Archive for May, 2011

Pension Legislation in Congress

Kudos to State Treasurer Walker Stapleton for testifying before Congress in favor of H.R. 567, Rep. Devin Nunes‘s Public Employee Transparency Act, which would require states to use reasonable rates of return when calculating the financials for their pension plans, and would also require that they use proper discount rates based on US Treasuries, rather than their rates of return, when reporting their level of fundedness.

States would be able to continue reporting under the old standards, if they chose (and would likely continue doing so anyway), but would be required to issue a second set of numbers using proper accounting standards.  States that failed to do so would no longer be able to issue tax-exempt municipal debt, forcing them to use pay higher interest rates and making borrowing more difficult.  While the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Congress may yank that exemption altogether, blunting the effect of Nunes’s bill, I rather doubt that would pass the House this year.

For those interested in a fine synopsis of the state pension mess we’re in nationally, I can’t do better than to recommend Josh Barro’s piece in National Affairs, “Dodging the Pension Disaster,” which lays out the problems and potential solutions as clearly as I’ve seen anywhere:

First, pension reforms should include all benefits that will be accrued in the future, not just benefits that will be accrued by new hires. As mentioned earlier, most states are limiting their pension reforms to new employees only — which means they are likely dooming their reforms to failure….

Second, serious pension-reform plans should abandon the defined-benefit model. Three states — Michigan, Alaska, and Utah — have enacted reforms that will move many employees to defined-contribution retirement plans, or at least to sharply modified defined-benefit plans that shift most investment risk away from taxpayers. In most states, however, pension reform has been a matter of tinkering: increasing employee contributions, adjusting benefit formulas, raising retirement ages, and so on….

Third, states should consider voluntary buyouts of existing pension benefits. The two reform principles outlined above address only the costs of pension benefits going forward; they do not help resolve the very real problems associated with states’ existing pension liabilities — those that were incurred by governments as payment for labor that employees provided in the past. Here, there are no easy policy maneuvers: Short of defaulting on these debts, the only way states can eliminate unfunded pension liabilities is to fund them.

That last would be hard for Colorado to consider, as the State Constitution prohibits issuing general obligation debt, but it remains an option for other states.

We should be under no illusions that Harry Reid of Chuck Schumer would even allow Nunes’s bill to come up for a vote in the Senate.   But as we know, putting these things out there in the form of legislation is critical to getting actual reform in the long run.  And in this case, the long run is shorter than we think.

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Yom HaZikaron

This evening marks Israeli Memorial Day, or Yom HaZikaron. It comes immediately before Israeli Independence Day, Yom HaAtzmaut, more about which tomorrow. The two are essentially two sides of the same holiday, one of solemn remembrance of those who died to make the other possible.

I’ve only been in Israel once for those days, in 1996. Israel under some bombardments from Katyushas in the north. At that time, they couldn’t reach the Golan, so the hiking tour I had scheduled went on more or less as planned. There would be periodic booms, the warm, friendly sound of outgoing artillery, and more sporadic booms with a little “crack” in them, the far less congenial sound of incoming.

At one point, the tour stopped at Castle Nimrod, a medieval fort on the Golan overlooking the whole of the Hula Valley. (Formerly the Hula Swamp.) It was a clear day, and we had a great view of Kiryat Shemona, Hezbollah’s prime target. The residents were quite safe, underground or having fled, and I have to admit, the group spent as much time looking at the city for a rocket impact as looking at the castle. I later confessed this to an Israeli friend of mine, who, realizing that I wasn’t actually firing the missiles, smiled and said something like, “Well, if it was going to hit anyway, you may as well see.”

The afternoon before Yom HaZikaron itself, I took the train down the coast from Haifa to Tel Aviv to stay with an American friend of mine and his girlfriend, now wife. That evening, from their apartment, I heard a concert for the troops at the base in the middle of the city, in particular this song:

HaMilchama HaAchrona (Lyrics)

It’s the consummate Yom HaZikaron song, written just after the 1973 War, for which Israel bore the responsibility of unpreparedness, not of aggression or provocation, a father promising his daughter that this will be the Last War. Of course, it was untrue in 1996, and is even more untrue now, making it all the more powerful as time passes.

The next day, I took the tourist train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The tradition on Yom HaZikaron is for air raid sirens to sound, and for pretty much all activity to come to a stop. People stop in their tracks on the sidewalks. Cars pull over and the drivers get out and stand. Highway traffic stops. If you’re buying lunch and haven’t gotten your change yet, too bad, you’ll have to wait a minute. In my case, the train stopped, and everyone stood in the aisle.

I’ve always been of the WWJD (What Would Jabotinsky Do?) mindset myself. But it’s important to remember that while little worthwhile is gained without boldness, that success comes with a price, and to remember those who have paid that price over the years.

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More AngloSpheric Election News

UPDATE: Apparently, I misread the results.  The Conservatives now control 157 of 279 local councils, and have over twice as many locally elected councilors as Labour.

As my fellow AngloSpheric fan, an Australian friend of mine, had pointed out to me, local councils are, in the absence of anything like states, the training ground for up-and-comers.  Much like the Republicans with their state legislators here, the Tories now have a far more substantial farm system than Labour.

Also, the Lib-Dems weren’t the only ones who backed AV.  Perhaps surprisingly, Labour did as well.  That, along with the fact that the Scottish Parliament now has an SNP majority at the expense of Labour, has got to be embarrassing.

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Canary in the Coal Mine

Evelyn Gordon, over at Commentary‘s Contentions blog, notes the following trend (not for the first time):

The international response to the Fatah-Hamas unity deal provides yet another example of a troubling development. Alone among the nations, Israel is increasingly denied the protections of the laws of war.

Thus, for instance, the West denounces Israel’s targeted killings of Hamas leaders even as it correctly deems America’s targeted killing of Al-Qaida’s leader perfectly legitimate (a double standard skewered by Alan Dershowitz this week).

Now the same double standard is being applied to Israel’s suspension of fund transfers to the Palestinian Authority. The U.S. and Europe have both demanded that Israel resume the transfers.

She needn’t worry.  The double standard won’t last long:

Former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt told German TV the operation could have incalculable consequences in the Arab world at a time of unrest there.

“It was quite clearly a violation of international law,” .

It was a view echoed by high-profile Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.

“It’s not justice. It’s a perversion of the term. Justice means taking someone to court, finding them guilty upon evidence and sentencing them,” Robertson told Australian Broadcasting Corp television from London.

Hey, they don’t call them kangaroo courts for nothing:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing a criminal complaint from a labor judge in Hamburg for saying she’s “happy” that U.S. forces managed to kill al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, Hamburger Morgenpost reported.

Judge Heinz Uthmann, 54, who’s served at Hamburg’s labor court for 21 years, claims the chancellor acted illegally by approving of criminal offences, the newspaper said, citing an interview with Uthmann. The judge, who said he was acting as a law-abiding citizen, asked prosecutors to investigate.

Those of us who seek to preserve Israel’s freedom to act in practice, and not merely in theory, are also looking to preserve the moral and diplomatic basis for our own latitude to do so.

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Taking Their Victory Lap in a Clown Car

Yes, I know, he’s right there in that photograph of the senior staff watching the bin Laden operation on the live feed.  (Think about that for a moment.  We’re commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Lincoln used to spend a lot of time over at the War Department Telegraph Office waiting for scraps of war news from a couple of hundred miles away.  Nowadays he could just dial up a live feed from anywhere on the planet.)

And now, two apparently inside stories indicating that the President either didn’t get around to making an actual decision, or took 16 hours to do so.

I have no idea how much to credit these stories (although it would fit in with at least one fellow’s relatively generous reading of Obama’s presidency).  Politically, it is remarkable that within 72 hours of the President’s first only real accomplishment, someone inside the White House is putting about stories designed to undermine the President for that very accomplishment?

Typically, this sort of thing would take weeks to develop.  The fellow in question would want to see how the polls were moving, whether or not there was traction.  Right now, in the warm afterglow of the already-room-temperature remains, would be the last time you’d expect an insider to go around putting knives in the back of the Hero of Abbottabad.  This should be a moment when Obama begins to turn things around, and instead, you’ve got British newspapers and American blogs making the President out to be a spectator at his own presidency.

William Daley was supposed to provide gravitas, professionalism, stability, and order to a White House Staff that was looking terribly undisciplined.  Instead, while the operation itself was brilliantly done, they’ve gotten just about everything since wrong.  From the changing stories, to the photographs, to the disposal of the body, to the speech itself.  That along with announcing an intelligence bonanza to the world, “the world” including our enemies.  No, I don’t think they’re lying about what happened; those images can move awfully fast, and it’s just normal fog-of-war stuff; but why rush out with a story you’re going to have to correct?  Why dither for two days about whether or not to release the death scene photographs?  In short, they’re “taking their victory lap in a clown car.”

There’s a point in a market, when it’s near it’s top, that even good news isn’t good news.  Strong earnings reports, hiring reports, strong consumer confidence, all get shrugged aside because there’s a feeling that the market just has no upside to it.  When you have some experience with the market, sometimes you can sniff that out, and let me tell you, it’s a great time to be in cash.

I wonder if something similar isn’t going on here with this President.  They were fond of deriding their predecessors for having won the war, but not having a plan for the peace.  In this case, they won the assault, but didn’t have a plan for the rest of the piece.  As a result, someone inside the Administration isn’t afraid of putting knives in his boss’s back, even when you’d think it would be a good time to lay low and start spiriting out your diaries for a book deal.

For a politician, especially an executive, that’s abbottabad as it gets.


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So the Colorado Republicans have produced a compromise map in an effort to avoid a crapshoot showdown in the courts.  Given that there are a fair number of Republican-appointed judges out there now – not the case in 2001 – the chances of winning are perhaps higher.  But you essentially give up control over the process when you send it to litigation, and politicians would always rather negotiate solution than have one imposed.

The Republican map tweaks things a little here and there from their original map, but it still looks pretty much like the current set of districts.  It adheres to constitutional and statutory principles for districts (keeping together communities of interest, Denver, the Western Slope and the Eastern Plains), it assumes that various parts of the state will have the chance to elect representative who actually live there.

The Democrat map, of course, does none of these things.  Competitiveness is a goal I actually agree with, but by law, it can’t override those existing requirements.  Moreover, as has been pointed out, portions of every district in the state would lie within sight of DIA.  If you thought that Denver thought the rest of the state was in orbit around it before, well, a fortieri.

Unfortunately, the map’s politics, in the battle for public opinion, will get a boost from Colorado’s geography.  (That the Denver Post will be giving it a helping hand goes without saying.)

A few weeks ago, there was an article online (which I can’t find any more) that talked about do-it-yourself redistricting software.  One group of New York Democrats had fun trying to figure out a way to get a state full of Democrat-majority or -plurality districts.  They were able to do it by essentially carving the state up into ribbons, with every district getting a little piece of the Democrat-heavy New York City & Suburbs, enough to wipe out or neutralize the Republican-friendly upstate areas.  If “gerrymander” comes from “salamander,” this was a whole maelstrom of ’em.  You couldn’t push through a map like that, and nobody was really interested in trying.

The Colorado Democrats’ map just doesn’t look that threatening.  Denver is located closer to the middle of the state than NYC is.  We don’t have 30+ representatives, we have 7.  And since the one rule the Democrats obeyed – by coincidence, no doubt – was to keep Denver intact, they only had to get 6 districts to work out.  The result is something that, while radical surgery compared to what we had before, doesn’t look all that bad if you’re starting out fresh.  In the game of “let’s see how much we can get away with,” this much have come as a delightful surprise.

So in what’s left of negotiations (and there’s always room for a special legislative session; earn that $30,000, guys), and what may come down to a court battle, the Republicans have that to overcome.  They need to continue to pound away that while you might not think Grand Junction has much in common with Pueblo, it’s got more in common with it than it does with Boulder.  They need to remind people that while DIA is a world-class airport, keeping the ATC guys awake by letting them play “how many Congressional districts can we see today?” from the tower isn’t actually a statutory requirement.

I agree with some others that the Rs look more statesmanlike in presenting a compromise map.  They also have the luxury of being able to compromise.  It’s not clear that the Dems’ maps can actually change that much without the whole plan falling apart.  Now they need to keep at it, and not  buckle under the pressure to meet an artificial deadline.

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Worthwhile Canadian Initiative

That was the winner in Michael Kinsley’s legendary “Most Boring Headline” contest.  Tonight, it refers to the Canadian election results, where, for the first time since 1988, the electorate has returned an outright Conservative majority.  Prime Minister Stephen Harper has governed with a minority, in coalition with the New Democrat Party, since 2006, but he will finally get a chance to govern with a majority of about 10 seats on his own.

Harper led the breakaway conservative-populist Reform party, based on the plains and his own province of Alberta, back into an Alliance with and eventually a reunification with the Conservative Party.  The result has been a Tory party to the left of American Republicans, but to the right of where the Tories had been for the better part of two decades.  On issues most of interest to Americans, he seems to be a relative free-trader, a strong supporter of the War on Terror, and a very strong and vocal supporter of Israel.  Brian Mulroney was often compared to Reagan, largely because he won 211 (!), no really, (!), seats in 1984, the year of Reagan’s cakewalk over Walter “Mr. Warmth” Mondale.  But in reality,  Mulroney was more establishment, more like Eisenhower, where Harper is more like Canadian Reagan.

The story of the election was the rise of the NDP as the opposition party, benefitting mightily when both the separatist Bloc Quebecois and the “natural governing party (cough),” the Liberals, both folded like cheap suits.  BQ went from 45+ seats in Quebec to 4 (all those seats went to the NDP), and the Liberals turned in their worst showing in history, getting less than 20% of the vote and about 35 seats in Parliament.  Evidently, the NDP wasn’t hurt much by last-minute revelations that its leader, “Premature” Jack Layton, had been found some years earlier, in flagrante, by the police, at a whorehouse massage parlor.

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The Day After

It goes without saying that it’s a very good thing. It isn’t VE-Day or VJ-Day, and Americans have enough sense not to treat it as such, but it’s worth one night’s jubilation. This day resolution was a long time coming, and Americans have the right to blow off a little steam. This is, after all, what closure looks like.

Although Obama didn’t plan or execute the operation, he did have to give the Go order, and failure of the operation could have been catastrophic. He had to burn some of the few remaining bridges we have with our nominal “ally” Pakistan, which seems to be drifting into China’s orbit, further heightening the risk.

But then, we’re faced with the Left’s desire to turn this into a partisan victory, almost even before the President made his remarks.

Is it really? Maybe  not.

While Obama called former President Bush to tell him the news, he failed to even recognize his efforts in all but the most oblique terms. It continues a pattern of smallness and narcissism that have characterized this President. My friends on the right, who made fun of the birthers by demanding Osama’s Long-Form Death Certificate, showed more class than Obama.

One moment of clarity and gutsiness doesn’t in itself reverse over 2 years of fecklessness, and both our allies and our enemies know it. This should be a moment to seize the initiative in various theaters of operation, but it does not appear that Obama will do so. Instead, it now looks as though last week’s national security personnel moves are designed to retreat from the battlefield and press others to do so. (If not, we’ll soon see some serious pressure on Assad & Syria. If so, look for talk of “rapidly-closing windows of opportunity” for Israel to make concessions.)

The temptation to use bin Laden’s execution as an excuse to leave Afghanistan now, a leaning echoed in some isolationist quarters last night, must be great. But to jump to that conclusion would be to trivialize a major civilizational conflict into a south Asian version of the Hatfields and McCoys.

There was little if any indication in his speech of the context of the broader struggle, as one against radical or political Islam (as opposed to Islam as a personal religion); rather it was solely about alQaeda. The threat of jihad from the Muslim Brotherhood, and from Iran and its various catspaws went unmentioned or even unhinted-at. Does anyone believe that Obama better understands or is now more willing to confront those threats or the murderous ideology behind them?

Indeed, our treatment of bin Laden’s body more than suggests not. While we all had a good time thinking of the uses to which it could be put, most of us (I hope) were joking about torch relays, carnival dunk tanks, and heads-on-a-pike. As solutions go, burial at sea wasn’t a bad one. It was sufficiently but not overly disdainful, and deprives followers of a shrine. (It reminds me of Churchill’s legendary telegraphic response when told that his mother-in-law had died: “Autopsy, Cremate, Bury at Sea. Leave Nothing to Chance.”)

But the need to announce that we were following Islamic law in disposing of the body is of a piece with having our soldiers in Guantanamo handle the Koran only with clean white gloves. It’s one thing to be respectful of the religious sensibilities of our friends, or even neutrals; quite another to give our enemies reason to believe that we acquiesce to their place for us in their murderous ideology.

You can only do that if you’re not really convinced that you’re up against a murderous ideology. Iran only wants regional hegemony, and Ahmedinejad isn’t suicidal. The Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda never got along, so the MB isn’t a threat. (See the reaction of their spawn, Hamas, to bin Laden’s execution.) It recycles all the comfortable complacencies of the Cold War, and it’s as wrong now as it was then.

It would be foolish to say that nothing’s changed, but it would be equally mistaken to think that too much has. Today’s markets are a fine example. They opened higher on the news, and quickly reverted to form on actual fundamentals. The fundamentals of the enemy we face haven’t changed. The fundamentals of the economy haven’t changed.

The 2012 elections are still worth holding. The poll numbers of George HW Bush right after Gulf War I, and George W Bush after capturing Saddam, were both quite high before subsequent events brought them back down to earth. As Crash Davis said, “The moment’s over.”

This week, many Americans, most of them not college students, will fill their cars with $4 gasoline and drive 10 miles out of their way to a Sam’s Club in a struggle to stay within budget. The risk of stagflation is quite real, and the President seems no more serious about dealing with the long-term fiscal threats to the country than he is about dealing with our external enemies.

If bin Laden’s execution is the beginning of a new seriousness, more than an opportunity to pose, well then good. If it’s merely an opportunity to withdraw from the field while looking good, to claim a victory when our enemy doesn’t feel beaten, then it’s no good at all.

With a President who still seems intellectually and emotionally committed to American decline, I’m not optimistic.

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Bin Laden Dead

Osama bin Laden is dead.  Of course, this doesn’t end the War on Islamism, there are more practitioners out there, but it is a signal victory for which all of us, as Americans, are grateful.

Given that we got the news on May Day, I think in future years, we should co-opt the communist holiday and dance around May Poles with replicas of bin Laden’s on them.  As for what to do with the actual body, I’m open to suggestions.  Personally, I think putting it in a clear plastic box and sending it on tour of the country where it can be used for carnival dunk-tanks is probably too dignified a disposition.


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