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Scandal Watch (The Saga that Won’t End)

The latest:

  • The IRS targeting of conservative groups is only a “so-called scandal” in the eyes of some, who coincidentally, probably don’t like conservatives all that much. Equally coincidental, I am sure, those calling the IRS scandal a “so-called scandal” are members of the media, which we are repeatedly assured is never ideologically biased and treats both sides of the partisan divide fairly and honorably.
  • Rich Lowry points out that the IRS scandal–which really is much more than a “so-called scandal”–”is a scandal of administrators and bureaucrats, of otherwise faceless people endowed with immense power over their fellow citizens and running free of serious oversight from elected officials.” Which makes you feel good about all of the legislation passed that puts more power in these people’s hands, right?
  • Eric Holder is in trouble, as he is facing possible perjury allegations regarding his comments on the Justice Department’s investigation of Fox News reporter James Rosen. He has responded to the allegations by inviting media outlets to a discussion with him on how the issue could have been better handled, and what can be done in the future to conduct leak investigations without shredding the First Amendment. Here’s the catch: the discussion with the media outlets was supposed to be off the record. So presumably, Holder would discuss better ways to conduct leak investigations and media outlets could not tell the public–the same public that may actually be concerned about the shredding of the First Amendment–anything about his comments. To their credit, a host of media outlets refused to meet with Holder under these conditions. Oh, and the attorney general is “also beginning to feel a creeping sense of personal remorse” over how the leak investigation was handled, which is nice to know. Too bad he refuses to let the public find out how his “creeping sense of personal remorse” will translate into a change in policy at the Justice Department.

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Scandal Watch (A Continuing Series)

So, let’s review the latest:

  • Concerning the IRS scandal, we learn that Lois Lerner was “directly involved” in the targeting of conservative groups. This included signing letters that contained “a list of detailed questions of the kind that a Treasury inspector general’s audit found to be inappropriate.”
  • Organizing for Action is a 501(c)(4), which means that it is supposed to act in a non-partisan capacity when engaging in advocacy. So naturally, the president of the United States–who is anything but non-partisan–has signed a fundraising letter on behalf of Organizing for Action, which includes a request to register at this site, which as you will note, contains the name of the non-non-partisan president of the United States in its URL. As of two weeks ago, Organizing for Action has not yet applied for tax-exempt status from the IRS, but I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that when they do, they will encounter no problems whatsoever with their application. To be sure, the IRS won’t want to cause yet another scandal by giving yet another prominent 501(c)(4) applicant a hard time, but the point is that plenty of equivalent conservative groups have had to encounter a hard time at the hands of the IRS, while liberal groups have gotten nothing but the kindest cooperation.
  • I am pleased to note that Jonathan Turley has decided to continue to eat his Wheaties:

Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the administration’s sweeping surveillance of journalists with the Associated Press. In the greatest attack on the free press in decades, the Justice Department seized phone records for reporters and editors in at least three AP offices as well as its office in the House of Representatives. Holder, however, proceeded to claim absolute and blissful ignorance of the investigation, even failing to recall when or how he recused himself.Yet, this was only the latest attack on the news media under Holder’s leadership. Despite his record, he expressed surprise at the hearing that the head of the Republican National Committee had called for his resignation. After all, Holder pointed out, he did nothing. That is, of course, precisely the point. Unlike the head of the RNC, I am neither a Republican nor conservative, and I believe Holder should be fired.

Like dumber follows dumb, the scandal of politicized IRS tax enforcement has been followed by calls for a “special prosecutor.” Republicans are predictably leading this call against a Democratic Administration, but this is one case in which the GOP should hope it doesn’t get its way.

The case for a special counsel is that Attorney General Eric Holder can’t be trusted to investigate his Administration, and that the Administration will stonewall Congress. We don’t trust Mr. Holder either, but letting him pass the buck to a special prosecutor is doing him a favor. This scandal is best handled in Congressional hearings that educate the public in the next year rather than wait two or three years for potential indictments.

In Dan Brown’s new novel, Inferno, the lead character is struck with amnesia, unable to remember critical events even as he’s trying to save the world. Let’s borrow that useful plot device and imagine if American journalists woke up and couldn’t remember who was president. It would be interesting to ask them a few questions:

What would you think of a president under whom the IRS targeted his harshest political opponents, during his reelection campaign?

What would you think of a president whose obsession with leaks and secrecy was so great that he used the Justice Department to obtain phone records of reporters, in violation of Justice’s established procedure?

What would you think of a president whose head of the Department of Justice signed a criminal warrant against a leading journalist working for the news organization most critical of the president—and monitored the movements of the journalist and even went after his mother’s phone records?

What would you think of an administration that directed the president’s press secretary repeatedly to deliver false information concerning the death of an American ambassador?

These are not hypothetical questions—and yet there is an entire class of journalist so invested in a certain moral and ethical image of the president its members are unable to entertain facts that might tarnish that image. They are the pro-Obama equivalent of Birthers, never letting emerging facts cloud the conclusion they’ve already committed to hold.

The same journalists who did not hesitate to assume the worst of previous Republican administrations—
E.J. Dionne, Walter Pincus, Jack Shafer, to name a few—are now tying themselves in knots trying to explain that there is nothing to see when the IRS probes Obama’s enemies or that the Justice Department secretly seizing the phone records of one of their peers and his mother was really a good thing. One has to wonder if it were their mother and her records, how that mother-son conversation would play out.

“Well, Mom, you know, the president has to do these things, and I’ve told you time and again not to email Aunt Sally about my sources. Is that any way to keep hope alive?”

Stevens was Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in the 2012 presidential election. If he strategized as tough as he wrote this column, we might now have a new president.

A Good Pope

This is the kind of leader the Vatican so desperately needs and needed in order to win back hearts and minds and in order to overcome the scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church over the past few years:

Pope Francis has revealed for the first time the reasons for his decision to shun the official papal apartments and instead live in a much more modest Vatican ‘hotel’.

He has told a friend that he likes being in daily contact with ordinary people, does not want to be isolated and enjoys sitting down to meals with visiting clergy.

The Pope, 76, who on first seeing the papal apartments reportedly exclaimed “But there is room here for 300 people!” hinted that the arrangement may be permanent.

The Pope broke with Vatican tradition when he decided, after being elected on March 13 during a secret conclave of cardinals, not to live in the apostolic apartments.

Instead he opted to remain in the Casa Santa Marta, a Vatican residence which accommodates visiting clergy and lay people, where he had stayed with his fellow cardinals during the conclave.

[. . .]

“I didn’t want to go and live in the apostolic palace. I go over there just to work and for audiences.

“I’ve remained living in the Casa Santa Marta, which is a residence which accommodates bishops, priests and lay people.” There he feels “part of a family” he wrote in the letter, which was obtained by Clarin, an Argentinian daily.

“I’m visible to people and I lead a normal life – a public Mass in the morning, I eat in the refectory with everyone else, et cetera. All this is good for me and prevents me from being isolated.

“I’m trying to stay the same and to act as I did in Buenos Aires because if you change at my age you just look ridiculous.” The Pope, the first Jesuit pontiff in history and the first to come from the Americas, said his election was “something totally surprising” which he considers “a gift from God”.

Humble, and very, very good at public relations. If the College of Cardinals is not happy with the decision to have elevated Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the throne of St. Peter, then they need to have their heads examined.

Quote of the Day

. . . The President’s view is not necessarily statist in the sense that everything must come from government. He holds the fairly standard view that markets should be robust, but that market failures and other societal needs require government action. His views about the size of government are of course more expansive than that of most readers of this blog, but they are not out of the mainstream: they summarize the standard progressive position.

Yet it is not this antinomy between large versus small government that I want to discuss here. It is, rather, the President’s concept of legitimacy of government action. His view is disarmingly simple: the government is us. The government is not morally separate from us. We are part of it; indeed, that is the centerpiece of the “brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule” that the President evokes. This view seems to suggest that when the government acts, it’s we who act. So if (say) the government snoops on journalists, then it is us who are snooping on journalists. This is because government and people are one undifferentiated entity. In our democracy, the government can never be tyrannical by definition, because whatever harm the government may inflict, it is self-inflicted. The people has harmed itself, and, of course, volenti non fit injuria (to the willing no injustice is done.) So when you lash out against government you are not lashing out against some sinister entity that is alien to you, but at an institution of which you are an integral part. Such view owes much to Rousseau and his concept of the collective will. Immanuel Kant flirts with this idea as well (see the Doctrine of Right on legislation, and his claim that the concept of revolution is an oxymoron). It is also reminiscent of some of Hegel’s organic conceptions of the state.

The idea, however, does not stand scrutiny. The government is an agent that we hire to do a certain job. The government is not us. It is contractually related to us. It has a fiduciary duty toward us, the duty to provide the services for which it was hired. This does not prejudge the question of how large that mandate should be. As any economist knows, fiduciary relationships often generate agency costs. The government sometimes acts ultra vires, it oversteps its powers, it spins out of control. When that happens, the position that the government is separate from us, that it has turned against us, is perfectly intelligible and justified. With the possible exception of Rousseau, the view that democratic procedures are sufficient warrant for government action is not supported by any credible philosophical view.

Let me put the matter a different way. In a well-functioning democracy, a government is composed of officials who play certain roles defined by laws, by rules. When officials perform coercive acts unauthorized by those rules, they violate the rights of the subjects. Those acts are impermissible acts of coercion. If this is correct, then the insistence that our “unique experiment in self-rule” somehow preempts us from warning about the dangers of government must be rejected. With the exception of anarchists, few people take the view that government is a “separate, sinister entity.” What libertarians and others do is to warn against the excesses of government, its threats to our liberties, its inefficiencies. Above all (and this is something the President overlooks), critics of government, armed with the tools of public choice, point out that the bigger government becomes, the greater is the threat it poses, the larger is the probability that it will malfunction and exceed its rightful function.

Fernando Teson. (Emphasis in the original.)

Is Our Deficits Shrinking?

President Obama claims that they are. Keith Hennessey has a better grasp on the facts:

CBO projects that under current law we would have a deficit of 4% of GDP for 2013, meaning that our debt/GDP will continue to rise. CBO further projects that under the President’s budget we would have a deficit of 4.2% of GDP for 2013, slightly higher than their projected deficit under current law.

President Obama’s words:  
Our deficits are shrinking at the fastest rate in decades.

Translation 1:  
The rate at which we’re rolling backwards is slowing dramatically.

or Translation 2:  
Our debt problem is getting worse much more slowly than in recent years.

That is not something you should boast about.  You’re supposed to boast when things are getting better, not when they’re getting worse more slowly.

Is Obamacare Affordable?

There has been some celebrating on the port side ever since stories like this one came out, indicating that premium costs associated with the Affordable Care Act–Obamacare–are, well, affordable. We are to believe that 

[b]ased on the premiums that insurers have submitted for final regulatory approval, the majority of Californians buying coverage on the state’s new insurance exchange will be paying less—in many cases, far less—than they would pay for equivalent coverage today. And while a minority will still end up writing bigger premium checks than they do now, even they won’t be paying outrageous amounts. Meanwhile, all of these consumers will have access to the kind of comprehensive benefits that are frequently unavaiable today, at any price, because of the way insurers try to avoid the old and the sick.

Paul Krugman is positively gleeful as he contemplates the political consequences that he expects to ensue should these findings hold up:

. . . think about the political dynamics. Because the Supreme Court decided to let states opt out of the Medicaid expansion, some states — notably Texas — will have a pretty dysfunctional version of Obamacare in 2014, although even those systems will provide significant benefits to many people. Still, the whole political calculus was supposed to be that Republicans in red states could point to the horrors of Obamacare and ride them to political victory. Instead, it looks as if we’re going to see blue-state residents reaping the benefits of a functional health care system, while red-state residents are denied many of those benefits, for what looks like no better reason than mean-spirited spite — because what’s going on is, indeed, mean-spirited spite.

Predictions that Obamacare will be a big political issue are probably right — but not in the way gleeful conservatives imagined.

Unfortunately for Krugman et al., these claims of triumph do not give us some very important details about the California findings. For those details, one must consult Walter Russell Mead:

On Wonkblog, a pro-ACA outlet that cheered loudly when the California numbers came out, Sarah Kliff argues that success in the Golden State might not be replicable elsewhere. According to Kliff, California is one a few states to take an “active purchaser” approach to the ACA. This means that a state board has the power to select which plans will be available in the exchange, and can reject any plan whose rates are too high. Most other states, however, do it differently:

The vast majority of states…operate under a “clearinghouse model.” In that scenario, any health plan that meets a set of criteria gets approval to sell on the health insurance exchange. All 33 state exchanges that the federal government will run operate under this  clearinghouse model. So do 10 of the 18 state-run health exchanges (this includes the District of Columbia). Two states, Kentucky and New Mexico have not, according to Kaiser Family Foundation, addressed the issue yet.

In the final count, only six states are currently “active purchaser” states, so nationwide might not be as low as California’s projections suggest.

If that’s not enough to temper any lingering optimism, consider that the state had to make some significant tradeoffs to keep rates so low, as an 
LA Times piece reveals. Under the plans offered on the exchange, consumers will have access to far fewer doctors and hospitals. Blue Shield of California, for example, will give its exchange customers access to only 36 percent of its regular physician network . . .

Mead ends his piece with the following words: “With Obamacare, even the good news is often bad.” Quite so.

People Who Are Against Genetically Modified Foods Are Ill-Informed, and Willing to Let Millions Starve to Death

Read all about it. And remember the port side’s insane, completely unjustified opposition to genetically modified foods the next time that someone tells you that the American left and center-left has some kind of monopoly on respect for science and the scientific method.

Oh, and be sure to watch the video:

Anyone really surprised to find out that members of the anti-GMO crowd are unbelievably uneducated, completely weird, and boast at least one individual who refuses to vaccinate her kids because of the entirely invalid fear that vaccines promote autism? By the way, I am sure that these folks are more than happy to latch onto scientific findings when those findings support their particular political agenda. In such cases, you won’t hear any of them complain or allege that scientists are on the take from big corporations or the government, or that scientific findings are any kind of fraud on the public.

THIS Is “Austerity”?

Paul Roderick Gregory begs to differ with the notion that Europe is in the grips of austerity:

The Keynesian stimulus crowd blames austerity for the world’s economic woes without bothering to examine facts. I advise them first to consult my colleague at the German Institute for Economic Research (Georg Erber, I See Austerity Everywhere But in the Statistics), who, unlike them,  has actually taken the time to examine the European Union’s statistics as compiled by its statistical agency, Eurostat.

The official Keynesian story is that the PIIGS of Europe (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) have been devastated by cutbacks in public spending. Austerity has made things worse rather than better – clear proof that Keynesian stimulus is the answer. Keynesians claim the lack of stimulus (of course paid for by someone else) has spawned costly recessions which threaten to spread. 
 In other words, watch out Germany and Scandinavia: If you don’t pony up, you’ll be next.

Erber finds fault with this Keynesian narrative. The official figures show that PIIGS governments embarked on massive spending sprees between 2000 and 2008. During this period, their combined general government expenditures rose from 775 billion Euros to 1.3 trillion – a 75 percent increase. Ireland had the largest percentage increase (130 percent), and Italy the smallest (40 percent). These spending binges gave public sector workers generous salaries and benefits, paid for bridges to nowhere, and financed a gold-plated transfer state. What the state gave has proven hard to take away as the riots in Southern Europe show.

Then in 2008, the financial crisis hit. No one wanted to lend to the insolvent PIIGS, and, according to the Keynesian narrative, the PIIGS were forced into extreme austerity by their miserly neighbors to the north. Instead of the stimulus they desperately needed, the PIIGS economies were wrecked by austerity.

Not so according to the official European statistics. Between the onset of the crisis in 2008 and 2011, PIIGS government spending
 increased by six percent from an already high plateau.  Eurostat’s projections (which make the unlikely assumption that the PIIGS will honor the fiscal discipline promised their creditors) still show the PIIGS spending more in 2014 than at the end of their spending binge in 2008.

As  Erber wryly notes: “Austerity is everywhere but in the statistics.”

I presume that in short order, we will be told that a six percent increase definitely qualifies as “austere.”

Nice Work If You Can Get It

$156,000 a year for eating my fill and napping for two hours in the office before I go home? A $1,400/month food allowance? Where do I sign up?

Some labor supporters think that the decline of the labor movement is due to evil conservatives and their evil ways. But perhaps they should contemplate the possibility that labor’s decline is due to the fact that the talent pool in the labor movement is not what it used to be.

Tumbling ‘Round the Intertubes–May 27, 2013

1. The Urban Dictionary makes it to the courtroom.

2. A Franco-American Memorial Day commemoration.

3. Yes. Let’s.

4. Since this links to a spoiler FAQ, you obviously should not read it if you want to avoid spoilers. But you should read it if (a) you don’t care about avoiding spoilers; and (b) you want to laugh so hard that you pull a gut muscle or several.

Some Good Economic News, for a Change

We have been so used to bad economic tidings ever since the onset of the financial crisis that it is hard to remember what good news reads/sounds/looks/smells like. But courtesy of Tyler Cowen, we have some cause for optimism:

THE state of the economy is far from ideal, but some very definite positives are brewing. It’s not just that we are continuing to recover from a deep recession; we are also seeing signs that America’s long-term future may be looking up, too.

The case for optimism is 
hardly open-and-shut. The economy’s problems include high unemployment, mediocre productivity gains and stagnant or slow-growing earnings for most income classes. Still, let’s consider five indicators that the future is starting to brighten:

Read the whole thing. (Via Free Exchange.)

Reforming the D.S.M.

I am no expert on mental health issues, so I don’t know whether objections to the D.S.M. are all that valid, but this article struck me as being very interesting:

When Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, came out swinging with his critiques of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a couple of weeks ago, longtime critics of psychiatry were shocked and gratified. Insel announced that that the D.S.M.’s diagnostic categories lacked validity, that they were not “based on any objective measures,” and that, “unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma or AIDS,” which are grounded in biology, they were nothing more than constructs put together by committees of experts. America’s psychiatrist-in-chief seemed to be reiterating what many had been saying all along: that psychiatry was a pseudoscience, unworthy of inclusion in the medical kingdom. To anti-psychiatrists, Insel’s sudden disparagement of their bitter enemy—a mere three weeks before the A.P.A. released the fifth edition of the D.S.M.—came as aid and comfort, a large dose of Schadefreudian therapy.

But Insel was not saying anything he hadn’t been saying for years. In fact, he wasn’t even the first N.I.M.H. director to say such a thing. Steven Hyman, his predecessor at the post, first began expressing concerns about the
 D.S.M. more than a decade ago, noting that its categories had been invented primarily to provide a common language for psychiatrists, to ensure that any two doctors, presented with the same patient, would be able to agree on what diagnosis to render, and that the diagnosis would mean the same thing to every other doctor. Diagnostic labels, according to Hyman, had never been intended as more than useful constructs, placeholders that would provide agreement until psychiatry could develop objective measures—presumably when the understanding of the brain caught up with the understanding of the heart or the understanding of viral transmission.

A book full of detailed descriptions of human suffering was not likely to stay within those narrow boundaries. From the time the
 D.S.M.-III first took the descriptive approach, in 1980, bureaucracies like Insel’s and Hyman’s, which fund most of the mental-health research in the country, began acting as if diagnoses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder described conditions as real as AIDS or lymphoma, encouraging, if not forcing, researchers to tie their studies to D.S.M. diagnoses. At the Food and Drug Administration, new drug applications tied to D.S.M. diagnoses were placed on a faster (or less slow) track than drugs only tied to symptoms; it was much easier to get approval for a drug targeted to a major depressive disorder than a drug targeted to, say, sadness. In school systems, a D.S.M. diagnosis was an indication that a child had a medical condition that required special services. In courtrooms, expert testimony about a defendant’s mental disorder could affect the disposition of the case. The D.S.M. had been taken, as one of its staunchest defenders put it, “too seriously.” An entire mental-health system had followed the manual down a rabbit hole and into a world that doesn’t really exist. Or, as Hyman put it—and as Insel had long agreed—the D.S.M. had locked psychiatrists in an “epistemic prison.”

The reification of the 
D.S.M. might not have been more than a philosophical problem, were it not for the fact that, at least in Hyman and Insel’s view, it was beginning to hamstring research. And, indeed, the D.S.M. has frustrated scientists, who note that the most common symptoms of mental disorder—sadness and worry, for instance, or delusions and hallucinations—appear as criteria for many different diagnoses; that many patients can be diagnosed with more than one disorder; and that the few solid findings about mental illness that have emerged from genetic and neuroscience studies indicate that the D.S.Ms categories simply don’t correspond to biological reality. Looking for the neurochemistry of mental disorders that don’t necessarily exist has turned out to be as futile as using a map of the moon to get around Manhattan.

I don’t know if I am prepared to say that psychiatry is “a pseudoscience,” but it may well be that the D.S.M. is preventing psychiatry from being a more exact science. In any event, it will be very interesting to see where this campaign against the D.S.M. goes.

Quote of the Day

So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall-at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory.

When it was felt so deeply as it was on both sides that a man ought to take part in the war unless some conscientious scruple or strong practical reason made it impossible, was that feeling simply the requirement of a local majority that their neighbors should agree with them? I think not: I think the feeling was right-in the South as in the North. I think that, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.

If this be so, the use of this day is obvious. It is true that I cannot argue a man into a desire. If he says to me, Why should I seek to know the secrets of philosophy? Why seek to decipher the hidden laws of creation that are graven upon the tablets of the rocks, or to unravel the history of civilization that is woven in the tissue of our jurisprudence, or to do any great work, either of speculation or of practical affairs? I cannot answer him; or at least my answer is as little worth making for any effect it will have upon his wishes if he asked why I should eat this, or drink that. You must begin by wanting to. But although desire cannot be imparted by argument, it can be by contagion. Feeling begets feeling, and great feeling begets great feeling. We can hardly share the emotions that make this day to us the most sacred day of the year, and embody them in ceremonial pomp, without in some degree imparting them to those who come after us. I believe from the bottom of my heart that our memorial halls and statues and tablets, the tattered flags of our regiments gathered in the Statehouses, are worth more to our young men by way of chastening and inspiration than the monuments of another hundred years of peaceful life could be.

Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Via Paul Rosenzweig.)

Tumbling ‘Round the Intertubes–May 26, 2013

1. We are doomed.

2. Anyone really surprised by this?

3. Have I mentioned recently that we are doomed?

4. I mean, seriously, we are doomed.

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