Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cramping the Style of the Street Car

One of the fiascoes of Milwaukee City government in recent history is a plan to spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money to build a streetcar line that connects the trendy, affluent east side (where most people have cars, and where bus service is good) to the train station on St. Paul Street.

It will do no good for people who live on the suburbs. It will do no good for black people who live on the city’s North Side. It will do no good for people who live on the South Side. It will do no good for people who live in the Marquette area. It quite clearly reflects, not sober policy analysis, but rather the fetish of certain elites with mass, government planned and run transportation.

The costs of relocating utility lines to make way for the streetcar will be massive, and the City of Milwaukee has been demanding that ratepayers throughout the entire service areas of the affected utilities (the vast majority of whom will get no benefit at all from the project) should be forced to pay these costs.

Now enter the The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which today urged at a public hearing of the Public Service Commission that utilities not be forced to foist on ratepayers the entire relocation costs. According to the Institute:
September 27, 2012, Milwaukee, WI - Brett Healy and his fellow utility ratepayers, represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (“WILL”), scored a significant victory in today’s proceedings before the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. The City of Milwaukee had argued that the construction of its 2.1 mile downtown streetcar project is a proper exercise of its police power to promote the public safety and welfare, and therefore it has the legal right to force the utilities that will be affected by the project (and their ratepayers) to absorb all of the costs for the relocation or reconstruction of their facilities. Those costs have been estimated at more than $50 million. The City, which expects to essentially pay for the $65 million project with federal funds, has no room in its project budget to pay even one dollar of utility relocation costs.

The Commission declined to rule today that the construction of the streetcar project is a proper exercise of the City’s police power, setting that issue for a later hearing. More importantly, however, the Commission held that even if the streetcar project is a proper exercise of the City’s power, the City cannot impose all of the relocation costs on the utilities that will be affected. Only those costs that the Commission finds to be “reasonable” can be shifted to the utilities. The Chairman of the Commission particularly noted that the Commission’s duty is to protect Wisconsin’s utility ratepayers, and expressed serious reservations that it would be appropriate for the City to pass on millions of dollars in costs to Southeastern Wisconsin utility ratepayers who will receive no benefit from the City’s project. The Commission rejected the City’s contention that it had no jurisdiction to decide the cost issue, and said that it would hold a hearing to determine what costs it would permit the City to pass on to the utilities and their ratepayers.

Rick Esenberg, President and General Counsel of WILL, said “this is a clear victory for our clients and for the concept of government accountability. The Public Service Commission has done what we asked it to do, and will take a close look at the City’s decision to impose millions of dollars in costs on ratepayers who do not live in the City. We are confident that the Commission will decide that, if the City wants to move forward with the streetcar project, the City’s taxpayers should pay for it.”

Brett Healy, who originally brought the matter before the Commission, said “it’s clear that the City has no room in its budget for paying any of the utility costs and equally clear that the Commission will not let the City get away with shifting all, or even most, of those costs to utility customers. It’s time for the City to let its taxpayers know that the streetcar project cannot be financed with “free” federal dollars, and that it will likely cost them in substantially increased property taxes at the end of the day.”
This mania for mass transit among liberal elites, as we have noted before, reflects the resentment of these elites at the uppity nature of ordinary Americans. They want to live where they want to live. They want to drive their cars where they want to. They don’t want to have to conform their lifestyles to what urban planners think is best.

And the liberal elites hate that hugely.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lecture on Syria Tonight

In academia, we have the luxury of discussing things of merely “academic” interest with little application to the real world.

But sometimes, there is a discussion of a critical real-world issue, and one of those will happen tonight.

Dr. Lisa Wedeen, who spent the first months of the Arab Spring in Syria, will be speaking about that country.

The talk with be in the Beaumier Suite, which is downstairs in the Raynor Library.

Yes, there will be an opportunity for questions, and indeed there will be a reception afterward. And there will be refreshments afterward — and more than minimal refreshments. It will include wine and cheese and veggies and fruit. And yes, that does matter to some folks (including this blogger).

This one fits into the “important for understanding important stuff in the real world” category.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Gay Fascism: We’ll Coerce People Who Disagree With Us

From George Will in the Washington Post:
Elaine Huguenin, who with her husband operates Elane Photography in New Mexico, asks only to be let alone.

But instead of being allowed a reasonable zone of sovereignty in which to live her life in accordance with her beliefs, she is being bullied by people wielding government power.

In 2006, Vanessa Willock e-mailed Elane Photography about photographing a “commitment ceremony” that she and her partner were planning. Willock said that this would be a “same-gender ceremony.” Elane Photography responded that it photographed “traditional weddings.” The Huguenins are Christians who, for religious reasons, disapprove of same-sex unions. Willock sent a second e-mail asking whether this meant that the company “does not offer photography services to same-sex couples.” Elane Photography responded that “you are correct.”

Willock could then have said regarding Elane Photography what many same-sex couples have long hoped a tolerant society would say regarding them — “live and let live.” Willock could have hired a photographer with no objections to such events. Instead, Willock and her partner set out to break the Huguenins to the state’s saddle.

Willock’s partner, without disclosing her relationship with Willock, e-mailed Elane Photography. She said that she was getting married — actually, she and Willock were having a “commitment ceremony” because New Mexico does not recognize same-sex marriages — and asked whether the company would travel to photograph it. The company said yes. Willock’s partner never responded.

Instead, Willock, spoiling for a fight, filed a discrimination claim with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, charging that Elane Photography is a “public accommodation,” akin to a hotel or restaurant, that denied her its services because of her sexual orientation. The commission found against Elane and ordered it to pay $6,600 in attorney fees.

But what a tangled web we weave when we undertake to regulate more and more behaviors under overlapping codifications of conflicting rights. Elaine Huguenin says that she is being denied her right to the “free exercise” of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and a similar provision in the New Mexico Constitution. Furthermore, New Mexico’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act defines “free exercise” as “an act or a refusal to act that is substantially motivated by religious belief” and forbids government from abridging that right except to “further a compelling government interest.”

So New Mexico, whose marriage laws discriminate against same-sex unions, has a “compelling interest” in compelling Huguenin to provide a service she finds repugnant and others would provide? Strange.

Eugene Volokh of the UCLA School of Law thinks that Huguenin can also make a “compelled speech argument”: She cannot be coerced into creating expressive works, such as photographs, that express something she is uncomfortable expressing. Courts have repeatedly held that freedom of speech and the freedom not to speak are “complementary components of the broader concept of ‘individual freedom of mind.’ ”

A New Mexico court has held that Elane Photography is merely “a conduit for another’s expression.” But the U.S. Supreme Court (upholding the right of a person to obscure the words “Live Free or Die” on New Hampshire’s license plates) has affirmed the right not to be compelled to be conduits of others’ expression.

New Mexico’s Supreme Court is going to sort all this out, which has been thoroughly reported and discussed by the invaluable blog the Volokh Conspiracy, where you can ponder this: In jurisdictions such as the District of Columbia and Seattle, which ban discrimination on the basis of political affiliation or ideology, would a photographer, even a Jewish photographer, be compelled to record a Nazi Party ceremony?

The Huguenin case demonstrates how advocates of tolerance become tyrannical. First, a disputed behavior, such as sexual activities between people of the same sex, is declared so personal and intimate that government should have no jurisdiction over it. Then, having won recognition of what Louis Brandeis, a pioneer of the privacy right, called “the right to be let alone,” some who have benefited from this achievement assert a right not to let other people alone. It is the right to coerce anyone who disapproves of the now-protected behavior into acting as though they approve of it, or at least into not acting on their disapproval.

So, in the name of tolerance, government declares intolerable individuals such as the Huguenins, who disapprove of a certain behavior but ask only to be let alone in their quiet disapproval. Perhaps advocates of gay rights should begin to restrain the bullies in their ranks.
Fat chance of that.

What motivates the gay lobby is a desperate lust to be told “there is nothing wrong with your sexual behavior. You are just fine.”

It is, in their view, far from enough to merely be let alone. They are demanding positive affirmation. And they are not willing to tolerate having that affirmation tempered by disapproval from anybody. Thus, anybody who disapproves must be punished and bullied into submission.

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The Logic Behind the Teachers’ Union

Thursday, September 13, 2012

That Video That’s Getting People Killed in the Middle East

We aren’t absolutely sure what video violent Islamist types have been protesting, but a good guess is that it’s this one, scenes from which have been posted on Buzzfeed.

So this is an insult to The Prophet?

More like an insult to the audience. And taking it at all seriously is an insult to The Prophet.

As Bizzfeed notes:
The anti-Muslim “movie” that served as the spark or pretext for a wave of violent unrest in Egypt and Libya may not be a movie at all.

As the video above — cut from the YouTube video tied to a global controversy — shows, nearly all of the names in the movie’s “trailer” are overdubbed. The video is a compilation of the most clumsily overdubbed moments from what is in reality an incoherent, haphazardly-edited set of scenes. Among the overdubbed words is “Mohammed,” suggesting that the footage was taken from a film about something else entirely. The footage also suggests multiple video sources — there are obvious and jarring discrepancies among actors and locations.

However, CNN has reported that the cast and crew disavowed the movie, and the overdubbing could also have been to conceal the content from the cast itself. Gawker interviewed a woman who played a part in the movie, who said that she had had no idea what it was about when she was hired.

As The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported today, the supposed filmmaker, “Sam Bacile,” appears not to be a real person — or at least not the director of the movie. A consultant to the movie, Steve Klein, told Goldberg that he didn’t know Bacile’s real name and that he wasn’t Israeli as reported.

The person using Bacile’s name told the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal that the film had been made using $5 million from those donors, as well as a sizable crew of 45 people behind the camera and nearly 60 actors. The film’s low production values make those numbers risible. Five million dollars is more than the budget of some reputable independent films, and could certainly buy a better production than what went into the Mohammad film.
The film ranks with the infamous “Plan 9 from Outer Space” as a movie that’s actually fun to watch.

You won’t be laughing with it. You’ll be laughing at it.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Patriotic Display at Democratic Convention: Russian Warships

From Navy Times:
On the last night of the Democratic National Convention, a retired Navy four-star took the stage to pay tribute to veterans. Behind him, on a giant screen, the image of four hulking warships reinforced his patriotic message.

But there was a big mistake in the stirring backdrop: those are Russian warships.

While retired Adm. John Nathman, a former commander of Fleet Forces Command, honored vets as America’s best, the ships from the Russian Federation Navy were arrayed like sentinels on the big screen above.

These were the very Soviet-era combatants that Nathman and Cold Warriors like him had once squared off against.

“The ships are definitely Russian,” said noted naval author Norman Polmar after reviewing hi-resolution photos from the event. “There’s no question of that in my mind.”

Naval experts concluded the background was a photo composite of Russian ships that were overflown by what appear to be U.S. trainer jets. It remains unclear how or why the Democratic Party used what’s believed to be images of the Russian Black Sea Fleet at their convention.
One might wonder how easy it is to confuse U.S. warships with Russian warships. The answer: it’s easy if you know nothing about warships.
The background — featured in the carefully choreographed hour leading up to the president’s Sept. 6 speech accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination — showed four ships with radar designs not used in the U.S. fleet.

For example, the ship in the foreground, on the far right, has a square radar antenna at the top of its masthead. That is the MR-700 Podberezovik 3-D early warning radar, commonly identified as “Flat Screen” for its appearance, a three-dimensional early warning radar mounted on the Kerch, said Eric Wertheim, editor of “Combat Fleets of the World.”

Similarly, the third ship has a MR-310 “Head Net” air search radar, shaped like two off-set bananas, at its masthead and is mostly likely the guided missile destroyer Smetlivyy. The first two ships seem to be Krivak-class frigates, but it’s hard to discern from the silhouette, experts said.

But the fact they are Russian ships is not in doubt. In addition to the ship’s radar arrays and hulls, which are dissimilar from U.S. warships, the photo features one more give-away: a large white flag with a blue ‘X’ at the ships’ sterns.

Polmar, who authored “The Naval Institute Guide to the Soviet Navy,” recognized the blue ‘X’-mark: “The X is the Cross of St. Andrew’s, which is a Russian Navy symbol,” Polmar said. (An anchored U.S. warship, by contrast, flies the American flag on its stern.)

Based on this specific group of these ship types, one naval expert concluded that this was most likely a photo of the Black Sea Fleet.

“Ships are all Black Sea Fleet,” A. D. Baker III, a retired Office of Naval Intelligence analyst, told Navy Times after looking at the image. “These four ships, at the time the photo was taken, constituted the entire major surface combatant component of the Black Sea Fleet,” Baker said, noting the photo was likely to be six years old or older. (The Kerch is now on the list to be scrapped, Baker said.)
Does any of this have any cosmic significance? Not really. But it’s something to be remembered and used the next time Democrats try to taunt Republicans about some equally trivial gaffe.

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Thursday, September 06, 2012

Canadian Warns About Socialized Medicine

What the Democrats Won’t Tell You About the Auto Bailout

This was written before the Democratic Convention, but the author has been proven absolutely correct about what the Democrats will conceal.
The central economic selling point of the Obama reelection team is that the president saved the U.S. auto industry. That such a contestable proposition serves as the administration’s economic headline does more to underscore its abysmal record than to inspire confidence in its continued economic stewardship.

The administration didn’t save the auto industry. The stronger case is that it damaged the auto industry along with several important institutions vital to capitalism’s proper functioning. However, it should be granted that President Obama’s commandeering of GM’s and Chrysler’s bankruptcy process saved jobs at those companies and elsewhere in their supply chains (and provided an opportunity to dole out spoils for politically favored interests). How many jobs were saved is impossible to determine because it’s not clear what would have happened to GM’s and Chrysler’s assets had a normal, non-political bankruptcy process been allowed to unfold.

Yes, jobs were saved for the time being in Michigan, Ohio, and a few other industrial states in the Midwest. That is what can be seen. And politicians are hardwired to tout the benefits—and only the benefits—of their policies.

But an informed citizenry should insist on a proper accounting of the costs of those policies, as well—not just the losses put on the taxpayers’ tab (right now taxpayers’ “investment” in GM is $27 billion, but the public’s 500 million shares of GM stock is worth only $10 billion), but the unseen costs.

Sure some jobs were preserved in some locations, but what about the less visible consequences and ripple effects? What isn’t so easily seen, but is every bit as important to assessing the auto interventions is the effects on the other auto companies and their workers (i.e., the majority of the U.S. auto industry). Will the public remember or know enough to attribute layoffs of American workers at Ford or Toyota or Kia during the next downturn in auto demand to the fact that a necessary reckoning on the supply side was precluded by the interventions of 2009?

The auto industry is plagued with overcapacity, which is a problem that demands a thinning of the herd. GM and Chrysler, through their own relatively poor decisions with respect to labor relations, product offerings, and quality management were failing by the market’s judgment and were the rightful candidates to be thinned. But that process was forestalled. In 2013, auto workers in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Indiana, and even Michigan and Ohio may lose their jobs because GM and Chrysler workers’ jobs were spared in 2009.

That is only one of the many unseen or under-rug-swept costs of the auto bailouts. The following passage from congressional testimony I gave last year identifies several others:
It is galling to hear administration officials characterize the auto bailouts as “successful.” The word should be off-limits when describing this unfortunate chapter in U.S. economic history. At most, bailout proponents and apologists might respectfully argue — and still be wrong, however — that the bailouts were necessary evils undertaken to avert greater calamity.

But calling the bailouts “successful” is to whitewash the diversion of funds from the Troubled Assets Relief Program by two administrations for purposes unauthorized by Congress; the looting and redistribution of claims against GM’s and Chrysler’s assets from shareholders and debt-holders to pensioners; the use of questionable tactics to bully stakeholders into accepting terms to facilitate politically desirable outcomes; the unprecedented encroachment by the executive branch into the finest details of the bankruptcy process to orchestrate what bankruptcy law experts describe as “Sham” sales of Old Chrysler to New Chrysler and Old GM to New GM; the costs of denying Ford and the other more deserving automakers the spoils of competition; the costs of insulating irresponsible actors, such as the United Autoworkers, from the outcomes of an apolitical bankruptcy proceeding; the diminution of U.S. moral authority to counsel foreign governments against similar market interventions; and the lingering uncertainty about the direction of policy under the current administration that pervades the business environment to this very day.

In addition to the above, there is the fact that taxpayers are still short tens of billions of dollars on account of the GM bailout without serious prospects for ever being made whole. Thus, acceptance of the administration’s pronouncement of auto bailout success demands profound gullibility or willful ignorance. Sure, GM has experienced recent profits and Chrysler has repaid much of its debt to the Treasury. But if proper judgment is to be passed, then all of the bailout’s costs and benefits must be considered. Otherwise, calling the bailout a success is like applauding the recovery of a drunken driver after an accident, while ignoring the condition of the family he severely maimed.
Like all crony capitalism, the auto bailout rewarded those politically well-connected with the ruling administration: unionized workers, badly managed firms, firms in swing states.

And of course, certain people get screwed over: non-unionized auto workers, bond holders who had to lose money that the law said they were owed.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Are the Democrats Pro-Choice?

Saturday, September 01, 2012

By Order of the Fire Marshall . . .