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Five Days of Liberty: A Recap of PorcFest 2011

The freest festival in America

Ever wondered what it would be like if you lived in a world where there were no police, no laws, and no mandates from legislators? For the last five days I was in such an environment in Lancaster, New Hampshire. This event, called PorcFest, is a weeklong celebration of freedom, liberty, and a rebellion against crooked governments and statist legislation. This event is hosted each year by the Free State Project, a non-profit organization that seeks to create a libertarian community within New Hampshire, considered by many, including the prestigious Mercatus Center at George Mason University, to be the freest state in the country both economically and socially. The goal is to get 20,000 liberty activists to agree to move to New Hampshire to make it even freer than it already is. PorcFest is a yearly event that brings together people from around the world to join together under the cause of “liberty in our lifetime”, and also to be able to do the kinds of things that are illegal in their hometowns.

Read on at www.silverunderground.com


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“Justice was Done”

The great international manhunt came to an end last night, as the United States finally got their man. Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks and countless other atrocities around the world, was killed in a daring raid on a mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a wealthy neighborhood some 50 kilometers north of Islamabad. This moment, nearly ten years in waiting, touched off jubilant celebrations from New York to Los Angeles and beyond. President Obama remarked that this moment is “the most significant achievement” in the War on Terror, and he couldn’t be more correct. However, amidst the euphoria and celebration of the news late Sunday night, there was a shroud of mystery surrounding the raid that deserves to be addressed. How did bin Laden make his way across Pakistan away from the Tora Bora Mountains without being noticed? Why did nobody suspect anything was amiss in that neighborhood when a giant mansion with 18-foot walls was erected, dwarfing every other house in the area? Most importantly, how did the Pakistani government not realize that the most wanted man in the world was practically in their backyard, and living near one of the largest military bases in the country? Even though he was finally found and killed, new suspicions have arisen, leaving one to wonder how friendly American-Pakistani relations really are, or if we’ve been played like a fiddle for the past decade.

Let’s focus on the mission itself to start with. According to military sources, this raid had been in the plans for the last four years. The reason it didn’t commence earlier was apparently because the units that took part in the mission needed to be trained to handle such a vast, protected complex, and they had to confirm that bin Laden was actually there. This cautious approach was necessary because the neighborhood the house was in is no slum: it’s an affluent neighborhood far from the combat zone, and right on the doorstep of a supposedly friendly government. There was a great risk that this mission would go pear-shaped, and have ruinous consequences for diplomatic relations with Islamabad if the house had held just innocent people. It was a bold decision on the part of President Obama to sign off on such a mission, knowing the risks involved and the political hot-water he would be in if the suspicions were wrong. Luckily for him, and for the soldiers that took part in this historic raid, the intelligence was correct, and the most wanted criminal on the planet was taken out.

Unfortunately, it seems it didn’t matter very much if the mission was successful or not in terms of our partnership with Islamabad. The success of the mission only raised more questions regarding where the Pakistani military and government’s allegiances really lie. We all knew that fraud and two-timing deals are the norm with this country, but the fact that bin Laden had been hiding in plain sight for all these years, in a part of the country that is as heavily militarized as Abbottabad, is troublesome. There might be reason to believe that the Pakistani government knew he was there all along, and was using his presence there for leverage against the United States, especially when it came to coordinating counter-terror attacks on the Afghani-Pakistani border. We now know that bin Laden was nowhere near that area, debunking years of assurance to the contrary, and somebody either on the Pakistani side or our side has some explaining to do. 

A problem I have with the media’s response to this event is that there seems to be a consensus that with bin Laden out of the picture, al-Qaeda and the Taliban will crumble. I find this hard to believe for a multitude of reasons. First of all, al-Qaeda is an elaborate terrorist network, and it would be surprising if they didn’t have a successor-in-waiting in the event of bin Laden’s death. What is more troubling is how the organization will react upon hearing the news, and what consequences will their actions have on innocent civilians across the world. In the US, security has been beefed up at all airports and possible places a terrorist attack may go down, and governments across the Western world are following suit. While nobody expects a repeat of 9/11 to happen again, attacks like the Madrid train bombings and the 7/7 attacks on London’s transportation system are possible, and relatively easy to plan and carry out. These next few days and weeks are going to be some of the most nerve-wracking of the last decade, especially when we don’t know if al-Qaeda is going to be a force anymore without its leader and spiritual guide. As for the Taliban, they will definitely still be around, and still pose a threat to the Afghani government and people, as well as to the troops still over there. Make no mistake; this is no time to let our guard down. These terrorists are battered, but not beaten.

Politically, this moment couldn’t have come at a better time for Obama, who’s foreign and military policies have been much criticized by both Democrats and Republicans as of late, especially in regards to the war in Libya. While the success of the operation can and should be credited to the military commanders and the soldiers that took part in the planning and execution, the President is still the commander-in-chief, and signing off on this mission was a gutsy move. Also, headed into the 2012 elections, he has a huge weapon in his re-election bag of tricks now, and it’s a weapon that we can expect him to use repeatedly in his campaign, especially if the economy is still lagging. His approval rating is going to go through the roof over the next few days, I’m expected it to peak at around 60%, but any wartime spike in approval is usually short lived, and it won’t be much longer before his numbers come back down to Earth, especially since there are still many more problems the country is currently facing and he is still struggling with. Still, he has that one-up on President Bush that nobody thought he would achieve: during his presidency, bin Laden was found, and justice was done.

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When Ben Bernanke Faced the Nation

Man, the world has gotten depressing recently.

Every time I read the news or flip on a cable news channel, it’s the same dreary stories day in and day out: Oil prices are skyrocketing, the dollar is plummeting, commodities prices are soaring, and Lady Gaga still wears ridiculous clothing in her music videos. Usually one looks to our President for answers, but he’s been too busy raising money for his re-election campaign to stop and give us any answer that doesn’t involve partisan rants or false promises. So rather than listen to the same old chatter, I decided to listen to another perspective on our current economic woes, one that is rarely heard outside of Congressional hearings, and an individual that is often shrouded in a fog of confusion and frustrating mystery. Today was Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s first news conference of his tenure as chairman, a rarity for someone of his position. I was hoping that watching this news conference would shed some light on our fiscal and monetary problems we are suffering from right now. Why is the price of oil so high? What is causing the dollar to fall to such lows? Why are commodities like beef and corn getting more expensive? I thought all of these questions would be at least partially answered by the Fed chairman today, but alas, all I got was more of the same old chatter with no answers or substance.

Up until now, the Federal Reserve’s answer to our fiscal woes has been to print more money. The way the Fed does this is by buying government bonds and securities from banks and the Treasury, or by lowering the amount of money banks are required to keep in reserve, which puts greenbacks into circulation. This strategy, termed “Quantitative Easing”, is intended to make credit easier to come by, and give businesses money to pay their employees and take out loans. A few months ago, Ben Bernanke authorized $600 billion worth of bonds to be bought, which has caused inflation. Essentially, what has happened is that since more dollars are in circulation, they are being devalued, which means goods suppliers want more money for their goods, causing inflation to occur. In addition to these policies, the revolutions throughout the Middle East have caused oil prices to jump to record highs, making transportation of goods more expensive. Since oil prices are determined in US dollars, it makes the dollar look weaker and weaker. Hoping to hear about a new direction from the Fed chairman, I tuned in, but all I got instead was Bernanke saying his policies were going to remain the same.

When asked about the rising gas prices, he admitted that there isn’t much the Fed could do to stem the rise. While I agree that he can’t magically make them go lower, and we shouldn’t expect him to take any drastic action, there are still policies that he could enact that would help consumers at the pump, like selling government bonds to take dollars out of circulation and keep the prices somewhat controlled. Since the United States has an import-driven economy, it is imperative that we have a strong currency so imports, like oil, remain affordable. Bernanke went on to say that he can’t lower the rate of inflation right now because the economy is still fragile, and doing so would cause a second recession. He conveniently forgot to mention that persistent inflation is still not good either, and if the 2% inflation rate (which he has set right now) holds for much longer, it would put American jobs at risk by making goods harder to afford. I know 2% doesn’t seem like much right now, but as time goes on, it has a bigger and bigger impact on the economy than previously.

The press members that were present today did a pretty good job at asking tough, poignant questions regarding the state of the economy, and I only hoped that Bernanke would be able to respond with more than just vague answers that the Federal Reserve is famous for. Since such public statements by a man in his position are rare, I was hoping that he was going to announce some bold new plan of his to keep the economy going, or what he thought would keep the economy going but instead made the dollar weaker and weaker. Unfortunately, the much hyped news conference was just Bernanke telling the nation that he’s continuing the same policies and that he might alter them when the economy gets better and more people become employed. He still deserves some applause for having a big enough pair of moneybags to go in front of the cameras, but I just wish I got some real answers as to why the country is on a slow, depressing decline. 

Back to the depressing drone for me, I suppose.

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Countdown to Shutdown

The standoff of a century is currently taking place in Washington, DC right now (even though the century is only 11 years old). If Congress can’t come to a spending agreement by Friday, the government will shut down for the first time since 1995. This moment has been staved off the past couple of months through continuing resolutions and stopgap measures that pay to keep government operating, but they’re temporary solutions that merely kick the can down the road.  Now it appears we’re at the end of the road, and the clock has run out on Congress. We’re down to two options: get a long-term spending bill finalized, or shut down the government.

First let’s look at Option A: a long-term spending bill. With the arrival of the Tea Party in Washington, the attitude towards spending and budgets has changed dramatically, and it’s for the better. Rather than discussing how much will be spent and where it will be spent, the focus is now what to cut and by how much. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air, but it comes with the same old arguments. Both parties have proposed bills that cut spending, but in different amounts. Democrats, feeling the pressure of mounting deficits for the first time in two and a half years, proposed $33 billion in cuts, whereas Republicans, pressured by the Tea Party-backed members of Congress, are thinking more towards $40 billion at this stage of the game, according to Speaker John Boehner. While on paper these cuts seem pretty hefty, they barely make a dent in the nearly $1.3 trillion deficit. If one does the math, $33 billion in cut spending would represent, at most, a 2.6% reduction in the budget. $40 billion in cuts would be better, but still only roughly 3.1% of the budget. It’s a start, but such miniscule cuts will not do much in the long run to get our country back in fiscal order.

On the budgeting side, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan just announced the GOP budget for the upcoming fiscal year. In it, he claims spending would be reduced by $6.3 trillion over ten years, while adding one million net jobs next year. The savings would come from a reorganization of Medicare and Medicaid, which would turn these programs into a system of insurance premium payments that would allow seniors on Medicare more flexibility in choosing their health care providers in the open market, as well as helping poor people pick better plans for themselves as well. The bill would also defund ObamaCare, lower the corporate the tax rate to 25% while closing major tax loopholes and government giveaways à la General Electric, and make cuts in defense spending. The budget has been widely praised by budget experts from both parties (Alice Rivlin, a Democrat budget analyst from the non-partisan Brookings Institute, was Ryan’s key partner in crafting the budget). These proposals would cut the deficit in half as well as bring unemployment down to 4% by 2015. Democrats were quick to skewer this bill as taking food out of seniors mouths (Nancy Pelosi’s claim), and leaving the poor at the “mercy” of the private health insurance industry, but it’s just their same old schtick they’ve been playing for the last four months: cut spending, but don’t cut that spending. Sadly, the Senate Democrats, who hold a majority, won’t pass the budget without changes, but it does serve notice that the GOP is keeping its pledge to cut government spending and is serious about getting rid of the deficit while creating jobs and making America a more business friendly environment for corporations. It’s an ambitious and risky budget proposal, but given the financial state our country is in, ambition is sorely needed.

If both sides can’t agree on a budget, then we are faced with Option B: a government shut-down. Regardless of what some will have you believe, the “shut down” is not a complete shut-down. Essential services like entitlement checks and unemployment insurance will still be sent out, and you will still get your mail. Also, passports and document processing will still occur, though at a slower rate. However, national parks and DC museums like the Smithsonian would close, and federal funding for state programs would end, meaning states would have a lot less to work with for a period of time. Federal employees may also be furloughed, and non-essential military personnel might be working without pay. The IRS would close as well, so tax refund checks won’t go out (hold the hallelujah). Strangely enough, this prospect intrigues me. States would now have to run without many federal funds, so governors and legislators could act more independently of federal whims. This would mean a sink-or-swim situation for supposedly conservative state officials, and seeing how they react to the situation will tell us who is committed to more state sovereignty, or is just another big government suck up.

Probably the worst aspect of a government shutdown though would be the non-stop finger-pointing we’d hear on the television during the shutdown period. Be prepared for all day tit-for-tat blame fests between Democrats and Republicans over who caused the shutdown. As it stands right now, Democrats might be on the hook for the shutdown more than the GOP. I’m not saying that to point fingers, but rather an analysis regarding facts. Spending proposals have flown out of the House this session due to an unexpectedly united House GOP, but Senate Democrats have shot them down once they reached the upper chamber. Also, Democrats have been shaky regarding cuts to entitlement programs and education funding, which are both due for serious spending reforms. Democrats, to their credit, are beginning to see the need for cuts, and are starting to talk to the Republicans on this issue, but their numbers are still too small to make any real impact, and much of the “cut” spending comes from the transfer of domestic spending to mandatory spending, which can’t be cut unless a law is changed.  However, Democratic leaders will still spin the story to make it seem like the GOP is making unreasonable spending demands and robbing Joe Smith of Somewhere, USA of his health care or government-funded job. It’s the same tired attacks that nobody subscribes to anymore, and that Democrats continue to use for the purposes of grandstanding and electioneering.

The two sides continue to talk, and budget debates are occurring as they should. This might be the moment when a long-term spending bill aiming at the staggering deficit goes to the President for his signature. We might even see a budget for the first time in nearly two years. We might finally see unemployment numbers decreasing at a much faster rate as more businesses hire without unnecessary red tape and confusing tax codes weighing them down.

Or Congress just keeps kicking the can down the road.

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