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Former Dem Senator Webb on VA: ‘We Got a Leadership Problem’



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Former Virginia Democratic senator and veteran Jim Webb expressed his dismay with the mismanagement of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and appeared to suggest that Secretary Eric Shinseki must go.

“We got a leadership problem — we just have to admit it,” said Webb, who previously served as secretary of the Navy, on MSNBC on Tuesday. He added that “it’s not a problem with style, it’s not a problem of intent” plaguing the department, but rather a problem with how it is run.

“We know that demographics work against easily solving the problem, but we need to get the leaders in there and solve the problem — it’s a critical problem,” he said.

Webb joins an increasing number of Democrats criticizing the administration’s handling of the VA, including former lawmakers. Last week, former Nebraska Democratic senator and veteran Bob Kerrey condemned the “terrible culture throughout the VA,” and said Shinseki “needs to step aside.”

Tags: The VA Scandal

Fund: Dems Like Obama, But ‘No Longer Trust Political Instincts of This White House’



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Blast from the Past



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So I was at a concert at the 92nd St. Y on the Friday before Memorial Day (odd scheduling, that, yet the hall was full). Pianist Yefim Bronfman was performing with musicians from the New York Philharmonic. They did Schubert, Brahms, and a modern piece — a trio for violin, clarinet and piano. 

The modern number was a lively thing. The clarinet can be soothing and mysterious — and also comic, squeaking and squawking like a duck. The composer took full advantage of its racket-making moods.

The “modern” piece was “Contrasts,” by Bela Bartok, commissioned by Joseph Szigeti and Benny Goodman, first performed in January 1939. My ears are so old that I have trouble listening with pleasure to anything composed after World War II. That goes for both jazz and music played by artists in suits and gowns. Popular music kept its listenability longer — musicals, country, rock, reggae — but it burns itself out at a great rate. The last performer that caught my attention was Amy Winehouse.

I confess to laziness. I simply have not put in the time to listen to, say, Arvo Part. But am I wrong to think there is less to hear? We can perform the greatest hits for centuries. But is the music that Guillaume Dufay began teasing out of the spring soil over?

Web Briefing: December 19, 2014

It’s Racist When Conservatives Say It



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Our friend Byron York takes the bait from Eugene Robinson this morning and gently explains that conservative use of the phrase “take back our country” is pretty weak evidence of right-wing racism. Byron writes:

“In the end,” Robinson explains, “all we can do is look at what the individual does, listen to what he or she says and then draw conclusions about those words and deeds.” Then, noting the words and deeds he has witnessed at tea party rallies, Robinson writes, “I can’t say that the people holding ‘Take Back Our Country’ signs were racists — but I know this rallying cry arose after the first African American family moved into the White House.”

Perhaps Robinson has forgotten that the phrase “take back our country” was a feature of American politics well before the Obamas came to Washington. In fact, it was a rallying cry just a few years ago, in a different context with a different president. In the mid-2000s, and especially in the 2004 presidential campaign, it was common to hear prominent figures in the Democratic Party and on the left in general express a desire to “take back our country.” If Robinson heard it for the first time after the first African American family moved into the White House, he wasn’t listening.

Byron then goes through the paces, citing all of the Democrats who used the phrase during the Bush years. Well, I can’t even remember what Eugene Robinson said or wrote back in 2010 that prompted this, but here is a visual aid I put together that makes the same point as well

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‘After the UCSB Killings’



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French Government Reacts to Anti-EU Vote by Offering Tax Cuts



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That didn’t take long. The Socialist government of French President Francois Hollande promised tax cuts and spending restraint as a reaction to the first-place finish of Marine LePen’s populist National Front Party in Sunday’s European Parliament elections. Hollande’s Socialists won only 15 percent of the vote, while LePen captured 26 percent and the main conservative party received 21 percent. 

“We need more tax cuts . . . there must be, because it (the tax burden) has become unbearable,” Valls told RTL radio on Monday. “Until unemployment falls, until purchasing power rises, until taxes fall, the French won’t believe us.” Elections can be such clarifying events for a government.

Valls promised to make up for tax cuts by pressing forward with $70 billion in government spending cuts.

I have lots of issues with the National Front’s pedigree and positions, but its success in forcing the French government to react tout de suite on economic policy is a sure sign it can have a positive influence.

Krauthammer’s Take: Obama Must Give Vouchers To Waiting Vets



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Charles Krauthammer said that the Obama administration must use their authority to let veterans seek civilian healthcare.  

“It turns out the VA has had the authority to issue out vouchers, to allow a vet who has been waiting forever to go out and get private care,” he said. “They should have done that on day one when the scandal broke.”

Despite the president saying he’s ”mad as hell” about the VA scandal, he also called the scandal “allegations,” and said they must be investigated. Krauthammer said the president cannot have it both ways.

“How can you be ‘mad as hell’ at allegations? It’s just not consistent. It’s like him saying ‘I learned about it in the newspapers’ and I’ve been working on it for six years,” Krauthammer said. 

 

Tags: The VA Scandal

Will Jesse Jackson Apologize?



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The pope’s Twitter account posts prayers and catchetical tweets, often familiar to anyone who reads the pope’s writings or listens to his homilies. Late last week, right before leaving Rome for his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, @pontifex tweeted:

Among responses, was this, which would be retweeted by Jesse Jackson’s official Twitter account: 

NOTE: What comes next is not family friendly. 

Keep reading this post . . .

Three Ways UKIP’s Nigel Farage Humiliated His Critics



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Nigel Farage, head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, says he is “over the moon” about his party’s placing first in the European Parliament elections.  

What must be especially satisfying is how much he has embarrassed his critics. Prime Minister David Cameron, who once famously dismissed UKIP supporters as “loonies,” now leads a Conservative party that placed third in a national election — the first time in history that that has ever happened.

Ed Miliband, the Labor party leader, saw his party’s gains in the election blunted by a surge of support from traditional Labor party voters towards UKIP’s message of no-nonsense immigration policies and disdain for European entities. Miliband’s own parliamentary constituency in Doncaster actually saw UKIP come in first, beating Labor by 35 percent to 34 percent.

Then there is Marta Andreasen, who shares Farage’s criticism of the European Union and joined his party and won a seat in the European Parliament under his banner. Andreasen had impeccable credentials to skewer the EU, having been fired as its chief accountant in 2002 on trumped-up charges of wrongdoing when in reality she  had challenged the EU’s almost non-existent fraud controls. She says it “it is almost impossible to reform” the institution and backs Britain’s departure from it.

But Andreasen and Farage ultimately proved that their two strong personalities couldn’t fit inside one party. She defected to the Conservative party’s bench in the European Parliament in 2013, accusing Farage of being “Stalinist” and practicing “kamikaze politics.” Running for reelection to Parliament last night in the same region that Farage was running in, she dismissed UKIP’s chances as late as 10 p.m., saying her former party was “far from being an important element in the political game.” She claimed her new party’s campaign had “gone pretty well.” Two hours later she lost her own seat and had to watch Farage deliver his victory speech.

Let’s just say Marta Andreasen may be an eagle-eyed accountant, but as a political player she lacked a certain vision into what the future would bring. 

Britain’s UKIP: How It Succeeded in Coming So Far



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The anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party has accomplished the stunning feat of placing first in Britain’s election for the European Parliament. Infamously derided by Conservative prime minister David Cameron as a bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists, mostly,” UKIP now threatens Cameron’s reelection this year and cooler Tory heads are scrambling to reach some accommodation with UKIP so that Labor doesn’t return to power solely on the basis of a divided anti-EU electorate. But Labor saw itself lose support to UKIP, as its “chablis socialism” alienated many of the party’s core blue-collar, nationalist voters. 

The Daily Telegraph has prepared an excellent history of the upstart UKIP’s origins, challenges, and road to this week’s triumph.

Here is an excerpt: 

The climate of the time, after the financial crisis and expenses saga, also favoured an insurgent force. Even though Ukip has been hit by assorted expenses scandals of its own, criticism simply seemed to bounce off, so desperately did many voters want to kick the other parties. Capitalising on concerns about immigration, Mr Farage began a steady climb in the polls, hoovering up votes from Tory — and now Labour — supporters who hated the mainstream parties, Westminster, the EU or a combination of all three.

As well as voters, activists and former Tory donors have been signing up, too. The party now has more than 38,000 members. And no matter what you think of Ukip, going from a tiny band of outlaw revolutionaries 20 years ago to today’s heights stands as quite an achievement.

Monday Links



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Happy Memorial Day! Here’s how to make an American flag out of bacon.

Smoked lizard on a stick, python kebabs, Spam curds, hot beef sundaes, and pork parfaits: ridiculous state-fair foods.

The science of Bruce Lee’s One-Inch Punch. Also in the science department: Valyrian steel, length of the seasons, dragon biology: the science of Game of Thrones with a bonus geological map.

Why did women start wearing makeup?

For fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t panic — yesterday was Towel Day, but since you should always carry one, it’s not too late to remember why.

The 1940s plan to replace jockeys with robots.

ICYMIFriday’s links are here, and include the tactical order of dressing (in case you need to jump out of bed and fight), the Pentagon’s zombie-apocalypse plan, and a guide to all of the Godzilla kaiju and X-Men.

An Extraordinary Act of Tradecraft



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From the Washington Post:

The CIA’s top officer in Kabul was exposed Saturday by the White House when his name was inadvertently included on a list provided to news organizations of senior U.S. officials participating in President Obama’s surprise visit with U.S. troops.

The White House recognized the mistake and quickly issued a revised list that did not include the individual, who had been identified on the initial release as the “Chief of Station” in Kabul, a designation used by the CIA for its highest-ranking spy in a country.

The disclosure marked a rare instance in which a CIA officer working overseas had his cover — the secrecy meant to protect his actual identity — pierced by his own government. The only other recent case came under significantly different circumstances, when former CIA operative Valerie Plame was exposed as officials of the George W. Bush administration sought to discredit her husband, a former ambassador and fierce critic of the decision to invade Iraq.

In California, a Nightmare with a Familiar Ring



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From the Treatment Advocacy Center: 

The deadly consequences of failing to heed threats of violence from young men known by their families to be psychiatrically unstable and dangerous are on tragic display in the mass shooting of 13 men and women near the University of California Santa Barbara on Friday night, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.

Six victims and shooter Elliot Rodger, 22, were left dead; seven others were wounded, one with life-threatening injuries. Santa Barbara police have characterized the shootings as a “planned mass murder.”

“Once again, we are grieving over deaths and devastation caused by a young man who was sending up red flags for danger that failed to produce intervention in time to avert tragedy,” said Doris A. Fuller, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center. “In this case, the red flags were so big the killer’s parents had called police – a desperate step of last resort for any parent – and yet the system failed.” 

California state law has provisions for emergency psychiatric evaluation of individuals who pose a serious threat of harm to self or others under qualifying conditions. Rodger’s father said through his attorney that his son was being seen by “multiple therapists.” The Rodger family had contacted law enforcement because of videos their son posted to YouTube “regarding suicide and the killing of people,” their lawyer told media. A social worker also had contacted police about him. A subsequent police interview found Rodger shy but a “perfectly polite, kind and wonderful human.” Officers previously had responded to two other calls involving Rodger this year.

“We cannot predict who will be violent, and we will never prevent all violence,” said Fuller. “But nobody knows better than family members when a loved one is unstable and dangerous. We have laws – like California’s  Laura’s Law – that are designed to protect individuals at risk and those around them. As long as we persist in overlooking the crucial input of families, misreading or ignoring red flags and not using our protective laws, innocent people will continue to suffer and die.”

Rodger’s family says mental illness issues are crucial to preventing tragedies like this one. “My client’s mission in life will be to try to prevent any such tragedies from ever happening again,” according to the family attorney. “This country, this world, needs to address mental illness and the ramifications from not recognizing these conditions.”

The EU Vote: A Quick Take



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Some of the possible headline-grabbers for tomorrow…

The Front National has topped the poll in France with around a quarter of the votes. Life just got a lot worse for President Hollande. In Greece, the far left SYRIZA has won with 26 percent (with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn coming in third at a little under ten percent), a good score for SYRIZA, but not enough (yet) to bring down the Greek government, an event that would not delight either Greece’s creditors or the markets.  Hungary’s local extremists, the ‘far right’ (and, yes, I understand the problems with that label) Jobbik remained stuck at around 15 percent, while Fidesz, Brussels’s least favorite ruling party, took over half the vote. In Denmark the populist right (and euroskeptic) Danish People’s Party hit the number one spot with some 23 percent, while across the Kattegat the Swedes came up with results too bizarre to construe: the only thing to be said about them is that the governing center-right coalition is looking set for defeat in the general election this fall. Moving across the Gulf of Bothnia, the euroskeptic Finns Party has probably increased its number of seats, but by considerably less than might have been expected not so long ago, a result that will please Brussels, as will what looks to be a relatively poor showing by Beppe Grillo’s confusing populists in Italy.

In Germany the AfD (pro-EU, anti-euro) now has a beachhead in the parliament (and secured around 7 percent of the votes), while in Spain, the leftwing Podemos (loosely speaking an offshoot of the Indignados protest movement) came from nowhere to grab 7.9 percent of the vote. The Guardian notes that Spain’s two establishment “parties together lost more than five million votes compared to the 2009 election. The governing People’s party won 16 seats, eight less than 2009, while the Socialists came out with 14 seats, nine less”.

Having the wrong currency has consequences.

And UKIP?

Well, over to Sky:

Sources from the other main parties have conceded Nigel Farage’s party will win, with the leader hailing an “earthquake” in British politics. It will be the first time a party other than the Conservatives or Labour has topped a nationwide poll for the first time in 108 years. With six of 12 UK regions having declared, UKIP has 31.9% of the vote, the Conservatives 24.2%, Labour 22.9% and the Lib Dems 7%.

The result is troubling for both the Tories and Labour, but more for the former than the latter. If Labour ends up in third place that will be a humiliation for its leader, the hard left Ed Milliband, but one that he will be able to weather. The electoral math remains in his favor. The turnout in this election was low (in the mid-30s), something that has exaggerated the UKIP swing (low turnouts are the rule in EU elections across the continent—around 14 percent of Slovaks voted—and that’s something that typically favors outsider parties).  In a ‘normal’ election, such as the general election next year, turnout will be much higher and, thanks to archaic constituency boundaries, Labour could squeak home with around 35 percent of the national vote.

David Cameron, by contrast, has to build up a big lead if he has to have any hope of retaining the keys to 10 Downing Street. UKIP cost him an absolute majority in the last general election, when the party scored around 3 percent. Even if (1) UKIP is now taking votes from Labour and (2) many of the usually Tory votes ‘lent’ to UKIP return home for a general election, it’s hard to see the party shrinking far and fast enough to save Mr. Cameron’s job.

And overall?

For all the headlines, these elections are unlikely to change very much for now. The European Parliament will continue to be dominated by europhile centrists.  The key question will be whether the centrists’ colleagues back home will start to worry about what these euroskeptic successes could ultimately mean for them, and what, if anything, they then would do about it. 

Kinzinger: DOJ Should Be Involved in Investigating Fake Waiting Lists



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U.S. representative Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.) said the VA’s secret waiting lists display “a level of incompetency — to a level of criminality” on Face the Nation Sunday.

The representative, an Air Force veteran, said the VA’s long claims backlog was a sign of incompetent bureaucracy, but that the fake list “is criminal negligence.”

The president hasn’t shown the “intense outrage” that he should over the VA scandal, Kinzinger said, and the Department of Justice should be involved.

Tags: The VA Scandal , Sunday Shows May 25 2014

Ayotte: Putin Interfering in Ukraine’s Election



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Senator Kelly Ayotte blamed Russian president Vladimir Putin for the tense security situation during Ukraine’s election this weekend that might be driving down turnout.

Ayotte is in Ukraine with a group of international observers to make sure that the election goes smoothly.

Eastern Ukraine has apparently seen lower turnout than the rest of the country because of Russian presence.

“I just want to make clear that there’s one person to blame for that security situation: Vladimir Putin,” Ayotte said. “He’s had strategic control of what is happening there with paid mercenaries, the violence, the intimidation, [and causing the fear in] the people who live in that region.”

The observers don’t have much information about the election in some parts of eastern Ukraine, she said, because Russian separatists have kept them out.

Tags: Sunday Shows May 25 2014

A Proud Tower?



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Writing in Forbes, the philosopher Roger Scruton ponders the waning of the Atlantic Alliance and puts much of the blame on the EU.

The reasons he gives are characteristically thought-provoking:

There’s this:

The EU has set out to delegitimize the nation state, to make it irrelevant to the ‘citizens’ of the Union whether they be French, British, Polish or Italian, and to abolish the national customs and beliefs that make long-term patriotic loyalty seriously believable. The EU’s attempt to replace national with European identity has, however failed, and is widely regarded with ridicule. Moreover the EU’s inability to think coherently about defense, and its policy of ‘soft power’ which makes defense in any case more or less inconceivable, means that the motive which leads ordinary people to defend their country in its time of need has been substantially weakened. Patriotism is seen as a heresy, second only to fascism on the list of political sins, and the idea that the people of Europe might be called upon to defend their borders looks increasingly absurd in the light of the official doctrine that there are no borders anyway.

I suspect that the patriotism of “ordinary people” may prove more resilient than Scruton fears, at least for now. But this will make less and less of a difference as the institutions of the continent’s nations are dissolved into a curious euro-amalgam to which few feel loyalty, and for which quite a number feel disdain. They are not just not prepared to die for that blue-and-gold flag; they want to burn it.

And related to that point, it’s worth noting that one of the paradoxes created by the EU, an organization that has done so much to shepherd Europe’s former satrapies into the West, is the way that Brussels’s relentless encroachments into national sovereignty are now making some of Europe’s most traditionally patriotic voters look with more sympathy at Mr. Putin than they reasonably should. That’s not so great for security either.

Scruton then throws a second problem (as he sees it) into the mix, the right of any EU citizen “to work and settle in any part of the Union.”

He continues:

This has led to a massive migration from the former communist countries to the West. The people who migrate are the skilled, the entrepreneurial, the educated — in short, the elite on whom the resolution and identity of a country most directly depends. Very soon countries like Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, all of which are directly threatened by a militant Russia, will be without a committed and resident class of leaders. No doubt, should the tanks start to roll, the émigré populations of those countries will protest. But will they return home to fight a pointless war, leaving their newly-won security and prosperity behind? I doubt it.

Scruton’s fears of depleted national elites are an exaggeration (and I don’t think that the tanks are going to roll into any of those countries any time soon), but there is nevertheless something to what he says. When I visitedLatvia in the midst of its crisis some five years back, a number of officials there told me about their worries that the country was losing its best and its brightest to emigration. And this was not a fear confined to that nation alone. That said, the ability to find work elsewhere in the EU (which, with somewhat Swiss caveats, I support) operated as a useful safety valve at a tough time. Indeed, there is now some evidence to suggest that improving domestic economies are bringing some of those emigrants back home. Over the longer term, however, the centrifugal tendencies of the EU do present a troubling problem for a number of the nations on its periphery, as people and capital drift to an economic center located beyond their borders, leaving just what, exactly, behind.

And then there’s this:

The American people cannot go on defending a country like Germany – a country that enjoys a standard of living calculated to arouse envy in its impoverished Eastern neighbor, while self-righteously preaching ‘soft power’ and ‘non belligerence’ to its pampered people. At some point Americans are going to wake up to the fact that they are being unscrupulously exploited. Their armed forces are trained to fight and die in Europe, on behalf of people who would not dream of doing the same for America, and who are not prepared to die even for their homeland.

The calculation of American interest is considerably more complex than that, but there is, nonetheless, a very uncomfortable truth running through those words. I note, incidentally, that Germany spends roughly 1.3 percent of GDP on defense, a figure far below the suggested NATO minimum of 2 percent.

Making matters worse still is the fact that the EU in many senses sees itself as a rival to the US, something that is hardly the stuff of a productive alliance.

Will’s Take: Private Sector Should Help the VA, Their Work ‘Gets Done’



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George Will echoed Charles Krauthammer today in calling on the federal government to alleviate the VA crisis by working with the private sector. 

On Fox News Sunday, Will suggested that Republicans running in the midterm elections should remind voters that, when the federal government created the highway system they are using this Memorial Day weekend, it utilized the private sector. “It got done, and it can do the same thing” with health services for our veterans, Will said.

Tags: The VA Scandal , Sunday Shows May 25 2014

Freedom of Expression and Political Correctness



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I see that an LGBT group is demanding that Gary Herbert, the governor of Utah, apologize for having said that the refusal of state officials to defend [in court] laws enshrining the traditional definition of marriage is a step toward anarchy. This demand is absurd. That the public servants charged with [executing,] enforcing, and defending the duly enacted laws of the people damn well ought to [execute,] enforce, and defend them is a kindergarten-level proposition of republican democracy. Our commitment to it stands prior to our support of or opposition to any particular law, and it’s perfectly possible to think both that same-sex unions should be recognized as marriages and that this ought to come about through the manifest will of the people rather than the caprice of government officials. Such is my own view.

This tendency to demand apologies from whoever offends our sensibilities instead of simply making an argument about why they are wrong is contemptible. It is bad for thought and bad for culture, substituting as it does the mere expression of grievance for reflection upon reasons. It is an example of political correctness in the bad sense.

***

Now I would like to step away from the matter immediately under discussion and explain why I added that qualification to “political correctness.” The term is applied indiscriminately to a huge variety of cases in which freedom of expression is alleged to be under attack, with the consequence that two important distinctions get ignored. They are:

1. The distinction between state and culture. What must be remembered here is that wherever the state leaves culture be — as certainly it ought — the culture will spontaneously set standards as to the types of expression it deems appropriate. This happens precisely because expression is free, a freedom that includes the right of objecting to what one finds objectionable. And everyone objects to something, and everyone should. What would an absolutist about free expression in the cultural realm actually look like? Does he welcome to his Halloween party the guest who shows up in Klan robes? Does he think newspapers would offend freedom by declining to publish an op-ed from the leadership of the Westboro Baptist Church? Must neo-Nazis get equal airtime?

The right question to ask, then, if we are talking about cultural standards rather than legal permissibility, is not “Is expression free here?” but “Is the standard good here?” This is entirely compatible with recognizing that some standards are bad because of their illiberalism and intolerance. Precisely this is true of the campaigns of vilification against defenders of the traditional definition of marriage, or of Biblical sexual ethics in their standard interpretation. But “Blacklist! Blacklist! Blacklist!” is a plainly inadequate reply, for example, to the thugs who ran Brendan Eich out of Mozilla. It is inadequate because there are people whose views are so repugnant that no decent person should want them to occupy a position of prominence in society, and the objectionableness of blacklisting therefore cannot be separated from the view in question. That doesn’t mean traditionalists have to provide a philosophical defense of their moral commitments every time someone is made to suffer for holding them, but it remains true that the form of their outrage isn’t “How dare any view be excluded from polite society!” but “How dare this view be excluded from polite society!”

Keep reading this post . . .

Piketty’s Pickle



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Patrick has some excellent background to the, uh, questions over Piketty’s research here and here.

The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson weighs in:

[FT journalist] Chris Giles has pulled the data thread, and Piketty’s whole book has unravelled. Which raises another question: did anyone actually fact-check Piketty’s data? Mistakes can creep into data, and I agree with Piketty that inequality is a problem on levels which the official data does not record. But you can’t just add 2 to a data series (as Chris Giles shows us in the above video) then present this as honest economics. It is editorialised data, which isn’t really economics.

And there’s this:

The idea of one’s instincts being proving empirically correct is rather intoxicating, which partly explains the success of his book. Perhaps Piketty gave the left intelligentsia a story which (as tabloid hacks say) was “too good to check”.

But what about Harvard University Press? Piketty’s publisher there, Ian Malcolm, is interviewed here. From the sounds of it, he just reprinted the French version without applying the checks and balances that you’d hope would be applied to a Harvard economics book. . . .

Ah, confirmation bias. Not the first time, not the last. 

(And yes, I am relaying this, but still . . .)

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