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.