Thursday, July 30, 2015

Who should pay for roads and bridges?

Is this any way to run a transportation system? Congress has just cobbled together a stopgap bill to fund highway maintenance and other transportation projects for the next three months, while they try to work out a plan for raising the necessary revenues for a longer term.

It seems obvious, and is pretty much accepted in principle, that those who use and benefit from federal highways ought to pay for their construction and maintenance. We have been operating under that principle at least since the creation of the Interstate Highway system. And the federal gas tax, while not a perfect way of collecting the necessary funds from the users and beneficiaries of those roads, does a pretty fair job of spreading the burden. But the gas tax isn't collecting enough money now. Cars are using less gas. And the tax, because it is still a fixed 18 cents per gallon, is far lower as a percentage of the cost of driving than it used to be. So the obvious solution is to raise the gas tax. And doing that would bring a host of other benefits in addition to making many needed repairs to roads and bridges, such as reducing air pollution, encouraging the use of public transportation, putting construction workers back to work, and generally making the world a more livable place.

But we are told that obvious solution is politically impossible because so many Congressmen have been spreading the idea that we must never raise taxes, even to pay for essential public works projects that everyone agrees we need. So they have been trying to find a way to take money from the poor to subsidize drivers. Because poor people have too much money already, I guess. What ever happened to the good old American values of self-reliance and personal responsibility?

Why aren't more people outraged by this? Congress's behavior on this issue is disgraceful, but Congress would probably get its act together if people cared enough to demand that they fix the problem. So why are we not mailing in petitions and marching in the crumbling streets to demand an immediate increase in the gas tax? Granted there are a lot of other pressing problems out there, but this problem is important too, and it is also easily solvable. It doesn't reflect well on ourselves to be so selfish as to be unwilling to pay for the roads we use every day.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Black lives matter.

The organizers of this year's Netroots Nation conference, in part because of its location in Phoenix, chose to focus on the issue of immigration. That meant that other current issues, such as police killings of African-Americans, were given less attention. That careful plan was thrown aside today when a candidate forum featuring Democratic contenders Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders, was interrupted by a group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators, chanting the names of victims of police killings and preventing Governor O'Malley from speaking. At past Netroots conferences, I have seen Senator Harry Reid challenged, Leader Nancy Pelosi heckled, and President Obama's spokesman Dan Pfeiffer subjected to hostile questioning. Hillary Clinton was also reportedly booed at the 2007 event. (That might have been why she did not show up at the candidate forum today.) So this sort of thing is not only tolerated, but almost expected at this annual unruly gathering of progressive voices.

But I'm a believer in civil discourse and in listening to and trying to understand a variety of viewpoints. And a lot of that happens at Netroots conferences also. So I was initally annoyed when today's protesters would not stop chanting and would not give the candidate much of a chance to respond. They did not come to listen. They came to demand that attention be paid to a serious problem that has been ignored for much too long. And they proved their point when, sadly, both candidates revealed a somewhat dismissive and condescending attitude--O'Malley by making the dumb remark that white lives matter too, and Sanders by launching back into discussion of his economic proposals instead of acknowledging that racism as well as economic disadvantage plays a role in oppressing the black community--that made white members of the audience uncomfortable and defensive. The whole incident prompted a lot of interesting and important conversations (and tweets) for the rest of the day.

So the protesters beautifully fulfilled their purpose. And attendees got a much more revealing look at the candidates than we would have obtained from hearing out their campaign platforms.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


The ink is barely dry on the breakthrough agreement reached this week with Iran, requiring that country to eliminate most of its nuclear weapons capacity in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, and many critics are already out in full force decrying the agreement. It seems remarkable that they could be so sure of their opposition without having had much time to read or study the text, or consider carefully whether this deal is better than the alternative of continued conflict. (In previous posts--here and here--on this topic, I outlined the way in which I think any negotiated agreement should be evaluated, not by comparing it to the outcome each side would have preferred, but instead by comparing it to the alternative of no agreement.)

But maybe it's not so remarkable that the critics have not even bothered to make what I think is the only relevant comparison. Maybe it would be a futile effort to try to walk them through the text, because their opposition springs from more fundamental concerns than the terms that have been negotiated. They would probably object to any deal that Iran would agree to, because any deal that lifts sanctions will make Iran a more powerful, and therefore dangerous influence in the region. Any deal that allows Iran any weapons development capability at all can be viewed as an attempt to appease a dictatorial regime. Any deal that puts the world on better terms with Iran leads the world into a false sense of security.

It should be acknowledged that the critics have legitimate concerns, and that their arguments cannot be refuted by logic or reason. That is not to say that any of these arguments are right. I happen to think they are all wrong, or at least they are outweighed by the tangible benefits of making peace, and that the alternative of failing to reach agreement is far more dangerous. Still I don't think it's possible to persuade the implacable foes of Iran--or President Obama--of that. They can still respond with cries of appeasement, or with fears of the dangers posed by the Islamic Republic. They can't be proven wrong except by time. I have dealt with parties in conflict enough to know that they usually can't be persuaded by a mathematical demonstration of the benefits of the deal on the table vs. the costs and uncertainties of continued conflict. Instead they must in some other way reach a point where they feel that they can let go of the conflict and accept the deal.

Signing on to a deal with a partner that has attacked or betrayed you in the past always requires a leap of faith, no matter how airtight are the verification procedures for the deal's strictures. Peace always represents a leap of faith. And the arguments in favor of maintaining conflict, and distrusting one's adversaries are usually powerful. That must be why humanity so often resorts to war at the drop of a hat, while establishing peace is a fraught and difficult process.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Supreme Court Roundup

It's no wonder conservatives always seem angry. Because while liberals were out celebrating that people can now marry whomever they choose, that lower income citizens will continue to receive subsidies for their health care, that states can create commissions to prevent partisan gerrymandering, and that new barriers are not being erected to prove housing discrimination, what did conservatives have to celebrate this week?

Are they supposed to dance in the streets the way supporters of LGBT rights did, to cheer the Court's permission to use harmful drugs for lethal injections in death penalty cases? Should they be happy that the EPA will have more trouble keeping the skies clear of air pollution?

Maybe justices like Scalia, Alito and Thomas aren't upset just because they found themselves on the losing side of some important constitutional decisions. Supreme Court Justices can handle losing. They don't mind writing dissents. It could be instead that conservatives are angry about being forced to applaud death and pollution, while at the same time they are forced to try to prevent people from getting health care, or marrying the people they love. Being compelled by ideology to take those hateful positions could make anyone grouchy.

Notice that Justice Roberts did not seem nearly as unhappy as the three conservative justices to his right. In the marriage equality case, he was only a little bit grumpy. Roberts was willing to concede that proponents of marriage equality have something to celebrate, even though he would have preferred that they use the political process to achieve that, instead of the courts. And in the Obamacare case, Justice Roberts went along with the majority's construction of the statute, and therefore avoided being in the difficult position of trying to take away people's access to medical care in order to support a different construction. If Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas want to avoid the ill effects that come from all their scowling, sputtering and screaming, maybe they would do well to follow Roberts's example.