Carol Shea-Porter: IRS Malfeasance Proves We Should Punch the First Amendment In the Face Some More

Free Speech zone It's time once again to look at one of "Carol's Columns", the latest in a series of pieces from my own CongressCritter and perpetual toothache, Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH01).

Carol's topic is one that's been in the news lately: the IRS politically slanting its investigations to target groups insufficiently supportive of progressive ideology. Carol, as it turns out, thinks that was a bad thing for the IRS to do. Yay!

And (good news) this column is only about 68.3% claptrap, instead of the usual 90+%. But still, let us look at it in detail.

Carol's current column is titled "Reform? Don’t Stop at the IRS"; it appears at her government-provided website and residents of NH01 may see it at some point as an op-ed in their local papers. I am reproducing her entire column here, lest I be accused of quoting out of context. Carol's words are (appropriately) on the left with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my comments are on the right.

I flew down to Washington, DC this week with an extra measure of concern about the news. We have truly been divided by policy and politics in Congress and across the nation. We have some very serious policy issues that divide us, and then there is just political posturing as well, done with an eye towards gaining the upper hand for the next election. But now there is a legitimate issue that worries and offends all of us on both sides of the aisle. Revelations that the Internal Revenue Service used phrases like "Tea Party" or "Patriot" as flags to more closely investigate conservative groups who applied for 501(c)4 status are deeply disturbing and violate our sense of fairness. This problem should concern and unite Republicans and Democrats in Washington, because something like this can shake citizens' faith in government institutions and undermine confidence that there is fair and equal treatment for all. We must not single out any one group over others for special treatment. Period. OK, so Carol's pissed. Fine; only the most devoted IRS sycophants are claiming not to be. But what's interesting is the reason behind her worries.

Carol has a deep, unshakeable, essentially religious belief in All Things Government. As we've seen, there's not a single dollar in private hands that she doesn't imagine the state could spend more wisely and humanely.

So the IRS's real sin was not that they were abusive toward a bunch of Americans they decided to target.

No the real problem, according to Carol: the IRS might have shaken "citizens' faith in government institutions"! It might "undermine" their "confidence" in the Holy State! Horrors!

And you thought I was kidding about Carol's religious belief in Government? Nope: her overriding concern is that the IRS's actions might be increasing the number of infidels!

The Internal Revenue Service is an independent organization, with only two political appointments in the whole organization. It is required to be politically neutral. It cannot treat the Tea Party, which is conservative, or Move On, which is liberal, any differently from other organizations when it is trying to determine tax-exempt status. Sadly though, it did focus more intently on the conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. Was it done just as a "shortcut" as an IRS official explained, or was it politically motivated? No matter what the excuse is, there is no acceptable excuse. Noting that the IRS is "independent" is a dodge to defuse speculation that its political litmus tests might have been ordered from the White House. Kimberly Strassel debunked this feint and outlined the real issue a few days back at the WSJ: "Mr. Obama didn't need to pick up the phone. All he needed to do was exactly what he did do, in full view, for three years: Publicly suggest that conservative political groups were engaged in nefarious deeds; publicly call out by name political opponents whom he'd like to see harassed; and publicly have his party pressure the IRS to take action."
This is the message that Republicans and Democrats need to blast out, and this is the moment to stand together to demand tough enforcement of our laws. The Justice Department has announced that there will be a formal inquiry. We need to know how, why, and who, and then make sure it can't happen again. I hope that a transparent and thorough investigation will restore peoples' confidence. I also believe that Republicans and Democrats should speak out against the targeting, but they need to be very cautious about generalizing. Victor Fleischer wrote in the New York Times that "The root of the problem is poor institutional design, not a political conspiracy." So far, it seems that way, but they did do wrong, and we need a thorough investigation. In the meantime, politicians should express appropriate outrage, since this is so clearly unfair and wrong, but be careful not to tag the innocent. You can read the Fleischer blog post Carol refers to here. It handwaves a semi-plausible yarn that the poor IRS was just way too swamped and frustrated by vague and sloppy law.

But: "poor institutional design" might explain inconsistent and arbitrary IRS rulings. It does not explain its admitted political bias. Fleischer's theory is a poor fit to the revealed facts.

It is important to look at the 501(c)4 status that allows an organization to be tax-exempt, to see if there is another problem here. What is it, and why is the Internal Revenue Service trying to decide which organizations qualify? To obtain a 501(c)4 status, a group must be "operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare." They should not be political. However, Karl Rove made them popular by using them to collect political donations under the pretext of a social welfare organization. The reason Rove and so many other groups, both liberal and conservative, love them is because they are tax-exempt and they do not have to reveal their donors. In other words, this status is being used and/or abused by all kinds of groups who want to get involved in politics, run the political ads we enjoy so much on television, and never have to say who paid for them. Ezra Klein from the Washington Post wrote that "According to data collected by OpenSecrets.org, 501(c)4s spent $92 million in the 2010 election. They spent $254 million in the 2012 election. That's a lot of social welfare going to the good people who live in swing states and competitive districts." Carol finds it self-evident that a "social welfare" group can't be "political". Obviously, the IRS defines things differently. The Fleischer op-ed (cited above) makes that point, which Carol ignores: the law is way too vague. So fix the law.

Or (my preference) drop the nonsense altogether, and repeal the law that denies non-profit organizations their full First Amendment free-speech liberties.

I was kind of surprised to learn that it's only been around since 1954 and was the brainchild of one Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was reportedly upset with some uppity Texas preachers that were daring to tell their flocks to vote against him.)

So that brought us inevitably to the odious situation today: IRS bureaucrats reading sermons to see if some unacceptable "line was crossed" in the pulpit. And asking secular groups equally snoopy questions.

So, as Congress and the Justice Department investigate the IRS and the way they handled the granting of the 501(c)4 status, I hope the American people will investigate the actual status and demand change. We need to stop granting this status to groups that are not really engaged in "social welfare," and apply a cold eye to all groups who apply for that status. While these organizations can engage in some political advocacy, they are supposed to actually promote the social welfare. Does anybody believe that Karl Rove's group or the Democrats' group put together their 501(c)4 for any other reason than to win elections and keep donors' names private? I don't. Neither should you. Let's fix this problem and demand a little campaign finance reform while we're doing IRS reform. Carol turns things around to one of her longtime hobbyhorses: "campaign finance reform". Which, to her, means: let's figure out ways to discourage private people from voluntarily organizing to promote political goals.

Although Carol inveighs against the evil of 501(c)4's, and alludes vaguely that they reside on both sides of the political divide, I wish she'd have the guts to call out (say) Organizing For Action, a 501(c)4 spawned from the Obama campaign.

Or the unwieldly-named New Hampshire Citizens Alliance for Action (the lefties really like "Action", I guess). Carol was so put off by this nefarious 501(c)4 that she let them host one of her tame town halls last month.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:42 AM EDT

The End Is Near and It's Going to Be Awesome

[Amazon Link]

Kevin D. Williamson has become one of my favorite writers on matters political and economic over the past few years. His new book was a must-buy.

The long title has an even longer subtitle: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure . It's kind of odd that Mr. Williamson doesn't really do a lot to develop the thesis promised in the title. What he does do (and very well) is compare goods and services produced via market mechanisms to those produced by politics.

For example: in the 1987 movie Wall Street, one of the status symbols owned by Michael Douglas's sleazy Gordon Gekko character was a Motorola DynaTAC cell phone, costing about $10K up front, $1K a month, weighed nearly two pounds, all for 30 minutes of talk time. And, Williamson points out, "you couldn't play Angry Birds on it." Today, … well, you know what happened to cell phones.

In contrast, we have goods and services produced or controlled largely, if not completely, by politics: examples include the public school system; entitlement programs typified by Social Security; health care; the legal system; the Department of Homeland Security. Quality is poor. They aren't subject to market pressures, so they are stultified and static. And the only reason we put up with them is their support via government's monopoly on coercive power.

For the "end is near" argument, Williamson puts forth the numbers that anyone who's been paying attention will know about: government at all levels has promised far more than it can deliver; unfunded liabilities will soon outstrip whatever government is likely to collect in taxes. At that point, Williamson notes, it will be "faced with a choice of which howling mob it wants to face: recipients of Social Security and Medicare benefits, or the world bond market."

Williamson's conclusion: "Don't bet on grandma."

The meat of the book involves demonstrating that less coercive methods for providing things "traditionally" produced by government would be both feasible and superior. If you've read Reason magazine for a few dozen years, like I have, there won't be a lot new or surprising here. But Williamson is a fine writer, and you'll find those familiar themes explained well.

So it's possible and desirable that the market take over some traditionally state-provided goods and services, Williamson's title seems to hint that such an outcome is likely. Nay: a virtual certainty. But (as near as I can tell) he doesn't make that bit of argument at all. I think I would have noticed if he had, but maybe I missed it. So while Williamson might be "long-term" optimistic about the prospects for liberty and prosperity, I wasn't convinced. This is, after all, a country that elected B. Obama twice.

Williamson's arguments and examples are very libertarian; unfortunately, he rarely uses that word, and when he does, it's dismissive. A puzzling decision, perhaps to avoid being pigeonholed into a movement that the mainstream has written off as kooky. But don't be fooled: this is the real deal.

One of my other favorite writers, Jonah Goldberg, reviews the book here.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:42 AM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2013-05-29

  • A Nice Logo The University Near Here continues with its logo controversy. Grant Bosse of New Hampshire Watchdog is covering this like a…um, a diligent watchdog. Yesterday he quoted a Union Leader editorial on the $100K cost of three proposed logos that just about everyone hates.

    While claiming that the University of New Hamsphire has cut expenses to the bone, university officials were spending about $100,000 to redesign the UNH seal. Legislators would be fools to take these officials’ financial protests seriously again.

    Read the whole thing; it's hard to draw any other conclusion but that UNH has dealt itself yet another self-inflicted wound.

    Grant has also set up a Facebook group, Wildcat Logo Search, for people who'd like to contribute their graphic skills. I've snatched one of the nicer ones for display.

  • Way back in the 90's there was a movie called Matilda, based on a pretty good Roald Dahl book. It starred a nine-year-old actress named Mara Wilson, who did a fine job in the title role.

    And now she's in her twenties, and has written an article at Cracked: "7 Reasons Child Stars Go Crazy (An Insider's Perspective)". Probably not exactly news you can use, but still interesting.

  • There's P.J. O'Rourke content at the Weekly Standard; check it out, assuming you can get around their send-money-now nagging. Peej entertains the real possibility that President Obama is, well, stupid.

    Dopey stimulus, obtuse bailout, noodle-headed Obamacare, half-wit Dodd-Frank, damfool IRS Tea Party crashers, AP and Fox News beset by oafish peeping Toms and the Benghazi tale told by an idiot. One could go on. Stupid is a great force in human affairs. And the great force has a commander in chief.

    An interesting thesis. Not that it's possible to do anything about it.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:44 AM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2013-05-28

Pun Salad: Not One of Us Gosh, you take a little blogging vacation and everything goes to hell: the IRS harassing tea-partiers; the DOJ investigating reporters for doing their job; the Obama Administration pushing a blatantly unconstitutional speech code onto institutions of higher education; the State Department obviously lying about Benghazi; and the University Near Here spending a six figure sum on stupid proposals for a new logo that everyone hates.

We will take a deep breath and continue on as if nothing happened.

  • I GIMPed up today's illustration based on Jay Nordlinger's recalling the Obama campaign's famous TV ad from last year: "MITT ROMNEY. Not One of Us." I concur with Jay:

    So true — truer words were never spoken. Not one of them at all. Nothing like them.

    Say it with me and Jay, brothers and sisters.

  • If you feel tempted to read Sheryl Sandberg's massively-hyped new book, Lean In, you might want to read Phil Greenspun's take on the tome. Phil is a hatpin, Sandberg's book is a balloon overinflated with hot air.

    Sandberg identifies the same tendencies for underlings in a bureaucracy to hold their tongues that Max Weber noticed 100+ years ago (p85; no reference to Weber). She offers some practical advice for dealing with the problem of the boss not getting frank feedback on page 86: ostentatiously reward people who breach etiquette by speaking uncomfortable truths to higher-ups.

    That's news you can use: tell your boss "uncomfortable truths" and hope like hell he or she has read and believes Sandberg.

    But if you do decide to buy Lean In, please note that you can do that by clicking right here

  • At HuffPo, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush (their "Senior Religion Editor") opines on "Why Everyone Should Oppose Ten Commandments In Public Schools -- Especially Religious People". I liked this:

    Every religious person should object to having the Ten Commandments in schools because you are allowing other people -- people over whom you have no control -- the responsibility of interpreting said commandments.

    Brandeis, like most of his bent, doesn't come to the obvious more general conclusion: you should not allow people — over whom you have no control — the responsibility of pushing any doctrine onto your kids.

  • Jonah Goldberg writes perceptively (as usual) on the Administration's "idiot" defense for its recently-revealed misdeeds.

    A free people will have legitimate differences on questions of policy. A government as vast as ours is — never mind as vast Obama wants it to be — is destined to abuse its power, particularly in a climate where a savior-president is incessantly delegitimizing dissent (and journalistic scrutiny). Government officials will behave like idiots sometimes, not because they are individually dumb but because a government that takes on too much will make an idiot out of anyone who thinks there’s no limit to what it can do. That alone is good reason to fear tyranny. Indeed, it would be idiotic not to.

  • Last but not least, Randal O'Toole takes on the latest statist excuse for Bigger Government: without it, our bridges will fall down and kill us all! Aieee! But

    Recent highway safety data reveal a striking 20 percent decline in fatalities between 2007 and 2010. This decline was associated with a mere 2.2 percent decline in driving, suggesting that–in the absence of the recession–a 2.2 percent increase in highway capacity and other congestion relief could have produced a similar decline in fatalities. Of the 41,259 fatalities in 2007, 13 were due to a bridge failure; there have been virtually none since then.

    Gosh, you mean that using knee-jerk scare tactics might actually misallocate government resources and—oops!—make us all less safe? Shocker!


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:42 AM EDT

Silver Linings Playbook

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Ah, 'twas only a few months back when we hadn't seen any of the nine 2013 Oscar nominees for best picture. As of now, we've seen seven. (Of the remaining two, Amour hasn't made it onto DVD yet, and Netflix's rating predictor doesn't think I'd like Beasts of the Southern Wild very much, so it's pretty far down in the queue.)

Silver Linings Playbook was pleasantly quirky, a modern screwball comedy. And that "screwball" thing is meant literally: the two main characters, and a lot of the supporting cast, are quite frankly insane, dancing on the edge of total dysfunction. I.e., not at all the a sugarcoated, quirky, Katherine-Hepburn-in-Bringing-Up-Baby insanity. It's the real deal.

Fortunately, the mental illness is not sentimentalized either. And so: yeah, they don't call 'em funny farms for nothing. A lot of the stuff crazy people do can be funny. If you're not personally involved.

Bradley Cooper (Oscar nominee) plays Pat Jr., just getting out of an eight-month stay in the institution. He's managed to destroy his marriage, get cuckolded, and badly beat his wife's paramour. But he's still delusional about getting his job back and reuniting with his wife. And he's off his meds. Pretty clearly, he's on the verge of further insitutionalization.

Pat Sr, (Robert DeNiro, Oscar nominee) is also nutty in his own way: an Eagles fan, he's been banned from the stadium for fighting. He's lost his job and taken up bookmaking. And he's obsessive-compulsive about his Sunday routine for game-watching: remotes just so, scarf clutched in one hand, … Fortunately, Mom (Oscar nominee Jackie Weaver) is long-suffering and relatively sane.

Pat Jr.'s quest to communicate with his ex-wife in defiance of a restraining order leads him to meet Tiffany (Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence); she's (in her own words) a "crazy whore widow" with an obsession for participating in a dance competition at a fancy downtown Philly hotel. Guess who she picks to partner with?

I wouldn't have thought that a movie so rooted in serious mental dysfunction could be so entertaining. Probably we'll see more than a few would-be imitators coming down the pike.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:43 AM EDT

A Thousand Words

[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Mrs. Salad wanted to see it, we got it from Netflix, had a few laughs. It's not as bad as everyone said. But it's still not very good.

Eddie Murphy plays Jack, a high-profile book agent pitching potential blockbusters to publishing houses. His new beautiful wife and cute son don't fit too well into his bachelor environment. His mom is in a home, keeps calling him by his father's name, and that only rankle's Jack's daddy issues.

But it all comes to a head when he tries to wangle a book out of a new age guru, who's all about Buddhist-style simplicity and honesty. Jack's bullshit is (apparently) too much for a nearby Bodhi tree; it transplants itself into Jack's backyard, and starts shedding one leaf for every word Jack speaks. Jack becomes convinced that when the tree runs out of leaves, his life will end.

You may recognize this genre: roughly, it's "supernatural forces make a the protagonist appreciate true values and redeem his life." (This movie's writer also wrote Click and Bruce Almighty. But also see Groundhog Day, Liar Liar, Scrooged, …)

In short, you've almost certainly already seen better versions of this movie. It bombed, and the studio seems to have figured out that it was a stinker: filmed in 2008, but not released until last year. But (on the other hand) Eddie Murphy is still pretty funny. But (on the third hand) he's funnier when he talks, and he shuts up for a lot of the movie.

Finally: it's rated PG-13, and (as the IMDB helpfully tallies) you can get away with "1 use of f***, abou 10 uses of s**t, 2 obscene hand gestures, 2 uses of d***head." (No, not "deadhead".) I'm kind of surprised at that.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:43 AM EDT

Star Trek Into Darkness

[5.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

The second see-it-in-the-theatre blockbuster for us this season; probably the one I most wanted to see. What can I say? Your unfaithful blogger is a big old Star Trek geek. As I type, the IMDB raters have this at #161 on the top 250 movies of all time. Hm. I don't think that can be defended in objective Aristotliean standards of artistic quality, but I sure had a good time.

And note: there's apparently no official colon after Trek in the title. It's Star Trek Into Darkness. What's next? Star Trek Through Peril? Star Trek Over Adversity?

I usually do a brief plot summary in these blurbs. Won't bother. Suffice to say: the previous film established the "new" movies in an alternate timeline from the original. But that doesn't mean that capital-D Destiny doesn't draw the same characters back into interaction. Also plot elements, but always with a twist or neat inversion. I imagine the movie stands well on its own, but if you see it, it probably wouldn't hurt to brush up on the "good parts" of the original canon.

(That's probably too broad a hint. I accidentally discovered the movie's big surprise with a single glance at its IMDB front page. Oops! Don't make the same mistake if you want to maximize the shock.)

For a Star Trek movie, it's notably action-packed. If I had a quibble, it would be that there's nary a moment's peace, where the characters can just yak. (And if I had a second quibble, it would be about that tribble…)


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:42 AM EDT

Les Misérables

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A big, big movie weekend at Pun Salad Manor. We started off with Les Misérables, which won three Oscars, and was nominated for five more, including Best Picture. It's based on a book by Victor Hugo that I've actually read in the dim past, and it made me recall the comments Pastor Ellison made on the sermon notes I was required to submit as part of my Lutheran path to Confirmation: "You got the high points!"

As you might have heard, the movie is actually based on the play, which was a musical. And it's one of those "sung-through" musicals where actual dialog is rare. The movie keeps that characteristic, but (unlike many play adaptations), there's otherwise no sign that this was, or ever could be, a production that fit on a relatively dinky stage.

Anyway, the plot: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from hard-labor inprisonment (for stealing the famous loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family); wretched circumstance nearly forces him to resume a more serious life of crime, but a kindly churchman sets him on the path to spiritual righteousness. Unfortunately, he remains in legal jeopardy, breaking his parole, which sets Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) onto his trail.

But Valjean avoids Javert long enough to assume a false identity, becoming a factory owner, and mayor of a small town. There he unwittingly dooms a downwardly-mobile French lass, Fantine (Anne Hathaway); in redemption, he takes on responsibility for Cosette, Fantine's illegitimate daughter. But Javert picks up the scent again, and Valjean and Cosette make off to Paris…

So anyway, it's epic. Unfortunately, too many of the songs are lame. Two three-named actors, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play the Thénardiers as comic buffoons; this will jar anyone who's read the book, but it kind of works.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:43 AM EDT

Memorial Day 2013

  • Memorial Day 2009 So let's all remember.

  • If you want to remember someone specific, it's hard to see how you could do better than Sergeant Jared Monti, Massachusetts native, who died in 2006 in Gowardesh, Afghanistan. His valor that day earned him the Medal of Honor. At National Review, Lee Habeeb describes how Sgt. Monti's dad inspired the current hit song "I Drive Your Truck."

  • At the WSJ, former Navy SEAL officer Leif Babin remembers his fallen comrades in Iraq, and reflects:

    Let's remember on Memorial Day--and every other day, for that matter--that America did not become a nation without a fight. Last week, I found myself in Washington, D.C., admiring a bronze statue of George Washington. The statue shows him as a general, astride a horse, sword drawn at the ready. This was Washington as a true American leader, inspiring those around him by showing that he too was willing to risk death for the cause of victory. The statue brought to mind the thousands of soldiers who marched with him into battle against the British, facing seemingly impossible odds.

  • Need more links? Michelle has a fine collection.

Jack Reacher

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

We've been inundated with TV-season finales, end-of-semester craziness, and social obligations, so the Netflix DVDs kind of got pushed aside for awhile. But (since we were unwilling to battle the first-weekend crowds for Into Darkness) we cued up this one.

Here's the deal: A skilled sniper kills a bunch of folks in an unnamed Midwestern city. Thanks to a masterful crime scene investigation, the cops immediately corral a suspect, an ex-Army guy named Barr. But the Army guy just says: get Jack Reacher.

Reacher is Tom Cruise, an ex-MP, and a skilled investigator. He shows up on his own. His immediate reaction is: yeah, Barr is as guilty as hell. But little details nag at him. He is importuned by Barr's beautiful defense attorney (Rosamund Pike) to check out the case. And before you know it: fisticuffs, car chases, more murder, gunplay, explosions, …

I should note that this movie is based on the novel One Shot, which I just read back in November, and I still remembered the details. So the movie/book comparisons were inevitable, and (in my case) the movie suffered. A major plot twist is given away right at the beginning. A lot of backstory is left out. Characters are left out. Action sequences are crammed in. I kept wondering: would this make any sense to someone who hasn't read the book? (Mrs. Salad confessed confusion.)

Reacher's creator, Lee Child, blessed Tom Cruise as a credible actor for the role. Fine, but I beg to differ. I've always imagined Kiefer Sutherland in the role while reading the books, and Mr. Cruise's performance did not sway me from that opinion. (Although he did a pretty good job otherwise.)

Finally: I don't know what the deal is with the flag imagery on the DVD box over there. Although I like patriotism as much as the next guy, there's not very much to inspire it in Jack Reacher.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:41 AM EDT

Wonderland

[Amazon Link]

A new Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker was the source of much joyous celebration at Pun Salad Manor. But Mr. Parker died, and his estate and publisher decided to continue the series with author Ace Atkins. The first of these efforts, Lullaby, was good enough to get me to invest in a Kindle version of the second one, Wonderland. And guess what? Wonderland is even better. My take was that Lullaby was 90% faithful to the Spenser universe; Wonderland is up around 98-99%. Ace has hooked me for the duration.

Henry Cimoli has been a minor character in the novels for decades: he's the owner of the gym where Spenser originally trained as a boxer, and where he and Hawk continue their fitness regimens. But now, Henry has a problem: a shadowy organization wants to buy the condominium complex where he lives. And they've been sending thuggish types out to mildly threaten the holdouts.

This is right up Spenser's alley: he's been out-toughing hired thugs forever. He and new apprentice Zebulon Sixkill make short work of that, and Spenser tries to work out who's pulling the strings. He nails that down pretty quickly too, and things seem to be working toward a speedy conclusion, … Waitaminnit, we're only like 35% done with the book? What can happen next?

Well, a body happens. Actually, a head, minus the rest of the body. I was surprised at the victim's identity. I did not see that coming.

Here's an example of the kind of thing I liked. Spenser is discussing a meeting with an ex-Harvard prof Rose with Mass State cop Healy:

"What did Rose say?" Healy said.

"Not much," I said. "The man has no sense of humor."

"The problem is that you think you're funny, Spenser," Healy said. "A guy who taught at Harvard would find you juvenile."

I shrugged.

People have been telling Spenser that he's not as funny as he thinks for, well, decades. I've been accused of the same. It's nice to see it in print again.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:44 AM EDT

Iron Man 3

[5.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

If you've been reading many of these movie blurbs, you've probably noticed that a good 50% of my movie-preference DNA is strictly Teenage Boy. So I went into Iron Man 3 enthusiastically and uncritically, and I was not disappointed.

Tony Stark is still feeling the aftereffects of saving the world in The Avengers; apparently the shawarma didn't get things back to normal for him. So he's neglecting his (now) live-in girlfriend, Pepper, and is spending an inordinate amount of tinkering-time in the basement of his flying-saucer home on the Malibu cliffs. He gets the occasional anxiety attack.

Despite all his tinkering, he's dreadfully unprepared to deal with the threat of The Mandarin, an international terrorist bent on blowing up Americans. There are a number of strangely glowing people wandering around doing nefarious things. Worse, Tony's inconsiderate conduct from a dozen years previous is about to bite him in the ass. He spends most of the movie a couple steps behind his enemies.

What sets the Iron Man series apart from its genre is overall braininess. As a geek, I appreciate that. There is, of course, the normal slam-bang boom-boom action, but Tony's scientific/engineering expertise gets him out of any number of situations where the armor isn't doing the trick. (He's out of his suit for most of this movie.) Tony also shows some pretty mean detective skills here, as he struggles to figure out what's going on.

Robert Downey Jr. is (as before) just about perfect as Tony Stark, hitting all the right notes of arrogance, hubris, and cynical humor covering some inner vulnerabilities. Gwyneth Paltrow, as Pepper, has more to do here than in the previous movies, and she handles her expanded role very well. Mrs. Salad usually bypasses superhero flicks, but she accompanied me to this one, enjoyed it, and I think Gwyneth (plus a cute, smart kid in a key role) contributed.

Carol Shea-Porter Has Yet Another Plan to Make Us Poorer

Factory for sale It's time once again to look at one of "Carol's Columns", the latest in a series of pieces from my own CongressCritter and perpetual toothache, Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH01).

This time around, Carol's column is titled is "Make It In America". To put the most positive spin on it: it's about revitalizing the USA's manufacturing sector. Carol's for that. Yay!

But, in reality, her column is yet another incoherent mess, full of fallacies, economic illiteracy, and bad policy proposals. Carol is, as always, and despite all evidence to the contrary, devoted to her core belief that a Government Fist (when wielded by Democrats, anyway) can produce better results than the free market's Invisible Hand.

Bushwa. But let's look in detail.

Carol's column appears at her government-provided website and residents of NH01 may see it at some point as an op-ed in their local papers. I am reproducing her entire column here, lest I be accused of quoting out of context. Carol's words are (appropriately) on the left with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my comments are on the right.

When I talk to constituents in New Hampshire's First District, I find that while there are many issues dividing our residents politically, there is one issue that always creates the same response. Manufacturing. They want to see the companies who left America return. They want to see the label "Made in America" again. It is a matter of pride as well as jobs, and they want Congress to help make that happen. Note the interesting word choice: she talks "to" constituents. God forbid she should talk "with" them. Let alone listen to them. No, she just talks "to", then observes the "response" her words have "created". Pavlov, call off your dogs!

This is why I believe Carol writes these columns herself. Even a novice professional writer would have noticed the implicit arrogance and rewritten this paragraph.

But, even though Carol is notoriously shy about unscripted, unmanaged interactions with constituents, let's grant the premise that it happens. I don't actually disbelieve that people generally have a warm-and-fuzzy feeling about "manufacturing", and can nod in agreement tnat making useful products out of raw materials is an honorable trade. Should government "do something" to encourage that? Uh, sure. As long as things stay vague and there are no messy details about competence, costs, and trade-offs.

And then Carol's constituents get into their Hondas and Subarus, and drive away hoping they didn't upset the crazy lady.

I share that opinion. I worked my way through college with factory jobs. They paid better than most other local jobs at that time, and there was more overtime. Now, when I shop, I think about the good people I worked with. Those factories are long gone. But there are still others making American products, and I try to keep those employees working by buying American-made products. Nostalgia is OK, as far as it goes.

When it morphs into the mild xenophobia Carol displays here, it might be a little unpleasant, but as long as she's spending her own money, it's not worth making a big deal about it.

Except… hey, Carol, shouldn't you be looking to buy New Hampshire Congressional District One-made products? I mean, if you're going to champion economic isolationism, why not go all the way, to the benefit of people who really deserve it, your constituents?

Because, of course, drawing your red-line zone of economic protection around NH01 would be self-evidently silly. Drawing it around the USA is equally silly, but it plays better with people who don't think about such things too much.

Three recent purchases show the challenges we face. I needed dishes and I wanted American-made. I spent several hours looking, but finally found an American company. However, I could not find American-made every-day silverware. Next, I went to a number of stores looking for an American-made pocketbook. There weren't any. One of our local chain stores had one. Just one. Eventually, I gave up and looked on-line for American-made brands. I did find an American product, but it was far harder than it should be. The last example was furniture. There were only a few American-made pieces every place I looked. It took me a few weeks, but I found a couch made in North Carolina. There was a time when all of these purchases could have been made in just one afternoon, but now we struggle to find American brands in our retail stores. This is just wrong. As long as Carol is spending her own money on her buy-American quest, I can't gripe much. Even though it's probably her Congressional salary, straight out of taxpayer pockets, I won't begrudge.

And the time she spends wandering the stores and websites? You might say that she doesn't value those hours very highly.

I say, on the other hand, that the time she spends shopping is time she doesn't spend on her job; that is, on average, almost certainly a plus for the country.

But that reminds me that, unfortunately, Carol Shea-Porter is not just another shopper wasting time and money on irrational preferences based in sloppy thinking and economic illusions. She's perfectly willing to translate those preferences into wacky legislation that will make us, on average, worse off.

This is just wrong.

When I was a child, an article made abroad caught my attention, because it was unusual. Now, American-made labels catch my eye. There is a long list of reasons for this--mistakes made in trade policies sit at the top in my opinion--but we now need to try to reverse this. I believe we can bring good jobs back home and see that label again, but we need a plan. More nostalgia… Why aren't things like they were in the 50s?

It would be sweetly pathetic, if it weren't coming from someone in power; instead it's sad and dangerous. As David Harsanyi observed, this push is ironically reactionary for people who like to bill themselves as "progressive". Hey kids, let's get back those jobs that decades of progress and prosperity have left behind!

Carol says "we need a plan". Which is nothing new: people have been demanding that sort of thing for centuries. Instead of hundreds of millions of private citizens deciding on their own what they want to produce and consume, figuring out how they want to allocate their scarce resources to accomplish that, and entering into mutually voluntary agreements to implement their schemes…

Why, we'll just ("democratically") decide all that stuff in Washington: figure out what people need, figure out who's going to produce it, and just make it happen!

As I said: bushwa. Dangerous bushwa. People have written books debunking this pernicious notion that central planners can do a better job of producing economic prosperity than private citizens operating in the free market under general rules. It just doesn't work.

I was an original member of the "Make it in America Working Group" that Congressman Steny Hoyer launched a few years ago. I have rejoined the group, and we are working to pass legislation that will support American manufacturers. There are, of course, probably tens of thousands of American entrepreneurs who would dearly love to make a profit producing things in America, if it were at all possible. Those people don't need legislative "support"; they need government at all levels to get out of the way.

Of course, on the other hand: there are always industries that welcome government "support". Typically entrenched enterprises with plenty of political pull, the "support" they receive allows them to—literally—engage in "business as usual", without worrying overmuch about competition from companies that government has decided not to "support". Result: inefficient bloat, and higher prices for unlucky consumers.

The Make it in America plan has four major parts. First, we need a national manufacturing strategy. Other countries have highly developed strategies that offer tax incentives, support for infrastructure projects, investments in research, etc. It is time for America to do the same. You would not know from Carol's column that the USA is one of the top two manufacturing countries in the world, the other one being China. Some sources have the US slightly ahead of China, some behind. But nobody else is even close, and nobody else shows any signs of getting close.

So those "other countries" with "highly developed strategies"? They ain't working.

What has happened: manufacturing's share of the US GDP has declined. That furrows some brows, but it mostly means that other sectors are growing more quickly.

In addition, the number of US workers employed in manufacturing has shrunk. While China produces its manufacturing output with a workforce of around 100 million souls, the US does it with around 12 million.

That's a feature attesting to the insanely high productivity of US manufacturing workers. It's a good thing. But for Carol and her ilk, it's a bug that needs to be "fixed".

Second, we need to increase exports. There are a number of barriers holding companies back from global markets. We need enforcement of fair trade laws, and we need to help our businesses navigate through the maze of rules and regulations here and abroad. Other countries are far more aggressive in helping their businesses access foreign markets. American businesses also need better communication, road, and rail infrastructure to compete on equal footing. One slightly amusing thing: Carol's just spent a couple paragraphs telling us how diligently she tries to avoid buying other countries' exports.

But she wants those other countries to buy more US exports. Carol wants those furriners to do as she says, not as she does.

The US, according to Wikipedia, is the third-largest exporting country in the world, slightly behind Germany. (Both more-than-slightly behind China.) Could it do "better"? Well, probably. Do I trust Steny Hoyer and Carol Shea-Porter to know what the "right" level of exports is, and how to make that happen? When they don't seem to know the meaning of the phrase "get out of the way"?

No.

Instead, let's let companies that can profit by increasing exports figure out how to do that; they have every incentive to do so without the "help" of government.

The Make It In America plan also encourages businesses to return. Currently, there is a bill to eliminate the tax deduction for moving expenses for companies that send jobs abroad and to offer a tax credit to them if they bring jobs back. There is also a bill that gives companies preference in government contracting and a 5% reduction in taxable income if they make at least 90% of their goods and services in America, and that pays at least 70% of an employee's health insurance costs. There are many other bills that offer help to companies as well. The funny thing here is: Carol's immediately previous column was all about extracting more taxes from the private sector. Carol specifically trashed General Electric (a manufacturing company), for making creative use of existing loopholes in the tax code to minimize the government bite. Close them loopholes and get companies like GE to cough up big time!

But that was April, this is May, and suddenly Carol is all about offering more tax gimmicks and loopholes to get companies to behave the way she wants.

Were I the CEO of GE, I wouldn't know which way to bet.

[BTW: A year ago I compiled a short list of Democratic candidates' promises to do away with "tax breaks for companies that ship American jobs overseas"; it's something they've been promising for over 20 years. They are remarkably slow at figuring out how to make it happen. Do you think that might be because it's a far better demagogic campaign promise than sound policy?]

The fourth part of the plan is to train and secure a twenty-first century workforce. We need to compete in a world market. Therefore, our students need top skills and education. The plan calls for all stakeholders--the government, educational institutions, and private industry--to work together to prepare students. One proposed bill would give a tax credit to businesses that offer apprenticeships and then keep the employee on the payroll for at least two years after the training. The implicit admission here is: government schools have been doing a lousy job of their appointed task to "train and secure a twenty-first century workforce."

Do you think that Steny and Carol have suddenly figured out how to make that happen? Me neither. I think it's just another excuse to shove more money at schools.

And there's another stupid tax loophole. Please: if it makes economic sense for companies to offer "apprenticeships", they can and should do it on their own.

Americans are ready to move on this agenda. Make It In America sounds right and feels right because it is right. Congress might not be leading on this, but they could at least follow their constituents and start putting Make It In America bills on the floor. Or, alternatively, start putting Make It In America bills in the handy recycling bins just outside the door. Government has spectacularly mismanaged itself for years; if it were a business, it would be out of business. And now they want to help manufacturers? Aieee, run away!

Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:41 AM EDT

The Overlook

[Amazon Link]

A short and punchy Harry Bosch mystery from Michael Connelly. It was originally published as a 16-part serial in the New York Times Magazine, but was expanded for the book version. It's fast-moving, taking place (roughly) over the course of a day, and there's a domestic terrorism angle; dink a few things, and it would make a marvelous season of 24.

Harry's called out from home at midnight to a crime scene at the "Overlook", a scenic spot in the Hollywood hills. A Porsche is parked with its hood up; the owner, Dr. Stanley Kent, is on the ground nearby with a couple of .22 slugs in his brain.

What makes it possibly more than an everyday homicide: Dr. Kent's specialty is handling radioactive material at various L.A. hospitals; if that material should happen to get into the Wrong Hands, it could be part of a dirty bomb that would kill a lot of people and render a significant portion of the sunny Southland uninhabitable for centuries. So the FBI gets involved almost immediately, in the person of Harry's onetime lover, Rachel Walling. And, sure enough, it's discovered that a large amount of cesium-137 has gone missing.

Harry is, as always, obsessed above all with bringing the killer or killers to justice. Everyone else, however, is concentrating on finding the cesium. Harry needs to spend nearly as much time fighting to keep his hand in the case as he does investigating the crime.

Dick Harpootles Haley, Again

Nikki Haley Back in 2011, Pun Salad coined the verb "to harpootle", and proposed the rough definition: "to attack someone in a way that reveals the attacker as foolish, petty, vile, and/or stupid."

It was derived from the name of Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, who attempted to make a big deal over the fact that the (Republican) Governor of South Carolina, Nimrata "Nikki" Randhawa Haley, was listed on SC voter rolls as W, as in White. When obviously, um, at least as evidenced by her name, she is not!

That meaningless "scandal" did nothing but cement the image of Harpootlian as an old white southern pol trying to stir up racial animosity at some uppity minority attempting to "pass."

Dick (or as his friends call him, "Dick") stepped down from his position as SC Dem Chair, but managed to Harpootle one last time on his way out:

South Carolina Democratic party chairman Dick Harpootlian on Friday assured Democrats that next year, their party's challenger will "send Nikki Haley back to wherever the hell she came from."

The linked article also refers to Harpootlian's comment last year about Gov. Haley's interview in a basement television studio. She was, Harpootlian said, "down in the bunker a la Eva Braun."


Last Modified 2013-05-07 5:37 AM EDT

Falling Up the Stairs

[Amazon Link]

I can recommend you buy this book using the link at right (no, your right), because the author, James Lileks, is a good guy, a fine writer, and amply deserves whatever slice of the low, low $2.99-for-Kindle price Amazon cuts him.

But I can't, unfortunately, recommend that you actually read it. Sorry. He's a fine writer now. Back in the 80s, when the book was written, not so much. (And there are other problems, see below.)

It starts out promising: protagonist Jonathan Simpson is a society reporter for a dinky local newspaper in Valhalla, Minnesota, the Lacs Standard. He is visited by Trygve, the servant employed by his rich Aunt Marvel from Minneapolis. Or, rather, his late Aunt Marvel, who has perished from—literally—falling up the stairs. (Involving getting her foot caught in the stair lift while simultaneously punching the "up" button.)

"I hope she, ah, died quickly."

"Not at first. But eventually, yes, she did."

Funny! Unfortunately, that's pretty close to the beginning of the book, and it's downhill from there. Simpson inherits his Aunt's mansion, and (not quite coincidentally) submits a column to the Lacs Standard slandering a good part of the community of Valhalla. So it's off to Minneapolis, where he runs into a dark conspiracy run by the Alimentary Information League, a radical group demanding an end to processed foods; their tactics involve mass poisoning. He also runs into a bunch of women, most of whom he manages to sleep with. I couldn't care enough about them to keep them straight. The tone gets uneven, the hero gets whiny and irritating, and the whole thing just drags on way too long.

The other problem is that the Kindlizing of the print edition did not go well. There are typos galore, and the paragraphs are consistently messed up so badly that it's often difficult to tell who's saying what. Even for $2.99, it's tough to tolerate.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:41 AM EDT

Pitch Perfect

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A decent little musical comedy. It's Maine (heh) attraction is Anna Kendrick, a very good young actress born up in Portland. She got an Oscar nomination a few years back for her role in Up in the Air. I forsee more, albeit not for this.

Ms Kendrick plays Beca, whose life ambition is to go out to LA and get into the music business, specializing in her mad DJ mixes. You can, in theory, make a living doing that, I guess. But her professor dad insists that she get a college education first, and she enrolls unenthusiastically at Barden College.

In addition to DJ skills, Beca is a decent singer, and she gets recruited into an all-female a capella group. Its leader, Aubrey, is a bit of a tyrant, obsessed with winning the a capella competition held yearly at Lincoln Center in NYC. (They were cruelly denied the previous year when Aubrey regurgitated impressively in the midst of their performance.)

So, yeah: it's like every other musical-competition movie you've seen. Or, for that matter, every other sports movie you've seen. Will the underdogs triumph?

But it's PG13-funny along the way, doesn't take itself seriously, and—see above—Ms Kendrick is always worth watching even when she's in a clichéd role in a clichéd movie. Also good is Australian Rebel Wilson playing Tasmanian "Fat Amy". (She calls herself that "so twig bitches like you don't do it behind my back.")

In addition, John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks pop in on occasion as ESPN-style announcers for the televised a-capella competitions; their banter is hilarious. The competitions actually exist, although the finals weren't at Lincoln Center this year, and I can't find any evidence they are televised.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:40 AM EDT

The Adventures of Augie March

[Amazon Link]

Another occasional foray into reading Serious Literature; The Adventures of Augie March is on most Official Lists of the Greatest Novels Ever. It was a slog, though; I finally waded through it on my third checkout from the fine library at the University Near Here. The checkout period is 4 weeks, so it was "only" about 20 pages/day. But they are very dense pages.

Here's an example, the first paragraph of chapter XI:

Now there's a dark Westminster of a time when a multitude of objects cannot be clear; they're too dense and there's an island rain. North Sea lightlessness, the vein of the Thames. That darkness in which resolutions have to be made--it isn't merely local; it's the same darkness that exists in the fiercest clearnesses of torrid Messina. And what about the coldness of the rain? That doesn't deheat foolishness in its residence of the human face, nor take away deception nor change defects, but this rain is an emblem of the shared condition of all. It maybe means that what is needed to mitigate the foolishness or dissolve the deception is always superabundantly about and insistently offered to us--a black offer in Charing Cross; a gray in Place Pereires where you see so many kinds and varieties of beings go to and fro in the liquid and fog; a brown in the straight unity of Wabash Avenue. With the dark, the solvent is in this way offered until the time when one thing is determined and the offers, mercies, and opportunities are finished.

No, it's not Finnegans Wake. But it's not Lee Child either.

My guess is that the initial reference is inspired by one of these Monet paintings, probably the one housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, but I wouldn't even have gotten that if not for a dim recollection of paging through an art book years ago. But that's only the start of unwinding the paragraph. One could spend maybe an hour puzzling out the allusions and sussing out references. I didn't have time, and probably not the depth of knowledge required either, so I probably missed a lot.

Unlike the edition of Lolita I read last year, the library's copy of Augie was unannotated, and this is a book that could use annotations. But I muddled through, got the "good parts", and enjoyed it.

It starts out in early 20th century Chicago, with Augie's already-dysfunctional family: absent father, a simple-minded mother, a tyrannical scheming grandmother, two brothers, one "born an idiot". Augie has to scramble to make a living, and this causes him to interact with no end of colorful folks, some of whom rope him into "adventures" of varying legality. One of the more successful enterprises has him shoplifting expensive books and selling them to university academics. But another scheme, hatched by the clearly reality-challenged Thea, involves an odyssey down to Mexico with a young bald eagle, which Thea hopes to train to catch giant iguanas; Augie goes along because he's hopelessly infatuated with Thea. It winds up in post-WWII Europe, with Augie still doing borderline-shady stuff, with a wife hoping to break into film.

I don't disagree that it's a great novel. But I'm ready to read more fluffy stuff again.