Tuesday, April 30, 2013

To Drone or Not To Drone: The NYT/CBS News Poll Does Not Ask the Right Question

The New York Times and CBS News just released a poll this morning that tracked public sentiment on several foreign policy issues.  The poll found that 70% of Americans favor "the U.S. using unmanned aircraft or 'drones' to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries."  
The language adopted serves as an excellent example of the constrained reality and motivated framing so often found in polls.  For instance, almost every deficit-related poll only asked about whether people wanted "tax increases," "spending cuts," or "a mix of both."  Rarely were the questions of "tax increases on whom" and "spending cuts to what" addressed, and when they were, the answers ran against the generalized findings.  People will support policies in the abstract (e.g. "spending cuts") that they may be loath to support when confronted with the human impact of the policy.
The U.S.'s drone war in Pakistan and Yemen does not just kill "suspected terrorists" although killing someone who is just a "suspect" is problematic enough.  According to the New America Foundation, the U.S.'s drone strikes have a civilian casualty rate of roughly 10% with about 300 civilian deaths so far.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates the civilian death toll as far higher, almost double New America's estimate, including nearly 200 children killed. According to a Stanford-NYU study, only 2% of those killed are actually "high-level" targets.
The U.S. also uses morally repulsive signature strikes and double-tap strikes.  In the former, the CIA targets individuals who fit a certain description whether they have any evidence on said individual or not.  It is the foreign policy equivalent of a hate crime--killing someone for his/her identity alone. "Double-tap" strikes, which target those who come to the aid of the killed, are often considered war crimes.
Last week on All In, Chris Hayes spoke with Yemeni activist and writer Farea al-Muslimi, who had recently spoken at the Senate hearing on drones, about how the civilian deaths caused by drone strikes radicalizes and terrorizes the Yemeni population.  In addition to ending the lives of innocents, the drone strikes produce considerable psychological and physical injury.  
A question about drones that does not address the civilian death toll--whether or not the administration admits to its existence--is fundamentally misleading.  The NYT/CBS News poll could have asked if people favor "the U.S. using unmanned aircraft or 'drones' to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries even if there is a risk of killing civilians/a risk of civilian casualties."  I would love to see people--whether the public or the officials that promote and defend the program--asked how many civilians they believe it is okay for the U.S. to kill in order to target one suspected--suspected, not accused--terrorist. 1?  2?  5?  10?  It would be an interesting insight to one's moral compass.
Would re-framing the question make a difference?  A HuffPost/YouGov survey from February asked the question in several ways and found so:
Favor 54-18: for killing "high-level terrorism suspects overseas"
Favor 43-27: "even if those suspects were American citizens"
Oppose 42-29: "even if innocent civilians may be killed"
The possibility that the suspect was an American citizen was the suspect weakened the support a bit, but the forcing respondents to acknowledge that innocent civilians may be killed completely tanked the support.You can read that here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/...

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Which 41 Representatives Voted Against the "Let Congress Fly Home Faster Bill"?

So, as you've likely already read, Congress moved forward to undo one of the few parts of sequestration that actually affect them and their donors:  the flight delays resultant from the furloughs of air traffic controllers.

But, never fear, campaign donors!  Don't shed a tear, WaPo editorial board! Congress has your back.
Last night, the Senate passed--through unanimous consent--the repeal of this inconvenience, one of many stemming from sequestration--which, through the Budget Control Act of 2011, was passed by majorities of the House Republicans, Senate Republicans, and Senate Democrats as well as half the House Democrats--and then signed by the President.

Today, quickly moving forward to hasten their return home, the House voted as well to rearrange some funds to make all of the delays go away. The final vote was 361-41.

"Wait," you pause to reflect.  "What about the children in Head Start or those who receive school lunches?  The low-income folks who receive housing vouchers?  The seniors who receive lunches from Meals on Wheels?  The cancer patients who are being turned away from health centers because of the spending cuts?"  Don't worry!  They won't have to suffer flight delays either!

So, who are the 41 Representatives who voted against this sequestration cop-out?  29 Democrats and 12 Republicans.

The Democrats:
Mike Thompson (CA-5)
Doris Matsui (CA-6)
Barbara Lee (CA-13)
Zoe Lofgren (CA-19)
Hank Johnson (GA-4)
Robin Kelly (IL-2)
Peter Visclosky (IN-1)
Jim McGovern (MA-2)
John Sarbanes (MD-3)
Donna Edwards (MD-4)
Steny Hoyer (MD-5)
Chris Van Hollen (MD-8)
Chellie Pingree (ME-1)
Daniel Kildee (MI-5)
Sander Levin (MI-9)
John Dingell (MI-12)
John Conyers (MI-13)
Timothy Walz (MN-1)
Keith Ellison (MN-5)
Richard Nolan (MN-8)
Nydia Velazquez (NY-7)
Hakeem Jeffries (NY-8)
Yvette Clarke (NY-9)
Joseph Crowley (NY-14)
Jose Serrano (NY-15)
Marcia Fudge (OH-11)
Peter Welch (VT-AL)
Jim McDermott (WA-7)
Mark Pocan (WI-2)

The Republicans
Thomas Massie (KY-4)
Justin Amash (MI-3)
Billy Long (MO-7)
Steven Palazzo (MS-4)
Brad Wenstrup (OH-2)
Jim Jordan (OH-4)
Joe Wilson (SC-2)
Jeff Duncan (SC-3)
Mark Mulvaney (SC-5)
Scott DesJarlais (TN-4)
Stephen Fincher (TN-8)
Pete Olson (TX-22)

Lest you get angry at your Rep for no good reason, here's a list of those who weren't there ("no vote"):

Ds: Jared Huffman (CA-2), George Miller (CA-11), Mike Honda (CA-17), Henry Waxman (CA-33), Raul Ruiz (CA-36), Jared Polis (CO-2), John Carney (DE-AL), William Enyart (IL-12), Ed Markey (MA-5), Stephen Lynch (MA-8), Charles Rangel (NY-13), Joyce Beatty (OH-3), Adam Smith (WA-9)

Rs: Trey Radel (FL-19), Jacki Walorski (IN-2), Todd Young (IN-9), Walter Jones (NC-3), Howard Coble (NC-6), Frank LoBiondo (NJ-2), Joe Barton (TX-6), Kevin Brady (TX-8), Michael Conaway (TX-11), Kay Granger (TX-12), Bill Flores (TX-17), Kenny Marchant (TX-24), Roger Williams (TX-25), Michael Burgess (TX-26), John Carter (TX-31), Pete Sessions (TX-32), Randy Forbes (VA-4)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

George W. Bush and the Concept of "Goodness"

This morning, when I saw the headline "Go Ahead, Admit It: George W. Bush is a Good Man," I had to convince myself I wasn't reading the Onion.  However, when I noticed that the piece was written by Ron Fournier, a well-known Bush apologist, I could tell what to expect.

The main problem with Fournier's article is his flawed understanding of the concept of "goodness."  I'm sure that Dubya is caring to his wife, loving to his children, and good to his friends (the latter a marked contrast with Cheney, who shoots them in the face rather than the back).  Now that he is free from the busy schedule of the presidency, he probably volunteers; he probably regularly gives to charity.  He is probably a good host to his guests.  If you pass him on the street and need to ask the time, he'd probably give it to you.  But none of that makes him a "good" person.

Goodness cannot be limited to personal relations alone.  Without a broader sense of integrity, a commitment to justice, and a regard for the dignity and humanity of others, "goodness" is shallow, if not meaningless.  When thinking about Fournier's piece, I remembered a passage from Felix Adler in The Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal in which he speaks of morality as a "golden thread" uniting the various relations as well as his regular insistence on the need to mature our concept of ethics past the individualistic interpersonal frame we still hold.  By limiting morality to the action between individuals, we can have no concept of international ethics, of vocational ethics, of political ethics, etc., for all of those assume complex relations in a society, relations with people whom we might not know or see but whom our actions nonetheless effect. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day!

Have a wonderful Earth Day, and as all good holidays should, let it remind you of the obligations you hold on all of the days of the year.

Or should I say happy Lenin Day?  Because, as we all know, materialistic state ideologies based on increasing extraction of natural resources and the production and consumption of goods--whether capitalist or communist--are GREAT for the environment. Just look at the photos!

Why do we have a 435-member House?

The failure of gun control legislation this past week has brought renewed attention to the undemocratic design of the Senate, a glaring fact that grabs our attention during such votes when small, rural states assert power against the majority of the population (and, in this case, the majority of the Senate). California has roughly 19 million people per Senator; Wyoming, roughly 288,000.  Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and San Jose all have more people than Wyoming—and many other states as well.

However, we pay less attention to the design of the House, other than when we talk about gerrymandering, which we saw prominently after the recent elections (especially in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin).

Let's start with a question:  Why are there 435 seats in the House of Representatives?
That number does not appear in the Constitution:
The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative
It appears in no amendment. We actually don’t see it in action until the 1912 election, before which the results of the 1910 census had led to the increase in the total House seats from 394 to 435. 
After each decennial census, Congress had the constitutional obligation to pass a reapportionment bill.  After the 1920 census, then, Congress should have passed a bill to replace the Apportionment Act of 1911 in accordance with the increase in population over the past decade.  The political landscape, however, made that not quite so easy a task.

If Congress had followed the dominant apportionment method at the time (the Webster method), the number of seats in the House would have risen to 483 in order to comply with a long-standing norm that no state lose a seat upon reapportionment.
The reason for the delay lay in the urban-rural divide that we still see today. A mix of forces including World War I, rapid industrialization, and the mechanization of agriculture had accelerated the migration from rural states to urban states. The continuing immigration of population from Southern and Eastern Europe also fueled the urbanization of the country: more immigrants had come to the country in the prior decade than any other decade except the 1900s. Between 1910 and 1920, the urban population had swollen by 19 million and the rural population had fallen by 4 million.
The rural states, which (as we know) had disproportionate power in the Senate, had no intention of giving up their power any earlier than necessary, and they kept postponing the inevitable reapportionment, crushing bill after bill.  Rep. Emmanuel Celler of New York expressed his frustration thus:
“The issue and the struggle underlying reapportionment is between the large States with large cities on the one side and the rural and agricultural States on the other side. That thread of controversy runs through all the political struggles evidenced in this House. That thread runs through immigration, prohibition, income tax, tariff. It is the city versus the country. The issue grows more and more menacing.”
This anxiety with the changing face of the country, as Rep. Celler noted, also led to legislation such as the Immigration Act of 1924, which established quotas based on the 1890 census. 
Eventually, nine years after the Census, Congress passed the Reapportionment Act of 1929, which established a permanent method for allocating 435 seats. After the 1940 Census, this 435 cap was institutionalized, and the apportionment process was made automatic to avoid the congressional battles that had dominated the 1920s.  We have since held on to this 435 cap, with temporary exceptions for the addition of Alaska and Hawaii.

The total U.S. population after the 1910 census, when the 435 seat apportionment first appeared, was 92,407,000.  That equates to one representative per 212,430 people.  The population has more than tripled since then, so we now have one representative per 709,760 people.

The UK Parliament, for contrast, has 650 members for a population of about 63 million, significantly more representative than ours.

Keeping the same population per representative would yield a House of roughly 1453 members. With the current House as dysfunctional as it is, I doubt such a size would work out; however, the current size fails to meet the needs of a population that has grown greatly in the past century.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake."

As anyone could have easily expected, the Three Amigos of the Senate---McCain, Graham, and Ayotte, who so graciously replaced retired Amigo Joe Lieberman--want to try the Boston suspect as an enemy combatant.  Never mind that the kid was a citizen.  "Off with his head!," you can hear the Three-Headed Queen of Hearts cry. Enemy combatant status would be a one-way ticket to the only Cuban resort to which you can travel from the US: Guantanamo Bay.

The Three Amigos are, of course, joined by IRA-fundraiser Rep. Peter King, whose solution to almost every problem is increasingly the surveillance state.  (I'm honestly shocked he hasn't offered it as a jobs program.)

The "Top Conservatives on Twitter," the right-wing blogosphere, and the trolls who come out of their underground lairs just to spew racist remarks will likely be echoing such sentiments.

Although the administration, thankfully, not planning to designate Dzhokhar  as such, we do know that he has not been read his Miranda rights.  The length of this pre-Miranda interrogation remains in the air, as is the question of how long it will be until Dzhokhar is brought before a judge.

I wanted to use this as an opportunity to bring up one of my favorite movie quotes, which hails from the 1966 film about Sir Thomas More A Man for All Seasons.
Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast– man's laws, not God's– and if you cut them down—and you're just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.
Wise words to keep in mind during the continuing media coverage and political blather as well as the future trial itself.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Obama's Response to a Petition Against Chained CPI

I just received an email from the White House in response to one of the many petitions I've signed against the cuts to Social Security and Medicare in the President's budget.  I thought folks might be interested in reading it.
Dear Jonathan:

Thank you for writing.  I have heard from many Americans about issues affecting seniors.  Today’s economic climate further intensifies the unique challenges they face, and I appreciate your perspective.

My Administration continues to support older Americans encountering unfair treatment, financial hardship, or difficulty obtaining health care.  The historic Affordable Care Act strengthens Medicare by not only preserving but also expanding benefits for Americans who depend on Medicare every day.  The law has helped more than five million seniors and people with disabilities save an average of over $600 on prescription drugs in the “donut hole” in Medicare coverage.  Additionally, in 2011, more than 32 million seniors received 1 or more free preventive services, including the new Annual Wellness Visit.  To learn about help available through the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, visit www.CMS.gov.

The Affordable Care Act also helps prevent and eliminate elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.  Additionally, this law implements unprecedented measures to fight waste and fraud, and to improve the quality and outcomes of care for Medicare beneficiaries.  It ends unwarranted subsidies to private insurance companies, and takes important steps to reduce unnecessary hospital admissions, improve patient safety, modernize payment systems, and streamline record-keeping.  It also realigns incentives to reward medical providers for the value, not the volume, of their care.  For resources and information on how to prevent, report, and stop Medicare fraud, visit www.StopMedicareFraud.gov.  To learn more about the Affordable Care Act, please visit www.HealthCare.gov.
By protecting Social Security from risky privatization plans, we are preserving its solvency and maintaining it as a reliable income source for seniors.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included an additional payment to supplement Social Security benefits for seniors struggling to make ends meet, and I have called on Congress to extend this relief again.  Together, we will ensure all our citizens—not just a privileged few—can retire with dignity and security.

Finally, as we work to keep America’s promises to senior citizens, we are helping make sure older Americans can continue to enrich communities across our Nation through service and community involvement.  By expanding the Senior Corps and implementing the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, we are creating more opportunities for seniors to share their knowledge and experience with younger generations.  For more information regarding service opportunities in your area, or to share your story of service, please visit www.Serve.gov.

To find assistance for senior citizens and their families, visit www.Eldercare.gov or call 1-800-677-1116.  For help with Medicare, visit www.Medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE.  Additional information and resources are available at www.USA.gov/Topics/Seniors.shtml.  For assistance using internet resources, I encourage you to visit your local library or community center.

Thank you, again, for being in touch.
Barack Obama
Notice how the response doesn't even try to defend the policies he has been pushing such as means testing and chained CPI.  Specifically, on the issue of Social Security, he continues the false dilemma that the Democrats love espousing.  Democrats, especially Pelosi, have regularly tried to use the looming specter of privatization--which a Republican president couldn't pass with a Republican Congress, let's not forget--as a way to make cutting benefits appear to be the "only other possible option." 

The faux threat of privatization appears in both the House and the Senate budgets.  The Democrats promise us that they will not privatize Social Security as the Big Bad Republicans wish to do---even though the Paul Ryan budget contains no explicit embrace of such an approach.

The language of the President and the party leadership remains unconvincing.  As Michael Lind of Salon and the New America Foundation has argued, chained CPI is "privatization by back door rather than front door."  Weakening people's retirement security marks an attempt to push them on to risky 401(k)s and other private accounts that will enrich Wall Street on the public purse.

If the President believes that Social Security and Medicare are too generous and the payroll tax cap simply cannot be raised, then he should state his case.  I don't agree with either claim, but I have more respect for people who argue for their positions than for those who try to weasel their way out of defending them.

"Americanize yourselves, gentlemen, if you please"

It's funny that cable news networks ask how "Americanized" the Boston bombing suspects were as though that would mean they were less violent. Last I checked, we had a disproportionately high rate of gun violence in this country, a problem largely ignored by most legislatures (national and state), and the U.S. has invaded and bombed other countries in clear violation of international law with impunity.

This question of "Americanization" reminded me of a great quote from a lecture by Felix Adler, Ethical Culture founder and Progressive Era social reformer, on the issue of Americanization in 1919:

"People always think of these immigrants as if they were an ignorant lot. Among the immigrants are some of the most intelligent persons, scholars, philosophers, poets, artistics. Because they are poor they are not blind, and when they see the example of lawlessness in high places, they prick your bubble, and laugh at your hypocrisy, the condescending American who says: Americanize these poor devils. Americanize yourselves, gentlemen, if you please." (emphasis added) ("The Great Problem of Americanization")

The full speech addresses the "love of ideal America" as opposed to its empirical reality, which tolerated slavery and has instigated unjust wars.  It is good overall, but the last line in that passage just resonates so well.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

No, Ezra Klein, the "Coalition of the Ascendant" Doesn't Want Social Security Cuts

The other day, Wonkblog's wunderkind Ezra Klein embraced the 'generational warfare' narrative, perhaps after spending too much time with WaPo's editorial board.  In his article, Klein highlights the fact that the federal government spends about $7 on the elderly for every $1 on children, and then he tries to sell his readers National Journal writer Ron Brownstein's argument that Obama's budget is actually an embrace of the "coalition of the ascendant" (youth, African Americans, Latinos) instead of the seniors who tend to vote Republican.  "See!" Ezra Klein is saying, "Obama's budget is clever!  He's actually benefiting his base."  That's a different defense than the worn-out 11th dimensional chess argument that one hears all too often; however, it's just as bad, if not much, much worse.

First of all, the Brownstein-Klein argument misses the fact that the members of the "coalition of the ascendant" (in which I, as a twenty-something, would include myself) will eventually retire.  It won't be for another forty years, but it will happen.  Social Security has often been spoken of as one leg in a "three-legged stool" of retirement security--along with pensions and savings.  Private sector pensions have been rapidly disappearing.  In the private sector, the percentage of Americans with pensions fell from 38 percent in 1979 to 15 percent in 2010.  I expect this trend to continue as businesses shift away from defined-benefit pensions to plans like 401(k)s.  Such retirement schemes have been justly criticized as a "failed experiment" because they do not offer the same security as a pension and they entail a number of hidden fees.  And there has been a bipartisan war against public pensions at the same time. So there goes one leg of the stool.

How about savings?  The Wall Street crash depleted some people's savings--or at least cost them dearly.  Currently, because of a mix of bankster greed and Federal Reserve policy, interest rates for savings accounts are near zero.  Before I switched banks, my interest rate was 0.00%.  (I could have gotten the same interest if I put my money in a hole in the ground.  And at least the hole wouldn't falsely foreclose on people.) There goes the second leg of the stool.  Why kick the third?

However, there is also a short-term reason why young people should be interested in preserving and strengthening Social Security and Medicare benefits:  the current employment situation.  Demos, reporting on BLS data from 2012, highlighted the rather bleak climate for today's young people at the start of their careers:
--Over 5.6 million 18 to 34 year olds are actively seeking employment, and an additional 4.7 million were underemployed, working part time or marginalized from the labor market altogether. --The unemployment rate for 18 to 24 year olds with a Bachelor’s degree was 7.7% compared to 19.7% for those with a high school diploma.
--The unemployment rate for 18 to 24 year old African Americans is 25.4%, and 14.8% for 25 to 34 year olds, almost double the rates of unemployment for whites in the same age group, 13.1% and 7.3% respectively.  Young Hispanic workers have an unemployment rate that is 25% higher than white workers.
--Women are much more likely to work in part-time, low-wage jobs than men -- 21% of women aged 18 to 24, compared to 10% for men.
--In 2012, the labor force participation rate of 18 to 24 year olds declined to its lowest point in more than four decades. At the same time, 25 to 34 year olds stopped leaving the job market for the first time since the recession began, but the gains were negligible.
As you can see, the bad economic climate is disproportionately affecting youth, women, and people of color---the "coalition of the ascendant."

Now what does that have to do with Social Security, you ask?  There are two main ways for job opportunities to open up.  Either new jobs have to be created (either through public or private investment), or people have to retire.  When people retire--assuming their employer doesn't eliminate the position or double someone else's work, there will be a new job.  That can produce both opportunities for upward mobility within the organization and external hires.  If seniors feel that they will have sufficient economic security in their retirement, then they will be more likely to retire.  However, if we cut Social Security benefits, means test Medicare, and raise eligibility ages, then we are encouraging seniors to work LONGER, thus preventing these jobs from opening up.

Does the millennial generation even want to cut Social Security?  No.  A poll from this past December found that NO age group thought that reducing the deficit was more important than preserving Social Security and Medicare.  That study showed that young people are unsure if Social Security and Medicare will continue at their current levels and think that such programs may prove a financial burden in the upcoming years.  Despite all that, they STILL did not want to cut the program.  And I'm pretty sure that Alan Simpson dancing Gangnam Style and Alice Rivlin making a Harlem Shake video are not going to change that fact.

The aforementioned poll also noted that young people thought that the government should be spending more on youth than on the elderly.  However, Obama's budget isn't an intergenerational shift.  He pays for universal pre-K with a very flawed funding mechanism.  He is not transferring spending from seniors to the young.  He is transferring money from seniors to the Pentagon.

There is no reason for  increased funding for youth to entail a decrease in funding for seniors.  Government funding is not a zero-sum game, no matter what the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post editorial board want to believe, because you can always raise the total revenue or (with fiat money) print more money.  Moreover, as Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research pointed out, when we talk about government spending on seniors versus children, we're not even asking the right question.  How much is the government spending on the wealthy instead of the children?  Hint:  A LOT MORE.

We could also consider how much the government spends in corporate welfare--from subsidies to tax breaks to no-bid contracts and all the rest.  To start, we know that 26 major corporations paid NO corporate income tax in the past four years.  In honor of tax day, Americans for Tax Fairness released a set of Corporate Tax Dodger playing cards, and the CEOs of companies like Bank of America and Microsoft are calling for cuts to social insurance while not paying their fair share of taxes.  Maybe if they want to "fix the debt," they'll begin by helping to pay it down themselves.

Why don't we ask Bank of America, Microsoft, Verizon, Boeing, GE, and all the rest why they are taking away money from our children and denying them a better future?  Last year, Exxon Mobil ran ads about how much it cared about teachers.  The best way for Exxon to show such support would simply be to pay its taxes.

If cutting Social Security and Medicare aren't part of the agenda of the "coalition of the ascendant," what is?

Well, how about some meaningful action on climate change, such as the legislation that Senators Boxer and Sanders proposed two months ago?  Young people, Latinos, and African Americans all favor bold action on climate change more than the public at large.

Also, reflecting on the bleak economic climate I noted above, some direct spending on job creation---through hiring, not boosting corporate profits through an array of tax cuts--would certainly help the "coalition of the ascendant" as they begin and advance in their careers.

Also, how about a fair path to citizenship that doesn't take 13 years (or more!) and involve over $2,000 in fees?

Those three will certainly win you more political capital with the "coalition of the ascendant" than a Grand Bargain that takes pennies from the rich and dollars from the poor--and forces us deeper in the road to austerity.

Monday, April 15, 2013

On Recommitting to Peace in the Face of Tragedy

Some quick thoughts on the tragic incident at the Boston Marathon:

In moments of tragedy, it is always important to recommit oneself to peace as a personal, social, and international goal because no one should have to suffer the grief that stems from the injury or death inflicted by one human being against another.

A Trip Down Memory Lane: Which Progressives Stood Strong against Clinton's Bipartisan "Accomplishments"?

With the re-entry of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into the national debate because of the current Supreme Court case, I thought it would be a good time to revisit some of the anti-progressive bipartisan "accomplishments" of Bill Clinton's presidency.  All too often, when a bill passes with majorities or near-majorities in both parties, it is probably working against the public interest and depriving people of rights.  Our current President's pathological desire for a Grand Bargain to take pennies from the rich and dollars from the poor demonstrates that anti-progressive bipartisanship is certainly alive and well.

As Bill Clinton's presidency and my years of elementary school overlapped almost perfectly, I was not particularly politically active or aware of the major legislation happening at the time.  However, from my readings of politics past and present, I would highlight the following four bills as the landmarks of the anti-progressive bipartisanship of the Clinton years: NAFTA, welfare "reform," DOMA, and the repeal of Glass-Steagall.  All except for NAFTA received the approval of over half the Democratic caucus in both houses: NAFTA had a slim majority of Senate Democrats and roughly 2/5 of House Democrats.

Democrats often like using the Clinton years as a foil for the Bush years because of the incidental prosperity of the 1990s; however, the Democratic shift to the right with Bill Clinton and the rise of the DLC give warrant to Rachel Maddow's description of Bill Clinton as "the best Republican president the country ever had" rather than a progressive Democrat.

Returning to the bills I noted above, I thought it would be interesting to see which progressives consistently voted against all four.


The North America Free Trade Act (NAFTA) passed 61 (27D, 34R)-38 (26D, 12R) in the Senate and 234 (102D, 132R) -200 (155D, 43R, 1 I, 1DFL) in the House.

The Senate Democrats who voted against this job-killing bill were the following:
Howell Heflin (D-AL), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Wendell Ford (D-KY), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), Carl Levin (D-MI), Donald Riegle (D-MI), Paul Wellstone (D-MN), Kent Conrad (D-ND), James Exon (D-NE), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Richard Bryan (D-NV), Harry Reid (D-NV), Daniel Moynihan (D-NY), John Glenn (D-OH), Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH), Harris Wofford (D-PA), Fritz Hollings (D-SC), James Sasser (D-TN), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)

The list in the House, of course, is too long, but you can find it here.

Welfare "reform," the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, passes the Senate 78 (53R, 25D) - 21 (all D).  It passes the House 328(225R, 100D, 2 D/R, 1DFL) – 101 (2R, 98D, 1I).

Despite a brief decline in the poverty rate in the late 1990s because of the good economy, the poverty rate has been on the increase even though the national TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) caseload has declined by 60 percent.  Welfare "reform" shifted the government's anti-poverty efforts from cost-sharing to block grants and remained blind to the state of the economy.
So who stood strong against the gutting of welfare?

21 Senators: Dale Bumpers (D-AR), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Carol Mosley Braun (D-IL), Paul Simon (D-IL), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), Paul Wellstone (D-MN), Robert Kerrey (D-NE), Bill Bradley (D-NJ), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Daniel Moynihan (D-NY), John Glenn (D-OH), Claiborne Pell (D-RI), Tom Daschle (D-SD), Pat Leahy (D-VT), Patty Murray (D-WA)

And 101 Representatives: 98 Democrats, 2 Republicans, and 1 Independent (Bernie, of course).  You can see the list here.

This year, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which banned the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages or civil unions performed by the states, passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses.

It passed the Senate 85 (53 R, 32 D)- 14 (all D).

The 21 Democrats who voted against DOMA were the following:
Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Carol Mosley Braun (D-IL), Paul Simon (D-IL), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), John Kerry (D-MA), Robert Kerrey (D-NE), Daniel Moynihan (D-NY), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Claiborne Pell (D-RI), Charles Robb (D-VA), Russ Feingold (D-WI)

It passed the House 342 - 67.  The 342 supporters consisted of 219 Republicans, 120 Democrats, 2 Democrats turned Republican, and 1 DFL'er.  The 67 opponents consisted of 65 Democrats, 1 Republican, and 1 Independent (Bernie, of course).    You can see the full list here.

In 1999, Congress passed the Financial Services Modernization Act, also known as the Graham-Leach-Blilely Act, also known as the repeal of Glass-Steagall, also known (by me) as the "Retroactive Legalization of Citigroup Act of 1999."  Crony capitalism and financial deregulation par excellence.

This bill passed the Senate 90-8.  The 8 progressive holdouts were the following:
Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Richard Bryan (D-NV), Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Richard Shelby (R-AL), Paul Wellstone (D-MN)

The "Retroactive Citigroup Legalization Act of 1999" passed the House 362-57.  The 362 proponents  consisted of 208 Republicans, 152 Democrats, 1 DFL'er, and 1 Democrat/Independent.  The 57 opponents included 51 Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 1 Independent (Bernie, of course).  You can read that full list here.  (Govtrack falsely categorizes George Miller as a Republican.)
If we go through all of the lists, then we find that only ONE Senator, Barbara Boxer, consistently voted against all four bills.

THIRTEEN Representatives voted consistently against all four bills:
Julian Dixon (D-CA) (d. 2000)
George Miller (D-CA)
Maxine Waters (D-CA)
Henry Waxman (D-CA)
Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) (r. 2013)
John Lewis (D-GA)
Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) (r. 2007)
Barney Frank (D-MA) (r. 2013)
John Conyers (D-MI)
Jose Serrano (D-NY)
Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) (r. 2013)
William Coyne (D-PA) (r. 2003)
Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

(Quick note: Because of the inevitable turnover in Congress, each bill would not be facing a vote from the same 535 individuals. Many of the well-known progressives in Congress today---Ellison, Grijalva, Schakowksy, Lee--arrived in Congress in 1998 and after, so they wouldn't be on record for all/any of the four.)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Thank You for Smoking? : The President's Pre-K Proposal

Obama's plan for universal pre-K has gotten fairly positive treatment among liberal journalists--one of the positives to counter-balance the negative coverage of his attack on the landmarks of the American welfare state.

One of my main questions after hearing about the proposal for universal pre-K several moths ago was how it would be funded, especially as the President promised it would be "deficit-neutral."  Our education funding is greatly inequitable, as can be demonstrated in my home metro area of Philadelphia.  Suburban schools have much higher spending per student than do urban schools, a result of the reliance on property taxes as a funding base among other reasons.  For children in their formative years, the imperative to have ample and equitable funding for educational resources is even stronger.

The President's budget describes the funding mechanism for universal pre-K in the following manner:

 o    The Preschool for All initiative is financed by raising the Federal tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products, which would also have substantial public health impacts, particularly by reducing youth smoking
I love sin taxes.  I love soda taxes, cigarette taxes, and alcohol taxes, and I'd probably create some new ones if I could.  But this is a bad use of sin tax revenue.  You raise taxes on cigarettes because they are damaging to personal and public health and because society incurs a cost (in increased health expenditures in Medicare and Medicaid, for instance) as a result of such individual decisions.  A "sin tax," consequently, is a form of Pigovian tax, a tax on a market activity that produces negative externalities, and it is designed to decrease the frequency of the activity in question.  Likewise, the revenue from such a tax can be used to address the problem as well.  Tax revenue from tobacco consumption can be used to fund public health programs and initiatives, working to mitigate the effects of smoking and curb current and future smoking rates through non-economic means.  Soda taxes, likewise, can contribute to the funding of nutrition programs. 
In classical economics, a Pigovian tax just helps to reach the "market equilibrium" of an externality-producing activity.  However, I would never argue for the existence for a "market equilibrium" of tobacco consumption just as I wouldn't for pollution.  Government agencies such as the FDA and the NIH want the smoking rate to trend down as it has done for the past few decades.  As the attached link shows, the smoking rate almost halved from the early 1980s to the present.  As the consumption rate continues to fall, the revenue from tobacco taxation would fall as well.   If the revenue gained were allotted to public health (as noted above), when consumption falls, the need for the corresponding preventive and corrective programs would fall as well.

According to the White House's funding mechanism for pre-K, however, the more people that smoke, the more money we have for pre-K, and a decrease in tobacco consumption actually threatens the viability of the program.  That, from a public health perspective, is simply perverse.  If the President wants to go back to old habits, he can do so if he chooses, but he can't say it's "for the children."

Friday, April 12, 2013

How Many States Does Your City Pass in Population? : Why the Senate is a Mess

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article about the anxieties of red state Democrats on the gun safety debate.  The piece quotes Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who shows both insensitivity and narrow-mindedness:
"In our part of the country, this isn't an issue,” Ms. Heitkamp explained in an interview afterward. “This is a way of life. This is how people feel, and it is extraordinarily difficult to explain that, especially to grieving parents."
First of all, universal background checks are hardly an intrusion or a challenge to a "way of life."  And, frankly, I can't see how banning military-grade weapons can really be an assault on your 'way of life' if you're not in the military.  However, when seeing her quote, I immediately thought of how few people her home state, North Dakota, has and the fact that it has two senators just like states such as California and New York. 
Motivated by that thought, I decided to see how our country's major cities compare in size to the states.  Below, I compiled a list of top cities, the number of states they surpass in size, and the largest state that they surpass.  I found the results of a my quick study to be quite fascinating.

I took the population data from the most recent estimates on Wikipedia (which is good for quick, rather than deep, research), and I rounded state populations to have three significant digits.

New York City: 8.34 million
Larger than: 39 states
Largest state it surpasses in population:  Virginia, 8.19 million

Los Angeles: 3.79 million
Larger than: 22 states
Largest state it surpasses in population: Connecticut, 3.59 million

Chicago: 2.71 million
Larger than: 15 states
Largest state it surpasses in population: New Mexico, 2.09 million

Houston: 2.10 million
Larger than: 15 states
Largest state it surpasses in population: New Mexico, 2.09 million

Philadelphia: 1.53 million
Larger than: 11 states
Largest state it surpasses in population: Hawaii, 1.39 million

Phoenix: 1.47 million
Larger than: 11 states
Largest state it surpasses in population: Hawaii, 1.39 million

San Antonio: 1.37 million
Larger than: 10 states
Largest state it surpasses in population: Maine, 1.33 million

San Diego: 1.33 million
Larger than: 9 states
Largest state it surpasses in population: New Hampshire, 1.32 million

Dallas: 1.22 million
Larger than: 8 states
Largest state it surpasses in population: Rhode Island, 1.05 million

San Jose: 960,000
Larger than: 6 states
Largest state it surpasses in population: Delaware, 920,000

Cities larger than Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming: Jacksonville (FL), Indianapolis, Austin, San Francisco, Columbus (OH), Forth Worth (TX), Charlotte (NC)

Cities larger than North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming: Detroit

Cities larger than Vermont and Wyoming: Memphis, El Paso, Washington, DC.

Cities larger than Wyoming: Boston, Seattle, Denver, Baltimore, Nashville, Louisville, Milwaukee, Portland (OR), Oklahoma City, Las Vegas

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Annotating the White House Budget: The Good, the Bad, the Vague, and the Ugly

I've decided to take time to annotate the six page overview of the President's budget that the White House released today in order to discern what's good, what's bad, what's ugly, and what's just vague.  If you read a longer-form proposal, feel welcome to share any additional findings.
The President’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget demonstrates that we can make critical investments to strengthen the middle class, create jobs, and grow the economy while continuing to cut the deficit in a balanced way.
An opening platitude.  Par for the course for all budgets.  However, I hold to my belief that the word "balanced," when not referring to a 1:1 ratio, must be categorically banned.
The President believes we must invest in the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising and thriving middle class. He is focused on addressing three fundamental questions: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do the jobs of the 21st Century? How do we make sure hard work leads to a decent living? The Budget presents the President’s plan to address each of these questions.
Still, in the introductory platitudes stage.  However, if Obama was really serious about "attracting more jobs to our shores," then maybe he wouldn't be so gung-ho about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or "NAFTA on steroids" as it's fondly called.
To make America once again a magnet for jobs, the Budget invests in high-tech manufacturing and innovation, clean energy, and infrastructure, while cutting red tape to help businesses grow. To give workers the skills they need to compete in the global economy, it invests in education from pre-school to job training. To ensure hard work is rewarded, it raises the minimum wage to $9 an hour so a hard day’s work pays more.
Oh, and remember how he promised to raise it to $9.50 and to index it to inflation back when he was campaigning in 2008?  $9 is at least better than the status quo although still not a living wage.

"Cutting red tape" is politician speak for gutting regulations.  Remember Cass Sunstein?

Also, you don't raise the minimum wage in a budget.  That sounds more of a "deficit-neutral reserve fund" action, to use Senate speak.  
The Budget does all of these things as part of a comprehensive plan that reduces the deficit and puts the Nation on a sound fiscal course. Every new initiative in the plan is fully paid for, so they do not add a single dime to the deficit. The Budget also incorporates the President’s compromise offer to House Speaker Boehner to achieve another $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction in a balanced way. When combined with the deficit reduction already achieved, this will allow us to exceed the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction, while growing the economy and strengthening the middle class. By including this compromise proposal in the Budget, the President is demonstrating his willingness to make tough choices and his seriousness about finding common ground to further reduce the deficit.
Save me the hollow rhetoric about "tough choices."  We already know that Obama wants the cuts. Boehner already rejected this offer back in December.  If someone rejects an offer and you propose it again and again, it is not a concession:  it is what you want.  Calling it a "tough choice" and a "compromise" is just a rhetorical trick to use to avoid having to own the cuts to Social Security and Medicare that the budget entails.  And I hope he's not fooling anyone.  But I'm so glad that Obama wants to be "serious."  I am sure that the Very Serious People of the WaPo editorial board and the Sunday shows will be thrilled for him.  Whom am I kidding?  The professional centrists will continue to blame "both sides" for everything and demand "leadership," which they define in the most stunningly authoritarian of terms.
Making America a Magnet for Jobs
To compete in the 21st Century economy and make America a magnet for jobs, the Budget invests in American innovation, reviving our manufacturing base and keeping our Nation at the forefront of technological advancement. And to ensure our energy security and combat climate change, it continues to focus on energy production, the development of clean energy alternatives, and the promotion of energy efficiency efforts in both the public and private sectors.
•    Transforms regions across the country into global epicenters of advanced manufacturing with a one-time, $1 billion investment to launch a network of up to 15 manufacturing innovation institutes.
•    Maintains our world-leading commitment to science and research by increasing nondefense research and development (R&D) investment by 9% above the 2012 levels.
I'd have to learn more about the "manufacturing innovation institutes" to pass a judgment, but the increased R&D spending sounds good.  But let's remember, for budget-related reasons, that this spending helps to increase the profit margins of corporations, who show their gratitude by not paying taxes.
•    Continues President’s “all-of-the-above” strategy on energy – investing in clean energy R&D, promoting the safe production of natural gas, encouraging States to cut energy waste with a Race-to-the-Top challenge to cut energy waste and modernize the grid, creating an Energy Security Trust to fund research efforts that would help shift cars and trucks off oil, and making permanent the tax credit for renewable energy production.
The "all-of-the-above" rhetoric always reminds me of how soda companies and sugar cereals manufacturers market their products as part of a "balanced diet."  Increased oil production has no place in a sustainable future.  And the methane released from natural gas makes it an insufficient--and even dangerous--"bridge fuel."  And don't forget the damage to water sources from natural gas extraction.  Who really needs water, though?  Toxic chemicals are simply flavoring.

But, the increased energy efficiency and fuel standards and the investment in renewable energy all sound good--what may be my first unqualified bit of praise so far.
•    Enhances preparedness and resilience to climate change, safeguarding communities and Federal investments, while strengthening efforts to reduce carbon pollution domestically and internationally.
The details may be in the long version--I've only read the overview.  The administration has avoided meaningful international action during the President's first term.  However, if this proves substantive and does not come through a mix of corporate welfare and concessions, then I'd be impressed.
Building a 21st Century Infrastructure The Budget invests in repairing our existing infrastructure and building the infrastructure of tomorrow, including high-speed rail, high-tech schools, and power grids that are resilient to future extreme conditions. These investments will both lay the foundation for long-term economic growth and put workers back on the job now.
Provides $50 billion for upfront infrastructure investments, including $40 billion for “Fix it First” projects, to invest immediately in repairing highways, bridges, transit systems, and airports nationwide; and $10 billion for competitive programs to encourage innovation in completing high-value infrastructure projects.
Boosts private investment in infrastructure by creating a Rebuild America Partnership.
----Establishes an independent National Infrastructure Bank to leverage private and public capital to support infrastructure projects of national and regional significance.
----Creates America Fast Forward (AFF) Bonds, building on the successful Build America Bonds program to attract new sources of capital for infrastructure investment
Rebuilding the U.S.'s crumbling and outdated infrastructure?  Good.  Public-private partnerships?  Not so good....and not so cheap, either.
•    Dedicates funding for the development of high-speed rail to link communities across the country, the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NexGen) to improve air travel and safety, and a robust long term increase in levels for core highways, transit, and highway safety programs.
•     Expedites infrastructure projects by modernizing the Federal permitting process to cut through red tape while creating incentives and better outcomes for communities and the environment.
•    Establishes a new goal of cutting timelines in half for major infrastructure projects in areas such as highways, bridges, railways, ports, waterways, pipelines, and renewable energy.
Remember what I said about "cutting red tape"?  Now, granted, if this modernization is akin to the major overhaul that USAJOBS and GRANTS.GOV both need, then I'm all for it.  But if "modernization" means ignoring environmental standards and regulations to give everything a rubber stamp, then maybe not so much.
Equipping Americans with the Skills They Need To equip our workers with the skills they need to fill the jobs of the 21st Century economy, the Budget includes investments and reforms in education and training. It makes a major new commitment to early childhood education; sustains investments in K-12 schools, while ramping up innovation; redoubles our focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education to prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow; and includes new initiatives to make college more affordable.
•    To build a foundation for success in the formative early years of life, increases access to high quality early childhood education with a Preschool for All initiative.
-------------In partnership with the States, provides all low- and moderate-income four-year-olds with high-quality preschool, while encouraging States to serve additional four-year-olds from middle class families. The initiative also promotes access to full-day kindergarten and high-quality early education programs for children under age four.
I think it's sound policy to make sure that those who want pre-school for their children have access to it and can afford it.  However, this, from what I've read in the past, is just going to take the form of an array of tax credits and subsidies, another part of the American "kludgeocracy".  Are we going to see privately run preschools sprouting up to take advantage of the new money?  How will we ensure accountability in them without instituting a testing regime to those just learning to read?  Will we pay the teachers enough to guarantee that we have highly-trained professionals overseeing the formative years of our children?
o    The Preschool for All initiative is financed by raising the Federal tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products, which would also have substantial public health impacts, particularly by reducing youth smoking
I love sin taxes.  I love soda taxes, cigarette taxes, and alcohol taxes, and I'd probably create some new ones if I could.  But this is a bad use of sin tax revenue.  You raise taxes on cigarettes because they are damaging to personal and public health.  The taxation is designed to reduce consumption as you may have learned in Econ 101.  Like all Pigovian taxes, it seeks to rectify a negative externality.  Revenue from sin taxes, then, should fund public health programs that address the problems caused by the consumptive habits being taxed.  

Increasing the tax on tobacco products to fund schools simply does not make logical sense.  From a public health perspective, tobacco consumption would ideally trend down over time, as it has for the past few decades.  If consumption falls, then your tax revenue will fall.  Then where's the money to fund pre-K?

Maybe the President is feeling guilty about going back to old habits and wants to assuage his guilt by saying that he's smoking "for the children."  But that just doesn't work.
o    The Budget makes companion investments in voluntary home visiting programs, preserving child care access, and expanding high-quality care for infants and toddlers through new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships.
I think this belongs in the "good" category.
•    Creates a new, competitive fund for redesigning high schools to focus on providing challenging and relevant experiences, while promoting and developing partnerships with colleges and employers that improve instruction and prepare students to continue education or transition into skilled jobs.
This sounds like Race-to-the-Top--an awful program that just continues the sapping of teacher creativity spearheaded by NCLB--but even more corporatized.  I don't care for competitive funding for schools.  Isn't the essence of public education that we want ALL children to get the best education possible?  Competition for funds undermines that ethos.  Moreover, why should high schools be forming partnerships with employers?  We are paying to educate well-rounded citizens, not to create employees.  If you are designing high schools to meet employer needs alone, say good-bye to the arts, to literature, to history, etc.
•     Strengthens and reforms career and technical education to better align programs with the needs of employers and higher education to ensure that graduates are poised to succeed.
Aligning vocational education with employer needs makes sense.  But higher ed?  Colleges should have career counseling and mentorship opportunities, but we don't need a Race-to-the-Top: College Years.
•    Prepares students for careers in STEM-related fields by reorganizing and restructuring Federal STEM education programs to make better use of resources and improve outcomes; and invests in recruiting and preparing 100,000 STEM teachers and creating a new STEM Master Teachers Corps to improve STEM instruction.
Is this just AmeriCorps science-edition?  It could be good, but I'd need to know more.  Math and science teachers are in high demand, and we do need highly educated ones for our high schools.
•    Improves college affordability and value with a continued commitment to Pell Grants; budget neutral student loan reforms that will make interest rates more market-based; a $1 billion Race-to-the-Top fund to support competitive grants to States that drive higher education reform, while doing more to contain tuition; a $260 million First in the World fund to spur cutting-edge innovations that decrease college costs and boost graduation rates; and reforms to Federal campus-based aid to reward colleges that set responsible tuition policy, provide a high-quality education and better serve students with financial need.
"Budget neutral student loan reform"?  I'd need to learn more before judging this.  Since we don't have free (or heavily subsidized) higher education as they do in Europe, college financing is always a mess.  If this is your forte, please share your thoughts.
•    Improves services for workers and job seekers by revisiting the structure of the Federal job training system, including through the creation of a Universal Displaced Worker program; drives innovation through the Workforce Innovation Fund by testing new State and regional ideas to better deliver training and employment services; and provides $8 billion for a Community College to Career Fund to support State and community college partnerships with businesses and other stakeholders.
Again, not my forte.  It sounds good; however, I'm always a bit hesitant about business partnerships. Also, training is good only so far as there are jobs to hire the training program graduates.  The idea that all we need is better-trained workers--rather than more jobs--is a debunked bipartisan myth.
Making the Tax Code More Simple and Fair
The President believes that today’s tax code has become overly complex and inequitable and that we should immediately begin the process of reforming the individual and business tax systems. As a down payment on comprehensive tax reform, the Budget offers detailed proposals to broaden the tax base, close tax loopholes, and establish a Buffett Rule that will prevent millionaires from taking advantage of special provisions to pay taxes at lower rates than many middle-class families do.
It is highly ironic that Obama is criticizing the tax code for being overly complex when he's filling his budget with tax credits, further complicating the tax process.  As Suzanne Mettler eloquently and concisely displays in her book The Submerged State, the government tries to use tax policy to do what direct spending would do more efficiently and transparently, leaving us with a labyrinthine tax code as a result.  Also, corporate lobbying certainly doesn't make it any simpler.

A "downpayment on comprehensive tax reform"?
•    Raises $580 billion for deficit reduction by limiting high-income tax benefits, without raising tax rates.
o    Implements the Buffett Rule, requiring that households with incomes over $1 million pay at least 30% of their income (after charitable giving) in taxes.
o    Limits the value of tax deductions and other tax benefits for the top 2% of families to 28%, reducing these tax benefits to levels closer to what middle-class families get.

Before the bill to defer the austerity bomb, we had seen $737 billion in tax/revenue increases and $1.7 billion in spending cuts.  As the Progressive Caucus displayed quite clearly in its Balancing Act earlier this year, tax cuts should provide the bulk of the replacement for sequestration, bringing an even balance of tax increases and spending cuts across the three rounds of deficit reduction.  Only calling for $580 billion in new revenue is not balanced, if we work with the actual definition of balance (Think 1:1 on a set of scales) rather than the political definition.

I don't see why we can't raise tax rates either.  Granted, as the economy is still in recession, it wouldn't be the best time to hike taxes too high now, but marginal tax rates are at historic lows.  I personally support the (admittedly DOA) idea of a 100% marginal tax rate, an idea that has been floated around for about 130 years.   In the first speech to broach the idea of a 100% marginal tax rate, Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler eloquently affirmed, "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 humane purpose 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."  A great quote, by all means.  But we need to return to our century.

I also have problems with exempting the charitable deduction, which I think exists because of a set of flawed arguments.
•    Provides new tax cuts to encourage hiring and wage increases and to support middle-class families.
This sounds like something that will further complicate the tax code.  I don't see how tax cuts will encourage wage increases.  Corporate profits and wages certainly don't see direct correlation.
•    Provides a 10% tax credit for small businesses that hire new employees or increase wages.
So subsidizing profits and complicating the tax code again?
o    Provides a new tax credit to encourage employers to offer retirement savings plans and expands a tax credit that helps middle-class families afford child care.
Subsidizing profits again, eh?  And we're also subsidizing 401(k)s while (as we'll get to later) cutting Social Security.  Pause for a second and reflect on which one benefits Wall Street.  Then think which one gets cut. Hint: they’re not the same.
o    Makes permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which currently helps about 11 million students and families afford college, as well as improvements to the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit that help millions of working families with children make ends meet.
I'd much prefer direct spending, a mandated living wage, a basic income, and federally funded child care services, but in lack of that, this is probably the best for which we can hope in the interim. The EITC was, in fact, a conservative proposal, originating from Milton Friedman's negative income tax.  Granted, Friedman wanted the negative income tax to replace government-run welfare programs and services, too; however, the idea of tax credits instead of direct spending remains conservative in principle.

Also, regarding the EITC, I think that it would make sense to change the way that the personal exemption works in the tax code.  Our current personal exemption is only $3,900 per person, about the same nominally as it was during the short-lived income tax experiment in the 1890s.  That would be roughly $100,000 in real value, accounting for inflation.  That is, granted, a large exemption; however, the personal exemption should guarantee a living wage existence to everyone as a bottom threshold. A personal exemption should be set at the living wage, accounting for dependents, so that the income tax only applies to the money in excess of that which is need for the basics of existence.  I'm sorry, but no one is getting by on $3,900.

However, for now, expanding the EIC works.
•    Pays for middle-class tax relief by eliminating tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy and special interests.
o    Ends a loophole that lets wealthy individuals circumvent contribution limits and accumulate millions in tax-preferred retirement accounts.
The "sticking it to Mitt Romney" part.  Nothing about which to complain.
o    Ends a loophole that lets financial managers pay tax on their carried interest income at the lower capital gains rate.
Is he planning to treat capital gains as income as he should?  My guess is no although please correct me if the long-form budget contradicts me.
•    Eliminates business tax loopholes while providing incentives for research, manufacturing, and clean energy and cutting taxes for small businesses.
o    Reforms and makes permanent important tax incentives for research and development, renewable energy, and energy efficiency.
o    Cuts taxes for small businesses by letting them claim tax write-offs for up to $500,000 of new investment.
o    Eliminates loopholes such as oil and gas tax breaks and special tax rules for corporate jets.
I completely support ending the oil and gas tax breaks and the breaks on corporate jets; those all count as unqualified "goods" as far as I'm concerned.
o    Proposes reforms to prevent companies from shifting profits overseas to avoid U.S. taxes and to encourage “insourcing” and job creation here in the United States.
Does this mean we’re giving you tax breaks to bring your jobs back or keep them here—what you should be doing anyway?  And how will the President’s TPP (linked above) or Euro-trade deal help in this regard?  However, I fully support eliminating tax breaks for those who relocate jobs oversees--that's falls in the "good" category.
Ensuring Hard Work Leads to a Decent Living
The Budget builds on the progress made over the last four years to expand opportunity for every American and every community willing to do the work to lift themselves up. It creates new ladders of opportunity to ensure that hard work leads to a decent living. It expands early childhood education to give children a foundation for lifelong learning. It supports a partnership with communities to help them thrive and rebuild from the Great Recession. It creates pathways to jobs for the long-term unemployed and youth who have been hard hit. It rewards hard work by increasing the minimum wage so a hard day’s work pays more. And it strengthens families by removing financial deterrents to
marriage and supporting the role of fathers.
We'll get to specifics in a moment.
o    Creates Promise Zones to rebuild high-poverty communities across the country by attracting private investment to build new housing, improving educational opportunities, providing tax incentives for hiring workers and investing within the Zones, reducing violence and assisting local leaders in navigating Federal programs and cutting through red tape.
So we're offering new tax incentives, eh?  For our "simpler" tax code.  

"Promise Zones" are just another "enterprise zone" or "empowerment zone" concept:  in other words, corporate welfare.

What means are being used to "reduce violence"?  A noble goal often sought through ignoble means.

Ah, and the ubiquitous bĂȘte noir, “red tape.”  In other words, let’s just slash and burn some regulations.
o    Creates a Pathways Back to Work fund to support summer and year round jobs for low-income youth, subsidized employment opportunities for unemployed and low-income adults, and other promising strategies designed to lead to employment.
This sounds too much like the UK's corporate-welfare-rich workfare system.
o    Supports the President’s call to reward hard work by raising the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.
As I noted earlier, this isn't much of a budgetary issue, and he was much more progressive when campaigning in 2008.  Senators, like Tom Harkin have also proposed legislation to raise it even higher than $9.  However, it's better than the status quo at least.
o    Strengthens families by allowing Federal programs like the child support program to implement models that get more men working and engaging with their children, and by addressing financial deterrents to marriage.
Financial deterrents to marriage?  Like poverty?  Income insecurity?  Unemployment? Address those, and you'll be set because the health of marriage correlates strongly with economic security.
Cutting the Deficit in a Balanced Way
The President is committed to continuing to reduce the deficit in a balanced way. (He is determined to do this in a way that replaces the  economically damaging across-the-board cuts of sequestration with smart, targeted efforts to cut wasteful spending, strengthen entitlements, and eliminate loopholes for the wealthiest through tax reform.
“Strengthening entitlements”?  Doublespeak alert!  If I cut down on your portions at dinner, I wouldn’t say that I’m “strengthening” your meal.  But, then again, I’m not a politician. Also, can we please stop using the word “entitlement”?  “Earned benefits” works. “Social insurance” also works.
The President stands by the compromise offer he made to Speaker Boehner during “fiscal cliff” negotiations in December 2012. The Budget includes all of the proposals in that offer, which would achieve $1.8 trillion in additional deficit reduction over the next 10 years, bringing total deficit reduction to $4.3 trillion. This represents more than enough deficit reduction to replace the cuts required by the Joint Committee sequestration.
Which Boehner rejected.  Obama, however, can't let go of his Holy Grail of a grand betrayal of a "Grand Bargain."
By including this compromise proposal in the Budget, the President is demonstrating his willingness to make tough choices to find common ground to further reduce the deficit. This offer includes some difficult cuts that the President would not propose on their own, such as an adjustment to inflation indexing requested by Republicans. But there can be no sacred cows for either party.
Why wouldn't he propose them on their own if he thinks that they are worth including in the budget?   If it’s good, it’s a good idea regardless.  If it’s bad, you don't put it in your starting bid, especially one that just rolls right over the work of Patty Murray and Harry Reid to push the whole debate to the right.  I’m sorry, but if you put s**t in a sundae, it’s still s**t.  And, Mr. President, your budget plan is no sundae.

And, yes, progressive Democrats don’t want to make cuts that will affect the vast majority of the public and which are opposed by large majorities.  Republicans want to preserve tax cuts for a very small percentage of the population, and they are opposed by a majority of the public, too.  It always seems like a crude throwback to the religions of yore to offer up the elderly, the sick, and the poor as a human sacrifice for the gods of wealth and war.
o    $580 billion in additional revenue relative to the end-of-year tax deal, from tax reform that closes tax loopholes and reduces tax benefits for those who need them least
And will they all get voted back?
o    $400 billion in health savings that build on the health reform law and strengthen Medicare
Remember what I said about the word "strengthen"?  There are good ways to reduce Medicare spending like allowing the government to negotiate for prescription drug prices.  Means testing, on the other hand, is simply bad policy.  You have to set the income threshold quite low to get any real savings, and over time, you'll likely whittle it down into a welfare program--and we all know how much people love those.  Moreover, if you want to do 'means testing,' why not just make FICA a progressive tax--means testing on the front end?
o    $200 billion in savings from other mandatory programs, such as reductions to farm subsidies and reforms to federal retirement benefits
Cutting farm subsidies?  Good.  Slashing the pensions of federal employees?  Not so good.
o    $200 billion in additional discretionary savings, with equal amounts from defense and nondefense programs;
So here's where we see how the President reduced the defense cuts from sequestration.  The Pentagon, as we saw earlier this year, is so shamefully mismanaged that it cannot be audited.  Defense cuts constitute 20 cents for every dollar of federal spending.  Internationally, our defense budget is 5x greater than the next largest (China's) and over 10x greater than any defense budget in Europe.  We also face no existential threat and are protected well by two oceans on either side.  But a rant on our defense budget would take too long in an already long post.  Let's move on to find out the source of the money that softened the defense cuts.
o    $230 billion in savings from using a chained measure of inflation for cost-of-living adjustments throughout the Budget, with protections for the most vulnerable;
There it is!  That's the money being used to soften the blow to the Pentagon.  That's right:  Your earned benefits and the benefits we provide to orphans, widows, and disabled veterans are being cut to line the pockets of war profiteers like Dick Cheney.  

And, also, don’t tell me that you will have “protections for the most vulnerable.”  If you have to make such protections, then you have to admit that you’re cutting Social Security.  And you know what?  You have to specify the protections, too.  I have an idea!  Let’s say that the “most vulnerable” incorporates those who are retired, the disabled, widows, orphans, etc.--in other words, EVERYONE ALREADY RECEIVING BENEFITS.  Problem solved.  Move along now.

Social Security has often been spoken of as one leg in a "three-legged stool" of retirement security--along with pensions and savings.   Private sector pensions have been rapidly disappearing.  In the private sector, the percentage of Americans with pensions fell from 38 percent in 1979 to 15 percent in 2010.  So there goes one leg of the stool.  How about savings?  The Wall Street crash depleted some people's savings--or at least cost them dearly.  Currently, because of a mix of bankster greed and Fed policy, interest rates for savings accounts are near zero.  Before I closed my Wells Fargo account to switch banks, my interest rate was an exact 0.0%.  There goes the second leg of the stool.  Why kick the third?

A Democratic President unraveling the New Deal and cutting a program that doesn't even contribute to the federal deficit.  And he wants to cut Social Security even though the government has been robbing the Trust Fund for decades.

Obama really wants to kill Santa Claus, doesn't he?

Oh, and one more thing:  Chained CPI is also a stealth tax increase, one that disproportionately hits the lower end of the income spectrum.
o    $210 billion in savings from reduced interest payments on the debt; and
o    $50 billion for immediate infrastructure investments, as noted earlier, to repair our roads and transit systems, create jobs, and build a foundation for economic growth.
In addition, the Budget includes a series of new proposals to root out waste and reform and streamline government for the 21st Century. In total, it includes 215 cuts, consolidations, and savings proposals, which are projected to save more than $25 billion in 2014.
I haven't read a long-form proposal, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't name every single one of the 215.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Democratic Cult of Saint Maggie?

I've written before about the strange and vexing Reagan hagiography in which American liberals and Democratic partisans regularly engage.  It is a tactic--an often misguided one, if you ask me--to paint today's Republican Party as "extremist" by claiming the mantle of Reaganism for a Democratic Party centrism.  We see this most frequently on issues of tax increases and gun control--although it is not limited to these.  Today, the cult of Saint Ronnie swam across the Atlantic and gained a Saint Maggie, too.
ThinkProgress produced an article entitled "Why the Modern Republican Party Would Reject Margaret Thatcher" that defies belief in its desire to rewrite history.  Their praise for Maggie's tax increases ignores her love of regressive taxation such as the poll tax she tried to introduce and the sales tax that she increased. Raising sales taxes to fund income tax reductions is so regressive that Bobby Jindal had to pull his proposal to do so.  TP's claim that Maggie supported "socialized medicine" is not borne out by the facts, considering the "Iron Lady" tried to dismantle the widely popular NHS---and failed.
Self-described 1980s conservative Barack Obama, a proud member of the strange and awkward cult of Saint Ronnie in the Democratic party, also extended some glowing praise to Maggie in his statement upon her death:
"Michelle and I send our thoughts to the Thatcher family and all the British people as we carry on the work to which she dedicated her life—free peoples standing together, determined to write our own destiny."
"...we carry on the work to which she dedicated her life..."  He said that with an utter lack of irony.
Free peoples, eh? Tell that the people of Chile who endured a military dictatorship run by Maggie's good friend Augusto Pinochet.  Also, ask the people of South Africa; Maggie referred to Nelson Mandela as a "terrorist" and opposed economic sanctions on the apartheid regime.  She--of course with the help of the U.S.--supported the military government of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, who helped fuel the radicalization of the country.  Ask the people of Northern Ireland about peaceful, freedom-loving coexistence while you're at it. What a champion of freedom she was!
We also saw the Democratic cult of Saint Ronnie in action on MSNBC last night on Lawrence O'Donnell's show.    MSNBC has a mix of Beltway whisperers (Morning Joe), unabashed party hacks (Bashir, Matthews, O'Donnell), and principled, intellectual liberals (most notably, Maddow and Hayes).  O'Donnell, whose show and style I can't stand and who is apparently a member of the cult of Saint Maggie, un-ironically praised Thatcher for being a "good socialist."  The ignorance manifest is stunning.
You would have, thankfully, heard a concise but effective rebuke in the prior hour on The Rachel Maddow Show.  Thank you, Rachel, for delivering an eloquent attack on the whitewashing of Ronnie and Maggie's legacies.  
Although Democratic partisans love to blather about how much to the right the modern day Republican Party is from their professed conservative heroes of yore like Maggie and Ronnie, I'd much prefer to see a piece called "Why George McGovern Would be on the Left Fringe of Today's Neoliberal Democratic Party."  If Ronnie and Maggie could find home in the modern Democratic Party, then it's the Democratic Party's lurch rightward that's most manifest and most troubling.