Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why the IRS Scandal is Real and Benghazi Isn't

It has been a good week for the GOP.  Once-disgraced South Carolina ex-Governor Mark Sanford completed an unlikely political comeback, winning a special congressional race against Elizabeth Colbert-Busch (sister of liberal-who-plays-a-conservative-on-tv comedian Stephen Colbert), they got their Benghazi hearings and the IRS admitted to making a mistake in flagging groups that contained the name "Tea Party" for further review of tax status.

Let's deal with these issues one at a time:
(1) The Sanford Win
Democrats certainly thought they had a shot in this race, particularly after Sanford was reported to have violated a restraining order by his ex-wife, and poured money into the campaign.  The National Republican Campaign Committee had pulled funding for Sanford, perhaps because they thought he was a losing cause and perhaps because they simply didn't want to be affiliated with him given the potential for future scandal.

That Sanford won isn't totally unexpected, this is a heavily Republican district after all, that elected Tim Scott, now the Tea Party-affiliated Senator from the state (appointed by conservative Governor Nikki Haley to fulfill the term of Jim Demint, who had moved on to The Hertiage Foundation, a conservative think tank.  That he won by 9 points is a repudiation of the notion that Democrats can compete in conservative districts.

Sanford was about the worst possible GOP candidate, laden with scandals past and present.  He ran a horrible campaign, debating cardboard cutouts of Nancy Pelosi, rather than presenting a real message for why he was being elected.

But in the end, it didn't matter - the district basically broke the way it was designed to and elected Sanford.

Whether Sanford himself will be an asset or a liability to the GOP remains to be seen.  That his election shows the difficulty that Democrats will have picking up House seats in 2014 is unquestionable.

(2) Benghazi
My Republican friends are really upset about Benghazi.  They just aren't really clear about why.  House hearings this week called into question the extent to which talking points given to the press in the aftermath of the attack on our embassy in Libya had been edited by administration officials.  I'm just not sure what the scandal is.

Let's assume that the worst of the (as yet unproven) GOP allegations are true.  As near as I can tell, they are essentially that:
a. The embassy in Libya had asked for additional security prior to the attack
b. The Obama Administration had failed to provide the additional security requested
c. The Administration knew that the attack had been a terrorist plot, but knowingly put forward a story that the attack may have been about an internet video

Point a is fairly established fact.  The embassy in Libya HAD asked for additional security, as had virtually every other embassy in the Middle East, Africa and even Europe.  The Obama administration had requested an increase in the operating budget for embassy security operations, which was summarily denied by the Republican House.  So points A and B seem squarely on the GOP's shoulders.

Point C may have some merit.  While the national security apparatus certainly didn't provide decisive answers about the source of the attack in the initial aftermath, it certainly seems the administration downplayed the potential role of Al Qaeda in the attack, relative to what was provided by the security community.

My question is - so what?  That Presidents frame security in terms favorable to them is hardly new ground in Washington - does anyone remember the run-up to the Iraq War?  That the President's advisors framed the issue the way they did did not impact any matter of policy or contain a request of Congress to authorize a particular option.

So at the very worst, we are talking about playing politics around national security issues, a distasteful practice, undoubtedly, but hardly an impeachment-worthy scandal.

(3) The IRS Scandal
Of all the news this week, this is by far the most chilling.  After pressure from conservative groups, the IRS admits to flagging tax-exempt applications from groups containing the name "Tea Party" for further review.

First, a bit of context.  In order to have tax-exempt status, an organization's primary purpose must be the promotion of social welfare.  A limited amount of political advocacy is allowed, but political advocacy cannot be the organization's primary purpose.  For example, the Nature Conservancy, a group that primarily uses donor funds to purchase unspoiled wilderness for the purposes of preservation (a promotion of social welfare) but also advocates for better control of global warming (political advocacy) is tax exempt but the Sierra Club, a group that primarily advocates for stronger environmental legislation (political advocacy) does not qualify.

That some of the "Tea Party" groups engage in political advocacy is unquestionable.  That some even PRIMARILY engage in advocacy and therefore would be ineligible for tax exempt status is likely.  That the reason for their flagging was the use of the words "Tea Party" in their name is chilling.

While the IRS states that this was used as a "shortcut" and not because of "political bias", this is a pretty thin explanation.  If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, in this case a duck being a political witch hunt, it is probably a duck.

Not since the Nixon administration has the IRS been weaponized against political opponents.  The Obama Administration needs to condemn this action unambiguously and fire the administrators involved.  If this is tied back to the higher levels of the Obama Administration, that WOULD be a real scandal, unlike Benghazi.

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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why Can't the Third World Get It Together?, Why Calling Out Bigots Isn't Anti-Freedom, Is Obama a Lame Duck?

Why Do Some Nations Fail?
I apologize to my dear readers for the lack of recent writing.  I have been sitting on the beach in Jamaica, enjoying the sunshine and pondering the issues of our world (okay, I didn't spend most of the time pondering, I probably spent more time swimming and drinking, but I did think enough to get the idea for this post.)

One of the things that always strikes me when I visit a place like Jamaica is the poverty there.  The per capita GDP in Jamaica is just over $9,000 compared to close to $50,000 for the US and an average of $32,000 for the Euro-zone.  Even second-world countries like Russia and Brazil have per capita GDP's in the $12,000 to $15,000 range.  So, despite some wealthy land owners, Jamaica is poor, very poor.

But why?  There are tremendous natural assets in the country.  It has some of the most coveted beach-front property and nicest weather in the world, leading to a very robust tourism industry.  It has natural resources with huge natural bauxite deposits that has led to a robust export-industry.  It has a great climate for agriculture, leading to strong production of sugar, bananas and plantains.  Yet it is very poor.

The answer is all about infrastructure.  Education is a mess in the country, with only 73% of kids making it through primary school, with less than 50% graduating from high school and even fewer enrolling in college.  The system of finance is poor, with a far less robust system for accumulating and effectively distributing capital than the first world.

A country realizing its economic potential always comes back to a few things, but I'll remind the reader, as these are the investments that should guide our government.  What is required for economic success is:
(1) A robust system of property rights, including intellectual property (i.e. patent law)
(2) A complete end-to-end system of finance that effectively distributes capital to good ideas from venture capital to bond markets to banking, which includes credible financial controls (i.e. you can trust financial statements from potential investments)
(3) A solid system of physical infrastructure - roads, bridges, trains, ports, etc.
(4) An educational system that equips the workforce with needed skills
(5) Strong investment in basic scientific research

In the US, for all our issues, we still compare favorable to most of the world on these measures, although our physical infrastructure and investment in basic science could use some work.

Calling Broussard a Bigot Isn't Anti-Free Speech
People get confused about what free speech means sometimes.  Our first amendment, which I hold very dear, ensures that people are able to express their points of view without interference from the federal government.  Unlike, say, Germany, where you can be arrested for saying you support the Nazis, in the US, the government won't come arrest you for saying you like Adolf Hitler.

What free speech is NOT is a license to say things free from criticism.

Following Jason Collins announcement that he is gay, a significant event in that he is the first man in a major team sport at the top level to come out of the closet in the US (albeit Collins future prospects in the NBA were unclear as he is at best, an aging sixth man without a contract), ESPN Analyst Chris Broussard stated:
"If you're openly living that type of lifestyle, the Bible says you know them by their fruits, it says that that's a sin.  If you're openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, I believe that's walking in open rebellion to God and Jesus Christ."

Broussard is certainly entitled to his opinion.  He is legally entitled to express it.  But I'm not obligated to show him any respect.  Nor is ESPN obligated to continue to employ him.

Broussard is a bigot, and we should say it.  It is not intolerance to shun the intolerant.  Saying that we have to listen to Broussard's point of view and respect it is absurd.  If an ESPN analyst said that the reason that there are far more white quarterbacks than black despite African-American's overall dominance in the NFL because black people are stupid, he would be fired and shunned, not congratulated on expressing his point of view.

You may not consider what Broussard said as equivalent to racism but I do.  And calling bigots bigots is an important part of driving the social conditions that don't tolerate homophobia.  If homophobia becomes as socially unacceptable as racism or Nazi-party membership, that will be progress.  The bigots will have a right to speak but we will all ignore them.

By the way, kudos to Kobe Bryant for his strong statement of support for Collins.  Kobe, for all his personal shortcomings, showed real leadership in his unequivocal support.  He is still a major superstar and the rest of the NBA looks to the response of players like Bryant.

Lame Duck Already?
Presidential second terms tend to be more quiet because, almost by definition, Presidents are lame ducks from the day of their second inauguration.  President Obama has seemed more lame than most in the start of year 5 of his Presidency.

Gun control?  He couldn't even get a bill passed that was sponsored by 2 NRA members and supported by 90% of the Senate.

Immigration reform?  We can hope, but don't bet on it.

Sequester replacement?  He is nowhere.

Climate control?  Is anyone even TALKING about it?

The President's lack of a relationship with congressional leadership is showing, including in his own party.  It's an open question whether the President will get anything significant done in term number 2.

Blame the GOP all you want, but President Clinton had the same issue in the last 6 years of his Presidency, but got things done by tracking to the center.

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