Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Two Very Different "Men of the Year" and How They Define Our Times

The US magazine Time and the UK newspaper the Times both selected very different men of the year for 2013.  Each reflects ascendant spirits with very different worldviews.

Time magazine chose Pope Francis.  The Times selected Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In some ways, this is amazingly Augustinian.  St. Augustine wrote of the division between the City of Man and the City of God.    Vladimir Putin has emerged as a near czar of an expanding informal Russian Empire.  He follows the early 19th century British model of using economics to influence and profit from other nations. But he also follows a very Russian path of controlling border nations to keep the homeland secure.  In this way, Third Rome very much resembles the first.

Pope Francis, known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio before March 13, has emerged as a Catholic Father for his times.  The Cold War needed, for example, the iron tough, theologically sound, and eternally compassionate Pope John Paul II.  No pope since the Middle Ages had the impact of the man Catholics and many other Christians call "John Paul the Great" (a moniker not bestowed on a Pope since the 600s.)  His leadership made the Roman Catholic Church a mighty fortress again, regaining credibility and luster after the tragic World War II years.

The 21st Century, however, challenges Christianity in a different way.  Many are lost and want to be found.  While the Church certainly will not abandon doctrine, Francis has pointedly emphasized love, forgiveness, and compassion for the vulnerable.  This may not look like power, but it works effectively in contrast.  John Paul II's expression of these sentiments helped the Polish Pope bring down the Eastern Bloc.  Francis' message will thrive in places such as Cuba, where Communism lost credibility years ago.  Or Africa where Christians face determined Islamic expansionists.  The Christian faith at its core remains the simplest and most profound way to make sense of man's place in the world.  Pope Francis, agree or disagree with the details of some of his pronouncements, is a powerful ambassador of faith.  He senses that the world is changing and seeks to adapt Catholic teaching to it without abandoning fundamental foundations of faith.

Power matters to Putin, too.  He has gradually absorbed Belarus, convincing that impoverished republic to cede sovereign right after sovereign right.  Before Christmas, he offered a bailout to corrupt and struggling Ukraine.  Historically Belarus is "White Russia," Russia proper is "Great Russia," and Ukraine is "Little Russia."  Ukraine, however, is where Russia began.  Russian nationalism craves respect and seeks to ground its actions in tradition and history.  Putin's slow moves westward reflect these old habits.

But how well grounded is that power?  Russia has relied heavily on natural gas revenues to fund its return to world prominence.  The United States, however, as reported by the Washington Free Beacon, could undermine Putin's plans.  As West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Texas sprout gas wells that rely on cheap hydrofracturing techniques, they threaten to undercut Russian dominance of this market in the Eastern Hemisphere.  In the same way that late 20th century Middle Eastern oil was cheaper for Americans to buy abroad than produce at home, so US gas undermines Russia and depresses prices in the entire gas market.

Unless Russia can diversify or convince Obama to shut off the tap, the moment in the sun carved out by Putin for Russia could be brief.

Putin's hard nosed domestic approach runs counter to Francis' preaching as well.  The Russian president is essentially conservative in the European sense (not, I repeat, not the American. Or the British, for that matter.)  European conservatives emphasize order above liberty.  They prefer control and predictability in both domestic and international affairs.  Russia particularly has feared the advance of uncontrolled social movements regardless of whether they were ruled by the czar or the Politboro.

These two men both qualify as "Man of the Year" for different reasons.  And there is no reason to think that their influence and appeal will diminish in the next 12 months.  What should be troubling for the United States is that neither figure needs to account for America in any way in terms of his ideals, values, or morality. We are no longer a major part of their conversation.  Whether one sees the US as a powerful example of a Judeo-Christian republic or a force for liberty and natural rights, the demise of America under Obama is underscored by the emergence of these men.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Michigan the Latest to Chip Away At Federal Supremacy

Last week while most continued to enjoy Christmas with family and friends, the Michigan state legislature enacted significant legislation.  It nullified part of an act of Congress.

Michigan targeted section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act which provided for indefinite detention of US citizens.  Governor Rick Snyder, while signing the legislation, noted that even a warrant for detention could not be enforced in Michigan.  Supporters say that the Michigan legislation reaffirms both 5th Amendment rights of due process and 10th Amendment protections of state sovereignty.

This follows on the heels of a South Carolina bill annulling Obamacare within that state.  It passed major hurdles this month and is expected to land on Governor Nikki Haley's desk in January.  There is no doubt that she will sign the legislation.

Nullification has returned from the history books into the undercurrent of state politics.  The doctrine originated with arch slavery defender John C. Calhoun, but was applied to a destructive tariff in the 1830s. Northerners resurrected the ideal while searching for ways to strike down the notorious Fugitive Slave Act in the 1850s.

It was never stricken down by any court of law or force of arms.  Congressional action repealing the Tariff of Abominations in the 1830s placated South Carolina, which suspended the nullification acts.

The main obstacle to nullification lies in the Supreme Court case of McCullough v. Maryland.  This case placed broad limits on the authority of well-established state governments to curtail the actions of weak federal agencies.  After 200 years of federal growth and state weakening, cases arising from nullification acts may be vital to defining down this landmark ruling and carving out a stronger state position.

Acts of nullification generally attack federal authority assumed under the commerce clause. This covers anti-drug actions, the Environmental Protection Agency, and almost any other regulatory part of the Executive Branch. The Constitution states that Congress has the power to regulate interstate commerce and has adopted the broadest possible interpretation of it.  Defining down this interpretation is also essential.

The year 2014 will start off with debt crises, foreign crises, and presidential speculation.  Coming up fast, however, is the showdown between federal and state power.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Inspector General's Report At Department of Justice Mimics Libertarian and Conservative Concerns

Above the Law recently summarized a report by the inspector general of the Department of Justice.  The conclusions reached sound like they came from the pages of Reason and other outlets.

It notes that every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar not spent on enforcement and prevention efforts.  It quotes the assistant attorney general who called prison costs "unsustainable."  In addition to Above the Law's analysis, it is interesting to find the opportunity cost argument used by the government.  Perhaps the sequester made some agencies realize that even a federal budget is finite.

Part of the prison cost will require some rethinking.  The writer explains that quite a few prisoners of means live in cells on the taxpayers' dime well into old age.  Could other options be available for non violent felons besides prison, at least in these circumstances.

The American Bar Association warned in 1998 that overfederalization "strains the fabric of the federal and state system."  It also noted that "there are powerful reasons for the fundamental limitations on federal criminal law."  General police power over day to day crime, according to constitutional law, is better left under the control of the states.  State courts can lose their importance, while federal courts become overburdened.  The ABA cites a number of other hazards of putting more police power in the hands of the federal government.

The inspector general warns that these chickens have come home to roost.  The federal government now can prosecute over 4,000 criminal offenses in federal law.  Add to that 10-100,000 possible federal regulations that could carry federal criminal penalties.  Moving back to state prosecutions of criminal law can "alleviate the budget crisis posed by the federal prison system."

Reevaluating federal prosecution of criminal law is the first step.  Next comes rethinking the mindset that allowed and encouraged this overreach in the first place.  An unrestrained federal leviathan is rampaging through our society.  Curbing the law enforcement prerogatives of this beast is one step toward restoring the proper proportion of power.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Six Fictional Characters From the Mountain State

1.  Clarice Starling

This is one of the most compelling West Virginia born characters ever created.  In Silence of the Lambs her country origins emerge as a powerful part of her anxieties about dealing with superiors and the FBI world itself.  ATF ranked her as the sixth best protagonist in the last hundred years of film.

Her accent was a little off, but Foster was extremely convincing as a West Virginia native character.  her defining role.

2.  Aunt Bee

Francis Bavier had few other roles that anyone today would remember.  But she did get to portray one of American culture's most iconic characters.  The Andy Griffith Show's Aunt Bee was the perfect example of small town grandmotherly love and concern.  In real life, it has been said that she was a little more wild than the kindly woman seen on TV.  On the show, she hailed from Morgantown.  This was the actual hometown of co-star Don Knotts.

3. Harry Powell

This is one of the most disturbing characters to ever make it to the big screen.  Much of the credit goes to Robert Mitchum's portrayal of the dangerous con man/preacher in Night of the Hunter.

Love tattooed on one hand, hate on the other.  Powell seduces a widow on the chance of finding an ill gotten $10,000.  When she discovers the ruse, he kills her.

The plot only gets more diabolical from here.

4.  Connie Mills

The Connie Mills character from The Mothman Prophecies is a breath of fresh air for West Virginia film fans.  She is professional, strong, intelligent, attractive, yet down to earth.  She seems at home in the fake Point Pleasant seen in the film.

5.  Ray Gillette

This is one of the most interesting and hilarious characters ever drawn from West Virginia that manages to not be used to abuse the state.  In the FX show Archer, Ray Gillette is an openly gay field agent.

His backstory includes Olympic gold medals, experience as a Marshall University cheerleader, and former preacher.  The episode "Bloody Ferlin" shows him going home to save his brother from a corrupt sheriff, or so he thinks.  "Ferlin" is set in southern West Virginia and manages to be somewhat accurate wirthout being openly insulting.

The Gillette character and the Ferlin portrayal definitely lead you to think that there is or are West Virginia natives working on this show.

6.  Jennifer Elizabeth Marlowe

Jennifer Elizabeth Marlowe, the beautiful blonde played by Loni Anderson (pre Burt Reynolds) was a smackdown to a slew of stereotypes, not just West Virginians.  She is the receptionist at a struggling Cincinnati radio station called WKRP, but happens to be the smartest one of the bunch.  She uses her charms to attract wealthy older men's attention and money.  One never sees them, but their costly gifts generally show up in the lobby.  After years of West Virginia hicks and ditzy blond bombshells, her character was pretty well drawn.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ukraine Continues Tilt Toward Russia

In the Middle Ages, Kiev served as the capital of Russia.  Now it serves independent Ukraine in that capacity.  Over time, Russia and Ukraine separated culturally, linguistically, and nationally.  Now Kiev once again looks to Russia for leadership and support.

Ukraine in terms of size is about the size of Texas or France.  Next to the North American Great Plains, its soil potentially can produce more than any region on Earth.  Its 45 million people live in a state of chronic underdevelopment.  The nation suffers from severe corruption and holds the fifth lowest international credit rating.

Twenty years of independence from the old Soviet Union brought disastrously bad government to a nation with energy reserves, a seaport, and food production capacity that could easily provide for a continent.

Ukraine naturally shied away from Russia at first.  Russia dominated the old Soviet Union which in turn terrorized Ukraine.  Stalin ripped away from the land tens of millions of innocent farmers and others.  Over the USSR's entire history, Ukrainian language and culture were stifled.

Ties to Europe and the United States grew.  Ukraine wanted to participate in institutions such as the European Union and NATO.  Economic instability in the past several years has made help from the EU come with conditions.  These include applying to the IMF and signing a free trade agreement.

Full free trade with Europe would help Ukraine develop itself.  It can cheaply produce enough food to sell to all of Europe.  France, Germany, and other countries, however, continue to cling to agricultural subsidies.  For Ukraine to get ahead, it needs to be able to exploit its competitive advantages in land and cheap labor.  A free trade pact would merely open the door to European manufactures without helping Ukraine develop its agricultural sector.  Some in the United States have floated the idea of a bailout, but with the US and the EU experiencing their own debt crises, this will not happen.

Enter Vladimir Putin and Russia.

Putin seems to have figured out what Britain learned after the American Revolution.  Gain influence over an independent nation's economy and get the benefits of colonialism without the costs of administration.  Britain, the United States, Japan, and others have all adopted that lesson at some point after hard lessons learned about war, conquest, and colonialism.

Russia has extended its hand to Ukraine, offering a trade deal and other forms of assistance.  This will tie Ukraine more strongly to the nation that served as its overlord during Czarist and Soviet times.

Many in Ukraine see this as too risky.  Thousands have rioted in protest against rising Russian influence.  Russian ties to Belarus have resulted in the near merger of the two states.  This will likely not change Ukraine's official position.

Putin will continue to channel efforts into building an informal empire dependent on Moscow.  This is a less risky strategy than China's new belligerence in the Far East, but it is no less important.

As for Ukraine, its potential remains untapped.  But a country the size of France with oil, gas, and food capability is not a forgettable part of the world's balance of influence.

The EPA's War On Common Sense

I rarely post something in the first person, but sometimes it's needed.

A couple of days ago, I was warming up my wife's car.  I didn't check the gas when I started the car and it ran out.  I figured, no problem, I'll just go get a gas can, get a gallon of gas, then put it in, right?

I go to the store and buy a gas can.  They are a lot more expensive than they used to be, but I chalked it up to inflation.  Then I get to the gas station and open it up.  It looks like some kind of system that belongs on the space shuttle, I mean, that used to belong on the space shuttle when we used such things.  I put the gallon in anyway.

When I got home, I tried using the can.  The nozzle system was more complicated than I ever dreamed and all I accomplished was spilling about a pint of gasoline onto the ground.

At this point, I figured out that this must be the EPA's fault.  The private sector is best known for selling products that are easy to use and get easier over time.  The gas can used to be simple, a nozzle and a vent in the back.  It operated on the same principle as canned juice.  Open both ends for a smooth and easy pour.

Now it works on impossible to discern engineering principles.  As sure as I had just ruined my leather gloves by accidentally spilling gasoline all over the place, I smelled an EPA rat here.

Sure enough, I was right.  Long story short, the EPA forced mind numbing, California originating, standards on gas cans to do what?  Prevent spillage.  Apparently, all over the country, people are spilling gas from these stupid things.  I spilled more gas with the new can than in 40 years of life combined.

They also have a tendency to inflate in hot weather and rupture, spewing gas everywhere.  Why?  They are airtight.

And I still couldn't get gas in my car.  But my daughter came to the rescue.  She and her friends had run out of gas months before.  They also couldn't work the gas can, so they came up with a good solution.

Cut the bottom off of a water bottle and get a coat hanger.  Use the upside down bottle as a funnel while the coat hanger opens the tank.  Take the entire nozzle apparatus off the can and pour the gas out directly.  No muss, no fuss.  And try to find a safe place to dispose of the bottle and hanger.

Or, figure out where racing teams buy their gas cans.  They still use the old style.

Thanks EPA.  One more thing that you have done to make everyone's life a little more frustrating.  Now I will have to remember you more often than when my low flow toilet backs up.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Columnist From DC Paper For the Homeless Blasts "Partisans of the Left", Promotes Free Market

The Republican Party and many conservative groups have shied away from inner cities in the past.  Collectively, they may see little point in confronting what they feel will be universal hostility.  As individuals, few want to go to speak at events where they may be derided for the duration.

Are either one of these fears based in reality?  One DC columnists' writings suggest not.

Jeffrey McNeill writes an opinion column for Washington DC's Street Sense.  Through much of 2013, his work shows growing affinity for free markets while feeling disgust and disdain for "partisans of the left."

McNeill's most recent column, "A Critique of Liberalism," begins by citing studies showing black Americans to be more socially conservative than many Tea Party advocates.  "Truth is," he writes, "a conservative vein runs deep in the black community."  McNeill condemns what he calls "victim rhetoric" and explains "as a minority, I yearn for a new black leader to emerge, someone who will inspire a new generation . . . to be independent and self-reliant."

He then cites Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and West Virginia's Booker T. Washington as examples.

"Latte liberals" draw much of his ire.  McNeil describes them as standing up for the little guy until they "go off to their suburban homes pontificating about what others might do for humanity."  Their "social theories border on arrogance."

McNeill discusses his own struggles with how these ideas brought him into conflict "with those I once agreed with."  A summer 2012 piece of his angrily decried anti-Obama conservatives as racist.  While McNeill refuses to call himself conservative, he does call free enterprise "harsh and cruel (but) it is the ticket out of poverty."

The Republican Party and conservative groups would do well to closely look at McNeill's writings.  He came from "some of the worst projects" in New Jersey and Philadelphia, but saw "miracles" such as single mothers, addicts, and others getting off welfare, overcoming obstacles, educating themselves, and becoming successful in life.

A message of self-reliance never falls on deaf ears.  Many people strive to do for themselves.  The inner cities are oppressed by poverty in part because government restrictions, regulations, taxes, fees, and other burdens always kill entrepreneurial initiative in the poorest areas.  Prosperity cannot take root so hope dies. Free market advocates can bring a powerful message to the inner city if they will but go.  McNeill's writings are proof that many will listen.

Street Sense is a newspaper published in Washington DC for the benefit of the homeless.  Vendors write for and sell the paper to earn money.  All are homeless and struggling.

West Virginia's Sole Obamacare Provider Has 1/20th Expected Participation Rate

Is Obamacare collapsing?  West Virginia may be a part of its demise.

The state's Democratically dominated executive and legislative branches enthusiastically signed on for the Obamacare exchange plan.  Only one provider, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, is available.

West Virginia Metro News reports that only 1,200 of the expected 20-25,000 participants have been registered.  They also have concerns that not enough healthy and young people are interested in the program.

Obamacare's success hinges on young people paying out more and using less care.  Many have chosen to take the tax penalty rather than pay for insurance they do not think they will need.

Some conservatives fear that Obamacare collapse was not only predictable, but planned. They believe that the ultimate goal is a nationalized health care system with mediocre care for the masses and high quality only available for those who can pay in cash. It is unlikely, however, that voters will trust the same people who bungled Obamacare to make further drastic changes.

House Republicans have offered to meet with the president to discuss solutions, according to The Hill.  The White House has, thus far, brushed them off.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

West Virginia Citizens' Defense League Releases First Round of Candidate grades.

The West Virginia Citizens' Defense League, a group dedicated to fighting for Second Amendment rights, released its grades of candidates running in 2014.  These were not endorsements, but ratings based upon return of a survey and record.  

For United States Senate, the WVCDL gave both Shelley Moore Capito and Pat McGeehan an A+ rating.  Capito's House of Representatives and McGeehan's House of Delegates voting record on gun rights was spotless.  The WVCDL noted that Capito repeated some of its arguments in the days after the Sandy Hook shooting.

Natalie Tennant received an F for supporting gun control schemes and previous statements.

So far, WVCDL has only rated two candidates for the 2nd Congressional District.  Alex Mooney received an A+ for a strong record of defending gun rights at the legislative level.  Meshea Poore of Charleston received the dreaded F- rating, along with the admonition "DO NOT VOTE FOR THIS CANDIDATE."

The group also handed out grades for state legislators.  In the Eastern Panhandle, Craig Blair, Gary Howell, Allen Evans, Dave Sypolt, Larry Faircloth, John Overington, Larry Kump, Jason Barrett, Michael Folk, and Eric Householder all received A+ ratings.  John Unger only earned an A, but the WVCDL expected him to rise to A+ at the end of this session.

Senator Joe Manchin is not running, but WVCDL marked its displeasure with the Democrat by criticizing statements made supporting his gun proposals.

WVCDL rated many Democrats among its A+ grades, indicating that West Virginia's stance on full Second Amendment rights remains a bipartisan affair. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Is the Social Conservative Fight Against Gay Marriage Worthwhile?

Last year, Minnesotans opposed to legalized same sex marriage spent $200,000 in a little over five months.  Those donations went towards a campaign to preserve state laws prohibiting legal recognition of gay marriage.  Social conservatives complained that gay marriage supporters had "10 times more" funds to fight.  One said "it's proof that if you spend enough money, you can get legislators to do almost anything."   Despite the tens of millions spent by opponents, legislatures continue to void anti- gay marriage laws.  Sixteen states have taken such laws from the books, eleven by political action instead of through the courts.

Social conservatives argue that legalized gay marriage represents a threat to traditional marriage.  If a state allows a man to marry a man, or a woman to marry a woman, they argue that what is to stop legal recognition of polygamy, or human marriage to animals.  

American marriages certainly face threats to stability.  According to the Centers For Disease Control, from 2004 to 2011, between 840,000 and 880,000 couples divorced every year.  At the same time, the marriage rate per 1,000 people declined by one seventh.  Fewer couples marry and divorces remain constant.

Is gay marriage part of the problem?  It is hard to see how it could be, either logically or statistically.  The statistics came from years that predate the legalized gay marriage surge.  Marriage as an institution was already in trouble.  Also, the social impact of gay marriage simply is not that profound.  A Huffington Post writer in 2011 cited a study that pegged the gay population of the US at around 4 million.  

To put that number in perspective, there are more divorces every four and a half years than there are gay people.  

What has happened to marriage then?  Focus on the Family's Glenn Lutjens puts some of the blame on unrealistic expectations.  Most people's most thorough experience with relationships comes from first hand experience with their parents or parent.  Dysfunctional upbringings could conceive poor or even abusive interpersonal skills.  Or they could lead to a crusade to manufacture a perfect relationship.  Dating, according to Lutjens, creates a false reality.  It has "escape valves" such as ones own home, finances, etc. that are not there during marriage.  

Another problem is cultural.  At least one writer speculates that American romantic comedies have as bad, or an even worse effect on marriage than pornography.  Matt Lewis of Daily Caller writes that individuals instinctively need a deity to reach self-fulfillment.  When modern society has abandoned God, or at least set Him aside, it placed the perfect relationship on that deified pedestal. 

"And popular culture only reinforces this notion, via movies and music.  Unlike porn, this fantasy is not discourages by polite society, and is, in fact, even celebrated."

The counterpart of the romantic comedy fantasy relationship is the one and done ideal.  One mistake leads to a break.  In many movies, television shows, and popular songs, divorce follows a serious violation of the marriage.  It even follows a cooling of feelings of love and commitment between the spouses.  Most marriages require work and forgiveness.  Long marriages rarely escape at least one of the following:  financial problems, cheating, the ebb and flow of feelings of love or attraction, substance abuse issues, etc.  

Again, the abandonment of the Christian ethic may be part of the problem.  The Judeo-Christian ideal of original sin was not meant as a negation of the goodness of humanity, but as a powerful reminder that nobody is perfect.  People can be good and still hurt others, either purposefully, incidentally, or accidentally.  Christ commands forgiveness, which is the only was to ensure a lasting marriage. 

Of course the Bible also teaches self-respect, self-preservation, and free will.  Staying with an abusive, dangerous, or contemptible person who refuses to change is not part of the marriage vow contract.  

If bad cultural perceptions of marriage are not the biggest problem, they certainly rank at the forefront.  But these can be changed.

In California alone, supporters of a gay marriage ban raised over $28 million according to the Christian Coalition. What if part of that $28 million went toward establishing and promoting more pre-marriage counseling?  This used to be done in many churches as a matter of course and is certainly still an option.  Some may want a more secular based venue, and that should be available.  Certainly at the very least, some group seminars that got partners to think about their commitment before making the plunge would help.  

On the popular culture front, realistic marriage must make a comeback.  Breaking Bad's characterization of Hank Schrader took the old Clint Eastwood style rough around the edges hero and put him into a modern marriage.  Schrader started off as an unintentionally condescending, yet very capable and fast rising, DEA agent in a strong marriage.  As the series continues, he grows obsessed with finding a drug kingpin who, unbeknownst to him, happens to be his brother in law.  Schrader suffers a temporarily debilitating physical injury that throws him into a serious depression.  He does, eventually, recover physically and mentally.  Schrader's character is usually annoyed with, but always loves his wife.  No hint of sexual misconduct ever happens.  But both spouses have to grow and deal with each other's flaws and problems.  The final season of the series finds them in their most difficult and isolating situation.  Their love and commitment forged over all the previous struggles binds them together to face their biggest adversary.

Schrader's marriage is a perfect portrait of a successful one.  Lots of struggle, much forgiveness, and standing together in the toughest times.  Why don't more authors, screenwriters, and songwriters celebrate this kind of bond?  

Marriage is an essential element in the fabric of society.  It needs support and it would benefit from more honest portrayals.  The tens of millions of dollars spent now to fight a potentially very rare occurrence would be better spent in the cause of saving traditional marriage from that which truly threatens it.

Full disclosure, I am for civil unions for all couples and getting government out of marriage entirely.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Those Who Will Not Learn From History . . .

Consider the scenario.  A Great Power who has dominated world affairs is in relative decline.  Production and wealth are expanding at much slower rates than other rising nations.  Some of those nations feel their own expanding strength; they aspire to find a "place in the sun."  So they try to carve out larger spheres of influence, challenge weaker partners of the dominant power, issue bellicose statements where diplomacy would work better.

A follower of current affairs will immediately recognize this as a description of China's effort to evolve from a regional into a world power.  Students of history will recognize the German Empire under the Kaiser.  His personal ambitions and insecurities vis-a-vis his British royal family relatives fused with the rising nationalism of the age.  The Kaiser was no evil nihilist like Hitler, but by following his own logical path he helped bring on a war that revolutionized Europe and destroyed his family's position.  Both are right.  The behavior of 21st century China mimics that of the Germans from exactly a century ago.  And one need not be an expert to know how that turned out.

At this moment, Vice President Biden is in the Far East.  He first visited Japan and is now in China. Biden's immediate goal is to personally reaffirm the United States' inflexibility on the issue of China's self-declared air defense zone.  In a not so subtle move last week, the U. S. Air Force flew several gigantic and loud B 52 strategic bombers over the defense zone.  China scrambled fighters, but offered no additional aggressive moves.  Xinhua News published the statement that "several combat aircraft were scrambled to verify the identities" of the US and Japanese aircraft.

Biden yesterday issued a special challenge to young Chinese to "challenge the government" to force change in a system they oppose.  He reminded the students applying for visas that in America, opposing the system is admired.

China proclaimed the air defense zone over a broad swath of the South China Sea that happens to include islands governed by Japan.  It also mostly covers international waters.  Most likely they announced it as a test of Obama's resolve.  Fortunately, Obama did strongly defend American and Japanese rights in the region.  But this is the latest in a long series of provocations.  China has forcefully argued claims against Vietnamese and Filipino territory and even claimed suzerainty over thousands of shipwreck sites.

A hundred years ago the Kaiser provoked two near war crises over Morocco, his navy shelled Venezuelan barrier islands, among other belligerent bullying actions.  His government believed that a hyper-aggressive stance everywhere from the Sahara to Samoa would win Germany respect in the world, especially from Britain.  This reversed the balancing act of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the late 1800s. He sought to minimize risky conflicts while cultivating good personal relations with American leaders like Ulysses S. Grant.
The United States faces some of the same concerns as Britain a century ago.  Both the current US and the former British Empire had retooled their militaries to project power against disorganized and mostly non national opposition.  Both nations retained the means to project power (Royal Navy, US Air Force and Navy), but the armies emphasized small war concepts. This meant smaller forces relying on high levels of skill, technology, and experience.  The armies were also smaller in terms of ratio to population than potential adversaries.

Britain's pre-World War I army was annihilated within 18 months of the beginning of World War I.  It simply could not handle mass conventional warfare. Our current military does not have the resources to be ready for both a mass conventional and unconventional war at the same time.  Perhaps if less went to bureaucrats and more to actual fighting preparedness, this could be achieved.  The US, however, has often started major wars in a near skeleton state, ramping up to full mobilization fairly quickly.  Then again, it has never faced an adversary with the population and territorial size of China.

China is likely not determined to start a war.  This would cut it off from its largest market and automatically void America's massive debt.  The German Empire likewise did not want a continental war as it entered 1914.  Things can happen and events can move quickly, however.

If China, like 1941 Japan, saw war with the United States as inevitable, the time to strike would be 2015.  Obama has more chance of seeing a fully Republican Congress than one that stands behind him.  Striking before the 2014 election could give Obama an outside shot at a Democratic Congress.  He certainly would not hesitate to use a war as an excuse to push for one.

In 2015, the full effects of Obamacare will put the nation in economic and social turmoil.  Despite Obama's show of resolve over the defense zone, he remains a weak president with little political backing or ability.  Since a war would almost certainly result in a Republican hawk (Chris Christie comes to mind) winning the presidency in 2016, a China determined to strike would want as much lame duck Obama as they could get.

China has expanded their blue water naval capabilities, collected a number of bases far from their homeland, and has carefully built up a conventional first strike capability.

Where are some of the potential starting points?

1.)  Korea

World War I did not start because Germany attacked France and Britain.  Germany's ally Austria-Hungary suffered a terror attack encouraged by Russia's ally Serbia.  A long standing regional grievance flared into a European, then a World War.  How committed would China be in backing a foolish and unapproved move by North Korea. This state is less an obedient client of China and more of the obnoxious loud cousin.

2.)  Direct Strike on US and/or Japanese regional military assets

Chinese anti ship missiles are built to sink ships in one shot.  That being said, these missiles are crafted by the same country that has an epidemic of poorly built buildings falling over on their sides.  They should be feared, but they likely will have a low success rate.  But they are first strike weapons, make no mistake.

Because of the close alliance and Japan's post World War II constitution, an attack on Japan is tantamount to an attack on the United States itself.  But China might realistically question Obama's willingness to fully commit to a war to protect Japan.

3.)  India

The two countries have fought over a few barren strips of territory in the past.  India also has natural sympathy for the Tibetan Buddhists who continually oppose Chinese rule.  The recent pact could satisfy both sides or be a temporary fix.  Both are nuclear powers and China gets along better with Indian rival Pakistan.

4.)  Vietnam

Border disputes over islands, just like with Japan and the Philippines.  The difference is that China once ruled Vietnam as a vassal.  Vietnam never forgot and still regards China with suspicion.  In a post Cold War world, the United States actually has a better chance at good relations with Vietnam than China.

This is not to say that war will happen, or that it is even likely.  Then again, a far East conflagration is also firmly within the realm of possibility.

5.)  Russia (highly unlikely in short term)

Russia and China have grown closer in this century, focusing on their mutual distrust of American influence.  Territorial issues still divide them.  The Maritime Province, or Primorskya Oblast, was once Chinese territory seized under the Czars. It contains the major Russian port and naval base Vladivostok.  China regards this land as it once did Hong Kong, territory that will inevitably revert to Beijing's rule.  Russia disagrees.  Not a bone of contention now, but certainly potentially a problem in the future.

China, as a former imperial power and a regime currently bullying its neighbors, has a long list of potential adversaries should a general war break out.  Almost certainly the United States and Japan would form the core of the effort.  North Korea (perhaps China's closest bordering friend) involvement brings in the modern and well-trained military of South Korea.

Taiwan has every reason to fear Chinese hegemony in the Far East, but could convince itself that non belligerency could save it if China won the war.  It would not, but humanity has enormous powers of self-deception.

Definite maybes include Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain.  Britain's shrunken role as a Great Power has not deterred it from assisting the United States in opposing aggression. It remembers well the inability of Neville Chamberlain's goodwill in heading off Hitler.  Because Japan and the US would shoulder most of the load, the three British Commonwealth countries would.

Vietnam and the Philippines also have every reason to fear Chinese aggrandizement.  The former US colony sits right in the path of China's oceanic power play.  A Chinese victory would almost certainly reduce them to satellite status.  Both countries also have difficult geographical features and long traditions of guerrilla warfare that would cost China resources and benefit it very little.  Still, a Far Eastern general war would likely mean American use of the Philippines as a major base, something China would want to prevent.  The Philippines would very likely join.  Vietnam only if they felt menaced during the war or by the possible outcome.

India looms as possibly the next great English speaking democratic power.  It remains an X factor because the United States has done very little to cultivate good relations with this potential powerhouse.  Currently some in India have asked that the United States lift natural gas export restrictions. Purchasing from the United States, from their point of view, is both less expensive and better for their security concerns.

China, however, has a strong relationship with Iran.  Iran aggression coordinated with China could pose major problems for a Western alliance.

As the president has embarked on the 23 days of Obamacare and everyone follows along, it does not hurt to remind ourselves that foreign dangers lurk as well.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Government Continues to Concoct Bizarre Ad Hoc Obamacare Solutions

Reuters reported this week that Obamacare has a stunningly fatal flaw in its system.  The government "has not yet finished building the part of the website that would transfer billions of dollars in subsidies for plan premiums and cost-sharing payments to insurance companies."

Rest assured.  An insurance spokesman defended the administration and said that for now, the system would rely on estimates.  Late on, government and health plans could "true up" the actual difference.

Set aside the horrific abuse of the English language here.  Simply put, a lot of people are not going to get paid what they are actually owed for a while.

This is why government should never operate in any kind of business arrangement.  Running a business in this fashion is at least unethical and likely criminal.  Yet because it is the government, one has to rely on their willingness to faithfully "true up" and concoct a "workaround" scheme, whatever the heck that all means.

The fact is that businesses always work out first how everyone gets paid.  Next they focus on delivering a high quality product to the consumer.  After that they sell the service, and lastly they try to anticipate bugs and correct them quickly.

Government does number three first, then number four, and oh yes, still working on how to deliver a product of dubious value. Number one priority is still apparently a mystery.

It becomes increasingly clear why some Republicans fought a no win, last ditch battle to stop this monstrosity.  They knew all about that rough beast, its hour come round at last slouched toward Washington, waiting to be born.

Monday, December 2, 2013

New Site Alerts Public to Latest Social Media Scams

In 2012, identity thieves plundered over $20 billion from 12 million in the United States alone.  According to a study from Javelin Strategy, this was a rise of over a million victims from 2011.

One of the most common frauds is called the "419" scam.  Most have seen some variation on this trick.  An individual claims to need help in transferring a large amount of money from Nigeria to the United States.  For some reason, they usually need the help of an elderly American with limited funds.  All the victim is told to do is to wire money to Nigeria until they either run out or conclude they have been scammed.

Scam Alert Central has been publicizing the latest twist on the 419 scam.  In previous years, the victim was told that they were dealing with some member of the non existent Nigerian royal family.  Now they have started stealing pictures of attractive young women, sometimes even adult film stars, to add to the pitch.  They pose as refugees, potential girlfriends, or even escorts who claim they need to be paid through a "booking agent" in the Philippines.  Although some claim to be in Nigeria, others identify any number of countries as a point of origin.

Scam Alert Central updates regularly on the names and backstories of the women featured on the pitches.

It is important to know that the pictures have been stolen from social media.  The women pictured are almost never in on the scam.

This is the latest version of an old fraud scheme. The FBI has identified a large number of schemes, listed and described here.  It is a good idea to occasionally reread the most current information on scams as the criminals update their tactics to get your money.

Scotland Independence Referendum Shows Weakening Of Old Dynastic Ties

Less than a quarter of Scottish voters say they will vote for independence in next year's referendum, according to a recent Daily Mail story.  About 56 percent say they will vote no. The fact that a vote is even happening shows that the peculiar assemblage of some European states may be less stable than assumed.

Scotland's union to the United Kingdom took place in the early 1600s.  When Queen Elizabeth died childless, her closest relative eligible for the throne was the Scottish king James VI.  He ascended the throne as James I, uniting England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.  When his Stuart dynasty died out in the early 1700s, Parliament passed an Act of Union that further bound the two states.

Since then, Scotland settled, fought for, and administered the British Empire to a great extent.  Scots peopled the Appalachian Mountains, Australian outback, and Kenyan prairies.  They escaped poverty in their own country to fight for and administer the Empire for most of its existence.  The United Kingdom has relied heavily on Scotland for centuries, but must sell the idea of remaining in the Union by next September.  Although polls heavily favor union, Scottish independence supporters just unveiled a 667 page tome on what an independent Scotland would look like.

Britain is not the only country whose territorial integrity faces uncertainty.  Spain's Catalans want to follow the United Kingdom's path of popular sovereignty, but find themselves faced by a Spanish constitution that emphasizes the "indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation."  Spain as of yet has also refused to allow an official referendum.

Such resistance, spelled out in one official's comment that "you cannot divide sovereignty within Spain,"  could give Madrid more headaches in the long run than London.  Periodic independence votes in Canada's Quebec and the United States' Puerto Rico have satisfied promoters and allowed positive venting.  Buildup of frustrations in Catalonia could lead to a nastier result.

Europe has several states cobbled together through dynastic relations or treaty arrangements over the centuries.  Some have a tradition of cultural separatism from the central government.  For example, Sicilians generally do not consider themselves to be Italian.  Most do not currently have enough problems with the central government to pursue secession.  However, treaty states, such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, split after the Cold War.  Slovakia, Slovenia, and Croatia have proved that hiving off from the core state does not inevitably lead to failure.

Independence movements are hitting states whose constituent parts never had a chance to affirm the national connections.  Even when the central government has capably fulfilled its primary role, people may still want their say.  As anxious as Scotland's independence vote may make some in London and even Washington (since they are still our primary ally) allowing the vote is the best chance to keep the United Kingdom whole.

Regardless of how it turns out, Scotland's scheduling of a vote does mean that the old ties that bind have loosened somewhat.  And these have consequences for Britain, her friends, and other European states.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Is Obamacare This Century's Equivalent of "Who Lost China?"

In 1947, President Harry Truman engineered the passage of an aid package to Greece and Turkey.  At the time, both countries feared Communist takeover.  He used it as a foundation of his famous Truman Doctrine, which simply promises aid to any country resisting Communist takeover.

The very next year, Chiang Kai Shek fled China for Taiwan, leaving the massive mainland portion in the hands of the bloody Communist Mao Tse Dong.  Although "losing China" did not lose Truman the 1948 election, it frightened Democratic presidents for a generation.  They knew the electorate saw them as soft on foreign policy so they endeavored to not lose again.  Kennedy and Johnson fought in Vietnam for American, but also Democratic Party credibility.  Losses of both in Vietnam convinced future Democrats, rightly or wrongly, that course was unwise.  Could the Obamacare disaster do the same to their Big Government ideals?

The health care law is called the Affordable Care Act.  Since October, Americans have found out how Orwellian that moniker is.  Premiums have skyrocketed; millions lost their plans altogether.  The government system, based mostly on a $634 million website, does not work.  It is also only about 60 percent completed.

You might say that the healthcare.gov site gave Americans a crash course in why it should not run a business.

Meanwhile, Obama's poll numbers sank.  One might expect a serious dip in job performance.  But for the first time, a majority of Americans find him both dishonest and incompetent.

The long term effect of this on American politics could be profound.  The "who lost China" effect made Democratic presidents more bellicose for the next two decades.  At least one pundit believes Obamacare could make Democrats very gun shy about pursuing massive overhauls on this level again.

The cumulative effect of the first two presidential administrations on the country could be a body blow to backers of aggressive government action in any sphere.  Many still see the Iraq War (which the United States actually won) as a breakdown and a failure.  Obamacare has crashed a major segment of the country's economy and thrown millions into suffering and turmoil.  Both of these add up to further popularize libertarian concepts of government's role.

Time will tell whether this cows the Democrats and leads to a long term revision of what Americans expect from government.  But in the short term, confidence in government in any sphere is extraordinarily low.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Second West Virginia Legislator Switches to Republican Party

Former US Senator Zell Miller complained in 2004 that he did not leave the Democratic Party.  It left him.

Two members of the West Virginia Legislature in the past year have come to the same conclusion.  Months ago, State Senator Evan Jenkins of Cabell County switched and announced a run for Congress.  Now, Delegate Ryan Ferns of Ohio County has done the same.

Ferns' home district in Ohio County resembles what Washington insiders call "Hillary country."  Wheeling has a long industrial history that has faded in the past twenty years.  Its blue collar roots have been supplemented by the luring of major retail outlets on the Interstate 70- corridor.

A "Hillary country" Democrat going red is a bad omen for Clinton in West Virginia. It shows that Obama's tenure has alienated a great deal of the blue collar bases depended upon by the Clintons.

Also interesting are the long standing ties between the Ferns family and Senator Joe Manchin.  Delegate Ferns' father and Manchin are reputed to be close friends.  Manchin family ties with Republicans are not unusual.  Governor Arch Moore worked closely with A. James Manchin, for instance.

This, however, invites scrutiny because of the increasingly isolated position in which Manchin finds himself.  In October, a Roll Call article described a centrist senator regretting leaving the Governor's Mansion.  Last week, he defied Senate leadership on a pivotal vote which removed minority filibuster power on nominees.

Manchin's discontent as a Senate Democrat seems clear.  His home state drifts toward the Republican Party by staying true to its traditional values. Manchin's few clashes with his base quickly, if temporarily, eroded his popularity.  Following the example of Ferns and Jenkins is one option.  Abandoning all party identification, like former Senator and vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, is another.

Clearly Manchin, Ferns, Jenkins, and many of their traditionally Democratic brethren in West Virginia share the same dilemmas.  Switching to the GOP means breaking with generations of tradition in a state where party identification ranks a close third to family and denomination.  But how long can such ties remain when the national Democratic Party stokes hostility with values held dear by most West Virginians?

And what will this mean politically for the state in the next few years?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

How the Bible May Hold Clues to Recent Discoveries of Human Lineage

"There were giants in those days . . ."

This cryptic phrase comes from Genesis 6, the chapter detailing why God decided to flood the earth.  According to the passage, not only did God intend to remove the wickedness of mankind, but also of others.

Two groups of sentient beings other than man receive mention in the chapter.  "Giants," translated from nephilim.  It also notes the existence of "the sons of God."

The Bible mentions nephilim in two places, Genesis and Numbers.  Numbers 13:30 also relates that Moses's spies in Canaan ran across "men of great stature."  The sons of God appear nowhere else.

Genesis describes how the sons of God took wives from the daughters of men, "the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown."

Biblical scholars speculate at great length on this puzzling passage.  Different experts concluded that they were descendants of Seth, another child of Adam and Eve.  Others guess that they were fallen angels or space aliens.

The answer, however, might come from science.

Researchers concluded several years ago that all humans can trace their mitochondrial DNA back to a single woman in East Africa.  Science calls her "mitochondrial Eve."  Her likely emergence in the Great Rift Valley parallels Biblical descriptions of Eden.  Now a desert, the valley once held many rivers and a rain forest environment.

As mankind spread through and eventually escaped Africa, scientists have determined that our species inevitably encountered closely related hominids.  Human DNA reveals intertwining with three other species.  One was identified long ago, traditionally called "Neanderthal Man," scientifically homo neandeerthalensis.

In the past couple of years, scientists found DNA and fossil traces of a Siberian based species called for now simply "Denisovans."  More study is needed to properly classify this group, but many see them as an offshoot of the Neanderthals.  Even more enticing is the discovery this year of "mystery species" traces in human DNA.  No fossil record at all exists of this group.

Science and the Bible may link here.  The mixture of DNA reveals that modern man (homo sapiens  and homo sapiens sapiens) must have interbred with these other species.  No other explanation exists for how the DNA could have intertwined.

Oral histories of some peoples are believed to extend back tens of thousands of years. Recorded history only extends back 5,000 years.  Cave paintings by either humans or Neanderthals date back over 40,000.  The recent Royal Society of London's presentations posit that the interspecies interactions could have taken place as early as 30,000 years ago.

Looking at the Bible as a possible record of these events not only fits this timeline, it also allows for a Great Flood related to massive meltoffs of glaciers at the end of one of the several ice ages.

The Bible is not the only source for these anecdotes.  Greeks also passed stories of powerful giants in prehistory, as well as a civilization drowned under the water.  Many other cultures from that period have similar tales to tell.

Strangely enough, most academics prefer to describe these tales as "myths."  Mythology implies almost an almost total fictional basis.  Legends may be a more apt description.  There is some truth at the foundation, although time and practice may have embellished it (definitely did in the case of the Greeks.)  That is not to suggest that titans roamed the earth with divine powers.  But so many cultures have descriptions of powerful hominids who didn't survive and floods that wiped out civilizations.

The Occam's razor principle demands that science at least consider that oral traditions that led to great civilizations like ancient Israel and Greece may have something to contribute to the conversation.  The Old Testament/Torah is more reliable than the Greek stories because it was not corrupted through enhancement of its entertainment value during written history.  The Bible comes from a much more sacred and important tradition.  If the ancient Israelites followed the mores of most oral societies, correct passage from one generation to the next was a high priority.

In any event, the very fact that the Bible's oldest accounts correlate with new discoveries should be news.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Turner Field or the Colosseum?

Turner Field was built in 1995 Anno Domini at a final cost of just over $200 million.  It originally seated 89,000, but capacity fell to nearly 50,000 after its reconstruction into a baseball park.

The stadium looks remarkably similar to other baseball parks built at the time, which feature asymmetrical outfields.  Designers incorporated spaces for food courts, but probably not much thought to aesthetic designs.

As it stands now, Turner Field will cease to be useful after 20 years of service.  It replaced Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium which served both the Atlanta Falcons and the Atlanta Braves.  It was demolished after 30 years.

Atlanta also features other sports stadiums, such as the Georgia Dome and Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Its projected replacement in Cobb County, Georgia, will likely cost at least $650 million.

The Colosseum opened in 80 Anno Domini.  Its final cost was measured in Roman specie, but some have estimated that it may cost nearly $1 billion in modern money.

That would be before union contracts depending on the state.

Roman designers used concentric circles of arches as the basis of its design.  This gave it unparalleled strength to seat 80,000 spectators over centuries.  It was constructed of concrete, stone, and marble seating.  Authorities staged a variety of events there including gladiatorial games, plays, the ruthless killing of social outcasts by animals, and even mock naval battles on water.

Rome constructed an even larger stadium, the Circus Maximus, for chariot races.  It seated 250,000.

The city used this stadium for centuries.  Despite earthquakes and the theft of materials for building over the past 2,000 years, two thirds of it remains standing.  Below is how it likely looked in its original form.

Rome may have spent over $1 billion for its signature stadium.  But how much will metropolitan Atlanta donors, businesses, and taxpayers shell out for Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Turner Field, and the new Cobb County facility in a span of just about a half century?

We should take a lesson from the Romans.  Invest to last.  Build to last.  Stop sticking taxpayers with disposable stadiums.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

John F. Kennedy a Half Century Later: A Legacy of Effectiveness and Cheating

John F. Kennedy is an American paradox.  His smiling visage was what New Dealers and their protegees imagined themselves to be.  But Kennedy also reflected the corruption and dishonesty behind the attractive facade and earnestly stated intentions.  Like his successor Richard Nixon, Kennedy mixed idealism and pragmatism well.  Both were effective presidents. But neither could escape the temptations of shooting a few rounds of dirty pool.

Kennedy was the perfect convergence of image, style, and accomplishment.  He was a genuine war hero, served respectably in the US Senate, and seemingly outpaced the shadow surrounding his bootlegger, Nazi sympathizing father.

The campaign of 1960 should historically bury John F. Kennedy's legacy in the same grave as Richard Nixon.  Falsely campaigning in the general election on the missile gap perpetuated a serious fraud on the voters.  Kennedy knew, via national security estimate provided as a courtesy, that the US was comfortably ahead of the Soviet Union in weaponry.  Yet he played on fears stoked by the Soviets that they had reached parity.  Nixon could not refute the claims without breaking national security laws.  His silence on the issue cost him.

But if Kennedy had campaigned honestly, would he have even won nomination?

Justice Allen Loughry of the West Virginia State Supreme Court of Appeals, penned a dissertation at American University that covered political scandals from 1960 until the 1990s.  The book published from it, Don't Buy Another Vote, I Won't Pay For a Landslide comes from Kennedy's glib reaction to accusations of cheating during that year.

Loughry's work draws from sources such as former political boss Raymond Chafin's Just Good Politics, among others.  It describes in detail how Kennedy campaign money appeared in southern West Virginia counties.  Once this money appeared, bosses supporting Hubert Humphreys overnight switched to Kennedy.   In those days, the bosses and their slate always won the day.  They had many loaves and fishes on the State Road Commission and public school system to distribute among helpful supporters.

And Ted Kennedy himself was in charge of Southern West Virginia, although no one has ever directly accused him of malfeasance.

Kennedy beat Nixon by a whisker in 1960.

Conservatives like to argue that Kennedy was not an effective president.  Setting aside one of the most corrupt presidential campaigns ever for now, did Kennedy govern effectively?

He did.  Kennedy understood that a strong national economy dovetailed into higher levels of respect for America around the globe, enhancing national security.  He also understood 15 years before Laffer drew his famous curve that lower taxes spurred economic growth.

That being said, he combined lower taxes with increasing domestic spending.  Chaffin actually demands the credit for giving Kennedy the idea about food stamps, but this could be a reach.  Domestic spending on welfare and development programs expanded, along with defense.  Kennedy wanted flexible response options, so his administration ratcheted up spending on weapons systems.

In foreign policy Kennedy was aggressively, maybe even recklessly interventionist in his thinking.  In 1961, he tried to convince his military leadership of the wisdom in deploying troops into Laos to fight Communist rebels.  This belies the liberal fairy tale that Kennedy would have avoided Vietnam.

In honesty, he may have torpedoed our main chance at victory by approving the assassination of South Vietnamese president Diem.  Imperfect as Diem was, that was a truly Roman Empire-esque action against an allied head of state.

The Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco does lay at Kennedy's door.  He was misinformed and inexperienced, but that was his fault.  Kennedy gets blamed for the Berlin Wall going up, but short of war no one could have stopped that.  The "ich bin ein Berliner" speech may have been awkward Deutsch, but Germans understood and remain thankful.

Kennedy's signature move represented leadership at its best.  After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy listened to advice from the president he abused through much of 1960, Dwight Eisenhower.  He listened to his advisers as a group rather than one on one, learning lessons from their disputes.  Kennedy preserved American respect and strength without firing a shot.  He deserves tremendous credit for that.

Kennedy did make powerful moves in the service of civil rights.  He helped to rekindle J. Edgar Hoover's old hatred of the terrorist Ku Klux Klan.  Attorney General Robert Kennedy allowed Hoover to open up a bag of tricks on the Klan reminiscent of the Czarist Okhrana, plus adding a few of his own.  Whether or not one agrees that the tactics were justified, they worked.  Under Kennedy's presidency, Hoover broke the Klan.

The Civil Rights Act, however, would not pass in its most effective form until the chief executive behind it spoke with a Texas accent.

Kennedy deserves credit for some notable achievements and blame for policy missteps.  Overall, he served as an active, dynamic, and effective president with vision and ability, same as Nixon.

Both men, on the other hand, had crimes committed on their behalf that struck at the heart of the American democratic system.  In Watergate, staff broke into a locked office to spirit away secret campaign files (this also happened to Republicans in Washington state in 2008.)  Kennedy's 1960 campaign suborned Democratic Party officials at the local level in West Virginia to steal primary support.

It wasn't "just good politics."  It was a crime.  And few people outside of West Virginia have any interets in adding this to Kennedy's legacy.

The passage of time mellows the most intense of hatreds and even some hero-worshiping.

We owe it to history to start getting the story straight on President Kennedy.

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

Is European Anti-Semitism Back?

One in three European Jews has felt at some time or another recently that Europe has grown so hostile that they considered moving.

This comes from an online survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.  The same survey revealed that one in four Jews had suffered either harassment or direct attacks due to their faith.

Reason magazine reported these findings in a broader piece underscoring the growing problem of anti-Jewish intolerance in Europe.

Anti-Semitism was blamed on left wing politics and Islamic extremism.  Only 19 percent blamed "right wing" individuals or groups.  It should be noted, of course, that some neo Nazi groups have come together in Central Europe.  They, presumably, cling to the traditionally irrational hatreds.  Many misidentify Nazis as "right" when their traditions and ideology speak to a leftist origin.

A Norwegian academic even resurrected the old czarist hoax "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."  This was a tract concocted by the Russian secret police to discredit that country's Jews.  It distracted attention away from the tottering Czar and directed it toward the vulnerable Jewish community.  Treating it as legitimate reflects a horrifying tendency among European leftists to more brazenly unearth centuries old hatreds and stereotypes thought dead for decades.

This is no sign of the return of the nightmare of the Holocaust, but the dangers of prejudice and persecution are real.  European peoples do not enjoy the same constitutional protections taken for granted in the United States.  Rights and liberties are more easily infringed upon (for example, Britain is considering legislation that could seriously impact the right of the free press in that country.)

Americans in love with what they think is the superior European culture should look again at the dark underbelly of prejudice that lurks just beneath its urbane surface.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Thornsbury Scandal Should Provide New Impetus For Calls to Create Appeals Court In West Virginia

The Mingo scandals have been well-publicized around the nation.  But could they change the state constitution?

Currently, West Virginia's court system relies on courts of original jurisdiction and one appellate court.  That is, there are six courts where cases may originate.  Civil or criminal cases can be appealed to the State Supreme Court of Appeals, but that court has discretion over whether it accepts an appeal or not.  In recent years, the State Legislature has shot down proposals to create an intermediate court of appeals.

Now the corruption and abuse by former Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury should force reconsideration.

An intermediate appeals court can rectify and even prevent the kinds of abuses that Thornsbury attempted.  It could uncover the ham handed frame ups.  More importantly, its very existence could make corrupt judges think twice about abusing the system.

Circuit court judges are elected.  Their re-election depends upon personal popularity more than observance of the law.  This could sway even honest minds.  Corporations have found some circuits unfairly biased against business defendants.  This has been cited as a major reason why West Virginia remains a "judicial hellhole" where business often cannot get an even shake.  Conversely, the support of business could sway some judges too fr he other way.

Our suggestion is to divide the state into three sections.  Judges will serve six year terms, staggered every two years.  Judges could be nominated by the governor from each section and confirmed by a statewide vote.  This ensures quality and respect for the law while preserving the voice of the people.  It also means that one governor will not in usual circumstances be able to appoint an entire court.

The Mingo scandals should refocus this debate.  What if the federal government had not been tracking these rogues?  Their brand of justice could have raged unchecked for years.  Many could have been unfairly jailed with no chance of appeal.

If for no other reason, the Thornsbury case gives an ironclad reason why West Virginia needs an interediate court of appeals.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Current Status of the Federal Helium Reserve, In Case You Were Wondering . . .

One issue that should keep Americans up worrying at nights is the current status of the Federal Helium Reserve.

No worries.  It is still there near Amarillo, Texas, storing vital helium for America's defense and scientific needs.

The Bureau of Land Management's brief history of the Federal Helium Reserve notes that stockpiling began in 1925.  At that point, the Army and Navy were interested in the possibilities of dirigibles for wartime use.  USS Akron  is the best known example of naval airship construction and use.

Development of more reliable and effective airplanes quickly killed defense applications.

After World War II, NASA and research communities relied on the reserve for their helium.  Overall, however, "federal demand for helium did not live up to postwar expectations."

In 1996, the goals of the program shifted.  The government now operates the reserve and pipeline system, provides helium gas, evaluates helium bearing gas fields, and provides access to land for helium recovery.

The helium reserve must be of immense national importance.  Right before the government shutdown last month, Congress passed and Obama signed a bill designed to keep the reserve fully funded and operational.

Helium, especially in liquid form, is vital to research and it gradually growing more expensive.  Reports indicate that the United States reserve, the only of its kind, has allowed supplies to dwindle.

A helium reserve is needed and it may be a good idea to have more than one.  The private sector, however, can and should run this operation.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cameras on Cops

Reason's December print edition has an updated column from last August entitled "Watched Cops Are Polite Cops." 

Some jurisdictions have done this.  Rialto, California saw complaints against officers drop by 88 percent.  Judge Shira Scheindlin. of the federal district court in Manhattan, ruled that officers in high complaint areas film their "stop and frisk" efforts in an effort to see if officers are complying with civil rights laws.

Ronald bailey, who wrote the piece, argues that police should be on board.  Complete photographic evidence can defend an officer against spurious complaints.  The knowledge that officers had filmed interactions may have contributed to the drop in complaints in Rialto.  Citizen recordings usually only start after tensions have risen and omit context.

Bailey warns that officers coming into homes with cameras on can violate civil rights,  "video of someone's metaphorical (or literal) dirty laundry is nobody else's business."  But safeguards, like those used on the reality show Cops, can protect the innocent.  Mandatory erasing of videos in the short term, unless needed for evidence, is also necessary.

Bailey also points out that people may act more civil when they know the camera is on them.

The issue is complex.  It certainly has the potential to invade privacy and violate rights, but also ensure that police act professionally at all times.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Case Example of Government Greed: Kanawha County School Levy

The Charleston Daily Mail's Don Surber provides this week's example of government greed at work.  It's worth a quick read.

The Kanawha County School Board asked voters to support a levy that would cost $130 million over five years.  Within the request was $3 million for school libraries, but a lot more for who knows what else.

Voters rejected it, breaking from history.

Surber writes that Kanawha County has changed over the past few decades.  What was once a manufacturing center has become a shopping destination.  The valley has jobs, they just pay a lot less.  Supporters argued that it would be one less latte per day, which is true.  Most voters, however, never buy lattes because it is ridiculous to pay so much for a cup of coffee.  

We're talking about people who have to brown bag tuna salad because they want to pay their bills and save a little for Christmas.  Surber notes that it adds up to one less night eating out per month, which will end up meaning one less restaurant.

In general, this is a classic case of government greed.  They ask for more than the voters can bear and try to make voters feel guilty because golly gee, it's for the children.

No it is not for the children.  It is for the bureaucrats.  It is for federal mandates that kill, rather than support education.  It is for retreats and conferences.  Don't say it is for the children.  It rarely is in education.  

And all too often, it is not for the teachers either.

Kanawha County would have supported a small levy simply for libraries because they see the value in that.  But tens of millions more that would not have been spent wisely?  No.  Not today.

Government got greedy and voters did not fall for its manipulation.  It is a shame that its greed cost the children.

Things are tough all over.  And government does not care.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Legacy of Blind Alfred Reed

Musical genres have a life span just like most everything in the universe from stars to butterflies.  Birth is followed by increasing energy and vitality.  At some point a peak of production and power is reached.  Then comes a decline, sometimes slow, sometimes rapid.  If it is slow enough, irrelevance and loss of function precede death.  It's not an even journey.  Hills and trough of health and lack of productivity afflict many living and natural entities, even movements.

In music, a genre comes to life because it speaks to something that some group somewhere needs to hear.  It springs from what came before.  But it has a new form, or a combinations of old forms, that produces a new style.  If it connects to what people need, if it speaks for them, it becomes popular.  It's usefulness comes from being a catalyst for their sufferings, aspirations, and life experiences.

Invariably, if the genre gets popular, it grows into a sellable commodity.  The rough edges get ground down.  The words may remain the same or fade into echoes of their former vitality.  But the mainstreaming of the genre enriches the broader population.  They would have never listened to the authentic original, but they will try the sanitized version.

Purists hate this for understandable reasons.  Meaning gets lost.  Pioneers get forgotten.  Yesterday's call to action sells vacuum cleaners or financial services tomorrow.  You can tell when a genre of music loses touch with the roots that nurtured it.  Singers can ape the accents, performers can play the instruments, but it lost some of its original soul.

Bluegrass music seems to be the purview of elite intellectuals, far from the farm and oil refinery worker roots of Bill Monroe.  Monroe came to prominence playing traditional songs from Kentucky in a new style.  "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Muleskinner Blues" were authentic coming from him.  Later musicians sound fine when they sing these songs, but it lacks authenticity.  And newer compositions with current themes just don't make sense.

Country music earns performers and record companies money hand over fist.  Musicians make pretty good money singing about small towns, good or bad.  Problem is that many of them don't really come from small towns and a lot of them have always lived in relative comfort.  Very few people even living in what today is called poverty could fathom the early years of Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton.  Country music might not be quick to embrace addicts with personal pain like Johnny Cash or Hank Williams Sr.  Would they today accept a convicted felon like Merle Haggard?

He may not have been 21 in prison serving life without parole, but he knew these guys personally during his stint.

The struggles they endured in life made their music real for their listeners battling the same demons and authentic for everyone else.  Is the struggle for goodness and salvation, or the penalty for turning your back on decency and morality as emphasized in today's music.

Rap and hip hop is following the same track, definitely having reached the mainstreaming stage at this point.  Its urban black roots share a common cultural source with what country music used to be.  The Southern culture that gave birth to both had themes of violence, retribution, poverty, fatalism, and aspiration to material betterment.  The element in old country missing from most rap and hip hop is the divine retribution for violating morality.  Murderers and killers ( male ones, anyway), adulterers, and other malefactors end up punished somehow in country music, not in urban.

Thievery can be excused in country, as in Johnny Cash's "One Piece At a Time."  Marijuana use also is tolerable, at least in the old music of Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams Jr., Steve Earle, and the general public perception of Willie Nelson.

Which brings me to a long forgotten, once popular, pioneer of radio music.  Blind Alfred Reed (in the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame) emerged from obscurity around World War I, playing county fairs, political rallies, almost any venue.  He was an early radio performer who earned some fame in the early years of the Depression.

Some remember his "How Can a Poor Man Stand These Times and Live" as a damning bit of social commentary, but most of his music reflected populism and Christian morality as it was seen at the time.

Reed's most mocked music (again, among those who remember!) was "Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls?" and "Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls 2."  The two songs are at heart a tale of violating God's law, risking his disfavor, then the path to redemption.  In the 1920s, short hair on women was subversive.  It was contrary to standards of beauty, expectations of men, and symbolized sexual independence.  Reed attacked the symbol instead of the behavior, which realistically might have required a longer song.  The minister, however, does lay out an explanation of how sin and redemption work more clearly than most sermons.  Unfortunately, his choice of sin makes the song painfully archaic.

As behind the times as "Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls" sounds, "There'll Be No Distinctions There" is a crowning achievement of courage.  Within the song comes the assertion that God does not segregate by race, nor does He discriminate against the Jewish in heaven.  This is a shot across the bow of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan just after the peak of its national influence in the mid 1920s, right before J. Edgar Hoover's personal crusade to grind them into irrelevancy.  In the mountain counties where Klansmen held considerable political power, these sentiments could be hazardous for one's health.

He also sang of the suffering caused by train wrecks and mine explosions.  The Fairmount Mine Explosion has an interesting convergence of themes in it.  The industrial and family themes dominate.  A father is about to go to work in the mine.  Before he leaves, his daughter awakes and begs him not to go to work.  He must choose between the peace of mind of his daughter and his work ethic and need to be paid for the day.  The father chooses to soothe his daughter's fears; then the mine explodes.

It also includes a touch of mountain mysticism.  David Hackett Fischer in Albion's Seed describes the North British border country ways that came to Appalachia.  Charms, sorcery, and divination were some of the forms that it took.  In "Fairmount Mine Explosion", the daughter has the power of seeing the future through her dreams, expressed by the simple "sometimes you know my dreams come true."  This comes from an older and hidden system of values percolating up in this 20th century song.

Reed's career had a short trajectory.  By the mid 1930s he had returned to performing on street corners until his home county of Mercer in West Virginia prohibited street performances by blind people in 1937.  this comes remarkably close to an unconstitutional bill of attainder.

Horrifically, his most famous song became his prophecy.  The man who asked if a poor man could stand such times and live, serving on the side as a Methodist preacher, died of starvation in the 1950s.

Blind Alfred Reed was part of the birth of country and folk music genres while also being part of the first generation of radio performers.  Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and others owe Reed and performers like him a huge debt for building the foundation that helped them become both famous and influential.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Will West Virginians Have to Put GPS Trackers On Their Cars For Government Monitoring?

Will West Virginians have to put GPS trackers on their cars for government monitoring?

Delegate Gary Howell, (R-Mineral) and national vice chairman of the State Automitive Enthusiast Leadership Caucus, warned voters via Facebook on Monday that it could be a reality.  He said, "WV Democrats tried looking at putting GPS tracking in your car with Senate Bill 354."  Those who voted no, 10 out of 34 cast, was to stop this bill.

The bill will allow the state to study a GPS tracking scheme that is likely already unconstitutional.  Now it has gone over to the House of Delegates for its consideration.

Delegate Howell described shenanigans involving the House Roads and Transportation Committee.  He says that Democrats met to discuss advancing the bill without informing the press or public.

While the intent is to consider a tax by the mile scheme, critics have consistently opposed such a measure on constitutional grounds.  Tracking a person's movements electronically without a warrant violates a citizens rights, especially to privacy.

Most importantly, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot place such a tracking device on a vehicle.  In United States v. Jones (2012) the Supreme Court says that placing such a device is a per se violation of privacy.

West Virginia Legislative Democrats are currently pushing a bill that violates the Constitution, as interpreted by the Fred Roberts and Earl Warren courts.

60 Minutes, Guardian Separately Portray a Presidency of Dangerous Negligence

In the past week, reports from Britain's Guardian and CBS' 60 Minutes separately have added to the growing perception that the president is incompetent, perhaps dangerously so.

Lara Logan's segment on Benghazi last night showed in stunning and chilling detail many of the failures that led to the Benghazi disaster.  Higher ups ignored months of reports by those whose job it was to warn of trouble.  Al Qaeda flags flying over local government buildings, a warning that a planned attack was imminent, and other red flags were blissfully ignored by the State Department and intelligence services.

After the attack started, locally based CIA teams ignored orders to wait.  Had they not acted on their own initiative, five more Americans would have died.

Repeatedly, Logan used interviews and computer generated maps to demonstrate the ineptness of leadership that makes decisions thousands of miles away.

While Obama is politically untouchable, the segment puts a broadside into the possible presidential plans of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Even as US intelligence broke down in Benghazi, it remained vigilant in keeping tabs on 35 world leaders.  Some, such as Robert Mugabe, may warrant such treatment. Allied nations, however, were targeted.  Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has made her outrage plain.

The Guardian reported this morning, saying the NSA fl denied a German report that it briefed Obama on its monitoring of world leaders' phone calls.

These reports stem from documentation provided to Guardian  by former intelligence contract worker Edward Snowden.

While this (on the surface) exonerates Obama, it does lead to the question of his lack of attention.  Either Obama agreed to spy on allied heads of state and government, or his intelligence services were running operations without a presidential approval that they sorely needed.

Public perception of Obama as a president often engaged by vacations and tee times certainly do not help his image.  The deterioration of administrations common in second terms seems to have set in early for Obama.

Last week, Gallup reported that Obama's approval rating fell below 45 percent.

Update:  The hat trick of incompetence.  Atlantic magazine writer says that Obamacare problems were predictable, but ignored.