The Disgrace of Misplaced Priorities

What does it say about this country—in particular, its military—when homosexuality is somehow viewed as a greater threat than terrorism? When fighting a war is deemed subordinate to cleansing the ranks of gay soldiers? When an individual’s skills and experience—no matter how crucial or rare—take a backseat to their sexual orientation and would be cast aside because of such? What lessons can be gleaned from the tale of Sgt. Bleu Copas, as reported here by the Associated Press?

Army dismisses gay Arabic linguist

A decorated sergeant and Arabic language specialist was dismissed from the U.S. Army under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, though he says he never told his superiors he was gay and his accuser was never identified.

Bleu Copas, 30, told The Associated Press he is gay, but said he was “outed” by a stream of anonymous e-mails to his superiors in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.

“I knew the policy going in,” Copas said in an interview on the campus of East Tennessee State University, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in counseling and working as a student adviser. “I knew it was going to be difficult.”

An eight-month Army investigation culminated in Copas’ honorable discharge on Jan. 30 — less than four years after he enlisted, he said, out of a post-Sept. 11 sense of duty to his country.

Copas now carries the discharge papers, which mention his awards and citations, so he can document his military service for prospective employers. But the papers also give the reason for his dismissal.

He plans to appeal to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, established in 1993, prohibits the military from inquiring about the sex lives of service members, but requires discharges of those who openly acknowledge being gay.

The policy is becoming “a very effective weapon of vengeance in the armed forces” said Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington-based watchdog organization that counseled Copas and is working to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Copas said he was never open about his sexuality in the military and suspects his accuser was someone he mistakenly befriended and apparently slighted.

More than 11,000 service members have been dismissed under the policy, including 726 last year — an 11 percent jump from 2004 and the first increase since 2001.

That’s less than a half-percent of the more than 2 million soldiers, sailors and Marines dismissed for all reasons since 1993, according to the General Accountability Office.

But the GAO also noted that nearly 800 dismissed gay or lesbian service members had critical abilities, including 300 with important language skills. Fifty-five were proficient in Arabic, including Copas, a graduate of the Defense Language Institute in California.

Discharging and replacing them has cost the Pentagon nearly $369 million, according to the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara. [full text]

The Dogs of Government

Those who govern, the overseers of the nation’s laws and affairs, are but dogs. Though they may guard the gates of the republic and grant us their protection, though they may manifest a certain loyalty and kindness, though they may submit to our authority or leash, though they may avidly and even gently accept the offerings of our hands, they cannot be entirely trusted. They are dogs. The nature of such beasts is not wholly predictable, no matter how tamed they may seem. To disregard their inherent wildness, their violent potential, or their pack mentality is to risk being bitten. They are dogs, and they can turn on their masters in a snarling flash. Vigilance is the price of ownership.

Thus, when those who govern urge our unconditional trust and ask that we overlook their past offenses—even while our hands still throb from their bite—great caution is required. Case in point, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings yesterday on a proposal that would, in effect, broaden the government’s ability to conduct warrantless surveillance on Americans and decrease legislative oversight over such. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration favors this proposal, as reported in today’s New York Times:

Administration and Critics, in Senate Testimony, Clash Over Eavesdropping Compromise

Senior Bush administration officials said Wednesday that it would be impractical for them to obtain individual warrants every time they needed to eavesdrop on a conversation suspected of involving Al Qaeda. They urged Congress to approve a proposal that critics said would give the president broad, unchecked powers.

In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, called the proposal, developed by Senator Arlen Specter and the White House, “a great opportunity� to modernize intelligence-gathering procedures in a way that would “protect our liberty and security.�

General Hayden’s testimony, and that of two other senior officials, amounted to the administration’s first pitch for the Specter-White House agreement. Under the proposal, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secrecy to rule on usual government requests for warrants in intelligence cases, would decide whether the administration’s program of monitoring international communications of Americans without warrants is constitutional.

But critics attacked the agreement Wednesday as abdication to the White House. Mr. Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, appeared particularly stung at the hearing when a civil liberties advocate, James X. Dempsey, told him he would prefer to see no legislation at all, allowing the National Security Agency to continue wiretapping Americans without warrants, than Congressional approval of procedures outside the scope of the 1978 law that created the secret court.

In agreeing to that court’s review of the N.S.A. program, the White House had insisted that the bill include language implicitly recognizing the president’s “constitutional authority� to collect foreign intelligence beyond the provisions of the 1978 law. Mr. Dempsey, policy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said at the hearing that he appreciated Mr. Specter’s efforts to bring the N.S.A. program under judicial review but that “the price you paid for that simple concession is far too high.�

The proposal, he said, “would turn the clock back to an era of unchecked presidential power, warrantless domestic surveillance and constitutional uncertainty.� [full text]

The Center for Democracy and Technology is not alone in opposing Specter’s proposal. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a press release yesterday in which they “raised strong objections to S. 2453, the National Security Surveillance Act,� and “urged Congress to reject attempts to further erode the Fourth Amendment and its protections.� Similarly, the Washington Post ran an editorial yesterday that expressed considerable concern about Congress handing the executive branch a “blank check to spy� and, using Mr. Specter’s own words against him, argued that “his legislation would essentially respond to this festering sore [of the NSA program] by shooting the patient.� Also questioning the Senator’s bill was Shayana Kadidal, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has raised legal challenges to the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. Writing in Jurist, Kadidal asserts that the bill “is a sell out, of both Congress and the American people.�

In short, the dogs are turning on us. It’s time to pay due attention and either shorten the leash or get ourselves some new dogs.

Fung, Fogarty, and Nap Debate Cranston’s Past and Future

The Projo had this to say about the debate:

CRANSTON — City Council members Cynthia M. Fogarty and Allan W. Fung sought credit for the city’s fiscal turnaround at the first mayoral debate last night, lauding the improved bond rating and a pension fund they say they helped rescue.

Michael T. Napolitano, the third mayoral candidate, was not impressed.

The former municipal court judge said Republican Mayor Stephen P. Laffey and the council presided over stifling tax increases, as municipal services and infrastructure declined.

“People have told me they’ve been taxed out of their homes,” said Napolitano, 49, who is facing Fogarty in a Sept. 12 Democratic primary. “I believe we can do better.”

Napolitano, whose well-financed candidacy was endorsed by the Democratic City Committee last month, emphasized his outsider status throughout the 90-minute debate at Hope Highlands Elementary School.

Fung, a Republican ally of Laffey, said the tax increases helped end a fiscal nightmare that left the city’s rating in “junk” status and its pension fund nearly bankrupt. Napolitano assailed them as unfair to the elderly, citing real-estate data he said reveals an exodus of homeowners.

Fogarty boasted that the city made Money magazine’s list of the top 100 places to live in the United States. It continues to improve, she said, citing the planned redevelopment of the former Park Cinema, a long-stalled project she said is “moving forward.”

Again, Napolitano disagreed, and he threatened to seize the cinema property by eminent domain if elected mayor.

Napolitano, who has never held elective office, also assailed the atmosphere in City Hall, telling the packed auditorium that local politics had become needlessly confrontational.

“The bickering must end,” he said, alluding to the multiple feuds between Laffey and the Democrat-controlled City Council. “I will change the tone in leadership.”

Napolitano was not, however, the only candidate promising change in Cranston. And in his broad themes — economic development and more efficient city services — he echoed many of his opponents’ proposals.

Fogarty, 50, called for stricter enforcement of the building code to improve the city’s increasingly “run-down” appearance. And she called for consolidating municipal and School Department services to slow budget increases.

Fung, 36, pledged to use his business contacts to recruit companies to Cranston and to aid existing small businesses with new tax incentives. The commercial tax base, he said, must grow to reduce the property-tax burden on homeowners.

“We can bring in more businesses,” said Fung, a lawyer and State House lobbyist for Metlife Auto & Home. “My goal is to make the city more affordable.”

But unlike Napolitano, neither Fung nor Fogarty described the city as particularly troubled or in need of radical change.

Instead, they argued that the strategies instituted during the financial crisis in 2002 have been wildly successful, and they asked voters to reward the architects of that turnaround.

The two council members so rarely disagreed that after the debate they lingered on stage together, even posing arm in arm for a photographer.

“We cannot return the city to the practices that were in place when I joined the council,” Fogarty, a lawyer in private practice, remarked during the debate. “The initiatives we put in place have fixed the problems.”

Fung agreed. “We righted the ship,” he said in one of several transportation metaphors. “It’s a train that’s on the right track.”

Due to my work schedule, I was not able to attend. The characterization above doesn’t really tell me much, other than that Napolitano is trying to use the tax increases as his big axe to grind. Anyone else out there attend? I would like to hear more about what went on.

Gambling is a Tax

In this time when Harrah’s has invaded the state and is pummeling people with TV and radio ads and mailings, giving us the constant message that another casino in Rhode Island would be good for the economy, I thought it apropos to review the facts with a specialist on the issue from the Tax Foundation. This piece, written by Alicia Hansen, originally appeared in the Providence Journal on December 16, 2004.

Rhode Island Lottery is a tax that Hurts Citizens

WASHINGTON — The Rhode Island lottery outsells every other lottery in the country, with total sales per capita last year reaching an astounding $1,200. That’s more than four times what the average American spends on reading material or attending movies.

There are two explanations for Rhode Island’s extraordinarily high gambling rate. First, Rhode Island is one of only six states to offer video-gaming devices as part of the state lottery. Video lottery terminals are electronic games of chance played on computer terminals. They are fast-paced casino-style games, found in jai-alai and greyhound-racing facilities, that allow customers to bet a large amount of money in a short period of time. They have raised concerns about possible gambling addictions, but they’ve also brought in over 80 percent of Rhode Island’s lottery revenue.

The second contributing factor to the state’s high gambling rate is the large number of lottery retailers in Rhode Island: approximately one for every 950 residents. Only four states have a higher concentration of lottery retailers.

In fiscal year 2003, the state government’s percentage of the lottery take was 18.7 percent, bringing in over $241 million.

Although such widespread gambling may be of some concern, at least a lottery is better than taxes, right? Wrong — the lottery is a tax.

State governments kept almost $14 billion, or 31 percent, of the nearly $45 billion spent on lotteries in fiscal year 2003. They did not consider this money to be tax revenue, but they should have. The money left over after lottery agencies pay winners and operating costs (the “profit”) is an implicit tax.

Many people believe the lottery can’t be a tax, because a tax is mandatory and playing the lottery is voluntary. But they’re confusing the purchase with the payment. The ticket purchase is voluntary, but the payment of the tax is mandatory. It’s like buying alcohol in a state-run liquor store: The state levies excise taxes on alcohol, and although the purchase of alcohol is voluntary, those taxes are mandatory. With both alcohol and lotteries, the state prohibits the private sale of a product, creates a monopoly for itself, and taxes the product.

Does it really matter whether the lottery is a tax? Absolutely. Lotteries are simply poor tax policy, for several reasons.

First, high taxes on specific products violate the principal tenet of sound tax policy: what economists call neutrality. By singling out certain goods or industries for higher rates, lawmakers distort consumer spending and ultimately damage a state’s economy.

Second, good tax policy requires taxes that are transparent: clear to the taxpayers. The taxpayers should understand what is being taxed, and at what rate. Lottery retailers do not give customers receipts itemizing the tax, and since states advertise the lottery as a recreational activity rather than a revenue-raising activity, consumers may be unaware of the implicit tax rate.

Third, many studies have shown lotteries to be regressive, meaning that lower-income people spend more on lotteries as a percentage of their income than do higher-income people. Should the government be in the business of advertising, selling and taxing a product on which the poor spend more than other people and bear a disproportionately large share of the tax burden?

Finally, lottery revenue is not always used for the purposes that are claimed. The Rhode Island lottery raises money for its general fund, which means that legislators may allocate it any way they see fit. Some of the money is purportedly used for public education, and in many other states all or most of the government “profit” is used for public education. Sounds good, but money ostensibly raised for sympathetic-sounding purposes can be spent on other things — even in states where there is a “lockbox” protecting lottery tax revenue.

Rhode Island jumped on the lottery bandwagon relatively early, in 1974, making it the ninth state to start a lottery. Since then, 31 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit, and Oklahoma will soon become the 42nd lottery jurisdiction. The Southern states have been the most reluctant to enact lotteries, but concerns about “losing” money to neighboring states have prompted some of them to give in.

There are a number of reasons why people should oppose the lottery, including concerns that a lottery is an inefficient way to raise government revenue, worries about gambling addiction, and moral qualms about state-sponsored gambling. Tax-policy concerns should be added to that list. A lottery makes a state tax system more regressive, less neutral, and less transparent — in general, less principled.

Alicia Hansen is author of “Lotteries and State Fiscal Policy,” a report by the Tax Foundation in Washington.

Ms. Hansen makes the point that Rhode Island gambling already outsells every other state gambling program in the country, and that we already have one gambling retailer for every 950 citizens. And yet Harrah’s and their supporters want you to believe we need more gambling facilities, which will drive our tax system further away from the principles of fairness, transparency, and neutrality.

Criminalizing Charity in Vacationland

Feeding the indigent in Orlando

Las Vegas, Nevada and Orlando, Florida now have more in common than their status as balmy tourist destinations. Independently, each municipality has enacted an ordinance in the past week that outlaws feeding the homeless and indigent in public locales such as city parks. In both instances, the bans appear to target humanitarian individuals and groups—such as Food Not Bombs—that operate mobile soup kitchens to provide meals to those who might otherwise go without. For more on the story, I refer you to the following news articles:

• “Feeding homeless outlawed� (Las Vegas Review-Journal, 7/20/06)
• “Eola homeless meals banned� (Orlando Sentinel, 7/25/06)

Legitimate public concerns about health and safety aside (and, presumably, there are existing ordinances to address such), these bans seem decidedly lacking in both compassion and finesse, responding to complex social ills with band-aid solutions that criminalize charity. Not surprisingly, local chapters of the ACLU plan to contest both ordinances. In the interim, it might be helpful to consider contacting the mayors of Las Vegas and Orlando and voicing your disapproval, taking care to mention where you will NOT be spending your vacation dollars anytime soon. Links to make contact are below:

• Mayor Oscar B. Goodman, City of Las Vegas
• Mayor Buddy Dyer, City of Orlando

More On Signing Statements

Ben Sargent on signing statements

As a follow-up to my previous post on President Bush’s unhealthy (to our democracy) infatuation with signing statements, I offer the cartoon above, courtesy of Ben Sargent and the Austin American-Statesman, and the article below, courtesy of Thomas Ferraro and the Washington Post:

Specter seeks to challenge Bush’s power on bills

A top Senate Republican said on Monday he will challenge U.S. President George W. Bush’s practice of claiming a right to ignore or not enforce sections of bills that he signs into law.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said he plans to introduce legislation this week that would give the U.S. Congress the right to bring a lawsuit against Bush’s “signing statements.”

Bush has used these statements to reserve the right not to enforce certain provisions of laws if he believes they impinge on his authority or interpretation of the Constitution.

An American Bar Association task force issued a report on Monday that said Bush has flouted the U.S. constitution by issuing more than 800 signing statements to highlight provisions of laws he might not enforce, more than every previous U.S. president combined.

ABA President Michael Greco noted that under the Constitution there is a balance of power in which Congress is to pass bills and the president is to sign or veto them, and give lawmakers an opportunity to override any veto.

“By using a signing statement to ignore an entire or portions of a new law, the president undermines this entire system of checks and balances,” Greco told reporters in releasing the report.

Speaking in the Senate, Specter said his legislation would authorize a judicial review, with the goal of having such actions “declared unconstitutional.”

The White House has defended signing statements, saying they have been used by past presidents and help the public understand how a given law will be enforced and can provide guidance to courts.

For example, Bush signed a bill banning the torture of U.S.-held prisoners, but used a signing statement to signal that he might bypass the ban.

He has also used them to show that he might ignore provisions in an anti-terrorism law seeking more congressional oversight and reject a requirement that government scientists transmit findings to Congress uncensored.

Specter’s Judiciary Committee held a hearing on presidential signing statements last month and he also concluded they “threaten our separation of powers.”

Specter said his staff was drafting a bill to challenge signing statements with Bruce Fein, a former member of the Reagan administration who also served on the ABA task force.

Military Outsourcing = Outrageous Corruption

This article in Business Week describes the vast amounts of taxpayer dollars that are being lost to graft and corruption in Iraq:

The U.S. Military has lost billions to fraud and mismanagement by private contractors in Iraq who do everything from cooking soldiers’ meals to building hospitals to providing security. That raises a question: Does Pentagon outsourcing make sense?

“The presumption is that it is cheaper,” says Jerrold T. Lundquist, director of the defense and aerospace practice at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Competitive bidding can keep the price of services down. Contractors are, in theory, more nimble at mobilizing and paring back their forces than a huge military bureaucracy. A recent study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that in 2004 the U.S. reduced its costs by one-third for feeding and housing troops by paying one contractor to do the work — a savings of nearly $3 billion. Such findings point to the conclusion that even with a lot of fraud and waste, outsourcing may still pay off.

But some experts on the topic aren’t convinced. Because no one has an authoritative overall estimate of how much has been lost in Iraq to contractor deceit and incompetence, and many investigations are just getting under way, the financial harm could in the end outstrip any savings. There’s also the intangible cost of taxpayers seeing their money wasted or stolen rather than spent to support troops risking their lives and dying. “What has happened in Iraq is just disgraceful,” says Jeffrey H. Smith, a former Central Intelligence Agency general counsel during the Clinton Administration who now represents military contractors in private law practice.

Instances of military outsourcing gone bad in Iraq are now legion. For example, Parsons Global Services Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., lost its contract to build 150 health centers after it completed just six centers and collected $190 million — $30 million over the project’s budget. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction is now reviewing all of Parsons’ Iraq work. Officials at Parsons, which eventually completed an additional 13 centers, stand by their work, saying employees performed well under “extremely volatile conditions.” [full text]

The article goes on to discuss no-bid contracts such as those given to Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root — contracts which have been charged by auditors as excessive, duplicative, or otherwise questionable. The author makes the obvious point that this problem could be addressed by stepping up contract procurement oversight, but instead, these quality control measures are being further reduced.