Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bullish on Budget Transparency

There is good news from Richmond with regard to making the state budget more available -- and more comprehensible -- to citizens and taxpayers.

I earlier wrote about attempts to create a searchable database of the Virginia state budget through legislation introduced by Delegate Ben Cline and state Senators Ken Cuccinelli and Chap Petersen.

The good news is that the final version of these bills has been passed by both houses of the General Assembly -- in each case by a unanimous vote.

According to Ray Reed of the Lynchburg News & Advance:

A bill that will let people look up state expenditures online won final passage on a 40-0 vote Wednesday in the Virginia Senate.

Its sponsor, Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, said the measure improves an existing online database, called Commonwealth Datapoint, by speeding up the information the state had planned to post there.

Originally, Cline’s HB 2285 would have directed state information-technology officials to create a new searchable database for the state budget.

“Instead, the bill is trying to improve an existing database” managed by the state auditor of public accounts, Cline said.

“My bill puts it on steroids,” Cline said.

The data to become available will include line-item expenditures and spending on projects, according to the bill.

Order numbers, invoices and receipt information will be included so the public can “identify all supplies of goods, commodities and other services to the Commonwealth,” the bill said.
MSNBC picked up this story with an amusing typo in the headline: "General Assembly approves bulls to track state spending online" -- which brings all sorts of snorting and hoofing images to mind.

Oddly, Richmond Sunlight shows that both Cline's and Cuccinelli's bills on budget transparency have "failed." My guess is they were folded into other pieces of legislation that have different numbers, but I'd be curious to learn those details from readers with better information than I have.

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Virginia Is for Freedom Lovers

If you value personal and economic freedom, Virginia is a good place to live. New York is not; neither are New Jersey or Hawaii.

If you're really, really interested in liberty, then the states best suited for you are New Hampshire, Colorado, and South Dakota -- or so says a new study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

A paper released today by Jason Sorens of the University of Buffalo and William P. Ruger of Texas State University, called "Freedom in the 50 States: Index of Personal and Economic Freedom," says:

We find that the freest states in the country are New Hampshire, Colorado, and South Dakota, which together achieve a virtual tie for first place. All three states feature low taxes and government spending and middling levels of regulation and paternalism. New York is the least free by a considerable margin, followed by New Jersey, Rhode Island, California and Maryland. On personal freedom alone, Alaska is the clear winner, while Maryland brings up the rear. As for freedom in the different regions of the country, the Mountain and West North Central regions are the freest overall while the Middle Atlantic lags far behind on both economic and personal freedom. Regression analysis demonstrates that states enjoying more economic and personal freedom tend to attract substantially higher rates of internal net migration.
A map accompanying the report shows that Virginia is in the top quintile of this index of personal and economic freedom, while the bottom quintile includes California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.

The researchers used a comprehensive list of inputs -- ranging from "marriage & civil union laws" to "arrests for victimless crimes" to "occupational licensing" to "taxation" -- in three large categories: paternalism, fiscal policy, and regulatory policy. As the abstract explains the methodology:
This paper presents the first-ever comprehensive ranking of the American states on their public policies affecting individual freedoms in the economic, social, and personal spheres. We develop and justify our ratings and aggregation procedure on explicitly normative criteria, defining individual freedom as the ability to dispose of one’s own life, liberty, and justly acquired property however one sees fit, so long as one does not coercively infringe on other individuals’ ability to do the same.

This study improves on prior attempts to score economic freedom for American states in three primary ways: 1) it includes measures of social and personal freedoms such as peaceable citizens’ rights to educate their own children, own and carry firearms, and be free from unreasonable search and seizure; 2) it includes far more variables, even on economic policies alone, than prior studies, and there are no missing data on any variable; 3) we adopt new, more accurate measurements of key variables, particularly state fiscal policies.
To a certain extent, this new comparison of state policies that affect individual liberty is a parallel to international indices like the annual Freedom in the World report published by Freedom House or the annual Economic Freedom of the World report published by the Fraser Institute. In any case, it will prove to be a useful reference tool for legislators, regulators, bloggers and other journalists, and average citizens looking for information about their state governments. As an extra bonus for us, the researchers provide a link to all of the raw data they used to complete their study, including updates as they become available.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

2009 Oscar Predictions

As I write this, the 81st Annual Academy Awards are just getting underway. Hugh Jackman has finished the big production number to open the show (joined by Anne Hathaway) and he's playing around with the audience.

I have only a few minutes to make predictions of this year's winners before those predictions are overtaken by events. My reason for delay is that I drove up to Arlington today to see a play, and I have just returned. The play was Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, which is about a man, a tape recorder, and a banana and has a running time of 1 hour and 5 minutes. Sadly, as I said to my seatmate at the end of the play, "There's six hours of my life that I won't get back."

I will predict the winners only in those five categories for which I have seen all the nominated films, beginning with Best Adapted Screenplay. The nominees are:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire
Except for Doubt, all these films are also nominated in the Best Picture and Best Director categories. I actually think that John Patrick Shanley did a poorer job in adapting his own play, Doubt, than Peter Morgan did with Frost/Nixon. Having seen both plays, I considered them both unfilmable. While Slumdog Millionaire is the favorite going into this category, I think Frost/Nixon will take the prize.

Second, Best Short Film (Animated), for which the nominees are:
La Maison en Petits Cubes
Lavatory - Lovestory
This Way Up

Eliminate La Maison en Petits Cubes, a depressing film, and the weird (but intermittently entertaining) This Way Up. Presto has a leg up in this category because it was distributed as a curtain raiser with WALL-E, one of the biggest films of the year. Lavatory-Lovestory (from Russia) has a sweet sentimentality to it, but my favorite is Oktapodi. The Oscar, however will go to Presto.

Third, Best Short Film (Live Action), with these nominees:
Auf der Strecke (On the Line)
Manon on the Asphalt
New Boy
The Pig
Spielzeugland (Toyland)
Who likes short shorts? I like short shorts. Even in high school, I preferred short stories to novels as did, I think, a number of my classmates. When, as sophomores, we read Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," it was months before the refrain "I would prefer not to" died away. (There's something in that phrase that bespeaks the attitude of 15-year-olds.)

Short films are to feature films what short stories are to novels, and their makers have much the same goals and responsibilities. It's too bad that short films are so seldom seen outside of film festivals and, on occasion, on pay cable networks like HBO, because they deserve wider viewership.

I first saw New Boy as part of the Manhattan Short Film Festival, where it was an audience favorite. I think the Oscar voters will agree and it will win. This Irish film faces strong competition, however, from The Pig, a deliciously politically incorrect Danish movie. I'd be happy if either one took the statuette. (If The Reader does not do well in other categories, perhaps Toyland will win for its Holocaust theme as a consolation prize.)

Best Director and Best Picture nominees are:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire
These films are the same ones in each of the two top categories. In both, the contest is between Slumdog Millionaire and Milk. I believe that one will win Best Director and the other will win Best Picture. So, if Gus Van Sant takes the trophy for Milk, look to Slumdog Millionaire to win Best Picture. Conversely, if Danny Boyle wins for Best Director, Milk (a conventional biopic with an unconventional central character, just as Slumdog Millionaire is a conventional boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back movie with an unconventional setting).

(As I finished that paragraph, Dustin Lance Black has won the Oscar for best original screenplay for Milk. That may portend something for the film's prospects tonight.)

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Poster Girl for Opposite-Sex Marriage

Move aside, Britney Spears. An Indiana woman is now the best reason to ask: Why, exactly, are wedded gay couples a threat to the sanctity of marriage?

UPI reports
that she has been married 23 times:

Linda Lou Taylor, 68, who holds a Guinness World Record as the most married woman in history, said two of her husbands turned out to be gay, two ended up homeless, a few cheated on her, one choked her and another padlocked the refrigerator shut, Gannett News Service reported Wednesday.
And the Indianapolis Star expands the story:
Now known as Mrs. Linda Wolfe, she is the most-married woman in history.

She is also the most-married person alive.

And she is alone.

Wolfe can't list her husbands in order. But she remembers things that matter.

The nicest was George Scott, her first and -- at seven years -- her longest marriage. He was 31 and fresh from a stint in the military. She was 16 and just out of eighth grade. "We used to sing that song, 'I'm only 15 and he's 21,'" Wolfe said. "But we'd go around saying, 'I'm only sixteen and he's thirty-one.'"

The best lover was Jack Gourley, who liked skinny dipping and impromptu trysts. She wed him three times.

The marriage to Fred Chadwick was the shortest: 36 hours. The love wasn't there.

The strangest exchange of vows took place at the Indiana Reformatory at Pendleton to a one-eyed inmate named Tom Stutzman, whom she said was wrongly convicted of rape.
Miss/Ms./Mrs. Taylor gives "serial monogamy" a new meaning -- more like "Fibonacci monogamy."

So again I ask: If Linda Lou Taylor can get married legally, why can't I?

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The Trevor Moore Movie

To my surprise, it appears that none of the Charlottesville news or entertainment media have reported that hometown boy Trevor Moore is about to release his first feature film -- a film in which the one-time cable access star is a triple threat (screenwriter, co-director, and co-star).

The film, titled Miss March, is scheduled to be released on (naturally) March 13 (Friday the 13th, that is). An anonymously-submitted plot summary on IMDB suggests that the movie will offer the type of sophomoric humor that Moore -- now living in Brooklyn, New York -- provides on his cable TV comedy show, The Whitest Kids U' Know:

A young man awakens from a four-year coma to hear that his once virginal high-school sweetheart has since become a centerfold in one of the world's most famous men's magazines. He and his sex-crazed best friend decide to take a cross-country road trip in order to crash a party at the magazine's legendary mansion headquarters and win back the girl.
The movie is co-directed by Moore's fellow Whitest Kid, Zach Cregger, who also co-stars along with Raquel Alessi, Molly Stanton, Tanjareen Martin, and a large cast with character titles like "model," "Playboy bunny," "Playboy model," "music video girl," "sexy partygoer," "mansion babe," "hyperventilating schoolboy," and "Horsedick's homeboy." (Yes, for real.)

Charlottesvillians will remember Trevor Moore as a Covenant School graduate with a wicked sense of humor that seems at odds with his pious upbringing. (I don't think I would be telling tales out of school to mention that, at the one lunch meeting we had together, Trevor began the meal with a silent blessing over the food.) His cable-access show transferred to WADA-TV, a Pax network affiliate, but it was canceled after about a dozen and a half episodes. The edgy humor did not sit well with Pax viewers.*

Moore also was a cartoonist whose clever strip, Cuddy, appeared in the Daily Progress each Friday. As a teenager, he published a collection of cartoons, Scraps, which led to a later set-to with The Far Side's Gary Larson, who drew a cartoon remarkably similar to one of Moore's after the young artist sent Larson a sample of his work.

It's not clear how widely distributed Miss March will be, but it has a major backer -- Fox Searchlight -- and it makes sense that the movie will land in Charlottesville sooner rather than later. Just don't expect it to play at Vinegar Hill.

*Whether it had any viewers at all is questionable. One night I was watching the show and noticed that the broadcast engineer had mistakenly run the same segment twice or three times in a row. I called the station and, to my surprise, the phone was answered by Trevor Moore himself, who was interning at Channel 55. He was surprised to learn of the technical difficulties, since he wasn't watching the broadcast. (He didn't have to; he produced the show.) Nobody else had complained, either. A few minutes later, however, the problem was fixed.

Update: My review of Miss March can be found here.

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Craig Ferguson Still Gets It

Late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson often reminds his viewers that he became an American citizen by taking and passing a test, which sets him apart from native-born Americans who (he implies) know less about their Constitution and government than he does.

That naturalized immigrants must learn more about American history and our constitutional heritage in order to enter full citizenship than birthright Americans is a commonplace. Americans, sad to say, are ignorant of politics and government. They routinely fail to answer correctly 50 percent or more of the questions in a survey about the Constitution or about political history.

We're not talking about average Americans failing to recognize the name of Rebecca Felton (the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate) or knowing the details of the Supreme Court's decision in Watchtower v. Village of Stratton. No, these are questions like "How many branches of government are there, and can you name all three?"

In any case, the Scottish-born, self-educated Ferguson has absorbed American values and, although is politics seem to lean a bit toward the left-liberal side of the spectrum, it is clear that the libertarian streak of his former boss and co-star Drew Carey has rubbed off (at least a bit) on the host of The Late, Late Show.

Evidence for this came this week when, on episodes 829 and 830 (Tuesday night and Wednesday night), Ferguson unleashed a torrent of satire and sarcasm against the meddlesome and condescending ways of local government.

In this particular case, Ferguson had planned on using, during the cold open that follows The Late Show with David Letterman, some lighted sparklers to make the show more festive and, well, sparkly.

But no -- Los Angeles County requires anyone who handles sparklers to take a training course and obtain a legal permit before doing so. (This will come as a surprise to any of us -- that's you and me, readers -- who handled sparklers on the Fourth of July at the age of 7 or so, no permit in hand.) Consequently, Ferguson had to wait until Wednesday's show -- episode 830 -- to demonstrate his (now-legal) sparkler-handling capacity. The permit, I should add, specified where on his show's set that the comic actor could stand while holding the lit sparklers. (He bravely ignored this aspect of the regulations, risking judicial punishment in the process.)

Throughout the two hours of merriment on succeeding nights, Ferguson was able to skewer local government for its patronizing view of citizens: laws like this one suggest that we are too stupid to take care against any damage that a sparkler (which burns out by itself within about 30 seconds) might cause. Making fun of tyrants is older than Shakespeare (older than Plautus and Aristophanes, for that matter) and Ferguson does it oh-so-well. If nothing else, he compels us to ask why we tolerate a government that holds us in such low esteem.

I have written previously that Craig Ferguson is the most intelligent and wittiest of the late-night talk-show hosts. He is also the one with the fullest understanding of what it means to be an American -- not bad for a guy born overseas. (You can find my previous posts about Craig Ferguson here and here.) Perhaps he should affiliate himself with the Institute for Justice, as Drew Carey has done with the Reason Foundation.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Who Is Nathan Hankins?

Longtime readers of this blog know that, by using SiteMeter, I am able to keep track of the search terms people use to find their way here. Some of those search terms have been odd and inscrutable.

Over the past week or so I have received repeated visits from somebody in Mountain View, California, someone who apparently works for Google. Although each visit lands on a different page (or blogpost), each one has the same search string:

nathan hankins sex pervert sheriff
Pursuing this search on Google does not shed much light. The first ten hits are completely unrelated and the individual words ("nathan," "hankins," "sex," "pervert," and "sheriff") do not appear near each other.

The first hit, for instance, leads to a a blogpost about the 2003 documentary film, directed by Andrew Jarecki, Capturing the Friedmans (which, by coincidence, I did see in a theatre when it was first released -- though I don't think I've ever written about it).

The second hit brings you to an incomprehensible alphabetical list of names.

The third hit goes to a page entitled "Walt Disney is EVIL!" (Need I say more?)

The fourth Google hit leads to my blog posts for the month of October 2006. To parse the mysterious search string, I find a reference to "nathan" in the context of Nathan Lane. The word "hankins" appears in a post about the Adrenaline Film Project at the 2006 Virginia Film Festival. "Sex" shows up in this headline: "New Jersey Court Rejects Same-Sex Marriage Rights" and in several other posts on a similar topic, the then-proposed (and since passed) Virginia Marriage Amendment (also known as the Marshall-Newman Amendment). "Pervert" appears only in a post about "the fallout from the Mark Foley scandal" and how people use the Internet to talk about sex. The word "sheriff" does not appear anywhere at all in that month's postings, which makes this whole situation even more confusing.

A Google search for the name "Nathan Hankins" (in quotation marks) turns up two Facebook profiles and an IMDB listing for someone with that name who has worked on the sound department of several films and TV shows. There are no hits for "Sheriff Nathan Hankins" (in quotation marks).

The mystery remains: Who is Nathan Hankins? Is he a sheriff or a sex pervert, neither or both? And what is his connection to Google or my blog?

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Politics as Comedy

Brian McNeill pulled the comedy beat at the Daily Progress this week.

His byline appears on the lead story on Friday's front page, "A life-size map of Virginia, and other modest proposals," which reports on various suggestions made on Governor Tim Kaine's new web site,

McNeill also was assigned the task of reporting on a comedy roast of gubernatorial candidates at the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association dinner in Richmond.

Add to that McNeill's story on gay couples' seeking marriage licenses at the Charlottesville court house, and you know he had a busy day as a journalist.

The stimulus web site solicits suggestions by Virginia taxpayers with regard to how the Commonwealth should spread the largesse it gets from the federal government. (You may have heard about the bill that, despite spending more than all the cash in circulation in the United States, will be passed by both houses of Congress without giving any senator or representative sufficient time to read it and understand it.)

Some of those suggestions are less funny than they seem on first glance, but they still bring a smile to the reader, if not an LOL. I especially like these three:

No. 428: Beer Stimulus Initiative

This project will encourage small business development by giving a six-pack of locally-made beer to every adult in the Commonwealth. This project will take one year to finish. The final stimulus amount assumes an average cost of $7.99 per six-pack, plus a 10% administrative fee.

No. 273: Torch It

Buy a Bic lighter, should be less than $1. Use the lighter on the 700+ pages of the stimulus package....

No. 357: Hemp Industry

[Gov. Kaine] touched briefly about reducing the nonviolent prisoners. Take it the needed step forward and decriminalize marijuana for private use and return to the ability granted Dr.s to prescribe marijuana. Allow hemp to replace tobacco. If you feel I’m wrong, convince me by showing how this current policy is beneficial to the people and the state.
Some of the jokes told by the four major-party candidates for governor -- Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrats R. Creigh Deeds, Terry McAuliffe, and Brian Moran -- appear a bit more snarky on the printed page than they probably sounded to the VCCA audience in Richmond on Wednesday night. But they are funny nonetheless. Take these examples:
“I want to actually commend Brian because he’s made a very strong campaign commitment to alternative energy,” McDonnell said. “I was talking to Brian about what the details of his plan are. He was pretty excited about it. He’s actually testing a new campaign car that runs on an energy source that is indefinite and renewable — and that is Terry’s hot air.”

McDonnell went on to mention Moran’s environmental platform that includes opposition to a coal power plant in Surry and any drilling for oil and gas off Virginia’s shores.

“Brian, no one’s going to accuse you of looking past the primary,” he said....

“Brian said the other day that Virginia doesn’t need a fundraiser,” McAuliffe said. “He’s right. Virginia doesn’t need a fundraiser. Creigh needs a fundraiser.”

Yet McAuliffe reserved a few digs for himself, joking about how critics say he is a carpetbagger who nearly ran for governor of states other than Virginia. He read from what he said was the first draft of his campaign announcement: “Thank you. It’s great to be here in Tallahassee. Come on folks, I’m kidding. You know, I love running for governor of New York, I mean Virginia.” ...

“Between me and Terry, we have President Obama covered,” Moran said. “Terry has audacity. And I have hope.”

Moran also highlighted McDonnell’s backing from such prominent Republicans as John McCain, Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani.

“They’re sharing with you all their winning strategies,” he said. “Follow those strategies.” ...

“Bob’s going to move Virginia forward by leaving office,” Deeds said. “I couldn’t agree more.”
Few politicos in Virginia have forgotten that Deeds lost the race for Attorney General to McDonnell by just over 300 votes in 2005, in a year that more than two million people voted in that contest.

Note to Brian McNeill: Hollywood is calling. They need fresh comedy writers.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln Blogs

As late in the day that it is, I can't let February 12 go by without, at least, a brief mention of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday.

I was born during Lincoln's sesquicentennial year and, when I was a kid, Lincoln's birthday was celebrated as a holiday, just as Washington's birthday was 10 days later each February. Lincoln's Birthday was not always a federal holiday but it was definitely a state holiday in the northern part of the United States. This was before Lincoln's Birthday and Washington's Birthday were merged by Congress into the more amorphous "Presidents' Day," to be celebrated on the third Monday in February. The purpose of Presidents' Day is, I suppose, that we remember the achievements not only of Washington and Lincoln but equally those of Millard Fillmore and James Garfield.

In 1968, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen proposed a law that would declare Lincoln's Birthday a federal holiday. The bill did not pass:

Dirksen, who as a Member of Congress from 1933 to 1947 represented the same district in Illinois that had once been represented by Abraham Lincoln, made a number of speeches about the 16th President throughout his long political career. The last of these was delivered on February 12, 1968, about 18 months before Dirksen died in office and just months before the turmoil we remember from 1968 (the Tet Offensive; the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy; and the riots during the Democratic convention in Chicago, among other things). Here is the text of Dirken's remarks:

A man of all generations -- son of Illinois — president of the United States — Abraham Lincoln was each and all of these, but he was a great deal more as well. For this was a man of many parts, all of them human and most of them great.

This was the politician who in 30 long years of devoted service in his party’s ranks came to realize that politics, like life, is the art of achieving the possible and who learned that he had nothing whatever in common with some political platforms whose planks were platitudes and with men of no discernible principle.

This, too, was the husband and father whose home life was torn by strife and dissension and the tragic death of children.

But this, too, was the president — the president and commander-in-chief … Devoted above all else to preserving the union ‘with the dignity, equality and rights of the several states unimpaired.” So he said; so he did.


And in so doing, he brought freedom to the enslaved. As he wrote in his annual message following the Emancipation Proclamation: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom for the free, honorable alike in what we give and in what we preserve.”

This was Abraham Lincoln, politician, husband and father, president and commander-in-chief, martyr for all mankind.

Now, in 1968, it seems possible that we shall never see his like again. This is a sobering thought, but it should be a kindling one. For upon us now, as a people, has been laid perhaps the greatest responsibility any nation was ever asked to shoulder, yet certainly not greater than we can bear. Our days are no longer than were Lincoln’s, our nights are no darker, and if there is any difference between his time and this it lies in the tremendous advantage that is ours, that this son of Illinois stood so tall before us.
Taking my cue from the many merchants who use Presidents' Day weekend as an opportunity to sell their goods, I am not shy to mention here that I have created a few Lincoln products that are now for sale at my CafePress shop. The image on each of these items is a black-and-white photograph of the Lincoln statue near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, England. (Lincoln's statue stands alongside those of other prominent figures, including Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts.)

You can choose among an Abraham Lincoln calendar print, Abraham Lincoln mousepad, tile coaster and framed tile, Abraham Lincoln wall clock and throw pillow, or a keepsake box and a personal journal.

I am sure that Lincoln would not mind the commercialization of the holiday that bears his name (or at least his occupation). After all, didn't he once say this?
That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and, hence, is just encouragement to industry and enterprise.
Even if he didn't, he should have.

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Americans for Prosperity Dinner in Richmond

On February 10, the grassroots activist group Americans for Prosperity held a full day of briefings, rallies, and lobbying at the state capitol in Richmond.

The day was capped with a gala dinner featuring former Governor (and Senator) George F. Allen as its keynote speaker. Members and friends of AFP also heard from Delegates Ben Cline and Brenda Pogge, former Delegate (and AFP-Virginia chairman) Paul Harris, Americans for Prosperity national president Tim Phillips, and former Circuit City CEO Richard Sharp. The theme of the dinner was "Defending the American Dream."

I captured most of the pre- and post-dinner speeches on video. Some segments are a bit shaky because the staff at the Richmond Marriott continued to serve dinner courses during the early speeches. (This, I guess, was the organizers' way to keep everything running on time, accommodating the many activists who arrived in Richmond early in the morning on buses from all corners of the state and who wanted to get back home at a reasonable hour.)

Here are Delegate Brenda Pogge's opening remarks. She is introduced by Ben Marchi (as are most of the other speakers).

Delegate Ben Cline was the next to take the stage. His remarks included news about what was happening in the General Assembly, including the news that his bill calling for better budget transparency had passed the House of Delegates and was on its way to the state Senate.

Pogge and Cline were followed by Tim Phillips, the national president of Americans for Prosperity, whose home is in Virginia even if his office is in Washington, D.C. Phillips took aim at Capitol Hill in D.C. and spoke about AFP's efforts. He specifically mentioned the 305,000 signatures on a "stop the stimulus" petition that had been gathered on that web site in about 25 days. (Between Friday and Tuesday, the number of signatures grew from 69,000 to 305,000. The number must be even higher by now.)

The leaders of AFP -- Marchi, Pogge, Cline, and Phillips -- then took time to recognize Suzanne Curran as "Volunteer of the Year." Curran accepted the award and encouraged AFP's other 13,000 members in Virginia to "keep up the work."

After dinner, the lights were dimmed and a short video about George Allen's years as governor was shown. (It appeared to have been prepared for use during Allen's 2000 campaign for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Chuck Robb.) Then Rick Sharp gave some introductory comments and Governor Allen -- with all the energy of a politician in full-campaign mode -- delivered his stump speech.

Allen's remarks are divided into four parts.

Part I includes Sharp's introduction, as well as Governor Allen's acknowledgment of many friends and supporters (the "A-Team") in the audience:

Part II continues Allen's remarks, beginning with a Ronald Reagan quotation, "If not us, who? If not now, when?":

Part III includes Allen's comments on the state of the U.S. economy:

In Part IV, Governor Allen concludes his remarks, with an emphasis on the importance of energy:

(It is in this segment that Allen answers the question, What are Americans addicted to?)

Finally, AFP-Virginia Chairman Paul Harris, who once held the same seat in the House of Delegates that had previously been held by George Allen and Thomas Jefferson, rose to present former Senator Allen with -- what else? -- the 2009 Thomas Jefferson Award from Americans for Prosperity. Before presenting the award, Harris asked former First Lady of Virginia Susan Allen to join them on stage.

The dinner ended shortly before 10:00 p.m. and several hundred local, grassroots political activists went home happy but tired from a long day of participating in the political process.

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'Might As Well Face It ...'

In the middle of a speech delivered in Richmond on Tuesday night, former Virginia Governor George F. Allen answered the question: "What are Americans addicted to?"

Here is what he said:

(For the video-impaired, here's the full quotation: "Americans are not addicted to oil. Americans are addicted to freedom." Not bad for 8 seconds.)

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Two Thoughts on the Stimulus

From disparate directions of the economic debate come two thoughts on President Obama's proposed stimulus package. I thought this might be a useful follow-up to what I posted last Friday ("Short Term Gain, Long Term Pain").

First, veteran journalist Martin Walker, who now holds the title "editor emeritus" at United Press International, writes:

The stimulus plan that emerged from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House, without a single Republican vote in support, is not impressive, whether judged by its ability to create jobs or to invest money widely for the economy of the future. It does not even do a competent job of providing a quick fix for a consumaholic system that finds itself suddenly starved of cash.

The Senate compromise, which is expected to pass this week, is not much better. The largest single item remains the extension of Medicaid, which will be helpful for the surging numbers of unemployed but will not create many new jobs. Those it does create will be in the already swollen health sector. This is now set to consume 17 percent of GDP while producing worse life expectancy and infant mortality figures than other countries enjoy while spending less than 10 percent of GDP.
Second, from economist Arnold Kling, a member of the Mercatus Center's Financial Markets Working Group, writing in a "Tax & Budget Bulletin" for the Cato Institute:
The key to averting ... a depression, is to restore business profitability, especially in the nonfinancial sector. In a capitalist system, profits and losses are signals. Profits signal businesses to expand, and losses are a signal to contract. Profits have been collapsing, resulting in firms laying off workers and pursuing few new investments.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that total wage and salary disbursements grew 2.8 percent in 2008 over 2007.3 Meanwhile, corporate profits were down 9 percent through the third quarter of 2008.4 Fourth quarter data were not available as of this writing, but Bureau of Labor Statistics data for the fourth quarter show that labor costs rose faster than productivity at a 12-percent annual rate, which implies a further plunge in profits.

The government can help restore profitability in the private sector by reducing business taxes. Cutting the payroll tax rate on employers would be particularly helpful. A 50-percent cut in this tax would amount to about a $230 billion annual savings. Such a cut would increase the deficit by much less than the current stimulus bill, while likely producing a larger boost to employment. In addition to helping restore profitability, it would reduce the cost of labor at the margin, giving businesses an incentive to hire workers. Also, it would take effect more quickly than the spending in the current stimulus bill.
There you have it -- cutting the payroll tax will have a greater measurable effect on creating employment than the Obama-Pelosi "stimulus" package. Why isn't Congress talking about doing what is effective rather than what feels good?

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Life Imitating Art

Anybody who has seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee(on Broadway or on tour) will be familiar with this plot element, brought to life last week in Arkansas and reported by the Canadian Press:

Sixth-grader Morgan Sims knew how to spell "debacle," but she got an unfortunate lesson on its meaning when her northern Arkansas school district forgot a spelling bee entry fee.

Morgan correctly spelled "debacle" - meaning failure, in an often ludicrous way - to win the Craighead County Spelling Bee on Friday, taking home the first-place trophy and a $200 savings bond.

But her school forgot to pay a $100 per-building entry fee to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, said Craighead County School District co-ordinator Sandra Taylor.

The upfront fee is optional for the county bee but is required to advance to the state competition.

A rule is a rule, whether it's "i before e except after c" or it's requiring an entry fee to participate in competition.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Jesuit Heritage Week at Georgetown

The news arrived too late for me to participate in the various events on offer, but it's still noteworthy that students and faculty at my alma mater, Georgetown University, are celebrating Jesuit Heritage Week through Sunday evening. (The celebration began on Monday, February 2.)

A brief history lesson: Georgetown University is the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States, founded in 1789 (the same year that the U.S. Constitution was ratified and George Washington became the first president). The founder was Archbishop John Carroll (see photo, left), himself a former Jesuit, and the University has been operated by members of the Society of Jesus since the end of the Jesuit Suppression in 1805. It received the first federal university charter from the U.S. Congress in 1815. Given the historical nature of the recent U.S. presidential election, it is noteworthy that Georgetown was led by an African-American president, the Reverend Patrick Healy, S.J., from 1873 through 1882. The most prominent structure on Georgetown's campus, Healy Hall with its Flemish Romanesque towers, is named for him.

Jesuit Heritage Week has become a tradition over the past eight years:

Stephen Feiler (C’02) helped organize the first Heritage Week in 2001. He had overheard some students trying to downplay Georgetown’s Jesuit roots and wanted to change the perception that being Catholic was somehow a negative. He says the idea for Heritage Week stemmed from a similar event at the Catholic high school he attended in New York. “We had an Ignatian Awareness Day at my high school,” he says. He hoped to create something similar in order to “foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the university’s distinctive religious character.”

Eight years later, that mission continues. Feiler says the event has gotten better each year because of the creativity of the student leaders. “Each group has put their own twist on the week, to keep it relevant and fresh,” he says. “I certainly never imagined I’d see ‘Spike a Jesuit!’” he adds, referring to the now-annual volleyball match between Jesuits and students.

Boroughs says that the match is an example of how the events of Jesuit Heritage Week are not only reflective and stimulating, but also fun. “It should be noted,” he points out, “that for the past six years the Jesuits have beaten the student team.”

Gregory, searching for an answer to the string of victories by the Jesuits, does not credit divine intervention. “They all play together all the time,” he says. “They know their group dynamic. The students just show up and get schooled.”
The events of Jesuit Heritage Week are an eclectic mix, to say the least.

In addition to the student-Jesuit volleyball match, mentioned above, there are two Protestant worship services with Jesuit preachers scheduled for this coming Sunday (as well as a Mass to mark the end of the week); a lecture entitled "Avoiding Religion or Confessing It: Research and Study in a Post-Secular Academy"; several sessions on Jesuit spirituality; a tour of the Georgetown campus with an emphasis on finding Jesuit iconography; a Jesuit Shabbat this evening cosponsored by the Jewish Student Association; a discussion on the "Jesuit Commitment to Interreligious Dialogue"; and "Theology on Tap!," with (naturally) drinks as well as conversation.

There are some Jesuit-oriented items available at my Cafe Press store under the heading "Saints & Sinners."

Short Term Gain, Long Term Pain

In remarks yesterday before a gathering of Energy Department employees, President Barack Obama said with regard to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan (stimulus package) now under consideration by Congress:

...The time for talk is over. The time for action is now, because we know that if we do not act, a bad situation will become dramatically worse. Crisis could turn into catastrophe for families and businesses across the country.

And I refuse to let that happen. We can't delay...
It seems to me that the President suffers from what psychologists call an "action bias." Washington Post columnist Shankar Vedantam described the "action bias" like this early last year:
The action bias, or the desire to do something rather than nothing when you have just been through a terrible experience, plays a powerful role in our lives. It influences individuals and companies, investors and leaders. You can see the action bias on display in current thinking on the housing and economic crises, in the bitter debates over the war in Iraq -- even in discussions about how to fix a football team that's a perennial loser.

When people suffer losses and confront the possibility of even greater reverses -- it doesn't matter if you are talking about a terrorist attack or a meltdown in retirement savings -- it is psychologically difficult to do nothing, to hold course. This is true even when the action you contemplate produces an outcome that leaves you demonstrably worse than you were in the first place.
Physicians take an oath that says "First, do no harm," and this should be the controlling philosophy behind any legislative attempt to steer the economy one way or another.

The President should read the latest report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which says that, if the Obama plan is passed, it will lead to some short-term gains at the expense of long-term economic pain. The plan (encompassed by H.R. 1, the House bill) would reduce Gross Domestic Product over the next decade.

The CBO's report, done in response to request by Commerce Secretary-designate Judd Gregg, now a senator from New Hampshire, states:
Most of the budgetary effects of the Senate legislation would occur over the next few years. Even if the fiscal stimulus persisted, however, the short-run effects on output that operate by increasing demand for goods and services would eventually fade away. In the long run, the economy produces close to its potential output on average, and that potential level is determined by the stock of productive capital, the supply of labor, and productivity. Short-run stimulative policies can affect long-run output by influencing those three factors, although such effects would generally be smaller than the short-run impact of those policies on demand.

In contrast to its positive near-term macroeconomic effects, the Senate legislation would reduce output slightly in the long run, CBO estimates, as would other similar proposals. The principal channel for this effect is that the legislation would result in an increase in government debt. To the extent that people hold their wealth in the form of government bonds rather than in a form that can be used to finance private investment, the increased government debt would tend to “crowd out” private investment—thus reducing the stock of private capital and the long-term potential output of the economy.

The negative effect of crowding out could be offset somewhat by a positive long-term effect on the economy of some provsions—such as funding for infrastructure spending, education programs, and investment incentives, which might increase economic output in the long run. CBO estimated that such provisions account for roughly one-quarter of the legislation’s budgetary cost. Including the effects of both crowding out of private investment (which would reduce output in the long run) and possibly productive government investment (which could increase output), CBO estimates that by 2019 the Senate legislation would reduce GDP by 0.1 percent to 0.3 percent on net.
This analysis should come as no surprise to anyone who is economically literate. The stimulus package is a shell game. It just moves money from one sector of the economy to another, based on political rather than market criteria. It has no overall positive effect.

Putting it another way, syndicated columnist Walter Williams quoted George Mason University economist Richard Wagner in a recent article:
“Any so-called stimulus program is a ruse. The government can increase its spending only by reducing private spending equivalently. Whether government finances its added spending by increasing taxes, by borrowing or by inflating the currency, the added spending will be offset by reduced private spending. Furthermore, private spending is generally more efficient than the government spending that would replace it because people act more carefully when they spend their own money than when they spend other people’s money.”
Williams, who also teaches economics at GMU, then expands on the point in his own colorful way:
Let’s say that Congress taxes you $500 to put toward creating construction jobs building our infrastructure. The beneficiaries will be quite visible, namely men employed building a road. The victims of Congress are invisible and are only revealed by asking what you would have done with the $500 if it were not taxed away from you. Whatever you would have spent it on would have contributed to someone’s employment. That person is invisible. Politicians love it when the victims of their policies are invisible and the beneficiaries visible. Why? Because the beneficiaries know for whom to vote and the victims do not know who is to blame for their plight.

In stimulus package language, if Congress taxes to hand out money, one person is stimulated at the expense of another, who and is unstimulated. A visual representation of the stimulus package is this:

Imagine you see a person at work taking buckets of water from the deep end of a swimming pool and dumping them into the shallow end in an attempt to make it deeper. You would deem him stupid. That scenario is equivalent to what Congress and the new president proposes for the economy.

A far more important measure that Congress can take toward a healthy economy is to ensure that the 2003 tax cuts don’t expire in 2010 as scheduled. If not, 15 separate taxes are scheduled to rise in 2010, costing Americans $200 billion a year in increased taxes. In the face of a recession, we don’t need that.
Given that the recession (which began in December 2007) is already half over -- the average length of recessions is 18 months, though some extend to 24 months -- the best prescription is to do nothing and let the economy sort itself out through market forces.

Writing in Politico on January 28, reporters Eamon Javers and Jim Vandehei noted:
Most of Washington has reached quick consensus: Government must do something big to shock the economy, and it should cost between $800 billion and $900 billion.

But dissident economists and investment professionals offer a much different take: Most of Washington is dead wrong.

Instead of fighting over what should go in the economic stimulus bill, pitting infrastructure spending against tax cuts and contractors against contraceptives, they say lawmakers should be fighting against the very idea of any economic stimulus at all. Call them the Do-Nothing Crowd.

“The economy was too big. It was all phantom wealth borrowed from abroad,” says Andrew Schiff, an investment consultant at Euro Pacific Capital and a card-carrying member of the stand-tall-against-the-stimulus lobby. “All this stimulus money is geared toward getting consumers spending and borrowing again. But spending and borrowing were the problem in the first place.”
Javers and Vandehei report, correctly, that
government stimulus plans have a long history of failure. Remember last February’s $168 billion economic stimulus package? President Bush called it “a booster shot for our economy” and promised that it was large enough to have an effect. It wasn’t, and it didn’t work.
Citing a Cato Institute scholar, Javers and Vandehei continue:
For the Do-Nothings, the argument isn’t about economic nuance, it’s about right and wrong. They say that borrowing more money to finance a stimulus package will pass a crushing and possibly permanent debt load on to the next generation. “The question is,” says Chris Edwards, the director of tax policy studies at Cato, “is this morally proper?”

Edwards says no. “Policymakers are saying: ‘Screw the future generations.’”

The Do-Nothing Crowd also points to some of the hidden upsides of the recession — developments they say are already helping position the U.S. economy for a recovery.
Finally, they quote a Nobel laureate who is resigned to wrong-headed government action even though inaction is preferable:
Nobel Prize-winning economist Edward Prescott of Arizona State University agrees. “Congress has to do what people want, and it’s clear that the people want this stimulus,” Prescott says. “But I just wish the people would tell them: ‘Don’t do it.’”
People still can tell their Senators to vote no. If they're not already drunk with power, those legislators might just listen.

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Happy Reagan Day!

Today is the 98th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan and I wanted to be the first to wish my friends and readers a Happy Reagan Day!

Twenty-eight years after President Reagan took the oath of office (without stumbling over the words), he remains an iconic figure among conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans -- and others of all political stripes. Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz even named his book about the last 34 years The Age of Reagan. Candidate Barack Obama referred to Reagan as a transformative figure in American history. Two years before he was elected President himself, Obama said on NBC's Meet the Press:

Ronald Reagan was a very successful president, even though I did not agree with him on many issues, partly because at the end of his presidency, people, I think, said, “You know what? We can regain our greatness. Individual responsibility and personal responsibility are important.” And they transformed the culture and not simply promoted one or two particular issues.
Despite liberal caricatures aimed at defining Ronald Reagan as (in Clark Clifford's words) "an amiable dunce" and a shoot-from-the-hip, warmongering cowboy, the 40th President was, in fact, a widely-read, innately intelligent, peace-loving man who was confident in his beliefs and had a preternatural ability to communicate with people of all strata of society. Moreover, as his diaries indicate, he was concerned above all with maintaining peace and reducing the stock of nuclear weapons on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Historian Douglas Brinkley, who helped edit Reagan's diaries, mentioned this as a major part of the Gipper's legacy in an interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross on February 5; he also pointed out that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, is the most-visited of all the presidential libraries in the country. To know the reason, check out the videos I posted here a year ago today.

There are so many fine and inspiring things that Ronald Reagan said during his long lifetime, and I would like to point out most of them, but I'll limit myself on this occasion to what he said at the outset of his interview with Reason magazine, which was published in July 1975.

The first paragraph has been widely quoted:
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.
The second paragraph shows that then-ex-Governor Reagan had a nuanced understanding of the various branches of libertarianism (or libertarian-conservatism):
Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.
I don't know about you, but I hear some Hobbes and Locke in that statement.

His response to the second-to-last question ("Are there any particular books or authors or economists that have been influential in terms of your intellectual development?") suggest what should be required reading for any president, legislator, or candidate for public office:
Oh, it would be hard for me to pinpoint anything in that category. I’m an inveterate reader. Bastiat and von Mises, and Hayek and Hazlitt–I’m one for the classical economists....
It says a lot about Ronald Reagan's reach (as a political leader and as a human being) that he is featured, if briefly, in a hagiographic biopic about a quintessentially liberal political icon, Harvey Milk.

In Gus van Sant's Oscar®-nominated film, Milk, Reagan is mentioned and pictured as an opponent of the direly anti-gay Proposition 6, the so-called "Briggs Amendment" that would have, if passed, instituted a witch hunt to purge the government schools of gay teachers and anyone who offered support to gay teachers.

Reagan's opposition -- and making common cause with "San Francisco liberals" like Milk -- was crucial in defeating this crazy initiative. What's more, he made his opposition known at a time (1978) when being in favor of equal rights for all Americans would not help him politically. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

For these and for numerous other reasons, rather than waiting to subsume his memory on the omnibus President's Day two weeks hence, we celebrate today, February 6, as Ronald Reagan Day.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Nanny State Creeps On

Last November, I posted a terrifically entertaining and informative video from about anti-smoking ordinances around the country.

The focus of the video was of several California communities and I never guessed that the nanny-state approach to smoking would ever become law in Virginia.

Call me naive. It turns out that, in a policy reversal, Speaker of the House Bill Howell has announced a "compromise" that will ban smoking in virtually all restaurants in the Commonwealth. (I am trying to figure out how a blanket ban is a "compromise" of any sort, since a "compromise" implies that each side in a disputed policy debate gives something up in return for something given up by the other. It appears here that the only side giving something up was the free-market side. The nannies gave up nothing.)

A real compromise would have respected the rights of property owners by giving them a choice in the matter. For instance, a law could have been drafted to require restaurateurs to post signs in VERY LARGE TYPE at the entrance to their establishments, stating whether it was a "Smoking Allowed" or "Smoking Prohibited" facility.

We know from experience in other states that when restaurant smoking bans are put in place, restaurants lose business. Smokers decide that, rather than going out for a meal and a few drinks, they will buy a six-pack or a fifth of vodka, some easy-to-cook food, and stay home to eat and drink. (Pizza delivery restaurants are not adversely affected by smoking bans.)

For example, a study by two economists from the University of North Texas in Denton, Terry L. Clower and Bernard L. Weinstein, found that in the year after the city of Dallas imposed a smoking ban on restaurants within its jurisdiction:

...the Dallas smoking ban ordinance

• Contributed to a decline in alcohol sales in the City of Dallas
• Negatively impacted revenue at many restaurants in Dallas
• Caused at least four restaurant closings
• Appears to be changing the business models used by hospitality business owners in Dallas.

The findings also track the trend experienced in Carrollton, Texas where a government imposed smoking ban led to a decline in alcohol sales and a loss of restaurant development and tax dollars in the city.
Clower and Weinstein note that, after the smoking ban was imposed:
Comparing 2003 to 2002, year over year sales of alcoholic beverage at eating and drinking establishments in Dallas fell $11.8 million – almost three times the decrease in sales between 2001 and 2002.
Later in their study, the economists add: owners have seen alcoholic beverage sales decline anywhere from 9 percent to over 50 percent since the Dallas smoking ban went into effect. Owners and managers of these establishments report mixed results in food sales, with one restaurant indicating no impact on food sales while others claim as much as a 25 percent loss in food sales. No responding restaurant indicated they had gained revenues since the smoking ban’s inception.
Regardless of whether restaurants lose sales as a result of smoking bans, they surely bear a regulatory burden that can be monetized. (A regulation is a form of taxation.)

University of Missouri law professor Thomas Lambert wrote in the Washington Post in 2006, based on a longer article he published in the scholarly journal, Regulation:
The case for smoking bans thus fails. Contrary to ban advocates' claims, the costs of smoking's externalities are ultimately borne by the owners of smoking-allowed establishments who, as a group, have incentives to efficiently accommodate smokers and nonsmokers. Efforts to shape people's preferences regarding smoking run into individual choice issues and may be counterproductive. Scientific evidence on the risk of ETS may be overstated and never addresses the important point that some people are willing to take that risk.

A better approach would be a hands-off policy permitting business owners to set their own smoking policies. Motivated by the pursuit of profits, the owners would have the proper incentive to maximize social welfare. The market would be far more likely than government regulation to accommodate the various preferences of nonsmokers and smokers alike.
Let the market decide. That, Speaker Howell, is the conservative (and the morally correct) solution. If you want us to vote for Republicans in November, you shouldn't be imposing policies that are bred by liberal Democrats.