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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

In 2003, Mayor Joe Ganim of Bridgeport, Connecticut was convicted by a federal jury on 16 felony counts of racketeering, bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion for accepting more than $500,000 in cash, diamonds, expensive wine, tailored clothing, high-priced meals, and home renovations in a widespread kickback scheme that also led to the convictions of 10 of his associates. He served seven years in federal prison. Despite running a notorious pay for play administration, getting caught and going to jail, Ganim was again elected as the Mayor of Bridgeport on November 3 with more than 60% of the vote and more than a 2-1 margin against his closest challenger. Although he is an attorney, as a convicted felon, he could not vote in the election, and he is no longer licensed to practice law.

How is it possible that voters could return to office someone who definitively violated their trust for personal gain? Let’s examine the primary reasons why:

  • Everybody deserves a second chance. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates that almost one in three Americans has been arrested for a non-traffic offense. Assuming that many of those arrested have families, it is possible that over half of all Americans have either been arrested or have had someone in their close family who was, making them sympathetic to reform stories.
  • He was a good mayor in the past who helped me and my family/friends. What he did wrong didn’t hurt me.  The “see no evil, hear no evil” approach. If you don’t pay any taxes, who cares if the mayor robs the city blind?
  • He was the Democrat on the ballot. ”I always vote the party line.” Well, one simply can’t fix stupid! Just because a person gets into a voting booth doesn’t mean they have any idea what the issues are.
  • Everybody in politics lies or cheats. Hilary Clinton is the Democratic Presidential front runner for 2016. She has a long history of controversial truth bending and extending. In the latest scandal, emails to daughter Chelsea from the night of the Benghazi attack on the US embassy, the former Secretary of State acknowledges a terrorist action even as she tells the families of American casualties the event happened because of a Hollywood video (so as not to disrupt a coming election with any facts detrimental to administration story lines that terrorism was receding). Polls are variable, but recently as few as 29% of voters think she is trustworthy, and yet over 60% of democrats would be happy to vote for her.
  • Even though I knew he was corrupt, his policies were better than anyone else running. This is the hardest reason to truly understand, because of the presumption that character simply doesn’t matter. It is a thought corrosive to the idea of a civil society.

The re-election of a politician who betrayed the people’s trust in a brazen manner is not a new phenomenon. In victory, Ganim is reminiscent of Buddy Cianci, the mayor of Providence, RI who was forced to resign from office twice after felony convictions for corruption. Marion Barry of Washington, D.C. is another example, although Barry was caught up in felonious drug usage and possession instead of taking bribes. In both of these cases, the Mayors continued their felonious conduct after their first convictions. Ganim’s prospects for rehabilitation are likely dim as well, given that after being in prison for five years, he gamed the system to claim a previously undisclosed substance abuse problem. With successful completion of a treatment program, and good behavior while behind bars, Ganim was able to shave 32 months from his sentence.

Giving someone a second chance sounds eminently reasonable. But that doesn’t mean one would want to simply put an offender into the same position where they have previously betrayed you. Just look at the Catholic Church’s decision to allow pedophile priests continuing access to children. Why would one place an admitted thief and corrupt bureaucrat back into the same job where he can steal and racketeer again? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!

In his fascinating book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argues that even absent specific knowledge, a crowd of diverse individuals can often make a more informed decision than any one person. Surowiecki also points out that the crowd is far from infallible. He explains that good crowd judgements require people’s decisions to be made independently rather than be influenced by others. The undermining effect of social influence was demonstrated by a group at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology  in 2011. The Swiss team commented that a detrimental herding effect is likely to be even stronger for deciding problems for which no objective answer exists, which perhaps explains how democratic countries occasionally elect astonishingly inept leaders.

Then again, sometimes, voters are just stupid. Adolf Hitler, Hugo Chavez and Christina Kirchner were all elected heads of state. Americans are supposed to be better than that. Our heritage of independent thought and actions should require a minimum standard of character that would prevent bad people from being elected. Closer examination of this assertion shows that such high expectations are not based in fact. According to exit polls, Bill Clinton won re-election in 1996 in part because 58% of poll respondents cited issues as being more important than a candidate’s character when it came time to deciding their vote.

If character issues are not alone enough to disqualify a political candidate, all manner of charlatans and crooks become eligible to lead us. When most voters believe all politicians lie and cheat, you wind up with leading Republican presidential candidates wholly unprepared by relevant experience to lead. If we don’t demand a higher standard of ethics and behavior from our leaders than we may perhaps require of ourselves, we deserve to be lied to, misled and cheated.

Every business executive knows that negotiating with customers, suppliers, financiers, regulators and employees is a constant. Sometimes one is able to conclude satisfactory negotiations, and sometimes not. Generally, there is confidence that the rule of law would allow parties to demand specific performance when other parties fail to meet their obligations. This is only in the worst possible outcome, because we expect our counter-parties to deal fairly with us. In conducting international government level negotiations, there is little assurance that the counter-party nation will abide by their agreements and obligations, and the rule of might sometimes supersedes the rule of law.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938 declaring that he and Adolf Hitler had constructed an agreement that would lead to “peace for our time”. Chamberlain appeased Germany with the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, only to have Hitler invade Poland and plunge Europe into World War the following year.  His motive was to avoid a disastrous war, and the Prime Minister was hailed by cheering crowds in London. History has judged his mission an utter failure, and it is now understood that appeasement is a poor strategy when negotiating with an aggressive opponent. There was probably no strategy that could have averted war, and the delay between the Munich Agreement and the invasion of Poland allowed Germany to increase its military strength while Britain mostly squandered its chances to better prepare for war.

During her time as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was the most traveled Secretary of State in history but substantive achievement escaped her. In partial fairness, beyond Egyptian and Libyan disasters, she was negotiating with North Korea, which has never honored its international agreements. She also tried negotiating with Iran, which pretends to negotiate in the run up to obtaining America’s 70 year old nuclear weapons technology. Current Secretary of State John Kerry naively decided he could conjure a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. But how can Israel make peace with a “government” that won’t recognize the validity of the State of Israel and whose people celebrate  the suicide bombing of innocent civilians?

In making hard decisions, one of the toughest things to learn is when to simply walk away from a negotiation. Sometimes there is no overlap in acceptable outcomes between negotiating parties, and getting to “yes” means different things to each party. Which brings us to the announcement this week of the reestablishing of diplomatic relations with Cuba. As a Cuban American and a refugee from that dictatorship, conditions on the Island are of keen interest.

It always struck me as odd that American policy towards Cuba seemed frozen in time. Whereas the US had implemented a trade embargo against Cuba in 1960, we routinely dealt with repressive dictators around the globe who violated what we see as the civil rights of their citizens, such as in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Many Americans expected the first foreign policy initiative of the Obama administration in 2009 would be opening diplomatic relations with Cuba. This would have been a popular and bipartisan move domestically in both political and economic terms. More trade is generally perceived to increase the flow of information citizens of repressed countries can readily obtain. Even Cuban dissidents mostly supported the normalization of relations. So why didn’t this happen earlier?  

Only the close circle around Presidents Obama and Raul Castro could be able to say for certain, but my suspicion is that the makings of the deal only came into view in recent weeks. For years, America has used economic sanctions to conduct a carrot and stick foreign policy. It has avoided the use of force in multiple countries, but perhaps none more so than in the evolving “democracy” of Myanmar. America and Europe have been instrumental in helping to transition the military dictatorship toward open elections and inclusive government. With the defeat of the Democratic Party in the mid-term elections, Mr. Obama has gotten into the habit of unilateral policy initiatives. He is able to establish diplomatic relations without consulting Congress. Trade is restricted by multiple laws, but the President has put this item on the Congressional agenda. It is unfortunate that he did so without requiring more changes from the Cubans, but this president never mastered the fine art of negotiation.

From the Cuban perspective, the reasons to open diplomatic relations were not apparent even six months ago. The Castros have long used “scarecrows” (underfed kids drafted into the army and sent into Havana) from the outer provinces to impose military command over the streets of inhabited Cuba. There is an 18-year old kid with a sub-machine gun and a radio on virtually every populated corner of Havana…just in case anyone should want to “misbehave”. The reason the regime claims this is necessary is the threat of American invasion… not that the US has considered invading Cuba in over 50 years. Cuba’s current primary benefactor, Venezuela, was providing up to 100,000 barrels of oil/day to Cuba in exchange for the work of Cuban doctors in its remote areas. This deal provided as much as 60% of Cuban energy needs. The collapse of world oil prices amid increased supply and slightly reduced demand has wrought havoc to Venezuela, and they will likely be unable to continue to support the Cuban regime at those levels. Hence, Cuba has a renewed motivation to deal with the US.

Many Cuban Americans have long anticipated normalization of relations and the ending of the trade embargo. While Cuba claims that the embargo has caused suffering to its citizens, many believe that it has been more of an annoyance than a true impediment. Spain, Canada and other Latin American countries have long had open economic ties to Cuba, but per capita income on the island remains at 40% of the world average because of the economic shackles imposed by the repressive regime. Things will only change very gradually because the government still will not operate under the rule of law. International businesses are usually required to partner with the state, and wages for Cuban employees are paid to the state in convertible currencies. The state pockets what it receives and pays the workers in a non-convertible local currency.

On balance, the opening of diplomatic ties is a slightly better than neutral change. The release of even a few of the hundreds of political prisoners is also a plus. The Castro brothers will be gone from the scene in the next few years no matter what anyone does. Opening diplomatic relations should allow for more US input in the transition process towards new leadership. One never knows, but in this case, we are all hopeful.

The United States accepts more legal immigrants every year than the any other country in the world, taking in about 20% of the world’s migrants. Other countries limit immigration to the talented, educated and the rich. The poetic notion of taking in the world’s “tired, hungry and poor yearning to be free” is quintessentially American. Of the million or so legal immigrants every year, about 70% obtain their status by being closely related to another legal immigrant.

Number & Percent Foreign Born


For many generations, the United States has been a beacon for people of many nations seeking a “better” life. Today there are almost 40 million foreign born residents in the US, the largest number in our history. Yet immigrants were a larger component of our total population during the sixty year period from the 1860s through the 1920s, when the US first enacted defined immigration quotas to restrict migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe such as Jews, Italians and Slavs. Those country quotas were only abolished in 1965 during the wave of civil rights legislation, and led to many more immigrants from Asia and Africa.

When one discusses immigration policy in America, there are two entirely separate issues which need reform. The first is to define how we are to select new legal immigrants. The second is to find a way to legitimize those 11 million or so illegal aliens in our midst. Many believe that each issue requires different solutions. Diogenes is not so sure.

Perhaps the most effective argument against our current immigration policies are economic ones. Labor unionists bemoan the presence of immigrants willing to work for lower wages, taking jobs away from the working poor and lower middle income Americans. Conservatives argue that immigrants utilize government services at higher rates than the native born, straining limited resources. These arguments are mostly true, especially in the short term, although over time immigrants have added much to the growth and vitality of the American economy. They also mirror the fears of yesteryear. In the 1840s and 1850s, many Americans feared the onslaught of the Irish escaping the Potato Famine. After the Civil War, northern laborers feared the newly freed slaves as economic competitors. One of the hard choices we must all make is whether we want to simply provide for our poor and lower income citizens at the expense of those aiding unfortunates from abroad and who have far less economic means and opportunities. With budgets already strained, it’s not likely that we could do both.

Diogenes believes that America’s standing as an exceptional place in the world is in part based on the fact that most of us, or our parents or grandparents were immigrants. Our school children are already majority-minority and soon our entire society will be so. Let’s open our borders to once again become the home to the world’s huddled masses yearning to live free and brave enough to make the journey. For all the challenges we have and for all the criticism we may take in any part of the world, at the end of the day people want to be like Americans—they want to pursue opportunities that Americans have. We can easily absorb another million immigrants every year. Instead of fencing our borders and increasing the border patrol, let’s control immigration by limiting access to social services and employment to those here legally.

Forget the barriers to change for a moment. If we designed a new system to deal with the problem, what would it look like? For one thing, a fully operational E-Verify system would be needed, and would require bio-metric IDs. Many would claim that biometric IDs would be a huge invasion of privacy. In a 21st century world, this is a canard. (See On Bio-metric Identity Cards) We need such a system for the administration of a host of government programs and to reduce fraud. E-verify could also be used to determine legal eligibility for all government assistance.

Concern that immigrants may become a burden on society has been a long-standing issue in the United States. It’s not clear that recent immigrants consume government services at higher rates than native born Americans. Larger average family size makes immigrants more likely to have children in schools. Since legal immigrants are likely to be lower wage earners, they are more likely than  the general population to utilize welfare or other anti-poverty programs. Others note that illegal immigrants, who total more than 25% of our foreign born population, utilize services at lower rates than the native born. But what if we removed the economic argument entirely?

Diogenes proposes that the United States throw open it’s borders to allow another one million immigrants into the country each year if those immigrants agree to do public service or jobs left wanting by native Americans for two years. These would include serving in the armed forces, taking designated agricultural jobs, working for Americorps, the Peace Corps or Habitat for Humanity. Failure to complete satisfactory service should lead to immediate deportation. The economic argument for accepting people after they have done their public service is that they will have earned their way in.

One might ask how such a solution would affect illegal immigrants? Some would argue that illegals should be given amnesty and a path to citizenship, but we have tried that before. We know it only makes it likely that we will repeat the cycle after several years and several million more illegal immigrants. Forcing illegal immigrants to contribute to our society would legitimize their standing here. We need all of our residents to abide by the rule of law. Having undocumented illegal residents in large numbers in our society encourages their exploitation and teaches them to evade our laws.

Many conservatives would argue that our public school system would be overwhelmed by an influx of immigrants if we radically increase the numbers we allow in. Ironically, most of those are the same Americans are opposed to readily available, safe and inexpensive abortions. There are about 800,000 legal abortions performed in the US each year. The Pro-Life movement should be called out for the hypocrisy of  their opposition to terminating the pregnancies of unwanted children while also opposing accepting immigrant children as refugees. Further, the majority of Hispanic illegals are coming from countries where drug cartels fueled by American dollars have overwhelmed the efforts of the state. America should take responsibility. Let’s reform a broken system while simultaneously reinvigorating our reputation as the one country in the world with opportunity for all who are willing to work.

The first known reference to identity documents is from the Bible’s Book of Nehemiah from around 450 BC. The documents were orders from the Persian King Antaxerxes to distant governors to have his messenger given safe passage. Such documents were rarely needed prior to the Industrial Revolution for the simple reason that few people around the world traveled beyond their local communities.  National passports were first routinely issued in the early 20th century, and by the 1930s, passports bearing photos of the holder were commonplace in many countries. Today, 117 million Americans hold valid passports.

Since the 9/11 attacks, security measures require government issued identity documents to enter most large office buildings or schools if you are not a student, get on a commercial flight or cash a check. Unlike many countries around the world, the US government does not issue identity documents or driver’s licenses. Historically, this is because of the 10th Amendment claim of enumerated powers of the federal government, which by not specifically granting the power to the federal government devolves it to the states.  By 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act of 2005 to require the states to issue IDs that met a minimum set of security standards. The new law also specifies what information should be on the ID, how that information is shared among the states, and what documentation had to be presented and stored electronically before the ID is issued. Due to partisan and bureaucratic delays, only 21 states were in compliance as of January 2014.

Why do we need a standardized bio-metric identity card? Because it would present solutions to a myriad of problems facing our society and which can be readily addressed with laws already on the books but cannot be enforced without universal bio-metric security IDs. We could in one fell swoop create the framework to:

  • register every citizen for voting and authenticate them at the polling booth
  • mostly solve the illegal immigration problem
  • create the opportunity to encode health care/medical records for every citizen to carry with them
  • vastly reduce Social Security and other fraud in government programs
  • implement much better gun registration information sharing between the states
  • be able to track many of the 800,000 children who each year go missing/are kidnapped/run away 
What is a bio-metric identity card? It is any card which incorporates identifiers that contain distinctive, measurable physiological characteristics used to label and describe individuals. The oldest and most common of these are fingerprints, which were first used by police in the late 19th century. Other bio-metric identifiers include palm prints, retinal scans, facial recognition, and a newborn baby’s footprints. There are many opponents of bio-metric ID requirements from both sides of the political spectrum. On the right are those who claim that bio-metric IDs are a bad idea because they infringe the right to privacy. They argue that movement, spending and activity of citizens could be easily tracked and would be a violation of civil liberties. On the left are those who claim a hardship for the poor, and those in remote locations to get access to these IDs. 

One can readily respond to these claims of potential harms. First, privacy in the developed world is already infringed by various commercial interests. Everyone who has shopped on Amazon, or has a Facebook, Twitter or other social media account already divulges more about themselves than they realize. Today’s world regularly requires some way to accurately identify individuals for security and other reasons. Old technology documents such as birth certificates or old fashioned driver’s licenses are too easily counterfeited. Safety protocols securing the information and preventing the unauthorized access to databases that would be created with a national system of IDs are exactly what the Real ID Act seeks to ensure. Failure to implement such a system means that our government will continue to be unable to effectively enforce many important laws that allow us to maintain our civil society.

Implementing nationwide issuance of bio-metric identity cards is a large, expensive and complex undertaking. Most citizens will be able to get one at their local DMV whenever they renew a driver’s license. For those who claim hardships to reach an issuing location, special efforts such as mobile vans going to remote or poor communities can increase the opportunities for all to receive an ID. Because these IDs will also register all citizens to vote, one presumes that Democrats and other progressives would mobilize their collective resources to increase the number of voters sympathetic to their policies.

Since early May of this year, the Veteran’s Administration hospital system has been in the news when it was revealed that at least 40 veterans had died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA hospital. An investigation of the delays revealed that delays were not only widespread throughout the VA system, but that personnel at many facilities had collected bonuses in part because of outright deception related to the reporting of backlogs. At the end of May, VA Director Eric Shinseki took the blame and resigned.

History of the VA system

The first federal government agency to treat armed forces veterans was established in 1812. It wasn’t until after the Civil War ended in 1865 that Congress established homes for disabled veterans. President Hoover, an engineer who took pride in efficiently solving problems, created the Veterans Administration to consolidate all services for veterans in 1930. The modern VA hospital system was created in 1945 with the building of new hospitals to specifically serve veterans. During that time, many of those hospitals became affiliated with medical schools and still continue to serve as training grounds for newly minted doctors. There are now nearly 1700 separate VA facilities including hospitals, outpatient clinics, and nursing homes. The VA system employs about 280,000 full time workers, has a budget of about $55 billion per year, and treats as many as 9 million veterans annually

The VA system is completely separate and distinct from the Military Health System, which is geared to serve active duty personnel. Like the VA, however, the military’s health facilities cannot accommodate the demand for care by all active duty service people, their dependents, and retirees (many of whom are not eligible for VA services). So it has its own government-provided insurance plan, called TRICARE, for those who cannot obtain care at a military health hospitals or clinics. TRICARE, much like Medicare, is insurance that is paid by the government, but uses private doctors and hospitals. In fact, TRICARE rates are tied to Medicare rates. 

The scope of the problem

The entire VA system is the purest realization of single payor government health care. Although progressives believe such a system is preferable to the Affordable Care Act, which combines government benefits mandates administered through private insurance companies, it should be no surprise to anyone that the system is broken. An audit by the VA Inspector General found nearly 60,000 veterans are waiting to get appointments at the VA, and 70% of facilities have used an alternative to official appointment schedules to make wait times appear shorter. The audit of 731 VA facilities and nearly 4,000 employees found widespread problems that included pressuring of employees to change data. More than 10% of scheduling staff were given instructions on how to alter patient-appointment scheduling, according to the audit.

Since 2005, the agency’s inspector general has issued 18 separate reports identifying national and local problems with scheduling.  Why is it any surprise to hear how awful they can be? Has anyone been to the DMV or Post Office lately? The typical congressional solution is to simply throw more money at the problem rather than fix the inherent problems at the VA. Which is exactly what they did last week.

What is the cost of the VA relative to private hospitals?

Operating rooms at VA hospitals are typically used for 2-3 operations/day instead of the 4-6 in private hospitals. Nevertheless, the VA may in some aspects be cost effective. The advantages of a single payor system has made the logistics of care more efficient at VA compared to private hospitals. The VA has electronically integrated records for labs, pharmacies and imaging. Its physicians do not utilize heavily promoted but only marginally more effective but wildly more expensive drugs. Certainly the care at some hospitals has been substandard, but stories abound of veterans who claim wonderful outcomes. The social aspects of veterans’ care alongside that of other vets is repeatedly cited as a huge benefit.

How do we fix the problems?

Perhaps the fastest way to improve the VA system would be to make Congress and staff use the facilities and just watch how fast they improve. This is of course unrealistic as Congress and their staff don’t even subject themselves to the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Few Americans would deny that our veterans are entitled to quality care. But the reality is that the 20 million or so of our veterans primarily use the VA system for old age related problems. That care is readily replicated elsewhere. Government does nothing as well as the private sector because they are legally unable to respond to problems and change. There is no one to complain to, and administrators are essentially unable to fire under performing personnel. Scapegoating Eric Shinseki won’t change very much. He probably didn’t even know about the problems. Several layers of bureaucracy were either lied to or so unreliable that they didn’t look.

The best solution to the never ending pattern of scandals and funding increases is to get the government out of the business of providing general health care. The VA system should be privatized and our veterans should be brought into the Medicare system. Let’s let individuals sort out where to receive their care and vote with their feet if that care is not provided in a timely and professional manner.

President Obama said in his State of the Union Address that his ability to effect legislative change is severely hampered by excessive partisanship in Congress. He declared that he would start using the power of the Presidential pen to dictate change through Executive Orders. Mr. Obama decided to selectively enforce the law of the land by unilaterally deferring various Affordable Care Act mandates until after the mid-term elections this year.

The chances of enacting new anti poverty programs or getting more money for education are virtually nil. The President’s domestic agenda is stalled and his signature legislative achievement is unpopular. International relations are perceived to be in disarray as Russia’s Mr. Putin carves up eastern Europe. Most Americans don’t quite agree with Mr. Obama’s view that America’s history of oppressing minorities at home and imperialism abroad means we do not have the moral authority to dictate how other nations are to behave. Our President is in danger of being marginalized as a lame duck for the next two years.

Trust in government is at near all time lows, and surveys now show that Americans on average believe that over half of all federal spending is wasted, a sharp increase from the 40% estimated by a Gallup Poll in 1979. This explains why most Americans believe that we do not need to cut spending on popular social programs and defense even as we run huge deficits. The President has given VP Joe Biden the task of reforming the 47 different federal jobs training programs that collectively cost about $20 billion, out of about $3.45 trillion in 2013 federal spending. But that’s playing “small ball”! Why not go much bigger and use his powers to structurally reform government to be more responsive to the needs of the 21st century?

It has been 80 years since FDR massively reformed the organization and cost of government. Instead of piling on more government, why not attack the waste of resources implied by the overlapping of many government departments? In the private sector, resources and organizations are reorganized regularly. Program or department reductions of 20% are not unusual. Contrast that picture with the public sector. When sequestration mandated cuts of $85 billion in 2013 (half from defense and half from discretionary spending), or about 2.5% of federal spending, one might have thought from administration warnings that the sky was falling, even as total expenditures for the year proceeded to rise anyway. The major problem with this approach was that cuts were made across the board without serious consideration to relative priorities. Air Traffic Controllers were furloughed, causing massive travel disruptions and most other employees were furloughed only to be paid later for their enforced time off.

When discussing waste and inefficiency in government, we are really discussing three separate issues: waste/fraud, duplication of programs, and unnecessary/low priority programs.  Most Americans can agree that waste and fraud could and should be eliminated, and eliminating duplication is also popular. But few can agree on what are unnecessary programs, each of which has or had a champion in Congress that worked to get the program enacted typically years ago. That’s because old federal programs never seem to die; over time they become local work programs.

Retiring Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has been one of the few in government that has valiantly fought to expose and eliminate waste and fraud in spending. For several years he has published The Waste Book documenting 100 separate programs or instances of low or questionable priority. The 2013 edition’s programs total about $30 billion and include such gems as $432 million for new aircraft the Air Force neither wants or needs, and which are being mothballed even before being put into service! A thorough restructuring plan should generate savings of at least 10% of federal spending, or about $350 billion annually, enough to continue funding for social programs and take a big chunk out of the federal deficit.

To do an effective restructuring, the President needs to control the agenda. He should create two new bipartisan commissions. The first would be a “Low Priority Programs Sunset Group” to do away with the silly programs that are so politically difficult to kill without the cover of a bipartisan up or down vote for the entirety of program revisions. The second bipartisan commission would be a “Departmental Restructuring Group” to recommend ways to reorganize all government departments other than Defense, which should have it’s own Low Priority Programs Sunset Group and a new Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) whose recommendations would also be subjected to a complete package up or down vote.

At the start of the process, the President should develop his own ideas as to where he wants these commissions to end up. Before appointing any Democrats to serve on these commissions, he should have frank discussions with the candidates, and not appoint anyone that has fundamentally different opinions. He should do the same with Republicans under consideration for the commissions to ensure they are at least vaguely in agreement with his goals. The President can do this because these commissions are his initiative, and not directed by Congress. Ultimately Congress will need to bless the results, but surely Mr. Obama will be able to guide the commissions conclusions more than he was able to do with the Simpson-Bowles Commission. Now is time for Mr. Obama to invest the last of his presidential capital in something he believes in: making government work so well that we can afford to provide for all.

Recently elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on the theme that he will seek to end “the tale of two cities” and narrow the gap between rich and poor in America’s largest city. He claimed to have achieved an electoral mandate, winning about 73% of the vote in the general election.

The Mayor’s first major policy initiative was to call for citywide pre-kindergarten for all children and the addition of after-school programs for older students. In order to fund this $540 million initiative, Mayor de Blasio wants a 0.5% tax increase on residents making over $500,000/year. However, the city does not set its own tax rates; the state retains that power. Longtime de Blasio ally Governor Andrew Cuomo fully supports that goal, and announced that he will create a statewide pre-k program, pre-empting the need for a tax increase. The Mayor responded that the state initiative did not provide long term committed funding for the pre-k initiative, and that he wanted the tax increase anyway even if it is not used for pre-k.  In other words, the affluent must be taxed more not for any public purpose but merely because the new mayor believes it’s ”fair and just.”

Let’s examine some of the Mayor’s assertions concerning the electoral mandate he claims. De Blasio captured an overwhelming percentage of the votes cast in this city, where Democrats outnumber Republicans six to one, representing some 85% of registered voters. So the Mayor actually received fewer than a representative  percentage of his party’s voters. All told, de Blasio received 74%, or about 753,000 of the 1,026,000 votes cast in the election, which had a turnout of less than one quarter of registered voters. When one examines the composition of those votes, the claimed mandate appears much narrower.

In 2012-2013, there were about 729,500 union members in the five boroughs of New York City. There are about 325,000 NY City employees, most of whom are union members. More than a quarter of New York’s wage and salary workers belonged to a union last year, according to a recent Labor Department report. That’s the highest rate of any state in the nation. In fact, New York has had the highest membership rate for 13 of the last 15 years, in part because of the many public-sector union members in New York City. So one might say that this is the mayor brought to you by union central casting, with the overwhelming percentage of his vote tally comprised of union members, even though union members represent less than 25% of total registered voters.

Now let’s look at the assertion that universal pre-k is a proper means of creating equal opportunity for the city’s poor children to narrow income inequality. Here, the results are mostly positive, although there appears to be substantial room for discussion. A  2012 Department of Health and Human Services review of the federal Head Start program found that the effects of such programs were initially positive but had dissipated by the 3rd grade.

If the Mayor is serious about creating equal educational opportunities for the city’s poor and minority children, why is he opposed to teacher reforms and accountability and to support for charter schools as advocated by his predecessor? Recent research at Harvard, MIT and Princeton has confirmed that well-run charter schools are achieving remarkable success compared with traditional public schools in improving the educational achievements of disadvantaged students in inner cities. The secret is autonomy. Freed from the bureaucratic straitjacket of teachers unions, charter-school leaders can hire and fire teachers more freely. They can also enforce standards for teachers and students that might spark protests and union grievances at a traditional public school. Charter schools take more risks, and they are held accountable for the results. When charter schools fail, they close. When other public schools fail their students, they mostly continue to cut off opportunity for more, mostly poor children.

In one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first shots at charter schools, his administration has proposed pulling $210 million in funds slated for buildings used by charters and nonprofit groups and using it instead for prekindergarten space. The city is effectively killing a Bloomberg administration program that paid for buildings that were mostly used by charter schools. The city owned the buildings but allowed charters to use the space. ”Once again, thousands of minority and low-income students and families have their educational future unfairly put in jeopardy,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, which supports charter schools.

About 50,000 children in NYC attend charter schools, and because of capacity limitations, 50,000 more are on on wait-lists to get in , out of a total school population of a little over one million children. Those who have the most skin in the game, the parents of children who are poor, are voting with their feet. The education battle is between a failing union monopoly and schools that are actually educating children.

So there you have it; the paradox of populism. Mayor de Blasio claims that his most important goal is to end income inequality, and that this goal is best achieved through education. But his solution is to pile on programs designed to feather the bed of teacher’s and other public worker’s unions rather than fix failing public schools. The pre-k programs he is proposing are little more than free day care for the children of the city’s poorer workers while at the same time vastly increasing union jobs to staff them. Because these programs will allow low income residents to spend even less time reading and playing with their children, does anyone really expect that the opportunity gap will be narrowed?

Last Wednesday, hours before a default, Congress finally agreed to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government…until January 15th, when we can repeat the drama. Of course, the bipartisan group set to negotiate a longer budget might come to broad agreement by December, but that doesn’t seem very likely.

Viewers of Spielberg’s Lincoln were were witness to the agonizingly slow process of achieving consensus for the permanent abolition of slavery in all states even at the late date of 1865. The film presents Lincoln using any and all means to cajole, bully and horse trade his way towards passage of the 13th Amendment.Lincoln was concerned that court challenges after the war might endanger the freedom of slaves freed by 1863′s Emancipation Proclamation, which he had issued as an Executive Order during the war. He wanted to have their liberty confirmed and slavery permanently abolished by writing it into the constitution. Contrast that imagery with the methods used to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2009.

ObamaCare was rammed through by crook. Americans were promised they could keep their health insurance if they wanted to. We were told it would bend the rising costs of health care down, and that the Universal Coverage Mandate was not a tax. Before the House vote, then Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the 2000+ page bill ”…we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it…”.  In the end, unlike the 13th Amendment or any other major entitlement program in American history, the ACA was passed along entirely partisan party lines, with no Republican votes.

So why are the Republicans still essentially crazed about the ACA? After all, the Supreme Court has confirmed the legality of ObamaCare’s Universal Mandate (as a tax), and the 2012 elections confirmed that new leadership would not repeal the law. Republicans have obstinately kept up defund Obamacare efforts because they believe government’s overhaul of the health care sector creates an expensive and unfunded new entitlement for all Americans at a point in time that any private person or entity would be looking to more prudently manage expenses. This fiscal house of cards must ultimately collapse,  and the resulting pain to Americans will make the ”great recession” seem like the good old days. As seen in the chart below, absent entitlement reform, these spending programs will crowd out all discretionary program spending by around 2030.

Actual & Projected Federal Spending & Revenue as % of GDP

 There hasn’t been a serious federal budget and tax overhaul since 1986. Discretionary spending in 2012 accounted for about 36% of the federal budget, but without reforms, these will be completely overtaken by entitlements in the near future unless tax revenues are significantly increased above historical norms. Compassionate citizens understand that all Americans should have some form of major medical health care coverage that does not bankrupt them, but ObamaCare is a terrible and costly way to achieve this end when there are many better alternatives. (see 7 Practical Solutions on Health Care)

Government spending is typically inefficient, but a look at the shutdown of the government and the rollout of Obamacare are especially illuminating. 800,000 government employees were furloughed for 16 days, inconveniencing taxpayers, and then were awarded back pay (over $6 billion including benefits) for no work done.

Healthcare.gov cost taxpayers over $500 million and was planned for years.Ill conceived and poorly executed; it simply doesn’t work. And clueless HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is still on the government payroll, and has the full support of the president. In an age when the U.S is home to the world’s largest, most successful Internet companies, how is it possible that our government can’t even manage to build a functional website without blowing through hundreds of millions of dollars? What would be the news media and public judgment be if Apple, Google or any other company promised a revolutionary new product for nearly four years, and then botched the introduction so completely? Why do the people who can’t build a working website also deserve the power to reorganize one-sixth of the U.S. economy?

The executive branch of government is so named because it is supposed to “run” the government. Even if Congress cannot agree, all Americans have a President who is charged to make it all “work”. When we look at our “great” presidents, they came from alternate sides of the aisles during our history in mostly a two party system. Among the traits they shared were meeting problems with a willingness to incorporate at least some of the other side of the aisle into their solutions.

The “system” of checks and balances is actually working in Washington today. A serious imbalance in the direction of government has unleashed as torrent of vitriol by the Republican right because the Democratic left has pushed too far, too fast without incorporating contrary views and opposing solutions. It is precisely this “winner take all, losers shut up” attitude that is making our country more difficult to govern. Elections do matter—almost as much as leadership. We want our President to act like a leader, not just a politician who gained a tactical advantage this week. The man who won the Nobel Peace Prize should now do something BIG… like being bigger than everyone else, make peace and do the people’s business.

For starters, form a new bi-partisan commission to tackle budget and tax reform. Unlike the Simpson Bowles Commission of 2010, this commission should be constituted with a mandate to present their conclusions for a simple up or down vote, without amendments, from both houses of congress and a commitment from the President to sign such legislation. Second, another bi-partisan commission should be formed to restructure government. Sen. Tom Coburn has documented $365 billion annually in waste, duplication and silliness in federal programs, but can’t enact reforms because of lobbying activities. If a bi-partisan commission were to make cutting and restructuring proposals that were guaranteed a straight up or down vote in both houses (like the periodic Base Realignment & Closure Commissions ), it could give Congress the political cover it needs to do the right thing. These commissions would be exercises in finding common ground, and could incrementally lead to better government as well as progress on immigration reform and other issues that urgently require action.

Americans require compromise solutions to end the gridlock and allow for greater economic growth that will lift all boats, including government coffers. The country rightly counts on its chief executive to bridge the gaps, make the compromises, and smooth the way to passage. We need less drama, less cost and more effectiveness. Trying to lead with constant partisan bickering is no leadership at all. It’s no way to run a country.

America has been both a constitutional republic and a representative democracy for over 225 years. During that period, we have continually redefined what those terms meant and what people they applied to. The constitution has been amended 27 times. 15 of these changes have expanded and enumerated the rights of citizens, while 7 have codified states’ rights and electoral procedures.

Our Constitution declares that the states shall determine how we vote in congressional districts, and how we tally those district votes in presidential elections. Indeed, re-drawing the map on how a congressional district is composed within a state is mandated every 10 years. So calling for election reform is not particularly unusual. Reform is particularly needed now, because our polarized congressional representatives appear incapable of reaching necessary compromises to enact important fiscal reforms needed to remove economic threats to our country and its future.

How Did we Get Here?

Gerrymandering by state legislatures over the last 15 years has contributed mightily to our dysfunctional congress.”Packing” has been used to push minorities, racial or political, into compressed districts to diminish their influence into only one district. The “cracking” technique draws voting districts so as to disperse minority votes across several districts in attempts to deny or dilute minority representation. The following chart illustrates how many Members of Congress represent “safe” districts. If incumbents can’t realistically be voted out, challenges to them decrease, and our voting rights are diminished. 



The chart also shows the success of state Republican legislatures in maximizing their party’s results in the US House. Of the 345 congressional districts that lean strongly to either party, one would expect that the party split would mirror the underlying population. A Gallup Poll of likely voters in 2012 found that 47% of Americans self identify as Democrats and 42% self identify as Republicans. Yet the “safe” Republican districts account for 42% of the House, and Republicans are able to contest another 90 seats, an additional 20% of the house. The magic of drawing partisan districts explains how Republicans could have lost the popular vote for the House in 2012 by more than a million votes nationally, yet kept control of the House by 33 seats.

The methodology for drawing congressional voting districts is easily subverted by the party in power doing the drawing, and in 1964 the Supreme Court ruled that congressional districts must be contiguous in order to be constitutional. This sounds reasonable, until one looks at the contortions employed to produce some very strange looking districts. Take for example the Illinois 4th. It was intended to pack Hispanics, and is also known as the “earmuff district”, and is shown below. Unfortunately, there are many more such examples of oddly drawn districts.

Illinois 4th Congressional District


Delegating specific responsibilities to the states results in the development of various responses to the same problem. The states are all over the spectrum in terms of the primary systems that they employ. 20 states allow each party to determine whether primary voters must already be registered as a party member (a closed primary). In 13 states, voters are able to declare themselves a party member and vote in the primary on primary day (a semi-open primary), and in 17 states voters are able to vote without declaring as a party member (an open primary).

Washington and California use a top two primary, which allows unaffiliated voters to vote for any candidate in a primary. The top two vote-getters from any party proceed to a final election. This system, which of course infuriates party officials, is meant to produce general election candidates who have the broadest appeal within the district. Proponents of the top two system think closed single party primaries exacerbate the radicalization that often occurs at the primary stage, when candidates must cater to their party’s “base” rather than the political center.

The top two primary is a positive electoral change that could easily be adopted across the country. The problem would still be that the congressional districts themselves are being gerrymandered in clear attempts to rob some of us our our democratic rights. Elections for the US Senate take place across every state instead of only house districts, and they are usually more competitive than House elections. If statewide elections are both more competitive and are not subject to gerrymandering, what changes in primary election procedures could capture these benefits in House elections?

The most intriguing idea is the Single Transferable Vote (STV).  Under STV, a voter has a single vote that is initially allocated to his or her most preferred candidate. As the count proceeds on election night and candidates are either elected or eliminated, that vote is transferred to other candidates according to the voter’s stated preferences. The exact method of reapportioning votes can vary, but the STV attempts to avoid “wasted” votes as compared to a simple one person, one vote system, because presumably it is better to count a voter’s second choice than to give that voter no voice. This system can be used for either one person or multiple person elections.

Maine and Nebraska use proportional voting for presidential elections, which are statewide and not subject to tampering by gerrymandering. Rather than winner take all for electors, each political party can claim some portion of the votes. But then when they vote for the House, these states revert to voting in gerrymandered districts. Some argue that the states should give redistricting authority to non-partisan groups. This never seems to resolve the issues, and is made even more problematic whenever a state loses a House district through relative population changes, because as in the game of  musical chairs, there is always a clear loser in such cases.

In the past few weeks local news in NY was dominated by the mayoral primaries, which were won resoundingly by Democrat Bill DeBlasio and by Republican Joe Lhota. If this had been an open primary, Bill Thompson, a Democrat, would be facing DeBlasio in the general election. Thompson received more than five times as many votes as Lhota. In fact, three other Democrats, Christine Quinn, John Liu and even the disgraced Anthony Weiner (a/k/a Carlos Danger) received more votes than Lhota. In November, voters will chose between the most progressive Democrat and a Republican, and a moderate, centrist candidate with perhaps the broadest appeal to all voters will not be on the ballot. The latest poll shows DeBlasio at 62% among eligible voters, more than 40% ahead of Lhota.

The preferred change would be to incorporate widespread use of the top two primary system in house elections. Ideally voters would vote in statewide elections, but this is impracticable in larger states that have many representatives such as California (55) and Texas (38). No matter how voting districts are drawn, more moderate voices should be capable of being elected if much of the country was less tied to a traditional two party primary system that is not working well for America.

Like many New Yorkers, Diogenes was surprised by last month’s return to the political arena of Anthony Weiner. A former congressman from Queens, only two years ago Weiner resigned in disgrace after sending lewd photographs of his “little Anthony” to six different women he met on the internet even as his wife was about to bear their child. When reports came out, Weiner then proceeded to lie about it, claiming that his account had been hacked by someone else and he was being framed. When this lie was exposed, Weiner continued to claim that he was fully capable of representing his constituents before being pressed to resign by the House Democratic leadership.

After the scandal broke, Democratic candidates who had received contributions from Weiner donated those funds to charity. Republicans called for Weiner to return unspent funds to donors. But Mr. Weiner simply held on to the money, presumably contemplating a return to politics. He claims that while he was away from the public eye, he did a lot of thinking and learned a few things that have made him more mature.

In jumping into the New York mayoral race, Weiner entered a crowded field of Democratic contenders. Despite his scandal, Weiner has two advantages over his rivals. He has the highest name recognition of all the candidates, and retains about $4.3 million in campaign funds left over from fundraising for an aborted 2009 mayoral run. That money remains eligible for one-time matching funds from the city of about $1.5 million in the upcoming 2013 election. According to Bonny Tsang, press aide at the city’s Campaign Finance Board, if Weiner had decided not to run this year, his 2009 funds would not enter the matching program, which provides six public dollars for every eligible dollar raised. Weiner can hold onto the money indefinitely, as long as he files the proper disclosures according to the deadlines. The money can also be given to charity, contributed to other campaigns or given it back to donors, the Finance Board said.

A Marist College poll conducted late last month found that 53% of voters said Mr. Weiner deserved a second chance, while only 39% said he lacked the character to be mayor. His immediate support of about 19% put him in second place amongst the Democratic primary contenders. Weiner claims that he will outwork all the other candidates, and will win the election. Political insiders and some cynics believe the 2013 campaign is more likely intended to rehabilitate his reputation by inuring the public to his sexting episode so that he can run and win in a future election, or perhaps jump start a lucrative consulting business.

In sports as in life, fundamental and hugely important aspects of our character are only truly revealed when we are put under pressure. Sooner or later a crisis will occur for anyone holding office. When that moment arrives, we want our elected leaders to function well. Anthony Weiner argues that he should be given a second chance to hold our trust. But he has shown that under pressure, he lacks the intestinal fortitude to own up to his mistakes.

Our leaders should be role models for our children to emulate if we are to continue to have a civil society. They should have a history of integrity so that when crises arise, we can trust them to do what is best for all rather than what gains them advantage. Compare Anthony Weiner’s response to being caught in sexual scandal with that of General David Petraeus, who was serving as CIA Director last November when an extramarital affair with his biographer was discovered. The general immediately admitted his involvement and resigned.

The 19th century legal concept of moral turpitude typically was only loosely defined, but has been described as “act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellowmen, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man.” Anthony Weiner’s scandalous behavior was tawdry even by today’s lax standards. Even worse were his lies after being found out. He should be allowed to move on with his life, but his actions after being exposed should disqualify him permanently from holding public office as someone who simply cannot be trusted. New Yorkers can easily do better.