaign stance for the coming mid-term elections.

What choice do they have, really? In the movie "Wall Street," Michael Douglas's character, Gordon Gecko, tells his acolyte Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) (following their encounter with prickly British arbitrageur Sir Larry Wildman (Terence Stamp): "He's right, I had to sell. The key to the game is capital reserves. If you don't have enough, you can't piss in the tall weeds with the big dogs."

More than anything else on earth, your elected officials want to piss in the tall weeds with the big dogs. And they will do—and say—anything, anything, to you to keep that dream alive.

 10/31/13 -- Trick or Treat. 
Happy Halloween! Click the pumpkin face for Sammy's final unsolicited Halloween guidance to his children. Yes, you heard right. Last chance.

Stranger Than Fiction

Random comments overheard during the U.S. debt ceiling stand-off.

"Obviously, we know, and you know by now, that failure to raise the debt ceiling would cause not only serious damage to the U.S. economy but also to the global economy as a result of the spillover effects."
Christine Lagarde, International Monetary Fund Chief

"The US is clearly aware of China's concerns about the financial stalemate [in Washington] and China's request for the US to ensure the safety of Chinese investments."
Zhu Guangyao, Chinese Vice Finance Minister

"The budget standoff is likely to hurt all facets of the global economy through financial markets."
Taro Aso, Japanese Finance Minister

"I think it's irresponsible for the President to scare people. He should be the opposite."
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY)

"Nothing really matters
Anyone can see
Nothing really matters ... to me"
Freddie Mercury, "Bohemian Rhapsody"

 10/14/13 -- Cruz Crushes in Values Voters Summit Presidential Straw Poll 
Values Voters Summit, Oct. 11-13, Washington, DC
candidate vote
Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN)
Gov.Sam Brownback (KS)
former Gov. Jeb Bush (FL)
Dr. Ben Carson
Gov. Chris Christie (NJ)
former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton
Sen. Ted Cruz (TX)
former House Speaker Newt Ginrich (GA)
former Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR)
Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA)
Sen. Mike Lee (UT)
Gov. Susana Martinez (NM)
Rep. Rand Paul (KY)
Gov. Mike Pence (IN)
Gov. Rick Perry (TX)
Sen. Marco Rubio (FL)
Rep. Paul Ryan (WI)
former Sen. Rick Santorum (PA)
Gov. Scott Walker (WI)
Not an election in sight, but the hands-down winner carried on his own 21-hour Senate filibuster when there wasn't a bill in sight, so .... The Family Research Council's three-day "2013 Values Voter Summit" featured a huge speaker roster of social conservative voices including Sens. Mike Lee (UT), Rand Paul (KY), Tim Scott (SC) and Ted Cruz (TX); Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN); former Rep. Allen West (FL); Ben Carson, MD; Edwin Meese; Jim DeMint; Glenn Beck; Cal Thomas and Mark Levin. Attendance at these events, begun in 2008, averages 2,000 plus. The Presidential Straw Poll surveyed 762 respondents. (PR Newswire)

 10/04/13 -- Many a Tear Has to Fall, But It's All in the Game 
With a charming mixture of impetuousness, naivete and poor judgment, Rand Paul, a first-term U.S. Senator (R-KY) and aspiring public relations writer, importuned Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Capitol Rotunda in early October.

The insistent Paul just had to have, right then, a private, whispered tete-a-tete about the federal government shutdown. This despite his fellow Kentuckian's admonition that he was already "wired up" for a pending TV news interview.

Do you have a second?
I'm all wired up here.
I just did CNN. I just go over and over again: "We're willing to compromise, we're willing to negotiate." I don't think they've poll tested, "We won't negotiate." I think it's awful for them to say that over and over again.
Yeah, I do too. I just got came back from a two-hour meeting with them. And that was basically the same view privately as it was publicly.
I think if we keep saying 'We wanted to defund it. We fought for that but now we're willing to compromise on this,' I think they can't—we're gonna, I think—well I know we don't want to be here, but we're gonna win this I think

The exchange was caught by Kentucky TV station WPSD and on YouTube within 12 hours.The more seasoned McConnell knew to try to keep things general, but Paul, like a kid before Christmas, simply could not contain his enthusiasm. (Why either one thought whispering would help remains a mystery.)

Two parts of your game to work on, Rand. First, next time remember not to run through the stop sign.

Second, it doesn't look good you acting like this is a game. To most people it's not. If Mitch wasn't slicker, you might have sucked him right in with you. And then where would we be?

"Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest."
Bion of Borysthenes c. 325 - c. 250 BC
(Greek philosopher, noted for acerbic wit; quote cited by Plutarch)

 9/28/13 -- America's Job Creation Machine: Last Year's Big Idea 
In 2010, you couldn't pick up a newspaper and not find a story about the miracle of the small business job creation engine. Not that everyone believed it. But there was not a politician who didn't. Even the President was on board.

This was before the NRA had supplanted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as America's preeminent lobbying force posing as a public interest group. The Chamber had been hammering away at a public relations campaign based on two deft slights-of-hand to win favored treatment for the small businesses that were its paying customers. And it worked, as public relations will every once in a while.

"We genuinely believe that small business is the backbone of America. It's going to be the key for us to be able to put a lot of folks back to work."
President Obama, 2011

First, they redefined small businesses as any business with fewer than 500 employees. That was rather generous. It encompassed 99.7% of all US employers. Naturally those businesses are going to account for a hefty chunk of the workforce. In fact, it was astounding they only accounted for half.

Second, the Chamber created a pretext to support the claim that their clients were the hiring champs of the American economy—deserving of favored treatment in any government job creation scheme and White House stimulus policy, while deserving immunity to any burdensome legislation.

They pointed ceaselessly to the 2002 business recovery, when smaller businesses began hiring more quickly than their larger (and more cautious) brethren. This one incident became their axiomatic proof of an eternal verity.

People bought it, especially in the nation's capital. It became pretty clear that whatever kind of recovery program Washington was going to put its shoulder behind was going to favor the small entrepreneur. After all, that's where the jobs came from, and that's what would lead us to the Promised Land. The U.S. Chamber had won its point, on the merits or not.

Even back then, serious economists had concluded that job creation was most likely to come from start ups and younger companies, because when the stars are right that's where the greatest opportunity for job expansion is, and when the stars are wrong, that's where there are the fewest jobs to lose.

But no matter. Since when are people who actually know what they're talking about ever able to gain traction facing into the headwinds of a political cold front?

Over time, the employment picture of the past several years has proved to be pretty much framed by the dimensions of the financial meltdown and the subsequent anemic recovery. Anemic because companies never did resume expanding staffs with any gusto—owing to automation, computerization, off-shore sourcing, part-time hires and tight balance sheet management.

Bureau of Labor Statistics employment reports make two things pretty clear: the jobs downturn was a short-term phenomenon, and the current modest growth is a long-term one. (Employment figures have returned to pre-recession levels but don't accommodate any economic growth or even any increase in population. The unemployment rate, at present 7.3%, is fully two points over a comfortable norm.)

Bureau of Labor Statistics

The U.S. Census Bureau surveys employment by firm size as part of its decennial charter. (It takes a more comprehensive approach than BLS and reports larger private sector job numbers.) Its most recent numbers (see below), covering the period 2004 to 2010, make one more thing clear: size doesn't matter. Losses were consistent pretty much across the spectrum of firm size.

And while the roughly 6 million firms with less than 500 employees are traditionally credited with producing more than half of total employment, compared to slightly less than half by larger firms, in 2009 and 2010 their relative positions actually reversed. The Census Bureau will update its survey in 2017.

In other words, serious number crunchers already knew the score in 2010, even as the U.S. Chamber's tub-thumping was reaching its crescendo.

Word on the street is that small firms continue to lag in job creation since 2010. Goldman Sachs economist Chris Dawsey believes he knows why.

The question is not why has small business employment done so poorly since its peak, but rather why has construction employment [concentrated in small firms] done so poorly since its peak—a question that we can answer much more readily in light of the collapse of the housing bubble starting in 2006.
Business Insider

Now, though, that's all just numbers. Politicians have moved on. There's no money to be made in employment these days. The recovery may be listless, but slow and steady is nothing you can impeach a President over. It lacks gravitas. It lacks spectacle. It lacks headline oomph.

However slow-moving the economy, government spending is undeniably down, and revenues are up. What point, then, in trying to tar the leader of the free world with a meltdown that actually happened before he even got into office anyway? Thirty percent of Louisiana Republicans blame Obama for the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005. It doesn't make them look smart.

The hostage du jour in the House's new debt ceiling extortion plan is now health care, not jobs or spending. The playing pieces change, but the dynamics remain basically the same. And equally fact free. And as strangely irrelevant to larger, darker political purposes as ever.

But while Charlie Sheen may have been right about the goal, a shutdown is tactics, not strategy. Nobody thinks Charlie Sheen's tactics were very good, not even those willing to concede the clarity of his strategic vision.

Worth noting: Charlie Sheen walked away beaten but wealthy. But then, as to the latter, so do Congressmen, don't they? Too bad there isn't a better way to tie their pay to performance.

U.S. Private Sector Employment Grouped by Company Size
  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
No. of firms 5,885,784 5,983,546 6,022,127 6,049,655 5,930,132 5,767,306 5,734,538
w/ <20 emp 5,255,844 5,357,887 5,377,631 5,410,367 5,294,970 5,170,798 5,160,404
w/ 20-99 emp 526,355 520,897 535,865 532,391 526,307 495,673 475,125
w/ 100-499 emp 86,538 87,285 90,560 88,586 90,386 83,326 81,773
w/ >500 emp 17,047 17,477 18,071 18,311 18,469 17,509 17,236
Employees 115,074,924 116,317,003 119,917,165 120,604,265 120,903,551 114,509,626 111,970,095
w/ <20 emp 21,197,087 21,289,196 21,609,520 21,770,236 21,461,733 20,738,309 20,573,768
w/ 20-99 emp 20,642,614 20,444,349 21,076,875 20,922,960 20,684,691 19,389,940 18,554,372
w/ 100-499 emp 16,757,751 16,911,040 17,537,345 16,153,254 17,547,567 16,153,254 15,868,540
w/ >500 emp 56,477,472 57,672,418 59,693,425 60,737,341 61,209,560 58,228,123 56,973,415
U.S. Census Bureau, Statistics of U.S. Businesses

The Myth Of The Small-Business Job Engine
Small businesses do create the most jobs overall, but as the businesses shrink or die off, they also eliminate the most jobs, leaving little net gain. And while the Small Business Administration says companies with fewer than 500 employees have generated nearly two-thirds of all net new jobs over the last 15 years, economists who sliced the jobs data differently reported in an August 2010 paper that the size of businesses doesn't really matter when it comes to adding jobs—but their age does.
The Fiscal Times Aug. 29, 2011

 9/11/13 -- "I Remember Sad September; Dying Summer's Brave Display ..." 
Whoa, that went fast. Another summer over and done and retreating to the fringes of consciousness. Like the one sweet girl in her summer dress, it slipped away.

It doesn't end officially until Sept. 22, you know, but there's no point in dragging this out, don't you agree? You've already moved on, right?

So what did you make of it? A new romance, one perfect day, a reunion with an old friend from another summer, a reconnection with an old flame that never really died?

Some sweet revenge on someone deep in your past who richly deserved it? An idyllic afternoon at the ball park, stolen from time, accompanied by a young child and her cap and her mitt? A charming afternoon in the city late in the season when the humidity was down and almost everyone was out of town?

Or did you mostly just hang out at the beach, or in the backyard, or worse, miss it entirely because you were stuck in a class or the office?

No matter. Here's what your friends were listening to on the Jukebox in the Summer of 2013. Oh yes, they tuned in, making memories out of memories.

Summer 2013 Top 15 Playlist:

1) In the Good Old Summertime Julien Neel trudbol (1902)

2) Summertime, Summertime The Jamies (1958)

3) All Summer Long The Beach Boys (1964)

4) Theme from A Summer Place Percy Faith And His Orchestra (1959)

5) Summer Song Chad and Jeremy (1964)

6) The Things We Did Last Summer Jo Stafford (1946)

7) Boys of Summer Don Henley (1984)

8) Vacation Connie Francis (1962)

9) Harbor Lights Francis Langford (1937)

10) Warm California Sun Rivieras (1964)

11) Here Comes Summer Jerry Keller (1959)

12) On the Way to Cape May Cozy Morley (1960)

13) Dancing in the Street Martha and the Vandellas (1964)

14) Under the Boardwalk The Drifters (1964)

15) Pipeline The Chantays (1963)

Go to Summer Song playlist

Ocean City, NJ, Sept. 11, 2013, 1:39pm. Time to wrap it up.

Well that's about it. Don't be sad. Autumn is for hopeless romantics too, and football has started.

The Beach Boys are back on the list! See you next season.

Curiouser and Curiouser
"I'm takin' what they're givin' 'cause I'm workin' for a livin'."
Personal Income And Outlays, July 2013
Personal income increased $14.1 billion, or 0.1 percent, and disposable personal income (DPI) increased $21.7 billion, or 0.2 percent, in July, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased $16.3 billion, or 0.1 percent. In June, personal income increased $38.2 billion, or 0.3 percent, DPI increased $27.3 billion, or 0.2 percent, and PCE increased $64.0 billion, or 0.6 percent, based on revised estimates. Private wages and salaries decreased $15.3 billion in July.
U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)
August 30, 2013
How Will Cash-Rich Firms Share Profits?
Large U.S. companies are awash in cash, and that's put the spotlight on how much of that money is going to investors via dividends and share buybacks. Corporate profit margins have roughly doubled from the early 1990s. In turn, that's driven cash flows and the level of cash on corporate books to the highest points in decades. And with today's historically low interest rates, that's heightened the issue of what corporate managements are doing with all that money.
T. Rowe Price Insights
August 26, 2013
Check out Huey Lewis and the News—Workin' for a Livin' (live, 1982). It'll get you out of your Labor Day funk and into a whole new one.

 8/30/13 -- The House Oversight Committee: Where Scandals Go to Die 

Even Republicans are starting to wonder if Darrell Issa is any good at his job. All talk, no action. All show, no go. All smoke, no fire. All hat, no cattle. All vine, no tater. Or if in Brooklyn, just a bullshit artist.

The Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee since 2010, Darrell Issa (R-CA) rode in with an aggressive agenda. He called the Obama Administration "the most corrupt in modern times," termed the President's initiatives "steroids to pump up waste" and promised seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks, with an eye to saving about $200 billion for U.S. taxpayers.

He had the tools to do it. The House Oversight Chairman is the only one in Congress with subpoena powers. A salivating press corps envisioned a steady march of unwilling witnesses from the White House to the Capitol Building. Seven hearings a week? Headlines enough for all!

Issa went on record that his focus wouldn't be on personal corruption but rather on wasteful spending. He said the officials he targeted would be more in need of accountants than lawyers.

"The American people deserve and have a right to expect that the money Washington has taken from them is well spent and well accounted for," Issa said in a press release. "House Republicans have promised to pursue [an agenda] that is focused on identifying and reforming waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement within the federal bureaucracy."

Issa tweeted that he planned oversight hearings on everything from TARP and stimulus-related spending to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the foreclosure crisis to corruption in Afghanistan to WikiLeaks, food safety and medicine to the "impact of government hyper regulation on job creation." (He even promised he'd go after President Bush.)

With seven hearings a week, that should have taken about two weeks. He's had three years now. How's it going?

Not exactly as hoped. Basically Issa and his investigators got distracted almost immediately and pursued scandals they found in the newspapers and on cable TV. And despite initial promises, Issa focused almost exclusively on a succession of government officials, usually looking for corruption and failing that, trying to prove obstruction in the form of blocking the search for truth.

The committee's major investigative initiatives have been "the Fast and Furious" ATFE gun monitoring debacle, the Solyndra loan, regulations requiring religious organizations to provide insurance coverage for birth control (the Sandra Fluke fiasco: see "3/11/12 -- Shudda, Cudda, Wudda" on this site), the attack on the Benghazi mission, Federal subpoenas of Associated Press phone records and Tea Party profiling at the IRS.

"It was all just a big misunderstanding."

Even before Congress, Issa was a man of accomplishments. But it's never been hard to find someone to say a bad word about him.

He is the richest member in the House of Representatives. His adult career has been a true rags-to-riches journey. The path has not exactly been straight or narrow. He joined the army out of high school, left early with a hardship discharge, went to college, rejoined the army, at one point mightily impressed General Wesley Clark, who gave him a glowing review. While other reviews were not always so glowing, he rose in time to the rank of Captain.

After the service, Issa worked in small electronics manufacturing and eventually started a company called Directed Electronics, Inc, which became the maker of the Viper car alarm, which went gold. That's his voice telling you to move away from the car on his signature alarm product. How he got to where he did is a tangled tale. (See The New Yorker, Jan. 24, 2011.)

Between the army and Viper, Issa amassed a checkered record of minor brushes with the law. In his time, he has been:

  • Arrested for auto theft
  • Convicted of possession of an unregistered handgun
  • Charged with carrying a concealed weapon
  • Accused of intimidating an employee with a handgun
  • Investigated for arson in a fire that gutted his company office and warehouse. (Ultimately, not charged; settled with insurer.)

Issa has also been dogged by criticisms of his business dealings and questionable financing sources

Appearances matter to Darrel Issa. He just wishes people would stop paying so much attention to niggling details of his own past. Which he insists can all be explained. Ironic, no?

In 2003 Issa used his riches to finance the gubernatorial recall campaign in California, which put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the statehouse. Issa had hopes he might win that prize for himself, but voters got all jiggy when sordid details of his past came leaking out. He tearfully quit the contest, pledging to devote the rest of his life to achieving peace in the Middle East.

A few wild oats didn't keep him out of the House though, where he represents a highly conservative area known as "The Inland Empire," east of LA. It currently leads the nation in high desert and upside-down real estate.

Parts of his story call to mind the testimony of Big Julie from Chicago at the Mission Doll's cabaret in "Guys and Dolls." "Well, I used to be bad when I was a kid, but ever since then I've gone straight, as has been proved by my record: Toity-tree arrests and no convictions!"

There was no one really for the Oversight Committee to excoriate over "Fast and Furious." The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has had no permanent director since 2006 when Congress voted to require Senate confirmation for the position. B. Todd Jones was sworn in finally in August. Embarrassment, no doubt, broke the log jam. So Issa focused on the Attorney General.

Eric Holder, Hilary Clinton, Sandra Fluke and Lois Lerner all walked out of committee chambers like professional prize fighters, judged to have won their encounters on points and overheard to mutter, convincingly, "Never laid a glove on me."

Lerner, the embattled director of the IRS Exempt Organizations division, a witch hunted con gusto by committee members from both parties—where's the match for Congressional sanctimony given the right opportunity?—defiantly declared her innocence in her opening statement.

Then without drawing a breath, she took the Fifth, not even allowing the committee so much as a harrumph in her direction, and she departed (suppressing a chuckle).

"It is inappropriate and too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It's unacceptable, and it's shameful."
Eric Holder to Darrell Issa

Issa was so unhappy with Eric Holder over "Fast and Furious" he had him declared in Contempt of Congress.

Kind of ironic: the Attorney General of the United States held in contempt of Congress. The first cabinet member ever thus held. Turns out it doesn't mean anything. Like much of Issa's work it turned out to be just a gesture.

Holder bore it manfully, but it was clear his feathers were ruffled. He fired a sharp verbal report at Issa's head in their very next encounter.

It's a safe bet the Attorney General and the House Committee Chairman will not be exchanging Christmas messages this year.

Issa maintains that most of these investigations are still open, but with nothing to report on, the press keeps, by and large, moving on. Keeping their powder dry, no doubt, in hopes that the next bout will prove to be the big one.

And Obama? His name comes up, generally at the beginning of each battle and in the context of breathless hyperbolic predictions of the imminent disaster about to finally befall him. But so far the President, too, remains pretty much free of glove marks.

To date, no senior officials have been forced to resign, and there's no evidence that taxpayers have saved any appreciable dollars. Although a medium-sized forest has been turned into copy paper to meet the committee's subpoena demands.

Issa asked for tens of thousands of documents pursuing "Fast and Furious." The White House and the Justice department spurned many of those requests due to concerns about Executive Privilege (sound familiar?) and because too many of the documents were privileged law enforcement records and the committee's staff seems too prone to leaks.

Issa demanded 25,000 pages related to Benghazi, and supposedly wants thousands more. The IRS Tea Party profiling investigation generated requests for 16,000 pages, and Issa feels that's not enough either. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the committee's ranking minority member, openly calls the demands a fishing expedition.

Salon thinks it sees the problem. Issa is a trash talker. "Everyone in the political press knows that Issa is a publicity hound who regularly makes outrageous accusations and insinuations and rarely has any evidence supporting his more outrageous claims." Whoa, harsh, huh?

Put more charitably, Darryl Issa, who is a Republican, seems to honestly believe his job is to make the President of the United States, who is a Democrat, look bad. As young Violet Biggs said, what's wrong with that?

In Darrell Issa's book you don't have to be bad to look bad. Just as you don't have to be good to look good. He's a man who knows some things first-hand about both those conditions and treats those two imposters both the same.

Meanwhile, 47% of Americans now believe the White House directly instructed the IRS to target conservative groups despite an absence of any confirming evidence. Not too shabby for a guy with no taters, eh?

Issa has other skills. For instance, he was an explosive-ordnance-disposal expert in the army. (He claimed he'd protected President Nixon as part of an "elite Army bomb unit" at the 1971 World Series. Only it turned out Nixon hadn't attended any games.)

He is also said to be very good at tinkering with electronic devices. If your laptop or cell phone conks out and you're in the same room with him, Darrell will stop what he's doing and try to fix it.

But such skills pale, according to his sharpest critics, in comparison to his adroitness at packing committees, pushing congressional action that favors his personal financial interests and, of course, cooking books. And inventories.

But then again, they really don't like him.

A little late. But once discovered, too important not to share. Lillian Lopez Callazo-Jackson (either 67 or 76) died Sept. 4, 2012. She was a singer with the dance band Odyssey, and she handled the lead on the infectious disco anthem "Native New Yorker" (1977). It was one of the finer disco hits to ever break into the Billboard "Hot 100." With lyrics as soulful, in a clubby sort of way, as A Chorus Line's "What I Did for Love" but with a catchy, soft Caribbean rhythm that was easy to dance to. Youtube links seem, well, unseemly in an obituary, but do yourself a favor and run down the music video (go for the longer disco version). Then you and your dancing partner go line up for one last turn around the floor. This was the quintessential you once upon a time. (You know you were into disco; those flared lame pants are probably still in the closet.) "You're a Native New Yorker" still holds a unique appeal that makes one want to work out and feel sad all at the same time.

"It may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation."
Thomas Jefferson

 7/15/13 -- What do you call 10,000 lawyers staring down the barrel of George Zimmerman's gun? 

Restrained joy in the Orlando offices of The O'Mara Law Group and in a small corner of Sanford, FL. Not guilty on all counts. Stupefied disbelief on the Tweet-o-sphere. Proving there are few lawyers on Twitter.

If you shoot a man and didn't act with prior intent or depraved indifference, it's still manslaughter most places. No if's, and's or but's. Well, okay, one "if." If you say you acted in self-defense, then it's okay.

But you must show you acted in self-defense, right? Wrong. The prosecution has to show you didn't. The burden of proof is always on the State, never the defendant.

Florida law, like that of other states, holds that a person who is attacked anywhere he or she is lawfully present has the right to meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.

A person can't be the one who initially provokes the use of force against himself. However, once self-defense becomes an issue at trial, it's the prosecution that must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense. Tie goes to the shooter.

The following is from Judge Debra Nelson's instructions to the Zimmerman jury:

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace [sic] where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. In considering the issue of self-defense, you may take into account the relative physical abilities and capacities of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense you have a reasonable doubt on the question of whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you should find George Zimmerman not guilty.

Even if you facilitated the altercation. And even if your assessment of mortal peril is something you came to in the split moment before you fired. It's okay. Up until that point, you might have actually thought you were winning. In which case, presumably, the other guy had the right to shoot you.

To a layman who has lost his share of fistfights over a lifetime, the suspicion lurks that George Zimmerman's mortal peril standards might have been tethered to a rather low hurdle. Apparently, he was more of a lover.

Out in the back alleys behind the bars of this great land, a bloody nose and two head lacerations are what pass for pugilistic foreplay. No loose teeth. No black eye. No broken jaw. No kicked-in ribs. The fight lasted what? 40 seconds? Evidently there were a lot of people in grammar school this writer could have justifiably shot. Why is such a wuss out looking for trouble on a dark, rainy night in the first place? Oh, right, he had a gun in his pocket.

Maybe a slicker team of prosecutors could have put up a better fight. It does seem unfair that in high-profile criminal cases the prosecution is drawn from the best local talent available, while the defense gets the best talent on the planet just so long as the money is right.

Stand in the place where you are

The Tampa Bay Times has found that the "Stand Your Ground" self-defense statute in Florida is more likely to succeed when the victim is black.

The Times looked at 200 cases and found that in instances in which the victim was black, the person who invoked the defense went free 73% of the time. If the victim was white, the person walked free 59% of the time. The report also found that more than two thirds of all the people who invoked the law were acquitted, and that the defense is being invoked in more and more cases.

Ultimately Mark O'Mara didn't make Florida's infamous "Stand Your Ground" law part of his defense strategy. He said the bind his client found himself in didn't offer flight as an option. It did play a role in the case originally. It was cited by the Sanford Police Department as the reason they didn't arrest Zimmerman in the first place.

"People often go free under 'stand your ground' in cases that seem to make a mockery of what lawmakers intended," wrote the Times reporters. "One man killed two unarmed people and walked out of jail. Another shot a man as he lay on the ground. Others went free after shooting their victims in the back. In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim—and still went free."

A majority of Floridians (56%) still support the law, according to a Quinnipiac poll taken in June. Among Republicans, 78% surveyed approved of "Stand Your Ground," compared to 58% of Independents and 32% of Democrats.

Many of the "Stand Your Ground" laws around the country were sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative lobbying group that has come under fire in the aftermath of the Martin shooting.
excerpted from Huffington Post

The State of California got Marsha Clark and Christopher Darden, competent litigators with 30 years combined experience.

OJ got Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz, Robert Kardashian. (Yeah, their father; LA is a small town.) Gerald Uelmen and Carl E. Douglas, with two more attorneys specializing in DNA evidence: Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. They were quickly dubbed The Dream Team: Their total cost said to be between $3 million and $6 million.

George Zimmerman was no OJ Simspon. On April 12, regional legal celebrity (He's on TV) Mark O'Mara of Orlando appeared at his side. NBC News reported that the central Florida defense attorney had a long and impressive resume and was himself a former prosecutor.

O'Mara had been an assistant state attorney for two years in the Seminole County State Attorney's Office after getting his law degree from Florida State University. He quickly progressed into private practice. Where anything can happen and the prize money doubles. In his spare time, he serves as current president of the Seminole County Bar Association. One suspects his bigger talent is having much sharper teeth than the guys in the DA's office.

O'Mara's longtime friend, civil attorney Joseph Flood, called him "a brilliant lawyer," who would come up with "the best defense that Mr.Zimmerman is entitled to get." Meaning, one presumes, "can afford."

O'Mara was reported to be working for free, but that is supposedly no longer the case. It turned out the defendant wasn't broke after all. Contributions to an online Zimmerman defense fund have reached nearly $400,000, the Miami Herald reported.

There doesn't seem to be any specific information extant about O'Mara's fee, but no doubt it's more than the prosecution earned, and judging from the outcome, he was probably worth every penny. It's almost certainly safe to assume you'd get no argument from George Zimmerman.

The case's outcome, guilt or innocence aside, raises many questions of a deeper nature for our society to ponder. There's the matter of the relative value of a black life in America 150 years after passage of the 14th Amendment. There's the role of guns in modern society. There's the avenues of recourse available to a populace when their state legislature becomes certifiably crazy. There's our apparent collective national fascination with fear and violence.

One issue that probably won't get much attention is the demonstrable inequality among the forces contesting the people's right to law and order. In Sanford, George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed teenager walking home through his neighborhood and was acquitted.

In jacksonville, an African American woman got 20 years for firing warning shots at her husband who she feared had arrived at her house intending to give her a beating and against whom she had already taken out a protective order. The judge rejected a defense under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law.

It's possible that today we have a situation where a few people can just buy their way out of trouble. And too many others just can't.

In the old black-and-white westerns there was a recurring scene where an evil gunslinger would bully and badger, humiliate and provoke an innocent sodbuster into a gunfight, even having a crony give the poor farmer a revolver for his waistband, so he'd have something to draw with. The sodbuster would then be summarily gunned down in a fair fight. All the other bad guys would testify it was self defense.

And who could argue? Whatever had transpired before hands slapped leather (one hand anyway), when it was time to draw it really was do or die. Surely the sodbuster would have gunned down the gunfighter if he could have. Just the way George Zimmerman felt in the split second before he drew his gun.

It's probably worth pointing out that the point of these scenes was that it was an unjust situation (unless, of course, it was a Peckinpah movie). Somewhere in the final reel Tom Mix or James Stewart or Red Ryder or Wonder Woman would turn up, make things right and bring the bad guys to justice, often the same rough, final justice they themselves had administered to the sodbuster.

Could it be we had a better system of justice back then? At least they gave the sodbuster a gun. Martin got no such offer.

Bonus feature for those who kept reading to the end. The answer to the question posed in the headline, if you didn't already know: "A good start."

Martin's dad: "My heart is broken; my faith is not." (Photo, CNN)

"'Even Start' is no different from most federal programs. Evidence of success is barely considered when legislation is proposed and discussed in committee and on the floor of Congress. There is no systematic way in which members of Congress or other key decision makers are informed about that evidence, or lack thereof. They instead tend to rely on ad hoc assessments provided by lobbyists and interest groups. And once legislation is passed and a program is up and running, there is no mechanism for automatically tracking its effectiveness, beyond counting the number of people served by a program, no matter the impact it has on their lives. "
Peter Orezag and John Bridgeland
The Atlantic ("Can Government Play Moneyball?")

 6/25/13 -- For Amber Waves of Zombie Grain 

Political scandals, or what passes for such, come and go with such ferocity these days. It's hard to stay focused on any one scandal for very long.

Some truly worthy ones never even succeed in breaking though the clutter long enough to garner their fair share of attention. They are unable, as it were, to elbow even standing room on the overcrowded dance floor of Washington causes celebres.

So you are forgiven for not remembering—or never having even known about—the small scandal that came out of our last great fiscal cliff crisis. (We should probably start numbering these, like wars). It was way back in March.

Somebody quietly slipped a rider, the so-called "Farmer Assurance Provision, Section 735," into the Agricultural Appropriations provisions of HR 933. This was the Continuing Resolution spending bill designed to avert a federal government shutdown.

Fox News reported that the rider's effect was to "require the Agriculture Department to approve the growing, harvesting and selling of genetically modified crops."

It was swiftly dubbed the "Monsanto Protection Act." Monsanto, a global agricultural products company headquartered in St. Louis, generates steady controversy with its genetically engineered seed programs. Some folks are all hopped up over genetically modified crops.

Then again, maybe they should be. There doesn't honestly appear to be that much cause for alarm, but research on long-term effects is admittedly scant.

Now the law of the land for six months following President Obama's signature on March 29, Section 735 basically allows Monsanto to promote and plant genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and genetically engineered (GE) seeds, free from any judicial litigation that might decide the crops are unsafe.

No surprise, industry watchdog groups and activists on the opposite side of the argument from Monsanto went on the warpath. After all, the rider was a mystery. Nobody knew who authored or inserted it. It was done anonymously. It was discovered only after the bill had been signed into law. And maybe worst of all, practically nobody in Congress knew they'd voted for it.

Monsanto is a big, big lobbyist, and it looked like maybe the company had surreptitiously bought itself a verdict before the trial. The company spent nearly $6 million on lobbying in 2012. It also spent $500,000 supporting political candidates in the last election cycle, according to a website calling itself Occupy Monsanto.

2012 Lobbying Spending by Business Sector

Was this as bad as it looked? Well, you be the decider.

As noted, the rider offers only short-term protection. It expires the end of September. (When it could be renewed. An attempt to repeal it after the fact has already been beaten back.)

What's more, it wasn't exactly new. Greg Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, "It's not clear that this provision radically changes the powers USDA has under the law." NPR reported that the provision describes an authority the USDA has already exercised in the past.

Karen Batra, spokeswoman for the Biotech Industry Organization, said (without once coming up for air), the language of the provision codified existing USDA authority and elements of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that lower courts should not automatically prohibit the planting of biotech crop varieties, or the harvest and sale of biotech crops already planted, just because their commercial use is temporarily banned because of a lawsuit.

So, maybe a tempest in a teapot. And there the matter might have rested, overtaken by newer worries arising on later days.

Except that the other week the USDA announced the shock discovery that genetically engineered wheat strains Monsanto had developed in the '90s to tolerate Roundup herbicide had been found sprouting in fields on commercial wheat farms. Almost immediately, Japan and South Korea cancelled wheat purchase contracts from the United States.

Monsanto officials have termed the presence of the company's unapproved, experimental, genetically altered wheat in an Oregon wheat field suspicious and an isolated incident that could not have happened through normal farming practices. And they may be right.

But that defense didn't deter an environmental group and farmers in Washington and Kansas from suing the seed giant for reckless behavior. The question is, are they wasting their money? Does the Farmers Protection Provision protect Monsanto against legal action in this situation as well?

At least one agricultural expert thinks so. Science journalist Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow of the Global Health Program on The Council on Foreign Relations, said as much during an appearance on The Colbert Report June 5.

(Monsanto is fairly litigious itself. The company filed 144 patent-infringement lawsuits against farmers between 1997 and April 2010, and won judgments against farmers it said made use of its seed without paying required royalties. Many U.S. farmers have said their fields were inadvertently contaminated with Monsanto's biotech seeds without their knowledge. The issue is of concern for not only farmers but also companies that clean and handle seed.)

However, Ms. Garrett is a science journalist, not a lawyer. Genetically modified wheat has never been commercially grown in the United States, and it remains to be seen whether Section 735's scope extends to such a case.

But it sure is something to think about. And it raises the question of who was thinking about this so far ahead of everyone else. Who was working so hard, and so anticipatorily, in Monsanto's interests?

Well, Monsanto, for one, and of course their lobbyists. And their Congressional insider. Turns out Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) is the guy who quietly and facelessly inserted the Monsanto provision in the Fiscal Cliff legislation in the first place. He eventually came clean. Or Politico outed him. One or the other.

Blunt's ties to Monsanto, located in the senator's home state, are not news. According to OpenSecrets, Monsanto first started contributing to Blunt in 2008. At that point, he was serving in the House of Representatives. In 2010, when Blunt ran for the Senate, Monsanto upped its contribution from $10,000 to $44,250. And in 2012, it gave Blunt's campaign war chest $64,250 more, according to Mother Jones.

Blunt also attracts PAC money from the agribusiness industry as a whole. OpenSecrets data shows in 2012 agribiz PACs gave him $51,000. In 2010, the year of his Senate run, agribiz PACs ponied up over $243,000, more than any other besides the finance and energy industries.

While serving as House Whip under the famously lobbyist-friendly Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Blunt is said to have built a formidable political machine by transforming lobbying cash into industry-accommodating legislation.

Why is this man smiling? Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO)

Public Citizen declared Blunt "a legislative leader who not only has surrendered his office to the imperative of moneyed interests, but who has also done so with disturbing zeal and efficiency."

The Washington Post's Thomas B. Edsall wrote that Blunt had "converted what had been an informal and ad hoc relationship between congressional leaders and the Washington corporate and trade community into a formal, institutionalized alliance." According to Edsall, Blunt's relationship to the DC lobbying scene rivaled that of DeLay's, who would later be hounded out of the House after being indicted for ethical lapses.

Just about all his adult life Blunt has been in politics, which like baseball to Chico Escuela evidently has been "berra berra good" to him, it's not quite clear how. Blount is worth upwards of $6 million, which puts him mid-range in net worth in the Senate, and he carries only about $500,000 in debt.

How a bill becomes law. Your tax dollars at work.

 5/27/13 -- "'Cause It's Summer; Summertime is Here. Yes, It's Summer; My Time of Year." 
Memorial Day weekend has started the summer off a little on the cold side, at least on the east coast. Warmer in California, for sure, but summer's not even an official season in California. Just means school is closed, and even that's not much of a difference.

Weather notwithstanding, we open the beach season by reviewing just which memories visitors were warming up to this spring. Here, the top-15 spring 2013 playlist. We introduced some new summer songs to the inventory this year. Admittedly, We've lowered our standards as age and desperation creep up on us. But they feel like summer to me.

Also worth noting, many of you have evidently moved on. (You got old too.) Much of the regular Jukebox audience this spring hails from the Republic of Ireland. It may be time to add some Presley numbers. Or possibly Bing Crosby. We'll wait til Labor Day and decide then.

Spring 2012 Top 15 Playlist: (No Beach Boys. Sigh.)

1) Here Comes Summer Jerry Keller (1959)

2) In the Good Old Summertime Julien Neel trudbol (1902)

3) Copperline James Taylor (1988)

4) Girls in their Summer Dresses Harry Belafonte (1966)

5) Sunny Afternoon The Kinks (1966)

6) Hot Fun in the Summertime Sly and the Family Stone (1965)

7) If You're Going to San Francisco Scott McKenzie (1967)

8) Summer Rain Johnny Rivers (1967)

9) In the Summertime Mungo Jerry (1970)

10) School Is Out Gary US Bonds (1961)

11) First of May Bee Gees (1968)

12) Summertime Blues Eddie Cochran (1958)

13) Summertime, Summertime The Jamies (1958)

14) The Things We Did Last Summer Jo Stafford (1958)

15) Summer Night City ABBA (1978)

Go to Summer Song playlist

Ocean City, NJ, Memorial Day 2013, 8:46pm. A little sparse. Looks cold.

Check back again after Labor Day to find out how time is moving like sand under your feet. Until then, don't forget to use sunscreen, stay safe in the water and be careful making your summer memories. They tend to last a long time.

 5/21/13 -- 1,000 Words: Why Benghazi is the End of the World to Some and Not to Others 

Dept. of You Don't Know, Jack
Bad news comes in threes. Followed by the dawn when you realize you've been had. Again. And again. And again. Poor Obama. Awash in scandals. Just like Republicans predicted he would be. The only problem is, some of these Republicans seem to be engaging too enthusiastically to making their wishes come true.
Dept. of State and Benghazi
The Benghazi emails turn out to be not only too much about nothing, the whole thing now emerges as a deceptive plot to fabricate a news story with doctored quotes. Which one gullible ABC reporter fell for. The likely culprits lurk somewhere on Republican congressional staffs. They're the ones the White House had granted access to the emails. Now there's a scandal for you. Who was behind pedaling a false story about privileged documents to the press? And are they going to jail, John?
CBS Calls Out Republicans For Debunked Benghazi Emails - Business Insider, May 17, 2013

Dept of Justice and AP Phone Records
Whatever you think of Justice's AP investigation, you only think it's illegal. It almost certainly isn't. Something called the "third party doctrine" holds that owners don't have Fourth Amendment rights protecting information they voluntarily turn over to someone else. Courts have said that when you dial a phone number, you are voluntarily providing information to your phone company, which is then free to share it with the government. Especially after it gets a subpoena.

You may see this as wrong-headed legal thinking and judicial overreach. The AP certainly does. But the Supreme Court pretty much upheld this idea in 1979. Long before the Patriot Act. The Congressmen now objecting to the investigation were screaming for one two years ago when the story first broke. The leak was presumed to be in the White House; Justice isn't investigating journalists. By the way, Congress recently considered a Shield law that would have protected reporters' phone logs. Senate Republicans filibustered it.
In AP surveillance case, the real scandal is what's legal -
The Washington Post, May 14, 2013

IRS and Tea Parties
No question, targeting Tea Party groups forming 501(c)(4) organizations appears to have been stupid and may even have broken some laws. But this IS the IRS we're talking about. More battering ram than chess master, their long suit has never been subtlety.

Even John Stuart can't get this story right. Claiming the IRS was trampling on these organizations' political aspirations. Uh, John. 501(c)(4)s aren't supposed to have political aspirations, at least not overt ones. That's why they get tax considerations political organizations don't.

The IRS is paid to do two things: collect taxes and be skeptical. They're not going to just accept the word of a sudden torrent of rabid PACs creating supposed social welfare organizations that they'll refrain from advancing purely political causes? Why do you think Stephen was Colbert making fun of these things for so many months?

The way the IRS went after the problem was breathtakingly wrong-headed, raising yet again issues many taxpayers have long had with the ethics, and even the basic common sense, of the government's most hated agency. But this was (it's been over and fixed for some time now) clearly an agency issue. It was no White House political plot.

And the acting IRS head whose resignation Obama demanded? Steven Miller wasn't the acting head when the scandal unfolded, but he was one of the folks who finally got the problem under control. He'll turn up somewhere down the line, most likely with a better job. Loyalty, you know. One of the few virtues Washington actually respects.
How Congress Helped Create the IRS-Tea Party Mess -
Mother Jones, May 17, 2013

 4/27/2013 -- "You thought you would be satisfied, / But you never will." 
Tolstoy famously observed that while happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But, really, Russian novelists are such a miserable lot, they can hardly be trusted to be objective on the subject.

Three of the most miserable years of my life were spent in one semester of trying to read Russian classics in the original Russian. Even when they're talking about deliriously happy things it's drudgery trying to read anything written in the original Russian. Admittedly, compared to the rest of the class, I really didn't have that firm a grasp of what I was doing.

It was the same for me reading Chaucer in Middle English, and I never would have gotten through that, except it was the '60s and the professor was a hippy. He graded primarily on vibes. His only black mark against me was that I was planning to work in a defense plant after graduation. He felt I should go north and burn down Canada in protest against American Imperialism in Asia. Dizzying geography when you think about it.

But I digress. The point is, you would expect people to be happy—and unhappy—for the same reasons. More money, more contentment. The more you know, the better you feel. But according to Gallup, it's not that way. Your mother's bromide about money and happiness really was true: one doesn't seem to have anything to do with the other.

What money will buy you is an education. And based on the statistics, an education will buy you more money. But education, too, turns out to have little to do with making you happy or even serene. Geez, what does it take?

In a way, that latter finding makes some sense. The more you know the more reason to feel stressed out. And that certainly won't make you happy. It's kind of like how William Burroughs, author of the depressingly twisted and self-loathing novel, Naked Lunch, defined paranoia: "Someone in possession of all the facts."

The chart here builds on data collected earlier on the correlation between a state's political leanings and whether it's a net donor to, or recipient of, federal largesse. (2012 Household median income is from the Census Bureau.)

State-by-state stress levels are polled by Gallup, and actually they move in a fairly narrow band no matter where you live. Where change is most noticeable is toward the extremes. Perversely, states at both the richer and poorer ends of the income range trend toward increased stress.

Gallop also tracks overall happiness, and that level hardly moves at all. On a scale of 0 to 1, approximately 97% of Americans report an unhappiness index of about .34. That's not the same as saying 34% of people are unhappy. It's more like saying wherever you live you're unhappy 34% of the time.

But with both stress or unhappiness, a lack of modulation notwithstanding, there are things in Wyoming and Rhode Island (not necessarily the same things) that make their residents both unhappier and more apprehensive than most. And in Mississippi they got no money, they got no schooling, and they just don't care.

By the way, it appears Republicans are poorer and dumber but only fractionally less happy and fractionally more stressed out than Democrats.

Click here for the full dataset in spreadsheet format if you're interested. You're free to play to your heart's content. Only you have to figure out how to graph all that all by yourself. It's over my skill level. I had to put so much time into reading Russian novelists that one semester, I failed charting.

"Pryor, Begich and Baucus [Senate Democrats] did the political calculus. They could have voted for the background checks and maybe helped get it passed by the Senate. But the votes are not there to get the measure through the House, so they would have gotten themselves on the NRA hit list for nothing. If that led to their defeat in 2014, Republicans would almost certainly take over the Senate. What hope would there be for rational gun laws then? "
David Horsey,
Los Angeles Times
("Cowardly Senate runs away from gun background checks")

 4/10/2013 -- Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling ... 
The Platters were arguably the first vocal group legends of the rock and roll era. What legendary groups before them were doing was arguably not rock and roll.

You whose memories reach back to the mid-50s may take a moment to reflect here on the inchoate hopes and gossamer dreams of your youth and on the voice that this newly evolving music gave to them. And sigh a little, if you wish. As for the rest, read on and see what your lives might have been, lived out in a different temporal dimension.

The music the Platters made was good and pure and true and everything else Hemmingway wanted everything in life to be. From 1955 to 1960 they ruled the airwaves (well, along with Elvis and a few other guys). Forty of their singles charted on the Billboard Top 100. Four reached #1. The Platters were the first rock and roll group to have a Top Ten album in America. Across the span of its many iterations, the group sold 53 million records.

As always, beneath the soaring melodies, stiltedly poetic lyrics and riveting vocals, their story was one of disloyalty, betrayal, dashed hopes and broken dreams.

This is rock and roll, after all, and everyone who comes near gets trivialized, marginalized, cut out of the profit stream and eventually cast aside—just as in baseball (except for the profit stream part). You only get to be The Man for a fleeting moment in time. The rest of the time you're just working for The Man, and he doesn't like your work.

But, hey, you want to make an omelet, you got to break some eggs. And that's just what Buck Ram set out to do. Before Ram, The Platters were just another LA R&B group, experiencing modest touring success but going nowhere fast.

Click here for YouTube's Platters Playlist.

When Ram took over managing the group in 1955, they had a record contract but no hits. First he focused on personnel. Right off the bat, he installed Tony Williams, who had only joined the group in '53, as the new lead, replacing Cornell Gunter, who went on to sing with The Coasters ("Yakety-Yak," "Charlie Brown"). Next Ram added female vocalist Zola Taylor (ironically, Gunter's sister; no hard feelings). Shortly, he would replace yet another member with a hand-picked outsider, Paul Robi.

His second big move was to find a new label. At about the same time Ram took over The Platters, the Penguins, who'd just had a big score with "Earth Angel," asked him to manage them as well. Mercury Records was interested in the Penguins, and Ram insisted they sign The Platters as well.

The Penguins never had another hit, but the first song The Platters released was "Only You." Originally written by Ram for the Ink Spots, it rocketed to the top of the R&B chart for five weeks. It crossed over to the pop charts as well, reaching #5. Their second release was "The Great Pretender." Also written by Ram, it stayed at the top of the pop charts for seven weeks, an early milestone for the new genre of rock and roll. That was Ram's third big move: have the group sing tunes he'd created.

Wow. Sounds like he willed them into being by force of his own mental strength and creative drive. Truth is, members of early R&B groups hooked up as casually as hippies in Haight-Ashbury, turning up out of nowhere and leaving on a whim. Some could be found singing for two or three different groups at the same time.

The personnel that meshed from a disorganized and loosely confederated doo wop group who called themselves The Flamingos (another group by the same name reached ascendancy before them) into a tightly cohesive unit hastily renamed The Platters owed at least something to coincidence.

And the label switch was a mutual decision. Their first label, Federal, had pretty much given up on them, even after they were under Ram's tutelage.

But the music spoke for itself. Sam "Buck" Ram was an experienced businessman with considerable musical talents of his own, and his machinations were informed by a vision. He had a good ear for hits, and he was an accomplished songwriter. (Named one of BMI's top five "songwriters/air play" in its first 50 years, alongside Paul Simon, Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Webb, and Paul McCartney.)

Twilight Time

Heavenly shades of night are falling,
it's twilight time
Out of the mist your voice is calling,
'tis twilight time
When purple-colored curtains mark
the end of day
I'll hear you, my Dear, at twilight time

Deepening shadows gather splendor
as day is done
Fingers of night will soon surrender
the setting sun
I count the moments Darling 'til you're
here with me
Together at last, at twilight time

Here, in the afterglow of day
We keep our rendezvous beneath the blue
And in the sweet and same old way
I fall in love again as I did then

Deep in the dark your kiss will thrill me
like days of old
Lighting the spark of love that fills me
with dreams untold
Each day I pray for evening just to be
with you
Together at last, at twilight time
Together at last, at twilight time

What Ram was really looking to do was, basically, build a group he felt could do justice to the songs he wrote.

Then, as if on cue, his group evolved from being just okay to something way beyond good. Even singing some of the same songs much better the second time around. (Federal had deemed "Only You" unreleasable.)

The Platters suddenly had more discipline, more polish, more cohesiveness and, somehow, more talent. Whether owing to Ram's management, his creative juices, better group chemistry or pure luck, they just woke up and at just the right time.

The pace got hectic. Ram wrote the lyrics to "The Great Pretender" in a men's room of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas after being asked how The Platters would follow up "Only You." The group then turned out "The Magic Touch," "My Prayer," "Twilight Time," "On My Word of Honor" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" among many others in rapid succession.

Once Buck had in place the group he wanted, he treated his singers better financially than many. The group was incorporated and each member received a 20% share in the stock and full royalties, and their Social Security was paid. However, as members left the group, Ram and his business partner Jean Bennett bought their stock, which gave them ownership of the "Platters" name, or so they thought.

And then when it all got going good, it started falling apart.

In 1959 the four male members were arrested in Cincinnati on drug and prostitution charges. They'd been caught with four girls in their hotel room (three of them white). Ah, to be young and black in America before the Civil Rights movement. They (and the girls) were cleared of all charges, but radio stations quietly started removing them from playlists.

In 1960, Williams decided to leave for a solo career. Didn't work out. Rarely does. But Mercury wouldn't issue further Platters releases without him on lead, provoking a long lawsuit. The label spent two years releasing old Williams-era material until the group's contract lapsed. Ram eventually moved to a new label, and the reformulated group had some more hits. But the magic touch was gone.

Zola Taylor left in '64. Paul Robi departed in '65. Each was replaced. Williams by Sonny Turner whose voice was remarkably similar.

Herb Reed, generally regarded as The Platters' founder, finally left in '69. He was the only member of The Platters to record on all of their nearly 400 recordings.

The group's lineup continued to splinter, and in time former members turned to forming rival revival groups. Tony Williams, Sonny Turner, Herb Reed, Zola Taylor, and Monroe Powell all had their own Platters groups. (So did other singers you'd never think to identify with The Platters.) They fought like crazy over who could legally call themselves The Platters. Ram, the copyright holder of the Platters' name, managed the official version of the group well into the 1980s. (He had sold the booking and management arm of the business to partner Jean Bennet in 1966.)

Herb Reed was the last surviving original member of The Platters, and he died in 2012 at 83. Generally credited with coming up with the group's name, he was still performing as many as 200 concerts per year until shortly before his death.

Music chronicler Marv Goldberg makes this point in his (very readable) "R&B Notebooks" piece on The Platters. "In the years since the mid-60s there have been dozens of Platters groups (as there have been dozens of Ink Spots groups). This may be regrettable on many levels, but it speaks directly to the impact that The Platters have had on our musical lives."

In "American Graffiti," George Lucas's iconic '60s coming-of-age movie, the 41-song rock-classic nostalgia tour-de-force of a soundtrack featured three entries by The Platters. No one else had as many: "Only You," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "The Great Pretender." (Bonus feature: click here for the complete "American Graffiti" soundtrack playlist.)

Fittingly, The Platters' entries were all the work of the classic 1955-60 Ram lineup. Often imitated, never quite duplicated. Still, to this day, making money with, by recent count, four competing groups.

Annette Funicello, 70, died Monday from complications due to multiple sclerosis, a disease she battled for over 25 years, the Walt Disney Co. said. She was one of the best-known members of the original 1950s "Mickey Mouse Club," CNN said. They got that wrong. Far and away THE best-known Mousketeer as well as star of numerous films and a Top-40 recording artist (biggest hit: "Tall Paul.") I was never really a fan. The Beach Blanket movies with Frankie Avalon were cute enough and forgivably heavy-handed, especially if you were stuck in a college town without a date on Friday night. But when "The Mickey Mouse Show" debuted, my family didn't have a TV. I had to go over to Mike Murphy's house to watch, and they'd only let me in a couple of times a week. CNN also said the most enduring images of Funicello "may be of her in a bikini, her primary wardrobe in the beach blanket movies." They got that wrong, too. Whether out of concern for modesty, public image or the wrong figure, Annette never appeared (maybe in the privacy of her own home) in anything like a bikini. At best she was a few inches of fabric short of a modest one-piece. She did show up in the last Beach Blanket movie in a baby doll. (That same movie featured an astounding cover of "Pipeline" performed by Dick Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughan, which can be found on this site's Summer Song Jukebox, at number 17.) But when your death is announced by a Disney press release 45 years after your last appearance in one of their properties, one has to show some respect. Oh, what the hell: Annette Funicello, America's Sweetheart.

 3/28/2013 -- "Spending   is the problem."   will be the problem." 
Thanks, John Boehner. Such a prankster. Since he got the job, the House Speaker has been traipsing all over Washington and your flat screen complaining that the Administration's runaway spending will leave our grandchildren with a crushing mountain of debt. And it has gotten some traction.

Certainly it did in 2010.

We picture the President racing madly through the city, from store to mall ("shopping" not "Great"); in his hand the national credit card, so hot it's smoking. Only it turns out the spending Boehner is most concerned about has more to do with future medical costs or baby boomers retiring in 2020 or entitlement costs spiking in the face of a poor labor market.

Not Boehner alone, but Messrs McConnell, Ryan and Cantor have been touring around singing the same old song for four years now, like a Four Tops revival show, backed up by a chorus of various and sundry fellow Republicans. But the Speaker isn't just concerned about burdens to future generations. He's concerned about problems that won't even turn up until after those future generations do.

Last December, Boehner added intriguing depth of field to his mantra, which has always been, let's face it, rather general in nature. At a weekly press conference the Speaker was performing his usual number, this time with new back-up in the form of a large chart reportedly supplied by Paul Ryan.

That means Ryan called The Heritage Foundation and asked them to whip something up. Titled "Spending is the Problem," it featured catchy colors, dramatic left-to-right inclined data points and a thirty-five-year timeline.

Click to enlarge

What it showed was federal spending skyrocketing as a percentage of GDP to unmanageable heights. The problem starts early in the 2020s and reaches a crescendo of almost 40% by the year 2041.

Evidently the show didn't generate much push-back but didn't generate much support either, (neither in the room nor among the public, which was invited to comment online). Perhaps the reporters were busy planning their holiday party rounds, or perhaps in the spirit of giving they just let the Speaker catch a break until after the New Year when the matter would surely come up again.

There were a few problems with the chart. The numbers looked a little out of date, and since this was Paul Ryan, they didn't completely add up the way you might want.

The revelatory thing was not the numbers themselves but where they went. The veil slips, so to speak, the smoke clears, the jig is up. The cause of the high angst felt so strongly by Boehner and freres turns out to be born of events that will unfold thirty years hence.

Here was the White House myopically preoccupying itself with trivial near-term concerns like dealing with the financial meltdown, getting out from under the recession and injecting growth into a nose-diving economy and anemic labor market.

Of course, they did look up long enough to tackle a couple of long-term issues like too many wars, misguided foreign policies and spiraling health care cots.

But for Boehner the real problem was something farther out there, a spending surge that might turn intractable a few decades from now. That's a road far enough that nobody, not even in Washington, can kick a can down it.

Ryan had had to ask the Congressional Budget Office to run some farther-out numbers just for him. They don't usually go out 30 years. The most CBO likes to venture out is 10 years.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review opines, "Five years is a reasonable planning horizon for policymakers and a period over which projections might be considered reliable."

Those older than Paul Ryan may recall that when the Bush Administration issued its first budget projection on April 9, 2001, it predicted a surplus outside Social Security of $125 billion for fiscal year 2001, People like Steve Forbes were pulling their hair out, demanding the money be returned to the people before Washington spent it.

Maybe he was on to something. Six months later the money was gone. You just never know what's going to happen. In the wink of an eye, unexpected twists and turns in financial, economic, sociological or militaristic stuff screw up all your plans. In 1998 the federal budget had turned its first surplus since the Johnson Administration. Five years before, the CBO had been projecting a $357 billion deficit.

The CBO tried to politely tell Ryan this when, shortly after the Boehner press briefing, he wanted an updated long-term projection to support his 2014 budget package. "Future budgetary outcomes will depend in large part on future policies," they wrote.

Meantime, back in the real world... Federal spending grew by 0.6 percent from 2009 to 2012, according to Bloomberg. The slowest rate since the Eisenhower years. Most categories of federal spending appear to be trending down based on the latest, still incomplete, actual category numbers available from the CBO. (See chart below.)

Some spending problems really are long-term in nature and need to be addressed long-term. Right-sizing the military; finding a sustainable track for Old Age and Survivor Insurance—whose fund could run out in 30 years—radically reformulating Disability Insurance, which in a weak economy has turned into an unintended retirement program and will dry up in four years; and continuing to work on the way health care is provided and paid for—something the Affordable Care Act attempted in the face of violently obstinate political resistance.

Just "budget cuts" won't cut it. Specific and detailed action plans are needed that attack the core issues causing the problems in each area. Wailing about out-of-control spending and tarring the President with problems he didn't create don't count.

These are not tasks that can be fobbed off on the states either. Their national scale and import are not something the federal government can duck, whatever the budgetary gymnastics. Washington will remain the solution of last resort no matter what ideology controls the seats of power there.

You think the states can fix social security or Medicare? Most of them can't even get out of the last recession, and that ended four years ago.

"In 2000, after more than 40 years of nearly consecutive budget deficits, both the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected decade-long budget surpluses. Moreover, both agencies projected that publicly held government debt (then about $3.5 trillion) would be eliminated by 2010."
Kevin L. Kliesen and Daniel L. Thornton,
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review
("How Good Are the Government's Deficit and Debt Projections and Should We Care?")

 3/21/13 -- Makers vs. Takers 
Government "tax and spend" policies really are socially redistributive, just as so many Republicans complain.

Even so, Mitt Romney's 2012 Presidential campaign took a significant stumble when the surreptitious video surfaced of the Republican candidate speaking at what was supposed to be a closed-door event. He told this audience of high-end donors that 47% of the electorate would never vote for him because they were "Takers" looking for government handouts.

Romney got the proportionality essentially right, even as he mangled the categorization process. The 47% who wouldn't vote for him (52% as it turned out) weren't really the same 47% who receive federal benefits as he implied.

In any event, calling Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries "takers" who rely on government handouts doesn't sit well with retirees who prefer to think of themselves as earned-benefit recipients. Unemployment recipients tend to feel the same way.

Even food stamp recipients, who do receive welfare, don't exactly cotton to the notion that their deal is anything like a cushy, free ride. Half of them are kids anyway, and much of the rest are senior citizens.

Nonetheless, "Makers vs. Takers" caught on with party stalwarts. It was a recurring rallying cry during the Republican convention, and whatever damage it did generally, it stubbornly resonated throughout the campaign.

Beyond being as misguided as it was unfair, there is a strange irony to the claim. Statistics suggest it's states that lean Republican which are likely to be on the receiving end of federal support.

In other words, the states that benefit the most from federal spending are the very states whose populations tend to vote for politicians who promise to reduce federal spending.

Those states that benefit the least from large government tend to vote for the candidates who promise to make it even larger, at voters' expense.

This is basically what The Economist, no friend of the welfare state, showed in a state-by-state analysis of 2009 federal taxes and payouts. Wikipedia currently sports a chart on its site featuring 2007 IRS statistics depicting the same conclusion.

Federal Taxation and Spending by State
(Click on any column heading to sort asc. or desc.)
(2007 est.)
Net fed tax
as % of
GDP (The

Net fed tax
per capita
2012 Pres.
% col.
Delaware 864,764 206 $12,285 Dem. 26.1
Minnesota 5,197,621 199 $7,431 Dem. 31
New Jersey 8,685,920 150 $6,644 Dem. 33.9
Illinois 12,852,548 111 $3,640 Dem. 29.5
Connecticut 3,502,309 106 $6,241 Dem. 34.7
New York 19,297,729 87 $4,502 Dem. 31.7
Ohio 11,466,917 66 $49 Dem. 24.1
Michigan 10,071,822 53 -$171 Dem. 24.7
Nebraska 1,774,571 51 $2,850 Rep. 27.5
Massachusetts 6,449,755 41 $2,133 Dem. 37.9
Colorado 4,861,515 40 $2,176 Dem. 35
Wisconsin 5,601,640 36 $1,000 Dem. 25.4
Texas 23,904,380 34 $2,243 Rep. 25.2
Georgia 9,544,750 25 $433 Rep. 27.1
Nevada 2,565,382 18 $1,616 Dem. 21.8
California 36,553,215 18 $1,466 Dem. 29.5
Arkansas 2,834,797 17 $1,723 Rep. 19.3
Washington 6,468,424 14 $773 Dem. 30.3
Rhode Island 1,057,832 13 $2,732 Dem. 29.8
New Hampshire 1,315,828 8 -$349 Dem. 32.5
Pennsylvania 12,432,792 0 -$385 Dem. 25.8
Indiana 6,345,289 -4 -$723 Rep. 22.1
North Carolina 9,061,032 -4 $1,108 Rep. 25.6
Oregon 3,747,455 -7 -$474 Dem. 28.3
Kansas 2,775,997 -20 -$154 Rep. 28.8
Missouri 5,878,415 -30 -$1,190 Rep. 24.5
Tennessee 6,156,719 -33 -$603 Rep. 21.8
Utah 2,645,330 -34 -$792 Rep. 28.7
Oklahoma 3,617,316 -35 -$376 Rep. 22.8
Florida 18,251,243 -41 -$581 Dem. 25.8
Idaho 1,499,402 -45 -$1,281 Rep. 24.5
Iowa 2,988,046 -47 -$1,075 Dem. 24.3
Wyoming 522,830 -52 -$1,205 Rep. 23.4
Vermont 621,254 -78 -$2,854 Dem. 33.6
Arizona 6,338,755 -83 -$1,976 Rep. 25.3
Louisiana 4,293,204 -99 -$2,180 Rep. 20.4
South Dakota 796,214 -118 -$4,414 Rep. 25
South Carolina 4,407,709 -121 -$3,756 Rep. 23.5
Kentucky 4,241,474 -133 -$3,012 Rep. 20
Hawaii 1,283,388 -134 -$4,983 Dem. 29.2
Virginia 7,712,091 -145 -$6,239 Dem. 33.6
Alaska 683,478 -149 -$7,448 Rep. 26
Maryland 5,618,344 -149 -$3,010 Dem. 35.2
Maine 1,317,207 -151 -$4,221 Dem. 26.7
North Dakota 639,715 -154 -$4,856 Rep. 25.7
Alabama 4,627,851 -174 -$5,130 Rep. 21.4
Montana 957,861 -184 -$4,149 Rep. 27
West Virginia 1,812,035 -244 -$5,820 Rep. 17.3
Mississippi 2,918,785 -254 -$6,765 Rep. 18.9
New Mexico 1,969,915 -261 -$7,143 Dem. 24.8
Like Romney's math, the Maker/Taker calculus is a little misleading and a little bit simplistic. The Tax Foundation, a pro-business but putatively non-partisan think tank, makes the case that the states which tend to contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits do so because they are richer, not because they lean Democratic.

Not exactly a shock. Progressive tax rates, you know. Moreover, it is larger states that tend to be, but are not always, the richer states.

So states like California or New York—large, with vibrant industrial and service sectors, and thriving business centers with well-paid workforces—are less likely to get their federal investment back than, say, smaller, less economically developed ones like West Virginia or Mississippi or Alaska.

If that explanation satisfies you, see if you can extend it to explain the following. Another correlation to political leanings can be seen in the percentage of a state's population that graduates from college. It tends to be higher in states that vote Democratic.

Could "Makers" just be smarter than "Takers"? The implications, not just educational or political but economical, philosophical and even theological, could be staggering.

Consider, for starters, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA), who recently admonished a conclave of senior Republican strategists, right here in Charlotte, to stop being "the party of 'stupid.'" Maybe he was setting the bar unrealistically high, eh?

 3/16/13 -- It's Never Too Soon! 
2013 Conservative Political Action Conference, Wash DC, Mar. 14-16
GOP Presidential Straw Poll
candidate vote
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (NH)
Gov. Jan Brewer (AZ)
Gov Sam Brownback (KS)
Dr. Ben Carson (Neurosurgeon)
Gov. Chris Christie (NJ)
Sen. Ted Cruz (TX)
Gov. Mitch Daniels (IN)
Gov. Nikki Haley (SC)
Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA)
Gov. John Kasich (OH)
Gov. Susana Martinez (NM)
Gov. Bob McDonnell (VA)
former Gov. Sarah Palin (AK)
Sen. Rand Paul (KY)
Gov. Mike Pence IN)
Gov. Rick Perry (TX)
Sen. Rob Portman (OH
Sen. Marco Rubio(FL)
Rep. Paul Ryan (WI)
former Sen. Rick Santorum (PA)
Sen. Tim Scott (SC)
Sen. John Thune (SD)
Gov. Scott Walker (WI)
Voting by 2,930 attendees.
Last year's winner: Mitt Romney, 38%, over Santorum (31%) and Gingrich (15%).

 3/15/13 -- Won't Anyone Believe This Man? 
Actually, the eight Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee seem to believe everything Wayne LaPierre says. But them excepted, the executive vice president and CEO of the NRA has a lot of critics who insist his only real function is pedaling guns to enrich his corporate sponsors. And there are a lot of other critics who just think he's crazy.

Both assessments could be too harsh, possibly, but whatever drives him, makes pretty clear Wayne LaPierre is not even trying to get himself into the running for "most trusted public information service provider."

Following are PolitiFact's rulings on the accuracy of LaPierre's public pronouncements broken out according to their standard category ratings. (Amazingly, PolitiFact found only seven statements to assess.)

The results are what one might broadly associate with your standard industry or issue flack: e.g., used car salesmen, marketing MBAs, bankers, advertising people, politicians, professional spokespeople and such.
  • True (accurate, nothing significant missing): 0%
  • Mostly True (accurate but needs clarification or additional information): 14%
  • Half True (partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context): 29%
  • Mostly False (contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression): 43%
  • False (not accurate): 14%

LaPierre got nothing completely right according to PolitiFact, but on the plus side, none of his comments earned their most ignominious rating, "Pants on Fire," either. There you go Wayne, something to shoot for.

(Click here to see all the rulings on LaPierre statements.)

 3/8/13 -- The Difference Between a Lawyer and a Politician. 
From Attorney General Eric Holder's first letter to Senator Rand Paul ...

"The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no President will ever have to confront. It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States. For example, the President could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstances of a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001."

From his second letter ...

"It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: 'Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?' The answer to that question is no."

Dept. of You Don't Know, Jack
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) made headlines and sent sparks flying when he questioned Secretary of Defense appointee (and former Republican Senator and colleague) Chuck Hagel, at the latter's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain wanted to know whether Hagel stood by past statements on the Iraq Invasion, quoting him as saying in 2007 that the surge was the "most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."
Chuck Hagel, John McCain Clash Over Iraq Surge

"This committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge.... That's a direct question. I expect a direct answer."

When Hagel continued to insist that the answer was more complicated than a yes or no answer, McCain grew frustrated.

"Will you please answer the question?" McCain said.... Were you correct or incorrect, yes or no?"

Hagel added that his comment about the "most dangerous foreign policy blunder" was not just about the surge, but about the overall decision to invade Iraq -- a belief he stood by because it took the U.S. focus off Afghanistan.

"Our war in Iraq I think was the most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam," Hagel said. Huffington Post
Jan 31, 2013

Too much taxpayer money was spent in Iraq for too few results, report finds

Ten years and $60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost.

In his final report to Congress, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen's conclusion was all too clear: Since the invasion a decade ago this month, the U.S. has spent too much money in Iraq for too few results.
Associated Press
March 06, 2013

 2/28/13 -- 1,000 Words: "Is the National Debt Really Too Big?" 

 2/25/13 -- Block That Vote. 

The Supreme Court is taking up the Voting Rights Act in its current session. The case before it, Shelby County v. Holder, No. 12-96, asserts that the Act's enforcement mechanism, the so-called pre-clearance clause, attempts to treat a disease that has already been eradicated.

"What does that big word mean?"

Passed in 1965, the Voting Rights Act is regarded as landmark legislation that finally delivered, after 100 years, on the promise of the 15th Amendment The bill had profound repercussions and almost immediately.

For one thing, the "Solid South" immediately turned solidly Republican. Before that it had voted Democrat from the Civil War on, out of respect for Abraham Lincoln.

Actually, Confederacy President Jefferson Davis, who was in Charlotte (having fled Richmond) when he got the news of Lincoln's assassination, lamented that the South had lost the best friend it had in Washington. And he wasn't joking around.

Davis may have been an unreconstructed rebel, but he was a smart man. He saw reconstruction coming in all its naked force—without the moderating and conciliatory counter-balance of the 16th President to restrain it.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act says that because of their past history of intimidating and disenfranchising minority voters, certain states, counties and municipalities (mostly the entire South) are not allowed to make changes to their voting laws without checking with the federal Justice Department first.

The Voting Rights Act was championed, somewhat courageously, by President Lyndon Johnson (himself a southerner) and passed by Congress in 1965 in true bi-partisan fashion. The President's own party's southern wing opposed it, and it passed with strong Republican support, led by Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (IL).

Johnson was pretty sure passage was going to lose the Democrats the south for a generation. His conjecture proved overly conservative. The majority of statewide officeholders in the southern states have been Republican since the '70s.

A majority of voters in the original states of the Confederacy last supported a Democratic Presidential candidate in 1976. That was Jimmy Carter, from Georgia. (Johnson, too, carried the south, ironically, in 1964, although barely).

The Voting Rights Act has been renewed and amended by Congress four times since its passage, the most recent being the 25-year extension signed into law by President Bush in 2006. During debate on the 2006 extension, some Republicans objected that the pre-clearance requirement (the law's primary enforcement provision) constituted federal overreach since the "New South" had long since disavowed the kind of voter suppression (poll taxes, literacy tests, overt physical intimidation, lynchings, etc.) the law sought to eradicate.

They lost that argument, and such a case would seem harder to make following last summer's voter suppression efforts in so many states, most of them, parenthetically, in the "New South."

Fifteen states have passed restrictive voting laws in the past couple of years, representing a combined 203 electoral votes, or 75% of the total needed to win the Presidency: (Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin).

A Photo ID law was passed in eight states—Alabama, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin—and established by referendum in Mississippi: All states controlled by Republicans

Eleven voter control laws or decrees were invalidated by state or federal courts or the federal Justice Department.

Proponents of dropping Section 5 point out that this time around it wasn't just southern states trying to block minority voting, so it isn't the same issue. Curiously, the South's history of voter oppression is commonly associated in the national mindset with racial hatred and bigotry, but rigging the vote has always been motivated by nothing more than a naked desire for political advantage.

Noted comic and political commentator (and fellow Saluki) Dick Gregory used to say, "Down south, they don't care how close I get as long as I don't get too big. (Up north, they don't care how big I get as long as I don't get too close.)" But either way is racial discrimination.

It may be against God's law, but it's not illegal to hate. It IS illegal to deny rights on the basis of race, color or creed, which voter ID laws de facto do, notwithstanding any expressed form of high-minded purpose.

Arguing that everybody does it is probably not a line of reasoning that should be pursued too rigorously. The events of last summer make clear that the inclination to discourage minority voting still lives. Congress felt the south still cannot be trusted to protect the rights of black voters.

Indeed, voter suppression initiatives, obviously coordinated across several states, weren't the result of any grass roots effort; they reflected a concerted effort by majority party state legislators and governors. And their efforts were in many cases thwarted by the Voting Rights Act.

Rather than rule along ideological lines, the High Court might be well advised to give some consideration to the studied opinion of Congress, which voted in 2006 to reaffirm the law overwhelmingly. And to the Republican President who signed the measure. If it did, the Court might well declare that the bill should be not only upheld but expanded.

The effort to protect minority voting rights seems like it's going backwards rather than forwards in a couple of northern states. Should not their names be added to the list of states that can't be trusted to look after their citizens' rights without some helpful oversight from the Justice Department? Perhaps we as a nation haven't come as long a way as we'd like to think.

"The terms of marriage were decidedly contractual, including specific worldly punishments for cheating. (The penalty for male infidelity was 10 shekels in alimony to the jilted wife. If the wife strayed, she would be strangled and dumped into a river.)"
Brian Palmer, Slate ("When Did God Get Into the Wedding Business?")

 2/5/13 -- Not Getting Any Better, Not Getting Any Worser 
Is Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (a) an honest, earnest soul, (b) a cold, devious prevaricator or (c) a cagey old pol who happens to be Senate Minority Leader? Or come to think of it, is that why he's Senate Minority Leader?

Which one is Mitch McConnell anyway? Can anyone tell these two guys apart, especially with their chin in their hand?

A few weeks back, Sen. McConnell said this on all three Sunday morning network talk shows: "This administration has driven spending as a percentage of our economy from 21% up to almost 25%." The reference is to spending as a percentage of GDP, but of course everybody knows that and can calculate in their heads whether 25% is good or bad. Or even true.

Is it true? No. On Sept. 30, 2012, the end of the government's fiscal year, spending was 22.8% of Gross Domestic Product, the nation's economic output (Congressional Budget Office)., which we now know will bend over backwards to appear all nicey-nicey and hey, you're both exaggerating, was quick to point out that McConnell was "fudging" the facts." But even they apparently were relying on last year's projection (24.1%) rather than a real figure.

Factcheck also seemed content to accept McConnell's notion that "just barely" 24% is the same as "almost" 25%. (What they did point out was that before Obama even took office spending as a percentage of GDP was projected to hit 24.9% in 2009. Recession, you know. Spending goes up AND output goes down. How are you with fractional equations?

That year actually wound up at 25.2% So McConnell was right once upon a time. Still, Factcheck allowed as how Obama didn't cause the recession, a point even Mitt Romney eventually conceded. So maybe "has driven" was poor phraseology. Although it probably said just what McConnell wanted it to say.

The real point in all this should be that the President doesn't set spending levels, Congress does. Obama, like the rest of us, just watches them work. Except that he signs off on their work. Even if they should decide later they don't want to pay when the bills come due, the President is obligated by law to spend what they appropriate.

When it comes to the deficit, Congress ought to own up that it is as the late, great Walt Kelly's Pogo once mused: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

One gets the sense that the spending sprees McConnell really hates were the TARP bailouts and the stimulus. These are generally what Republicans are talking about when they excoriate the President as a spendthrift.

Sen. McConnell voted for the first round of TARP—before Obama was President—but was against the auto bailout, and, he voted against the 2009 Obama stimulus, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

McConnell didn't care for health care either, but that hasn't generated much spending yet and is actually expected to reduce federal outlays for health care overall.

In terms of budgeting, TARP and ARRA are behind us. If they were nettlesome to Republicans at the time, nothing need be done about them now because, as Rafiki tells Simba in "The Lion King," after walloping the young lion in the head with his staff, "It doesn't mattah. It's in dee pahst!" Neither is part of budget baseline projections going forward.

So what are our budgetary problems going forward? Here are actual federal spending figures for 2010-12, years when the recession and the financial meltdown were already receding in our national rear-view mirror.

Better than you thought? It gets even better. How? For one thing, Obama obviously isn't actually a spendthrift. And for another, Congress actually has done quite a lot already.

You probably didn't realize this, but the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), the one with the failed super-committee gambit and the feared sequestrations, had other parts to it. Already embedded in law now are spending caps that should save $1.4 trillion over the next decade, counting interest savings.

And the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA), which you know as the fiscal cliff deal, is expected to create $650 billion in revenues over the next decade, again counting interest savings.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nominally non-partisan think tank, projects that an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit savings over the next ten years, plus savings in interest payments, would reduce federal public debt as a percentage of GDP to around 73%. Relatively good shape for this country to be in. Last achieved in 2008.

What are the chances this isn't just some think-tank wonk's personal wet dream? (Screw that non-partisan crap.) Is there anything in the real world to suggest this is even remotely a likely outcome?

Maybe. And maybe not so much. The Congressional Budget Office releases a new federal budget review early each year. In its Budget And Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2013 To 2023, released Feb. 5, The CBO has jaundiced its eye quite a bit compared to its report last August, principally as a result of the very Congressional actions the Center so applauded.

The CBO must base its projections on current law and not engage in speculative scenarios. Their review incorporates both the 2011 Budget Control Act's sequestration provisions—$1.4 trillion in discretionary spending cuts over the next 10 years— and its baseline caps. The 2012 ATRA Act's tax hikes on the rich are in there, too.

However, while the Center saw ATRA as a revenue gain, the CBO sees it as a significant net loss. That's because all the Bush tax cuts had been set to expire this year and not just those on upper-bracket income earners. The CBO estimates the cost of continuing the tax break for the "rest of us" at about $300-500 billion a year. That would be all in borrowed money. For each of the next ten years. Who says Republicans won't support deficit spending?

Naturally, the CBO does not include the Center's proposed $1.4 trillion in deficit reductions, but the sequestration, in total dollar terms, is a serviceable substitute. Recall, however, that sequestration falls all on spending, and the cuts are a bit arbitrary and heavy-handed (half on defense and half, pro rata, on all other discretionary spending). Nobody ever expected them to actually get triggered.

Now there's fear that sequestration might push the country back into recession. (The Bureau of Economic Analysis' 4th quarter GDP contraction (0.1%), largely attributable to reduced defense spending, kind of confirms the theory that government spending levels really do affect the economy.) Many (not all) think Congress will, ultimately, rethink sequestration. Yet, without it the CBO's forecast only gets bleaker.

But the news isn't all bad, Mrs. Lincoln. CBO's Feb. report forecasts public debt as a percentage of GDP declining to 73% by 2018 but climbing again, to slightly higher than it is today (77%) by 2023. Annual deficits continue to shrink over the next few years, falling to 2.4 percent of GDP by 2015, but then they, too, increase in the coming decade.

Somebody just needs to come up with a fresh idea or two before 2018. That's all.

That's five years away. Til then, smooth sailing, no? Uh, no. Health care remains a problem that needs (more) addressing. However achieved, growth in medical costs needs to be addressed, and in a way that doesn't seriously compromise care levels and drive large portions of the country into bankruptcy or early death. And something still has to be done to stabilize Social Security long-term.

But if the immediate issue is stabilizing the debt level, you could make the case we're getting closer. Just a slightly higher target than the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities projects. We're still a couple of miles from our goal, but that distance has stopped growing. At least for the moment.

Maybe also a revenue problem?

And all thanks to Congress, assuming they can just continue to work together so admirably just a little longer. Imagine that. Only a matter of time before they start taking credit.

Of course, finding $1.2 trillion in debt reduction to replace the sequestration, through any combination of spending cuts and new revenue, could be tough. It will need to be discussed, carefully, patiently, without rancor, in the non-partisan tradition. Republicans don't like tax hikes. Democrats don't like spending cuts. Remember?

Maybe we should ask Sen. McConnell what he thinks. If the wily old coot would really tell us what he really thinks. Or just tell us the truth. Or is that asking too much?

After all, this is politics, where blurting out the truth is generally regarded as a faux pas. Or, at best, a slip of the tongue.

Dept. of You Don't Know, Jack
Rep. Louis Buller (Louie) Gohmert, Jr. (R, TX) graduated from Texas A&M, where he was a brigade commander of the Corps of Cadets and class president. He earned a Juris Doctor from Baylor, where he was also class president. In the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps he served as a defense attorney. He was elected to three terms as a state district judge before being appointed to fill a vacancy as Chief Justice on Texas's 12th Court of Appeals. After redistricting made the Texas 1st Congressional District significantly more Republican than its predecessor (notably by moving Gohmert's home from the 4th to the 1st), Gohmert defeated a Democratic incumbent to become the first Republican Congressman since Reconstruction to represent northeast Texas. He won a fifth term in 2012 with 71.7% of the vote.
Louie Gohmert on Fox News after Newtown School Shooting, Dec 18, 2012.

"I wish to God she (Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung who died in the assault) had had an m-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out ... and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids."
Your Brain Under Fire, Time Magazine, January 28, 2013.

"In the New York City police department ... officers involved in gunfights typically hit their intended targets only 18% of the time.... When they fired 16 times at an armed man outside the Empire State Building last summer, they hit nine bystanders and left 10 bullet holes in the suspect—a better-than-average hit ratio. In most cases, officers involved in shootings experience a kaleidoscope of sensory distortions including tunnel vision and a loss of hearing. Afterward, they are sometimes surprised to learn that they have fired their weapons at all."

 1/8/13 -- "Cut Spending!" is Like "Off With Their Heads!" Whose Heads? 
To: the Editor,
Re: "Some claim it doesn't contribute to the debt, but that's false."

You guys do a great job, but it seems you're sometimes a little slow to shake off a misbegotten notion. Are you vain?

Both you and your brother-from-another-mother,, have taken Dick Durbin to task for saying Social Security doesn't add a penny to our debt. But he's right, and you both are wrong. As Antonin Scalia might say, why don't you just get over it?

If Social Security has a $49 billion shortfall, it must cash in $49 billion of special-purpose securities it bought from Treasury whenever, back in some year where it had a surplus.

Treasury, of course, doesn't have the money to repay; that's why they borrowed it in the first place. But cashing in the bonds doesn't create $49 billion in new debt for Treasury. The debt was created once Treasury first borrowed the money. With me so far?

Now the Treasury must find a new lender, but not for new debt. For the same old debt. Plus accrued interest, origination fees, etc, etc: all the stuff you get when you refinance your mortgage so that the banks can make some money while still leaving you with the impression you got a good deal.

But the debt itself is not new debt; it's the same old debt. Do I repeat myself? Very well, I repeat myself. Changing lenders does not ipso facto create new debt. How could you miss that obvious point? (Even bankers haven't figured out how to make new debt out of an old loan. Oh wait; yes, they have.)

As to the payroll tax holiday, that was Congress's idea. And okay, Obama's, too. But it wasn't Social Security's doing. It was a stimulative legislative policy deemed to be in the best interests of the country and economic recovery. If it bothers people, then just call it off.

Come to think of it, they just did. The holiday was only in effect from 2011 to 2012, by the way. And it certainly doesn't create an argumentative platform for taking a hatchet to Social Security. It's not the problem. Maybe will be soon, given the nature of this Congress, but hasn't been so far. Not even in 2011 and 2012.

The pretext is just that: a pretext.

What do you have against poor Dick Durbin anyway? Don't you have any lawyers on staff? Maybe you should hire him. Do you really think this is a case you could win in a court of law? Dick Durbin knows you couldn't. He's a lawyer, you know.


Uh, Sidebar
All that cause your head to hurt? Let's make it easier. Suppose that in a moment of reckless exuberance you've borrowed $500 from your neighborhood loan shark, Vincenzo, even though it's still months until payday when you could repay it.

Vincenzo is growing impatient and has told you, in a very unfriendly way, he wants his money sooner than that. Over the luncheon special at a local Chinese bistro, you're sharing your dilemma with the proprietor, Wan Mon. He, out of the blue, offers to lend you $500 to help keep Vincenzo off your back and other parts of your corpus. Vincenzo doesn't eat Chinese, so it's no sweat off Wan Mon's nose.

You take the $500 from Wan Mon and give it to a surprised, and apparently disappointed, Vincenzo. Wan Mon has assured you that the local tong gang he in turn got the money from won't, in all likelihood, be looking for it back before sometime next year.

On your way home you're thinking, "You know, I really should get myself on a pay-as-you-go budget." But you're also troubled by something else: Are you more in debt than you were, the same as before, or do you now owe nothing at all assuming you can manage to skip town in the next couple of days without being seen?

See if you can find a Republican—or anyone from or—who can answer this question correctly.

"Of course the deficits of the Bush years were irresponsible, but they didn't crash the economy—Wall Street did that. And that crash, in turn, is what really drove the deficit through tthe roof, not the other way around."
Thomas Frank, Harper's Magazine