Monday, April 30, 2012

Let them explain it.

President Obama on what he said he would do, and how he did it:


As far as what others said they would do, we are starting to see some major re-writing of history. Mitt Romney, who in fact objected to candidate Obama's plans to move into Pakistan if necessary to take out bin Laden, now says something completely different.

Romney also previously said that he would not have bailed out the auto companies, authoring a famous op-ed piece called "Let Detroit go bankrupt." Now he is actually trying to claim credit for Obama's plan to save Detroit. According to top aide Eric Fehrnstrom:
His position on the bailout was exactly what President Obama followed. . . . Consider that the crown jewel. The only economic success that President Obama has had is because he followed Mitt Romney’s advice.
(For a detailed analysis of exactly how different Romney's ideas about dealing with the auto industry were from Obama's, go to this Daily Kos post.)

The Romney campaign has thus given rise to a new term to describe taking credit for things you actually opposed. Check out the hashtag #fehrnstroming on twitter for some other hilarious examples of things Romney should take credit for. 

Next thing you know, Romney will try to take credit for the health care reform law. On second thought, he actually could take some credit for that.

Forward!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Correspondents' Dinner

Foreign policy contrasts


Vice President Joe Biden delivered a  speech at NYU earlier this week in which he laid out the contrast between the Obama's administration foreign policy record, and the foreign policy comments made by Governor Romney during the campaign so far. (For some reason I can't seem to embed this video, but the link above will take you to it.) Unfortunately, the media has rather childishly devoted most of its attention to one unintentionally funny double entendre in the speech and not enough attention to its substance.

The vice president's speech provides a helpful catalog of the techniques the Romney campaign has used to smear the president's policies and attempt to set up a favorable contrast with his own ideas. Here are some.

The lie
Romney repeatedly misrepresents what the Obama administration is actually doing, By falsely accusing the president of "apologizing" for America or of failing to support Israel, Romney makes claims that are easily belied by the record. Biden called out Romney for adopting one of his party's favorite tricks: "Distort and mischaracterize your opponent's position. Keep repeating the distortions and mischaracterizations over and over again." This technique seems to have become a specialty.

The phony contrast
In foreign policy, there are always some areas of agreement between the two parties. But as Biden pointed out, in those areas, Romney fails to acknowledge that the Obama administration is already taking the steps that Romney promises to take. Romney has repeatedly promised, for example, that he will put in place tough sanctions against Iran, ignoring the fact that the Obama administration has already obtained unprecedented sanctions, and has gained the cooperation of other nations in enforcing them. Short of launching a war, which Romney has not said he would do, Romney cannot offer anything different, but he pretends that he does.

The outdated analysis
Romney's team holds a conception of our foreign policy challenges that seems to date back to the 1950s. By declaring that Russia is our most dangerous adversary (and even mistakenly referring to the Soviets and to Czechoslovakia), Romney has revealed that his thinking is still mired in Cold War ideology and that he is not up to the actual foreign policy challenges currently facing the country.

In the critical sphere of foreign policy, we have the choice between looking forward and looking backward. Biden's speech made clear that on issue after issue, Romney's approach would have taken us in the wrong direction, while President Obama has dramatically improved U.S. security and its standing in the world.  Biden also showed that none of Romney's criticisms of Obama's foreign policy make sense as a matter of logic or accuracy.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

La Cienega and beyond!

Car-dependent West Los Angeles got its first taste of rail transit, as the new Expo line opened to the public. By this summer, this light rail service will extend to Culver City, and eventually to Santa Monica. Naturally, I wanted to be among the first riders, so I took my bike on the train this morning, and discovered that the Expo line connects directly to the Ballona Creek bike trail, making it possible to travel  pretty easily from where I live (near Hollywood) all the way to Marina del Rey. Without Using A Car.

USC station



New vistas from La Cienega station


Entrance to new bike path at La Cienega station

 (photos by me)

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Opposition

According to a new book by Robert Draper, a group of Republican leaders got together on Barack Obama's inauguration day 2009 and hatched a plan to oppose and obstruct anything he would put forward. Republican House member Kevin McCarthy supposedly said, "We've gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign." At the end of this meeting, Newt Gingrich told the group they would remember this day. "You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown."

Some reports have said the revelations about this secret meeting are not exactly news. No matter. It's still important to keep in mind what lots of other evidence tells us: before the details of a single plan by the new president were known, leading Republicans had already decided it was in their strategic interest to try to block anything the new administration proposed. President Obama never had an opposition that was willing to work with him at all. Their game plan all along was to portray anything he suggested as radical and unacceptable. And this is exactly what we have seen unfold in the last three years. Even if President Obama suggested something that a substantial number of Republicans had favored the previous week, they were all against it as soon as he supported it. Vociferously and unalterably and nearly unanimously against it.

Those on the right who have bought into the idea that Obama had some kind of radical agenda should question that assumption, given the evidence that Republicans decided to label whatever the president did as radical. Those who think the Democrats were overly partisan or divisive in pushing through the stimulus bill or financial reform or health care reform should also ask how much of that appearance of partisanship was actually created by a highly partisan opposition party.

Some of the left might try to use this new evidence of the Republicans' obstructionist attitude to suggest that President Obama made a mistake in tailoring his economic and other proposals to try to attract support from across the aisle. Since the Republicans were never going to work with this president anyway, he should have tried to push forward a more progressive agenda, instead of continuing to portray himself as willing to find common ground with the opposition, goes this theory. Had he done that, however, he would have made the Republican opposition look more justified. Instead, the Obama team repeatedly exposed the opposition's game, and embarrassed them into opposing some pretty popular ideas, like payroll tax cuts and access to contraception.

Negotiation theory, such as the work by Fisher and Ury, also tells us that even if we are dealing with an adversary who is not willing to negotiate in good faith, or at all, that does not necessarily mean we should give up on negotiating altogether and declare war against that adversary. There are still techniques available to persuade even the most unreasonable opponent that reaching a negotiated agreement is still in their interests. The Obama administration employed many of those techniques, particularly in the budget negotiations of 2011, and wound up with an agreement, albeit one that cost the administration some support from the left, and that the Republicans are now trying to walk away from.

The 2012 election will provide the ultimate test for whether the Republican strategy of obstruction has succeeded or failed. Apart from all the other reasons that this president deserves re-election, voters might think about whether they want to reward those kinds of tactics, or instead want to send a message to Congress that we want them all to work together to find common ground.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Big Man on Campus

More pictures from the president's current college tour:

The University of Iowa!




The University of Colorado!



The University of North Carolina!



Let's hope these kids don't forget to get out and vote in November.

(Thanks again to the incomparable Chipsticks.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

and the winner is . . .

Projected primary results in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have made it official. Tonight is the night one of the major candidates has clinched his party's nomination for president. That candidate, of course, is Barack Obama.

If you're wondering about Mitt Romney, he still has a ways to go to rack up the necessary delegates. Check back in a month or so and I'll try to take note of when he finally goes over the top.





Thanks, as usual, to the Obama Diary, for collecting all the great pictures.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Dutch also reject austerity.

I can spot a trend when I see one. Yesterday French voters said they're not going to take it anymore. Today, the Dutch prime minister is forced to resign when his coalition falls apart over budget talks. What happens next in Greece, Italy and Spain when they see that the northern countries that have compelled them to adopt austerity measures, are now rejecting such measures for themselves?

Maybe it's a good time to plan a European vacation, as the Euro continues to fall. In the long run, however, popular resistance to further austerity measures may be good for the European economy for the reasons explained in my prior posts. These developments also tend to vindicate the Obama administration's approach to crawling our way out of recession. The German plan--which is similar to the plan advocated by the Republicans in this country--of forcing deficit reductions in the teeth of a severe recession, is clearly not working. People just won't stand for it. And the people may be right.


The French reject austerity.

Yesterday's presidential election results in France, particularly if the voters' initial rejection of Sarkozy holds up in the upcoming run-off, signal widespread public dissatisfaction with the prevailing policy of cutting budgets to deal with Europe's financial problems. Instead the voters seem to favor the left's approach of promoting growth and reducing inequality. Why is this possibly important to us? Because it signals that the U.S. has been on the right track in dealing with the recession, while Europe has been on the wrong track. The voters in France seem to be demanding a correction more in line with the approach the Obama administration has been taking.

I dealt with the economics of this choice in a post a couple of months ago, relying mainly on Paul Krugman's analysis of the mistakes the Europeans seem to be making. Let's review. When we encounter a recession, our natural reaction is to take the steps we would take as a household in dealing with a sudden drop in income. We have to cut expenses to get our budget in balance! The problem is that when we react that way as a nation, we only make the recession worse. If we reduce spending, demand for all kinds of goods and services goes down, production must drop, more workers must be laid off, demand then drops even further, and the whole vicious cycle continues until we hit some kind of bottom. If instead the government steps in to make up for the reduced demand, by increasing instead of decreasing spending--even if we have to increase the debt to do that--we can avoid some of those layoffs, cushion the fall, and hopefully get the economy moving again. That was what we did here in the United States, although many would argue we did not even do enough stimulus spending, particularly at the state level, where layoffs continue. And it seems to be working, while leaving us with a bigger deficit, which we will have to deal with as the economy improves.

In Europe, the wealthier nations have forced the countries in the most financial trouble to make serious cutbacks in government spending, and have instituted austerity measures in their own countries. So far, that has had the predictable effect of slowing economic growth, which may make it more difficult for these countries to emerge from the recession. And the voters are not exactly thrilled with the resulting cutbacks in benefits and higher prices. If these policies are causing lots of pain in the short term, and don't seem to be helping in the long term, it is hardly surprising to see such a strong voter reaction against the conservative Sarkozy government.

Wait a minute, conservatives might respond. Aren't you forgetting the strong showing by the right wing candidate, Le Pen? Sarkozy could end up with most of her votes in the run-off, making the end result a conservative triumph. Those voters occupy a similar position to those in the United States who blame immigrants for most of our problems, and most of them probably will lean toward Sarkozy in the run-off. But not all of them. And they are balanced by voters who chose Melenchon, the candidate to the left of the Socialist winner, Hollande. Most observers seem to think Hollande is favored to win the run-off. But I'm not making any predictions, only commenting on the strength of the backlash against Sarkozy's and Angela Merkel's austerity policies.

And what about the deficit, conservatives might also point out. If Europe doesn't get its supposedly out-of-control social spending under control, aren't they headed for fiscal disaster anyway? Perhaps they are, and perhaps some reforms are needed to rein in spiraling pension costs and other unsustainable expenses, just as reforms may be needed in this country. But growth must come first. And the left has another answer to controlling the deficit, and that is to tax the rich. Hollande is proposing a 75% tax rate on the wealthiest earners, and a cap on the ratio between CEO pay and worker pay at publicly-owned companies. That makes President Obama's plan to institute the Buffett rule and return to a 39% top income tax rate look positively timid. If conservative voters in the US would pay some attention to France, they might stop calling Obama a socialist. In France, they have candidates who actually call themselves socialists and can still win elections. On the other hand, even Hollande's income tax plan does not reach the heights of socialism we experienced in the United States, back when our top marginal tax rate was 90%. That was when we were led by the socialist administration of Dwight Eisenhower.


(Christophe Ena/AP photo)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Campaign 2012

It's enlightening to listen to the pros who either design or study political campaigns for a living, because they are able to analyze the process dispassionately and put it in historical perspective. Today, at the LA Times Festival of Books, I attended a couple of panels on the upcoming presidential campaign, one by a group of political consultants,both Republican and Democratic (Bill Carrick, Michael Genovese, Mike Murphy, and Dan Schnur), and another by a group of seasoned journalists who have covered lots of political campaigns the last couple of decades.(Eric Alterman, Ronald Brownstein, Adam Nagourney, and John Powers)

The political consultants, regardless of their different personal political views, came to strikingly similar conclusions about the upcoming election. Most of them thought the election would be fairly close, and that the president's re-election chances probably depend on the continued perception that the economy is improving. The Obama campaign will probably continue to portray the election as a choice between strikingly different Democratic and Republican visions of the role of government in the economy. (President Obama's recent campaign speeches make a clear contrast between the values Democrats are fighting for, and the Republican "you're on your own" philosophy.)  The Romney campaign will probably continue to portray the election as a referendum on Obama's performance, and hope there is enough dissatisfaction with it to allow them to win. If the voters see this as a choice election, Obama probably wins; but if they see it as a referendum, Obama may be in difficulty. The strategists thus seemed to endorse Romney's strategy of negativity, but also pointed out that that attacking the current administration's record is probably not going to be enough. Romney will need to articulate his own positive, competing vision in order to be seen as a credible alternative.

I was reassured today that the silly season we seem to be enduring in recent days (which I was complaining about in my previous post) is probably only a passing phase in the campaign, a hiatus of sorts between the highly entertaining and contentious Republican primary campaign, and the serious general election campaign that will not get into high gear for another few months. On the other hand, political journalists acknowledge that the campaign coverage will continue to pay far too much attention to the latest gaffe or squabble over some inconsequential issue. They blame that kind of coverage in part on the fact that there is not much else for campaign reporters to cover, since they are already so familiar with the campaign's positions on the issues, and those do not change much from day to day. They also put some blame on our own demand for that kind of information, even though we may claim we want more high-minded reporting. It's helpful to remember that presidential elections are decided by a fairly small number of swing voters in a fairly small number of swing states. And those people are so fickle it's hard to tell what will move them. Nevertheless, despite what we are going to be subjected to from the media, and from the relentless tide of political advertising, the voters will somehow figure out what is really at stake in the election and make a real choice about the direction of the country. That is the hope, anyway.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Trivialities

Ezra Klein's column this morning talks about the minute matters that have been blown out of proportion during this political campaign season--issues like Romney's treatment of dogs, or the remarks about Ann Romney by a Democratic consultant. After learning about one of these tiny stories, Klein says, he " felt a little worse about [him]self for being in any way involved in the tornado of idiocy that is American politics."

The tornado of idiocy has got you down, Ezra? Me too! And we still have more than six months to go in the presidential campaign. This election is about some pretty fundamental issues. But my guess is that the level of debate about those issues is going to be pretty low, and we are going to spend most of our time focusing on much smaller stuff. Klein is thankful at least that most Americans are not paying attention to politics at all, so they do not get obsessed about the small stuff the way those of us who pay a lot of attention to politics do. 

I wonder why we can't have the national debate we deserve about the big issues that seem to be dividing us at the moment. Could be because we don't make much headway trying to move opponents on those issues, so we would just as soon talk about trivialities and small scandals. And most people probably wouldn't pay any more attention to a lofty debate about the parties' respective tax policies, for example, than they will to all the silly stuff. If the people aren't paying much attention right now, maybe there's no sense in the political classes getting steamed up about anything, big or small. When we reach a certain level of disgust with the whole process, it's probably best just to take a break for a while.


The Cabin in the Woods

We love genre films in part because their formulas are so familiar. But after we have seen the cliches play out hundreds of times, they lose their power to surprise us.  Take the horror film, for example. When you know something scary is bound to pop out from behind any door, or can predict the order in which the stock characters in a horror film are going to die; when you've already seen tons of gore, you're just not going to be as scared the next time the axe falls on one of the characters' heads.

What can the makers of such genre films do to keep things fresh? In the case of The Cabin in the Woods, the filmmakers let the audience know early on that the whole thing is a contrived set-up. (Warning: if you haven't seen the movie and continue reading, then I assume you are the kind of person, like myself, who thinks there is nothing you can say about a movie in advance that will spoil it for you. Or else you're not planning to see it.) Anyway, The Cabin in the Woods opens, not with a cabin in the woods, but with a bunch of workers in lab coats who are somehow manipulating the action behind the scenes. And then the filmmakers gradually let us know how and why these nerdy engineers are setting up the film's stock horror characters to go through their familiar motions. So far, so good. We the audience are flattered in our movie cliche knowledge, and we can identify with the people who are cheerfully pulling the strings.

The movie still needs to scare us, however, and we are not that scared by the contrived violence that we know is going to take place at the cabin, particularly since we know exactly how contrived it all is. The reason we're not too scared is because we are watching a lot of the action through the eyes of the people in the control room. In order to scare us, or at least make us think a bit, the film finally makes us realize that the people in the control room, and by extension us, the audience, are the real monsters. Not only are they (and we) fully prepared to pull the trigger on the victims, they (and we) also laugh and party without a second thought while watching a (perhaps) innocent girl getting (perhaps) mauled by a giant zombie. Since we set the zombie in motion, and chose to be entertained by the spectacle of the mayhem the zombie is causing, no monster could be more depraved than we are. If we become horrified, we have to be horrified at ourselves.

Now that the film has turned the idea of the monster on its head, it must, in true horror movie fashion, set the heroes of the film against the real monsters: the voyeurs sitting in the control rooms, and by extension, the audience in the theatre. I was a little disappointed with this ending, however, because it became something of a giant pie fight. Granted that created the opportunity for a classic "oh shit" moment, when the SWAT team realizes that a whole parade of horrible creatures is about to slaughter them all. But it might have been better to unleash those creatures one by one against the control room workers, saving the scariest creature to face off last against the leader, as is the custom in action movies.

We wonder whether the guys in the white shirts and lab coats deserve what they get. Although we understand that they are far from innocent, we also come to realize that maybe they're not even especially evil; they just have to adopt a cold-hearted attitude to perform their necessary function. We finally find out that these people are in fact another kind of stock horror movie type. They contain a bit of the mad, Dr. Frankenstein, scientist, but they are also descendents of an ancient cult like those who guard the mummy's secrets, or those who fight vampires down through the ages. They have simply updated the job that used to be performed by the priests who threw virgins into the volcano to appease the gods. So they are not really stand-ins for us, though at times they play that role.

If the filmmakers had wanted to burst through another layer of convention, they could have led the monsters through a third scenario. After the cabin, and after the underground lab, they could have taken the monsters through the invisible fourth wall to attack the filmmakers themselves, just so we could fully understand how contrived the whole spectacle was. Since it was already so obvious that all we were doing was watching a movie, that probably wasn't necessary. The filmmakers had already succeeded in showing how you can still make a clever, old-fashioned horror movie in this self-conscious age. I found it more thought-provoking and fun than I expected.

[I could try to add some analogy to the usual themes of this blog, but I'm not sure there are any good analogies to make, so I'll just excuse the last few posts by saying that I might have needed to take a little break from writing about politics and write about some other interests for a change. Sorry for any confusion.]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Streetcars

Here are some shots, from the MTA Expo Line website, of the nearly-completed new Expo light rail line set to open at the end of this month, which will run from downtown LA to Culver City, and eventually to Santa Monica.





In the meantime, planning continues on the Regional Connector which will link the terminus of the Expo and Blue Lines at Seventh Street downtown with the current terminus of the Gold Line at Union Station. When completed, Los Angeles will have an integrated light rail network from Santa Monica all the way to Claremont and possibly Ontario, and from Long Beach to East LA.

Also in the works is a planned downtown streetcar system that should represent a vast improvement over the network of shuttle buses that currently serves the area. Los Angeles used to have the most extensive streetcar system in the world, but it was all gradually abandoned by the 1960's in deference to the automobile. Now we have realized the error of our ways, and are gradually re-building a new light rail system, a vital component of the goals of reducing our dependence on cars, and creating a more liveable city.

(MTA photos)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Walking

No discussion of the changes we need to make in urban design would be complete without mentioning walking. On this topic, I am inspired by a recent four part series in Slate,  which points out how far behind Americans are compared to many other countries in the walking department, and how far we have strayed from sensible design principles that would make our cities more walkable. Particularly poignant in the Slate series is the story of the mother who lost a four year old child in the process of trying to cross an impossible high speed boulevard in front of her apartment complex. Also the picture of an overweight 12 year old who is indulgently driven down her long driveway to catch the school bus. In countless ways, we are trained to disdain walking, and our cities and towns are mostly designed to discourage the practice.


Perhaps because I lived in New York City for a long time, I favor walking (and public transportation). But here in LA, my family has to risk our lives to cross the busy boulevard near our house, where cars routinely speed by at 50 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour zone. Every day I am reminded of pedestrians' second class status in this city when I have to push buttons to activate crossing signals. These buttons exist solely for the purpose of speeding traffic at the expense of pedestrians. I think it would be a great day when drivers are required to push a button to cross an intersection. (Okay, maybe that's not a practical idea, but I'd still like to see it happen.)

A lot of  intersections here do not have signals or crosswalks, which makes crossing the street an adventure. Construction crews are allowed to block sidewalks in Los Angeles, something that would be inconceivable in New York City. That forces pedestrians into the street, or into taking inconvenient detours across the street. And even where sidewalks exist, they are often in a shameful state of disrepair. In  some places, the roots of the ubiquitous ficus trees have created dangerous, jagged hills and valleys requiring a constant state of vigilance.

Many buildings in this city are designed to be entered mainly through the parking garage. I was shocked to discover that the building I'm thinking of moving my office to, has no door on the street level, only an elevator. I sometimes search in vain for staircases in buildings designed to force people to take an elevator even if they only need to ride up a floor or two. Often the only available stair is an emergency fire exit, that may or may not allow you to re-enter on the floor you want. I also admit to getting impatient when people stand two abreast blocking escalator steps, forcing those of us who don't like to break our stride to stop and wait behind them. When I notice that some of the people standing on escalator steps are on the way to or from the health club, I am especially irritated.

We could solve many problems by encouraging walking. We could reduce the national obesity epidemic, and improve our general health, saving billions in health care expenses. We would also save tons of gasoline. We would greatly reduce pollution and noise. Cities would be friendlier and more liveable. Really, there is no down side to my plan to encourage more walking. All it takes is a change in attitude on the part of everyone who uses the streets, as well as the people who design them.

Parking lots

Speaking of potentially transformational ideas, I've also been thinking lately about stadium parking lots. This month the Anschutz group released its draft environmental impact report supporting the development of a football stadium in downtown Los Angeles (where I work). What was interesting about that is even here in car-happy Los Angeles, the developers are proposing various schemes to encourage maybe 25% of all attendees to use public transportation to get to football games.

I have some concerns about the development of a new football stadium downtown, but they are mainly based on the fear that because the stadium might only be in active use a couple of dozen times a year, the rest of the time we would have a giant dead zone in the middle of downtown, and that is not good for other kinds of commercial and residential development. But let's say the developers can create a structure that does not suck the life out of the surrounding area. Then I would also have to applaud them for thinking seriously about integrating public transportation and stadium design. 

It would be easy to scoff. Naysayers are already saying that football fans will insist on bringing their own tailgates to the tailgate party. But I remember following the crowd to and from Yankee Stadium on the D train. That was a great part of the fan experience. And I'd love to see us start teaching the masses in my adopted city to leave their cars home more often.

Baseball presents similar opportunities. There was an article in today's LA Times diagramming the new ownership structure of the parking lots at Chavez Ravine in a way that is so complicated it reminded me of the maps of Bosnia we used to see during the conflict in that country. But the new, and the old, owners are clearly re-thinking their uses of the vast acreage of parking lots we have in the hills above downtown, designed at the apex of car-centered development, when it never occurred to anyone to design a stadium accessible by public transportation. We have since learned that when you send 50,000 people into a narrow ravine solely by automobile, it is going to take them an hour of crawling through narrow exhaust-choked roadways to exit at the end of the game, and that is not so pleasant.

My idea, for what it's worth, would be to build a Swiss tram ride from downtown up to the Dodger Stadium parking lots, which could be used by baseball fans, tourists and perhaps some park and ride commuters into downtown. By reducing the acreage needed for parking cars, we could add some new features to the area, like stores and restaurants and hotels, and Angelenos could continue to learn something about getting around by other means than the private automobile.


(AEG/Gensler rendering)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Colombian export

The president was in Cartegena, Colombia today, a country to which we in Los Angeles also paid tribute today by holding our fourth CicLAvia. The event is modeled on the Ciclovia started in Bogota, where every Sunday, the city closes about 100 miles of streets to cars, opening them to cyclists and other uses. In LA we only hold the event twice a year so far, and only close 10 miles of streets.

Nevertheless, it is a truly transformational idea, because it allows people to experience the city in entirely new ways, and to imagine what our public spaces could be like if they were not constantly choked with cars. I don't have the statistics yet, but it seemed like the biggest CicLAvia yet. Some areas were so packed with cyclists we were causing a new form of traffic jam, proving that CicLAvia needs to be extended and expanded.








(my photos)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Income taxes

In case anyone is thinking about income taxes this weekend, today's topic is the proposed Buffett rule. Here's a simple explanation of the idea:





And here's a handy calculator, also courtesy of the White House, to help figure out the number of people who make more than you, but pay a lower percentage of their income in taxes than you do:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Be careful what you wish for.

It's surprising how much of the reaction to the recent Supreme Court oral arguments on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, by elements of both the left and the right, seems relatively sanguine about the prospect that the Court will declare the Act unconstitutional. The left hopes that if the Supreme Court decides that Congress has no power to involve private companies as a means of achieving some form of universal coverage, Congress will be forced to enact a single payer system as the only viable and constitutional health care solution. The right hopes that if the Supreme Court throws out the Affordable Care Act, that will allow Congress time to adopt more incremental, market-based reforms less disruptive to the status quo.

Both sides should be more worried that the other side's predictions might be correct. Throwing out this statute might just set back reform for a few decades, or it might also lead to more drastic reform. Nobody can say for sure. And whatever constitutional doctrine emerges from deciding this issue is also going to affect other issues in unpredictable ways. That is why those on either the right or left hoping that a thunderbolt from the Supreme Court will lead to their preferred solution, ought to consider that such a strategy might backfire big time, and that the Supreme Court is perhaps not best situated to resolve this issue at all. We the people can handle this ourselves. 

The ACA is already one of the central issues in this important election year. If we want to get rid of it, we don't need the Supreme Court to do that for us. All people would have to do is vote Republican, and the Republicans can be expected to keep their promise to repeal the Act as soon as they take office in January of 2013. If on the other hand, we are smart enough to prefer to keep this reform in place for at least the next four years, all we need to do is re-elect President Obama, and enough Democrats in Congress to allow the Act to be implemented.

The whole idea that there is some urgency to Supreme Court resolution of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act reflects a lack of faith in ourselves, and an almost unseemly interference with the political process by the justices. It reflects a need to turn important political and constitutional questions over to a small group of wise old men and women, a process that is at odds with democratic values. The Supreme Court would do well to hesitate before jumping into that role, and restore to the people our own capacity to determine what our Constitution means. Traditionally, the Court has taken its time to reach some constitutional issues, allowing them to percolate for years in the lower courts before issuing a definitive ruling. The Court has also shied away in the past from resolving legal questions that could just as well be decided through the political process. The Supreme Court used to invoke the "political question" doctrine to avoid deciding some constitutional issues, on the ground that they lacked the standards necessary to adjudicate certain questions. That doctrine has fallen into disfavor, and probably doesn't apply in this case anyway. But the Court can still rely on the doctrine of judicial restraint, a doctrine conservatives used to say they favor, which would counsel them to defer to the political process and uphold this Act of Congress. The Court could also resort to the simple expedient of holding their decision until after the election, giving the people the chance to weigh in on this issue before they do..

We can respect the Court's power to overturn the will of Congress as unconstitutional while also expecting that power to be used sparingly. In fact, we are likely to have more respect for the Court's power if it is used sparingly. And while it is in the Court's power in the short run to decide, for example, how to interpret a phrase such as the one which gives Congress the power to regulate commerce, ultimately it is up to us, the people, to decide what the Constitution means in that regard. That is because we have the power to elect the people who appoint Supreme Court justices.

The Supreme Court is not the proper body to help us come up with the best system of regulating the health care market. They are not insurance experts. They are not experts in the delivery of medical services. People who want the Supreme Court to step in so as to achieve their preferred health care policy are looking to the wrong institution to do that. Because the Supreme Court does not wield a scalpel; it wields a meat ax. The Supreme Court cannot devise an optimum health insurance policy. All the Supreme Court can do, it if were to declare this statute unconstitutional, is alter our understanding of the constitutional powers of Congress to regulate commerce. If it were to take such a drastic step, that would have implications, as I outlined in a previous post, way beyond health care. While it's true that there are a sizable number of people opposed to the ACA who want the Court to do just that, my sense is that most people are not looking for a Constitutional re-structuring of Congress's taxing or regulation powers. People either think the law should stand pretty much as it is; or think it does not go far enough toward a universal, public solution; or would just like to tinker with it in one way or another. If those are the kinds of problems we have with health insurance reform, we have the power to fix those problems ourselves through the political process. That will be messy, but more likely to achieve a consensus of what the people want, than relying on nine Supreme Court justices to solve this problem for us.

Friday, April 6, 2012

חַג שָׂמֵחַ

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Republican budget

The president's speech at the AP lunch today. It can't be denied that "marvelous" is a word that is not much in use these days. More proof that Mitt Romney is out of touch.



(transcript here)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Judicial restraint

Here's an opinion we should all take into account, by one prominent constitutional law scholar, on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.


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As the president reminds us:
[F]or years what we've heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint. That an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example, and I'm pretty confident this court will recognize that and not take that step.
My commentary on just how radical and backwards a step it would represent to return our country to a vision of limited federal power that was repudiated by the Supreme Court about 75 years ago, appears below. But we could also spend some time talking about the doctrine of judicial restraint, that conservatives like to invoke when they complain about the Supreme Court invalidating laws that the courts deem too intrusive of individual constitutional rights. To be consistent, these critics should not be so quick to urge the court to invalidate the will of Congress in this case. (See this interview with Charles Fried, solicitor general under Reagan, and a solid conservative, who finds this an easy constitutional case, and concludes that the opposition to what was previously thought to be a fairly conservative solution to the health insurance problem, is mainly based on politics, not constitutional law.)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Vermont Campaign Speech

March 30, 2012 Burlington, Vermont