Thursday, June 20, 2013

Somebody owes the Heritage Foundation an apology

Disagreements happen all the time in Congress. It is a natural part of any democracy. But what doesn't happen all the time is a sitting senator essentially calling a witness a liar.

And that is exactly what Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., did to Heritage Foundation scholar Dr. Salim Furth during a Senate Budget Committee hearing on June 4th titled, "The Fiscal and Economic Effects of Austerity."

During that hearing, Furth testified that "austerity" is an overly broad term often used to obfuscate the true mix of spending cuts and tax hikes governments use to lower their debt burdens. He said that while spending cuts can often improve economic growth, tax hikes only harm the economy and often make debt worse.

To bolster his claims, Furth cited data from the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showing that, "to date, 'austerity' in Europe has consisted mainly of tax increases."

For example in France, where unemployment is currently at a 15-year high, taxes as a percentage of GDP rose 2.6 percent between 2007 and 2012. By anyone's definition that is austerity.

But during those same years, government spending as a percentage of GDP went up, not down, by 7.2 percent. That is in no way austere. And it cuts against everything Senate Budget Democrats are trying to do. Like France, Democrats want to hike spending and taxes.

So when Whitehouse got his turn to ask the witnesses questions, he lit into the Heritage expert. "Dr. Furth, I am very concerned about your testimony," Whitehouse began, "I am concerned that your testimony to this committee has been meretricious."

Whitehouse then produced a chart showing that, among other things, not only had France cut spending, which was the opposite of what Furth testified, but that France had cut spending far more than they raised taxes.

According to Whitehouse's chart, 53 percent of France's austerity measures have come from spending cuts compared to 47 percent from tax hikes.

"I am contesting whether you have given us fair and accurate information," Whitehouse continued. "When you look at the actual balance between spending cuts and tax increases, that the OECD uses it self, to describe what took place in Europe, I cannot connect that to where you come out."

Clearly, Whitehouse believed he had caught Furth and The Heritage Foundation in a bald face lie. So happy was Whitehouse with his work that his staff quickly fed video of the exchange to The Washington Post's Dylan Matthews, who then wrote a story on the exchange agreeing with Whitehouse.

That post was then picked up by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who wrote, "one does wonder, by the way, whether Heritage may at this point be destroying its own usefulness... Is there anyone not a committed right-winger who, at this point, believes anything coming out of Heritage?" (Disclosure: This writer worked at Heritage for three years as assistant director of strategic communications.)

There is just one problem with Whitehouse's big gotcha moment: The staffer who spoon-fed Whitehouse his OECD numbers on "the actual balance between spending cuts and tax increases" failed to also show Whitehouse the front page of the OECD report from which those numbers came.

That report is titled: "Fiscal consolidation targets, plans and measures in OECD countries."

Turns out, the numbers Whitehouse used to attack Furth for misreporting "what took place in Europe" were actually mostly projections of what governments said they were planning to do in the future (the report was written in December 2011 and looked at data from 2009 and projections through 2015).

At no point in Furth's testimony did he ever claim to be reporting about what governments were going to do in the future. He very plainly said his analysis was of actual spending and taxing data "to date."

Odds are that Whitehouse made an honest mistake. Senators can't be expected actually to read the title page of every report from which they quote.

But, considering he was the one who was very clearly in error, and not Furth, he owes Furth, and The Heritage Foundation an apology. Krugman and Matthews would be well advised to revisit the facts as well.



Left guilty of hypocrisy on freedom, terrorism

There are many idealistic progressives who've remained opposed to the National Security Agency's data mining programs regardless of who is in the White House. (We can't surrender our freedom for safety, you know!) It's only a shame that these same people have such little reverence for constitutional liberties in other areas of public life.

Really, it's worse than that. Consider the central case of the left these days: "Unfettered" freedom is a tragedy -- decadent, unfair and un-American. So if, as liberals like to argue, it's a moral imperative for Americans to scale back personal liberty to build a cleaner, fairer and healthier world, shouldn't we be willing to do the same to protect the nation from terrorists?

Why one and not the other? If Washington can shield you from the vagaries of economic life, why can't it do the same with terrorists?

Soon after news of the NSA's data mining and Prism programs hit the news, we learned that there are Democrats with an uncanny ability to be malleable, apathetic and partisan in the face of an intrusive state. In January 2006, when George W. Bush was president, Pew Research Center asked Democrats how they felt about the NSA's surveillance programs.

Thirty-seven percent labeled the spying "acceptable," and 61 percent said they were unacceptable. The reverse is true today, as 64 percent of Democrats believe that Barack Obama's surveillance programs are acceptable and 34 percent say they're not.

We could see this as an instance of mass hypocrisy if we assumed that the response is driven by a concern for the snooping itself rather than the administration in charge of the snooping. But it's likelier that folks on the left tend to be idealistic about presidents and less concerned about inquisitive NSA agents.

(No, Republicans aren't innocent by any stretch. But it's fair to say that they've become more ideologically consistent in their skepticism of state power. This position is now popularly defined as fanaticism.)

Even those Democrats who claim to have a special reverence for privacy regularly support policy that undermines it. If this affection for privacy were unwavering, would they be demanding that we expand government-run background checks on firearms?

Would they advocate legislation that forces Americans to ask the Internal Revenue Service for permission to assemble and partake in the political process? Government should be transparent, but shouldn't citizens be free to support politicians without registering with government?

And really, how could someone who claims to value privacy support a law such as the individual mandate, which coerces every American citizen to report the status of his health insurance to the IRS?

And why is privacy a more critical liberty than economic freedom -- or any other freedoms regularly pooh-poohed by progressives? Overregulating trade and markets can be more consequential to the freedom of an average person than any data mining program. Just ask a small-business owner.

Let's face it. Most of the concern about these NSA programs is likely driven by an antipathy toward the war on terror rather than a concern about the corroding of constitutional protections. And though I agree with progressives that we've lost too many liberties in this effort, it's a shame they don't believe we're deserving of similar liberty elsewhere in our lives.

H.L. Mencken wasn't exactly right when he wrote, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

Let's concede that not all alarms are imaginary. Sometimes we are faced with genuine choice between more freedom and more safety. And as it stands, progressives almost always take the path of more safety. Why should it be different this time?



Obama administration: Some religions are more equal than others

The Obama administration “strongly objects” to a proposed House amendment to the defense authorization bill which would require, in the words of its sponsor, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., “the Armed Forces to accommodate ‘actions and speech’ reflecting the conscience, moral, principles or religious beliefs of the member.”

Fox News has the story. Fleming points to evidence that Christian service members and chaplains are being penalized for expressing their faith. Examples:

The Air Force censored a video created by a chaplain because it include the word “God.” The Air Force feared the word might offend Muslims and atheists.

A service member received a “severe and possibly career-ending reprimand” for expressing his faith’s religious position about homosexuality in a personal religious blog.

A senior military official at Fort Campbell sent out a lengthy email officially instructing officers to recognize “the religious right in America” as a “domestic hate group” akin to the KKK and Neo-Nazis because of its opposition to homosexual behavior.

A chaplain was relieved of his command over a military chapel because, consistent with DOMA’s definition of marriage, he could not allow same-sex weddings to take place in the chapel.

The Obama administration evidently thinks it important that such actions continue to be taken.

There’s a tension between this policy–arguably suppressing expressions of Christian faith–with the White House’s assurance, according to Investor’s Business Daily, that FBI surveillance not including any investigation of mosques.

So, it appears, Christian religious expression must be suppressed, while Muslim religious expression cannot even be monitored. Yes, government can appropriately limit the conduct of members of the military in ways that would be inappropriate in the case of civilians. So there’s not necessarily a contradiction between these policies. And perhaps there’s a need to restrict servicemembers from offending colleagues in a way that would not be appropriate outside the military (and is not on college campuses, where it often occurs).

But it sure looks like a double standard to me: Christianity, bad; Islam, good. I seem to remember, from some ancient reading, the phrase, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”



What part of 'no fence, no deal' does the Senate GOP not get?

"A fence from left to right, from east to west, except obviously the mountainous areas," Charles Krauthammer told me on air in an interview in late April.

"We know that fences work," he continued. "If the president tells you fences don't work, ask him why he's got one around the White House."

Krauthammer is easily the most influential commentator on the center-right today, and his position on the need for a very long border fence is a majority position within the conservative movement and indeed far beyond the movement.

Republicans outside of the Beltway are divided into two camps on immigration reform.

Camp one will accept and indeed many will enthusiastically support immigration reform built around real border security, which has as its centerpiece the construction of a very long double-sided fence with mandated design and location, assured funding and "notwithstanding any other law" authority.

That latter provision is to ensure that the fence will not be impeded by provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act or the National Environmental Policy Act. I am in camp one, as I suspect many millions of Republicans are.

Fencing has been promised and even passed in the past but never built except for tiny segments. Thus, the need for specificity and guarantees that are easily produced in a well-written law.

Camp two wants no part of the Senate bill, whether or not it has a fence. John Hinderaker of the Power Line blog, for example, hates the bill and the effort and writes at length and eloquently as to why it is a bad idea.

So people like me in camp one, "the fence people," are fighting it out on talk radio, on the blogs and in person with people in camp two, the "not now, not this" people.

The Beltway GOP, in yet another display of astonishing indifference to the people who fund it and elect its members, is preparing to anger and alienate both camps.

The Beltway GOP wants to pretend it is meeting the demand of camp one with a variety of ruses and pretend-security provisions, all of which depend upon easily manipulated formulas and transparently absurd guarantees such as an increased numbers of border agents, which can of course be reduced in future years.

There isn't a single fence advocate who opposes border security measures in addition to the fence, but I haven't talked with one who believes the bill is worth supporting without a very long, very tall fence built over at least half of the 2,000-mile border.

When Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced the Gang of Eight's first draft, he quite rightly waded into the controversy and listened to the critics. He also, in a display of how legislators are supposed to act, announced he would accept and indeed insist upon amendments to the bill that reflected the key criticisms of the draft law as it emerged from the Judiciary Committee. Camp one was encouraged. The missing fence would appear.

Then Sen. John Cornyn's proposed "border security" amendment was floated, and camp one was stunned. The Texas Republican's measure consisted of paragraph after paragraph of glop. No specifics about the fence. No mention of the fence. To all of us, it looked like a huge head fake.

Border security means a fence to the vast majority of conservatives willing to support the reform bill. No fence, no support. Camp one marches into camp two, amazed and disappointed, but resolute that the only thing they must have -- real, genuine border security -- isn't part of the Beltway GOP's agenda.



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