Saturday, October 30, 2010

Keeping Sanity Alive

I can't think of a better cause to promote than civil discourse.  But how do you get people excited about that cause?  Holding a rally to promote sanity seems like a contradiction in terms, but somehow today Jon Stewart (and Stephen Colbert) managed to attract at least 10 million people to the mall in Washington, D.C. for that purpose.  (They know there were at least ten million because they counted off one by one.)   I couldn't make it to DC, but did stop by the local satellite rally in MacArthur Park, where I'm sure there were a couple of million people crowded in to watch the rally on a giant TV and hold an event of their own. (Don't even bother challenging my crowd estimates.  I was there.  I took a picture, ok?)

I am old enough to remember Richard Nixon talk about how the silent majority supported him, and complain about how the media paid so much attention to noisy protesters.  So it's interesting to see that these days the angry protesters are mostly conservatives, while the "silent majority" are more liberal.  What is still true is that the media pays a lot more attention to people who shout than those who speak in a civil tone of voice.

It's also somewhat ironic that we need a satirist like Jon Stewart to stand up for civility.  Traditionally satirists are known for trying to stir up outrage and for never playing fair.  Nowadays it seems the most radical thing you can advocate is for people to listen respectfully to one another's viewpoints.  Imagine if that idea took hold.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Get me the votes!

I was interested to read the transcript of the president's interview with five progressive bloggers yesterday.  In dealing with the frustrations of supporters on the left (why couldn't you get a bigger stimulus or a better health care bill or repeal DADT, etc.), President Obama made the important point that I hadn't seen him express so simply before: "I'm president and not king."  Exactly.  People seem to forget that sometimes when they want to blame the president for not doing more to push their particular agenda.  (And even kings' powers have limits.)

When asked, for example, about the strategy for ending the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy, the president questioned whether the Log Cabin Republicans, who are devoting a lot of time and money to their legal challenge to the law, might be better off putting pressure on just a few Republican Senators whose votes are needed.
You’re financing a very successful, very effective legal strategy, and yet the only really thing you need to do is make sure that we get two to five Republican votes in the Senate.  And I said directly to the Log Cabin Republican who was here yesterday, I said, that can’t be that hard. GET ME THOSE VOTES.  Because what I do anticipate is that John McCain and maybe some others will filibuster this issue, and we’re going to have to have a cloture vote. If we can get through that cloture vote, this is done.  (emphasis added)
So what I would say to all who are frustrated with the pace of change is this: Ask not what more the president can do for you, ask what you can do to get the president a few more votes in the United States Senate.  He is begging for help.  And obviously, the difficulty of getting any kind of progressive legislation through Congress is only going to increase after the election, when the Democrats' majorities will almost certainly be reduced, if not evaporated entirely, and the Republicans are already talking about how they will refuse to compromise in the next session of Congress.  What that means is that Republican supporters will soon start feeling the frustration when they find that they cannot get their agenda through the Senate or signed by the president without compromise.  Politics is all about who has the votes.  That's it.  That's the whole ball game.  That's democracy in action.

(J. Paul Tapper photo)

(For more on why you should try to avoid using the word "compromise," go here.  People, especially congressmen, should also avoid saying that they will never compromise.  That will only make it harder for them when they finally do have to compromise.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

California Election Guide

Here is as good a summary as I've come across of some of the confusing propositions that Californians are expected to vote on next week, sent around by Sabrina Kemeny, who actually took the trouble to study the 60 page pamphlet that the state helpfully distributes to prepare voters for election day.  I might disagree on one or two of these recommendations, but that's not important.   What's important is that we have a lot of good reasons to vote this year.

Sabrina’s Progressive California Voter Guide

(For my busy friends who may share some of my environmental and socially liberal views but can’t put in the hours required to sort through all the propositions)

YES on Prop 19 Legalizes marijuana under California but not Federal law
Weak yes on Prop 20 Redistricting of congressional districts
YES on Prop 21 Establishes $18.00 vehicle charge to fund state parks       
NO on Prop 22 Prohibits State from borrowing from local government funds

NO on Prop 23 Suspends global warming laws

YES on Prop 24 Repeals lower business taxes
YES on Prop 25 Lowers legislative vote for budget from 2/3 to ½          
NO on Prop 26 Requires certain fees be approved by 2/3 vote
NO on Prop 27 Eliminates recently enacted state commission on redistricting     

Why I came to decision and some endorsements

YES on Prop 19 Legalizing marijuana could bring in huge tax revenues (several to many billions/year) to local governments and unclog our criminal justice system (60,000/year arrested for small non violent possession) that unfairly targets the poor.  It is estimated that even without taxes, the state spends close to $1 billion on pot enforcement per year.

ACLU, Courage Campaign, CREDO, California’s leading progressive blog (, Latino Voters League, some counties

Very Weak Yes on Prop 20 Redistricting of Congressional Districts.  This extends the 2008 voter passed Prop 11, which created a non-partisan 14-member commission to draw boundaries (based on 10 year census data) for state offices to also draw them for congressional districts.  Prior to Prop 11, sitting legislators drew the new boundaries of their districts so it’s pretty easy to keep themselves in office (a long established American unjust tactic called gerrymandering).  HOWEVER PLEASE NOTE THAT ALMOST ALL PROGRESSIVE ORGANIZATIONS ARE VOTING NO ON PROP 20 because it was placed on the ballot by a wealthy right wing activist and is intended to reduce the number of House seats held by Democrats.  So philosophically it is the right thing to do but pragmatically it may really hurt the progressive agenda.  I am really torn on which way to go.

YES on Prop 21 Save State Parks Creates: $18.00 fee on annual license registration to be used to operate, maintain and repair state parks, and protect wildlife and natural resources.  Removes fees to enter state parks for those who have paid vehicle fee.  Results in $500 million revenue which would replace the current state funding of about $300 million ($150 comes from general fund, $50 from day use fees and about $100 from gasoline taxes)  $300 million has not been enough to keep the parks going with lots of closures and service reductions recently.  They support the economy through tourism as well as helping the environment.  This fee would allow the parks to start doing deferred maintenance as well as getting $250 million per year back to the state for use in other areas like education.

Courage Campaign, CREDO, CA Democratic Party, CA Federation of Teachers, CA Labor Fed, CA League of Conservation Voters, CA Nurses Assn, California’s leading progressive blog (, National Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy

NO on Prop 22 Prop 22 prohibits the State from borrowing or taking funds used for transportation, redevelopment or local governments.  This may sound good on the surface but on further consideration actually turns out to be quite detrimental.  It will result in about $1 billion per year less for the general fund (which pays for education, firefighters and children’s healthcare).  Worse yet it locks in to the constitution special protections for developers.  Redevelopment agencies have a sorry history of funneling taxpayer funds into incentives and giveaways to huge developers that don’t result in the desired outcome.  (e.g. downtown redevelopment over the years).   This poorly written proposition also seeks to repeal laws enacted after Oct. 2009 which conflict with it and so will lead to court battles wasting taxpayer money and leading to more gridlock.

Courage Campaign, CA Dem Party, CA Nurses Assn, CA Professional Firefighters

Hell NO on Prop23: Keep it Clean             Funded by two Texas oil companies  - Valero and Tesoro, Prop 23 would effectively repeal California’s historic clean air law (AB 23) enacted four years ago that holds polluters accountable and sets up clean energy standards.  Prop 23 suspends activity under AB 23 until unemployment drops below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters.  Unemployment is currently 12% and has rarely dropped to such a low level even in good times, so Prop 23 essentially repeals the global warming legislation we have.  This will jeopardize about 500,000 clean energy jobs and $10 billion in private investment in California’s clean energy businesses.  CA is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gasses in the world and AB 32 is one of the few good things that have happened in recent years.

ACLU, Courage Campaign, CREDO, CA Democratic Party, CA Federation of Teachers, CA Labor Fed, CA League of Conservation Voters, CA Nurses Assn, California’s leading progressive blog (, League of Women Voters, American Lung Assn., AARP, Coalition for Clean Air, LA Business Council and more than 50 environmental organizations such as Wilderness Society, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace USA, Sierra Club …. you get the idea.     

YES on Prop 24: Stop corporate welfare.  Prop 24 would repeal recent legislation that reduces taxes on businesses in three ways starting in 2011.  It allows businesses to shift operating losses to prior years and extends the period that it can shift losses into future years from the previous 10 years to 20 years.  It allows multistate businesses to pay less sales tax by choosing between one of two formulas to base their tax on.  Finally it allows tax credit sharing between entities within a business group. 

Costing the Sate about $1.3 billion/year (maybe closer to $2 b) in lost revenue by 2012, these tax giveaways benefit the largest and wealthiest 2% of CA businesses.  Small businesses by and large get nothing.  Despite the current high unemployment and budget crisis facing the state, corporate profits have been outstanding starting in 2009 with 2010 looking like another banner year.  These corporate giveaways will NOT help create or save jobs.  If anything we will lose jobs in the public sector as the government has to lay off more teachers, firefighters, etc. 

The myth that CA is unfriendly to business was debunked in a front-page article in the Sunday LA Times Oct. 24, which showed that CA takes about 4.7% of what a business produces in taxes – which is the national average.  The government take is higher in Alaska (13.8%), New York (5.5%) and even Texas (4.9%). 

Courage Campaign, CREDO, CA Democratic Party, CA Federation of Teachers, CA Labor Fed, CA Nurses Assn, California’s leading progressive blog (, League of Women Voters, ACLU

YES on Prop 25: Stop Budget Gridlock Lowers legislative vote for budget from 2/3 to ½ (just like in 47 other states) and permanently docks legislators pay for every day the budget is late.  Retains 2/3 majority needed to raise taxes.

California’s constitution requires that the state Senate and Assembly agree and pass a new budget plan by June 15 of every year.  But this budget also must be passed by a 2/3 super majority vote, so that a few minority party legislators wield tremendous power to negotiate backroom deals for pet projects and narrow interests.  It also results in very late budgets (this year +100 days). Late budgets cost real taxpayer dollars as interest accrues, projects are stopped and restarted, as well as adding to the misery of workers and small businesses who have received IOUs in the past two years.
Courage Campaign, CREDO, CA Democratic Party, CA Federation of Teachers, CA Labor Fed, CA League of Conservation Voters, CA Nurses Assn, California’s leading progressive blog (, League of Women Voters, ACLU
NO on Prop 26: Stop polluter protection Requires certain fees be approved by 2/3 vote rather than a simple majority both  in the legislature for state fees and at the local level by voters.  Prop 26 would also redefine certain fees as taxes (again requiring a 2/3 vote).  Funded by large corporations (Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, Philip Morris) Prop 26 would make it much harder to levy fees on companies for harm to the environment or public health.  These types of fees include oil recycling fees, hazardous materials fees, and alcohol retailer fees.  Although current fees would be exempt any changes to them would require the higher vote in addition to new fees on future industries.  California corporations are doing well.  It makes no sense to give them more giveaways, especially at the cost of public and environmental health and welfare.  Any revenue not collected from corporations is shifted on to the backs of taxpayers.

Courage Campaign, CREDO, CA Democratic Party, CA Federation of Teachers, CA Labor Fed, CA League of Conservation Voters, CA Nurses Assn, California’s leading progressive blog (, League of Women Voters, ACLU, Sierra Club

NO on Prop 27: Eliminates recently enacted state commission on redistricting created in 2008 by Prop 11.  History has shown that allowing legislators to draw their own district lines leads is a conflict of interest that is hard to resist. The first Citizens Redistricting Commission has just been finalized and its members were selected from a diverse, qualified pool of candidates (5 Republicans, 5 Democrats, 4 others).  Let them do their work.  However, as in Prop 20, many progressive organizations are for Prop 27 because the current make up of the legislature is majority Democratic.

League of Women Voters, ACLU

For other progressive voter guides and other info:

Monday, October 25, 2010

Losing is not winning.

The New York Times published some commentary yesterday with the Orwellian title, "In Losing the Midterms, There may be Winning."  This seems as good an example as any of what is wrong with political commentary these days.  The point of the article is that President Obama might have a better chance of being re-elected in 2012 if the Republicans take Congress, using as examples both the Clinton presidency and the Truman presidency.  These presidents were able to secure re-election by, in Truman's case, running against what he called the "do-nothing Congress," and in Clinton's case, fighting a Congress that literally shut the federal government down and spent most of its efforts in wasted investigations of the Executive branch.  Now the article does not suggest that this is what President Obama actually wants, and in fact acknowledges that he is doing his utmost to prevent such a result, but it quotes some consultants who suggest that even more acrimonious relations with a completely hostile Congress might be what the President should want.  Maybe it's understandable for a campaign consultant to look for the silver lining in the prospect of the kind of disgraceful Congressional performances we experienced in the Truman or Clinton eras, but it is hard to see how the rest of us would be cheered by the prospect of a president at war with a failing Congress.

Wouldn't it be more responsible for the media to be encouraging a substantive debate about the issues that are at stake in this election, rather than engaging in speculation about the election's effects on potential candidates two years from now?   Regardless of our political affiliation, shouldn't we be more interested in talking about how to resolve problems facing the nation, rather than talking about which party might benefit from an increase in gridlock in the capital?   And granted that politicians are legitimately interested in re-election, shouldn't we give them the benefit of the doubt that re-election may not be the only thing they are interested in?  I for one would like to see more focus on how the Republicans actually propose to solve pressing problems, given that the Republicans are trying to persuade the American people that they should be given control of Congress.  I would love to see the media making serious efforts to clear up some widespread public misconceptions, rather than taking what the candidates say at face value, and focusing on who is up or down in the polls. 

Instead, all we get is coverage of politics as if it were a sporting event.  This kind of discussion just encourages people to prefer arguing about problems to solving them.  It reminds me of the decline of serious criticism in the entertainment world.  It seems to me that we used to see more substantive discussion of the merits of films and music.  Now all we hear about are the grosses.  There's nothing wrong with a little public interest in inside baseball, but when that becomes the overriding focus of our attention, we might just lose sight of the issues that are really at stake, just as we might have less appreciation of the performances in the movies we saw last weekend because we are so preoccupied with which one is number one at the box office.

In politics, it seems to me that the question whether the government can function and accomplish anything useful, might be slightly more important than the fortunes of any particular candidate.  We should want a functioning government, rather than one at war with itself.  The media should be demanding that Republican candidates explain how they are going to make government work for the people's benefit if they gain control of Congress, rather than relishing the prospect that they are going to cause the system to grind to a halt.

(Paul Antonson illustration)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fired Up at USC

I'm not sure what I was thinking this morning when I decided to join a crowd estimated at over 35,000 to hear the president speak at a rally in support of Democratic candidates.  It took three hours to get in, people were packed so tight you could barely move, and it was difficult to see the stage through all the arms holding up cell phone cameras.  But I wanted to see for myself that the president can still attract and fire up a big crowd, and that all this talk about an "enthusiasm gap" between Democrats and Republicans is overblown.  This crowd was overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic.  And the only evidence of opposition I saw was a pathetic demonstration of about 10 Young Americans for Freedom bravely holding up some counter-signs at the entrance to the rally.  I was also struck by the fact that the crowd was so anxious to hear the President, and less interested in listening to all the other warm-up speeches, even though the rally was ostensibly in support of candidates Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer and Kamala Harris, all of whom gave very short, forgettable speeches to the impatient audience.  (Maybe we were just tired from standing for hours and were more than ready for the main event.)

Barack Obama really is a rock star  Not only does he carry the weight of the world on his shoulders now; he also seems to be carrying the whole Democratic Party.  I know in some parts of the country there are Democrats distancing themselves from him, and I'm not sure whether that is a good strategy or not.  Here in California the candidates seem grateful for his support, and don't even try to compete with his star appeal.

And don't forget, that if you want to move forward, you put the transmission in "D,"  whereas if you want to reverse, you put it in "R."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Midterm Election Predictions

All Nate Silver will tell you is that the Democrats have about an 83% chance of holding onto the Senate after the midterm elections, and a 27% chance of holding the House, and I'm sure his analysis is sound based on the data at his disposal.  But his predictions are filled with so many caveats and contingencies that they are about as useful as the weatherman telling you that there is a 30% chance of rain tomorrow.  I, on the other hand, will go out on a limb and tell you exactly what is going to happen on election night this year:

-Republicans will say that the election results amount to a resounding repudiation of the whole Obama agenda, and show that the country wants to turn in a completely different direction, toward lower taxes, smaller government and less regulation.

-Democrats will say that the party in power almost always suffers severe losses in the midterm elections, comparable to what happened this year, and it is amazing that the Democrats did as well as they did considering the state of the economy and continuing high unemployment.  Meanwhile, the country as a whole has shown no desire to return to the failed policies of the Bush years.

-Conservatives in both parties will say that the election results prove that the Obama administration needs to move toward the center, and stop trying to promote a doctrinaire, radical, left wing agenda.

-Liberals will say that the election results prove that the Obama administration needs to move toward the left, and pay more attention to his base.  Democrats would have done better if Obama wasn't so wishy-washy and conciliatory.

-Partisans on the right will say that Obama now has no choice but to trim back his proposals and adopt the Republican program of lower taxes and smaller government; while partisans on the left will say that Obama must resist this program more strongly than before.  Moderates will point out that the president is going to have to use all of his negotiating skills to deal with a more resistant Congress, and will now have the chance to show whether he can get beyond partisan stalemate.

-Fox News will herald the Republicans' triumphs, while MSNBC will gloat about any Tea Party candidates who fail to win election.  Over on CNN, Wolf Blitzer will continue to look befuddled.

Remember, you heard it all here first.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Politics and Justice

To many on the left, the Obama administration's latest outrage is its decision this week to seek a stay of a district court injunction ordering the U.S. military immediately to stop enforcing its "don't ask, don't tell" policy.   Even though the administration is committed to repeal of the DADT policy, it is at the same time still seeking to enforce existing law in court, and seems to be dragging its feet in making promised change.  Advocates for full equal rights for gays and lesbians in the military are infuriated to see the administration seem to be talking out of both sides of its mouth on this issue, when the opportunity for immediate sweeping change presented by Judge Phillips's decision, has presented itself.  The reality is of course more complicated.

People should remember how outraged they felt by the Bush administration's politicization of the Justice Department, and Bush's signing statements indicating he would ignore or narrowly interpret statutes passed by Congress.  In this case it appears that the Justice Department is doing nothing more than going "by the book" in deferring to Congress and enforcing existing law, even to the extent of pursuing an appeal of a statute whose constitutionality has been called into question.  People impatient with the pace of change should also remember that the order declaring the statute unconstitutional is not binding on any other federal judge in America whether or not it is appealed.  Therefore this ruling on the DADT statute cannot be considered definitive, and probably should be tested on appeal, unless and until the policy is changed in some other fashion, and then the court's order would be moot.  There are also sound reasons for allowing the Pentagon to complete its ongoing study on implementing a new policy, and well as giving Congress a chance to do the right thing and repeal the existing policy.

Sometimes I think the problem with the most vociferous elements on both the right and the left is that they have no patience with our democratic process and with the intricacies of our legal system.  Obama supporters  expected their man to come in like a dictator implementing the entire liberal agenda without any input from Congress or the courts or the federal bureaucracy.  And opponents on the right who have wrongly characterized the Obama administration as acting in a dictatorial way, and who defend filibusters to prevent the majority in Congress from implementing its will, also show no regard for the principles of democracy.  I can understand people being frustrated with their inability to get policy preferences they feel passionately about, implemented quickly and without compromise.  To me, however, it seems more important to preserve the rule of law and the democratic process, than to push through any particular policy choice in an illegitimate way.
LCR v. USA - Application for Emergency Stay                                                                   

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Everything old is new again.

I heard the historian Sean Wilentz giving an interview on the radio about an article he published in the New Yorker discussing the intellectual roots of the Tea Party movement. As Wilentz makes clear, the ideas behind what appears to be a new movement are far from new.  For example, Glenn Beck is recycling ideas promoted by John Birch Society during the 1950's.  In particular, Beck has been peddling the works of right wing radical Willard Cleon Skousen.   In fairness, I should probably read some of this guy's writings before commenting, but for now I'll just accept Wilentz's summary.  For example, in the book that Glenn Beck apparently was responsible for rocketing back to best sellerdom, Skousen attempted to prove that the U.S. Constitution was divinely inspired and based on the Bible, instead of being the product of 18th Century Enlightenment thought.  If you're not buying that, Beck would say you've been too thoroughly brainwashed by generally acceptable historical scholarhip.  But if you are buying that, I would say you probably need to do some more research and check out Skousen's sources.  Skousen's ideas have apparently been pretty thoroughly discredited by other scholars, which is one reason his works have been buried for decades.

In their time, people like William F. Buckley had a lot to do with making conservative thought more respectable, and Buckley did it by helping to de-legitimize Birchers and other fringe elements on the right.  Wilentz says it is a shame there are no powerful conservative intellectuals out there today who are strong enough to keep such wacky ideas out of circulation.  If Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich are the best the Republicans can come up with to keep conservative thought respectable, their movement may be in trouble, even as it appears headed for a measure of electoral success this fall. 

I think it's helpful to put a movement like the Tea Party movement into some historical perspective.  For one reason, that may dampen some of the alarm at the success of this movement, and it may even reduce some of the outrage felt by Tea Partiers themselves.  Once we understand that we are still debating issues that have been around since the Wilson administration, maybe we can stop worrying about the sky's imminent fall.  That goes for a lot of issues we are currently debating.  I just finished reading The American Future by Simon Schama, an optimistic look at the historical context of the Obama campaign, in contrast to the hysterical backlash of Tea Partiers.  In that book, Schama demonstrates that some of the issues that still preoccupy us--such as immigration, the role of the military, civil rights, and resource allocation--have been with us our entire history.  Why not continue the debate over these issues in a civil tone, without all the alarmist and hateful rhetoric, recognizing that we are not about to end these debates anytime soon?  And why not try to avoid being taken in by the latest fads in conspiracy theories and revisionist history, seeing as these new ideas may actually have been trotted out and disproven a half-century ago?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Is everything we know wrong?

Polls show that voters have become increasingly concerned about the budget deficit and federal spending.  Other polls show that large portions of the public believe the stimulus and TARP programs were either unnecessary or wasteful.  Conservatives are angry that the government shoved a socialist agenda down people's throats, while many liberals believe that the current administration has merely continued the corporatist, militarist policies of the Bush era.  As a result of conservative anger and liberal disillusionment, Republicans could take over Congress this fall.  To me that seems a perverse result, as I don't see a great public clamoring for a return to the Bush policies that got us into the mess we are in, but there it is.

Expanding on some of my previous comments, I want to float the possibility that the conventional wisdom that seems to be driving a lot of voters this election cycle, is all wrong.  Maybe reality has taken a different course.   

Maybe, I would suggest to all new-found and long-time deficit hawks, the debt is not our biggest problem right now.  Maybe the problem is that the deficit needs to be a lot bigger to allow the economy to recover.

Maybe government is not to blame for the lagging pace of the recovery.  Maybe recovery will pick up when businesses and consumers start feeling more confident.  The aftermath of a deep recession could be a good time for consumers, business, and investors to be borrowing and spending more money, since interest rates are so low now.  Once more people start to realize that, the economy will recover more quickly.

Maybe too big to fail was never the problem. Maybe the problem was that Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail. That could be what caused lending to freeze up and the economy to crash.

Maybe the hated bailouts, of General Motors, the banks, and insurance companies,  made a lot of sense.  It now appears that TARP could turn into one of the most successful government programs ever, and that these institutions will pay the taxpayers back in whole or in large part, and they are generating profits and helping the economy recover.  Maybe bailing out homeowners would not have made as much sense, since they could not pay us back, and many of them still could not afford to stay in their homes.

Maybe there would have been no point in prosecuting more of the Wall Street tycoons who contributed to the financial crisis, because most of what they did was legal.  Maybe it did make sense to put people who understand the financial system, like Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke, in charge of fixing it. 

Maybe we should be happy that Wall Street is making money again, because the alternative of Wall Street losing money would actually be worse.

Maybe the Congress that everyone is so angry at should instead be congratulated for concluding one of its most productive sessions in history, in which it achieved, despite nearly unanimous obstruction from the opposition, major stimulus legislation, major health care reform legislation, and major financial reform legislations, among other accomplishments.   Maybe all of those programs are going to have major positive impacts, but it is too soon to evaluate them, considering that most of the major provisions of those laws have not even taken effect yet.

Maybe, I would suggest to Tea Party protesters, taxes in America are not too high.  Maybe they are actually lower than what people in most other developed nations pay, which is pretty remarkable considering that we support the largest military on earth.  Which means we have to consider the possibility that our government is actually pretty well run and efficient, and that we probably wouldn't be able to obtain the valuable services it provides any cheaper in the private market.

Maybe the much-maligned stimulus program actually worked.  And the projects it funded are useful.  Without the stimulus, unemployment would be even worse, and the economy would be growing more slowly.    Maybe the real problem with the stimulus was that it was actually too small, and should have included more help for the states to prevent the budget problems many states are struggling with now.

Maybe, I would say to some disillusioned Obama supporters, the president and his team actually pushed a progressive agenda as far as they could get it through Congress.   And maybe some of the members of the team most distrusted by the left, like Rahm Emmanuel, were highly effective in accomplishing real change.

Maybe we are actually headed in the right direction, but it's just going to take more time for the country to recover from the enormous problems this administration inherited.  Maybe reversing course would be the thing that would take us in the wrong direction.

(trends in private sector job growth, from Washington Monthly)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Taking back the streets

Today I participated in the first-ever CicLAvia, an idea that originated in Bogota, and which has spread to a number of other cities.  For five hours, the city of Los Angeles--that car town of all car towns!--actually closed off more than 7 miles of streets to cars, opening them up for cyclists and pedestrians to enjoy.  This was definitely the most fun trip I have made from my house to downtown LA and beyond.  And even though I was pretty familiar with the route, I saw some parts of the city up close that I had not always appreciated before.  I got some good exercise too!

It's amazing how many problems can be addressed by closing streets to traffic.  First of all, the problem of traffic itself.  From the perspective of a driver, it seems that adding more lanes would help ease traffic.  But that only seems to increase traffic wherever it is tried.  Instead, the problem of traffic, which is caused by having too many cars on the streets at the same time, can only be solved by reducing the number of cars on the street.  Closing streets to traffic is a pretty effective way of doing that. Second, health care.  If we all walked and cycled more, we would all be a lot healthier, and the crisis of rising health care costs would not loom so large.  Third, energy.  We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.  That means we need to choose more fuel-efficient vehicles, of which of course the most fuel-efficient ever designed is a bicycle.  Fourth, the environment.  What better way to reduce pollution than to ride a bike or walk?  And last but definitely not least, an event like this does wonders for peoples' mood.  Driving is an isolating experience, and creates hostility between the driver and everyone else on the road.  A street full of bicyclists, on the other hand, is a much friendlier and more considerate place.  We need to create that kind of atmosphere wherever possible.  Let's hope that LA and other cities expand this kind of program.  In Bogota (population 7 million), they close 70 miles of streets to traffic every single week, and people seem to love it.

(photos by me)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What taxes are for

In the unincorporated sections of Obion County, Tennessee, residents must pay a $75 annual fee if they want to receive fire department services from the City of South Fulton Fire Department.  The Cranick family forgot to subscribe for fire protection services last year, and as a result, the Fire Department watched their house burn to the ground, even as Mr. Cranick begged for help and offered to pay the fee on the spot.

Conservative pundits (like Glenn Beck) seem to have no trouble defending this practice.  They cannot bring themselves to admit that the much simpler expedient of taxing county residents for fire protection services would be more efficient, more productive, and more humane.  Apparently it is more important to stick to their anti-tax principles and insist that the Cranick family be punished for their negligence, than it is to prevent their house from burning down.

These new zealots of free market orthodoxy sound like Ptolomyic astronomers trying to explain the convoluted movement of the planets within a system in which the sun revolves around the earth, because they are unwilling to acknowledge the much simpler explanation that in fact the earth revolves around the sun.  You want to shake them up and say, did you not see that family's house burn down?  How can you justify a system that allows that kind of waste, which could easily have been prevented by a small tax levy sufficient to fund adequate services for the entire county?  (not to mention that adding a sufficient amount for fire protection to residents' tax bills is a lot more efficient than soliciting voluntary contributions for those services, and keeping track of who paid and whose houses should be allowed to burn down)

It's one thing to oppose expanding health care coverage to everyone, or enacting new financial regulations.  I understand that some people do not want to create new government programs.  But the current leaders of the backlash go further than that.  To be consistent, they feel the need to question well-established public protections such as Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, and even unemployment insurance, the income tax and public education.  Fine, you want to oppose all those popular programs, just own up to it when you talk to voters.  But the fire department?  Is it necessary to extend anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric so far as to preclude an institution as apple pie as the fire department from doing its job of putting out fires?   Is that really the kind of country we want to live in?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Hope in Afghanistan

The Washington Post reports that serious, high-level talks are now taking place between the government of Afghanistan and Taliban representatives.  While it is too early to predict whether anything will come of these talks, the fact that they are occurring seems like good news.

Unfortunately, the Taliban appear to believe, as Dan Ackroyd keeps repeating in The Blues Brothers, that they are on a mission from God, and they are therefore oblivious to the havoc they cause on the way to accomplishing their mission.  At the same time, they seem to recognize that the Taliban remains unpopular with most people, which is why they must resort to military means to achieve power rather than contesting elections.  It seems doubtful that they have suddenly decided to accept the legitimacy of the democratic process and are ready to take their place as a bona fide political party in a pluralistic political system.  What they may have decided, is that they can accomplish more within that structure than by continuing to operate as an illegitimate band of guerrillas that will never be allowed to take power again.

From the US point of view, our interests are supposed to be limited to assuring that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorists again, as it was when the Taliban held power.  Perhaps our build-up of forces was helpful to bringing the parties to the table.  At the same time, we seem to have recognized, as have most of the interested parties, that the problems of Afghanistan cannot be solved by military means alone, and that a political solution is necessary. Therefore, talking should always be encouraged.

(AFP photo)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Stop high speed rail!

As reported in the New York Times, here is yet another reason to vote Republican this fall. A number of gubernatorial and other candidates are running on their opposition to high speed rail, a large down payment on which is contained in the stimulus bill passed last year. What do these candidates have against 200 mile an hour trains, one might ask?  Would they prefer that the federal dollars be spent in other states, to keep unwanted construction projects out of their jurisdictions? Or do they just hate the idea of people riding in fast trains, since it is so much more efficient and enjoyable for Americans to stand in those long security lines at the airport?

Perhaps the real reason these politicians are trying to stop the trains is that they want to promote tourism to the United States. See, the French and the Japanese and the Chinese take their modern bullet trains for granted.  It is getting to be old hat for them to be able to whisk themselves from city to city at enormous speeds with no traffic. When they need a break from these conveniences, they are going to want to visit a quaint, old-fashioned country with outmoded forms of transportation.  They will want to experience travel in poky little gasoline-powered vehicles, get stuck in traffic jams, and search for highway rest stops. They will come here in droves to see what life is like for people who still cling to 20th century forms of transportation, even after the rest of the developed world has adopted fast, efficient, clean new systems. Just as Americans now go to Amish country looking for an idyllic slower-paced way of life, soon tourists from all of the more developed parts of the world will flock here as an escape from the hustle and bustle of their usual existence.  Americans will find plenty of employment selling trinkets and displaying our folk customs and old-fashioned ways to these visitors.  Why should we bother to try to lead the world in technology any more?

Anyone who believes that this modern world is just too new-fangled for us poor simple Americans, and that Turkey can afford high speed rail, but the United States of America cannot, should vote Republican. The party of  "No we can't!"

On a more serious note, I want to reference a couple of other quotes from the New York Times article, lest I be accused of turning transportation into a partisan issue. First from Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood, a Republican, who compared the proposed high speed rail network to the interstate highway system designed under President Eisenhower: “The bottom line is that high-speed rail is a national program that will connect the country, spur economic development and bring manufacturing jobs to the U.S.”  La Hood tried to imagine what would have happened to states like Ohio and Wisconsin had they declined to be connected to the national highway grid back in the 1950's. The article also quotes John Robert Smith, a former Republican mayor from Mississippi, as follows: “Any notion that somehow rail is subsidized, and other modes of transportation aren’t, is simply not factual . . . . Honestly, transportation infrastructure should not be a partisan issue. When you talk about good transportation solutions, they cross party lines.”

Of course there are always legitimate issues of feasibility and cost, but we should be careful of letting blind ideological opposition to all kinds of government infrastructure programs--except roads and military spending, which for some reason are more likely to get a pass from Republicans--get in the way of building the kind of first class transportation system that this country deserves. 

(photo of Turkish train from treehugger; horse and buggy photo from Texas

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Stimulus Simplified

Here is a chart compiled by Ezra Klein about a month ago, based on data from the Congressional Budget Office, showing the effects of the Recovery Act of 2009 on unemployment.  (There are similar charts in the Klein article and elsewhere showing the effects of the stimulus on GDP, and on overall employment.)

It seems incontrovertible that if many thousands of people are hired to build roads and bridges and other projects, if taxes are cut, and if the federal government increases aid to the states, all these measures must create economic activity.  It's not like all these stimulus projects could have taken jobs from the private sector, since the private sector has been busy laying off millions of workers since 2008.  Not only can and has all this activity been measured, overall economic statistics have also improved since the stimulus was enacted.  Yet those who opposed the stimulus when it passed Congress in 2009 continue to repeat, without evidence, that the stimulus is a failure, as if repetition of this mantra will make it true.

I try to understand the arguments of these opponents, but almost all of them merely illustrate a lot of well-known logical fallacies.  For example, the fallacy of inconsistency, i.e., the stimulus was a failure because it consisted of too much government pork, instead of tax cuts which stimulus opponents would have supported. This argument overlooks the fact that the stimulus actually included almost $300 billion in tax cuts.  If the government should have cut taxes instead, then a stimulus whose largest component was in fact tax cuts, could not have been a complete failure, by the opponents' own criteria.

Then there is the non sequitur: Christina Romer forecast that unemployment would rise to 9%, and unemployment actually rose to 10%, therefore the stimulus was a failure.  All this argument proves is that the forecast was wrong.  It says nothing about the effects of the stimulus, because it does not even address the question of what the unemployment rate would have been without the stimulus.  That question is addressed in the data summarized in the chart above.

Another logical fallacy is to confuse association with causation, which in this situation can be briefly summarized as follows: the economy still sucks, therefore the stimulus was a failure.  Again, the relevant question, admittedly not one to brag too much about, should be, how much worse would the economy have sucked without the stimulus, not how much the economy still sucks.  Theoretically, the stimulus could still have helped even if the economy continued to get worse, if data showed that the economy would have fallen even faster without the stimulus.  Instead the data show that GDP and employment have steadily risen since the stimulus, albeit at a slower rate than almost everyone would have liked.

Which leads to the next logical fallacy, the unfair argument that the stimulus might have helped, but it didn't help all that much, therefore it was a failure.  That is like saying blaming someone for their lack of progress in digging a ditch, when you didn't give him a big enough shovel to dig it with.  Many economists thought the size of the stimulus package should have been much larger.  It is manifestly unfair to blame the limited success of the stimulus on its limited size.  Especially when it was the opponents of the stimulus who caused its size to be so limited.

And if you want to see Rachel Maddow get just as frustrated as I do trying to explain all this stuff, check out this video:

TARP Simplified

Here is a chart (from Fortune) showing the changing cost estimates of the TARP program, which was enacted two years ago at about the worst moment in the 2008 financial crisis, giving the Treasury Department authority to spend $700 billion to rescue banks and other financial institutions from collapse.

That's right, the much-hated TARP program is currently projected to cost taxpayers a mere $50 billion, and may even cost nothing or potentially turn a profit.  Shouldn't we be dancing in the streets at this news?  Taxpayers should be cheering one of the most successful government programs ever designed.  Everyone should be grateful that we avoided financial catastrophe that could have been comparable to the Great Depression.

One reason we are not dancing in the streets, of course, is that unemployment is still high, housing prices are still low, and the recovery is still shaky.  People do not feel much like dancing.  Another reason, as this NPR story points out, is that the truth about TARP does not seem to penetrate the preferred media narrative that the bailouts have been a failure, government is out of control, and people are in the midst of a tax revolt (even though taxes have gone down since the new administration took office).  Why is it that we can't let the truth get in the way of a good story?

There are real victims in the assault on truth perpetrated by the Tea Party movement, its financial backers, and its media accomplices.  One, quoted in this New York Times story on the success of TARP,  is Utah Senator Robert Bennett who paid the ultimate political price for his vote in favor of the TARP program:
“For those who were screaming at me — and screaming was the operative word — ‘You’ve just saddled our children and grandchildren with $700 billion,’ I said, ‘No, I haven’t.'
“My career is over. But I do hope that we can get the word out that TARP, number one, did save the world from a financial meltdown and, number two, did so in a manner that, I believe, won’t cost the taxpayer anything. And even if it did not all get paid back, it was still the thing to do.”
I wonder if any of the people screaming at Senator Bennett will now apologize; applaud him and others who supported this program for their political courage; and thank them for saving the financial, insurance, and automobile industries from collapse.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Deficit Simplified

Here is a nice simple comparison by the Center for American Progress of the effects on the federal budget deficit of the administration's budget proposals vs. the budget proposals in the Republican "Pledge to America."  How the Republicans can have any credibility as the party of fiscal responsibility is beyond me.  At least since 1980, they have steadfastly followed the mantra of cut taxes and let the deficit be damned.  The Pledge to America is true to form.

Tax Policy Simplified

Here is Austan Goolsbee giving a nice clear explanation of the two contrasting positions on the table with respect to income taxes.  The one with all the huge pink bubbles is of course the Republican proposal, while the one with the reasonably-sized blue bubbles is the administration's plan.  I actually think most people understand this, and most people favor the Democrats' plan to extend the Bush tax cuts on the first $250,000 of income, but allow those tax cuts to expire for income above that threshold.  A majority of both Houses of Congress is also in favor of this idea, and the President is eager to sign it into law.  In a democracy, that ought to be enough to get it done.