The rearview mirror

This was one of the copies I initially received from the publisher. If it’s copy 1 like I think it is then I believe it’s still in a box someplace from our move. It was the markup I used for the reading last June and the reference copy I kept for doing radio gigs.

I placed this photo on my social media page a year ago today. It was the first book out of the box of copies of my book that I kept for hand sales and promotions. So let me tell you about being an author and what a long, strange trip it’s been since that book came out 366 days ago.

When I put the book out after 2 1/2 years of writing it, I felt reasonably good about its prospects. I thought it was rather topical as it came out a decade after the initial TEA Party protests, and the peer reviews I had on it were positive. And the initial sales were actually encouraging after I did my first radio gig on it a couple days afterward (it was actually 52 weeks ago today, the same day Joe Biden made his formal announcement.) I had a lot of encouragement from friends and supporters, but of course I had no idea what sort of sales to expect.

Well, it’s disappointing to say that I’ve sold 26 copies through Amazon. However, I can at least say that’s more than my previous book has sold in almost eight years (a total of 18 copies.) But that doesn’t count the copies I have hand-sold in person, most of which I autographed as well. Somewhere in our house (or maybe out in the shed, who knows?) I have about 8-10 copies of my first book, which came from an original stock of 20 or 25. This time, though, I started with 25 and bought another 10, leaving me about a dozen remaining. Their disposition is an interesting story.

Out of the original stock of 25, I numbered each book from 1 to 25. I kept number 1 as my copy, tithed 2 through 4 to charity (still have those), and sent most of 5 through 10 to those who contributed to the writing. (I still have one because I’ve never been able to get a contributor’s home address even in several attempts to ask.) Out of 11 through 25 I have just a few remaining – many of them were sold at my reading back in June.

Among the second batch were a few I sent to various radio personalities who requested them. As I recall all but one of those eventually resulted in an interview, and that adds to the story.

Believe it or not, I’m way more comfortable with writing than I am with public speaking, even though I took a class in college to conquer that fear. (Shocker, huh?) I’m sure that comes through over the phone, but I also figured it was a job I had to do in order to try and spread the word given my marketing budget, which was basically zero. (I did find out it costs $3.27 to send my book anywhere from California to across town, not that I had to do the latter.)

So I spoke to various people everywhere from California to Delaware, for anywhere from seven minutes or so to a whole hour. It was a “virtual book tour” which took me from my adopted hometown to my real hometown, and from where I went to school to places I’ve never visited (or, frankly, heard of) before. There were small towns and big cities on the docket, but the last stop was a national one on an internet radio station called Southern Sense Radio. I did find out from doing sixteen or so shows that the longer I knew I had, the better the conversation flowed.

While all this was happening, I went through a move (hence, why I can’t find the spare copies) and went on vacation twice. Could I have been more diligent at marketing? Perhaps, but I also work full-time. (You may gather I’m that diligent at unpacking. But I told my wife we have the rest of our lives.)

A few months after the release, I decided it would be a good idea to follow up on the loose ends I had to leave untied to finish the book by last April. Thus was born the quarterly State of the TEA Party updates, the last of which I did a couple weeks ago – a little early but necessary to be topical. It’s been a concept that’s evolved a little bit and probably will some more before it’s through.

It’s been a tremendous and tumultuous year since I put out this book. It’s interesting to ponder how the release of the book would have gone over had it come out this year, but it’s still out there if you want to read it for the history. I think I’ll go onto Amazon tonight and give you a little incentive by cutting the price. (Hey, I have reached triple digits in royalties, at least.)

As for the next book? Honestly, I can’t say for sure whether I have another one in me. Over the years I have kicked around a couple concepts, and I got as far as a couple chapters on the Indivisible movement. (I still owe you one last part on that story – maybe in the next couple weeks.)

If anything, I have the most desire to write a sequel update to my first book, So We May Breathe Free. Once upon a time I had thought about writing a tome on the struggle between Big Oil and the green energy movement – something more on my radar when I had Marita Noon (now Marita Tedder) as a columnist, but not so much now. (I still keep a few tabs on energy, but to turn a phrase I don’t have as much energy as I used to.)

The other idea I’ve had from time to time is a project I call 600 Words. It’s been over a decade now, but once upon a time I toiled as an (unpaid) columnist for an outfit called Liberty Features Syndicate. (The title refers to their optimum column length.) Most of the time these once- or twice-weekly pieces ended up on the website of a group called Americans for Limited Government, but once in awhile I would find out some small-town newspaper also ran my column. I think it would be an interesting idea to follow up on what happened to the subject of the columns, as history may or may not have been kind to them, and maybe it would have the autobiographical element of perhaps one of the most uncertain times of my life. Between 600 Words and the sequel to So We May Breathe Free, 600 Words is definitely more the vanity project.

I guess that’s the life of a part-time author who’s become a (very) part-time blogger too. If you have pity on me and want to buy the book – or if you like a good read on history (yeah, that’s the ticket!) the link to Rise and Fall remains above the fold on my front page. Let’s see if I can beat my year one sales in year two.

The sequel

I had a couple ideas for a post to place here this evening, but one has blown up into a more major story that I’m still investigating and hope to have for the beginning of next week, and the other wasn’t turning out the way I liked so I decided to scrap it for now. I’ll probably revisit the idea in a few weeks; it wasn’t time sensitive.

But it occurred to me yesterday that a year and a day had passed since I put out my first book, So We May Breathe Free: Avoiding Ineptocracy. Frankly, it hasn’t sold as well as I’d like, and I think in large part it was because I didn’t know the first thing about marketing a book; in fact, while it took me a long time to write – because I shelved the idea a couple times in the process – I really rushed to get it out in the summer before the election. This was especially true once I found out the traditional route to publishing can take many months.

There is a concept I’m playing around with for book number two, which is underway but a long way from completed. I was hoping to have it finished by the end of this year, but with the demands on my time it’s probably looking like at least 12 to 18 months out. The way it’s going to be set up, I will have to complete the draft and then tweak it as a whole to update it with any new information and ideas I come up with in the interim. That’s how I completed SWMBF.

Right now I’m envisioning it as a follow-up to some of my writings for Liberty Features Syndicate, an outlet I wrote for weekly for about a year in 2009-10. The title I’m working with is 600 Words, which refers to the ideal length they desired for my pieces, as they were intended for distribution to whatever newspapers took them. There will be a subtitle as well, but I haven’t figured that out yet – the original draft of SWMBF had a different subtitle, but I changed it to Avoiding Ineptocracy at the last minute. I was afraid of making the title too long and the original was lengthy.

But I think once I get 600 Words around 1/4 of the way completed, I’m going to try and devote a little time and effort into marketing and perhaps some outside editing insofar as placing the book in a good electronic format. Obviously I didn’t know everything about the craft of writing a book, and looking back those are the two areas I should have invested more time into. Those who purchased SWMBF haven’t had many complaints about it, so I’m guessing the writing is pretty sound.

It’s not often I solicit comments on this site, although they’re always welcome. I guess sometimes I say all there is to say. But presumably the hundreds and hundreds of readers I get a week receive some satisfaction out of what I write, and to me they are very important.

So what ideas do you have to make 600 Words a success? (Maybe they can still be applied to SWMBF as well.) I’ve even thought about starting a Kickstarter fund for enhanced marketing, a catchy cover, and finishing work – all of this costs money and I’m definitely not a wealthy man. SWMBF was literally a one-man operation and I learned a lot, but the biggest lesson was that this time I’d like a little help in making the second effort a success.

And I said it all in – you guessed it – 600 Words.

‘Silly Bandz’ raise serious question

If you know a child of middle school age, you’re probably familiar with the fad of Silly Bandz sweeping the country among that peer group. Now that school is out, the classroom bans imposed on kids who brought those colorful accessories to school to show off or trade are no longer in effect and thousands of “tweens” proudly sport their collections on their arms, a belt clip, or a necklace. With dozens of different shapes based on animals, fantasy characters, sports themes, and the like they appeal to the collector in every child and at about $5 for a pack of 24, Silly Bandz are an inexpensive hobby. Thousands of kids spend part of their allowance to get the latest styles.

Robert Croak, the creator of the brand, is a former bar owner and concert promoter who’s simply changed his target audience from young adults to their younger siblings and children. His company, BCP Imports, fills thousands of orders a day from a warehouse in Toledo, Ohio, where the product is brought in from a Chinese manufacturer.

And the people in Toledo are grateful for the jobs Croak provides. His distribution warehouse now hums with the activity of well over 100 employees, with more being hired every week. In a city where unemployment is 12 percent because the auto industry it depends on is sluggish, anyone who’s hiring can be pegged as a hero and indeed Croak is being treated like one. As he points out in a local television interview, “This is proof that the American Dream can still happen. The sky is the limit right now.”

All told, the success of Silly Bandz, even if fleeting, would seem to be a nice feelgood story. But there’s a question to ponder.

If these silicone bands cost 20 cents apiece at the retail level, one has to ask how it can be profitable to manufacture them at a plant thousands of miles away, ship them overseas, and truck them from port to distribution point. What prevents the manufacturing process (and those jobs which could be created) from being done in Toledo? Undoubtedly there’s plenty of available manufacturing space around the city which could be utilized and a lot of workers who are looking for job openings.

One answer could be the prospect of labor strife, as Toledo is one of the most heavily unionized cities in the country. Placing a Silly Bandz factory in Toledo without paying inflated union wages may lead to a serious picket at the plant gate.

Even if labor relations somehow go smoothly, though, there’s still the prospect of overtaxation and oppressive regulation to consider. With practically any small business, governmental entities make success more difficult than it should be. As one example, building a new factory to make Silly Bandz may require extensive site review by local government, while renovating an existing facility could lead to expensive modifications not necessary for the actual manufacturing process.

Localities often try to create a “one-stop shop” where red tape can be addressed with the least possible hassle. But not as much thought seems to go into making the burden easier by eliminating the redundant regulations and lowering the tax burden on these companies. Instead of making life better for job creation, the government seems happier to hire even more bureaucrats to try and help navigate the labyrinthine maze of their own creation.

As with all trends the Silly Bandz craze will fade away, but thinking up needless laws and rules is one fad which never seems to fall out of favor with government.

Michael Swartz used to practice architecture but now is a Maryland-based freelance writer and blogger whose work can be found in a number of outlets, including Liberty Features Syndicate. In truth, I didn’t know the distributor hailed from my hometown until recently, but that made this piece much more fun to write after I found out that fact. It debuted June 21.

The popularity paradox

Over the last couple decades America has settled into an uneasy truce with itself, as presidents of both parties propose new ideas and promise a new way of doing business but eventually lose their popular mandate.

Prior to President Obama, the poster child for this phenomenon was George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush frittered away an 89 percent approval rating just after the liberation of Kuwait from the clutches of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In less than two years his political fortunes declined to such a degree that he drew less than 40 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 election, yielding office to President Clinton.

In time, Clinton’s leadership was questioned so much that his party lost the majority in the House of Representatives two years after his election. After Clinton left office, George W. Bush managed re-election but spent his entire bank of political capital and popularity chasing Osama bin Laden around the Middle East while engaging in a little nation building along the way.

All these case studies reflect a simple fact: America sours quickly to new leadership if things progress in the same old way.

In President Obama’s case, pundits like to point out that his approval numbers are relatively in line with Ronald Reagan’s during the early days of his tenure. As in the present day, the first part of Reagan’s term was marked with a poor economy and high unemployment – before last October, the last time unemployment reached double digits was during a correspondent period in Reagan’s presidency.

Yet history shows that once Reagan’s economic prescription of lowering tax rates took hold his popularity surged, with the best evidence being an absolute electoral slaughter of the hapless Walter Mondale. On the other hand, President Obama’s policy accomplishments to date range in public perception from skepticism whether the stimulus has actually worked to outright hostility about the passage of Obamacare and progress in cleaning up the oil from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

Perhaps more than any other president in recent memory, though, President Obama suffers from being thin-skinned. While he may say from time to time that “the buck stops here” it’s usually lost in a litany of finger-pointing and blame shifting, with a favorite target being opposition Republicans. (Having advisers who proclaim we should never let a crisis go to waste or that we should put our boot on the throat of particular businesses isn’t much of a help either.)

People who followed President Obama’s cult of personality during his campaign and remain loyal to him make up a larger and larger portion of those who approve of his performance. Others who questioned his qualifications or didn’t like those policies he ran on make up a continually growing segment of the opposition, leaving less and less room for ambivalence. America may be fortunate that there’s not an issue like slavery to divide up the union.

To be a good leader, the key qualification is to go in a direction which people would eventually like to be led, convincing them to leave the safety of inertia. Of course, the leader is the one who gets the slings and arrows but shrugs them off in pursuit of a cause greater than self. One problem our President has is selling the idea that he’s not the one with the most to gain from the direction he’s attempting to take us. The American people keep attempting to put on the brakes and turn things around but the only way to get this leader to listen is to outpoll his followers at the ballot box.

Michael Swartz used to practice architecture but now is a Maryland-based freelance writer and blogger whose work can be found in a number of outlets, including Liberty Features Syndicate. This piece debuted June 18.

The pursuit of perfection

On a pleasant June night last week 17,738 Detroit Tiger fans filed into Comerica Park to see a game against the Cleveland Indians. Little did they know they’d witness what could be a pivotal moment in baseball history less than two hours later.

Even casual baseball fans now know the details: with two outs in the ninth inning Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga induced Cleveland batter Jason Donald to hit a grounder to first baseman Miguel Cabrera. As he’d practiced hundreds of times, Galarraga raced over to cover the first base bag and the defensive play was executed perfectly – or so he thought. Umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe but replays clearly showed the toss from Cabrera beat the runner. “I just cost that kid a perfect game,” moaned Joyce afterward.

Despite the fact that two perfect games have been thrown this season, the feat is harder than one may think – in major league baseball history just 20 pitchers have faced 27 batters in a game and retired all of them in a row. What makes this example different and perhaps more substantial in baseball history is the aspect of instant replay and the obvious blown call which cost the 28-year-old Venezuelan his chance at baseball immortality.

For sports fans, grousing about referees is as old as the game itself. Few home team fans will complain if a call goes their way, but if the situation is reversed officials never hear the end of it from the fans in the stands. Even the famous poem ‘Casey at the Bat’ features a fan who shouts, “Kill the ump!”

While it’s obviously against the law to physically harm an umpire who has a bad day in the eyes of the faithful, some feel that the force of law should be used to correct the call; in fact, one legislator from Michigan is seeking Congressional intervention to correct the error. Rep. John Dingell plans to introduce a resolution calling on MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to reverse the call, citing Major League Baseball’s reversal in the famous 1983 “pine tar” game where Kansas City batter George Brett had a home run nullified and later restored in a game against the New York Yankees.

The 1983 incident changed the result of the game from a Yankees win to a Royals victory but ultimately made little difference in the overall standings. In Galarraga’s case, he retired the next batter and the Tigers maintained the 3-0 win.

A more lasting impact comes from the idea of Congress interceding into the affairs of a sport simply because an incorrect judgment call was made. Too often we as Americans get the tendency of seeing a wrong such as this and demanding government correct it instead of not sweating the small stuff. More often than not during a game, one of the players will be charged with an error for a fielding miscue and once in awhile, as in the Galarraga incident, we’ll see the umpire blow an obvious call. That human element is one which lends charm to baseball and makes it the most traditional of our major professional sports.

Sure, having grown up as a Tigers fan myself it would have been nice to see Galarraga pitch the first perfect game in their 110 year history, and he may yet achieve the feat in a future game. The more lasting damage to the game wouldn’t be from letting an incorrect call stand but from allowing Congress to stick its nose into yet another arena where it doesn’t belong.

Michael Swartz used to practice architecture but now is a Maryland-based freelance writer and blogger whose work can be found in a number of outlets, including Liberty Features Syndicate. This cleared LFS on June 8th, and yes I’m still a Tigers fan.

Looking for a wedge

While the title might lead one to conclude this will be a critique of President Obama’s frequent golf outings, it is more apt to describe the state of the Democratic Party as they look at November’s midterm elections. With Republicans energized by opposition to Barack Obama’s agenda and buoyed by millions of activists gathered under the auspices of the Tea Party banner, desperate Democrats may be tempted to try anything within their power to maintain their grip on control in Washington, D.C. and state capitals.

One such example comes from Michigan, a state which went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama while suffering from the hamhanded policies of outgoing Gov. Jennifer Granholm to a point where the state is charitably described as an “economic basket case” and continues to lead the other 49 states in the dubious category of highest unemployment rate.

There paid petition circulators are combing the state to gather signatures to put the “Tea Party” on the ballot. While this may sound legitimate, the allegation of ties to the state Democratic Party and lack of knowledge about the drive from state Tea Party organizers make the petition drive sound like a dirty trick to split off a percentage of the conservative vote and preserve the status quo for another term. A similar effort in Nevada put an ersatz candidate on the November ballot to oppose embattled Sen. Harry Reid and GOP primary victor Sharron Angle, again without the backing of actual Tea Party organizers.

But that tactic can only work in certain states where ballot access is relatively easy. In other states Democrats have to use different methods to dilute the strength of newly-engaged citizen activists.

In Kentucky, the Senate race between Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway received national attention thanks to Paul’s broadcast remarks about decades-old civil rights legislation. While there’s little chance any such legislation will be revisited soon and more important issues are on the table in the Senate battle, the digression provided a chance for Kentucky (and national) Democrats to put Paul and the Republicans on the defensive, blunting the momentum of a successful campaign.

Meanwhile, Democrats received a boost from Mark Critz winning a special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th District to replace the late Rep. John Murtha. What escaped the media spin on Critz’s win was his platform – the Democrat claimed to be, “Pro Life, a supporter of our 2nd Amendment rights, a fervent believer in a strong national defense and a supporter of creating an atmosphere in which small business can flourish.” Those stances would hardly qualify him to be a favorite among the Beltway cocktail party crowd, but what matters will be how he actually votes on upcoming legislation. Critz repeated a tactic used by Democrats in conservative-leaning districts to win Congressional seats in 2006 and 2008 by running right-of-center on certain issues.

Perhaps the largest schism among Tea Party activists is one Democrats could exploit by bringing up social issues. While libertarians and conservatives typically agree on the fiscal side of the government equation, they often differ on social issues – for example, a social conservative who favors a Constitutional ban on abortion would be accused of legislating morality by a libertarian. By making social issues a part of the equation, cagey Democrats could discourage turnout and soften support from the Tea Party base.

Democrats seeking to blunt the momentum of conservatives coming into November’s election are going to need every tactic to succeed. It’s the job of the discerning voter to separate the hype Democrats offer from the record they represent.

Michael Swartz used to practice architecture but now is a Maryland-based freelance writer and blogger whose work can be found in a number of outlets, including Liberty Features Syndicate. This piece cleared LFS back on June 3rd and I updated it to reflect the Nevada primary result for publication here.

Broadening the conversation

With his win last month in Kentucky’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by the retiring Senator Jim Bunning, Rand Paul termed it a victory for the Tea Party movement. In the May 18 election Paul trounced “establishment” candidate Trey Grayson by a 59% – 35% count, stunning observers with his margin of victory over a candidate backed by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, among others.

For becoming the new darling of the conservative movement, the younger Paul – son of two-time Presidential candidate and libertarian hero Rep. Ron Paul – immediately became the target of the progressives who inhabit the mainstream media. Just as Sarah Palin was bushwhacked by interviews she did with network news personalities Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson during the 2008 campaign, Paul stepped in it just days after winning the primary election with an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” which led to Rachel Maddow browbeating him on her MSNBC show. The line of questioning regarded Paul’s view on civil rights and laws passed a half-century ago.

Obviously the intent of this cross-examination was to play into the media’s template of Tea Partiers as racist hicks far outside the mainstream. You wouldn’t catch those journalists asking a Democrat about his party’s historical opposition to those same civil rights advances dating back to the Civil War, but when they get the opportunity to score points against a rising star of the conservative movement they’re sure to take them.

Perhaps, though, the time has come to make civil rights an issue and ask about the progress we’ve truly made toward a colorblind society. After all, once we elected a President with a multi-racial background it was thought the issue would fade away into a post-racial era – apparently it hasn’t yet sunk in with the media who asked these questions of the Kentucky victor.

Rand Paul brings up a good point about the status of civil rights in America. While the topic of race was the shovel used to try and bury the newly-minted candidate, we could ask the question about a number of other forms of discrimination as well.

One example is the city of Kinston, North Carolina. In 2008 the voters there overwhelmingly supported a change in their municipal elections from partisan to nonpartisan, but they were overruled by the Justice Department based on the Voting Rights Act. Apparently the minority community (which is actually a majority in Kinston) wouldn’t know to vote for the proper candidates if they didn’t have a “D” by their name, according to DOJ logic.

Laws can and do outlive their usefulness. In truth, a business which didn’t provide accommodations for or cater to a portion of their potential clientele would likely find itself closing its doors in short order. As a whole, society is growing more and more tolerant so the prospect of segregated lunch counters is fading into the dustbin of history regardless of whether a law prohibiting the practice exists on the books.

It’s only those who continue to survive on the division of society by race, class, and gender who try to perpetuate the need for outmoded legislation designed to promote a particular party by presenting a facade of tolerance while denying colorblind equality in practice. He may not have made the point in the most eloquent way, but Rand Paul is correct to encourage a hard look at whether equality is better promoted without laws originally designed to keep us equal but evolving into making certain citizens more equal than others.

Michael Swartz used to practice architecture but now is a Maryland-based freelance writer and blogger whose work can be found in a number of outlets, including Liberty Features Syndicate. This cleared the LFS wire on May 26.

Congress vs. the oil industry

It’s beyond question that the oil industry is down on its luck right now, and the black eye received from the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico is a shiner which will stay on its public face for quite awhile. And while radio host Stephanie Miller claimed the Gulf oil spill as proof that “God is a Democrat,” the Democrats who sit among us mere mortals in Congress are taking direct aim at what they sneeringly call “Big Oil” with two particularly punitive measures.

With Democrats’ first try at cap-and-trade (better known as Waxman-Markey) stalling in the Senate after a contentious House vote, last week Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman brought forth their version of energy legislation. Originally sponsorship crossed party lines when Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, agreed to back the bill, but Graham withdrew his support when Senate leader Harry Reid decided to press for passage of immigration reform rather than this measure.

That’s not to say Graham would be staunchly against the proposal. But the sticking point he sees is that, “problems created by the historic oil spill in the Gulf…have made it extremely difficult for transformational legislation in the area of energy and climate to garner bipartisan support at this time.” Predictably, Democrats representing waterfront states like Florida, New Jersey, and Maryland are already coming out dead set against the additional oil exploration included in Kerry-Lieberman, a tradeoff intended to get Republicans to support a bill which would levy taxes on greenhouse gas emissions and, as studies have concluded, be a net job loser.

Moreover, Kerry-Lieberman gives a rare nod to states’ rights from the liberal side, allowing affected states more liberty to curtail or cease oil exploration off their shores. It’s a complete turnaround in one month’s time – only a few weeks ago the oil industry was cautiously optimistic about the Obama Administration allowing exploration in certain leaseholds to go ahead beginning in 2012. Needless to say, those ambitious plans are on hold after White House adviser David Axelrod warned, “no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what has happened (with the Deepwater Horizon).”

A second Congressional attack on the energy industry in the accident’s aftermath comes from their bid to bolster a little-known federal fund called the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF). Created by Congress in 1986, the OSTLF lay dormant until 1990, when in the wake of the Exxon Valdez tanker accident a per barrel tax was levied on petroleum produced or imported into the United States. Currently oil companies pay eight cents per barrel toward this fund. In addition, there is a limitation on liability of $75 million per incident for economic damages – companies already have to shoulder the actual cleanup costs.

But a new proposal would devastate small- and mid-size oil companies, forcing them out of business by increasing the prospective liability to $10 billion. Naturally, the OSTLF would be increased as well through the possible fourfold increase of the per-barrel tax to 32 cents, but the additional revenue may not necessarily go to the OSTLF – proceeds could be spent on other projects Congress deems worthy of funding.

These are just two of the more egregious examples of how Congress wants to punish Big Oil for the sin of having a tragic accident occur on an offshore platform. The federal government has done its part to assist British Petroleum in coping with the accident and its aftermath, so there’s no need for Congress to exert another pound of flesh from an apologetic industry.

Michael Swartz used to practice architecture but now is a Maryland-based freelance writer and blogger whose work can be found in a number of outlets, including Liberty Features Syndicate. This piece was made available to LFS clients on May 20.

A slow reclamation

In the wake of the emotional Obamacare debate, the President’s approval ratings sank much closer to those endured by the outgoing President Bush than the stratospheric heights polled as the era of Barack began. Looking at Rasmussen’s tracking poll, Obama reached a low of 43% approval during the weekend of the final House debate over the Senate-sponsored health care measure, and the approval index (defined by Rasmussen as the percentage strongly approving minus the percentage strongly disapproving) reached a low of -21.

Since those low points, though, the emotion of the debate over health care has subsided and Obama’s approval ratings have began their own slow recovery – back to 48% approval last week and a much healthier approval index of -10. It’s an encouraging trend for a party which just last month was left for dead in November, and perhaps shows that Republicans need to curb their enthusiasm about derailing the Obama agenda next year.

Yet one has to ask just what is different about the public’s mood now. Certainly there’s still a Tea Party element out there flexing its muscle, but Obama has adroitly focused his efforts on the one area he can be seen as populist in advocating Wall Street reform. While there’s a lot of people who dislike big government, even more have a beef with the perceived fat cats who navigate the murky waters of derivatives and other difficult-to-explain financial instruments while making handsome profits for themselves and sticking taxpayers with their losses.

Then again, it’s not easy to figure out what Congress wants to do with Wall Street either. In that respect President Obama seems to be leading in the same manner as he did with health care, standing aside while Congress debates the finer points and waiting anxiously with pen in hand for the final legislation to pass. Unlike health care, though, President Obama may be waiting in vain because of the Republicans’ newfound ability to filibuster legislation – Democrats no longer have the convenient workaround they enjoyed in goosing the system and rules to pass Obamacare.

On the other hand there are still a number of boobytraps remaining before Obama and the Democrats can survive the upcoming election with their majorities intact.

Immigration is the hotbutton issue du jour, placed there once Arizona passed a get-tough measure on illegal immigrants (which ironically is simply a rewrite of federal law at a state level.) While the President has wanted to see reform with federal law, there’s a number of Democrats who are quite squeamish about touching anything which remotely resembles amnesty. They’re mindful of the reaction back home, and for good reason.

The same goes for cap-and-trade legislation, which is a nonstarter despite the continuing Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf. President Obama wasn’t able to take advantage of the situation by showing leadership; instead he’s being chastised by some in the press for his slow reaction to the crisis.

It could be, however, that the biggest difference between the more popular Obama of late and the Obama trying to get health care reform passed is that the President doesn’t seem to be the constant presence he was during that debate. With a number of other world crises taking place, such as the financial meltdown of Greece, the news isn’t quite as focused on the President and lack of familiarity stops breeding contempt.

There’s no doubt Americans aren’t necessarily buying what President Obama is selling, but the pitchman has retreated off the stage enough to keep his record out of the limelight and regain a little of his lost popularity in the process.

Michael Swartz, an architect and writer who lives in rural Maryland, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer. This article cleared the LFS wire on May 13, which after their usual hold meant I didn’t get to post it last week.

The end of the oil boom?

The Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico drew limited headlines upon its occurrence, with the biggest news at the time being the 11 workers missing after the rig’s explosion and fire. It wasn’t until the discovery that crude oil was leaking into the Gulf because of a faulty shutoff valve that the story moved to front-page headline status.

At a rate of perhaps 5,000 barrels per day, the spill – more properly described as a gusher akin to the proverbial Texas oil strike because of the pressure bearing from beneath the Gulf floor – may turn out to rival the amount of oil lost in the 1989 Exxon Valdez shipping accident. Obviously the immediate environmental damage from the oil spill will be severe and economic damage to the local seafood industry catastrophic; fortunately, we also know from the Exxon Valdez accident that eventually the region will be able to recover. Since crude extracted from the Gulf is relatively light in weight, the oil isn’t the thick black gunk most people think of when they think of an oil spill; rather, the result is a silvery sheen on the surface which may be easier to disperse through chemical means.

Long-term impact on the oil industry may be more disastrous. Needless to say, environmentally conscious Democrats called on Obama to drop his proposed offshore exploration program in the wake of the accident, and White House adviser David Axelrod agreed, saying, “no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what has happened here.” Axelrod’s response to the accident, ironically occurring on the eve of Earth Day, suggests the open-ended nature of the moratorium may lead to more regulatory hurdles for oil operations in the Gulf.

For decades, exploration in the Gulf of Mexico had progressed without incident, and the more than 3,500 platforms already producing in our portion of the Gulf routinely endured shutdowns brought on by approaching hurricanes and regular maintenance. In these cases the shutoff valves did their job, making the Deepwater Horizon incident an outlier. Nor can the prospect of sabotage or terrorism be ruled out given the enticing target presented by what was essentially a seagoing vessel tenuously rooted to a wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface. The Deepwater Horizon was one of only about two dozen rigs situated in a water depth more than 1,000 meters – the technology of deepwater drilling is still maturing.

Yet billions of barrels of oil lie entombed underneath the Gulf of Mexico. Undoubtedly there is an argument underscored by the Deepwater Horizon tragedy which says we need to back down, but when you compare the safety record of Gulf drilling to that of shipping 9 million barrels of oil per day for our use over many of those same waters and the prospect for disaster there, the risk is worthwhile.

As we stand right now, there is no perfectly safe or perfectly reliable form of energy out there and the Deepwater Horizon accident points out the possible (but historically unlikely) downside of oil dependence. But coal also has drawbacks and safety concerns as recent mining accidents remind us, while the pesky problem of waste and threat from radiation dogs proponents of nuclear power. Renewable energy is great in concept, but the reliability of solar and wind energy obviously depends on optimum weather conditions.

Accidents will happen, but there’s no reason to stop oil exploration after this tragedy. The record of safety is no longer unblemished but still exemplary, and on balance the benefits still outweigh the risks. Let’s get oil workers back to work.

Michael Swartz, an architect and writer who lives in rural Maryland, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer. This op-ed cleared the LFS wire on May 4th.

Note: after a preliminary investigation, it sounds like the accident was a combination of faulty equipment and bad luck. Methane’s not something you want to mess with.

How the other side lives

If you consider the TEA Party movement a political one and support their goals, you’re not alone. A Rasmussen poll taken just before the tax day protests found that 24% of Americans now considered themselves part of the TEA Party movement.

Yet if you look at the actual number of people who have attended a TEA Party, the movement is likely far smaller. While there’s no good accurate count of the number who have participated, it’s safe to assume that the sum total is much fewer than the 69,498,215 people who voted for President Barack Obama. And chances are the circle of TEA party regulars has little congruency with the circle of Obama voters so it’s no stretch either to assume that these are two different and entrenched camps.

Those who favor TEA Party politics tend to be for a reined-in, smaller government which is fiscally responsible, and they’re united on that front. On the other hand, the sector of the Democratic party which most supported Obama is actually made up of far smaller and more disparate groups, which fall in and out of favor quickly depending on the issue of the day.

For example, the recent push for amnesty for illegal immigrants placed the Hispanic advocacy groups and other race-baiters at the top of the heap, displacing environmental groups who were hoping cap-and-trade would lead the agenda once health care passed. Moreover, while unions and other progressive groups were thrilled at the passage of Obamacare, gay rights supporters were displeased with the lack of progress on their pet issues and vocalized their disappointment at President Obama’s recent appearance with Senator Barbara Boxer in California.

Despite their differences, though, the side of those who would consolidate government power in a Washington bureaucracy, back it up with an activist judiciary system, and reduce Congress to a body where favors are bought and sold for plebiscite votes has advanced their agenda at an increasing pace. Over the 80 years since the Great Depression began, government has constantly become a more powerful force in people’s lives – only the pace has changed, depending on who occupies the White House. The statist agenda won victories, even under Reagan’s watch, because Democrats controlled the purse strings at the time.

Those on the left also use the tactic of asking, “where were tea partiers when the Republicans in Congress increased spending and drove up the deficit under President George W. Bush?” It’s a good question, but the pace toward statism wasn’t quick enough to incite alarm and economic conditions were acceptable. In addition, President Bush handled the post 9-11 period well enough to earn a second term.

In retrospect Bush’s biggest mistake was assuming he could work with Democrats inside the Beltway as he could Democrats in Austin. He had no idea the disparate groups which fight amongst each other when the Democrats are in power can speak with one voice when their territories inside the Beltway become threatened. In that respect, these special interests become the image the Tea Parties would eventually mirror because they too took to the streets when that which they believed they’d earned for themselves was threatened.

Yet even if the Republicans win big at the ballot box in 2010, the fight has barely started. Note that the Gingrich-led Republican Congress of the 1990’s couldn’t starve the Beltway beast – eventually they lost their will and their way. But if they don’t succeed we could lose America as we know it, and the Tea Parties of 2009-10 will become a forgotten chapter of the closing days of our nation’s history.

Michael Swartz, an architect and writer who lives in rural Maryland, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer. This article cleared the LFS wire back on April 26.

It’s not lucrative being green

Because my last column didn’t clear for publication last week and this one is more time-sensitive, you get two LFS op-eds today.

April presents both the onset of spring for most of a winter-ravaged nation and the odd calendar quirk of tax filing day being followed one week later by Earth Day. Both days affect one’s financial situation, but for different reasons.

Undoubtedly there’s an entire industry which profits from the annual taxation ritual, but the arrival of Earth Day always gives its own set of groups and industries their opportunity to seize the spotlight in an attempt to burnish their “green” bonafides – one of the most prominent and in-your-face examples being the NBC-Universal family of television networks (which includes the Weather Channel) going wall-to-wall with specifically themed episodes and constant reminders to reduce, reuse, and recycle for the good of Mother Earth. The Earth Day celebration has surely blossomed since the first one in 1970.

Despite what those on the Left seem to believe, in that forty year period we’ve come a long way in reducing the impact of pollution. Yet all this has come at great cost, and it’s a toll which is borne by those very people they were trying to help.

For example, the price at the pump or to heat your home is impacted by the $12 billion or so energy companies spend to conform with environmental regulations. On a larger scale, compliance with the byzantine layers of red tape in the environmental arena cost Americans over $220 billion annually according to a 2004 study by the Small Business Administration, and these numbers are sure to increase with legislation like the so-called “cap and trade” bill pending in Congress.

These hidden taxes add up, but rarely get mentioned when politicians tout a bill to clean the air or address global warming by adding a few thousand more pages of regulations to the volumes already in place.

At times these products of bureaucracy can produce ironic results. One would think that BP Solar of Frederick, Maryland would be well-positioned to profit from the push toward more renewable energy. Instead, the manufacturing plant and its 320 jobs are being phased out because solar panels can be made more cheaply overseas. Similarly, do-gooders promoting the creation of green jobs through building wind farms are surprised when they find a large percentage of wind turbines are produced abroad as well.

Environmental advocates may argue all the overseas manufacturing is because those markets are more mature than ours, and they have a point. Europe in particular is bedeviled by a lack of oil and natural gas resources for their population, a shortage which forced them to find other means of energy production sooner. While Europe has a reasonably decent standard of living, it’s clear that having a larger percentage of their energy consumption come from clean sources hasn’t advanced their status beyond that which we enjoy here in the United States.

For an economy to thrive while maintaining a decent quality of life there needs to be a balance. Certainly we’ve learned over the years that our planet doesn’t have infinite resources and we can’t be wasteful with that we’ve been blessed with.

But there’s a danger with shifting the balance too far the other way; it’s a cost measured in the loss of freedom. Being too restrictive can have the same harmful effects on us as unfettered polluting once did. Before the pendulum swings too far in the wrong direction, we need to consider what the Earth Day zealots are doing to our wallets before we give in to their demands.

Michael Swartz, an architect and writer who lives in rural Maryland, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer. This article came online at LFS on April 19, and I put it up today as we mull over our recent Earth Day celebration. Me? I went to a ballgame!