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Archive for August 8th, 2010

If you’re an American taxpayer, you’re doubtlessly overjoyed to be an involuntary shareholder in General Motors. You’ll be even happier to know that the company is squandering funds on political causes. In other words, they have enough money to be greasing the palms of politicians, but somehow don’t have enough money to survive without stealing money from us. But this does give us a teachable moment (albeit a very expensive one). The behavior of GM illustrates how politicians manage to get kickbacks whenever they give away our money (though the story didn’t mention the biggest source of kickbacks – the money and other forms of political support from the United Auto Workers). This is Washington’s version of recycling. Politicians take money from us, give it to some interest group, and then the interest group gives a slice of the money back to the politicians. Everybody wins. Except people with ethics.
When General Motors went through bankruptcy last year, it suspended its political donations. Now that it’s owned by the U.S. government, it’s donating to lawmakers’ pet projects again. The carmaker gave $41,000 to groups associated with lawmakers, the vast majority of it — $36,000 — to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the company reported on a disclosure form last week. The CBC Foundation is a charity with 11 members of the Congressional Black Caucus on its board. …The U.S. government now has a 60 percent stake in the reformed company. …General Motors has not reactivated its political action committee, which can give to election campaigns, according to the latest reports with the Federal Election Commission. The PAC contributions come from senior employees who give to support the company’s political goals.

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I cringed when I read this story from the EU Observer that makes it appear that libertarians – at least those in Sweden – are sympathetic to child pornography. If you read the article, the Swedish Pirate Party does have some legitimate concerns about broad and vague laws that can be misused, but this nonetheless seems to be an example of what I call chest-beating libertarianism. This is the impulse to oppose anything a government is doing and thus be a completely-consistent anti-statist. This generally is a very sound instinct, but it can lead to positions that are absurd (do you get rid of laws against murder?). My main piece of advice to hard-core libertarians is that we should focus on getting rid of the programs, department, and agencies that should not exist. And if we ever succeed with those goals, then we can start fighting and squabbling over how to privatize streets and how to protect against child molesters without giving police too much power.
The libertarian Pirate Party in Sweden has set off a storm of controversy by arguing that the country’s current laws on child pornography should be done away with. In an interview with Swedish Radio out on Thursday (5 August) Pirate Party leader Rick Falkvinge described a 1999 child pornography law as “a battering-ram against the open society.” The radio spot and an accompanying article noted how a policy plank in the party’s election manifesto, published last week, would “make it legal to hold the image, text and sound with child pornography” on a computer. …”The big story on Swedish Radio, that said we are positive to child pornography, that is really not the case,” [the party's communications manager] said. “We want to make it clear that the Pirate Party does not have a positive stance on child pornography, but rather we are opposed to Swedish laws that say that almost anything, pictures, sound, drawn images, anything at all depicting someone under the age of 18 can be called a sexual image.” “What we want is not an end to all child pornography laws but a return to their previous form, which existed before 1999, in which it defined it as images of prepubescent children,” he said. “Swedish child pornography laws since then are more like something like a yoke the police can apply to this or any case. It shows well how the child pornography law can be used on anyone.” …”The law could also cover a 17-year-old taking a nude picture of himself, keeping the picture until he’s 19 and then he is suddenly in possession of child pornography. It’s the 18 cut-off that is the main problem.” Mr Kindh gave the example of how a Swedish comic books translator, who specialised in translating Japanese manga, was last week arrested under the law: “From a collection of around 1,000 comics, the police found 51 images that they misread as child pornography.” The party does want all child pornography laws lifted in relation to any fictional content.

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My default assumption is that all politicians will do the wrong thing when they have to choose between defending freedom and appeasing special interests. Even the ones that spout good rhetoric often do the wrong thing, particularly after a couple of years in office (sort of like being assimilated by the Borg, for you Star Trek fans). So I did not hold out much hope that Chris Christie would have any positive impact on New Jersey. I’m glad to report that (at least so far) I was wrong. Here’s a excerpt from a National Review article about what he’s accomplished. The excerpt is long, but the details are important. And since I obviously had to summarize, you should read the entire article to more fully appreciate how Christie seems to be the real deal.
…on February 11, Christie addressed a special joint session of the state legislature, replacing the vague promises of the campaign trail with first principles, and elaborating the constraints under which he was determined to govern: “Our constitution requires a balanced budget. Our commitment requires us to begin the next fiscal year with a prudent opening balance. Our conscience and common sense require us to fix the problem in a way that does not raise taxes on the most overtaxed citizens in America. Our love for our children requires that we do not shove today’s problems under the rug only to be discovered again tomorrow. Our sense of decency must require that we stop using tricks that will make next year’s budget problem even worse.” And in an extraordinary move, he then declared a fiscal state of emergency, announcing that by executive order he would impound $2.2 billion in appropriations from a fiscal year that was already seven months gone. That figure represented virtually every dollar the state was not legally obligated to pay out for the remainder of the year. In Bagger’s words, it was “everything that wasn’t nailed down.” “By doing that so quickly and so dramatically, and by executive action, it really set the stage,” Bagger says. “It was just a very clear declaration that there’s a new reality.” There was much wailing and teeth-gnashing about the cuts among Democrats. Sweeney accused Christie of “pick[ing] someone else’s pocket,” and senate majority leader Barbara Buono went so far as to say the executive order had “declare[d] martial law” in New Jersey. This raised the stakes significantly for the FY 2011 budget battle, which was then only beginning. In the year to come, the state would face an $11 billion deficit that made the previous shortfall look like a gratuity. It was a big hole, and Christie needed Democratic votes to close it. But he had no intention of mollycoddling the other side. On March 16, the governor went back before a joint session of the legislature and introduced a $29.3 billion budget that doubled down on his most controversial measures, trimming fat — and muscle, and sinew — from virtually every department and every entitlement in the state. The budget did small things, like reducing overtime hours, shrinking the state’s fleet of official vehicles, replacing paper with digital filing, and consolidating government office space. It cut the pay and pension eligibility for members of a number of state boards and commissions, many of whose duties required them to do little more than attend once-monthly meetings. It saved $216 million by eliminating a number of wasteful programs, and another $50 million by privatizing others. But the budget did big things as well. It shrank the state’s major spending programs — including many that were, the governor admitted, not without merit — by reducing base appropriations and either scaling back or eliminating scheduled funding increases. It converted the state’s property-tax rebate system — long funded by borrowing, at interest, to cut checks to homeowners — with tax credits. It cut $466 million in local aid, against Trenton’s trend of corralling more and more municipal tax dollars for the purposes of redistribution, while pushing a constitutional amendment that would limit towns’ ability to raise property taxes in the future. And like Corzine before him, Christie deferred payments to the state’s pension program to secure $3.1 billion in savings, under the justification that it was imprudent to sink more money into a failing system. But unlike Corzine, Christie pushed through tough pension reforms that rolled back overgenerous payment increases, limited payouts for unused sick leave, and enrolled new workers into 401(k)s. He’d also signed a law requiring public employees to pay at least 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their health benefits, which would save the state and local governments hundreds of millions each year. But what caused the first and most strident wave of opposition to Christie’s agenda was his decision to slash funding for public education, by some $820 million. …A near-pristine version of Christie’s budget passed at 1:13 a.m. on June 29, less than 24 hours before the constitutional deadline. …But as significant as his early victories have been, Christie must now turn to pushing the structural reforms that will institutionalize his vision of leaner, meaner state government. …Even as he was fighting the budget battle, the governor was barnstorming the state to talk up perhaps the most significant of these reforms: his “Cap 2.5” initiative, which would constitutionally limit the ability of municipalities to raise property taxes. The cap is popular among residents, most of whom pay the preponderance of their non-federal tax liability in property taxes. …But Christie’s amendment is at the mercy of the Democratic legislature, whose assent is required for a popular referendum on it. …Christie has vowed not to give up the fight. Other battles loom wherein the governor’s chances for success are highly uncertain. He has promised yet more pension and compensation reforms, moves that could break his tenuous alliance with the reformist elements in the Democratic party and push his openly hostile relationship with labor beyond Thunderdome. …Senator Kean, who hopes to move from minority to majority leader, has confidence that Christie will continue to stick to his guns. “The governor has an internally strong constitution — that’s who Chris is — and he has an externally strong constitution in the constitution of the State of New Jersey,” Kean says. “I think he is absolutely the genuine article. That’s why we won’t ever go back to the status quo, at least not under Chris Christie’s governorship.”

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