Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A good START

Finally. The Senate ratified new START, 71-26. I've covered the silliness of conservative arguments against this treaty before. I'm actually still somewhat amazed that there are 26 senators who think that reducing the number of nukes in the world is a bad thing, or that it's not really a problem to continue having no verification regime in place to look at Russian compliance. This doesn't bode well for further treaties working toward a world without nukes, which Obama has said is an ultimate goal.

It's disheartening that this really modest, inoffensive treaty went through such a partisan ringer. Remember that the constitution mandates that treaties get 67 votes for ratification of any treaty in the senate. America's ability to practice diplomacy abroad in a major way depends on the world's most dysfunctional deliberative body. That's not a good thing. I hope my pessimism is misplaced.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Demographics and Politics

Percentage of people below the poverty line (darker is poorer):

Minnesota House Districts:


My comparison would be even better before the 2010 midterms, when Chip Cravaack ousted longtime Democrat Jim Oberstar in the MN-8, the shaded district in the NE. But I think the pattern is still startlingly clear. The ring of wealthy suburbs around the Twin Cities Metro are a bastion of conservatives. When you and your neighbors are discussing which new luxury sedan to buy, thoughts of the plight of the poor don't enter your mind.

On "Obamacare"

Filling in for Sully at the Dish, Patrick Appel asks why liberals hate the term "Obamacare" as a nickname for the PPACA so much. I was apparently the only one who wrote in with any kind of defense for the term, though not really on the merits:

As a liberal who advocated for the PPACA and supports it, I have no problem with calling it "Obamacare." In fact, in my more optimistic moments, I hope that when it becomes as entrenched as Medicare, conservatives will end up regretting making Obama's name an integral part of the program. Can you imagine a Republican campaigning against a Democrat for having supported $500bn in "Obamacare cuts" in 20 years? I don't know about you, but the thought tickles me.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bending toward justice

By a vote of 63-33, the senate voted this morning to end debate on a stand-alone bill to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, setting the stage for a final majority vote at 2pm today. At this point, passage is all but assured. As Ezra Klein pointed out, this adds to the 111th congress' already impressive resume. More importantly, it's a big step towards equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans. It's not the end of the fight, however. Repeal of DOMA and passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act are both vital to the cause of ensuring that all Americans, gay or straight, can enjoy the same rights.

As for the DADT vote, notable yeses included Mark Kirk (he voted no last time around), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), George Voinovich (R-OH, retiring), Scott Brown (R-MA), and both Maine Republicans. Joe Manchin (D-WV) did not vote, he voted against repeal last time and still seems opposed. Notable (disappointing) nos included John McCain (his actions get more bitter and disgraceful by the minute), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Richard Lugar (R-IN).

63 Senators were on the right side of history today.

Friday, December 10, 2010

On "process" (III)

Here's Jon Stewart on the Senate failing to invoke cloture on a bill providing health care to 9/11 responders.

Then there's Ezra Klein on the Senate's failure to end debate on DADT:

I don't care who's right. And nor should anyone else. The diffusion of responsibility that comes from deciding law through complex parliamentary gamesmanship rather than simple majority-rules votes is the problem. What happened today is that a majority of the Senate voted for a bill that the majority of Americans support. The bill did not pass. Neither Harry Reid nor Susan Collins are ultimately responsible for that. The rules of the Senate are.

And here's the NYTimes:

On one of the most shameful days in the modern history of the Senate, the Republican minority on Thursday prevented a vote to allow gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly in the military of the United States. They chose to filibuster a vital defense bill because it also banned discrimination in the military ranks. And in an unrelated but no less callous move, they blocked consideration of help for tens of thousands of emergency workers and volunteers who became ill from the ground zero cleanup after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The senators who stood in the way of these measures must answer to the thousands of gay and lesbian soldiers who must live a lie in order to serve, or drop out. They must answer to the civilians who will not serve their country when some Americans are banned from doing so for an absurd reason, and to the military leaders who all but pleaded with them to end this unjust policy. They must answer to the workers who thought they were aiding their country by cleaning up ground zero.
The Senate is broken.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

On "process" (II)

Adam Serwer knocks it out of the park:

The senators who voted against cloture were merely concerned about procedure. But make not mistake, they made an affirmative decision today. They voted for something. Those who voted to prevent a final vote on the Defense Authorization Act claim to honor the sacrifices of America's service members while demanding they bleed to death in the closet. They voted to ensure that the partners and families of those who have committed to giving their lives in service to this country receive no recognition, financial or otherwise, of what they have lost.
There may still be time for the Senate to redeem itself from this one, truly disgraceful moment. But the fact that so many senators were willing to sacrifice something as fundamental as equal treatment for gay and lesbian service members on the altar of "procedure" should not be forgotten.

Those of you following my twitter feed, uh, know how I felt about today's vote.

Transit policy is screwing me over (IV)

The Market Urbanist makes a point that I was unaware of:

Unlike state and federal highways, local roads are almost entirely subsidized out of general revenues – user fees like gas taxes are barely kicked down at all to municipalities for local road costs, as Randal O’Toole, who is much more knowledgeable about road financing than I, has told me. In fact, given that local roads are (I assume?) paid for out of property taxes and sales taxes levied on local Seattle residents, it would seem that those who don’t drive in Seattle actually pay more for the roads than the average person who uses them! This could be exacerbated by property taxes, which are often higher for renters– who are more likely not to own cars – than for homeowners

I'm REALLY getting screwed. The argument for "user fees" to cover the total cost of transit holds no water whatsoever when local roads are paid for overwhelmingly from the general fund. There are non-gas-tax forms of user fees for cars, but I can't imagine they generate anywhere near enough revenue. I ask again: why is it okay to subsidize roads but not transit? Perhaps it's because only gang members take the bus.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Civilian Trials? Nah.

Adam Serwer points to a clause in the continuing resolution that will fund federal government programs and activities that makes it illegal to try anyone who's been in Gitmo in a civilian court. It strikes me as a rather unreasonable foray into the judiciary from Congress, for one. But also, why is there this fetish with military commissions? Civilian courts have convicted hundreds of detainees, whereas tribunals have been less than perfect. Anyway, it's another chip at the rock of civil liberties in this country.

Cyber War (II)

So over the last few days, there's been some fascinating activity in the interwobs. Wikileaks seems to have sparked a war of sorts between "patriots" that are attacking Wikileaks and "hacktivists" like Anonymous who are attacking websites that have slighted Wikileaks in some way. I don't really have anything interesting to say about it except that it's really really cool. BoingBoing has more here. The BBC has a story here. And the Economist's Babbage blog has a primer on Anonymous here

This is really cool stuff. On the heels of a ridiculous virus like Stuxnet, we've got what seems to be one of the most ferocious and high-profile DDoS battles ever seen. Interestingly, Stuxnet is based on an ingenious virus, whereas DDoS attacks are some of the most rudimentary attacks possible. They're also among the most effective.

Fascinating.

On "process"

Greg Sargent reports that Senator Collins (R-ME) is withdrawing her support for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell over procedural complaints:

Collins has said she supports repeal, but won't agree to vote for cloture on the Defense Authorization Bill containing repeal if Harry Reid doesn't allow ample time for open debate and amendments on the bill.

Frankly, I find this sickening. Senators are willing to obstruct landmark civil rights legislation (and that's what this is) because they're unhappy with the amount of debate or amendments. If I were a senator, I would likely sound a lot like Anthony Weiner right now:



There are no more excuses. I'm sorry. There just aren't. If you believe that gay Americans are not second class citizens in this country, you vote for repeal. I've had it with this bullshit. The last couple days have had conservatives holding the unemployed hostage for tax cuts for millionaires, and now conservatives are willing to play procedural games in order to deny gay Americans the right to serve their country openly. It is disgusting. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff has said personally and professionally that repeal is a matter of integrity and must happen.

At this point, supporters of Don't Ask, Don't Tell have no leg to stand on. And yet, they will likely carry the day. And the rest of the world will look on as America treats a group of people as second-class citizens.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Obama the Pragmatist

Wow. From today's presser:



I don't know quite what to make of this. But it's damn interesting.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bad solutions

December's Car and Driver (sorry, not online) has an article on the California Air Resource Board's attempts to force car-makers in California to produce high numbers of Zero-Emission Vehicles.

Starting in 2012, CARB regulations get stricter, requiring large-volume automakers that sell more than 10,000 vehicles in California yearly--currently Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Ford, GM, and Chrysler--to produce among them a total of 7500 ZEVs between 2012 and 2014, a figure that rises to 25,000 for the 2015-2017 time frame.

There's also a cap-and-trade component that allows companies like Tesla to sell credits to companies not yet in compliance. This strikes me as a very bad approach to the worthy goal of reducing carbon emissions and other air pollution. Telling companies to produce a certain type of product is intrusive and far from guaranteed to work.

Think back to when subcompacts and hybrids really took off. It was when gas prices spiked to over $4/gallon. Ezra Klein calculated that the true cost of gasoline, counting all the unpriced externalities, would be closer to $4.37/gallon. Putting a proper price on carbon is a far better way to spur innovation and production of ULEVs and ZEVs.

Clearly there's no current appetite right now for a nationwide carbon tax, but states can raise the price of gasoline by raising the state gas tax. The deficit commission also recommended raising the federal gas tax. These solutions would raise revenue (which the country and California badly need) and accomplish the goal of getting people to buy more efficient vehicles, and they would do so in a far more free-market way. Pricing carbon and/or gasoline properly is more likely to work and more efficient than top down regulation. Ironically, in flatly opposing any sort of tax increase, conservatives are causing environmental regulation to move in a less free-market direction. That should change.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The problem with the two party system

Via Sullivan, Daniel Larison distills it down to the essence:

This means that antiwar activists and civil libertarians are caught in an odd bind: many of them are genuinely appalled by Obama’s continuation of Bush-era security policies on detention and surveillance (and especially by his outrageous new claim of assassination powers), they are disgusted that his administration is hiding behind the state secrets privilege to cover up for the Bush administration, and they object to escalating the war in Afghanistan. However, they know very well that the alternative to Obama is to have all of these things, plus torture, aggressive foreign policy in all directions, and possibly war with Iran.

For all the various disagreements I have with the Democratic party, I don't have anywhere to turn. The Republican party is worse on gay rights, worse on civil liberties, worse on deficits, and worse on Afghanistan. I could vote Green or other third party, but they don't have a chance, and I'm increasing the chance that the Republican could win by "throwing away" my vote. 

On a more local scale, this also happened in the recent Minnesota gubernatorial elections. I had no love for the DFL candidate, Mark Dayton, and considered voting for Tom Horner, the Independence party candidate. But the thought that my wasted vote could have allowed uber-conservative GOP candidate Tom Emmer to win meant holding my nose and voting for Dayton. As it turns out, the election was fairly close, so I'm glad I did. 

However, with instant runoff voting, I could have voted for Horner and still had my vote count for Dayton when he failed to garner a substantial number of votes. In 2000, liberals could have voted for Ralph Nader without helping George W Bush win. I could vote for a candidate with better civil libertarian bona fides in 2012 while not being an accessory to the ascension of President Palin. 

Now, chances are this wouldn't actually give rise to a multi-party system with loads of parties, a la proportional representation. But it would at least give me the option to lodge a protest vote without feeling like I'm aiding candidates who are anathema to my every policy preference. 

(As a side note, liberals are nowhere near as good as conservatives at scaring the shit out of incumbent senators with primary challenges. The latest victim is Olympia Snow.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I don't deserve to vote

Via Jon Chait, the president of Tea Party Nation doesn't think I should be allowed to vote:

It wasn’t you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.


Yep. I guess I never saw it that way. Because I can't afford to buy a house or condo, I shouldn't be allowed to vote.

In actuality, I think it's sad that renters aren't better represented in neighborhood meetings and hyper-local policy decisions. I live in a neighborhood that is 85% renters. Unfortunately, NIMBY-inclined owners tend to be the most vocal and active, so even an area as rental-heavy as this ends up having vicious battles over new development that young renters would welcome. I guess if Mr Phillips had his way, 85% of the households in my neighborhood would be disenfranchised entirely. Considering that this district is about as blue as it gets, that's probably fine by him.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Public Sector Employment and Pay (II)

Once again, President Obama appears to be caving to Republican demands without trying to actually get something in return. This time it's a freeze of federal employee pay. I've written before why this is a stupid approach and it still is.

Does Obama really think this will do anything to affect deficits, bring about a magical age of bipartisanship and unicorns, or is in any way good policy? I don't get it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Land of the free

Via ThinkProgress, Michael Goldfarb apparently wanted recently convicted terrorist Ahmed Ghailani executed while in CIA custody:

Maybe Goldfarb has taken Glenn Beck’s advice a little too seriously. The radical Fox News host once said that as President, he wouldn’t detain terror suspects, he’d “shoot them all in the head.” Perhaps Goldfarb is an avid National Review reader, where one writer once said that all Gitmo detainees should be let go and then killed. Or maybe Goldfarb has been listening to his former boss over at the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, who said last year of Maj. Nidal M. Hasan after his attack on the Fort Hood Army Base: “They should just go ahead and convict him and put him to death.”
It seems execution without trial is fairly popular in conservative circles.

Yep. Conservatives really are concerned about liberty and justice. As long as your definition of liberty is low marginal tax rates.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I'm contributing to the problem, I know

It is beyond the capacity of natural human consciousness to crave even a small fraction of the attention Sarah Palin has accumulated over two short years. And yet we continue heaping it upon her, unable to stop ourselves, as though our neurotransmitters are not our own but those of a gargantuan and slow-moving gelatinous mass exerting a gravitational pull on the collective frontal lobes that is somehow as exhausting to succumb to as it is to resist …

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The day in WTF

OK, kids, what's wrong with this sentence?

"In the minds of key foreign policy players on Bush's team, regime change, not rebuilding civil societies, was the real goal."

Anyone?

Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta

There hasn't been a living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor since Vietnam. It was long overdue, but yesterday President Obama and the army brass broke that streak, awarding it to Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta, for actions in Afghanistan in October 2007. Giunta's unit was featured in Sebastian Junger's documentary "Restrepo," which I still haven't managed to see. Junger put together a 14 minute video telling the story of Giunta's actions on 25 October. It's worth watching the whole thing. From the video:

"When you heard you were up for the Medal of Honor, what was your first thought?"
"Fuck you."

Giunta's bravery is beyond belief, but he does not let anyone congratulate him without acknowledging the bravery all his fellow soldiers demonstrate every day, in particular the two soldiers who died in that firefight, Sergeant Joshua Brennan and Specialist Hugo Mendoza.

On the same somber note, I want to point out that on 13 November, three soldiers, Staff Sergeant Juan Rivadeneira, Corporal Jacob Carver, and Specialist Jacob Carroll died in a suicide attack in Afghanistan, may they rest in peace.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why I'm not a Republican

Ron Brownstein has it:

Analyzing the GOP plan last November, the Congressional Budget Office calculated that by 2019 it would reduce the number of uninsured by only about 3 million, leaving well over 50 million Americans uncovered. The health reform law is projected to cover about 33 million of the uninsured by then.
Most Republican officeholders appear entirely comfortable accepting unprecedented numbers of uninsured Americans as the new normal.

(HT: Sullivan)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Transit policy is screwing me over (III)

Building on these posts and this tweet, I just wanted to point out that conservatives often like to cling to the idea that transit should pay for itself, and if it doesn't, it's not worth building. The thing is, the federal highway fund has had to be bailed out by the general fund, and that problem is only going to get worse as cars get more fuel efficient. The status quo of car-based suburban sprawl is the beneficiary of all kinds of explicit and implicit subsidies. The position that transit, which has many benefits beyond "getting from point A to point B" must pay for itself seems disingenuous. The people advancing these arguments either lack knowledge of the subsidies in place for car-based development, or are just grabbing at straws to oppose any kind of transit development.

Public Sector Employment and Pay

Yesterday while talking about the Bowles/Simpson proposal, I wrote:

The generic cuts to public worker compensation and public jobs are a joke. Tell me what jobs and how compensation will change, then I'll get back to you. That's just a sop to the right.

I want to expand on that. There are three basic points I want to make here.

First, the cuts are very vague. “Federal employees” is a very broad term that encapsulates all manner of people. Just saying “fire federal employees” is an easy way to “save money” without actually specifying what you want to cut. Who is getting fired? Teachers, regulators, foreign service officers, random staffers, janitors at the Pentagon? Without actually specifying who is getting fired, this is just a sop to populist conservative sentiment that demonizes “overpaid and underworked” (read: unionized) public employees. It’s not an actual proposal unless there are specifications of which employees are considered superfluous. Jon Chait riffs off a Stan Collender post on the same topic here. Well worth the read.

Second, I’m not here to provide a kneejerk opposition to any public sector employee firings or salary cuts. But there needs to be more nuance to this discussion. Too often the debate has gotten bogged down in discussions of whether or not public sector employees are overpaid. (The uneasy consensus seems to be that high-level, highly educated employees are underpaid and low-level employees are overpaid.) To me, that argument is beside the point.

The hostility towards the amorphous public sector employee is rooted mainly in small government ideology. I don’t share that ideology, so for me, the priority should be ensuring that essential government functions are carried out efficiently and well, while the government gets out of doing non-essential things. For example, I don’t have a problem with well-compensated regulators at the SEC or MMS if they’re doing their jobs well. On the other hand, I think Dairy Management workers are overpaid at any price, since the federal government should not be acting as a marketing firm for cheese. The point is, again, focusing on numbers of public employees is a blunt and stupid way to shrink government. Focusing on the functions that government should be performing is the more logical approach.

Finally, I do agree that public sector employee pay could use reform. But again, the Simpson/Bowles method (also known as the conservative Republican method) is blunt and won't tackle the root of the problem. The real problem with public sector empolyees, particularly in state and local government, is that their pension and benefits costs are way out of line with private sector workers. Along with that, the pension funds have been mismanaged by those governments. Freezing their pay does nothing to fix that. All it does is piss off dedicated public servants.

Now, I understand that the thinking behind the generous benefits is that it makes up for the low nominal salary. I think we’re finding that it was a bad bargain to make. This structure allowed lawmakers to pay employees with future promises that they didn’t have to pay for. The current structure is hard on future budgets, since it ties their hands with defined benefit pension obligations. It also attracts workers who are more interested in the stability and long-term security than the folks who might be more motivated to work hard and make good money up front.

Switching to a private-sector style pay structure would be beneficial on several levels. Higher starting salaries could attract better talent for public sector jobs. With the higher starting pay, retirement planning can switch to a defined contribution structure with matching, like the 401(k)s common in the private sector. This avoids saddling future administrations with debt and obligations, while still allowing employees to adequately prepare for retirement. Once employees retire, they will no longer be burdens on their employers. This is tough medicine to swallow for those who are currently working in the public sector, but this structure has been common in the private sector for some time.

There's no reason to resort to the proverbial hatchet, when targeted reforms would be more likely to actually take effect, as well as leading to more efficient government instead of just smaller government.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Fiscal Commission Not-Report

There's a lot to like. There are also a couple big things that I absolutely hate. I'm going off the summary from TPM. I should note that this is NOT the report, merely a draft by the Chairmen to get the party started. Also, these are scattered thoughts, not a particularly cohesive (or well-written) conclusion.

Defense Cuts. Not as deep as I would like, but killing the F-35B and V-22 Osprey are both great moves. (Sorry, Marines, I know it's your birthday.) I have a hard time finding fault with the cuts, though I think they could have looked closer at the Navy. I'm also not sold on some of the pay freezes/cuts to soldiers. I think it would be more effective to fire more contractors and get soldiers to do their jobs. We pay a hell of a lot more for contractors than for our own troops.

Tax reform. Awesome. I would leave the EITC and ditch the rest. Unlike Ross Douthat, I dislike social engineering in the tax code, so the child tax credit isn't something I'm interested in saving. Killing the exemptions for mortgage interest, health insurance, and a crapton of other things is exactly in line with what I have advocated. I'm not a huge fan of their more extreme version flattening the tax code. Sure, eliminating tax expenditures means marginal rates can go down, but without the EITC this would amount to a tax increase on the poor, and either a tax cut or business as usual for the rich. Keeping the EITC would help with that. Upping the gas tax is a good idea, though I would prefer a straight carbon tax. The cap on tax revenue at 21% of GDP is a statement about size of government and not about the deficit. It should not be included. Have we not yet learned that reducing revenue doesn't reduce spending? Revenue should be adjusted to fit the appropriate level of spending. Picking arbitrary numbers is not the way to go.

Further cuts in Medicare. Not hugely convinced that they do a lot more than move the burden of payment slightly away from government and toward out of pocket expenditures, but it's better than nothing. Probably not enough to really take down the problem completely, but they seem to be relying on the IPAB for that.

Means-testing Social Security. I've called for this several times, so obviously I'm a fan. I'm not a fan, however, of raising the retirement age. I think further raising the cap on payroll taxes while leaving the retirement age where it is would be a better idea. I don't yet know what to think about changing the indexing of benefits from wages to inflation. The CBPP thinks it's a rather bad idea. But it does make sense to index it to prices, rather than wages, as the point of Social Security is to keep seniors out of poverty, not to be an actual pension. I'm not convinced that "seniors will get less than they otherwise would" is a valid reason to oppose this change. If it means benefits will drop to the point where they're no longer keeping seniors out of poverty, then I might object.

Other discretionary spending cuts. Eliminating earmarks, haha, ok, whatever, that won't change the deficit at all. Killing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is fine, NPR will live on with ease. I'm very glad to see farm subsidies on here, they need to go. The generic cuts to public worker compensation and public jobs are a joke. Tell me what jobs and how compensation will change, then I'll get back to you. That's just a sop to the right. I do not agree with cutting funding for the State Department. If anything, some of that money saved at the DoD should go to Foggy Bottom, since they're more important to our foreign policy than Defense really is. Secretary Clinton is bolstering our ranks of FSOs in USAID and State, and that process should continue, as it is very important to our economic and military security.

Conclusion. If I had to give the package an up or down vote, I would vote for it. While much of it seems to have been written in the halls of AEI (or the less militant parts of Cato), many of the cuts are progressive. It seems to have been modeled after the austerity programs in the UK in many ways. The most regressive part is the raising of the retirement age and that's what I like the least. But I would choke that down in order to make all the other changes in the package.

It's too bad this package doesn't have a chance, because it would be a good start.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New START

I mentioned Mitt Romney's comical attack on the new START treaty previously, along with several rebuttals. Well, today John Bolton and John Yoo took their turn at bashing START. It didn't go much better. First, let's just realize who we're talking about here. John Yoo is famous as the legal mind that tried to justify torture for the Bush administration. And John Bolton's mustache clearly makes him a shady character. He's also been a long-time opponent of arms-control treaties.

I just want to pick out one paragraph to point out some of the rank idiocy:

New Start’s faults are legion. The low limits it would place on nuclear warheads ignore the enormous disparities between American and Russian global responsibilities and the importance of America’s “nuclear umbrella” in maintaining international security. The treaty’s constraints on launching platforms would impede Washington’s ability to use conventional warheads even in conflicts far from any Russian interest or responsibility. There are plenty of other deficiencies, from inadequate verification provisions to leaving Moscow’s extensive tactical nuclear weapons capabilities unlimited.

Even once we get down to the ~1500 warheads specified in the treaty, we'll still be able to lay waste to every major metropolitan area in the world and kill billions. I'm not sure where the threat to the "nuclear umbrella" is. I'm also not sure who, exactly, this umbrella is intended to protect against. If Iran launches a missile that they don't currently have, we could turn the entire country into glass without breaking a sweat. But that's not enough for Messrs. Bolton and Yoo, apparently.

The constraints on conventional ballistic missiles are there because the danger of misinterpreting their use is far greater than the benefits of using them. Put frankly, an ICBM silo looks like an ICBM silo and an ICBM launch looks like an ICBM launch. It's not like you can just glance at them and know which ones have nukes and which are filled with TNT. Plus warheads can be easily switched out. While rocketeers in Russia and the US aren't on the hair triggers of the cold war, all it takes is one mistake. Not worth it.

The last part is the most ludicrous. They say there's no hurry in ratifying START, then complain about inadequate verification provisions? Since old START expired, we haven't had the ability to verify Russian compliance at all. And we won't until new START is verified. Last I checked, even inadequate verification is far better than none. And I don't even buy the inadequacy. And no, it doesn't deal with tactical nukes. That's probably what it's called the STRATEGIC Arms Reduction Treaty. If they want to advocate for a TART treaty, I'm all for it.

But really, just read Fred Kaplan (again) and ArmsControlWonk.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Elections and Fundamentals

As promised, my longer piece on the election is up. As it just so happens, it's up at MinnPost! A taste:

When analyzing elections, political scientists like to point to what they call "the fundamentals." Pundits prefer to look at things like narratives, who is "winning" news cycles, and the minutiae of political battles. This is in part because it is hard to fill newspaper pages, blogs, and hours of cable news talking about the same fundamental issues every single day. But the fact remains that these fundamentals are vastly more important to electoral outcomes than almost anything that dominates each day's news cycle. With respect to Professor David Schultz's Community Voices article last week, "Why the Democrats Lost on Tuesday," Obama's messaging and process, while not completely inconsequential, mattered only on the margins. So why did the Democrats lose?

Legacies and Elections

I'll have a longer piece about why the Democrats took such a beating last week up soon, but for now I wanted to make one point.

History will look back at the 111th Congress, and one thing will stand out. It's not the extreme partisanship, the unprecedented abuse of the filibuster and procedural gimmickry, the effectiveness of the Republican strategy of obstructing anything and everything, or even the electoral beating that followed. One thing will stand out: that as a result of the efforts of the 111th Congress, 32 million Americans who were uninsured will be covered, thanks to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. After decades of trying, America finally has something close to universal health coverage. The purpose of a majority is to legislate, and by that definition, the 111th Congress did just fine.

In other words, read Will Saletan's piece for Slate.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

QE2

The Fed announced yesterday that it would embark on a new round of quantitative easing, aka QE2. NPR has an excellent explanation of what their statement means and what QE is. Or you can read Bernanke's WaPo op-ed. Long story short, the Fed created $600bn out of thin air and is using it to buy treasury bills in an attempt to drive interest rates down even further and bump inflation up a bit.

I have a better idea. Also a completely unfeasible one, since it requires congressional action. But still better. I'll keep the numbers the same for simplicity's sake.

The Treasury issues $600bn in new T-bills. The Fed creates $600bn out of thin air, and buys those T-bills. Suddenly the government has $600bn in new money to play with. $300bn goes to pay for infrastructure upgrades. Put people to work building roads, railways, bridges, fiber-optic broadband, and sewer systems. Take the other $300bn and drop it from a helicopter. Send every American a $1000 check. Even if they all use it to pay down the debt they're in, it will at least speed up that process. Some, hopefully, would go buy stuff. If people buy more stuff, businesses can hire more people, who can then buy more stuff, etc. Those construction workers who don't have new homes to build can get jobs building bridges, etc. They now have more money than unemployment was giving them, so they can pay down debt and buy stuff.

Just as importantly, the Fed will have just printed $600bn and injected it right into the heart of the real economy. This may cause inflation. Good! Inflation is at 1% right now, it should be higher. Higher inflation (~3-5%) will get people out of debt faster. It will make real interest rates drop below zero, making securities a bad idea, and pushing businesses to expand instead of sitting on cash.

And best of all, the Fed could just choose to immediately forgive the debt from those $600bn in T-bills. Since that money was created out of thin air, the US doesn't owe it to China, and it doesn't get added to the national debt. It may weaken our currency, relative to other world currencies. Good! That makes our exports more competitive abroad and makes American-built products more competitive with imported goods at home.

Obviously, this is a bit silly. But the economy is still pretty fucked, so it would be nice for policymakers to think outside the box a bit.

UPDATE: Yglesias writes something similar today:

As it happens, I don’t like that idea a huge amount at this point. I think what we should be looking to do is to give the money directly to households. Instead of creating money and using it to buy $600 billion in bonds, create money and use it to send $2,000 to each American. That’s an approach that would be superior from a humanitarian standpoint even if it didn’t ultimately produce macroeconomic gains, and it would also have more political legitimacy.

UPDATE 2: Karl Smith, sitting in for Ezra Klein, also wouldn't mind a helicopter drop:

A number of economists are concerned that the Federal Reserve can't on its own stimulate demand. I am skeptical here, but with unemployment holding steady at 10 percent I am more than willing to consider alternate strategies.
The most straightforward would be what economists nicknamed the Helicopter Drop. At its core this means that Federal Reserve would print money and the IRS would mail that money to people as checks. It would be as if we dropped money on the nation from helicopters.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cut that deficit!



This is why I love Chris Matthews. And why it's ludicrous that the GOP is "the party of fiscal discipline." Put differently, here's Hugh Laurie on the GOP's plan for deficit reduction:


Disgusting

I don't have much to say about last night's Dempocalypse, but this is a pretty disgusting example of homophobia:

With nearly all precincts reporting, the three justices -- David Baker, Michael Streit and Chief Justice Marsha Ternus -- were voted out by an average margin of 55% to 45%.
It's the first time an Iowa Supreme Court justice has been ousted since Iowa instituted its system of appointment and retention in 1962.
Last year, the Iowa Supreme Court's seven justices voted unanimously to legalize same-sex marriage in the state, making them a target of groups like the National Organization for Marriage, the American Family Association and the Family Research Council, who declared the ruling a case of gross judicial activism and usurpation of power.
The groups spent more than $700,000 to convince voters to kick the judges out, funding a statewide "Judge Bus" tour, radio ads, TV ads, text messages and polling. Even Citizens United chipped in $18,000 at almost the last minute.

I've been known to joke that the National Organization for Marriage should be renamed the "National Organization for my Marriage, not yours." This is why. It's also example 1a of why judicial elections are fucking stupid.

In other news, Oklahoma banned Sharia law. I know I'll sleep better at night now, inshallah.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Pundit bingo

Brendan Nyhan has created an indispensable resource for your election night coverage watching:



Make sure you've got a dauber handy.

Kill it. Kill it with fire.

Courtesy of the Project on Government Oversight (and Bloomberg), the F-35 "Joint Strike Fighter" project is... like every other major defense spending project ever:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is set to be briefed tomorrow by Pentagon officials on a review prepared by the F-35 program manager, Vice Admiral David Venlet, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because details aren’t public. Venlet’s review will disclose broad ranges of potential expense growth, they said. Software, engineering and flight difficulties are proving greater than expected, the officials said.

The slippage in the JSF’s timetable may be as much as one year for the Air Force and Navy versions and two to three years for development of the Marine Corps model capable of short takeoffs and landings, the officials said.

Obviously, I don't want to kill the JSF completely. It's a worthy project, and should continue to go forward. (And Gates should continue to whack people who fail at making it work.) I do, however, think the F-35B variant can die a fiery death. Not literally, I don't wish death upon test pilots. But the project should go away. Stop wasting spending money on a plane that's completely unnecessary. From an article in the Marine Corps Times:

“In the end, the Marines may not have a jump jet,” said James Hasik, a defense analyst in Virginia. “I’m not terribly convinced of the argument that the Marine Corps actually needs its own close-support arm that isn’t rotary driven.”
Winslow Wheeler, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington, agreed.
“How many times have you seen an AV-8B land next to a unit engaged in combat to talk to the commander and get insights on the close-air support mission?” Wheeler said. “I don’t think it’s ever happened.”

(The AV-8B is a Harrier "Jump-jet," which is the capability the F-35B would be replacing.) At some point, the defense budget is going to have to shrink. And this seems like a pretty good place to cut. But wait:

The Corps’ commitment to the aircraft is a key factor, said Bob Dunn, a retired Navy vice admiral who has watched it closely.
“When the Marines get dedicated to something, they are going to go for it — come hell or high water,” he said.


Yeah, sounds like a detailed cost/benefit analysis to me. I know the Marines already feel like they get screwed on funding, but this is a massive amount of money to sink into a weapons system that has no practical use. If the Marines need fixed-wing aircraft at all (and I'm not convinced they do), the carrier variant should be fine, without the STOVL capability that's causing lots and lots of problems.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Real America"

With the growing antagonism from the right against the "elites" who don't know "Real America," generally defined as white, small-town, and religious, I thought I would offer a reality check:

Where do most Americans live, and where will the next 100 million live? In metropolitan areas. Currently, eighty-three percent of Americans live in the country's 361 metropolitan areas, as defined by the US Census. Another six percent live in "exurbia" outside these metropolitan areas and rely on their closest metro area for their livelihood. These percentages are projected to increase, continuing a 200-year trend. (Source: Christopher Leinberger, The Option of Urbanism)

Maybe the last 11% of Americans that still live in small-town America should get with the picture and join Real America, that is, urban America. There's something quintessentially conservative about defining Real America as something that has been on terminal decline for centuries.

Friday, October 29, 2010

"Tyranny" (III)

You couldn't ask for a clearer depiction of the dangers of allowing the steady erosion of civil liberties. The right's supreme hack, Jonah Goldberg, provides it:

[Wikileaks founder Julian Assange] told the New Yorker earlier this year that he fully understands innocent people might die as a result of the "collateral damage" of his work and that WikiLeaks may have "blood on our hands." WikiLeaks is easily among the most significant and well-publicized breaches of American national security since the Rosenbergs gave the Soviets the bomb.
So again, I ask: Why wasn't Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago?
It's a serious question.

Very American, killing whistleblowers. Also, keep in mind that his crap about Wikileaks endangering lives has been debunked by the Pentagon, of all places. Now, I'll be fair, he manages to write the column in a way that ensures he's not actually advocating for the death of Assange. But then we come to the really telling line:

Even if the CIA wanted to take him out, they couldn't without massive controversy. That's because assassinating a hipster Australian Web guru as opposed to a Muslim terrorist is the kind of controversy no official dares invite.

The casual acceptance that it's okay to kill Muslims but not Westerners is nauseating. But I think Goldberg's flippant attitude toward assassination is even more depressing. There's no objection on the grounds that it would be wrong to assassinate Assange, just that it would cause controversy. That controversy, no doubt, would be ginned up by pinko terrorist sympathizers like Glenn Greenwald, Radley Balko, Will Wilkinson, or Conor Friedersdorf, only one of whom is really a liberal. In Goldberg's ideal world, extrajudicial assassination is cool, as long as he thinks the guy being killed is a bad dude. That's certainly the view of most of National Review's writers.

Christian Whiton is less circumspect:

Here are some of the things the U.S. could do:
[...]
2. Explore opportunities for the president to designate WikiLeaks and its officers as enemy combatants, paving the way for non-judicial actions against them.

Yep. Welcome to the conservative love for liberty, ladies and gentlemen!

Snow Crash

I just finished reading Neal Stephenson's novel "Snow Crash". It was written in the late 80s and early 90s, and is set in an unspecified future dystopian United States. The government doesn't exist in any form that would be recognizable to today's Americans. It's a world where everything is privatized and franchised, from Mr Lee's Greater Hong Kong to the mafia-run CosaNostra pizza delivery to Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates. Several times throughout the book a character quips, "if there were still laws..." Which is to say, it's a bit over the top, but it still hits uncomfortably close to home at times.

The prisons, for example, are franchised out just like fast food. If you're sent to jail, you're taken to a franchise of "The Hoosegow" or "The Clink." Like all franchises, they're run out of a 3-ring binder by a mindless bureaucrat. The military no longer exists as an organ of the state, but as private mercenary armies with names like General Jim's Defense System and Admiral Bob's Global Security.

Why do I say this hits close to home? Well, replace the silly names like General Jim's with Blackwater, DynCorp, Raytheon, or Titan. We already have private armies running around largely unsupervised, unaccountable, and unscrutinized (though Jeremy Scahill works tirelessly to correct that). As for prisons, well:

Private companies in the United States operate 264 correctional facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult offenders. Companies operating such facilities include the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, Inc, and Community Education Centers.

Again, the names aren't as cheesy, but the underlying idea is startlingly close.

On a less serious note, Stephenson's vaunted Metaverse, in which the characters interact in virtual reality, bears a startling resemblance to Second Life. In one scene, a Kourier (basically a skate-board courier) describes her lack of helmet by explaining that there's an airbag in the collar of her jumpsuit. Well, lo and behold, there's a company working on exactly that for bicyclists! It's a good thing "Snow Crash" was written before Windows, because now it would be named "Blue Screen of Death." In addition to not having the same ring to it, the change would also screw up a central plot point of the story, so perhaps it's better this way. 

Overall, it was a very excellent book, chock full of humor, with a characteristically compelling story. It's the second Stephenson novel I've read, after "Diamond Age," and I highly recommend both books.

Green shoots for sanity on the drug war?

Conrad Black has a scathing piece up at National Review:

There is room for legitimate argument about what course the U.S. should follow in drug-control policy, but there is no possible dispute that the present course has been such an unmitigated failure that it has aggravated the societal problem, strained relations with friendly foreign countries and destabilized some, and, as Milton Friedman said in 1991, constituted a protectionist bonanza for the most virulent and sociopathic elements of organized crime. In comparison, Prohibition, which handed the liquor business to Al Capone and his analogues, was a howling success, and it was repealed after 14 years. Surely, we can do better than this. But as with most other urgent issues, we are completing a pyrotechnic midterm-election campaign with scarcely a peep being raised on a subject that affects almost half the population of the United States.

(HT: the Dish)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I love Congress (Part MCXIV)

ProPublica has a big piece up about the "New Democrat" coalition and their close ties to the business community. A taste:

"We're working hard with you to get the policy right," [Wisconsin Democrat Ron] Kind told lobbyists for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and others.


We're in good hands.

Stay classy, Yankee fans

Maybe Cliff Lee to the Bronx isn't such a done deal:

Fans' treatment of Cliff Lee's wife at Yankee Stadium might not help the Yankees' recruitment of one of the game's top left-handed pitchers.
During the AL Championship Series games in New York between the Yankees and Rangers, fans were extremely rude to Kristen Lee, spitting and throwing beer in her direction and shouting obscenities, according to USA Today.

Transit policy is screwing me over (II)

Josh Barro (a conservative!) seems to largely agree with me in this piece at RealClearMarkets:

Critics of higher gas taxes will note that some gas tax revenue is diverted to non-highway purposes. That's true, but the amount was only $24 billion in 2008, less than half the amount of general revenue diverted to highways. $15 billion of the gas tax diversion was to mass transit, whose use produces positive externalities for drivers by reducing traffic. And that $24 billion only approximately offsets the value of a major tax preference for drivers: the fact that in almost all states, gasoline sales are not subject to general sales tax. Overall, drivers are net recipients of a significant and growing government subsidy, which a change to the gas tax could help offset.

I don't agree with his last line, necessarily, that this should be used as an excuse to then extend the Bush tax cuts. But overall, very good piece.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wikileaks part 2

On Friday, Wikileaks dropped a few hundred thousand documents from the Iraq War. (Why on Friday? Friday is when you release things you want nobody to read!) This gives me an excuse to return to the topic of Wikileaks and responsible leaking. It turns out that the Pentagon has concluded that nobody was put at risk as a result of the Wikileaks document dump. While I'm not as gung-ho and angry about this as Glenn Greenwald, it does make me a bit more sanguine about the latest leak. Frankly, I think the Pentagon is right to be worried about the safety of its personnel. But in the end, most of these documents probably shouldn't be classified in the first place.

I'll be keeping tabs on Danger Room as they dig through this latest trove.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lying about Venice

IMG_8207

The Economist points out some propaganda paintings showing blue skies and sun in Venice:

THE sun always shines in Venice; the sky is always blue. This is how visitors like to remember that most beautiful island city. Not coincidentally, that is how Canaletto most often painted the place. His clients, after all, were Grand Tourists, many of them back home in dark English country houses, worrying about farm rents. They longed for the gorgeous, licentious place their memories turned into paradise.
The fact is that in the 18th century and today, Venice would win the title of bronchitis capital of the world if such a contest existed.

Damn right. I remember Venice as being smelly, wet, rainy, and incredibly overpriced. I saw it once, and I have no desire to go back. It's sunnier at the Venetian in Vegas.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bus quirks

I'm only a poser in comparison to Seattle's Bus Chick (I still own a car), but a lot of these still hit close to home. Particularly the favorite seat. I'm always a bit thrown when I can't get my seat for whatever reason.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Transit policy is screwing me over

Roads are paid for via taxes, mostly on gas. This is widely accepted, to the point where nobody even thinks about it. If I drive to work, I only indirectly pay for the roads via the gas tax. That's $0.45 per gallon in Minnesota, including federal and local taxes.

So why am I expected to pay $2.25 every time I take a bus during rush hour? Metro Transit, like most mass transit systems and unlike most roads, is expected to provide a large part (currently about one third) of its own funding through fees and fares. In order to pay the same amount commuting to work via car as I do commuting by bus, I would have to use up 10 gallons of gas every day. Needless to say, I don't. I'm actually punished financially for riding the bus, which has all kinds of positive externalities.

Part of the answer, of course, is that the money from fuel taxes goes overwhelmingly to highways, rather than transit. Why are we funding the less efficient method of transportation with more negative externalities (see warming, global) at a far higher rate than mass transit?

These prices are way out of whack with the actual costs involved. A proper price on carbon would help.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why normal people don't run for office (II)

David Brooks takes on the issue in a column that mostly reads like a hagiography of Mark Kirk:

Today’s political environment encourages narcissism and inflames insecurity.
[...]
[P]eople who run for public office put themselves in a position in which everybody is inclined to believe the worst about them. The things that are ripe for ridicule become famous. The accomplishments fade from view. The cynics of the world, which includes almost everybody when it comes to politics, write you off as a sleazeball because it feels so good and superior to do so.

Megan McArdle has her own ideas of what to do with people who are obsessive and boring enough to successfully navigate the Facebook age without something embarrassing coming out: round them up and put them in camps.

The very model of a modern US President

Via Sullivan, this is quite awesome:



And damn you Aaron Sorkin, for making me a sucker for Gilbert and Sullivan references.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The origins of the religious right

Will Wilkinson has an interesting post over at DiA exploring the transformation that protestant politics underwent during the cold war. I don't really know what to make of it. It doesn't seem particularly applicable, but it sure is interesting reading:

Before yesterday it had never occurred to me that America's distinctive brand of evangelical conservatism—its peculiar marriage of mythic American nationalism with a personal, emotionally intense relationship with Jesus Christ—is not an entirely bottom-up phenomenon, but is to some extent the creation of Eisenhower-era government propaganda and the PR heft of William Randolph Hearst. (That's what certain secular-humanist documentary producers want us to believe!) I look forward to one day seeing this remarkable chain of historical influences mapped out more fully on Glenn Beck's revelatory blackboard.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Citizens United and Free Speech

Matt Steinglass over at the Economist has one of the better arguments I've heard against the Citizens United ruling:

That said, there are (at least) two different reasons for embracing the principle of free speech. The first is that a healthy democracy requires a vibrant sphere of public political debate. This is an instrumental reason to encourage free speech. The second is that the right to voice your own opinions and convictions is inherent in the dignity of every human being. This is a moral axiom. Corporations may stake a claim to the first justification. Not being human beings, they have no claim to the second. As far as I can tell, the majority opinion in Citizens United cites exclusively the first, instrumental justification for protecting free speech. But that first justification, being instrumental, raises the question of whether certain forms of political communication are in fact likely to contribute to a vibrant sphere of public political debate. It has been my experience that in general, the more a form of political communication costs, the less it contributes to healthy political discourse. The argument that treating a corporation's purchase of millions of dollars of televised attack ads differently from an individual's statement of an opinion in a town-hall debate amounts to discrimination or repression seems to me the product of calculated naivete on the court's part.

I've tended to focus on the court's failure to rule narrowly, as I don't have the legal chops to argue about a corporation's right to free political speech. The problem here, I suppose, is trying to make that distinction of what speech is healthy and what speech is unhealthy. Who decides? It's much easier to make an argument for absolute rights that are applied totally consistently. Shades of gray are much harder to defend. 

One also has to be cognizant of the fact that its fairly easy for a large corporation to buy TV ads, but basically impossible for all but the richest individuals to do so. It's not exactly a level playing field. But is that something the court should take into account when ruling on free speech? It makes me a bad wannabe pundit, but I don't know.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why normal people don't run for office

I made comment a while back that "borderline psychopaths" are the only people who run for elected office. Via Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens has more on why that's true:

Consider: What normal person would consider risking their career and their family life in order to undergo the incessant barrage of intrusive questioning about every aspect of their lives since well before college? To face the constant pettifogging and chatter of Facebook and Twitter and have to boast of how many false friends they had made in a weird cyberland? And if only that was the least of it. Then comes the treadmill of fundraising and the unending tyranny of the opinion polls, which many media systems now use as a substitute for news and as a means of creating stories rather than reporting them. And, even if it "works," most of your time in Washington would be spent raising the dough to hang on to your job. No wonder that the best lack all conviction.

Who on earth wants to go through all that? Campaign finance reform would help, but a complete change in political and media culture is necessary before a halfway normal person would consider running for office. Until then, we'll continue to get the oblivious narcissists with massive egos that run for office now.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Day in Obvious

Greenwald quotes a new study:

Pape. . . will present findings on Capitol Hill Tuesday that argue thatthe majority of suicide terrorism around the world since 1980 has had a common cause: military occupation.

You mean people don't like military occupation?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Nuclear Security

This is a rather scary video and report about some old nuclear gravity bomb storage areas in Belgium:

When the Bombspotters pulled off this stunt in January, it seemed a small group of activists had succeeded in penetrating one of two sets of 11 Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS).  It seemed as though they were in the middle of a cluster that happened not to have B61 nuclear gravity bombs in Ws3 shelters, though that hardly excused the the woeful performance turned in by Belgian security or the lame excuses offered by the Belgian government.

There a couple of things wrong here. One: how were a bunch of hippies able to enter a military base that contained nuclear weapon storage facilities? And two: why are the damn Belgians guarding our nukes? I mean, I get that they're our intrepid NATO allies and all, but it seems to me that if we're going to go through the effort of basing nukes in Belgium, we damn well better have a bunch of American troops and MPs guarding the place. As the video points out, these were peace activists, but what if they were terrorists? Not exactly a shining moment for our military.

September Jobs Numbers

So this will be fun. According to the BLS:

Nonfarm payroll employment edged down (-95,000) in September, and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 9.6 percent. Government employment declined (-159,000), reflecting both a drop in the number of temporary workers for Census 2010 and job losses in local government. Private-sector payroll employment continued to trend up modestly (+64,000).

So, Republicans (and conservative/clueless Democrats) continually bash public sector jobs, refuse to extend additional aid to cash strapped states, and even propose further slashing the budget, which would cause even more layoffs. Unsurprisingly, this means the public sector continues to shed jobs, even while the private sector adds jobs. Now, given these numbers, do you think GOP leaders will acknowledge this? No, it will be more "Obama's failed economic policies aren't creating jobs." They won't acknowledge that their obstruction helped cause that job loss and that their proposed policies, such as they are, would hugely exacerbate that problem. Instead, it will be Obama's fault.

In reality, while 64k private sector jobs is about 300k fewer than we need to be creating, the economy is at least adding some jobs. Unfortunately, we're not doing the simplest thing to help the economy, which is extending aid to state and local governments to prevent layoffs of teachers, cops and firefighters. On the other hand, since these are the last numbers before the midterms (and they suck), the GOP's strategy will pay off--they're going to win handsomely in November.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On means-testing

Reihan has a post up about Britain's Tory government and their effort to means-test various benefits. He quotes James Forsythe:

Now, if you accept that the poor are currently being taxed to provide child benefits for the rich (a slight exaggeration given that higher rate taxpayers contribute far more than they take out in services) then this argument applies with equal force to all other universal benefits. Why should someone on £17,000 a year pay taxes to help cover the cost of Felicity Kendall’s pension or Judi Dench’s winter fuel payment?
Labour understands this point and that Osborne has, as I say in the magazine this week, laid a trap for them: if they accept the child benefit cut they’ll be accepting a shift from a welfare state to a welfare safety net.

I just wanted to point out that in the US, we're still struggling to set up a proper safety net. That said, it still makes sense to save some money in the states by means-testing Medicare and Social Security. Note that the hated Obamacare already is. The amount of subsidy offered for insurance depends on income. As the country tries to get its balance sheet back in order, means-testing is a logical place to look.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

We're screwed. But at least we deserve it.

As my misguided friend over at the Great Wahl points out, FritoLay has abandoned its biodegradable bag for SunChips in the face of plummeting sales. Let me just align myself with everything Mother Jones' outstanding environmental reporter Kate Sheppard had to say:

Of course everyone is entitled to have opinions about the relative aesthetics of consumer products, but should those really trump the environmental benefits? In the grand scheme of things, this is the absolute, bare-minimum level of sacrifice Americans are asked to make. They still get to eat the same chips, they just come from a different bag; they still light their homes, but with a slightly different bulb. But apparently that's still too much. Even worse is the fact that Americans can't muster the support to pass a climate bill, but a bunch of angry couch potatoes can successfully mobilize to force Frito-Lay to drop their innovative packaging. If the sound of a crinkly eco-chip bag is too much to handle, then the human species really is screwed.

Seriously, people. Sometimes progress takes sacrifice. And in this case that sacrifice was a slightly louder bag. Apparently we're not even willing to endure that. No wonder we can't get comprehensive climate change legislation. If we won't let our junk food packaging inconvenience us, no way are people going to support rising energy prices.

Yep, today is one of those days where I just hate people.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

We are so totally screwed.

Ezra Klein points to some wonderful graphs by Neil Irwin. Irwin's interactive graphs show, much more clearly, what I was trying to get at back in this post. Basically, there's a huge gap between the pre-recession trend and actual GDP growth. It's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to get back to full employment if we continue this anemic growth. A robust recovery generally sees GDP growth above the pre-recession average, which enables GDP to return to trend quickly. That hasn't happened this time; in fact, we're seeing GDP growth below pre-recession average, which is creating a huge gap between our potential output and actual output.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Security Theater (II)

Yglesias is pretty fed up with Terror Alerts:

The point is that policy and discourse around terrorism are dangerously lacking in perspective or any kind of reasonable cost-benefit analysis. People die of nut allergies every year, but we don’t enact a nationwide ban on nuts; it would be insane and incredibly annoying. But nobody in office seems interested in running the math on what kind of safety modern-day airport liquid bans and shoe-removal procedures are buying us or at what cost. No tradeoffs are discussed between fighting terrorism and fighting ordinary crime, or trying to reduce motorcycle accidents (which kill many more people than 9/11 each and every year), or simply the wealth and convenience gained by hassle-free air travel. But terrorism hurts us most not when it kills people, but when it uses our own clouded judgment as a force multiplier that inspires us to weaken ourselves in a thousand ways big and small.

Tim Pawlenty and Reading Comprehension

Today, our intrepid 2012 presidential hopeful tweeted a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal that reports on St Paul-based 3M's decision to restructure its retiree health benefits in response to the new health care landscape as Obamacare goes into effect. He describes is as "more proof Obamacare is a failure." I'm guessing he (or his flunky that runs the twitter account) didn't actually read the article. For example:

"As you know, the recently enacted health care reform law has fundamentally changed the health care insurance market," the memo said. "Health care options in the marketplace have improved, and readily available individual insurance plans in the Medicare marketplace provide benefits more tailored to retirees' personal needs often at lower costs than what they pay for retiree medical coverage through 3M.

So, to recap, Obamacare is making private health insurance plans better and cheaper than those offered through 3M. As a result, 3M is going to phase out their own program that has been made superfluous. That sounds to me like smashing success, not failure. Then there's this:

Democrats that crafted the legislation say they tried to incentivize companies to keep their retiree coverage intact, especially until 2014. The law creates a $5 billion fund for employers and unions to offset the cost of retiree health benefits. More than 2,000 entities, including many large public companies, have already been approved to submit claims for such reimbursement. 3M did not apply.

"We would certainly welcome their application," said Reid Cherlin, a spokesman for the White House.

If 3M had wanted, they could have gotten monetary assistance through the ACA to keep retiree benefits. They didn't bother, because the private insurance market was becoming more efficient and affordable. Perhaps next time T-Paw can try actually reading the article and having some understanding of health care policy.

As a side note, wonks can also rejoice, since there's bipartisan agreement (among policy types, not necessarily pols) that severing the link between employers and insurance is a critical step to getting our health care system into some semblance of order. 3M is demonstrating that Obamacare is one small step in that direction.

EDIT: Kevin Drum caught whiff of this article and had much the same argument I did.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

On Wonky Conservatism

I try not to insulate myself completely from conservative thought. I don't want to cocoon myself in a bubble of writers I largely agree with, never challenging my assumptions. The problem I run into is that there are a lot of really bad conservative writers out there. Cheap demagoguery does not do much to enhance my understanding of any particular issue. As a result, I stay away from Big Government and RedState.com, just as I stay away from Daily Kos, HuffPo and FDL.

However, this leaves precious little in the way of conservative writing to follow. The ones I've settled on and added to my RSS feed are Ross Douthat at the Times and his co-author Reihan Salam's blog at NRO. I also read The American Scene, Conor Friedersdorf and Dave Weigel, whose politics are hard to pin down, but can usually loosely be characterized as libertarian. When something by Jim Manzi pops up on twitter or something, I'm always sure to read his take, as well.

The big takeaway I get from reading these authors is caution about the limits of government intervention's ability to fix things. Salam and his co-authors at The Agenda don't deny that there are huge issues with our health-care system, for example. There's none of the grandstanding "greatest health-care system in the world" rhetoric that you get from a Michelle Bachmann. Instead, you get a constant refrain of caution and acknowledgment of the limits of the government's ability to fix problems without making them worse.

I get that, I really do. But we face some very serious problems in this country. And every time liberals come up with a proposal to address one of them, it is demagogued by movement conservatives, and picked apart by the wonky conservatives. During the health care debate, cost controls were demagogued by the Sarah Palins of the world (death panels!) while the Reihan Salams and David Brookses of the world lamented the lack of cost controls in the bill. There was no way to win for the Democrats.

There certainly is a place for a "loyal opposition." And the opposition offered by conservative wonks like Salam and Douthat is certainly helpful. In fact, the Wyden/Bennet health care bill was based on just the sort of common ground that wonks on both sides of the aisle can find. I probably would have preferred it to the PPACA, but it had no chance at getting passed. (One of the other bloggers at the Agenda pointed this out the other day.) The problem is that right now, mainstream conservatives are nowhere near the same positions as wonky conservatives like Reihan and his co-bloggers.

I noted above that the Wyden/Bennet bill didn't have much support on either side of the aisle. This gets back to something that Mr. Roy noted in advocating the elimination of the employer tax break for health insurance. When John McCain proposed it during the campaign, Obama decried it as "the largest middle-class tax increase in history." As I pointed out to him on twitter, if the positions were reversed, I guarantee McCain would have said the same. If Democrats had included that in the PPACA last year, there's no doubt in my mind that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner would have been on TV every single day talking about a $300bn tax increase. Wonky policy is great in abstraction, but the zero-sum nature of our politics makes good policy hard to craft.

Another example is the mortgage interest tax deduction. This acts as a massive subsidy to the middle and upper class for owning a home. Poor people rent and don't get it. It also distorts the housing market away from renting and toward owning. As a result, it's basically impossible to find affordable rental housing for a family in urban areas. (Or affordable rental housing of any kind, see Nickel and Dimed.) Combined with idiotic zoning requirements, places like Manhattan have had to resort to Byzantine systems of rent control. It's a tax break that distorts the market (conservatives should hate it) and benefits the upper class at the expense of the lower class (liberals should hate it). So why does it still exist? Well, houses are popular, but more importantly, whoever proposes ending the tax break will be demagogued as an evil bastard who wants to enact a massive tax increase on the middle class. (Remember that in Washington, $250k is middle class.)

As a result, wonky policies that conservatives and liberals should agree on are destroyed by demagogues and interest group politics. That brings me to the crux of my argument. Wonky, smart conservatives provide well-reasoned critiques to liberal policies. But they're not able to provide alternatives that are politically viable. There's a massive disconect between the incentives, expertise and policy preferences of conservative wonks and the conservative movement. I talked about the effect of this on the health care debate, but it also results in a conflation of pro-business and pro-market policies on the right.

I understand caution, but sausage-making is an ugly process. Unless we get a whole new brand of politician in Washington (not gonna happen), policy solutions are going to be sub-optimal by default. But in my mind, that's not a reason to not try them. I'm not willing to accept a status quo where tens of millions of citizens of the richest country in the world are unable to buy health insurance.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Tyranny" (II)

Matt Yglesias on how al-Awlaki must not be THAT bad, so why the extrajudicial killing?:

Nobody’s saying that US citizens who defect to the enemy maintain some kind of shield of immunity in a battlefield context. Nor is anyone denying that the US government has the authority to arrest people it believes to have committed crimes. So why not send a bunch of troops into the relevant part of Yemen seeking to either create a context of stability in which al-Awlaki can be arrested or else perhaps he’d be killed on the battlefield? Well, because nobody seems to think that would be smart policy. Which is presumably because al-Awlaki isn’t in fact all that dangerous so policymakers don’t think it makes sense to engage in costly measures to kill or capture him. 

Alex Massie has a view from across the pond:

Awlaki does not seem an especially attractive customer but if the American government has the power to determine any location on earth a battlefield environment so that it can assassinate its countrymen without fear of judicial repercussions then evidently there are few remaining limits on Presidential power and whatever small - and foolish - hopes you might have for the end of the Imperial Presidency should be locked away for years yet.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Conservatives Don't Understand Stimulus Redux

Reading Krugman's pieces about WWII's effect in ending the Great Depression, I'm reminded of something. Conservatives who don't like Keynesian demand-side stimulus often point to the Great Depression as evidence. "Look," they say, "it wasn't the New Deal that ended the Depression, it was World War II! QED!"

Here's the thing. Putting aside FDR's early austerity and the actual effect of the New Deal, World War II was Keynesian demand-side stimulus on a massive scale! If we had merely built all those tanks and boats and driven them off a cliff into the ocean, it would have been just as stimulative. The government spent massive amounts of debt-financed money on paying people to build things! In this case, it was tanks and guns that ended up ridding the world of fascism (good!) and causing mass destruction and human suffering (bad!).

The point is that massive debt-financed spending on building bridges and high-speed railways right here in America is stimulus in the exact same way. And it actually will actually cause more prosperity!

Cyber War

This is actually kind of cool. Also scary:

A complex computer worm capable of seizing control of industrial plants has affected the personal computers of staff working at Iran's first nuclear power station weeks before the facility is to go online, the official news agency reported Sunday


The project manager at the Bushehr nuclear plant, Mahmoud Jafari, said a team is trying to remove the malware from several affected computers, though it "has not caused any damage to major systems of the plant," the IRNA news agency reported
[...]
The destructive Stuxnet worm has surprised experts because it is the first one specifically created to take over industrial control systems, rather than just steal or manipulate data.

 Make sure your McAfee anti-virus software is paid up, folks! Sheesh.

"Tyranny"

That's what Radley Balko is calling the latest in the Obama administration's attempts to make the Bush administration's executive power record look mild:

Obama is arguing the executive has the power to execute American citizens without a trial, without even so much as an airing of the charges against them, and that it can do so in complete secrecy, with no oversight from any court, and that the families of the executed have no legal recourse.

I already have a problem with the assertion that the Obama administration can send a Predator after an American citizen without some sort of court order. Now they're arguing that there be no oversight whatsoever? This is deeply disturbing.

It's worth noting that Balko is an ardent civil libertarian, and I don't have the legal chops to really get into exactly what is being argued. But it sounds to me like the broad thrust is indisputable. Here's WaPo:


Civil liberties groups sued the U.S. government on behalf of Aulaqi's father, arguing that the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command's placement of Aulaqi on a capture-or-kill list of suspected terrorists - outside a war zone and absent an imminent threat - amounted to an extrajudicial execution order against a U.S. citizen. They asked a U.S. district court in Washington to block the targeting. 

(Emphasis mine.) I think this is the real problem. If an American citizen is in Afghanistan and shooting at our troops, yeah, he's gonna get killed. But I think there's a moral and legal difference between that and dropping a bomb on an American citizen in Yemen because he's connected to a terrorist group.

In response, Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that the groups are asking "a court to take the unprecedented step of intervening in an ongoing military action to direct the President how to manage that action - all on behalf of a leader of a foreign terrorist organization."

Miller added, "If al-Aulaqi wishes to access our legal system, he should surrender to American authorities and return to the United States, where he will be held accountable for his actions." 

Mission creep much? Dropping a bomb in Yemen on an American citizen is apparently now covered by the AUMF? Back when we cared more about the rule of law and weren't in a perpetual state of war with, apparently, the entire world, didn't we have extradition treaties and the like? Dropping an ultimatum along the lines of "you're a criminal, surrender and return to the US or die" sounds like something out of a dystopian novel.

Justice Department officials said they invoked the controversial legal argument reluctantly, mindful that domestic and international critics attacked former president George W. Bush for waging the fight against terrorism with excessive secrecy and unchecked claims of executive power. 

No shit? At least they're "reluctant." Or something.

Adam Serwer has more:

I'd only add that whether or not al-Awlaki is a very bad person is irrelevant to the question -- which is whether or not the president has the authority to kill anyone he wants with no judicial review based on having simply labeled them a terrorist. If due-process rights only applied to "good people," they wouldn't be rights, and if the government can deprive you of such rights merely by labeling you a "bad person," then ultimately none of us is safe. 

As a side note, do you think the Tea Party or the "small government" right will decry this? No, probably not. Providing universal health care is tyranny, but assassinating one's own citizens without due process is "strong national defense". It falls to "crackpot" lefties like Greenwald and Serwer and "crazy libertarians" like Balko to raise hell about this. Unfortunately, there's no Fox News for civil libertarians.

(A big tip o' the hat to the Dish.)

EDIT: Andy McCarthy, who thinks the president is a secret Muslim working to install Sharia law, has no problem with that same president having the power to assassinate US Citizens extra-judicially. Kevin Williamson, also at NRO, takes him to task.