Friday, June 1, 2012

A Sermon Too Far

In America we cherish our freedoms, especially our freedom of speech. The idea that we can express any opinion is hard-wired into our political DNA. We also cherish freedom of religion. So religious speech is doubly protected. If you believe your god requires you to dance naked around a bonfire at midnight every third Wednesday, so be it. The result is there are numerous variations of Christianity practiced in America. Just this week a snake handling pastor from West Virginia died after being bitten by a rattlesnake.

In America we, unfortunately, also cherish our ignorance. I personally do not know the difference between the beliefs of Sunni and Shia Muslims. I know the distinction is based on differing claims as the true heir to the prophet, but I am regretfully ignorant beyond that speck of knowledge. I cannot recall which countries belong to which branch (Iran? Shia, I think. Saudi Arabia? Maybe Sunni? I honestly am not sure). I suspect the vast majority of America is in the same boat.

Americans intuitively understand there are many variations of Christianity in the religious marketplace. As a result we tend to ignore the versions we disagree with and write them off as wrong or misguided or inconsequential. But, because we do not understand the wide variety of other religious nearly as well, we tend to lump them all together. As a result we are far less tolerant of extremist views from those other religions. Instead of assuming the extremist speaks for a tiny sliver, we incorporate their view into the majority position.

To see what I mean, try and imagine what our reaction would be if a radical Muslim cleric in Yemen  argued that the government should start killing all homosexuals. Or if a Hindu priest in India called for the forced imprisonment behind electric fences of all "lesbians, queers and homos". Or if a prominent Sikh came out and stated he personally liked the idea of killing all homosexuals (even if he acknowledged it was not ordained by the scripture and probably shouldn't be done).

The United States would demand the leaders of those religions object to these radical, wrongheaded, vile statements. We would expect the moderate voices of these communities to shout down the hatred. And if they did not immediately and convincingly decry the statements, we would use that inaction as proof that all of the religion accepted those positions.

Unfortunately all of those things have been stated in the past few weeks. But not by Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs. And not in far away lands. All of those comments, and more, have been issued by "Christian" leaders. Here in America. You can find the details here if you are interested. Even more unfortunately, the most extreme, most disgusting, least defensible statement came from a pastor in Kansas.

These individuals are entitled to their views. As an American I understand they are allowed to believe whatever they choose. But I would hope that most Americans, by a huge majority, would find these statements offensive, regardless of how you feel on the political issue of gay marriage. And because we would expect others to condemn these statements as perversions of their faith I believe those of us who are Christian must do the same. It is not enough to simply ignore these statements as representing fringe elements. Even if you personally believe homosexuality is a sin you should also recognize the God reserved the right to judge for him or herself. And Jesus would not agree with enslaving or murder a group of people, any people. As Christians we cannot ignore these statements and hope they go away. We must strongly, forcefully, vigorously and loudly condemn them or we, too, are guilty of allowing the lunatic fringe to speak for us.

I understand there are lots of good people who believe homosexuality is wrong. I respect your belief and will defend your right to it. But I also believe these recent comments are abhorrent and do not reflect the views of mainstream American or Christians. I also understand that a majority of America is not directly impacted by these statements. I personally am not; as a happily married straight man the issues of gay rights and gay marriage have almost no direct impact on me or my life. But I cannot allow these extremist to espouse vile hatred and not speak out against it.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

The Freedom Dilemma

I came across an interesting quote today, which got me thinking about a rather interesting aspect of freedom. The quote is from John Locke, who said "Where there is no law, there is no freedom." What makes this quote so interesting, to me at least, is the current climate seems to view law as a restriction on freedom, rather than the guarantor of freedom.

Much of the presidential campaign seems to center on who will do the best job of freeing American from the tyranny of unnecessary rules and regulations. The dominate theme of the Republic campaign has been who would capture the "TEA" party vote (remember the TEA stands for "Taxed Enough Already" - a demand for a drastic reduction in the size of government). President Obama (and Governor Romney) have come under fire for government health insurance programs which, it is argued, reduce personal freedoms. Government is seen as the enemy of freedom and not its defender.

It is clear government can go too far - we need only look at the repressive regimes of Syria, Iran, Libya and Egypt, who have all been in the recent news.  In each of those situations government repressed freedom in an attempt to consolidate and maintain power. Similarly North Korea, Russia and China have repressed their people in an effort to maintain control. 

The dilemma is, as John Locke rightly pointed out, without government there is no freedom either. We can look at Somalia to see what happens to a society with no working government or rule of law. After decades with no effective civil government the country has devolved into a lawless frontier ruled by warlords. No one is free because everyone is in constant danger.  Anything you have can be taken at any moment on the whim of the local thug.  Anything he has can be taken if a more powerful thug comes along. Or, closer to home, we can look at the current problems in Mexico.  Drug cartels war openly for territory and power. Judges, police and citizens are caught in the crossfire and the government is seemingly powerless to stop the violence. As a result, there is no freedom for the people.

Far too often we forgot how good we have it in America. The freedoms we cherish - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - are protected by a strong but relatively unobtrusive government. Around the world we can see what happens when there is too much or too little government. In either case freedom withers. In America we argue and sling mud over questions of whether 15% is a high enough tax rate for the rich or if we should be required to purchase health insurance (or should we let our fellow citizen die if they don't have coverage). In Syria people are dying as a repressive government tries to hold on to power and in Mexico people are dying because an ineffective government has lost power. We live in the sweet spot between the horns of the freedom dilemma, even if we don't take the time to appreciate our good fortune.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On to New Hampshire

Now it is time for the first primary of the 2012 election cycle. New Hampshire is typically a wild ride, so predictions are a fool's errand. I think I qualify, so here goes: Romney in first, Perry in last seem to be all but locks at this point. Romney owns a home in New Hampshire, governed next door in Massachusetts, announced his campaign there and generally expected it to be his firewall against a disappointing showing in Iowa. Suddenly, he won Iowa with only a couple of months effort and now is playing from a position of strength. Perry, on the other hand, expected a dominant performance in Iowa to give him the lead going forward. Instead, he stumbled to a fifth place finish and abandoned New Hampshire to focus on South Carolina in hopes of capturing the conservative vote there.

The latest polls I saw  had the middle group going, in order, Paul, Huntsman, Santorum and Gingrich. However, they were very close and it is tough to gauge momentum (look at Santorum's surprising finish in Iowa). Romney has taken a few lumps lately, which will not be enough to keep him from winning. But they may breath life into Huntsman's campaign. The former governor and ambassador to China skipped Iowa to try and build his own firewall in New Hampshire. He has come under attack for serving as ambassador under a democratic president but that sort of bi-partisanship may help in New Hampshire. He is the moderate alternative to Romney while the other three fight to be the conservative alternative. If Romney is hurt by the recent attack ads, the Bain Capitol issues, or anything else, independents and moderates may swing to Huntsman, who really needs a strong finish to stay in the race. I think he finishes a close third, behind Paul, with Santorum in fourth and Gingrich in fifth. Given my success in predicting last weeks caucus, you'd have to be fool to think I'm right.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Iowa Recap (Political Junkie Boxing Day?)

Time for a quick recap of the Iowa Republican caucuses from last night, especially in light of my predictions from yesterday. First, what I got right - umm, well, Romney won (8 votes is still a win, right?). What I got wrong - everything else. Literally everything else, including my description of the caucus process. I described a caucus where the votes were counted by a head count. Iowa uses a paper ballot format. I actually participated in a paper ballot caucus in Colorado in 2008 so I have seen the process up close and personal. (I also participated in a head count type caucus in 1988, so I have seen that as well, the memories are just a bit hazier). There is less opportunity to switch candidates with the paper ballot, and your ballot is private so less pressure as well. But, having participated in a hotly contested caucus in a swing state in 2008, I can tell you it is very easy to read the temperature of the room. The county divided into voting district and each district met in a classroom at the local high school. There may have been 40 people in my room and I could easily predict the order of finish and relative vote count before the balloting began. This is because the process allows voters to make a supporting speech for their preferred candidate. These speeches draw audience response and you can tell who is supporting each candidate from the reactions to the various speeches. As a result my original point still has some viability, though less than what I originally proposed. Mainly, evangelical supporters of one of the three lesser candidates (Perry, Gingrich, Bachmann) may have switched late to Santorum after realizing their candidate was not going to win.

The rest of my predictions were absolute rubbish. Santorum finished ahead of Paul (and nearly won everything) with an even stronger late surge than I thought possible. Paul actually faded one or two points below what I thought he would receive. Gingrich really surprised me - I thought his statement "we are not going to win Iowa" was tantamount to a surrender and, combined with his fall from the top of the polls, I expected him to crumble into sixth, meaning I expected Perry to finish stronger than he did. Rick Perry's announcement that he was "going to reevaluate his campaign" is tantamount to surrender and I expect him to be out, possibly before South Carolina. My biggest misjudgment, however, was Michelle Bachmann. I thought she would be able to rally some support given her family connections to Iowa, her extensive time in the state and the fact Newt was admitting defeat in advance and Perry had lost luster. I thought she would possibly pick up some undecided votes or get some people from the anybody but Romney camp to return to her at the eleventh hour. Instead she had a dismal showing and is not a contender anymore, barring a miracle comeback in South Carolina.

Most of the stories I have read take the slant that Santorum was the big winner and Romney took a (small) defeat. The logic is straightforward - Santorum was polling sixth just a few weeks ago and suddenly jumped up to a virtual first place tie. All with limited funds and infrastructure. This is true but it ignores three essential facts, in my opinion. First, Romney essentially ignored Iowa until about two months ago. While Santorum has spent massive time and energy in Iowa, Romney has focused on other states. Romney was able to come in late and equal Santorum's months of efforts. Moving forward, Romney has a much stronger network and much, much deeper pockets. Second, Romney was able to win despite a very strong Anyone But Romney segment in Iowa. The right-wing had months to pick one candidate, galvanize behind that candidate and defeat Romney thereby forcing him into a must win in New Hampshire and making South Carolina key. Given the fact that nearly half of the voters (47% according to the last poll I saw) identified themselves as evangelical or born again, and those voters were, in general, strongly opposed to Romney, I think the right wing took a defeat. They had months and months, a strong base, limited opposition from Romney himself, and still could not carry the state.  Third, and this point seems to have been lost in the shuffle, Santorum is not on the Virginia ballot and there is no write in process - only Romney and Paul are going to be on the ballot. Assuming Romney wins New Hampshire, and his lead there is fairly large, he will have victories in the first two states and have Virginia in his back pocket, at least as concerns Santorum and Gingrich. (One note - all of the stories I could find highlight that Perry and Gingrich failed to make the Virginia ballot, they do not even mention Bahcmann or Santorum. This highlights how quickly Santorum jumped up, he was a non-factor a few days again when the Virginia ballot story broke. However, the stories go on, uniformly, to say the ballot will have two candidates - Paul and Romney. It may be the case than Santorum is on the Virginia ballot and all of the stories overlooked him, but the best information I have been able to find is that only Paul and Romney are on the Virginia ballot. Interestingly, Newt Gingrich leads the Virginia polls 30-25 over Mitt Romney, but he failed to get enough signatures to qualify. If Santorum is on the ballot, I would assume most Newt support will switch to Santorum and he will be in a position to win Virginia. Virginia votes on Super Tuesday, March 3.)

Finally, I said yesterday that a Romney-Paul or Paul-Romney finish were the two best outcomes for Mitt Romney. Well, I think a Romney narrow win followed by the all but withdrawal of his most troublesome rival (Perry) may have been even better. Perry had the resources, infrastructure, and star power on his side. In fact, it was assumed when he entered the race he would walk away with the nomination. Now, he may not even survive through New Hampshire. Every other candidate seems to pose a lesser problem for Romney. Even the base coalesces around Santorum I think that the defeat of Perry serves Romney very well. His advantages in networks and money, especially money, will most likely overwhelm Santorum on a day like Super Tuesday. They might not have been able to overwhelm Rick Perry.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Political Junkie Christmas

Since it is a new year I feel I should have a resolution. In the real world I have resolved to complain less and enjoy more. But here in the cyber world I thought I should have a more concrete goal. Something like resolving to actually post a few blogs on my blog.

Today is like Christmas for political junkies because it is Iowa caucus day! And even better than that, it is totally unpredictable Iowa caucus day! By my count at least six different candidates have been in the lead during some portion of the Iowa campaign season (Bachmann, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Paul and Romney) and a seventh (Santorum) appears to have the momentum now. So anything might happen. I think the most interesting dynamic is the fact that 41% of likely voters who already have a first choice candidate say they could be swayed to change their pick.  That does not include the sizable number of undecided voters.

If you have never participated in a caucus, just know it is very different than regular voting. The polls are not open all day for you to drop off an anonymous ballot. Instead, everyone shows up and the same time and sits in cliques for their candidate. You actually see who is supporting which candidate. This means peer pressure can play a huge part in the decision making process. If you show up intending to support Michelle Bachman but then notice your boss, your father-in-law and your best customer all sitting with the Ron Paul group, and the Bachmann group is pretty small and insignificant anyway, well, maybe you go ahead and switch seats just to be safe.

There is also always the chance for a last minute deal, either by a candidate or by a candidate's supporters at a local level. Again, suppose in a couple of caucus sites it is very close between Paul, Romney and Santorum, as the polls suggest. Now suppose the Bachman and Gingrich groups realize they are too small and their candidates are goners. But Gingrich is in a war of words with Romney (calling him a liar on TV this morning) and Bachmann supporters are mad at Paul for stealing campaign staffers, so they agree, amongst themselves, to support the candidate who is socially conservative and can cause the most problems for Romney and Paul - Rick Santorum. so, just before the final count they all move and declare their support for Santorum who suddenly wins that caucus site. Given how the social conservative wing has flailed about in an attempt to find an ABR candidate (anybody but Romney) I would not be surprised to see those types of switches happen. I don't think Romney will lose too many people - he is seen as a moderate and his supporters are less likely to tack to the right, I would guess. Paul supporters seem fanatically loyal so I do not expect him to suffer losses of this kind. But the supporters of the other four candidates seem less loyal to any person and are more about an agenda, so I could easily see huge swings as the voters try and find a candidate who can beat Mitt Romney.

As it is, the Iowa caucuses are shaping up to be better than Romney could have ever hoped for when he started his campaign. Until recently he did not think he could do well enough in Iowa to justify time or money. Instead he concentrated on New Hampshire where he is expected to win convincingly. But the ebb and flow of the campaign has left him an opening to win Iowa, have Ron Paul (who cannot win the nomination or the general election) finish second and the social conservative of the moment, probably Santorum, third. Romney's fear has always been that one social conservative candidate would emerge, draw in the support and money of that wing of the party and he would have a long, bloody battle to the finish. Instead, the four main conservative challengers remaining have swapped the mantle amongst themselves (and Herman Cain) with no one emerging. Ron Paul is far too extreme for most voters and could not gather enough support to win, so having him finish second just hurts the social conservative candidate more. In fact, Romney's second best scenario is a Paul win with Romney second. Given Romney's lead in New Hampshire, and the news this week that only Paul and Romney qualified for the ballot in Virginia, a win tonight would essentially give Romney a 3-0 lead in the early states against BGPS (Bachmann Gingrich Perry Santorum), and maybe enough momentum to coast to the nomination.

My prediction (for what it is worth, given how fluid things have been), Romney wins narrowly over Paul with Santorum a very strong third, Perry a distant fourth and Bachmann edging Gingrich for fifth. Bachman will probably bow out after New Hampshire, Gingrich and Perry may try to hang around for South Carolina in hopes of winning the very conservative, religious block there and jump starting their campaigns.

Happy New Year and Merry Political Junkie Christmas!

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Opposition to the Kansas Income Tax

There is an old Saturday Night Live mock commercial I have been thinking about lately. The commercial was for "First Interstate Change Bank" as I recall, and it featured employees and customers extolling the virtues of the bank who's sole function was to make change. If you need four quarters and you had a dollar bill, they can do that. If you need a crisp new twenty to give a grandchild as a birthday present and only have a couple of wrinkled tens, they can do that. The commercial featured Phil Hartman explaining the bank's business philosophy. "People ask me how we make money doing this and I tell them 'Volume'".

This week a new Kansas political group called Kansas For No Income Tax (headed by a former Kansas Republican party executive director, Ashley McMillan) was created to oppose the Kansas Income Tax. This seems in line with the push nationally to radically change the taxing mechanisms in this country (e.g. Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan; Rick Perry's support for a flat tax, etc.). Of course if you eliminate the income tax you have to find a way to replace the income it generated because the need for government services will not disappear. This mostly likely means a switch to a sales tax based system. But that is not what the news report said when announcing the new group. Rather, the report stated the loss in income could be made up for by economic growth and closing loopholes.

Phil Hartman would explain this new tax strategy as "volume". But, no matter how many loopholes you close, no matter how much the tax base grows, you cannot bring in any income tax revenue if you have zero income tax. Zero times any amount is still zero. There is an argument to be made that a flat tax with no loopholes could replace the revenue of the current progressive tax system. That argument may or may not be persuasive but at least it is a valid argument. Conversely the idea that you can close loopholes and gain revenue after you eliminate the income tax is incredibly misleading, false, wrong, stupid you name it. Once the tax rate is set to zero there are no loopholes because there is no tax. End of discussion.

I also have grave concerns about the idea that cutting income taxes will produce jobs. First, wages are deductible for businesses presently. I fail to understand how lower tax rates on businesses will spur job growth - if the tax rate is such a concern the business could hire more employees and increase its deductions. I suspect it is not the tax rate that is keeping hiring down. Second, when you really study why businesses start up or expand you discover taxes are a very minor consideration. Does anyone remember the big push for enterprise zones in the late 1980s and early 1990s? It was the same idea - if you cut or eliminate taxes in impoverished areas you will release a latent entrepreneurial spirit which will produce business and jobs and lift the area out of poverty. Only they didn't work. The hurdles to business are very high.  Taxes are way down on the list and cutting or eliminating those taxes had basically zero effect on business growth. Making capital more available at a lower cost, perhaps by expanding the Small Business Administration, would have a much greater impact.

I hope to discuss the pros and cons a sales tax or property tax based system as these proposals move forward. For now I just wanted to make the seemingly obvious point that closing income tax loopholes will not make up for revenue lost if you completely eliminate the income tax. I just wish that point had not been lost on the new advocacy group focused on influencing Kansas's tax policy going forward.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

State of Kansas v. Planned Parenthood

The Kansas City Star is reporting today that some key evidence in the State of Kansas's case against Planned Parenthood has been destroyed. At issue is the original documents Planned Parenthood filed with the state department of health. According to reports the records were probably destroyed during a routine document purge in 2005. My guess is this will mean the end of the state's criminal case against Planned Parenthood as I will try to explain.

First, some background. I have not been following this story particularly closely so I do not know all of the details, but a basic overview will hopefully suffice. The case was initiated by Phill Kline when he was the Kansas Attorney General. During his investigation of abortions performed by Planned Parenthood he made copies of the original documents filed with the Department of Health and, apparently, returned the originals. At some later point Planned Parenthood again submitted documents regarding its abortion practices. According to the Attorney General the documents contained materially different information than what was in the copies he made and so criminal charges followed. The accusations of the charges essentially boils down to whether PP maintained sufficient records as required by law and whether PP knowingly submitted false information to the state. The case is finally making its way to trial and the Johnson County District Attorney has notified the court the original documents maintained by the Department of Health have been destroyed. (Phill Kline lost his bid for re-election as the Kansas AG and was appointed to fill the unexpired term of the Johnson County DA. Kline brought his files with him and initiated the criminal case as the Johnson County DA).

In a normal criminal case the loss of the original records would not be crippling to the prosecution. Photocopies of documents are almost always admissible, especially if the originals were destroyed inadvertently by the record keeper. But this is far from a usual case. Just this month a disciplinary panel recommended Mr. Kline's Kansas law license be indefinitely suspended (one step short of being disbarred) because he lied to judges and the grand jury about this investigation and other related investigations. The Kansas Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the recommendation but it usually accepts the recommendation of the panel or increases the punishment - it seems unlikely Kline will not be severely punished by the Kansas Supreme Court. As a result the original documents are crucial. Because what the prosecutor is faced with now is one set of documents maintained by the defendant, Planned Parenthood, and another set maintained by an attorney who has been found to have repeatedly mislead the court about this very case. Planned Parenthood will argue the state's documents are forgeries crafted by Kline to falsely implicate them and, without the originals, it will be impossible to prove they are not. 

Usually when the defendant claims the police or prosecutors tried to frame them they sound unbelievable. The state does not have to prove they are not telling lies or forging documents because the public does not believe the state does that, generally speaking. But, because of Kline's documented misconduct in this case, it is the prosecutor who will be difficult to believe. That is why the current prosecutor wanted/needed the original set of documents from the Department of Health - so Kline would not be an issue in the case. If the originals were different than the second set of documents provided by Planned Parenthood, the case would be about those inconsistencies. If the originals were consistent the case would be dismissed. Without the originals the case comes down to who do you believe.  It will be virtually impossible to prove to twelve people beyond a reasonable doubt that the documents maintained solely by Phill Kline and his office are genuine since he has been shown to lie to the court in this very case. That is why I believe the prosecutor will eventually have to dismiss this case.

Of course the message boards are all a twitter with accusation about who destroyed the records - did Planned Parenthood order their puppet governor Sebelius to destroy them? Did the evil Attorney General Kline order them destroyed because he knew he had forged documents? Did the Illuminati destroy them to keep the Catholic Church from electing a new pope?

Actually I would guess he answer is much simplier, with no grand conspiracy. I expect Phill Kline did not instruct the Department of Health to maintain the originals because he had his copies.  The Department of Health, because the records were old, destroyed them in the usual course of business. Phill was a career politician not a professional prosecutor. I would guess this was a simple oversight on his part. He should have subpoenaed the records or obtained a court order requiring them to be maintained. I think he just made a mistake. A mistake which will ultimately mean the prosecution he was so desparate to bring about will ultimately be dismissed. That is not to say he did or did not forge the records. I have no way of knowing, although I would not put it past him at this point. I just don't think he would had the foresight or authority to either have the records destroyed or to know they would be inadvertently destroyed in the routine course of business.  As much fun as it would be to imagine the records destroyed as part of a vast conspiracy theory I think it was just boring incompetence.

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