Friday, August 27, 2010

The Killing Fields Of Caracas - Investors.com

For any who think that Hugo Chavez is just another leader of just another nation, or that celebrities like Sean Penn have the right idea in "reaching out to him in friendship", or that the murder capital of the world is anywhere other than Caracas, here's a wake up call. While our president issues a report to the United Nations on how terribly American citizens abuse human rights, here's the winner of the Miss Universe pageant, Stefania Fernandez of Venezuela, showing the wisdom and courage to defy one of the greatest human rights abusers in the world today. Our president would do well to take notice.

The Killing Fields Of Caracas - Investors.com

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It's not a 'ruling class' (and it's not semantics)

So, a couple of days ago, Conor Friedersdorf, a senior editor on Andrew Sullivan's "Daily Dish", basically reposted a piece by a conservative commentator, William Voegeli. In it, Mr. Voegeli explains that the "Tea Party backlash" has risen in response to an increased arrogance on the part of the current leadership in Washington. On the other hand, replacing the "establishment" isn't as simple as voting the current leadership out of office.

Here's how the whole thing goes. There's always going to be an "establishment", whether its one built on democracy, theocracy, or as Mr. Voegeli believes the current one sees itself, on a meritocracy, filled with "eternal valedictorians" who consider anyone who disagrees with their view of the world to be a fool (and they don't suffer fools). But while the meritocratic establishment learned from the previous establishment, they're not so likely to "teach" the next one; so the question is, how will the next establishment learn, and what will they learn?

That's actually a good point; but it's not how Mr. Friedersdorf saw the issue. He tries to put it "succinctly" by asking the Tea Partiers: "if we're choosing our ruling class the wrong way now, what alternative do you recommend?" He's missing the point; which is stunning, since Mr. Voegeli already summed it up:

"An alternative reading of what the Tea Party movement does and should want is not a better establishment but a less autonomous establishment, subject to the checks and balances of a re-engaged citizenry and a re-invigorated Constitution that constrains its discretion. "
We're not trying to elect a "ruling class"; we're trying to elect leaders who realize that they aren't a ruling class. And that's the answer to his question. We don't need a new system for electing leaders (except possibly as regards our primary and other nominating conventions, of which I've already written); we just need our leaders to remember their role. It's not as our rulers, but as our servants. They may be better educated and more experienced, but that does not excuse either the arrogance or the dismissiveness we have all seen in Washington and in our own state capitals.

Perhaps it was just a poor choice of words on Mr. Friedersdorf's part; but if so, then it was extremely poor indeed. There's a culture of corruption at work in our leadership, and it feeds on pride; the pride that comes from having power over others, and that tells them they're above accountability, that they are actually the "ruling class". You cannot govern, especially in America, without the consent of the governed. We rule in America (as easy as that is for everyone to forget).

Give me a man (or woman) who knows his strength, but doesn't flaunt it; who seeks to lead, but not to have power; who wants to help, but not to impose; and who owns his mistakes and seeks to rectify them. Give me someone humble, but self-assured; courageous, but careful; intelligent, but thoughtful; compassionate, but firm. There aren't many out there, I know, but with 300 million from which to choose, we should be able to find them.

I don't have a problem with elites running the government; in fact, I want elites running the government. I just don't want them running over me in the process.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter (and Zazzle)

Free Exchange has come a long way in the last year and a half; about a hundred and twenty posts, covering issues from leadership to partisanship, racism to bailouts, energy, education, entitlements, and the economy; from the halls of Congress in Washington to the shores of California and beyond; debating death, taxes, and something more onerus than both, elections. I've tried to keep an open mind with my posts and encourage honest debate on all these subjects and more. I hope you've all enjoyed my writing and been at least partially enlightened, as well.

There is more to this blog than just my opinion pieces, of course. I have three accounts on other sites that I hope you would follow, also. I have a page on Facebook where I hope to start full discussions with my readers on a wide range of subjects. The topics currently include proposed changes to the Constitution, ending the practice of dividing Congress into "majority" and "minority" parties, and reforming elections and education in America. It's also a place to receive updates on related news stories and other items.

It also serves as a feed for my Twitter account, which will contain links to all my posts from here. Twitter gives me a chance to succinctly respond to items posted by news organizations, such as Yahoo, AP, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, etc. As I've said before, this blog is for opinion pieces, and is not a news outlet; but I will post links to news stories on Twitter, and even write out responses to items I feel deserve more than just a blurb. My account there will have updates from all of my outlets.

My third account is at Zazzle, where I create t-shirts, bumper stickers, mugs, etc., with little "nuggets of wisdom" from my blog. Yes, it is an online store, and yes, I am asking you to buy my products. But my purpose is twofold: one, to supplement my modest income; and two, to advertise my ideas (not just my products) beyond the blogosphere. My products serve as reminders to everyone that "It's not about politics, it's about issues," and that "Politics affect politicians, but issues affect everyone." They're non-partisan, and I don't think anyone would feel out of place wearing or displaying any of them during the election season and beyond.

I started this blog to promote issues and the free discussion of them. I have my own view, but I'm happy and even eager to hear other views. I also started it to encourage more activism on the part of the "average" American. We have a great freedom in this country, to choose our leaders and hold them accountable for their actions, and I believe we should all embrace that freedom at every opportunity. I started this blog with that ideal in mind, and my Facebook, Twitter, and Zazzle accounts each serve in their own ways to achieve that ideal. I hope you will help me in this, and keep spreading a free exchange of ideas.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The man who does not vote has no advantage over the man who cannot vote

Just borrowing/amending a line from Mark Twain to promote a little more activism. The general election season is steadily on the march, and you can expect things to get more tense as November approaches.

At least, you can expect things to get tense in Washington and in the candidates' headquarters. Whether or not it's tense for any of you depends on how closely you've been paying attention these last few years. True, things were getting bad in this country before the financial meltdown, but that was when, I think, the country started paying more attention to what Washington was doing.

In the last few years, Congress has spent more money trying to revive the economy than they have on any other endeavor (with mixed results, at best). They've passed more controversial legislation than almost any Congress in history, and in shorter time. The American people have responded with a massive shift in ideological enthusiasm. The same left wing of the country that rose to help sweep a Democratic supermajority into Congress seems to be taking a seat while the Tea Party has already ensured that several long-term legislators will not be returning to Washington this next year.

To say this political "realignment" is unprecedented would be untrue. I think we can all agree that the country has mood swings, not to mention unrealistic expectations of our leadership. On the other hand, while it is the responsibility of the people to keep an eye on our elected representatives in Washington, it's often the fault of the people who don't vote. How many Americans just don't like Congress, or politics, or elections? How much do we take for granted our right to choose our leaders? We can decry the process and shout "fraud" whenever someone is elected who we feel shouldn't be; but how many Americans simply don't vote when the time comes? I've said it before, and I'll say it again: if you forget about your country, then your country will forget about you.

Whether you like the candidates or not is irrelevant; whether you like Congress or not is irrelevant. These men and women will represent you in Washington. For the next two years, they will vote for you, whether you voted for them or not; they will speak for you, whether you speak to them or not; and they will act on your behalf, whether you tell them what you want or not. You can attempt to influence them and their vote, and you may or may not succeed; but if you don't at least try, then it is certain you won't. They make decisions that can change the course of the country, and that is not something that can be safely ignored by any of us.

The next presidential election won't be for another two years; but that doesn't mean you should wait until then to exercise your rights, to vote, to speak, and to demand accountability from your representatives. The only safe option is to become involved. Whether it's running for office, convincing someone else to run, supporting a candidate, or continuing to raise issues until the candidates can no longer "safely" ignore you, you have many options. You are just as responsible for what happens in Washington as any member of Congress.

When November comes, don't let anything stop you from voting, even if the only candidate you trust is yourself. There is no such thing as a wasted vote, except the one that is not cast.

Friday, August 20, 2010

My one and only post on the "Ground Zero Mosque"

I wasn't going to do this. Like the president himself and (a few) bloggers across the country, I wanted to stay out of this debate entirely (and I will); but I feel the debate itself could use a little ... reframing.

Cracked.com, a site that is normally devoted to any and all things humorous, posted an article today on how the debate about Muslims who want to build a mosque near the site of the fallen World Trade Center has become perverted the more people talk about it. The author points out three things that are often misconstrued about the issue: one, it's near the site of the 9/11 tragedy, not the site itself; two, it's a community center, not a mosque; and three, they have a right to build there that the government simply cannot ignore.

All those things are true; but even those three things distort the debate. One, hardly anyone still thinks they want to build on the site of the Twin Towers; two, it's an Islamic center, whether it's "strictly" a mosque or not; and three, it's not about wanting the government to step in and stop them, but rather simply about not wanting the building to be there at all.

This was the response I posted to Cracked's article (and please note, I don't say whether I think the center should be built):

Just because you can do a thing doesn't mean you should do a thing.

No one is saying the government should stop them from building a community center or even a mosque there. They're not saying it's illegal; they're saying it's wrong. Plenty of things that are wrong aren't necessarily illegal. Just like the West Baptists standing just outside the legal range of a funeral for a soldier killed in battle and shouting how glad they are he was killed, sometimes you just have to use common sense about when and where to exercise your "freedom".

Yes, it's a community center; yes, it's in a place where you couldn't even see the Twin Towers if they were still standing; and yes, politicians who have never even been to New York City have no place in this; but other people who oppose the project do have a place in it. While plenty of people who lost loved ones on 9/11 actually support building this center, there are plenty more who don't. You can't build a community center in a place where the community doesn't want it.

I say, leave the vote to the community. If New York City wants a mosque, a synagogue, or a three-ring circus built on the site, then I say let them have it; but if they say "get the hell out of our city", then I say get the hell out of their city.

Being a Congressman is about character

I said in my last post that there's nothing more American than capitalism. Well, that's why I don't like to use superlatives. There is something more American, and that's patriotism; and one of the most patriotic things you can do is involve yourself in elections.

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a candidate forum with the three men running to represent my district in the House of Representatives for the next two years: the incumbent, Democrat Glenn Nye, the Republican candidate Scott Rigell, and the independent challenger Kenny Golden. I know many people don't see much value in actually attending these events. After all, politics can get ugly, they can get dirty, and if you're really interested in what they're saying, then you can always get a transcript of the debate (which is why I won't be posting the transcript, myself; those who are interested will be able to find one easily enough).

What I will post is the impressions I got of the candidates as I watched and listened to them. That's the value of attending these forums, of going to townhalls and campaign events; as scripted as they are, and as practiced and rehearsed as the speeches and answers the candidates give may be, you have a much greater chance of learning about their character by seeing them in person than you can by simply reading about them. And last night, I feel I learned quite a bit about the three candidates.

Glenn Nye was on defense for much of the night, but he held his own fairly well against his two conservative opponents. Golden had once challenged Rigell for the GOP nomination, but became an independent before the primary. They both seemed to enjoy what one of them called "Gang Up On Glenn Night", taking the opportunity to hammer Nye for his vote on last year's controversial stimulus bill and for waiting until virtually the last minute to vote no on this year's health insurance reform. Nye responded by pointing out that hundreds of pages had been added to the health bill in the final days before the vote and he had taken the time to read them before deciding which way to vote. Rigell had another theory: that Nye had waited until enough Democrats were prepared to vote yes before he decided to vote no.

Rigell has made several statements lately to the effect that Nye is his only serious obstacle to being elected, not feeling that Golden has enough support to overcome the two major party candidates. As such, Rigell seemed all too eager to go on the attack against the Congressman, hitting him on nearly every question, even as he tried to outline his own proposals for how Congress and the country should move forward. At times, it seemed as if he took the Congressman's votes personally. That isn't necessarily a bad thing for a citizen to do, since they do affect us personally; but it's not always the best route for a candidate to take.

Golden, while rarely missing a chance to criticize Nye's record, of course also took the occasional shot at Rigell, pointing out that neither candidate had as long of a record in public service as his own and that both would be forced to look through "the lens" of their own political party. He struck a populous tone throughout the evening, calling for the FairTax, an "all of the above" energy policy, and for securing the border against illegal immigrants (a position that all three candidates shared). Though he may personally believe in each of these policies, the rhetoric felt a little forced coming through his lips (which only means he's not that much of a public speaker, of course, and doesn't say much about his abilities).

The differences between the candidates was perhaps most apparent in their positions on the health insurance reform law (Obamacare). While all three oppose it, they each had different proposals for how to abolish or amend it. Golden, the populist independent, supported immediate repeal of the law. Rigell, the pragmatic if passionate businessman, points out that a repeal would likely face a presidential veto. He instead supports the idea of the next Congress simply refusing to fund the initiatives in Obamacare, reminding voters that the Legislative Branch controls the budget. Nye, showing a little more understanding of the process than the others due to his time in the House, called for use of the amendment process, which he has already used successfully to amend both Obamacare and other issues. He pledged to continue to use it in the future, particularly with regards to the mandates in Obamacare.

I was offered stickers and information on each of the candidates before the debate began, and I told the people giving them to me that I would wait until after the debate before wearing anyone's sticker. While there are things I admire about each candidate, such as Golden's record, Nye's bipartisanship, and Rigell's fierce advocacy of the free market, I just couldn't bring myself to pledge my support to anyone in advance. Even now, after watching them debate and seeing them interact with each other and the audience, I can't quite decide. Characterwise, I felt Nye won the night, since he never had an unkind or even critical word to say about either of his opponents and had instead a series of measured, policy-based answers to each question. Golden and Rigell, though, while actually agreeing with much of Nye had to say, still "ganged up" on him when they could.

Yes, a candidate is supposed to draw differences between himself and his opponent. After all, if you think he's doing a good job, then why run against him? But I've seen plenty of successful campaigns, including Bob McDonnell's campaign for governor last year, that employed virtually no negativity at all. While I appreciate the zeal Rigell and Golden displayed for their positions, I was more impressed by Nye's restraint. After all, there are plenty of things he could have used to hammer both of them, as well.

There are still two whole months before the election. I'll keep my eyes open for chances to see the candidates in action (and in person) again. I hope you all do the same, wherever you are and whoever your candidates happen to be.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Free Exchange joins the free market (just in time for the free elections)

There's nothing more American than capitalism; except, of course, the flag, the Constitution, freedom, justice, and possibly apple pie. But I digress.

Anyway, Free Exchange is now selling a range of items, from clothing to bumper stickers, all featuring little snippets of wisdom from yours truly. The election season is fast reaching its climax, with most primaries completed and most general election ballots set. There will be many candidates, at least two from each Congressional district and many more for gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns across the country, each with their own logo, slogan, and/or brand to offer, many of which will sound exactly the same.

Free Exchange would like to offer an alternative this year: rather than voting for the candidates, vote for the issues. The product line includes many items which you can use to indicate your decision to do just that. And for those of you who don't intend to vote because you've had enough of politics, we have products to remind you that it's not about politics; it's about the issues.

Feel free to visit the online store, hosted by Zazzle.com, for some no-nonsense campaign gear this election season (more items being added each week).


Make a personalized gift at Zazzle.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Throwing more money at the mortgage problem?

There are rumors (and only rumors at this point, mind you) that President Obama may order federally-controlled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to blanketly forgive debt owed by millions of Americans. Let me tell you why this could be a terrible idea.

How familiar are you with physics? Physics tells us that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only altered or transfered. That's why when you burn something you get smoke and ashes.

The same principle applies to debt, unfortunately. We learned this two years ago when all of the so-called "toxic assets" (the debt owed by all the homeowners who bought homes they couldn't afford with the help of sub-prime loans) started making their way up the mortgage food chain. Every lender who was pressured by the federal government into loaning money to people whom they knew couldn't repay (for the sake of "everyone owning a home") eventually had to deal with the fall off in revenue that comes from throwing your money out a window. The lenders in turn soon couldn't pay off their own debt, which was bought by even larger banks and lenders up the ladder until it eventually reached Fannie and Freddie, which is what lead to the TARP program of '08 (leaving an unmistakable trail of smoke and ashes in its wake).

Now, where did all those "troubled assets" go at that point? Right onto the taxpayers' backs. We're now saddled with paying off all that debt that began to accrue when the government originally told banks and lenders to ignore the fact that their customers likely would never be able to pay off their debt. Now, the government is about to do it again (reportedly). Fannie and Freddie are practically owned by the government, which is why the President feels he can order them to do this and that. However, the debt he wants them to "forgive" won't just disappear; it'll return to sit right back on our shoulders once again.

Aside from shifting "toxic" debt around like leaves on the lawn being a bad (and impractical) idea, what is the point in "forgiving" debt? It's a bailout for the little guy, of course; the one "main street" has been seeking ever since Wall Street got theirs. But if Wall Street didn't deserve one (remember all those cries of "Hey, it's their own fault for mismanaging their finances in the first place"), then why do people who bought houses they couldn't afford deserve one?

What's the alternative, you ask? First is the government recognizing the mistakes it has made, namely in sponsoring enterprises such as Fannie and Freddie and in pressuring lenders to provide subprime mortgages. To regain credibility with the American people (almost impossible to do in any election year), the federal government, President Obama in particular, needs to say "the buck stops here"; which, not incidentally, is where the toxic assets were "supposed" to have stopped.

Second, the government needs to divest itself of its ownership/stewardship of and finanical stake in private sector entities and enterprises; not just Fannie and Freddie, but also of General Motors and any other private company that may have received public funds. It must further close its doors to any and all businesses that may seek a "bailout" in the future.

Noted financial and policy experts Donald Marron and Phillip Swagel last May proposed several measures for "ensuring liquidity for housing [while addressing] the critical need to protect taxpayers and the financial system from the systemic risks posed" by the model the government uses in the case of entities like Fannie and Freddie. Regulation and backing for mortgage finances would still exist, but it would gradually phase out federal involvement in the operation of the companies, making them completely private enterprises subject to free market competition. I encourage anyone to read their proposal in its entirety.

Now, what does that mean for all those currently saddled with more housing debt than their homes are worth? Shouldn't they still receive aid? Yes; but not a "bailout". Provisions should be made to rehabilitate their finances and reduce their debt, but the argument that the 80% homeowners who aren't "under water" should foot the bill for the 20% who are runs completely contrary to both Democrat and Republican philosophies. After all, haven't Democrats spent the last year arguing that those with health insurance shouldn't have to cover emergency room costs for those without it? And isn't the same argument used by Republicans to show that taxpayers shouldn't have to fund universal healthcare coverage for those who can't afford to purchase it? It's a bit of a paradox, I know, but that's politics for you.

This whole situation began when the government started telling banks and lenders how to do business; let's not have it continue with that.

Update 08 August 2010:

Well, it remains a rumor (for now). The Treasury Department insists they're not considering what could be called a massive redistribution of wealth in the name of "forgiveness".

I used to have a friend who would always ask me for a couple of bucks so she could get something to eat, and she would always promise to pay me back. I always told her that it wasn’t necessary, since it was just a couple of bucks. Over time, though, it started to add up. One day, we learned that a hurricane was coming, and she needed some “real money” so she and her friend could leave town until it all blew over, so to speak. I gave her forty bucks, but I told her this wasn’t like the other times, and that until she paid back the forty bucks, I wouldn’t give her any more money, no matter how little. She never paid back the forty bucks, and I never gave her any more.

Governments have a responsibility to not waste taxpayer money. Every penny they spend, they spend in our name, and it is all supposed to benefit the country and its citizens. With welfare, President Clinton worked with Congress to ensure that people on welfare would someday return to the workforce, which would benefit all of us in the long run. That’s an example of responsible stewardship of taxpayer money. The TARP program is supposed to be another, although it still hasn’t been repaid and the government has accepted stock in some banks and businesses in lieu of repayment.

As far as mortgage “bailouts”, that’s simply complete irresponsibility. I would never have been able to “make” my friend repay the forty bucks; all I could do was what I said, to never give her anything else. The government, on the other hand, continues to give (our money) to people who will never be made to repay. These people received loans they would never be able to repay, bought homes they could never afford, all with the government's approval and over the business community's objections, and now that the margin call has been issued, so to speak, it seems that the government's solution is to let the lenders take it on the chin (again); which means, since the government is the one financially backing these lenders, we're the ones who take it on the chin (again).

I certainly hope this just remains a rumor.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Senator Leahy's buyer's remorse

Senator Patrick Leahy is troubled by a provision in the new financial reform bill that was just passed by Congress. An exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, what the senator describes as "our nation's premier open government law", would keep American citizens from checking up on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as it moves forward under the new law. He's quick to point out that the provision was "originally drafted in the House", and that he wants the SEC to "narrowly interpret" the new exemption.

I won't get into the specifics of the new law or its implications for America; many others have done and will do so themselves, and in much greater depth and detail than I could. The purpose of this post is to highlight the buyer's remorse that even men as accomplished and staunch as Sen. Leahy feel as they continue in the manner and courses they set for themselves. This Congress, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid at the head, has enacted practices that are not only contrary to the country's best interests, but also to their own guidelines. Bills that are massive in both size and scope are literally rushed through both houses of Congress without time for proper review on anyone's part.

It began (at least in the current Congress) with the stimulus bill that became law within a day of the final language being drafted. That final language allowed embarrassingly huge corporate bonuses to be paid (at the taxpayers' expense) despite the failures on the part of the executives receiving them. Congress was so red-faced they tried to impose a brand-new tax on those bonuses (in possible violation of ex post facto laws) to cover for the fact that they allowed them in the first place.

Now, one of the leading Democrats in the Senate unwittingly voted to allow a major regulatory agency to operate outside the view of the American public. Why? Because, again, he didn't read the final bill before he voted. He subtly tries to shift the blame to the House of Representatives for changing the language before the final vote; but as a senator, it is still his own responsibility to know what is included in a bill before voting on it.

He's very sorry about it, too. He thinks immediate action should be taken. What's his solution? To draft new legislation that would revoke the exemption? No; it's to trust the SEC to not abuse its new power. It's to "work with the Obama administration and others in Congress" to make sure the SEC still has to tell us what its doing while it holds the future of our economy in its hands. Well, good luck with that, Senator. Maybe next time, you'll read the bill before you vote; but I doubt it.