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April - June 2013

Survival Overload

Monkey Wrench the IRS?

Justice Roberts - Crazy Genius?

Snow(den) Job

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

   Survival Overload -  Yesterday I took my first hike of the season on nearby Mt. Elden, with my dog Scout.  Last year we were hiking to the top and back in about 3 hours, covering some 4.6 miles and 3000 feet in elevation.  I decided to take it easy on this first hike, so we did the "Fatman's Loop," which is about 3 miles long.  As we descended along this rocky trail we came to a spot where an elderly Navajo woman had slipped and fallen, apparently tumbling in the process.  I had seen her, and her companion, earlier - they had hiked up the relatively more gentle slope on the north/east side of this loop and were hiking back down the same way, avoiding the steeper part of this trail.  There are a lot of exposed boulders to hike over, and if there is some grit on them it is very easy to take a fall.  A young Latino couple that were ahead of me arrived at the accident site first and the young woman was making a 911 call.  Because the elderly woman had hit her head, it was thought to be prudent to seek some assistance; she had also banged her knee which was starting to swell.  After the call was made, I volunteered to stay with the two women awaiting help and the young couple continued on down to the trailhead, hopefully to meet up with the paramedics.

     The two women - Rose, who had fallen, and Eloise, her friend - were taking a hike after work in preparation of an upcoming hike at the Grand Canyon.  So, we chatted about the canyon and hiking.  Rose had fallen a year, or so, ago and had a metal plate in her wrist.  She had consciously avoided using her hands to stop her fall and that seemed to work out well, at least for her wrist.  We waited for about 45 minutes (5:25 pm to 6:10 pm) and decided to try and walk down the trail.  Rose had a bump on her head, but no bleeding and no problems seeing.  I lent her my hiking pole and off we went.  Within just a few minutes we came upon two paramedics from the fire department, who quickly assessed Rose's condition and then accompanied her down the trail.

     So, what is interesting about this story is what followed.  Within another 15-20 minutes we had an entourage of at least a dozen SAR folks, most from the fire department, but some were from elsewhere (I think volunteers).  They had brought a stretcher, with a wheel attached, just in case.  And, at the parking area there were two ambulances, a fire truck and at least four other vehicles associated with this group of folks.

     Why so many?  Well, clearly it is because this is mostly a government effort and allocating resources is not their strong suit.  I imagine that in a more market-friendly setting, one person, properly equipped, would make contact and then call/radio for the appropriate amount of resources to respond to the situation.  I am quite satisfied that the young woman who made the 911 call, despite repeating herself about a dozen times on every point, made clear the nature of the "emergency."  Even with some uncertainty on the other end of the call, this response sure seemed to me to be a case of "survival overload."

     I suppose one could argue that these resources are available because the situation may warrant such a response.  As such, if they aren't already doing something else, it is relatively costless to respond to this call.  And, it provides some training - the folks maneuvering the stretcher around (it had a wheel under the middle of it) on this trail treated this as an exercise of sorts.  But, then I thought about the "market" type of outcome.  This is one of the most popular trails in Flagstaff - indeed, when I arrived at 4:45 pm the parking lot was jam-packed.  Why isn't there an emergency responder in the area?  Why would you centralize these people in buildings around town when you know that this trail gets quite a number of these kinds of calls?  Even at the Grand Canyon, not known for being market-friendly, rangers generally make a late day sweep of the popular So. Kaibab and Bright Angel trails to deal with anyone having problems.  [Noting that cell phone service is unavailable as of now over most of these trails.]

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

   Monkey Wrench the IRS? -  Last week I gave a presentation to the Flagstaff Republican Women's group during their monthly luncheon.  My topic was title, "Limited Government: An Economics Perspective."  I told them that I was going to call it, "Why we need a limited government," but that such a provocative title might attract undue attention from the IRS.  Funny, and, of course, sadly true.  The IRS scandal is all over the news right now.  It centers around how they targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status for closer scrutiny.  Well, presumably.  Since the net effect was to keep these groups from achieving tax-exempt status for up to two years, maybe it wasn't about scrutiny at all.  Yesterday, there was a semi-organized series of protests at IRS offices around the country.  Maybe that will continue.  This leads me to three observations...

Can we "monkey wrench" the IRS?  I started wondering whether there was something we could do, in the spirit of non-violent protest, that would have an effect on the IRS and the politics of this.  And, I came up with an idea that would seem to fit the bill.  What if people just didn't file tax returns?  Not that we wouldn't pay our taxes, but just that we wouldn't fill out the forms.  In my case, I'd want to boost my deductions so that less tax is taken out of my paycheck since I always get a refund and I'd just as soon not give that up.  The IRS gets some 230 million returns a year.  If 10% of those dropped off, then I suspect that their prosecution of miscreants would be "taxing" to them.  And, if such a movement gained adherents over time, then it may be enough to bring down the whole mess.  Of course, then we'd have to rely on Congress to fix this mess, which is another problem.

The only way to "fix" the problem is to end the IRS.  As usual, politicians are braying about "finding out why" so that we can "fix" this problem.  I think one of the advantages of growing older is that such arguments hold absolutely no water for me.  I know from experience that government doesn't solve problems.  It doesn't fix anything.  They aren't magically going to "get things right" now that we have exposed this particular problem.  The only solution is to eliminate the IRS entirely.  But, that doesn't mean we have to eliminate taxes, although I wish it did.

A universal flat tax is a start.  How can we have taxes without an IRS?  Simply make it a flat tax.  It might be on income or it might be on purchases (i.e., a sales tax).  We could have states administer the collection on top of the tax they currently collect, noting that some states don't have income taxes and some don't have sales taxes.  Still, it would seem a relatively simple procedure.  The huge advantage is that everyone pays, giving everyone an incentive to vote for the rate that best balances our wants for government.  As I told my audience last week, it just boggles my mind that nobody seems bothered by the inherent conflict of interest when someone who doesn't pay taxes votes for an official, or a bond proposition, that will raise taxes on others.  A universal flat tax would go a long way toward remedying this conflict.

In digging around, I find that the origin of "monkey wrench" is older than I thought; I associate it with Edward Abbey.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

   Justice Roberts - Crazy Genius? -  Last year, when the Supreme Court upheld the ObamaCare legislation I was quite dismayed.  The ruling hinged on the surprising vote of the Chief Justice, John Roberts.  How could one of the staunchest of conservatives on the court agree to enforce the individual mandate?  It just went against his whole nature and character.  Indeed, at the time there were stories circulating that he was voting the other way and changed his mind at the last minute, to the enmity of others on the court.  It has also been pointed out that the various written opinions read as if the case actually went the other way.

     As the dust settled, the prevailing view that emerged was that Roberts was trying to protect the court's reputation from a political controversy that would ensue if the law was ruled unconstitutional.  Never mind that the whole purpose of this exercise is to determine the law's constitutionality; i.e., that is their whole purpose for being.   To make the Supreme Court just one more strategic piece in the game of governance/politics seemed unworthy of the Chief Justice.

     OK, that view is naive.  I get it.  The history of the Supreme Court is not one of careful and cautious decision-making by learned men and women bearing witness to their oaths to uphold the constitution of the United States.  My formal introduction to this problem goes back to a talk I heard by Robert Levy about his book, The Dirty Dozen, about which I blogged some years ago.  The Supreme Court makes bad decisions all the time.  And, to add to the problem, the list of supposedly conservative justices that waffled in their decisions, or switched sides entirely, is long.  Perhaps Roberts was just the latest example.

     Is Justice Roberts just a clone of Earl Warren, Harry Blackmun and David Souter?  I hope not.  And, with the growing list of scandals and controversies enmeshing the Obama Administration, I am starting to see some wisdom in Roberts decision.  For starters, consider what would have happened if the Supremes had overturned ObamaCare.  The left would have had a strongly dogmatic rallying cry for the 2012 election.  Mitt Romney would certainly have gotten totally creamed in the election and there is a more than 50% chance that the Dems would have retaken the House of Representatives.

     Then, during this second term, not only would we have gotten a rewritten health care reform law, ObamaCare II, but we would have gotten deluged with tons of other progressive legislation that would further erode our individual liberties, for who knows how many generations to come.  But, that didn't happen.  Obama won, but doesn't control the Congress.  With scandals falling like manna from heaven, I think that the GOP has a better than even chance to retake the Senate in 2014, and certainly will see little/no change in the House.  All because of Roberts' ruling.

     Now, some have argued that Roberts did rule with the majority in rejecting the premise that the government can force us to buy stuff.  What he did was to argue that the "individual mandate" was, in fact, a tax.  [Never mind that the Obama Administration vehemently rejected this idea!!]  That notion rang more than a little hollow to me, as it seems that the government can do absolutely anything it wants as long as it calls it a tax.  Maybe that makes it harder for the government to do things, but I'm not holding my breath on that one.

     Which brings us back to the current political situation.  The IRS scandals have a lot of folks reluctant to give enforcement powers to them for ObamaCare.  The mini-scandal of the Secretary of HHS soliciting funds to promote ObamaCare from firms that she regulates is likely to grow.  And, the plan is so overwhelmingly complex that even those that championed this legislation now say it is headed for disaster.

     Taking a step back, can we see that ObamaCare just couldn't be sustained?  The way in which it was constructed shoved implementation off into the future (which we are fast approaching), thus staving off criticisms that it wouldn't work.  Instead, we were arguing about whether it should be done, not about whether it could be done.  Now we are beginning to see that it cannot be done.  Did Justice Roberts see this last year?  Did he reason that upholding this controversial legislation on narrow tax grounds was the best way to kill it?  Did he recognize that this awful policy had to fail in the political arena and not in the judicial one?  Is Chief Justice Roberts a crazy genius?  Hmm ...

Thursday, June 27, 2013

   Snow(den) Job - I just happened to catch Dick Cheney on Chris Wallace's Fox Sunday show a couple of weeks ago and I just cringed.  He said that Edward Snowden, leaker of NSA secrets, was a traitor.  As a general rule I like Cheney.  But, on this score he was absolutely out in left field, or right field, depending on your tastes and preferences.

     So far as I can tell, Snowden hasn't really said anything that we didn't already know or suspect.  And, certainly, nothing new that our adversaries didn't know or suspect.  What's the big deal?  The Guardian reports that the NSA (National Security Agency) holds phone records for possible use in later investigations.  I am opposed but I am not shocked.  Does anyone besides me watch 24, or Person of Interest?  I pretty much assume that the capabilities depicted on those shows are being used by every government.

     But, this story baffles me.  I hear General Alexander, director of the NSA, claim that Snowden's leaking has compromised our security and endangered American lives.  How?  Nobody seems willing to explain this point.  Perhaps it would reveal too much to actually prove this.  Anyway, I'm not buying it.  We have heard that Snowden took off with loads of documents.  So far, it isn't clear that anyone has seen them.  Maybe the reporter for The Guardian, but even then it is unlikely that he has copies.  We got the news of the NSA spying in early June and Snowden was revealed about a week later.  It strikes me that the NSA had plenty of time to figure out what happened, how serious it was and take steps to prevent exactly what they claim is the result.  That is, for example, if Snowden knew of a safe house in Istanbul (which seems doubtful), then shouldn't the NSA have already shut it down?

     And, what exactly does Snowden know?  His claim, made in the famous interview, that he could listen in on anyone's phone calls, or monitor their computer usage (and read their e-mails, I think), has been denied by General Alexander.  Well, if Snowden can't do those things - or, couldn't do them in his job - then why all the fuss?  Is Snowden claiming he has more information than he really does?  Of course, right now most people seem to be believing Snowden and think that our public officials are just lying to us, or as James Clapper said, telling us what is the "least untruthful."

     I have three scenarios that might be playing out here, at least until I learn something new:

Snowden doesn't know very much.  Everyone seems surprised to learn that Snowden had such wide-ranging access to secret material given his sparse background.  So, maybe he didn't.  Maybe he just knew some of the broad outlines and then puffed up the story to help get him some attention in this matter.

Snowden is playing out an NSA long game.  Ala John le Carre and his fictional spy George Smiley. Maybe Snowden is just doing the rounds, plying his so-called secrets to see who will bite and by how much.  As I've mentioned, there can't be anything that we have learned that is news to foreign intelligence agencies.  And, some have puzzled over his leaving a well-paying job, in Hawaii, with a beautiful girlfriend.  The prospect of spending the rest of his life in Cuba, or Ecuador, or Venezuela seems like a poor alternative.

Does Snowden really exist?  I started to realize that we suddenly knew a great deal about very little.  Virtually every photo we see of Snowden is from the interview.  He can't be found in Hong Kong.  He was missed, as best as I can tell, on his route to Moscow.  And, then there was the famous empty seat on the plane bound for Cuba.  His father spoke to Eric Bolling on Fox, if that really was his father.  We haven't heard from the girlfriend, except for some Facebook postings.  While I was searching for more on this, I came across a nicely-written commentary on this point on the Washington Post blog site.  Although a bit tongue-in-cheek, it is an interesting notion.  The question is, "Why?"  The conspiracy theory inside me says that the reason is to raise the level of uncertainty among our adversaries about what our intelligence capabilities actually can do.  That is, if low-level analyst Snowden found these secrets, just think of all the secrets he didn't find!  Well, it will be cool to see the movie - I'm rooting for Brad Pitt in the starring role, despite the age difference.

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