Saturday, December 28, 2013

Pentagon Now Using Prison Labor for Its Uniforms--at only $2 an hour

Because of its role as a major source of contracts, the federal government has the ability to play an important positive role in raising labor standards and practices throughout the economy.

FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and LBJ all issued executive orders to ban discriminatory hiring practices among federal contractors.

More recently, 17 progressive Democrats called on the president to take action to ensure that workers employed under federal contracts receive a living wage. This followed a study from Demos that showed that the federal government, through its contracts, is the biggest creator of jobs paying less than $24,000 per year.

In light of this history (and hopeful future), I found this incredibly disheartening:
Federal officials still have to navigate a tangle of rules. Defense officials, for instance, who spend roughly $2 billion annually on military uniforms, are required by a World War II-era rule called the Berry Amendment to have most of them made in the United States. In recent years, Congress has pressured defense officials to cut costs on uniforms. Increasingly, the department has turned to federal prisons, where wages are under $2 per hour. Federal inmates this year stitched more than $100 million worth of military uniforms.
(Emphasis added) 
This is part of a larger trend that has followed the privatization of prisons:
Prisoners, whose ranks increasingly consist of those for whom the legitimate economy has found no use, now make up a virtual brigade within the reserve army of the unemployed whose ranks have ballooned along with the U.S. incarceration rate.  The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S (formerly Wackenhut), two prison privatizers, sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM.
These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or prisoners to work on the outside.  All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.
Rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance -- unless, that is, you traveled back to the nineteenth century when convict labor was commonplace nationwide.

 Indeed, a sentence of “confinement at hard labor” was then the essence of the American penal system.  More than that, it was one vital way the United States became a modern industrial capitalist economy -- at a moment, eerily like our own, when the mechanisms of capital accumulation were in crisis.
The use of underpaid prison labor is a moral abomination in multiple ways. 
For one, we have a minimum wage, a moral and legal affirmation of a threshold under which pay for workers cannot fall. This violates that moral affirmation from society. Those in prison will eventually leave and will have to be reintegrated into their communities. The formerly incarcerated already face numerous difficulties in finding gainful employment and achieving economic security and stability upon release. Denying them money for the work that they have done (coerced work no less!), leaving them on an even shakier footing upon release, exacerbates such injustice. Incarceration, even though by nature it must curtail freedom, should not entail an end to economic rights.

The use of underpaid prison labor also has a pernicious effect on the workers currently employed or seeking work in the economy at large as well. An ample supply of cheap labor combined with weak enforcement of rights must be very tempting to government agencies and private companies looking to work within tight budgets or boost their bottom lines. As Paul Krugman demonstrated in his op-ed earlier today, high unemployment tilts the balance of power in the workplace more to the favor of the employer. A ready supply of cheap coerced labor does so as well.

The government should be using its contracts to build a fairer society--to promote "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"--not to compound existing injustices.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

WWJD: Whom Would Jesus Drone?

Yesterday, during his Christmas address, President Barack Obama spoke about how he and his family try to live out the teachings of Jesus:
THE PRESIDENT:  That’s the same spirit of giving that connects all of us during the holidays.  So many people all across the country are helping out at soup kitchens, buying gifts for children in need, or organizing food or clothing drives for their neighbors.  For families like ours, that service is a chance to celebrate the birth of Christ and live out what He taught us – to love our neighbors as we would ourselves; to feed the hungry and look after the sick; to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper.  And for all of us as Americans, regardless of our faith, those are values that can drive us to be better parents and friends, better neighbors and better citizens.
Meanwhile, across the globe:
MIRAMSHAH: At least four suspected militants were killed when a US drone fired two missiles at a compound near Miramshah, the main town of North Waziristan tribal agency of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, DawnNews reported late Wednesday night. The attack took place around midnight in Qutab Khel village, five kilometres (three miles) south of Miramshah.
“A US drone fired two missiles on a militant compound, killing at least three suspected insurgents,” a senior security official told AFP. A security official in Peshawar confirmed the attack and casualties.

Another official in Miramshah put the death toll at four and said a fifth militant was seriously injured.

The identities of those killed in the strike were not immediately known but officials suspect that they were of Afghan origin.

The area residents surrounded the house after the attack and pulled out the bodies, sources said, adding the bodies were charred beyond recognition.
Note that these individuals were merely "suspects." They had not been convicted of any crimes. Their crime, in the eyes of the U.S. government, was one of affiliation, which itself is not even certain. The U.S.'s violation of Pakistan's sovereignty has brought Pakistani disapproval of the U.S. to record highs, with 92% disapproving of U.S. leadership in Pakistan earlier this year. Not really the best way to win hearts and minds.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"Do Elves Have Unions?" and Other Unanswered Questions about Santa and the North Pole

For the past few years, I’ve liked to bring up the question of Santa's political leanings for the sake of a fun holiday debate. However, when I brought up the topic at Thanksgiving, I realized that there are a number of unanswered questions that can have significant impact.

Placing Santa on an authoritarian-libertarian axis is easy. I mean, honestly, we have a song about Santa’s unchecked global surveillance complex:

He's making a list,
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

That’s worse than the NSA.

However, let’s probe into the economics of the North Pole.

My titular question is a key one: Do the elves have unions? The North Pole has a very strange political-economic system from what we can tell, considering that Santa is seemingly both the head of state and the CEO. That’s a fusion of corporate and state power with echoes of Italian fascism---the cult of personality around Santa certainly does nothing to diminish that echo.

If Santa is both CEO and political dictator, where do elves go for redress of wrongs at the hand of Santa? Is there a constitution in the North Pole? Are there judges and courts? Does the North Pole even have workplace safety laws? We just don’t know.

Are elves justly compensated? Are they even compensated in the first place? Elves might be more akin to serfs, with the paternalistic despot providing them with the basics of housing, food, and shelter in exchange for their unbroken obedience and toil? (We also must wonder if the elves have to produce their own clothing, food, and houses as well. Does the North Pole have its own internal economy for the exchange of such goods? Is this what happens during the non-Christmas season, or is Christmas production so demanding that it requires full-year attention?)

Can elves retire? Does the North Pole have a system of state-run pensions to provide economic security to the elves that can no longer work?

Can elves have children? If they can, do their children receive an education? Do Santa and Mrs. Claus run the schools as well? Does the North Pole have child labor laws? I would prefer that my Christmas presents not be made with child elf labor.

Some people like to say that Santa Claus is a big fan of redistribution. I’m not so sure of that. Santa gives more gifts to rich children and fewer gifts to poor children. Frankly, he’s not a very effective redistributionist then. His practices remind me of the unequal funding formulas so common in our education system.

Santa often produces toys and other goods made from resources likely not available in the North Pole. Do Santa and the North Pole have free trade deals with countries across the globe?

Similarly, what powers those factories? We know that the North Pole has coal mines, considering that naughty children get coal in their stockings. (The fact that coal mines purportedly exist in the North Pole yet no Western nation has ever yet invaded and occupied it stretches credulity.) Do the factories run on coal? Other fossil fuels like petroleum and natural gas? Solar power wouldn’t be reliable year-round that far north, and I’m not sure how windy it gets up there. Do the factories just run on Christmas cheer and good will?  At least his sleigh doesn’t run on fossil fuels. We just have to hope that he and Mrs. Claus take good care of the reindeer.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Mary Landrieu as Energy Chair: An Environmentalist's Nightmare

Earlier in the year, I wrote a post about how horrible having Mary Landrieu (D-LA) as Energy Chair would be. Well, since that situation is becoming more likely, I wrote an update.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Greg Sargent conflates two very different polling questions

On Friday, WaPo blogger Greg Sargent looked at some recent polling about Republican opinions on health care.

Here is the first question discussed:

Do you approve or disapprove of the part in the 2010 health care law that provides financial help to low and moderate income Americans who don’t get health insurance through their jobs to help them purchase coverage?

When asked that, 56% of Republicans approved, and 40% disapproved.

Another poll asked respondents whether providing health coverage for the poor is the responsibility of the federal government. Republicans said "no" 70% to 25%.

Sargent can't see the difference between these two questions and attributes the huge gap in response to the use of the word "government." However, the questions are not asking the same thing at all. The first question refers to the subsidies (or tax credits) available to some people who buy health insurance on the exchanges. The question relates to the concept of the voucher: the government gives you some money to facilitate a private purchase on the market. The government does not manage anything, and it only partially finances.

The second question, however, asks about provision of public benefits. This question relates more closely to Medicaid, even though Medicaid is still run at the state level (but with the help of federal funding).

If public goods and vouchers were the same thing, then liberals would have no problem with Paul Ryan's plan for Medicare. That, of course, is not the case at all.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Approaches to and Philosophies of Social Change

When we discuss how to address social problems (in particular, how to fix in the inequities that result from a capitalist economy), three different approaches loom large in the world left of the center: reform, reconstruction, and revolution. Each reflects a different blend of critique and strategy.

Reconstruction and Revolution both assert that the problems resulting from capitalism are structural problems--they are problems with the system itself. Reconstruction and revolution both advocate systemic change, as opposed to mere tinkering. Their vision of the good society, the end of their labors (if there ever is such a end), entails a fundamentally different system.

Now, although Reconstruction and Revolution both agree to a fair extent in their critique, they differ in their strategy. Reconstruction asserts that the new system can be built within the old, that we can build the framework of the future system today through social experimentation and innovation and gradually scale it up to replace the old system. Gar Alperovitz has notably written on such "evolutionary reconstruction." It is also similar to the approaches advocated a century ago by the likes of Felix Adler and John Dewey. Reconstruction believes in remodeling old institutions in light of new values and creating new institutions that better reflect such changed values.

Revolution, however, asserts that the old system must be scrapped in full before the new system can be built. Revolution insists that we must destroy first and build second. It acknowledges that we might know what we want to build, but the first task is to get the system to collapse from its own contradictions---or provoke its collapse even sooner. Revolution believes that existing institutions cannot be transformed through new values and new, more democratic designs--they must be replaced.

Reform, unlike Reconstruction and Revolution, does not seek systemic change. Because of this, Reform often suffers from inherent limitations in argument. Reform sells its measures for greater equity on the grounds of "increased productivity" or "economic growth." Reform feels more comfortable speaking in terms of efficiency or even utility than in terms of justice or rights. Reform will push forward until it hits the wall of profit, and then it will stop. It will push no further. Reform is content with regulation to keep the "excesses" of capitalism in check, but it does not seek redesign.

I recently recalled a passage from Felix Adler's The Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal (1923) on such limits of liberal reformist opportunism:

Sentiment, self-interest, can be appealed to, and the factors that make for unfairness can be made to yield to a certain extent. Wages can be raised so long as their increase is consistent with the accumulation of profit. When, however, the cessation of profit itself is threatened, there is an end of concession. The motive, the principle that operates in the competitive system then stands forth as an insurmountable obstacle. Better housing can be supplied here and there by benevolent employers--a complete change in the housing system is resisted tooth and nail. Certain forms of the piratical instinct in business are prohibited; big business declares with self-complacency, we have seen a new light; but the same ruthless instinct, like a flood which is dyked at one point, breaks out in new quarters, under new modes or disguises. There is no help for it. Man is actuated by motives, and unless the motives can be changed, there will be no steadfast, no large, lasting improvement, even in material conditions. …. There will be a little lightening of their heavy burden, the scanty requirements of what is called a “decent” way of living may be provided, so far as is compatible with the continued living in palaces of the rich; but social reconstruction in any thorouhgoing sense will not take place (pp. 128-9). 

Reform, thus, suffers from its inherent shortness of vision and ambition.

Only 3 Members of the Democratic Caucus Had Enough Principle to Vote Against the NDAA

Last week, the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2014 with a large bipartisan margin of 350 to 69.  50 progressive Democrats and 19 conservative-libertarian Republicans voted no.

Thursday night, the Senate had its vote on the NDAA, and (as expected) it sailed through easily, on a vote of 84 to 15.

12 Republicans and 3 members of the Democratic caucus voted no.

The 12 Republicans were John Barrasso (R-WY), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Bob Corker (R-TN), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Rand Paul (R-KY), James Risch (R-ID), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and Richard Shelby (R-AL). I am not entirely sure of the reasoning for all of them, but Republicans like Lee and Paul can be critical of military overreach.

The 3 members of the Democratic caucus were Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Last year, Crapo, Lee, Paul, and Risch (on the Republican side) voted against the NDAAs for FY 2012 and FY 2013 as well, as did Merkley, Sanders, and Wyden.

Jeff Merkley explained his NO vote on Twitter last night:

Bernie Sanders delivered an excellent floor speech yesterday on the bloated Pentagon budget and issued the following statement on his vote:
“At a time when the United States has a $17.2 trillion national debt and when we spend almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, the time is long overdue for us to take a hard look at the waste, cost overruns and financial mismanagement that have plagued the huge Defense Department for years.
The situation is so absurd that the Pentagon is unable to even account for how it spends its money. Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office cited its inability to audit the Pentagon.  They wrote that they were unable to do a comprehensive financial analysis due to ‘serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense that made its financial statements un-auditable.’
“I support a strong defense system for our country and a robust National Guard and Reserve that can meet our domestic and foreign challenges. At a time, however, when the country has a $17.2 trillion national debt and is struggling with huge unmet needs, it is unacceptable that the Defense Department continues to waste massive amounts of money.”
Dick Durbin (D-IL), Al Franken (D-MN), and Tom Harkin (D-IA) all voted against the NDAAs of the last two years but now decided to embrace bloated Pentagon spending. 

Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) voted against the NDAA for the last two years as well when they were in the House. They apparently have grown to embrace bloated Pentagon spending in their new positions in the Senate. I was disappointed as well that Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) did not join progressives like Merkley and Sanders in opposition of the NDAA; she tends to toe the party line when it comes to such matters.

6 Senators and 15 Representatives Want Answers from USTR Froman about His Tar Sands Lobbying

The recent leaked documents from Wikileaks have been making the public more aware of the shady dealings in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP's Atlantic cousin--the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)--is also an anti-democratic corporate giveaway dressed up in "free trade" rhetoric.

USTR Michael Froman, whose confirmation Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren opposed because of his lack of transparency, has been purportedly lobbying the EU to accept North American tar sands. As part of its plan for emissions reduction, the EU adopted a Fuel Quality Directive, which requires a 6 percent reduction in emissions from transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel by 2020.  In order to put this into practice, the EU is considering a proposal to assign different values to fuels based on their emissions. Bitumen, the oil extracted from tar sands, has 12 to 40 percent higher life-cycle emissions than standard crude oil.  The Keystone XL pipeline has not yet been approved, but if it is approved, it will need an export market. And that's what Froman is trying to create.

In response, a group of 21 Democrats--6 senators and 15 representatives--led by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Rep. Henry Waxman (CA-33) have sent a letter to USTR Froman expressing concerns that his actions are directly undercutting the goals expressed in the President's Climate Action Plan.

The five senators who joined Whitehouse are Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

The 14 representatives who joined Waxman are the following:

Judy Chu (CA-27)
Steve Cohen (TN-09)
John Conyers (MI-13)
Pete DeFazio (OR-04)
Anna Eshoo (CA-18)
Sam Farr (CA-20)
Raul Grijalva (AZ-03)
Rush Holt (NJ-12)
Barbara Lee (CA-13)
Alan Lowenthal (CA-47)
Jerry Nadler (NY-10)
Mark Pocan (WI-02)
Louise Slaughter (NY-25)
Pete Welch (VT)
The full text of the letter is below.
December 20, 2013

Ambassador Michael Froman
Office of the United States Trade Representative
600 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC  20508

Dear Ambassador Froman:

We write to you today to raise our concerns about the Office of the United States Trade Representative’s position on the European Union’s Fuel Quality Directive (FQD).  Recent reports suggest that USTR has pressed the European Commission to alter its proposed treatment of tar sands crude oil in the FQD.  If these reports are accurate, USTR’s actions could undercut the EU’s commendable goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in its transportation sectors.  This would be contrary to the principles of the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan and would reflect a short-sighted view of the United States’ economic interests.  Given the importance of the issues at stake, we believe clarification of USTR’s position is necessary.

Tar sands products have a significantly worse carbon footprint than other petroleum products.  The State Department’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL pipeline northern route acknowledges, for example, that Canadian tar sands bitumen produces 17% more carbon pollution, on a lifecycle basis, compared with the average crude refined in the United States, and 22% more carbon pollution when the estimate accounts for the full range of products produced from a barrel of tar sands crude.[1]  Just shifting from the average crude to tar sands crude in the amount that would be carried by the Keystone XL pipeline would raise U.S. carbon pollution by 1215 million metric tons over the next 50 years.[2]  According to the Administration’s estimate, the social cost of carbon rises from $37 per MTCO2e in 2015 to $71 per MTCO2e in 2050.[3]  This single source of tar sands products, therefore, could produce more than $70 billion in additional damages associated with climate change over 50 years, the costs of which will be partially borne by U.S. businesses and investments worldwide.

According to the World Trade Organization, the United States raised the FQD at the October 2013 meeting of the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee.  The U.S., along with Canada, “argued that all globally-traded petroleum products should be treated without discrimination, in line with Article 2.1 of the TBT Agreement, and urged the EU to consider less trade-restrictive approaches to achieve its goals.”[4]

In response to questions regarding the treatment of tar sands oil in the FQD from a House Ways & Means Committee hearing, you expressed concern with the level of transparency and public participation in the FQD’s development.  You further stated that you “raised these issues with senior Commission officials on several occasions, including in the context of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) [and] continue to press the Commission to take the views of stakeholders, including U.S. refiners, under consideration as they finalize these amendments.”[5]

These reports are troubling.  A policy of pressuring the EU to alter its FQD would be inconsistent with the goals of the Administration’s Climate Action Plan.  As the Plan outlines, one of its three “key pillars” is “for the United States to couple action at home with leadership internationally.  America must help forge a truly global solution to this global challenge by galvanizing international action to significantly reduce emissions (particularly among the major emitting countries), prepare for climate impacts, and drive progress through the international negotiations.”[6]  We strongly agree with the carbon reduction goals of the President’s Plan, both at home and abroad.

Given the substantial harm that tar sands crude oil poses to the climate and the United States’ long-term economic well-being, as well as the potential conflict with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, we request that you provide us a statement of USTR’s position on the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The American People Are Very "Unserious," Pew Poll Finds

A Pew poll released yesterday shows that the American people are very "unserious." You see, they think that protecting Social Security, Medicare, and social welfare spending are more important than deficit reduction and think that military spending should be cut to reduce the deficit. Clearly, the American people are not going to be invited to a Fix the Debt holiday bash this year.

69% of people found keeping Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are more important than reducing the deficit. Only 23% thought the opposite. That's 3:1 support for Social Security and Medicare.

59% found keeping spending for the poor at current levels more important than reducing the deficit. Only 33% thought the opposite.

On the other hand, 51% thought that reducing the deficit was more important than keeping military spending at current levels. Only 40% thought the opposite.

Democrats (79-16), Independents (66-25), and Republicans (62-29) all preferred keeping Social Security and Medicare at current levels to reducing the deficit. Obama,  Pelosi, and the Republican Party might want to cut Social Security and Medicare, but the American people on all sides of the spectrum do not.

As one would expect, Democrats wanted to protect spending for the poor and needy and to cut spending on the military. Republicans wanted to cut spending on the poor and needy and to maintain bloated Pentagon spending. Independents agreed with Democrats, but by weaker margins.

There was a large generational gap on the issue of military spending. Twice as many millennials found reducing the deficit more important than maintaining military spending (64% to 32%). On the other hand, seniors preferred maintaining military spending to reducing the deficit by a large margin(55% to 31%). The generational gap existed on both sides of the political spectrum, as the chart below shows.

The poll also showed that lower-income Republicans prioritized aid to the poor and needy over deficit reduction. The gap between lower income and higher income Republicans was quite large.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

New GAO Report: Federal Government Not Collecting a "Fair Return" from Drilling on Public Lands

In a report issued last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the continued reliance on nearly century-old policies that prevent the federal government from collecting a "fair return" from the oil and gas extraction on public lands. The U.S. government has one of the lowest return rates for federal leases, and the Department of Interior lacks clear, modernized procedures for collecting such royalties.

From the Huffington Post's review:
The latest report notes that Interior has updated its terms for offshore leasing since its last report and has considered -- but not made -- changes to its onshore terms. But the department still does not have a system in place for making sure such updates happen on a regular basis. It has "discontinued its efforts to pursue revised regulations" for onshore drilling, arguing that it "does not have enough information to determine how to adjust onshore royalty rates."

"Without documented procedures, Interior will not have reasonable assurance that it will consistently conduct such assessments in the future and, without periodically conducting such assessments, Interior cannot know whether there is a proper balance between the attractiveness of federal leases for investment and appropriate returns for federal oil and gas resources, limiting Interior’s ability to ensure a fair return," the GAO concluded.
This means that the federal government is missing out on lots of money in royalties from oil and gas operations. Last year, companies made $66 billion on the sale of oil and gas they produced from public lands, and paid $10 billion to the federal government, according to the GAO report -- but it could make a lot more.

According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress' public lands project, the federal royalty rate for oil and gas onshore has been set at 12.5 percent since the 1920s. The revenues are split between the federal government and the states where the production takes place. Some states charge higher rates than the feds; Texas, for example, charges 25 percent. But those states that don't charge higher than the federal rate are bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars less than they could be, each year.
This comes at a time of record domestic oil production and ever-increasing natural gas extraction (often via fracking), both for which the president crudely commends himself. 
Consider his weekly address on energy from last month:
We produce more natural gas than anyone...And just this week, we learned that for the first time in nearly two decades, the United States of America now produces more of our own oil here at home than we buy from other countries.

That’s a big deal.  That’s a tremendous step towards American energy independence.
And here's the president in a speech in Cushing, Oklahoma, last year:
"Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quad­rupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some. . . . In fact, the problem . . . is that we're actually producing so much oil and gas . . . that we don't have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needs to go."
Obama's Climate Action Plan likewise touts the benefits of fracking
Compared to his predecessors, Obama has amassed a horrible record on protecting public lands:

And he has leased 2.4 times as much land to oil and gas drillers as he's protected:

In order to prevent catastrophic climate change, at least two-thirds of all known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground. The administration should not continue its environmentally harmful policy of leasing away public lands to oil and gas drillers, worsening this problem.

However, with the land currently being drilled, the least the federal government could do would be to ensure a strong and fair return (nationalization of extractive industries is, sadly, a nonstarter). By letting royalties go uncollected, the Department of Interior is further lining the pockets of the oil and gas companies and thereby entrenching their economic and political power. Moreover, the uncollected money could have been used to fund the development of renewable energy as well as the systemic changes to energy, agriculture, transportation, etc., that are necessary.

Monday, December 16, 2013

WaPo: Cass Sunstein Not-So-Gently "Nudged" Regulations Away From Election Season

Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration purposefully delayed enacting a number of environmental, safety, and health rules in order to avoid discussing them during the election season. The WaPo article resulted from discussions with current and former administration officials as well as a recent report from the Administrative Conference of the United States.

The effects of the White House's loathness to challenge business interests--whether out of fear of attack ads or perhaps just general agreement with them--can be seen in the following graph. The 2012 election season saw a major drop in both the number of rules and the speed by which Cass Sunstein's OIRA approved them.

OIRA created bureaucratic hurdles to rule-making:
The officials interviewed for the ACUS report, whose names were withheld from publication by the study authors, said that starting in 2012 they had to meet with an OIRA desk officer before submitting each significant rule for formal review. They called the sessions “Mother-may-I” meetings, according to the study.

The accounts were echoed by four Obama administration political appointees and three career officials interviewed by The Post.
The EPA was a major target of Cass Sunstein's:
At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, a former official said that only two managers had the authority to request a major rule in 2012: then-administrator Lisa P. Jackson and deputy administrator Bob Perciasepe. Perciasepe and OIRA’s director at the time, Cass Sunstein, would have “weekly and sometimes semi-weekly discussions” to discuss rules that affected the economy, one said, because they had political consequences, the person said.

“As we entered the run-up to the election, the word went out the White House was not anxious to review new rules,” the former official said.
By "affect the economy," we know that Sunstein means "affect big polluters." Industry groups have dominated the OIRA meeting process, so the administration is hearing the vision of the "economy" held by corporate executives and lobbyists, not the workers who would benefit from safety regulations or the members of communities who would benefit from environmental health regulations. Oil and coal lobbyists always had a friendly ear in Cass Sunstein:
Several significant EPA proposals were withheld as a result of those meetings, officials said, including a proposal requiring cleaner gasoline and lower-pollution vehicles that had won the support of automakers but angered the oil industry.

That regulation, which would reduce the amount of sulfur in U.S. gasoline by two-thirds and impose fleetwide pollution limits on new vehicles by 2017, was ready in December 2011, said three officials familiar with the proposal. But agency officials were told to wait a year to submit it for review because critics could use it to suggest that the administration was raising gas prices, they said. The EPA issued the proposed rule in March.

Other EPA regulations that were delayed beyond the 2012 election included rules on coal ash disposal, water pollution rules for streams and wetlands, air emissions from industrial boilers and cement kilns, and carbon dioxide limits for existing power plants.
Delaying or killing much-needed regulations in fear of corporate misinformation campaigns or a closer affinity to corporate over worker interests was not new to 2012, unfortunately. This piece reminded me of an excellent article from The Nation last month about the use of child labor in tobacco fields. In early 2011, the Labor Department released its draft regulations for child farmworkers. Opponents latched onto a patently false narrative of "Obama vs. American family farms," arguing that the new regulations would destroy the rural way of life and refusing to acknowledge the evidence to the contrary.

Facing the misinformation campaign from Republicans and the American Farm Bureau, the administration ultimately caved and killed the proposed regulation. In doing so, the administration embraced the misinformation campaign as well; the Department of Labor's statement on the withdrawal of the proposal cited the administration's commitment "to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life" as part of its rationale. DoL proposed an "education program" with "rural stakeholders" as an alternative. The first "stakeholder" on the list was the American Farm Bureau, the regulation's main opponent, and no representatives of migrant youth were included. This was a major blow toward public health, workplace safety, and children's rights.
The dramatic about-face left public health advocates reeling. “I’ve been following worker safety and health for twenty years,” says Celeste Monforton, a professor at the George Washington School of Public Health and a former OSHA analyst. “I have never seen anything like that statement. It was a sucker punch. It ran completely counter to what we would have expected from an administration that claims to be advocates for vulnerable people.”

Details on who made the decision to drop the proposed changes aren’t clear. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Oregonian, the White House refused to release 600 pages of information, arguing that doing so would “inhibit the frank and candid exchange of views that is necessary for effective government decision-making.” But the Labor Department did tell The Oregonian that it was the White House that sent the announcement over, with instructions to release the news on department letterhead.
What's particularly offensive about such delays and withdrawals is that the problems the regulations seek to address--unsafe working conditions and the pollution of air, water, and land--have a real human toll. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) aptly commented, "Legal protection delayed is protection denied." Likewise, Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO's director of safety and health, noted that a regulation updating the nation's silica standards could save 688 deaths and 1,585 silica-related illnesses each year, but the regulation won't be finalized until 2016 because of the administration's delays.

A Proposal Both Progressives and Conservatives Could Get Behind

Many have wondered what Lord Bloomberg will do when his 12 year reign of the nation's largest city finally has to end.

Today, the New York Times gives us a hint of what Bloomie sees for his future:
Michael R. Bloomberg, determined to parlay his government experience and vast fortune into a kind of global mayoralty, is creating a high-powered consulting group to help him reshape cities around the world long after he leaves office.

To build the new organization, paid for out of his own pocket, the billionaire mayor is taking much of his City Hall team with him: He has already hired many of his best-known and longest-serving deputies, promising them a chance to export the policies they developed in New York to far-flung places like Louisville, Ky., and Mexico City.
The organization, to be called Bloomberg Associates, will act as an urban SWAT team, deployed at the invitation of local governments to solve knotty, long-term challenges, like turning a blighted waterfront into a gleaming public space, or building subway-friendly residential neighborhoods.
The phrase "urban SWAT team" is revealing and appropriate in ways that I'm not entirely clear were intended. 
Under Bloomberg's reign, New York City has become the exemplar of the current age of inequality. Homelessness has risen dramatically, affordable housing has been disappearing amidst skyrocketing rents and gentrification, and the stagnant wage has kept falling in real value.  A report from earlier this year showed that 46% of New York City's population makes less than 150% of the poverty threshold. Meanwhile, the city has more billionaires than any other city on the globe, and its total of 389,000 millionaires is only surpassed by Tokyo.

Bloomberg has been openly scornful of measures to address inequality. He compared the City Council's living wage bill to Soviet communism. He also red-baited Elizabeth Warren because of her support for regulating Bloomie's beloved financial industry. Bloomberg has also complained that the city's homeless shelters are too nice while simultaneously closing avenues to affordable housing.
Bloomberg also remains one of the nations' biggest advocates and practitioners of the education privatization agenda.

The NYPD, which Bloomberg views as his personal army, has terrorized black and Latino youths and unlawfully spied on Muslim communities.

Because of Bloomberg's racist and authoritarian policing and his plutocratic vision for the city, progressives have been eagerly awaiting his departure. However, Bloomberg has become anathema to the right as well because of his public health initiatives and his heavy spending to push gun control measures and candidates.

So I have a proposal that progressives and conservatives could both get behind: Bloomberg leaves other cities alone and just retires to his house in Bermuda.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Cure for "Affluenza": 100% Marginal Tax Rate

Earlier this week, Judge Jean Boyd of Forth Worth, Texas, decided that 16-year-old Ethan Crouch, who had killed four people during a drunk driving incident, should not go to jail because he suffers from "affluenza."  He will get 10 years probation instead, possibly in a small private home in California that offers extensive one-on-one therapy (his parents' preference). I doubt the judge would have been so kind if the disease was poverty, not wealth.

Crouch was driving a pickup truck 70 miles-per-hour in a 40 mph zone. He killed four people who were standing on the side of the road outside their car and injured nine others.

The psychologist hired by Crouch's parents argued that he suffered from "affluenza," and the judge was apparently receptive:
Miller said Couch's parents gave him "freedoms no young person should have." He called Couch a product of "affluenza," where his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences.

He said Couch got whatever he wanted. As an example,  Miller said Couch's parents gave no punishment after police ticketed the then-15-year-old when he was found in a parked pickup with a passed out, undressed 14-year-old girl.

Miller also pointed out that Couch was allowed to drive at 13. He said the teen was emotionally flat and needed years of therapy. At the time of the fatal wreck, Couch had a blood alcohol content of .24, said Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson. It is illegal for a minor to drive with any amount of alcohol in his or her system.
In this particular incident of "affluenza," at least part of the cure is self-evident: taxing away (or fining away) most of his parents' wealth. They themselves admit that their exorbitant wealth has made them fundamentally incapable of raising a child who can understand such basic moral precepts as "don't kill people." 
However, this is just one incident of the wider epidemic of "affluenza" in this country. Because of "affluenza," many of our rich (and that includes our politicians) have the moral character of sociopaths. We see all of the time how extreme wealth corrupts individuals and corrupts democracy and the justice system. Extreme inequality is a disease in the body politic.

So how can we cure this epidemic? I'd like to offer a proposal: a 100% marginal tax rate.

One of the earliest (if not the earliest) modern proponents of a maximum income (a 100% marginal tax rate) was Felix Adler, social reformer and founder of the Ethical Culture movement. He laid out the case for such a tax system in a packed 1880 lecture at Manhattan's Chickering Hall as part of a series called "Just Measures of Social Reform." In prior lectures in the series, he had advocated reorganizing the economy on a cooperative basis and stressed the need for social experimentation and education to achieve that end. The question, of course, then became how to fund such experimentation. For that, he outlined principles for just taxation.

First, he highlighted which parts of a person's income should be exempt from taxation: (1) a fund for the necessaries of life and health and (2) a fund for savings for sickness and old age. On these points, he agreed with John Stuart Mill. Adler added another category for exemption: a fund for "legitimate luxuries," those supporting knowledge and self-culture.

He sharply diverged from Mill, however, on the nature of the tax. Mill supported a flat tax, which Adler found to be morally and logically unsound:
Taking the rate of tax at 3 per cent, the man with an income of $500 would pay a tax of $15; $1,000 would be taxed $30; an income of $50,000 would pay $1,500, and one of $500,000 would be taxed $15,000. “There is evidently,” said Prof. Adler, “a most glaring inequality implied in this seeming equality. The person with an income of $500 must deny himself many satisfactions, and the $15 which he pays to the State creates a void. The man with an income of $1,000 must also live very narrowly, and the $30 which he pays for taxes might have been expended in books for which he is perhaps longing, for clothes for his children, or for making things easier to the hard-worked wife, who is toiling to make both ends meet. But who will tell me that the man with a half million will feel the want of the $15,000 which he pays to the State? Will he need to limit himself in the gratification of his wants, his business, or his caprices? Will not the $485,000 remaining to him annually suffice to satisfy all his desires? And does not, then, equality of percentage conflict with that excellent rule which Mill himself lays down at the beginning of his argument, that equality of taxation must mean equality of sacrifice? that each man shall be neither more nor less inconvenienced than his neighbor in discharging his obligations to the community?
He then proposed a graduated income tax, which would rise all the way up to 100%:
We demand a graduated tax, so imposed that if on a small income it be 3 percent, it shall increase in proportion to the means of the person taxed, to 10 and 15 and 30 and 50 percent, and that at last, when a certain high and abundant sum has been reached, amply sufficient for all the comforts and true refinements of life, the tax shall rise to 100 percent of all that is beyond—that is to say, that all beyond shall be taxed out of existence, so far as the individual is concerned.

I would protect the individual in his right to the private enjoyment of all that honestly belongs to him, of all that he can truly use for the human purposes of life; and only that which does not rightfully belong to him, only that which is to him merely a means of pomp and pride and power—such power as no individual ought to possess—would I have remanded into the general fund of society, where, in the name of justice, it belongs.
(emphasis added) 

He did not believe such a system were immediately feasible given that the rich were so often not even willing to pay the small amount of taxes they owed, feeling no shame in passing the burden onto the poor. He did, however, believe that such reform was possible in the long-term:
These things will not be changed until the common people take the matter in hand; until they are better instructed in regard to their rights and opportunities; until they find legislators who truly represent their needs, and until, in all calmness and all seriousness, but with all firmness, they declare their will in words that cannot be mistaken, and enact the only possible measures of relief.
The U.S. did not get a progressive income tax until 1913 after the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment and the passage of the Revenue Act of 1913.  The marginal rate was only 7% (for income above $500,00---$11.8 million in 2013 dollars.)  The marginal rate rose sharply with the US entry into World War I, to 67% (on income above $2 million, or $36.5 million today). Coolidge brought the rate sharply down. Hoover and Roosevelt both raised marginal rates to provide for spending to combat the Great Depression. However, only Roosevelt ever expressed interest in a maximum income. 
In a speech in April 1942, Roosevelt called upon Congress to establish a 100% tax rate:
Profits must be taxed to the utmost limit consistent with continued production. This means all business profits- not only in making munitions, but in making or selling anything else. Under the proposed new tax law we seek to take by taxation all undue or excess profits. It is incumbent upon the Congress to define undue or excess profits; and anything in excess of that specific figure should go to the Government.

One of our difficulties is to write a law in which some clever people will not find loopholes, or in which some businesses will not be equitably included. I have suggested to the Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means in the House of Representatives that some blanket clause could well cover, by a special tax, all profits of any kind of business which exceed the expressed definition of the legal profit figure.

At the same time, while the number of individual Americans affected is small, discrepancies between low personal incomes and very high personal incomes should be lessened; and I therefore believe that in time of this grave national danger, when all excess income should go to win the war, no American citizen ought to have a net income, after he has paid his taxes, of more than $25,000 a year. It is indefensible that those who enjoy large incomes from State and local securities should be immune from taxation while we are at war. Interest on such securities should be subject at least to surtaxes.
(emphasis added) 

FDR's recommended maximum income is equivalent to $358,000 in 2013 dollars. Congress did not oblige, but they did raise marginal rates and did so again in 1944, bringing the marginal rate to its all-time high of 94%.

FDR advocated a 100% marginal income tax for the sake of funding a war. If only our political leaders were interested in such measures during times of peace to fund the humane ends of society. Until they do, the epidemic of "affluenza" will rage on.

Friday, December 13, 2013

U.S. Drone Strike Kills 14 in Wedding Party in Yemen

During his May speech on counterterrorism, President Obama defended the drone program as legal, moral, and accurate and has argued then and since that it is subject to standards of accountability--just, of course, ones that the public cannot see. The president rhetorically flirted with bringing the GWOT to an end although he offered little (or nothing) in terms of policy changes in that direction.

When he met with Malala Yousfazi at the White House in October, she spoke to him about how drone strikes are fueling widespread resentment and facilitating terrorist recruitment:
"I thanked President Obama for the United States' work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees. I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact."
Obama doesn't seem to have listened to Malala about the immorality and danger involved in killing innocents abroad:
Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- A U.S. drone mistakenly targeted a wedding convoy in Yemen's al-Baitha province after intelligence reports identified the vehicles as carrying al Qaeda militants, two Yemeni national security officials told CNN on Thursday. The officials said that 14 people were killed and 22 others injured, nine in critical condition. The vehicles were traveling near the town of Radda when they were attacked.
U.S. officials, per CNN, have declined to comment. That comes as no surprise as the U.S. still refuses to acknowledge the large civilian death toll of its drone war. 

Attacks like yesterday's highlight the immorality and illegality of the president's targeted killing policy and refute its defenders' claims of supreme accuracy and "surgical" cleanness.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Only 50 Democrats and 19 Republicans Vote Against Continuing the Bloated Pentagon Budget

After the House voted to screw over the unemployed and federal workers and to take a Christmas vacation, they voted for the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to continue the gravy train for the"epically wasteful", still-not-yet-audited Pentagon and, more importantly, its many contractors.
The NDAA passed easily as it always does, 350 to 69. 208 Republicans and 142 Democrats supported it. 19 Republicans and 50 Democrats opposed it.

Here are the 50 Democrats who rightfully voted NAY:

Karen Bass (CA-37)
Xavier Becerra (CA-34)
Earl Blumenauer (OR-03)
Mike Capuano (MA-07)
Judy Chu (CA-32)
Katherine Clark (MA-05)
Yvette Clarke (NY-09)
Steve Cohen (TN-09)
John Conyers (MI-13)
Pete DeFazio (OR-04)
Diana DeGette (CO-01)
Mike Doyle (PA-14)
Donna Edwards (MD-04)
Keith Ellison (MN-05)
Marcia Fudge (OH-11)
Alan Grayson (FL-09)
Janice Hahn (CA-44)
Rush Holt (NJ-12)
Mike Honda (CA-17)
Jared Huffman (CA-02)
John Larson (CT-01)
Barbara Lee (CA-13)
John Lewis (GA-05)
Zoe Lofgren (CA-19)
Doris Matsui (CA-06)
Jim McDermott (WA-07)
Jim McGovern (MA-02)
George Miller (CA-11)
Gwen Moore (WI-04)
Jerry Nadler (NY-10)
Grace Napolitano (CA-32)
Frank Pallone (NJ-06)
Donald Payne (NJ-10)
Chellie Pingree (ME-01)
Mark Pocan (WI-02)
Jared Polis (CO-02)
Mike Quigley (IL-05)
Charlie Rangel (NY-13)
Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA-40)
Linda Sánchez (CA-38)
Jan Schakowsky (IL-09)
Kurt Schrader (OR-05)
Jose Serrano (NY-15)
Eric Swalwell (CA-15)
Mike Thompson (CA-05)
John Tierney (MA-06)
Nydia Velázquez (NY-07)
Mel Watt (NC-12)
Pete Welch (VT-AL)
John Yarmuth (KY-03)

And here are the 19 Republicans:

Justin Amash (MI-03)
John Campbell (CA-45)
Jeff Duncan (SC-03)
John Duncan (TN-02)
Louie Gohmert (TX-01)
Morgan Griffith (VA-09)
Walter Jones (NC-03)
Raul Labrador (ID-01)
Cynthia Lummis (WY)
Tom Massie (KY-04)
Tom McClintock (CA-04)
Bill Posey (FL-08)
Reid Ribble (WI-08)
Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48)
Matt Salmon (AZ-05)
Mark Sanford (SC-01)
Rob Woodall (GA-07)
Ted Yoho (FL-03)

In case you're curious, only 17 Democrats voted against both the bad budget deal and the NDAA:

Karen Bass (CA-37)
Judy Chu (CA-32)
Yvette Clarke (NY-09)
John Conyers (MI-13)
Pete DeFazio (OR-04)
Keith Ellison (MN-05)
Marcia Fudge (OH-11)
Rush Holt (NJ-12)
Barbara Lee (CA-13)
Frank Pallone (NJ-06)
Chellie Pingree (ME-01)
Mark Pocan (WI-02)
Linda Sánchez (CA-38)
Jan Schakowsky (IL-09)
Kurt Schrader (OR-05)
Nydia Velázquez (NY-07)
Mel Watt (NC-12)

Only 32 Democrats Vote Against Budget Deal That Screws Federal Workers and the Unemployed

The House just passed the Murray-Ryan budget with a large bipartisan majority of 332 to 94. 169 Republicans and 163 Democrats voted for it. 62 Republicans and 32 Democrats voted against it.

Yesterday, I wrote about how Democrats were urging a vote on the extension of unemployment benefits for the 1.3 million of the long-term unemployed. Patty Murray apparently had no problem selling them out when crafting a budget deal with Paul Ryan.

The House voted to leave for the year earlier this afternoon. The vote Democrats said that they want did not happen and will not happen this year. It might not happen next year. The easiest way to guarantee the extension of long-term unemployment benefits was the budget, and the Democrats gave that up in the negotiating process.

Patty Murray also sold out federal workers when crafting the budget deal. Republicans might not like taxing the rich, but they don't mind taxing federal workers, civilian and military. The budget deal raises the amount that federal workers have to contribute to their pensions, the equivalent of a payroll tax increase. And this comes after federal workers' salaries have been frozen since January 2010.

As John Nichols of the Nation said earlier today, the budget deal was "cruel, irresponsible, and dysfunctional". It did not end sequestration, just provided some "relief"--funding the government at levels still below Paul Ryan's infamous 2011 budget. It does nothing meaningful to address still-high unemployment and, as I noted, is cruel to those currently unemployed. It continues the tradition of making federal workers a bipartisan punching bag. And it fails to close any tax loophole, such as the carried interest loophole or the preferential treatment for capital gains, which both manage to survive every new budget.

Who are the 32 Democrats you should thank for voting against the deal?

Karen Bass (CA-37)
Judy Chu (CA-27)
David Cicilline (RI-01)
Yvette Clarke (NY-09)
John Conyers (MI-13)
Pete DeFazio (OR-04)
Rosa DeLauro (CT-03)
Keith Ellison (MN-05)
Lois Frankel (FL-22)
Marcia Fudge (OH-11)
Raul Grijalva (AZ-03)
Colleen Hanabusa (HI-01)
Rush Holt (NJ-12)
Steny Hoyer (MD-05)
Barbara Lee (CA-13)
Sander Levin (MI-09)
Mike McIntyre (NC-07)
Gloria Negrete McLeod (CA-35)
Frank Pallone (NJ-06)
Chellie Pingree (ME-01)
Mark Pocan (WI-02)
Cedric Richmond (LA-02)
Linda Sánchez (CA-38)
Loretta Sanchez (CA-46)
Jan Schakowsky (IL-09)
Kurt Schrader (OR-05)
Louise Slaughter (NY-25)
Bennie Thompson (MS-02)
Nydia Velázquez (NY-07)
Peter Visclosky (IN-01)
Maxine Waters (CA-43)
Mel Watt (NC-12)

The House also voted on the NDAA. I'll do a separate write-up on that.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

John Podesta to Help WH on Climate Change...But Not Keystone XL?

John Podesta, prominent Democratic strategist and former chief of staff to Bill Clinton, will now be formally joining the White House, as was announced yesterday. According to the Washington Post, Podesta's portfolio in this new role would be "broad" and would include climate change, executive actions, and the implementation of the health care law.

Podesta is well known for his role as founder of the Center for American Progress, which recently celebrated its ten year anniversary. CAP has very close ties with the Obama administration, and there's a considerable interchange of staff. Over the past few years, CAP has tended to toe the White House line on economic and foreign policy issues while often criticizing the administration from the left on social issues and environmental issues.

John Podesta has been an outspoken opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline. Yesterday, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker reported on Podesta's past statements on Keystone and the wider issue of climate change:
Podesta told me earlier this year that his case against Keystone was twofold. One, he believed the weight of the evidence suggested that the pipeline would indeed accelerate the production of oil from the oil sands and increase greenhouse-gas emissions over the long term. “There’s a lot of oil flowing from there, right? They’re not gonna stop doing that. But do we want to facilitate supercharging that?” he said. “That’s the question. And the answer to that I think is no, because of the climate impact.”

He was emphatic that Obama’s own test cannot be met. “I think he should not approve it,” Podesta said. “I’m of the view that you just can’t meet the standard now that Obama set out: Does it or does it not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution? What are the net effects? And I think a fair review of that would say the net effects are big and they’re negative.”

In his interview with me, Podesta also argued that if Obama wanted to get anything accomplished in a second term, the President had to be expansive in his use of executive power. Climate-change policy, Podesta believes, is fertile ground. Without any involvement from Congress, Obama’s E.P.A. can implement regulations to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, and the President could set a new course on energy policy by cancelling Keystone.

“We don’t know at the end of the day how you change the national and global mindset,” Podesta told me. “But if Obama did say no, what does that do to finally force some tough decision-making into the climate world? It could have a fairly significant impact on people’s understanding about what the problem is and the cost of adapting to a warming planet.” For Podesta, a decision by Obama to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline could be a turning point in the larger fight against global warming—a moment, he said, that could begin “to reverse” the effects of climate change.
Lest you find that too promising, POLITICO reported yesterday that John Podesta will be recusing himself from the Keystone XL issue. He's supposed to be advising the president on climate change but can't touch the issue of building a large pipeline through the middle of the country to bring dirty tar sands oil from Canada to the export market in the Gulf, a pipeline opposed by the nation's leading climate scientists? That doesn't seem to bode well to me. 

Have any other members of the administration recused themselves from issues like that before? It seems like a rather strange move.

174 House Democrats Signed a Letter Demanding a Vote on Long-Term UI Extension. Who Hasn't Signed?

The Murray-Ryan budget deal presented last night, as you probably already know, does not include an extension of unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed.

Earlier today, 166 House Democrats wrote to Speaker John Boehner urging a vote on the extension of unemployment insurance before Congress goes on break for Christmas. Since then, eight more have joined: the site now reads 174. Reps. Sander Levin, Barbara Lee, and Lloyd Doggett organized the letter.

Here's the text:
Dear Speaker Boehner: We write to urge you to address the looming expiration of unemployment benefits for millions of Americans before leaving for the year. Without swift Congressional action, 1.3 million jobless workers will have their benefits cut off on December 28th, and nearly another 1.9 million will lose their unemployment benefits over the first half of next year. This would not only be a devastating blow for millions of Americans who are already struggling, but it would also hurt our economy.

The Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program is scheduled to immediately and completely stop at the end of 2013, during the holiday season, with the last payable week ending on December 28th. All current EUC beneficiaries will lose their benefits, and individuals exhausting their limited state unemployment benefits will no longer be eligible for EUC benefits in 2014. This cutoff will affect over 3 million Americans over the next six months, and thereby also negatively impact our economic growth. In fact, recent estimates indicate that the expiration of the EUC program would cost our economy 310,000 jobs and drain roughly four-tenths of a percentage from first-quarter economic growth.

While unemployment benefits remain a critical lifeline for dislocated workers and their families, these benefits have recently been significantly scaled back. According to the Congressional Research Service, the total amount of weeks of unemployment benefits has dropped by more than a third across the states, and by more than 50 percent in some states, compared to two years ago. Furthermore, the recipients have seen their weekly benefit payment provided by the EUC program cut under sequestration.

Even with the progress our economy has seen since the depths of the recession, there are still 1.3 million fewer jobs today than when the recession started six years ago. Additionally, approximately 4 million Americans are considered long-term unemployed, and have been looking for work for more than six months. Now is certainly not the time to further decimate vital federal assistance to workers who have lost their job through no fault of their own and who must actively seek work in order to be eligible for unemployment benefits. We therefore strongly urge you to immediately bring up a one-year extension of the current EUC program.
There are 200 representatives in the House Democratic caucus at the moment (201 after Katherine Clark is sworn in). Three of the letter's signers are delegates, not representatives, and have no voting power: Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Pedro Pierluisi (PR), and Donna Christensen (VI). That means that 29 Democrats haven't yet signed the letter. 
There are 30 names missing from the letter. I am going to assume that Nancy Pelosi might be the one who is included in the count but whose name does not appear. We know she was promoting the letter this afternoon:

So, who are the 29?
Ron Barber (AZ-02)
Jerry McNerney (CA-09)
Zoe Lofgren (CA-19)
Raul Ruiz (CA-36)
Scott Peters (CA-52)
Susan Davis (CA-53)
Jared Polis (CO-02)
John Carney (DE)
Joe Garcia (FL-26)
John Barrow (GA-12)
David Scott (GA-13)
Robin Kelly (IL-02)
Tammy Duckworth (IL-08)
Peter Visclosky (IN-01)
Andre Carson (IN-07)
Timothy Walz (MN-01)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Sean Maloney (NY-18)
Bill Owens (NY-21)
Dan Maffei (NY-24)
Mike McIntyre (NC-07)
Kurt Schrader (OR-05)
Mike Doyle (PA-14)
Pete Gallego (TX-23)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Eddie Johnson (TX-30)
Filemon Vela (TX-34)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Adam Smith (WA-09)

If your representative is on that list of non-signers, call his/her office. You can find the numbers here.
Whether your representatives are on the list or not, you should tell them to oppose any budget deal that does not extend the EUC program---or any budget deal as punitive to federal workers as the deal negotiated by Murray and Ryan.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Santa Came Early This Year for the Federal Contractors, Just Not Their Employees

Last Wednesday, President Obama gave a talk on economic mobility and income inequality at the Center for American Progress. It's somewhat strange to stage your speech on economic mobility at a DC think tank rather than at a factory or small business or a school--or some other place where you can talk with "hard-working middle-class Americans." But so it goes.

The speech had little in terms of new policies, but it had fairy liberal rhetoric although lines about how "streamlining regulations" (Code: gutting them) and shrinking "long-term deficits" (Code: cutting social insurance programs) would boost economic mobility and reduce inequality show that neoliberalism has not lost its rhetorical or political hold. I'd view the talk about "a trade agenda that grows exports and works for the middle class" with a heavy dose of skepticism as well, given the administrative push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal and the past "free" trade deals with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia that had the President's support (and about 2:1 opposition--or more--from House Democrats each time).

But I want to highlight a different contrast here. You see, the same day that the president was talking about inequality, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) increased the maximum amount of contractor compensation that can be billed to government contracts from $763,029 per employee per year to $952,308 per employee per year.
However could the executives of defense and IT firms have lived on a mere $763,029 per year! Never mind that that was almost double the president's salary. And never mind that their full compensation is probably much, much higher. But that's right, my friend: defense contractor executives can now charge a salary of almost $1 million to the federal government.

The OFPP did its necessary hand-wringing, the lamentation about how awful it is that they are doing this and how they so very much don't want to do it, but their hands are just tied. Scott Amey, General Counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, rightfully criticizes the see-through theatrics:
OMB tried to excuse its scheme to enrich the wealthiest contractor executives and employees by including shallow lamentations that on the surface appear to decry the need for such a large increase in allowable compensation (OFPP acted similarly when the cap was raised in 2012). The OFPP notice essentially cries that “Congress makes us do it,” but the truth is, raising the contractor compensation cap is a discretionary act, which OFPP has managed to turn into a nearly annual contractor feeding frenzy—this year it becomes a massive holiday bonus for contractors, all while agencies are being asked to do more with less.
And to make this even better, the OFPP made the raise retroactive to January 1, 2012, for most firms. Santa came early for the contractors this year! 
Contrast the almost $200,000 increase in executive compensation with the fact that federal workers' pay has been frozen since January 2010. They might see a 1% increase next year, but that's nowhere near the 24.8% increase for maximum compensation for contractors, who already get paid more than federal employees in most occupational classifications.

For a perhaps more striking contrast, compare the treatment of contractor executives with contractor employees. As a study from Demos demonstrated earlier this year, the federal government, through its contracts and grants, is the nation's biggest creator of jobs paying less than $24,000 per year. In that same report, Demos offered some policy solutions, including an executive order to require that contractors pay their employees a living wage:
A different type of precedent is offered by the more than a hundred living wage laws and labor agreements for economic development projects enacted by American cities, counties and states over the past fifteen years. These regulations take many forms, but at their core is a requirement that public contractors, subsidized businesses, concessionaires and/or other private companies that receive special public benefits must meet baseline job standards, such as paying living wages, offering affordable employee health benefits, or hiring in the local community. Less rigorous policies simply favor contractors or subsidize recipients who pay living wages and offer benefits. Still other states and cities require that contractors and other companies doing business with the public meet a basic standard of responsible business practices which excludes companies that have repeatedly violated workplace laws, failed to pay taxes, or flouted other public protections. These many approaches to reforming relationships with public contractors and other private companies that receive special public benefits can serve as models for potential federal action.

Research into the impact of living wage laws indicates that the cost to taxpayers does not rise dramatically when companies are required to pay their employees decent wages. One reason is that companies that raise the pay of low-wage workers benefit from productivity gains and save money because of reduced employee turnover. With better paid employees and a more stable workforce, contractors may also be able to deliver more reliable and higher quality goods and services. With living wage agreements in place, taxpayers can benefit from other savings as well: better paid workers have less need to rely on public services, such as Medicaid and food stamps, so costs for these programs may be reduced. In many cases, raising wage standards for workers may not require any additional taxpayer dollars.

Improving standards for employees working on behalf of America will not, by itself, rebuild the middle class or fully reverse the trend toward growing inequality. But ensuring our tax dollars are providing decent and fair wages would complement President Obama’s broader efforts to raise the minimum wage, advance universal health coverage, and promote affordable preschool. What’s more, standards could be raised without action on the part of Congress. Not only would workers and their families benefit from improved contracting standards, but industries with a high proportion of jobs supported by the government might feel pressure to improve standards as well in order to compete for the best workers. These are employees working on behalf of America, doing jobs that we have decided are worthy of public funding—yet they’re being treated in a very un-American way. We owe them more.
And some members of Congress listened. In July, 17 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote to the president urging him to follow Demos's advice. By September, their numbers had grown. 50 members of Congress, mostly of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, signed a letter to Obama urging him to sign such an executive order.
Dear Mr. President: We are encouraged by your statements during your recent speech in Galesburg, Illinois about growing income inequality in which you said, “That’s why reversing these trends must be Washington’s highest priority. It’s certainly my highest priority…  But I will not allow gridlock, inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way. Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it.”  We stand ready to support an executive order that would help put the middle class within reach for two million workers whose jobs are currently funded by the federal government.

As you know, real wages have been stagnating for working and middle-class families for over 30 years.  The prevailing wage protections put in place over the three decades from the 1930s to the 1960s now cover only 20% of federally funded private-sector work; even for covered workers, wage rates can be little higher than the federal minimum.
According to a recent study by Demos, the federal government now funds over two million jobs paying under twelve dollars per hour – more than Walmart and McDonald’s combined – in such industries as food, apparel, trucking, and auxiliary healthcare.[1]  In another report on the federal-contract workforce, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) interviewed over 500 contract workers and found that 74% are paid less than $10 per hour and 58% receive no benefits from their employer.[2]

Low-wage federal contract workers are also subject to serious breaches of employment and occupational safety law.  Offending employers frequently continue to receive continued contract awards.  A 2010 GAO report found 25 of the 50 largest assessments for unpaid wages and 8 of the 50 largest OSHA penalties imposed by the Department of Labor from 2005 through 2009 were against companies that received federal contracts in 2009.[3]  NELP’s federal contracting report found that over one-in-five of workers contacted reported suffering violations of federal wage-and-hour law, including sub-minimum wage rates, non-payment of overtime premiums, and off-the-clock work.
Reversing the trends like these that help drive income inequality will require aggressive and creative use of every legislative and non-legislative tool at the U.S. government’s disposal. With introduction of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 and other legislation that would update the minimum wage, Democrats in Congress have responded. However, in the face of continued Republican opposition, your executive authority can provide relief.

We urge you to issue an executive order to raise wage standards, safeguard the legal rights and safety and provide labor stability for the low-wage workers on whom these federal agencies rely to fulfill their mission. We also urge the creation of a structure that will monitor implementation and compliance with these orders.  Addressing the rights and standards of this workforce would be a major first step in reversing the long-term decline in living standards and working conditions for America’s low-wage workers.  We look forward to working with you.
The following 50 members of Congress signed: 
Earl Blumenauer (OR-03)
Corinne Brown (FL-05)
Mike Capuano (MA-07)
Matt Cartwright (PA-17)
Andre Carson (IN-07)
David Cicilline (RI-01)
Donna Christensen (U.S. Virgin Islands)
Judy Chu (CA-27)
Yvette Clarke (NY-09)
Steve Cohen (TN-09)
John Conyers (MI-13)
Elijah Cummings (MD-07)
Danny Davis (IL-07)
Rosa DeLauro (CT-03)
 Keith Ellison (MN-05)
Marcia Fudge (OH-11)
Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02)
Alan Grayson (FL-09)
Gene Green (TX-29) or Al Green (TX-09) [The site doesn't mention which Green!]
Raul Grijalva (AZ-03)
Luis Gutiérrez (IL-04)
Janice Hahn (CA-44)
Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC)
Rush Holt (NJ-12)
Mike Honda (CA-17)
Steven Horsford (NV-04)
Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08)
Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18)
Hank Johnson (GA-04)
Eddie Johnson (TX-30)
Barbara Lee (CA-13)
John Lewis (GA-05)
Alan Lowenthal (CA-47)
Carolyn Maloney (NY-12)
Jim McDermott (WA-07)
Jim McGovern (MA-02)
Gwen Moore (WI-04)
Jim Moran (VA-08)
Jerry Nadler (NY-10)
Rick Nolan (MN-08)
Chellie Pingree (ME-01)
Mark Pocan (WI-02)
Charlie Rangel (NY-13)
Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA-40)
Jan Schakowsky (IL-09)
Jose Serrano (NY-15)
Louise Slaughter (NY-25)
Mark Takano (CA-41)
Maxine Waters (CA-43)
Pete Welch (VT)
Frederica Wilson (FL-24)

How did the White House respond?  Well, it didn't.
“It wasn’t responded to,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. “I mean, the response would have been, ‘We’re working on it, we’re looking into it,’ ‘We feel it’s a good idea,’ or, ‘No, we’re not going to do it.’ Any of those is a response. We received none of that.”
That quote was from last week. I doubt much has changed.

With the Republicans still in control of the House and Senate Democrats unwilling to go for full rules reform, we are unlikely to see any action on raising the minimum wage out of Congress. But Obama could make a large impact on the lives of many workers through such an executive order. Such an action would help reduce income inequality and open up economic opportunity, as he claims he wants to do.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Patent Reform Bill Creates Strange Bedfellows in the House

I wrote a piece on the Daily Kos on the new patent reform bill that passed the House. Read it there.

Harvard Poll of Millennials Reminds Me of Why I Hate Approve/Disapprove Questions and False Dilemmas

The Harvard Institute of Politics's 24th edition of its "Survey of Young Americans’ Attitude Toward Politics and Public Service" came out earlier this week.

What stood out to me most when reading through the poll results was how the "approve/disapprove" question format produces false binaries and meaningless results unless used for specific (and specified) policy measures.

Let's look at questions 18 to 22 in particular. Each question began with the following lead:
Now thinking specifically about Barack Obama, do you approve or disapprove of the
way he is handling
18. Syria.
Approve .......................................................... 33%
Disapprove ..................................................... 60%
Decline to answer ........................................... 7%
When the pollsters are asking about "how Obama is handling Syria," what exactly do they mean?  Do they mean the manipulation of intelligence, the incessant warmongering in late August/early September, or the covert support for the Syrian rebels?  Or do they mean the deal worked out between the U.S., Russia, and Syria on the destruction of chemical weapons?  And what about the refugee crisis? Would an answer on this question register an opinion on that?
19. The economy.
Approve .......................................................... 33%
Disapprove ..................................................... 61%
Decline to answer ........................................... 6%
Polling questions about "the economy" are a big pet peeve of mine because they are too vague. You can ask people about unemployment; poverty and inequality; job security and income security; availability, affordability, and access to goods; etc. Polling "the economy" can only register a general sense of malaise. It cannot tell us why people disapprove of how the president is handling the economy, or what aspect of the economy.
20. Iran.
Approve .......................................................... 37%
Disapprove ..................................................... 56%
Decline to answer ........................................... 7%
By "Obama's handling of Iran," do the pollsters mean the crippling sanctions imposed on Iran that are causing a humanitarian crisis? Or do they mean the diplomatic negotiations that were occurring during the time of the poll? Does disapproval convey hawkishness or a desire for a more humane, egalitarian foreign policy?
22. Federal budget deficit.
Approve .......................................................... 28%
Disapprove ..................................................... 66%
Decline to answer ........................................... 6%
What does disapproval tell us? That young people think that Obama should be cutting the deficit more? That young people disapprove of the president's deficit-cutting fetish, embrace of austerity, and prioritization of deficit reduction over restoring employment? Do questions about the "deficit" even mean anything in the first place outside of context of specific policy measures? Thankfully, the poll does ask respondents about specific measures to reduce the deficit in a later section. However, the section manifests the bias inherent in accepting deficit reduction as a normative measure.

Question #21 is similar to Question #23, so let's look at them together:
21. Health care.
Approve .......................................................... 34%
Disapprove ..................................................... 61%
Decline to answer ........................................... 5%

23. Do you approve or disapprove of [The Affordable Care Act/Obamacare], the comprehensive health reform package that President Obama signed into law in 2010?
A. The Affordable Care Act.
Approve .......................................................... 39%
Disapprove ..................................................... 56%
Refused .......................................................... 5%
B. Obamacare
Approve .......................................................... 38%
Disapprove ..................................................... 57%
Refused .......................................................... 5%
ACA polling that does not disaggregate the disapproval is disingenuous. For example, a CNN/ORC poll from May found that 51% opposed the Affordable Care Act and 43% supported it. However, that 51% disapproval consisted of 35% disapproval from the right ("too liberal") and 16% disapproval from the left ("not liberal enough"). 
And, with the flaws of the neoliberal parts of the Affordable Care Act, Democrats are increasingly favoring changing the law to be more progressive and more inclusive. An "approve/disapprove" binary cannot account for that and produces misleading results.

As I noted earlier, the poll, rather than just asking about the "deficit," asked about specific policy measures to reduce the deficit:
As the president and Congress work to reduce the national deficit they will be faced with a series of tradeoffs. The two options in each pair would reduce the budget deficit by similar amounts, either by reducing spending or increasing revenue. For each pair, please select the option that you most prefer.
First of all, this accepts the premise that the president and Congress should be working to reduce the budget deficit, and that is, by all means, a normative claim. However, there is another major flaw here: the poll only tests relative preferences, not absolute preferences. The poll divided respondents into two groups (A and B) and presented each group with six different measures for reducing the deficit (all of which would do so by roughly equal amounts). The results, then, can only tell us how millennials prefer an option given the slate of other options provided. Deficit reduction, if we accept it, need not proceed on a set of such false dilemmas. 
Group A saw the following options, which I listed in order of relative preference.
(1)    Enact the “Buffet Rule,” a requirement that people making over $1 million a year pay at least 30% of their income in taxes (69% - 24%)
(2)    Reduce food stamp levels to 2008 levels and limit growth in spending on food stamps to the rate of inflation (58% - 36%)
(3)    Reduce U.S. Navy fleet to 230 ships (from a projected 320 ships) (51% - 41%)
(4)    Raise the retirement age for Social Security from 65 to 68 (41% - 52%)
(5)    Increase the gas tax by 15 cents per gallon (32% - 61%)
(6)    Raise Medicare premiums to 35% of costs (28% - 64%)

Group B saw the following options, which I listed in order of relative preference.

(1)    Cut foreign economic aid in half (71% - 22%)
(2)    Reduce spending related to the nuclear arsenal by reducing U.S. nuclear warheads from approximately 2,000 to approximately 1,550 (70% - 23%)
(3)    Increase the gas tax by 6 cents per gallon (44% - 49%)
(4)    Significantly reduce the Earned Income Tax Credit, and offset to payroll taxes for low-income workers with children, and the Child Tax Credit (38% - 54%)
(5)    Reduce social security benefits, except for workers who earn below the 30th percentile of Earnings (33% - 60%)
(6)    Cut federal K-12 funding by 25% (22% - 71%)

These results are moderately interesting, but they don't show us absolute preference--and that matters just as much, if not much more.