Category Government Idiocy

Lawn Mowing, $80 a pop?

From a New York Times story about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which now own over 160,000 houses through foreclosure:

Fannie asks contractors to mow lawns twice a month during the summer, and pays them $80 each time. That’s a monthly grass bill of more than $10 million.

Don’t you think that you’d be able to get a lawn mowed for less than $80, particularly when you’re contracting to have them mowed in bulk? And when nobody is going to be particularly picky about the job you’re doing, as long as the lawn actually gets mowed?

Blitz Attack!

The caption on this photo from the June 3 Warren Sentinel reads:

On Friday, May 28, checkpoints were held on East Criser Road, West Strasburg Road and Commerce Avenue. The Commerce Avenue checkpoint was a part of the 522 Blitz for the 2010 Click it or Ticket campaign.

“We conducted three separate checkpions [sic] and screened a total of 1000 cars. We had three suspended drivers, three child restraint violations and two seat belt violations overall,” said Traffic Enforcement Officer Don Orye.
blitz attack

Now certainly some of the people approaching this mess weren’t wearing their seatbelts, and they put them on before being checkpointed. And some people saw this and used an alternate route all together.

But since this involves 1000 cars and finding a total of eight violations — .008 of the cars, that is, or .08% — you’d think the appropriate headline would be ‘Warren Countians and Front Royalty Are Exceptionally Law-Abiding’ or possibly ‘Tax Money Down The Tubes As Police Inconvenience Thousands To Detect Eight Minor Violations’.

Mind you, if you consider that the real point here was to detect seat-belt violations, the success rate was only .002. But if you believe that, you have to ask how they caught the ‘suspended drivers’. Obviously this ‘seat-belt checkpoint’ involved demanding to see at least some fraction of drivers’ licenses.

More Police Activity

Trolling my St. Louis news feeds, I came across this:

According to Missouri Department of Transportaion (MoDOT), all southbound lanes of Interstate 55 are closed at Meramec Bottom Road. It is estimated that the highway will be opened by 10 a.m.

Emergency crews are currently blocking all southbound lanes, and multiple vehicles are stopped in the road. According to Missouri State Highway Patrol officials, there was accident with minor injuries.

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For an accident with minor injuries, they close the Interstate. Nothing must be allowed to inconvenience the officials!

The timestamp on the traffic camera shows 9:10 a.m., and there’s a tow truck already there loading a car; this means that an accident with minor injuries means closing the Interstate for at least an hour.

'Hunger' in the U.S.

The USDA released its annual report on Food Security (i.e. whether people can secure enough food to eat, not whether Chef Boyardee is an Al Qaeda mole) this week, and the media have temporarily stopped writing stories about the crisis of Obesity among the poor to write stories about how the real problem is that they’re starving.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith approaches his job of revising The Times to ensure that the government’s predictions always can be shown to have been accurate:

For example, the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at 145 million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to fifty-seven millions, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been overfulfilled. In any case, sixty-two millions was no nearer the truth than fifty-seven millions, or than 145 millions. Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot.

We seem to be living in a kind of strange mirror image of Oceania here, where everyone has a different pair of boots for every day of the week but where the newspapers are full of hand-wringing editorials about the boot shortage.

The New York Times reports on the USDA Food Security Report:

Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High

WASHINGTON — The number of Americans who lived in households that lacked consistent access to adequate food soared last year, to 49 million, the highest since the government began tracking what it calls “food insecurity” 14 years ago, the Department of Agriculture reported Monday.

The important thing here is to note that the Times uses the common and easily understood word ‘hunger’ in the headline; but the lede backs off from this quite a bit, putting the actual thing being measured in quotes, and interjecting a ‘what it calls’. It seems to have occurred to someone at the Times that what is at an all-time high is not hunger, exactly.

A better headline, really, would be: Some People Too Stupid To Use Food Stamps because there’s absolutely no reason for anyone in the United States not to have enough to eat. If your income is $0, the government will feed you. If your income is greater than $0 but less than an amount that’s almost impossible to figure accurately, the government will partially feed you.

The Times again:

About a third of these struggling households had what the researchers called “very low food security,” meaning lack of money forced members to skip meals, cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point in the year.

The other two-thirds typically had enough to eat, but only by eating cheaper or less varied foods, relying on government aid like food stamps, or visiting food pantries and soup kitchens.

It falls to Tino to do the reporting that, for whatever reason, the New York Times won’t, and explain what these terms mean.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has four categories for ‘food security’:

  1. High Food Security
    Pretty much what it says. USDA says ‘no reported indications’ of food access problems.
  2. Marginal Food Security
    Basically: anxiety. USDA: ‘Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.’
  3. Low Food Security
    Poor. Buying store brands. USDA: ‘Little or no indication of reduced food intake.’
  4. Very Low Food Security
    USDA says: ‘Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.’

You are sorted into these categories based on your answers to the questions in this survey. The questions are like:

I worried whether my food would run out before I got money to buy more: Often, sometimes, never

I couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals: Often, sometimes, never

In the last 12 months, did you ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food?

In the last 12 months, did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn’t enough money for food?

I relied on only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed my child because I was running out of money to buy food: Yes, no

Basically, you get a point for each ‘Yes’, ‘Often’, or ‘Sometimes’ answer. So if you’ve worried, and eaten a small meal, and eaten what you think is an unbalanced meal, or relied on ‘only a few kinds of low-cost food’ to feed the kids at least once any time in the past year, you have ‘very low food security’. That might be a valid thing to measure, but it certainly is not ‘hunger’.

Incidentally, it’s notable that the people in the survey report markedly better ‘food security’ in the 30 days immediately prior to the survey than they do when asked the same questions about the past year. This strongly suggests that people are remembering things as worse than they really were. On top of the vagueness of the questions, this renders the survey almost totally pointless.

The official victim class (to which a lot of ‘food-insecure’ people certainly belong) would all be pretty skilled in being sure to always tell the government survey that everything’s terrible; this is, after all, the job of the professional victim.

In the United States, if you can’t afford food, the federal government will subsidize your eating, usually on the spot. When you apply for food stamps, unless something goes wrong you generally leave the office with your EBT card. In 2007, Nicole and I tried the food stamp diet to see whether it was possible to eat well on it, and the conclusion is that you need to know how to cook, but that other than that, it’s pretty damned easy.

What we actually did was the $21 per week diet. At the time, the average food stamp benefit came to $21 per person per week. You’re not actually meant to spend only $1 per meal; as your income rises, your benefit is cut. If you actually have no income at all, you got $155 a month, which is $38.75 a week. Given that it’s entirely possible to eat a healthy and tasty diet on $21 a week, $38.75 would be a piece of cake. Literally: on $21 you can only afford cookies.

The benefit has increased since then, and if you receive SNAP benefits (the actual name for the food-stamp program these days), any kids you might have are eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school.

The Times story goes on, eventually leading here:

Some conservatives have attacked the survey’s methodology, saying it is hard to define what it measures.

Considering that the statistics don’t make sense and that even the New York Times feels a need to distance itself from the weird terminology involved, I’d say that ‘some conservatives’ might have a point.

My Constitutional Amendments

Over the past year or so, I’ve seen a lot of people proposing the amendments to the U.S. Constitution that they’d like to see, and that they think would make the world a better place. I have two.

So I’d propose:

Commerce between the several states shall be understood to mean: only commercial activity wherein some good or service is sold by one party to another party in exchange for money, other goods or services, or other valuable consideration; and only that commercial activity that is not conducted entirely in one state.

We need this because of an argument over 239 bushels of wheat.

In 1941, Roscoe Filburn planted 23 acres of wheat, in defiance of a New Deal quota system that only allowed him to plant 11.1 acres. He fed the excess wheat to his chickens.

The government argued that this was nevertheless interstate commerce (and thus regulable by the federal government), even though the wheat in question was never sold, and even though it never crossed a property line, much less a state line.

The government’s argument, simplified, was that had Filburn not grown this forbidden wheat and fed it to his chickens, he would have been obliged to buy chicken feed, and that had he bought this feed from another farmer in the same state, this would have in any case affected the market price for chicken feed, and thus have been interstate commerce.

Plainly, this is insane. The Supreme Court said:

Home-grown wheat in this sense competes with wheat in commerce. The stimulation of commerce is a use of the regulatory function quite as definitely as prohibitions or restrictions thereon. This record leaves us in no doubt that Congress may properly have considered that wheat consumed on the farm where grown, if wholly outside the scheme of regulation, would have a substantial effect in defeating and obstructing its purpose to stimulate trade therein at increased prices.

By this logic, anything is regulable as ‘interstate commerce’ (and, indeed, this is pretty much how the Congress has chosen to see things since the 1940s). The stimulation of commerce is a use of the regulatory function quite as definitely as prohibitions or restrictions thereon. By that logic, the federal government could conceivably order you to take two baths a day, in order to stimulate trade in soap. They could order you to get up earlier, and so push up the market price of coffee. For that matter, they could dictate a specific breakfast menu to you, in order to favor the producers of eggs, bran muffins, bagels, orange juice, or whoever has spent the most money on lobbyists recently. This is utterly insane.

The Constitution, in Article I, Section 8, grants to the federal government the authority to regulate foreign commerce and commerce ‘among the several states’. If the real intention of the Founders was for commerce ‘among the several states’ to be anything, even activity that is neither ‘among the several states’ nor commercial, presumably they would have just said so.

So. Interstate commerce means interstate commerce, and not anything else. I expect that this amendment would mean a lot of vacant office space on K Street.

My second amendment is:

Section 1.
Having voted for, in the case of a member of the House of Representatives or of the Senate, or having signed, in the case of the President, any law later found by the Supreme Court to have been partly or wholly contrary to the provisions of the Constitution or any of its amendments, shall be cause for articles of impeachment to be brought against that person in the appropriate body.

Section 2.
In cases of impeachment brought under this article, a one-third vote in favor of impeachment shall be required for conviction.

The president and members of Congress all take oaths to uphold the Constitution. It has become very common, though, for them to see the determination of whether an action is or is not Constitutional as solely the Supreme Court’s job.

This amendment would basically require anyone thinking of voting for or signing an unconstitutional law to be pretty sure that their party would be significantly in the majority for the rest of his political career.

Speaking Truth To Power

Someone wrote in to Glenn Reynolds with a point I’d been thinking about yesterday, and planning to write about today. Speaking of the Obama administration, he wrote:

These people are so steeped in Saul Alinsky that they fail to realize that they were written for people trying to topple the system and mau-mau the flakcatchers. But now THEY ARE the flack-catchers and they obviously never really understood the problems of governing.

Reynolds comments:

Yeah, Alinsky’s a set of rules for annoying The Man. Not much help once you are The Man.

I don’t know whether I’d go so far as to say that Obama & Co. ‘never really understood the problems of governing’, but the rest of this rings true. The Left, and the Democrats in the US in particular, have become something like a dog chasing a car. The dog is just acting instinctively and chasing after anything that moves; he doesn’t really have a plan for what’s going to happen should he actually catch the car.

The Democrats, from 2000 to 2008, blamed all of their problems — hell, all problems full stop — on George Bush. Couldn’t get their policies enacted? It was all the fault of George Bush (spit) and those corporations (spit) and talk radio (spit)!!!11 It’s all just lies and fear that are fooling the people into a false sense of complacency!!!1 so that Halliburton (spit) can get richer (spit)!!1

And so on. Before George Bush, it was just corporations and talk radio and the vast right-wing conspiracy etc.

Some lefties actually seem to understand that their real problem is that the majority of the people don’t like their policies. Once in a while, this slips out, as in these examples from just after the election in 2004, but in general you have to keep this kind of contempt for the electorate under wraps if you want to have a snowball’s chance in hell of actually winning elections.

Immigrants-Against-Democracy Fuck-Middle-America Dailymirror-Bush

By spitting at the straw-man enemies of George Bush and Fox News, though, the left was able to forget about, or at least to paper over, its differences; this is how you have a ‘coalition’ that include both billionaire capitalist George Soros and the Berkeley Marxist League. What did they stand for? Well, a lot of things, many of them directly contradictory. But more than anything, they stood for opposition to Bush, hatred of Fox News, etc., etc.; many of the Democrats’ troubles now are the direct result of their confusing this emotion-based unity with genuine agreement.

The left now controls the universities, TV, movies, nearly all major newspapers, NPR, PRI, all TV news except for Fox, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House, and yet you have Valerie Jarrett saying

I think that what the administration has said very clearly is that we’re going to speak truth to power.

Their ideology has become so wrapped up in ‘struggle’ and ‘organizing’ against some more powerful force that you wind up with a person with an office in the White House who reports directly to the President of the United States talking about how she and her colleagues are going to speak truth to power. It’s like a tic.

Another Brilliant Initiative

There’s some new parking scheme afoot, says the Washington Post:

The changes underway in Arlington also would allow parking prices to fluctuate depending on demand. Meters would be remotely monitored for parking space usage. The goal is 85 percent occupancy, said Wayne Wentz, the county’s chief of transportation engineering and operations. When it rises, the price will increase from 75 cents to $1.

This actually sounds like a good idea. The whole point of parking meters isn’t — or wasn’t, anyway, when the things were introduced — to raise revenue, but to ensure that parking is available for those who need it. Without parking meters, the space is used more inefficiently.

But:

“It’s sending a signal to drivers that if you’re gonna drive, it’s uniformly going to cost you,” said Harriet Tregoning, the District’s planning director. “We don’t want everyone to think it’s great to drive because parking is free and available.”

So by spending money to manage the supply of and demand for parking spaces, they hope to make parking less available? That’s the intention? How’s that supposed to work? I think pretty much everyone would prefer an actually available parking space for $5 to one that’s available, but only theoretically, for $0.75. Unless you work for minimum wage or near to it, it’s cheaper to drive in and pay quite a bit for parking than it is to take the Metro — particularly if you don’t happen to live within walking distance of a Metro station on the other end of your journey, since that just means that you’ll have to pay for parking at the station.

Tregoning says drivers in the District are long overdue for some tough love: Just 63 percent of city households own a car. The national average is somewhere in the 90s, she said.

The city used to require developers to build four parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of retail space. Now the standard is one space.

“Now we say to developers, look at the car ownership rate in the neighborhood and do something that’s commensurate,” Tregoning said. When a historic building rehabilitation is under review, planners discourage even a single space for each condo or store.

After they get done with this round of planning and meddling, expect more stories about how suburbanites are avoiding DC because they’re all racists.

That's One Way To Look At It

The Virginia senate has effectively rejected two of our democratic governor’s pet causes: a doubling of the state cigarette tax, and a bill to ‘close the gun show loophole’, i.e. a law to require private individuals to conduct background checks on other private individuals to whom they sell guns (firearms dealers are required to conduct the checks no matter where they sell the guns).

In a Washington Post story about this headlined ‘Va. Still Holds Guns, Tobacco Dear’, a particularly obtuse state senator from suburban Fairfax County is quoted:

“Virginia still seems to be ruled by the gun lobby and the tobacco lobby,” said Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax). “I think there are many members who are unwilling to oppose them for fear of retribution at the polls. And there also is a sort of traditional Virginia ‘past’ that is supportive of tobacco and guns.”

So: this is the fault of the gun and tobacco lobbies in Virginia; but members are unwilling to oppose those lobbies because, if they do, they expect retribution at the polls.

Or, in other words, many of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia prefer that their state government not double the tax on cigarettes, and not make it harder to buy guns; if their representatives do not respect these wishes, the citizens are likely to vote them out. It seems to me that the vote, then, is representative democracy at work. Ms. Howell would apparently prefer a king.

Local Police Want Right to Jam Wireless Signals

That’s the headline on the Washington Post story: Local Police Want Right to Jam Wireless Signals.

There’s no good paragraph to excerpt in the story; the lead is about the Obamacade in the inaugural parade. A better lead would have been more clearly about the authority the feds apparently have to jam cell phone signals in certain situations.

Paragraph #2:

It is an increasingly common technology, with federal agencies expanding its use as state and local agencies are pushing for permission to do the same. Police and others say it could stop terrorists from coordinating during an attack, prevent suspects from erasing evidence on wireless devices, simplify arrests and keep inmates from using contraband phones.

I’m sure that this would be a useful item in the cop toolbox. But how many people think that the police wouldn’t abuse this power? The current cop mindset in the United States is one that leads to things like the Prince George’s County (MD) police storming the house of the mayor of a town in the county, killing his two dogs, and restraining him and his mother-in-law on the floor for hours because someone had anonymously sent a box of marijuana to his address — a box that was actually delivered by the police themselves?

The police wound up breaking down the door, shooting the dogs, etc. because, as they constantly claim, there might be a threat to their safety otherwise. ‘You never know what you’re going to find’ when serving a warrant, police spokesmen say again and again in justifying this kind of thing.

Maybe the reason they don’t know in advance what they’re going to find is that they’re not interested in finding out. From a recent Washington Post magazine story about the raid:

“The guy in there is crazy,” [Berwyn Heights, MD police officer] Johnson remembered a Prince George’s County officer telling him when he arrived. “He says he is the mayor of Berwyn Heights.”

“That is the mayor of Berwyn Heights,” Johnson replied.

Police work, ladies and gentlemen! You’d think, since the police spokesmen talk so much about the uncertainty and risk and so on that necessitates these home invasions, that they police would at least make the slightest attempt to figure out ahead of time what they’re going to be up against, no?

Apparently: no. The investigative work in this case, at least, didn’t even extend to having the slightest idea who their target was. Presumably they checked to see whether anyone living at the address had a criminal record, but I wouldn’t even be too sure of that.

There are 27 towns and municipalities in Prince George’s County, and the police in this case were so unfamiliar with the ‘community’ that they constantly talk about that they didn’t know that the guy was the mayor of the very municipality they were operating in.

Do you really think that a group of people so detail-oriented and respectful of civil authority would scruple to not just eventually jam all cell phone communications anywhere within, say, a 200-foot radius of every police car?

They wouldn’t do this at first, of course. But after they’d had jammers for a few years for use by SWAT teams and so on, they’d claim that the use of phones by people in cars during traffic stops represented some kind of threat, and they’d hook jammers up in all their cars. Cops would wear little portable jammers on their belts for those rare cases when they’re forced to venture more than 200 feet from their cars.

It’s worth noting that Brett Darrow’s 2007 recording of a St. George, MO police officer threatening to arrest him on phony charges was made by a camera that continuously uploaded its take. It’s a reasonable assumption that locally stored recordings of disputes between citizens and cops would generally be found to be corrupted, erased, or otherwise gone — just as the video cameras in police cars seem to malfunction at an astonishing rate, most often when there are suggestions that the recordings would tend to make the cops look bad.

In the District, corrections officials won permission from the FCC for a brief test of jamming technology at the D.C. jail last month, after citing the “alarming rate” of contraband phones being seized at prisons around the country.

“Cell phones are used by inmates to engage in highly pernicious behavior such as the intimidation of witnesses, coordination of escapes, and the conducting of criminal enterprises,” D.C. corrections chief Devon Brown wrote to the federal agency.

My main point isn’t about law-enforcement incompetence, but note that one of the needs they cite for this disruptive power is entirely the result of their own incompetence at keeping phones out of prisons. Either visitors are bringing them in, or their own guards are corrupt. Fixing either of those problems would be difficult, though: easier to just jam cell phones in the vicinity of the jail. That ordinary people would be inconvenienced by this isn’t important — they are mere citizens, after all.

The stated justification for all of this, of course, is movie-plot terrorism threats.

“When lives are at stake, law enforcement needs to find ways to disrupt cellphones and other communications in a pinpointed way against terrorists who are using them,” New York City Police Commissioner Raymond F. Kelly told a Senate panel Jan. 8. He also cited the Mumbai terrorist attacks, when hostage-takers used media spotters and satellite and mobile phones to help them outmaneuver police at hotels, train stations and other targets.

This, of course, ignores entirely the fact that much of the Mumbai carnage was the direct result of police incompetence. Witnesses to an early shooting at a railway station said that armed police there didn’t shoot at the terrorists.

It also ignores entirely the fact that if the police are known to jam cell phones, terrorists simply won’t depend on cell phones. They’ll use some other kind of radio that the police aren’t equipped to jam.

This would be an inconvenience for the terrorists — and I’m all for inconveniencing terrorists — but the police jamming would be an even greater ‘inconvenience’ for a citizen who might see something in the vicinity of an attack that might be useful to the police — but only if the citizen could call 911 on his cell phone.

Newspeak watch: Middle-Class

In the Washington Post this morning, we learn that no less august a personage as Joe Biden is going to head up a new Task Force.

Biden made his first prominent White House appearance Friday with the launch of the Middle Class Working Families Task Force, billed as a “major initiative targeted at raising the living standards of middle-class, working families in America.”

You know, it seems that very recently, these same people were telling us that the living standards of middle-class Americans were Destroying The Earth, and that we all had to Cut Back or the Seas Would Rise etc., etc.

There are undoubtedly some people in the United States who could use a boost in their standard of living. And there are some others who really couldn’t have a boost in their standard of living, barring the discovery of hitherto unknown loopholes in the laws of physics or the invention of some new and wonderful cocktail; these people have a standard of living that is already as high as is possible given the current state of technology.

In the middle are the middle-class, the people for whom an improvement in their standard of living is theoretically possible, but who are not going hungry, or cold, or without a car or TV or boat (if they want a boat) or, really, pretty much anything else this side of stained-glass bathrobes and world’s fattest racehorses. The middle-class American lifestyle is the envy of pretty much everyone in the world — excepting only the contemporary super-rich, and even they might see some things to be admired in it.

But it’s not enough for Joe Biden.

Putting aside political cynicism, the only conclusion I can arrive at is that they are talking about something else. ‘Middle class’ as used by Biden et al. does not mean what it means when used by humans.

I think that by middle class they mean what used to be called the working poor. (The working poor used to be called just the poor until people started to notice that, in a hell of a lot of cases, the poor were poor because they didn’t do any work. The majority quite rightly doesn’t feel a lot of sympathy for such people, so people who worked but didn’t make much money started being called the working poor.)

The chief clue is in the name of the Task Force: the Middle[-]Class Working Families Task Force. Barring people who are temporarily unemployed, are there any middle-class people in the United States who don’t work? Presumably, if you don’t work but are able to live off your investment income, you are rich (or at least retired); if you don’t work but are not able to live off your investment income, you are poor. If you do work but are not able to live off that income, you are the working poor.

It used to be that everyone else was middle-class. Now we have a new thing, this ‘working’ middle class. Presumably as the Task Force spins up, the meaning of this phrase will become a little less opaque.