Category Archives: Normal Politics

Audit Rates

I recently came across a county-by-county map of which counties were subject to the highest audit rates by the IRS. The national average, by the way, is 7.7 audits per 1,000 returns. The highest county was 11.8 while the lowest that I found was 6.6. The map is below.

It certainly looks like the IRS is targeting certain parts of the country, namely the South, which is largely Republican territory, while New York and New England, with all those Democrats, gets off more easily.

You may recall that several years ago the always-looking-for-victimhood Republicans were complaining that the IRS was targeting conservative tax-exempts. This map suggests that maybe, even though the government is firmly under Republican control, they are doing it again. Deep State and all that.

And you’d be wrong. In fact, it is Republican paranoia that leads to this map. One of their directives to the IRS is to examine returns that include any EITC credits more closely – looking for fraud, which of course is more common in poor communities, especially of color.

The voters in these areas seem determined to hurt themselves in yet one more way.

Joe Biden

There’s been a lot of press recently about Joe Biden’s inappropriate touching of women, and a lot of predictable commentary from typical sources – like the #metoo movement going too far, or how Biden’s behavior demonstrates that democrats are no different from Trump (shoulder rubs being equivalent to pussy grabs, don’t you know?).

I’m no Joe Biden fan, but this seems to be a tempest in a teapot. There are larger lessons that we can glean from this affair. Biden himself touched on these larger lessons in the video linked to above – that we need to be aware of what others regard as their personal space and that we need to actually listen to others, specifically women. While this particular affair involves physical proximity we could expand that theme to include all of our daily actions. In short, this world could use a lot more kindness, and a large part of being kind is being aware of others and valuing them.

Just think of how too many of us carelessly mess up the environment, disturb others and are thoughtlessly cruel. And how all of us bemoan the world we live in. It’s this larger lesson that I regard as important, not how Joe smelled somebody’s hair.

Terri Schiavo

To date I haven’t written anything about the Terri Schiavo case. It’s a family tragedy of the first order, and I didn’t feel a need to add to the cacophony. But now that it’s close to being over, there’s a few ideas I’d like to get down. Her autopsy results were just released, and Jeb Bush has pressed on the public prosecutor to reinvestigate the original 911 call that took place 15 years ago.

First and foremost, I regard this whole case as a family matter, and for anyone to make it a public event is absolutely reprehensible. Maybe you could forgive her parents for their actions, but only maybe. They were (and continue to be) in such denial about her condition as to be truly pathetic. But all the other politicians, doctors, ministers and hangers on should be ashamed of themselves. Here we have the most painful of family misfortunes paraded around for the benefit of everyone else’s personal agendas.

If I had a dying loved one at the same hospice that Terri was at, I would be very angry at all the demonstrations. How dare anyone interfere with my last few days with a loved one. This is Christian charity? And I think of her husband Michael, who has been slandered by all sorts of people who never met him and know nothing of what he has gone through in the last 15 years.

The most charitable excuse for this interference I heard was that her husband had placed her in a hospice that “specialized” in euthanasia. Given that, so the theory went, maybe the doctors at the hospice were too eager to ply their specialty on her. So maybe all the politicians were really truly concerned that she was being killed by her greedy husband when she really was still responsive. The unspoken assumption is that euthanasia-minded doctors are willing to ply their trade on people who are still alive and functional. This is a real slander on those doctors. Most doctors, especially those connected with a hospice, already see enough of death. They also see enough of pain and hopelessness to realize that sometimes there’s a reasonable tradeoff there.

Never mind that a whole series of Florida courts had ruled that the husband was, and deserved to be, her guardian; and he alone had the right to make these decisions. If any state in the Union has judges who have seen everything under the sun with respect to dying people, it has to be Florida. I don’t think it would be easy to fool them, especially if your intent was to profit from someone else’s death. And of course I can’t go without mentioning the hypocrisy of the GOP yelling about States’ Rights, but only when the States agree with them.

I also am wondering where the liberal media was. I understand that all the networks were continuously showing all the videos of Schiavo seeming to be responsive. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that if the media was so in bed with the Democrats as the conservatives claim, that the media wouldn’t essentially be enabling her parents and the conservatives carry out their respective agendas.

And now we have Jeb Bush keeping the affair alive by getting the prosecutor to start an investigation into the timing of the original 911 call that her husband made 15 years ago. If the governor thinks there was something amiss, why wait until now? I think 15 years is past the statute of limitations for everything but murder. Is that what he suspects? Just now? Or does he just have a hard-on for Michael. This really is abusive, almost criminally so.

June 17, 2005

Social Security #1

I’ve been watching the Social Security debate over the last few months, and it is probably time I weighed in with a few comments. From the noise in the Blogosphere, I guess Bush laid out some more details about exactly what he is proposing, but still I don’t think all the details have been finished. The Democrats seem almost totally against whatever Bush is proposing, but some of that opposition is certainly political in nature. But many Republicans also seem against the new scheme.

In general, I like the idea of private accounts. Taking money out of the government’s control and putting in into an individual’s control is almost always a good thing. As usual, the devil’s in the details. Exactly how will this change be funded? What steps do we as a society want to take to make sure our older population is taken care of? How do we create a system that treats workers of different ages in a fair manner?

Unfortunately, given Bush’s past legislative and financial behavior, I am quite suspicious of whatever he proposes. Let’s face it, just about every one of his bills that either cut taxes or provided new spending has had some gimmick. As an example, the outright lies about the cost of the Medicare drug bill. Or how about the sunset provisions of the tax bills, purposely designed to make the lost revenues appear smaller than they really are. This trickery has happened so many times that I would be very surprised if a totally honest discussion, debate and bill will be forthcoming.

The first problem I have with any discussion on Social Security is when anyone, Republican or Democrat, starts talking about a crisis or mentions the trust fund. When anyone says something like, “the system will (not) be in crisis in(/until) 2045”, when the trust fund runs out, right away either they are not being honest or they are incompetent. For anyone who thinks the trust fund matters, here’s some bad news. There is no trust fund. The contributions to the trust fund have already been included in past and current budgets. In other words, that money has already been spent. In 2004 the deficit would have been about 64B larger than it already was except that the excess contributions to the trust fund were included in the total budget.

Yes, there is 1.5T in the Social Security trust fund. But that 1.5T is held in government IOU’s, and the government will either have to cut spending, borrow money, print money, or tax somebody to be able to pay out any of that money.

The effect of the aging of the work force is that contributions to the trust fund will decline while the payouts will increase; and over time as the delta becomes larger the government will have to make increasingly more difficult spending/taxing/borrowing decisions. The effect will be gradual. In 2005 the government will likely not see 64B in free money. It will be somewhat less, and as the Social Security “gift” gets smaller, money will get tighter. I’m betting that Bush will do some creative bookkeeping, like take social security off the budget, like he did with the Iraqi war. More dishonesty.

In the meantime, we’ll have to wait to find out more of the details. So far the proposals I’ve seen are so complicated and purposefully obfuscated that we may never get an honest idea of what is being discussed.

February 4, 2005

Voting Machines #1

While watching the Democratic convention last week, mostly to see what Kerry was up to now, I noticed ex-senator Max Cleland on the stage, and I wondered whatever happened to him. That quest led me into the mid-term election of 2002, when he lost his seat to a challenger. At the time, the punsters and pollsters said it was due to a last-minute surge among “angry white men”, led by Mr. Bush’s active campaigning. A subsequent study by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office indicated that there was no last-minute surge, except maybe by black women. Cleland led the polls, right up to the election, by 5% or more.

So what happened? A possible answer, and I emphasize the word “possible”, is that the victory had something to do with the newly installed Diebold touch-screen voting machines. Will we ever know? Probably not, unless somebody made a careless mistake, and therein lies my story.

In the wake of the Florida fiasco, the Feds came up with several billion dollars so the states could obtain the latest in computer voting technology. This technology is typically a Windows-based general purpose Intel pc, with some special software to control the voting process and a touch-screen where the voter goes through a series of candidate choices. No more hanging chads, no more overvotes, no more confusion with butterfly ballots. There are a handful of companies in the business of making these terminals, and they are presently doing a very fine business.

In Georgia’s case, they purchased 22,000+ Diebold machines, which were first used in the 2002 election. Cleland had been leading the polls comfortably all during the campaign. On election day, all the voters go to the polls and use the Diebold machines. After the votes are counted, Cleland loses by about 5%, a swing of 10%. Anyway you cut it, that’s quite a large swing in just a few days (the numbers vary slightly, depending on which poll you use). And Cleland wasn’t the only democrat in Georgia to get a nasty surprise. The incumbent democratic governor, Barnes, similarly ahead in all the polls, also lost by a similar margin.

Surely there are safeguards, right? Certainly the State of Georgia would take the necessary steps to insure the integrity of the election, right? Why then are we not really too surprised to now find out that the voting machines were anything but secure, that the government was basically incompetent to manage a technologically complicated project, in the same way monopoly utility companies are generally incompetant to manage high-tech nuclear power stations?

Diebold, based in Canton, Ohio, is nowhere close to a disinterested party in the election. The CEO of the company is a Bush Pioneer (the innermost circle of money raisers), and is very committed to supporting republican candidates. A quick look at the political donations of other executives at Diebold shows a similar inclination. Would Diebold even think of stealing an election? With God on your side, and the libruls being evil, I think my answer is yes. Righteousness can justify any number of sins. Could they have done it, given Georgia’s presumed oversight? I’m afraid the answer is again yes. A more disturbing thing is that any number of other people could have also done it.

You see, the machines weren’t really up to commercial standards when they started shipping them in the summer of 2002. Multiple code changes and general mayhem seemed to be the order of the day. Georgia had contracted with a university professor to certify the software, but given the confusion, it is not certain that he got the very latest software to test, and the last update he did receive was so close to the election that he didn’t go through the entire process. Plus, his testing/examination wasn’t particularly rigorous, nor did he test/examine all parts of the software. As an example, the Microsoft operating system, because it was “COTS” (commercial off-the-shelf) software, was not examined.

What about a recount? Well, given the way the machines operate, it isn’t possible. Plus you’d probably get the same (perhaps invalid) totals no matter how many times you recounted. What about examining the machines for any bogus code? Any clever programmer would make sure the bad code would self-destruct after the election, plus Georgia made it illegal (a felony, no less) for anyone not part of the State to examine the machines. As it turns out, someone found an unprotected copy of the software on an FTP site (so the installers could quickly get all the updates in a timely fashion), so outsiders did get a chance to look at it. There’s some argument about whether or not that was the actual code that ran on election day, but just the fact that anybody could examine it is bad bad news. The outsiders (first Johns Hopkins, perhaps illegally, and then SAIC, under contract to the state) all agreed that the software was miserable from a security standpoint.

I’m generally not inclined to conspiracy theories. But the “dots” that you could connect in the Georgia upsets are somewhat more compelling than the “dots” that led to the Iraqi invasion. To me, the real problem here isn’t the two elections, as important as they were, given the politics of the moment. It’s that now the voters really don’t have much assurance that their votes will actually get counted at all. Some 30% of Georgia voters now do not have confidence in their state’s elections. With the new machines, all of them, there is generally no way to verify their proper operation. The vendors all say to trust them, but come on, we’ve never trusted any single entity with the conduct of an election. Human nature being what it is, the temptations are just too great.

July 30, 2004

Gay Marriage #2

I can’t believe I’m writing a second paper about this topic. It just isn’t that important one way or the other to me (and to lots of other folks either), but the politicians have managed to make it an issue. The latest is Mr. Bush has come out in favor of a constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriage.

It should be pretty obvious that the odds of this amendment actually making it into the constitution are pretty slim. The proposal is simply red meat being thrown to Bush’s conservative base, keeping them interested in going to the polls in November. Clinton played politics pretty cravenly, but Bush has got him beat.

The reason given for the necessity of the amendment is “to protect marriage”. C’mon folks, how does two gays getting married threaten all the religious and civil traditions surrounding “straight” marriage? Getting married too quickly and too easily are bigger threats, as are the large number of families that are bound by no marriage at all. For those people who care about traditional marriages, they will always be available; the bigger problem is the growing number of people who don’t care about traditional marriage. Gays who want to get married do care, and are not part of that larger threat.

It is true, however, that the entire current to-do was started by some activist judges. With no legal mandate at all, they decided to allow same-sex marriages. So in one regard, Mr. Bush is just reacting to them. Still, he is using the issue for political purposes (if most Americans favored same-sex marriage, do you really think he would have come out so strongly against it?), and this is deplorable. Even the statement that 60% of Americans don’t like same-sex marriages does not mean that 60% of Americans want to prohibit them. I don’t know what percentage of Americans would want to (at the point of a gun, after all) prohibit same-sex marriages, or even some lesser form of marriage, like civil unions.

As I wrote before, I favor some sort of legal protections for gay couples, but I’m not sure what form they ought to take.

March 17, 2004

My Scam Meter

This topic does not relate just to politics, and could be equally applied to religion, business and many other areas of our lives. I am introducing a not-so-new concept, the Scam-Meter. It is this little alarm system that most of us have; we use it to tell us when a scam is afoot. All I am doing here is giving this particular form of alarm some definition, and then seeing how it relates to the current happenings.

The Scam-Meter starts to wake up when we are informed by someone that we have a need, that we didn’t already know of. This heretofore unknown need could be in the form of something we want (like being cool) or it could be in the form of something we want to avoid (like dorkiness). A classical marketing technique at the start of the sales cycle is for the salesman to “create the need”.

The Scam-Meter gets more active when, after having a new need created, the person who created it now has the solution (like buy Nike shoes). Again, this is classical marketing technique, “create then need, and then solve it”. The Scam-Meter gets working a little harder if I, even after having been informed of the need, still don’t feel my neediness.

The Scam-meter really starts working overtime when the solution involves giving the need-creator and need-resolver something of value (like money).

As we get older, we usually get more resistant to this scam. Marketers know this, so they focus on teens and young adults, where the technique is still effective. But in the political and religious arenas, it seems that our gullibility does not go away. Politicians, especially, are keenly aware of the power of this technique, and use it all the time. We can pretty much rate demagogues by how they make use of it. Many ministers use this technique also, and some major religious dogmas seem to meet the Scam-Meter criteria.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about. N = the Need, S = the Solution, C = the Cost.

N) You have bad breath. S) Use Listerine. C) Money

N) Al-Quida will destroy us. S) Invade Iraq. C) Money, power.

N) You were born in sin. S) Accept Jesus Christ, he will forgive your sins. C) Money, status, power.

I could go on and on. I hope you get the idea. Note that the cost almost always involves me giving the Scammer some combination of money, status or power; the usual human desires.

I mention this only because we as a species don’t seem very resistant to it if the Scam is cleverly done, or if we have invested a great deal of trust in the would-be Scammer, or if the need can be made to sound plausible, or if the need touches some basic human need or fear. That’s why political and religious scams seem to be quite effective, even as we get older.

By any measure, both parties are guilty of this. Recently, the Republicans have been busier at it than the Democrats.

January 30, 2004

Abortion Compromise?

I’ve been pondering the “partial-birth abortion” debate, and I’ve finally gathered what (at least for today) seem to be coherent thoughts. As I’ve written earlier, I support the right of women to obtain abortions, but I recognize the moral problems with abortion. At the risk of getting shot at from both sides, how about a compromise along the following lines.

First, if there is any risk to the mother’s health that would indicate an abortion, she has the right to obtain it. To me, this is fundamental. Our women are not our breeding machines.

Second, (1)if the fetus is viable, and (2)the women’s health is not at issue, and (3)someone is willing to take the fetus, then the woman could be forced to go through with the birth. At first, this proposal may seem to be a cave-in to the pro-lifers, but the devil’s in the details.

Let me cover the three criteria. Viability is a hard one to nail down, and would be subject to change as technology changes. The main principle would be that the fetus could survive on its own. I assume someone could come up with a reasonable set of standards for this, and maybe there could be a medical board set up to judge these things. Women’s health should be fairly self-evident. We would not sacrifice a woman for an unborn child. Good medical practice and a review board could probably handle this one. Someone is where it gets stickier. That someone would be an individual (groups get too complicated) and would have to meet financial and “good character” standards. That someone would be absolutely responsible for the welfare of the child, as well as the health of the mother during the birth. That someone could not have the birth forced, and then refuse the child for any reason. If the child has health problems, that someone will pay for necessary care, even to bankruptcy. The taxpayers will not be responsible for any part of that cost, should it occur. After that someone becomes bankrupt, then the government would have to pick up the cost; what choice would we have? Of course, that now-bankrupt someone’s earnings would be garnished for the remainder of their lives, and that someone would never again be allowed to force a birth.

If people want to force their morality on others, they are going to be stuck with the potential consequences. Sounds fair to me.

December 5, 2003

Ten Commandments in Alabama

It’s old news by now, but there’s been some recent twists that make me wanna write about it. Judge Roy Moore, chief justice of Alabama, placed a large granite monument with the Ten Commandments on it in the rotunda of the Alabama State Judicial Building. After typical posturing by the typical groups, the Supreme Court ordered it removed. It seemed like a tempest in a teapot to me. There’s lots of religious and almost-religious displays around, even on public lands, and even though I don’t care for them personally, I don’t find myself getting upset about them.

It seemed pretty obvious that what Judge Moore was really after was getting some publicity, and some hard-core supporters, before making a bid for some political office, say, governor. Well, worse has been done in the pursuit of fame, so I’m not even going to criticize that. So why am I even bothering writing? Two follow-ups make this more interesting.

Across the country, in Casper, Wyoming, there’s another fight going on about religious displays. There’s been a Ten Commandments monument in a public park there for quite some time. A group from Wisconsin (who knew they ever visited Casper?) is trying to get rid of it, just like Moore’s monument. Now one Fred Phelps wants to install his own religious monument, celebrating the death and descent into hell of Matthew Shepard, the gay student who was murdered there. Rev. Phelps claims that if the Ten Commandments is there, then surely Lev 18:22 ought to be there also. A real gem of Christian charity and forgiveness, he is. Anyway, this demonstrates just how tricky religion can be. Since there’s scientific basis to almost none of it, none of it can be demonstrated/proven (or disproven), and one man’s opinion is no more wrong (or right) than any other’s. This gets far too tricky for politicians to control, and probably is the best reason for keeping the government and the religions as far apart as possible. After all, if a little religion (the Ten Commandments) is good, why isn’t more religion (Lev 18:22) even better?

The other curious thing was how many letters came into the editors about the Ten Commandments being the foundation of our legal systems. Of the 10, only 2 (killing and stealing) have any resemblance to our current laws. Every society, no matter the religion, has restrictions on killing and stealing, so to somehow link them to the Ten Commandments merely shows how far some folks will go to convince themselves that this is a Christian nation, enforceable by the government (at the point of a gun, like governments always do).

The following letter to the editor, published November 22, 2003, written by one Geoff Burkman, expresses this thought better than I can.

Several letters on Nov. 6 trotted out the tired argument that morality and ethics depend on religion.
I’d love to know what logic these folks have studied. Morality and ethics hinge on the mundane requirements of living human societies, rather than esoteric supernatural knowledge.
No one needs religion to understand that murder, theft and mendacity are bad things. No one needs religion to know that families are a good thing.
The writers, in their defenses of church/state entanglement, fail to understand the true dangers of such entanglement.
At times, it galls me that the DDN [Dayton Daily News] continues to print such nonsensical letters. Perhaps the DDN enjoys dragging out dead horses to beat, or perhaps the DDN simply enjoys enticing counterarguments from the likes of curmudgeons like me.

November 22, 2003.

Gay Marriage

The Supreme Court recently handed down a decision the holds the sodomy law in Texas unconstitutional. I might mention that I agreed with this decision. As one who thinks government powers ought to be limited, I think giving the government the power to police your bedroom is not a good thing. You would think most conservatives would agree, but it has become obvious that many conservatives think the government ought not be involved, but only if citizens are behaving like the conservatives would like them to.

Given that decision, there’s now a great deal of talk about gay marriage being next on the agenda. Obviously gays and lesbians would be in favor of such a thing. The main reason is to extend to their partners the full legal entitlements and protections that marriage has always conferred on spouses and children. I’ll agree that there have been a few instances where, usually as one partner is dying, that the family comes in and disrupts the relationship. Perhaps the couple executed some legal-looking agreements that spelled out their wishes, but these are have no real legal standing, and some unwanted situations have occurred. There is also often the matter of, for example, an employee getting medical coverage for the partner.

I think back to what the original intent of a legally-binding marriage was all about. Apart from religious teachings and practices, it was about a society’s compelling interest in having families, and especially children, living in protected and stable environments. I think everyone agrees that the traditional family has the greatest odds of producing civilized and productive children, and it stands to reason that a society would take steps to encourage that environment. I do not see where society has a compelling interest in extending all these protections to same-sex partners. To me, what is marriage about, if it is not about granting a special legal (and in our society, moral) status to all members of a family?

I do see where some accommodation should be made for couples who find themselves in this predicament. Could there not be some sort of “partial marriage”? All the commitments and celebrations might be undertaken, where some protections are automatically extended. Where agreements about inheritance and visitation and so on could be legally enforced for couples who entered into whatever we might call this new bonding.

I am not, however, impressed by Senator Frist’s comments about favoring a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, especially on the grounds that marriage is a sacrament. Should the states decide this individually, or should the Federal government decide? I don’t know, there’s problems either way. I’m not so sure this is such a big deal that the Feds have to get involved, but there’s a lot to be said for consistency among the states.

July 5, 2003