Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 10, 2013

Bring Anne Patterson Home

Anne Patterson is the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and, fairly or unfairly, has become the target of ire for many of the Egyptian protestors. Josh Rogin and Eli Lake have a useful piece today in the Daily Beast describing how Patterson reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood and how she ended up antagonizing many of those taking to the streets to protest President Mohamed Morsi’s rule. They conclude:

Now Patterson may be up for a promotion that would take her out of Cairo; President Obama has reportedly considered nominating her to be the next assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs. But the prospective confirmation process would likely be complicated by her recent notoriety, which could scare the White House away from going through with the move. “Even if the Egyptians blame Anne as a symbol of purported messages that in hindsight seem ill advised, one hopes the White House would not punish her for carrying out faithfully its bidding,” one former administration official said. “I do wince in reading her public remarks on June 18. I’m sure she herself would edit those remarks, if she could. But even if the Egyptian people now see her and judge her activities only in the context of those remarks, Washington can surely have a more sophisticated understanding of the role she played.”

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Anne Patterson is the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and, fairly or unfairly, has become the target of ire for many of the Egyptian protestors. Josh Rogin and Eli Lake have a useful piece today in the Daily Beast describing how Patterson reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood and how she ended up antagonizing many of those taking to the streets to protest President Mohamed Morsi’s rule. They conclude:

Now Patterson may be up for a promotion that would take her out of Cairo; President Obama has reportedly considered nominating her to be the next assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs. But the prospective confirmation process would likely be complicated by her recent notoriety, which could scare the White House away from going through with the move. “Even if the Egyptians blame Anne as a symbol of purported messages that in hindsight seem ill advised, one hopes the White House would not punish her for carrying out faithfully its bidding,” one former administration official said. “I do wince in reading her public remarks on June 18. I’m sure she herself would edit those remarks, if she could. But even if the Egyptian people now see her and judge her activities only in the context of those remarks, Washington can surely have a more sophisticated understanding of the role she played.”

Perhaps Patterson should not be punished—especially if she was following a policy, however misguided, that was dictated to her from above. But career diplomats should serve not to attain their highest ambitions, but to most effectively represent the United States. In that respect, they should be no different that career military officers, most of whom take assignments based on what is needed at the time and not what will look best on their resume or most please their families. Egypt is an important country, and the only question that the State Department and White House should consider is whether, given the events of the past month, Patterson is able to effectively represent the United States at this time. It would be hard to answer that question in any way other than no. In which case, it’s time for Patterson to pack, and for President Obama to appoint a seasoned diplomat without as much baggage to take her place.

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A New Platform for Anti-Vaccination Star?

Most Americans first heard of Jenny McCarthy, a blonde actress and entertainment personality, from her stint as Playboy Playmate of the Year in 1994 and as host of various MTV programs in the mid- to late ’90s. In the early 1990s, as she rose to relative fame, it would’ve been hard to imagine the toll her activism could and would take on public health. Since McCarthy’s son was diagnosed with autism, McCarthy has become an outspoken celebrity spokeswoman for activists who link the disease with vaccinations. Who would believe that 24 percent of parents would look to someone for their children’s medical advice who was best known for her blonde hair color and ample bosom? Unfortunately not just for the children of those surveyed in this 2011 University of Michigan poll, but for all Americans, it appears that two percent of parents trust celebrities “a lot,” and 24 percent trust them to “some extent.”

Now that the lineup at the popular daytime talk show The View is shuffling, it appears that McCarthy, according to reports, may have a new platform for her dangerous and unsubstantiated claims on vaccines as co-host. Just how dangerous is the exposure that The View may now be giving to McCarthy? The website “Anti-Vaccine Body Count” (which until late last year was actually called the “Jenny McCarthy Body Count,” a nod to the power of the most vocal anti-vaccination advocate on the national stage) gives some chilling statistics. Since June 2007 more than 118,000 individuals have been infected with preventable illnesses like the measles, mumps and whooping cough, and of those more than 1,100 have died.

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Most Americans first heard of Jenny McCarthy, a blonde actress and entertainment personality, from her stint as Playboy Playmate of the Year in 1994 and as host of various MTV programs in the mid- to late ’90s. In the early 1990s, as she rose to relative fame, it would’ve been hard to imagine the toll her activism could and would take on public health. Since McCarthy’s son was diagnosed with autism, McCarthy has become an outspoken celebrity spokeswoman for activists who link the disease with vaccinations. Who would believe that 24 percent of parents would look to someone for their children’s medical advice who was best known for her blonde hair color and ample bosom? Unfortunately not just for the children of those surveyed in this 2011 University of Michigan poll, but for all Americans, it appears that two percent of parents trust celebrities “a lot,” and 24 percent trust them to “some extent.”

Now that the lineup at the popular daytime talk show The View is shuffling, it appears that McCarthy, according to reports, may have a new platform for her dangerous and unsubstantiated claims on vaccines as co-host. Just how dangerous is the exposure that The View may now be giving to McCarthy? The website “Anti-Vaccine Body Count” (which until late last year was actually called the “Jenny McCarthy Body Count,” a nod to the power of the most vocal anti-vaccination advocate on the national stage) gives some chilling statistics. Since June 2007 more than 118,000 individuals have been infected with preventable illnesses like the measles, mumps and whooping cough, and of those more than 1,100 have died.

There have been countless stories over the last several years about outbreaks of diseases that were on their way to becoming rare before the anti-vaccination movement took hold. The KQED Science blog for NPR reports today on recent outbreaks of pertussis, also known as whooping cough:

In 2010, the United States saw 27,550 pertussis cases, the most since 1959, when health officials logged 40,000 cases. Following the cyclical nature of the disease, incidence dropped the next year (with 18,719 cases reported) but then exploded to 41,000 in 2012, when 49 states reported disease spikes.

Vaccination and public health advocates have suggested various ways to dissuade ABC from hiring McCarthy, ranging from emailing the network directly to signing a petition on Change.org. One would hope that campaigns of this nature wouldn’t be necessary to convince ABC that hiring McCarthy would not only harm the show and its reputation, but also public health. Given McCarthy’s numerous appearances as a guest co-host, which often serves as an audition for potential future permanent slots, that does not appear to be the case. The power of celebrity is unfortunate but real, and in McCarthy’s case, the power of celebrity to do harm outweighs any positive attributes she may have otherwise brought to the show’s lineup.  

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Defend Arendt, Demonize the Tea Party

More than 50 years after it was published, the debate about Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is still red hot. Her famous thesis about “the banality of evil” that the pedestrian-looking mass murderer supposedly exemplified has been hashed and rehashed by intellectuals for generations and will, it must be conceded, probably go on entertaining and infuriating generations of writers yet to be born. Suffice it to say that most serious thinkers understood her misleading characterization of Adolf Eichmann was bad history. It not only portrayed him in almost neutral light but castigated many of his Jewish victims in way that told us a lot more about Arendt’s own conflicted feelings about her Jewish identity that it did about a Nazi monster.

Yet as wrong-headed as her book was, it continues to attract ardent supporters. One such fan is Margerethe von Trotta whose recent film Hannah Arendt treats the writer kindly and endorses her thesis. For an excellent summation of the film’s flaws as well as keen insight into the literary and philosophical background of Arendt’s book, I’d recommend Margot Lurie’s essay on the film in the July/August issue of Standpoint magazine. The film has, like the book that inspired it, gotten mixed reviews. But perhaps none of those who like it are as impassioned as Bard College’s Roger Berkowitz, who heads the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at the school. Berkowitz’s column in the on-line edition of the New York Times earlier this week is a compendium of every possible defense that could be arrayed in favor of his center’s namesake. He sees her and her embattled volume as the font of philosophical truth and insight. Despite the weight of historical evidence that Arendt missed, Berkowitz claims her view of Eichmann as being not motivated by fanaticism but by the impulse of a “joiner” who will do anything for a movement that gives his life meaning is true. That is poor history that has been debunked countless times by historians with a better grasp of the issue than either Arendt or Berkowitz. But what really troubles me is the final paragraph of Berkowitz’s love letter to the late Arendt:

At a time when confidence in American institutions is at an all-time low, Arendt’s insistence that we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement should resonate even more urgently today. That is ever more reason to free Arendt’s book, once again, from the tyranny of the conventional wisdom.

While he doesn’t say so bluntly, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Berkowitz is making a not terribly subtle reference to those middle-class Americans who want smaller government and a less intrusive federal oversight of their lives as being somehow the moral equivalent of Eichmann. I’ve read more than my share of attempts to justify Arendt’s banality of evil thesis, but this is the first that attempts to enlist her in the fight against the Tea Party.

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More than 50 years after it was published, the debate about Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is still red hot. Her famous thesis about “the banality of evil” that the pedestrian-looking mass murderer supposedly exemplified has been hashed and rehashed by intellectuals for generations and will, it must be conceded, probably go on entertaining and infuriating generations of writers yet to be born. Suffice it to say that most serious thinkers understood her misleading characterization of Adolf Eichmann was bad history. It not only portrayed him in almost neutral light but castigated many of his Jewish victims in way that told us a lot more about Arendt’s own conflicted feelings about her Jewish identity that it did about a Nazi monster.

Yet as wrong-headed as her book was, it continues to attract ardent supporters. One such fan is Margerethe von Trotta whose recent film Hannah Arendt treats the writer kindly and endorses her thesis. For an excellent summation of the film’s flaws as well as keen insight into the literary and philosophical background of Arendt’s book, I’d recommend Margot Lurie’s essay on the film in the July/August issue of Standpoint magazine. The film has, like the book that inspired it, gotten mixed reviews. But perhaps none of those who like it are as impassioned as Bard College’s Roger Berkowitz, who heads the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at the school. Berkowitz’s column in the on-line edition of the New York Times earlier this week is a compendium of every possible defense that could be arrayed in favor of his center’s namesake. He sees her and her embattled volume as the font of philosophical truth and insight. Despite the weight of historical evidence that Arendt missed, Berkowitz claims her view of Eichmann as being not motivated by fanaticism but by the impulse of a “joiner” who will do anything for a movement that gives his life meaning is true. That is poor history that has been debunked countless times by historians with a better grasp of the issue than either Arendt or Berkowitz. But what really troubles me is the final paragraph of Berkowitz’s love letter to the late Arendt:

At a time when confidence in American institutions is at an all-time low, Arendt’s insistence that we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement should resonate even more urgently today. That is ever more reason to free Arendt’s book, once again, from the tyranny of the conventional wisdom.

While he doesn’t say so bluntly, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Berkowitz is making a not terribly subtle reference to those middle-class Americans who want smaller government and a less intrusive federal oversight of their lives as being somehow the moral equivalent of Eichmann. I’ve read more than my share of attempts to justify Arendt’s banality of evil thesis, but this is the first that attempts to enlist her in the fight against the Tea Party.

The sheer chutzpah as well as the colossal inappropriateness of Berkowitz’s insinuation is, by itself, enough to disqualify him as a rational voice about the subject. But let’s dignify his smear to the extent of pointing out one very important inaccuracy of his conclusion. Contrary to his assertion, Nazism was not an “anti-state movement” whether one wishes to call it “idealistic” or monstrous. It was, in fact, a classic example of a movement that worshiped the state and sought to sacrifice individual rights on the altar of the collective. In the case of Germany, it was the glorification of the German state and its leader while in Russia it was the socialist ideal and a different evil monster. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand the Nazis, Eichmann or the Holocaust he helped perpetrate.

The continued desire of liberal ideologues to embrace Hannah Arendt’s misreading of Eichmann is rooted in their unquenchable desire to avoid facing the facts about evil. But if that foolish interpretation of history now extends to branding contemporary conservatives as somehow would-be Eichmanns, then we must acknowledge that 21st century liberalism has jumped the shark in a way that few of its conservative critics could have imagined.

Far from Arendt’s book being important to understanding the mentality of the Tea Party, it seems to have given us a unique insight into contemporary liberal prejudices against their political opponents. How ironic that a writer who humanized a Nazi monster now provides inspiration to liberals who want to demonize Republicans.

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What Jewish Students Really Need

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life will soon name a new leader. As the JNS news agency reports, the group, which operates at campuses all over the nation, is set to appoint a new CEO to succeed Wayne Firestone, who presided over a period of growth and controversy as the group both expanded its reach while also coming under fire in some quarters about the nature of its response to anti-Israel agitation at American universities. The prospect of a change at the top of Hillel has prompted a debate not so much about who the choice should be but about what the group should be focusing on as it deals with the problems of students who are largely representative of an American Jewish population that is often Jewishly illiterate, doesn’t affiliate with synagogues and Jewish groups, and has distanced itself from Israel. Most important, Hillel is, in the absence of viable competitors, the frontline defense group for students who must contend with a growing movement to demonize Israel.

Everyone concerned with or about the group seems to agree that the response to the BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement against Israel is an important element of Hillel’s task. But there is deep division about how aggressive it should be in dealing with the increasingly venomous campaign against the Jewish state which has long since crossed over from mere criticism of policies to open anti-Semitism. There’s also debate about how big Hillel’s “big tent” approach to Jewish community should be as left-wing groups critical of Israel as well as avowedly anti-Zionist organizations want to be included. This is something of a trap for pro-Israel activists on campus as well as for those who want to aid and/or influence Hillel to be more effective. The main problem that will face Hillel’s new CEO is not so much who gets to join the group or their politics but whether the organization is prepared to drop the gloves and the usual kumbaya pabulum that seems to be the standard response of so many Jewish professionals and campus organizers when faced with BDS agitators.

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Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life will soon name a new leader. As the JNS news agency reports, the group, which operates at campuses all over the nation, is set to appoint a new CEO to succeed Wayne Firestone, who presided over a period of growth and controversy as the group both expanded its reach while also coming under fire in some quarters about the nature of its response to anti-Israel agitation at American universities. The prospect of a change at the top of Hillel has prompted a debate not so much about who the choice should be but about what the group should be focusing on as it deals with the problems of students who are largely representative of an American Jewish population that is often Jewishly illiterate, doesn’t affiliate with synagogues and Jewish groups, and has distanced itself from Israel. Most important, Hillel is, in the absence of viable competitors, the frontline defense group for students who must contend with a growing movement to demonize Israel.

Everyone concerned with or about the group seems to agree that the response to the BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement against Israel is an important element of Hillel’s task. But there is deep division about how aggressive it should be in dealing with the increasingly venomous campaign against the Jewish state which has long since crossed over from mere criticism of policies to open anti-Semitism. There’s also debate about how big Hillel’s “big tent” approach to Jewish community should be as left-wing groups critical of Israel as well as avowedly anti-Zionist organizations want to be included. This is something of a trap for pro-Israel activists on campus as well as for those who want to aid and/or influence Hillel to be more effective. The main problem that will face Hillel’s new CEO is not so much who gets to join the group or their politics but whether the organization is prepared to drop the gloves and the usual kumbaya pabulum that seems to be the standard response of so many Jewish professionals and campus organizers when faced with BDS agitators.

Some critics of Hillel have focused on the willingness of many campus branches to welcome J Street into its ranks and to allow the group to help influence its decisions about programming. Given J Street’s willingness to reflexively criticize Israel and to align itself against the Jewish state’s democratically elected government, the rancor of many in the pro-Israel community toward the group is understandable. But those who wish to draw a line in the sand that would put J Street effectively outside the community are making a mistake.

J Street’s stands have often marginalized it in the Jewish community and rightly so. Their approach is wrong-headed, but they are not so much a threat to Israel as they are irrelevant to the main questions facing it or its supporters. J Street’s only significance is that it is an attempt by a portion of the Jewish left to dispute the question of who speaks for American Jewry—the mainstream AIPAC or a small liberal group. Without the affection of a mainstream press that has no love for Israel, few would hear of them and they have virtually no influence on Capitol Hill or even in an Obama White House that they ardently support.

But there is no point in excluding it from Jewish communal bodies. Doing so is not only tactically wrong because it makes them martyrs and feeds the false narrative that the pro-Israel majority is suppressing critics. It’s also wrong because any group that is willing to not just say it is “pro Israel” but to actively oppose BDS deserves to be inside the tent, not kept out. For all of its faults, J Street has consistently passed that test. As much as I find its outreach to BDS supporters unsettling, the group is right when it says it has a better chance of convincing fellow leftists of the need to oppose boycotts than do mainstream groups. Thus, I find myself in agreement with those liberals who wish to include J Street inside the Hillel tent.

The key issue is not keeping out J Street, it is in resisting those like Jewish Voices for Peace–who make no secret of their opposition to Israel’s existence, its right of self-defense and their support for BDS–and those groups like Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance that are ready to make common cause with them. Those students and their backers who wish to create an “open Hillel” that would welcome and sponsor joint events with pro-BDS groups ought not to have a place in the organization. It is that bright line that must be preserved if students are to have a chance to face down the anti-Israel mob.

Hillel needs a leader that can work to unite students under the pro-Israel banner but in a context that recognizes the fundamentally anti-Semitic nature of BDS thinking. It should be remembered that any group that is willing to treat Israel and the Jewish people differently from any other and to deny it rights they wouldn’t deny anyone else is demonstrating prejudice. Prejudice against Jews is anti-Semitism and any argument that fails to make this point about BDS will flop.

While Israel’s supporters should not get side-tracked into a spat with J Street that serves no purpose, what Hillel’s new head must understand is that the fetish with inclusiveness at all costs will fatally handicap the group’s efforts to defend Israel and Jewish students. While all groups that back Zionism should be welcomed, neutrality toward BDS is no different from being open-minded about anti-Semitism. Calls for an “open Hillel” give a pass to hate that has gone mainstream on many campuses especially on the West Coast.

Hillel can respond positively and effectively to BDS in many ways that do not include confrontations. But above all, what Hillel needs to remember is that the most important thing the community can do for students is to help give them the courage to stand up against the haters and their cheering sections among the faculty and other bastions of left-wing conformity. If Hillel cannot muster the courage to denounce those advocating BDS, then it will not be doing its job.

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How Big Government Erodes Quality of Life

Homeowners who undertake construction or improvement projects on their property have noticed the proliferation of municipal regulations forbidding the removal of dirt from the property without a permit. That is, you must pay the town for the privilege of throwing away dirt–if the town engineer lets you, that is. Some towns have even formed official Soil Boards (I wish I were making that up) to oversee this process, because once you begin wasting taxpayer money as if it were, well, dirt, it can apparently become quite addictive.

When I was a reporter in New Jersey, residents of one of the towns in my coverage area began discovering this soil scheme, and at the same time the town announced it was cutting back on garbage pickup due to budget constraints. Residents quickly figured out the scam: they were not only having to do work that the township was supposed to do, but the residents were actually paying the township in order to do so. The decrease in garbage pickup wouldn’t have been so terrible but for another brilliant town rule: as in many municipalities, residents could only deposit their garbage in township-provided trash cans, and the town refused to provide additional trash cans to make up for the extra days between pickups. The government’s policies ensured that much of the town was covered by rotting garbage or unwanted dirt.

This a fairly common example of what happens when local governments overspend in times of plenty and find themselves cash-strapped after the boom. You can only raise property taxes so high–though New Jersey is perpetually testing that hypothesis. The Tax Foundation reports that “Coming in with the highest per capita collection rate is New Jersey.” But the point is that even as property and other taxes go up, the government’s balance sheet affects more than just taxes. Elected officials’ inability to budget responsibly results in numerous erosions of the quality of life of everyone except the government’s favored interest groups, to whom it has given all the money it was supposed to save or spend on you.

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Homeowners who undertake construction or improvement projects on their property have noticed the proliferation of municipal regulations forbidding the removal of dirt from the property without a permit. That is, you must pay the town for the privilege of throwing away dirt–if the town engineer lets you, that is. Some towns have even formed official Soil Boards (I wish I were making that up) to oversee this process, because once you begin wasting taxpayer money as if it were, well, dirt, it can apparently become quite addictive.

When I was a reporter in New Jersey, residents of one of the towns in my coverage area began discovering this soil scheme, and at the same time the town announced it was cutting back on garbage pickup due to budget constraints. Residents quickly figured out the scam: they were not only having to do work that the township was supposed to do, but the residents were actually paying the township in order to do so. The decrease in garbage pickup wouldn’t have been so terrible but for another brilliant town rule: as in many municipalities, residents could only deposit their garbage in township-provided trash cans, and the town refused to provide additional trash cans to make up for the extra days between pickups. The government’s policies ensured that much of the town was covered by rotting garbage or unwanted dirt.

This a fairly common example of what happens when local governments overspend in times of plenty and find themselves cash-strapped after the boom. You can only raise property taxes so high–though New Jersey is perpetually testing that hypothesis. The Tax Foundation reports that “Coming in with the highest per capita collection rate is New Jersey.” But the point is that even as property and other taxes go up, the government’s balance sheet affects more than just taxes. Elected officials’ inability to budget responsibly results in numerous erosions of the quality of life of everyone except the government’s favored interest groups, to whom it has given all the money it was supposed to save or spend on you.

In addition to the Tax Foundation’s findings, the story of big government’s failures was brought to mind by the Manhattan Institute’s Steven Malanga, who has a column today about the growth in unfunded state pension liabilities and what that is doing to the business climate–and thus the future job market–in some states. Malanga notes that courts have often sided with government employees who argue that the generous benefits formula put in place during a far different economic climate and for different workers cannot be undone, amended, or disturbed even for current and future workers.

“That’s a prescription for higher taxes, fewer services and eventual insolvency,” Malanga writes. He continues:

Large businesses that operate in multiple locations see this playing out as a new aggressiveness on the part of states. Every few years Chief Financial Officer magazine asks executives at large companies to rate the states in terms of how aggressively they pursue higher tax collections. In the last study, completed in 2011, executives told the magazine that, as one finance exec wrote: “The states are in a pure money-grab mode and don’t care about policy, the law, or fairness.” Not surprisingly, four of the five worst-rated states in that study-California, New York, Illinois and New Jersey-all have mountains of debt of one form or another.

Some state governments have switched from merely trying to collect taxes on in-state business to extending their tax arm as far as possible. That means firms with a single telecommuter in a state are being dunned for corporate income tax claims, as are firms with no physical presence in a state other than a website hosted on local server.

“We are seriously going to consider whether we allow employees to travel to or participate in events” in New York, one CEO recently told Chief Executive magazine. New York has the second highest per capita debt load among the states, according to a report by its comptroller, as well as one of the highest tax burdens in the nation. So it’s not surprising that the CEO explained his strategy by noting, “We can’t afford for NY to become a tax nexus for us just because our employees participate in a conference in NY or the like.”

Indebted states must eventually become money-grabbing states, if they aren’t already. Businesses that haven’t learned that lesson yet will learn it the hard way.

Malanga’s column explains that businesses are starting to understand all that goes into their decisions on where to locate their headquarters–and even, as the above quote demonstrates, which cities and states their employees travel to on business. The states dominated by big government liberalism run amok will be highly attractive to public sector workers but few others.

And that, in turn, risks perpetuating this vicious cycle by damaging the economy that would otherwise feed the government beast. The remaining taxpayers will see their taxes go up. These days that will be accompanied by cutting essential services because the contracts and pension plans can’t be touched (much like the similar predicament I’ve discussed in which New Jersey’s public school students lost out on computers, tutoring, newer books, and sports programs because the teachers union contracts couldn’t be adjusted to meet costs).

It also, once again, proves the importance of responsible budgeting in all economic climates and the foolishness of putting off possible reforms until it’s too late. The rise of conservative governors even in blue states is perhaps a hopeful sign that message is getting through.

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A Clash of Conventional Wisdom on Immigration Reform

Today’s Politico story on the expected slow death of immigration reform in the House is getting a lot of attention. Anti-immigration conservatives have been complaining that the conventional wisdom is that bipartisan immigration reform will pass. The Washington Examiner reports on a Monday meeting of House immigration reform opponents, who are “worried that immigration reform is inevitable,” according to one member of the group. “We believe we’re paddling upstream against a bipartisan current.”

The purpose of the Politico story, on the other hand, is to reverse the conventional wisdom. What’s interesting about the two stories is that they depict the anti-immigration reform caucus as being of two minds, because they are the source of the doom-and-gloom fatalists and confident triumphalists simultaneously. They are, of course, not necessarily the same legislators, but they also don’t seem to be talking to each other. While they complain to the Examiner that immigration reform may be inevitable, here’s how Politico reports their mindset:

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Today’s Politico story on the expected slow death of immigration reform in the House is getting a lot of attention. Anti-immigration conservatives have been complaining that the conventional wisdom is that bipartisan immigration reform will pass. The Washington Examiner reports on a Monday meeting of House immigration reform opponents, who are “worried that immigration reform is inevitable,” according to one member of the group. “We believe we’re paddling upstream against a bipartisan current.”

The purpose of the Politico story, on the other hand, is to reverse the conventional wisdom. What’s interesting about the two stories is that they depict the anti-immigration reform caucus as being of two minds, because they are the source of the doom-and-gloom fatalists and confident triumphalists simultaneously. They are, of course, not necessarily the same legislators, but they also don’t seem to be talking to each other. While they complain to the Examiner that immigration reform may be inevitable, here’s how Politico reports their mindset:

In private conversations, top Republicans on Capitol Hill now predict comprehensive immigration reform will die a slow, months-long death in the House. Like with background checks for gun buyers, the conventional wisdom that the party would never kill immigration reform, and risk further alienating Hispanic voters, was always wrong — and ignored the reality that most House Republicans are white conservatives representing mostly white districts.

These members, and the vast majority of their voters, couldn’t care less whether Marco Rubio, Bill O’Reilly and Karl Rove say this is smart politics and policy.

Republican leaders will huddle with their members Wednesday afternoon to plot their public strategy. But after holding countless listening sessions, it is clear to these leaders that getting even smaller, popular pieces of reform will be a tough sell. The House plans a piecemeal approach: a border-security bill this month, maybe one or two items a month in the fall.

The weakness of a piecemeal approach is that the United States has both an illegal immigration problem and a legal immigration problem. There are numerous security concerns along the border and with regard to visa overstayers to support those who argue for a secure border and a functioning verification program. But the market (that thing to which Republicans often attribute wisdom) wants more immigrant labor, and those laborers quite reasonably want at least a path to citizenship.

The reason border hawks sense bipartisan momentum for immigration reform is because such momentum exists, and it exists for a logical reason: Republicans tend to focus on fixing one half of the system while Democrats focus on the other. Neither party will vote for a final bill that excludes (or waters down) its priorities. We currently have divided government: one house of Congress is controlled by the GOP, the other by the Democrats. Hence, a bipartisan bill is the only one that could conceivably get through both chambers.

But the Politico story hits the nail on the head as to why this seemingly logical way of looking at the reform effort is flawed: the two parties may often seem to be uniform ideological vehicles, but they are still made up of politicians representing certain geographical districts of the country. It’s less about conservatives versus liberals, then, and more about the reality of congressional electoral politics.

And while that presents certain obstacles to passing reform, those politicians broadly believe it presents certain opportunities as well. The respective party leaderships say that nothing that ignores their red line demand will pass, but members of Congress are itching to test their resolve on that front. Today the Wall Street Journal editorializes that fixing part of the immigration system is better than fixing none of it. If Democrats threaten to vote against anything that isn’t the Senate bill, “Let them,” the Journal argues:

If Silicon Valley Democrats want to vote against high-tech visas, that’s their choice. If the Hispanic caucus wants to vote down the Dream Act and more farm workers, then so be it. Democrats can then take responsibility if these measures fail.

The Journal is right about the virtues of the Dream Act and more visas for industries that need workers with certain skills. But Democrats no doubt would be happy to play this game. Harry Reid doesn’t have to let a House bill see the light of day in the Senate, especially because the Senate already passed its version of immigration reform–with major Republican votes.

Thus Republicans would certainly take the blame for the failure of immigration reform. The media will duly play along to paint the GOP as not just obstructionist and uncooperative but racist. It’s a PR battle that the GOP will almost certainly lose, even if that’s unfair: Democrats’ unwillingness to take border enforcement seriously enough to get Republican votes would unnecessarily contribute to the failure of the reform effort. But it seems fairly clear that, ultimately, only a comprehensive bill can clear Congress.

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Run, Sarah, Run and Keep Running

Was Sarah Palin just teasing us last night when she let drop on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that she was considering running for the U.S. Senate next year? Maybe. Palin, as Politico notes today, will generally do or say anything in order to create some buzz in the media. It’s hard to find too many serious political observers who think that four years after she abruptly resigned her post as governor of Alaska, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate is willing to do the hard work of running for office rather than just running her mouth on television. Nor would it seem likely that she would put her celebrity status in jeopardy by running the risk of being defeated, either in a primary or in a general election.

But, at least for the sake of argument, let’s take her at her word and say that she really is considering challenging incumbent Democrat Mark Begich in 2014. If so, my advice to her is that she should do it.

Doing so might not be the safest play for preserving her “brand” as a pundit at least in the short term since it would take her off of television and the lecture circuit and possibly bring her career as a bankable personality to a premature end. Nor would it necessarily be what Senate Republicans want to happen since they would probably prefer a less controversial mainstream conservative to be the GOP nominee in a race for what ought to be a winnable seat for the party. But if Palin really wants to have an impact on the future of her party and her country and to revive her flagging popularity and chances for a future presidential run, trying for the Senate in 2014 is the only choice.

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Was Sarah Palin just teasing us last night when she let drop on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that she was considering running for the U.S. Senate next year? Maybe. Palin, as Politico notes today, will generally do or say anything in order to create some buzz in the media. It’s hard to find too many serious political observers who think that four years after she abruptly resigned her post as governor of Alaska, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate is willing to do the hard work of running for office rather than just running her mouth on television. Nor would it seem likely that she would put her celebrity status in jeopardy by running the risk of being defeated, either in a primary or in a general election.

But, at least for the sake of argument, let’s take her at her word and say that she really is considering challenging incumbent Democrat Mark Begich in 2014. If so, my advice to her is that she should do it.

Doing so might not be the safest play for preserving her “brand” as a pundit at least in the short term since it would take her off of television and the lecture circuit and possibly bring her career as a bankable personality to a premature end. Nor would it necessarily be what Senate Republicans want to happen since they would probably prefer a less controversial mainstream conservative to be the GOP nominee in a race for what ought to be a winnable seat for the party. But if Palin really wants to have an impact on the future of her party and her country and to revive her flagging popularity and chances for a future presidential run, trying for the Senate in 2014 is the only choice.

After four years as the queen of conservative snark, it’s hard to remember that once upon a time, Palin was one of the bright, young stars of the Republican Party with a hard-won reputation as a fresh, independent voice that was willing to challenge a corrupt state party establishment. That Sarah Palin was not so much an ideologue as she was a doer. Perhaps if John McCain had not listened to those conservative pundits who swooned over Palin’s obvious political talent and good looks and made her his personal Hail Mary play to transform a 2008 presidential election that he was bound to lose anyway, she might now be in the middle of a second successful term as Alaska governor and be one of the GOP’s favorites for 2016. A few more years in Juneau being a good governor and a careful rollout of her national profile in which she could portray herself as conversant on national issues would probably have been the best thing for her career, as well as for her family.

But that was not to be. Palin made a powerful first impression on the country with as brilliant a convention speech as could have been imagined, but soon crashed and burned in national interviews and, unfortunately, became the scapegoat for a poorly run McCain campaign as well as the primary focus for left-wing hate and liberal media bias. In the next year, she ditched her governorship and then proceeded to make a spectacle of herself on reality TV. The worst of it wasn’t so much her poor career choices and the way her family became a tabloid staple. The most dispiriting thing about Palin’s career arc is the way her bitterness at the media and other Republicans became the primary focus of her rhetoric. Rather than going to school on the issues and making herself ready for the next political challenge, she seemed content to become a sideshow for the grass roots, pandering to the worst instincts of her party and often appeared foolish rather than being a thoughtful contributor.

To note this unfortunate descent is not to ignore her still potent ability to generate publicity and draw crowds. Her interventions in some Republican primaries helped conservatives like Ted Cruz and Kelly Ayotte win Senate seats. Her raw political talent and speaking ability is still there even if it is most often used to rail at her enemies rather than to demonstrate thoughtful stands on the issues.

Doing so has kept her admirers happy and preserved her niche as a flame-throwing snark machine of the right. But she has to know that this routine has a limited shelf life. With the GOP now possessed of a deep bench of stars who are potential 2016 candidates, Palin is very much yesterday’s news and has already been eclipsed by people like Cruz and Rand Paul even among her own fan base. As the years go by, her appeal and her celebrity are bound to wane. Sooner or later, if she is to go on being treated–at least by people like Hannity, if few others even in the conservative media–as a big deal, she’s going to have to do something more than talk shows. The 2014 Alaska Senate race may be the best opportunity to do so that she will ever get.

That said, Palin would have to do more than merely throw her hat in the ring to beat Begich. As one poll taken earlier this year made clear, even in Alaska her negative poll ratings are through the roof as much as they are nationally. The fact that a staggering 59 percent of Alaskans view her negatively with only 35 percent seeing her in a positive light might be enough to deter her—or any rational politician—from running. But it’s not as if any of the other likely Republican senatorial candidates look to be doing much better. In particular, the prospect of Tea Party favorite Joe Miller taking another try at the Senate isn’t scaring Begich. Miller beat Lisa Murkowski in a 2010 GOP primary but then lost the general election to her when she ran as an independent, and he isn’t likely to do much better this year. And while Begich has decent poll numbers, he is still a Democrat running in an overwhelmingly Republican state. Moreover, everyone knows that prosecutorial misconduct that helped convict the late Ted Stevens on corruption charges is the only reason Begich is currently sitting in the Senate.

A Senate campaign would put her to the test and even her sternest critics should not assume she would fail this time. It may be that Palin has become too polarizing a political personality to win any election, even in deep red Alaska. But she owes to herself and to her supporters to try. She almost certainly will never be president, but a Senate seat is not beyond her grasp. While I’m far from sure that her contribution to the national debate would be enlightening, it would be entertaining. 

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Aid to Egypt Is a Small Price to Pay to Prevent War

The Republican foreign policy establishment, headed by luminaries such as Senator John McCain and former White House official Elliott Abrams, is urging an immediate cutoff of U.S. military aid to Egypt in response to the country’s revolution-cum-coup. The Obama administration has demurred, saying “it would not be wise to abruptly change our assistance program,” and vowed to take its time in deciding whether what happened legally mandates an aid cutoff, given the “significant consequences that go along with this determination.” 

For once, official Israel is wholeheartedly on Obama’s side. Senior Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down spent hours on the phone with their American counterparts this weekend to argue against an aid cutoff, and Israeli diplomats in Washington have been ordered to make this case to Congress as well. Israel’s reasoning is simple: An aid cutoff will make the volatile situation on its southern border even worse–and that is bad not only for Israel, but for one of America’s major interests in the region: upholding the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

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The Republican foreign policy establishment, headed by luminaries such as Senator John McCain and former White House official Elliott Abrams, is urging an immediate cutoff of U.S. military aid to Egypt in response to the country’s revolution-cum-coup. The Obama administration has demurred, saying “it would not be wise to abruptly change our assistance program,” and vowed to take its time in deciding whether what happened legally mandates an aid cutoff, given the “significant consequences that go along with this determination.” 

For once, official Israel is wholeheartedly on Obama’s side. Senior Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down spent hours on the phone with their American counterparts this weekend to argue against an aid cutoff, and Israeli diplomats in Washington have been ordered to make this case to Congress as well. Israel’s reasoning is simple: An aid cutoff will make the volatile situation on its southern border even worse–and that is bad not only for Israel, but for one of America’s major interests in the region: upholding the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

To understand why, it’s important to realize that most Egyptians view the U.S. aid as “a kind of payment” for keeping the peace. Though the aid isn’t part of the treaty, it began immediately after the treaty was signed, and for 34 years, the only condition on its continuance has been continuation of the treaty. Thus Israel fears that ending the aid would erode Egyptian support for the treaty–and especially that of the army, which would be the main victim of the cutoff. Since the army is not only Egypt’s de facto ruler, but also the treaty’s main supporter in a country where most people would rather scrap it, that would clearly be undesirable.           

What makes it downright dangerous, however, is the situation in Sinai. The army recently beefed up its forces in Sinai in an effort to suppress Islamist terror there, a move Israel obviously welcomed. Nevertheless, Sinai is low priority for the military compared to cities like Cairo and Alexandria. Thus given the perceived linkage between the aid and the treaty, an aid cutoff would likely make the army feel perfectly justified in removing those troops and ceasing its efforts to uphold its main treaty obligation: keeping peace along the border. And having already halted the aid, Washington would have no leverage to prevent this.

That would almost certainly lead to increased terror along Israel’s border. But the real danger, as I’ve explained before, is that cross-border attacks could easily spark an Israeli-Egyptian war that nobody wants–including the U.S. Since the Israeli army will naturally try to stop such attacks, there’s always a risk of Egyptians being accidentally killed in the cross-fire, which in turn would spur angry mobs in Egypt to demand revenge–exactly as happened in August 2011. That attack was an isolated incident, so sanity prevailed. But the more cross-border attacks there are, the more likely it is that one will inadvertently trigger a war.

This is especially true because, as Lee Smith argued last week, a war against Israel would be the one sure way to unite a dangerously divided Egyptian nation: The only thing most Egyptians agree on is that Israel is an “enemy” and a “threat.”           

Continuing the aid is thus a small price to pay for preventing another Mideast war. And that’s something all Americans should be able to understand.

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Bag Law Backlash Hits Montco

I’ve written twice before about the bag tax in Montgomery County, Maryland. In short, the county government overwhelming implemented a 5-cent tax on both paper and plastic bags, not only at supermarkets but also for take-out from restaurants and any retail. The purpose, local politicians said, was to reduce plastic bag litter in local waterways.

Living in Montgomery County, but only a short drive away from Virginia, I take most of my major shopping to Virginia nowadays—I figure that over the last 18 months, that’s come out to a couple thousand dollars I’d otherwise have spent locally. Not only do I resent the nickel-and-diming and paternalism—fine litterers, not those who haven’t littered—but I also use the plastic bags for any number of things: disposing of my daughter’s dirty diapers and Neocatservative’s dirty litter; preventing thawing chicken or fish from leaking in the refrigerator, and other random tasks.

Now, it seems, some Montgomery County politicians are waking up to the fact that such taxes breed resentment.

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I’ve written twice before about the bag tax in Montgomery County, Maryland. In short, the county government overwhelming implemented a 5-cent tax on both paper and plastic bags, not only at supermarkets but also for take-out from restaurants and any retail. The purpose, local politicians said, was to reduce plastic bag litter in local waterways.

Living in Montgomery County, but only a short drive away from Virginia, I take most of my major shopping to Virginia nowadays—I figure that over the last 18 months, that’s come out to a couple thousand dollars I’d otherwise have spent locally. Not only do I resent the nickel-and-diming and paternalism—fine litterers, not those who haven’t littered—but I also use the plastic bags for any number of things: disposing of my daughter’s dirty diapers and Neocatservative’s dirty litter; preventing thawing chicken or fish from leaking in the refrigerator, and other random tasks.

Now, it seems, some Montgomery County politicians are waking up to the fact that such taxes breed resentment.

The county has never established metrics to track whether the bag tax has led to fewer bags in waterways, and has never explained why paper should also be excluded. Nor have the bag tax advocates—those who pretend it’s about the environment and not county coffers—explained why retailers’ bags should be excluded when they seldom if ever find themselves in streams: I’ve never seen a heavy Bed, Bath, and Beyond or Macy’s bag floating in the wind. Now some of the same councilmen who voted in favor of the tax want to start moderating it by, for example, excluding restaurants and retailers.

According to a local news site:

Berliner, a co-sponsor of the bill, said while he still supports the goal of the original bag tax, enacted on Jan. 1, 2012, he thinks requiring people to carry reuseable bags into a hardware store or a Nordstroms to avoid the five-cent fee only breeds resentment. “One small retailer in downtown Bethesda said, ‘We have a number of customers who get angry with us because of a law Montgomery County has imposed on us,’” testified Ginanne Italiano, President of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce. “‘They leave very frustrated, not because of the five cents, but because of a law that makes us charge five cents for a paper bag when it’s the plastic bags that are causing the pollution.’”

Note to politicians: Whether red light cameras programmed to ticket stopped cars, fining farmers for selling raw milk to out-of-state visitors, or overreaching bag laws, no one likes predatory government.

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Of Untreated Sewage and Peace Talks

Though Secretary of State John Kerry’s next trip to the Mideast may be delayed by his wife’s illness, he fully intends to continue his shuttle diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There are many reasons why this effort is misguided, including the one Jonathan noted yesterday–the PA’s nonstop indoctrination of its people in vicious anti-Semitic hatred. But here’s another: the untreated West Bank sewage contaminating groundwater and streams on both sides of the Green Line.

What, you may ask, does untreated sewage have to do with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks? The following Haaretz report provides an answer:

Attempts at Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on this issue have largely gone nowhere, mainly because the Palestinian Authority refuses to cooperate with the settlements. Thus it refused to connect Palestinian towns in the northern West Bank to an Israeli sewage line because the line also serves several settlements. It also nixed a proposed treatment plant that would serve both Palestinian towns and the settlement of Ariel.

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Though Secretary of State John Kerry’s next trip to the Mideast may be delayed by his wife’s illness, he fully intends to continue his shuttle diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There are many reasons why this effort is misguided, including the one Jonathan noted yesterday–the PA’s nonstop indoctrination of its people in vicious anti-Semitic hatred. But here’s another: the untreated West Bank sewage contaminating groundwater and streams on both sides of the Green Line.

What, you may ask, does untreated sewage have to do with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks? The following Haaretz report provides an answer:

Attempts at Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on this issue have largely gone nowhere, mainly because the Palestinian Authority refuses to cooperate with the settlements. Thus it refused to connect Palestinian towns in the northern West Bank to an Israeli sewage line because the line also serves several settlements. It also nixed a proposed treatment plant that would serve both Palestinian towns and the settlement of Ariel.

In other words, the PA would rather let its own waterways be polluted–including the mountain aquifer, a major source of drinking water for both Palestinians and Israelis–than do something as simple as connect to an Israeli sewage line or cooperate on a treatment plant. But how can peace be possible when the PA would rather risk its own citizens’ health than cooperate with its ostensible “peace partner” to solve the problem?

Nor is this a fluke: The PA opposes even the most innocuous forms of cooperation with Israel. In May, for instance, its ruling Fatah party denounced a soccer game for Israeli and Palestinian teens organized with EU support, while Fatah activists posted threatening messages on the Internet against both players and organizers. But how can peace be possible if the PA won’t even let its children play soccer with Israelis?

Or consider the PA’s recent campaign against Israeli journalists. As anyone familiar with Israel knows, Israeli journalists are far more likely than most Israelis to believe peace is achievable, blame their own government for its non-achievement and support Palestinian demands for more Israeli concessions. Yet now, as the Washington Post reported in May, Israeli journalists are being thrown out of PA press conferences and harassed by PA security personnel; Palestinian journalists who have ties with Israeli colleagues are being labeled “collaborators”; and “Organizations that once brought Palestinian and Israeli journalists together for professional conferences no longer sponsor such events, because Palestinian reporters say it will hurt their careers to participate.”

Needless to say, this would seem self-defeating, as it alienates some of the PA’s most influential Israeli supporters. But the more serious problem is this: If Palestinians will no longer talk with even the most pro-Palestinian Israelis, which Israelis will they talk to?

Under these circumstances, peace talks don’t stand a chance. So I’d like to propose that Kerry attempt a more modest achievement: persuade the PA to connect its cities to Israeli sewage lines. That might actually be doable. And unlike the pie-in-the-sky diplomacy he’s pursuing now, it would genuinely improve both Palestinian and Israeli lives.

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To Reduce Leaks, Slash the Bureaucracy

President Obama has reportedly unveiled a creepy and controversial program to undercut leaks within the federal government. Like President George W. Bush—who also sought to wage war on leakers—Obama’s initiative is doomed to fail. The federal government employs almost 4.5 million people. Granted, that’s off the all-time high of 1968, but it still represents a huge amount of fat, and it doesn’t include the ballooning amount of private contractors. Indeed, perhaps 4 million people hold “top secret” clearance including, as the Washington Post noted, packers and craters.

At the same time, outlets for leaks have expanded rapidly. Any government official is just an email away. Local papers might be dying, but a whole generation of bloggers and Washington-based journalists rely on receiving leaks in order to do their jobs. Hardly a Starbucks exists in central Washington in which government officials can’t on occasion be heard discussing issues that are probably classified: it is an irony of the onerous and uncoordinated security procedures to enter each other’s office buildings that leads bureaucrats and appointees to find an unsecured middle ground.

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President Obama has reportedly unveiled a creepy and controversial program to undercut leaks within the federal government. Like President George W. Bush—who also sought to wage war on leakers—Obama’s initiative is doomed to fail. The federal government employs almost 4.5 million people. Granted, that’s off the all-time high of 1968, but it still represents a huge amount of fat, and it doesn’t include the ballooning amount of private contractors. Indeed, perhaps 4 million people hold “top secret” clearance including, as the Washington Post noted, packers and craters.

At the same time, outlets for leaks have expanded rapidly. Any government official is just an email away. Local papers might be dying, but a whole generation of bloggers and Washington-based journalists rely on receiving leaks in order to do their jobs. Hardly a Starbucks exists in central Washington in which government officials can’t on occasion be heard discussing issues that are probably classified: it is an irony of the onerous and uncoordinated security procedures to enter each other’s office buildings that leads bureaucrats and appointees to find an unsecured middle ground.

In the meantime, smuggling information out is easier than ever. Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden reportedly used an illegal thumb drive, as did alleged WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning. Computer networks allow analysts to acquire reams of documents. No longer do spies (or leakers) need miniature cameras, nor do they need to meet in underground parking garages.

Anyone who has ever worked in the federal government knows just how bizarre people can be. It gets worse in the intelligence community, where the culture of secrecy often allows the bizarre to thrive. As some high-profile retirees demonstrate, those who spent decades poring over foreign communications, speeches, and intercepts can often absorb some of the biases and conspiracies of the societies they studied. Those who have also worked in the government also are daily witness to tremendous waste and bureaucratic fat. Parkinson’s Law is alive and well. The simple fact is that the government could likely work just as well with less.

Perhaps it’s time for Obama and, indeed, any administration to recognize that leaks are proportional to the size of the government and compounded by the size of databases and the increasingly large groups of people able to access them. If the government wants to reduce leaks, the easiest and most effective path would be less government. That would take the strain off background investigators and allow the government both to reduce access and make leaks of such material more easily traceable.

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