Monday, March 29, 2010

Have You Hugged Your Bureaucrat Today?

The Memsahib is a fan of CBS's Sunday Morning, Charles Osgood's show with some news but mostly human interest features. I wake up Sunday mornings with the best intentions (walkies for the poodles, a Rooseveltian (Teddy) speedwalk or marathon bike tour to burn off some calories, tending to household accounts, billing a few hours), but more often than not she calls to my attention to a feature on some elderly celebrity from my youth (the show specializes in aging rockers), and the next thing I know I'm sitting there raptly watching an interview with some guy who has an anvil museum in Forlorn, South Dakota.

And there's usually a commentary from Ben Stein. This week his remarks were in defense of government bureaucrats. Mind you, his definition of "bureaucrat" encompasses all government employees, including firemen and policemen and CIA agents. He notes that many of them are essential and very good at their jobs, and dedicated to serving the public. He also notes that private industry has its own bureaucratic culture populated by people whose function in the economy is uncertain.

Agree on both counts. My own experiences with governmental employees have not been so bad. Good, in fact. My sainted Mums was a secretary in the Hydrology Department of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha; she worked hard and those government paychecks paid for my education. Come to think of it, my last encounter with an IRS agent was quite positive; he was responsive and helpful on a difficult matter I had for a client. And we have all had exasperating experiences with this species in the corporate world.

And I would add that many's the recalcitrant bureaucrat who is difficult to deal with not because he or she is a jerk, but because he or she is required to observe regulations and laws promulgated by our elected representatives and unelected administrators. Those regs and laws may be bad, but the guy on the other end of the line telling you you have to file this or that, or talk to this or that other department, isn't responsible for them.

I don't recall Stein saying so, but I suspect that the context for his remarks was the horror many feel in anticipation of dealing with "the bureaucracy" that the new health care act promises. I feel that horror myself. Why is that, and why, despite Ben's effort to put a human face on the vast middle management of daily life, and my own fairly benign interactions with it to date, did I find myself disagreeing with him with respect to the public's instinctive distrust of the government bureaucrat?

I think there are several reasons:

First, if you are unhappy with your treatment by the government bureaucrat – or for that matter, the regulations he or she is required to enforce – you have nowhere else to go. If you don't like your treatment at the hands of the Westinghouse warranty department, the next time you are welcome to purchase a Sub-Zero. But if some thickwit has mishandled your application for a building permit, you're stuck.

Second, if a private employer has an incompetent bureaucrat on the payroll, or an entire bureau of questionable value to the shareholders, it is possible to terminate him, her, or them. (A lot harder than it used to be, unfortunately, but not all that tough if your HR and legal departments are on the ball.) My own experience is that customer service, for example, has gotten much better over the last few decades as competition has sharpened in many industries.

Third, public employee unions have metastasized throughout some governments to the point where they seem to exist solely for their own perpetuation, and the law makes them nearly impossible to eradicate. Indeed, government employees enjoy all manner of protection against improvement, unionized or not.  They have brought California to its knees.

So, while I will be giving me Mums a big hug very soon, I can't bring myself to the point of serious empathy with the hard-working men and women who draw a government paycheck. I feel kinda bad about that. I know we need some of them. I know many, maybe most, of them are doing what our elected officials have asked them to do, and are men and women of goodwill. But they're the vanguard of what is bad about government as well as what is good, and sometimes the obloquy cast their way is richly earned. They should pay it upward.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Did Anything Strike You as Odd About Biden’s Pottymouth Episode?

No, I don’t mean Gee, isn’t Biden odd?, I mean did anything seem odd even by the standards of oddness set by this oddest of Vice Presidents? (By the way, I don’t want to hear anything about Sarah Palin or Dan Quayle being dullards unqualified for the Presidency unless we also invite into the discussion Al Gore, John Edwards, and Biden, three of the all-time creepiest VPs or VP candidates, and Biden is both creepy and simple.) [This version is not bleeped.]

No, Biden’s inappropriate locution didn’t strike me as peculiar in the slightest. Even left-leaning web magazines like Slate feature a page collecting Biden's gaffe's bloopers, and malapropisms .  (I won’t dwell on his plagiarism.)

What puzzles me about Biden’s f-bomb is this: Why did he think that it was appropriate to use that language in addressing President Obama? Why did he think it was OK? Why did he think that Obama wouldn’t recoil when he said “[t]his is a big f_____g deal”? (Or is it “f_____n’ deal”?)   POTUS didn’t seem startled by this remark, although he undoubtedly had weightier matters on his mind than how to react to his VP’s careless vulgarity. But put aside Obama’s lack of reaction.  What does this remark tell us about the customary mode of communication at the Obama White House?

Maybe nothing. Maybe it isn’t fair to view Biden’s casual use of profanity at this historical moment as evidence that others in the Presidential circle find it appropriate (although Rahm Emanuel’s florid speech patterns are apparently pretty well known in and around local showers).  But this is my website, and I choose to believe that it means that this very smooth-talking President is himself a closet cusser, so that Joe Biden had no fear that POTUS would take offense. 

And this got me to thinking, always a risky undertaking.

All right, I know that one can’t assume that Obama uses profanity from his tolerance of Emanuel and Biden. (You can assume other things about his judgment, but not that.)  However, when combined with (1) his not-so-secret smoking, (2) his physician’s advice that he cut back on the alcohol, and (3) the increasingly shaky case for his authorship of Dreams of My Father  (although I concede this last matter is far from settled, depending on what you think about Ayers's own reported claims that he wrote it -- historians will eventually sort this one out one way or the other), I think the case for the President’s commonness is pretty compelling. 

So what?  Nixon was salty, as was Clinton; Kennedy(s) and Clinton and Johnson were relentless in their pursuit of DC tail. GW Bush was rumored to continue his tippling ways in the White House.  Every politician uses ghost writers to write books bearing his name (although only Obama, to my recall, repeatedly and expressly claimed that he did not).

The point isn’t that Obama is a bad guy. The point is that he’s probably a pretty regular guy.  I enjoy a stogie now and then; having a martini right now.  I said a bad word this morning when I was changing smoke detector batteries. 

But being a regular guy, he isn’t entitled to present himself, or to encourage his portrayal by others, or to be portrayed by others, as a paragon of transcendent humanity.  His beliefs and policies are either good or bad, based on the evidence. 

Let’s have a look.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Memo to the Angry Opposition: Watch Your Mouth.

I haven’t entirely worked out my own reaction to the passage of what is euphemistically come to be known as “the health care bill.” (Well, I guess that sentence indicates that I’m kinda getting there.) I’ll address that in a series of articles to come.

But after one day of hearing about threats against U.S. Representatives and rumblings of violence against public buildings, my views on citizens of that mindset are fully formed:

They’re stupid.

My grandsons are not allowed to use that word, but I’m all growed up, and it fits. They’re also not allowed to say “shut up,” but let me amend that first reaction thus.

I don’t care if (I’m addressing those furious souls now) you think:

--   that the law is hopelessly dumb and cannot possibly achieve its promised results;

--   that it was achieved by corruption that is breathtaking even by the relaxed standards of the United States Congress;

--   that it threatens the overall health of residents of the United States;

--   that it promotes abortion;

--   that it will permanently damage the economy, and your economy, and your descendants’ economies;

--   that it represents a palpable move toward socialism in this country;

--   that it was achieved through fraudulent misrepresentation at every step of the way, beginning during the presidential campaign;

--   that its passage willfully ignored the demonstrable will of the majority of Americans;

--   that President Obama is a bad man who has surrounded himself with, and appointed to high office, bad people;

--   that it is immoral;

--   that it erroneously designates certain things as “rights” and rewards the undeserving;

--   that it violates principles of federalism, the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, substantive due process, or any other constitutional emanation;

--   that it surrenders United States exceptionalism and promises our reduction to the level of failing economies and health care systems elsewhere in the world (and some more locally) that have adopted stuff like this, to their toothless and advanced-medical-procedure-free regret; or

--   that it represents the triumph of academic, Rawlsian “social justice” theory (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, that unreadable book with the bright green cover that the present generation of leaders were breathlessly assigned in their philosophy/poli sci/econ courses) over the evidence of your own eyes.

Don’t care if you think any of those things (if you’ve forgotten the beginning of that sentence). Screaming bloody murder and threatening -- or doing -- violence is not only criminal, it is incredibly damaging to your own cause.

First, even if you don’t really mean it, even if you yourself would never participate in a crime, it may inspire the weaker and more impressionable among you to do so.

Second, the publicity it attracts makes the opposition to the law look like a bunch of know-nothing peckerwoods. If anything, it will have the effect of driving away the thoughtful opposition and stiffening what modest popular and political support the thing now has. It will turn the debate from what actually appears in those two reams of congressional prose crafted by low-level staffers (and, ack, lawyers) and towards your bad behavior.  The Sixties violence against the Vietnam War did nothing to bring it to an end.  That happened only when Americans understood its folly through the information they received from Walter Cronnkite.  Revulsion toward the radicals probably sustained official support beyond what it would otherwise have been.

Third, it exposes you as hypocrites. If you support American democracy, practice it. November 2 is coming up. Modern communications and analytical technology (which, with the exception of Al Gore’s contribution and the encouragement of some national security dollars, has not been a government initiative – if you doubt that, take a look at the hardware at your local government office) gives you the tools to analyze the law and communicate your conclusions to nearly every citizen, pretty much for free. Raise money for candidates who will promise repeal, modification, whatever you think is required to rid the statute books of whatever it is you so loathe. Communicate their views to voters; encourage others of like mind to vote for them.

Fourth – now think about this one – if you really believe, I mean really, truly believe that the administration and its congressional supporters are promoting the kind of tyranny that justifies what is starting to sound like, in your rhetoric, a proto-revolutionary response, what prevents you from believing that your reaction will not call forth even greater oppression and bad policy from these very same leaders? What, for example, do you think Congress would do with the next gun-control bill that came before them if one of your number took a shot at a congressman or, heaven forbid, a more senior leader? (I can’t bring myself to say it.) Anyone remember what happened when Kennedy was assassinated? We got an enormously sympathetic Congress giving Lyndon Johnson The Great Society on a silver platter – a giant step towards the kind of welfare-state collectivism you hate. (I know, Oswald was a communist, but the point is that leaders succeeding to power after an event like that tend to get what they want – not what the opposition wants.) Putting it more simply (about time, I know): Do you really think that destructive acts will make people agree with your point of view?

Agree with the law or disagree with it, the fact is that as we sit here on March 24, 2010, the riptide of history is on the side of those who would legally recompose the national legislature and the executive branch through the ballot box. That box, it’s quite a tool. Have some confidence in it. It’s your right to holler all you want, and to communicate in a way that conveys your anger in a civilized and rational way, but if by your actions – or your language -- you drive away those who want only to understand to the best of their capability and make the right decision the next time they install their representatives and executives, you will have done nothing but ensure that your blithering will fade to the margins of history, where it belongs.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I'm Sorry . . . I Couldn't Resist: Separated at Birth?

[Photos 100% guaranteed unretouched.]

Speaker of the House of Representatives
Nancy Pelosi (D.Cal.)


Who is [Responsible/to Blame (Pick One)] for "Health Care Reform"? Republicans.

I heard John Boehner bemoaning the lack of "bipartisanship" and "transparency" as the Democrats marched the health-care bill to victory.   This speaks volumes about how we ended up with the thing.  If the Republicans think those two flaws are going to rally the public to the GOP in November, they will continue to flail and fail.

Why is there a lack of bipartisanship?  One reason:  The Republicans stank in the voters' nostrils after eight years of their inattention to their their common-sense base, with George Bush as their increasingly charmless poster boy.   That base was and is not conservative across the board, but it was certainly concerned over deficits, the expansion of government, and corruption in the financial markets -- none of which the Republicans showed much concern about.  That Republican base was also alarmed over the primitive communications skills of its leader, and his apparent bafflement over justification for the Iraq war and how to run it.  Republicans then chose a weak, old and old-seeming, fake-maverick, Washington-based presidential candidate who in turn chose a lightly-vetted punch line as a running mate.  Those two could not make a principled case for more of the same, there being no discernable consistent Republican princples upon which a persuasive case might have been made.  Bullet-proof Democratic majorities in both houses were almost inevitable, as was the election of a pretty appealing guy no one really even cared to know too much about, voters and pundits having decided that whatever he was offering had to be better than the shock-and-aw-shucks attitude we saw out of the White House -- and the go-along/get-along Republican leadership.

And by the way:  Who expects "bipartisanship" if real honest-to-god principles of American democracy and the nature of "rights" are at issue?  Don't give me "bipartisanship" that results in agreement on bad law.   If this is truly the polity-destroying development you claim it is, Republicans, and not some run-of-the-mill social tinkering where compromise is desirable and expected, then dammit, don't bleat about "bipartisanship" -- show some fight.  Produce some oratory.  Lead those rallies, don't wait for the Tea Party people to grab this issue. 

No transparency?  Yeah, yeah, I know, Obama promised it and it was a fib, and that's not a good thing, but no one much cares about it.  "Transparency" is one of those issues, like whether Supreme Court nominees should be vetted for ideology or only for minimal judicial competence, upon which the parties routinely, and accurately, accuse one another of hypocrisy.  Lack of transparency is not a persuasive criticism of the health-care bill.

If the Republicans are going to make a comeback, attacking a process they will certainly embrace if and when their day ever returns is simply inept.  Any attack on the health-care bill (and immigration reform, and any other hard-left Administration initiatives, of which we can expect to see even more now that this battle is lost), must be based on the merits, for example:  

     whether universal health insurance and health care is a "right";

     the magnitude of the embedded tax incresaes on earners Obama promised would not see one; 

     whether the deficit-reduction math works in the current bill;

     whether health-care rationing and government interference in health-care decisionmaking is inevitable;

and many more.  Do the Republicans have anyone who can do that?  Apparently not -- we heard some scattered voices in princpled opposition, but they never came together.  Where was Mitt Romney?  Fearful of peaking too early?  Compromised by the health-care program he championed in Massachusetts when he was governor which is rapidly failing?  Did Tim Pawlenty grab you?  Has Bobby Jindal hired a necktie consultant?

Love health-care reform or hate it, you may identify among its founders a compromised and sparsely-talented Republican Party.  

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Is It Resignation or Disbelief?

As I write this (7 PM CDT) I have no idea what's going on with the health care vote. But after all the back-and-forth on this thing I sense a certain lack of interest in the population. Part of it is tired-head after having heard that the bill was a certain go, or a certain no-go, and after months of back-and-forth as to whether or not it will be deficit-neutral. (A non-factor, in my opinion, which I will likely report shortly.) Another part is:  I can't do anything to influence the knuckleheads on either side of the issue at this point.  Another part is:  I've heard these life-and-death ideological arguments before and I'm still alive even when the side I favored didn't win.

But some of it is: I just flat don't believe anything this dumb and corrupt (and, to the extent not known to be dumb and corrupt, just plain unknown) will eventually become law in the form advanced by its partisans, and, appalling as our elected leadership on both sides of this issue may be, it will either be repealed or moderated in some way before it ruins me financially or renders laughable the concept of meaningful health care choices for my old age.

So, we wait. And then we will wait again for November 2, 2010.

How to Catch More Criminals

I may never develop a coherent religio/politico/cultural philosophy. But I think I know how to catch more bad guys. Recidivists, anyway.

When was the last time you saw a surveillance video of the commission of a crime where the criminal displayed himself or herself in any way that looked like this?
(Yes, it's a young Larry King. 1971, grand larceny, stealing from business partner, charges dropped.)

Right. Never. They always look like this:
or this:

or this:
I propose that mug shots include photographs taken from a distance of 10-25 feet, from a slightly elevated perspective, with the subject wearing some kind of slouchy headgear, both with and without dark glasses, a resolution of about .079 megapixels, and unflattering lighting.

We may rope in some innocents, but please recall that you don't have your mug shot taken in the first place unless you've been pinched in the course of having done something that a reasonable constable might regard as illegal.   Suggesting that it is not so unreasonable to think that you might be engaging in other suspicious activity in the future.   So if you do look like the photos that result from this proposal -- well, I hope that you have a good alibi, that your credit cards are paid up to date, and that you don't have facial hair that screams "I'm unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary for earning a legal living."