Congratulations to North Korea!

Those of us who hope for the downfall of the North Korean regime are forced nevertheless to tip our hats to the skill and resourcefulness of the regime’s internal security forces. They have captured Merrill Newman, an 85 year old American veteran of the Korean War, and have convicted him for “hostile acts.” Why, they have even televised his confession–one freely given, I am sure–so the North Korean allegations against Mr. Newman must be true. Reading the story, one readily sees how much of a threat to North Korean peace and security Mr. Newman must have been. The North Koreans really dodged a bullet by catching him, eh?

I guess this story ought to make us rethink our plans to use the CIA (Centenarian Intelligence Agency) to foment dissent and internal strife in North Korea. Also, we may not want to use the NSA (National Society for the Aged) to eavesdrop on conversations between higher-ups in the North Korean government and military, or to start up a cyber war with the Hermit Kingdom.

On Obamacare “Improvements”

Before reading this story and the excerpt that immediately follows, ensure first that your expectations are as low as they can possibly be.

Done? Good. Now read:

Administration officials are preparing to announce Sunday that they have met their Saturday deadline for improving HealthCare.gov, according to government officials, in part by expanding the site’s capacity so that it can handle 50,000 users at once. But they have yet to meet all their internal goals for repairing the federal health-care site, and it will not become clear how many consumers it can accommodate until more people try to use it.

Government and outside technical employees worked through the night on the latest upgrade, intended to increase the Web site’s capacity for consumers seeking to go through the early stages of registering for an account and then logging in. The upgrade was successfully completed about 4 a.m. Saturday, according to a government official familiar with the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe details that the administration was not publicly disclosing.

But it was not immediately apparent, the official said, whether the improvement meant that the site can now meet one of the Obama administration’s internal goals — for 80,000 people per hour to be able to register and 320,000 per hour to be able to log in — and added that the overnight tinkering was, at least for now, causing a slight increase in error messages on the site.

An official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency overseeing the federal health insurance exchange, said the site’s true capacity is somewhat murky because workers need to see how it performs under “weekday traffic volumes” when demand is at its peak.

Even with rock-bottom expectations, it is hard to be impressed by any of this. To be sure, I imagine that the website will be substantially improved over time, but that is only because it is difficult to see how its performance could possibly be any worse than it has been ever since the rollout of Obamacare. So the improvements we may see don’t amount to anything worth bragging over, and unless the above represents a lot of spin from the White House that is designed to lower expectations in advance of a better-than-anticipated performance by the website, we won’t see much in the way of substantial improvements anytime soon, despite the president’s “tech surge” to fix the website.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration appears set to miss today’s deadline for improving the website. And although we are now seeing “‘hundreds of enrollments’ a day,” instead of mere dozens, these recent stats still represent a subpar performance for the website. And people are still having problems. Lots of them:

Guy Dicharry of Los Lunas, N.M., said he had been in limbo at the identity-verification stage since Oct. 5, despite giving the site personal information several times so it can confirm his income. He hasn’t heard back about a paper application submitted Nov. 1.

“This has been botched and is not getting fixed. If it’s not fixed, I’ll be ringing in 2014 as a newly uninsured person. I suspect that is the opposite of what the ACA was supposed to achieve,” said Mr. Dicharry, who described himself as a supporter of the Affordable Care Act. Because of their age and income, Mr. Dicharry and his wife stand to gain valuable subsidies toward the cost of coverage, but only if he buys it through the website.

Ronald Gallagher of Paradise Valley, Ariz., said he had been helping his daughter shop for coverage. After 16 hours over four days starting Oct. 1, they were told her identity was verified and she could pick a plan. But when they logged in to the website, it said her application was “In Progress.”

After failing to get help from a call center, father and daughter filled out an application over the phone in early November, but they still haven’t received a letter telling what insurance plans she qualifies for. “So far, nothing the government has done has worked,” Mr. Gallagher said.

Even when people successfully enroll, insurers say they sometimes get incorrect data. Ms. Bataille, the government spokeswoman, said officials have seen “marked improvements” in the information transmitted to insurers but “we know there are still issues that remain.” An HHS official also said that there had been improvements in identity verification, but that the agency knew it wasn’t fully fixed.

Mr. Lewis of Maine Community Health Options also worried about a larger volume of applicants, especially since insurers have now been told to find ways to process applications that come in from people as late as Dec. 23 in time for their coverage to begin Jan. 1, rather than a previous Dec. 15 deadline.

If “there’s an avalanche on that last date, I don’t know if the system will be able to support all that,” he said.

The president still believes that people trust him, facts be damned:

A CNN Poll of Polls complied Thursday showed the president’s approval rating at 41%, near a low of his five years in office. The numbers have dipped as Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act, faces problems with its website and the number of Americans whose health plans are being canceled.

Obama has taken responsibility for the website’s flaws, saying he should have been told earlier about the serious issues with HealthCare.gov’s digital infrastructure. He’s also apologized for his vow that people who liked their plans could keep them.

In Friday’s interview, Obama said he was looking for answers soon on why the rollout failed so spectacularly.

“Obviously my most recent concern has been that my website’s not working,” Obama said. “We’re evaluating why it is exactly that I didn’t know soon enough that it wasn’t going to work the way it needed to. But my priority now has been to just make sure that it works.”

Note that sentence: “We’re evaluating why it is exactly that I didn’t know soon enough that it wasn’t going to work the way it needed to.” Well, one reason might be that the president, per Todd Purdum’s description, is not exactly an engaged manager or leader. So perhaps the mystery behind the breakdown in information processing in the administration would be solved if the president of the United States took the opportunity to look at himself in a mirror at some point.

Meanwhile, Timothy Egan puts on his tinfoil hat, and informs us that the reason the website signups are working in some states have to do with the “fact” that there are “no Koch-brothers-sponsored saboteurs trying to discourage people from getting health care.” Of course, he provides no proof whatsoever that there are “Koch-brothers-sponsored saboteurs trying to discourage people from getting health care,” but I don’t imagine that either Timothy Egan or the New York Times care much about proof when they are busy letting their ideological flags fly. The rest of the column is equally muddled, confused, and populated with incoherent side rants–including the absurd claim that “a major political party and its media arm [are] so actively rooting for fellow Americans to lose.” Not that I expect Egan to understand this, but Republicans live in the United States, are Americans, and therefore very likely don’t want Americans to “lose,” if only because they might be among the Americans who “lose.” Of course, Egan seems to think that “disagreeing with the likes of Timothy Egan” means “actively rooting for fellow Americans to lose.” And apparently, so does the Times editorial staff. I don’t know how this claptrap makes it into the editorial pages of a newspaper that likes to think of itself as the most respectable publication since Gutenberg printed the Bible, but there you have it; another indication that Big Media is giving up the ghost intellectually and–if you read the comments–so are a number of Times readers.

A Friendly Note to the Obama Administration

Not that you aren’t aware of this, guys (at least, I hope that you are aware of this), but the Chinese are testing you. Try not to fail the test by actually allowing the Chinese to expand their air defense zone. Rather, inform the Chinese–quietly but firmly–that the United States will not recognize the expansion of the zone by filing any flight plans with the Chinese, and state that the Chinese will be responsible for any and all confrontations that may occur in the future.

Additionally, let it be noted that there is absolutely no need whatsoever to inform others of any conversations that you may have with the Chinese; we don’t want them to lose face in the event that they decide to back down. It was, after all, Sun Tzu who told us to “[b]uild your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across,” and the less willing you are to build that bridge, the less willing the Chinese will be to walk across it.

This is a major test for American diplomacy, Obama administration peeps. Pass it, and you might restore some credibility to our foreign policy in the aftermath of the abandonment of (a) the president’s red lines on Syria, (b) the bizarre willingness to let the Russians dictate terms in Syria and re-enter the Middle East diplomatically, and (c) the incredibly bad nuclear deal with Iran. Fail it, and . . . well . . . get ready to be beset with even more challenges from less-than-friendly nation-states that will give you more headaches, and will erode American national security in the process.

The Semi-Autobiography of Walter Bagehot

It comes highly recommended. And it now goes on my must-read list. A taste of what one might expect:

The tragedy is that Bagehot, in the vast range of his writings, left no autobiography. But that lacuna has been splendidly filled by an American scholar of Britain, Frank Prochaska, who has taught at Yale and at Oxford, where he was a visiting fellow at All Souls College. He has written on the British monarchy, and on women and philanthropy and Christianity in Victorian England, and has immersed himself so deeply in the life and times of Bagehot that the man’s voice appears to be speaking to us eerily from the grave.

Written in the first person, the book daringly presents itself as Bagehot’s own memoir. Pedants may question this impertinence, particularly when Prochaska writes of such personal matters as the mental illness of Bagehot’s mother. (“Every trouble in life,” Bagehot once remarked, “is a joke compared to madness.”)But Prochaska has delivered a work of extraordinary scholarship and profound human sympathy that is also a pleasure to read. He ranges across his subject’s varied interests—from finance to poetry, from governance to national character, from the science of evolution to the mysteries of religion. And all is peppered with Bagehot’s epigrammatic wit. It is not the real thing, but it comes exceedingly close.

The Amazon link for the book can be found here.

Your Government at Work

The next time someone tells you that a larger, more intrusive federal bureaucracy is just what the doctor ordered, refer that someone to this:

Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Director George Cohen is resigning only days after learning he is a target of a congressional inquiry spurred by a Washington Examiner series.

The Examiner series reported that FMCS employees spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on luxuries and that top officials retaliated against employees who questioned the spending.

“I have notified President Obama that I intend to resign as Director, effective December 31, 2013,” Cohen told employees in a memo obtained by the Examiner.

“I am happy to report that I leave the agency in very good shape with the admiration and respect coming from private parties, federal government agencies, and public sector organizations and their respective union representatives.

“I also gave Scot and Allison special thanks for their untiring efforts and the superb quality of their performances,” he said, referring to his deputies.

Allison Beck-Chernikoff and her sister-in-law, Bonnie Chernikoff, who is Cohen’s administrative assistant, participated in no-bid contracting and spending on luxury items, emails reviewed by the Washington Examiner showed. Scot L. Beckenbaugh is another deputy of Cohen’s.

Asked whether Obama White House officials pressured Cohen to resign, FMCS spokesman John Arnold would say only that “we are in contact with the committee. Director Cohen has no further comment.”

Cohen is a union man who is receiving a pension from the United Steelworkers of America and held a position with the National Hockey League Players’ Association at the time President Obama appointed him in 2009.

At a salary of $165,000, he oversaw the 230-person agency with a budget of $50 million that provides non-binding, voluntary arbitration between private companies’ and governments’ managers and unions.

“Let me give you the honest truth: A lot of FMCS employees don’t do a hell of a lot, including myself. Personally, the reason that I’ve stayed is that I just don’t feel like working that hard, plus the location on K Street is great, plus we all have these oversized offices with windows, plus management doesn’t seem to care if we stay out at lunch a long time. Can you blame me?” said an FMCS employee who asked for anonymity.

“The agency really needs to be incorporated back into the Department of Labor, the way it was back in the early days, or totally eliminated,” the employee said.

Upset by this story? Well, I am about to make it worse by inviting you to contemplate all of the other instances of corruption and abuse that are likely occurring at the highest reaches of the federal bureaucracy–abuse which we don’t even know about yet.

An Absolute Coincidence, I’m Sure

There is no way–none whatsoever–that there could be any kind of low political cunning behind this:

The new U.S. Treasury/Internal Revenue Service rules aimed at clarifying what constitutes political activity for tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations are likely to give more heartburn to conservative groups than their liberal counterparts.

In 2012, conservatives pumped nearly eight times the money through their 501 (c) groups than liberals did, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org website. (CRP has a handy description of what the different advocacy groups are legally allowed to do.)

CRP reported that conservatives spent $265.2 million through 501 (c) groups compared to $34.7 spent by liberal groups during the 2012 cycle.

Like I wrote, I am sure that it is just happenstance that these new rules end up inconveniencing conservatives more than they do liberals. We all know that the Obama administration would never try to structure policy in order to gain any kind of political advantage, don’t we? And as we are all well aware, the IRS itself is clean as a whistle.

So, I guess that we can all sleep well at night secure in the knowledge that good government is having its day and absolutely no politics whatsoever are being played by the Treasury Department and the IRS. After all, what could possibly cause us any fear or concern regarding this story?

Green Shoots of Sanity

There is plenty of craziness in the world; including, among other things, war, famine, corruption, broken political systems, and a botched healthcare rollout. So when a story comes along about obsessive fans of the Dutch masters, it actually serves to restore my faith in humanity.

In writing that, I don’t pretend to opine on behalf of anyone other than myself, and of course, I recognize that for some, the thought of arranging jobs, vacations, lists of friends and entire personal lives around the viewing of a certain set of paintings might sound more than a bit crazy. But all it takes is a look at the news to see that there are worse ways to spend one’s life, so to all fanatical devotees of 17th century Dutch paintings who may be reading this blog, I say: Keep on keeping on. You may well be among the most well-adjusted people currently in existence, and perhaps, thanks to you, one day, we can have nice things. May that day come speedily, and in our time.

“Pardon These Turkeys”

George Will is thankful . . . in his own way.

Art of the Day

René Magritte, Le Portrait de Paul Éluard.

Rene Magritte

Plaintive Plea of the Day (Part Deux)

Can we please stop pretending that China is the equal of the United States on the world stage? Because it’s just not true:

Many people around the world believe that China’s rise to the role of dominant global player is inevitable. A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this year found that in 23 of 39 countries surveyed, a majority of respondents said China is already, or will soon become, the “world’s leading superpower.”

Even in America, just 47 percent told Pew they believe the United States will remain in that role, and the survey was conducted before Washington’s recent shutdown hardened opinions about America’s political dysfunction.

But although China’s economic influence is growing — it is now the lead trade partner for 124 countries, compared to just 76 for the United States — its power to influence other nations is slight. It has achieved little of what policymakers call “capture,” a condition in which economic or security dependence of one country on another allows the more powerful to drive the other’s policy making.

Read the whole thing for some much-needed perspective.

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