Friday, March 19, 2010


Hey, say what you want about local politics, but they do tend to deal with real issues that have traction among the voters. Like the latest brainstorm to come out of the mayor's office – the idea of taxing “sweetened beverages” at the rate 2 cents per ounce. This – as you might predict – is a form of “sin tax” designed to both make money and to discourage consumption of junk beverages. Problem is, the more successful you are with the latter the less successful you'll be with the former – and hence the perennial, illogical hypocrisy of a local government desperate to bail itself out of bottomless financial crises. Pittsburgh is a textbook case of the flaws inherent in the “continual growth” model of city management – the idea that, as long as the population continues to increase, we can put off, indefinitely, the day of reckoning when it comes to infrastructure costs and entitlements. But then they accelerate that day of reckoning by imposing ever more onerous taxes on business and residents, causing both to flee... and leaving the city with a shrinking tax base but – surprise! -- no corresponding shrinkage in infrastructure costs or entitlements. So in desperation, they pile on to the remaining tax base, thereby causing another migration out of town... and so on. Oh yes, and meanwhile they beg for handouts from the state government and from anyone else who will listen. And I guess it wouldn't help to point out that sweetened beverages are only as cheap as they are because of federal government subsidies and preferences for the corn industry. So the incompetent and corrupt have, once again, met on the field of battle, and I don't know who to root against first.

I have to admit, I glazed over months ago on the issue of health care. The only thing I can guarantee is that, whatever they come up with, it will damage the parts of the system that are working and not improve the parts that are broken or non-functional. Count on it.

And, oh yeah, back to Pittsburgh – the police department loaned someone $10,000 “in seized drug money” as a partial ransom for an alleged kidnap victim. The result – the kidnapping was a hoax, and the perps got away with the $10K. Looks like the benefits of a sting operation have not been lost on the criminal element...

And here we go again with Eric Holder – the guy who may be the Obama administration's answer to James Watt and Joycelyn Elders. Fresh from making every possible argument in favor of trying the 9/11 conspirators in the heart of Manhattan, he now claims that Osama will never be taken alive, so we don't have to worry about any kind of trial. Wow, don't you wish you could see into the future as clearly as he can... or as he claims he can? He guarantees – absolutely, positively – that the 9/11 conspirators will be convicted, even as the case starts to fray around the edges. And then he guarantees – just as absolutely and positively – that Osama will never see light of day in New York City... never glimpse the Statue of Liberty... never be forced to contemplate his sins at Ground Zero. The whole thing is just too sad for words.

America has the most jailed population of any country on earth – and, as I've said before, this is because it has more laws that can be readily violated than any country on earth. And more are being drawn up and passed each day – that's the scary part. We still don't have enough! And I imagine that we won't have enough until we somehow manage to work things out so that every American citizen is, by definition, a lawbreaker. But wait, isn't that the definition of “police state”? But, on the other hand, the sheer cost of maintaining prisons at all levels has given some people second thoughts – especially state legislators. Now, all of a sudden, it seems that there are more important things than keeping a substantial portion of the populace in jail – things like avoiding bankruptcy. And as Gov. Schwarzenegger pointed out recently, the federal government can always print more money, but state governments can't (another argument, perhaps, for going back to the Articles of Confederation). Of course, contributing to the problem is the concept that prisons have to be at least as comfortable as the former residences of most of the inmates – an idea that never had all that much currency prior to the last couple of decades, and then only in the U.S. and certain parts of Northern and Western Europe. In most of the world, prisons are places one definitely wants to stay away from. In this country, I understand, many prisoners are more or less indifferent as to whether they're in jail or outside – conditions pretty much add up to the same thing. In fact, it seems that some parolees and ex-cons have taken to throwing the odd brick through a window just to get back in jail, with its “three hots and a cot” -- luxuries which are by no means guaranteed on the outside. What interests me, however, is that this incarceration-reducing trend goes against not only the age-old program of the law enforcement lobby, but also against Puritanism, which I regard as the most deep-rooted part of the American psyche. Could it be that we have, at long last, started to recover from that madness? Or is it just the expediency of the moment, and the core attitudes remain unchanged?

There's been increasing commentary to the effect that President Obama is a bit of a egotist and has overly-high self-regard. But I don't think that's fair. I just think that he has too much of a tendency to believe what he reads in the papers and sees on TV.

It's hard to believe, but Pittsburgh, which was completely snowbound only a few weeks ago, is now enjoying balmy, spring-like weather, with nary a trace of snow remaining. All the signs of spring are here – mainly the sound of motorcycles plying up and down the major thoroughfares at all hours of day and night, leaving a massive carbon footprint and causing extreme noise pollution. The rule of thumb for Pittsburghers is, if you can't do it on wheels while making a lot of noise, it's not worth the bother. So at any given time, the populace can be neatly divided into two groups – the ones sitting on their ass, and the ones sitting on their ass while in motion. Walking is considered somewhat of an eccentricity and a reason for suspicion – and as to running, or jogging, or exercise, or “physical fitness”? Hey, my grandfather worked for 50 years in the steel mills, and he got enough exercise for not only himself but all his descendants. So gimme another beer, wouldja? You gotta love this place – not only is it politically incorrect at times, it's also socio-culturally incorrect, which may be the bigger sin in the eyes of the levelers. After having lived in the D.C. area all those years – with all the politicized, power-crazed robots -- living among people who don't mind scratching their butt in public is more than refreshing.

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