Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

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My letter to Patti Bellock, Illinois State Representative

July 30, 2014

My state representative for the 47th district is a lady named Patti Bellock. She seems to be a nice lady, and she’s been in the position for quite some time. She is at least nominally a Republican for certain values of Republican. However, she recently sent out an email to her constituents that included these two paragraphs:

Illinois Supreme Court Decision on Retiree Healthcare

In a 6-to-1 decision on July 3 in the case of Kanerva v. Weems, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that health care benefits for retired public employees are protected under the pension clause in the state constitution, which says public worker benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired.” The ruling came in response to a class-action legal challenge to a 2012 Illinois law that gave the state the right to require retired state employees to begin contributing to their own health care costs in a manner commensurate with their ability to pay. 

This ruling will definitely impact putting Illinois back on the path of fiscal stability.  We will continue to keep you informed as developments occur.

I got a little steamed. She put this entire email out for two paragraphs of incomplete and slanted information. So here is what I sent to her:

Ms. Bellock – In your recent email newsletter you discussed the Illinois Supreme Court ruling on Kanerva v. Weems. I hope you did not mean what I think you meant when you stated, “This ruling will definitely impact putting Illinois back on the path of fiscal stability.”

It seems to me that statement implies that “fiscal stability” is sufficient reason for violation of the Illinois State Constitution. My concerns about all of the ways the legislature has addressed the “crisis” have to do with the fact that the public employees retirement systems are set up in the Illinois Constitution. Making significant changes would require an amendment to the Constitution, not just legislation.

I am a retired public school teacher from Hinsdale District 86. I pay ALL of my own medical insurance, although I am nominally included in the group through the district. The implication in your email was that this affected all public employees, when it certainly did not. Putting out an email to let your constituents know about the ruling is one thing, but to then cover it in two short paragraphs seems a waste of time at best and an attempt to affect public opinion without telling the whole story at worst.

Unfortunately, using terms like “in a manner commensurate with their ability to pay” sounds like liberal-speak nowadays. It is not a direction I expected you to take.

I hope you and your colleagues will look at the “fiscal crisis” as something that needs to be corrected through more frugal spending practices, while keeping in mind that legislation in violation of the Constitution is no more legal in Springfield than it is in Washington, D.C. The public employees retirement systems have been systematically (and illegally) plundered by the state government on many occasions over the past four decades, and that created this “crisis” as much as the rampant overspending – it should not be corrected by even more attempts to circumvent the Constitution. Thank you for your attention.

Remember, the entire “fiscal crisis” in Illinois started after the economy took a dive in ’09. The state legislature had been “borrowing” from the retirement funds since at least the early 80s. The investments in the funds were well-managed and they were paying well enough to stay ahead of the theft and still make the retirement payouts. This time, the State went to the same cupboards and found that they were finally at a point where they couldn’t steal any more without breaking the bank. So it was now a fiscal crisis and the retirees were at fault because of their excessive retirement plans – which nobody complained about at the time.

Unlike most states, the setup of the public employees retirement systems were decreed in the 1970 Illinois State Constitution, not created by legislation. Therefore, the state can’t just screw with the systems without problems like Kanerva v. Weems. They are trying all kinds of sleight of hand, like telling the local school districts they have to pony up more money. That was met with a resounding “screw you guys and the horses you rode in on.” There is a new law in place, but it’s been challenged and will no doubt end up going to the Supreme Court for review as well.

If you are a union official and you steal from a pension fund, like the Teamsters, you go to prison. If you are a state senator and/or representative in Illinois, and you steal from the public employees’ retirement funds, it’s “sound fiscal management.” Bah. And while Governor Quinn is an incompetent boob, Bruce Rauner, who is running against him, seems the type to throw the Constitution out just because he’s going to “shake up Springfield.” Double bah.

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But I thought paying taxes was a good thing…

December 10, 2012

Apple taxes

Got this in my email today. But I thought we were supposed to LIKE paying taxes!

Remember, folks, a tax deduction is now defined as a loophole. We workers are not supposed to like loopholes, because they deprive the State of some of our property.

I think I’m now going to refer to the US Government all the time as The State, like Ayn Rand did. Confusion with actual state government? OK.

 

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Recent observations on our second-term ObamaWorld

November 14, 2012

The “tax the rich” mania in France is now bad enough that the world’s 5th richest man, Bernard Arnault, is applying for Belgian citizenship. He is a self-made multi-billionaire, not one who inherited his money, and he’s apparently had it with the confiscatory tax laws in his native country.

Now Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, is applying for Australian citizenship. He says it’s out of a love of the country, but maybe his accountants are telling him what’s coming up for him. (Ok, I can’t stand it…the Woz is going to Oz. There, I had to let that out!)

George Lucas sold LucasFilm to Disney before the end of this year for over $ 4 billion. you can’t tell me his accountants didn’t warn him what was coming up next year.

Companies all over the US are laying off people now, and some are brave enough to say publicly that they are reducing staff or cutting hours because of the impending impact of Obamacare.

There is no evidence the estimated $ 2 trillion in cash US companies are sitting on will be invested any time soon. They held onto it all through the last four years to keep it from being misspent by the Obama Administration. That will make job growth all the more difficult. This is not an environment in which companies want to take risk!

Meanwhile, we still practice the politics of distraction. It worked so well pre-election, why stop now? The General Petraeus affair is much more important than the administration’s mess of Benghazi, isn’t it? And the media cheerfully report it. We love the lurid details, but now we have had so many such affair revelations, how new and scandalous is it, really?

I think the media folks are really kind of pissed when they have to deal with Benghazi. Isn’t that old news? And it’s not like it was Watergate, or something big like that. (Even though no Americans died as a result of Watergate…)  John McCain’s response to a reporter today was pretty good, and very honest. Bless him.

I don’t really know what the fuss is all about, after all. We’ve already seen over the last four years that the Obama Administration can shred the Constitution, that Supreme Court justices can pull the most ridiculous reasoning out of thin air to justify a decision, and that lies made by government officials are routinely reported as truth. And the President’s Press Secretary just says, “Well, he didn’t know about that.”

Through all of this, Democrats were still re-elected, or were elected over Republicans in a number of Congressional races, and the President was re-elected. Apparently nothing that is done by this government that is unlawful or immoral really matters.

What are we to do, anyway? We can’t affect Washington. Voting for candidates is always about finding the lesser of the evils, right? It will never be better…might as well watch TV, lose ourselves in video games, and let the politicians take care of us. Thank God Apple has given us such wonderful toys with which to distract ourselves.

Even if we would rise up, they own the military. They will always be able to compel our obedience at the point of a gun. Tar and pitchforks lose out to tanks. I remember the so-called student uprising in China a couple of decades ago. It looked like there was hope…then there was none.

Do I think it could come to this? Perhaps. I fear not enough Americans care enough to give “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” should that be what is necessary to preserve our Republic.

Good Lord, I hope it does not come to this. But I find no alternative right now. In Europe, the downward spiral has been going on for some time. But they have had us to help bail them out. What happens when we need the bailout? Will China do it?

I think that is unlikely. I hate to sound so depressing, but I have only seen evidence since the election that our leaders  either caving in or making only a feeble attempt to slow the slide somewhat.

How do we stop this?

 

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Bill Kristol caves, buys in on the Obama tax meme

November 12, 2012

Now, in full disclosure: I subscribe and read The Weekly Standard, and I like a lot of the articles I’ve read over the years. But over the last few years I’ve noticed that Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol, who edit the magazine, have become bughouse nuts.

A couple of years ago I went to a downtown Chicago hotel to hear Fred Barnes speak at an event put on by the Heritage Foundation. (A group I highly recommend, by the way.) Barnes, who I enjoyed on Fox New’s opinion panels, was rambling and, I’m sorry to say, pointless. I don’t know why. Soon after, though, I noticed he was making less sense on Fox, and last I saw he isn’t on anymore.

Bill Kristol has always seemed a little more aristocratic to me, even though he doesn’t come from those roots. His father, Irving Kristol, is considered the “Father of Neoconservatism,” which means he was an influential writer but nobody but the MSM ever came up with a definition of neoconservatism. They just called it “those nuts who think we should go to war with Iraq.”

Just for background, neoconservatives are generally considered to be those who formerly were liberals, but who rejected certain parts of the liberal agenda, but not always all of it. The term got tossed around a lot post-9/11 because publications like The Weekly Standard were strongly in favor of going into the Middle East and, to put it simply, kicking some ass.

They were not alone in this, of course. However, I would be willing to bet that a lot of the folks who became neoconservatives were against the Vietnam War, and not necessarily for the right reasons, just anti-war in general. Many neocons are of Jewish decent, and Jews have been Democratic-leaning for many years. (In fact, Irving Kristol wrote a piece entitled “The Liberal Tradition of American Jews,” in which he attempts to explain why American Jews cling so tightly to the liberal beliefs of the current version of the Democratic Party, even when it rejects support of Israel. Google it.)

Whatever the reason, some former liberals became conservative at least in terms of international affairs and national defense, but they did not necessarily reject the concept of the “limited welfare state.” Of course, such beliefs were pretty much in line with Bush 43’s “compassionate conservatism,” so it was no surprise that they supported the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Back to son Bill Kristol. His recent comments, which you can find on Breitbart.com, seem to indicate his support for increased taxes on the rich. He’s one of those fair-weather conservatives, like House Speaker John Boehner, who has decided that caving in to the so-called Obama mandate is the way to lead the opposition.

(Of course, no one is even bringing up the fact that the election might have been stolen. The people who should be investigating are celebrating Obama’s “historic” second term.)

But Kristol is so off-the-cuff, so dismissive, in his comments, as to irritate me far more. Boehner was always a weak conservative, if conservative at all. I though Kristol was smarter and made of sterner stuff. Apparently not:

“Elections have consequences… The leadership in the Republican Party and the leadership in the conservative movement has to pull back, let people float new ideas. Let’s have a serious debate. Don’t scream and yell when one person says, ‘You know what? It won’t kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires.’ It really won’t, I don’t think. I don’t really understand why Republicans don’t take Obama’s offer to freeze taxes for everyone below $250,000. Make it $500,000–make it a million. Really? The Republican Party’s going to fall on its sword to defend a bunch of millionaires? Half of whom vote Democratic, and half of whom live in Hollywood, and are hostile to Republican principles?”  — Bill Kristol, Fox News Sunday, November 11, 2012

Except that Obama will begin with those over whatever limit he says, then lower it, then lower it again, knowing that nearly half the country doesn’t pay federal income taxes now and that the revenue generated by only taxing the “rich” (which includes small business owners, of course) is a drop in the bucket.

I agree that making Democrat millionaires pay more is a good thing. They want to, right? Anyone who wants to contribute more to the Federal coffers is invited to do so. But I don’t see Warren Buffett writing that multi-billion-dollar check any time soon, despite what he says publicly.

But all taxation is theft. Our “representatives” are no longer representing us. Using terms like “a mandate from the people” they systematically take more and more of our property to redistribute. Not all is redistributed to those in need, either, despite the protestations of these “representatives.” More and more often it is used to buy favor to help those people maintain their positions and lifestyles in Washington and elsewhere, and to entice individuals and companies to do their bidding.

So Kristol’s remark either shows a very shallow understanding of what this President has publicly said time and time again as to his beliefs about the distribution of wealth, or he has become a part of this conciliatory Washington in-crowd elitist Republicanism trend.

Now is a time for courage, for standing fast, for standing athwart history, yelling, “Stop!” It is not a time for bending to the will of this President. We will never be able to go back from the brink if we do. As it is I am afraid we may have gone too far and are destined to become a European-style socialist state. But if we are to stop it, or at least slow the decline, we must reject the conciliatory memes being tossed around in Washington. We will be hearing far more about how the Republican party needs to drop its opposition to abortion, to immigration “reform,” to the welfare state. But that just turns them into a weak version of the Democrats, and takes them away from beliefs about America that we hold dear. Maybe the Beltway Republicans will do it. Maybe even Karl Rove will do it. But those of us outside of the Beltway will not. We will not be turned away. If need be, we will reject the Republican party in favor of one that will support and champion our beliefs. And this time, a third party will have real influence and not merely serve as a spoiler.

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Are we losing touch with what America is about?

October 24, 2012

I wish we could get news people, political pundits, and the candidates themselves to stay focused on the issues. I don’t know when Obama called it a terrorist act and I don’t care. I do want to know how he would respond when – not if – Iran threatens Israel with nuclear weapons. I want to know why he won’t promote the use of US oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power. I want to know what he believes should be done about all the people on some kind of public assistance to get them off it. I want to know if he is finished with his obsession with green jobs and businesses assisted by the federal government that still fail.

I should already know all about this, especially after him serving a full term as President, but I don’t. I’m not sure he does, either. Let’s quit the talk about binders and Big Bird and bayonets and contraception and all the other little gotchas that have nothing to do with what the President is paid to do.

Our elected leaders and the national media really do think we are stupid. We are supposed to be impressed if one candidate is more “aggressive” in a debate, not what he says. A debate is not a cage match. The color of a candidate’s wife’s dress is said to be more important that the candidate’s lack of a plan for the country, I don’t know if it is planned to be diversionary or if the Obama campaign is just grasping at straws at this point.

Reagan had the advantage in 1980 in that no sane person thought Jimmy Carter would face down the Soviets if it came to that. For all the concern that Reagan was a “warmonger,” I think most people deep down knew that, if the missile threats started flying, he would be the guy we wanted to get the call. Not having a foreign enemy like the Soviet Union – but a very faceless one, instead – makes the world no less dangerous but it makes it more difficult for Romney to make a case about it.

Could we also please stop the Bain Capital attacks? Obama has no previous experience to run on, except his failures as President. So we must drag our opponent down to our level. Perhaps the sins of Bain (whatever they were) were no more Mr. Romney’s fault than, apparently, many things going on today are Mr. Obama’s. Romney has far more experience in running organizations successfully, both in public and private life than Obama. But we have to talk for days about binders and Big Bird.

(By the way, the presence of David Axelrod, Van Jones, Valerie Jarrett, Eric Holder, and a host of others of their ilk show that Obama’s personnel binders must have been pretty empty.)

I am completely mystified how the poll numbers can be so high for Obama, MSM pandering or not. People can see for themselves how things are going. We in the Chicago area may consider graft and corruption a way of life, but there is no reason the rest of the country must do so. Perhaps, painful as it may be to think about, Mr. Romney may be correct – a significant percentage of the electorate is receiving some sort of public assistance and doesn’t want that threatened. They can’t see far enough to understand that, if taxes are lower, businesses are more successful, so actual tax receipts are greater. A stronger economy means the investments made by pension agencies pay off better, so those who are retired or will be retiring have less reason to be concerned about their pension system becoming insolvent, and increasing taxes to pay for them becomes unnecessary.

Remember – this country was settled by misfits: those who were religiously persecuted, or who were not going to inherit the father’s estate and had to make their own way, and pure and simple by those who didn’t want a monarch or anyone else telling them what to do, or taking the fruits of their labor. America grew quickly into a major power partly because there were many Americans dissatisfied with their lot in life who wanted to do better, and this was the place to do it. You could make money in the American colonies, and when that was threatened enough, we got together and threw off that kind of impediment to making money. There will always be abuses of power, but here we made that less likely to affect individuals by limiting the power others had over us – by putting limits on government and providing a rule of law to keep one man from ruling another.

I’m afraid we need another frontier, someplace where the dissatisfied can go to make a way for themselves. It was a huge investment for a family to buy a Conestoga wagon and head out for the West. The investment required to get off-planet is too high for homesteaders. When or if that might change it could easily be too late – we will have taxed ourselves into oblivion and no one will be able to get off-planet.

But a good start would be to make this discussion about the real issues and how we can get America back to what it is all about.

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“Atlas Shrugs Part II” opens Friday!

October 10, 2012

With a new cast, the second installment of the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy, based on the Ayn Rand novel, opens in theaters this Friday. It will be interesting how the whole “Galt’s motor” thing will be handled in the near-future setting of the movie series. (The book gives no particular date, but there is a lot of speculation that was to be set in the – at the time of the book’s publication – near future of the mid-1970s.) It will probably not be in theaters for a long time, so check it out right away. It’s important to see before the election. And if you haven’t purchased the first installment, it is available here and is on the Amazon video-on-demand service as well as  on Netflix.

https://www.facebook.com/AtlasShruggedMovie

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A few words about personal property rights

July 17, 2012

Over on Keep Americans Free I have a new post on personal property rights prompted by Mr. Obama’s lies and half-truths from last weekend. I invite you to read it.

I really need to get back to some constructive work, but the November election looks like it will determine the path of the US for generations. This one is for all the marbles, folks.

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The further adventures of the Illinois legislature

May 31, 2012

I’m no union activist. I belonged to IEA/NEA because I was required to. (OK, there was that “fair share” clause, which meant I would pay essentially the same as the union dues while receiving none of the benefits. Clever.) I also just as a rule hate the idea of lobbyists. I know that some of them provide a useful function. Both at the state and federal levels, lawmakers and their staffs do not have the time, resources or expertise to know everything about every issue before them. However, lobbyists come with baggage – they are obviously attempting to influence the content of law as it is written.

I may be softening my opinion on lobbyists somewhat. “Of course, now it affects you! Hypocrite!” you say. And, to an extent, you’re right. I’m finding out as this “pension reform” bill gets bounced around the Illinois state legislature that not only are those whom we elected to represent us unable to know everything concerning decisions they are making, but that they are making those decisions based on how they will look for upcoming elections, not on what is good for the citizenry.

I know, big surprise, right?

You see, I’ve met or at least followed closely both state and federal representatives in both Ohio and Illinois. By and large, I think I’ve been well represented by my local reps. For example, I think Judy Biggert (in the US House) and Patti Bellock and Kirk Dillard (in the Illinois legislature) have done pretty well, overall. (Don’t start with me about the Illinois Senators, though.)

Unfortunately, that’s not true for everyone. In fact, I’d lean toward saying that there are many of our duly elected representatives who do not have our best interests at heart. I know, another revelation!

At the risk of going on too much about this, here’s a case in point: The Illinois “pension reform” bill included a clause that would shift the cost of the teachers’ retirement system to the local school districts, therefore shifting the costs to the local taxpayers. Note that we wouldn’t see a decrease in our state taxes – so this is an additional tax, and depending upon how much a district pays its teachers, the increase in property taxes could be large. In the “collar” counties we have a”tax cap” – property taxes can only be raised by so much by law. If the cost of the new retirement payments causes the budget of the district to exceed the capped amount, something else gets cut. And the property tax payers hate teachers even more.

Removing this clause was a sticking point, with the Democrats wanting it included, and the Republicans wanting it out. If it’s in, it will be unpopular with the voters. If it’s gone, where is the money to fund the system coming from?

The Governor decided he could live with the removal of that clause. He passed it on to the Speaker of the Illinois House, Michael Madigan, who then dropped the bill on the Minority Leader, Tom Cross (a Republican) to shepherd the bill through. This is called plausible deniability. “It’s not our fault!”

I’m waiting to hear if the bill comes out of committee this morning. I don’t know what else we can do to influence the outcome here. It sounds like “looking good” to the voters is far more important than actually getting a real solution. I’m afraid that the lobbyists are our only hope. I never wanted that to happen, but it’s all we’ve got!

I sent this message to Tom Cross, who is not my representative but is the Minority Leader:

Dear Rep. Cross:

I actually live in Rep. Bellock’s district, and I have emailed her and my Senator, Kirk Dillard. I am a recently-retired teacher from Hinsdale Township High School District 86. I am writing to you to add my voice to those who are urging you to abandon this pension “reform” bill and start over in a reasonable manner, instead of trying to push something through on the last day of the legislative session.

I am not a “union activist” – in fact, if I was not required to be a member of IEA/NEA I probably would not have done so. I generally dislike the influence of lobbyists both in Springfield and in Washington. However, I do not know of any other way to let our representatives know that this entire pension reform process seems to be flawed.

Obviously, no state legislator will admit that the reason for the pension problem today is that the state has not funded the pension systems as required by the Illinois Constitution. Now the day of reckoning seems to be at hand, and the Governor is trying to find a way to cover the shortfalls without doing what was legal and required in the first place. It’s difficult for me, and for others, to “feel the pain” of the state government when spending money they did not have caused the problem. If I overspend my income, I cannot go to the taxpayers for more money, no matter how good the reasons for my expenditures. Many taxpayers today find it hard to understand why the state and federal governments refuse to live within their means.

Back to the issue at hand: any solution to this “crisis” needs to follow the Pension Clause in the Illinois Constitution. It also needs to be done in a manner that demonstrates that our representatives are thoughtful stewards of our tax dollars, not merely politicians most interested in their re-election and handing out largesse to their constituents to buy votes.

Please take the “high road” on this issue – please do not push this reform bill, in whatever form it takes at the moment, through the legislature today. The Governor is most interested in looking good, not in finding a reasonable solution. I appeal to you as a reasonable man and a true representative not only of your district but of Illinois citizens in general, since you are the person who has the ability to determine the outcome of this process.

So we’ll see what happens. I hate this feeling of powerlessness!

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SB 1673

May 29, 2012

The Illinois legislature is well-known for pushing through controversial legislation at the 11th hour just before the conclusion of a legislative session. SB 1673 is supposed to reform the state pension system, which everyone should be in favor of, right?

Except it doesn’t. It’s unconstitutional, it lets the State off the hook for the lack of funding to the system that was mandated by the Illinois Constitution, and it puts more strain on property owners. Information about it can be found here.

I don’t buy the argument that the system has to be fixed now as some sort of emergency. The legislature has been screwing with the pension system for decades. If private union pension systems were handled by the union leaders in this way, they would be in prison. As legislators, it’s “sound fiscal management.”

Maybe the current system is not working. It would have if the state would have been making its payments for the the last 30 years. But it was easier to use the money for other things and give IOUs to the pension systems. Now that mismanagement has come home to roost, and the way out of it is to reduce benefits and shift the burden to others.

Except it’s not legal. One law doesn’t negate a part of the Illinois Constitution, no matter what they say. It’s sort of our own Illinois Obamacare  – the legislation has to be passed now or disaster will befall us, but we can’t tell you what that legislation is, and it’s probably not constitutional anyway.

Unfortunately, this is business as usual in Springfield. I’m afraid they will get it through no matter how much we object.

If you believe pension reform should be done in a reasonable, fair, and constitutional manner, you may want to let your senator and representative know that – and soon. The thing might pop up to a vote tomorrow.

Here’s what I sent to my state representative:

Dear Ms. Bellock:

I wrote to you a little over a week ago about the pension debate in the Illinois legislature. If you recall, I am a recently-retired teacher from Hinsdale District 86. 
 
Now my worst fears are coming true – there is a bill that just came out of committee that is designed to “reform” the pension system. As I feared, it has only appeared two days before the end of the legislative session – a move clearly designed to make it impossible to marshall opposition to the bill in time and to make it difficult for representatives to get feedback from their constituents.
 
Of course, it does not reform the system. It provides political cover to those legislators who need to go back to their constituencies and say they held the line to try to save the State of Illinois from its “pension crisis,” and, if passed, it will probably help to do that for a very short while. However, it promises what it will likely not deliver, such as restitution to the retirement system of back payments by the State required by law.
 
On the other hand, it should be quickly challenged for its constitutionality, since the pension system was established in the Illinois State Constitution and this bill clearly negates parts of the Pension Clause. It also will cause no end of problems for school districts across Illinois – many of which cannot raise their property tax rates because of the tax cap. It widens the rift between the taxpayers and public employees that has been created by demagogues for their own purposes.
 
This bill is NOT the kind of reform we need. We need reform that can last, that is constitutional, and that requires the State live up to its obligations. The fact that the State now does not have the money to pay for pensions is a result of poor fiscal management and political pandering, not of the retirement system or its managers.
 
I am offended that some legislators believe this is the way to make law and handle the affairs of the citizens. Pushing this bill through may look good for a few politicians in the short term, but as the ramifications of it are felt down the line, those who are responsible will be remembered.
 
I consider you a “cooler head” and someone who has not fallen prey to the politician-as-celebrity style of representation. I hope you, and like-minded Representatives across Illinois, will do all you can to stop this bill. It is another example of a bandaid solution made so that some people – including the Governor – look good in the short term while only creating more problems down the line. Please do all you can to keep this bill from being driven through and becoming law.
 
Sincerely,
I urge you to send something similar, or call their offices.
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Life Imitates Art

May 23, 2012

I just wrote a piece about how the themes in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged are being used by liberals, and particularly by the Obama campaign. It can be found at Keep Americans Free! I invite you to read it, and to read Atlas Shrugged.