Thursday, October 27, 2011

Best. Blog. Ever.

The blog you are about to read is the best ever. I have proclaimed it, thus it be so. October is American Cheese Month, Caffeine Addiction Recovery Month and Feral Hog Month. This month has some awkward recognitions: it’s National Bake and Decorate Month, National Popcorn Poppin’ Month and National Caramel Month while also being National Dental Hygiene Month. It’s also Pizza month and appropriately it’s also Sausage month. Nothing about Pepperoni. And not to leave anybody out it’s also National Vegetarian month which is not to be confused with November, National Vegan month. Seems like this blog should be in December which is Awareness Month of Awareness Months Month though I’m just celebrating October as National Sarcasm Month. (See full list.)

Video Version of Blog:

President Obama issues nearly 200 Presidential Proclamations per year…about on par with President Reagan. President Bush (#43) had approx. 120 and President Clinton averaged 125. In March I missed “National Poison Prevention Week” but escaped unscathed. That’s probably because I skipped “Read Across America Day.” I’m happy to have passed on “National Donate a Life Month.”
I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong about establishing days/weeks/months to observe certain issues. Theoretically it raises awareness and provides a context to educate, inform and enlighten the population. For particular industries it probably helps justify certain lobbying costs. For example, May 28 is National Asparagus Day. Did you also know that in honor of the day each year there’s a National Asparagus Queen?

In these days of hyper partisanship governments at the local, state and federal level have few ways to acknowledge constituents. Anybody can order a flag that has been flown above the U.S. Capitol – but there is a fee. The flag will have only flown for a second or two because of the voluminous requests... 100,000 flags fly each year.

Presidential proclamations are not just ceremonial. Pardons are effected through the proclamation process, like President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon and President Carter’s pardoning of Vietnam Draft Evaders.  Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freeing 3.1 million of the country's 4 million slaves is perhaps the most significant.

An Executive Order from the President differs from a proclamation because it is usually made as a clarification or direction to an Act of Congress which authorizes the President to do so whereas a proclamation is a directive of established powers. Both have the weight of law.  President Obama has issued 97 Executive Orders to date. George Bush (#43) issued 290, Bill Clinton 363. The champion, however, is Franklin D. Roosevelt who issued 3,728…573 in 1933 alone.

In and of themselves, most of the proclamations and executive orders facilitate the function of government. That changed significantly this week when President Obama said he will start issuing executive orders to forge new economic policies because "we can't wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. … Where they won't act, I will.”

The U.S. system of government has three equal branches of Government. By design. By intent. It’s a checks and balance system. It was born out of an abundance of caution in not wanting to replicate the parliamentary system of Britain. If we as a country want to throw it out, then we have a process to do so. But until that happens, it is wrong for one branch go around the other. No matter how frustrating things are.

Pundits, politicians and every day Americans bemoan the state of political discourse today. Both the “Occupy Wall Street” and the “Tea Party” movements give voice to the impotence that people feel about government’s ability to solve problems. Consider, however, that the system is actually working. Americans are divided on how to solve entrenched problems. The popular vote for elections have for generations shown a nearly 50/50 divide. It is therefore appropriate that the political system is also at an impasse.

The stalemate can either be accepted or solved through leadership. A leader is somebody who will come up with a way to navigate the impasse while maintaining their integrity, if not necessarily adhere to their orthodoxy. Leadership is not doing an end run around your opponent. It is not running a war by Executive Order as President Clinton did in Bosnia. Or fighting terrorism by Executive Order as President Bush did. Nor can Executive Orders fix the economy as President Obama hopes. Maybe they can all get in a room and figure it out on November 4 which is National Common Sense Day. If not, there’s always November 21 to 28: National Deal Week.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fore for Four

Click on Video above for Vlog summary.  Full post with links and comics below:

Friday, October 14 was “Take out the Trash Day” at the White House. The expression, from and early episode of The West Wing, describes a strategy for releasing sensitive information that for one reason or another the Administration doesn’t want to draw attention to. It’s usually late on a Friday and there are a number of items bundled together. This past week it included the administration’s abandoning CLASS – the long term care option under ‘Obamacare.’ The administration authorized the use of military force to intercept planes out of Brazil that might be carrying drugs, even though Brazil has legalized individual use of most drugs.  And, finally, the President released a letter he sent to Congress declaring war in Africa.

War in Africa? On October 14 the U.S. sent two combat equipped teams plus logistics personnel to Central Africa to remove Lord’s Resistance Army Leader Joseph Kony from power. He has brutalized his people for over two decades according to the White House letter. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (previously CIA Chief) justified the action to Scott Pelley of CBS News differently:  “There are elements there that either have ties to al Qaeda or that represent the forces of terrorism on their own. And that's what's dangerous.” (Dick Cheney lives on.)

Under the 1973 War Powers Resolution the Executive branch must inform the Legislative Branch within 48 hours of entering into armed conflict and forbids troops from staying engaged beyond 60 days without Congressional approval. The administration opted not to do this with Libya. On March 19 U.S. forces were part of a coalition that attacked Libyan forces. Seven months later conflict continues in that country and President Obama has yet to notify Congress of U.S. involvement and Congress has yet to authorize the action. While not authorized, approved funding for the conflict is part of the also-announced-on-Trash-Day $1.3 trillion deficit for 2011, the second largest in history.

It is noteworthy that President Obama opted to follow the War Powers Resolution in the case of Africa. (It might have something to do with the 2009 Congressional resolution that called for the U.S. to support civilians and to remove Kony…so Congress was already on board with the action.) There is only 100 personnel going now. Even though they’re combat forces officials are saying the troops are going to be training and advising the Africans. On the surface that seems a whole lot less intrusive than lobbing missiles in Libya. Sherriff Barak Obama is coming to Africa’s rescue.

People in other regions of the world could use some help too. Syrians have been suppressed for many years and subject to terrible atrocities especially this year of the “Arab Spring.” China continues to top the list of Human Rights abusers. Then there’s Iran.

The Iranian people have suffered since the 1979 Revolution. The State Department’s annual Human Rights Report states: “The government severely limited citizens' right to peacefully change their government through free and fair elections, and it continued a campaign of postelection violence and intimidation.”

Last week a number of members of Congress and the Administration indicated that they believed that Iran had effectively declared war on the U.S. The alleged plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador at a Washington DC restaurant had rhetoric heated around the capital.  The bizarre plot was unlikely to be realized given its structure – let alone the fact that it was hatched with the help of a U.S. informant.

Just so that we all understand the Doctrine of Nobel Prize winner Barak Obama: Increasing U.S. troops to 100,000 in Afghanistan to get rid of the remaining less than 100 Al Qaeda is a national priority. Combat forces in Iraq that were scheduled to leave by December 31 may not. Drones are considered an efficient and acceptable tool against terrorists even though they kill 10-15 civilians per militant target. Missiles are used to effect regime change in Libya. Navy SEALS are now tasked with killing specific individuals who have not been charged with any crime or atrocity but are presumed to be terrorists. Going to war against Iran for a John le Carresque plan is reasonable. Sending military equipment and personnel to Africa to kill somebody who has been in charge for over 20 years is suddenly important. And not one of these actions warrant the Congress to do its constitutional obligation and vote to declare war? We weren't forewarned that number four would happen…maybe it’s enough to prevent number five.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Slippery slope is very wet

It must be pretty quiet at the White House these days. I would have thought that they’d be really busy with 3 (soon to be 4) active military conflicts, an ongoing global economic crisis, regulations to write and revise and the general activity of running a $3.4 trillion enterprise. Not to mention gearing up for a $1 billion campaign to keep the office. With all of that going on they still have time to monitor advertising of a private company and question it.

Ford Motor Company is a storied American company. The company embodies what Americans see in themselves: innovation, financial success and, like their long time ad campaign, quality. During the 2008 financial realignment, industry leader General Motors and also-ran competitor Chrysler went to Washington and asked for relief. Ford executives supported the concept of the bailout but did not require assistance themselves.

The company made and released an ad a few weeks ago  where a customer explains why he chose to buy Ford. From the ad: “I wasn't going to buy another car that was bailed out by our government. I was going to buy from a manufacturer that's standing on their own: win, lose, or draw. That's what America is about is taking the chance to succeed and understanding when you fail that you gotta' pick yourself up and go back to work."

It’s an interesting strategy to sell cars. Usually automobile companies sell cars with loads of video of the vehicle in motion against some fabulous scenic backdrop. In the 1970’s Japanese cars took significant market share from Detroit based on the reliability of the car in spite of exhortations to “buy American.” Having an average American justify his brand selection based on whether the company received a Government subsidy seems ineffective.

The ad, however, won’t be widely seen to determine whether it was an effective strategy or not. The company pulled it. According to The Detroit News the White House questioned the company on the ad given that Ford’s CEO had supported (but didn’t take) the bailouts. The Obama administration’s support of bailing out GM and Chrysler might be a factor.

According to CNN, the Chrysler bailout cost U.S. taxpayers $1.3 billion so far and the company is now owned and run by Italian car maker Fiat. Approx. $7 billion is still due by 2014.

Reuters reports GM received $60 billion in bailout dollars that taxpayers hold as stock in the company. They didn’t use all of the funds so in April used some of the bailout dollars to repay the $4.7 billion loan.  The $60 billion is currently worth less than $30 billion today. The Treasury Department has replaced two CEO’s at the company in the past 2 years.

Since the U.S. Government is now in the automotive business it makes more sense that they’d be attuned to the competition’s ad campaigns. Ford, of course, had the option of continuing to run its ads. The fact that the biggest shareholder of its largest competitor also regulates Ford’s business probably had something to do with the decision. Virtually every part of the manufacture of a car is regulated. Some are safety oriented so that headlights, tires, etc. meet minimum and consistent standards. Others are environmental determining minimum gasoline usage per gallon. Without debating the value of one regulation or another, the fact that a regulator can significantly impact the manufacturing process is a major incentive for companies to be compliant. In Ford’s case, its regulator is also its competitor.

There are many reasons that the Government should not be in the automotive business. The merits of bailouts, subsidies and loans are fodder for another blog. Human nature is probably most at play in this situation. Ford saw an opportunity to distinguish itself from the competition. The White House scratched its head and called up the company and asked some questions about why they were slamming a policy that they supported in testimony on Capitol Hill. The White House didn’t suggest that Ford stop running the ad. Getting call from Big Brother let alone being challenged by the White House Ford figured the path of least resistance would probably serve them best with their regulator was to pull the ad. It’s all understandable. It’s just terrible.

What’s next? Government telling cereal companies that cartoon characters can’t be on their boxes or in their ads? The House Energy & Commerce Committee actually had a hearing this week to evaluate guidelines for advertising for certain foods.  The opted not to (for now). Some food companies will now second guess their marketing strategies because of the possibility of governmental intrusion. And that’s the tragedy here. The slippery slope of the State interfering with private industry is quite wet.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Third Branch or Third Wheel?

The first Monday in October marks the day that the Supreme Court starts their session for the year. By June they will have rendered their decisions. The Supreme Court symbolizes the importance that the justice system holds in American society. Justice is revered by Americans around the world with the recent acquittal and release of Amanda Knox getting hurrahs from Americans and the media. It was just a few weeks ago that two Americans were released by Iran after having been accused of espionage but never given a trial. Punishing people without due process is outrageous to most Americans.

The framers of the Constitution intended the three branches of government to be a “checks and balances” system. The judicial branch oversees the court system of the U.S. Unlike a criminal court, the Supreme Court rules whether something is constitutional or unconstitutional. It is suppsed to be equal in stature to the legislative branch (which make laws) and the Executive branch (which makes laws official and then sees to their implementation).

What happens, though, when two of the branches of government undermine the third?

There are 95 judicial vacancies in the U.S. Federal Court system. Only 45 nominations have been approved by the 112th Congress (about 1/3rd). Of the 95 vacancies, the Executive Branch has only nominated 56 to fill them. So even if they were all magically approved, there would continue to be at least a 5% gap. The length which it takes a nominee to be approved is the longest in history: 78 days for consensus candidates. (It was 28 days under Bush #43).

Even more than the bickering and delays over filling the judiciary with qualified personnel, the foundation of the purpose of the judiciary is now in jeopardy. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury … nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law …”

U.S-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed last week in an air strike in Yemen by a joint CIA-U.S. military operation.  This follows other targeted killings and the high profile assassination of Osama bin-Laden May 1.

None of the targets are people that I’d want to hang out with or probably even know. The hate they spew forth is repugnant and the crimes that they are accused of committing are as base as humanity knows. They are due every right under Due Process as anybody else before punishment is inflicted.

Wait. No way. We’re at war so we can kill them with impunity. The Fifth Amendment specifically carves out an exception! “…except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger…”

The U.S. is not at war. Under that pesky Constitution, Congress must declare war, but it hasn’t. It’s relatively easy: go into session and vote. Majority rules. Done deal. That hasn’t happened since World War II. OK, so we’re not at war. But these guys are terrorists. Evil personified. They are a public danger!

Drug dealers push their poison on today’s youth. They take over parts of our cities and run them like their own fiefdom. Congress and many Presidents have called it a Drug War. The Government has spent trillions trying to win that war. Why not just shoot the dealers and be done with it? It’d clean up the streets, keep the prison population low, reduce drug use…an all around win-win. Drug Dealers are clearly a public danger.

11 Muslim students got up and disrupted a speech by an Israeli Ambassador.  Instead of stripping the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly that got 10 of them sentenced to probation and community service, why not just kill them? Disrupting an important person’s speech is dangerous and puts the public at risk! (Following this logic, let’s do the same to those nutty Tea Party people…and those crazy Socialists.)

Silly? Extreme? Perhaps. The point is that under the U.S. Constitution it is not up to one person to decide whether another person lives or dies, no matter what they say or do. That’s our history. That’s our pride. That’s what defines and distinguishes America from other countries, and other democracies.

The beauty of a country based on the Rule of Law is that there is  a system of punishment based on rules of evidence. It’s laborious. It’s messy. It doesn’t always work the way the public wants (OJ? Casey Anthony? Gore v Bush?). But it’s the system we’ve got and it worked pretty well for the last couple of centuries.

The U.S. killings of individuals is the most significant constitutional issue of our time. Where is the Supreme Court on all of this? Nobody has brought forth a case that allows them to weigh in. Sure there’s plenty of case law supporting that military action is fine during times of declared war, but what in times of undeclared but defacto war? Is that a distinction without a difference?

Just last week a man in Massachusetts was found testing out a drone to attack within the U.S.  He was arrested. Not sure why he wasn’t just gunned down right then and there. By some miracle he is getting his day in court. Maybe the justice system isn't quiet the third wheel yet.