The “Solution” to Flag-Burning is Simpler Than a Constitutional Amendment

On June 14 — “Flag Day” in the United States — US Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) and US Representative Steve Womack (R-AR) proposed a constitutional amendment: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” President Donald Trump promptly indicated his support for the amendment via Twitter, calling it a “no-brainer.”

The amendment isn’t likely to get approval by 2/3 of both houses of Congress and ratification by the legislatures of  at least 38 states, to become part of the US Constitution.

Nor is that its proponents’ goal. It’s just another perennial election tactic, pulled out in every Congress since the Supreme Court noticed that flag-burning is protected by the First Amendment,  that Republicans hope will gain them a few points in close races by allowing them to caricature their Democratic opponents as “unpatriotic.”

One downside of the tactic is that it exposes those who use or support it as authoritarians. Which, admittedly, doesn’t hurt Republican candidates very much since most of them work overtime to expose themselves as such anyway.

Another downside of the tactic is that it allows authoritarian Democrats to use flag-burning as a proxy for civil liberties generally so that they can pretend they support freedom.

If flag-burning is really a “problem,” it’s a problem with a simple solution:

If you don’t want to burn a flag, don’t buy a flag, soak it in kerosene, and set it on fire.

If you do want to burn a flag, don’t steal someone else’s flag, and don’t burn a flag on the private property of someone who objects, or in a way that creates a danger to others (in a dry forest, for example).

Either way, don’t try to tell people what they may or may not do with pieces of cloth they rightfully own.

Wow, see how easy that was?

Yes, I understand that many Americans care deeply about the flag. I get it. I served under it in the Marine Corps. My grandfather’s coffin was draped in the 48-star version of it in honor of his service in World War 2.

The flag is an inspiring symbol for millions. Those millions are fully entitled to their heartfelt emotions over it and to express those motions by standing in its presence, singing songs that praise it, and so forth.

For others, it symbolizes various evils to which they object. And those others are likewise entitled to voice their objections in any peaceful manner they choose, including burning it.

It’s a piece of cloth. Anything beyond that is something you bring to it, not  an intrinsic quality of the flag itself.  Feel free to express your  convictions through the flag. And tolerate others who do likewise.

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Opposition Research: It’s Not Trump’s Fault That Politics is a “Dirty” Game

In a June 12 interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, President Donald Trump freely admitted that he would listen to foreigners offering him “dirt” on his political opponents: “I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening …. Somebody comes up and says, ‘hey, I have information on your opponent,’ do you call the FBI?”

Unsurprisingly, critics from both major parties pounced on Trump’s statement, condemning it on grounds of morality, patriotism, and law. Equally unsurprisingly, those critics are wrong in (at least) their first two reasons. Some are also hypocrites who should stop clutching their pearls for long enough to wash the “dirt” off them.

A quick timeline:

In 2015, the Washington Free Beacon, a (then anti-Trump) Republican newspaper, hired a company called Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research on several Republican presidential primary candidates, including Trump. Once it became clear that Trump would be the GOP’s nominee, that project ended.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee used a cut-out (law firm Perkins Coie) to hire — again — Fusion GPS, which in turn hired a foreigner, former British Spy Christopher Steele, to work foreign sources (especially Russian sources) for opposition research on Trump. Steele’s output was a still-controversial “dossier” full of alleged “dirt.”

Also in 2016, three members of Trump’s campaign — Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort — met with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in hopes of getting “dirt” on Clinton.

Every serious political campaign conducts opposition research and views the information it gathers with two questions in mind:

First, is the information true (or at least plausible)?

Second, is the information useful?

Where or from whom the information comes from is only relevant in light of those two questions.

And that’s exactly how it SHOULD work.

Campaign opposition research is a primary source of public knowledge about the candidates who are seeking our votes.

If that information is true, it’s true whether it originated in Minneapolis or in Moscow.

If that true information is pertinent to our voting decisions, it’s neither moral nor patriotic to ignore or denounce it solely on the basis of where it came from.

With respect to the law, the Trump Tower meeting mentioned above was extensively (and expensively) investigated by the US Department of Justice. After two years of probing alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Special Counsel Robert Mueller reported that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

While Trump still faces congressional investigations on the question of whether he committed crimes by obstructing Mueller’s investigation, and while DOJ is now inquiring as to possible misuse of the “Steele dossier” to justify the FBI’s spy operation on his campaign, he’s been exonerated on the matter of seeking foreign “dirt.” And it’s unlikely that the DNC or the Clinton campaign will be found legally culpable for their use of foreign information sources, either.

That, again, is as it should be.

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Pork is Not the Problem

It’s that time of year: Citizens Against Government Waste just released its annual “Pig Book,” a compendium and analysis of pork barrel spending, aka earmarks, by the US Congress in 2019.

Summary: Congressional appropriations for 2019 include 282 earmarks, up from 232 last year. The cost comes to $15.3 billion, up from $14.7 billion.

That sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But not nearly as much as one might think, in the scheme of things.

The federal government plans to spend more than $4.5 trillion in 2019. Those earmarks constitute a whopping one third of one percent of that total.

Critics of earmarks point out, correctly, that they’re used by members of Congress to direct federal spending to their own districts, not always with much “public good” justification (cue complaints about $500,000 for the Sparta Teapot Museum, $7.5 million for golf education, etc.)

True, all of it — but it’s baked into any political process. Whether formal earmarks exist or not, politicians will support bills that spend money in their districts, oppose bills that don’t, shill for their favored projects, and make deals to bring home the bacon.

And, it should be mentioned, earmarks do not directly increase total spending. They simply require that if Congress appropriates $10 billion for Purpose X, $1 million of that $10 billion be spent on Project Y.

The problem in that hypothetical isn’t the $1 million earmark, it’s the $10 billion appropriation.

The problem with the real numbers isn’t $15 billion in earmarks, it’s $4.5 trillion in federal spending.

If Congress has $9 million to spend on a fruit fly quarantine program and $3 million to blow on bad loans to ship buyers (among 2019 earmarks), Congress has too much money to spend on, respectively, Agriculture and THUD (Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development).

Congress DOES have too much money — money it takes from all of us via various tax schemes, and money it borrows in our names on the promise to bond-holders that it will beat us out of it, with interest, later.

Earmarks could be part of the answer to that problem.

If Congress specified in greater detail where and how EVERY dollar of EVERY appropriation must be spent, instead of just handing the dough over the executive branch under broad categories, we’d have a much better idea of where it was going — and be better prepared to protest, and bring pressure to bear against, wasteful spending.

It would also clarify “separation of powers” violations, such as President Donald Trump’s illegal and unconstitutional “emergency” misappropriation of  Treasury and Defense Department funds for his pet “border wall” project, making it easier to rein in presidential misbehavior.

Silly earmarks are fun to point out, but concern over them comes at the expense of addressing the bigger problem: The spending is too damn high.

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Los Angeles: Homelessness Meets Economics 101

“We can’t arrest our way out of this. We can’t shelter our way out of this. We have to house our way out of this,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said last year while campaigning for a measure to spend $1.2 billion in taxpayer money over ten years on housing for his city’s homeless population.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who backed a $355 million county sales tax initiative to provide services to the homeless in the county, calls it “the height of contradiction” that homelessness is growing in a prosperous state.

The results? “The stunning increase in homelessness announced in Los Angeles this week — up 16% over last year citywide,” reports CNN, “was an almost incomprehensible conundrum given the nation’s booming economy and the hundreds of millions of dollars that city, county and state officials have directed toward the problem.”

There’s nothing “stunning” or “incomprehensible” about it.

Eric Garcetti, Mark Ridley-Thomas, meet Ronald Reagan: “If you want more of something, subsidize it.”

Los Angeles is already an inherently attractive destination for the homeless for several reasons ranging from climate (homelessness in, say, the midwest can mean freezing to death if you can’t find a shelter bed) to jobs (large metro with lots of employers) to transportation (mass transit for those without cars) to an already larger concentration than rural areas of both private charities and government services aimed at their problems.

What did Ridley-Thomas and Garcetti EXPECT to happen when they announced their plans to stack hundreds of millions of dollars in new government assistance on top of those inherent attractions?

If I was homeless in the western United States, I’d make a beeline for LA. You probably would too.

Garcetti is correct that housing is key to reducing homelessness. But  “free” or subsidized housing attracts people who want to live in it faster than it can be built.

If Garcetti and Ridley-Thomas want to address homelessness with housing, they should get to work reducing tax and regulatory burdens — everything from zoning regulations to permit requirements to rent control ordinances  —  that make it more expensive, difficult, and time-consuming, and less profitable, to build new housing in Los Angeles than it should be.

Unfortunately, however good their intentions, politicians hate giving up any amount of power and control over any activity. LA’s politicians will probably just continue pouring gasoline on the fire and wondering why it gets hotter instead of burning out.

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If the University of Alabama Doesn’t Need Hugh Culverhouse, Jr.’s Money, it Doesn’t Need Yours

Last year, Florida attorney and philanthropist Hugh Culverhouse, Jr. donated $26.5 million to the University of Alabama. The university, grateful for its largest private contribution ever, reciprocated by naming its law school after him. Hugh and UA, sittin’ in a tree …

On June 7, the UA’s board of trustees voted to return his donation (and presumably rename the school). Love-hate relationship, I guess.

Why?  They claim it’s over an argument as to how they spend the money,  but he says they’re lying and the reason he offers is a lot more believable given the timing.

His discussions with the school over the uses his donation are put to are ongoing. But last week, he said something they didn’t like. Specifically, he publicly urged students to boycott the school in protest of Alabama’s new abortion law.

Agree with him or not — on abortion, on the specific law, or on how students should respond to that law — Hugh Culverhouse, Jr. is a private citizen with a right to say anything he pleases.

Agree with the board of trustees or not on what Hugh Culverhouse, Jr. should say, the University of Alabama is a “public” institution that expects taxpayers nationwide to pick up a substantial portion of its operating costs.

The university’s financial report for 2017-18 notes nearly $45 million in federal grants and contracts and another $213 million in student loans funded by the US Department of Education through the Federal Direct Student Loan Program.

Check your voicemail. Any calls from the board of trustees asking whether it’s OK for them to keep taking your money while refusing Hugh Culverhouse, Jr.’s? I didn’t think so.

If you call up the university and start trying to tell them how to spend your money, or put out a press release urging students to cheer for Tennessee at the next Crimson Tide – Volunteers game, do you think they’ll send you a refund check? Feel free to try it and see what happens, but don’t hold your breath.

If the University of Alabama is so flush that it doesn’t need Hugh Culverhouse, Jr.’s money, they’re getting way too much of yours.

A federally funded university which turns down a private donation over the donor’s constitutionally protected speech should have the full amount of that donation subtracted from its federal funding for the following year.

And by the way, remember to cheer for Tennessee at the next Crimson Tide – Volunteers game.

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Election 2020: Biden Gets One Thing Right, But it May Cost Him

On June 5, former vice-president Joe Biden’s presidential campaign confirmed to The Hill that Biden still supports the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal taxpayer funds for abortions (with exceptions). His opponents instantly piled on, hoping to erase his commanding lead in the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential primary polls.

Abortion is shaping up as a key election issue to a degree we haven’t seen in decades.  Republican state legislatures are pushing increasingly draconian bans in a play to put Roe v. Wade before what they hope will be a more pro-life Supreme Court bench than in the past. Democratic states are pulling in the other direction, attempting to protect abortion choice over as wide a time frame as possible.

The center isn’t always the best place to be, especially in a party primary cycle. Nor, says my most cynical self, is Joe Biden especially well-known for clinging to principle over party. But in this case that’s exactly what he’s doing … and in this case he’s absolutely right.

“I will continue to abide by the same principle that has guided me throughout my 21 years in the Senate,”  Biden wrote to a constituent in 1994. “[T]hose of us who are opposed to abortion should not be compelled to pay for them. As you may know, I have consistently — on no fewer than 50 occasions — voted against federal funding of abortions.”

Whatever you think about abortion as such, that SHOULD be a position most of us can agree on. Even Congress has agreed on it  — 44 times! They passed the Hyde Amendment in 1976 and have renewed it every year since, regardless of whether the House and Senate were controlled by Democrats or by Republicans at any given time.

Who doesn’t agree?

The National Abortion Rights Action League, which defends “access” to abortion but re-defines “access” as meaning “everyone else pays for it.”

Planned Parenthood, which wants its half a billion dollars in annual corporate welfare from Uncle Sugar dispensed without conditions.

Most of the other 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates, who want endorsements from NARAL and Planned Parenthood, and the campaign contributions that they expect such endorsements to encourage.

Above, I mention that the Hyde Amendment includes exceptions. Those exceptions are for rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life. The only procedures covered by the federal funding ban are purely elective abortions, and not even all of those.

Obviously pro-life Americans have good reasons to support the Hyde Amendment. But so do pro-choice Americans, if they’re really pro-choice.

Whether or not to have an abortion is your choice.

Whether or not the rest of us pick up the check for your choice should be our choice, not Planned Parenthood’s or NARAL’s.

Stick to your guns, Joe.

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