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Preview: Reason Magazine - Staff > David Weigel

David Weigel: Reason.com articles.





Updated: 2016-10-01T00:00:00-04:00

 



Czar Wars

2009-01-27T11:00:00-05:00

Americans aren’t just getting a new president this year. We’re getting a new czar. On October 13, President George W. Bush signed the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2008, or PRO-IP. It creates the final new high-level post to be introduced in the Bush era: the United States intellectual property enforcement representative, whom you will soon be calling the “IP czar.”

The law also doubles the fines that can be levied against people engaging in illegal file sharing, and makes it easier to seize property (such as computers) used to violate copyrights. Lawyers and activists in the free culture movement, which opposes overly restrictive copyright laws, managed to excise some other provisions from the original bill, including a measure that would have handed over any damages won in the government’s lawsuits to the record industry.

Don’t expect an Obama administration to eliminate the new post. The Democrats have close ties to the entertainment industry, so there’s little reason to believe they’ll be any less aggressive about enforcing IP law.




How Big Is Small?

2009-01-27T10:03:00-05:00

Lockheed Martin doesn’t fit most people’s definition of a small business. The defense contractor has 140,000 employees, and in 2007 it netted $3 billion in profits. Yet $143 million of its revenue that year came via 207 federal government contracts dedicated to “small businesses.”

Congress requires that just under a quarter of all government contracts go to small businesses. According to an investigation by The Washington Post, at least $5 billion of the $89 billion in government contracts allegedly awarded to small businesses in 2007 went to entities that don’t fit that description.

The Small Business Administration (SBA) claims the errors came not from chicanery but from “miscodings” based on bad data. Since the federal government kept records of 6 million contract actions in 2007, the SBA maintains, the mistakes identified by the Post represent a very low error rate and suggest that the agency was actually on the ball. “The Post’s report, taken along with other credible analyses,” acting SBA Administrator Sandy K. Baruah said in a statement, “should lay to rest once and for all the unsubstantiated or uninformed claim that scores of billions in small business contracts is purposely diverted to large businesses.”




Where Did It All Go Wrong?

2009-01-07T15:00:00-05:00

On the afternoon of July 6, 2007, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas emerged from his taxi to what was becoming a shockingly familiar sight: Dozens of fans waving handmade or Internet-bought “Ron Paul” signs. They had been waiting outside the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., for up to 45 minutes, ready to greet the long-shot Republican presidential candidate as he arrived for an interview with George Stephanopoulos, chief Washington correspondent for ABC News. The famous interviewer had walked into the hotel minutes earlier, smiling at the crowd, but was barely noticed. The obscure congressman was greeted with shouts, cheers, and a bunch of hand-held cameras. I asked Paul about reports that his rival Sen. John McCain—then cratering in the polls—might take public financing. “He needs it,” Paul said, chuckling. “We don’t need it!” Inside the hotel the politician known as “Dr. No” told Stephanopoulos his campaign had raised $2.4 million in the second quarter, quadrupling his numbers from the quarter before. “We’re on the upslope,” said Paul. “We feel good about what’s happening.” Stephanopoulos asked just one tough question: “What’s success for you in this campaign?” “What’s success?” Paul pondered this. “Well, to win, is one, is the goal—” “That’s not going to happen.” Paul was taken aback. “Do you know for—absolute? Are you willing to bet your—every cent in your pocket for that?” “Yes.” “You are. OK. I thought so when I ran for Congress.” The congressman laughed and moved on. Paul’s life was changing dramatically. Within six months he would raise another $25 million for his campaign, giving him a larger war chest than McCain at the time. Within ayear he would draw thousands of supporters to a “Revolution March” in Washington, leading up to a massive “Rally for the Republic” just minutes from the site of the Republican National Convention. By the end of 2008, Ron Paul would be a bona fide national political figure: author of a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, subject of two quickie biographies, a frequent guest on cable news shows. But 2008 would end with Stephanopoulos’ question hanging. What was success? Having failed to win the Republican nomination, did Paul’s candidacy affect the big-government direction of the GOP? Did it improve the fortunes of a more ideologically compatible political grouping, the Libertarian Party, which nominated Paul for president in 1988 and still counts him as a lifetime member? Optimism for the Paul campaign peaked in December 2007 and faded by February 2008. Optimism for Libertarian candidate Bob Barr’s effort to pick up the Paul banner peaked in May and was in tatters by September. By November, mutual recriminations from both camps put libertarians in a familiar political position: bitterly blaming one another for their ongoing marginalization. “Paul set the liberty movement back a decade by encouraging people to stay in the GOP,” Barr Communications Director Shane Cory told me just days before the election. Paul Communications Director Jesse Benton described Barr’s campaign as “disappointing” after the election. “They got more and more desperate.” Paul launched his presidential bid on January 11, 2007. In the first three months of the year, he raised only $640,000 and hired a skeletal staff. The momentum shift came on May 15, 2007, when Paul butted heads with Rudy Giuliani in the second GOP presidential debate. Pressed on whether he thought the United States could still follow a “humble foreign policy” after 9/11, Paul tried to explain the theory of blowback. “Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us?” he asked. “They attack us because we’ve been over there.” A sputtering Giuliani demanded that Paul “withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that.” The South Carolina crowd roared. Paul refused to back down, and was heavily booed. “A lot of people thought that would be our death kne[...]



Kentucky Reign

2009-01-01T10:00:00-05:00

In 2007 Democrat Steve Beshear was elected governor of Kentucky after pledging to expand state-run gambling. Once in office, Beshear found that competition from online gambling was a huge obstacle. So in September 2008, his state filed a civil suit against absolutepoker.com, fulltiltpoker.com, goldencasino.com, and 138 other websites for exploiting its citizens. The Bluegrass State’sdemand: Block access for Kentucky-based gamblers, or we’ll take over your domain names.

The Interactive Media Entertainment Gaming Association filed a brief arguing that seizing the names would violate the Constitution. The state insists its aims are more modest. “Our goal has never been owning those domain names,” said Jennifer Brislin, a spokesman for Kentucky’s Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. “We’re looking for the owners of the domain names to pay damages to Kentucky. The domain names are just the door to online casinos that are taking money from the state.”

The governor’s rhetoric isn’t so modest. Introducing the lawsuit, Beshear said that bold action was needed because terrorists might benefit from online gambling. “This,” he declared, “isa threat to national security.”

On October 16, a Franklin Circuit judge allowed the state’s seizure case to continue and set up a hearing for November 17.




Beat the New Boss

2008-12-15T12:00:00-05:00

Four years ago, after the re-election of George W. Bush, the Permanent Republican Majority had finally taken over. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform predicted that the Democrats would not even survive four more years. “Without effective control of the government, the Democratic Party is like a fish out of water,” Norquist said at the time, “a vampire in the sun, Antaeus held aloft, an appliance unplugged.” But the Democrats survived. In fact, they came back faster than all but the most optimistic liberals expected. In January 2009, they are returning to Washington stronger than at any time since the Great Society Congress of 1965-67. Washington's libertarian activists and think tankers are still trying to wrap their brains around the new reality. Today you can sort them into two rough categories. There are the Bargainers, the ones who believe they can do business with President Barack Obama. And there are the Battlers, the ones who believe Obama can-and should-be impeded while the Republican Party is rebuilt into a genuinely liberty-minded organization. "The upside of the Obama victory," says Matt Kibbe, president of the pro-market group FreedomWorks, "is that it draws, more clearly, the lines between the good guys and the bad guys. It gives us an especially good idea of who the bad guys are." I.e., the new administration. A D.C. libertarian's status as a Bargainer or a Battler largely depends on what issue he or she works on every day. Economic libertarians such as Kibbe, the people who spent the Bush era pushing unsuccessfully for market-based health care reform and private Social Security accounts, expect four to eight years in an even deeper wilderness. "I watched the Social Security campaign unravel from the inside," Kibbe remembers. Now there will be no "inside." Obama has some advisers who sympathize with libertarians, many of whom he befriended at Harvard and the University of Chicago. These include Jeff Liebman, one of Obama's top economic advisers, who has been attacked by liberals for statements supporting Social Security privatization and tax cuts. "I know Jeff Liebman well," says Michael Tanner, a Cato Institute analyst who fought for private Social Security accounts in 2005, but "Obama ran a campaign that precludes Social Security reform." The Battlers are not necessarily apocalyptic. A Democratic victory has been predicted for so long that they grew acclimated to the idea. Gallows-humor jokes about the Obama presidency were part of the city's conversation for months before the election. But in the closing weeks the news just got worse and worse. A Democratic Congress became a Democratic majority of at least 254 seats in the House and 57 seats in the Senate. A financial crisis triggered a $700 billion bailout and widespread nationalization of the banking sector, engineered by Republicans. Some form of national health insurance seemed increasingly likely as the political terrain grew more favorable. The ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has made it clear that he wants a health care bill-"the cause of my life"-to pass. "We'll all have to suffer for him," says Tanner. "In Egypt, didn't they bury the pharaohs with their slaves?" The Battlers' fear is tempered by their dismal experiences with Bush. The 43rd president's second term began with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, but a post-election push toward the long-held libertarian dream of privatizing Social Security was nearly dead on arrival. As worried as he is about Obama, Tanner now admits that he was "dead wrong about Bush." White House staff members "met with us but didn't listen," he says. "A lot of meetings were held just to soothe us. The Clinton administration, whether you believe it or not, treated us better." Myron Ebell, an environmental analyst at the pro-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, had an even tougher time with the Bush White House. "We won't have allies in the Obama administr[...]



Bob Barr Looks Back

2008-11-24T17:00:00-05:00

WASHINGTON—"Life was a bitch," says Bob Barr. We are sitting in the coffee nook at the Mayflower Hotel, the aged Washington, D.C. institution where, some 76 years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote his first inaugural address. We are not yet talking about the campaign for president that Barr finished in fourth place with 512,000-odd votes. Barr is talking about his habit of downing a high-single-digit number of espressos every day, and how hard this was before Starbucks came along. "Most countries I'd lived in had cultures of much heavier coffee," Barr explains. "In South America you've got café con leche. In the Middle East you need a knife and fork to drink the coffee. It was hard to get strong coffee here—I was delighted when Starbucks made it big." Barr is in Washington to speak with fellow alumni of Georgetown Law School at a meeting of the Federalist Society, and to build up the client list for Liberty Strategies, his consulting firm. "I absented myself from producing income for about eight months," Barr says. "I'm a working stiff." Hence the coffee, and hence a packed schedule that's meant to introduce Barr to the people who can get him back in the black. Over the course of a six-month campaign, Barr spent more time than he might have liked dealing with intra-Libertarian squabbling, lower-than-expected fundraising numbers, and what his running mate Wayne Allyn Root called "the ghost of Ron Paul"—persistent media attention on the indecisive Republican candidate who, contrary to some expectations, did not endorse the Libertarian ticket. Over coffee, Barr hashed out how he got the nomination, what went right and wrong, and what he's doing now. reason: What did you get out of your stint in the Libertarian National Committee? Bob Barr: From my standpoint, it gave me an opportunity I've not had before to learn the personalities in the Libertarian Party, and to learn the structure of the party. It gave me the opportunity to assure at least some Libertarians that I wasn't a Trojan horse. I wasn't a Republican trying to use the Libertarian Party to further the Republican agenda, or some such nonsense. I think I accomplished that working with the LNC. reason: There are still LP members who aren't satisfied—less than there were in May, but various voices on the web who make this argument. Barr: In any political movement you're never going to be able to satisfy everybody. Reagan didn't. I really don't think that anybody with a straight face could make that argument now. I really don't. Which does not mean that everybody in the Libertarian Party loves Bob Barr. I doubt that that's the case. I do think that over the course of the campaign, the people that we worked with, the issues that we presented, I think gave lie to any lingering doubts that I was not a Libertarian. reason: In December of last year, you proposed, and the LNC passed, a resolution asking Ron Paul to drop his GOP bid and run as the Libertarian candidate. Was that more for attention, or was it a real attempt to get him to run? Barr: I meant it exactly how it was worded. I saw at that point, and I don't think anyone saw otherwise, that Ron was not going to get the Republican nomination. He had, in fact, built up a significant amount of public attention, a persona as a libertarian with a small l, and my thought was, "Let's make a serious effort here, an honest effort to get him formally back into party and take advantage of what he's done." At the time, had he taken advantage of it, it would have been a significant boost for him and the Libertarian Party. reason: You had joined the LNC saying you would not run for president. When did you privately decide to make the race? Barr: I introduced Ron Paul at CPAC. His speech came a few hours after Mitt Romney left the Republican race, which made it much clearer that McCain was going to win the nomination. For whatever reason that's when I started being approache[...]



Atlas Blinked

2008-11-19T12:00:00-05:00

Every Wednesday in Washington, conservatives gather in the conference room of Grover Norquist's pressure group, Americans for Tax Reform, to hash out arguments and promote their projects. The off-the-record meetings are notorious among liberals: proof of the shudder-inducing organizational powers of the right. In late September, a White House economist arrived at Norquist's salon to sell a proposed $700 billion bailout of Wall Street firms whose investments in worthless mortgage-backed securities had sparked an international financial crisis. In a tense meeting, the president's emissary was turned into a piñata. Pro-market activists and economists with decades of experience battered him with questions, asking whether the administration was putting an end to capitalism as we knew it. The White House's economist responded coolly. Did these people really want to do nothing in the face of the great 2008 meltdown? In the end, what fiscal conservatives wanted didn't turn out to matter much. As the Wall Street vapors scrambled every aspect of the 2008 presidential campaign and of George W. Bush's final days in office, no one was as angry as D.C.'s dwindling number of libertarians. They pointed out that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's plan involved a massive takeover of private firms and (in its original draft) unchecked executive power. They invoked previous examples of government meddling worsening crises, in the 1930s and the '70s. But as Washington faced the greatest economic panic in a generation, adherents of free markets were spectators in a debate between moderate interventionists and radical re-regulators. Libertarians proposed alternatives, such as privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and letting the market find a bottom. They were shouting into the dark. Instead the feds imposed a two-week ban on short-selling stock and engineered the largest economic intervention since Nixon's wage and price controls. "The market is not functioning properly," warned President Bush. "The government's top economic experts warn that, without immediate action by Congress, America could slip into a financial panic and a distressing scenario would unfold." People who should have been primed for such a crisis had little voice in the matter. Take the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the fiscally conservative caucus within the House of Representatives. The RSC regularly responds to pork-filled budgets with thriftier alternatives. As Wall Street shattered, the RSC was confronted with a spending package equal to a million earmarks. On September 18, the committee sent a public letter to the White House opposing any Wall Street bailout because "the risk to taxpayers and to the long-term future health of our economy remain just too great to justify." The next day, RSC Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) put out a tentative, grasping statement on the proposed bailout that decried the idea without ruling it out completely: "My mind remains open." The next day the draft of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's plan was released, with a giant price tag and a two-year ban on oversight of Treasury's activity. Former RSC Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who attracts TV cameras like lightbulbs attract moths, rejected "the largest corporate bailout in American history." And then all went practically silent. Fiscal conservatives dared not come out swinging against a proposal whose effects they could not predict, offered by a White House they had trusted more often than not. On September 22 at 5 p.m., the RSC met to strategize further. Who was opposed to the bailout, full stop? Who had alternatives to propose? According to staff who attended the meeting, the mood was somber and the opposition was not uniform. The next morning, when the full Republican conference met, there was even less unity. According to Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, only about half the party's members opposed a bailout. On [...]



Obama's Right Hand

2008-11-10T17:30:00-05:00




Happy Birthday, Bob Barr!

2008-11-07T12:00:00-05:00

ATLANTA—"I just want to say," says Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Allen Buckley, "I'm a little disappointed right now. I think I was vastly superior to both of my opponents." There's a certain freedom that comes with belonging to a third party. Tuesday night in Georgia, Libertarians were the second happiest partisans you could find. Did they win anything new? No. Did they break the all-time Libertarian vote total in the presidential race? Also no. There was disappointment and a little surprise that anger at the Wall Street bailout and pessimism about Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) prospects failed to pry loose more conservatives over to the party of small government. "When all the dust settles here, in January," said Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr, "people are going to be upset about a government that's offering more bailouts and less freedom." Tuesday night Libertarians were a sideshow in a historical event on par with the moon landing. In downtown Atlanta, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a block party broke out across the street from where Martin Luther King, Jr. used to preach. Entrepreneuers rushed to Auburn Ave. with boxes full of quickly screened Obama T-shirts with the label "44th President," and rally flags with Obama's face next to King's. At a ritzy bar up the street, the sound went down as Obama gave his victory speech—then the DJ scratched a record and played James Brown's "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." Down the street, jeeps parked, dancers climbed on top, and radios blasted songs such as "I Believe I Can Fly." White stragglers who'd biked down to watch it all exchanged fist-bumps with people they'd never met and might never meet again. It was that kind of a night. Uptown at Barr's election party, the proceedings were a little more mundane. A bank of bloggers and Libertarian staffers refreshed and refreshed their browsers to see how their favored candidates were faring. "Where's Bill Redpath?" one yelled when CNN pronounced Democrat Mark Warner the winner in Virginia's Senate race, skipping over the strong showing by the chairman of the Libertarian Party. Throughout the night, party operators like Stewart Flood and Daniel Adams were checking the progress of John Monds, a black businessman who'd run on the ticket for Georgia Public Services Commissioner. If Monds could win more than 25 percent of the vote, that would mean he received more votes than any Libertarian candidate in any U.S. election, ever—surpassing even Ed Clark's 1980 totals for president. At 11 p.m. it was clear he would get there. Monds took the stage just as the networks were calling the presidential race for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Even Bob Barr had a kind assessment about the history-making Democrat who, along with John McCain, had denied Barr his shot at the presidency. "It just illustrates the tremendous demographic changes, generational changes in this country," Barr said. "This really is a very different country, in some ways much better country, than it was several years ago." That assessment is going to become a cliché this week, largely because it's true. Barack Obama won the presidency while losing traditional Democratic ground in slow-growing areas of the country. Take the state of Pennsylvania, where McCain had made his last stand, predicated on the hope that the gun-owning whites whom Obama had called "bitter" would march to the polls for the GOP. Sure enough, Obama carried only two counties in southwest Pennsylvania, one of them Allegheny, which contains the city of Pittsburgh. But Pittsburgh is the only part of that region growing in population. In suburbanized eastern Pennsylvania, Obama won by a landslide, carrying every county that borders Philadelphia, sweeping the counties on the Pennsylvania Turnpike up to Lackawanna. It wasn't just Joe Biden's 45-minute bromides a[...]



Georgia on Their Minds

2008-11-04T15:00:00-05:00

The call sheet is short and perfunctory, and everyone who uses it puts a slightly different spin on it. "I'm calling to ask you for your vote for former congressman and presidential candidate Bob Barr," goes one version. "Bob Barr opposed the McCain-Obama bailout and McCain-Feingold. According to the National Taxpayers Union, only Bob Barr will cut taxes and reduce federal spending." Sometimes the call includes verbiage about the Second Amendment. Often, the person on the other end has something better to do. "He already voted six weeks ago!" says Austin Petersen, a Libertarian Party worker who's been camped out in Atlanta for the Barr campaign. "Where do they hide all these votes before the election, anyway? Are they in a box somewhere? Where's the box?" Mikael Sandstrom, an LP intern who's shadowing Peterson, has to do battle with a voter fretting that his vote for Barr could help elect Barack Obama. "No," says Sandstrom, in a more lilting, Southern tone than his usual voice, "it would be a vote for Bob Barr." Earlier today, a voter called the office and begged Barr to endorse John McCain. She was told that Barr was endorsing Barr. She wasn't satisfied. Welcome to the final 48 hours of the Bob Barr presidential campaign. After winning the Libertarian Party nomination in May, Barr opened this office in the sprawling suburb of Smyrna, Georgia, with a view of Atlanta when you step outside for a smoke—something his staffers do every hour or so. The office is as wide and rambling as the real estate developments that define metropolitan Georgia. A dozen people are at work, but there are almost twice as many full-stocked cubicles than staff. Typically they service the volunteers who come in on weekends to find more voters, but on the day before the election there is the hardcore staff and no one else. A flat screen TV is tuned to cable political coverage. A computer is tuned to Barr TV, which runs videos of the candidate all day long. Two Mr. Coffees churn in a small break room aside a heaving pile of lawn signs, pieces of mail, fliers, and gel bands that twist cyclist Lance Armstrong's "Livestrong" message into "Live Free." "This is a real campaign," says Stewart Flood, a South Carolina Libertarian Party executive who has taken a three-week unpaid vacation to help out. "There was no headquarters in 2004. It was Michael Badnarik in a car, driving from event to event. They did raise money, but they weren't raising money. They did contact voters, but it wasn't organized." In one of the most crowded cubicles, Barr communications director Shane Cory has a map of the country divided into seven sections. The states where Barr failed to make the ballot are blacked out. ("Louisiana screwed us," Cory recalls grimly. "We should have gotten on in Connecticut, and we would have, if the lawsuit was filed earlier.") Seven more states have been assigned numbers that indicate where the campaign is placing resources, which mostly consist of the candidate himself doing media and making speeches. Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida—all swing states—are marked out. As the campaign wound to a close, it was clear that Barr wouldn't get close to the $30 million fundraising goal campaign manager Russ Verney set in May, a disappointment that staffers blame in part on former Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). "Paul set the liberty movement back a decade by encouraging people to stay in the GOP," Cory says. "Not that the Republicans planned it, but if they did they couldn't have planned it any better." Focus in Barr's Atlanta headquarters has turned heavily toward his native state. "Georgia just came onto the map when the polls closed between McCain and Obama," says Cory. "The rest of the states are being turned out by local people," say[...]



"Can I Get Equal Time Here?"

2008-11-03T16:30:00-05:00

ATLANTA—"Look," says Allen Buckley. "We know this race is going to a runoff. You can vote your conscience." Buckley, the Libertarian candidate for the United States Senate in Georgia, was looking straight into the bevy of local TV cameras at the Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) studio, recording this sixth and final candidate debate. On his left was Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who led comfortably in polls before the economy crashed and he voted for the $700 billion bailout. On Chambliss' left was Democrat Jim Martin, a former state representative who, to his delight, has surged into a tie thanks to millions of dollars in TV ads paid for by a party hungrily eyeing its 60th Senate seat. This last-minute tightening has placed Buckley in the unfamiliar position of potentially affecting an election. He has run twice before for statewide office—two years ago he campaigned against Martin for lieutenant governor, and they both lost. But those races were not close enough for most voters to concern themselves much with Buckley's shy presentation and his relentless use of Government Accountability Office numbers to explain how current levels of federal spending are unsustainable. The bailout cut right to Buckley's message. "I was against it, and I explained what I wanted to do instead," he explained before the debate. "I like tax cuts but only when they're matched with spending cuts, and I've proposed a 25 percent across-the-board cut in spending apart from Social Security. If we did that right now it would balance the budget, allow the Social Security surplus to be funded, and provide for tax cuts." Neither of Buckley's opponents care to get that specific about slashing government. "I'm running against two Democrats, basically," Buckley grumbled as a GPB attendant pointed him toward the green room. Cobb County Libertarian activist David Chastain put it a little differently: "He's running against two socialists." One of those "socialists" will win on or after Tuesday. If neither Chambliss nor Martin draw more than 50 percent of the vote, then by Georgia law they will battle in a run-off election to be held four weeks later. National Republican and Democratic money and bodies will swarm in with a force not seen since Sherman's March. With such potential responsibility on his hands, Buckley spent the final debate bloodying up both candidates. Chambliss, a tall, smug pol who combines the sneer of Spiro Agnew with the studied folksiness of Boss Hogg, tried to plain-talk his way through his support for the bailout on the first question of the night by maintaining that banks were just "fixin' to fail." Martin criticized that, so Chambliss shot back: "He's been for it, he's been against it, he's been for it, and tonight it's popular for him to be against it." Buckley entered the conversation. "I called the GAO," he said, "and asked if this trend toward unsustainable deficits would continue under the policies of both major parties. They told me it would. I am the only candidate providing answers." But the Libertarian was left out of a finger-wagging exchange between the two major-party candidates over which banks, exactly, were benefiting unfairly from the bailout. "Can I get equal time here?" Buckley asked. The moderators passed. Chambliss attributed the nationwide fall in gas prices to his vote to end the ban on offshore oil drilling, though he humbly acknowledged that "we [Republicans] can't take 100 percent of the credit." Buckley snorted audibly. "You can take zero percent of the credit, because that's what you're entitled to!" Chambliss laughed and half-patted the much shorter Buckley on the back. "The GAO probably told him to say that, too." When Buckley got his chance to ask Chambliss a direct question he rattled off how much non-defense spe[...]



Nice Guy, Wrong Year

2008-11-03T12:00:00-05:00

"I want to give you a copy of our rulebook. Did you get one of our rulebooks? These are the rules that they need to follow up in Washington. Right now we're seeing what happens when you forget them." B.J. Lawson, Republican candidate for Congress in North Carolina's 4th district, was standing outside an early voting center in Morrisville on Saturday handing out some of the 50,000 pocket Constitutions he bought from the Cato Institute, along with his one-page campaign flier folded inside. Early voting began at 8 a.m. with four boxes of Constitutions. When it ended at 5 p.m., Lawson had just handed out the last one. "It's small," he told two young black voters. "You can whip it out"—he whipped it out—"in case of an emergency." "Yeah, if there's a constitutional crisis," said one voter, nodding and credulous. Nine months ago, dozens of Republicans claiming to be inspired by the longshot presidential campaign of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) jumped into national politics for themselves. Some lost their primary elections, including New Jersey Senate candidate Murray Sabrin and Virginia House candidate Amit Singh. Others won the right to be token candidates in rock-solid urban Democratic districts. (Among this group is New York congressional candidate John Wallace, who on Sunday released a rambling statement demanding that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) release his birth certificate, which the Democrat has already done.) The one Ron Paul-inspired general election candidate for Senate, South Carolina's Bob Conley (not a Republican, but a populist who calls himself "your grandfather's kind of Democrat") won his primary in a squeaker and proceeded to raise less than $50,000. Lawson has broken out of this pack and become not just the most credible Ron Paul Republican, but one of the most credible Republican challengers of 2008, period. A 34-year-old doctor who built and then sold a company that made medical records accessible via personal digital assistants, Lawson has raised nearly $600,000 in a district where the last Republican candidate raised less than $50,000—half out of his own pocket. He has received a helpful endorsement from Ron Paul, including pleas for national "money bombs" on his behalf. And while putting away a GOP primary opponent who attacked him for his libertarian views (Lawson won by 41 points), he built a real campaign infrastructure. On Saturday, his Cary, North Carolina headquarters was packed with volunteers calling voters, bundling fliers, and taking turns turning out early votes. But at the end of the day, Lawson is a Republican candidate in the non-Republican year of 2008. North Carolina, which no Democrat has carried since 1976, is being heavily targeted by Barack Obama's campaign. Lawson's district, which was gerrymandered in 2002 to include more Democratic areas to help re-elect incumbent Rep. David Price, is ground zero for Obama's state effort, and political tipsters rate the district "safe Democrat." In Wake County, where most of the district's population lives, the Obama campaign has registered thousands of new voters. An area that voted 51-49 for Bush over Kerry is showing as much as a 17-point Obama lead. Lawson is blunt about the problem here. "The party has been so weakened by the tragic mismanagement of our country these past eight years," he explains. "Price has been running on Obama's coattails and saying he wants to be part of a team for change. Well, I'm sorry, but you've been there for 20 years. You had your chance. It doesn't make any sense for the voters to hire the guy who threw the brick through their window to fix the glass." Lawson's strategy has been to distance himself from the GOP ticket and cast himself as a "change" candidate—a perfect down-ballot match for all of thes[...]



Empire Bloat

2008-11-01T21:07:00-04:00

The Defense Department's 2008 Base Structure Report reveals just how far the military has spread across the globe. As of last summer, the Pentagon rents or owns 316,238 buildings around the world with a total value of more than $455 billion. These holdings are spread across 4,668 sites in the United States and its territories and 761 in foreign countries. That latter number doesn't include bases and sites in war zones or in those trouble spots where the U.S. doesn't release detailed information and expenditures.

This isn't a record for the Defense Department. The official number of military sites peaked in 1967, at the height of the Cold War and the conflict in Vietnam, with 1,014 locations in foreign countries. And the number is down from 823 in 2007.

According to the anti-war journalist Chalmers Johnson, one factor keeping the figure from rising further is the anti-American sentiment that spikes when the U.S. military moves in, allowing locals to blame Americans for any conflict in the region. Kyrgyzstani President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has threatened to close down the Manas air base in his country, demanding more payment for rent. And in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has threatened to end America's lease on the Eloy Alfaro Air Base when it expires in 2009. He suggests he might lease it to China instead.




Card Sharks

2008-11-01T18:34:00-04:00

When Michigan state Rep. Fred Miller (D-Mount Clemens) got married in 2003, he received more gift cards than he knew what to do with. “I didn’t want to carry them in my wallet all the time,” he remembers. “Of course, some of them expired before I could use them.” The issue stuck with him, and when a constituent told Miller how annoyed she was about expiring gift cards, he pondered a possible solution: What if gift cards lasted longer?

Miller’s proposal became an amendment to the Michigan Consumer Protection Act, signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm on July 12. Under the new law—which takes effect on November 1, just in time for the Christmas rush—gift cards sold in the state must last at least five years. That blue-and-gold Best Buy card slipped into your stocking this year can be redeemed in 2013 for the iPhone 13G: now with holographic conferencing!

The law passed with almost no objections, but the lobbyists who helped Miller are having second thoughts. “This started as a way to crack down on shady operators,” says Mary Dechow, director of government and regulatory affairs for the 89-location in-state supermarket chain Spartan Stores. “There were businesses taking advantage of people by selling one-month cards without broadcasting the fact that they lasted one month. It was important to crack down on that. But whenever you get a legislature involved, you go after the good actors as well as the bad.”

Dechow’s objections to the law include the rapid compliance schedule and the excessiveness of the five-year expiration window. “If you haven’t used a card after a year,” she says, “you’re not using it.” Miller isn’t worried about that. “People need to be confident,” he says, “that when they buy a gift card, it’s as good as cash.” His next priority: tax breaks for companies that hire Michigan workers wherever possible.




Idiocracy Now!

2008-11-01T17:54:00-04:00

If you can see Swing Vote the way I saw it, do so. First, score a free ticket from a D.C. activist group (in my case, Americans for Tax Reform). Second, get a seat next to an assistant secretary of education for the Bush administration and five rows in front of a disturbingly contented-looking Tom DeLay. Third, set your neck to “swivel” and watch a roomful of lobbyists, journalists, Beltway careerists, and politicians react as Hollywood lobotomizes their life’s work. Swing Vote is the latest lame entry in the oeuvre of low-denominator political pop. It’s not quite as lousy as the 2003 Chris Rock vehicle Head of State (a dizzying fantasia about an inexperienced black Democrat who beats a blundering white Republican) or the 2006 Robin Williams landfill expander Man of the Year. There’s at least one idea present in Swing Vote. Too bad the filmmakers don’t seem to realize it. On Election Day, shiftless, alcoholic New Mexico egg farmer Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is rousted out of bed by his daughter Molly, played by Madeline Carroll with precociousness on loan from Roald Dahl. She wants him to cast his vote so she can do a school project on the process; he wants to avoid the jury duty rolls. “Voting doesn’t count for a goddamn thing!” shouts Bud as he drops Molly off and speeds off, late, for work. He loses his job, gets drunk, and (this really happens) hits his head on a wooden “Vote Today” sign, which knocks him out cold. Plucky Molly, rubbing away tears as she sits by the polling station, forges his signature, sneaks past poll workers, and casts her father’s vote just as the power goes out. Because the election is a tie, and because New Mexico’s election security is handled by Robert Mugabe (I’m assuming), the state tracks Bud down and tells him to cast a new vote in 10 days. What follows is a blistering critique of that idiot of the American landscape: the undecided voter. Bud has no idea who’s running. He’s completely won over by bribes and flashy displays of power. When Richard Petty lets Bud drive his car to the landing strip housing Air Force One, Bud resolves to vote for President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammar, channeling Gerald Ford). Willie Nelson switches Bud back when he tells him to vote for acid-washed Democrat Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper, reprising the hippie-gonecorporate role he played in George Romero’s Land of the Dead). Most of Bud’s sentences end in an awkward laugh or a mumble. When he has to talk about a political issue, he repeats the last thing he’s been told, which leads to worrying about “insourcing” and “Mexicans taking our jobs.” If this was the point of the movie, we’d at least have something to like, even though The Onion did it all better a year ago—and in less than three minutes. But it isn’t the point of the movie. Bud, we slowly learn, is an everyman who lost his way. As the country and then the town grow tired of his instant celebrity, he schedules a debate with the candidates and prefaces it with a teary, rambling confession of his sins as a citizen. “I’ve taken freely and given nothing back,” Bud says, his voice breaking. “I’ve never served or sacrificed.” All that he’s ever been told to do is “pay attention and vote.” The only hope for people like him is that the candidates become “bigger than speeches”—as if one of them can become a “superman.” Any resemblance to this year’s omnipresent AARP ads (tell Obama and McCain to spend more on you!) is coincidental. For the filmmakers, it’s not Bud’s fault he’s so lazy and stupid. It’s not even the politicians' fault that they've become such pandering nincompoops. [...]