Archives: 09/2014

Clinton and Bush Introduce Leadership Program

Yesterday Bill Clinton and George W. Bush reportedly gushed “about each other’s leadership and acute decision-making skills.”  The two former presidents were launching a “joint program to train young leaders.”

According to the New York Times story, the audience was “packed with Bush and Clinton White House alumni.”  Oh, that explains all the laughter and backslapping.  The former presidents were confident that no one would ask them serious questions about their actions in office.  Here are a few questions that young leaders might consider asking the gentlemen before applying for their program:

Thank You, Mrs. Klose

Thank you for standing up for your right, and that of other Americans, not to be coerced: 

Lillian Gobitis Klose, who as a school-age member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to salute the U.S. flag with her classmates, a controversial act of conscience that set off a legal tug of war in the 1930s and ’40s that ultimately bolstered the First Amendment right to religious expression, died Aug. 22 in Fayetteville, Ga. She was 90.

School officials in Minersville, Pa., where her parents ran a grocery store, expelled the young Ms. Gobitis for this act of defiance. But convinced that her Jehovah’s Witness faith forbade a public display of allegiance to a national symbol, she took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940 – and lost, 8-1, with Justice Felix Frankfurter writing, sententiously, that “National unity is the basis of national security.”

Hers wasn’t a comfortable stand to take, especially with war looming, as the Washington Post’s obituary notes:

“It was a very scary time,” Mrs. Klose told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On one occasion, the Gobitis family was in a car when a mob attempted to flip it over. Another time, she told the Philadelphia Inquirer, the police chief parked his car outside her family’s grocery store to protect it from a threatened attack.

Especially with homeschooling rights virtually unrecognized at the time, Jehovah’s Witness youngsters were at risk of being sent to state reformatories, and their parents were at risk of prosecution for contributing to delinquency.  But by yielding no ground, Lillian Gobitis prepared the way for a victory just three years later, when in a case with similar facts, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the high court reversed itself and in a 6-3 ruling upheld the right not to salute the flag or say the pledge. Justice Robert Jackson’s ringing pronouncement was to enter the constitutional canon: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”  

It always did seem a bit hopeful for Jackson to pronounce that principle a “fixed star”; after all, the Court was reversing a contrary ruling from just three years previous. But the phrase was more accurate as prediction: the principle was to become a fixed star in constitutional jurisprudence, to the immense benefit of Americans and our liberty. Even in an era in which, ominously, some elected officials seek to roll back other First Amendment protections, there is little if any movement to reverse the flag and pledge decisions.

Well done, Lillian Gobitis Klose.

 

 

Hungry Congressional Staffers Discover the Value of Trade

Under current ethics rules, members of Congress are allowed to receive gifts of snack food from companies located in their states or districts, as long as the snacks are available to office visitors.  While constituents visiting the Capitol may be getting to enjoy home-grown treats, the real beneficiaries here are the office employees who have privileged access to free snacks.

Yesterday Politico ran a light-hearted story about a thriving, informal market that has developed for congressional staffers to trade these free snacks.  It’s funny and you should read it in its entirety.  In order to be insufferably pedantic, I thought I would share a few thoughts on how this peculiar market, like all markets, developed as a way for individual humans to improve their lives through trade.

The rules create a peculiar inconvenience for hungry staffers, as they can only get free snacks produced by a company in their boss’s district.  Some offices only have Pepsi products while others only have Coke.  Some have healthy food and some have junk food.  Free snacks are great and all, but what do you do when the snacks you have aren’t the snacks you want?

The problem here is a non-optimal distribution of snacks, and the solution is trade.

Dozens of junior staff who spoke with POLITICO described an elaborate barter system based on local products. Pepsi is swapped for M&M’s, and Coca-Cola for Craisins.

Some of the foods that are most highly in demand are also well supplied in Capitol Hill offices, while others appeal to more particular tastes.  These realities shape their value as products to trade. 

Frito-Lay chips and Mars candy are the most common — and perhaps the most commonly traded — snacks on the Hill. Both manufacturers have operations in several states.

And orange juice, it turns out, is a hot commodity on the Hill, trading at times for as many as five bags of Lay’s chips.

Not all products on the political circuit are well-known brands. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has Ola! all natural granola, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) has Cherry Mash, a chocolate cherry treat, and Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) has Aplets & Cotlets, a square fruit puree and nut snack that isn’t all that tradable.

What Sort of Problem Is ISIS?

The quality of the discussion about what sort of problem ISIS poses to the United States has been unsurprisingly poor, given who is framing it. All Americans have been appalled by the grotesque killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American hostages held by the Islamic State. The justness of vengeance against their killers is something everyone agrees on.

But beyond that, the debate is stunning by its internal contradictions. Take, for example, the fact that the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently announced that while ISIS “poses a direct and significant threat to us,” there is “no credible information [it] is planning to attack the US.” This echoed the judgment of both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which issued similar judgments last month.

At the same time as those charged with threat assessment are stating ISIS does not at present pose a threat to US territory, our political leaders are unanimous in judging that the United States needs to involve itself more deeply in the war taking place across the Syria-Iraq border. Shouldn’t we worry at least a bit that taking sides against it in that war makes the Islamic State more likely to target the United States at home, not less? (For their part, the barbarian murderers of Foley and Sotloff stated that their actions were intended to avenge prior US airstrikes on ISIS.) One could argue that trying to destroy ISIS is worth raising the risk they will target US territory, but shouldn’t the marginal impact of its likelihood of an attack on us here at least show up on the ledger?

Or take the recent statements of our politicians. President Obama famously remarked that he didn’t have a strategy for what to do about ISIS, even though his administration was already bombing them. On Meet the Press, Obama added his voice to those claiming there’s been no “immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL.” Rather, according to Obama, “ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria.”

Secretary of State Kerry offered some thoughts on ISIS last week, in which he made clear the administration’s desired end-state: “destroy ISIL”:

these guys are not 10 feet tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks. They’re not as organized as everybody thinks. And we have the technology, we have the know-how. What we need is obviously the willpower to make certain that we are steady and stay at this.

There is no contain policy for ISIL. They’re an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi state within a regular army. And leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us…

Two points here. First, if ISIS is in fact as Kerry describes it—a group that isn’t 10 feet tall, a group that isn’t as disciplined or organized as everybody thinks, and a group that is really a quasi state with grandiose objectives—then why isn’t containment a viable option? Grandiose objectives are hard to obtain even for actors who are disciplined and well-organized, even those that are 10 feet tall. So why isn’t ISIS—which Kerry says isn’t so powerful but has ambitious objectives—likely to burn out like so many of its predecessor groups have?

U.S. Need Not Defend Turkey From Islamic State

Apparently Washington believes its allies to be wimps and weaklings.  Why else would NATO officials promise to defend Turkey from the Islamic State?  Surely this well-armed U.S. ally can hold off a few thousand Islamic irregulars, some of whom Ankara allowed to enter Syria next door.

The rise of the Islamic State has led to much nonsense from Washington officials who speak as if the group was capable of conquering America.  ISIL is made up of dangerous fanatics, but in the form of the Islamic State they are largely powerless to harm the U.S. 

Their conventional capabilities are minimal compared to those of the U.S.  Moreover, so long as the Islamists are attempting to conquer territory they cannot afford to launch terrorist attacks on America, which would bring down the full wrath of the U.S. military on the return address they had so thoughtfully provided.

Among the states really threatened by ISIL is Turkey.  This led NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to promise to defend Ankara:  “If any of our allies, and in this case of course particularly Turkey, were to be threatened from any source of threat, we won’t hesitate to take all steps necessary to ensure effective defense of Turkey or any other ally.”

However, Ankara is partly to blame for ISIL’s rise.  The Erdogan government decided to support the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allowed opposition fighters from all sides, including ISIL, easy access to the battlefield. 

Who Pays for Campaigns?

While the Senate votes on a constitutional amendment to carve out an exception to the First Amendment by limiting spending on political campaigns, members of Congress have no compunctions about spending tax dollars on their own re-elections. WAMU radio in Washington reports on some of the expenditures by D.C., Maryland, and Virginia members: 

“I think franked mail is a tool that can be used to communicate with your constituents,” [Rep. Gerry] Connolly [R-Va.] says.

Last year Connolly spent more than $94,000 of your tax dollar on mostly glossy, color pamphlets with pictures of him at his office declaring his support for federal workers, while D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton spent just over $3,000 touting her record. Maryland Democrat John Delaney spent more than $50,000, which his press secretary says is to introduce his freshman boss to voters, which watchdogs say gives him a leg up over his challenger, Republican Dan Bongino. Congressman Randy Forbes (R-Va. 4) spent about $30,000 on Facebook ads, railing against “Obamacare,” questioning “Free taxpayer funded cell phones” and on dozens of electronic polls, which he defends.

It’s not that members of Congress object to people spending money on elections. They just want the people’s money sent to Washington, and spent by Congress, on their own re-election efforts. So much less messy and divisive that way.

School Bureaucracy and the Death of Common Sense

If you needed more proof that bureaucracy induces the sacrifice of common sense to rigid rules, there’s this forehead-slapping story from the Washington Post’s Petula Dvorak:

Avery Gagliano is a commanding young pianist who attacks Chopin with the focused diligence of a master craftsman and the grace of a ballet dancer.

The prodigy, who just turned 13, was one of 12 musicians selected from across the globe to play at a prestigious event in Munich last year and has won competitions and headlined with orchestras nationwide.

One would expect that she’d be the pride of her school. Unfortunately, little Miss Avery attended a government-run school in Washington D.C.

But to the D.C. public school system, the eighth-grader from Mount Pleasant is also a truant. Yes, you read that right. Avery’s amazing talent and straight-A grades at Alice Deal Middle School earned her no slack from school officials, despite her parents begging and pleading for an exception.

“As I shared during our phone conversation this morning, DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.,” Jemea Goso, attendance specialist with the school system’s Office of Youth Engagement, wrote in an e-mail to Avery’s parents, Drew Gagliano and Ying Lam, last year before she left to perform in Munich.

Although administrators at Deal were supportive of Avery’s budding career and her new role as an ambassador for an international music foundation, the question of whether her absences violated the District’s truancy rules and law had to be kicked up to the main office. And despite requests, no one from the school system wanted to go on the record explaining its refusal to consider her performance-related absences as excused instead of unexcused.