Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Outside the Box Thinking

Municipalities are facing massive fiscal challenges, leading them to to the brink of collapse. City leaders have attempted to cut non-essential functions from the city budgets, including Colorado Springs' attempt to slash their deficit by nixing their public bus system and electricity for street lights. Cities are having a hard time cutting their way out of their deficits across the country.

Time for a new idea: Why don't you raise revenue? The chance that someone will move out of town for a lower tax rate is probably lower than the chance that your tax base will flee because the city can't afford to board up the foreclosed house down the block. Years of one-sided thinking on budgets have produced this crippling dependency on cuts for governments, literally crippling because citizens are preventing the delivery of essential services.

Monday, December 27, 2010

(un)Popularity of Repealing the PPACA

A somewhat galling narrative is being repeated around Washington pundit circles these days: Americans want to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The animosity towards the bill is bringing down Obama's popularity and strengthening the Republicans hand. Not only is this story not supported by polling evidence, it is directly contradicted by all polling on the matter.

An typical example surfaces in Michael Barone's piece "Even after shellacking, 2012 looks OK for Obama:"
Working against Obama still will be substantive issues. Most Americans want to repeal Obamacare; he wants to keep it. Most voters rejected his vast expansion of the size and scope of government; he still thinks it's a good idea.
This is a pretty big claim: most Americans want to repeal the Affordable Care Act? It's also easily testable, and one which media organizations have been checking since the bill was signed into law.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Hot Flat and One-Sided: Thomas Friedman's World

Thomas Friedman dislikes the tax cut compromise that Obama cut with Republicans this month. Because both sides got what they wanted (tax cuts for the middle class, business growth incentives, and unemployment insurance for Democrats and tax cuts for the wealthy for Republicans), Friedman sees a failure to come to grips with the basic needs of the country. The Government can't give give give he says.

I'm being too kind to Friedman, because if that were his point, he'd be exactly right. The government cannot both cut its revenue and provide economic growth programs. Some government programs are vital to the healthy functioning of markets (such as derivatives regulation and food safety oversight), and spending the nation's resources on one-time less focused splurges like tax cuts is a very bad idea. Friedman is even right when he says, "to be a leader will mean, on balance, to take things away from people." But he is exactly wrong on what a leader should take away from people. He believes that 'taking away' means depleting the repository of tools at the government's disposal to police the market, fund economic programs, and pursue justice for its citizens.
"In my book, the leaders who will deserve praise in this new era are those who develop a hybrid politics that persuades a majority of voters to cut where we must so we can invest where we must. To survive in the 21st century, America can no longer afford a politics of irresponsible profligacy. But to thrive in the 21st century — to invest in education, infrastructure and innovation — America cannot afford a politics of mindless austerity either."
Friedman goes on to extoll Atlanta's mayor largely for cutting the small potatoes of city pensions, which for cities is a big deal. In the federal government, more good would come of putting a stop to multi-billion dollar never-will-be-used weapon systems and corn subsidies. But all of this is beside the point. The government should always be striving to become more efficient in providing the services that a community decides it is due from the general treasury. The hard part of leadership is making people pay for it.

Thomas Friedman won't say word one about the revenue side of the equation. We need a serious approach to deciding who should pay for the maintenance of fair markets and open society. Demanding "smart cuts" without demanding revenue to pay for the important and popular programs (which, by the way, are much more costly than employees' pensions) require asking for a bit more money from Americans. The government provides often overlooked value to businesses and investors: stability, the prestige of being an American company, and rule of law. It is time that those who benefit the most pay their fair share. I'm inclined to think that the Bush tax levels for millionaires is well below the value that the government provides to these individuals. They are getting much more from the government than they are putting in. This arrangement is a welfare check to the wealthy, and it has to stop. We need serious leaders and serious debates about both sides of the budget coin. We can't afford Thomas Friedman's one-sided world where spending cuts are the only item on the table.

Friday, December 24, 2010

This Journalism Sucks II

The Washington Times just isn't doing well today. Here's the opening paragraph onStephan Dinan's byline entitled "We The People to open next Congress: House to read Constitution:"
The Constitution frequently gets lip service in Congress, but House Republicans next year will make sure it gets a lot more than that - the new rules the incoming majority party proposed this week call for a full reading of the country's founding document on the floor of the House on Jan. 6.
The Constitution certainly gets a lot of lip service (does it?), so thank god the Republicans are going to give it a ton of lip service. I know the Washington Times is a mouthpiece for the GOP, but this is simply inane.

It's too bad that there's money to pay for this meaningless drivel but not any to pay for journalism. It's too bad that in an age of shrinking news budgets Stephan Dinan still has a job. Or maybe the Washington Times just fired all its editors (who, traditionally, would be the ones to tell a journalist that they don't know the meaning of "lip service" or the meaning of "reading the Constitution on the floor of the House").

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Republicans for State Bankruptcy

Congressional Republicans might be planning to stymie the ability of states to raise money through tax-free bonds next year. The Build America Bonds program accounts for 20% of state budgeting, and Republicans intend to dry up the well, pushing states into bankruptcy.

This seems like a monumentally bad idea for Republicans. First of all, despite the wonk-level of this issue, Republican hands will be blamed for states declaring bankruptcies. Federal government may be an unpopular term in America, but local government is not nearly as hated and feared among Republican faithful. Republicans will get the blame for opening a need for more federal intrusiveness into everyday life as states are unable to carry their traditional burden. Even if they don't, this practically undoes all the pro-state federalism work that small government conservatives claim to believe in. Apparently Congressional Republicans don't believe in principled federalism, but do know that it's a useful cudgel with which to beat the federal government.

Second, aren't bonds exactly the method of funding government that Republicans would want to be unfettered? It's a voluntary participation in the continuation of the state. It is the closest that a citizen born into a society get to forming a social contract. Government bonds are a decision which financially buys the citizen into the stability of the state, giving them a larger interest in the wisdom of the state's policies.

Not to mention, if a significant amount of bond-funding for states dries up, won't the gap be filled with higher taxes, which everyone who can suffer the modern GOP is obligated to hate in all forms?

Thirdly, state bankruptcy is a really bad idea. The Republicans, if bankruptcy is indeed their goal, are going back all the way to the federal assumption of state debt following the revolutionary war. Republicans are undoing Hamilton's work which established the United States of America as faithful and responsible debtors.

I need to get on a plane- would someone please tell me what's going on here?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Most Important Weapon Against Terrorists

RAND's study of Al Qaida in Iraq's finances is out today with some interesting findings:
This monograph analyzes the finances of the militant group al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) in Anbar province during 2005 and 2006, at the peak of the group's power and influence. The authors draw on captured documents that give details on the daily financial transactions of one specific sector within Anbar province and of the financial transactions of the AQI provincial administration. Some of their conclusions are: AQI was a hierarchical organization with decentralized decisionmaking; AQI in Anbar was profitable enough to send substantial revenues out of the province in 2006; AQI relied on extortion, theft, and black market sales to fund its operations in Anbar; AQI needed large, regular revenue sources to fund its operations, but its administrative leaders did not hold much cash on hand. The authors' interpretation of data on compensation practices and participants' risk of death indicates that AQI members were poorly compensated and suggests that they were not motivated primarily by money to join the group. The authors also find that mounting attacks required organizational expenditures well beyond the cost of materiel used in attacks. One major conclusion is that disrupting AQI's financial flows could disrupt the pace of their attacks.
While the criminal operations provided the operational means for AQI, it appears that personal monetary gain for AQI members was not a contributing factor for participation. At least, AQI didn't pay its members very much out of a collected treasury. This should not be read to discredit the idea that AQI members actively did seek monetary rewards on top of the amounts they collected on the street via protection rackets before sending the money up the ladder. AQI criminal activity was not central to the organization's recruitment strategy, but the possibility of leveraging connection with AQI into personal revenue probably did not escape criminally-inclined AQI members.

Secondly, financial disruption of terrorist networks is a law-enforcement strategy, not a warfare strategy. The targeting of financial networks is used in attacking organized criminal groups (see: RICO statute) from local gangs to international cartels. Hopefully policy makers beef up the ability to fight terrorism through the same methods that have been relatively successful in dampening other criminal ventures. Attaching an operational cost to money transfer effectively brings down the operating budget of a terrorist network, so making its financial transactions more difficult or uncertain would weaken a terrorist groups ability to stage attacks. Obviously, freezing terrorist assets is less likely to cause irreversible harm to innocent civilians than drone strikes. That said, the maintenance of a militia force creates serious operational costs above and beyond normal costs-of-living when the militia requires safe houses, disguises, etc... that are involved in avoiding detection by an active policing effort. Effective law enforcement practices create the need for robust financial networks, and disrupting access to finances creates problems for terrorist organizations.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Honoring the Dishonorable

The AP is reporting on a black tie gala ""Secession Ball" last night in South Carolina.
But organizers of the ball said it had nothing to do with celebrating slavery. Instead, they said the $100-a-person private event was a fundraiser to honor the Southern men who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their homes and their vision of states' rights.
"Their vision of states' rights" no doubt included extending the institution of slavery well into the future. It is true that most Southern propagandists defended secession and civil war via appeal to state sovereignty to protect "vital state interests," but it is impossible to believe that slavery was not paramount among those state interests. The very economic system which supported the old aristocracy of the South looked to be willed away by the faster-growing North which had successfully elected a strong anti-slavery President.

The notions of state sovereignty, nullification, and state superiority to the federal government (conveniently ignoring Article VI of the Constitution) are reflected in much of the political discourse of the 19th century. The Hartford Convention considered the possible secession of the Northeast 40 years before the South dreamed of leaving the Union. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions embodied the same constitutional theories that states have the right to review federal laws (beyond the power granted to states to act together in the U.S. Senate to shape the laws of the Union). These arguments became no more persuasive through the 1820s as new states which were founded under Article IV of the constitution came into being or in the 1840s when the Federal government launched an expansionist war against Mexico. The constitutional story of this period was of an increasingly important role of the federal government in creating the vital infrastructure which tied the Union together (post offices, roads, canals, and rail roads).

The direct reason for secession was none of these constitutional theories of states rights or vague federal power. The urgency to secede was provided solely by the North's growing power in Congress and will to end the national system of slavery to which the South had bound the Union. The facts of Ableman v. Booth 62 U.S. 506 (1859) amply demonstrate the growing unease which Northerners felt with being required to participate in a system which enslaved millions and dehumanized the few free blacks in society. Northern states galvanized against the federal law requiring them to return fugitive slaves to their Southern masters. The election of the adamantly abolitionist Lincoln scared the hell out of the South, and that is why on this night 150 years ago, South Carolina's legislature decided to secede from the Union.

The intellectual cover for secession was available for decades, yet the South had not felt an urge to dissolve their ties to the Northern states and their liberal values. Suddenly, slavery was threatened, and Southern political leaders decided to bolt in the night to protect it.
NAACP leaders said it made no sense to hold a gala to honor men who committed treason against their own nation for the sake of a system that kept black men and women in bondage as slaves.
Slavery is not an accidental after thought to which the South subscribed. It is a central principle of the confederacy, which is why the Confederate States of America wrote slavery into their constitution. This ball honors the men who charted the course into civil war to protect the abomination and national embarrassment of slavery. There are better people to honor 150 years ago, and not just the eventual victors in the war. We should honor slavery's dead if the South still toasts its dishonorable defenders.

New Discrimination Playbook

A conservative state legislator in Virginia plans to ban gay national guardsmen in Virginia via statute reminiscent of DADT. Except the statute wouldn't rest on the conduct of gay service members (i.e. vigilantly closeting their sexuality), but appears to rely on the more absolute 'objective' standard of sexual orientation. The measure would ban all homosexuals from the national guard, not just ones who 'tell' other service members that they are gay.

The forced closeting of gay service members under the DADT regime is over in the army, thanks to leadership from the White House, surprisingly non-ornery Joe Lieberman, and a handful of Senators who put their country before the Republican Party. Democrats don't deserve any credit according to the mainstream media because only Democrats are supposed to care about ending purposeless discrimination. For instance, a more equitable DADT regime would have made discharge automatic for any service member who 'comes out' about either heterosexuality or homosexuality. People with sex drives are an obvious threat to "unit cohesion" regardless of orientation. But I digress.

The purpose of Delegate Bob Marshall's bill is clear. It is to let other nations dictate the policies of the American army:
"This policy will weaken military recruitment and retention, and will increase pressure for a military draft,'' Marshall said. "After 232 years of prohibiting active, open homosexuals from enlisting in our military, President Obama and a majority in Congress are conducting a social experiment with our troops and our national security...In countries where religions and cultures find homosexual acts immoral, the Obama administration's repeal policy will work to the detriment of all American troops in securing local cooperation with our nation's foreign policy goals."
America has a responsibility to the Taliban, to the Jamaicans, and to anybody else with senseless prejudices to uphold their standards. It is these societies' hatred of American liberties (i.e. liberal values) for all its citizens that drives their wars against America after all. If we could only bring our values into line with theirs, we could have a peaceful world. Marshall thinks that respect for Taliban values would improve the army's ability to secure peace. And after all, isn't peace worth the sacrifice of our liberty?

This grandstanding is a product of President Obama's preference of getting Congress to reverse its civil rights mistakes instead of letting the Courts perform this task. While Courts typically are bad at creating social policy, they were in a very good position to repeal DADT. The Hollow Hope constraints of rights, judicial dependence, and policy development simply did not exist with DADT. There was a clear constitutional right against discrimination in the equal protection clause. The executive branch and military supported repeal of DADT, meaning that the lack of judicial independence would be a boon to reformers, as the court would be steered to the most effective and remedial outcome. Policy development also would be left to the repeal-friendly military, a monolithic organization who would not produce compliance or implementation troubles. DADT repeal was ripe for court overturn. The added benefit of Supreme Court action would be the general rule that discrimination against homosexuals would not pass Constitutional muster unless there was a very good reason for it. The military has never presented a rational problem that discrimination solved. The Bob Marshall argument, is perhaps the most compelling argument for DADT that I've ever seen. It is, however, simply a bad principle to bend American laws and customs to fit despotic, brutal, or otherwise illiberal societies.

In the end, Bob Marshall won't be able to gather enough support to make this into a law, and if it were enacted, the courts would pretty much have to overturn it. The backlash this time (a feature of all social change) is coming from conservative politicians with little support from the populace. The fact that two Senators switched their votes from a No on cloture to a Yes on the actual bill suggests how little stomach there is to support discrimination in the military. If the courts had accomplished the same goal, the narrative might be a little different, with more far-right grumbling being reported as more common or more representative than it is now. Congress at last did the right thing, and democratic action is, in this instance, preferable to court action that would be attacked as somehow countermajoritarian.

A footnote: Bob Marshall thinks that Virginia would be able to discriminate against gays in its national guard because:
Marshall, who is considering running for U.S. Senate in 2012, is one of the House's most conservative members. He said Article 1, Section 8, Clause 16 of the Constitution gives Virginia the authority to uphold the ban by "reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress."

"The Constitution never would have been ratified if states were not reserved unqualified control of the militia, now called the National Guard," he said.
So if you ignore the whole "according to the discipline prescribed by Congress" clause, he could be right that Virginia at one point had the power to do whatsoever with its militia. The 14th Amendment changed all that with the inscription of American citizenry as characterizing state citizens and the promise of equal protection of the laws to all Americans.

Friday, December 17, 2010

If a President is Popular, Does Anyone Care?

The Washington Post's post-election poll finds that among American adults President Obama more trusted and better liked than Congressional Repbulicans. Does the relative popularity of the President matter at all? Republicans retook the House this year in a reversal of Democratic momentum of the last two elections, taking state legislatures like Minnesota's that have literally always been Democratic. The Republicans will have a freer hand in drawing the boundaries of congressional districts this year than they did in 2000. The current thinking is that a generic ballot poll overstates actual performance in the House by 3 and a half points. More Republican-drawn maps might move actual Congressional districts a couple points in a more conservative direction, packing Democrats into fewer districts.

This point boils down to: Republicans are very well suited to control the House (and will likely take the Senate) after 2012 whether President Obama wins reelection or not. The 2012 election is the next time that the public has a direct say in the makeup, temperament, or direction of the federal government. Until then, what the public thinks is actually pretty irrelevant. Why should it matter that President Obama is better trusted to reduce the federal deficit than Congressional Republicans or that people like him more than his newly powerful rivals? This awareness won't change the media coverage, which is dominated by right-wing talking points via Fox News. The public won't suddenly become visible to Republican politicians who are taking away funding for their rail systems, libraries, or police departments. It's nice to know that the public, in the privacy of their own homes talking in confidence to a pollster will prefer the President over the Congressional Republicans. This preference doesn't translate to a more rational Republican party or a more sane media climate. Those who prefer the President's policies to the Republican's plans need to make their voices heard outside of their homes. Organizing is hard when there isn't an election on. People are motivated by goals and overcoming challenges. The challenge now is to prevent serious cuts to spending programs that better American society, that protect the weary from famine and the weak from harm. I can't imagine how to do that in your neighborhood, but I'm sure that you can.

Clues to to the 112th Congress

Clues have been trickling in about what we can expect from the 112th Congress, which will be comprised of a Republican held house and Democratic controlled Senate. We can expect few major pieces of legislation from this Congress, and a lot of fireworks.

The major goals of the Republican Congress differ between the vaguely substantive "defund health insurance reform" and the purely political making of a "one-term President." With the defeat of the omnibus appropriations bill that would have funded the government for 2011, however, we get a glimpse at which normal means of governing the Republicans will balk. The Omnibus spending bill was a combination of the 12 appropriations bills that traditionally receive independent debate, though that tradition was abandoned for much of the last decade. Because of the $1.1 trillion price tag for the bill, and because it consisted of less than 1% of earmarks, Republican leadership withdrew support for the 2011 appropriations bills.

The obvious takeaway is that Republicans will shy away from large ticket bills, breaking them down in component parts. The sticker shock for a functioning government would be too much for the new conservative base, so expect to see some more creative accounting from the House appropriations committee. What is not obvious is how Paul Ryan and the Republicans think they can effectively slash the budget without a large package. Any smaller package can be held up by the Democratic Senate who will spotlight the least popular cuts. The Republicans might be able to win a budget war, but it would be difficult to get the American public on their side once they return to governing. The alternative is to make it look like Democrats are holding up the budget process for small change. The only way to mask large cuts as piddling losses for small constituencies would be to scale up the size of the bills. If Republicans try to play politics with the budget, they'll get burned from either side of the spectrum. Either moderates won't support their 2012 presidential candiate or the base won't maintain their 2010 level of support in less ideological congressional districts.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pragmatism > Legality

Washington State is in the middle of a massive budget crisis, which prompted Governor Christine Gregoire to announce big cuts in education, medical care, and various programs in the state. The Washington State Department of Revenue, on the other hand, is looking to fill in some loopholes. They have sent a letter to 90 medical marijuana dispensaries that they identified in internet searches which demanded that they pay state sales, business, and occupation taxes. There's no estimate given for the amount that Washington State expects to raise from the 90 patently illegal (even under state law) businesses. Medical marijuana law exists in Washington state, but it requires that either a patient or a designated caregiver grow the medicine. The law did not provide for the sale of marijuana.

The revenue-collecting agency just happens to be ahead of the legislature on this issue. Some former medical marijuana advocates are against the move, but really, any move which normalizes marijuana sales is a positive step towards ending prohibition. Of course, as was true for the proposed tax-marijuana-when-prop-19-passes stance, this taxation could expose distributors to federal (or even state) criminal penalty. The legislature needs to follow the tax agency's lead here if it wants to support the Department of Revenue in plugging the budget hole from every conceivable source.

All the GOP Wants for Christmas

... is a government that doesn't function.

Getting the Senate to vote on DADT repeal and continuing funding for the government for 2011, according to Senator Kyl is, "grinchery." Jim DeMint believes that asking him and fellow Senators to do the job they were elected to do is "sacrilegious."

Republican Earmark Hypocrisy

Senators Johns Thune and Cornyn, both Republicans, requested earmarks totaling millions of dollars in the appropriations bill. The $1.1 trillion package would implement the President's budget with some cuts for the government in 2011. Now, Republicans may throw a hissy fit and

Both Thune and Cornyn had pledged not to seek earmarks in the 112th Congress, along with the rest of the Republican Senate Caucus. Their press conference today was supposed to hammer Democrats on the inclusion of earmarks (less than 1% of the bill) in the spending bill. The specific spending provisions, which will largely go to stimulate the economy through funding projects, are more effective stimulus for the economy than the $68 billion dedicated to a tax cut for millionaires who inherit their wealth that both Thune and Cornyn voted for today. (By the way, did you know that half of American millionaires inherited their fortune? I didn't.)

We'll see if Republican outrage over their own actions will be enough to overcome the bipartisan appropriations bill. If it is, we might see more GOP hostage taking (a government shutdown would result from passing nothing at all before this Saturday).

Monday, December 13, 2010

House Should Fix Obama's Regressive Tax Compromise

Meanwhile, back on the tax cuts topic, the Senate achieved cloture (83-15) to proceed to debate on the temporary extension of the Bush Tax Rates coupled to Obama's payroll tax holiday, unemployment insurance, AMT adjustment, and bunch of other middle class goodies. @BarackObama tweeted:
Today’s Senate vote on tax cuts is a substantial victory for middle-class families across the country—and I urge the House to act quickly.
Lest we forget, all business in Congress is backed up behind the passage of this tax bill, including the DREAM Act, DADT Repeal, and the New START nuclear treaty. To be precise, all business in Congress is backed up behind Republican demands that the wealthiest 2% of the country get their money before Congress proceeds to the peoples' business. So what exactly is in the bill that we expect the Senate to pass in three days?

The Christian Science Monitor reports that for every dollar that goes into extending the Bush Tax Cuts, there are two dollars for extensions of the Obama tax cuts and additional tax cuts for the middle class. Let's look at some super-rudimentary math: using Ezra Klein's suggestion that the tax deal inclusion of an additional tax cut for the wealthiest 2% of Americans will cost roughly $100 billion over the next two years, and the estimate that millionaires who inherit their fortunes will keep an additional $68 billion over the next ten years, we get $168 billion in tax giveaways for the wealthiest 2% of Americans, most of that is concentrated above the $1,000,000 income mark. In the context of Reuter's estimate that the Senate bill will cost roughly $1 trillion, that means the wealthiest 2% of Americans will receive about 17% of the tax cuts in this bill. That doesn't include the benefits that they get from the tax cuts that are more fair like the payroll tax holiday and AMT adjustment which apply to everybody's taxes up to a certain income. All told, the wealthy 2% are taking home one out of every five dollars in this tax bill.

Individual Mandate now 2-1 in Courts

The blogs are alive with the news that Henry Hudson, federal judge in Virginia, has issued an opinion finding the individual mandate of the PPACA unconstitutional. Opinion in Virginia v. Sebelius is here. but the key paragraph (per the Washpo) seems to be this:
"Neither the Supreme Court nor any federal circuit court of appeals has extended Commerce Clause powers to compel an individual to involuntarily enter the stream of commerce by purchasing a commodity in the private market," he wrote. "In doing so, enactment of the [individual mandate] exceeds the Commerce Clause powers vested in Congress under Article I.
This is the first ruling against the health insurance reform law which passed Congress in early 2010. A federal trial judge in Michigan had previously ruled that the individual mandate is authorized by the commerce clause in Article I §8 of the Constitution. Another federal judge, this time in the Western District of Virginia, has upheld the constitutionality of the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision, aka individual mandate. That case, Liberty University v. Geithner and Virginia v. Sebelius must be reconciled by the Fourth Circuit.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

All the Wishful Thinking That's Fit to Print

The New York Times runs this story on the similarity/difference matrix between Clinton and Obama administration responses to large midterm election losses. At the heart of it is the refusal to come to terms with the Reupblican strategy for the next two years.
In applying the lessons, Mr. Obama might find areas for cooperation and conflict. The president and Congressional Republicans could find common ground on issues like education reform and alternative energy. They could clash on spending, environmental regulation and any attempt to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care program.
They could find common ground, but there's no reason to believe that they'll acknowledge good Democratic ideas any more in 2011 than they accepted repackaged Republican ideas like the individual mandate, this year's tax-cuts-for-small-business "small business bill."

Forecasting Republican obstructionism probably doesn't count as "News that's fit to print" either, but at least it's based in reality.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

War on Christmas

There is a small subset of Christians that go into an uproar easily, like when a nativity scene was removed from a ferry terminal on Staten Island. The religious display was not authorized to be in the location that it inhabited. Other holiday signifiers, including a Christmas tree, remain at the ferry terminal in the spaces in which they were authorized. At least one right-wing blog posted a snippet of the local news article along with the extensive and non-vacuous commentary "The madness continues..."

So the city removed a display that wasn't supposed to be there, what's the big deal? The President of The Catholic League (probably an adversary organization in one of the Justice League comics), Bill Donahue complained, "We take this as an enormous affront." I doubt many Catholics believe that removing a display that was not supposed have been on the property is an affront. Or would that automatically make removing graffiti with the Lord's name in it sacrosanct?

The real affront is that a group of citizens thinks that it can and should impose on every American person and institution their religious beliefs. Getting outraged because stores aren't "christmas-friendly"--meaning only celebrating Christian traditions--is an absurd intolerance towards fellow citizens and businesses. If Rush Limbaugh doesn't want to eat at a Halal cart, that's fine. But he shouldn't label it as anti-Christmas.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Maybe Progressives Should Organize GOP Voters

Two recent polls show that GOP congressmen are more conservative than GOP voters, with 47% of rank-and-file Republicans supporting the repeal of DADT, and 58% supporting raising taxes as part of a deficit reduction solution. Both of these positions have been filibustered by the Republican Senate Minority in the last week. To put it another way, only 3% of Senate Republicans support repealing DADT (thank you, Susan Collins) and none have stepped forward to support raising tax cuts on the super wealthy despite a number of proposals being floated around (including creating an additional tax bracket at $1 million) that would be substantial concessions from the Democratic position.

The Obama tax compromise sums up nicely the problem that American government is facing: Democrats conceded their basic principles of a fair tax cut in order to implement moderate goals like extending unemployment assistance and cutting payroll taxes. Essentially, the Republicans were not in a position to compromise because they do not have principles. They only have a desire to give welfare handouts to the wealthy. There are not two serious parties who could negotiate a fair outcome.

The death of the two party system (as long as we regard legislative sanity as the primary goal of the two party system) is partially a result of the Democratic party broadening its appeal to ideological moderates and conservatives in some districts, and also a reaction to that outreach from Republicans. Republicans sought to differentiate themselves in campaigns from conservative Democrats, and entrenched themselves in far-right nonsense land. The tea party is the logical outgrowth of the rhetoric that nothing Democrats do is good: since Democrats controlled government, nothing government does is good. Now we should see either a realignment among some Tea Party voters to a more anti-everybody position, or more likely, Fox News will take away their megaphone from those groups. This leaves us with a serious problem: Republicans will govern from the extreme fringes and in cases where they can't force concessions from Democrats in the Senate (Recall that Democrats in the Senate will be looking mostly to keep the economic growth going in their home states, not for ideological victories), more grandstanding and obstructionism.

Progressives have an opportunity to change this balance by pouring some effort into promoting liberal Republicans in primaries. Not to help Democrats win the general election, but to actually modernize and de-crazy-fy the Republican party. Republican voters will vote for people who want to actually solve our nation's problems, but Republican activists won't work for them. Top Republican strategists will also be focusing on the Presidential race, and activists may be overwhelmed at state legislature and Congressional levels by progressives organizing for moderate Republicans.

Electing moderate Republicans in open seats will encourage actual bipartisanship and will weaken the control of Boehner, Cantor, and Ryan on the GOP caucus. Republicans actually interested in improving the economy may be anathema to the Democratic branding of the GOP, but it's what this country needs in order to solve our problems. Progressives should consider post-partisan activism this cycle. Turnout will be high for the Republican Primaries, which will produce a more moderate primary electorate than in 2012. There may even be some opportunities to primary far-right Republicans if a strong moderate Republican Presidential candidate shows up. Convincing a Huckabee voter to oust an incumbent in favor of a moderate Republican will also be a lot easier than convincing the same voter to split their ticket in November. Progressives need to elect better Democrats, but better Democrats also need to be legislating with better Republicans.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Short Answer: No. Long Answer: You're an Idiot

A Bloomberg news and right wing propaganda factory blog asks Do Jobless Benefits Raise Unemployment? How do I know it's a right-wing propaganda machine? It uncritically links to Redstate as an "influential blog," which is equivalent to linking to Stormfront as a "popular blog." The claims are true among a very small audience: in Erick Erickson's case, right wing activists; in Stormfront's case, neonazis. Regardless, the actual answer to the question is a resounding no. There is no causal link between jobless benefits and work ethic.

Moving past the profound take-your-pick bias or stupidity of the author, the assumption that welfare and motivation to work are interrelated seems like an idea rooted in microeconomics. The argument posits a rational preference of available welfare to available work opportunities, and predicts behavior based on microeconomic theory: equal utility with a lower cost will be the preferred. If a person can get as much return from a cost by receiving welfare, why would they work? This level of analysis is evidence-free, it misses other important incentives to work like social stigma and views of self-worth, and it turns out to be wrong on its own terms.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I Wonder How GOP Will Pay for Wealthy Tax Giveaway

There is the possibility that the Repbulicans will choose not to pay for their tax giveaway for the wealthiest 2% of Americans, of course, in a repeat of the original Bush give away to the wealthy. Crosscut, a Seattle based blog suspects thinks that Republicans are intent on instituting an austerity program of their own by removing all remaining stimulus money from the economy. (Quote is from subscription-only innobriefs.com) "Congressional GOP aides are reported to be reviewing agency records to identify particular stimulus-funded projects that could still be 'reasonably' killed because work on them is only beginning." Recall that 'reasonably' means whatever a hostage-taker or extortionist would mean when he says it. This only restricts the Republicans from taking money that is part of an active contract with an agent outside of the federal government, such as a state or or contractor. Goodbye, all emergency programs administered by the federal government. Your money just got given to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, and a lot of other characters much less scrupulous than those two.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Not Even Close

I reject the notion that the framework that President Obama and Republicans agreed to on Monday was in any way a true compromise. In a White House video release the President makes the case for the agreement. The Administration extracted a few promises from Republicans including an extension of the Obama tax cuts from the stimulus bill, a tax cut for all Americans on income below $250,000, an additional payroll tax to incentivize hiring, and extensions of emergency assistance for the unemployed. In return, Republicans received a two year freeze on income tax rates for the wealthiest 2% of Americans and the Millionaire Inheritance tax at historically low rates. Protecting tax cuts for middle class families is now only a liberal goal? Puh-leeze. Getting the economy into a true recovery by incentivizing hiring is a progressive idea? Sure. Keeping the unemployed out of foreclosure with unemployment insurance is only good for Democrats? That's a new one. Conservatives got almost everything they wanted, except perhaps an even larger reduction to the millionaire inheritance tax. The Democrats got nothing that is of ideological value on par with the Republican gain. Since when did economic pragmatism become solely a province of one party? Oh right.

Republicans held hostage every goal that Obama mentioned in his press conference remarks yesterday. The Republicans essentially planted a bomb aimed at the middle class and the entire economy and claimed that the only way to defuse the bomb was to accede to their demands. Is it a compromise to accede to the bomber's demands? On the one hand, the safety of the American economy, which is the Obama administration's penultimate goal, was safeguarded. On the other hand, there's a reason that every government (and even fictional government) has the policy of not negotiating with terrorists. It spawns more danger for the citizens of their countries. Will Republicans be satisfied with this gift to the wealthy? Let's hope so, but there's plenty of reasons to expect them not to be: their stated goal is to cause the Obama administration to fail. Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and their SPECTRE GOP cronies will keep holding guns to the heads of Americans and demanding that Democrats act like Republicans or they'll shoot.

Party Leadership

Progressives feel they have been sold up the river in the tax cut deal, and the net roots are attempting to stop Obama's tax cut deal with Republicans. The deal is certainly not optimal, especially if this is how we can expect Obama to deal withRepublican thuggishness over the next two years. The DailyKos demand that Congressional Democrats refuse the Preisdent's "compromise" deserves some thought, especially considering that the primary Republican goal this year is Obama's failure.

Should progressive legislators buck Obama's leadership? The answer depends on what we think of the role of a legislator. Legislators' responsibilities are split in at least three important ways: to the interests of their constituents, to the national interest, and to their party. Each of these obligations suggests different immediate goals, and there are multiple strategies to achieve the disparate goals. The primary strategic motivation of a legislator is to be reelected, as a legislator who is not reelected loses the power to pursue any of the three sets of goals implied by his or her obligations. The strategic necessity of election complicates motivations. While the simplest assumption is that the needs of reelection dovetails with the obligation to constituents, reelection is also contingent on the strength of the party and the ability to attract ideological support from across the country.

This is only a dilemma for legislators that don't support the kleptocracy of giving money for social services away to the wealthy when social services are most needed. I'm not talking about Blue Dogs; I'm talking about Democrats and Progressives who may be able to stop the tax cut deal by filibustering in the Senate. Dick Durbin thinks there are some senators in this position, and Barney Frank seems to be leading the charge. I am not in a position to guess how many Democrats will view this "deal" as enough good and not too much bad and which will view it as politically valuable as compromise for the sake of compromise. So what should a Progressive Democrat do?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Death, Taxes, and Republican Thuggishness

The last two years have taught us that Republican intransigence is just as inevitable as death or taxes. The dilema over the extension of the temporary tax cuts that Bush rammed through the Senate in 2001 tells a nice 10 year story on the subject. Republicans are claiming that raising taxes now would have a disastrous effect on the economy and extension of the tax cuts would magically make the budget deficit better. To anybody with a memory of 2001 or the campaign of 2000, that's precisely the opposite reason initially given for the tax cuts. Per CBS News:
When Bill Clinton took office in 1993 he faced a $300 billion deficit. He cut government spending by $247 billion and raised taxes on top earners. That move, and later tax cuts, resulted in a budget surplus in 1998.
The tax cuts were supposed to give the surplus back to the American people. The government wasn't using it to provide services or pay down the debt, so they shouldn't be taking it out of the pockets of American workers. This in and of itself is an interesting myth, but one which was amply noted at the time. Bush quickly turned a government surplus into a crushing deficit, making it necessary to take money out of social security to pay for current operations. The social security crisis you keep hearing about was manufactured by Bush's OMB when they shoveled $3 trillion out the door, disproportionately into the pockets of the wealthy.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Court Martial Proceedings Against Cable Leaker

PFC Bradley manning got hit with a charging document today. My guess that Justice will come out on top on this one.

168 GOP, 20 Dems Vote Against Tax Cuts

20 Democrats and 168 Republicans voted against a tax cut on income below $250,000 for all Americans. This tax cut would have put money into the hands of middle class families who are struggling to make ends meet. The families receiving this tax cut would have been very likely to put their money more into consumption in advance of the holiday buying season. Extra consumer spending is exactly what the economy needs right now, yet Republicans and conservative Democrats voted against it.

Making the tax cuts for families earning less than $250,000 permanent is sound economic policy, but John Boehner says it's "chicken crap." Just the type of reasoned argument supported by evidence, theory, and history that the country needs right now. In case you were wondering, the "chicken crap" part of the deal is that John Boehner will only get a tax cut on the first $250,000 of his income. The rest of it will be taxed at Clinton-era rates.

The GOP argument is that raising taxes on the wealthy would be an exceptionally bad idea, a position which makes no sense. If Clinton-era rates were so reprehensible for economic growth, why was Clinton's presidency marked by steady expansion of the economy?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The End of Center Right America

One of the more laughable myths of the last 30 years is that America is a "center-right" nation. The phrase allows easy condemnation of any democratic policy proposal: "this plan comes from the left, therefore it's incompatible with a center-right nation." It also makes it more difficult to criticize far-right legislative plans because the pundits who buy into this phrase believe that most legislation should represent a right-wing tilt. A plan that represents an extreme right wing position is declared equally acceptable as a plan from the mainstream left. It's a glorious phrase for conservatives, especially because they get to define "center-right" in whatever way they want.

This is why it's a laughable idea on its face. Whenever somebody claims that America is getting more conservative, it's time to consider what that really means. In Bill Kristol's mind, evidence to support such a claim is provided by a rise in self-identifying conservatives in a Gallup poll. Yet the same conservatives that Gallup finds growing want their medicare protected, their social security safeguarded, and want the government to have less favorable policies towards big business (e.g. TARP). If that's a conservative, maybe Obama really is a socialist. Self-identification as conservative does not mean that a person wants to repeal the Civil Rights Act. It probably means that a small group who though they were being heard in the Bush administration decided that they could no longer consider themselves moderates as Congress passed landmark health care reform, a temporary but scary takeover of the auto-industry, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Forty percent of Americans define themselves as conservatives, but I doubt that anyone could define Conservatism.