Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Cruising the Web

Brian Riedl has an excellent essay about how our nation's leaders have just decided to ignore the entitlement crisis.
The American polity recently tore itself apart debating the morality of adding $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to the national debt. Yet the $82 trillion avalanche of Social Security and Medicare deficits hat will come over the next three decades elicits a collective shrug. Future historians — and taxpayers — are unlikely to forgive our casual indifference to what has been called “the most predictable economic crisis in history.”
I'm teaching the public policy unit in my AP Government classes for the next few weeks and I'm hoping that my students will become aware of what my generation is sticking their generation with.
Today’s typical retiring couple has paid $140,000 into Medicare and will receive $420,000 in benefits (in net present value), in part because Medicare’s physician and drug benefits are not pre-funded with payroll taxes and are only partially funded by retiree premiums. Most Social Security recipients also come out ahead. In other words, seniors are not merely getting back what they paid in. By 2030, 74 million retirees will join a system that — by design — runs a substantial per-person deficit.

Over the next 30 years, according to data from the Congressional Budget Office, Medicare will run a $40 trillion cash deficit, Social Security will run a $19 trillion cash deficit, and the interest on the resulting program debt will be $23 trillion. (To inflation-adjust these figures, trim by one-third.) The rest of the budget will remain roughly in balance, as tax revenues continue growing faster than the economy (even if the new tax cuts are made permanent) and all other combined spending continues growing slower than the economy.

In short, the entire $82 trillion long-term-deficit projection comes from the Social Security and Medicare shortfalls and their resulting interest costs. This unsustainable level of borrowing would wreak havoc on global financial markets, interest rates, and economic investment, not to mention the federal budget.

Even readers inclined to be skeptical of 30-year projections should take this one seriously. Future inflation rates are indeed anyone’s guess, but the existence of 74 million Baby Boomers retiring into Social Security and Medicare is an actuarial reality. These projections even optimistically assume a slowdown in per capita health costs. They are the rosy scenario.
But politicians just ignore the entire problem. And the sorts of proposals that politicians throw out there when campaigning to pretend that they actually care are totally ridiculous band-aids that would not approach a solution.
Politicians brush aside the issue by promising easy fixes. Tax the rich? Doubling the 35 and 37 percent tax brackets to 70 and 74 percent would close just one-fifth of the long-term Social Security and Medicare shortfall. Even seizing all annual income earned over $500,000 would not come close. Popular proposals to more aggressively tax banks, investors, hedge-fund managers, and oil and gas companies are a cumulative rounding error compared with these deficits.

On the spending side, slashing the defense budget to European levels would close just one-seventh of the gap. Cutting waste and foreign aid can close only a small percentage of it.

In reality, balancing the long-term budget without reforming Social Security and Medicare (and fast-growing Medicaid) would require either nearly doubling income-tax rates across the board or eliminating nearly every remaining federal function.
My students can be very worried about the effects of climate change that might not happen within their lifetimes. But young people are ignorant of how the entitlement crisis is going to affect them right when they'll be in their prime earning years and may have children whose futures they'll be thinking about. If younger voters could summon just a fraction of their concern over climate change for the entitlement crisis, perhaps politicians would take some action instead of catering to the demands of senior citizens. If they emerge from this section of the unit properly scared, I'll be content.

The problems that modern technology is presenting us.
A package of contraband covered in grass clippings that was dropped by a drone at a Panhandle prison is one of the most recent examples of inmates using advanced technology to smuggle illegal items behind prison walls.

The News-Journal reports that authorities are investigating two confirmed drone drops at Florida prisons in the last 30 days. One of those drops was discovered at a Panhandle prison after correctional officers spotted the drone, which was delivering a cellphone and tobacco.

The Florida Department of Corrections declined to specify at which institution the drop happened and would only confirm it happened at a prison in the Northwest region of the state.

Officials say drones plague prisons across the nation, and most corrections departments are trying to keep up with new technology.

"We know that drones are a real issue," FDC spokeswoman Michelle Glady said, adding that aside from the two confirmed sightings, there have been several other suspected drone-related drops.
I think they need a sort of Strategic Defense Initiative for drones.

Jonathan Turley notices something
about the excuse that Andrew McCabe is using to defend himself against the allegation that he displayed a "lack of candor" when talking to federal officials. McCabe's excuse is that he was "confused and distracted." Turley points out that Mueller didn't accept that excuse when Michael Flynn used it.
I have been writing ... on the contrast between the treatment of McCabe and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. McCabe has been erroneously portrayed as “losing his pension” but has not been charged. Flynn was charged and accepted a plea deal under 18 U.S.C. 1001 for making a false statement to investigators. Now McCabe is raising virtually the same defense that did not work for Flynn: that there was a lot going on and he was “confused and distracted.”

Given his willingness to hold forth publicly on his actions, McCabe does not appear to expect to be charged even though the Inspector General could refer a criminal allegation to prosecutors.

He lashes about at President Donald Trump and critics to assert ‘I did not knowingly mislead or lie to investigators.” He then added this familiar defense: “At worst, I was not clear in my responses, and because of what was going on around me may well have been confused and distracted — and for that I take full responsibility.”

That is reportedly the same defense raised by Flynn who admitted to meeting with Russian diplomats during the busy transition period but did not disclose or confirm that they spoke about sanctions. He reportedly also did not make such a disclosure to Vice President Pence. There was nothing unlawful in the meeting with the Russians or even unprecedented for an incoming national security adviser to discuss such points of tension between the countries. Flynn did not seek legal assistance before the interview and was reportedly not told that the investigators were there as part of a possible criminal inquiry.

Once again, it is not a sufficient argument to note that Flynn was facing other charges. Prosecutors are under a sworn duty to apply laws faithfully and fairly. They are not allowed to simply charge any crime that is convenient. They must be able to attest to applying the criminal code in a consistent fashion. Prosecutors are ethically bound to reject criminal charges (even when they can be technically brought) where they reflect “unwarranted disparate treatment of similarly situated persons.”

We do not know how strong the other alleged crimes were against Flynn. We have one crime that the prosecutors maintained was established on the facts in the indictment. Those facts are strikingly similar on that crime to McCabe. Of course, we are still awaiting the release of the IG report but McCabe’s misconduct was sufficient to not only lead career FBI staff to call for his termination but FBI Director Andrew Wray reportedly immediately forced him into a terminal leave upon reading the summary.

I have admittedly been a longtime critic of the use of 18 U.S.C. 1001 and how it has been used by prosecutors to indict for any statement deemed misleading or false. However, the greatest danger is posed not in the broad scope of this law but its arbitrary enforcement. Two officials are accused of misleading statements in interviews. One is bled financially to the point that he must sell his house and then forced into a criminal plea. The other gets a delay in his pension. Both were very very busy people, but only one is looking at prison.

Steve Everly reports on the oddness of New England importing natural gas from Putin's Russia.
Earlier this year, New England — located just a few hundred miles from the Marcellus Shale, one of the world’s largest natural gas fields — was forced to import a cargo of Russian liquefied natural gas. This was necessary because anti-energy activists have convinced local elected leaders to block new energy infrastructure, including pipelines that could bring American gas to the region. This is making households in the Northeast more dependent on imported energy, and forcing them to pay among the highest energy bills in the country.

This was no accident. The Conservation Law Foundation, a prominent anti-energy group in Massachusetts, states on its website that importing natural gas from foreign counties is preferable to building new pipelines. The Sierra Club’s Massachusetts chapter has simply declared “No New Pipelines,” while the state’s attorney general thinks Russian LNG is better for the climate than piping in American fuel.

Even the Boston Globe opined that “Massachusetts’ reliance on imported gas from one of the world’s most threatened places is also a severe indictment of the state’s inward-looking environmental and climate policies.”
Is it really better for the environment to ship gas here from Russia rather than have a pipeline go a few hundred miles.

The WSJ asks a very good question: "Why does the U.S. still belong to Turtle Bay’s Human Rights Council?"
Syria bombs civilians with chlorine gas, China tortures dissidents, Venezuela restricts access to food and Burma is engaged in ethnic cleaning of a Muslim minority. So naturally the United Nations Human Rights Council trains the bulk of its outrage on . . . Israel.

On Friday the council approved five resolutions condemning Israel, as it has done every year since its creation in 2006. The 47-member council includes such paragons of political freedom as China and Cuba. The resolutions characterize Israel as an “occupying power” in Palestinian-claimed territories, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and denounce the Middle Eastern democracy as an abuser of human rights.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and her team, at the urging of the British and the Dutch, spent months trying to convince other European countries not to single out Israel. But when the votes were tallied Friday, only the U.S. and Australia voted against all of the anti-Israel resolutions. The council passed only one resolution apiece condemning North Korean, Iranian and Syrian abuses.

The State Department put an upbeat spin on the European snub, noting Friday that “many other partners changed votes to either vote no or abstain,” from some of the resolutions, and that “this session demonstrated the largest shift in votes towards more abstentions and no votes on Israel related resolutions since the creation of the HRC.” Small consolation.

The lesson is that the council is a corrupt body that the U.S. would be better to leave. The Bush Administration voted against its creation in 2006, but the Obama Administration joined in 2009. Ms. Haley intimated in a statement Friday that the U.S. might withdraw, noting that the anti-Israel resolutions “make clear that the organization lacks the credibility needed to be a true advocate for human rights.” She’s right.
The UN Human RIghts Council is a very sick joke. Why grace it with the imprimatur of American approval by even belonging there. To tell the truth, I am not sure what we get from being in the UN, but I know that withdrawing is a nonstarter. But there should be no reason to stay in the HRC.

William McGurn argues in the WSJ
that Congress should start using the powers that it clearly has in order to get the information that elements of the executive branch have been stonewalling delivering to Congress. He points to how Lois Lerner and John Koskinen, the commissioner of the IRS under Obama, got away with lying to Congress, refusing to deliver documents and then destroying them. If Congress would use its powers, there would be no need of a special counsel to investigate how members of the FBI and the Obama Justice Department used their power to investigate the Trump campaign.
If it only has the backbone, Congress can get what it wants out of the federal bureaucracy. Several executive-branch officials—including Justice’s Bruce Ohr and FBI lovers Peter Strzok and Lisa Page —will soon testify before the House Intelligence Committee. Possibly some or all of them will invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

If Congress insists on its prerogatives, however, that wouldn’t be the end of the story. Witnesses who plead the Fifth can still be compelled to testify. The price is that the compelled testimony, and evidence derived from that testimony, couldn’t be used against the witness in a prosecution.

A special counsel might not like this, given his emphasis on indictments and prosecutions. But Congress should, because its end goal is political accountability. Which would be up to the American people to impose after learning exactly what abuses have transpired.
This would be better than a special counsel that might take years. It is easier to accomplish than trying to cut the budget for recalcitrant agencies, though that is a power Congress has. They just would have trouble getting Democrats to go along. Impeachment is an option, but removal of members of the Executive branch would need a sizeable number of Democrats to agree and we know that won't happen. But a subpoena and holding officers in contempt of Congress is doable as long as the Republicans hold the majority.
So instead of whingy calls for another special counsel, a Congress that behaved as a branch of government coequal to the presidency would use its own powers to force oversight on resisting federal officials.
Of course, Eric Holder survived being held in contempt of Congress, but then he was an officer in the Obama administration that wasn't going to punish him even if he was running guns to Mexico that ended up being used in a crime and was denying information to Congress. That was all perfectly fine for a member of the supposedly scandal-free Obama administration. And now Holder can muse about running for president. Such an action might be more difficult for a member of the Trump administration, even his FBI director.