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Fast and Furious scandal looks increasingly like a plot from a bad novel

“ATF officials didn’t intend to publicly disclose their own role in letting Mexican cartels obtain the weapons, but emails show they discussed using the sales, including sales encouraged by ATF, to justify a new gun regulation called ‘Demand Letter 3′. That would require some U.S. gun shops to report the sale of multiple rifles or ‘long guns.’ Demand Letter 3 was so named because it would be the third ATF program demanding gun dealers report tracing information.”

That’s what CBS is reporting today, in the latest news on the Fast and Furious scandal, in which ATF agents leaned on gun dealers to sell weapons to obvious criminals to … see what would happen? That’s what it seemed like at first, anyway. Of course, what happened is that some of the guns — whoopsies! — were used in murders.

Now, it seems, there was another purpose behind Fast and Furious. According to emails exchanged by ATF officials themselves, the ATF applied pressure to gun dealers to continue sales with which the gun dealers were uncomfortable so that they could point to the purchase of guns by Mexican drug dealers as evidence that further legal restrictions were required on the sale of firearms.

Y’know, if I wrote a novel with this as a storyline, I’d be accused of paranoia and unrealistic plotting.

You can keep your not-so-new nationalism

I’ve always found Teddy Roosevelt to be among the more repugnant of the already repulsive batch of grifters and autocrats we’ve been unfortunate enough to call “Mr. President.” He managed to combine militarism, authoritarianism and economic collectivism with a cult of the state that he called “new nationalism.” As presidential scholar Richard M. Abrams puts it in his discussion of the 26th president, “He spoke righteously for freedom but placed individual liberty in the context of a greater obligation to the nation. He acknowledged that most individuals probably preferred business as usual, to be left to cultivate their own gardens and to pursue modest livelihoods and comforts, but he viewed such an outlook with scorn.”

In economic terms, TR was obsessed with “national efficiency” — a principle he expounded in his (in)famous new nationalism speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. He called for powerful federal and state governments, with all-encompassing powers that allow for no “neutral ground” where people might hide from the government. Said he, “I do not ask for the over centralization; but I do ask that we work in a spirit of broad and far-reaching nationalism where we work for what concerns our people as a whole.”

People who disagreed with his views, he implied (or explicitly stated) were unpatriotic.

If he’d made his speech 20 years later, Teddy Roosevelt’s views could have comfortably clothed themselves in brown shirts (as could those of his cousin who was actually in office at that time).

So, when Barack Obama tramps back to Osawatomie to deliberately echo TR’s speech and views, color me nauseated. “[I]n America, we are greater together – when everyone engages in fair play, everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share. … [A]s a nation, we have always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed.”

Once again, the appeal to tribal identity, the call to submerge individual interests in the name of the greater good of the group — as identified by the speaker. And if you don’t agree with the speaker’s very specific idea of what’s good and right? Well, Teddy Roosevelt called you a “reactionary”; Obama, in our psychologized age, insists you and your co-dissidents have “collective amnesia.”

But we live in an age that’s not just psychologized, but fact-checked, and even the Washington Post called bullshit on much of Barry’s supporting evidence for his exhumed not-so-new nationalism.

On Obama’s insistence that “expensive” tax cuts for the “wealthy” are responsible for the current economic mess:

Obama certainly inherited an economic mess, and we have argued he does not deserve blame for the massive loss of jobs early in his administration. But it seems odd to keep blaming poor job growth on the Bush tax cut, especially because Obama himself pushed through a nearly $1-trillion stimulus and took other actions that have affected the economy, for better or worse.

Finally, Obama blames the Bush tax cuts for “massive deficits.” It is certainly true that the Bush tax cuts helped blow a hole in the budget. But they did not do it all by themselves. We looked at length at this issue earlier this year, assisted by new Congressional Budget Office data.

The data showed that the biggest contributor to the disappearance of projected surpluses was increased spending, which accounted for 36.5 percent of the decline in the nation’s fiscal position, followed by incorrect CBO estimates, which accounted for 28 percent. The Bush tax cuts (along with some Obama tax cuts) were responsible for just 24 percent.

And on the president’s insistence that the uber-wealthy are even more successful at tax avoidance than even the Occupiers have charged in their wildest fever-dream accusations:

“Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent — 1 percent. That is the height of unfairness.”

This is a striking statistic. But the only evidence that the White House could offer for it was a TV clip of a conversation on Bloomberg TV, in which correspondent Gigi Stone made this assertion during a discussion about the tax strategies that the very wealthy use to avoid paying taxes.  The TV clip was promoted by the left-leaning website Think Progress.

Stone quoted from a Bloomberg News article last month that reported on such tax strategies, which mostly involve complicated ways to defer paying capital gains taxes. But the article never made the one-percent claim. It also noted that the IRS had gotten more hostile to such transactions in recent years.

An administration official conceded the White House had no actual data to back up the president’s assertion, but argued that other reports showed that some of the wealthy pay little in taxes.

The Post even quoted Judge Learned Hand pointing out that “Anyone may arrange his affairs so that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which best pays the treasury.”

So, calls for authoritarianism founded on appeals to tribal identity, based on manufactured data. Thanks anyway, but I’ll pass.

Attempted murder isn’t good enough for him

Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, the man accused of shooting at the White House, will be charged with attempting to assassinate the president or a member of his staff, says CNN.

This comes as a bit of a surprise to me, since I had assumed that blasting away at people of whatever station was pretty well-covered by attempted-murder laws, but there it is: 18 USC Sec. 1751, PRESIDENTIAL AND PRESIDENTIAL STAFF ASSASSINATION, KIDNAPPING, AND ASSAULT. It’s a statute that seems to pretty much take all the pre-existing legal definitions and penalties for unprovokedly killing, snatching or stomping people, and restate them for the special cases of the president, veep and the busy bees swarming around them. The penalties seem to be the same for the run-of-the-mill versions of murder, kidnapping and assault — even referring directly to the generic murder penalties in the case of assassination. That’s not much of a surprise, since the U.S. Constitution doesn’t really allow much latitude for penalties beyond “death or by imprisonment for life.”

In Mr. Ortega-Hernandez’s case, the operative penalty would appear to be “imprisonment for any term of years or for life.”

So, the question then is … Why? I mean, murder is already illegal. So is attempted murder. The penalty is already set at the allowable maximum. So why create a new law to address circumstances covered under an old law, and impose penalties that are already in place?

The answer is clear, and depressing. The law exists merely to separate the leaders from the proles. Kill one of the herd, and you’re a mere murderer. Kill el jefe, and you get charged under a special law as an assassin, because the generic law isn’t good enough to cover acts against the leadership. A different law must be created to cover what is officially viewed as a different class of crime, not because of the act, but because of the elevated status of the victim.

I’m absolutely certain that the penalties would have been jacked up if they weren’t already set at the maximum, as they have been at the state level for police officers (where a victim’s status as a law-enforcement officer is generally considered an aggravating circumstance during sentencing), and even police dogs.

Theoretically, I imagine that Ortega-Hernandez could be charged under both the attempted murder and assassination laws, and punished independently for the same act. Especially if the attempted-murder law of the separate jurisdiction of D.C. are brought into play.

You have to love our fearless leaders, They’re so important that they need to be protected by a special category of laws kept untainted by our own grubby statutes.

Steven Chu hates waste (at least when it comes to light bulbs)

Complete douchebag

Secretary Chu doesn't want you wasting your own money. Aren't you lucky?

Control freaks are rarely entirely open about their control freakery, but on Friday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu engaged in an unusual bit of complete honesty during a conference call with reporters. The subject was the ban on incandescent light bulbs, and current efforts in the House of Representatives to repeal that law. Said Secretary Chu in supporting the ban, “We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money.”

Well, maybe calling the ban on traditional incandescent light bulbs a “ban” is unfair. After all, despite actually boasting about taking away people’ choices, Chu claims on the DOE’s EnergyBlog that:

The standards do NOT ban incandescent bulbs. You’ll still be able to buy energy-saving halogen incandescent bulbs that look exactly the same as the ones you’re used to, and more than pay for themselves over the life of the 100 watt replacement bulb.

You see, even though the government has outlawed light bulbs that don’t meet standards that traditional incandescent light bulbs can’t meet, you can still purchase a much-more expensive product that looks the same, so shut up already.

Ummm … no. If you outlaw something, that really is a ban — as telegraphed to begin with by Chu’s “taking away a choice” admission.

As for the justification for taking away a choice … Isn’t it obvious to everybody that, when we accuse others of “wast[ing] their own money,” we’re really just saying we don’t approve of the way they spend their dough and they ought to change their priorities to be more like us? Your mom accuses you of wasting money on comic books, your husband objects to you wasting money on shoes, your in-laws insist your fun vacations are a waste (you should visit them more often) … It’s never a statement of an objective standard; it’s just a shorthand way to nag somebody to shift his spending preferences to brink them in line with those of the speaker.

I know people who really like the new CFLs — one even gives them away to her presumably less-enlightened friends. She’s sort of a Johnny Appleseed of the damned things. And good for her — if she wants to buy them with her own money, that’s her choice. But we don’t all have the same preferences. That some of us want to spend our money on different kinds of light bulbs than Steven Chu likes, doesn’t mean that we’re wasting a penny. We have the right to make our own choices and spend what Chu concedes is our own money.

Or maybe Steven Chu would like us to paw through the details of his expenditures to find a few examples of “waste” we might want to discourage.

Chuck Schumer, surprisingly, finds something else he wants to ban

Many, many years ago, when I was a young man and the Internet (which wasn’t even called that yet) was little more than a very awkward way for engineering grad students to exchange porn, one of my roommates returned to school after spending his post-freshman summer as an intern in the office of a young New York congressman. My roomie was excited because this second-termer openly described himself around the office — though not publicly, in the age of Reagan — as a “socialist.” That my roommate considered this a positive was no surprise — we attended a small, private college in New England, a region seemingly established as a haven for institutions where smart people can spend a lot of money to be taught how swell it is to boss other people around.

Anyway, the congressman in question was Chuck Schumer.

Can you tell that I'm pleasuring myself with a swatch of chainmail?

Chuck Schumer asks, "Can you tell that I'm pleasuring myself with a swatch of chainmail?"

In the years since, I don’t know if Schumer has retained his one-time affection for whatever brand of socialism he once favored. What I do know, however, is that he has established himself as the preeminent control freak in the Senate, having since moved to the upper house of Congress. From self-defense issues to undeclared wars and torture to, most recently, private virtual currencies and online drug markets, Schumer almost always picks the side that expands state power at the expense of the individual. Even when supposedly championing the little guy, it’s always on the way to handing more authority to some government agency.

That Schumer sometimes seems to pick his targets based on what would most benefit his friends in the financial industry demonstrates that he may have gone the way of most good socialists, and jettisoned the populist trappings in favor of the benefits to be had from wielding power.

Senator Charles Schumer’s recent fulminating over the alternative online currency, Bitcoin, and its use in the Silk Road online drug market, fits right into his unsavory role as a ferocious campaigner against grassroots-level stuff that he doesn’t really understand, beyond the fact that it clearly poses a challenge to government power. If history is any guide, he’ll propose some legislation that only peripherally impacts his intended target, somehow benefits a campaign donor — and probably gets shot down in this Congress, anyway.

Of course, Charles Schumer does represent the current generation in a fine New York tradition of politicians who govern as autocratic ideologues, while also finding a way to line their pockets. Yes, the Empire State has seemlessly conjoined fanatical authoritarianism with self-aggrandizing corruption to an extent that’s hard to imagine elsewhere, but would be exceeded in its sheer repulsiveness only by a business that made its money torturing kittens.

Repulsive elsewhere, that is, but not in New York. Back home, Charles Schumer is apparently just what people want in a Senator.

And people ask me why I left.

Politicians miss no opportunity to exploit Tucson shooting

Let me express, for the record, my contempt for the predictable creatures who see in the Tucson shooting spree and assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords an opportunity to smear people who speak unkindly about the government. It would be bad enough to extrapolate from one actor some sort of false collective guilt for anybody who shares a few political or social views, but that’s an extra stretch in this case, given that the only consistent strain in Jared Lee Loughner’s ravings about mathematics and mind control was whatever was provided by the random misfirings of his neurons. His YouTube page listed favorite books including both Mein Kampf and Communist Manifesto — potentially indicating a catholic interest in totalitarianism, though I doubt that well-connected a thread runs through his thoughts.

Basically, Loughner’s crime can’t be blamed on anybody but himself, and his writings and actions lay quite a solid groundwork for a criminal insanity defense.

But never doubt the readiness of the usual suspects to piggyback favorite pre-packaged authoritarian bills on the emotional reaction to the shooting.

Rep. Robert Brady, (jackass, Pennsylvania), is pushing a pet law “making it a federal crime for a person to use language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a Member of Congress or federal official.”

“Perceived as threatening”? That’s great. I have yet to meet a government official who doesn’t “perceive” the slightest criticism as the equivalent of a thrown glove.

Says CNN:

Brady said it is now time to put an end to the hyper-charged language.

“The rhetoric is just ramped up so negatively, so high, that we have got to shut this down,” Brady said, noting that “I’ve had my share of death threats” over his many years in politics.

Well, why not take advantage of a brutal crime to clamp down on antigovernment language and harsh words directed at agents of the state who command police forces and armies that rack up a body count the nation’s nuts will never equal? Yes, it’s an excellent moment to crack down on free speech that makes wildly powerful officials uncomfortable.

Hey, Brady, how’s this for rhetoric?: You’re an un-American thug.

And Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (one-trick pony, New York) is at it again with … oh guess, would you? Yes, it’s an anti-firearms measure. She, again, wants to ban high-capacity magazines and clips.

Hey, McCarthy, how many innocent civilians killed by police would be saved by such a ban? Oh, that’s right, the ban would apply only to civilians.

This is from a quick scan of news headlines, by the way. I’m sure that more fun laws are coming.

On a milder, but sadder note: Special condolences to the family of Christina-Taylor Green. Nobody should have died on that Tucson street, but the death of a child is always especially horrible.

Update: Christina-Taylor Green’s father says her murder shouldn’t be used as a justification for more restrictions on liberty.

TSA pervs get no love

First, let’s acknowledge that the Transportation Security Administration isn’t really the problem. Or rather, it’s not the source of the problem. The TSA goons are just good Germans, following orders issued from up above by politicians and high-level bureaucrats who get hard-ons from the very thought of wielding power over the rest of the human race, and who often wield that power as intrusively as possible just to be perceived as “doing something” to protect the sheep from the panic of the moment.

But you have to start somewhere. So I sent the following email to the TSA:

Dear TSA Goons,

Fuck you very much. Yes, I understand that you didn’t set in place the policies that have set us on the road to a police state — that was the un-American, control-freak politicians who have exploited fear to enhance their own power and erode our liberty. But you have happily taken and held jobs that involve incursions into individual rights and privacy. That’s evil. You and the government behind you are worse enemies of America than Osama Bin Laden ever has been. I look forward to the day that the bunch of you are once again unemployed and back to peeking through bathroom windows to satisfy your urges.

Happy Holidays!

I added the “happy holidays” just so there wouldn’t be any hard feelings. They mean well — or so I’m told of the kind folks who threatened John Tyner with a lawsuit and hefty fine for leaving the security folks so unfulfilled with his gropus interruptus. After all, they did back off (sort of) after a wave of international ridicule made them look like petulant thugs.

Anyway, Tyner threatened to have the TSA pervs arrested if they touched his junk, and at least one California DA — Steve Wagstaffe in San Mateo County — appears willing to make good on that threat. Rep. Ron Paul has now introduced a bill intended to insure that all the usual laws against groping, frottage and making lewd images of other people apply to TSA agents to the same extent as to the rest of us, so they couldn’t claim immunity.

Fair is fair!

I’m still waiting to see how this all shakes out. For Christmas, my family will be driving eight hours rather than going anywhere near a TSA checkpoint. Not only am I not looking forward to a scope-or-grope encounter, I’m also not all that eager to find out how my email has been received by a gang of over-powerful bureaucrats with a history of thin skins.

You prefer a pat-down to the electronic strip search? We’ll see about that

Enough people are objecting to the backscatter body scanners at airports that the TSA is finally reacting — by making pat-downs so much more intrusive that you’ll actually prefer to show TSA agents your private parts. From The Atlantic:

At BWI, I told the officer who directed me to the back-scatter that I preferred a pat-down. I did this in order to see how effective the manual search would be. When I made this request, a number of TSA officers, to my surprise, began laughing. I asked why. One of them — the one who would eventually conduct my pat-down — said that the rules were changing shortly, and that I would soon understand why the back-scatter was preferable to the manual search.

Sorry — I dozed through the Fourth Amendment lecture

Says the Associated Press:

A Justice Department investigation has found that FBI agents, including several supervisors, cheated on an important test covering the bureau’s policies for conducting surveillance on Americans.

Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine said Monday that his limited review of allegations that agents improperly took the open-book test together or had access to an answer sheet has turned up “significant abuses and cheating.”

Hmmm … Is anybody actually surprised that FBI officials considered even their own bureau’s rules regarding surveillance to be unworthy of a little study?

Police state by default

I’ll say right out that Paul Karl Lukacs has bigger stones than me. When I’m going through Customs — or airport security in general — I may venture into testiness on my own behalf or run interference if my young son is getting the third degree (yes, it’s happened), but I’m generally focused on getting past the Gestapo, not on asserting my rights. So I applaud Lukacs for answering “none of your business” to a nosy Customs official when questioned about his overseas trip. His experience went like this:

“Why were you in China?” asked the passport control officer, a woman with the appearance and disposition of a prison matron.

“None of your business,” I said.

Her eyes widened in disbelief.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“I’m not going to be interrogated as a pre-condition of re-entering my own country,” I said.

This did not go over well. She asked a series of questions, such as how long I had been in China, whether I was there on personal business or commercial business, etc. I stood silently. She said that her questions were mandated by Congress and that I should complain to Congress instead of refusing to cooperate with her.

She asked me to take one of my small bags off her counter. I complied.

She picked up the phone and told someone I “was refusing to cooperate at all.” This was incorrect. I had presented her with proof of citizenship (a U.S. passport) and had moved the bag when she asked. What I was refusing to do was answer her questions.

Ultimately, Lukacs was allowed to go on his way because Americans really don’t have to do anything but show a customs declaration and proof of citizenship in order to re-enter the country. Of course he had to cool his heels first because … well, just because. He hadn’t respected their authoritah, after all.

It makes you think …

There are a lot of protections against official nosiness and pushiness on the books or in our legal traditions that go relatively unused. They go unused, of course, because officialdom makes it increasingly unpleasant to assert those rights. If the cost of telling a police officer to mind his manners is a strip search and a night in the lock-up, followed only months later by a lukewarm apology and an off-hand acknowledgment that you were in the right, many people simply stop telling cops where to get off. Even the occasional cash settlement isn’t going to be worth it for the average person. As time goes on, we forget what our rights are, and officials are trained in procedures rather than the legal scope of their authority. Eventually, the rights in question may still exist on the books, but largely as quaint museum-quality exhibits.

And then you run across the occasional Paul Karl Lukacs, willing to take a figurative bullet in the hopes that one of the gray-haired supervisors remembers a few vestigial legalisms.

So the question is … Is it a tactic on the part of officialdom to expand their power? Or is it more of a case of institutional mission-creep, fueled by our own timidity and laziness?

Either way, our rights become meaningless if we abandon them because it becomes a hassle to assert them.

And note that not a single statute is altered along the way to changing the balance of power between the folks wielding the power of the state and the rest of us.