Thursday, April 28, 2011

Abdication of Responsibility

Republican House Member Mike Grimm has a message for you. If you didn't vote for you, he just doesn't care about your interests:
When Ms. Devane said that Mr. Grimm was supposed to be representing her, he added: “You wouldn’t vote for me and I know that. I respect that. So don’t pretend you voted for me. You didn’t.”
You see, he was elected to represent the Republicans in New York's 13th district, not anyone else in there. If you had to work a 12 hour day on Election day, or if you were caring for a sick relative, or if you missed out on voting for Grimm in 2010 for any other reason, Michael Grimm doesn't care about your concerns. It says so in his job title: Representative of the New York 13th District (voters who voted for Michael Grimm and not someone else).

So it's ok that he voted to end Medicare to pay for more tax cuts for the super wealthy. It's ok that he voted for a plan that will cut domestic spending without touching military spending. Because that's what the people who voted for him on one day in November 2010 want, even if they're actually a pretty small group of the people who live in the 13th District.

Medicare Polling

Kaiser Family Foundation has a new poll out on Ryan's Folly. Initial top-line numbers for Democrats suggest that the country is evenly divided between maintaining the current Medicare program or creating a voucher program that shifts decisions and costs onto Seniors. However, these top-line numbers are not particularly informative. Ryan's Folly will be the center of the 2012 campaign as Americans compare the two parties' visions of America. And they will vote after being exposed to the core arguments that both sides will make about Medicare.

Kaiser polls this scenario, taking each side, and exposing them to the opposing side's arguments. In a traditional fairness-rule media environment, you would expect both parties to be able to provide their argument the average voter about the same amount, so the exercise of exposing the "Voucherize-and-destroy" initial responders with the Democratic argument and the "Preserve-as-is" group with the Republican argument seems like a decent test of where the nation will come out on the Medicare issue after the arguments have been made.

As you can kind of make out, 50% of Americans initially respond "Keep Medicare" as Government provided health care while 46% begin with the "Change Medicare" to a government-subsidized insurance scheme. Of the "Keep Medicare" group who hear the Republican argument, 54% change their minds. On the other side, the Democratic argument persuades 68% to change their opinion of what is to be done. Back of the envelope math pegs the outcome of this two step process at 51% support for the "Keep Medicare" position, while the group that now believes we should "Change Medicare" to 38% of the sample.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ryan's Folly Squanders GOP Edge Among Seniors

You would expect that Paul Ryan's much heralded plan to cut taxes for the rich and pay for it by ending Medicare would poll well somewhere in the electorate. Let's look at where Republicans tend do perform best: voters 65 and older. Republicans won the 2010 elections largely on impressive turnout from Seniors, who split for Republicans by 21 points (59-38) in the 2010 midterm elections.. On the other hand, Republican strength in 2010 was largely built from the perception that the Affordable Care Act would diminish the opportunities available to Seniors receiving Medicare, hence the talking point "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." Ryan's Folly promises to replace Medicare, where the government pays for medical care for Seniors, with a voucher system that will not cover the costs of health insurance. The Republican dominance in the Senior vote in 2010 essentially resulted in the realization of the fears that Republicans used to get elected.

Ryan's Folly has destroyed the Republican advantage among Seniors, according to today's Gallup poll on the nation's budget preferences. Only 48% of seniors prefer Ryan's Folly to the President's budget plan, which actually lowers the costs of health care. Ryan's plan to place that health care burden on the backs of individual Americans has cost the Republican party a 20 point lead among their most important demographic group. Meanwhile, Democrats maintain their 20 point advantage among voters aged 18-30, greatly expanding on their actual margin among the young in 2010.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Liberal Anger in Action

This week, David Weigel called for liberal organizations to provide an outpouring of disgust and anger over Ryan's Folly, the Republican plan to end Medicare in order to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, similar in scope to the Tea Party organized in the summer in 2009. I was skeptical that the media is capable of portraying the liberal anger against Ryan's Folly in a neutral light, probably defaulting to Republican talking points about 'liberal radicals' to describe citizens asking for basic fairness. Weigel got a little bit of what he asked for as at (ironically named) Daniel Webster's disastrous, angry, no-good, very bad town hall meeting:
Tuesday at the Orange County Agricultural Extension office in Orlando, boos and shouts of "liar" were mixed with angry accusations that Ryan's plan to change Medicare would leave those now younger than 55 without health insurance in their retirement. There also were calls to eliminate the tax cuts first put in place by then-President George W. Bush and to raise corporate taxes rather than cut entitlement programs.
It's a very dismissive portrayal of people upset that their congressman wants to change their Medicare coverage into a yearly check that won't cover the cost of basic health care.

I'd like to say that I'm right, that the anti-anger sentiment is a negative, and the dismissive portrayal of Webster's consituents proves my point. But thinking back to the original 'Summer of Rage,' the coverage started the same.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Progressive Taxation: Income-Dependent Utility of Government

Everything seems to be up for debate in the current budget discussion, with the tax code at the center. President Obama proposes creating a fair tax system that gives less money away in loopholes and itemized deductions, creating a flatter playing field. Republicans have decided, however, that the issue of fairness argues against having a progressive taxation system at all. From a comment thread on the Reality Based Community blog, here's the flat tax argument in a nutshell:
“Fair” is that you get what you pay for, and pay for what you get. I walk into a McDonald’s, a billionaire walks into McDonald’s, we both order a cheeseburger, we both pay 99 cents. THAT is fair. We both walk in, I pay 1 cent, and he pays $5000, just because he’s got a lot more money? No, not remotely fair. No matter how much I might appreciate a 1 cent burger. Not even if I’m really hungry, and don’t have 99 cents.
Ludicrous figures and CAPS in the original.

This commentator, whom we'll call Brett Bellmore, presumes that the super wealthy and the middle class both receive the same 'cheeseburger' from the government. If the government provides the same service, the customers should pay the same price.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Government Waste and Abuse

From Buffalo New York today, we have a story of excessive government waste and abuse:
Lying on his family room floor with assault weapons trained on him, shouts of "pedophile!" and "pornographer!" stinging like his fresh cuts and bruises, the Buffalo homeowner didn't need long to figure out the reason for the early morning wake-up call from a swarm of federal agents.
The article believes this mess is the fault of the 'Buffalo homeowner' who failed to set a password for the wireless router. They're missing the much more important question: why are New York law enforcement officers bringing assault weapons to a cyber crime scene? Your tax dollars at work.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sunday NYT Op-Ed Round-up

Links to the New York Times, as promised, when I have the time: One news item: Ayatollah Khomenei asserts his power in Iran. Interesting times indeed.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Liberal Anger: Not a Great Idea

Dave Weigel questions where the liberal anger is over the budget cuts advocated by Paul Ryan. A few Republicans have faced embarrassing questions after flip flopping to support the far-right agenda that demolishes Medicare and cuts even more taxes for the wealthiest Americans. Weigel notes that there's simply no comparison to the outpouring of anger over the Affordable Care Act that was ginned up by talk radio, Tea Party organizers, and Koch money. The angry protests, often armed and dangerous, at Congressional town halls shocked the media narrative into Republican hands, handing the GOP footage of old Americans, demanding "Keep your damn government hands off my medicare!"

I have less faith than Weigel does that "liberal anger" would be as well received by the corporate media as the apparent outpouring of pro-corporate values in the summer of 2009. First of all, Conservatives already invoke the specter of of angry brown and black people whenever they want to support an unfounded point. It excites their largely white and often racist base. Whereas conservatives have wrapped anti-government anger in the American flag, they have consistently cultivated an image of any sort of liberal demonstrations as inherently violent. They claim that a return to historically moderate tax rates on the super-wealthy would amount to a class war against the rich. They claim that "union thugs" intimidate poor old Republican state house members while they illegally attempt to strip unions of existential rights.

Republicans are going to claim that liberals (read: historically moderate voters) are inherently violent anyway. Why give any credence to their noise? The mainstream media will inevitably carry any mention of "liberal anger" alongside a Republican denunciation of liberals as radical individuals. Democrats turned backflips in the summer of 2009 to avoid calling Republicans carrying guns to town hall meetings radicals. They insisted that the display of unhinged absurdities would backfire on Republicans. They did everything but call the anger what it was.

Equivocation From Politico

Politico elucidates a telling flaw of the 'both sides have points' journalism paradigm. Ben Smith has apparently been racking has brain to normalize the statistic that half of Republicans believe that President Obama was not born in Hawaii, and that consequently, a massive fraud was performed 50 years ago to fake his eligibility. The Politico leading light compares the shocking 45% of Republicans who believe that President Obama was born outside of the U.S. to Democrats who answered either 'very' or 'somewhat' the question:
"How likely is it that people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East?"
This comparison is completely inadequate, inappropriate, and embarrassing for a major media outlet to make, even off-hand at a cocktail party. Ben Smith wrote it on his official blog.

First of all, the facts behind the questions are distinctly different. "people... taking no action to stop the attacks" is not exactly a statement that was contradicted by evidence. Evidence proving that inaction was due to an absence of knowledge is hard to imagine, much less come by. President Bush and his national security team had even been briefed with a daily update titled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike U.S." about a month before the attacks. On the other hand, President Obama's birth certificate is a matter of public record, and the contention that "the President was born outside of the U.S." has been flatly contradicted by... well, reality. It would be difficult to disprove the 9/11 inaction theory empirically, though believing it certainly requires believing the worst about American leadership. On the other hand, birtherism requires a dogmatic rejection of reality.

Liberal American ideology would tend to provoke Democrats to believe that someone somewhere in the government had forewarning about the 9/11 attacks. The tendency among the party that erected the Great Society and offered the New Deal is to emphasize the government's capabilities. If someone in the government hadn't had prior knowledge of the attacks, it strikes at a core trust in the capability of the state to protect Americans. The error behind the "Bush Knew" conspiracy theory results from placing too much faith in government.

The pertinent question is: what does the error behind the Birther conspiracy say about the Republican party? Republicans are distrustful of government, sure, but distrustful to the point where they believe that local newspapers, every current media outlet, and the State of Hawaii perpetrate a fraud allowing the country to democratically elect Barack Obama? The only plausible lesson that we get about Republicans is that they believe their political opponents don't legitimately exist. Some democrats had doubts about the intentions of the Bush Administration; some Republicans steadfastly refuse to believe the reality around them. The two statements are simply not similar.

But even if they were equivalent statements (or said something fundamentally similar about the respondents), the numbers don't stack up to make Ben Smith's case.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Read the Damn Transcript

Republicans are up in arms about something or other that the President said, so they're taking to the internet to complain about it. They want to tell you what happened at a Presidential town hall at the NOVA community college. We could go ahead and debunk some of the more ridiculous blogagandist claims and manufactured outrage, but here's an idea: read the damn transcript.

In any debate, it's a shortcut to jump to the first response to see what the debate will be about. But if you actually want to know what the President said, that shortcut isn't useful. So save yourself the headache of figuring out what paid conservative bloggers are harping about and read the transcript. Maybe there's something objectionable in there, or maybe there isn't. That's really your judgment call, and not Ed Morrissey's. As an example of why it's important to actually go to the original speech, let's turn to the Hot Air infrastructure flair up:

Monday, April 18, 2011

Talk About Socialized Medicine

The Republican legislature in Montana is attempting to replace the medical marijuana regime that was enacted by popular referrendum in 2004. Here's the key paragraph from the story:
Senators and representatives on the compromise committee indicated they would work off of the House's version of the overhaul, a model that entirely removes payment from the marijuana trade and reduces the ratio of patients to providers to one, in most cases.
So much for the myth of Montana conservatives as more libertarian than puritanical. The 'overhaul' bill is an effort by conservative Republicans a week after their wholesale repeal bill was vetoed by the Governor. The Governor's statement resoundingly emphasized the will of the people of Montana in establishing the medical marijuana law through referrendum. Abolishing it via legislative act is a constitutionally dubious practice in a representative democracy (although, of course, technically legitimate). Massive cuts in the law's ability to function should be held to the same standard, and democrats everywhere should be rooting for a second Schweitzer veto.

Ross Douthat on Taxes #notintendedtobeafactualstatement

There is a central problem in the way that self-identifying conservatives think about taxation. Here's a perfect example from Ross Douthat's piece in today's New York Times:
All we need to do instead is let taxes rise and keep on rising. This is how the “current law baseline” cuts the deficit: Thanks to inflation and bracket creep, its tax code gradually subjects more and more Americans to rates that now fall only on the wealthy.
Listen carefully to Douthat's complaint. "More and more Americans" will fall into the wealthy category, and they'll become more and more resentful of paying what they have asked others to pay. The assumption behind this attack on taxes is that Americans are a selfish, greedy people. Conservatives assume that the people who want more tax revenues from corporations, hedge-fund managers, and professional wealth inheritors are poor or at least have no aspirations to be wealthy.

"More and more Americans" amassing wealth is of course not Douthat's goal; it's a flaw.

This view of American economic possibility is shockingly stratified: if you're poor, you root against the rich. If you're rich, you have no reason to pay into a social safety net system because you'll always be rich. Douthat's analysis is proper in highly authoritarian, economically constrained societies. The American model of supposedly meritocratic capitalism has no place for this picture of calcified economic position.

If Douthat wanted to actually address how Americans are going to provide for their future, he should be spending his considerable resources of time and influence thinking about how we can make it easier for Americans to break into the wealthy strata.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Not to Argue with Megan McArdle

The reviews of "Atlas Shrgged" the movie are in. They're the same as reviews of "Atlas Shrugged" the book. It's boring, long-winded, and poorly written. And its audience loves it, or at least there are a bunch of people claiming to have loved who may have never seen it. According to Megan McArdle, it's not long-winded and preachy enough, so there is a little bit of controvesy in the reviews from critics. Here's the choice apology from the Rand fan:
The worst part is that the movie is a bad caricature of what people think that libertarians believe.
The truth is probably closer to:
Libertarianism is a bad caricature of what Ayn Rand believed.
It's clear from Ayn Rand's non-fictional work that she thinks living off of strangers' support is perfectly fine. In fact, she believed that accepting support from government for health care and social security was a definite good. The problem is that libertarians are allowing a novel to define their values, when they should look to the deeds of their heros for insight. As Ayn Rand is oft quoted:
There can be no compromise on basic principles. There can be no compromise on moral issues. There can be no compromise on matters of knowledge, of truth, of rational conviction.
The venerable fiction author wouldn't have sold out her basic beleifs by accepting social security and medicare benefits. Her readers probably are mischaracterizing her work, claiming it's a coherent political philosophy.

To be fair to libertarians, that's also what 'Christian Conservatives' have done with the Bible or Islamists have done with the Quran.

Republican Presidential Contenders Are Cowards

That's what Charlie Cook is saying in today's National Journal, cowards. I think he's probably right when he says:
Given the minefield of Washington politics, and all of the attention being paid to budget fights and the upcoming battle over the debt ceiling, Republican presidential candidates are probably better off lying low for now. They can allow the dust to settle before the press entourages form and start asking them to articulate a position on every issue in the news. Letting House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and their respective leadership teams walk point in these fights is not the worst thing for these contenders. They can talk later about what they would have done in the budget battles.
Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney have been playing a waiting game in order to avoid having to provide any leadership to their party or to Americans.

Ryan's Folly #notintendedtobeafactualstatement

The House takes up the Republican budget plan for FY 2012 today, authored by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan. Speaker Boehner has promised a united Republican vote for Ryan's Folly. The vote is non-binding, but sets a general plan in motion for the House. Think of it as a fantasy league budget resolution. No actual players are in the arena, and no actual money is being spent. So as long as we're clear that this is a fantasy vote in the House today, let's look at what, exactly the Republican fantasy entails.

Let's tackle the most important aspect in our national budget: health care costs. The striking thing about how Republicans plan to tackle health care costs is that they don't. Ryan's Folly shifts health care costs onto the elderly, providing them with health care 'vouchers' instead of health care. As health care costs continue their astronomical rise over the coming years, the vouchers will be provide less and less health care. Either the size of the vouchers will have to be increased, wiping out any potential savings for the federal budget, or seniors will have to pay much much more for health care than they already do. The voucherizing of a core American safety net for the middle class is the heart of Ryan's Folly.
Representative Ryan’s plan is the one that would change Medicare from a government entitlement program to a voucher-like system in which the US would help seniors buy private health insurance. To Republicans, it is something that shows they are serious about putting the nation’s fiscal house back in order.
This mischaracterizes the Republican plan. If anything, their plan puts the government's fiscal hosue in order, but without actually changing the amount of money being spent on health care by the nation as a whole. Even if seniors do attempt to save money for themselves by forgoing preventative treatment that they won't be able to afford with Ryan's vouchers, the costs will certainly show up on hospital balance sheets as unpaid medical bills. The money to help hospitals through that crisis will have to come from somewhere, and it will likely keep coming from taxpayer pockets one way or another.

When John Boehner says that Ryan's Folly saves Americans money, is resting on unbelievably faulty assumptions, ones that no health care expert or evidence-oriented economist would endorse. Plenty of economic theorists, fiction authors, and their devotees endorse the Republican plan. In the words of Jon Kyl's office, the Republican claims about Ryan's Folly are, "Not intended to be a factual statement." The plan will not cut the nation's deficit even by the measly $155 billion over ten years that they promise because they are based on ludicrous, disproven assumptions.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

NYTimes Round-up

Semi-weekly New York Times links:

Obama Opens Up the Debate

Politico wonders what President Obama set out to achieve in Wednesday's debt speech blockbuster. The speech began with reminder of why government is important. He addressed the plutocratic nature of the Republican plan to shift health care costs onto the elderly and middle class while slashing taxes for the wealthy. He proposed a four-part, balanced package, including one quarter that subsumed the only serious Republican proposal: domestic discretionary spending cuts.
But the combative tenor of Obama’s remarks, which included a swipe at his potential 2012 GOP challengers, may have scuttled the stated purpose of the entire enterprise — to start negotiations with Republicans on a workable bipartisan approach to attacking the deficit.
What Politico fails to understand is that the President feels no need to reach his grand bargain before 2012. He can negotiate with the 113th Congress or even the 114th one if he wins reelection.

The value of structuring the speech within a vision of America, then comparing whose plan would get America into the 21st century without seriously hobbling it in the global marketplace, is that it provides exactly the kind of contrast that is helpful for voters in an election. Unlike President Obama's signal achievements like the Affordable Care Act--and major defeats like the extension of the Bush Tax Cuts for income above $250k--that occured in the dark recesses of Congress, the debate about the broad outlines of the role of the American government in the 21st century requires public input. It requires a referrendum on the ideas put forth by both parties.

The Affordable Care Act was the product of such a referrendum, but the debt and the contours of the American state was not the major issue in 2008. Health Care reform, federal failures to perform core governmental functions (see: FEMA), and the economy were the major issues. As Republicans would have it, government's role in the economy will be the central issue of the 2012 election. It is also a debate that Republicans will lose handily.

President Obama doesn't need to negotiate with the current Congress, and any attempt to do so would be disastrous. We already know that Republicans the 112th Congress have an unappeasable appetite for hostage taking.

At the same time, President Obama is offering to cut domestic discretionary spending by nearly a trillion dollars over 12 years. This is a genuine olive branch to Republicans, but not the ones in Congress.

So Much for Boehner's Credibility

This weekend, the analysis on every pundit's lips was that John Boehner emerged from the budget deal with credibility and an enhanced standard. He walked out of a bank robbery with a purported $38.5 Billion in budget cuts this year, threw the duffel bags full of $100 bills in a truck, and sped off.

Today, it appears that Boehner's money bags were empty. Instead of the $38.5 billion that Boehner believed he had heisted from programs paying for nutritional assistance for pregnant women, foreign aid, mortgage modification programs, and health care for the middle class, only 1 out of every thousand dollars of purported cuts actually occur this year. John Boehner was caught making mean-spirited cuts in order to pay for a tax cut for millionaires and billionaires, then when he turned around to his base, his hands were empty. This has got to be one of the most immediate losses of credibility I have ever seen.

Because 99.9% of Boehner's 'cuts' take place in the future, there's a distinct chance that they will never happen. Next year's Congress, facing an electorate that is paying more attention, could be less willing to stick to the game plan to cut programs for the middle class. Conversely, if the budget is already enacted into law, Republicans won't be able to claim the same budget cuts twice. If they back away from the cuts, more radical challengers could actually attack sitting Republicans as raising spending in a primary.

The budget deal is expected to pass today.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

More and Better Democrats

Tonight's Presidential address announcing a plan to slash $4 Trillion from the national debt is a good time to reflect on how best to use Democratic resources in 2012. It has become obvious that President Obama is not interested in transformational change of our politics or even changing the current anti-public domination of American political discourse. Even though the nascent job market recovery provides a perfect opportunity to extol macroeconomic intervention that prevented a deep Depression, I don't expect President Obama to start making the argument now that government has a role in regulating or safeguarding the economy.

I don't know what to expect from tonight's speech, but I certainly doubt it will have the content that I and millions of moderates would like to hear. As I would write the speech at the moment, it would certainly include:
It is time to get serious about the future of our country. The economy is finally regaining ground, not just with growth at the national level, but adding jobs for working families across America. That didn't happen overnight, and it didn't happen by accident. Hard work by millions of Americans, including those in the private sector, state governments, and this administration, have finally gotten it to its feet.
It's a little boastful, but call it a first draft. The President needs to take credit for the economic recovery, but not because it will help his electoral prospects if people think he fixed the economy. I would like to see an acknowledgement that there was a crisis that was caused by a failure of government under the Bush Administration to regulate or oversee the financial market and prevent the crisis. I would also like to see an acknowledgement that the public has the power to intervene in the market, and that it this case it was the right thing to do.

That piece of the speech would be necessary to set up the larger vision of America that can defend itself and its workers in the 21st century. How else would President Obama propose to keep the federal government healthy unless it had a vital role to play? Policing markets is one thing that the government needs to do better, but it also needs to perform its core functions. A defense of taxation and the fairness of paying for government-provided benefits (e.g. rule of law) should be the core of the speech.
Back in December, Republicans threatened to stop all work in Congress until they could give billions of dollars away to the wealthiest 1% of Americans. They stopped work on a nuclear defense treaty, they stopped work on immigration reform, and they stopped work on this year's budget, all to give billions of dollars to stock brokers, hedge fund managers, and CEOS. Now this month, they have taken billions of dollars away from the middle class. They stopped the Mortgage Modification program that was designed to help keep middle class Americans in their homes and out of foreclosure. Republicans took one half of a billion dollars away from the WIC program that gives working mothers the extra help they need to afford groceries. The Republican budget took money out of students' hands so they won't be able to pay for summer classes to get into the workforce sooner. It is time to get serious about the national debt, but putting our workers and our middle class into personal debt is not the way to do it.
Of course, President Obama would never make this speech. By calling out his political enemies, it certainly does sound a little partisan. By focusing attention on exactly what Republicans have done and the values of Congressional Republicans, it sounds a little mean-spirited. I would be shocked if President Obama gave a speech that contained either of these two necessary explanations to the American people.

And that is precisely why we need more and better Democrats willing to make these arguments in public. Focusing on building a bench for real Democrats to draw upon would be the best use of organizers' talent, fundraisers' energy, and bloggers' attention in the coming two years. At the national level, that means filling House districts with the best progressive challengers. At the local level, it means organizing for progressive state senators and state house representatives. House members, senators, and even Presidents come from somewhere, and that is the base that we need to build if we want to have a transformation of American politics any time in the next generation.

transcript of the President's speech on debt reduction is online.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Point to Technology Optimists

There's a new gasoline engine on the block. The new Wave Disk prototype could potentially drive much more efficient cars and contribute much less weight to the vehicle.
The Wave Disk Generator uses 60 percent of its fuel for propulsion; standard car engines use just 15 percent. As a result, the generator is 3.5 times more fuel efficient than typical combustion engines.
Of course, while this is a point for technologic optimists, who believe that humanity shouldn't focus on resource conservation because we'll just innovate out of any resource crunch, it's also a test for the realities of the capabilities of the market to actually adapt. Oil companies have a lot to lose from decreased demand, and a huge amount of economic and political power that could delay the introduction of the Wave Disk engine into the market. Think electric car in 1970.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Agenda Setting

President Obama is planning on setting the deficit reduction agenda ahead of the next big fiscal fight. The federal debt is climbing towards the satutory limit, giving Congress another high-stakes deadline. My intuition is that many liberal commentators will see wading into the debt debate as a mistake. My impression is the opposite.

The next fight in Congress is necessarily over raising the debt ceiling. Either the President steps out in front of the debate or he gets caught in the 'negotiator' position he held during the shutdown debate. That position paid off in the shutdown battle, with the President managing to forge an ugly compromise in the nick of time. The President had a much more complex set of nuts to cover in the budget debate. The President's budget represents both the aspirations and values of the administration as well as an easy target for Republicans. Each program is presented with an actual value attached to it, essentially an instruction set for opponents for extracting leverage.

The debt ceiling debate provides a far reaching, longterm debate over the nature of the American economy and government involvement in it. The President is immensely good at grappling with the long arc of history while Republicans are clearly struggling at doing more than piecing together tactical messages.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Aid and Comfort to Egypt's Army

Twin demonstrations yesterday rocked Cairo, with "hundreds of thousands" in Tahrir square demanding the accelerated prosecutions of the Mubarak regime and an accelerated transition to non-dictatorial government. In the night afterward, the military responded with a raid on Tahrir square protesters. Shocking, but not surprising response from the Egyptian military, which had accepted the ouster of Mubarak in February on the premise that any overt support for the strongman and his corrupt dealings would cause a mutiny among the ranks of the conscript army. While the military leadership current enjoys the naked power of running the 'transitional' government, it has never been clear that its interests have lain in liberalizing the Egyptian political scene.

Upon the international stage, the Egyptian army has claimed that its continued primacy in the Egyptian government is important for regional security. There is an implicit threat that if Egypt's military is forced to hand over control of the country in a truly democratic fashion, the country will suddenly return to animosity with Israel. War will break out in the Sinai and in the Mediterranean Sea if the heroic, patient, and mature Egyptian army is removed from power. Apologists for the Egyptian army exist in the U.S. national security apparatus, sporting reductionist foreign policy theories. In particular, the fear that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood will ascend to power forces many analysts to take the side of the army even if against the people.

The article on clashes between military and protesters demonstrates how little we should believe the Egyptian army.<--more--> At the same time as hundreds of thousands of protesters massed in Tahrir square to demand a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, perhaps 1,000 people marched on the Israeli embassy in response to the retaliatory bombings of Palestinian militants who were firing rockets into Israel.

The Muslim Brotherhood, it is noted in the article, were responsible for the most of the attendance of the protest at the Israeli embassy. Those demands are wildly out of step with the demands of the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir square who demonstrated yesterday for the fulfillment of the promise of rule of law in the country. Even though bombings are highly salient, more newsworthy, and a clearer issue, the 100's-to-1 majority of protestors on the street were both more concerned about becoming more like the West's free and open societies and not mobilized by the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is certainly a belief in Islamaphobic circles that any popular movement in the Muslim world is a threat to regional stability and American economic, political, and military power. These beliefs are reinforced by the sloppy reporting in the Times article which creates a false sense of equivalence between the broad-based protests for political freedoms in Tahrir and an isolated and small demonstration calling for a rupture in Egyptian-Israeli relations at the Israeli Embassy. Both happened on Friday in Cairo, and the military was the target of both protests, but that is where the similarities end.

American, Israeli, and Egyptian national interests all dictate that we work towards a stable, democratic Egypt in which the government is accountable to its citizens. That's also not a bad goal for America and Israel right about now.

Friday, April 8, 2011


The last gavel has still not fallen on the government shutdown, with a budget possibly still in the works at this late hour. What are the developments over the past few hours?

On the Republican side, it speaks volume that Tom Coburn seemed to be the only adult in the Republican caucus, but he may be getting support to make a deal from the House Republican ranks. Removing the rider that would prohibit the EPA from regulating industrial pollution shows that the Republicans are willing to back off of their showy issues in order to achieve their broader ideological goals. In the budget showdown, Republicans have laid their cards on the table. They are pushing for an America that can not provide adequate healthcare, economic security, international leadership, or consumer protections. The backing away from the naked language prohibiting such action is a positive sign, but does not lessen the magnitude of the Republican success in pushing an ideological budget at the expense of the American taxpayer. Meanwhile, Repbulicans are holding the budget hostage in order to fight womens' health, not to mention equality and freedom.

In the White House, Biden is showing the raw frustrated of being forced to argue with children. This type of honest emotional display will resonate with Americans when they ask themselves, "Who caused this shutdown?" although Republican propagandists are seriously pushing the line that democrats are at fault. Meanwhile, the President is playing good cop to Biden's more eye-catching bad cop routine. The mediator role tarnished President Obama's political standing in the health care debate, where he was caught in the middle of a prolonged legislative battle. In the budget fight, the decisive end probably will pay off better political dividends.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Your Times Tomorrow Today

Links to front-page New York Times articles to get you around the paywall.

Consistency on WI Recount

There appears to be news from Wisconsin today that the initial election results were affected by a computer error, hiding some 7 thousand votes for incumbent David Prosser. This changes the math a little bit, putting him ahead by nearly six thousand votes. We'll see if there were other errors across the state in reporting, so the numbers could still move quite a bit.

Regardless of the outcome for the court, I am doubling down on my call for the loser of the election to forgo filing for a recount. A judicially overseen recount of a judicial election is a nightmare scenario for the perceived impartiality of the courts. Judges would be in the position of choosing their coworkers and bosses, inviting an already elite heavy institution to become downright oligarchic. The possibility of recounts is a major bug of the elected judiciary, but not an inescapable one. In Wisconsin's case, Kloppenburg could simply dismiss any evidence of fraud or mistakes, deciding not to file for a recount.

There is a bigger question for Kloppenburg, or any loser of a close election: does a recount secure accuracy of democratic results in elections? I find little evidence for the affirmative. If any real grounds for a recount are present, they could be ferreted out by journalists. The competitive search for shocking stories of fraud and abuse will drive enough inquiry into the matter. Would such an outcome leave the public without recourse? Of course not; political pressure would force any illegitimately elected official from stepping down. Recount procedures could quickly be put in place for the removal of intransigent officials.

Nobody who survived the 2000 election recount and abrupt court-ordered end to vote counting can trust courts to always decide political matters with a modicum of fairness or impartiality. That is precisely the lesson of the political question doctrine. Let political actors sort out the political. Vote counting is a technocratic field, not a suitably legal endeavor. If improprieties exist within the state vote counting apparatus, the legal system should involve themselves insofar as prosecuting offenders. The judicial branch has a few comparative institutional advantages to the political branches, but not when it comes to presiding over elections.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Prosser v. Kloppenburg

The Wisconsin Supreme Court election which pitted conservative incumbent David Prosser against Joanne Kloppenburg is heading towards a recount, which is a nightmare scenario for the perception of the judicial branch as an impartial mediator. Courts are typically involved in overseeing election recounts as candidates file legal challenges to the execution of the recount, which can at times deviate from the stated recount procedures. These lawsuits are an integral part of close elections, no less important or legitimate as campaigning.

With nearly 1.5 million votes cast for either candidate, only 204 ballots currently separate Prosser and Kloppenburg, with the challenger coming out narrowly ahead.

There is no automatic recount in Wisconsin; Prosser would have to ask for a recount. Because the total separating the candidates is less than .5% of the vote however, the state will pay for the recount of ballots. Prosser will be allowed to pick and choose wards to recount, though there is also nothing to prevent Kloppenburg from lodging a similar recount request in wards that she believes undercounted her votes. The most important thing about filing a recount in Wisconsin is that there must be specific grounds for believing that a count in a particular ward or municipality are mistaken or fraudulent. Because the recount petition is filed with an administrative body and not a court, there does not seem to be a fact-finding stage of the process to determine the validity of the grounds for recount. However, this is certainly a stage of the recount where the court is likely to be brought in. If Prosser files a recount alleging fraud or mistakes on poor evidence, Kloppenburg may go to the courts to enjoin the recount of districts where the evidence of irregularities is not sufficient.

I say that this is a nightmare scenario for the perceived impartiality of the courts in Wisconsin because such a legal challenge would undoubtedly be appealed up to the Supreme Court within a matter of weeks if not days. The Supreme Court cannot pretend to be impartial. It is a group of nine people working closely together. They certainly have professional and personal biases against or for either candidate, and with any electoral issue before them, the court would be able to choose between retaining Prosser or firing him and gaining Kloppenburg. Even in non-political arenas, this would be an impossibly sticky situation for the judges. Imagine that at your work place, your immediate team and hiring and firing power over a coworker. It's a coworker that at has publicly called your team leader a "total bitch." Judges are idealized to take into account only the issue before them, but petty office politics could easily win the day when the judges retreat to their chambers to come up with a decision.

My point is not that Prosser is doomed if his case comes before the Supreme Court.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Kloppenburg v. Prosser

Possibly the most closely watched judicial election ever in the United States Click the top link- I can't get it to go straight from this page.

Budget and Economic Messaging 101

The key for Democrats fighting the radical Paul Ryan budget is to be clear about what the budget means. The budget on its own terms are immensely unpopular. Of course, the key is message discipline and focus. I think Ezra Klein hones in on the simple problem for Republicans in the first line:
a) Non-defense discretionary: Brings spending back to pre-2008 levels and freezes it there for five years.
Americans don't want to go back to pre-2008 government. Of course, that phrase is a little obscure, and hard to connect with Americans' concrete realities.
Americans don't want to go back to Bush era government. Independent fiscal hawks are still unhappy with the Bush-era spending as they were with the current administration's attempts to fix the holes. Even self-identifying conservatives still don't like the Bush brand. Yet, it's exactly the plan that Republicans have promised.

Americans still remember that the Bush administrations' policies ended in the financial catastrophe which started the recession on mainstreet. Americans understand that Bush-era spending levels did not reflect their values. Americans soundly rejected Bush-era politics and spending in the 2008 election.

Drug Control Regimes: Cigarettes on the Street

Today's New York Times features a piece detailing the black market for loosies on New York streets. Single cigarette sales are illegal in New York under state law. The market for loosies has soared along with prices for a pack.

The basic economic reality of cigarette taxes are clear: at a fairly low price point, a black market springs up to service demand for cigarettes. A legally bought cigarette, which comes in a pack of twenty, are quickly supplanted by either smaller-packaged cigarillos, usually coming in 6 per pack or the illegally sold loosies. Basic microeconomic models suggest that adding a tax to the manufacturer-determined price should knock out a certain segment of the market from affording the habit of smoking. That is the simple public health rationale behind sin taxes on liquor and cigarettes.

This simplistic model fails to take into account the ability of black market or grey market suppliers from poaching that pool of demand. The addicts who are priced out of their substance of choice are far more motivated to seek out a replacement market than purchasers of normal goods, making the market far more fluid, as well as making the demand relatively inelastic. Even price-control regimes such as tariffs and excise taxes introduce the problems of prohibition. The economic opportunity benefits undesirable elements of the society who benefit from a lack of state regulation. For public policy scholars interested in drug control regimes, I would recommend Alfred R Lindesmith's The Addict and the Law, a sociological review of post-World War II opium control regimes in the Pacific, the United States, and England.
Addict and the Law

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pleasure Reading NYTimes

A fun adventure linking the NYTimes so you and yours can avoid the paywall. Enjoy!

Journalistic Elitism

In is swampland blog on the Time magazine website,Michael Sherer does a great disservice to electoral organizers and campaign workers. To be fair, his general theme-hunting Barack Obama's reelection campaign announcement video is not particularly problematic, and could even prove insightful. However, his fourth point rests entirely on an elitist distaste for campaign workers, volunteers, and organizers:
4. Obama will be running on his character. The most interesting quote of the video comes from the southern white guy. "I don't agree with Obama on everything. But I respect him and I trust him." Consider what an extraordinary line this is for a video meant to recruit volunteers to organize for a presidential campaign. Have you ever met a campaign organizer that goes door-to-door or works the phones for a candidate that they admit they don't agree with? The reasoning behind this line can be found in a recent Associated Press poll. As of late March, 53% of the country approved of the way Obama was doing his job as president. But 59% said they had a favorable view of Obama, 59% said Obama "cares about people like" them, and 84% said he was a likable person. Obama would rather make his pitch to 84% of the country than from 53% of the country. That white guy from North Carolina represents the gap between.
Well now you have. I have campaigned door-to-door for candidates with whom I hold fundamental disagreements. I also doubt that I'm in the minority of campaign workers, who are as able to balance conflicting allegiances as reporters, if not more so.

The first-past-the-post electoral scheme encourages exactly this hold-your-nose-and-work for the candidate attitude. Campaign workers commonly disagree with the principals on a variety of issues, but strategically devote their resources to work for the best possible option. It's as if Michael Sherer has never heard of politics being the art of the possible.

Campaign workers, volunteers, and supporters are generally derided as "idealistic," especially if they are young and liberal. That perception is based on sloppy accounts like Sherer's which fail to take into account the contradictions that strategic actors face when evaluating opportunities to achieve incremental change. A campaign works because everybody pitches in towards a common goal, which the same reason that a corporation works. Yet no serious reporter would describe all employees of GE as "doe-eyed" idealogues hoping that pooling capital and laobr will deliver incremental improvements in their individual lives.

The fact is that campaign workers have as many disagreements with their bosses as people in any other field, from tactics to strategy to goals. I'll never forget the arguments in the Iowa field office where I worked over whether the individual mandate should be a part of the health care plan. The organizers simply didn't let their personal preferences from interfering with their jobs: amplify and organize support for the candidate.

The myth of a sheep-like following for any candidate is an obvious falsehood, yet elites are willing to baste in the fantasy. The lie allows political actors to dismiss the will of the voters, even to the point of encouraging eliminationist thinking. The tendency is perhaps more forgivable for arm-chair bloggers who uncreatively imagine unintelligent, undifferentiated opponents. Coming from a journalist, the idea that politicaly active workers are simple-minded, or can't carry two ideas in their heads at once, is offensively lazy.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Judges Own the Foreclosure Nightmare

I'm finding this article about the role of the courts in abrogating the foreclosure nightmare a compelling reflection on the role of the judicial system, and in particular, the judge in American democracy.

Republicans Fail MIddle School Civics

It appears that Repbulicans have forgotten how a bill becomes a law. Two hundred twenty Republican members of the House of Representatives voted through a bill which ignores the constitutinoal reality of how laws are made. A bill must be passed by both houses of Congress, a feat which usually requires that both houses pass versions of the bill then negotiate in a conference committee to find a solution that will pass both houses. The compromise bill, if voted for in both houses, goes to the President's desk for either a signature or a veto. Republicans have a different take on the matter:
Under the bill, the budget already passed by the House and rejected by the Senate becomes law if the Senate does not reverse course and approve it by April 6. The current budget that pays for the government runs out two days later, meaning that if no agreement is reached on spending for the remaining six months of this budget year, part of the government would shut down on April 9.
That's how democracy works. I put my idea forward- if you agree with it, my idea becomes law. If you disagree, then my idea still becomes law because I say so. That's how governing works in Iran, Libya, North Korea, Ivory Coast, and Syria, and if it's good enough for third-world plutocracies, it should be good enough for America.

The laughably unconstitutional bill has proved hard pill to swallow even for their traditional blogagandist cheerleaders, who can, afterall, read. The constitution is very clear on this matter:
All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

Friday, April 1, 2011

House GOP: Obstructing Justice

Darrell Issa is attempting to obstruct the Justice Department's investigations into the death of a federal agent on the U.S.-Mexico border and illegal gunrunning supplying arms to Mexican drug cartels. He unilaterally issued subpeonas of the Justice Department's records while the investigations are ongoing, despite receiving prior assurances from the investigators that they would cooperate with any Congressional oversight requests. The subpeonas take documents out of the hands of law enforcement agents and into the hands of politicians.

Why would a Republican politican do such a thing? It really is hard to know, but Issa's criminal history may provide some background to his attemtps to hamstring the wheels of the American justice system.