Getting Your News From Facebook

There’s a reason I have a healthy Feedly portfolio.  Getting your news from Facebook can be hazardous to your knowledge.

Sunday morning, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker appeared on Meet the Press, and was asked – predictably – about gay marriage.  Here are two FB posts from two of my friends, one libertarian, and one a social conservative:

 

 

 

Neither FB friend was happy with what Walker allegedly had to say.

In fact, the reporting on both is shoddy, short, and lazy.

Taken separately, the comments appear to have come from two completely different people, and the headlines aren’t even reflective of the articles that they accompany.  (Click here for the City Pages article, here for the Hill report.)

Taken together, they form a coherent, reasonable response to a trap question.  Walker says, in effect, that he doesn’t want to get distracted by the question, he doesn’t think it’s important to most people, but that for people who are worried about the Supreme Court’s decision, there are a couple of routes they could take – a Constitutional amendment, or having the states back out of the marriage license business altogether, acting as a recorder.  Neither of those courses requires any sort of presidential action – Constitutional amendments do not require presidential signatures, and state-level action on marriage is obviously not a federal issue.  And indeed, Walker doesn’t actually endorse either course of action.

On the whole, it seems an admirable response, especially after 6 1/2 long years of a president who not only has an opinion about everything, but a desire to incorporate that opinion into the Federal Register.

But reading the headlines alone, you’d never know that.  And with FB’s increasingly silo-friendly algorithms, you’d likely never even know that the other article existed.

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Lincoln Chaffee’s Big Idea

Lincoln Chaffee wants us to adopt the Metric System.

Because it’s European, I guess.  And because it’s already been officially “adopted” since the late 1800s.

When I was in elementary school, we learned the Metric System, because we had to, and because we were all solemnly and sincerely told that English units were on their way out.  And we promptly forgot about it.

In college, where I majored in physics, we did all our calculations in metric, because of exponents.  But that’s what it was – the system you did calculations in.  In real life, I don’t think I ever measured anything other than Imperial units.

I vividly remember a conversation with a co-worker where we discussed why we hadn’t gone Metric yet.

Cory: Because nobody knows how far a kilometer is.
Me: Sure, I do.
Cory: OK, how far is a kilometer?
Me: Six-tenths of a mile.

There’s a famous post out there about Fahrenheit vs. Centigrade vs. Kelvin, showing that 0F is pretty cold, and 100F is pretty hot, but people can survive in both.  0C is pretty cold, but 100C is dead, and 0K and 100K are both dead, so Fahrenheit is more useful for temperatures we’re likely to encounter.  The same is true with all the other Imperial units.

Then, there’s the layout of our cities.  Here in Denver, north-south blocks are 8 to a mile, east-west blocks are 16 to a mile, and most other western cities are laid out on some variation of that.  You can approximate that with 5 and 10 to a kilometer for a little while, I guess, but it doesn’t take long before the approximation breaks down, and anyway, why do I want to bother with re-adjusting my sense of scale to make Lincoln Chaffee happy?  There needs to be a bigger payoff than that for that kind of work.

Also, the distance that light travels in a nanosecond is almost exactly a foot. So there’s that.

 

 

 

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Media 101

When the PERA Pension Obligation Bond story was in its death throes, the Denver Post was writing a story about the political, rather than the financial angle, of the bill and its failure in committee.  Treasurer Walker Stapleton had testified in favor of the bill in the House Finance Committee, although most of his testimony was of a technical nature.

At the time Post reporter John Frank called me, I had not yet heard Stapleton’s comments on the Mike Rosen Show, where he appeared to try to walk back his support for the bill.  There’s no reason to rehash the controversy here, and that’s not the point of the post.

The point is this: Franks paraphrased what Stapleton had said, and asked me to comment on his on-air statements. I asked him to quote them to me.  He quoted to me a couple of sentences, and I was brought up short.  But this was a radio talk show, and Mike Rosen is one of the best interviewers around.  The actual on-air back-and-forth was much longer than that.

So I paused, said that, even though I had just asked him to quote Stapleton to me, I really would need to hear the whole thing before I could comment. And I went on to say something Franks probably already knew – that there were legislators without pension funding expertise who had probably been swayed by Walker’s support, and by the fact that the Republican Treasurer, Democrat Governor, and “impartial” PERA Board were all in favor of the deal.

Later, after thinking about it, I came back with what I expressed as a possible interpretation of what Frank had quoted me, didn’t offer an opinion on it, and suggested he go back and listen to the whole interview with that idea in mind.

Reporters often count on people liking to talk, and liking to talk to reporters specifically, because they may get to see their names in print.  But you don’t have to answer a question if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to offer an opinion when the only information you’re getting is from the reporter.

I doubt Frank was purposely trying to do a hatchet job on Walker, but there was no reason to fall into the trap of trying to offer an opinion based on an interpretation of one small piece of the story.

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What If a Republican Wins?

As opposed to 2012 and 2008, in 2016, the Republicans are blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to presidential candidates.

We will see four or five well-rounded, successful governors who’ve proven they know how to make decisions and get re-elected, including Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Jeb Bush.  Throw in Chris Christie and John Kasich, too, if you like.

When the field is finally complete, virtually every candidate – with the exception of Donald Trump – will have something to offer, even those who have no hope of gaining the nomination.

Marco Rubio is the most impressive of the senators running, and seems to be a quick study with a broad range of knowledge.  Lindsay Graham has exactly one thing going for him – he’s serious about foreign policy – but even that’s something, and not nothing.  Rand Paul whose deep unseriousness about foreign policy is nevertheless matched by equal deep feeling about liberty issues, something more applicable to the domestic sphere.  Ted Cruz, for all of his lack of strategic thinking about the government shutdown, has argued and won cases before the US Supreme Court.  Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson know something about business and health care, even if neither has any business in the Oval Office.  Even Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who are well outside my band-pass filters for acceptable presidential nominees, both have a talent for showing the interdependence of social and economic issues.

In some respects, this success is the outcome of a decades-long campaign by the national party to cultivate state legislative talent, and develop a strong farm system.  The results have been high-water marks in both percentages of Republican state legislators nationally, and governors.  Whether or not that farm system can be extended further down to the low minors of city councils and school boards remains to be seen, but that’s a topic for another day.

So what happens if a Republican wins in 2016?  Typically, the response would be to look to the field of governors for executive talent, at the risk of robbing the farm system of its leadership.  In some cases, that’s not a problem.  A President-elect Perry could pick Scott Walker for his cabinet, knowing there was a popular Republican Lt. Governor behind him, and likewise, former governor Perry doesn’t have anything to do with Texas government any more.

But in other cases, it could be problematic.  Many of the candidates are young, and in a position to run for Senate (or for re-election to the Senate), and accumulate experience and seniority.  Cabinet positions are rarely springboards for further elective office.

What the Republicans could use is some way of making use of all this talent without pulling them away from their day jobs, or foreclosing options down the line.  Is such a thing possible?  President Obama has made liberal use of so-called “Czars,” but for all the sturm und drang surrounding these appointments that require no Congressional approval, it’s unclear what actual effect they’ve had.  The real power continues to reside in the cabinet heads and the White House itself, which is as it should be.  But it’s also possible that, as in the case of Valerie Jarrett, more influence is being exercised behind the scenes than we know about.

Of course, actual elected politicians won’t do anything like that without credit.  Could such a system be formalized in the face of institutional turf-protections?  And is it compatible with limited executive authority?

Probably and I could see it taking a number of different forms.  The National Governors Association or the Republican Governors Association could be asked to elect regional representatives (if indeed they already don’t).  The NGA already has policy committees for federal relations; while those currently represent state interests, perhaps they could be given a higher profile, turned over the term-limited governors who are looking for public successes and Washington experience in advance of the next elective step.

The legislative side may be a little trickier.  The Senate was jealous of its privileges, at least before Harry Reid tried to turn it into an extension of the Executive Branch, and a healthy return to Constitutionality would have respect, if not encourage Congressional independence.  Committee chairmen don’t like being bypassed, and may well just ignore weak liaisons.  And in any case, Senators are largely Made Men in this operation, have no term limits, and can, if so inclined, grandstand their way to at least temporary prominence.  But if the president persists, access to the White House or the relevant bureaucracies, and insight into the regulatory processes, can create power independent of the committee gavels.  As in show business, Senators don’t have to like each other, they just have to work together.

These ideas hardly exhaust the possibilities, but they’re a start.  They’d take a president supremely confident in his own abilities to lead, not only his cabinet, but also people who ran against him for the job, and who still harbor ambitions of their own, and someone capable of keeping those personalities in line.

Add that to the list of necessary qualifications when you’re deciding who to support in the primaries.

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Will Hillary Clinton Be An American Pharaoh?

There hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since 1978, when Affirmed and Alydar finished 1-2 in all three races?  Since then, there have been 13 horses who have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, only to come up short in the Belmont.  This year, American Pharaoh will either become the 12th Triple Crown winner, or the 14th recent near-miss.

Why has it been so long – 37 years and counting – since a horse was able to pull off the feat?

In part, it’s because of the variety of circumstances a horse must win in.  The races are different lengths, with different-sized fields, often raced under very different conditions.

But it’s also because owners and trainers race the Belmont differently.  Instead of running the race straight up, they often gang up on the Triple Crown hopeful, forcing it not to be merely Secretariat, but also Seattle Slew and Affirmed.  It’s a bill that’s almost impossible to fill; no horse can run all-out for a mile and a half without running out of gas somewhere down the stretch.  Smarty Jones, possibly the best Triple Crown shot this century, may have been the victim of this sort of racing.

This year, Hillary might be vulnerable to a strategy where Republicans run at her like the competitors in the Belmont, rather than like the Derby, with different candidates showing her not just inferior to them on specific matters, but simply not credible at all.

In foreign policy,even supporters cannot name a single significant achievement, and she faces challenges from the Republicans both from the left (Rand Paul) and the right (everyone else).  Painting him as irresponsible and out of touch makes the other Republicans look more serious, without reinforcing herself against their criticisms.  The world is a messier, nastier place than it was when Hillary became Secretary of State.  Those candidates with foreign policy expertise or experience will have no trouble pointing out that Hillary either successfully enabled disaster, or ineffectively fought against it.

Personally, people already don’t trust her.  Already, her plans for summertime Foundation-linked events and publicity have been shelved. Between the emails and the Clinton Foundation (and Bill’s shell corporations), the sheer scope of corruption and irresponsibility is something that Republicans will be coming back to on just about every issue.  People may be distracted for a moment by Denny Hastert’s distress, but she’d better come up with something quickly when the parry to her every answer is, “Did you check your foundation’s donor list before answering that, Mrs. Clinton?”  Everyone in country knows that “You can’t prove anything” is the response of the guilty, the sort of thing Spiro Agnew might have said.

And consider what Hillary must assume is her trump card – “Don’t you want to see a woman president?”  Every step of the way, Carly Fiorina has shown a willingness to confront, outthink, and disarm a frankly hostile media.  Fiorina won’t win the nomination, but she’ll deny Hillary that easy trip down the backstretch that winners like to have.

Colorado has seen the “War on Women” movie in multiple elections, with decreasing effectiveness.  The irony is that it was used to elect Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton.  The trope is starting to wear thin nationally, as well.  How ironic would it be if Hillary were unable to make use of it?

Even on her own side of the ledger, Hillary will have to face Democrats who excite the base, and remind them of what might have been.  It’s not uncommon for Belmont favorites to race other horses with the same trainer.  Owners hate that.  So will Hillary, because it will make her job of intervening in the Republican primary process that much harder.

Each of Hillary’s supposed strengths faces a challenge from at least one of the declared or likely Republican candidates.  It’s not a given, but maybe a probable twelve to seven, that kept on the defensive the whole time, and with no clear front-runner to target, Hillary won’t be able to do to the Republican nominee what Obama did to Romney – use early money to define him.

So the question remains: aside from the more obvious aspirations, is Hillary Clinton an American Pharaoh?

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Lacrosse Title Follows Me to Colorado

The University of Denver won its first NCAA Division I lacrosse title over the weekend, bringing the title west of the Mississippi for the first time since the tournament started in 1971.  I suspect coach Bill Tierney had more to do with the team’s success than I did.  Tierney earned my enmity and respect as coach of Princeton, where he turned that program into a national powerhouse in the 90s, winning 5 titles, a couple of them over Virginia in overtime.  Some are arguing that this win makes Tierney the greatest coach of all time, and certainly there’s a strong case to be made.

In some sense, Colorado was just waiting for a Bill Tierney to come out here and do this. The state is one of the few west of the Mississippi where lacrosse is popular, and both CU and CSU have done well in the club championships in past years.  CSU has won the club title 6 times, twice over Colorado, who also won in 2014 before losing in this year’s finals, so there’s a talent base out here.  Still, only seven of the team’s 45 players are from Colorado; Tierney’s also been able to recruit from all over the country.

This year, Tierney beat both Big 10 and ACC schools – Notre Dame and Maryland – on Championship Weekend.  Those of us over a certain age can’t quite get used to the fact that Maryland was the Big 10 school, and Notre Dame from the ACC.

In some sense, this could only have happened in a time of an expanded tournament.  Gone are the days when an 8-team tournament was dominated by Virginia, Maryland, Cornell, Carolina, Hopkins, and Syracuse (and later Princeton).  The sport has a much broader base, with Duke, Notre Dame, and Loyola having made appearances or won titles in recent years.  In some sense, that’s Tierney’s doing, too, since he broke Princeton into the top tier at a time when the ACC habitually held down three of eight tournament slots, and winning the Ivy League was his only realistic route to the Championship.

Tierney has built a serious program out here, and is likely to win more titles before he’s done.

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PERA’s Pension Obligation Bonds Are a Bad Idea

This is an extended version of the OpEd that appeared in the Greeley Tribune.

Last week, Colorado legislators considered – and rejected – a plan of dubious legality to shore up the state’s public pensions.

The result of a difficult three-way negotiation among Governor Hickenlooper, Treasurer Stapleton, and PERA, the plan would have circumvented the state Constitution’s limits against issuing general obligation debt without a vote of the people, for gains that would have been largely illusory.

Worse, the changes could have encouraged future legislatures to repeat mistakes that put teachers’ and state employees’ retirements at risk in the first place, while making real reforms more difficult.

HB15-1388 would have authorized the State Treasurer to direct the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (CHFA) to issue up to $10 billion in bonds on the state’s credit. The proceeds would have been deposited into PERA’s State and School funds, and invested with the rest of PERA’s assets. The investment returns theoretically would shorten PERA’s time to full funding.

The bonds’ interest was to be funded by the supplemental payments that the state and school districts pay into PERA (the AED and SAED), with PERA paying back the principal when the bonds matured.  The AED and SAED payments are taxpayer contributions established in 2004 and 2006 to stabilize PERA’s finances.  They are escalating percentages of employee salaries.

The complex web of relationships was needed to avoid state constitutional limits on issuing debt. The bill’s language laid out the legal arguments for why the restrictions didn’t apply. Supporters claimed they were revenue bonds that would not obligate general tax dollars, and purported that CHFA is not a state agency.

Passing the buck to the courts, HB 1388 would have required a binding judicial ruling certifying the scheme’s legality before the bonds could have been issued.

Make no mistake: The debt would have been on the state’s credit, and shown up on the state’s balance sheet. These are not revenue bonds; they would have been funded only by general tax revenue.

Whether or not the game of hide-the-pea satisfied the courts, it violated the spirit and purpose of constitutional provisions designed to prevent the legislature from indebting citizens into a long-term fiscal bind. The many state bankruptcies of the 1840s were still fresh in the people’s minds in 1876, when the Constitution was drafted. Those concerns are no less valid now.

The bonds wouldn’t have shown up in PERA’s financial report, except in the footnotes. With no single, authoritative document laying out the full financial picture associated with funding the state’s public pensions, PERA would look better-funded than it was.

Risk-averse legislators could have justified avoiding the difficult decisions needed to provide real retirement security for Colorado’s teachers and state employees. Future legislatures might have been tempted to repeat the mistakes that put that security at risk in the first place. While a full legal analysis awaits, tying the AED and the SAED explicitly to a bonded debt might have complicated any attempts at more sustainable reform.

A comprehensive study by the Center for Retirement Research found that the misuse and mistiming of pension obligation bonds have punished numerous states and municipalities over the last 20 years. The Government Finance Officers Association recommends against their use.

To their credit, the bill’s architects studied past failures and tried to mitigate the risks to Colorado and its schools. The annual interest on the bonds could have been no larger than two-thirds of each year’s anticipated AED and SAED, with a minimum 2 percent spread between the bond interest rate and PERA’s anticipated rate of return. Statutory contributions to PERA – inadequate though they are – would have remained intact, and bond proceeds would have been unavailable for diversion to other spending.

Still, the deal entailed significant risk. Proponents misleadingly argued that it refinanced 7.5 percent debt at 4.5 percent. In an actual refinance, the original obligation is paid off. Here, the pension obligation would have remained, with Colorado taking on additional debt.

Even PERA’s claim that its current debt should be discounted at 7.5 percent is based on an accounting gimmick only available to US public pensions – and no other pensions in the world.  (Not coincidentally, without the discipline of correct accounting, US public pensions are also the worst-funded public pensions in the world.)

As contractual promises, they should be discounted at the same interest rate as the bonds.  PERA would just be adding 4.5 percent debt to the true 4.5 percent debt of its current contractual obligations, improving its situation only marginally.

The proposal’s safeguards would not have changed the fact that proponents were seeking to close the funding gap by taking on additional debt and risk.

While the governor and the treasurer are to be credited for taking PERA’s underfunding seriously, HB 1388 was the wrong answer to the problem.

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Yeah, But Does Free Speech Have To Be So Speechy?

Seen on a friend’s Facebook page: “Pam Geller makes is awfully hard to defend the First Amendment.”

Let’s stipulate for purposes of this post that gratuitous sexual innuendo – or outright graphic depiction – aren’t really my style, and I don’t think they do much to advance the discussion about what to do about Islamism.  I don’t think that’s what Pam Geller is about, but if it lets you keep reading, we’ll stipulate that.

Let’s also stipulate the Pam Geller is a rhetorical bomb-thrower, who tells Islamists to suck it up, cupcake, and non-Islamist Muslims to examine what they’re doing (or need to do) to get their religion’s crazies back under control.  The purpose of the “What’s your jihad?” campaign isn’t to accuse Muslims of sharing Hamas’s co-joining of politics, hatred, and religion.  It’s to challenge normal, everyday Muslims to re-examine their religion’s relationship to politics.  These are unpleasant subjects, and unpopular themes.

Even with that, my friend’s commenter has it exactly backwards.

It’s not Pam Geller who makes it hard to defend the First Amendment.

It’s newspapers like the New York Times, and publishing houses like Yale University Press, who refused to publish the Danish Mohammed Cartoons – even in articles and books discussing them – out of fear.  Even Reza Aslan, in the Times article, argues for including the cartoons not because it’s correct, but because it’s now safe.

By failing to stand up to the Islamist bullies at the time, they effectively conceded that self-censorship for self-preservation made sense.  Had they done so, Geller’s event might not have even been necessary.  Indeed, had they done so, Geller herself might be either less relevant (if as inflammatory) or less inflammatory (in order to stay relevant).

Nobody decent defends the attacks by the two ISIS fanboys from Phoenix, nobody who makes excuses for them is decent.  So a denunciation of them as a prelude to, “But…” doesn’t buy the author or speaker any credibility.  The mere act of denouncing them implies there might be some decent audience who thinks they might be acceptable.

Also troublesome is the comparison of Geller to an arsonist, either by her defenders or her detractors.  The Islamists are not a force of nature, devoid of moral agency; they are people, responsible for their actions, and for the despotic creed they promulgate.

In the end, the winning cartoon wasn’t even about Muhammad per se, it was a meta-cartoon about its own right to exist:

That the two schlubs from Phoenix couldn’t tell the difference between “Draw Muhammad” and “Draw, Muhammad” tells you all you need to know about what we’re up against.

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Obama Negotiates

In his joint press conference today with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, President Obama commented on the state of negotiations with Iran, specifically on the issue of sanctions.  While most of the discussion has focused on the question of being able to reimpose sanctions, or abandoning them, or being able to reimpose them after abandoning them, this line caught my ear:

I would just make a general observation. That is that how sanction are, lessened, how we snap back sanctions if there is a violation, there are a lot of different mechanisms and ways to do that. Part of John’s job and part of Iranian negotiators’ job and part of the P5+1’s job, is to sometimes find formulas that get to our main concerns while allowing the other side to make a presentation to their body politic that is more acceptable.

Obama publicly said that, in part, the negotiations with Iran consist of an effort to get what we want, while letting the mullahs present some palatable line to their “body politic.”

In other words, he just told the Iranian people that their leaders are lying to them about the terms of the deal, in order to make the sale.

It’s no doubt true that part of a negotiation can be, under the right circumstances, when you hold the high cards and have been driving a hard bargain, to find some way of letting the other side save face.

None of those conditions obtains here. We’ve been getting rolled, and all Obama has just done with that comment is give the mullahs an excuse to pretend they’ve been backed into a corner where they have to drive a harder bargain.  He seems have mistaken conducting a seminar in foreign policy for actually conducting foreign policy.

As Mark Steyn likes to ask, “If he were on the other side, what would he be doing differently?”

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The Death of the Death Tax?

Thursday, the House will vote on HR1105, the Death Tax Repeal Act of 2015.  This is one of the most unfair taxes on the books, taxing assets and cash that have already been taxed several times along the way.  The bill has 135 co-sponsors, 134 of whom are Republican; kudos to Sanford Bishop of Georgia.

The Democrats would have you believe that the tax falls primarily on the exceedingly wealthy, and so is designed to prevent the concentration of multigenerational wealth.  Perhaps the reason the tax has been such a dismal failure in preventing income inequality is that its premise is so flawed.  The very wealthy have any number of strategies available to them to avoid paying the tax.  Does anyone think Chelsea Clinton is going to go do productive work any time soon?

In the meantime, the tax absolutely crushes asset-rich/cash-poor businesses and farms, of the kind held by successful, but not opulent, families. Often, the choice is between selling assets (and usually it’s the bigger businesses that gobble these up), and taking a loan out.  Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) appeard on Fox News to discuss the bill.  Her family had to take out a 10-year loan to pay the death tax bill when her father was killed in an accident on the farm.

How long before Obama or Elizabeth Warren or Hillary!™ takes a page out of the student loan debacle and decries banks making unfair profits off of families’ misfortune, and demands that the government take over making those loans.

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