Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The IRS Is Coming for Your Passports

By Kevin D. Williamson
Tuesday, February 14, 2018

The U.S. government is building the world’s largest debtors’ prison: the United States.

Beginning this month, the Internal Revenue Service will begin denying passports to some American citizens with unpaid taxes and, in some cases, revoking the passports of Americans with tax delinquencies. The government will in effect place those with unpaid taxes under arrest, effectively denying them their right to travel.

To be clear: We are not talking about Americans who have been convicted of tax evasion or tax fraud, or who are awaiting a criminal trial on charges related to tax matters. These Americans have not been charged with a crime, must less convicted of one. They simply have unpaid taxes amounting to $50,000 or more.

More precisely: They have an unpaid IRS liability amounting to $50,000 or more. The IRS’s aggressive schedule of interest and penalties for unpaid taxes ensures that a relatively small amount of unpaid taxes can turn into a $50,000-plus liability with remarkable speed.

The IRS has remarkable investigative tools and collections procedures at its disposal. Say what you will about the Patriot Act, it does not oblige Americans to file detailed paperwork annually with the Department of Homeland Security detailing their personal affairs, business arrangements, housing situation, health-insurance coverage, etc. The IRS has that power, and then some: It can seize assets, garnish wages, put liens on property, and more. Still, there are occasions when it finds itself unable to collect a debt. Sometimes, that is because it is dealing with a crafty person who manages to hide his income and property from the government. More often, that is because it is dealing with a person who simply cannot pay.

What’s worse is that there is no appeal, no procedural remedy in the law, no redress for those who have been wrongly targeted — and we know the IRS has a history of wrongly targeting Americans its agents perceive as political enemies. The sole remedy available to Americans who wrongfully lose their passports to the IRS — or who fail to have them reinstated after making good on their taxes — is to file a civil action against the agency under 26 USC 7345. Suing the IRS is an expensive and difficult proposition, especially for people who are likely already to be in a difficult financial situation.

When it comes to relations between citizen and state, it’s always a matter of “Show, don’t tell.” Here is a data point for you: Under federal sentencing guidelines, the recommended sentence for involuntary manslaughter is 10 months to 16 months. The average sentence for tax evasion? Seventeen months. The average sentence in a tax case is longer than the average sentence for a car thief (twelve months), a forger (twelve months), or a felon convicted in a drug case (14 months).

But that’s tax fraud. We aren’t even talking about that. We’re just talking about Americans with unpaid back taxes.

The right to travel is — like the right to free speech, the right to be free from unlawful search and seizure, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievance — a basic civil right. Americans as free people have a God-given right to come and go as they please, irrespective of the preferences of any pissant bureaucrat in Washington. Yes, we curtail people’s rights in certain circumstances — when they have been charged with a crime and convicted after due process. Tax fraud is a crime; having unpaid taxes is not.

The U.S. government needs a periodic reminder that it was created by the states and by the people, not the other way around, and that it exists at the sufferance of the people — not the other way around. Suspending passports in the course of a civil dispute — a civil dispute that may well be in litigation or soon to be in litigation — is banana-republic, totalitarian stuff.

Congress did this, and Congress can undo this — and Congress should undo this.

Yes, people should pay their taxes. Most people do. But there are limits to what the government may permissibly do to citizens in any situation, and much narrower limits to what the government may permissibly to do citizens who have neither been charged with nor convicted of any crime in the matter — which is not, after all, a criminal matter in the first place.

People should pay their taxes, and the people at the IRS should do their jobs honestly and ethically. Most of them do. But not all of them. Lois Lerner, the IRS boss who illegally targeted conservative groups for harassment in the runup to the 2012 presidential election, is happily enjoying retired life in some Washington suburb while collecting a fat federal pension. She didn’t lose her passport. Former IRS commissioner John Koskinen lied to Congress about the situation and oversaw the destruction of evidence. He still has a passport. The crimes — actual crimes — of the powerful and the connected go unpunished, while those who for whatever reason have an unmet obligation to the IRS are treated like East Germans locked behind the Checkpoint Charlie of the federal bureaucracy. If you want to know why faith in our institutions is at such a low point, meditate on that.

In the meantime, Congress should repeal the statute enabling the IRS to effectively place Americans under house arrest over unpaid bills. And if Congress fails to act, its members should be made to pay a price. My senators are Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, and my representative is Pete Sessions. What say you, gentlemen?

So Long, Huck Finn and Atticus Finch

By Kyle Smith
Tuesday, February 14, 2018

When the censors come, it will be with a smile on their face and unctuous talk about your feelings on their lips. It’s for your own good, they’ll say. Art that takes a stand against hatred will be confused with hate speech. In the spirit of inclusion they’ll exclude. Don’t you know this isn’t safe? They’ll say, as they rip the book out of your hands.

Yanking The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from school curricula, the Duluth School District in Minnesota is citing the offensive words they contain. This isn’t censorship, quite: The books will still be available in school libraries. They will simply be removed from lists of required reading lists. Nevertheless, the decision is motivated by the censorious impulse, the desire to stamp out this or that disturbing expression.

Nearly all of the fuel for that impulse is these days provided by the protective Left rather than the outraged Right: “We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” the district’s director of curriculum, Michael Cary, told the Bemidji Pioneer.

No specific complaint triggered the decision, Cary added, but for “a number of years” some students have said the racial slurs make them feel uncomfortable. The Duluth school district thinks so little of its students’ ability to cope with texts containing bad words and bad people that it is acting like the genteel pretend prince in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels who requires his mentally deficient brother, Ruprecht, to put a cork on the end of his fork so he won’t stab himself in the eye with it.

The local NAACP chapter has apparently been pressing for the move for years. Its president, Stephan Witherspoon, told the paper that the books are “just hurtful” and use “hurtful language that has oppressed the people for over 200 years.” But the hurtful language is part of the reason the books have the impact they do. The whole point is to transport the reader to the shameful eras of slavery and Jim Crow. To capture the feel of racist oppression in a bygone day is hardly tantamount to continuing to oppress. You might as well argue that those notoriously graphic (and highly instructive) Drivers’ Ed safety videos many of us saw in high school are making students bleed because they depict bleeding. Yet Witherspoon avers that “there are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people.”

You could argue that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t a great book — that it’s schematic, or dated, or that its white-savior storyline is patronizing to black readers. A case could be made that today’s young people find Huckleberry Finn boring or unreadable or too far removed from today’s discussions about race. But if you think Mark Twain and Harper Lee are degrading to black people because their characters use racist language, you’re doing literature wrong.

The Duluth-area NAACP finds itself creating an unlikely echo of Jim Crow fans who sought to kill To Kill a Mockingbird because it made white people feel bad about themselves. Denouncing the book as “immoral” and “improper,” the Hanover County School Board in Virginia voted unanimously to remove it from schools in 1966. Lee replied tartly of the board:  “What I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read. Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”

Fifty years later in the same state, the Accomack County Public Schools Board yanked the same book and Huckleberry Finn from classrooms and libraries after a single individual, the mother of a student, complained, “There is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that, and right now we are a nation divided as it is.” She added that the books amounted to “validating that these words are acceptable.”

Huckleberry Finn has been subject to removal and bowdlerization since the month after it was published: In 1885, the public library in Concord, Mass., banished the book for its “coarse language.” The Brooklyn Public Library booted it from the juvenile section two decades later, and in 1955, a television production for CBS expunged Jim and any mention of slavery from the story. The American Library Association lists it as the 14th-most banned or challenged book in the United States for the decade ending in 2009. In 2011, a new edition was published that removed the racial slurs.

Literature is supposed to help readers accomplish what Atticus Finch famously advised his daughter Scout to do: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It is doing no favors for young people to quarantine them from books that consider other ages, other mores, other viewpoints — some of which were vile. Learning to grapple with such discomfiting truths is a part of growing up, or used to be. Now the push to turn the whole of literature into a safe space is reinforcing the urge to postpone adulthood indefinitely. As Twain once said, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

The Myth of America’s ‘Crumbling’ Infrastructure

By Jonah Goldberg
Tuesday, February 14, 2018

It’s Infrastructure Week (again), and who among us can contain his excitement?

The president, for one.

According to reports, President Trump wanted to announce the biggest investment in public works since President Eisenhower unveiled the interstate highway system. But in the wake of tax cuts, the real deficit was too big to close what Trump calls “the infrastructure deficit.” So he had to settle for a plan that would spend $200 billion in federal taxpayer money over the next decade and lay the rest of the $1.5 trillion on state and local taxpayers.

It almost surely won’t fly. Many states are as broke as the federal government — and they can’t print money.

In his big-building, big-spending ambitions, Trump is at his most conventional. Politicians, as transportation expert Randal O’Toole puts it, have a deep-seated bias in favor of “ribbon-cutting over brooms.” They just love wielding a giant pair of scissors to cut a shiny ribbon on a new project. You can put your name on a new tunnel or bridge. It’s harder to take credit for fixing an existing one.

Even Trump’s insistence that our infrastructure is “crumbling” is among the most enduring clichés of American politics. A search of LexisNexis shows that America’s infrastructure has been crumbling since the late 1970s. And it’s simply not true. The most recent data is from 2012, when President Obama was insisting that our infrastructure was crumbling. At that time, 80 percent of our highways were in acceptable shape or better. Nearly 97 percent of rural roads met that grade.

Bridge failures in Washington state in 2013 and Minnesota in 2007 were greeted as symbolic proof of systemic disrepair. But the Washington state bridge collapsed because a truck driver carrying an oversized load ignored posted warnings. It would have collapsed if it had been brand-new. And the Minnesota collapse was the result of a construction defect.

Meanwhile, the conditions of our bridges have been improving consistently for the last two decades.

Of course some American infrastructure could use updating. The problem, however, isn’t underinvestment. In 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office, federal, state, and local governments spent $416 billion on infrastructure.

The real problem is that we don’t spend money on the right problems.

A recent exposé by the New York Times showed that politicians and the unions that own them are to blame for the Big Apple’s deteriorating subway system. For years they’ve raided transportation funds for pet projects, like failing upstate ski resorts.

Beyond New York, a perfect storm of ribbon-cutting fetishizing, environmentalism, and envy of other countries has led to high-speed-rail mania. Although zippy trains are nifty, they zoom past the fact America has the best rail system — for our needs. In Europe, trucks move goods and trains move people. In America, we do it the other way around.

Trump’s proposal does include a few worthwhile ambitions, such as streamlining the approval process for public works and improving incentives to come in under budget.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, then-California governor Pete Wilson used his emergency powers to bypass the usual red tape and unionized extortion that drive up costs and string out construction time. Experts thought it would take two years to fix the Santa Monica Freeway. Wilson offered contractors huge cash bonuses to meet tight deadlines. The repairs were completed in less than three months.

The Trump plan, however, would leave it to Congress to figure out how to de-boondoggle-ize infrastructure projects, which is not a cause for optimism.

Trump sees infrastructure investment pretty much the same way Democrats do — as a jobs program. That doesn’t work either (see: Japan). But if Trump had begun his presidency with building as his top priority, he would have won a lot of bipartisan support and turned the GOP into a big-government party much sooner.

Alas — or, depending on your point of view, lucky break — he spent his capital, political and fiscal, elsewhere. And now there’s none left for the riot of ribbon-cutting he wanted.

Don’t Retire Our Stealth Bombers

By Jerry Hendrix
Tuesday, February 14, 2018

When a local community government has trouble getting its books to balance or it simply desires additional tax revenue to expand local government, but it does not have support from the community, it will often pursue a “firehouses and police stations” strategy. Rather than identify low-end nonessential services or perhaps cut back on its internal bureaucracy, local government officials will select highly visible “sacred cows” — essential services such as firehouses and local police precincts — as the targets for cuts. With this sleight of hand, bureaucrats aim to balance the budget or free up funds for new pet projects, because they know that the public will never accept such cuts. It is a common tactic that is easily recognized by political analysts.

Well, it’s clear that the United States Air Force has recently decided to put some “firehouses,” in the form of highly capable B-2 stealth bombers, on the line in order to win additional funding from the Congress as the Air Force moves into production of its new B-21 Raider bomber.

This week, as part of the president’s budget rollout, the Air Force will be issuing its new “Bomber Vector” roadmap, which will detail the acquisition and retirement plan for our 21st-century bomber force. The roadmap will include the production schedule for the 100 new B-21 Raiders, as well as the retirement plan for older bombers such as the 1980s-era B-1B bombers.

However, in a surprising move, the Air Force’s Bomber Vector roadmap also includes a plan to retire all 20 of the service’s nuclear-capable, stealthy, B-2 Spirit bombers. These iconic, black flying wings have served as the backbone of the nation’s long-range penetrating strike force for the past quarter-century. The Air Force is arguing that, given the upfront costs of acquiring the new B-21 bombers, it can no longer afford to maintain the older B-2 aircraft.

Even the most cursory analysis of the global security environment highlights long-range penetrating strike as the critical emerging mission requirement, especially in light of the expansion of anti-access area-denial capabilities, which include advanced surface-to-air defensive missile capabilities. This analysis suggests that the Air Force will need more bomber capacity than can be supplied by its 100 new B-21 bombers.

In fact, multiple reports from various analysts reveal that the Air Force will need a minimum of 160 penetrating, long-range strike bombers if the nation decides to execute a sustained campaign against a rival great power. Against this strategic context, any proposal by Air Force leadership to retire a key component of the nation’s nuclear strategic triad and diminish our overall capacity to penetrate modern anti-air defenses can only be viewed as a blatant attempt to coerce Congress into raising its overall budgetary top line.

At this stage, what should the Air Force be doing, and what should the Congress ask it to do as part of next year’s National Defense Authorization Act? Perform an overall assessment of the service’s real strategic requirements given the current and future security environment. This assessment should consider whether the service’s current balance between long-range and short-range aircraft makes sense in light of expanding anti-access area-denial technologies. Additionally, given that both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy call out great-power competition broadly and China and Russia specifically as future threats while also recognizing that transnational terrorism will remain as a strategic challenge, we must ask: Does the Air Force’s future aircraft inventory make sense? It currently plans to field just shy of 2,000 fifth-generation, short-ranged fighters while building only 100 new, long-ranged, all-aspect stealth, penetrating bombers. Is that sufficient?

We see some signs of innovation within the Air Force’s overall plan, such as adding cheaper, simpler light-attack aircraft to its inventory to perform day-to-day attacks against terrorists driving white Toyota pick-ups around the desert (probably not the best use of a $100 million–per–copy fifth-generation fighter). Nonetheless, we need more emphasis in the Vector roadmap on the future threats that will pose the greatest danger to our nation.

The bottom line is that the Air Force is going to need more long-range penetrating strike bombers then it currently plans for within its budget. It will need more than the 100 B-21 Raiders that it plans to buy. In fact, it will probably need close to 150 of these aircraft if it is to be able to execute a sustained bombing campaign against a near-peer, great-power competitor. It will also need every one of the 20 B-2 Spirits that the Air Force retains in its inventory. Their low-stress, flying-wing structural design should enable these aircraft to fly for decades to come, much as their B-52 antecedents have. It’s true that their stealth characteristics do come with higher maintenance costs, but these are nowhere near their one-for-one replacement costs, and the nation needs these aircraft to meet its national-security requirements. The Air Force should stop threatening to close firehouses. It should manage its budget to meet strategic requirements.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Budget Deal Won’t Be Enough to Get the Armed Forces Trump Wants

By Jim Talent
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

I’m going to delve into the world of Pentagon budgets. It’s an arcane world, and I avoid it whenever possible, but it’s not possible to avoid it now — not if readers want to understand the magnitude of the challenge facing the Trump administration where the armed forces are concerned.

First, some history is necessary.

America’s armed forces have been declining in size, strength, and technological capability relative to its adversaries’ ever since the end of the Cold War.

The active duty military is around 40–50 percent smaller than it was in the 1980s. In 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, then–secretary of defense Dick Cheney and General Colin Powell proposed a plan for the Department of Defense going forward. That plan — called the Base Force — cut the size of the armed forces by about a quarter. When the Clinton administration came to power, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin did a “Bottom Up Review” of the military and adjusted the plan so it would cut the size of our forces by around another 10 percent.

Our forces today are smaller than those that resulted from the Bottom Up Review and much smaller than they would have been under the Base Force plan. To take one example, Secretary Cheney and General Powell thought the Navy would need 451 ships going forward, Secretary Aspin planned for 346 ships, and today there are only 280.

During all those years, the mantra was that the military could be smaller because the government would invest in its technological superiority. For the most part that investment didn’t happen. Many if not most major modernization programs were also canceled, either before any new systems had been procured at all or after only a fraction of the necessary upgrades had been bought.

As a result, all of the services are in desperate need of new systems and technology to replace their aging infrastructure. The Air Force today is flying older airframes — the fleet has an average age of 27 years — than at any time since its inception. The Army needs to replace its inventory of tracked vehicles, beginning with the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The Navy is slowly burning itself out, struggling to maintain an adequate forward presence overseas, yet lacking a fleet of sufficient size to support today’s deployment rate.

I can’t emphasize enough how much an aged inventory debilitates the armed forces. It drives up maintenance costs, it eats up a budget that is already too small, and it’s a constant threat to readiness. Imagine having to maintain and rely on a 30-year-old car.

The Pentagon faces two other huge holes in its budget. First, the Air Force must replace its aging and vulnerable satellite system, on which both the armed forces and the civilian economy are completely dependent. That will be a huge expense that is currently unbudgeted. Second, as President Trump has noted, both the land- and sea-based legs of the nuclear triad must be modernized or replaced, another expensive undertaking that is currently unfunded.

While our forces were declining over the past few decades, their missions were increasing dramatically. Operational tempo, the rate at which forces are deployed, increased substantially even in the low-threat environment of the 1990s. Since then, North Korea has gone nuclear, Iran is in danger of doing so, we are fighting Islamic terrorist groups in about a dozen countries, Russia is rearming and has invaded two of its neighbors, and, most ominously, the Chinese have engaged in a 20-year buildup of forces that made them the dominant naval power in the Western Pacific and at least a regional peer competitor of the United States.

All of these events have imposed substantial new obligations on forces that are smaller and less capable, relative to our potential adversaries’, than they were 20 years ago. And of course, the United States has in the last 15 years fought two long and difficult land wars. Those conflicts imposed tremendous stress, with all its attendant costs and consequences.

To sum up, even before the defense sequester, there was a growing mismatch between American strategy and American resources. I remember having private conversations with members of the Joint Chiefs who believed the modernization shortfall alone was $20 billion dollars per service. But nobody in the last three administrations admitted it publicly, because nobody, then or now, could figure out how to pare down our strategic requirements without abandoning our vital interests, and because neither Democrats nor Republicans wanted to spend the money to enable the armed forces to perform the full range of their missions.

It’s still hard to believe that so many well-meaning people could have done something so destructive for so long. But that’s what happened.

In 2011, Secretary Bob Gates took a step toward confronting the problem. Having spent two years cutting modernization programs, Gates got permission to propose a ten-year budget for rebuilding the armed forces. That plan called for modest yearly increases in the defense topline — not enough even to offset inflation, and nowhere near enough to recapitalize our forces, but the best Gates could get out of the Obama administration all the same.

Within six months of Gates’s proposal, Congress passed and Obama signed the Budget Control Act and conditional sequester of 2011, which arbitrarily reduced the Gates budgets by about $100 billion per year beginning in 2013.

In the five years the sequester has been in effect, the Department has lost $484 billion dollars compared to Gates’s budget plan. The table below shows the loss through fiscal year 2017, the latest year for which figures were available as I was writing this:

 (All figures in millions of dollars)

The sequester dramatically worsened all the long-term challenges the Pentagon was facing and in addition created an enormous present-day readiness problem. Each of the services is now facing major shortfalls in money for training, maintenance, and munitions. Everyone knew the sequester would have that effect; Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned of its disastrous consequences. But it passed anyway, and has continued in effect ever since.

As Jim Mattis testified last summer:

I retired from military service three months after sequestration took effect. Four years later, I returned to the Department and I have been shocked by what I’ve seen with our readiness to fight. For all the heartache caused by the loss of our troops during these wars, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration.

Now, apart from the members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, who have fought the sequester from its inception, the only current elected office-holder who bears no responsibility for this sorry state of affairs is Donald Trump. While both parties and both of the political branches were undermining American security for the better part of 20 years, Mr. Trump was building commercial real estate and starring on reality TV.

The president campaigned on rebuilding the military, and I believe he is sincere in wanting to do so. Secretary Mattis will submit a budget for fiscal year 2019 asking for $716 billion. At least $60 billion of that money is intended to fund current combat activities and will largely not be available to increase force size, improve readiness, or recapitalize the services for the future.

So the administration’s baseline request for fiscal year 2019 will be somewhere around $650 billion dollars; the budget deal lifts the sequester caps by that amount so it can actually be appropriated. That is a major victory — it represents nearly a $100 billion increase in defense funding over two years — but it will still be well below the $673 billion Secretary Gates projected would be necessary in fiscal year 2019.

(Remember that the Gates budget was inadequate at the time, that he proposed it before the sequester caused so much additional damage, and that the world has gotten a lot more dangerous since 2011.)

I don’t fault the Trump administration for not requesting more in fiscal year 2019. Secretary Mattis has only recently had most of his team appointed, confirmed, and installed in the Pentagon. The administration had to develop its National Security Strategy and National Defense strategy before it could build a budget to match, and that took time as well.

Moreover, the defense-industrial base is so fragile — another result of years of underfunding — that the Pentagon isn’t immediately capable of spending all it needs to spend anyway. And Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has promised that the fiscal year 2020 budget will be a “masterpiece,” which means, one hopes, that the department will for the first time in years actually be allowed to budget for what it really needs rather than having to stick to numbers set arbitrarily by the Congress or OMB.

Only the department has the analytical resources to determine with any precision what the budget should be in the out years. But there is little doubt that another large increase in fiscal year 2020 will be necessary. As an example, Mackenzie Eaglen of AEI has estimated that the baseline budget for that year should be $705 billion, which would mean a total increase of defense funding, over three years, of more than $150 billion dollars. 

That’s a lot of money; I can envision readers of this column sucking in their breath. But it’s only slightly above Gates’s projections for fiscal year 2020, it’s significantly less than 1 percent of America’s GDP, and it’s only necessary because the government has been so busy for so many years digging the department into such a deep hole.

Personally, I feel caught between the need to build up right away and the importance of doing it right. The Trump administration feels the same tension, and it deserves the benefit of the doubt as it decides how quickly to tackle the monumental challenge it faces. But it is essential that neither Mattis, nor Shanahan, nor the president himself underestimates or understates the magnitude of the damage they are trying to undo.

The Trump administration cannot allow Congress to believe that the fiscal year 2019 budget will be the last major increase it will request. As I have written time and again, the sequester did not actually save money when it was imposed; it simply postponed and enlarged the bill that had to paid. That bill has now come due. If the administration lowballs the real cost — if they allow Congress to appropriate less than is really needed — they risk becoming responsible for a state of affairs they did not cause, and complicit in the terrible consequences that may well overtake our country, no matter what they do now, at the eleventh hour after so many years of neglect.