Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Reporters Now Telling Romney Campaign Where Candidate Stands

The Romney campaign was in disarray yesterday after Mitt was taken to a campaign headquarters in OH where local volunteers were supporting anti-union ballot measures. Romney refused to take a stand on the issue when he was at the campaign headquarters, which was certainly weird. (Hint: if you're rallying support for a campaign, the assumption is that you support it. Romney's non-support was an eye-brow raiser, and his campaign didn't know what to do about it.
After reporters found that Mitt Romney's Facebook page in June expressed support for Kasich and his reforms, the Romney team went on the offensive to "clarify" their position this morning.
So not only does Romney not know which side of an issue he supports, but neither does his campaign? He has to be told by reporters, whose evidence is a video of Romney picking a side months ago? Does he do it at random?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Oh the Horrors of Knowledge About a Specific Community

New York City is putting some effort into getting to know its Moroccan Muslim community. The NYPD Demographics unit is gathering basic intelligence about the social netowrk in the community. Whcih stores, mosques, and services are frequented by the New York Moroccan population. Juan Cole notes that the 'targeting' of Moroccans is odd as a group to surveil. It would only make sense if it were part of a larger effort to map the social networks of a large number of immigrant communities. The NYPD can easily gain insight into groups' social patterns through recruitment of officers from those communities, but it's possible that immigrant groups pose a greater challenge for some reason.

You would think that this research and study of communities that the NYPD serves would be seen as a positve development. The more information about how a community operates, the better the NYPD would be able to recruit effective allies. Lev Levitt is determined to see this move as purely sinister. In his defense, the NYPD says that the social mapping is in service of counterterrorism goals. It may be a waste of resources, but there's nothing particularly sinister about it. NB: the entire islamophobic direction of law enforcement resources has been sinister and problematic, but this instance is probably one of its least problematic expressions.

Len Levitt wonders
Where's the outrage? Where's the concern? Where's the lawsuit?
Len Levitt is a police reporter, so he can be forgiven for not knowing the first thing about civil litigation. The missing lawsuit would require that the police action has caused an injury (or is likely to cause an injury) to a specific individual. It appears that police studying population-level details of a specific immigrant group is actually harmless. Levitt is crying fire, but there's no smoke.

Here comes the real doozy of Levitt's article: the lack of harms to specific individuals (i.e. brutality, unwarranted arrests, harassment) proves that the program is illegal. Here is how Levitt puts it:
Browne also said that officers only follow criminal leads when investigating terrorism, a claim belied by the NYPD's own documents, which detail the sweeping nature of its spying despite no indication of criminality.
There are no active terrorism investigations ongoing in the community. No one has faced (or will face) criminal prosecutions for actions that have been observed over the course of the intelligence-gathering operation. And as to the "spying" that Levitt reports, he cites examples of the NYPD Demographics unit creating a list of Moroccan cab drivers and designating locations that are important to the Moroccan community.
The Intelligence Division's Demographics Unit assembled all this information so that if police received a tip about a Moroccan terrorist, officers would know details of the community, the AP said.
Despite using the word "spy" and its derivations 15 times in the article, there doesn't appear to be any allegation that the NYPD has even approached a 4th Amendment barrier. Taxi operaters apply for licenses from the city, and that is publicly available knowledge. People using public streets have since the dawn of time been subjected to public (including police) scrutiny. Levitt seems to understand "spying" to entail any information about the city that the government collects outside of an active investigation. To eliminate "Spying" for Levitt, police would have to begin each investigation from a blank slate, arriving on the scene with no information backed by empirical observation or prior knowledge of the community in which a crime happens.

I hope that NYPD is using the Demographics unit to create social network maps of all communities, and that the information will be used to create smart policing strategies that build alliances and place the police on the side of the communities they are supposed to serve. That's a leap of faith, and we need to pay attention to how this information is used, and whether the resources invested into the program are worthwhile. I think Juan Cole is right that the funds would better be spent mapping social networks of immigrants from more volatile areas (or from rural Michigan for that matter). That's a matter of whether police are using resources intelligently. Levitt, on the other hand, wants police to not only be dumb, but blind.

100% racist

The missing bit of explanation for Army demographics is that Asians and Pacific Islanders, which make up the fastest-growing American demographic, are underrepresented in the Army, as are Hispanics. The explanation for the former is probably cultural, while for the latter it is a matter of difficulty speaking English. Only 12% of Army enlisted personnel are Hispanic, as opposed to 21% in the 18-39 year old population with a high school degree.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Friday, September 23, 2011

President Obama, please stop cutting taxes!

President Obama's administration has overturned decades of conventional political narratives about Democrats and taxes. The President has cut taxes for 95% of Americans, and made tax cuts centerpieces of the 2009 Stimulus bill and the 2011 tax cut package (the one that Republicans threatened to block unless they added an additional tax cut on income over $250,000 per year).

So when will Americans notice? Low information voters are likely to pick up on a very small set of signals from the politically active universe, and largely the perception of 'democrats' in general and Obama in particular as associated with higher taxes hasn't changed:
For example, as the President likes to say all the time, during his first two years in office he cut taxes for 95% of Americans . . . and yet poll results showed that less than 10 percent of Americans knew their taxes had gone down, while a third think they went up. (The rest think their taxes stayed the same). In addition, six in ten Americans think the country is over-taxed . . . even though taxes are at their lowest level since the 1950s. Part of this is no doubt a result of low-information voters being low-information voters – but it’s also a result of Democrats being generally perceived as the party of higher taxes.
Positive arguments (e.g. Barack Obama will cut your taxes- that's a positive) have not broken the low-information perceptual barrier. Protests and complaints may send a stronger signal that is more likely to make it into public consciousness.

Let's give the White House some hippies to punch and make them defend their record of cutting taxes in two huge rounds over the last three years and make them defend additional payroll tax cuts and income tax cuts on 95% of Americans. Come on, professional Left! This is our time!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

11th Circuit En Banc

The 'Will they or won't they' question for Affordable Care Act court action this week is whether the government will appeal the 11th circuit's ruling to the Supreme Court or to the full 11th circuit. The government's appeal is due on Monday.

First, let's review the basic history. The appellees are 26 states, headed by the Attorney General of Florida, who lost at the district court level. A 3 judge panel on the 11th circuit court reversed that decision, declaring that individual mandate is not supported by the commerce clause or the federal government's taxation power, but ruling that the rest of the law could stand without the mandate, possibly inviting Congress to use a different enforcement regime in the market to ensure universally affordable coverage without compulsion (e.g. a public option). The decision is here (pdf).

The first question that the government will answer in the question of where to turn for the appeal is 'who is the 11th circuit?' On the most basic level, the 11th circuit consists of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. It's a fairly conservative region, but not quite as conservative as the 4th circuit traditionally. Of the active judges on the 11th circuit, one was appointed by Gerald Ford, one was appointed by Ronald Reagan, three were appointed by George Herbert Walker Bush, four were appointed by Bill Clinton, one was appointed by George Walker Bush, and 1 was appointed by President Obama. The decisions on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act have proceeded upon startlingly partisan lines, so the 6-5 Republican to Democrat split in a potential en banc hearing doesn't augur particularly well for the government.

A couple caveats apply. Judges appointed by Ford or the first President Bush may be more ideologically diverse than ones appointed by the second President Bush or Ronald Regan. cf: Souter versus Alito and Roberts. More traditional conservative values in judging philosophy, such as respect for precedent, might tend to be more present in older judges. Those factors may tilt more towards the government than the partisan split suggests.

On the other hand, they are completely outweighed by the particular history with this case: Judge Hull, a Clinton appointee, voted against the constitutionality of the individual mandate. The numbers don't look good for the government's legal team to turn to the 11th circuit.

If the government's goal in the litigation is to maximize the number of provisions which are left standing, letting the 11th circuit en banc weigh in could do more harm than good. It would be seriously surprising if the Supreme Court eventually refused to grant certiorari to this case. It is the most watched question before the federal courts at the moment. Even if the 11th circuit en banc reverse the 3 judge's panel ruling, the Supreme Court's inevitable say-so would moot the early reversal. Recent court watchers also have little belief that the conservative wing of the court would actually follow any of the doctrines that 'judicial deference' entail. If the Supreme Court conservatives prove to be partisan hacks as well, there is no reason to believe they will stick to the live issue before them. Even if all the circuit decisions pointed in the direction of "the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate is well within established commerce clause powers to regulate national affairs that the states separately are incompetent to confront," the Supreme Court's arrogant say-so could not be prevented.

However, allowing the current 11th circuit court ruling to stand does have on positive that a referral to the en banc court may wipe out. Liberals (or judicial restraint practitioners) on the Supreme Court may be able to extract a concession from Justice Kennedy, who could vote with the conservative majority invalidating the individual mandate, but could still exercise some restraint by forging a majority of judges who find that the individual mandate is severable from the broader Affordable Care Act. 5 judges can strike down the individual mandate, and another 5 can preserve the existing segments of the Affordable Care Act. If the en banc 11th circuit overturns the severability side of the panel's opinion and strikes down the entire law, there would be less pressure on Kennedy to maintain some restraint.

This is a highly superficial analysis- I'm sure the Department of Justice has looked in depth at each judge's voting history on the 11th circuit. The goal is to come out from the circuits either with opinions from the circuit level that agree with the government and are persuasive to a majority of the Supreme Court or opinons from the circuit level that find for the states but are utterly repugnant to the court. And then, of course, you have to hope that the Supreme Court actually cares about the constitution more than they do a partisan or narrow view of America.

On the bright side: there's been some personnel turnover since Bush v. Gore.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Counterfactual Analysis

Ross Douthat engages in some counter-factual analysis in his piece today on the death of "The Grand Bargain:"
I wrote that the president seemed poised to campaign for re-election on an essentially centrist policy agenda: A short-term payroll tax stimulus, a plan for tax reform that would close loopholes while lowering corporate rates, and a long-term plan for deficit reduction modeled on the grand bargain that the White House and John Boehner were supposedly close to striking during the debt ceiling negotiations. The president’s goal in 2012, I suggested, would be to try to paint himself as the moderate bipartisan grownup, and dismiss the Republicans as extreme, intransigent, and hyper-ideological.
But the thing is that the Grand Bargain was not close to being struck. John Boehner may even have wanted to strike such a bargain, and in that case, Douthat may not be a roaring idiot, but that's not what matters in a constitutional democracy. The Congress was not going to pass that plan, and that's why Boehner's 'grand bargain' entreaties failed. He couldn't bring a grand bargain without being ousted from leadership.

Is there a value to this type of 'analysis?' It seems lazy to me, and stupid to boot. The burden of defense clearly lies on Douthat to prove anyone wrong here.

New rule of thumb: whenever you read a piece that mentions that a 'grand bargain' was 'close' this summer, just throw it out. It's trash, and very unlikely to engaged in meaningful, useful analysis anywhere else. The author is just too estranged from the realities of modern American politics.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Most Unehtical Congressman

A public interest group filed an ethics complaint against Representative Darrel Issa, of "Step away from the vehicle" fame. The complaint alledges that the congressman illegally comingles his personal business interests and political power, using his position as chairmen of the House Committee on Government Oversight (and hsi previous committee work), for personal gain. Let's see what the Congressman's response was:
The five-page complaint, which was obtained by The Hill, accuses Issa of using his position as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to add to his multimillion-dollar fortune.

An Issa spokesman on Monday said the allegations have absolutely no merit and are part of a smear campaign spearheaded by the White House.
Accuse the complainants of conspiracy? Check. Projecting Issa's alleged wrongs onto the accurser- of comingling personal and government business? Check.

Early reports indicate Issa is guilty.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Failures in Localism

I'm currently looking for housing in Detroit. Since I'm largely unfamiliar with the city, one of the main tools that I've used is a map of crime data reported by the Detroit Police Department. It can be a hard dataset to sift through. After all, not all assaults are the same, but they are represented the map by the same red fist. Descriptions range from "Telephone used to make threatening statements" to "Agg/Felony Assault - gun- police officer involved." There are certainly pockets where gun crime becomes almost common.

But it's not a good tool to show your friends and family who may be concerned about your safety. Even neighborhoods with less violent crime reports have high incidences of some burglaries (Not many major cities provide the raw data on the same site, so finding calibration points relative to places I've lived or seen was difficult. I don't know how specific crime rates compare). It's enough to concern your friends.

I grew up in a city, and I'm used to a certain amount of crime in my neighborhood. The some of the current crew of drug dealers on my block are kids that I used to play with. We had annual shootings within a couple blocks of my house, and a large scale drug bust just down the street (a marijuana grower called the White House switchboard and threatened the President's life at 4 am. When my school bus came at 7, DEA agents were hauling trashbags of plants out of the house. My friend grew up in a rural area, and aren't used to the concept of assault a couple of blocks away.

So I showed her a map of crime in our area from a local crime blog, only to find out that there had been two armed robberies (one at gun point) two blocks away. That kind of shattered the idea that "my neighborhood is safe- yours isn't." It also shattered the concept that we really know what's happening in our little corner of the city. Two good things to clear up in my opinion.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

This is Right and That Is Wrong

Former GOP Hill staffer Lofgren explains the modern Republican Party. His observations mostly strike me as correct. The implications are unbelievably negative if you think informed democracratic political processes are 'good.'
It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult...
The GOP has launched a decades long attack on the institutions of American Democracy. Greatest hits include Reagan's "The Government is the problem" speech, George W. Bush's push to privatize social security (a scheme that would have pushed the average American retiree to lose their entire income source from 2007-2009), and arguably Katrina. The sustained attacks on democratic institutions through political discourse and mass misinformation are wildly outside accepted modes of politics.
John P. Judis sums up the modern GOP this way:

"Over the last four decades, the Republican Party has transformed from a loyal opposition into an insurrectionary party that flouts the law when it is in the majority and threatens disorder when it is the minority. It is the party of Watergate and Iran-Contra, but also of the government shutdown in 1995 and the impeachment trial of 1999. If there is an earlier American precedent for today's Republican Party, it is the antebellum Southern Democrats of John Calhoun who threatened to nullify, or disregard, federal legislation they objected to and who later led the fight to secede from the union over slavery."
It seems like histrionics. It's hard to provide direct evidence that this is the goal of the modern Republican party. Unless, of course, you take their word for it:
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
Mitch McConnell named his number one priority of the last three years: making Barack Obama a one-term president. Not dealing with the debt, not putting an end to the recession, not putting Americans back to work or propping up sagging home prices. Not even pursuing an ideologicaly coherent (if massively unpopular) agenda. When John Boehner walks out of a manufactured crisis in which his party roiled global markets and almost forced a default on American fiscal obligations, he agrees that he "got 98% of what [he] wanted." It's not about deficit reduction or policy. He just wanted President Obama to be massively unpopular.

Are there any modern Republicans who are actually concerned in any meaningful sense with preserving demcoratic government and American political institutions? How can intelligent, informed Republicans abide by this. Are there any of you out there? What further evidence could possibly be needed to prove that your party has abandonned you, and that it is time to build from the ground up a partner with the American people, a new party that actually represents mainstream conservatism?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Perry Giving Up the (Holy) Ghost

Governor Perry is knocking off campaign events today to attend to the wildfires that have ravaged Texas. The fires have claimed two lives and hundreds of homes since they were spread by wind gusts connected to Tropical Storm Lee this weekend. Lee dumped roughly 12 inches of rain on New Orleans but delivered only driving wind into Texas.

The winds come after a year-long drought in Texas that has caused huge economic woes for farmers. Now the tinder-dry brush across the state is becoming fuel for uncontained fires. As Lee turned North East away from Texas, the drought-stricken Texas has to wonder about their bad luck.

The Texas drought last attracted national attention when Rick Perry proclaimed a day of prayer for rain in April. Since then, rainfall in the lonestar state has remained anemic. In a normal year, San Antonio area gets roughly 14.5 inches of rain between April 21st and September 5th; this year, only 3.53 inches. The lack of rain even after Perry's proclamation for prayer should be a spiritual embarrassment for the Governor. Tropical Storm Lee even veered North East away from Texas, keeping the Texan plains dry.

Droughts are becoming more common along Texas's latitude, a process of desertification that is consistent with models of global climate change caused by anthropogenic carbon increases. Perry, of course, denies that climate science has anything to do with reality. So meeting Perry on his own terms is tempting: Is God punishing Texas with severe drought?

Perry's lack of religious sincerity and political stances against social welfare for God's children are possible targets of God's wrath. But many states have had 'Christian right' anti-worker and anti-poor governors for a decade. Texas uniquely endures the taunting spectale of a tropical storm bringing fire instead of rain.

The most plausible theological account is that the fires are divine punishment for Perry's wanton execution of innocents. Cameron Todd Willingham's execution at the hands of Gov Perry is a particularly haunting case. Not only was the condemned almost certainly innocent, but he was wrongly convicted for arson and refused clemency because of Perry's lack of belief in the scientific method that had thrown considerable doubt upon the jury's verdict.

It's terrible that 2 people would have to die and hundreds of homes burn to get Perry to atone for his sins. Let's pray that Perry does reform, and that the plagues on Texas will stop.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Are all Creationists Caricatures of Creationists?

I can't explain why this is popular on Memeorandum right now, but Bryan Fischer's caricature proof of creationism is too funny to be missed.

I admit that I was a little baffled while reading the article. The first paragraph reads as a fairly straight introduction to Fischer's interest in evolution and the timeliness of the satire article. The second paragraph appears to tip into tongue-in-cheek derision:
Perry’s [rejection of evolution] will help him, not hurt him, with the electorate. Even after almost a century of brainwashing and indoctrination in the government re-education camps called “schools,” only 19 percent of the general public believes that life developed without any assistance or direction from a Creator. That number drops to just eight percent among Republicans. That eight percent can happily throw their vote away on Mr. Huntsman, which will quadruple his total.
The first hint that the article is serious is the misrepresentation of the Theory of Evolution. The spiel is based around a jingoistic belief that evolution is anti-religous. You certainly don't need to reject a story of divine intervention into biological history to understand the process by which genetic frequencies change in species' populations over time.

Fischer follows his absurdist conflation of atheism and science with an appropriately sophomoric attempt at post modernist anti-empiricism.
Before we even start, we ought to notice that, if evolution is true, there would be no way to know it. Because evolution teaches that everything that exists is the product of the random collision of atoms, this logically includes the thoughts I am thinking about evolution. But if my thoughts are the product of the random collision of atoms, there is no reason to think that any of them are true — they just are. No one "random collision of atoms" can be said to be truer than another, any more than one randomly generated Rorschach ink blot can be said to be more correct than another.
That's a serious problem. It's exactly the problem that empiricism attempts to solve. By attempting to make predictions and refining those predictions based on experiments, the scientific method uses feedback from the physical world to verify or dismiss individual thoughts. That's how working theories are made. The alternative--Fischer's alternative in fact--relies purely on mental gymnastics to arrive at a truth value.

I suspect that Bryan Fischer means that the universe applies no normative value to the two thoughts, but that is very different from a truth value (ranging from true to false). Those truth values are only meaningful if there is some meaningful feedback from the universe. Again, empiricism the exercise of designing experiments to collect this feedback. Fischer rejects this process out-of-hand. His approach leads people into a barren desert so he can complain about a lack of water.

It would be convenient to leave aside dismissal of both physics and neuroscience (wrongly labeled here as 'evolution'), but that's precisely his argument. Fischer thinks it's necessary to reject any scientific discovery that overlaps with evolution. Ironic, because the rest of his self-parody relies on very badly misinterpreting basic assumptions that scientists make.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Romney Has No Path To Nomination

I think it's shocking that the media considers Mitt Romney a frontrunner in the Republican nomination battle. I don't mean this is the Jon Stewart-style "They're can't be a front runner when no one has voted." I mean that the fundamentals of the Romney campaign are incredibly weak.

Romney's perceived strength is that he is running the only fairly moderate campaign (besides John Huntsman, who is hardly running a campaign at this point). He has the entire center of the Republican party to himself. Tim Pawlenty was the only other serious contender for the middle (serious contender in that he was focused on that segment of the ideological specturm; he polled miserably). Romney clearly has the support of the Republican establishment, including the traditional conservative media. The feeding frenzy around Rick Perry over the last three days in the conservative legacy media and blog world has surprised right-watchers. Bachmann has received less opprobrium for similar morsels, probably because the conservative establishment never considered her a serious candidate (for a possible explanation see: gender). There's also the numerous pictures of Perry appearing to fire a gun in the air in the middle of a city.<

The Republican field is crowded far to Romney's crazy flank with no one to Romney's center. Huntsman is probably a little more conservative than Romney, but has no profile at this point. That should be good news for Romney. Conventional wisdom about the Republican party-as-stool holds that it has three legs: business interests, puritan social voters, and civil libertarians.

The Republican primary fight so far has been fought primarily among candidates among the latter two 'legs.' Bachmann, Perry, Santorum, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich all have supporters in both camps. They simultaneously argue that government involvement in personal lives is always bad, but that it should aggressively enforce conservative social ideas. The crush to the right in the primary field has left Romney alone with a wide ideological spectrum to appeal to.

The problem for Romney is that few Republican primary voters occupy that spectrum. Romney consistently places at 20% in the national GOP primary polling. His support is remarkably stable, and doesn't seem to be buffeted by other candidates' exits and entrances. Romney is in a similar position as Ron Paul. He has a group of core supporters, but little upside outside of that group. His voters likely won't turn out for another candidate, and the other candidates' supporters won't vote for Romney.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Bachmann's a Bully

My guess is that outside campaign advisors told the Bachmann campaign to "pick a fight" with the media to make her look tough. I don't think those advisors meant that Bachmann's husband should try to pick a fist fight with a reporter and give a statement that a fifth grade bully might provide.

There have been a handful of other episodes where campaign workers have attacked journalists this year, most memorably with Joe Miller's 'security detail' of off-duty military who unlawfully detained a journalist.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reid's Nominations

Majority Leader Reid has announced his nominations to the Supreme Soviet Executive CommitteeUS Congress Super Committee. The Democratic Senators, and one twelfth of the panel will be Senators Max Baucus, Patty Murray, and John Kerry.

It's an interesting slate, with Baucus representing the right of the Democratic caucus and Kerry representing the center. Patty Murray as the DSCC chair also has brings the responsibility of not losing the Democratic Majority in 2012 to the table. Personally, however, Murray has the most to lose, just by virtue of heading the DSCC this cycle. All three of these senators are well insulated from political pressure. Baucus is next up for reelection in 2014. Murray is due for a reelect campaign in 2016, and John Kerry represents Massachusetts.

There's no good news for policy here. Max Baucus has consistently been on the wrong side of tax policy. He supported the 2001 round of the Bush Tax Cuts, the largest single discretionary cause of our deficit. He has supported the removal of the estate tax. Here's a headscratcher: why did the Hill call Max Baucus a liberal?

Murray, of course, represents Washington state. Boeing is Washington's big business interest, along with tech companies. Don't expect Patty Murray to look to intently for spending cuts to wasteful Defense initiatives or anti-competitive Buy-American spending items.

John Kerry is a fine Senator, and has been able to successfully reach across the aisle on many occasions. Two examples are the climate change act which was signed into law never got off the ground. He's probably the best bet for good policy from the Senate Democrats, but that also makes him the most likely to be ignored.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I am the Million Dollar Romney Donor

One of Romney's early political boosters is coming out today as the man who laid the untraceable million dollar golden egg in the Romney henhouse:
The anonymous donor behind the headline-making $1 million contribution to a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC is a former Bain Capital official with long ties to the candidate, who's asking the outside group to amend its filings, POLITICO has learned.

The check-writer is Ed Conard, who was a top official at Bain, the private-equity firm Romney helped create, and who has been a strong supporter of his over the years.

The donation, made to the super PAC "Restore Our Future" - which was founded by former Romney advisers and is able to take in unlimited contributions, but must report them to the FEC - showed up in the group's first round of filings. It was listed as coming from a W Spann LLC.

In a statement to POLITICO, Conard said, "I am the individual who formed and funded W Spann LLC. I authorized W Spann LLC’s contribution to Restore Our Future PAC.

"I did so after consulting prominent legal counsel regarding the transaction, and based on my understanding that the contribution would comply with applicable laws," he said. "To address questions raised by the media concerning the contribution, I will request that Restore Our Future PAC amend its public reports to disclose me as the donor associated with this contribution."
It really makes the point for campaign finance watchdogs, democrats, and people who value equal access to democratic communication means of communication. Romney's golden egg man was able to do all of this legally, within what is now normal in campaign finance. So if you have a few billion dollars, you can make an untraceable donation to a candidate of your choice without having anyone seeing your fingerprints on the bankroll in the candidates pocket.
It's times like this that I wish Sandra Day O'Connor hadn't resigned from the Supreme Court.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Debt Ceiling Navel Gazing

Kevin Drum decides that the awful spending bill that Republicans extorted through Congress is liberals' fault. The premise of the article is kind of correct:
I think this is roughly correct. Public opinion is everything. Ronald Reagan was successful because public opinion supported him: he wanted to cut taxes and raise defense spending and so did big chunks of the public. He was leading in a direction that they already wanted to go.

But no matter how many times we try to kid ourselves with one poll result or another, liberals just don't have that advantage. The public is mostly in favor of raising taxes on the rich — though I suspect its support is pretty soft — but on the bigger issues they mostly aren't on our side. They think deficits are bad, they don't trust Keynesian economics, they don't want a higher IRS bill (who does, after all?), and they believe the federal government is spending too much on stuff they don't really understand. Conservatives have just flat out won this debate in recent decades, and until that changes we're not going to be able to make much progress.
When I say partially true, I mean that the things that Washington liberals talk about is not what local liberals talk about. Washington liberals talk about macroecomic Keynsian spending. Local level liberals talk about jobs programs, food bank supply levels, and schools.

Conservatives have a more shallow profile of issues, allowing for broader organizational reach and the ability to mobilize public support efficiently. The Tea party (originally stanidng for Taxed Enough Already), is a relatively simple organization. Despite apparent differences in goals among groups (social versus fiscal, anarchist versus corporatist), organizers have been able to convince them all that they suffer from the same ailment of high taxes.

Democrats, progressives, and liberals have been playing defense since 2010, and it's taken a huge toll on their ability to mobilize support. Labor stands alone as the one force that has been able to out-organize the Republicans this year, despite some decent mobilizations targeting Republican congerssional offices during the debt-ceiling hostage crisis.

Progressives need a broad statement of their current political direction. If Republicans can all unite behind 'taxed enough already,' Democrats can unite behind another raison d'etre. What united grassroots Democrats against Bush was the obvious failures of the administration to govern in an enlightened statesman tradition. From the invasion of Iraq based on poor intelligence and false pretense to the abandonment of New Orleans to the failure to address any real problems like climate change, health care reform, or preventing the Bush recession, the common strand was a feeling that Americans are 'under-served by government.'

Taxed Enough Already has a certain ring of truth to it. Everybody grumbles about their taxes. Everybody also grumbles about the inevitability of bad service at the DMV or opaqueness in dealing with Social Security benefits, or treatment at VA hospitals. Americans are under-served by their government.

This line of argument is uncomfortable for a progressive. Modern liberalism uses political tools to address the problems of inequality of opportunity. Yet this line of argument attacks the efficacy of government to deliver on its promises. This tension is a fiction, however. Just because Republicans attack the legitimacy of government action doesn't mean that progressives must defend government. Liberals are broadly interested in leveling the playing field and removing systemic inequality. Much of that inequality results from market failures, for which government is a solution. Much of that inequality results from the historical (or modern) political process. Government is simply an institutional arrangement of political power.

If that political power was vested with either the intent or incident of creating barriers to equal opportunity, liberals should not be afraid to call out that undemocratic arrangement of power. While democratic, progressive, and liberal activists focus on increasing public goods, they would do well if they were more pragmatic with where they begin. When liberals argue for a single-payer health care system or an adjustment of capital gains taxes, they leave the public behind. The public agrees with the premise that Americans are under-served by government, roughly treated by the market, and ignored by the powerful. Let's start the conversation there.

The public supported Regan's wish to lower taxes and spend on defense, (arguable), but they didn't necessarily agree with his push to lower the top marginal tax rate or his Star Wars boondoggle. Democrats can get the same broad support from the public if they can articulate a common cause that unites their various policy solutions:
We are under-served by government and abused by some bad corporations. Creating a single payer health care system will help government serve us better and prevent that abuse. We are under-served by government. It doesn't have the resources to stremline the VA system to better serve our veterans; we should raise the funds for this by taxing capital gains taxes an extra half percent.
The laundry list appraoch to politics doesn't work. Having 20 agenda points coming into office is a terrible way to hold a coalition together. Progressives need a unifying theme to bring them together if they're going to have any real impact on mass politics.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Let's play 'Spot the Important Detail'

ABC News has learned that Republicans and the White House have struck a tenative[sic] deal to raise the debt ceiling before the Aug. 2 deadline. It's not done yet, but here is the framework of the tentative deal they have worked out, according to a source familiar with the negotiations:
  • Debt ceiling increase of up to $2.8 trillion
  • Spending cuts of roughly $1 trillion
  • Special committee to recommend cuts of $1.8 trillion (or whatever it takes to add up to the total of the debt ceiling increase) Committee must make recommendations before Thanksgiving recess
  • If Congress does not approve those cuts by late December, automatic across-the-board cuts go into effect, including cuts to Defense and Medicare.
Did you find it? Because it's certainly not a number, and it's certainly not reported above. The key to whether this deal is going to be a great deal or a terrible deal rests on one big factor.

How is the "special committee" going to be constituted?

This deal actually looks pretty good if you make a lot of unlikely assumptions about intentions and personnel of the "Special Committee." The primary assumption is that Speaker Boehner and Mitch McConnell want a deal. An equally important, but secondary assumption is that McConnell and Boehner leadership teams command enough support to invoke cloture in the Senate and pass a bill that enjoys significant Democratic support. If all Democrats voted for the bill (an unlikely assumption), Only 24 Republicans would be needed to pass it. And of course, the most egregious assumption: Democrats are in this fight to protect the middle class and poor, find some ways to spur job growth, and invest in America. If they're in this just to get the debt ceiling lifted and avoid a catastrophe, they're walking into a used car dealership having decided that they have to buy a car today.

Friday, July 29, 2011

No Tools For This Job

There's an old adage that goes, "When you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." You make do, often terribly, with what tools are at your disposal.

This explains the box in which Senate Democrats and President Obama find themselves. They have no real tools at their disposal to legislate effectively, and so they use the only tool that they have available: compromise. An otherwise very bright sociologist asked me yesterday, "Why isn't Obama doing anything to raise the debt ceiling?" There simply aren't any tools that the Presdient has at his disposal. He offered some insane incentives to the Republicans for them not to risk forcing a default on treasury debt, like raising the medicare age and indexing social security benefits to less generous measures. Republicans say that these are the main incentives that they're after, yet the compromise offer failed.

Democrats find themselves in a position where they only thing they can do is compromise, and so every Republican looks like a good-faith negotiator.

Strictly speaking, there are other tools available to President Obama, but they would certainly enact a much larger constitutional crisis. The simple option of ignoring the debt ceiling would ring as a grab of power, even though the fact is that Congress already supplanted the debt ceiling when it legislated a budget that forced the Treasury to borrow above that limit. Electoral tools are too far away; voting the bums out of office in 2012 won't prevent an economic catastrophe in 2011. No state provides for the recall of its congressional representatives. Direct appeals for public involvement haven't born any legislative fruit. The President's invitation to call congressional offices Monday night overloaded the Hill telephone system for a day, but no Republicans recanted their opposition to passing a clean debt ceiling increase. Democrats are still applying political pressure; the @BarackObama twitter account provided a laundry list of intransigent house members to followers. The move flooded twitter streams of 10,000,000 some followers with the twitter handles of their elected representatives. There's actually concern trolling from Mediaite about @BarackObama followers unfollowing the account, complete a hilariously how-to-lie-with-statistics example graph.

The ineffectiveness of the President against an entrenched domestic opposition highlights that the Executive branch's power over domestic policy direction is vastly more attenuated than its power over its foreign policy. While Obama's foreign policy is paying dividends, the domestic side of his portfolio is under sustained, heavy challenge. If only there were an acceptable democratic equivalent of Seal Team Six. The President needs a decisive moment, but dealing with this group of Congressional Republicans, there any reasonable option would be shot done. They've already shot down some pretty unreasonable concessions (for instance, the Reid plan, which gives Republicans literally everything that Boehner has asked for). There is no tool in the executive repertoire for working with such an obstinate Congress.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Clock Still Running

It is now a full two business days since John Boehner had promised to deliver even a basic, non-compromise option to lift the debt ceiling. He said he would be able to pass a bill through the House of Representatives by Wednesday. It is now Friday morning, and nothing has emerged from the Republican chamber. A failure lift the debt ceiling would have serious and potentially catastrophic effects on the American economy, especially for borrowers, businesses, and investors. Maybe the heavy lifting has been too hard for Boehner; he certainly has the option of passing a much simpler bill (and one that would be passed by the Senate and signed by the President): lift the debt ceiling enough that the 112th Congress won't have to deal with it again, or abolish it altogether. No strings attached, no policy wrangling needed.

If John Boehner couldn't get enough of his own party to vote for the Republican option to raise the debt ceiling, he should try for a simpler solution. Send a clean debt ceiling bill to the Senate. Put the partisan games aside. Start governing responsibly. If he can deliver even a couple dozen Republican votes for a responsible plan to end this manufactured crisis, the Democrats will provide the rest to put the measure over the top.

The key questions facing Americans today whether there are 24 pragmatic House Republicans willing to look past a narcissist tea party ideology, and will Boehner let them work with Democrats to remove this insane crisis of choice? I'm not exactly hopeful that the answer to either of those questions is a yes.

Monday, July 25, 2011

When Simple Things Become Hard

After the Republican takeover of the US House, I proposed a simple model of productivity we could expect from the 112th Congress. It plotted the number of house members that the President's party controlled in the House versus the number of 'major legislative accomplishments' passed that year. It was a little flimsy as far as political science models go, but the simple story seemed right. Over the past 40 years, there has been an obvious trend pointing towards more legislative business being completed as the President's party controls more seats in the House. Based purely on the number of Democrats elected to the House in November, my model predicted 14 major accomplishments over the course of 2011-2012. That number looks very wrong right now.

The 112th Congress has completed no major accomplishments in its first 6 months of action, barely scraping together a budget to avert a government shutdown, and now failing to lift the debt ceiling. Congress has lifted the debt ceiling 70 times since the debt ceiling's inception. What makes it so hard on the 71st lift? The muscles of the American political system seem to have atrophied entirely. John Boehner (who, the President hastens to interject, is not a bad guy despite his total inability to lead) must do the basic work of showing up on the House Floor and ushering together enough votes to avoid a global financial crisis. It wouldn't be so hard if his leadership hadn't pinned a dystopian vision onto the debt ceiling bill.

America's credit rating, however, was one hostage-taking too far. When home buyers go to a bank in a month for a mortgage or a college graduate applies for a credit card, she will pay the price for Boehner's intransigence in higher cost of borrowing, constricted credit, not to mention the limp that the Republicans are putting into an already too-slow jobs recovery. It should be a routine vote, but the Republicans in Congress are failing to perform a necessary task that Congress has done 70 times before. It's when the simple things become hard that you have to wonder about how soon the end is coming. It's hard to watch a parent begin to misremember your name or see them lose the ability to perform simple tasks. For American citizens, this long painful goodnight to adult governance is doubly depressing. Dearly held civics lessons about loyal opposition and good-faith democracy have been shattered, but more importantly, we're on the brink of doing the same to our economy.

To paraphrase Sting, I hope the Republicans care about their interest rates, too.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Push that Boulder Up the Hill, New York Times

The New York Times has recommitted itself to providing the context for the debt-ceiling crisis with a helpful infographic and article. How did the deficit get so big?
With President Obama and Republican leaders calling for cutting the budget by trillions over the next 10 years, it is worth asking how we got here — from healthy surpluses at the end of the Clinton era, and the promise of future surpluses, to nine straight years of deficits, including the $1.3 trillion shortfall in 2010. The answer is largely the Bush-era tax cuts, war spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recessions.
It's a factual statement. It's been repeated ad nauseum. It has no effect on the American right's philosophic depedence on cutting unrelated government priorities.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Conservative Media's Approach To Policy

"Forget all the numbers being tossed around in Washington," begins today's New York Post article about domestic policy. I think I've heard that one before. It's as good a starting out place as any when thinking about policy. After all, the point of any deliberative decision making process (or even a meaningful thought experiment) is to throw reality, constraints, and facts out the window. Who cares that the federal debt can't be paid for by discretionary spending cuts alone? Just ignore that fact. We already established that facts don't exist.

Allow me to respond to the New York Post:
Think about a few key numbers that might help any person grope towards a reasonable macroeconomic policy in the next few years.
There's, for instance, the length of the current economic recession: 5 years and counting. There's the depth of the recession: 14 million unemployed Americans. Then there's the economy-contracting factor of taking money out of the economy in a period of anemic economic growth: for every dollar the Republicans take out of the economy, the economy will shrink by 1.6 dollars. For every dollar that the government spends by contrast, the economy grows by 1.6 dollars.

Those are the numbers that News Corp its business conglomerate allies want you to forget. They want you to ignore that 1 in 7 Americans is below the poverty line (The Koch-funded Heritage foundation even released a report attacking the poverty line yesterday). They want you to forget that the money that budget deficit we're facing was caused by shoveling $1.8 trillion of federal money into the pockets of the wealthy, super wealthy, and obscenely wealthy. And the current "debt crisis" was helped along by Republicans demanding an extension of additional tax cuts last December, costing Americans an additional $3.9 trillion. Incidentally, the obscenely wealthy got the most bang for their buck. And the middle class got a pittance back; less than the worth of government services to which they lost access.

Don't Call It a Debt Crisis

For once in American politics, the nation is focusing on a serious political crisis. Republicans have used their control over the U.S. House to demand massive cuts in American investment, a budgetary result of their program of massive tax cuts for the massively wealthy.

Republican intransigence on the budget has caused a political crisis. This political crisis will make it impossible for the federal government to pay its creditors starting on August 2nd. This is not truly the same as a 'debt crisis' that CBS labels it. The CBS poll finds that 71% of Americans disapprove of the "handling of debt ceiling negotiations" by congressional Republicans. Not all of the disapproval is coming from the political center, either. 51% of Republicans expressed disapproval of Republican negotiators. There is broad dissatisfaction with the negotiations in general (of course, negotiations at a standstill should be unpopoular).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Define Similar

The New York Times has an article out on "Bath Salts" the grey-market desigern drug stimulant that has been banned by 38 states.
Bath salts contain manmade chemicals like mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV, also known as substituted cathinones. Both drugs are related to khat, an organic stimulant found in Arab and East African countries that is illegal in the United States.

They are similar to so-called synthetic marijuana, which has also caused a surge in medical emergencies and been banned in a number of states. In March, the Drug Enforcement Administration used emergency powers to temporarily ban five chemicals used in synthetic marijuana, which is sold in the same types of shops as bath salts.
Now to my knowledge, MDPV has nothing to do chemically, behaviorally, or pharmacologically with synthetic cannabinoids that were banned by the DEA. So how are they similar? they're synthetic psychoactives and have an inflated market share becuase their traditional behavioral analogues are criminalized.

Full disclosure: I designed and conducted experimental animal research with a synthetic cannabinoid WIN-55215,2 on its effects on memory.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Government Shutdown Puts Minnesota on Last Kegs

In November, Minnesota voters sent Democrat Mark Dayton to the governor's mansion but control of both houses of the state legislature to Republicans. Mirroring the national political scene, state Republicans forced a government shutdown when they refused to pass a balanced budget that raised any revenues. Tim Pawlenty left the state with a $4 billion deficit, a budget hole that incoming Republican legislators and the new governor must paper over in order to set next year's budget. When the new financial year hit, the funding for government services ran out, as Republicans staunchly opposed any revenue raising measures.

While temporary cuts in government services were expected only to gut services to the poor (such as state-administered food stamps, Medicaid, job training, and of course, state jobs), even middle class and wealthy Minnesotans are finding themselves deprived of government services. Bars in Minnesota are required to purchase not only a liquor license to serve alcohol, but also a nominal $20 license to buy beer. Dozens of bars rushed to renew their annual purchasers' licence, but were not able to get their card renewed before the government shutdown. Republican intransigence on taxes has actually jeopardized the legal beer supply in bars across Minnesota.

Minnesota also requires beer suppliers to register their brands with the state, which means that MillerCoors, the (only?) American beer megaconglomerate will be unable to sell the Miller Lite, Coors, MGD or 32 other brands in Minnesota. The partnership between Coors and Miller accounts for roughly 38% of market share.

Shutting down business interests and alienating six-pack drinkers. It's essentially a political suicide note from Minnesota Republicans.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Headline Correction: Bigot Leaves Government Position

Politico has the story of a bigot resigning as a town clerk in New York. Good riddance to bad public servants, I say. The Politico headline reads: "N.Y. Clerk Quits Over Gay Marriage." I think the more journalistically responsible headline is "Bigot Out, Gay Marriage In For Rural NY Town." Why is it worthy of note in a national political rag that some bigot decided that doing her job is against her moral compass? Because we can expect Michele Bachmann, leader of the Republican party, to claim this homophobic coward as a martyr. The defense of this clerk will be a new litmus test in national Republican politics. And it still won't matter to anybody outside this bigot's ex-jurisdiction.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Elections Have Consequences

In November, the Republicans gained control over the U.S. House of Representatives, a handful of governors' mansions and quite a few state legislatures (ok, I'm being lazy today about precise numbers. Deal with it.)

Notice an inflection in the job gain/loss trend around that time? There is certainly the early spring hiring binge that is visible across the last three years (one of the reasons that economists use seasonally adjusted time-series to evaluate employment statistics). Subtracting that pattern out (i.e. normalizing the jobs added/lost numbers relative to the extra noise), there is a clear inflection point at about November 2010. Businesses slowed their increase in job offerings, state budgets became a punitive tool against the poor and working class, and the jobs recovery began to reverse itself.

We should place a large amount of faith in what the market tells us. Millions of economic actors operating on disparate sets of information provides a more important signal(and one informed more by facts than theory) than economic modeling, political ideology, or theory alone. The market is clearly telling us that the promised Republican policies are going to shrink the job growth at the firm level across the nation, including their rush to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act and their plan to take trillions of dollars out of the economy during a recession. The market has spoken.

Friday, July 8, 2011

What Happened to the Economy?

In 2006, the American economy entered a recession, which was abruptly amplified by the financial crisis of Fall 2008, with the collapse of Lehman brothers, AIG, and dozens of banks. For years job losess were getting worse and worse, reaching a point where the American economy was shedding about 800,000 jobs per month.

Government intervention into the crisis, begun under the Bush Administration, prevented a Great Depression-scale crisis, and under the Obama administration, job losses began shrinking. Over the next year and a half, job losses steadily got smaller and slower. In September 2010, the econonmy actually started to add jobs, and has added jobs every month since.

That may end soon, as the job growth has slowed dramatically in the last two months. This means that this is the first two months in which the job trends have been going in the wrong direction during the Obama administration. The rate of change in jobs added to the economy essentially flatlined over the previous six months, and the 57,000 jobs added to the private sector in June certainly is disappointing. So what may have caused this reversal?

So far this year, local and state governmetns have shed 355,000 jobs. This comes mostly from state and local political inability to ask for higher taxes from the citizens. In many states, the decline of revenues is tied directly to the decline of the housing market, as many states rely primarily on property taxes for revenue. In other states, such as Wisconsin, newly elected Republican legislators began giving tax cuts to corporations and wealthy patrons, firing public servants to fund the massive corporate welfare schemes.

The long-term economic effects of these efforts is far from being realized, but the short-term effects are obvious. Fewer teachers are being paid (the largest job loss sector is in public education), and they are spending less in the economy. Republicans have sapped national demand for new products and services, which has taken the stuffing out of the economic revival that the President and a Democratic Congress encouraged over the last two years. It's no wonder that in the 6 months since Republicans have taken over state houses and governors' mansions as well as the U.S. House, a lot of the power of the recovery has dissipated. Republicans on the state level have gutted the engines of short-term growth (including health care programs, nutritional assistance, housing programs for the poor). The only surprise about this economic slow down is the speed with which it has occured since the Republican takeover.

The White House prefers to talk of "economic head winds" created by large-scale, far flung economic problems, like worry over the Euopean debt crisis (crises?) and the continuing economic devastation of Japan (which has interrupted American manufacturing too). Yet the American economy has added over a quarter million jobs in manufacturing since the beginning of the year, the strongest six-month growth in that sector in a decade. It's a decent explanation, and there may be a grain of truth to it. But May, the first month that hiring really took a tumble, was also the first month that Republicans seriously threatened to block payments to American creditors in a political fight over the debt ceiling. It was the first month in which the American government turned its attention to 'defecit reduction' which will likely cause another contraction of demand. If businesses are looking at economic trends and making smart decisions based on the information available (and this is the theoretical basis of microeconomics, mind you), we would expect a massive stall in hiring for May and />

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Yes We've All Seen the Dark Knight

DHS has warned foreign counterparts that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may attempt to surgically implant weapons into airline passengers. Bombs could walk themselves into secure areas before detonating. It's a scary idea, especially because there's no obvious way to keep suicide bombers from being successful--that is if they can survive the surgery in the first place. However, the threat is not strictly new Surgically implanted bombs are a logical progression from genital-area concealment of bombs, whose first instance was in an attack against a Saudi prince in 2009, and was followed up by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Initial reports from the 2009 Saudi attack indicated that the attacker had concealed an explosive device in his rectum.

Now that we have cavity imaging technology, the terroristic asymmetrical arms race continues. This idea is hardly inventive though. In essence, the Department of Homeland Security foresees a new terror threat from Al Qaeda: the transformation into Joker character from the Dark Knight. DHS has picked up on intelligence from AQAP is seriously considering the tactic, copying one of the more stunning moments of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
But one senior Homeland Security Department official said that the new intelligence originally surfaced about a month ago, had been vetted since then and appeared to be linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. “The new intelligence indicated at least a fresh look at this possible tactic” by the terrorist group, this official said.
The Joker planted a former insane asylum inmate into the central detention station with a bomb implanted into his stomach cavity.

One of the problems with imaginative thinking is that it tends to mimic already established ideas. When DARPA gathers junior officers from the military to gather new ideas for development ideas, the ideas all originate with Hollywood. In the nineties, soldiers wanted DARPA to invent technologies to mimic Star Trek. I have little doubt that modern soldiers get most of their wish list from the Splinter Cell video game franchise.

At least Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is as unimaginative as the US Military. It's a nice reminder that even those who wish us mortal harm watch the same movies.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

DOJ: DOMA is Unconstitutional

In Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management, federal employee Karen Golinski is suing the federal government's Office of Personnel Management. She demands that they extend the same health insurance coverage to her partner that would be afforded to a heterosexual marriage. Golinski and her partner are married under California law, but § 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, including in the provision of employee benefits.

The Department of Justice announced last month that it would no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, prompting Congressional Republicans to hire their own counsel to defend the indefensible. The Republicans' lawyer, Mr. Clement filed the first brief in which he has attempted to defend the constitutionality of DOMA on the merits in a motion to dismiss Golinski's suit. Yesterday, the DOJ filed a full rebuttal in an expansive 31 page brief that argues that the law is unconstitutional. This is the first time that the Department of Justice has expanded upon the letter that Attorney General Holder sent to House Speaker Boehner explaining that the law would not be defended in court.

The brief argues that that classifications based on sexual orientation must meet a middle standard. Classes o The 'heightened scrutiny' that DOJ argues for would put sexual orientation on the same level as gender under the regime of rights-protections in the courts. Laws can discriminate between genders, but only if the objective of the law is to fulfill an important government imperative and the means through which the law meets that objective is 'substantially related' to the goal. This is a much more stringent standard than the one that Congressional Republicans are arguing that the court should use in analysis. The lowest standard of review, the rational basis test, requires only that a law be a reasonable object of government attention and that the means employed could be rationally construed at achieving those means. The actual standard of review may not matter in some cases; the Prop 8 debacle demonstrates that discrimination in marriage law against same-sex couples also fails a rational basis test.

That the DOJ is asking for a higher standard of review for laws that use a sexual orientation classification in general is the bigger news of the day. Using a heightened standard of review would certainly have made Don't Ask Don't Tell impossible as an administrative policy in the army. The army currently can discriminate against women--keeping them out of combat roles--but certainly cannot prohibit service outright based on gender. If heightened scrutiny is used as the standard for sexual orientation, sexual minorities will receie the same general process protections as women.

The courts can reject this standard or they can use it; the likelihood of appeal to the 9th circuit regardless of outcome in the district court is high. If the circuit adopts the heightened scrutiny standard, a lot of state law will have to meet a humane and reasonable standard. I think the likelihood of adopting that standard in the 9th circuit is fairly good. If someone wants to discriminate against gay and lesbian Americans in the Western United States, they'll have to seek some carefully tailored means and be in pursuit of some important goals.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tracking GPS: It's Not a 4th Amendment Search

The Supreme Court has granted cert in US v. Jones, in which the D.C. Circuit Court reversed Appellant Jones's conviction on drug distribution charges. The evidence used to convict Jones by installing a GPS tracking device on the suspect's car. The police did not seek a warrant prior to installing or monitoring the GPS device, which the Circuit Court declared a search. Because that search was not supported by a Fourth Amendment warrant, the evidence was tainted, and the conviction vacated.

I'm pretty excited whenever a legal case comes up that includes a police tactic dramatized in The Wire, but that's not why I'm interested in this one. This is a rare Fourth Amendment case when I think it should be a fairly easy case and the government should win.

Now, Eugene Volokh sees the issue differently, and when Volokh isn't talking about economics or public policy in general, I tend to think he's a pretty sharp commentator. I think we should take his initial reaction seriously:
But the installing of the device may give a Justice Scalia or Thomas second thoughts; the act of installing the device is the act of interfering with someone’s private property, and it likely would be a taking under Fifth Amendment principles. Given the historical connection between the Fourth Amendment and trespass law, it’s conceivable that an originalist Justice might conclude that the interference with a person’s private property without a warrant triggered by installing the device violates the Fourth Amendment even if the subsequent use does not.
I admittedly am not terribly strong on recent Takings doctrine, but the general background here is that the field of Fifth Amendment protection of personal property has been aimed squarely at environmental law. The typical Takings case involves a legislative effort to dictate the actions of private land holders, who find relief through the court by showing that the legislation has degraded their economic prospects. A development company can no longer build an assisted-living community in a swamp--now a 'wetland;' a lumber company cannot cut down trees on their own property in which endangered species roost; etc... If the Fifth Amendment has anything to say about installing a device on the undercarriage of a car or in the hollow of its bumper, it would have to take value away from the car. The only limitation that the GPS tracker removes from the vehicle is that it becomes less valuable for the commission of crimes. Perhaps if the GPS trackers were a preexisting network that the police could tap into at will, then there would be serious 4th Amendment concerns. That access would require a warrant. Because the police have to specifically pick a target and have hands-on access to the vehicle, it makes the technology less dangerous to general abuse.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Assault Rifles, Killings, and National Security

I think we can all agree that selling assault weapons to criminal cartels is bad. Organized criminals tend to be violent, and when a violent person purchases a gun capable of firing an extended magazine or being easily modified into an automatic weapon, violence can ensue on a much larger scale. So of course Republicans are upset that the ATF let assault weapons be sold to people probably buying them for Mexican cartels.

The problem is that we Republicasn fundamentally disagree that selling assault weapons to criminal cartels is bad. They just think it's bad when they might be able to make political points with an investigation. When a store owner knowingly sells assault weapons to an obvious straw purchaser (in arms trafficking terms, a buyer who is not an End User), the GOP has protected them. The FBI has sought authorization to sift through gun sale records for patterns indicating frequent and flagrant straw purchases, but the GOP has opposed that step. When the government has a specific law enforcement strategy in mind (gobsmackingly prone to catastrophe though it was), Republicans suddenly are against straw purchases- but only if the President is a Democrat.

If Republicans wanted to do a better job at preventing criminal syndicates from purchasing assault weapons from the United States to use against its law enforcement groups, communities, and citizens, they would reinstate the Assault Weapons Ban. It's not like the ATF provided the guns to cartels through abnormal channels. They simply allowed for a higher success rate for straw purchasers than normal (or maybe the success rate of straw purchases was unchanged and the ATF was just paying attention at this handful of stores). It's kind of unclear.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Prosser Is Begging for Impeachment

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, according to court sources, attacked fellow Justice Ann Bradley over an argument about the Walker's union-busting bill. He reportedly placed her in a chokehold, but did not exert obvious force, when she asked him to leave her chambers after an informal discussion became heated. Four other justices were in the room. Prosser has denied the allegation, releasing this statement to the Journal Sentinel newspaper:
"Once there's a proper review of the matter and the facts surrounding it are made clear, the anonymous claim made to the media will be proven false. Until then I will refrain from further public comment."
A proper review should certainly be made into workplace violence whenever it is alleged to have occurred, whether it's encouragement of hazing in an athletics program, an altercation between cubicle neighbors, or a mock-choking in the chambers of the Supreme Court. In an office or university environment, there is a process in place, managed by human resources or an established group to deal with these inevitable, though rare, instances of workplace violence. In the Supreme Court there is not.

Prosser asks for a "proper review," but the truth about the judiciary (and the Wisconsin constitution) is that there is no HR department for the high court. The only body that could provide a "proper review" for the allegations is the legislature, by instantiating an impeachment proceeding. As I understand it, the Wisconsin impeachment proceedings mirror the federal template. The state assembly draws up articles of impeachment, acting as a grand jury in deciding whether there is enough evidence to begin a trial phase. If there is, the articles of impeachment are approved by a majority vote, and the process moves to the state senate for trial, where Prosser would either be removed for his offense or acquitted. This is the only possible "proper review" that Prosser could be asking for, if he actually wanted such a review.

The alleged behavior is certainly criminal, so William Jacobsen at Legal Insurrection asks, why not file criminal charges against the attacker? First of all, if your coworker put you in a chokehold, do you think your first reaction would be to file charges? The criminal prosecution route is onerous for the victim. Any workplace or institution has internal discipline committees to deal with these problems precisely because treating these incidents as a criminal justice matter (and explaining minute details of the institution's daily functioning to external investigators) is taxing and creates enormous disruption for the institution. It's obvious that Jacobsen is a law professor; the question he asks is provocative, but the actual substance and assumptions of his "Weiner test" is laughable.

David Prosser wants to be impeached for this incident. He's confident that he will be acquitted by the majority Republican Senate, so the majority Republican House should go ahead and give him a chance to clear his name. "A proper review" requires impeachment, and Prosser knows it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Decline Mongering

David Brooks has a really tough task ahead of him. His career depends on cheerleading for conservatives in 2012 to an audience who understands the poverty of their arguments. If you're going to get voters who can add excited about the Republican party, you've got to make the situation look bleak enough to distract voters from the actual plans, personalities, and platform of the Republican party.

Brooks prefaces his pundiry for the remainder of the 2012 election cyle with an simple declaration of his theme. Here is the template that David Brooks will be reusing ad nauseum:
I’ll be writing a lot about the presidential election over the next 16 months, but at the outset I would just like to remark that I’m opining on this whole campaign under protest. I’m registering a protest because for someone of my Hamiltonian/National Greatness perspective, the two parties contesting this election are unusually pathetic. Their programs are unusually unimaginative. Their policies are unusually incommensurate to the problem at hand.
Of course, any policy wonk (or man-on-the-street with a calculator) would say that Ryan's Folly and the Pawlenty Tax-a-palooza are probably too imaginative with their accounting, this will certainly be Brooks' theme. I'd like to call attention to the art of decline mongering, however. What tells Brooks that the situation is bleak as can be?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Conservatives Agsinst Free Markets

American conservatives have built their rhetoric around unconditional support of the free market. Anything that 'the market' does is good; any change in value not produced by the market is bad. This description should be a shallow caricature of Republican economic theories, but I'm afraid it isn't. Republicans want to insulate the economy from "politics," which is most plausibly defined as "authoritative allocation of value." In a democracy, Republicans want economic actors (anybody seeking to make money) to be insulated from public controls. Of course, since the American system of democratic capitalism provides that those political actors (voters) are also seeking to make money (and are thus economic actors in their own right), the Republican stance is actually that we should insulate the economy from market forces.

Democracy allows economic actors to thrive. Politically-instituted regulation mitigates the harms of firms' externalized costs, e.g. pollution from coal-fire power plants (or, for that matter, toxic run-off from coal mines). Firms that account for true costs of production by refusing to externalize such costs (say, by installing carbon scrubbers in their plants) can prevent their creative-accounting competitors from cornering the market through immoral competitive practices. The recourse to the body politic--either through legislation or the courts--is a feature of democratic capitalism.

It's more than a little intellectually inconsistent for Republicans to complain about the price effects of having a fair market:
Consumers could see their electricity bills jump an estimated 40 to 60 percent in the next few years.

The reason: Pending environmental regulations will make coal-fired generating plants, which produce about half the nation's electricity, more expensive to operate. Many are expected to be shuttered.
The horrors! An energy production method which is noxious to the capitalist system is under attack by the capitalist system. The price increase, according to basic micro-economic theory, incentivizes innovation and allows for new technologies to be developed.

This innovation is anethema to the modern conservative movement, however, which emphasizes an appraoch more out of a totalitarian regime than a free capitalist society: "Drill Here, Drill Now." The phrase beseeches government to massively intervene in the energy market, as Republicans typically criticize as "picking winners and losers." Even though Republicans are currently blocking efforts to repeal welfare subsidies for oil companies, they are asking for a new government giveaway to Exxon, BP, and Shell. It's a good time to remember that when Republicans talk about economics, they're taking things more on faith than on an actual examination of economic principles. That, and they want to richly reward the Koch Brothers and the oil and gas industry that fights so hard to put Republicans into office.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bush Tax Cuts Were a Great Success

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the enactment of teh first Bush tax cut into law. Commentators are calling the Bush tax cuts an abysmal failure. The tax cuts ushered in stagnating growth in real wages, retarded GDP expansion, and decreased job creation. The government surplus evaporated, leaving trillions of trillions of dollars of debt. George Bush left an abysmal economic record even before the recession he ushered in. The economic numbers show that if the goal of the Bush Tax Cuts was to create "massive job growth, vast new wealth, higher incomes, smaller government, and balanced budgets," as many conservatives argued they would, they were a complete failure.

I am afraid that those goals are a total misreading of history. The Bush White House was not interested in continuing the government surplus; all other goals besides eliminating that surplus of tax recepits compared to government expenses were ancilary to Bush's goals. Look no farther than the Governor's rhetoric as he signed the tax cuts into law:
"We recognize, loud and clear, the surplus is not the government's money," he said. "The surplus is the people's money. And we ought to trust them with their own money."
Goal #1 was to wipe out the surplus. The logic is plain: as long as government is taking in more money than it is spending, it is taking in too much money. Bush proceeded along ideological lines to zero out government balances without regard to consequences. The promised economic benefits were all made by outside voices, looking to defend the fateful decision to decrease tax receipts.

The Bush Tax Cuts achieved their only purpose: to wipe out the good governance practices of the Clinton administration, which estalished a sound fiscal footing for the federal government without enacting long-lasting socially progressive programs. Commentators are trying to fit the devastating consequences into a false narrative of enlightened statesmanship. There is little evidence that Bush intended for the tax cuts to benefit the American economy. The commentators who attempt to put the Bush tax cuts into this framework are dangerously misinterpreting history.