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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Steve Chapman

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Steve Chapman

Last Build Date: Sun, 05 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

Torched by the Olympics?

Sun, 05 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

If you like vanity projects, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger or better one than the Olympics -- a two-week extravaganza featuring thousands of athletes and hundreds of thousands of spectators, plus a worldwide TV audience.

But what does Chicago really stand to gain from it? It's not like we were unknown, even before a Chicagoan went to the White House. And it's hard to believe all the publicity has a long-term payoff. How many people do you know who were inspired to visit Calgary after the 1988 winter games?

Boosters promise gains in the form of infrastructure improvements and a boom in tourism. But Victor Matheson, an economist at College of the Holy Cross, has found that the glow of staging major sporting events like the Super Bowl, the World Cup or the Olympics "tends not to translate into any measurable benefits to the host city."

Many residents would get to see Olympic events in person, something they would never do otherwise, which is worth something. But for most of the rest of the people in the region, it will be a major hassle, a minor hassle or an irrelevance.

It will most likely also be an expense. The people running the Chicago 2016 committee say taxpayers won't be out one thin dime for the privilege, and Mayor Daley echoes that promise. But to back up the bid, the city had to promise to cover any operating deficit up to $500 million.

Chances are good it will have to make good on that promise. The festivities have a maddening habit of costing more than the prime movers say they will.

The 2004 summer games in Athens cost $1.7 billion, largely because of heightened security demands after 9/11. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police says the budget for security at next year's winter games in Vancouver is likewise insufficient. Sponsors had planned to spend just $175 million, even though protecting the last winter games in Salt Lake City cost $300 million.

The total price of the 2012 games has tripled since London won the bid. "London is shaping up in many ways to be a financial catastrophe," sports economist Stefan Szymanski of City University London recently told Tribune correspondent Laurie Goering, pointing out the dismal fact: "You only get the Olympics by paying more than they're worth."

Patrick Ryan, head of Chicago 2016, brags that the Olympics have strong support among Chicagoans. That's true. What doesn't have strong support is paying for them. Asked in a poll if they favored using tax dollars to help cover the cost, 75 percent of Chicago-area respondents said no.

What those people may not have considered is that even if they don't pay for the privilege through higher taxes, they will pay in other ways. Has anyone considered how pleasurable it will be -- and how prolonged the pleasure -- to drive from the South Side to the North Side during that fortnight? Or do anything that is not related to the games? Has anyone considered all the institutions that will suffer because donations and entertainment outlays will be diverted from them to the Olympics?

Olympic skeptics are admonished for such petty concerns by supporters who brandish the words of Chicago's visionary urban planner Daniel Burnham: "Make no little plans." But the Olympics may prove that a big plan is not the same as a good plan.

Obama's Losing Bet on Detroit

Thu, 02 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

In its final weeks, the Bush administration lent the automaker $13.4 billion, along with $4 billion for Chrysler. On Monday, President Obama gave GM 60 days to come up with a better plan before deciding whether to sink more cash into it. But he placed a large bet on its survival by promising to guarantee all GM and Chrysler vehicle warranties.

He also held out a shimmering vision of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, expressing faith that his policies can lead to "a 21st-century auto industry that is creating new jobs, unleashing new prosperity, and manufacturing the fuel-efficient cars and trucks that will carry us towards an energy-independent future."

Truth is, that industry already exists. The Big Three just don't happen to be a part of it. The United States has robust, job-creating, fuel-efficient automakers, in the form of companies like Toyota, Honda and Subaru.

But they don't count in the eyes of this president, presumably because their employees don't belong to the United Auto Workers union. So he apparently couldn't care less how much they resemble what he fantasizes GM and Chrysler will soon become.

And a fantasy it is. On what basis could anyone expect GM or Chrysler to achieve greatness? It's like expecting a glacier to appear in Phoenix. Just because it happened a long time ago doesn't mean it's going to happen again anytime soon, if ever.

At one time, GM accounted for 60 percent of the cars sold in America, but its market share has fallen to 22 percent. It has lost money for four straight years, including a staggering $31 billion in 2008, and things are only getting worse. Sales in February 2009 were less than half what they were in February 2008.

Chrysler has not exactly set the world on fire either. It torched $8 billion last year. Some of its investors now value their stakes at pennies on the dollar -- or nothing. Its U.S. sales have plunged by nearly half over the last decade. In this year's Consumer Reports rankings of the 10 worst cars, seven are GM or Chrysler products.

The administration's own industry task force doesn't share Obama's unbounded optimism. In a report released this week, it noted that GM's supposed salvation, the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt, "will likely be too expensive to be commercially successful in the short term."

It ridiculed GM's own cheery forecast, which assumes rising profits "despite a severely distressed market, lingering consumer quality perceptions and an increase in smaller vehicles (where the company has previously struggled to maintain pricing power)." Even under generous assumptions, it said, GM would keep losing money.

Given all these sad tidings, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the only hope is bankruptcy court -- where it could shed some of its obligations by stiffing creditors and rewriting union contracts. Obama seems to think the auto industry is too important to be subjected to such an indignity, though he has not ruled it out.

But to survive in the long run, a company has to provide consumers with products they want at a price that yields healthy profits. That is exactly what GM, like Chrysler, has consistently been unable to do.

In those circumstances, neither bankruptcy nor any other course offers a plausible route to prosperity. Plausibility, however, is not a consideration among politicians determined to keep the Big Three in business no matter what.

In recent months, we've been told that ambitious federal action is needed in the financial sector because unregulated commerce produced disastrously perverse results. But in the auto industry, competition has functioned reliably to reward sound companies and penalize bad ones. So clearly, there are only two occasions for massive government intervention: when the market fails, and when it works.

Obama's Mythical Defense Cuts

Sun, 29 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

The Wall Street Journal's editorial writers fear that any day, we will be naked unto our enemies. President Obama, they warn, wants to lavish money on everything but the military. America faces an array of threats, and "Obama's budget isn't adequate to those challenges."

Really? Cindy Williams, a defense scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former assistant director of the Congressional Budget Office, points out that Obama wants to spend 2 percent more in the next fiscal year than President Bush allocated for this year, and 9 percent more than we spent last year.

Bush also planned for the defense budget (apart from Iraq and Afghanistan) to shrink slightly each year starting in 2010. Obama's blueprint calls for the defense budget to remain about the same. "Spending will actually be higher under Obama's plan than under Bush's," says Williams.

But as conservatives have been known to point out, Washington policymakers have funny ways with numbers. Last year, the Defense Department asked for an increase of nearly $60 billion in the 2010 budget over what had been planned. The Obama administration declined but agreed to a smaller increase.

So conservatives should be pleased, right? Wrong. Since the increase the Pentagon got is less than it wanted, they claim Obama is "cutting" defense spending. By that logic, if you ask for a 50 percent raise and get only 10 percent, you've suffered a pay cut.

The real question is not why Obama wants to spend so little on defense but why he wants to spend so much. Since 2001, our military outlays have soared by 40 percent, after adjusting for inflation. And that's not counting the costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We not only spend more than anyone else, we spend more than everyone else. reports that in 2004, the United States lavished $623 billion on the military. All the other governments on Earth together managed only $500 billion. Even this gap understates our dominance, because most of the other top spenders are U.S. allies.

No nation can dream of challenging us in the air or at sea. We have a huge nuclear arsenal capable of inflicting mass annihilation on a moment's notice.

Meanwhile, the demands on our military are easing rather than growing. Under the agreement Bush signed with the Iraqi government, which Obama has reaffirmed, we are supposed to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. The threat from al-Qaida has been greatly reduced.

Still, looming threats can always be found. The Washington Post had a story the other day about China's military expansion, which has enlarged its budget to more than $100 billion in 2008. This trend worries the Pentagon. "Given the apparent absence of direct threats from other nations," says the Post, "the purposes to which China's current and future military power will be applied remain uncertain."

But our spending that year was more than $600 billion. And China, come to think of it, is not the only country spending a lot on the military despite the absence of direct threats from other nations.

Benjamin Friedman of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington notes something generally overlooked in Washington: "In a literal sense, the United States does not have a defense budget." Our military outlays go for all sorts of purposes -- "the purported extension of freedom, the maintenance of hegemony, and the ability to threaten any other nation with conquest." But defending the nation's basic security? That's a small share of our military outlays.

If we focused on what is vital for our safety and independence, we could spend a lot less money. But if there is no limit to what we have to do to police and remake the world, there is also no limit to what we can spend.

Flag Mistakes of Our Fathers

Thu, 26 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

In fact, Oklahoma's symbol has something in common with most of the other 49 state flags: It could use a great deal of improvement. A lot more care goes into designing the basketball uniforms at big public universities than went into designing what flies over those schools.

The Oklahoma flag is one of many that seemingly were all created by the same designer on a rush order. They bring to mind Henry Ford's line that you could get a Model T in any color you wanted, as long as it was black.

Like more than a dozen others, it's a variation on a humdrum theme: A blue background with something obscure, cluttered and gold in the center. If you climbed up a flagpole in Lansing and replaced the Michigan ensign with that of Louisiana, New York, Virginia or Nebraska, I promise, it would be months before anyone noticed.

Oklahoma stands out slightly more only because, like Montana, Oregon and Kansas, it prominently features the state name. Idaho goes them one better by doing it twice.

Given that most flags fly almost exclusively in their home state, including a name disparages the mental acuity of residents. It implies that without a prompt, some people would forget where they live.

On a distinctive, well-designed flag, the name is unnecessary. Imagine Old Glory with the name of the country prancing across it. Or Canada's maple leaf. Or Israel's Star of David.

The only good thing to be said about the popular blue-bedsheet style is that it assures a state flag will be forgettable instead of just plain homely. Maryland's clashing juxtaposition of black, gold, red and white shapes could have been used to extract information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The image of George Washington on the Washington flag brings to mind a Presidents Day sale.

A good flag is clean, simple and distinctive. The experts at the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) offer an excellent rule: A child should be able to draw it from memory.

For that, you can't beat Texas' tricolor with a white star or Alabama's red X on a white square. If the banner can evoke something about the place, even better -- as with South Carolina's crescent moon over a palmetto tree, New Mexico's sun symbol, Arizona's starburst and Wyoming's buffalo.

The more a flag tries to do, the less likely it is to succeed. Illinois features a bald eagle perched on a boulder, which bears the dates 1818 and 1868. The bird grips a stars-and-stripes shield in one talon, and its beak holds a streamer proclaiming "State Sovereignty, National Union" (with "sovereignty" upside down). At its feet are what looks like palm fronds and shoots of grass, and behind it is a sun rising over a body of water. All these images congregate above the state name.

This is not a flag but a novel. It's got everything but Abraham Lincoln and Wrigley Field. Marilyn Vos Savant couldn't draw it from memory.

Surely we could do better. For most states, where the flag inspires only boredom, any change would be a good change. Well, almost any change: When Georgia got rid of a flag that included a Confederate symbol, the new model was voted worst in the country by the NAVA. Two years later, it was replaced by yet another version.

Georgia, however, deserves praise for trying to get it right. So does at least one guy in Oklahoma -- I mean, OKLAHOMA!

AIG and Our Embarrassing Congress

Sun, 22 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

In doing so, members resolutely avoided a couple of inconvenient realities. The first is that the fault, if any, lies with the same people who are now angry. The second is that the tax conflicts with the clear intent of the Constitution. The pending fees were not exactly classified information. "AIG's plans to pay hundreds of millions of dollars were publicized last fall, when Congress started asking questions about expensive junkets the company had sponsored," reports the Associated Press. "A November SEC filing by the company details $469 million in 'retention payments' to keep prized employees." In January, two House members urged the Federal Reserve and the Treasury to block such bonuses. Last month, the Senate passed an amendment outlawing such payments by companies getting federal bailout funds -- and then dropped it. The White House was also in the loop. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) says that the administration asked him to attach a provision to the stimulus bill that authorized such bonuses. Dodd protests that he only agreed because he didn't understand what the measure would do. Maybe other people who voted for it in the Senate and House didn't either. Maybe Dodd and the rest ought to read legislation before they approve it. But if members had any pangs of remorse for their failure, they stifled them in favor of vilifying AIG and its personnel. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank demanded the names of employees who "had to be bribed not to abandon the company." Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) urged that they be fired. Until these staffers can be publicly tarred and feathered, though, the House will settle for subjecting their bonuses to a 90 percent tax levy -- up from the normal maximum rate of 35 percent. Why not 100 percent? "State and local governments will take the extra 10 percent," said Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel. So the bill aims at sanctioning supposedly bad people by confiscating their earnings. As such, it sounds an awful lot like something the Constitution expressly forbids -- a bill of attainder, which is a punishment of particular individuals imposed not by a court of law but by a legislative body. Many if not most legal scholars believe this furious retribution can be structured to pass judicial review. But not Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor. "I am not so confident that it would pass constitutional muster," he told me. "While courts give Congress great discretion in the tax area, this would require a case of willful blindness." Turley speaks with special authority on the subject because of a rare achievement: In 2003, he persuaded a federal appeals court that a law passed by Congress was a bill of attainder. That statute revoked a divorced father's visitation rights because his ex-wife claimed he had molested his daughter -- a charge that courts repeatedly rejected. But it was overturned because the court found the measure, though it didn't name him, was designed to place a severe burden on a specific person deemed to have done something terrible. Ditto for this legislation. It's aimed at AIG employees who accepted payments guaranteed them by a legal contract, and it's intended to inflict pain to express disapproval of their conduct. Rangel, in fact, had earlier opposed the tax because it would be "punitive." But after voting for it, he explained that "we had very few weapons" to use against the recipients. Taxation as a weapon -- if that's not punitive, what is? To uphold the tax, says Turley, "the courts would have to ignore the open statements of members of Congress. They have done everything short of burning the AIG executives in effigy on the House floor." Maybe the people in Congress are smart enough to figure out a way to sneak this act of targeted[...]

Congress in a Lynching Mood

Thu, 19 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Never mind that if we know anything from recent automotive history, it's that the Big Three's competitive advantage is in trucks and SUVs. If they had spurned that segment during the decades of cheap gas, things would have been very different: They would have reached the brink of bankruptcy long before now. But Congress' idea of a sound business plan is to build cars that suit its grand ambitions rather than, say, the tastes of consumers.

Banks getting federal money have likewise been subjected to a frenzy of finger-wagging. Politicians were shocked when Northern Trust hosted a client event featuring the band Earth, Wind and Fire. House Banking Committee Chairman Barney Frank and 17 other Democrats demanded that it "immediately return to the federal government the equivalent of what Northern Trust frittered away on these lavish events."

But Northern Trust didn't ask for federal help -- it was conscripted into the bailout. It happens to be managing its money well enough to be making a profit and repaying the taxpayers.

And did anyone notice that after Earth, Wind and Fire did the Northern Trust gig, it performed at a White House dinner? Why is it OK for President Obama to host "lavish events" that are financed by taxpayers but outrageous for a bank to use mostly private funds to entertain valued customers?

Then there is the insurance giant American International Group, which unleashed bubbling torrents of outrage when it paid large bonuses to hundreds of employees. Angry lawmakers have no idea what these workers should be paid, except that it should be a lot less.

Of course, some taxpayers feel that members of Congress should forfeit their salaries in years when they fail to balance the budget. But our leaders' contempt for failure applies only to the private sector.

They demand that the bonuses be rescinded and, failing that, threaten to tax them away, at proposed rates as high as 100 percent. "Let the recipients of these large and unseemly bonuses be warned -- if you don't return it on your own, we'll do it for you," thundered Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

No one in the lynch mob wants to admit that the amount is piddling from the point of view of taxpayers. It adds up to less than 1 percent of the $170 billion the government has poured into AIG. The prevailing reaction amounts to swallowing a camel and straining at a gnat.

AIG could have refused to make the payments, but only by violating contracts it had made with employees. Officials at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York entertained this option, reports The Washington Post, only to realize that the spurned staffers would have sued and gotten not only the payments but "punitive damages that would make the ultimate cost perhaps two or three times as high as the bonuses themselves."

Refusing to pay would also have driven away any top employees with alternatives -- which would tend to be the better people, who might just be useful in restoring the company to health. Congress' approach brings to mind the sardonic workplace sign: "The floggings will continue until morale improves."

Expropriating property from people who did nothing more than accept money they were legally due sounds uncannily like a bill of attainder -- a legislative measure declaring someone guilty of a crime, and imposing punishment, without trial. This weapon was expressly forbidden by the framers of the Constitution because it is fundamentally unfair, at odds with the rule of law and driven by mass hysteria rather than dispassionate fact-finding.

Once upon a time, those were considered bad things.

Smile, You're on Cop-Car Camera

Sun, 15 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Far from revealing a staggering drunk, reported the Chicago Sun-Times, the video "showed Bell appearing to be perfectly balanced," passing the sobriety tests that Parker administered -- and being refused when he asked to take a Breathalyzer. Prosecutors watched the video and promptly dismissed the case. They are now considering charges against Parker.

That episode raises the question: Nine years into the 21st century, why isn't every squad car in America equipped with a dashboard video camera? Why do we persist in relying on the slippery, self-interested, incomplete and unverified accounts of opposing participants when we have the means to see the truth with our own eyes?

In this instance, the innocent man was lucky to be stopped by a cop driving a video-armed vehicle. The odds are against it, since only 11 percent of the CPD's cars have cameras for recording traffic stops. Though the department is planning to use federal stimulus money to double that number and the mayor has said he wants cameras installed in the remaining vehicles "as quickly as possible," no one is radiating a sense of haste.

Why not? The department says the main obstacle is money. Equipping another 300 cars, as the city plans, will require $2.1 million. So making them standard on the rest would cost about $13 million.

But that shouldn't be an insurmountable obstacle. The Illinois State Police, with a fleet of nearly 1,100 vehicles, have managed to install cameras in more than 900.

Spending $13 million looks extravagant only until you compare it to the cost of losing lawsuits over police misconduct. From 2005 through the middle of 2008, says the Chicago Reader, the city paid out $155 million in police cases. Dashboard cameras don't have to prevent many million-dollar judgments to be a bargain.

The cops -- at least the good ones, who are presumably the majority -- have as much reason to want these recordings as the accused. The best defense against a phony charge of police brutality is a video showing exactly what the officer said and did. A suspect who is visibly inebriated or violent will have a hard time refuting the camera's testimony in court.

Yet Chicago has dragged its feet, and it's not alone. After the 1991 Rodney King beating, a commission recommended that the Los Angeles Police Department mount cameras in its squad cars. It installed some but soon got rid of them.

A federal monitor proposed the idea again in 2005, but the police chief, The Los Angeles Times reported, "said he saw it as a long-term project." Last year -- 17 years later -- the LAPD finally decided to equip some vehicles.

Contrast that with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's enthusiasm for other types of video. Chicago now has some 2,250 surveillance cameras to detect criminal conduct in public places. By 2016, Daley promised last month, Chicago will have one on every corner. The city has also installed red-light cameras at some 132 intersections, with another 330 planned.

So what exactly is different about those cameras? Well, they are trained on the citizenry, not on the police. What's sauce for the goose seems to be regarded as a dubious liquid substance when proposed for the gander. The city is less eager to capture video evidence if it may expose wrongdoing by its own law enforcement agents.

But the rest of us might want to keep unsleeping electronic eyes on the people with guns and badges. A city with a good police department can gain a lot from squad-car video cameras. A city with a bad one can gain even more.

Stem Cells Are Not Just About Science

Thu, 12 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

"This order," said the president, "is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America" and "protecting free and open inquiry." Harold Varmus, co-chairman of the president's scientific advisory council, said it showed the president would rely on "sound scientific practice ... instead of dogma in developing federal policy." But one person's dogma is another one's ethical imperative or moral principle. Science can tell us how to build a nuclear weapon. But science can't tell us whether we should use it. Just because research may be useful in combating disease doesn't mean it's ethically acceptable. The infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment -- in which the federal Public Health Service secretly withheld treatment from infected black men to learn more about the disease -- might have yielded valuable data. But no scientific discovery could possibly have justified it. Research on embryonic stem cells is controversial because it requires the destruction of live human embryos. Supporters find it easy to minimize the significance of this fact because the embryos are only a few days old -- nothing more than "blastocysts." But if it's OK to destroy 5-day-old embryos to further scientific inquiry, is it OK to destroy embryos that are five weeks old? Five months? Eight months? Science can't answer that question. You don't have to be part of the pro-life movement to have qualms about this kind of scientific inquiry. James Thomson, the University of Wisconsin biologist who pioneered the field, has said, "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough." The president's new order suggests we shouldn't think too much. In 2001, supporters of embryonic stem cell research called on Bush to allow experiments using "surplus" frozen embryos in fertility clinics, arguing that they would be disposed of anyway. But Obama didn't limit his new policy to these fertilized eggs. On the contrary, he left open the possibility of funding studies using embryos created specifically so their cells can be harvested -- which Congress has barred, but which some advocates would like to allow. The president took no position on whether scientists should be permitted to create embryos for the sole purpose of dismembering them for their stem cells. He did, however, reject another option. "We will ensure," he said, "that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society, or any society." Is that a scientific judgment? No, it's a philosophical one, reflecting Obama's moral values. Apparently, the folks in the white lab coats can't be relied on to answer all questions. But this position is hard to square with his professed approach. On one hand, the president says his policy is "about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion." On the other, he will use coercion to keep them from doing reproductive cloning. What this mandate means is simple: It may be permissible for scientists to create cloned embryos and kill them. It's not permissible to create cloned embryos and let them live. Their cells may be used for our benefit, but not for their own. There lies the reality of embryonic stem cell research: It turns incipient human beings into commodities to be exploited for the sake of people who are safely past that defenseless stage of their lives. It's a change that poses risks not just to days-old human embryos. The rest of us may one day reap important medical benefits from this research. But we may lose something even more vital.[...]

Gay Marriage vs. Democracy

Sun, 08 Mar 2009 00:30:00 -0600

But Californians were not content to let the court substitute its judgment for theirs. In November, they approved Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage, with a 52 percent majority. If the constitution required recognition of same-sex marriage, the people decided, the constitution needed correcting.

That should have been the end of the legal battle and the beginning of a political one, where gay rights have excellent prospects. After all, they have made steady progress on the issue, expanding their support from 39 percent of voters to 48 percent in just eight years. Given the trend, their chances of persuading a majority in the next few years look good -- if they were to focus on persuading the majority.

But this is a tedious and time-consuming task compared to trying to get the state Supreme Court to nullify the will of the people. So opponents of Proposition 8 chose the latter option after their defeat.

And for what end? Not so that gays can have the full package of rights and duties that go with the institution of matrimony. They already have those -- insofar as the state of California can provide them -- thanks to a domestic partnership law that duplicates everything about marriage except the name. This is not a fight over fundamental equality. It's a fight over nomenclature.

On Thursday, the fight went back to the Supreme Court in San Francisco, where state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown insisted that the people of California, who created the constitution, don't have the power to change it as they tried to do this time. He argued that it protects pre-existing inalienable rights, including the right to marry, and that an inalienable right "cannot be taken away by a popular vote."

But inalienable rights are empty concepts without legal protection -- which in this case they enjoy only because of a constitution approved by the people. If those people had wanted to deny themselves the power to repeal rights protected by the state constitution, they could have included a provision to do that. They didn't.

Instead, they erred on the side of making it easy to amend their charter. Any limits on that power, beyond those imposed by the federal constitution, exist only in the mind of legal fantasists.

It was one thing to demand that the state Supreme Court overrule the will of the people once, and on a mere law. It's quite another to ask it to repudiate their verdict again, after they had decided to alter the constitution precisely to reverse a decision of the Supreme Court.

The justices apparently were not enchanted by the invitation. "We would like to hear from you why the court can willy-nilly disregard the will of the people to change the constitution," Justice Joyce Kennard told the lawyers urging the invalidation of Proposition 8.

Kennard, it should be noted, was among the justices who voted last year to legalize same-sex marriage. So did Chief Justice Ronald George, who Thursday suggested that the current method of amendment "is the system we have to live with until and unless it is changed."

The nice thing about the referendum option is that once gay-marriage supporters constitute a majority, they can promptly amend the constitution to their liking -- as I hope they do. But it is hard to win voters to your side while telling them they have no legitimate say on the issue.

Like it or not, the California Constitution notes a basic truth in a democratic society: "All political power is inherent in the people." Advocates of same-sex marriage might do better by treating those people not as opponents to be defeated but as allies to be won.

Why I Miss Bill Clinton

Thu, 05 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

He focused on making government better, not making it bigger. He didn't greatly enlarge Washington's role in our lives. He proclaimed -- or conceded -- that the "era of big government is over." But Clinton never foresaw Obama. From the sound of his budget speech last week, the new president hopes the era of big government is just beginning. It's hard to overstate the expansion Obama proposes. Leave aside the supposedly temporary spending binge that constitutes his stimulus package. Under his budget blueprint, total spending would soar by roughly 75 percent above what it was last year. Of whom else could that be said? Do you expect to be spending 75 percent more 10 years from now? Does your employer? The budget deficit, which Clinton (with the help of a Republican Congress) eliminated, would be with us forever. After the gargantuan $1.75 trillion shortfall this year, it would decline briefly before climbing to more than $700 billion a year. Obama's fiscal blueprint builds on profligate habits established by George W. Bush. Under Clinton, federal spending fell to 18.4 percent of gross domestic product -- the lowest level since 1966. By 2007, it was up to 20 percent. By 2019, according to the administration, it would rise to 22.6 percent. This increase may not sound like much, but it is. Before the current recession began, reports budget analyst Brian Riedl of the conservative Heritage Foundation, government spending amounted to about $24,000 per household. Under Obama's plan, it would exceed $32,000 per household (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Someone will have to pay for every cent of that spending, and it won't be just the rich. During the campaign, Obama often came across as a sensible pragmatist with an appreciation for both the value of markets and the limits of government -- a Bill Clinton with self-discipline. He often painted Hillary Clinton as an old-fashioned, command-and-control Democrat. But that Obama vanished sometime after Election Day. Lately, he brings to mind Lyndon Johnson, who imagined that the country could easily afford both endless war and a costly array of new programs. Obama thinks the scariest economic crisis since the Great Depression is cause -- or at least excuse -- for an aggressive expansion of government, a la the New Deal. But it's a false parallel, economically and politically. The severity of the Great Depression bred desperation, which made the public receptive to radical changes. This contraction has been far milder and less disruptive. In Franklin Roosevelt's day, Americans were open to transforming the economy. All they really want today is to revive it. While they are willing to accept drastic measures to reverse the recent slide, they are not likely to favor keeping them once the emergency has passed. We all hope to see firefighters in the house if the kitchen catches fire. Few of us would want them to move in after the flames are out. LBJ illustrates the dangers of taking an election victory for a far-reaching mandate. He got the Great Society passed, but two years after his landslide victory, Republicans made big gains. In 1968, Johnson didn't even run for re-election, and Richard Nixon won the presidency -- which the GOP would hold for 20 of the next 24 years. Americans, with their traditional wariness toward government, never bought into Johnson's expensive agenda. Before long, they were voting in Ronald Reagan, who saw Washington as the problem, not the solution. So even though Obama may be able to get his programs through a Democratic Congress, he and they may come to regret it. Under Clinton, they demonstrated that his party could exercise fiscal respons[...]

Obama Retreats on Iraq Withdrawal

Sun, 01 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Barack Obama opposed the war in Iraq from the outset, promised to bring our troops home in short order and criticized John McCain for his "stubborn refusal to end this misguided war." Without his stance against the war, he would not have won the Democratic nomination and he would not have won the election. But the meaning of his speech Friday at Camp Lejeune is that we shouldn't have believed him. During the campaign, Obama pushed a plan to withdraw one or two combat brigades per month until they were all out. Only two things have changed in Obama's 16-month departure plan: It will take longer than 16 months, and we won't depart. Instead of May 2010, the target date has been pushed back to August of that year. Nor will he bring back one or two combat brigades each month. Instead, The New York Times reports, Obama plans to withdraw only two between now and December, or one combat brigade every five months. The administration claims it will speed up the pace of withdrawal next year. But if someone says he's going to sober up tomorrow, it doesn't mean he will definitely do it tomorrow. It just means he definitely won't do it today. What we can deduce from the new timetable is that for now, we are staying put. As for what happens next year -- well, why cross that bridge before we come to it? Assuming the president adheres to this backloaded schedule, a large U.S. force will remain for some time. After August 2010, the administration plans to keep as many as 50,000 troops in Iraq. That's 16,000 more than we currently have to fight the war in Afghanistan. We'll also be spending $50 billion on the effort in 2011. Oh, and remember that promise to remove all the combat brigades? Here's the trick to it: leaving some of them there but under a different designation. They would be referred to as "Advisory Training Brigades" or "Advisory Assistance Brigades," says The New York Times. When administrations begin indulging in the generous use of bland euphemisms, we know what it means: They are not willing to do what the public wants and they are not willing to let the public know it. This "transition force" looks like a way of avoiding a transition, not making one. The president says we will be entirely out by 2012, as required in our status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government. Maybe so, but given how much Obama has yielded on his original plan, it's chancy to assume he'll stick to this one. Though the American people voted for a different policy, the president is reluctant to take the risk of something unpleasant happening if we actually leave Iraq. That inclination, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology defense scholar Barry Posen, raises a question: "What's the difference between him and Bush on this?" Bush, you may recall, promised that the surge he began in 2007 would "hasten the day our troops begin coming home." Yet we somehow have more troops in Iraq today than we had then. Obama could conclude that since there is a high risk of failure even if we leave later, we might as well leave earlier -- which essentially was his campaign position. But he has moved a long way toward Bush's view that we cannot leave until some sort of victory or success has been achieved. What he doesn't tell us is what he will do if that day fails to come, or if things get worse. But we can figure it out. In Thomas Ricks' new book, "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008," the author asks an officer who advised Petraeus on the surge how our military involvement in Iraq will finally end. His answer: "I don't think it does end."[...]

Misstating the Constitution

Thu, 26 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

The District is a unique enclave, set apart by the founders as the seat of national government. But for this purpose, the advocates assert, it is functionally no different from Maine or Montana. The fantasy has captured many minds. The House passed a similar bill in 2007, Barack Obama has endorsed the idea and the Senate is expected to approve it this week. To maintain the current party balance, the House would expand from 435 members to 437, with Republican-dominated Utah getting an extra seat to match the one given to the Democratic-leaning District. The bill is pretty much a sure thing to become law. But it won't banish the reality that the District is not a state and can't be treated as though it were. Capital residents used to understand this vexing constraint. Decades ago, they wanted the right to vote in presidential elections. So they proposed and, in 1961, got a constitutional amendment to reach that end. In 1978, Congress approved another amendment, this one to give the capital the same representation (a House member and two senators) it would have if it were a state. The measure died in 1985 after being approved by just 16 of the 38 states needed for ratification. In 1992, a similar amendment went nowhere. The result has been intense frustration among Washington's inhabitants, who have to bear the same burdens as other Americans -- paying taxes, being subject to military conscription, enduring life without a secretary of commerce -- but have no say on such matters in Congress. They are entitled to elect a House delegate who enjoys the same prerogatives as other members -- except the power to vote on floor legislation. Getting a House member who can't vote is like being invited to don a wet suit before entering the hot tub. District license plates carry a protest motto: "Taxation without representation." Dissatisfied with the status quo but unable to alter it with a constitutional amendment, Washingtonians finally exclaimed: Amendment? We don't need no stinkin' amendment! The rationale is that the Constitution, which provides for the capital, gives Congress the power "to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District." Therefore, it may do just about anything it pleases, including give the District a vote in the House. But the argument proves too much. The same provision gives the national legislature "like authority over all places purchased ... for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dock-yards and other needful buildings." If Congress can give the District a voting representative, it may give voting representatives to Fort Hood, the White Sands Missile Range and the Rock Island Arsenal. Which, obviously, it may not. Washingtonians imagine they are victims of an injustice caused by a mere oversight, insisting that the framers never meant to disenfranchise them. Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University (location: Washington, D.C.), punctures this beguiling myth. "The absence of a vote in Congress was clearly understood as a prominent characteristic of a federal district," he wrote last year in the George Washington Law Review. "Moreover, being a resident of the new capital city was viewed as compensation for the limitation. The fact that members would work, and generally reside, in the District gave the city sufficient attention in Congress." A proposal by Alexander Hamilton to give the District congressional representation failed. So the founders knew what they were doing. If Americans think they were mistaken on this point, the way to correct the error is a constitutional amendment. For the president and Congress to pretend no[...]

Detroit as the Prodigal Son

Sun, 22 Feb 2009 00:30:00 -0600

People employed by automakers other than General Motors and Chrysler would be justified in feeling the same way. Last fall, facing bankruptcy, those companies sought and received some $17 billion in federal loans intended to keep them in business. Now they are back asking for more -- $16.6 billion for GM and $5 billion for Chrysler. That doesn't count the $7.7 billion GM wants to improve fuel economy or the $5 billion its financial arm got from the Treasury Department. Nor does it exclude the possibility that they will demand more help in the future. And what about the automakers that have not run themselves into the ground? They get nothing. Actually, they get worse than nothing: They get the privilege of competing not just against GM and Chrysler but against the federal government, which has unlimited resources and is now in full partnership with the two. It's not just Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen and all the other companies that sell (and often build) cars here that are seeing their wisdom and restraint punished. It's also the American people -- most of whom voted with their pocketbooks not to support GM and Chrysler but now see their money forcibly diverted to those automakers anyway. For years, Detroit has been relentlessly driving customers away. In 1985, the Big Three accounted for 80 percent of all the cars sold in this country. Today, their share of the market is just 43 percent. Their high costs and inferior reputation for quality have hindered them in competition for some 30 years. So in good times and bad, they lag behind more efficient rivals. The financial losses they've compiled recently convey an unmistakable message from consumers: We are no longer willing to buy your vehicles at a price that pays you to make them -- if we are willing to buy them at all. The Big Three had a fat inheritance, and they managed to blow it. Their overseas competitors, by contrast, had to start from zero selling cars in the United States, find customers, prove the worthiness of their vehicles and dealers -- even, in many cases, build factories here and train American workers to meet their standards. Some companies, foreign and domestic, couldn't hack it. You don't see dealers selling Ramblers, Fiats or Renaults anymore. But many did exactly what our capitalist system requires them to do, only to be rudely informed that the requirements have changed. Instead of being rewarded for their achievements, they now watch as the government rewards failure. Helping these two automakers means harming the rest. The market for new cars has shrunk and it's not going to regain its old size anytime soon. By rescuing GM and Chrysler, the government is taking future sales away from competitors. If one automaker gets the fatted calf, another one will have to do without. In a normal market economy, things would proceed differently. The weak firms would file for bankruptcy and be forced to take drastic measures to cut their costs. They would shrink even more than they proposed last week and might even shut down. These developments would be a bad thing for their shareholders and employees but a good thing for consumers. Competing carmakers would have the chance to hire their workers, purchase their factories, take over their dealerships and attract their customers. The economy would also benefit, because resources Chrysler and GM were wasting would be used more productively. Instead, the government has impeded this process -- managing a neat combination of bad economics and blatant unfairness. In 21st-century America, it's good to be the prodigal son[...]

A Cornfed Remedy for Illinois Graft

Thu, 19 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

As you may have noticed if you ever get the news on WGN, Obama was not quite able to transform our state during his time in the legislature. It's as ethically imperfect as ever, if not more so. How bad? Put it this way: If an Illinois politician moved into a pigsty, the pigs would leave in disgust. Anyone watching from another state must be amazed by the amount of graft that is regularly on view here. It's enough to shock even people in Louisiana -- where after Hurricane Katrina, one Bayou wag said half the state was under water and the other half was under indictment. This year has had a full quota of seamy developments. Our former governor, George Ryan, remains in prison after failing to win a presidential pardon. A onetime top aide to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is about to go on trial for his alleged role in a fraudulent city hiring scheme. A former Chicago alderman got sentenced to four years in prison for demanding bribes from local developers. Our new U.S. senator, Roland Burris, faces a Senate ethics investigation after repeatedly changing his story about how he got appointed to the seat by Gov. Rod Blagojevich. That's the same governor who was recently impeached and removed from office for allegedly trying to sell that Senate seat for his own benefit. We would like to say this is unusual, but it's really about as unusual as a cold day in February. Since 1970, according to a report done at the University of Illinois at Chicago, 1,000 people have been convicted of public corruption -- including three governors, 19 Cook County (Chicago) judges and 30 members of the Chicago City Council. It may surprise you to learn that Illinois does not rank as the least honest state in the country. According to an analysis of federal data on the 35 most populous states by the Corporate Crime Reporter, we come in 6th in public corruption convictions per capita. But after the Blagojevich scandal broke, editor Russell Mokhiber said he was reconsidering. "If there was a BCS for corruption," he admitted, "I think right now you'd have to put Illinois in the title game." That is not something Iowa would or could ever aspire to. CCR named Iowa the second least corrupt place in America, trailing only Oregon. Head west across the Mississippi River, and you are transported from Sodom to the Celestial City. "Iowa political scandal" is an oxymoron. The worst one you've had recently was when the governor's wife was seen smoking in a state vehicle. Imagine that! In Illinois, we're happy if the governor's wife is not caught using a state vehicle as a getaway car in a bank robbery. Illinois could learn a lot from seeing how things are done in Iowa. But let's face it: We've been located right next door ever since Iowa became a state in 1846, and we haven't learned anything yet. So what can we do? Stop trying to clean up Illinois and let somebody else do it, and that somebody is you. We propose that the honest, decent folks of Iowa annex us, vote out all our grifters, shysters, thieves, extortionists, bagmen, flunkies and mopes, and replace them with clean-cut, plain-spoken guardians of the public interest -- of which you have a surplus. It's a win-win deal, giving each state what it currently lacks. We'd get good government and honest politicians. You'd get major league baseball, Lake Michigan, great airline service, restaurants that serve something fancier than meatloaf, and the kind of nightlife you can't find in Oskaloosa. We're confident that given this opportunity to spread the blessings of Iowa to less fortunate souls, you'll do it out of the goodness [...]

Reality Intrudes on the Drug War

Sun, 15 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

"Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results," the panel said in a report ( "We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs." The panel was co-chaired by three former heads of state -- Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, all of whom were once leaders in the crusade. In 1996, Zedillo won attention for escalating the crackdown. But they have learned from experience that the old strategy doesn't work. The mere failure to stamp out drugs is not the only result. Worse still, particularly for Latin Americans, is the plague of unintended consequences. Among them, the commission noted, are the expansion of organized crime, a surge of violence related to drug trafficking and pandemic corruption among law enforcement personnel from the street level on up. Normally, these regrettable side effects are sufficiently distant that Americans can ignore them. But at the moment, Mexico is in the throes of a virtual civil war. Last year, some 6,000 people died in drug-related violence, and already this year, another 2,000 have perished. Illegal workers are not the only migrants across our southern border. "U.S. authorities are reporting a spike in killings, kidnappings, and home invasions connected to Mexico's murderous cartels," the Associated Press reports. "And to some policymakers' surprise, much of the violence is happening not in towns along the border, where it was assumed the bloodshed would spread, but a considerable distance away, in places such as Phoenix and Atlanta." The commission report highlights that we have been fighting this war for some four decades, with no end -- much less victory -- in sight. No one in Washington even talks in such terms anymore. As the Brookings Institution pointed out in a recent study, drug use in the United States has remained stable over the last two decades, with a million people using heroin and 3.3 million using cocaine. "Despite some of the world's strictest drug laws, combined hardcore-user prevalence rates for hard drugs are four times higher than in Europe," it noted. If tough law enforcement at home and abroad were choking off the supply of illicit substances, prices would be soaring. In fact, the retail cost of cocaine has dropped by more than two thirds since 1990. The U.S. government has sent a lot of money south to eradicate fields of cannabis and coca. But this amounts to plowing the sea. Where there is demand, there will be supply. Latin America is a large place. Stamp out production in one area and it will sprout somewhere else. Drug users in this country show a stubborn indifference to whether their preferred vice comes from Colombia, Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay or Pluto, as long as it comes from somewhere. It always does. The Latin American commission suggests using education and treatment to reduce the demand for illegal pleasure in consuming countries. But between the lines lurks a more important and radical idea, namely to treat recreational drug use (like drinking or smoking cigarettes) as a vice, not a crime. "The enormous capacity of the narcotics trade for violence and corruption can only be effectively countered if its sources of income are substantially weakened," it argues. Unsaid is that the only way to drastically reduce the profitability of drug production [...]