31 March 2011

Angry Birds on the Jasmine Revolution

You've got to love learning geopolitics from a parody of an addictive cell phone app.   It is really ironic that the segment celebrating the Jasmine Revolution was scored with Disney's Silly Symphonies soundtrack for the "Three Little Pigs".

27 March 2011

Celebrating the Cherry Blossoms Between The Beltways

One of the joys of living between the beltways is seeing the Cherry Blossoms in the Spring. This period tends to be the ten days of pleasant non-humid weather that we experience in the swamp where the Nation's Capitol was built. The grove that surrounds the Tidal Basin was a gift from the people of Japan in 1912.

This year's National Cherry Blossom Festival had a somber start to remember the victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan. Alas, the weather this morning made it more like the Chilly Blossoms as DC received a light dusting of snow.


But the beautiful blooms are not just limited to the 3,750 trees around the Tidal Basin. One can spot these fragile blossoms throughout the city. It can turn a quotidian stroll to the post office in downtown DC into a pretty nice walk.

By St. Aloysius Catholic Church, Capitol Hill North
Motherhood Statue, by American Red Cross Nat'l HQ


If one knows where the Japanese Cherry Trees have a Northern Exposure, this celebration can be extended well into April. As for the Tidal Basin, the peak bloom is estimated to be on April 4th. For those who can not traipse between the blossoms, enjoy the Cherry Blossom Cam.


23 March 2011

Biden Big Booster of War Powers in the Past

When campaigning in Iowa for 2008 Presidential primaries, Senator Joe Biden (D-NJ) threatened to impeach President George W. Bush if he committed troops in Iran without receiving Congressional authorization.

Now that Biden serves as Vice President in the Obama Administration that has committed troops to Libya and fired at last count 165 cruise missiles without receiving Congressional Authorization, will he live up to his blustery boasts and support impeachment?

Once again Richard Neustadt’s maxim comes into play “Where you stand is where you sit.” And besides, those threats probably only applied to the Grand Old Party. Or maybe it was just operable for Iran.

22 March 2011

Warped Combat Rock

If Qaddafi has been paying attention to President Barack Obama's ever "evolving" announcements, he must think that he is listening to the Clash's Combat Rock album. 

While the Libyan Dictator did his version of "Rock The Casbah", ordering his fighter jets to gun down his own rebelling people, Obama proclaimed that "It's time for Qaddafi to go" but the United States did nothing. As the Libyan rebels were on the verge of defeat, the United Nations passed a resolution that imposed a No Fly Zone and France, Britain and the US established air dominance over the Libyan skies by threatening to send Qaddafi "straight to hell." The Obama had the temerity to tell Congressional Aides that we were not at war, nothwithstanding firing 165 Cruise Missiles into Libya. Yet Obama insisted that America we were abiding by promises of limited military aims although our ultimate objective was regime change.

Allahpundit at Hot Air labeled the warped war objectives the Mission du Jour. Today there were three switches in the special. The day started by doubling down on the ultimate objective of removing Qaddafi. The thinking evolved later in the day to be a message that America hoped to help "installing a democracy". When there were reports that there were talks to have Qaddafi quietly leave Libya, Obama opined that there may be an opportunity for Qaddafi to "change his approach" and put into place "significant reforms" to the Libyan government. It is questionable if the current objective is intended to give him enough rope. If Qaddafi enjoyed punk rock, he should belt out the hit Clash tune "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" to these discombobulated demarches . But Qaddafi's taste in music seems more oriented toward Mariah Carey and Beyonce, but I doubt that the Colonel is humming "Ring the Alarm".

The fog of war can confuse soldiers in the front lines as well as their commanders. But this seems to be showing a Commander In Chief who is confused and is soldiering through a warped track. It is preferable to have a President who is resolute and makes measured moves. Currently, I'm inclined to think of the Clash's final album "Cut The Crap".

Libya: Leadership That Is Too Little, Too Late, Too Loosey Goosey

credit: The Economist
Over the weekend, the United States went to war in the Maghreb. During the meanwhile, America's Commander in Chief and supposed Leader of the Free World seemingly went on vacation in Rio de Janeiro. President Obama announced America's involvement in a third simultaneous military operations in Muslim lands in a Saturday audio recording. Obama's first live remarks on the Libyan operations were during a pep rally appearance in Rio. Don't blame it on Rio but the lack of leadership and judgment coming from the White House.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who also served as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe for the D-Day Invasion in World War II, once quipped: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." Several weeks ago, I anticipated giving President Obama plaudits for making a hard decision to go against the thrust of his party and act to protect America's vital national interests for unfettered oil production. But Obama dithered and did nothing. During the several weeks of the Libyan rebellion, the United States did not position ships off the coast of Libya. Diplomatic backchannels were cursory and unstable. NATO as a whole is unwilling to take on the Libyan operations. Italy could not be convinced to sponsor American air operations. Eventually, the United Nations gave preliminary support for a No Fly Zone, but Arab League support quickly evaporated along with cooperation with China and the Russian Federation. And in this country, there was no public engagement, national debate or early Congressional briefing.

The timing of this military action is timid and possibly too late. When the rebellion began, firm Superpower preparations might have toppled Qaddafi's regime. Instead, nothing was done until the UN voted for the No Fly Zone, as the Libyan rebellion was on its last stand in Benghazi. Despite the delay in acting, the Navy's 5th Fleet was not positioned to launch air sorties. Instead, the Navy needed to launch 112 cruise missiles at 20 coastal targets to gain air superiority at a cost of over $65 Million in one day.

When President Obama briefed Congress on our war efforts in Libya, the Commander in Chief seemed to think that American participation would be limited and only a matter of hours, if not days. But as Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was a four star General, observed: "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." Our willing European allies, like France and the United Kingdom, took the lead in military maneuvers as they have longstanding connections in Libya and vested interests in keeping the oil flowing. It seems that President Obama planned to start the No Fly Zone and then have America bow out. NATO will not assume the helm for these operations, as France objected allegedly on behalf of the Arab League. It is dubious if other individual allied participants are going to assume the estimated $300 Million a week to maintain the Libyan No Fly Zone. It seems that the United States will have to continue shouldering that burden.

It is consistent with President Obama's weltanshaaung that America should not act as a superpower and we will let other nations take the lead. But in the end, America will still take the blame. On Sunday, British Cruise Missiles targeted Libyan Dictator Qaddafi's compound, reportedly killing one of Qaddafi's sons. While the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom may insist that we had nothing to do with those missiles, inevitably "The Great Satan" will be blamed.

What is the American objective in Libya? When the United Nations authorized the Libyan No-Fly Zone in Resolution 1973 it was intended to promote a ceasefire and "to use all means necessary short of foreign occupation to protect civilians." But Kenneth Pollack from the liberal Brookings Institute, observed that effective No Fly Zones have mission creep that leads to boots on the ground. So much for limited engagement. Initial rhetoric from the United Nations, the Arab League and participating military powers deny that the War is to topple the Qaddafi regime. But on March 3rd 2011, President Barack Hussein Obama announced that "It's time for Qaddafi to go." The White House has reiterated this US policy on Qaddafi regime change even as it insisted that our participation in Libyan military maneuvers is more limited. It seems as muddled as the President's tag line from the State of The Union on "Winning The Future"—WTF.

Then there is the way this War was started. It seems callous for the Commander in Chief to start a War as he is taking a foreign trip without significant accomplishments. The casual way of announcing military maneuvers on a Saturday audio event and making comments at a friendly Rio rally is unprecedented and frankly unpresidential. Congress can cluck about skirting the 1973 War Powers Act. Although that act of Legislative hubris may be unconstitutional, it was a rhetorical cudgel which liberals have used against Republican Commanders-In-Chief, so it ought to be equally applied to Obama. Now that the United States has inserted itself into a Civil War, what is the Obama Doctrine?

We are supposed to be helping civilians in Libya, but this broad definition includes rebel fighters. So we are involved in a civil war and favoring one side but not actually supporting it. On whom are we fecklessly bestowing favor? Aside from overthrowing Qaddafi, what are the objectives of these rebels? The documentary Iranium observes the close relations that Qaddafi has with the Revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran. So this could be a proxy Shia-Sunni skirmish. But do the Libyan rebels have jihadist objectives or ties to al-Qaeda? It would be most unfortunate if we are expending our limited precious capital, our reputations and not to speak of precious American blood for forces that may be arrayed against our interests and even our national existence. Inquiring minds want to know.

The left accused President George W. Bush of hastily hurling the US into War in Iraq, even though there was over a year of debate, UN resolutions and a coalition of the willing. What we have in Libya seems like it is too little, too late and loosey goosey.

Via: Economist

UPDATE 3/22/2011 18:00 EDT Despite the NATO veto by Turkey and French fickleness about a NATO operation on behalf of the Arab League, the Obama Administration may be successful in cobbling together a multi-national military operation to hand off No Fly Zone enforcement.  Reportedly President Obama is cutting short his foreign trip to facilitate these objective.

Rethink Telephony Oligopoly

On Sunday, news broke that Southwestern Bell Corporation SBC Communications Cingular  AT&T has launched a $39 Billion bid to buy T-Mobile USA from Deutsche Telekom. If the deal goes through, it will consolidate America's 4th largest cellular carrier with nation's 2nd largest wireless provider thereby creating the largest cellular carrier in America. The company originally was a Baby Bell which thrived through acquisitions. SBC bought sibling Baby Bell Ameritech in 1999, then it gobbled up the shell of  AT&T in 2005 and rechristening itself with MaBell's formal name. In 2007, AT&T bought Baby Bell Bell South for $86 Billion in 2006.

In the abstract, this deal makes sense as both AT&T and T-Mobile USA use GSM providers, which makes network consolidation easier, but T-Mobile subscribers with 3G handsets eventually would have to get new phones.  AT&T significantly benefited from a 3 ½ year exclusive relationship with Apple on selling I-Phones, which gave AT&T at least additional 2.5 Million smartphone subscribers . But now that Verizon can sell I-phones for their network, it is estimated that 25% of AT&T I-Phone users will switch to the perceived better networks of Verizon Wireless. While AT&T is still flush with I-Phone profit cash, it can buy T-Mobile, giving it more subscribers and opportunities to sell the much desired I-phones. Strategically, AT&T pre-emptive strike for T-Mobile makes it difficult for Verizon to grow through acquisition of Sprint. And AT&T's juicy offer puts Sprint's nascent bid for AT&T on the bottom of the decision pile.

Even though Deutsche Telekom stockholders may be happy with retaining T-Mobile International, getting $25 Billion in cash, about $13 Billion in stock (an 8% controlling interest in AT&T) and a seat on the AT&T Board of Directors, the battle is to sell this M&A to Federal regulators. Robert Liton, a Clinton Administration anti-trust attorney, observed that it will be an uphill battle to convince regulators that the merger will not reduce competition. This will be a big battle as there is industry opposition, public interest opposition and concerns from regulators and legislators about the anti-trust issues.

Lately, the Obama Administration has been making overtures that it is business friendly as the clock ticks towards 2012. The Obama Administration has not opposed any major mergers, but aside from the crony capitalism with Chrysler-Fiat and the Comcast-Universal merger, the economy has not been ripe for large private sector acquisitions.

The two talking points that AT&T is initially pushing in favor of the merger are that it will allow for increased access to wireless internet connectivity and wrapping the deal in the Stars and Stripes. By merging with T-Mobile, AT&T will be able to provide high speed wireless to 95% of America, furthering an Obama Administration objective to improve connectivity to rural America. Perhaps AT&T is more interested in T-Mobile's cell towers than its customers. The other tact is to highlight the fact that T-Mobile would be rescued from foreign ownership by AT&T.

Economic nationalism arguments might not carry the cache that it used to in the Age of Obama. After all, the Obama Administration facilitated a sweetheart deal with Italian Fiat Auto to carve up Chrysler's bones with the UAW and the largess of the American taxpayers. Then there is the recent news of President Obama blessing Petrobras doing deep-sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

If anti-trust issues actually matter, the FCC's rationales for rejecting the Echostar (Dish Network)-Direct TV merger in 2002. While the FCC's commissioners may have changed, the soundness of their arguments remains. Commissioner Powell fretted about replacing a vibrant competitive market with a regulated monopoly that could be as best a duopoly in some areas. Other commissioners worried that decreased competition would harm consumers by raising prices and decreasing innovation and quality of service.

The oligarchy issue is problematic. While the big four wireless carriers dominate 80% of the US market, this proposed merger would consolidate 70% of the market in the big two (merged AT&T and Verizon). To smooth over consumers' ruffled feathers, expect the FCC to require open access on the expanded wireless network and that AT&T sacrifice some bandwidth in certain markets for increased competition. Can you hear me now?

There are a few political aspects that could both sway and complicate the proposed AT&T merger. Last year, AT&T spent over $15 Million in Between-The-Beltway lobbying expenses which is the 8th highest corporate total. William Daley, now President Obama's Chief of Staff, was SBC's former president. And according to the Center for Responsive Politics, AT&T's PACs have contributed over $46 Million during the past two decades, which is more than any other company. So there is some compelling corporate pressure on politicians to "bless" this merger. It may be significant that AT&T workers are members of the Communication Workers of America while T-Mobile's employees are non-unionized so there may be a background impetus for labor to expand its membership. But the FCC is an independent agency of the Federal Government and is not subject to political pressures and forays, right?

Congress has an oversight role for mergers. Both House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX 21st) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI 6th) have indicated that Congress will scrutinize this proposed merger. However, Upton's initial statement of the AT&T deal linked it with examining the FCC review. The FCC caused considerable controversy when it proffered net neutrality regulations on the internet despite Federal Court rulings which denied that power grab. Moreover, a seat on the FCC will need to be filled by the Obama Administration before any AT&T merger is finalized so political wonks will be engaged about this proposed merger and it will have some political consequences.

Consumers tend to have a love/hate relationship with their cellphones. They seem to love the advantages of ubiquitous instantaneous communications and the strong suit of their carrier, such as coverage (Verizon) technology (previously AT&T for the I-Phone) or deals (T-Mobile and Sprint). But consumers also hate the indifferent customer service, the dropped calls, the expensive lock in contracts, limitations in usage (bandwidth governing, capped "unlimited data plans") and the increasingly expensive monthly bills. It is prudent to let more details emerge when deciding proper telephony public policy, but this proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger may have consumers rethinking oligopolies.

Via: Knoxvillebiz     Via: Betanews

21 March 2011

By Hook Or By Court

The passage of changes in Wisconsin Public Union's abilities to use Collective Bargaining on non-salary issues remains controversial. Fourteen Democrat State Senators fled Wisconsin for several weeks to thwart the legislative process of the Republican majority in passing the budgetary changes. To show their syndical solidarity, thousands of Union led protestors rallied outside of the Capitol while the Democrat fleebaggers were FIBbers. Hundreds of enthusiastic, anarchistic opposition forces occupied the Capitol Rotunda causing $7.5 Million in damage. Yet Union sympathizers proudly proclaim about these actions "This is what democracy looks like" in our Federalist REPUBLIC.

After Wisconsin Republicans decided to separate fiscal components from the Collective Bargaining changes, the legislation was passed on an 18-1 vote. The absentee Democrat legislators wailed the talking point that passage was "an affront to democracy" Kind of ironic, isn't it? Union supporters have vowed to use the courts and the recall process to remedy their legislative loss. Big blowhard socialist cineaste Michael Moore declared "This is war". Unfortunately, some liberal partisans seem to have taken cartoonish call to arms war admonition literally

Ann Althouse, a Madison law professor who revels in proper federalism, received a special note on her blog:

WE WILL FUCK YOU UP. We will throw our baseballs in your lawn, you cranky old pieces of shit, and then we will come get them back. What are you gonna do? Shootus? Get Wausau Tea Patriots to form an ad hoc militia on your front lawn? That would be fucking HILAROUS to us. You could get to know the assholes on your side in realfucking life instead of sponging off the civil society we provide for you every single day you draw breath.

Should we resort to the saw "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me"? Well, State Senator Dan Kapanke (R-WI 32 La Crosse) has suffered threats, broken windshield along with a persistent thug who twice spread nails on Kapanke's driveway. It's not just legislators who are targeted by these loser thugs. A bank was targeted for supporting Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI). The tagger was bold enough to declare that "Unions are forever" so it should not be blamed on rowdy youths.

A more civilized way to redress Public Sector Union grievances is to mount recall efforts. But union thugs do not fight fair and have been caught tearing up Republican recall petitions. Much to the chagrin of union loyalists, Gov. Walker can not be recalled until he has served a year in office. Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald intimated coordination between the White House and Wisconsin Labor activists to assist in recall efforts. While that seems legally questionable, it seems slightly more businesslike than being Tourist in Chief in Rio de Janeiro while "leading" the United States into war in the Maghreb. 

Gov. Walker had to sign the Collective Bargaining bill in a private ceremony before the public signing as localities were rushing to ink deals that favored the Public Sector employees before the law took effect. But why rush when WI Secretary of State Doug La Follette (D-WI) decided to drag his feet and not publish the bill for two weeks, which was his right.

The final component of this by hook or by crook strategy is to use the court system. The thin reed which Union sympathizers are holding their hopes is on the notice for the vote. Wisconsin state Open Meeting Laws generally require 24 hours notice, but in special circumstances allow. the legislators to give as little as two hours notice. The non-partisan legislative parliamentarian approved the notice so the State Senate voted, the Assembly followed suit and the Governor signed the legislation.

Yet a Dane Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi deigned that the Governor's signing may be invalid because of the lack of proper notice. Of course, the law has not even take effect, but Sumi ruled against it. Sumi also recently refused to order Madison teachers back to work as they "suffered from" blue flu while protesting at the Capitol for their generous benefits package courtesy of the Wisconsin taxpayers. Unfortunately, according to State Bar, Wisconsin's Judicial Recusal rules are amongst the worst in the country, since judges do not need to excuse themselves "soley" because of political contributions or parties independent expenditures. So the fact that Sumi's son is a political operative who is an AFL-CIO field operative and also working for SEIU may not be sufficient to cause recusal. Perhaps the fact that Sumi made a preliminary injunction on important public policy and then went on vacation for a few weeks might merit her removal. Maybe Sumi went to Rio.

Despite my preliminary impression is that this political hack opinion is dodgy but it may follow the anything goes judicial standards of the day. Issuing preliminary injunctions against laws that have not been implemented seems incredulous, but the same phenomenon occurred when a Federal Circuit Court judge prevented Oklahoma's constitutional referendum against Sharia law from being implemented. Then there was the California Federal Circuit Court judge who decided that the 18 year old Congressional Law for the Military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was unconstitutional and the Obama Administration immediately acquiesced. As the Obama Administration has shown with DOMA and federal border enforcement, laws do not matter if the Administrative and Judicial Branches have actors who are not keen on applying them.

Although the case materials are not readily available, there are several strong challenges to Judge Sumi's kangaroo court preliminary injunction against the Collective Bargaining changes. Firstly, it is fascinating that a Circuit Court judge can overrule the implementation of the will of the Legislative and Executive branches of a state government. After implementation of the legislation, real harm is suffered, a court could rule on a legal matter and its constitutionality, but not before. Secondly, there is the fact that the non-partisan Legislative Parliamentarian approved the two hour window. Thirdly, there is the question of whether the Wisconsin Open Meeting laws strictly applied to legislative proceedings and if the exigency provisions are applicable. Lastly, there is the niggling notion that the separation of powers question. Namely, can Circuit Court Judge Sumi tell the Legislative Branch how they must proceed, or does a legislative branch set their own internal rules?

Via: HotAir  Via: SouthCapitolStreet   Via: Breitbart.tv  Via: Red State

UPDATE 3/22--  I found this detailed priliminary legal analysis on Judge Sumi's ruling from Prof. Rick Esenberg of Marquette University Law.  This piece confirmed a few of my suspicions with attaching the relevant Wisconsin laws to them. Eseberg must be commended this for composing this excellent analysis while Marquette was playing in the 2nd Round of March Madness

18 March 2011

NYT Paygo No Go

Today I received an e-mail from  an Old Grey Lady, otherwise known as The New York Times, proclaiming an important announcement.  It was just the 42nd Street fixture again implementing some form of Paywall.  I trust that the Old Grey Lady’s attempts to raise revenue  will be as effective as the paygo promises made during the era of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 8th).

Since the advent of the internet, there have been few media outlets that have implemented successful subscription models.  The Wall Street Journal charges to see their online news content, and the WSJ has over 400,000 subscribers.  Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London implemented a paywall last July which reduced web from 21 million hits to 2 million but managed to retain 100,000 web subscribers along with 100,000 who have access due to their regular subscriptions.

Amongst new media, Rush Limbaugh was amongst the first broadcasters to offer a premium service Rush 24/7 which offers podcasts, watching the radio show on a “Ditto cast”, a “stack of stuff” and a newsletter.  It is estimated that Rush 24/7 may be a $5 Million a year revenue stream.  Many other conservative broadcasters have followed suit.  So much so, Glenn Beck’s Extreme Insider is a nascent network, having a “4th Hour” after-the-show show, specials, Glenn Beck University and another one hour show hosted by S.E. Cupp.  This cyber success and the death of the dead tree addition are major motivators for the New York Times to again try a digital subscription effort.

In 2005, the New York Times put up a paywall for their esteemed Columnists like Maureen Dowd.  Well, that did not work out so well and the subscription model for the Pinch Sulzberger’s bottom line was dropped in 2007.   The Times also has charged for their digital archives. Now the New York Times will try a metered model, which will allow for a score free of articles a month, and five Google references a day before being prompted for a $15 a month subscription.  This seems targeted for I-Pad and smart phone readers.  It is unclear how Kindle subscriptions will be effected, but Kindle readers have carped that their edition does not include all of the articles.

The reticence from e-book readers suggests the problem that news consumers want to feel like they are getting something for their money.   The Wall Street Journal offers outstanding financial news that is not readily replicated elsewhere and appeals to a niche national audience.  But the WSJ also operates a free Opinionjournal.com website which shares the editorial page opinions.  The Rush 24/7 and Glenn Beck Extreme Insider gains allegiance not only from consumer identification with the broadcaster but because the subscriptions offer material not available elsewhere and consumption on the consumers own terms (e.g. podcasts, archives).

The New York Times has several challenges in charging for their subscriptions.  Ironically, the ubiquity of the NYT as a news source in the Lamestream Broadcast newsrooms makes it less likely that casual new consumers will subscribe to delve into the details.  Is this digital subscription offering something new or extra?
While the Old Grey Lady’s liberal news sensibility may appeal to Manhattanites and the Eastern Seaboard Elites, will this be enough to build a digital subscription base?  After the 2002 campaign by the New York Times to admit women into Augusta National with a steady stream of articles, the NYT’s started to resemble the caricature of just being a liberal organ grinder.  The NYT lost further credibility after the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal.  This perception of partisanship and fecklessness was reinforced with their scant and skewed coverage of the Tea Party and Restoring Honor rallies.

The New York Times cultivated an image of through their motto of containing “All the News that Fit to Print.”  A quarter century ago, I remember regularly going to my Journalism School’s reading room to thoroughly read one of the few newpapers of record. Now, the proliferation of news sources, the unmasking of liberal Lamestream Media news bias and the advent of alternative media no longer makes the New York Times required reading.

Maybe I can not appreciate the perceived value of a NYT digital subscription as it reporting is on the other side of the ideological aisle.  But I still do not think that there are sufficient subscribers at the Alphabet News Networks, Tweed types trapped in ivory towers and Manhattanites to make this metered model be a steady income stream.

New source subscription schemes only seem to work if they offer added value for money and/or subscribers identify with their news source.  The WSJ offers information which is unique amongst publications.  Rush 24/7 and Beck’s Extreme Insider offer significant extra content and services and subscribers are validated by their membership.  I am dubious that the NYT’s digital subscription will give that much more or have the cache that the aforementioned memberships have.  It strikes me that a NYT digital subscription will be a convenience tax for loyal readers.

While I think that it is unlikely that the CPB governmental largess will actually be liquidated by Congress in this fiscal year, I think that NPR has more of a potential revenue stream from a subscription model than does the NYT.

The success of the NYT’s subscription model will become apparent after it is implemented on March 28th.

17 March 2011

Washington’s Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior

In the wake of the assassination attempt of Rep. Gabriel Giffords (D-AZ 8th), there has been an ersatz effort to instill civility in public discourse.  From the establishment of the National Institute for Civil Discourse to last week’s White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, which gathered several Cabinet Secretaries along with the First Couple to tackle civility amongst schoolchildren.

Being a political animal living between-the-beltways favorite contact sport is politics, I expect to have intense exchanges with ideas with whom I differ. The District of Calamity (sic) is one of the most partisan places anywhere, so civility is crucial. While I do not aspire for superficial consensus, I expect clarity in a civil conversation.  Alas, such social graces are not always readily on display.

I recall having conversations with couple of professional collogues who had clear liberal leanings who thought nothing about labeling conservative community organizers as “Teabaggers”.  After the invective is invoked a few times, I have to interrupt their venomous vituperations by asking, “Do you realize the crude sexual slur that you are invoking?”  The coprophagic smile is a tell tale sign that the interlocultors think that they have cleverly scored points with their intentional insult. Such hedonistic hubris has promoted me to say: "While I enjoy chatting about current events and it’s fine if we disagree, I hope that we can do it without being disagreeable.”  This elicits a nod for its reasonableness.  So I continue:

What if I referred to the 42nd President–Bill Jefferson Clinton–as B.J. Clinton?  It’s funny true enough and  kind of apt, but it does not allow for an exchange of ideas. OK, can I call Democrats by their mascot–the jackass?  Once again, humorous and some semblance of truth but it seems like those are kind of like fighting words for nothing of significance.

Surprisingly, that rhetorical tactic has pierced the veil of incivility, albeit in environments which require collegiality in close quarters.

But the union inspired thuggery and incivility that has been on display in the Wisconsin State Capitol over the last few weeks has started to been seen between-the-beltways.  Yesterday, Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) was trapped inside of a fundraiser in Washington when a couple of thousand union protestors “spontaneously” shut down rush hour traffic to protest and block the building lobby.  Such contentious hardball tactics recently received a bureaucratic blessing from the National Labor Relations Board in a decision over a 2008 workplace representation election at MasTec DirecTV.  In the age of Obama, what constitutes a threat of violence in a workplace is to be determined by a complex set of criteria that requires massive administrative litigation before the determination is made.  Effectively, the NLRB encouraged Unions to go “Break a leg” when muscling for union organizing elections.

With this in mind, I came across some personal principles from George Washington.  Recent biographies which humanized our first President also reminded us that Washington had quite a temper which learned to govern.  At the age of sixteen, Washington transcribed “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” for his Jesuit instructors. These maxims helped morally mold the man throughout his military, diplomatic and public policy career. Those platitudes are in part:

  • Let your countenance be pleasant, but in serious matters somewhat grave.
  • Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy.
  • In writing or speaking, give to every person his due title according to his degree and the custom of the place.
  • When a man does all he can, though it succeeds not well, blame not him that did it.
  • Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.
  • Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for 'tis better to be alone than in bad company.
  • Let your conversation be without malice or envy...And in all causes of passion admit reason to govern.
  • Undertake not what you cannot perform, but be careful to keep your promise.
  • When you speak of God and his attributes, let it be seriously and with reverence. Honor and obey your natural parents although they be poor.
  • Let your recreations be manful, not sinful.
  • Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

These maxims helped morally mold Washington throughout his military, diplomatic and public policy career. There is a famous instance of William  Payne who physically assaulted George Washington during a political argument and got away with it.  Even though Washington was a military commander, he did not seek retribution.  Washington requested a meeting with Payne the next day when Washington apologized for losing his temper in an unprotected moment and expressed the hope that they could still be friends.  But do not mistake Washington as a polite pushover.  Even when negotiating the American defeat in the Battle of New York of 1776, Washington refused the first two communiques from British Admiral Howe as Washington was respectively addressed as a General (and giving tacit recognition to the American opposition).

As President Washington extolled in his farewell address, “Observe good faith and justice towards all. Cultivate peace and harmony with all.”   Washington’s Rules of Civil Discourse and Decent Behavior should be better heeded amongst the body politic as we work through trying public policy disputes without bullying or acting like political hooligans.

16 March 2011

Eminent Domain Abuse In The Garden State

One of my favorite computer pastimes is playing Sim City, an addictive city-building simulation game which has scenarios that can strive to react to nuclear plant meltdowns to spur economic development.  As a cyber dictator, a Sim City mayor need not fret about eminent domain or the circumstances of displacing the sim citizens.

Mount Holly, New Jersey is a modest bedroom community of 11,700 residents on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  There has been an eight year effort by the Township to facilitate the replacement of 350 1950s row-homes on 25 acres in Mount Holly Gardens in favor of a plan for the “Villages of Parker’s Mill” development by the Keating Urban Partners with 292 new town homes, 228 apartments and 54,000 sf of commercial space.

There are only 84 row-home owners left in Mount Holly Gardens, who are mostly long time Black and Latino residents who are retired and on fixed incomes.  The Township has tried to strong arm the remaining residents of the closely knit Mount Holly Gardens community by threatening Eminent Domain on their properties, offering them settlements of between $35,000 to $49,000, which is about half of the cost of similar housing nearby.

Americans used to revel in the notion that a man’s home was his castle, until 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court redefined the employment of Eminent Domain.  In Kelo v. City of New London (CT), the High Court held in 5 to 4 ruling that the government can use economic growth as a permissible public use rationale for invoking the 5th Amendment Takings clause.  Previously, public use involved takings that benefited the whole public like bridges, roads and maybe sports stadia, not crony capitalists or governmental coffers. Susette Kelo was a homeowner who was evicted from her property by eminent domain as part of a comprehensive redevelopment plan spearheaded by Pfizer which promised  3,169 new jobs and $1.2 million a year in tax revenues. Ironically, after Kelo was ousted from beloved property, the redeveloper was unable to secure financing and the “blighted” area became vacant.

In the wake of the public backlash against the Supreme Court’s holding, many states amended their eminent domain laws. Apparently not the case under the blue blooded regime under ex-Gov. John Corzine (D-NJ), but maybe there were not sufficient union interests to cover.

It is sad to see poor elderly minority property owners get taken advantage of by the strong hand of the government in favor of crony capitalism.  But the economic cost benefit basis of this redevelopment is questionable.

  • Mt. Holly Township has already spent $8.1 million in debt service since 2000 for the proposed “Villages at Parker’s Mill” project 
  • The Township has spent $17 Million for purchasing, demolishing, redeveloping and associated legal costs. 
  • The redevelopment project may increase schoolchildren by three fold, thereby increasing education costs by $1.4 million per annum.
  • The Reading Associates estimates that the development will cost Mt. Holly over $341,000 a year.

Those are hair curling sunken costs and anticipated ancillary expenses for a modest community to carry in support of a long stalled redevelopment project.

The national economic downturn also have impacted the Mt. Holly redevelopment project.  Townhomes are estimated to be worth 30% less than originally predicted (during the housing bubble) and rentals are thought to bring in 50% less an expected.  Instead of being a windfall, the redevelopment project may cost Mt. Holly $1 Million a year.  But at least it brings some shiny new buildings and scatters a pocket of vulnerable long time property owners.

As Mt. Holly soon will be filing eminent domain proceedings against hold out home owners.  But the US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals is still considering the case.  While the Kelo holding bristles against a homeowner’s proprieties, it allows local governments to pick winners and losers when issuing eminent domain.  But those decisions must be based on economic growth.  May justice consider the real economic facts and not just based on developers’ dreams of hope and change.

15 March 2011

The True Costs of Gerrymandering

Representative Corrine Brown (D-FL 3rd) is a Jacksonville based Congresswoman who has represented parts of Alachua, Clay, Duval, Lake, Marion, Orange, Putnam, Seminole, and Volusia counties since 1993.  This gerrymandered district was drawn to ensure minority representation in Florida by linking demographic pockets in Jacksonville, Gainesville, the outskirts of Orlando down to Sanford.  The district has one instance where the boundaries look as wide as a highway.

Aside from being a ten term incumbent, Rep. Corrine Brown is in a safe D+18 district.  Yet her campaign coffers are virtually barren with a balance of $417.  According to Brown's  2010 expenditure report, she spent $35,977 in hotel bills,  $34,192 for catering, $32,242 for paid media, $24,266 for media consulting, $35,549 for fund raising consultants and $54,730 of direct mail publicity. The fund raising, media consulting and direct mail costs seem like payola and expenses for the insider campaign machinery.  Some might interpret the catering and hospitality costs as living large while on the campaign hustings.  But spending so much on “incidental” expenses on the campaign trail points to the perils of having an extremely gerrymandered district.

While it is unlikely to need to travel from stem to stern in the 3rd Congressional district in a day, it spans over 142 miles by surface roads.  The district is in the major media markets of Orlando and Jacksonville along with Gainesville. This safe seat can be quite a costly district to defend.  More importantly, it serves as a significant structural barrier for campaign challengers.  The latter consequence of gerrymandering explains why Rep. Corrine Brown is fighting to challenge Amendment 6.

Florida voters decided during the 2010 general elections to enact a couple of measures to try to remove politics from the redistricting process.  The newly drawn districts required legislative districts be compact, reasonable, and follow city, county, and geographic boundaries. The initiatives were designed to  prevent the district's shapes from being drawn to favor a particular race, language, incumbent politician, or party affiliation.  Amendment 5 applied to state legislative boundaries and Amendment 6 applied to Florida’s federal congressional redistricting.

Critics of the redistricting amendments observed that organizations tied to George Soros had contributed $7 Million to support passage of the amendments.   Amendment opponents opined that the initiatives will result in court cases that will eventually result in judges drawing the districts.  If it helps orient a novice to which way the wind blows, former Florida Gov. “Good Time” Charlie Crist favored passage of the ballot initiatives.  In the end, an electorate which was weary of partisan politics and grotesque gerrymandering passed both propositions by a resounding  63% to 37% margin.

Rep. Corrine Brown is challenging Amendment 6 in court, joined in spirit by former Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL 25th) who had represented a geographically large district that seemed carved out to be R +5.  Rep. Brown is going against her party and unions in arguing that Amendment 6's impetus to draw compact districts that do not favor political parties would not protect the “minority access” districts, of which she derives great benefit.

Other states are trying to implement non-partisan redistricting with questionable results.  Virginia’s Independent Commission on Redistricting presented a couple of purely partisan proposals drawn by ivory tower academics which palpably punished Republicans in a Commonwealth that has been strongly trending red in the last few elections.   California also just passed a ballot initiative to steer redistricting to consider a “community of interests” to ensure effective and fair representation.

Fortunately, the so called “bipartisan” Redistricting Commission’s report was only advisory.  Ballot initiatives will lead to extended lawfare.  It seems likely that unelected “Men In Black” will eventually draw the districts.

If one thinks that the Judicial branch can create legislative districts in an innocuous and efficient manner should consider the case of Texas.  After the 1990 census, Texas gained three seats in Congress.  But litigation prevented the permanent application of the Census results when redistricting.  The eventual answer was to draw the districts using the old 1980 census data, in which Democrats had signficantly more proportional strength than they had in the 1990s. So the Democrats gained more power through lawfare and such incumbents had substantial advantages against challengers for the next few election cycles.

Republicans had been chastened by judicial interference in implementing the Voting Rights Act when redistricting, so the Grand Old Party embraced cynically embraced minority access districts by applying a packing strategy.  Effectively, the GOP endorsed creating minority districts that had solid minority majorities creating safe districts to create more competitive districts elsewhere, thereby improving their lot elsewhere.  Packing is nothing new, but it was taken to a whole new level of precision through the power of computers in applied statistical demographics.  That can lead to districts that are co-joined by narrow Interstate highways.

Ever since the enactment of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the body politic has been minimizing the role of state legislators in our application of Federalism.  The Judicial Branch stepped in to enforce Voting Rights Act and prevent any potential disenfranchisement.  The solution to has been to get pre-clearance of any changes through the federal government, which can be as banal as switching polling place locations to approval of redistricting.  

The advent of the Tea Party has awakened the great silent majority who want good governance and ideally less partisanship when spending our tax dollars.  Such non-political types tend to recoil at the messiness of politics and governing.

 Even though politics is my favorite contact sport, it is understandable that most people do not want to dwell on the minutia and recoil from adversarial debate.  It calls to mind the quote attributed to Otto von Bismark “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”  But buying your meat prepackaged in a grocery store does not mean that it is not butchered.

 As messy as it is, it is preferable to have elected officials accountable for their actions than to have political solutions imposed by the Judiciary or supposed non-partisan Commissions who apply their skewed predilections covertly or without consequence.

14 March 2011

Making a Mockery of Non-Partisan Redistricting

In compliance with the US Constitution, there is a decennial census to determine apportionment of Congressional representatives.   The re-apportionment process often becomes partisan and victors receive the spoils, even if the gerrymandered districts look like surreal ink spots. Computers have allowed psephologists to create precise yet grotesquely drawn districts that protect most incumbents and favors a dominant majority party in a state.  Lawfare can thwart Republican efforts to assert their strength in redistricting, as was evidence during the 1990 apportionment.

There has been a trend lately to establish non-partisan commissions to recommend redistricting plans.  This appeals to many independents who seek good governance through a supposed non-partisan process.  In fact, California voters approved Proposition 20--a Fair Districting initiative, and the California peoples' will may even be respected by the Judicial Branch.

In the abstract, a non-partisan redistricting process sounds wonderful.  But the devil is in the details.  And academic insiders are betting that the public will not pay attention to the details this far out from November 2012. Witness what went on in Virginia.

National Review  reports that a draft plan by George Mason University Professor Michael McDonald on behalf of the supposedly “Bipartisan” Advisory Commission on Redistricting recommended carving out Republican Majority Leader Representative Eric Cantor’s (R-VA 7th) district.  That is strange, as Virginia will not be losing any members due to redistricting. Amongst the thousands of plans to choose from, the Commission’s backup plan drew out long time Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA 10th), Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA 4th) and newcomer Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-VA 9th) who defeated long time incumbent Rick Boucher (D-VA 9th).  These suggestions are coming in the wake of an 18% landslide victory of Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009 and the defeat of 3 Virginia Democrat during the 2010 cycle.

Even mere mortals do not need the Professor Larry Sabato’s crystal ball to know how skewed are those suggestions.  But in case there was any doubt about the partisan hack trick, Professor McDonald’s first Powerpoint side thanked the ├╝ber left wing Brennan Center for Justice for its assistance.  The Brennen Center pushed the propaganda that voter fraud is a myth and that the major motivation of Voter ID checks is to suppress the minority vote.

Because the Virginia Assembly majorities are split between the two chambers so neither party is likely to get exactly what they want.  Analysis from the Washington Post expects that due to population shifts to Northern Virginia, Rep. Gerry Connelly (D-VA 11th) who won by less than 1000 votes in 2010 and Rep. Wolf will be drawn into safer districts.

Since this independent Redistricting Commission is only advisory, it would be wise for Gov. McDonnell to put the skewed Commission’s plans into the circular file and let the General Assembly duke it out while in Special Session to decide redistricting.

May this escapade be a lesson to those who yearn for less partisanship in politics that faceless functionaries and bureaucrats do not necessarily act for good governance reasons act as partisan without electoral consequences. We live in a democratic Republic where we hold our representatives responsible for their actions not a bureaucracy manipulated by partisan jackasses.

H/T: National Review
H/T: Washington Post

Not Yet Raising Kaine

Ever since freshman Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) announced that he was not seeking a second term, there has been fevered speculation that former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D-VA) would run to keep the seat blue.

Considering the razor thin margin that Webb won his 2006 election and Gov. Bob McDonnell’s impressive 18% victory in 2009, holding the seat will be difficult and costly for Democrats in a likely rematch against former Senator George Allen (R-VA).   Other rumored Democrat candidates would be defeated freshman Congressman Tom Periello (D-VA 5th) and long time Representative Boucher (D-VA 9th) who lost in the 2010 Tea Party Tsunami.

Kaine is well position as the head of the Democrat National Committee so he has probably built up enough political chits to conduct a tough fought campaign.  But Kaine is a young politician who was reportedly on a short list to be Vice President in the 2008 cycle, so it does not burnish your national credentials if you lost your Congressional race and then run for higher office.

About a month ago, President Obama called Kaine to encourage him to run for the Senate seat.  Kaine was said to be reconsidering his initial reluctance to run but insisted that he needed more time to decide. Today, Kaine spoke before some University of Richmond Law students and indicated that he was “likely” to run for Senate, but Kaine stopped short of declaring his candidacy.

Kaine’s favorable remarks towards running for Senate sent the Twitter-verse ablaze.  DNC spokesman tried to walk back misinterpretations of Kaine’s statements to deny that he was running but merely confirming that he was likely to run.  Sure that is plausible but it was a probably deference with a nod and a wink.   The DNC will need to find another leader, there are legal consequences to becoming a candidate.  Moreover, most candidates want a flasher declaration of candidacy than a Law School Q & A session.

Kaine’s spokesman insisted that he will not announce anything this week, including at a dinner honoring his friend ex-Rep. Boucher.   But it looks increasingly like 2012 will have a race between former Gov. Kaine and former Gov. Allen, which Roll Call deems a toss up.

Slow Walking WI Collective Bargaining Changes

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) achieved his objective of saving state worker jobs by changing collective bargaining over non-salary issues. This legislative victory was achieved only after several weeks of fleebagging by Democrat State Senators, a prolonged union mob occupation of the State Capitol and after union supporters physically threatening Republican State Senators.

Gov. Walker promised to sign the legislation “as quickly as he can legally” after it passed the Wisconsin State Assembly on a 52-42 vote.   In fact, Gov. Walker accelerated his approval before the official signing ceremony as there were reports that local governments were rushing to approve agreements under the old collective bargaining regime.  But Gov. Walker’s Executive expeditiousness is still not quick enough.

Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette (D-WI) is deliberately progressing slowly on publishing the bill, thereby making it law.  Even though La Follette has possession of the legislation, he is not going to publish it until March 25th. Although one lawsuit to block implementation of these changes in state collective bargaining rules with state employees has failed, this should give the union opposition a few more kicks at the cat to find a sympathetic judge and succeed in lawfare Moreover, it gives municipalities even more time to finalize new contracts that circumnavigate the pension changes.

 Presumably, La Follette will claim that he is living up to his motto on website which maintains "I believe my most important job is being there when you need help. As a third generation scion of Progressive gadfly “Fighting Bob” La Follette Sr. (R-WI), Doug La Follette has managed to virtually be Secretary of State for life.  Doug LaFollette has held the job consecutively since 1982, although he had a close 4% margin in the November 2010 election.

It’s funny how many Democrat Secretaries of State will rush to certify election results when one of their confreres win, but will drag their feet with the opposition is victorious, most recently demonstrated with the Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) special election certification, who were eventually shamed into certifying speedily.  Partisans were offended when then Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris did not bend the rules and followed the letter of the law when certifying the 2000 Florida election results.

The governing process is ordinarily exasperating enough.  The fleebagging tactic that Wisconsin Democrats followed only compounded the difficult choices.  While I feel that La Follette is playing politics, at least the time frame is within his legal discretion.  I just hope that Doug La Follette’s tortoise pace of certification is not just another opposition tactic to never surrender.

Another Obama Environmental Mulligan

I was amazed to hear the details of President Obama’s schedule this weekend.  America’s friend and Asian ally Japan is in a cascade of catastrophes that started with a powerful earthquake that generated a killer tsunami and is culminating in multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns.  As this nightmare news is happening in real time, what is on President Obama’s schedule: a day of golf followed by a light-hearted appearance at the annual Press Gridiron Club dinner.

It is easy to conjure up the facile excuses that the White House will have for Obama’s casual schedule.  Obama had already offered a statement of consolation for the people of Japan during his Friday press appearance. There was nothing that he could do in the Oval Office  that he could not do on the links.  A President needs some recreation to work off the pressure of being the leader of the free world. And this was the first time that President Obama had deigned to grace the Gridiron Club with his presence.

Be that as it may, it is horrible optics when there is an unfurling environmental catastrophe for the President to be spotted on the links. When President George W. Bush accepted his obligation of being a wartime President, he gave up golfing.   During his first year in office, President Obama golfed 32 times, which was more than his predecessor did two four year terms.

ABC News noted this weekend that President Obama could not wait for spring as he golfed for the second weekend in a row.  The reporter noted that these trips were not “work on your swing” trips–this is 18 hole expeditions.  No wonder why TOTUS joked at the Gridiron Club “I’m not spending time on the golf course. I’m investing time in the golf course”.  Funny but also an element of truth.

During the 2008 Presidential Campaign, Obama was obsessed about optics.  So much so, that Obama’s Acceptance Speech at Denver’s Mile High Stadium had a background of Styrofoam Greek pillars to appear Olympian.  This attention to optics is lacking while governing in Washington.  While we think of Nero fiddling while Rome burned, it is easy to think of Obama golfing while there are environmental crises.

When hearing President Obama’s leisurely links visit as Japan was on the brink, I thought of Politizoid’s parody “Same As It Ever Was”:

The reoccurring kaleidoscope image of President Obama dressed in traditional golf wear as the world is collapsing around him really resonates.  President Obama went golfing at least nine times while the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill was uncontained.  If that was not bad enough, President Obama declared that the Gulf Oil Spill was the equivalent of 9/11 and then he went out golfing for four hours.

Less than a year later, there is another grave environmental crisis.  Even though it was halfway around the globe, the United States has significant assets and interests in Japan.  This was an opportunity for President Obama to have a mulligan for his muddied response to Deepwater Horizon.

The Leader of the Free World should take a more active role than offer perfunctory sympathetic pap at a press conference and then have a weekend of leisure.  Maybe more things are being done behind the scenes, but images of meeting with National Security advisors are squeezed out by reports of the Presidential fun calendar.  It did not help that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that US assets had delivered “some really important coolant” to a Japanese nuclear power plant, but that it did not actually happen.

It seems as Japanese nuclear reactors risk are melting down, President Obama is taking another mulligan on environmental crisis leadership.

Same as it ever was.

13 March 2011

Bridge Over Trading Water

Being a news junkie who is not reliant on National Peoples’ Radio (sic) for information, it is crucial to develop selective listening to tune out commercials and Charlie Sheen’s shenanigans. But the other evening, I heard an advocacy ad which made me prick up my ears.  There was a campaign style ad run during Greta Van Susteren’s FNC show opposing the proposed Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC). The version of the ad which I saw urged viewers to call Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI) to oppose the project.

Strange to see a regional advocacy ad on a national cable channel.  Since I was watching on satellite television, it was not an ad just intended to coruscate Between-the-Beltways.  It piqued my interest to learn about the public policy polemic and appreciate how and why politics needs to be played in this day and age.

The trading relationship between American and Canadian is the closest and most extensive in the world.  In 2009, US-Canadian trade was about $593 Billion. In Michigan alone, that bi-lateral trading relationship is valued at over $43 Billion, with at least $6 Billion within the penumbra of the Blue Oval.  Bilateral trade may have increased since NAFTA in 1989.  But there was 1965 Auto Pact fostered close Canadian-American bilateral trade.

A combination of geography and economics makes the Detroit area a lynchpin for this trade relationship.  Michigan and southern Ontario are industrially oriented, based in the automotive industry.  The Ambassador Bridge, a four lane Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styled suspension bridge, was privately erecting in 1929.  Its perfect placement on the Detroit River manages to capture 25% of the bi-lateral trade and 40% of the bi-lateral trucking That’s big money.

In 1979, Matty Moroun parlayed his interest in a small trucking line to buy out Warren Buffett’s 25% share in the troubled Detroit International Bridge Company.  In total, Moroun spent $30 million to fully acquire the Ambassador Bridge. Ironically, the $30 million price was 30% less than the inflation-adjusted cost of building it 50 years earlier, The Ambassador Bridge is the only major border crossing that is privately owned and is estimated to be worth half a billion dollars.

The Ambassador Bridge generates an estimated $60 Million a year which translates to hefty profits. But Moroun owns seven trucking companies that have established close relationships with automotive manufacturers. Moroun also owns logistics firm; several customs brokerages; and a monopoly on duty-free retail, including a gasoline station at the Detroit end of the bridge and a currency-exchange service. All told, total revenue exceeds $1 billion a year.

The Ambassador Bridge has some chaffing security issues. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, Moroun wanted to ensure that GM, Ford and Chrysler (all Moroun’s clients) were not stranded.  So Moroun ordered that the trucks be pulled aside and escorted across the bridge if that was necessary. To alleviate backups at customs in the aftermath of 9/11, customs personnel doubled yet they had to work with the six existing inspection booths.  The US Federal Government had to haggle with Moroun as he owned the surrounding land.  On his own, Moroun  built three more customs stations, but was sued by the city of Detroit as he failed to receive zoning and building permits.  Moroun insisted that he did not need any stinking permits as he was a “federal instrumentality”.  After 3 ½ years of litigation, Moroun prevailed.  But Morous forced the GSA to pay for this $2 Million “gift” for better security.  How convenient.

Moroun opts to operate with impunity over transporting federal contraband.  Federal law prohibits transporting corrosives, explosives, radioactive waste, and other toxic material across the border, but Moroun insists this does not apply on the Ambassador Bridge.  Moroun issues “Letters of Authorization” to certain truckers to haul banned contents across the bridge.  Might those letters be directed to Moroun owned trucking companies?  Nevertheless, state troopers can not ticket truckers on the bridge–they must do so upon leaving.

Structurally, the bridge is 81 years old and it only has four lanes.  There are issues that the ascent to the bridge is too tough for trucks.  To answer some of these concerns and maintain his monopoly, Moroun proposed erecting a six lane twin span of the Ambassador Bridge and keep the older span for excess capacity.  In furtherance of this effort, Moroun worked with Detroit and Michigan state officials to garner a $230 million Gateway Project that improved roadways on the Detroit side of the Ambassador Bridge.  Cynics see the construction augments Moroun other land assets and intuit that the infrastructure are the footings for the proposed twin bridge.  Yet the Canadian government is intransigent about allowing the twin span.

In Windsor, traffic leading to the Ambassador Bridge snakes through residential neighborhoods. A new alternative New International Trade Crossing located about two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge would more directly connect Canada Highway 401 (going to Toronto) with a crossing  near Detroit’s Fort Wayne (away from downtown Detroit and also near I-96 and I-75).  Of course, bad blood stemming from the Canadian government losing their 1970s lawsuit for 50% share in the Ambassador bridge and settling only for bridge and Canadian customs plaza improvements should not be discounted.

The Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) has the Canadian Federal, Ontario Provincial and US Government on board for the US $2.1 Billion project.  The only holdout has been the Michigan State government.  To sweeten the long delayed deal, the Canadian government offered to front $550 Million, which represented Michigan’s contribution to the DRIC as an interest free loan to be repaid by collected tolls. With the deep deficits state budgets have, Moroun was banking on the hope that the newly elected Republican governor would favor keeping the border crossing in private hands and not risking state expenditures. But Gov. Snyder came out in favor of the DRIC, as Michigan could leverage the Canadian money to get 160% matching funding from the US DOT.  Gov. Snyder also indicated that he agreed with the Canadian suggestion of dubbing the new crossing as the Gordie Howe bridge, honoring the connection between the Canadian born hockey great and Hockeytown where he made his mark in the NHL.

In response to the tides turning towards another Detroit River international crossing, Moroun has launched a $400,000 ad campaign to disparage the DRIC and hired Dick Morris to do public relations, hence the media appearances and FNC advocacy ad. Hiring Morris, who is the High Priest of Triangulation and going national gives the impression that Moroun is taking desperate measures for desperate times. Contributions to Michigan State Legislators is not enough to turn the tide, so it is an attempt to gin up some grass-tops pressure from Tea Party types who generally look askance at governmental projects and boondoggle "bridges to no-where"

 It’s quite understandable why Moroun, the 321st richest American, would fight so hard. Not only would a nearby alternative deprive the Ambassador Bridge of its monopoly, Moroun would lose out on the profits from the adjacent properties that he owns. But major manufacturers would no longer feel obliged to transport their freight with Moroun owned truck lines, unless they still needed the sui-generis “Letters of Authorization” to carry excluded freight to customs. In fact, all of the major auto manufacturers are backing the DRIC.

Many in the midst of Mo-town know that Matty Moroun has vested interests in the Ambassador Bridge.  They know that Moroun is fighting an alternative crossing. But they have no idea about the byzantine business dealings that enrich Moroun and only a slight inkling of his belligerence towards dealing with the various governmental entities.  They just wonder why additional crossings, either through a new bridge or an expansion of the Ambassador Bridge, is taking so long.

Ordinary, one would assume that conservatives would want to privatize as many government functions as possible.  We echo President Kennedy’s quip that Washington is a city that has Southern efficiency and Northern charm.  We liken the effectiveness of governmental bureaucrats to the performance of Patty and Selma Bouvier in the Simpson’s Springfield DMV.

A strict construction view of the Constitution mandates that the government do certain discrete functions, amongst them are protecting the border and providing for common defense (policing power).  The cacotopia science fiction film “Robocop” (1987) illustrates the tensions and competing corporate interests when essential governmental functions are ceded to private interests.

Matty Moroun has illustrated these aberrant interests with his management of the Ambassador Bridge.  Allowing his trucking clients to cut to the front of customs after 9/11 shows that he looks out for his own interests in lieu of national security.  The special “Letters of Authorization” flout federal law and Moroun shows no signs of co-operating with state enforcement.  The Bridge Company has erected fencing along riverfront property that mimics the Department of Homeland Security handiwork but lacks its authority.

Moroun may campaign that the twin span is half built and will cost taxpayers nothing, but his track record with customs stations shows that he will eventually still stick it to taxpayers.  Maroun gave an unconditional offer to privately build the twin span of the Ambassador Bridge for $600 million.  But when governmental officials did not drop the alternative to the Ambassador Bridge, Moroun reneged on his contribution to the $240 Million Gateway project that exclusively benefits Moroun’s own asset.   So much so that the Bridge Company President was jailed for contempt for not rebuilding the approaches to the Ambassador Bridge. I guess that Smithers was not available to take the rap.

 Moroun does not seem like he is a friend to the public. In the 30 years that Moroun has owned the Ambassador Bridge, tolls for passenger cars have quadrupled and trucking tolls have doubled, whereas in the prior 50 years tolls were only raised once for passenger cars and never for trucks.  Moroun’s trucking ownership interests and doubling the trucking tolls implicitly represents a kickback.  And critic claim that the proposed twinning of the Ambassador Bridge would wipe out Mexican Town, the desirable tourist district that the Gateway Project was hoping to augment.

While crossing on the Ambassador Bridge have improved since its nadir on 9/11, it is estimated that delays into Canada  cost $800 million a month.  It is unwise to have one crossing take 40% of all bilateral truck shipments. Thus, it seems like the DRIC is a good deal, but it needs a better name. The Canadian acronym for the project NITC is not any better. The Gordie Howe Bridge is an apt moniker.

On an ancillary note, to discourage governments ceding essential functions to private interests, Detroit should not allow a Robocop statue to be erected on city property.  Assuredly, it does not capture the Spirit of Detroit like the Rocky statue does for the City of Brotherly Love. It would be a pity if the grim premise of the Robocop was honored by the city, even for the sake of publicity and tourism. As Fr. Gabriel Richard proclaimed in the Detroit city motto: “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus”   ("We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes”).

H/T: Forbes
H/T: (Detroit) Metro Times
H/T: Detroit News