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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Life on the Tax Farm

We live in a prison—a massive tax farm—masquerading as a country. We produce so that others may consume. We are given the illusion of influence and of choice. We are told that we matter. We are told we can change things.

It’s all a lie, a fallacy, a grand delusion designed to keep the slaves quiet and contented, believing their servitude to be a choice. It wasn’t always this way. It doesn’t have to be this way now. Don’t you see? But no, keep playing Clash of Clans, keep voting. Both are equally helpful. Wave your flags; hell, if you get really angry, march in a protest with a sign… That will show them.

Then go back to work and keep producing.

You matter. Your opinion is important. Just keep producing.

Enjoy the entertainment. Eat your bread. Keep producing.

You are a credit to your [preferred identity group] and you matter. Keep producing.

Do you have a 4K TV yet? You should get one. Keep producing.

Getting older? That’s nice. You should celebrate. Don’t retire, though. Retirement is for quitters. Keep producing.

Those Walmart greeters seem nice, don’t they? Keep producing.

Oh, you’re dead now? So sad. We’ll put a scoop of your ashes in a jar. Your kids will pay $500 for it. They’ll like that. They’ll keep producing.

You matter. They matter. You all matter. Keep producing.

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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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The First Amendment Protects Ex-Politicians Too

Most Americans loathe “lobbyists,” and most Americans think “bi-partisanship” sounds like a good, moderate idea representing compromise and common ground for the public good. So a surprise “bi-partisan alliance” between US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and US Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), with the proclaimed goal of passing a bill to ban politicians from working as “lobbyists” — maybe for life, maybe just for some long period — after leaving Congress was bound to get some good press.

It’s a bad idea. It’s an unconstitutional idea. And it’s yet more evidence that “bi-partisanship” is almost always less about the common good than about the one value that America’s two largest political parties share: The desire to have the heavy hand of government make everyone else do things their way.

What’s a “lobbyist?” Someone who “lobbies.” That is, someone who attempts to influence public policy.

If you call your district’s US Representative or your state’s US Senator to ask for a yes or no vote on a bill, you’re lobbying that official.

If you write a letter to the editor hoping to bring public pressure on government officials on an issue you care about, that’s lobbying too.

Suppose you make a sign with a slogan on it and join a crowd in front of a public building to have that sign read by the media and, hopefully, by politicians with the power to act on it? Yep, lobbying.

It’s lobbying if you do it on your own. It’s lobbying if you do it as an activist with a grassroots group. And it’s lobbying if you’re paid to do it by a corporation, a theoretically “independent” policy institute, or a foreign government.

What’s the problem with banning former members of Congress from “lobbying?” Try this on for size:

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That’s most of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. It clearly protects your phone calls, your letters to the editor, and your public protest outings in one fell swoop. It includes no exceptions for former members of Congress, or for people who are paid to speak, write, or protest.

Yes, powerful entities with lots of money like to hire former members of Congress to lobby on their behalf.

Yes, there’s a “revolving door” between Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and those lobbying jobs that lends itself to corruption and sweetheart dealing.

Yes, that’s a problem.

No, a ban on those practices isn’t the solution. It’s unconstitutional, it won’t solve the problem, and a threat to the rights of one American — even a former member of Congress — is a threat to the rights of all Americans.

The only practical, constitutional, and moral way to reduce the influence of powerful lobbies over Congress is to give Congress less  power over the things those lobbies care about — a prospect sure to elicit “bi-partisan” horror among politicians.

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“Spying”: Comey Doth Protest Too Much

“We didn’t ‘spy’ on anyone’s campaign,” writes former FBI director James Comey in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

“We asked a federal judge for permission to surveil” former Donald Trump campaign adviser Carter Page,” but that’s not “spying.”

Before that (unmentioned in the op-ed), we infiltrated an informant into the campaign to gather information on its operations, but that’s not “spying.”

What a strange allergic reaction from Comey, and others associated with US intelligence and counterintelligence operations, to US Attorney General William Barr’s simple statement before the US Senate: “Spying on a campaign is a big deal … I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was adequately predicated.”

Comey insists that the spying was indeed “adequately predicated,” and that for some reason this makes it not spying.

It was spying.

You know, the same activity for which 98-year-old Patricia Warner, who infiltrated Nazi circles in Spain during World War Two, just received the Congressional Gold Medal.

The same activity for which dozens of CIA assets have received the Intelligence Star medal, and for which 113 of them have their names inscribed on that agency’s “Memorial Wall.”

The same activity on which the US government spends untold billions per year, assuring us that it is not just good and moral and justifiable, but absolutely necessary to the defense of the United States.

Comey’s trying to have it both ways here.

On one hand, he justifies the spying based on claims that “Russia engaged in a massive effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” and that “we learned that one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers knew about the Russian effort seven weeks before we did.”

He defends the cloak-and dagger approach of the FBI’s espionage (“the practice of spying or using spies”) operation on the Trump campaign, saying that “if there was nothing to it, we didn’t want to smear Americans. If there was something to it, we didn’t want to let corrupt Americans know we were onto them. So, we kept it secret.”

On the other hand, he claims it wasn’t “spying” because … well, just because. “Non-fringe” media, he says doesn’t spend much time on this “conspiracy theory” because it’s just so wacky.

Comey’s sophistry doesn’t even rise to the level of Nixon Logic: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” His formulation is “if the FBI did it for a good reason, that means the FBI didn’t do it.”

The important question here is not whether the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. It did. Period.

The important question is why Comey doesn’t want to discuss, or even acknowledge, that fact.

The answer to that question is that discussing and acknowledging the irrefutable fact that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign leads into other discussions he finds even less desirable, such as whether the spying was legal — “adequately predicated” — and whether it was politically motivated (in a word, an attempted “coup”).

Why doesn’t Comey want those discussions? That question pretty much answers itself.

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You Can Fight City Hall, but You’ll Almost Certainly Lose

One of the chief reasons why almost every regime in the world has converged to a system of participatory fascism is that this system creates or retains a great variety of institutionalized opportunities for the state’s victims—who compose the great majority of the people—to challenge the state’s exactions and to “make their voices heard,” thereby gaining the impression that the rulers are not simply oppressing and exploiting them unilaterally but involving them in an essential way in the making and enforcement of rules.

These opportunities help to allay public resentment and anger, assuring people that they have had “their day in court,” and thereby serve to prop up the regime and its ongoing exploitation. These official avenues of protest and resistance are, however, rarely of any real avail. The oppressed citizens and other residents are protesting the actions of legislatures, government executives, bureaucracies, and courts run by the very people who are engaged in the oppression and plunder. The opportunities for voicing feedback are, in effect, ways in which people are allowed to request that the slave master stop beating them or reduce the severity of the beating. Rarely do the petitioners win, and even when they do, the costs of making their appeals, especially through the legal system, guarantee that they will be impoverished in the process.

Heads you lose, tails you lose. I promise you that in making the foregoing statements, I am speaking not only from my scholarly engagement with the matter but also from my personal experience, some of which grinds on seemingly endlessly even as I tap out this cri de coeur.

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