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4.2.05

Men in the Street; the Woman in Washington

According to Louisiana’s column-writing ex-convict ex-politician, many Louisianans are concerned about the privatization of Social Security. Let me be of some assistance:

"You know, even I know that Social Security isn’t just a retirement program. I don't have any disability insurance. If something would happen, even before I'm 65, all I would have to turn to is Social Security. I just feel like I'm taking too much of a chance if everyone makes their own decision as to how to invest their money." – hardware store owner

Uh, the federal government already takes care of that. It’s called Social Security Disability Income, payable to anybody without means-testing or age qualification upon becoming too disabled to work full-time or at all. Pres. Bush didn’t say anything about changing that. If you qualify for that, you also qualify for Medicare which, unless you are severely disabled, will pay for almost everything you’ll need and, in a year, will include prescription drugs as well. Pay additionally for Medigap insurance and, except for severe cases, there will be little to pay for out-of-pocket.

And, if anybody knows who this owner is, better do your shopping at his place before it goes bankrupt, which sounds like pretty soon because this guy feels like he’s “taking too much of a chance if everyone makes their own decision as to how to invest their money.” How did he get to running a business with that attitude and level of confidence?

"I have a hard time keeping my bank account straight and balancing my checkbook each month. How am I gonna be able to figure out how to invest the little money I have? Do I have to go get me a financial planner?" – truck driver

No, Pres. Bush in his State of the Union address said it would be as simple as indicating one fund and one amount of money to be diverted from taxes already taken from your paycheck (or, like the owner above, if you have the misfortune of being self-employed, taken out of your earnings or profits). You won’t even have to do it, and the few funds offered all will outdraw the return the government has provided on Social Security since its inception. Except for the very shortest terms, any stock fund of quality equities or bond fund of high-grade debt has beaten the government’s return over Social Security’s history. And again, if you like the meager 1.8% return the government has provided, less than the average certificate of deposit, you don’t have to divert anything.

Even if this guy is no good with numbers, at least he can still do well enough with them to drive a truck. On the other hand, this guy, given his understanding of how the world works, I don’t think I would buy a policy from:

"When anyone buys insurance, they don't tell the insurance company how to invest their proceeds. They are expecting the insurance company to get the best possible return. Why can’t the government get the best possible return? Does the average person have to become a financial expert, and start studying the stock market every day? If the system is broke, and the government is inept, what are we sending all those fellows up to Washington for? Why can't they straighten all that out?" – insurance agent

Because that’s the way government bureaucracy works! One of the great con jobs in recent years is this idea that we can “reinvent” government to make it work more efficiently. But you can’t paint stripes on a horse and call it a zebra: by its essential nature, government is inefficient and wasteful with resources (one-third wasted, according to the Grace Commission). Without a profit motive and the threat of going out of business, it has no incentive for its millions of employees (who work for good wages with little chance of being fired no matter how poorly they perform) to use resources most wisely – and they can always make up for it by higher taxes or unlimited borrowing. So to ponder why government can’t get a return comparable to the private sector displays absolute sheer ignorance of the difference between the public and private sectors – and why privatization of some Social Security funding is vital.

Still, at least our men-in-the-book-tour have more on the ball than this person:

"I don't want to undermine a strong system that has worked well. We can strengthen it without privatizing it."

What planet is this person from? Didn’t she listen to the president’s speech? Or at least read the dire actuarial forecasts for Social Security without reforms (and Bush didn’t even tell us that, in reality, the fund for Social Security was raided long ago, really necessitating the need for reform and reform now). Or perhaps she wants to hike your taxes and cut your benefits relative to today’s levels because that’s the only way this problem is going to get solved, short of an apocalypse that recurs on a continuing basis that wipes out only people just becoming eligible for Social Security benefits.

Who is this person?

2.2.05

Jindal Leads, Landrieu Obstructs

The contrast in leadership could not be starker. Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal, whose immediate family hails from closer to Iraq than any other Member’s of Congress, plans to raise a purple finger in honor of Iraqi voters during tonight’s State of the Union Address, and invites any other of his fellow lawmakers to do so.

Part of an immigrant family to the U.S., by doing this Jindal represents the aspirations to political and economic freedoms that many around the world wish they had, values fully realized for him when Jindal’s family came over here, and for those in Iraq when U.S. and other nations’ troops liberated Iraqis from the oppressive-at-home, dangerous-to-the-world, regime of Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile, a day of celebration for another Washington official of color remains delayed by at least one more. Alberto Gonzales remains in limbo concerning a vote to secure his nomination as Democrat senators first considered then rejected a filibuster against him as Attorney General. Perhaps the idea never would have gained steam had not a few “moderate” Democrat senators who have heretofore participated enthusiastically in judicial nomination filibusters such as Mary Landrieu immediately come out publicly against the idea.

Of course, Landrieu has had problems with supporting officials with Hispanic surnames. In the run-up to her narrow reelection win in 2002, she first claimed to support the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and stated as such in a campaign ad (broadcast around New Orleans, home of the largest concentration in the world of Hondurans outside of that country, from where Estrada had immigrated,). After winning, she repudiated the ad.

It’s unknown how many Members will take up Jindal’s offer but it will put Democrats on the defensive: either they demonstrate support for a very tangible result of a policy many bitterly opposed, or they look like obstructionists they are, refusing to perform a simple symbolic act praising the very thing, democratic rights, that they claim they are for, in doing so revealing their true selves: hyperbolic, irrelevant, and fixated on power who oppose the U.S. aiding democracy in Iraq because it validates a Republican president’s policy. (Indeed, the only finger they are likely to raise tonight is the middle one, befitting the anger that misguides their policies.) Given our mainstream media, it’s not going to happen, but I wish every single Member who does not sport a purple digit tonight would be asked by the media why they forswore doing so.

What is known is these incidents show that Jindal is a leader, and that Landrieu is a follower – of a crowd that is wrong for Louisiana.

1.2.05

Robbing Peter to Pay Keith

Last week I wrote about how the Hightower Hotel was one step closer to reality, with perhaps the crucial piece of evidence being a feasibility study that, for the first time, seemed to show that the hotel could turn a profit. Turns out “seemed” is the operative word here.

In a story first broken by Lou Burnett in FaxNet Update, it seems that the authors of the study never consented to have their report say the hotel would do this. Rather, Mayor Hightower apparently freelanced this one, with the assistance of state Treasurer John Kennedy. Both asserted that they have never pressured the Louisiana Tech professors to change their report which otherwise showed the hotel to be a losing proposition. Instead, they merely supplemented those different numbers onto the presentation to the entire state Bond Commission.

What the study did was to investigate conditions as if the hotel were privately owned given today’s conditions. What it did not do was to try to guess future conditions although the report warned that the climate for gambling (oops, “gaming;” the Louisiana Constitution says “Gambling shall be defined by and suppressed by the legislature”) might well become much more adverse which would make prospects for the hotel even worse. Further, there is a broad assumption that the convention center would necessarily bring in new business. Whether it does, chances are there will be a ripple effect that takes away sales taxes from private hoteliers that would have gone into the city’s coffers, that may more than take away from any property taxes not owed by the hotel. In short, unless there’s a lot of new business generated by the convention center, this likely ends up a shell game where the city robs itself of other revenues to make the hotel look like it will pay its own way.

(And what is the effect of the Hotel Trust Authority, stacked with Hightower appointees and yes-men, on the taxability issue? At one time, this panel was supposed to own and oversee the hotel’s operation, and now nobody is quite sure what it’ll do. Would any involvement with it at all with the hotel make the hotel subject to parish and school district taxes?)

As always, the larger question here has been whether the city should serve as a venture capital outfit or hotel owner. Common economic sense says no, that only a private sector owner completely free to make it (or not) on its own would be the most efficient user of this capital. And the risk forced upon city taxpayers is not only too large, but a violation of trust with their dollars. It’s one thing to take tens of millions of dollars and put it into something that with certainty one will benefit the entire city (such as repairs to the city’s water infrastructure, which Hightower has neglected as its renovation costs soar into the hundreds of millions of dollars, necessitating making it up on the backs of city residents), but another entirely to gamble with it hoping it will take in more money than it costs.

All along, Hightower has argued for the hotel’s necessity to make the convention center a success. But with the center’s own prospects diminishing in the post-9/11 world, what he’s proposing is something I heard about to avoid long before my banking (pre-academic) career commenced, “throwing good money after bad.”

31.1.05

Does She Realize That She's Next?

It’s not often that a federal elected official feels compelled to respond to an opinion column emanating from the media in her state, but that what Sen. Mary Landrieu did with this one. How she responded, including what she chose to include or to exclude in her reply, speaks volumes.

First, Landrieu claims that Shannen Coffin (interestingly, The Times got his name wrong on his own column!) “mischaracterized the debate of the past several years in the Senate over President Bush's judicial nominees.” Reading his column, I’m not sure where she could say that unless she thinks he’s saying she’s voting against nominees merely to be obstructionist.

Then, she tries to buttress this assertion by pointing out that:

I joined my Senate colleagues in confirming 204 of 214 of President Bush's judicial nominees. This is a fact, and it hardly paints a picture of "liberal obstructionism." Rather, it shows senators taking seriously their role to look closely at the views and qualifications of judicial nominees who, when confirmed, often far outlast the term of the president who appointed them. More than 60 out of 248 of President Clinton's judicial nominations were blocked by procedural maneuvering without even the benefit of a hearing in the Judiciary Committee.

Wrong: this is a disingenuous remark trying to equate the instances under Pres. Clinton where these nominees never commanded a majority in committee or on the Senate floor with the present cases under Pres. Bush where, if one takes the failed cloture motions against Democratic filibustering (in which every case Landrieu voted not to allow a nominee to come to a vote) as evidence, all of these 10 nominees enjoy both committee and Senate majorities.

Landrieu doesn’t tell you that the step she and her liberal Democrat colleagues have taken is unprecedented in Senate history (her body’s own researchers reveal this). All Coffin and others ask is that Landrieu stop subverting the idea of the filibuster to impose their minority preferences on the will of the majority, a practice not allowed in the Constitution, not even allowed by Senate rules on judicial nominations until 1949, and never successfully on Circuit Court nominees until the Bush presidency. Quite contrary to her statement, her actions display the height of arrogance and irresponsibility. It’s childish, in fact, like throwing a temper-tantrum to get back at the winners of policy conflicts.

Responsible senators want the Senate to exercise its duty to advise and (perhaps) give consent the president on judicial nominations. Landrieu and others want to subvert this. Why should she fear allowing a vote if she truly cares about the Senate and the people of Louisiana? Only an obstructionist would behave differently, so her explanation rings entirely hollow.

But, believe it or not, her remarks on judicial nominations aren’t the biggest fairy tale she tells in her column. Get a load of this:

The nonpartisan publication The National Journal recently ranked me as one of the most moderate senators of either party. That does not speak to a record of extremism; it speaks to a record built on votes based on what is right for the people of Louisiana and our nation.

However, other partisan groups paint a very different picture. The most venerable conservative group that ranks legislators by their votes, the American Conservative Union, gives Landrieu a lifetime score of 15, where 0 is the “perfect” liberal score. This slightly outdoes the liberal group that has been doing this scoring the longest, the Americans for Democratic Action, who just give her almost a 79 where 100 is the “perfect” liberal score. Both rank her as the most liberal senator in Louisiana history. If that makes her “moderate” in the Senate, there are no real moderates there.

The attitude expressed in her column demonstrates a distinct disconnection with the people she claims to represent. Perhaps Landrieu didn’t take to heart the fact that she won the two narrowest elections consecutively for the Senate since 1996. Perhaps she doesn’t see that the people of Louisiana are less and less inclined to take what she says at face value without critical appraisal. As the billboards across the state declare, referring to Sen. David Vitter’s decisive win last year, “Sister Senator Mary Landrieu, you’re next.”

Choose Plates, and Let the Chips Fall Where They May

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear an appeal of a ban on South Carolina’s issuance of license plates with pro-life messages, this either does or does not increase the chances that Louisiana’s version will finally be issued.

It does because the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals may wish to go in a different direction than the 4th which upheld the ban. The cases are slightly different; the 5th Circuit directed plaintiffs two years ago that the only challenge it would accept was one against all specialty plates, so it is a broader case based on a process. It doesn’t because the Court may be signaling it accepts the 4th Circuit’s argument that government’s permission to have such plates constitutes a lack of neutrality in government support of speech.

Louisiana’s argument has been that the issuance of such a plate was part of a political process, producing state speech. The monies collected go to organizations that then use the funds for their causes; government merely acts as a conduit without coercing anybody into paying the extra $25 for the specialty plate. Thus, the 5th Circuit was correct in saying the constitutional question here revolved around the right of the state to have such a program.

Opponents, however, argue this still is private speech. But the flaws in that argument become apparent in two ways. First, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition: either every of the 148 causes is private speech or none are, so where were the merchants of death that comprise the abortion lobby when the “Save the Black Bear” plate was first offered? You can’t pick and choose what’s “private” and what’s “state” just on the basis of the content of the causes.

So, if opponents must accept it’s the process that is of questionable constitutionality, then they would have to demonstrate how the process was rigged in favor of particular viewpoints, which brings up their second flaw: it isn’t. They cannot demonstrate that the Louisiana governmental policy-making process has built into it a bias favoring pro-life preferences. That was brought home when a move was made to create a “Choose Choice” (more accurate would have been “Choose Death”) in 2002 failed; it followed the identical process that brought about the pro-life plates but did not have the political support.

State speech portraying a particular preference occurs all of the time. For example, the state has a whole bureaucracy set up, which disseminates through various media a particular viewpoint, on drug usage in schools. No doubt here are those out there who advocate legalization, for example, of marijuana. Can they sue the state to shut down the speech activities of the Governor’s Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Program? And what about those who want to shoot every black bear in sight until extinction, can they prevent the state from issuing a plate begging us to save these creatures (the state animal)?

Of course not; the political process has made the reduction of drug usage of students part of state policy and speech. The same applies to the question of the state acting as a conduit to solicit and transfer funds to pro-black bear, or pro-life groups, unconnected with the state. The outcomes of the process of the specialty license plate need not be neutral only that the process is. And, the 5th Circuit should find this to be the case.

The secret, of course, is that those who oppose “Choose Life” plates do so because they know they are on the low road on the issue. They don’t want these license plates to be out there reminding them that they support infanticide, that they don’t have the courage to want to protect the most vulnerable members of our society from the selfishness that lies behind most decisions to abort and to terminate human lives as a result. That’s not any justification to overturn this law.