Tuesday, December 23, 2008

America's New Sacred Rite: Purchasing a Gun

There are a couple more weeks before the new Oklahoma state legislature will convene for the first time with Republicans in control of both chambers, and many legislators have indicated several bills they intend to submit. There are at least two sales tax bills of interest. One bill from state senator Jay Paul Gumm would repeal the state sales tax on groceries. A similar bill died last year. Another bill from state representatives Eric Proctor and state senator Kenneth Corn (both Democrats) would repeal the state sales tax on guns and ammunition. This bill may gain traction. After all, owning a gun has become more sacred than, say, owning an Ipod or a Wii or a Tickle Me Elmo or any other consumer good.

After a several-decades-long movement by the conservatives in this country, guns have been converted from a mere tool to a sacred constitutional symbol. Hunters are now revered more because they are outspoken gun owners than because they provide food and/or clothing (because usually they don't). Citizens wanting in on this constitutional street cred need only to defend their purchase of a handgun by saying they intend to defend themselves and their family. Suddenly buying an item in a sportsman's catalog on par with fishing rods and tackle boxes becomes a sacred constitutional duty on par with voting and saluting the flag. And the legislative effects of this mentality of reverence for guns are spreading.

Eric Proctor, author of the bill that would eliminate sales tax on gun purchases in Oklahoma, used all of the right talking points when describing the need for such legislation.
“As Americans, we should not have to pay a tax to exercise our constitutional rights – especially our Second Amendment rights."

It's exactly the same as a poll tax on black people, you see.
"In Oklahoma, we have a long tradition of sportsmanship and hunting that precedes statehood and we should protect that heritage."

It's true, except before statehood it was the tribes with the weapons and the goal was surviving the winter.
"People shouldn’t have to pay a tax to the government if they need a gun in the home for self-protection,” Proctor said. “No matter what, the responsibility to protect your family is greater than the state’s need to generate taxes.”

And yet, house alarm systems, cars with airbags, sunscreen, bicycle helmets, and net nanny software all shockingly keep being taxed.

Another piece of legislation likely offered in the upcoming session is the issue of concealed weapons on college campuses. There are many legislators who are in favor of forcing Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma to allow individuals with concealed weapons permits to carry guns on campus. Private entities are already forbidden from banning guns brought onto their property by their employers. Defenders of such legislation argue that students having weapons on campus would stop other students from having weapons on campus.

This November Oklahomans approved a ballot initiative that enshrined hunting in the state constitution. No one really knows why this was even an issue. No one was challenging the existing hunting regulations, and the ballot initiative didn't create any new regulations or modify any old ones. But many defenders were afraid that some group like PETA or the Humane Society would try to fight a legal battle at some point in the future, so they decided to go ahead and officially deify gun-toting hunters.

But it was completely unnecessary! In Oklahoma, it would be hard to come up with more lax gun laws. There are no gun registrations, no bans on assault weapons, no requirements for childproofing guns or mandates that would require guns to meet certain safety standards, no licensing for gun dealers, no background checks at gun shows, no license requirements for handguns, and no restrictions on buying guns in bulk. There are laws forbidding city and county governments from suing gun makers or enacting gun control laws stronger than the state's, and laws forbidding police from keeping records on gun purchases.

Gun sales were widely reported to be on the rise after Barack Obama won the election in November. Many idiots thought that immediately upon inauguration, Barack Obama would take away the ability to purchase a gun, if not make guns entirely illegal. Along these same lines of thought, expect many more knee-jerk anti-regulation gun bills to come through the legislatures of many states.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bush's Interior Department: Completely Corrupt by Design

It's hard for a lame duck president in his final days in office to make the big headlines he used to get, and short of an assassination attempt or a random shoe-throwing attack abroad, the president is typically treated with quiet disinterest by the media. This is a shame, because one of the most widespread department-wide displays of corruption and scandal is playing out right now in George W. Bush's Department of the Interior.

Lots of information over the past two or three years has been revealed showing the amount of brazen corruption in the department, but most people have ignored it, quite possibly because they don't give a shit about the goings-on of the vaguely-named Interior. Or it could be that it's the least surprising cabinet-level department to be influenced by cronyism from the top. I mean, if you had to pick just one department in the executive branch that would be most influenced by the anti-environmental pro-oil Bush 43, wouldn't it be Interior, a department responsible for both wildlife protection and regulating oil companies?

So how has Bush hollowed out Interior from the interior? By putting in place corrupt executives and officials who had compelling interests in loosening Department of the Interior regulations. It started off early. Two members of George W. Bush's pre-inauguration transition team were J. Steven Griles, the future Deputy Secretary of the Interior and a coal-industry lobbyist who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in 2007; and a disgraced Indian affairs lobbyist known as Jack Abramoff. The first Bush secretary of the Interior, Coloradoan Gale Norton, now works for Royal Dutch Shell oil company in their oil-shale department. Her biggest claim-to-fame was opening up Yellowstone National Park to snowmobiles, but her most lasting legacy will be the rules loosening regulation of federal lands and opening them up to developers and hunters.

Bush's second and current Secretary of the Interior is Dirk Kempthorne, who worked for a chemical manufacturing company before becoming mayor of Boise and eventually a U.S. senator and then Governor of Idaho. Not surprisingly, the chemical company's man Kempthorne sought to undermine the Safe Drinking Water Act once he got to the U.S. Senate, and was given zeros year after year by the League of Conservation Voters in their annual legislative scorecards. As Secretary of the Interior, Kempthorne has constantly worked to reduce protections to endangered species. He was the inaugural recipient of the Rubber Dodo Award from the Center for Biological Diversity for holding the record of the longest amount of time without a new federally protected species (at the time, 472 days). Earlier this month, Kempthorne presented a change to the Endangered Species Act that would remove oversight of projects that potentially could be harmful to endangered species.

But all of that stuff is legal! There are plenty of illegal ethics violations and straight up crimes to report from the Interior Department too! The above-mentioned former Deputy Secretary of the Interior J. Steven Griles was alleged to have steered policy and oil and gas leases to his own lobbying clients. He was forced to resign and pleaded guilty to Obstruction, but he is once again an energy company lobbyist. Former Secretary Gale Norton was accused of dismissing or ignoring 25 ethics violations against Griles in a 2006 Inspector General's report of Interior Department's "culture of managerial irresponsibility and lack or accountability".

In 2007, the Inspector General found broad failure by the Minerals Management Service to collect the $10 billion in royalties owed by oil companies to the government, mostly because the government agency in charge was "too cozy with oil companies". That report also found that individuals who leaked information about the corrupt activities of management were often retaliated against.

Further Inspector General reports released this year threw alcohol, drugs and sex into the "ethical failures" mix in the ultimate example of getting too "cozy" with industry. But more damning is the report released earlier this week showing how the Interior Department often "interfered with scientific work in order to limit protections for species at risk of becoming extinct." This is the report where we learned about Julie MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife. The Inspector General Earl Devaney had this to say:

"Ms. MacDonald’s narrow focus on her own agenda not only endangered the Endangered Species Act, it opened the door for countless land-use decisions and developments that would have never otherwise been considered.”

Mr. Devaney also criticized several of Ms. MacDonald’s colleagues at the agency who, he said, aided and abetted “her attempts to interfere with the science” and “the unwritten policy to exclude as many areas as practicable from critical habitat determinations.”

Julie MacDonald has a degree in civil engineering and worked as a hydraulic engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation before becoming an administrator. As a civil engineer who has worked on many hydraulic engineering projects (okay, a handful of detention ponds in Lawton), I know that environmental protections are annoying to work with and seem like bureaucratic nonsense to comply with. Julie MacDonald probably took a similar mindset with her as she ascended the bureaucratic ladder. Maybe the Fish and Wildlife service should have hired more of a conservation-type rather than a developer-type to run their conservation-type program. But such is the way of upper management decisions in Bush's Interior Department.

Change can't come soon enough for this country, but the Department of the Interior is perhaps most in need of it. One hopes that Colorado Senator Ken Salazar (the most recent senate candidate who I voted for who actually won) will be up to the task.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bailout Hypocrisy from Oklahoma's Congressional Delegation

I'm against bailouts. I don't like the fact that public taxpayer-funded money could go to private companies if said private companies are huge, dying and poorly managed. But I'm warming to the auto industry bailout precisely because the final version of the bill will be dispensing loan money with tight controls, unlike the $700 billion in mostly free money with little control that the House and Senate passed in October. It's also less of a big deal because of the math involved: $19 billion is much much less than $700 billion.

But many senators and representatives don't see it that way. Here's a sampling of the hypocrisy just in Oklahoma:

Senator Tom Coburn:
The labor rates of the Big Three are out of sync with labor rates across the nation and it is unfair to ask American taxpayers to subsidize poor management decisions. The only acceptable Congressional action would be the possibility of guaranteeing loans after labor contracts are renegotiated

Senator Coburn voted yes on the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, which mandated that Americans subsidize poor management decisions.

Representative Mary Fallin:
With our deficit rising and our economy continuing to shrink, cutting every struggling company a multibillion dollar check is simply not an option. The best way to protect American taxpayers is to ask the automobile companies to work through their problems, reorganize their companies and operate by the same rules that other companies and industries have to play by.

Representative Mary Fallin voted yes on the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, which cut many multi-billion dollar checks for dozens of struggling lenders; institutions that now do not have to operate by the same rules that other companies and industries have to play by.

Representative John Sullivan:
Taxpayers should not be asked to reward failure by subsidizing the very business practices that got them into this situation in the first place. Moving forward Congress should focus on helping to rebuild a viable domestic automobile industry through market driven policies, not massive government intervention by nationalizing these companies.

Representative John Sullivan voted yes on the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, which mandated that taxpayers reward failure by subsidizing the very business practices that got lenders into this situation in the first place and created a massive government intervention by partially nationalizing certain companies.

Representative Tom Cole:
Unfortunately, another costly investment by U.S. taxpayers does not guarantee that automakers will reform the habits that caused their current spiral. In fact, a bailout may only encourage the status quo.

Representative Tom Cole voted yes on the $700 billion Wall Stret bailout, which encouraged the status quo.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Why Automaker Bailouts are Bad, Except for Maybe the One I Propose in this Post

Allow me to be the 80 millionth person to put in my two cents against the proposed U.S. automaker bailout. This is one of those issues where I strip off all my Democratic/Socialist clothes and swim in Ron Paul's kool-aid. But I'm completely in agreement with all the most curmudgeonly conservative politicians on the issue of federal bailouts. If a business is about to fail because it can't adapt to the current market, because it made poor choices in the past about how to spend its capital to yield the greatest profitability, or because it's in deeper debt than it can possibly ever pay back, the bad business should just be allowed to fail, regardless of how many people the bad business employs or what percentage of market share it has. People will find a way to replace whatever the bad business produced with something more efficient. This is capitalism doing its thing with its invisible hand. As Ron Paul said, "An essential element of a healthy free market is both success and failure must be permitted to happen when they are earned."

People give many reasons why the "Big 3" have arrived at this point where they need to beg Congress for money. The American automakers don't make cars that Americans want to buy. Reliability and quality have been demoted down from job 1 to job 347 or so. They didn't foresee how high gas prices would lower demand for their large energy-inefficient vehicles. They pay people not to work all day. They pay high health care, high wages and high pension costs because they are unionized. They have too many brands and too many dealerships to be efficient. The interest in the debt they have already accumulated is dragging down the companies. These reasons are all absolutely true. So why should the federal government hand these companies a free Christmas bonus for a job so poorly done? It's going to take some massive restructuring to turn GM and Ford around (Chrysler should just cease to exist), restructuring that can only happen under Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Delaying the Chapter 11 filing with a federal bailout is like setting $25 billion dollars ablaze, equivalent to the average annual salary of 370,000 GM employees.

There are many arguments put forth in favor of the U.S. government giving money to the automakers. Some say that going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy would cause consumers to avoid Detroit's products because of a fear that their warranty would not be upheld. I believe bankruptcy is unavoidable, but consumers don't buy cars for the warranty anyways. If they did, the Big 3 automakers would have a much larger market share than Toyota since the American automakers' warranties are usually much better than those of foreign manufacturers. In other words, people prefer buying cars that are reliably built and don't even need warranties.

Many put forth the argument that the American automakers are such a large part of our economy that their failure would be devastating (the same argument used two months ago for the financial services industry). These people also frequently use inflated employment numbers that count people who deal not only with the Big 3 but also with foreign automakers. And it assumes that all 240,000 people directly employed by American carmakers and the other million or so in businesses reliant on the Big 3 wouldn't be able to find other jobs in industries that aren't tanking. But it is true that no member of the United Auto Workers would be able to find a job with such sweet benefits, and as cushioned as their salaries and benefits are, it would still produce many undue hardships on those employees.

I may not be in favor of handing GM and Ford free money to spend however they want, but I am in favor of helping out GM and Ford tackle some of these union benefits. Okay, so here's my plan: I propose the federal government assumes responsibility for the health care benefits and pension benefits enjoyed by UAW members. Instead of asking for wage concessions from UAW, I propose that the automakers be allowed to set wages based on the market, like the foreign automakers operating in America do. I would also propose eliminating by executive fiat the state franchising fees that make it difficult to eliminate car brands and dealerships that aren't profitable, like Pontiacs, Mercuries and everything Chrysler makes. In exchange, I would raise corporate taxes on the Big 3 as well as personal income taxes on their employees in order to offset the costs of the medical care and pension benefits. If they choose to continue making vehicles that drive consumers to purchase more reliable higher quality foreign brands, the Big 3 should be allowed to fail.

Since this whole system would be inherently unfair to the hard-working foreign-owned manufacturers here in the United States, I would offer the same deal to them: health care and pension benefits in exchange for higher taxes. And then when it becomes clear that this gives an unfair advantage to employees in the auto manufacturing industry, I would extend health care coverage, pensions and higher taxes to every citizen of the U.S. Then when it would become clear that health insurance is horribly inefficient, I would urge the government to use its massive leverage to reform the health care system so that hospitals and health clinics, like schools and fire departments, are owned and managed by the government on a not-for-profit basis.

Now that's a bailout!