Monday, February 25, 2013

Opaque Transparency in Oklahoma State Government

I receive a regular email from a service that monitors the Oklahoma state legislature.  Reading a list of bills recently passed by committee, I noticed something called the Transparency Accountability and Innovation in Oklahoma State Government 2.0 Act of 2013.  It is HB1003, introduced by Representative Murphey.  I looked it up on the legislature's Bill Information site and found this bill summary:

 HB 1003, as introduced, creates the Transparency, Accountability and Innovation in Oklahoma State Government 2.0 Act of 2013 and is a shell bill.
 It turns out that this is a pretty detailed summary, since the full text of the bill is as follows:

SECTION 1.     NEW LAW     A new section of law not to be
codified in the Oklahoma Statutes reads as follows: 
This act shall be known and may be cited as the “Transparency,
Accountability and Innovation in Oklahoma State Government 2.0 Act
of 2013”. 
SECTION 2.  This act shall become effective November 1, 2013.
When the bill summary refers to HB1003 as a "shell bill," it means that the guts will be added at a later time.  Often, the majority party will use this technique to avoid public scrutiny.  There will be a shell bill that will just sit until near the end of the legislative session, when the contents will be added and the bill will be quickly and quietly passed.  Sometimes, the added contents have little or no relation to the original title of the shell bill.

It does not appear that this is what is happening with HB1003.  The contents have already been filled in by amendment and this was done prior to the bill being approved in committee.  As amended, the bill does not appear to be anything sinister.  But I still found it amusing that a bill with "Transparency . . . in Oklahoma State Government" in its title starts out as a shell bill that offers no clues as to its true purpose.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

First Amendment Right to Trespass?

The Seattle Times reports on a recent decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a Seattle city ordinance violates the free speech rights of the publishers of yellow pages phone books.  The ordinance created an opt-out registry that permits city residents to opt out of having phone books dumped on their porch.  The phone book companies went to court to fight for the right to continue to go onto other people's private property and dump unwanted phone books.  The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the trespassers, finding that such conduct is protected by the First Amendment.

Why do phone book companies want to go to the expense of printing and delivering phone books to people who don't want them, you might ask.  The article does not address this, but my guess is that it because the ad reps need to be able to brag to potential suckers clients that x-number of phone books get distributed each year and therefore their ads will be seen by x-number of people.  The phone book companies couldn't care less whether the phone books are ever opened, so long as they get "distributed."

Bartlesville's local newspaper, the Examiner-Enterprise, puts out a free edition called the Hometown Shopper.  It contains a few news articles from the regular edition, but is mostly stuffed with ads and circulars.  One copy of each edition of the Shopper gets tossed into the yard of every residence in town.  People learned long ago that the paper contains nothing but junk, so no one other than deranged hermits and OCD paper-stackers ever bother to remove the rubber-band.  The papers go straight from the yard to the trash bin.

Actually, that's the best case scenario.  Often, the Shoppers don't even get picked up, so they lay where they were tossed for weeks and months, slowly rotting away, until they get sucked into a mower and become Shopper confetti.  I've seen yards with as many as seven Shoppers.  You might think that the litterer paper-boy would notice this accumulating pile of rolled-up sog-logs and conclude, "These people must not want their free Shopper.  Maybe I should stop delivering them."  But no.  For the same reason that phone books will continue to be delivered in Seattle, the Shopper will continue to be delivered in Bartlesville -- the number of monthly deliveries, not readership, is what counts.

The Examiner-Enterprise has a "Readers' Roundtable" on its editorial page and claims to publish all letters received from readers.  I put this boast to the test by writing a letter to the editor, complaining of the Shoppers that are littering our streets and yards, becoming a general nuisance to our community.  I advised any potential advertisers to not fall for any sales pitch from the ad reps talking about how many copies of each issue of the Shopper get delivered each month, but to look around and see how many are unopened and rotting.  Guess what?  The newspaper decided to make an exception to their policy of publishing all letters.  Mine never appeared.  Despite my request that the Shopper no longer be tossed into my yard, the litter continues.

I have been tempted to file a police report, but now it seems that the law is on the side of the litter-bugs, at least according to the Court of Appeals.  I could not find the decision to read for myself, so I do not know the reasoning of the majority, but I doubt that I will ever be convinced that a private business or anyone else has a First Amendment right to come onto my property to give me something I've told them I don't want.  Can I now toss my garbage (which will no doubt include water-soaked Shoppers) in the yard of the publisher of the Examiner-Enterprise and call it freedom of expression?  Many municipalities have ordinances that ban door-to-door salesmen.  Isn't that also free speech?  Some municipalities, including Seattle, I believe, have ordinances that prohibit vegetable gardens in front yards.  Someone please explain to me how a city can tell me I can't grow tomatoes in my yard, but that same city can't prevent other people from littering my yard with advertising circulars?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Robert Wright Signs Off

I don't regularly read Robert Wright, so I was ambivalent when I saw his final column, "singing off" from The Atlantic, bu buried within his ponderous goodbye were some wise observations that deserve repeating:

I'd like to quickly articulate three beliefs of mine that I rarely articulated this year, but that informed much of what I wrote, especially in the realm of foreign policy. 
[1] The world's biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups--i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of "the other." I'm not talking about empathy in the sense of literally sharing people's emotions--feeling their pain, etc. I'm just talking about the ability to comprehend and appreciate the perspective of the other. So, for Americans, that might mean grasping that if you lived in a country occupied by American troops, or visited by American drone strikes, you might not share the assumption of many Americans that these deployments of force are well-intentioned and for the greater good. You might even get bitterly resentful. You might even start hating America. 
[2] Grass-roots hatred is a much greater threat to the United States--and to nations in general, and hence to world peace and stability--than it used to be. The reasons are in large part technological, and there are two main manifestations: (1) technology has made it easier for grass-roots hatred to morph into the organized deployment (by non-state actors) of massively lethal force; (2) technology has eroded authoritarian power, rendering governments more responsive to popular will, hence making their policies more reflective of grass roots sentiment in their countries. The upshot of these two factors is that public sentiment toward America abroad matters much more (to America's national security) than it did a few decades ago. 
[3] If the United States doesn't use its inevitably fading dominance to build a world in which the rule of law is respected, and in which global norms are strong, the United States (and the world) will suffer for it. So when, for example, we do things to other nations that we ourselves have defined as acts of war (like cybersabotage), that is not, in the long run, making us or our allies safer. The same goes for when we invade countries, or bomb them, in clear violation of international law. And at some point we have to get serious about building a truly comprehensive nuclear nonproliferation regime--one that we expect our friends, not just our enemies, to be members-in-good-standing of.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Postal Service says it's immune from local traffic laws

A government lawyer’s attempt to get dismissed nearly $700 in traffic tickets given to the U.S. Postal Service is being met with a hearty and humorous, Heck no. 
In a Jan. 22 letter sent to both the city of East Cleveland, Ohio, and the company that operates the city's photo-enforcement program, Postal Service attorney Jennifer S. Breslin says two school-zone speeding citations and five red-light infractions by postal trucks in December should be ignored. 
“In providing mail service across the country, the Postal Service attempts to work within local and state laws and regulations, when feasible,” wrote Breslin, after reminding “To Whom It May Concern” that postal workers promptly deliver over 200 billion pieces of mail annually.
“However, as you are probably aware, the Postal Service enjoys federal immunity from state and local regulation,” she continued.
That last bit did not go over well with American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the Arizona-based company that enforces East Cleveland’s camera citations. 
“By attempting to hide behind an immunity claim, you are aiding and abetting your drivers in their blatant disregard for the traffic laws in East Cleveland, which have endangered other drivers, pedestrians and school children,” ATS attorney George Hittner wrote in his three-page response to Breslin, who received it on Thursday. (He also cc'd the postmaster general, two U.S. representatives and two senators.)
Read the rest of the article here.

The response to the imperious letter from the Postal lawyer is enjoyable, but I would appreciate it more if it was not coming from a private company.  Something is askew when local government not only contracts out the enforcement of traffic laws to a corporation, but also relies upon that corporation to defend its own sovereignty.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Q&A with Congressman Bridenstine

Last night, Congressman Jim Bridenstine conducted a town hall meeting at Wesleyan University in Bartlesville.  Before it started, question cards were handed out to everyone who wanted one.  A member of Bridenstine’s staff assured the audience that every submitted question would be answered;  if the one-hour time allotted for the meeting proved to be insufficient, then all remaining questions would be answered by email.  Fortunately, the congressman was able to get to all the questions.  (No rebuttals or follow-ups from the questioners were permitted.)  

I commend Congressman Bridenstine for conducting the town hall meeting and for beginning it with a thorough, straight-forward explanation of all the votes he has cast in the House.  I also appreciate his commitment to answer any and all questions.  However, I was not satisfied with the answer he gave to the question that I submitted.  Since no rebuttal was allowed, I will make it here.  (If I’m lucky, it will at least be read by my wife.)

Here is my question:

Why fear the sequester?  It is the only realistic chance we have of getting spending cuts.  Republicans seem to fear cuts to defense, but even after the sequester, the U.S. will be spending more on defense than the next 10 countries combined.  Shouldn’t defense spending be cut along with everything else?

Well before my question was read aloud by a member of his staff, Congressman Bridenstine, without prompting, had already addressed the topic of sequestration and made it very clear that he opposes it precisely because it includes cuts to defense.  He claimed:

  1. According to Defense Sec. Leon Panetta, the cuts “will hollow out the military.”
  2. According to Sen. Inhofe, more than 26,000 workers in Oklahoma will have to be furloughed as a result of the cuts in defense spending mandated by the sequester.
  3. Bridenstine’s own carrier crew – he loves talking about his carrier crew -- has already had to reduce drug interdiction flights because of the spending cuts.
  4. “Our national security is being compromised at this very minute” because of the cuts.
  5. The U.S. is 24th in the world when it comes to defense spending.  He then clarified that this is based upon percentage of GDP.

Before we even get to the answer to my question, some fact-checking is in order.  The “sequestration” refers to a triggered reduction of expenditures mandated by the Budget Control Act, should the House and Senate fail to agree upon an alternative plan for reducing the annual deficit.  The reduction of expenditures is to be $1.2 trillion OVER TEN YEARS.  (Despite the wailing over this "draconian" measure, it actually does very little to control the debt.  That's how bad things have gotten.)  Of that, $216 billion will come from assumed debt service savings, so we are really talking about $984 billion in cuts. Of the $984 billion in cuts, $492 billion will be defense cuts and the other $492 will be non-defense cuts.

That means that on average, the Defense Department will have to make do with $49.2 billion a year less than it would have otherwise received.  So does this constitute a “hollowing out of the military”?  For 2012, the budget for the DoD was $530.6 billion, up from $528.2 billion for 2011.  Oh, but that does not include spending on the undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  (War costs are treated as a separate category of spending, as if war is not within the mission of the DoD.)  If you include war spending, then the budget for 2011 was around $700 billion.  So that means that a $49.2 billion cut would be a 7% reduction.  "The Pentagon will still be spending more in 2013 after sequestration than it did in 2006, at the height of the Iraq war," noted Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant defense secretary under President Reagan.

Consider some other comparisons.  Over 10 years, under sequestration, defense increases 18 percent (vs. 20 percent without sequestration).  In nominal terms, cumulative nonwar defense spending over the FY2012-FY2021 period will increase to $4.8 trillion with sequestration, as opposed to $5.3 trillion without it. Notice this is "nonwar" spending.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, over the same period, the Department of Defense will also spend an additional $400 billion on war. (How much would it be if we didn't have a Nobel peace prize-winner as president?)

Even if we exclude war spending, defense spending has almost doubled over the past decade.  As you can see from the above chart, the sequestration will result in a slight dip before the upward trajectory resumes.  This is not a "hollowing out" of our military.

As for Congressman Bridenstine's claim that defense cuts are already compromising our national security, I would challenge him to identify these "cuts."  Separate and apart from the sequestration, the Budget Control Act called for spending caps that have already gone into effect, but these are caps on the rate of increase.  Even with the caps in place, the DoD budget continues to grow at the rate of inflation.  This means there have been "cuts" only in the government weasel language of D.C., where a reduction in the rate of increase is called a "cut." Please tell me Congressman Bridenstine hasn't adopted the lingo of the appropriators in his first month in office.

 As for Sen. Inhofe's assertion that sequestration will result in 26,000 furloughs in Oklahoma, this is a number he pulled out of the air, or it was fed to him by DoD folks who are in crisis mode, cranking out as many scary scenarios as they can.  Furloughs have become the weapons of mass destruction of the budget debate.    The prediction assumes there is no fat to be cut at DoD.  Maybe Sen. Inhofe needs to read Sen. Coburn's report on waste in the Defense Department.

Even if the sequester results in a large number of furloughs, or even terminations, this not an argument against the sequester.  The Defense Department's mission is to defend the nation -- not to employ the nation.

Congressman Bridenstine's assertion that 23 other countries spend more on defense was the biggest canard of the night.  First, it should be noted that he's using percentage of GDP as his measurement.  Why that is a relevant measurement was not explained.  I guess one could argue that the more stuff you have, the more need you have for protection -- people in mansions have high fences and security systems.  But does that really extend to a nation state?  Do we need to double defense spending every time our GDP doubles?  Our GDP decreased, last quarter, so does that mean defense spending should go down?

Also, it should be noted once again that we are talking about nonwar defense spending.  We must be, otherwise I have no idea where Bridenstine is getting his figures.  Here is Wikipedia's listing of military budgets by country.  The number for the U.S. includes war spending, resulting in a figure of 4.7% of GDP.  You can see that only about 7 other countries have a higher percentage.  Among these countries are Israel (whose spending includes billions of dollars that the U.S. gives to them), Oman, and Eritrea.  Should we feel vulnerable because any of these countries spend a greater percentage of their GDP on their military than does the U.S.?

It should also be noted that the numbers for the U.S. include only the money flowing to DoD.  There are other billions of dollars that get spent on "defense" but do not flow through DoD, so they don't get counted.  I'm thinking of veteran affairs, intelligence gathering, and the Department of Energy's overseeing of our nuclear weapons stockpile.

Now consider actual dollars.  Look again at the Wikipedia page, or look at this chart:

The U.S. spends 41% of the world's total.  My question to Congressman Bridenstine was premised upon the assertion that the U.S. spends more than the next 10 countries combined, but it is much worse than that. U.S. military spending is three times larger than the combined spending of NATO’s other 27 members.  Just who is it that we are frightened of?  Maybe it is time to recognize that no other foreign country or alliance can pose a serious military threat to the U.S.  Today, true danger lies elsewhere.

Now for Congressman Bridenstines' answer to my question . . .

He conceded that there is room to make cuts to military spending, pointing out that the military is inefficient and wasteful just like all other segments of the government.  (This was inconsistent with all of his other rhetoric up until this point.)  But he went on to say that he opposes sequestration because "it cuts defense singularilly [sic]."  Of course, this just isn't so.  It is true that a disproportionate amount of the cuts will hit defense, but certainly not all.  Half the cuts will be to defense spending and half will be to non-defense spending.  Maybe the congressman was simply exaggerating in his speech.  In any event, I took his reasoning to be an insincere prop for his position.  If cuts to non-defense spending were to be increased so as to make the percentage cuts to defense more proportional, I'm sure he would still be opposed, based upon his earlier statements.

The "peace dividend" we were promised at the end of the Cold War proved to be elusive.  Now, despite President Obama's constant bragging about "winding down two wars," military spending must still go up and up.  Anything less, it seems, would be "hollowing out" our military.

(Maybe it's a good policy for Bridenstine to not allow rebuttals or follow-up questions.  I doubt that I would have been able to get in all of the above.)