Congressional Actions Necessitate Professional Tax Preparers

With just over one month until individual income taxes must be filed with the IRS, Congress is yet again considering a last-minute change to tax laws that will only further complicate the preparation of 2009 income tax returns.

Following the earthquake in Chile, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee introduced legislation that would allow taxpayers to deduct on their 2009 income tax returns donations made in 2010 for Chilean earthquake relief. Congress took the same action in response to the earthquake that struck Haiti earlier this year.

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A Constitutional Argument For Same-Sex Marriage

Before the vitriol-filled comments begin, let me say that I do not believe that one group’s religious views are a sufficient basis for denying other Americans their civil rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution.

In a San Francisco federal court today (see NPRThe Washington Post), a challenge to the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage will be heard by Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker, in a that case focuses on the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.1

The United States Constitution provides the framework from which our civil liberties are derived, yet in the case of same-sex marriage, these rights are ignored and result in the violation of one group’s rights. Opponents argue that marriage is an institution of the church, and thus must be protected, but this argument is at odds with present-day legal realities and simultaneously conflicts with the First Amendment. At an even more basic level, denying one group a right afforded another violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

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  1. As an aside, Judge Walker ruled that proceedings in this case can be posted to YouTube on a daily basis. According to both NPR and The Washington Post, this is the first such instance of court proceedings appearing on Google’s video-sharing service.

My Family Thinks I’m Liberal, But I Disagree

While camping over a holiday weekend last year, a family friend noticed I was wearing an NPR t-shirt I received as an intern at the network back in 2005.

He declared, “NPR, they’re pretty liberal.”

Before I could react, my father retorted, “So is my son.”

Needless to say, my family and I don’t always agree on certain issues. But, to be clear, I don’t consider myself a liberal either. Rather, when pressed, I identify as moderate.

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Reforming Two Decisions That Led To The Recession

While many decisions made over a number of decades created the circumstances that led to the worst recession since the Great Depression, certain government actions were particularly devastating to the US and world economies. Embodied in the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999), the law made two important changes to the securities regulations enacted in response to the Great Depression.

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Updated FTC Guides Seek To Deny Bloggers’ First Amendment Rights

Recently-released updates to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” seek to deny bloggers’ free speech rights by restricting how writers may discuss products or services companies provide for their review. While I favor transparency and honest disclosure wherever conflicts of interest may exist, the FTC’s disparate treatment of old and new media inherently denies new media its First Amendment rights.

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Post Office’s Justification of Monopoly is Outdated

A recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal takes aim at the U.S. Postal Service’s monopoly over first-class and bulk mail. After 200 years as a monopoly, I think the writer is on to something. Then there’s that two-year, $14 billion loss. Indeed, I believe it’s time for change to come to the post office.

For the full editorial, see “US Postal Service Needs to Cut Back and Make Changes,” The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2009.

General Recommends Releasing Majority of Bagram Detainees

As General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, prepares to address Congress on the situation in that country, he was recently presented with a 700-page report on detainee treatment. The report, prepared by Major General Douglas Stone, among other things recommends releasing nearly two-thirds of those individuals being held at Bagram Airfield. Such a move would release approximately 400 individuals, many of whom either are no longer a threat or against whom insufficient evidence exists for prosecution.

General Stone, who oversaw detainee operations in Iraq during 2007 and 2008, was sent to Afghanistan to assess the detainee situation at the behest of General David Petraeus. Given General Stone’s success in Iraq, this assignment is of little surprise. But, considering the vastly different political, social, and legal situations in Afghanistan, the transferability of lessons learned in Iraq is questionable.

According to NPR, General Stone’s report recommends that the US release approximately 400 of its 600 detainees and turn the remaining individuals over to Afghan forces within 12-18 months. Citing growing resentment of US treatment of detainees, General Stone’s recommendations reflect the reality that unhappy Afghans are likely to join the Taliban insurgency. As the focus shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan, military commanders, led by General Petraeus (the general largely credited with the success of the surge in Iraq and creator of the Army’s counterinsurgency training manual), are trying to apply lessons learned in one conflict to the other, hoping to duplicate their success.

Fearing that extended detention is causing more-moderate individuals to join the Taliban insurgency, General Stone’s report recommends transferring or releasing detainees more rapidly, to prevent them from languishing in custody. The complication, however, comes in the mechanics. As previously mentioned, the legal system in Afghanistan is far-less developed than that of Iraq, inherently impeding the process and General Stone’s goal. Furthermore, locating detainees’ families in Afghanistan is far more challenging than in Iraq, further delaying the process. This is where General Stone’s education campaign plays an important role. As in Iraq, General Stone recommends providing vocational training and the counseling of moderate Islamic clerics to prevent detainees from becoming more militant while in custody. Given the success he had in Iraq, General Stone’s plans seem reasonable if his recommendations can be implemented.

Implementing the changes laid out in General Stone’s report may face its largest challenge from a familiar foe: lack of personnel. Funding is a further hurdle. But biggest of all may be the risk of releasing individuals who will join the Taliban insurgency that seems only to be gaining strength. That said, General Stone feels strongly that retraining and releasing the majority of those detainees held at Bagram will serve to blunt the rising Taliban threat by winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan population. As the US presence in Iraq is diminished and more personnel move to Afghanistan, Generals Petraeus, McChrystal, and Stone may find that the personnel and funds become available to implement General Stone’s recommendations.

Concerns Surrounding Cyberattacks Mimic Nuclear Concerns of Past Century

As more and more aspects of our daily lives become dependent on technology, the US government is faced with mounting challenges surround cyberattacks that hearken back to last century’s nuclear arms race.

Cyberattacks, put simply, are any type of attack aimed at some type of technology, be it a computer network in an office building, the Internet, or telephone and satellite communications systems. Because so many of these technologies are integrated into everything from banking to communications to defense, cyberwarfare represents a potentially significant risk.

The New York Times featured an interesting article earlier this month about the US government’s 2003 deliberations and concerns regarding cyberwar entitled “Halted ’03 Iraq Plan Illustrates U.S. Fear of Cyberwar Risk.” As the article discusses, both cyber- and nuclear war present many similar concerns.

Killing the ‘Clunkers’

Given that the government’s “Cash for Clunkers” program is nearly out of cash, I began to wonder what is happening to all of those clunkers. As it turns out, ABC’s Toledo affiliate WTVG was wondering the same thing.

As their reporter found, the dealers are responsible for permanently disabling the vehicle engines, after which the cars are sent to scrap yards to be recycled within 180 days. Considering how popular C.A.R.S. (the program’s official name, the Cash Allowance Rebate System) has been, it seems that the recyclers are winners right alongside the auto makers in the government’s effort to improve our fuel efficiency.

The most amusing part, to me, about the WTVG video is the dealer’s use of liquid glass to seize the engine; it certainly seems easier than crushing them.

Clinton Secures Release of Reporters Jailed by North Korea

Citing North Korean state media, numerous major media outlets are reporting that Euna Lee and Laura Ling have been released from a North Korean prison following an unannounced visit to the country by former President Bill Clinton. During his visit, Mr. Clinton met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, but all reports have indicated that the meeting was focused on securing the release of the two journalists detained since March 17 of this year. According to the BBC, the North Korea News Agency released a statement saying Kim Jong Il “granted a special pardon” to the journalists.

It is unclear whether or not North Korea’s nuclear ambitions were discussed, but all indications are that the meeting focused on the reporters. North Korea’s lead nuclear negotiator did, however, greet Mr. Clinton at the airport while Kim Jong Il was absent.

The reporters were working along the North Korea-China border on a documentary about North Korean refugees for, a project of Al Gore’s, when they were arrested for crossing illegally into North Korean territory.