February 18, 2013
Actual journalism alert!

It’s kind of sad that the notion that a journalist might go out into the field to try to find out the answer to a question seems like a remarkable thing, isn’t it?

ht: JW

January 14, 2013
Why pork-barrel spending is a good thing …

"Pork," of course, is a slur term in American politics. It evokes money wasted on ten lane interstates in unpopulated areas, bridges to nowhere, and endless government "waste" on research into things like sex habits of snail darters. (They’re a type of fish. Look something up, won’t you?)

Well, as this post from The Monkey Cage suggests, there’s a problem with eliminating pork, as the tea party demanded we do after 2010.  Pork, you see, is the grease that makes the gears of government work. No grease, no grind.

Here’s why. In some ways, the contemporary era of governmental stasis reflects politics as people claim they wish it would be. Two opposing ideologies are engaged in a life or death struggle for political dominance. Great ideas are in contest. Who is going to win?

The thing is, of course, is that while this great ideological contest is going on, no side has sufficient power to impose its will on the political system. Notably, the framers would be all for this: they didn’t want it to be easy for any group to impose their will on the political system. That’s why they created the system of checks and balances. But in any case, as long as the ideologues are fighting in all or nothing terms, no one has the power to do anything until one side or the other takes total control of American politics. Which is really hard to do. So we do a lot of nothing.

In an era of divided politics, like ours, compromise is necessary to get things done. However, in an era of ideological politics (like ours) compromise is a dirty word, a sign one has lost faith in the Faith that is one’s political ideology. So what to do? How can you get things done when the ideological demands of the moment seem to make it impossible to make the compromises needed to take important actions?

As it happens, this is not the first time in American history when the nation has faced this ideological divide. Once, of course, we entered a civil war when we could not compromise, but more often than not we figured out how to make things work despite the great tension among various political actors. 

What did they do that we didn’t?

Historically, the answer to that question is: they distributed pork. Government spending on plans and projects was used to bring coalitions together. One might not like all the details of a particular bill, but you got enough out of it that you voted for it. Like most things in life, you weighed the pros and the cons and if the pros outweighed the cons you supported a bill and lived with the smell. 

Now, of course, any deal making like that is seen as corrupt, dirty and wrong. Perhaps it is. As a practical matter, however, when you take away the grease that made the gears work (pork) without replacing it with something else (a parliamentary model that gives ideological voter groups a better chance to dominate politics) you end up with ideological screaming matches that have little to no prospect of being resolved.

Sound familiar?

January 9, 2013
A debt ceiling primer

As we approach another faux money crisis, this time over the debt ceiling, a few thoughts to help people understand what’s going on … and what isn’t going on:

1. Every year, the United States raises X amount of dollars through taxes and other means. At the same time, it places orders for goods and services, ranging from tanks to office supplies to Medicare payments, for Y amount of dollars. If X and Y are equal, the budget is balanced. If X is larger than Y, the budget is in surplus. If Y is larger than X, the budget is in deficit.

2. If the budget is in deficit, the US government has four choices in how to proceed. It can cut its orders (it can buy fewer tanks, office supplies, Medicare payments, etc.). It can raise its taxes to meet its orders. It can borrow money to cover the difference between tax receipts and orders. Or it can do some combination of all four. That’s it.

3. For most of the last 30 years, the budget has been in deficit. For most of that time, the United States has chosen to borrow money to cover the gap between taxes and orders, rather than raising taxes or cutting orders or both. 

4. Notably, the United States buys much of what it buys (Y) on what amounts to credit: vendors provide office products and other goods and services to the United States today in return for a US promise to pay for those goods later.

5. The constant borrowing of money year after year after year has left the United States with an accumulated debt of $16+ trillion. Which is a lot of money.

6. Some years ago, in an effort to shame itself into not borrowing money forever and ever amen, Congress passed a law creating something called the “debt ceiling.” This is the maximum amount of money the United States is to be allowed to borrow. The idea was that if the Congress had to explicitly vote to raise the debt ceiling, it would be embarrassed and would choose to cut spending or raise taxes or both in order to bring the United States’ budget into balance.

7. This attempted shaming into good economic behavior has never really worked, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge. This is mostly because the programs the US spends its money on are actually pretty popular (for the most part), and so people don’t really want them cut even as they refuse to pay higher taxes to pay for these goods. As a reminder, the United States spends almost 80% of its entire budget on seven (7) things: defense (20%), Social Security (20%), Medicare (13%), Medicaid (7%), “welfare” (12%), retirement benefits for federal workers (5%), and interest on the debt (5%). Everything else—roads, schools, the FAA, the FDA, the National Parks, college loans, everything—comes out of the remainder. Chopping those programs is somewhere between hard and impossible. Rather than raise taxes or cut spending or both, the United States has generally just kept on borrowing and raising the debt ceiling as needed.

8. Recently, Republicans in Congress have decided that the vote to raise the debt ceiling affords them a chance to force the United States to reduce its spending. Essentially, they are refusing to allow the United State to borrow more money (which requires raising the debt ceiling) unless the United States reduces its purchases of goods and services. 

9. One problem with this Republican demand is that, per point 4, much of what the United States buys it buys on credit. Accordingly, vendors have already provided various goods and services to the United States and are awaiting payment … payment which will come only if the United States borrows money (and thus necessitates raising the debt ceiling). In other words, the United States has already received the good or service. The question is: will it pay for it? If the US fails to borrow money to pay for goods and services it has already received, no one will provide the US with any goods or services (or loans) on credit … which, given that we borrow 40% of the money we spend these days, means that we’d have to cut 40% of our budget instantly.

10. Another problem with this Republican demand relates to point 7: the programs that would be cut are quite popular, at least for the most part. While everyone imagines someone else’s program will be cut while theirs will be saved, as a practical matter that can’t happen if cutbacks happen in the 40% range. 

11. On the other hand, nothing else has worked to force political leaders and all the rest of us to accept that we either have to want less, or pay more taxes, or both. 

See? It’s easy. Just square the circle and solve all of America’s budget problems.

Have fun. And if you figure it out, please do let the rest of us know!

January 8, 2013
Fighting the Last War

It’s been said many times that generals always prepare to fight the last war.

This makes sense when you think about it. “Last war” is a real, tangible thing with knowable problems and knowable achievements. “Next war” is uncertain, filled with unforeseen problems and unassessable risks. 

Notably, the “preparing to fight the last war” phenomenon is particularly pronounced on the winning side. After all, “we” won doing things a certain way … why change? All one has to be is “better” at “last war” and you will win “next war” even more easily.

Losers, by contrast, often think creatively about “next war.” They, after all, did not fare well in “last war,” and so need to change the terms of engagement if they have much chance of winning “next war.”

The classic example of this phenomenon can be found in the lead up to the German invasion of France in 1940. Between 1920 and 1940 French military leaders constructed elaborate, complex and powerful defenses against what they perceived would be “next war” against Germany. However, those leaders decided that “next war” (WWII), would be a carbon copy of “last war” (WWI). The Germans, however, had a different idea, and crushed France fairly easily despite France’s profoundly powerful military. 

Put another way, France prepared to fight a war its enemy decided not to fight, but failed to prepare for a war its enemy actually chose to fight.

It seems clear that the contemporary Republican Party, like the French between WWI and WWII, has gotten itself stuck in “last war.”

The party has been remarkably successful for the last 30 years in articulating a message grounded on two core principles: lower taxes (as a proxy for smaller government/self-reliance), and the culture war (moralistic claims that some ways of life were wrong or lesser, and that “good” Americans could only live in some ways). However, the tax claim is falling under its own weight: it’s one thing to lower taxes when they’re high, but quite another to lower them when they’re low and when government is out of money. Likewise, the culture war is failing: people are less worried about religiosity and gay marriage and marijuana smoking, to name a few examples, than they used to be.

But what was the very first bill introduced into the House of Representatives this session? Michelle Bachmann’s bill to repeal Obamacare—a version of a bill that passed the House 33 times in the last session of Congress before going precisely nowhere. Which is where this bill is going. 

Talk about fighting “last war.” I imagine the birthers and the socialisters and the fascist state worriers about gun control leading to the loss of all human freedom are just waiting their turn to ply their craft on the political stage. (Oops: believers in the gun control equals the end of freedom are already on stage, I see.) Meanwhile, in two presidential elections in a row the electorate has been younger and more diverse than the Republican election model can cope with.

The question is: where is the Republican Party going? Having lost “last war” will they rethink what it takes to win and change the grounds of engagement? Or will they stand at their Maginot Line (look it up!) and keep insisting that the war has to be fought on their terms, even as their opponents sweep to victory after victory?

The future of the Republican Party hangs in the balance of the answer to that question.

January 4, 2013
The Right Wing Crazy Train

So for some reason or another I got to thinking about the chain of wackadoo claims conservatives/radicals have made about Democrats/Progressives over the last 20+ years. Some highlights:

  • Bill Clinton had his aide Vince Foster killed to cover up the Whitewater Real Estate “scandal” from his Arkansas days.
  • Bill Clinton had the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City destroyed to cover up the Whitewater “scandal” — some of the FBI agents killed in OK City were alleged to have been knowledgable about the “scandal.” Alternatively, the bombing was alleged to have been done to cover up the Clinton administration’s mistakes in Waco, TX, dealing with the Branch Davidians. (There were real mistakes in this confrontation, by the way, which is not an endorsement of this claim.)
  • The Clinton administration had purchased “black helicopters” they were using to surveil Westerners in preparation for placing them in UN-run internment camps. (Google the name “Helen Chenoweth.” She was a Congresswoman from Idaho who made Michele Bachmann look like a voice of reason and consideration.)
  • During the Clinton Administration, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre described federal agents as “jack booted thugs” (a reference to Nazi SS storm troopers) for enforcing the Brady Bill. Talk show host and former Nixon attorney G. Gordon Liddy, who went to prison for his part in the Watergate scandal, urged his listeners to “aim high” if they were raided by federal agents since—and I am not making this up—federal agents wore body armor, and shots to the body wouldn’t be effective. All of this, of, course, was in the midst of the rise of the militia movement, an incipient armed rebellion against the US government centered in Montana and Idaho and built off the dregs of the survivalist and white supremacist movements.

Skipping forward a few years, we get …

  • Claims during the 2008 campaign that Obama was the literal Biblical antichrist.
  • The 2008 election was stolen by ACORN.
  • Claims that having schoolchildren watch an Obama speech about the importance of education was political indoctrination into the Obama cult of personality.
  • Birtherism. ‘Nuff said.
  • Muslimism. ‘Nuff said.
  • The bailout of the auto industry meant the socialization of the American economy. Which is already a lot socialized. And the auto industry is basically on its own again.
  • Obamacare = socialism, despite the fact that it’s based on private insurance and was mostly a windfall for private, for-profit health insurance providers.
  • Signing the UN Treaty on the rights of disabled persons would let the UN set rules for American parents in raising their children.
  • The 2012 election was stolen by ACORN … which hasn’t existed for several years.
  • Any form of gun control is the first step in creating a fascist state under the communist fascist Kenyan Muslim antichrist Obama.

And before anyone starts with the “the Democrats demonized Bush II” too nonsense, let me concede that lots of Democrats accused/implied that Bush had become president through illegitimate means (e.g., a crony Supreme Court). Lots thought he was a terrible president for lots of reasons (Politicalprof among them).  But you can show me nothing like this list from Democrats aimed at Republicans, particularly from elected, actual government officials or party leaders. And please note that in my list I cheated in the REPUBLICANS’ favor: I didn’t post anything from the assbags Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and their ilk. Nothing, despite the millions of people they have in their daily radio audiences (especially Limbaugh).

So forgive me when I roundly mock the next right wing wackadoo who screams the sky is falling. Really: reason, truth, facts, evidence, science … none of these work. Outright mockery is about all we have left to address these loons.

It’s only reasonable.

January 2, 2013
A reminder WHY Republicans let the Violence Against Women Act expire …

As I quoted the New York Times in this post in February (when the Republicans failed to reauthorize the act, which has now died), Republicans rejected the Violence Against Women Act because: 

The main sticking points seemed to be language in the bill to ensure that victims are not denied services because they are gay or transgender and a provision that would modestly expand the availability of special visas for undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence — a necessary step to encourage those victims to come forward.
So think of this way: the Republicans decided it was better to protect NO women than to ALSO protect gay women, or transgender women, or undocumented women.
If we weren’t talking about the contemporary Republican Party, this would be impossible to believe. Now it’s only expected. And vile.

January 2, 2013
A summary of the fiscal cliff deal (and some snarky comments about it):

What’s in the fiscal cliff deal? From The National Journal:

  • Higher taxes on individuals earning $400,000 and on families making $450,000 or more. Under that threshold, the Bush-era tax cuts will be permanent for all but the wealthiest households. The $450,000 threshold for families is a significant increase from Democrats’ initial proposal to raise taxes on Americans making $250,000 or more, but it is lower than Republicans’ earlier proposal to raise taxes on households making $1 million or more.  
  • Higher tax rates on capital gains and dividends for wealthier households. Taxes on capital gains and dividends will be held at their current levels of 15 percent for individuals making less than $400,000 and households with income of less than $450,000. They will rise to 20 percent for individual taxpayers and for households above those thresholds.
  • Automatic spending cuts delayed for two months. The “sequester,” which would impose steep, across-the-board cuts to domestic and defense programs, will be delayed for two months.
  • One-year extension to unemployment insurance. Emergency unemployment benefits will be extended for a year. The extension was a priority for President Obama and congressional Democrats.
  • One-year “doc fix.” The measure will put off scheduled cuts in physician payments under Medicare. In the absence of an agreement, the payments were going to be reduced by 27 percent in January.
  • Nine-month farm bill extension. Breakfast lovers, rejoice: A much-feared spike in milk prices, dubbed the “dairy cliff” because it was also set to kick in abruptly on Jan. 1, will be averted through a nine-month extension of certain portions of the farm bill. 
  • Personal exemptions phased out for individuals making over $250,000. Personal exemptions will be phased out and itemized deductions will be limited for taxpayers making over $250,000 and families earning more than $300,000.
  • 40 percent estate tax. The estate tax will rise to 40 percent from its current 35 percent level, with the first $5 million in assets exempted. Democrats had earlier sought a higher increase to 45 percent and a lower exemption of $3.5 million.
  • Permanent fix to the Alternative Minimum Tax. The alternative minimum tax was levied to ensure the wealthiest Americans paid a fair share of taxes. It was not indexed for inflation but is usually “patched” annually to prevent an increasingly large swath of middle-class Americans from being caught in its net. As part of the fiscal deal, the AMT will be permanently indexed to inflation.
  • Tax breaks for working families. The deal includes five-year extensions of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which can be claimed for college-related expenses; the Child Tax Credit; and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a refundable income-tax credit for low- to moderate income working Americans.
  • Business tax breaks. The Senate Finance Committee passed a package in August that tackled a variety of routinely expiring tax provisions known as extenders. These popular tax provisions include breaks for research and development. That package passed as part of the broader cliff deal.
  • Congressional pay freeze. President Obama recently authorized a congressional pay raise in a move that angered many congressional Republicans. Under the New Year’s cliff measure, members of Congress won’t see their pay increase.

By the way, this pretty much all proves no one’s really serious about “fixing” the debt … and why would they be? “Fixing” the debt means cutting benefits to real people (i.e., voters) TODAY. It means raising taxes on real people (i.e., voters) TODAY. All in return for a “fix” that may or may not happen a LONG TIME FROM NOW.

Does anyone take massive pain today in order to potentially gain something well in the future, especially when the pain you suffer today may well be fatal (to your political career)? At least, does any sane person do this?

Of course they don’t.

This deal almost certainly guarantees increases in the deficit going forward, not paying it off. The Bush tax cuts were, like so much of the Bush presidency, a disaster for America, and the fetishization of them today is moronic. But that didn’t stop lots of people from calling for making them “permanent” (whatever that means in DC) in this deal, did it?

See you at the next crisis (over the debt ceiling) in two months. Not a damn thing got settled with this deal … nor was there any intent to settle anything. The game continues.

December 28, 2012
Why We’re Going Over a Cliff That Isn’t There

Wondered why we seem on an inevitable course to go over the profoundly badly named “fiscal cliff”? It’s not all that hard to figure out:

Today, if the Republicans agree to a bill Obama will sign, it will mean, in the Washington description of things, that the Republicans have voted to let taxes rise (otherwise known as return to their pre-Bush “temporary” tax cut levels) on people who make more than some amount of money—say, $400,000 a year.

Four days from now, once the “temporary” Bush tax cuts expire and all rates have returned to their Clinton-era levels, the Republicans will claim that voting for THE EXACT SAME BILL THEY COULD VOTE FOR TODAY will mean they are voting to cut taxes for 99.9% of Americans (otherwise known as extending the Bush “temporary” tax cuts into the future for everyone making less than, say, $400,000 a year).

What a difference a day makes.

December 22, 2012
Sorry, Wayne: More Guns Aren’t the Answer

By now, many people are aware of NRA President Wayne LaPierre’s ridiculous press conference of yesterday, in which he claimed that the best way to stop bad guys with guns is to have more good guys with guns. Then he linked “badness” to “madness” and argued that since madness is basically unpreventable, we have to have people armed and ready to kill bad guys (of any kind) at the drop of a hat if we are to be “safe.”

Here are a few reasons why this is stupid.

1. Where do “crazy guys” get their guns? Well, recently most have used weapons that were attained legally, either by themselves or family. Control that access point and crazy guys can have all the murderous impulses they want, but they won’t be able to get the guns with which they enact their murders. (BTW, “bad” guys—e.g., drug dealers—get their guns by stealing them from “good” people who have them in their homes, so if we could control the home access point that violence would get better, too.)

2. Madness is fairly evenly distributed globally: there are crazy people everywhere. But mass murders occur only in those countries that have lots of guns in lots of peoples’ hands. 

3. Video games are played everywhere in the world. Teenage angst and rage exist everywhere there are teenagers. Yet somehow these things seem not to induce mass murders anywhere but the US.

4. Columbine had an armed guard. The people at Ft. Hood were trained soldiers armed with high powered weapons. They couldn’t stop mass murders with guns. Why would even a vaguely sane person believe that untrained amateurs could … especially scared amateurs shooting at a moving target in a large crowd. (BTW, when those amateurs kill the “wrong” people, as they surely will, they’re guilty of murder, you know.)

There’s more, but that’s enough. Reality has a way of being, well, real, no matter what one’s ideology commands. A heavily armed America will be an America with greater numbers of murders, mass murders, suicides and accidental murders. 

Sounds like a good idea to you, I guess. The rest of us choose to be part of the “reality-based community.”

December 6, 2012
Pulling Up the Ladder Behind You

So there is a phenomenon in American political and social life that seems to me to need to at least be acknowledged: our relentless urge to pull the ladder up after ourselves.

The ladder, of course, is the ladder of opportunity.

See, the thing is that while we often refuse to acknowledge this, all of us stand on others’ shoulders as we make progress in life. The accomplishments of medicine, the arts, and science, for example, all frame the context in which we live our lives and make our way. I, for one,  am utterly blessed to have been born in an era where science can make good and complex eyeglasses: my eyes are lousy, and whatever successes I have had have been in part derived from the fact that I have had good glasses since I was six years old. Had I been born a century ago, my life would be lousy. But I wasn’t, and it isn’t.

In some sense, then, my basically successful life has been utterly dependent on other people’s work—the work that created the glasses that I have used to see my path to some kind of success.

Viewed this way, the plain truth is that all of us benefit from others’ accomplishments. Like antibiotics? Safe drinking water? Electric light (and batteries)? Whatever uses you make of these things, someone else had to make them before you could benefit from them. And those people, in turn, built off others’ accomplishments. it’s just how the world works.

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to forget the socially-connected nature of our lives. It is all too easy to think only of our own — very real — accomplishments, and to imagine our successes are entirely of our own making.

It is likewise easy to imagine that others’ failures are entirely the result of their own flaws and fumbles. 

We can see these attitudes in lots of parts of political and social life. To wit:

  • Recent immigrants are often the brunt of jokes and disrespect from more established immigrant groups.
  • People with jobs often perceive that any form of welfare is little more than coddling the poor—even when, in many cases, the employed have enjoyed government support in the past (like public education, tax breaks for home ownership and, in Mitt Romney’s father’s case, actual welfare when George Romney’s family moved back from Mexico when George was a child).
  • There are retirement towns in Arizona that have been exempted from paying that portion of local property taxes that goes to support local schools—an exemption granted on the theory that the retirees’ children didn’t go to school in Arizona, so they shouldn’t have to pay for the educations of current Arizona children.

All of this—and much more—is akin to pulling up the ladder behind you as you climb into a tree house: you got yours, so screw everyone else. Such selfishness is perhaps inevitable given that people seem to imagine our successes as totally ours and thus attribute others’ failings to their personal flaws, but in the end this kind of selfishness is self-defeating: the only way any of us can hope to succeed is to make sure that lots of people have lots of opportunities to succeed, even as we recognize that not everyone will. 

An America with strong ladders that can hold a lot of people, even those who sometimes fall off, will be a better America than one where the ladders are reserved to the people with tree houses.