Free Markets, Free People

MichaelW

I'm a husband, father, and attorney living in Northern Virginia trying to make my way through this world like everyone else. Stay outta my way, and you can bet I'll stay out of yours ... and I'll even help keep others from bothering you as well.


Judge Kessler: Mandate Constitutional Because of “Free Riders”

There is a new opinion from U.S. District (DC) Judge Kessler ruling that the individual mandate imposed by ObamaCare is constitutional. The primary importance of the ruling is that it is squarely at odds with the Judge Vinson opinion from the District of Florida on one key issue: that deciding not to purchase something is an “activity” that can be regulated under the Commerce Clause. I’m still going through it, and will have more to say, but a few things really leaped out at me.

(1) Kessler places a lot of emphasis on the “free riders” who consume medical services but don’t pay for them. According to the judge, these free rider problems are illuminated by the congressional findings found in the Affordable Care Act (at pp. 39-40):

The findings on this subject could not be clearer: the great majority of the millions of Americans who remain uninsured consume medical services they cannot pay for, often resulting in personal bankruptcy. In fact, the ACA’s findings state that “62% of all personal bankruptcies are caused in part by medical expenses.” ACA § 1501(a)(2)(G), as amended by § 10106. Of even greater significance to the national economy is the fact that these uninsured individuals are, in fact, shifting the uncompensated costs of those services–which totaled $43 billion in 2008–onto other health care market participants, as well as federal and state governments and American taxpayers. See ACA §§ 1501(a)(2)(F), (G),as amended by § 10106; Thomas More Law Ctr., 720 F.Supp.2d at 894.

Because of this cost-shifting effect, the individual decision to forgo health insurance, when considered in the aggregate, leads to substantially higher insurance premiums for those other individuals who do obtain coverage. According to Congress, the uncompensated costs of caring for the uninsured are passed on by health care providers to private insurers, which in turn pass on the cost to purchasers of health insurance. “This cost shifting increases family premiums by on average over $1,000 a year.” ACA §1501(a)(2)(F), as amended by § 10106. Thus, the aggregate effect on interstate commerce of the decisions of individuals to forgo insurance is very substantial.

There are many problems with these “findings” chief among which is an innumeracy problem. According to the first two quoted sentences, we are supposed to infer that 62% of all personal bankruptcies are made up of those “who remain uninsured” and “consume medical services they cannot pay for.” Indeed, according to Kessler’s understanding of the findings, the foregoing population is the “great majority of Americans who remain uninsured.” The only problem is, even if we assume that the 62% statistic is correct (which is a stretch), the number of personal bankruptcies every year does not even reach 2 million. Indeed, 2009 saw personal bankruptcies soar by 32% … to 1.41 million. Sixty-two percent of that is just 874,200, which is far, far fewer people than the “great majority of the millions of Americans who remain uninsured.”

(2) Another glaring issue is that the “cost-shifting” complained of is entirely the fault of the federal government, not “free riders,” thanks to Congress passing EMTALA in 1986, pursuant to which practically every hospital in the nation was forced to accept any and every patient who requested “emergency services.” In short, Congress created the free riders with this legislation.

Now let’s follow the logic here: (a) hospitals refuse to treat patients who can’t afford their medical services, therefore Congress must force hospitals to treat regardless of ability to pay (i.e. costs shifted to hospitals); (b) Patients who can’t afford the medical services, but who hospitals must treat, raise costs of medical services, which are mostly paid by insurers who raise their rates and pass them on to paying patients (i.e costs shifted to service-providers, then insurers, then paying patients); (c) insurance costs are entirely too high because uninsured patients, who can’t afford insurance or medical services, but whom hospitals must treat anyway, which drives up the costs of services and therefore the costs of insurance, and therefore Congress must force everyone to buy insurance (i.e. costs shifted from paying patients to those who can’t afford services or insurance); (d) because some people can’t afford insurance, they must be subsidized in their mandated purchase of insurance by taxpayers (i.e. costs re-shifted back to paying patients).

Putting it all together, according to Kessler’s opinion, Congress must be able to force individuals to purchase insurance because individuals who can’t afford insurance, but still consume health services (thanks to Congress), are causing the health insurance market to become distorted. (Oh, and by the way, those who can afford insurance are going to have to subsidize those who can’t and are therefore responsible for this whole mess in the first place.) Does that make any sense?

(3) The one other thing that really struck me as worrisome is Kessler’s emphasis on the infamous Wickard v. Filburn case (at p. 40):

In this case, the link [between the activity and the market being regulated] is strikingly similar to that described in Wickard: individuals are actively choosing to remain outside of a market for a particular commodity, and, as a result, Congress’s efforts to stabilize prices for that commodity are thwarted. As Wickard demonstrates, the effects of such market-distorting behavior are sufficiently related to interstate commerce to justify Congress’s efforts to stabilize the price of a commodity through its Commerce Clause power.

This is the reasoning underpinning Kessler’s holding (at p. 38) that “[b]oth the decision to purchase health insurance and its flip side–the decision not to purchase health insurance–therefore relate to the consumption of a commodity: a health insurance policy.” In this view, any decision made about an arguably economic subject, even the decision not to participate in a market concerning that economic subject, is subject to regulation by Congress.

Accordingly, should Congress decide to regulate the market for U.S automobiles, your decision to not purchase a vehicle can be regulated and even penalized by federal law. In fact, if Kessler’s view of the Constitution is correct, then Congress could require that you purchase a GM or Chrysler vehicle in order to stabilize the price of that commodity. Or perhaps, because of free rider problems, you can be penalized for choosing not to have children who would grow up, enter the labor force and pay the Social Security and Medicare taxes necessary to support you in your older years. If Kessler is correct, then the only limit on Congressional power is the inability to conjure up a market to be regulated, since any decision (participate/not participate) will have a substantial effect on that market when considered in the aggregate.

I would submit that this cannot be the correct view. The Commerce Clause power has already been distended far beyond what was intended when it written. If the Supreme Court adopts this decision, or something similar, the Congress would effectively have carte blanche to regulate whatever it desires.

In any event, those three things stood out to me. I’ll try to have some more on the opinion itself by tonight.


QOTD: Ace of Spades Edition

This is part of a very long post regarding the meme being shaped by the left:

If even a left-winger can’t resist Rush Limbaugh’s commands to kill when he doesn’t even hear them, what possible chance is there that the 60% of the Tea Party which is primed to murder will resist his call when they do hear it?

As they say, RTWT.


Julian Assange: Tattletale

[The original version of this post appeared at the Washington Examiner on Nov. 29, 2010]

Well somebody really doesn’t like the United States now, do they? Or perhaps, as childish antics often turn out to be, Julian Assange’s provocations are really cries for attention from the most powerful nation in the world. Then again, maybe he just needs a nap. Whatever the actual reasons, Mr. Assange and Wikileaks do not warrant being treated as public enemy number one.

Some disagree, of course, such as Rep. Peter King (R-NY) who ranked Assange’s (and, consequently, suspected leaker Bradley Manning’s) actions as worse than al Qaeda’s:

“This is worse even than a physical attack on Americans, it’s worse than a military attack,” King said.

King has written letters to both U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking for swift action to be taken against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.

King wants Holder to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act and has also called on Clinton to determine whether WikiLeaks could be designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

All hyperbole aside, Rep. King’s suggested course of action — i.e. pursuing judicial remedies — are a bit over the top, but at least somewhat within reason. I’m not sure that anything Assange has done is actually prosecutable since he did not steal the information, and there is no discernible difference between his release of the information and that of, say, the New York Times. But at least criminal prosecution is within the realm of reason.

I’ve heard others mention much more violent courses of action for Assange, up to and including assassination. That would be truly ludicrous, especially given that the information leaked thusfar has done little more than expose the diplomatic corps as petty, niggling and dishonest.

Is that even news? If exposing stuffed shirts to embarrassment is all that is necessary to hurl the globe into World War III, so much so that assassination is deemed an appropriate penalty for the likes of Assange, then that would sort of obviate the need for diplomats in the first place. And while a world without pompous and pampered scolds pretending to be in charge of everything does seem like paradise, knocking off some waifish ex-Aussie just seems like a really poor way of bring that about.

So what do we do then?

Well, the first thing would be for the U.S. government to get a better hold on anything it deems “secret” or “confidential.” Step 1 might include such precautions as limiting access to sensitive information to something less than 3 million people:

The US embassy cables are marked “Sipdis” – secret internet protocol distribution. They were compiled as part of a programme under which selected dispatches, considered moderately secret but suitable for sharing with other agencies, would be automatically loaded on to secure embassy websites, and linked with the military’s Siprnet internet system.

They are classified at various levels up to “secret noforn” [no foreigners]. More than 11,000 are marked secret, while around 9,000 of the cables are marked noforn.

More than 3 million US government personnel and soldiers, many extremely junior, are cleared to have potential access to this material, even though the cables contain the identities of foreign informants, often sensitive contacts in dictatorial regimes. Some are marked “protect” or “strictly protect”.

Step 2 should probably involve an intense training program for all State Department personnel called “The Internet is Forever” including a two-day workshop on “What not to write in an email accessible by over 3 million people.”

Although I am being glib, I don’t find anything redeeming about the behavior of Assange and Wikileaks, and if there is some law akin to charging them with receipt of stolen goods, then sobeit. Bradley Manning, if he is indeed the leaker, should face much stiffer penalties, primarily because he was placed in a position of trust and he violated the duties commensurate with his position. Facing the death penalty for treason is too much, but a court martial and potential jail time would appear to fit the crime at this point.

What we should not do is overreact. Assange and his cronies are acting like children, and that’s how they should be treated — i.e. neither ignoring the bad behavior outright, nor giving undue attention that will ensure further incidents of such behavior. Getting into a high dudgeon just gives the insolent mite the reaction he’s looking for. It is true that the leaks have caused a great deal of embarrassment for the United States, but other than the first four French Republics, no nation has been rent assunder by embarrassment.

Let’s not act like that’s the danger we’re facing.


Reason #3,209 Why I’ll Never Be Associated With The Libertarian Party: Bob Barr

Outside of Libertarian Party types, few people probably even remember who former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) is anymore. He was most famous, of course, for spearheading the prosecution of Pres. William J. Clinton’s impeachment. However, Barr was also a fierce “Drug Warrior” and a leading proponent of the Defense of Marriage Act, which drew the wrath of many libertarians. After his House district was combined with another Republican, Barr was ousted from office much to the delight of liberals and libertarians.

Then Bob had a road to Damascus moment, culminating in his accepting the nomination as the Libertarian Party’s candidate for U.S. President in 2008.

Two years later, Mr. Barr is using his role as putative head of the Libertarian Party to make endorsements of congressional candidates such as … Russ Feingold:

What I look for in Washington are folks in the Senate and the House who put the Constitution first. Not the “R” or the “D”, not partisan politics but the Constitution. And what you have in Russ, and I have worked closely with him over a number of years to try to rein in the Patriot Act, to try to rein in the government surveillance and so forth — this is a man who understands the Constitution, who supports and fights sometimes against his own party to defend the Constitution in the Congress of the United States in ways that are much more consistent and much more proactive than a lot of Republicans.

That’s right, folks, Bob Barr believes that Russ Feingold — the man who helped bring us that delightful attack upon our First Amendment rights known as “McCain-Feingold” — “is a man who understands the Constitution.” Now, I suppose Barr could have meant that Feingold knows the Constitution in that Kierkegaardian sense that one must know it so intimately and thoroughly in order to fully oppose it. But some how I think not.

Instead, Barr intends to throw the weight of the Libertarian Party behind a politician who thinks that political speech can be legislatively restricted, that it is the job of government to provide everyone health care, that Congress can and should set compensation for each and every one of us based on gender, and who takes myriad other anti-freedom positions. Which, for the 3,209th time, is why I will not ever be associated with the Libertarian Party.


Quick Hits: Scientific Journalism

In the vein of Jon Henke’s “The Ultimate Metablog” with the satire of a good Monty Python skit (is there any other kind?), Martin Robbins lays out the definitive article for how scientific journalism is constructed. Here’s the heading:

This is a news website article about a scientific paper

In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?

My favorite bits:

In this paragraph I will state in which journal the research will be published. I won’t provide a link because either a) the concept of adding links to web pages is alien to the editors, b) I can’t be bothered, or c) the journal inexplicably set the embargo on the press release to expire before the paper was actually published.

[...]

This fragment will be put on its own line for no obvious reason.

[...]

This paragraph contained useful information or context, but was removed by the sub-editor to keep the article within an arbitrary word limit in case the internet runs out of space.

Be sure to read the comments as well, where most everyone plays along with the theme. But beware of the related links … you may be taken to a place you never, ever want to be.


Sen. Boxer’s Rebellion

[This post originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on August 30, 2010.]

If there is one thing that Congress has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s that spending other people’s money is easy. What makes it even easier is when they spend it on favored constituents in order to buy votes, even where the product purchased by the government isn’t wanted or needed.

Take the example of the Boeing C-17 Globemaster, a cargo transport aircraft, which is manufactured in Long Beach, California. While the plane is one of the military’s best workhorses (especially for forward deployments), the Air Force insists that it has plenty, more than enough in fact, and would really rather not purchase any more. Sen. Barbara Boxer, however, has other plans:

Locked in a tough re-election campaign, Sen. Barbara Boxer dropped by Boeing’s C-17 plant Friday [August 20, 2010] to pledge continued federal support for one of California’s largest manufacturers.

A crowd of cheering workers greeted Boxer at the site next to Long Beach Airport, where more than 5,000 design, build, market and sell the $250 million jet.

Boxer has remained one of the C-17 Globemaster’s strongest supporters on Capitol Hill since production began in the early 1990s, voting for all of the 223 jets so far ordered for the U.S. Air Force.

[...]

Before departing, Boxer promised the roughly 250 C-17 workers in attendance she would continue supporting the jet in Congress.

“I cannot tell you how proud I am that we have surpassed 200 planes, and that this magnificent aircraft is being built right here in California by American workers,” she said. “The only place the C-17 should ever be built is in California.”

To borrow a certain, infamous turn-of-phrase, they told me if I voted for John McCain I would be supporting the Military Industrial Complex, and they were right!

Well, that’s not entirely fair since, in reality, the Obama administration has been quite adamant that they’ve had quite enough C-17’s, thank you very much, and really don’t want anymore.

[In the end of June], the Obama Administration C-17 Challengers, led by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, continued to land blow after blow in the annual boxing match over the fate of the C-17 and the 5,000 Long Beach workers who assemble the big jets. The Obama Administration wants to end production after the 223 which are already in service or in the pipeline. Boeing, its friends in congress and everywhere else are doing everything they can to continue building the profitable four engine advanced airlifters.

In order to force the sale on the Air Force, Congress is threatening to include provisions ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the appropriation bill, forcing a painful veto decision on the White House. That does not seem to be changing the administration’s mind, however:

On Sunday [June 20, 2010], Gates was asked about the C-17 in an interview on Fox News by CHRIS WALLACE, ANCHOR. Here are the relevant excerpts:

WALLACE: As part of your new drive to try to cut the budget for non- combat operations, has the president agreed to veto any bill that would include continued funding for the C-17 cargo plane or an alternative engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, even if that legislation also included repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell?”

GATES: Well, as I told the Senate Appropriations Committee, the defense subcommittee, this week, it would be a very serious mistake to believe that the president would not veto a bill that has the C-17 or the alternative engine in it just because it had other provisions that the president and the administration want.

WALLACE: Have you been given an assurance by the president that he will enforce his feelings, your feelings, about the budget even at the expense of social policy?

GATES: Well, I think the White House has put out a very strong statement in support. I would also just say that I don’t go way out on a limb without looking back to make sure nobody’s back there with a saw.

WALLACE: So you think that they veto the bill even with repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell?”

GATES: I think so.

The Obama administration has repeated its promise to veto any bill purchasing more C-17’s since then. Nevertheless, Sen. Boxer keeps pushing for the purchase despite the fact that, according to a defense industry insider, the Air Force already has more of the aircraft than it needs (223 purchased vs. 205 or less required, which is backed up by this 2008 GAO report), and may have a cheaper alternative in modernization of the complementary C-5 Galaxy aircraft manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

Whatever the merits of the C-5 vs. the C-17, the Air Force and Department of Defense have been quite clear that they no longer want purchase the C-17, and the GAO concluded in 2008 that the C-17 program would have to end in the near term (slated to being next month), regardless of what some in Congress wanted.

The real story here is that leaders such as Sen. Boxer continue to be oblivious to what their duties actually are. She and her congressional colleagues persist in using taxpayer money to fund projects intended to keep them in power, but which add nothing to general welfare of the country. Will purchasing more C-17’s save jobs in Long Beach? Yes, but only for a little while, and only at the expense of more productive uses of the workers’ time (i.e. creating something that is actually wanted and needed). Meanwhile the appropriation costs taxpayers plenty and they get no benefit from it.

So long as our leaders in Washington continue to spend our money for their own benefit, and that of their friends, we will have ballooning deficits and a decreasingly productive economy. judging from the growing clamor of voices, such as in the Tea Party movement, the electorate gets that. Our tax dollars are not for keeping the already powerful entrenched. The real question is, when will Sen. Boxer and her friends in Washington finally figure it out?


Is A Man’s Home Still His Castle?

Originally posted at the Washington Examiner on August 28, 2010. Some edits have been made to the original article.

It’s an enduring doctrine in America that one’s home is off limits to prying eyes and ears, and can be defended to the death if necessary. It’s not strictly true, of course, and certain states have eroded the doctrine to a gossamer wisp of the core idea. Yet, we tend to operate on an almost instinctual presumption that, when we are on our own property, we are kings and queens of the castle.

Felicia Gibson clearly adhered to this principle, and it’s landed her in serious legal trouble (via Glenn Reynolds):

The resisting-arrest conviction last week of Felicia Gibson has left a lot of people wondering. Can a person be charged with resisting arrest while observing a traffic stop from his or her own front porch?

Salisbury Police Officer Mark Hunter thought so, and last week District Court Judge Beth Dixon agreed. Because Gibson did not at first comply when the officer told her and others to go inside, the judge found Gibson guilty of resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer.

Gibson was not the only bystander watching the action on the street. She was the only one holding up a cell-phone video camera. But court testimony never indicated that Hunter told her to stop the camera; he just told her to go inside.

Taking video of police stops is becoming more common with the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras and the like, and so is the backlash from law enforcement as has been amply covered by people like Glenn Reynolds (the famous Instapundit) and Radley Balko (from Reason Magazine). From the account given, it appears this why Ms. Gibson was arrested. What makes her case unique, however, is that she was on her own front porch when the encounter took place, and that she was taken into custody on a charge of “resisting arrest.”

Salisbury Police Chief Rorie Collins explained the North Carolina statute, under which Gibson was charged, as this:

“This crime is considered a Class 2 misdemeanor and involves:

“Any person who shall willfully and unlawfully resist, delay, or obstruct a public officer in discharging or attempting to discharge a duty of his office.

“Obviously, this charge is rather broad and can encompass many different types of actions that are designed to, or serves to hinder a law enforcement officer as he/she performs their duties.

“This charge is most commonly used in situations where a person who is being arrested refuses to cooperate and either passively or aggressively resists an arrest or tries to run away.

“Another very common situation in which this charge is used involves instances when an officer is conducting an investigation and the individuals with whom he/she is dealing provide a false identity when required to identify themselves.

“As you can imagine, there are also many other circumstances in which this charge would be appropriate.”

Chief Collins wouldn’t comment on the specifics of Gibson’s case, but did allow that, in general one does have the right to observe a police stop from one’s own property. He also seemed to suggest that a charge of resisting arrest may still be appropriate in a situation where bystanders refuse to obey police commands to exit the area for their own safety.

“However, just as with many other scenarios, it is important to remember that every situation is based upon its own merits/circumstances. There are some circumstances in which the police who have stopped the vehicle in front of your house may determine that it is in the interest of safety (the officer’s, yours or the individual stopped) to require that folks move. As with other circumstances, it is best advised that an individual merely obey by the officer’s commands.”

Perhaps on a public street the Chief might have a point, in that a colorable argument could be made that the police are charged with protecting the safety of the public highways and byways, even where the only danger is self-imposed.

But to arrest someone who is unmistakably on their own property, and doing nothing remotely illegal, is an abuse of power pure and simple. Even if it were true that Gibson was endangering herself by witnessing the traffic stop from the confines of her front porch, how could that possibly be construed as “resisting arrest” or “obstructing the police” without eviscerating everything that the concept of private property (not to mention plain old individual rights) stands for? Taking such a risk is not illegal. Doing it while occupying one’s homestead should be recognized as unassailably within one’s rights.

Since it appears that neither the police nor the district attorney’s office can be shamed into refraining from such power abuses, perhaps it will take a fat lawsuit for violations of Gibson’s (et al.) constitutional rights to get their attention.

The castle walls may be crumbling and decayed, but the invaders can be fought back and the walls rebuilt.


A Mosque Too Far?

This post, in its original form, was previously posted at the Washington Examiner on Wednesday, August 11, 2010. The following post has been updated for today.

Plans to build an Islamic cultural center right next door to the site of the greatest attack on American soil have generated plenty of controversy. And as plans continue to move forward, more is promised still. Questions as to where the money is coming from to build it, and who exactly its leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, really is are likely unresolvable, yet add fuel to the already contentious debate. In fact, today new questions were raised as to the connections of Rauf and his organization (the Cordoba Initiative) to Iran:

Two weeks ago the Cordoba Initiative website featured a photograph of the project’s chairman, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, and Iranian Mohammad Javad Larijani at an event that the Initiative sponsored in Malaysia in 2008. This week, the photograph … has disappeared.

Larijani was the Iranian representative who defended Iran’s abysmal human rights record before the UN Human Rights Council in February and June of this year. Among other things, Larijani told the Council: “Torture is one thing and punishment is another thing. … This is a conceptual dispute. Some forms of these punishments should not be considered torture according to our law.” By which he meant flogging, amputation, stoning, and the criminalization of homosexuality, which are all part of Iranian legal standards. Larijani added: “Iran [has a] firm commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights. … The Islamic Republic of Iran … is a democracy,” which would be news to the pro-democracy activists murdered or confined to Iranian prisons since last year’s fraudulent elections.

There may be nothing to these sorts of queries, and it may be that Mr. Rauf and his organization are earnest peace-seekers. Even so, the plan to place a $100 Million structure dedicated to Islam right next to Ground Zero has understandably caused a lot of questions to be asked, although few have elicited answers. Writing for the Ottawa Citizen, Raheel Raza and Tarek Fatah think they can settle one of the burning issues, however: why a mosque at Ground Zero?

When we try to understand the reasoning behind building a mosque at the epicentre of the worst-ever attack on the U.S., we wonder why its proponents don’t build a monument to those who died in the attack?

New York currently boasts at least 30 mosques so it’s not as if there is pressing need to find space for worshippers. The fact we Muslims know the idea behind the Ground Zero mosque is meant to be a deliberate provocation to thumb our noses at the infidel. The proposal has been made in bad faith and in Islamic parlance, such an act is referred to as “Fitna,” meaning “mischief-making” that is clearly forbidden in the Koran. [...]

Let’s not forget that a mosque is an exclusive place of worship for Muslims and not an inviting community centre. Most Americans are wary of mosques due to the hard core rhetoric that is used in pulpits. And rightly so. As Muslims we are dismayed that our co-religionists have such little consideration for their fellow citizens and wish to rub salt in their wounds and pretend they are applying a balm to sooth the pain.

The Koran implores Muslims to speak the truth, even if it hurts the one who utters the truth. Today we speak the truth, knowing very well Muslims have forgotten this crucial injunction from Allah.

The article’s writers are both authors about Islamic politics and culture as well as board members of the Muslim Canadian Congress. Now, I don’t know if Raza and Fatah are correct in their assertions, but I have a good reason to believe they may be. Several in fact, two of which I’ve seen personally.

I was once able to visit Istanbul and Jerusalem where I eagerly toured both the Hagia Sophia and the remains of what is believed to be Solomon’s Temple (typically referred to as the Western Wall). Both of these deeply religious sites have been converted to Muslim uses by the building of mosques.

The original Hagia Sophia was a church built by the Emperor Constantine some time in the fourth century, which was subsequently razed on a few different occasions. The Emperor Justinian I erected the current structure in the 530’s, and it still stands as one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture in existence. However, when Constantinople finally became Istanbul for good, the Hagia Sophia saw a dramatic change:

… Hagia Sophia remained a functioning church until May 29, 1453, when Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror entered triumphantly into the city of Constantinople. He was amazed at the beauty of the Hagia Sophia and immediately converted it into his imperial mosque.

Hagia Sophia served as the principal mosque of Istanbul for almost 500 years. It became a model for many of the Ottoman mosques of Istanbul such as the Blue Mosque [ed. - which is within sight of of the Hagia Sophia], the Suleiman Mosque, the Shehzade Mosque and the Rustem Pasha Mosque.

No major structural changes were made at first; the addition of a mihrab (prayer niche), minbar (pulpit) and a wooden minaret made a mosque out of the church. At some early point, all the faces depicted in the church’s mosaics were covered in plaster due to the Islamic prohibition of figurative imagery. Various additions were made over the centuries by successive sultans.

In short, the conquerors replaced a mighty cultural symbol of the vanquished with one of their own. Fairly standard really, but I still found it a bit odd to walk into one of the oldest Christian churches in the world only to be confronted with giant symbols of Islam everywhere.

Visiting Jerusalem was just as puzzling. I knew that the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall) was all that was left of Herod’s expansion of the Temple Mount, but I had not realized that atop it sat not one, but two Islamic holy sites: The Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. These two religious sites replaced and took over what is considered the holiest of all places on Earth by the Jews, who are forbidden from entering either.

There are, of course, other examples, but it’s not as if this sort of conquering behavior is the sole province of Muslims. Indeed, the al-Aqsa Mosque was itself taken over as a church for a brief time by Crusaders.

Even so, it cannot be denied that erecting mosques and other holy sites upon or near places of great cultural significance to their enemies is something to which Muslims seem historically inclined. And while most Muslims may not consider themselves at war with the West, or Americans as an enemy of Islam, those who took down the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 most certainly did, and still do. That is why I think that Raza and Fatah may be right.

To erect a monument in the form of the Ground Zero Mosque to the nihilistic, death-loving 9/11 terrorists is a slap in the face of everyone they murdered on that day, those who gave up their lives to rescue the survivors, and all of their families and friends. It would be allowing a symbol of enemy victory to desecrate hallowed ground.

Bruce made a great argument as to why, despite whatever intentions the mosque’s benefactors may have, it’s an affront to individual property rights and the rule of law to use the government to prevent the Ground Zero Mosque from being built.

Basically, I think he’s right. But I can’t help thinking that if, say, a group of Japanese decided to by some property right next to Pearl Harbor in order to erect a monument or shrine, we as American citizens might find some peaceful and non-coercive way of stopping that from happening.

As for the Ground Zero Mosque, we’ll just have to wait and see.


Stupidest Thing I Heard Today

Henceforth to be titled “STIHT”.

Almost every day I’m confronted with beyond-ridiculous statements that turn me sideways. I literally cringe when I hear/read them. A little monologue automatically goes off in my head (OK, and out loud once in awhile as well) that serves — for my purposes — to make the bad thing stop. Because the stupidity has become relentless, I feel the need to rant publicly. Hence STIHT.

So, as I’m finishing my day, leisurely pondering the conclusion of the TV show I was watching, that nasally, self-indulgent voice of Sex In The City’s primary protagonist wistfully bleats “Someone once said that two halves make a whole.” Let me tell you: the sinews, tendons and synapses controlling my fingers’ hasty dispatch of power to the source of such inanity were so swift as to make Mercury look like Kurt Rambis. My sanity was saved with a flick of the wrist.

Why? Well, allow me to rant.

No one, in the history of all intellectual life, has ever said “two halves make a whole”. Sure, someone has actually said those words. But I can assure you that, apart from the confines of the writer’s room for Sex In The City, no one who said them was met with anything less than a Potsie-perfect “Duh.”

Because the profound thing about the statement, to the extent there is anything, is not that two halves make a whole, but instead that a “whole” can be split into two halves. That wisdom has been known since at least the time of Ur, and probably for quite a bit before that.

Put simply, there is nothing remotely profound in the statement that “two halves make a whole” since the only revelatory thing of the entire statement is the complete converse — i.e. that a whole can be split into two equal parts called “halves.” That “someone once said” such an unenlightening statement may in fact be true, but it doesn’t prove anything apart from the utter vacuity of the person proposing such statement to have meaning at all.

Now for the anticipated FAQ’s:

“So what’s the point of your rant?”

Stupid things piss me off. Writing about their stupidity seems better than punching holes in walls (yeah, you’ve been there).

“But why do I care?”

Why would I know? Or care?

“I mean, why should I bother reading your rants?”

Don’t bother. I write them to keep down on my drywall and putty expenses (OK, and for entertainment purposes). Consider it like a reality show — public therapy.

“But would Snooki approve?”

No. Punching walls is mandatory in her world.

“Are there midgets involved?”

Oh, just wait until my next rant. I mean, they’re not even real people.

“Is Daniel Tosh funnier than you?” (See last link)

Who are you! Tell me your name! Who sent you! I have RIGHT to know who you are!


Taxes Matter and Can Destroy Incentive

Let me tell you how it will be
There’s one for you, nineteen for me
Cos I’m the taxman, yeah,
I’m the taxman
Should five per cent appear too small
Be thankful I don’t take it all
Cos I’m the taxman, yeah,
I’m the taxman

- Beatles, 1966

One of the common laments from fiscal conservatives is that static tax analysis assumes no adjustments by taxpayers to avoid paying at the highest rates. Generally speaking, the higher any activity is taxed, the less of that activity we will get. Even when the activity is just fun and games, such as competing in the Ryder Cup matches in Europe this Fall:

Players competing in the match between Europe and the United States at Celtic Manor, Wales, could be seriously affected by new rules issued by the customs and revenue agency, which can now tax foreign sportsmen and women not just on prize money earned but on sponsorship and endorsements.

Why would that matter? Because the prize money is a pittance compared to what endorsements bring in. Tiger Woods, for example, when he was playing well could win a tournament and take home as much as $1.5 Million in prize money. At the same time, his endorsements earn him in excess of $90 Million per year, which is down from a staggering $128M/yr just two years ago. By comparison, Phil Mickelson, who actually has played well this season, brings in an estimated $61 Million. That’s a lot of money to subject to taxation in the UK just for playing one (albeit prestigious) tournament.

According to the AP article, Usain Bolt (possibly the fastest man alive) and other athletes have already skipped British competitions because of the imposing tax rules, much like how the British Invaders of the 1960′s started spending more and more time in the Carribean, Monaco, and even New Jersey in order to avoid punitive tax rates. Because, in the end, incentives matter, and taxes can create a huge incentive to forgo certain activity.

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