Monday, April 30, 2007

What the Spending Bill Says

The Iraq funding bill going to the President's desk is described as "requir[ing] troop withdrawals to begin by Oct. 1." But wasn't the bill also described as having "nonbinding" timelines? What does the bill actually say?

If you want to know what a statute says, there's nothing like actually reading it. H.R. 1591 is a massive bill; to find the relevant provisions you need to turn to sections 1901 and following. The answer is that the bill contains a mix of requirements and nonbinding goals.

First, there's a requirement about military units being "mission capable." Section 1901(b) requires that no money be spent to deploy a unit to Iraq "unless the chief of the military department concerned has certified in writing to the Committees on Appropriations and the Committees on Armed Services at least 15 days in advance of the deployment that the unit is fully mission capable." But section 1901(d) permits the President to waive this requirement on a unit-by-unit basis. So this turns out to be nonbinding, really.

Similarly, section 1902 prohibits the use of funds to deploy a reserve unit for more than 365 days (210 days for Marines), but again, the President may waive this limitation on a unit-by-unit basis. So, nonbinding.

Then section 1903 prohibits the use of funds to deploy a unit that was deployed within the last 365 days (210 days for Marines), but again, waivable by the President. Nonbinding.

Then we get to the nub of the matter. Section 1904(a) requires the President to report on Iraqi progress in achieving four benchmarks: (1) giving U.S. and Iraqi forces authority to pursue all extremists, and making substantial progress in delivering necessary Iraqi security forces, and other security-related matters, (2) meeting its commitment to pursue reconciliation initiatives, (3) reducing the level of sectarian violence, and (4) ensuring the rights of minority political parties.

If the President fails to determine that each of the benchmarks is being met, "the Secretary of Defense shall commence the redeployment of the Armed Forces from Iraq no later than July 1, 2007, with a goal of completing such redeployment within 180 days."

If the President determines that all of the benchmarks are being met, "the Secretary of Defense shall commence the redeployment of the Armed Forces from Iraq not later than October 1, 2007, with a goal of completing such redeployment within 180 days."

The, after the conclusion of the redeployment, forces can remain in Iraq only for limited purposes (e.g., protecting U.S. citizens and "Engaging in targeted special actions limited in duration and scope to killing or capturing members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with global reach.")

So it looks like the bill really does require withdrawal. But read it carefully. It only requires the Secretary of Defense to "commence" the redeployment on July 1 or October 1. Technically, that could mean redeploying one soldier. And the completion of the redeployment within 180 days in either case is only a "goal."

So even this bill, I would say, is essentially nonbinding. If the President is willing to sign a bill with benchmarks and a nonbinding timetable, he could sign this one.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

It's Confirmed

Just in case you were wondering whether the Bush Administration led us into war in Iraq based on rumors and exaggerations, sexed-up intelligence, and a pre-existing desire to take out Saddam rather than a belief that he represented an imminent threat, it's now confirmed by none other than former CIA Director and Medal of Freedom recipient George Tenet.

Tenet's new book asserts that "There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraq threat," that "White House and Pentagon officials, and particularly Vice President Cheney, were determined to attack Iraq from the first days of the Bush administration, long before Sept. 11, 2001," and that there were "numerous efforts by aides to Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to insert 'crap' into public justifications for the war," including a speech by Cheney in August 2002 that "went well beyond what our analysis could support."

The Bush Administration's response is that there was a lot of wrestling with all the very serious questions leading up to the war, but that "the former CIA director might have been unaware of all the discussions. " That makes sense. If you're going to discuss questions of war and peace that turn critically on the quality of foreign intelligence, the last person you'd want in the room would be the CIA Director.

Of course, Tenet has his own axe to grind and so he may not be the most credible of sources, especially having presided over perhaps the two most disastrous intelligence failures in U.S. history -- failing to detect the 9/11 plot and telling us that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction. But even the Administration's own former fair-haired boy is now telling us that the Administration deliberately led us into war based on overhyped intelligence.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Academic Freedom, Please

I hate to admit this, but sometimes liberals do seem to be a parody of themselves. Emmanual College recently fired Nicholas Winset, an adjunct professor of financial accounting, for holding a class discussion concerning the Virginia Tech shootings. Apparently the key problem was that Winset dramatized his pro-gun position by walking through the class and "shooting" five or six of the students with a dry-erase marker, at which point, by prearrangement, a student "shot" Winset with a marker of his own. The point was that, if Virginia Tech hadn't banned weapons on campus, maybe an armed student or professor could have stopped the Virginia Tech shooter before he killed so many people.

Emmanuel College released a statement saying that the school prohibits "any behavior or action which makes light of or mimics the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech." and that "Emmanuel College has clear standards of classroom and campus conduct, and does not in any way condone the use of discriminatory or obscene language." Winset was fired and ordered to stay away from the campus even though there are a couple of weeks left in the semester. It's not clear what will happen to his class.

Now, really. I guess Winset did "mimic" the VT shootings, but I can't see that he "made light of" them. And what exactly was discriminatory or obscene about the pro-gun position? I have a colleague here at GW who takes exactly the same position. Following the VT shootings, he was, predictably, in the faculty lounge wishing that students and professors could bear arms and so prevent an incident like this one. I don't agree with him, but his position is, if anything, more mainstream than mine in America as a whole.

Also, Winset's choice to use dramatization to make his point seems pedagogically acceptable. Part of a professor's job is to challenge students and inspire critical thinking. Professors use all kinds of techniques to achieve this end. Apparently most students in the class did not find the demonstration offensive.

Of course, it seems that Winset was supposed to be teaching financial accounting, and gun control presumably wasn't on the syllabus. But it's not beyond the pale to take a small amount of class time to discuss a major incident that captures the attention of the whole country. Certainly I think that Christopher Stephens, another adjunct professor, was being absurd when he said in response to Winset, "The whole point of being an adjunct professor is to write your syllabus, do your job, and move on. There's no room for grandstanding, and I think that's what he did in his act." Adjunct professors are professors too, and they should get to share in the great glory of the academic enterprise, which very much includes a bit of grandstanding in the service of getting students to think about issues.

I find it hard to believe that Winset would have been fired if he'd led a brief discussion of the shootings that culminated in the message "these shootings are terrible and we really need to use them as a catalyst to get some serious gun control legislation passed." I'm guessing it's his pro-gun position that did him in.

As always, one should be hesitant to form a full judgment based solely on media accounts. The school hasn't fully commented (because it's a personnel issue), so we haven't really heard both sides of the story. And it seems that Winset also made some remarks about "the public's celebration of victimhood" in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, which might have caused offense (although Christopher Hitchens really went to town with the same position in a recent Slate essay, and others have too, so even that is not such an outre point of view). So maybe there's more to the story than meets the media eye.

But from the outside, it seems like an excessive reaction sparked by a stereotypically liberal silencing response to conservative speech. I hate it when liberals give liberals a bad name.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tax Protestors Gone Wild

Ed and Elaine Brown, perhaps the two most notorious tax protestors on the market right now, were finally sentenced yesterday: they each got 63 months -- that's more than five years -- for tax evasion. As is typical for tax protestors, they claim that there's just no law requiring them to pay income taxes. For some inexplicable reason, the judge didn't buy it.

The curious thing about this case, though, is that the Browns are at their home, and there appears to be no plan to arrest them and make them serve their sentence! Apparently their home is "fortress-like" and the U.S. Marshals don't want another Waco-like seige and possibly disastrous ending. So while the Marshal assures us that "Law enforcement is not going away and neither are the warrants," the Marshals are also "not going to engage in that kind of game with them."

So for now, the Browns will be free to relax at home and continue to issue statements such as "The world belongs to the creator. It doesn't belong to man. It doesn't belong to the United States government. It doesn't belong to me. It doesn't belong to you" and "I could care less what [the judge] does. I can't talk to a fiction. You're a fiction, too."

I suppose the government's desire to avoid violence is commendable, but really, they need to work out some plan for arresting these criminals. "They've acted as if they're above the law," the local assistant U.S. Attorney said, and, if the government can't figure out how to arrest them, then they'll have been right.

At Last, an Investigation

Where's the outrage? That's what I've been wondering ever since the Lurita Doan incident last month. For those of you just joining us, Doan is the head of the General Services Administration, and one of Karl Rove's top aides gave Doan and her top aides a presentation on the Republican party's political goals for the 2008 elections, including slides such as "2008 House Targets: Top 20" (with a list of Democratic seats). After the presentation, according to six witnesses, Doan asked "how can we use GSA to help our candidates?" Doan says she does not have a "recollection" of saying that.

The alleged statement is so blatant, so completely inappropriate, that Doan's faulty memory is not credible. If someone asked me, "Jon, at the last faculty meeting, did you say, 'how can we use GW University funds to refurbish my apartment?'" I wouldn't have to search my memory banks. I could immediately answer, "Of course I didn't say that, I would never say that, that would be illegal." It's not the kind of thing that would cause you to say, "well, I might have said that, I just don't recall."

Well, finally the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is putting together a task force to investigate whether these presentations (they weren't just given at GSA) violated the Hatch Act. It will also consider part of the U.S. Attorneys firings scandal. But I'm not holding my breath. Scott Bloch, the head of the office, is a Bush administration insider, and they haven't done the greatest job of investigating themselves on anything so far.

What we need is more action from the congressional investigation into which other government agencies saw this slide show. If, as the administration claims, the slide show is perfectly legal, why can't it release a list of who's seen it? Congress should find out, and it should definitively determine whether Lurita Doan proposed to manipulate GSA actions for the benefit of Republican political candidates. If so, an impeachment inquiry would seem appropriate.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Siegel Loses Debate!

The debate is over, the votes are in, and the result is clear: 89.1% of those voting thought convicted criminal Larken Rose bested law professor Jon Siegel in their radio debate over whether there is a law requiring most Americans to pay income tax!

Vox populi, vox Dei. I guess I learned my lesson.

Actually, the show's producer was kind enough to point out that the voters were not exactly a random sample of Americans. Rose e-mailed his fan base and told them to listen in. It was noticeable that all the calls were from people who believed in his fringe theories.

What is still striking, though, is the number of fans he and other tax protestors have. What drives so many people to believe in these crazy theories? Since I started my income tax web pages I've had all kinds of e-mail correspondence with people who seem to believe fervently that there is no law requiring most Americans to pay income tax. It's amazing the amount of energy some of these people have spent on learning intricate and arcane details of obscure income tax regulations, the history of the 16th Amendment, or fragments of what the Supreme Court said about income tax in century-old cases. If only that same energy could be redirected to some real-world goal -- trying to get Congress to lower or repeal income tax, say -- imagine what could be accomplished!

It reminds me of what it's like to read up on astrology or other pseudo-scientific topics. I'm always amazed at how careful some devotees are in their research into exactly what it supposedly means when the moon is in Pisces or whatever other bit of arcana they're pursuing, and I can't help but think what could be accomplished if the same time and energy were devoted to studying actual medicine or engineering or some other real topic.

Anyway, if you care to listen, the podcast of the debate is here. The debate starts after about 15 or 20 minutes of discussion of another topic -- the Imus affair -- which you can skip if you click on the word "podcast" rather than on the "play" icon (at least, in my browser).

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Out of the Gates

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that U.S. troop levels in Iraq could be reduced this year -- if the revised Iraq war plan announced by President Bush this week succeeds in reducing violence in the country.

In other news:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the Arab-Israeli conflict could be resolved later this year -- if Israelis and Palestinians reveal that they secretly love each other.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said that the federal income tax could be eliminated later this year -- if people start sending in enough voluntary gifts to the U.S. treasury.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said that air fares could fall substantially later this year -- if enough people learn to flap their arms and fly.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Gonzales Speaks at Last

Yesterday, we finally got to hear Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's long-awaited testimony on the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys. Considering that the matter is all about why these U.S. Attorneys got fired, and considering that the Attorney General has been practicing his testimony for up to five hours a day, one might think that, if he was prepared for anything, he would be prepared to explain in crisp, clear language why each U.S. Attorney got fired.

Instead, listen to this exchange between the Attorney General and Senator Leahy about fired U.S. Attorney David Iglesias:


LEAHY: Mr. Iglesias has been described by your former chief of staff as a "diverse up-and-comer."

He was reportedly offered the job as the head of the Executive Office of the United States Attorneys for you here in Washington.

. . . In your testimony that you provide, you characterize Mr. Iglesias as "a fine lawyer; dedicated, professional; gave many years of service to the department."

But in your March 7th column in USA Today, you wrote that he was asked to leave because he simply lost your confidence.

When and why did he lose your confidence?

GONZALES: Senator, . . . Mr. Iglesias lost the confidence of Senator Domenici, as I recall, in the fall of 2005, when he called me and said something to the effect that Mr. Iglesias was in over his head and that he was concerned that Mr. Iglesias did not have the appropriate personnel focused on cases like public corruption cases. . . .

LEAHY: With all due respect, Mr. Attorney General, my question wasn't when he may have lost confidence of Senator Domenici. My question is when and why did he lose your confidence?

GONZALES: Senator, what I -- what I instructed Mr. Sampson to do was consult with people in the department...

LEAHY: When and why did he lose your confidence?

GONZALES: Based upon the recommendation -- what I understood to be the consensus recommendation of the senior leadership in the department that in fact these individuals -- there were issues and concerns about the performance of these individuals, that's when I made the decision to accept the recommendation that, in fact, it would be appropriate to make a change in this particular district.

Now, the fact that Mr. Iglesias appeared on the list, again, was not surprising to me, because I already had heard concerns about Mr. Iglesias' performance.


Good heavens, is that the best you can do? Try filling in the blank in this sentence: "Mr. Iglesias was fired because ____________."

There are only eight U.S. Attorneys involved. After five hours a day of drilling, I would really think Mr. Gonzales would have a simple sentence for each one, with the blank filled in.

Instead, he tells us that he instructed Kyle Sampson to consult with people in the Department and that the decision was based on the consensus of the senior leadership in the Department. Well, wasn't that consensus based on something? And haven't you had every opportunity to go back and figure out what that something was? And wasn't yesterday the day you were supposed to tell us? And have you had enough rhetorical questions?

Also from the hearing:


LEAHY: So when was David Iglesias added to the list of U.S. attorneys to be replaced?

GONZALES: Of course, Senator, when I accepted the recommendation, I did not know when Mr. Iglesias was, in fact, added to the recommended list. As I've gone back and reviewed the record, it appears that Mr. Iglesias was added sometime between, I believe, October 17th and December 15th.

. . . LEAHY: Do you know why he was added?

GONZALES: Again, Senator, I was not responsible for compiling that information. The recommendation was made to me.

I was not surprised that Mr. Iglesias was recommended to me, because I had heard about concerns about the performance of Mr. Iglesias.


What kind of nonsense is this? You went back and figured out (sort of) when Mr. Iglesias was added to the list, but you never figured out why? Haven't you asked your senior leadership that question? "Why" is the crux of the whole thing!

Apparently this list just made itself. Even after weeks of investigating, the Attorney General can't explain exactly who made up this list and why each name was added to it.

Another amusing moment came when Senator Leahy discussed the "absentee landlord" rationale for firing Mr. Iglesias, who apparently served about 40 days a year in the Naval Reserve. The Attorney General confirmed that that service couldn't possibly have had anything to do with Mr. Iglesias firing (it would have been illegal under the USERRA, a law that protects the right to serve in the armed forces reserves). But then Senator Leahy discusses the fact that some U.S. Attorneys serve a dual role, also having a job at main Justice in Washington. The U.S. Attorney in Montana, Mr. Mercer, is also the Associate Attorney General in Washington. Leahy asks Gonzales how much time Mercer spends in Washington. And when Gonzales can't answer, Leahy asks "is it like a week a year? Is it several months a year?" All Gonzales can say is, "Senator, let me get back with you with the most accurate information."

As I said a few days ago, I wanted to give the Attorney General the benefit of the doubt. I assumed he was acting in good faith and would tell us the reasons.

But this is just too much. If, after weeks of preparation for this hearing, after weeks of changing his story, not giving straight answers, and having one staff member after another resign and/or take the Fifth, I have to infer that this is a real scandal. There is some improper reason these U.S. Attorneys were fired. If there were a proper reason, we'd know it by now.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Forgot My Cell

I forgot my cell phone today, and I feel about the same as if I had forgotten my pants.

A year and a half ago, I didn't even have a cell phone -- I resisted the concept for a long time -- and now I hardly understand how I got by without one. What did we do before cell phones?

Answer: we made appointments in advance, and we kept them.

What's Iraq Like?

Monday's horrific shootings in Virginia remind us of the preciousness of life and the vulnerability of society. They also give us some glimpse as to what it must be like to live in Iraq.

Remember how you felt when you learned about the Blacksburg shootings -- when you learned that 32 people, people like yourself, living in your own country (if you're American), going about their daily business much like yourself, had been killed in a senseless suicide attack.

Now imagine hearing that the attack had killed five times that many people. Because that's what happened in Baghdad yesterday.

Imagine that additional bombings and shootings across the country brought the day's death toll to almost 230 -- nearly eight times as many as died in the Virginia shootings.

And finally imagine that such attacks, killing scores of people, occurred multiple times per week. Imagine not even having enough time to recover from being stunned by each attack before the next one.

That's what's happening in Iraq, where civilian casualties are actually higher than before the new Baghdad security plan was implemented.

Iraqis are people too, and our security plan doesn't seem to be providing them with much security.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

For Heaven's Sake

I'm no fan of Mitt Romney, but could people please stop attacking him for being a Mormon? It's a little cheap. Sure, he belongs to a minority religion that has beliefs that seems strange to outsiders, but every religion has beliefs that, viewed from the standpoint of science, logic, or another religion, seem strange.

A recent On the Media portrait quotes Judy Woodruff asking Romney about the supposed Mormon beliefs that "Jesus Christ will appear again in the state of Missouri or that God has a material body, that he was fathered by another God." Passing over the Missouri part, aren't the latter parts rather similar to some mainstream Christian beliefs? I'm Jewish, so my knowledge of Christian doctrine is imperfect, but I've always understood that Christians believe that Jesus was both God and the son of God and that he had a material body. I'm sure the Mormon views are different in ways that are theologically very important (Jesus wasn't the son of another God, in the mainstream view), but there are lots of theological differences between Christian denominations. Some Christians believe that they actually drink the blood and eat the body of Christ during the Eucharist ceremony (I expect some outsiders regard that as odd); others believe the ceremony is only symbolic.

The previous Dean of my law school was a Mormon, and he was a lovely fellow who made an excellent Dean and got a lot done for the school. I don't recommend that anyone vote for Romney, but let's leave his religion out of it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Eerie Coda

An eerie coda to the previous post: as I entered the school building this morning, alarms were shrieking and a light was blinking on the main door's control panel. The light was marked "Trouble." Somewhat unsettling after yesterday's awful events.

In The Midst Of Life

Yesterday's horrific shooting in Viriginia reminds us of the preciousness of life and of the inherent vulnerability of a free society. Pretty much anywhere, anytime, a deranged person could open fire and kill whoever happened to be around.

I work in a university setting where security is very much an issue. When I started, our security was basically nonexistent. Since then, things have improved a little -- we now have card-key entry locks on our doors. But the doors are unlocked most of the day, and there is no guard to challenge anyone who enters. At other urban law schools I have visited (U. Penn. and NYU, for example), those entering must click through a turnstile with school ID or be challenged by a security guard.

We could upgrade our security to that level, but it wouldn't prevent shootings by students [update -- as the Virginia shooting is now thought to be], or by faculty or staff. And in the end, it's hard to see how incidents like Virginia's could really be prevented in society at large. We could set things up so that, before going to school, getting on a subway car, buying a cup of coffee, seeing a movie, entering a store, or generally going from anywhere to anywhere else, you would have to show ID, sign in, and walk through a metal detector. But life would become unbearable.

Of course, we could ban guns. Incidents like yesterday's would be much more difficult to pull off without easy access to guns. But this question is not as simple as it seems. I've never studied the question closely, but people whose opinions I respect -- most notably Eugene Volokh -- say that the statistics show that guns save more lives than they cost (not in the particular post linked here, but elsewhere). The NRA had the good taste to offer nothing but its condolences for now, but you can be sure it will be defending the right to own guns in the wake of the tragedy. The right answer on this point is not clear.

Monday, April 16, 2007

General Won't Serve as Czar

Everyone should read this: a retired Marine Corps general's explanation of why he won't serve as the "White House implementation manager," or War Czar, for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Basically, he refused to take the job because he determined that the Administration has no strategy for winning the war.

I assume Marine Corps generals are not a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals eager to bash the administration. So when one of them says that "that there is no agreed-upon strategic view of the Iraq problem or the region," that "We cannot 'shorthand' this issue with concepts such as the 'democratization of the region' or the constant refrain by a small but powerful group that we are going to 'win,' even as 'victory' is not defined or is frequently redefined," and that "We got it right during the early days of Afghanistan -- and then lost focus. We have never gotten it right in Iraq," it's important to listen.

I have no idea what the solution is in Iraq. Even if one believes that starting the war was an enormous mistake, we can't wave a wand and make it unhappen. Planning for the future has to start with a recognition of where we are now. We may need to accept some sacrifices to marshal the resources that would be needed to succeed. But we're never going to succeed with a strategy that amounts to tinkering at the margins with what we've been doing unsuccessfully for four years in the hope that we can somehow muddle through. The President says that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror -- the most important fight in the world. If he's serious, then it's up to him to make sure we win. When even the generals basically say that he's just muddling through, we have a right to be angry.

Nothing to Hide

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has "nothing to hide" with regard to the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys, because "nothing improper occurred" and he knows that he "did not -- and would not -- ask for the resignation of any U.S. attorney for an improper reason. "

I am certainly looking forward to hearing the Attorney General substantiate these statements when he testifies before Congress tomorrow. I like to start with the assumption that, although people often have policy goals I would disagree with, everyone is doing their job in good faith, as best they can, as they see it, until the contrary is proven. So I'll give the Attorney General the benefit of the doubt. But I will need to hear answers to the following questions:

If this whole thing is just an "overblown personnel matter," as the Attorney General wrote in USA Today, then why can't we get a definitive statement of his role in it? On March 13 he said "I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on." Now he acknowledges that his chief of staff Kyle Sampson "periodically updated" him on the process, Sampson says he had at least five discussions with Gonzales about it, and Michael Battle (former director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys) says that a memo on the firings was distributed at a meeting that Gonzales attended.

Also, if there are proper reasons why these U.S. Attorneys were fired, why can't we get a clear statement of those reasons? Why does the reason keep changing? The whole scandal stems from the initial insistence that the firings were for "performance-related" reasons and that the White House was not involved. But later it turned out that the White House did approve the firings.

I await the Attorney General's explanations with interest.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


I awoke this morning to the news that at least 56 people were killed by a car bombing at a bus station in Karbala and another 10 by a car bombing on a bridge in Baghdad. If you keep your radio tuned to the news and have it go off on the hour, that's often the first thing you hear -- how many people were killled by bombs in Iraq that day.

Living my comfortable life in the USA, I have, like many Americans, become numb to the daily reports of death and destruction in a far-off land, but every now and then, like this morning, it hits me that these reports we hear on the radio are about actual people. The statement "at least 56 people were killed" flashes by, but each of those 56 people had a mother, a father, a childhood; they grew up, perhaps they went to school, worked at jobs, fell in love, married, had children of their own, had dreams, hopes, heartaches, fears, aspirations, good and bad times, and then -- poof, in a second, someone who didn't even know them blows them up and their whole life is reduced to being part of a number read out at the top of the news. Thousands of miles away, all we hear is the number; we never even learn the names of the dead. And to the left of the article on the Washington Post website, the tantalizing headline beckons, "Prince William Single Again."

President Bush and Senator McCain say that we are making progress in Iraq; Senator McCain complains that American media aren't reporting the good news. But the car bombs explode almost every day.

Thank goodness it's not my job to figure out how to solve the Iraq problem. But it certainly seems like the 15% "surge" solution is unlikely to have much effect. I continue to think that a President who really wanted to achieve victory, and who really beliveved that Iraq was the most important front in the war on terror, would do something more like doubling our commitment in Iraq, and would explain to the American people why this step and the sacrifices it would entail were necessary.

In the meantime, the daily drumbeat of the numbers of the dead continues.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Reaching the Die-Hards

As you know from yesterday's entry, tomorrow I'll be doing a radio "debate" on the topic of whether the law actually requires Americans to pay income tax. I have no great qualms that I'll be able to "win" this debate among the listeners who are, shall we say, even remotely rational. But let's imagine that I really want to reach out to the die-hard tax protestor crowd -- the kind of people who send me e-mails like these. These people believe that the IRS is engaged in a massive conspiracy to deceive the American public into believing they have to pay income taxes when really, legally, they don't. Which arguments, if any, might have a chance of reaching these people? Here are some possibilities:

1. My opponent just got out of prison, where he was serving time for not paying his income taxes. If there's no law that requires people to pay income taxes, what was he doing in prison?

2. I understand that people don't trust the government, including the IRS. And that's good -- some distrust of government is healthy in a democratic society. But you have to understand that we have a system of checks and balances. There are other groups that check the IRS and make sure it's telling the truth. These groups include judges, law professors, and private lawyers. And they all agree! It's not just the IRS that says you have to pay taxes. It's all the judges, all the law professors, and just about all the private lawyers. Each of these groups would have a big incentive to expose the IRS if it were lying about this. So when you see that they all agree, you can trust in that.

3. My opponent makes money peddling his anti-tax arguments over the Internet [I think this is true -- tomorrow's my opportunity to find out for sure]. Shouldn't you direct some of your distrust toward people who have a financial interest in the outcome?

Those are my best ideas for now. Of course, another important point is just showing people the law that requires them to pay income taxes. But that's too long for the radio and the die-hards seem curiously resistant to that anyway.

Any other ideas? Comments welcome.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Radio Appearance

I can hardly believe I agreed to do this, but I will be appearing on radio this weekend to debate the burning question, is there a law that requires people to pay federal income tax?

This is what comes of maintaining a website about tax protestors.

If you happen to be supremely bored from 10-11:30 am this Saturday morning (April 14), and you'd rather do almost anything else than whatever you're doing, you can listen in to the broadcast by streaming web radio here:

The "you don't have to pay income taxes" position will be represented by Larken Rose, well-known tax protestor and convicted criminal, who just got out of prison four months ago.

This should be an informative debate -- not!

Monday, April 9, 2007

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Ford Motor Company paid its CEO Alan Mulally $39.1 million for four months work at the end of 2006. Ford lost $12.7 billion during 2006, with a disproportionate share of the loss ($5.8 billion) coming in the fourth quarter, when Mr. Mulally was in charge.

My, it must be nice to get paid almost $40 million to help your company lose almost $6 billion.

I'm not offended by high salaries per se, as long as they're determined by arm's-length negotiation. When a baseball player convinces a team to pay him multi-tens-of-millions of dollars, I know that team's owner fought the player hard and had the strongest possible interest in keeping the salary as low as possible. That's the owner's money on the line. If the player turns out to be a flop, it's the owner's fault for making a bad decision. It's not anyone else's business.

But when a public company's CEO gets paid eight figures for losing ten figures, I am aghast. The fundamental problem is that the CEO's pay is not determined by pure market forces. The CEO and the corporate board know that they are sitting on a huge pile of other people's money and that no one is really watching what they do because no one has the right incentive.

You might think that Ford stockholders would be boiling over at this kind of salary. But no stockholder has a big enough stake. I own some Ford stock through mutual fund investments (if you've got anything in an S&P 500 index fund, you do too), but I don't have anything like a substantial stake in Mulally's salary, and you don't either.

Ford has 1.8 billion shares of stock issued. Ford closed at $8.08 today, so even if you had $1 million invested in Ford stock (which would be a huge amount compared to what I have, you can be sure), you'd own a whopping 0.0069% of Ford -- less than one one-hundreth of one percent. At that rate, Mulally's salary is costing you about $2,700. That's just not that much compared to your investment. If your portfolio is so big that you've got $1 million invested in Ford stock, you're not going to be fighting hard about $2,700, especially since, if you did, the main beneficiaries would be the other shareholders who own the other 99.99% of the company.

CEOs and corporate boards like to claim that there's a tight market for CEO talent and that they have to pay these outsized salaries to get the best top management. I would believe it if the people setting the salaries had the right incentives. Instead, they're just playing with other people's money and somehow seem to have lost all sense of shame in grabbing as much of it as possible.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Tough Year at the Masters

It's the weekend, so we get to relax and think about golf.

With the third round of play almost complete, the leader at the Masters tournament is one over par. Tiger Woods's score of +3 puts him in fourth place.

I am eminently unqualified to offer an opinion about this topic -- I've been seen hitting a ball around the course, but it would be an exaggeration to call anything I do "playing golf" -- but it seems to me that Augusta is setting the course up to be too hard. The official reason for the recent course changes is that Bobby Jones meant for players to use a mid-iron or a long iron for their second shot on many holes, and today's longer distance means that many of the players were getting around the course with nothing but a driver and a wedge. So Augusta has had to lengthen and toughen many of the holes.

All very sensible, but still, the club should remember that the tournament is a show and that people want to be entertained in a certain way. Just as baseball is best when the average combined score in each game is about 9 runs, a golf tournament is best when the top players can make some (but not too many) birdies and an occasional eagle and have a decent shot at breaking par at the end of the day. The U.S. Open, of course, is famous for attempting to set up the course so that only the leader breaks par, but other tournaments shouldn't be emulating this goal. Each day's leader should be shooting about 67 or 68, with lower scores occurring on days when conditions are favorable.

Part of Masters lore is that no player has ever put together four rounds in the 60s. It's not ever going to happen if the club keeps the harsh course setup.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Lucky to be Born First

Harvard rejected 1100 students with perfect math scores on the SAT, and Yale turned down "several" applicants with perfect 2400s on the whole test, according to the New York Times.

The article gives lots of explanations, but the bottom line seems pretty simple: the population is increasing, but the number of places at elite colleges remains relatively stable. This trend can only continue. Harvard's acceptance rate was 9% -- the lowest in the school's history -- but when the population of the U.S. hits 400 million, one would have to project that the acceptance rate would dip to a little below 7%, unless the school substantially enlarges its undergraduate class.

In the long run, I'm guessing that such enlargement is not that likely. There's only so much space in Cambridge. Of course, "distance learning" could overcome that, but you would lose a substantial part of what it means to go to college if you didn't really "go" to college.

A more likely trend, I would say, is an enlargement of the set of schools that are considered elite. Sure, Harvard and Yale may stay on top for a long time, but if decades from now there are
50% more brilliant students than there are today, I would think that the set of schools that are considered elite would expand with them. Reputation is slow to change, but eventually people would notice that the brilliant students are going to a bigger group of schools than before.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

You're Getting Warmer

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that there is a "well-documented rise in global temperatures," and that the EPA, contrary to its own opinion, has the authority to regulate the emission of greenhouse gases from motor vehicles, and that the agency was also wrong is deciding that it would decline to act even if it had the legal authority to do so. In a drearily predictable 5-4 lineup, the four more liberal Justices ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the four conservatives ruled for the agency, and Justice Kennedy cast the deciding vote for the plaintiffs.

What was particularly disappointing, from a legal theoretical point of view, was the lineup of votes on the arcane question of "standing," mentioned in this earlier post about another case. The five-Justice majority held that the state of Massachusetts had standing to challenge the EPA's actions because it stands to lose coastal land as a result of the rise in ocean levels from global warming, and that, even if better regulation of motor vehicle emissions wouldn't solve the whole problem, it could at least give the state some relief -- a pretty sensible holding, I would say. All four Justices in the minority disagreed.

Now, all the cases say that the question of standing is supposed to independent of the merits of the case. Whether you're injured by a government action, and therefore entitled to challenge it, is independent of the question of whether the action is illegal. The government might injure you by doing something perfectly legal -- Congress raising your taxes, say -- and you could challenge it, but you'd lose. Or the government could do something illegal that has no effect on you, and then you couldn't challenge it, even though, if a court could reach the merits, it could strike down the action.

So why is it that all five Justices who thought the EPA's action was illegal on the merits also thought the plaintiffs had standing to challenge it, and all four Justices who disagreed on the merits also thought the plaintiffs lacked standing? If the two questions are really independent, wouldn't one expect to find at least one Justice who thought the plaintiffs had standing, but the agency's action was lawful, or unlawful but unchallengeable because the plaintiffs had no standing?

If the two questions were completely independent, so that there was no relationship between them whatever, then the chance that a Justice who agreed with the plaintiffs on standing would also rule for them on the merits of the case would presumably be 50%. Then the odds that all five Justices who ruled for the plaintiffs on standing would also rule for them on the merits, and all four Justices who ruled against the plaintiffs on standing would also rule against them on the merits, would be 1 in 2^9, which is 1 in 512, or about 1/5 of 1%.

Hmmm. My colleague Dick Pierce wrote an article once called "Is Standing Law or Politics," in which he concluded that standing law is not law at all, but just political game-playing by judges. I'm afraid yesterday's decision provides him with more ammunition.

Monday, April 2, 2007

A Visit to Syria

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will visit Syria this week. The White House called the trip "a really bad idea" and said that "Someone should take a step back and think about the message that it sends and the message that it sends to our allies."

Meanwhile, three Republican House members visited Syria yesterday, saying that they were following the lead of Ronald Reagan, who reached out to the Soviets during the cold war.

I guess it's OK when Republicans do it.