Friday, November 11, 2011

The (not so) Elusive Center

The Economist falls prey to the classic pining for a centrist Messiah in last week's leader, "America's Missing Middle":

IT IS a year until Americans go to the polls, on November 6th 2012, to decide whether Barack Obama deserves another term. In January the Republicans start voting in their primaries, with the favourite, Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, facing fading competition from Herman Cain, a pizza tycoon, and Rick Perry, the governor of Texas. Already American politics has succumbed to election paralysis, with neither party interested in bipartisan solutions.
In other countries such a huge gap in the middle would see the creation of a third party to represent the alienated majority. Imagine a presidential candidate next year who spelled out the need for deep future cuts in spending on entitlements and defence, as well as the need to raise some revenue (largely by getting rid of deductions); who explained that the pain would be applied only after the recovery was solidly in place; who avoided class or culture wars; who discussed school reform without fear of the Democrats’ paymasters in the teachers’ unions. Better still, imagine a new centrist block in Congress, which might give that candidate (or for that matter a President Obama or Romney) something to work with in 2013.

As usual, these pieces tend to conflate the right with the left, blame both, then pine for a savior who represents  "the alienated majority." That alienated majority, of course, shares all the writer's policy positions. One would think that if there really were a majority that shared those beliefs, the parties would reflect that.

As it happens, one party does largely share the positions laid out in this article: the mainstream Democratic party, led by President Obama. His position on deficit reduction all along and the position of most Democrats has been to accept deep cuts while insisting on revenues. True, we'll need more revenues than just taxing corporate jets, but Democrats are far closer to this centrist ideal than Grover Norquist's Republicans. Many Democrats (though not enough, I admit) are also willing to take on teacher's unions for school reform.

The article does admit that the right is "mostly to blame". So why are they asking for a centrist savior? The article would be closer to reality if it merely called on the right to stop being insanely intransigent and started working for solutions other than permanent, regressive, deficit-financed tax cuts.

Someone writes this article just about every day. And every day they bend over backward to avoid giving Democrats credit for actually being the centrists for which the writer pines. Sure they're not perfect, but they're far more likely to make a positive impact than a hypothetical third party. The Economist's "alienated majority" and $2.99 will get you a McRib. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Jumbled thoughts on the contradictions of modern liberalism

My thoughts aren't really well sorted on this right now, but I want to get the basic idea down on paper while it's fresh in my head.

Liberals need to make a choice. Do government services exist solely to cost-effectively provide services to the public that enhance the general welfare? Or is an essential part of public service enhancing the welfare of those employed by the government, even if that can detract from the effectiveness of that service to the general public?

There are examples of both! In some countries (Saudi Arabia, for example, I believe) the government actively employs people for the sake of employing people. In other words, the services rendered aren't the desired end, merely the gainful employment of the citizens. In others, the services rendered are the end and the government employs citizens merely as a means to that end.

Right now, we have a schizophrenic view on the left. Liberals want the government to provide effective efficient services to the public. But at the same time, they are willing to go to bat for higher-than-market total compensation (pensions are important!) and generous work rules for (particularly low-skill) government workers.

I think these two desires are in conflict with each other. I understand where the impulse to push for both comes from. Many conservatives advocate cutting spending on social programs dramatically not because they think the programs are inefficient but because they are ideologically opposed to such programs. In that case, it is understandable that liberals put a premium on defending every dollar, even if some of them are wasteful or inefficient. After all, the alternative isn't more efficient programs but rather woefully deficient programs.

Now here's where I'm going to make my fellow liberals even more angry. I think it would be very silly to deny that the influence of unions, particularly in the public sector, are part of the reason this schizophrenia exists. It is in the best interests of those unions, who are HUGE backers of the Democratic Party, to extract as much compensation and as generous work rules as possible. But that has an effect on the broader liberal project. By putting so much emphasis on protecting the incumbent workers, we are failing to provide the best services possible to the broader public who are badly in need of such services. (I have a half-written essay on how transit unions can and do make it harder to provide cheap and effective public transit. I'll finish it some day, I promise.) Right now, public sector unions are making it more difficult to provide efficient public services.

Liberals need to make a choice. Is it more important to provide generous pensions and work rules (which are far more important, in my opinion, than cash compensation) to those incumbent bus drivers, bureaucrats, teachers, etc or to provide public services at low cost that have dramatic effects on the lives of tens of millions of those who are vulnerable, unemployed, and working poor?

I know, I phrased that in a way that is rather tilted toward my view. But if we really want to help the working poor have a higher standard of living, there are better ways than piecemeal efforts through improving the compensation of public workers. Beef up the Earned Income Tax credit, which is the most important piece of poverty-fighting legislation on the books. Increase cash transfers of other kinds (things like General Assistance in Minnesota pay only $203/month). These are broad-based ways to increase income rather than ones that affect only those working for public agencies.

I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to argue that we should impoverish bus drivers. What I am arguing is that we should spend as much money on CASH compensation as is necessary to get the workers we need. In some places, I'm sure that means spending more. But at the same time, let's reform pensions and work rules. In exchange for higher up front compensation, take away some job security. Make it easier for public agencies to keep talent and fire those who can't cut it. And move to a defined contribution system of pensions that won't leave public budgets on the hook for decades the way defined benefit plans can.

Clearly there will be many public workers who are worse off because of this. Again, this is why it's important to beef up cash transfers such as the EITC. Again, I want to make benefits as broad-based as possible. If a bus driver loses some income and schedule flexibility, I want to make sure there are cash transfers to help them out. But I want that same safety net to apply to a person working at McDonald's for minimum wage.

I know this is a little jumbled at the moment. And it probably sounds pretty hostile to a lot of my liberal friends. I tried to make it as clear as possible that my goal is to further the goals of broad-based prosperity that are the core of the liberal project. In my opinion there are other parts of the current liberal agenda that are problematic when trying to reach that goal. Let me know what you think. What am I missing?

Edit to add: Matt Yglesias uses an NYPD story as a hook for a very similar thesis in a post today.

Edit 2: Ross Douthat's column in the NYT touches on similar ideas:

It’s a story of a public sector that has consistently done less with more, and a liberalism that has often defended the interests of narrow constituencies — public-employee unions, affluent seniors, the education bureaucracy — rather than the broader middle class.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Star Trek and the War on Terror

On the recommendation of a few friends, I've been going through the back episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There have already been several episodes that take on civil liberties, war, and terrorism, but the episode I watched today had an exchange that is as perfect a commentary on the War on Terror as you can find. And it aired in 1996! The video is at the link, but here's a transcript:

Changeling: Let me ask you a question. How many Changelings do you think are here on Earth right at this moment?
Captain Sisko: I'm not going to play any guessing games with you.
Changeling: Ah. What if I were to tell you that there are only four on this entire planet? Huh? Not counting Constable Odo, of course. Think of it - just four of us. And look at the havoc we've wrought.
Captain Sisko: How do I know you're telling me the truth?
Changeling: Oh, four is more than enough. We're smarter than solids, we're better than you. And most importantly, we do not fear you the way you fear us. In the end, it's your fear that will destroy you.

Now just replace "changeling" with "member of Al Qaeda" and "solids" with "Americans." The whole episode is about a group of Star Fleet officers who are willing to turn Earth and the Federation into a police state, complete with a military-led coup d'etat, in order to stave off this threat from just a few terrorists/changelings. Sound familiar? Luckily, plucky Captain Sisko realizes the folly of this and thwarts their plans.

Unfortunately, our plucky Captain Sisko hasn't materialized (no nerdy pun intended). We thought it could be Obama, but he has been an abject disappointment on the civil liberties front. Instead writers like Adam Serwer, Conor Friedersdorf and Glenn Greenwald scream from the sidelines while policymakers continue to erode civil liberties in the name of unattainable absolute security. Star Trek's writers, half a decade before 9/11, had a better grasp on these issues than today's policymakers. Frankly, it almost certainly helped that the episode was written before 9/11. We hadn't experienced the horror of such a major attack. The Star Trek writers had clear minds. If only our policymakers were able to think as clearly.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Freedom is just another word for sociopathy

This is deeply disturbing. I don't know what else to say.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

On guilty pleasures and NASCAR

There's an interesting thread going at the Dish about guilty pleasures, and one reader's contribution seemed rather familiar to me:

A reader sends a classic NSFW video and explains, "Chris Rock beautifully illustrates a guilty pleasure when he says he loves rap but he's tired of defending it."
Yeah, that sounds right. In my case, I like watching NASCAR, but I'm incredibly sick of being told that it's boring as hell every time I mention it. Surprisingly, my group of young cosmopolitan liberal friends aren't huge NASCAR fans! I don't even bother trying to explain or defend it anymore. It's not worth my time or theirs.

On a different note, I actually regret my days of music snobbery. I used to trash anything that I didn't think met my standards of musical talent or whatever. Now that a typical day for me includes a group of artists as eclectic as Fall Out Boy, Kanye West, Pain of Salvation, the 4onthefloor, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, I have no music snobbery leg to stand on. And I like it this way!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Adventures in cognitive dissonance (II)

Via Dave Weigel, Rick Perry is trying to have it both ways on sexual freedom, too!

"The radical homosexual movement seeks societal normalization of their sexual activity," [Perry] wrote. "I respect their right to engage in the individual business of their choosing, but they must respect the right of millions in society to refuse to normalize their behavior."

Got that? He respects the rights of homosexuals to "engage in the individual business of their choosing", which I presume is his way of saying "icky gay sex," but he also wants the heterosexual majority to have the "right" to deprive homosexuals of their rights by a show of hands.

Class act. And again, trying to split the difference between social conservatives and libertarian-leaning (and younger) GOP voters.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Adventures in cognitive dissonance

Via Dan Drezner, an excerpt from Rick Perry's speech at the VFW:

In the dangerous world we live in today, our enemies often don't wear a uniform or swear allegiance to a particular flag, but instead to an ideology of hatred. 
As the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9-11 approaches, we must renew our commitment to taking the fight to the enemy, wherever they are, before they strike at home. 
I do not believe America should fall subject to a foreign policy of military adventurism. 
We should only risk shedding American blood and spending American treasure when our vital interests are threatened.

The emphasis is mine, but notice that there are no ellipses in that quote. That is how the lines were delivered. So apparently Rick Perry thinks we should strike at nameless, generalized terrorists anywhere in the world, but we shouldn't "fall subject to a foreign policy of military adventurism". Just what the hell IS adventurism in Rick Perry's world? Because I think he said in the previous sentence that adventurism is his preferred form of foreign policy.

I get it, he's trying to appeal to the neoconservatives AND the libertarian isolationists in the GOP base. Everyone rags on Romney for changing his positions at the wave of a hat. Rick Perry is trying to have two positions at once. What a joke.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Faith in government

Dave Weigel:

What does it mean that Democrats want to believe [the 14th amendment or platinum coin loophole], or that articles about double-secret debt solution loopholes are so popular? It's sort of ominous. Not making a one-to-one comparison here, but it puts me in mind of the Tea Party-inspired Republican efforts of 2009-today to prove that this or that program they don't like can be magicked out of existence by putting the Consitution in a black hat and reading it with special glasses. The collapse of faith and trust in the way government works is mutating with every crisis, every bit showdown on a bill.

Weigel said "mutating." I might have said "collapsing faster than Tim Pawlenty's presidential hopes." But it's a great point regardless. It's also another sign of congress' complete inability to face the challenges that the country faces. As congress turns into more and more of a joke and continues to abdicate their responsibilities, the executive branch will continue to hoover up more power and responsibility.

As someone who does actually think separation of powers is a good thing, this is an unwelcome development.  But nothing can really be done to reverse this trend until congress gets its collective head out of its collective ass.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Gleaning insight from the fine print

From my renter's insurance policy, under "Losses not insured":

e. War, including any undeclared war, civil war, insurrection, rebellion, revolution, warlike act by a military force or military personnel, destruction or seizure or use for a military purpose, and including any consequence of any of these. Discharge of a nuclear weapon shall be deemed a warlike act even if accidental.

Contrast this with the War Powers Resolution:

(1) into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances;
(2) into the territory, airspace or waters of a foreign nation, while equipped for combat, except for deployments which relate solely to supply, replacement, repair, or training of such forces; or
(3) in numbers which substantially enlarge United States Armed Forces equipped for combat already located in a foreign nation;

Hey, Obama administration, would my apartment still be insured if it were in Libya? I think congress could use some writing tips from State Farm Insurance.

(In unrelated news, this blog now has a mobile site. I guess I need to actually update this blog more often for it to be relevant.)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Post 9/11 America

I outsource the writing of this post to the Economist's Lexington

At home, a new generation is coming of age with little memory of the more open and trusting America of ten years ago. The new America keeps looking over its shoulder. It is permanently vigilant and relentlessly intrusive. Few people complain about the security-inspired hassles that have infected everyday activities, from boarding an airliner to applying for some required government document. Safety first is, understandably, the order of the day in a world in which killers hide bombs in their shoes and underpants. But the cumulative result of all these precautions is a wretched thing. A culture of suspicion, and its accompanying bureaucracy, take away trust in your fellow man. A less tolerant America, whose prosperity was built on openness to the world, has shut down its borders and locked out many of the skilled and eager immigrants whose help it could dearly use. 
How much of this can be reversed? A lot depends on whether people and their politicians see the value in trying. Early excesses in the war on terrorism, such as waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and “extraordinary renditions”, have been stopped or rolled back. America’s strong Bill of Rights, respect for the law and tradition of liberty have helped to hold the goons and snoopers at bay. But fear, and the awful deeds that fear inspires, are hard to uproot. Americans are already quarrelling about whether it was waterboarding, now banned, that produced the tip that led the CIA to Abbottabad. With Mr bin Laden in his watery grave, a chapter may close. But the country he attacked faces a long road home to the more innocent place it was ten years ago.
This is what Balko means when he says that Bin Laden won. I'm just barely old enough to appreciate these changes, though I think I would qualify as part of the post 9/11 generation. I have lived my entire adult life under the shadow of Bin Laden and the threat of terrorism. It would be nice for that threat to no longer dominate the conversation. Bin Laden's death would be a great excuse to start that healing process.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

False Equivalences

In an otherwise excellent leader in this week's Economist, the editors make this comment while talking about budget difficulties:

The bad news—and the second reason for gloom about what the politicians are up to—is that neither party is prepared to make the basic compromises that are essential to a deal. Republicans refuse to accept that taxes will have to rise, Democrats that spending on “entitlements” such as health care and pensions must fall.

This sort of false equivalence is extremely common in the mainstream press, but I am very disappointed to see it show up in the usually sharp Economist.

If it helps the editors at the economist, I can point them to quite a few attack ads from the 2010 election hitting Democrats for cutting 500bn from Medicare. Last I checked, Medicare was an entitlement program. Those cuts were in the context of a bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, that is scored to reduce the deficit by over a trillion dollars over the next two decades.

Democrats have been very willing to look at entitlements. Almost too willing. Kent Conrad has spoken repeatedly about raising the retirement age, as have many Democrats. I think this is a bad idea, but since raising the retirement age was advocated on the cover of the Economist a couple weeks ago, you would think they might have noticed.

On the other hand, the GOP worships at the alter of Grover Norquist and his pledge to never raise taxes. Tom Coburn is the only one even willing to look at eliminating tax expenditures, and he's facing a lot of criticism for it. The GOP won't raise taxes, period. The Democrats, on the other hand, have already taken a whack at entitlements with Obamacare, and they're showing plenty of willingness to do more. In its effort to look fair and balanced, the Economist has perpetuated a trope that is flatly untrue. On deficits, the two parties are not equal. And that's the story nobody likes to tell.

Bin Laden

First things first. I stand in awe of the utter fearlessness and straight-up badassery of the soldiers and airmen in the 160th SOAR and SEAL Team Six. And, of course, the much maligned CIA really did a hell of a job finding him and running the mission. And yes, I am one of those people who poured a scotch when I heard the news. I will not apologize for feeling relief and deep satisfaction at the death of Osama bin Laden. More than anyone else, he's responsible for the deaths of thousands on 9/11 and the resulting War on Terror that has caused the deaths of thousands more. As a symbol and as catharsis for America, his death is very important.

But in many ways, this changes nothing. Al Qaeda won't go away now. Anwar al Awlaki is still hanging out in Yemen with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Taliban isn't going to stop fighting in Afghanistan. The insurgents in Iraq won't stop fomenting violence. And Americans don't seem eager to stop willingly giving up their civil liberties in the name of security. In some sense, as Radley Balko points out, Bin Laden had already won. The most depressing part is that not only did we let him, we helped him. Bin Laden provided the spark, but we willingly fanned the flames.

In some ways, it almost seems wrong to put this much significance on bin Laden's death. After all, the overblown significance attributed to his life and his goals caused many of the instances of overreach in the name of security. As Ross Douthat's very good column from Monday puts it: bin Laden was always weak. Where we erred was in not realizing that.

So will his death cause policymakers to rethink the choices we've made over the last decade? Will we stop taking away civil liberties in ways that do little to make us safer? Right now, the signs point to no. Unsurprisingly, bin Laden's death is being taken as vindication for whatever position politicians held before. Torture supporters want to bring back waterboarding. Anti-war advocates want us out of Afghanistan. This event does not seem to have changed anyone's mind.

To me, and others, this seems like the perfect time to declare victory in the War on Terror and go home. Maybe soldiers can stop dying in a fruitless quest to bring Western democracy to Afghanistan. Maybe we can start dismantling the massive industry that has grown up around this misguided "war." Maybe we can get some of our rights back. Maybe the defense budget can stop growing and start shrinking. Maybe we can stop taking our damn shoes off when we go through security.

Hey, I can dream, can't I?

UPDATE: Douthat writes to dissent from Balko's piece, but I think they're arguing different things. Balko isn't laying American economic decline at Bin Laden's feet, he's laying the steady erosion of civil liberties over the last decade at his feet. Balko is an ardent civil libertarian and in his mind these measures are antithetical to the principles underlying the great project that is American democracy.

Ezra Klein is the one Ross should be arguing with, as he seems far more willing to lay a large amount of the economic problems of the last few years at the feet of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. I don't find that argument as convincing, but there is some merit to it. Douthat's erstwhile co-author, Reihan Salam, just spent much of a blog post emphasizing the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in an attempt to downplay the effects of the Bush tax cuts on our fiscal problems.

In the end, there's no way to resolve these arguments. But I firmly believe that from a civil liberties standpoint, Bin Laden did serious damage to America. In that, I definitely agree with Balko.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

What Star Wars teaches us about power projection

Overthinking It has a fantastic discussion on the economics of the Star Wars universe and the Death Star in particular. One tangential point stuck out to me, however:

For the Empire to actually exist as an institution, it needs to have the mechanisms in place to exist – namely, donks like Queen Amidala and Senator Jar Jar Binks who basically just sit around and handle boring government work. And you also need people everywhere. Like, if the Emperor controls everything, he needs to make sure every Speeder Registry office in every settlement on Tattooine has somebody working the counter except during major Imperial holidays. ... 
To maintain order, the Emperor would generally need a MASSIVE, MASSIVE bureaucracy.
So, the Emperor and Tarkin focus on making one really huge, high-impact investment: The Death Star. They throw in Alderaan as part of that investment. This doomsday weapon will supposedly free up their resources to spend less on administration, personnel and infrastructure, and continue to function without a Senate. It seems like a big investment until you realize how much they save by not actually having a functioning government. 
This is an attractive option even today, as politicians look to pay for tax cuts and handouts to core constituencies by laying off or cutting salaries and benefits for bureaucrats and government workers, as well as by skimping on infrastructure. 

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t work. The underpaid, undermotivated, poorly managed stormtroopers can’t even track down the Empire’s most wanted fugitive androids in an extremely sparsely populated area where they have undisputed control. If Tatooine still had meaningful senatorial representation and local government, Luke never would have gotten off the planet. Whole systems just break away and form not just a resistance, but a giant frickin’ fleet of spaceships that destroy not one, but two death stars. The failure of leadership is so total and complete that Tarkin is killed in his own fortress and the Emperor is murdered in his own office by his own right-hand man.

Obviously, this has a domestic focus, but I think we can draw lessons on national security from it as well. When you're reading through this explanation of the importance of good government even in imperial systems, one notes some parallels to today's American operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

The defense budget is many times the size of the budgets of the State Department and USAID combined. A lot of that money goes towards troops, but a lot also goes toward carrier battle groups, hideously expensive submarines, and shiny new fighter jets like the F-35. None of that helps us build the infrastructure necessary for the three aforementioned nations to become functioning states. Similar to how the Death Star wasn't able to build the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary for effective governance in Tatooine, the USS Gerald R. Ford will not be able to provide effective governance in the Korengal Valley.

It's true that troops can help create the conditions necessary for local governance to be possible. But troops are also being pressed into duty as arbitrators and de facto local leaders. (Remember the scenes in Restrepo of Captain Kearney trying to settle disputes with the local village elders. That's not something usually taught at West Point.) Even current Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is worried about the increasing militarization of US foreign relations. Certainly the ideal situation is for local governments to step in and provide the government necessary, but in the interim, it would be far better for civilians to be doing the work of setting up local government. There was lots of talk of a "civilian surge" in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but an overstretched diplomatic and development corps has a hard time fulfilling that promise. And, of course, they're being targeted for budget cuts in the current austerity craze.

Going forward, US policymakers need to avoid looking at flashy big projects and pay attention to the nitty gritty of good governance both at home and abroad. You can't win the future with the Death Star, but you can with effective governance from top to bottom.

(Clearly I'm not the only one who made this connection.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011


The economy was recovering from a financial crisis, but things still weren't all rainbows and unicorns. Unemployment hadn't recovered fully, and growth and investment weren't quite as high as they should have been. But Very Serious People insisted that right now the Most Important Thing was to reduce the deficit. Sound familiar? I'm talking about 1937. But I could easily be talking about 2011. As the graph above shows, FDR's budget cutting didn't "win the future." It put the US back into recession. With the last minute budget deal, Serious People, including the President, are congratulating themselves for contractionary fiscal policy. The Fed can't even bail them out. Interest rates can't go lower than 0, and they're not likely to try a third round of Quantitative Easing after the gold-bug hysteria that resulted from QE2.

Buckle up.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Justice Grover Norquist

Andrew Cohen's very good piece on Justice Kagan's blistering dissent in a recent case buries the lede. Grover Norquist's tax philosophy, that tax expenditures are not spending, has made it into case law at the Supreme Court of the United States. Watch as Justice Kennedy tries to explain why tax breaks to religious institutions are not the same as handing them a check:

It is easy to see that tax credits and governmental expenditures can have similar economic consequences, at least for beneficiaries whose tax liability is sufficiently large to take full advantage of the credit. Yet tax credits and governmental expenditures do not both implicate individual taxpayers in sectarian activities. A dissenter whose tax dollars are "extracted and spent" knows that he has in some small measure been made to contribute to an establishment in violation of conscience. In that instance the taxpayer's direct and particular connection with the establishment does not depend oneconomic speculation or political conjecture. The connection would exist even if the conscientious dissenter's tax liability were unaffected or reduced. When the government declines to impose a tax, by contrast, there is no such connection between dissenting taxpayer and alleged establishment. Any financial injury remains speculative. And awarding some citizens a tax credit allows other citizens to retain control over their own funds in accordance with their own conscience.

Got that? It only affects you if your taxes are higher because a check is being cut to "an establishment". If your taxes are higher because that same establishment is getting a refund on their taxes (which we might often call "getting cut a check"), you're not being affected. In this case, it means that you can't object that your taxes are higher because of government support of religious institutions.

As Kagan (and Avi Schick of Slate) point out, Kennedy had to ignore five previous cases that found no distinction in order to made his weak argument:

As Justice Kagan points out in her powerful dissent, since creating the Flast exception, the Supreme Court has been presented with five separate challenges to tax-benefit programs by plaintiffs who invoked taxpayer standing. In each of those five cases, the court reached the merits of the claim even though the challenged program did not involve any direct government expenditure. Kennedy's rather weak retort is to note that while standing may have been assumed in each of those cases, the question wasn't explicitly addressed in any of them. His implication is that in five hard-fought Establishment Clause cases argued over a period of many years, the court, the parties and the solicitor general all somehow failed to notice the plaintiff's lack of standing to even bring the lawsuit.

Schick spends a lot of time on the hypocrisy of liberals and conservatives in this case and others like the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. I think I've been consistent in arguing that tax breaks are spending. In any case, Kennedy's acrobatics to make his case are now putting into case law a meaningless distinction between types of government expenditure.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

War, American-style

It looks like the US, with a small assist from the UK, dropped over a hundred cruise missiles into Libya to soften up the air defenses for the coming no-fly-zone. Reports of coalition partners taking point seem to be wildly exaggerated. As always, the US has the assets and takes on the lion's share of the fighting/shooting/bombing.

Panning back a bit, I want to point to Marc Lynch's excellent piece on the passage of the UNSC resolution:

One might think that the disastrous post-war trajectories of Iraq and Afghanistan would have forever ended such an approach to military interventions, but here we are. Has anyone really seriously thought through the role the U.S. or international community might be expected to play should Qaddafi fall? Or what steps will follow should the No Fly Zone and indirect intervention not succeed in driving Qaddafi from power? No, there's no time for that... there never is. For now, I will be hoping, deeply and fervently, that the Libyan regime quickly crumbles in the face of the international community's actions.

Marc was an early, though cautious, advocate of the US and/or international community taking a role in Libya. But his questions are sobering, and I'm still unconvinced that the US has answers.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


The United Nations Security Council approved a measure on Thursday authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from harm at the hands of forces loyal to Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The measure allows not only a no-fly zone but effectively any measures short of a ground invasion to halt attacks that might result in civilian fatalities.
As Sully says, the run-up to this makes Iraq look well-deliberated. On the plus side, it's multilateral, and there have been rumblings that the US is pressing for other countries, including those in the Arab League, to play a real role here. This won't be all America. I hope it will be mostly foreign, but I doubt it. We inevitably end up taking on the lion's share of these operations. Where does our "responsibility" end? How far will the inevitable mission creep take us?

I don't really know what to say here. I'm deeply skeptical of this course of action. I am deeply pessimistic about possible outcomes. I hope I'm wrong. I fear I'm right.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

No Fly Zone? No thanks. (II)

Ross Douthat has been absolutely nailing it with his writing on intervention in Libya. From his latest blog post:

Still, [National Review's editors] continue, “if we can’t establish a no-fly zone over Libya and stop Qaddafi’s drive toward Benghazi, we really are tapped out as a world power.” But surely a true world power doesn’t need to embark on ill-considered military intervention just to prove that it isn’t yet “tapped out.” (I have every confidence that we can stop Qaddafi’s drive toward Benghazi. Indeed, I’m so confident that I don’t think we need to go the trouble of proving it.)
Besides, the lesson of Iraq isn’t that we can’t execute a tactically-successfu military intervention. It’s that even the greatest power in the world needs to think long and hard about what happens after the intervention. And National Review’s preferred course promises a very, very long “after” for America in Libya.

Emphasis mine. And yet, there's a whole lot of overlap between the people who got us into the clusterfuck in Iraq and the people signing a letter to the President urging military intervention in Libya. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then I think I can safely label Kristol and rest "batshit insane."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What civil liberties?

CNN is reporting that State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley has resigned as a result of his critical comments regarding the inhumane treatment of accused Wikileaker Bradley Manning. This incident is yet another that reflects badly on the moral compass of the Obama administration. Civil liberties seem to be out of style in the world of the governing elite of both parties. I shouldn't have to point out just how right Crowley is about this:

But Crowley has told friends that he is deeply concerned that mistreatment of Manning could undermine the legitimate prosecution of the young private. Crowley has also made clear he has the Obama administration's best interests at heart because he thinks any mistreatment of Manning could be damaging around the world to President Obama, who has tried to end the perception that the U.S. tortures prisoners.
That puts aside the obvious moral problems with treating a prisoner who stands accused of something but convicted of nothing in such an inhumane way. This isn't a dangerous killer or child molestor, this is a guy who put some documents on a CD and handed them to Julian Assange. Now, to be sure, he broke the law, and he should be held accountable. But right now he's in holding until he goes on trial. His conditions are perilously close to what many people would term "torture." This is not the way America should treat prisoners of any kind. 

Yglesias calls it a "perversion of justice." I like Kevin Drum's reaction: "Jesus Christ." David Frum tweeted: "Crowley firing: one more demonstration of my rule: Republican pols fear their base, Dem pols despise it." Glenn Greenwald is unsurprisingly incensed

As pissed as I am about all this, I don't know what I can do about it. Right now this country has two parties that are both complicit in perpetuating civil liberties violations. I don't really know what leverage those of us who care about civil liberties really have. I am still certain that this support for torture and indefinite detention will eventually be looked upon the way the Alien and Sedition Acts are now. For now, however, the arc of history is still bending away from justice, to paraphrase the president. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Wanted: Local political parties

Recently Matthew Yglesias has been talking about the failure of partisan elections in cities and local government. Cities are so heavily democratic that the current parties tell you nothing. Non-partisan elections (as in Chicago) would seem like a good idea, but for low-information voters, they just end up being name-recognition contests with a huge incumbency advantage.

This strikes a chord with me, since my current city council member seems intent on pushing pointless city ordnances that restrict development and nightlife for very little reason. But how are we supposed to know what candidates for local office favor? Sure, local officials are responsive to their constituents, but not everyone has the time/inclination to do a Q&A with their city council member's staff. Local issues are very different from national ones, and they don't break easily on the usual party lines.

What we need are local parties that focus on local issues. For example, if I were to run for city council, I would run as a member of the "Density and Transit Party" or whatever. My party platform would be mostly about promoting transit, removing subsidies for cars and parking, and relaxing the zoning and density restrictions to promote new development. Perhaps my opponent would be running as the "Preserve our city" party that tries to enact ever harsher historical districts and height restrictions in order to prevent new buildings from changing the character of the city.

These parties could even be national, but the partisan breakdown would be odd. There are plenty of conservatives who would agree with my party's goal of removing barriers to development and market-distorting subsidies. There are plenty of liberals who would support the idea that cities should be preserved, not developed. New parties would allow low-information voters to tell at a glance what each candidate stood for.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Doctors hold all the cards

Smart conservatives like to point to solutions to our current dysfunctional health care system that empower consumers to make choices that will lower costs. In many contexts, I like this idea. I do generally prefer market-based solutions to top-down regulatory solutions. But Ezra Klein neatly distills just why I'm not sold on this being a workable solution to skyrocketing health care costs:

Patients are in awe of [doctors], because they are sick and scared and desperate for the help of anyone who seems to know how to make them better.
4) For that reason, cost control theories that rely on the patient to become more sensitive to costs or the insurers to become more aggressive on costs will fail. The only thing that will work is giving doctors the information and incentives that allow them to practice medicine in a way that controls costs.

I do think there's room for organizations like HMOs to come up with ways to ration care in ways that allow for lower costs. It will take radical differences in premiums for consumers to opt in to a restrictive HMO over a more relaxed PPO plan in numbers that will move the needle. Will that happen? I don't know. (For the record, rationing is happening now and will continue to happen in the future. Let's stop treating it like a four-letter word. "Ration" has six letters, people!)

I do not have very much confidence that a person with a serious illness is able or willing to shop around for the most cost-effective treatment. Doctors, however, can. Bundled payments will help doctors try to find the most cost-effective treatments to maximize their payout from treating patients. Also included in the PPACA is money for comparative effectiveness research to help doctors make these decisions. It turns out that most of the information doctors have currently comes from the marketing of the products they use. Giving doctors access to high-quality information about cost-effectiveness and the incentives to use that information seems to be a good way to reduce costs. I remain skeptical that consumers are capable of making such judgments.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Blaming the Baby Boomers

After a couple years of watching the baby boomer generation turn out to Tea Party rallies on Medicare-provided scooters to protest Democrats' attempt to provide health insurance to people who don't have the benefits of single-payer government health insurance, it's pretty easy to be angry at the boomers. But Aaron Renn gave me another reason:

I don’t see any signs of the older generations getting through the grieving process [for the Rust Belt cities of old] and moving on. This makes me think that for us to fully embrace a true urban policy, even in city government itself, it is going to take generational turnover. The baby boomers are already starting to age, but they’ll be with us a lot longer. Alas, they have historically been the most suburban generation, and not shy about imposing their values, so I suspect we’ll be dealing with that legacy for a while.

I think this does cast something of a shadow over the recent resurgence of urbanism in the US. As we saw clearly through the rise of the Tea Parties over the last couple years, old white people are more than willing to get out and protest (and vote!) when they care about something. In this case, that something will be any attempt at a reversal of the large system of subsidies and regulations that overwhelmingly benefit the suburban middle-class over poorer urban dwellers.

It does make me wonder what will happen as these suburban boomers age to the point where the suburban lifestyle is no longer feasible. At some age, driving is no longer a good idea, or even possible. In the suburbs, driving is the only option, however. There are going to be some serious problems in aging car-oriented suburbs. It will be interesting to see how they are addressed.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Koran vs the Bible

Via Andrew Sullivan, Dean Esmay has some interesting thoughts on the Sharia law hysteria coming from some on the right. Most of the piece is dedicated to pointing out the inability for any large religion to coalesce behind one vision of that belief system. But I wanted to highlight this passage:

This is like asking your average American if our own laws should be guided first and foremost by the Bible. I imagine you could get a good half of Americans to agree on that. But can you get even 10% of them to agree on exactly what that means? In anything but the most broad and nebulous terms? I doubt it.

It's not news that fundamentalist (and many somewhat less fundamentalist) Christians think that the US should be guided by the rules laid out in the Bible. It does, however, put the current hysteria over Sharia law in a slightly worse light. It's not that our law system would be guided by religious principles rather than the constitution, but that it would be guided by the WRONG religious principles. It would be nice if these people (looking at you, Rep. Peter King) would just up and say "we don't like Muslims". At least then we're arguing over the right things.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

No Fly Zone? No thanks.

Though many people have thrown cold water on the idea of a no-fly-zone over Libya, including Exum, Ricks, and even Bob Gates, Ross Douthat puts it best, I think:

To this it might be added that the last time we imposed a no-fly zone on a weakened Arab tyrant who we hoped would soon be toppled by his own people, the year was 1992 and the tyrant in question was Saddam Hussein — and we have been at war in Iraq, in one sense or another, ever since.

Frankly, even Libyan rebels don't want us there. Let's not do anything rash. The costs and risks of a no-fly-zone are far higher than those of sitting back and doing nothing. It's hard watching the remnants of the Libyan government slaughter civilians. But it's not a situation in which the US needs to act, as hard as that is to say.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

You're doing it wrong, budget edition

Via Reihan Salam's twitter, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget just released an excellent paper on tax expenditures. The upshot is that there is more spending via the tax code than there is revenue collected via personal income taxes.

This is a massive amount of spending that gets little or no scrutiny. This is because they are tax breaks rather than direct spending. They are automatically reauthorized every year, not held hostage in the current budget showdown on the Hill. The GOP currently characterizes closing these tax loopholes as raising taxes, and won't touch them. For some reason, money sent out as a check by the IRS is different than money sent out by the Social Security Administration or Department of Transportation.

Moreover, the biggest tax expenditures are hugely regressive. The mortgage interest deduction is essentially an individual mandate to buy a home, and the benefits are greater the bigger the house. (The cap is currently at a $1m mortgage.) Meanwhile low-income renters (me!) get no break at all. As Reihan says elsewhere, the contours of the tax debate are completely screwy.

Windmills do not work that way!

In keeping with the tradition of blaming everything bad that happens in the world on President Obama, the GOP's new line of attack is blaming the high gas prices on Obama and the Dems:

But the fact of the matter is, gas prices are going up, and that has an effect on GDP. If we're really focused on GDP growth, I'm looking forward to the president's proposal that we're going to start drilling using our own natural resources.

Drilling for oil and natural gas is a long process. It's not as if Obama can wave a magic wand and suddenly oil wells will spring up at full capacity, with the transportation and refining capacity to match. It would likely take decades for new oil fields to come on line. Even if they did, it's worth pointing out that we're not talking about much oil. The effect on prices of allowing offshore drilling or drilling in ANWR is likely to be minuscule to nonexistent.

The reason prices are going up is the same as it always is: instability in the Middle East combined with steadily rising demand from developing nations. The world is already pretty close to peak production capacity. A few extra barrels here and there isn't going to change the underlying fact that there's a finite amount of fossil fuels and the current rate of global consumption is unsustainable.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Summing up the war in Afghanistan

From the Times:

“What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” said one American military official familiar with the decision. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.”

Maybe the official finally got around to reading Kilcullen's Accidental Guerrilla? It's about as neat a summary as you could find of what's wrong with the whole idea of "winning" the war in Afghanistan.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Since the Obama administration released its budget that has no chance whatsoever of being passed in congress and is therefore just an exercise in messaging, everyone is talking deficits and debt today. Megan McArdle predictably thinks it's time to panic. Andrew Sullivan seems already to have panicked. Republicans are predictably trashing the budget proposal. I guess it doesn't contain enough cuts to public health programs for the poor.

In the meantime, Jonathan Bernstein wrote a fantastic post on the vague and misleading language used by deficit hawks:

Long-term projections of the federal budget are very clear. It's all about health care.
Medical costs. Medical costs are going up much faster than inflation. Therefore, Medicare and Medicaid, and any other government programs affected by medical costs, will, long term, get far more expensive than any realistic level of taxation can handle.
So when budget hawks talk about "entitlements," as Andrew Sullivan did today, they're using language that in my view obscures, rather than illuminates, the situation.

The very next thing I read was a piece of reporting by TPM's Brian Beutler (emphasis mine):

"Yes, we will include entitlement reform provisions in our budget," Cantor told reporters at his weekly press availability. "Again, unlike the President, unlike Harry Reid who doesn't even admit there needs to be any reform of Social Security."

See that? Cantor is willing to admit that "entitlements" are the problem. But when he gets specific, he starts talking about Social Security, which is a minor, solvable problem, and not health care costs, which are the true driver of long-term deficits:

I guess since his party just won a huge election landslide while campaigning against a Democratic effort to reign in health care spending, he can't go after Medicare. But health care costs are overwhelmingly the cause of long-term structural deficits. Anyone claiming to be a deficit hawk while only looking hard at that 12% of the budget that is "non-security discretionary spending" is a liar and a charlatan. Focusing on Social Security is only marginally better, but it is still a dodge. If you're not looking at health care costs, you're not being serious about deficits. It is that simple.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hooray Beer! (IV)

Minnesota's own Surly Brewing Company has been growing so fast they can't brew enough beer to keep it on shelf and on tap. They've outgrown their little brewery in Brooklyn Center, MN. So obviously, the next step is to build a new, bigger brewery. They've drawn up plans for a new brewery with lots more brewing capacity plus perks like a restaurant overlooking the brewery that serves plenty of Surly. Unfortunately, under current law, their plan is illegal.

See, in Minnesota, you can only brew a certain amount of beer before you're no longer a brew pub, and are no longer allowed to actually serve the beer you brew. Surly is way past that limit. I honestly can't think of a good reason for that rule. The only thing it does, to my mind, is protect existing distributors, bars and restaurants from competition. The statement released by the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association does not dissuade me from that notion. Unsurprisingly, they are lobbying against Surly's efforts to change the law:

The manufacturers (breweries, vineyards and distilleries) supply distributors. Under the laws which created the three-tier system, each level of the system is independent of the others, ensuring accountability to the public as well as the benefits of healthy competition. By preventing tied houses (i.e. Retailers that sell the products of only one supplier), the three-tier system limits the number of retail outlets and therefore promotes moderate consumption, hence our position with the Surly matter. We want the Surly product to sell in our stores, we don't want the manufacturer of a great beer to sell to the public, we'll do that enthusiastically as possible.

Emphasis mine. Somehow they are ensuring "healthy competition" by locking out a source of competition. This is a classic example of regulation being used to protect incumbent businesses from competition.

I wrote previously about the "Brew Beer Here" legislation passed in Minneapolis that has brought two breweries into the city so far, with at least one more on the way. All it took was a small change to the law allowing sales of beer in growlers from breweries. Each one will create jobs as well as delicious beer for all us beer-lovers. Surly says its plan will create 85 construction jobs and 150 full time jobs once the brewery is open. All it takes is the striking of a pointless law. Once again, this is small government I can believe in. I look forward to helping Surly get this law changed in any way I can.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Redefining vindictiveness

Graeme Wood's harrowing account of being dragged through the streets of Cairo is well worth the read for its own sake. But this anecdote at the end caught my eye:

Iran hates Egypt enough to have named a main Tehran thoroughfare after Khaled El Islambouli, the Egyptian artillery officer who gunned down Mubarak's predecessor Anwar Sadat (and injured Mubarak in the process).

Now that is some seriously vindictive hate. Somehow I doubt there's a boulevard named after George W Bush in thanks for his efforts in ridding the Middle East of Saddam Hussein, however.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Cutting spending, GOP style (II)

I have been negligent in not addressing Rand Paul's plan to slash $500bn from the budget in one year. Thankfully, Matt Steinglass did a masterful job of it over at DiA:

Mr Paul's bill is a juvenile, irresponsible stunt. For most of his proposed cuts, he hasn't put in the minimal work necessary to make any rational decisions about what programmes should be cut, and what shouldn't; he hand-waves towards "pro rata cuts" without thinking through what that means. Those of his cuts which are specific betray a callow, politically-minded populist anti-intellectualism. Rabble-rousing calls to eliminate "international commissions" may play well to Glen Beck's audience, but senators are expected to have some grasp of what it is that the government they are running actually does. Mr Paul has been elected to the United States Senate; it's time for him to grow up.

Again, while Rand's bill has specific programs that he wants to cut funding for, the cuts are expressed as "agency x gets $x less money." There's a reason bills like the ACA are thousands of pages long (besides the criminally small number of words per page). Law-making is complicated. Anyway, read Steinglass' piece. And if you can handle it, Andrew Sullivan's readers took Paul's plan apart as well.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Also illegal: walking and chewing gum

Nanny state alert:

In New York, a bill is pending in the legislature’s transportation committee that would ban the use of mobile phones, iPods or other electronic devices while crossing streets — runners and other exercisers included. Legislation pending in Oregon would restrict bicyclists from using mobile phones and music players, and a Virginia bill would keep such riders from using a “hand-held communication device.”

Yes. The reason people get hit while walking across streets is because they're distracted by music. That's probably true of some accidents, though these are most likely idiots who will do something stupid regardless. But drivers driving like assholes, blasting through yellow (and red) lights, making right turns without looking, and generally acting like pedestrians have no place on the roads probably has more to do with it. Or as Stephen Smith put it: "Unfortunately for us pedestrians, there are very few limited access, grade-separated walkways, so in essence this would criminalize listening to an iPod while walking."

Any time cars and alternative forms of transportation are in conflict, it's always the other guy at fault, never cars or drivers.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Drinking from the toilet

Mark Hertsgaard has a fantastic story in Mother Jones about the Seattle area's preparations for the inevitability of climate change. If only the federal government were as willing to look long-term as Ron Sims, the King County chief executive. However, I want to focus on one aspect of the article:

There will be much less water available as climate change intensifies, and as Sims saw it, the task of government was to prepare people and institutions to live with less water. "People didn't want to believe there were going to be water shortages," he recalled. "After all, this is a place where it always rains. But I said, 'This is what the science says. We have to respect it.' The reason we have so many ecological problems today is because we didn't listen to science."
The morning we met, Sims took me to the site of one of the toughest fights in that battle, the Brightwater wastewater facility. The idea behind recycled water is simple: Instead of using pure water for all human purposes, why not substitute recycled water for watering golf courses, irrigating landscapes, and supplying factories? The Brightwater facility would take in wastewater, run it through filters to remove contaminants, then pump it out for delivery to non-household customers. In effect, using reclaimed water would allow the county to use the same volume of water twice.

It is unbelievable to me that this is not already being done on a larger scale. Water is already a scarce resource in some parts of the country and the world, and that situation promises only to get worse. Constantly dumping mostly-clean water into the oceans or otherwise discarding it seems like a massive waste. There certainly is a "yuck" factor, but nobody would know the difference if they weren't aware of it ahead of time. The compromise Sims has spearheaded seems like a good start. Is there any reason treated bathwater can't be used to water a golf course?

It's becoming clearer by the day that the world is not going to meaningfully curb carbon emissions in the near future. Indeed, it seems as though it may be too late anyway. So while climate hawks should not give up on that fight, it makes sense to start preparing for a world of higher temperatures. Water is going to be central to any sort of planning, and it makes sense to get an early start.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pay your taxes, dammit

One of the more universally hated clauses in the ACA is the "1099 clause." Basically, it requires small businesses to do a whole lot more paperwork when they make purchases. That's bad, because we all love small businesses and they are the engines of job growth, etc. Fine, most people agree that in its current form, the clause is overly burdensome to small businesses. 

But take a step back. Why was this clause included in the first place? Well, according to the CBO, it raises $19bn in the 10-year budget window of the ACA. How does it raise $19bn? It's not a new tax, it's not a spending cut, all it does is require more paperwork. Well, it turns out that tax evasion is rampant in businesses (shocking, I know), and requiring more paperwork means that the IRS will be able to collect the taxes that these businesses already owe. It's not that there's a new tax that raises $19bn over 10 years, it's that businesses are currently breaking the law by evading taxes to the tune of something north of $1.9bn/year. So save some of your sympathy. And pay your damn taxes. It's the law, after all.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Support Systems

Matt Yglesias notes a great post by Ann Friedman on gender and support systems and takes it basically nowhere:

In practice, a straight single man who reaches out for help will almost always find that people are ready to be there for him. But there’s no socially validated way to do so.

But even the first part isn't necessarily true of many people, both male and female. Frankly, if it were, my employer would have a lot less work. There are many people who have been left behind by society. Maybe they came from broken homes, maybe they moved cross-country for a job and have no support system in their new city, maybe they're a recent immigrant from a poor country. There are any number of reasons a person could find themselves with nobody to reach out to. Ann Friedman focuses on how men often have less of a support system than women, and that is undoubtedly true. But I think it misses a larger point.

The problem of inadequate support is magnified considerably when a person has some form of mental illness. Not only do mentally ill people need more support, they are often less able to find it. Without a family member or close friend looking after them, these people will often fall through the cracks. The hope is that someone will try to get them help when they show up at a homeless shelter or food pantry, but that is far from guaranteed. It doesn't matter whether the person is male or female, they will have a tough time getting help.

In Arizona, Jared Loughner would have had a tough time getting help, even if he had sought it out. Arizona has actively slashed spending on help for those who are mentally ill. As states face budget crunches, mental health spending is often eyed for the chopping block. There isn't much of a mental health lobby to protect that spending, and as a result, yet more people fall through the cracks. Even in states that still have decent support for the mentally ill, qualifying for the various subsidies and other assistance can require a dizzying amount of paperwork and effort. Someone battling with bouts of paranoid schizophrenia is going to have a tough time getting all that done.

Private groups like my employer, faith-based groups, and other non-profits try to fill the gaps, but money has to come from somewhere. As spending gets cut, people like Loughner will get less and less help. Social workers' already heavy caseloads will get heavier. I'm not saying this to scare people that there will be more Jared Loughner-style shootings. Frankly, with inadequate care, a mentally ill person is most dangerous to themself. But that is not a reason for complacency. Some of the biggest holes in our social safety net are those concerning the mentally ill. Unfortunately, with ascendant GOP legislatures in so many states, those holes look set to get bigger.

Cutting spending, GOP style

Brian Beutler reports that House Republicans have specified(!) $2.5tn in spending cuts they would like to make over the next decade. Now, that is an impressive number, so how did they do it?

Well, it turns out that they didn't. The plan includes a couple hundred billion in specific cuts (more on that later), but where does the rest come from? It comes from hand-waving, of course. Over $2tn of the spending cuts are merely a promise to keep funding levels for discretionary spending at 2006 levels:

Like most major spending cut proposals, this one's not entirely rigorous. It relies principally on an aspirational spending cap -- specifically, limiting non-defense appropriations totals to their 2006 levels without adjusting for inflation. In other words, it punts the question of what to cut to future Congresses, which could just as easily bust the cap.

In other words, only a couple hundred billion is actually specified and could conceivably take effect. There's no way that future congresses will stick to this cap. If nothing else, the United States of America is GROWING, so without increasing funding, these programs will have to do less for more people.

The actual cuts seem to be a list of conservative bogeymen, including, apparently, getting rid of USAID entirely. Apparently, the military is immune from cuts, but USAID should go away. Andrew Exum has an excellent takedown of the whole idea:

Sec. Gates will argue, supported by veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, that while USAID has problems, the money we spend through it is just as related to U.S. national security interests as the money we wasted on the Crusader or the money we spend to put an 18-year old through basic training. To not understand that is embarrassing because it means you're an elected policy-maker and still uneducated about the wars we've been fighting for almost 10 years now.

Also included is elimination of a program that provides funding for family planning services for the poor. Hey, that one hits two GOP priorities: screwing the poor and continuing to have an archaic and counterproductive attitude toward sex and reproduction. 

In short, yay, there are actual cuts to criticize now. They amount to about $200bn over 10 years, which is approximately how much the Pentagon spends on paperclips. Because, of course, they only hit non-security discretionary spending and that is just not where the money is. The other $2.3tn? Well....

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On Missile Defense

Yep, still a massive boondoggle:

We do not have an effective Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Defense system, and no one has ever demonstrated that such defense is technologically and strategically workable. This point should have been brought home on the day the Senate voted to begin debate on the treaty. That same day our existing Missile Defense system was tested, and once again, for the second time that year, it failed.

And it's not just practical considerations. Think about missile defense strategically and it's still a terrible idea:

Some ABM advocates have argued that even if strategic missile defense systems have fundamental technological obstacles, simply the threat of a system that might shoot down some incoming missiles is enough to dissuade a possible aggressor from attacking. Logic suggests otherwise. In the first place, if an attack was based on rational decision-making (and again, since such an attack would have a high likelihood of being followed by an annihilating counterattack it is hard to wonder how reason would enter into such a decision)—presumably to inflict damage or terrorize our country—then in the face of an imperfect ABM system, reason would dictate launching several missiles instead of 1 against any prospective target.

To recap: missile defense is a strategically dubious program that doesn't actually work. Oh, and we've spent over $100bn on it. We're facing a couple trillion dollars in needed infrastructure repairs and upgrades that nobody wants to do anything about. But we can spend $100bn on missile defense. Fiscal responsibility, my ass.

He sees you when you're sleeping...

Adam Serwer, on religion, atheists, and morality:

To paraphrase Julian Sanchez, though, if the only way for you to respect others is to believe that someone wielding omnipotent powers is constantly watching you, then you probably aren't a very good person to begin with. Still, if you are that kind of person, I'm glad you've found religion.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What constitutes 'terrorism'?

Peter Beinart:

The commentators most worried about jihadist terrorism sometimes say that doesn’t matter; even if al Qaeda can’t kill many Americans anymore, it can sow panic that costs the U.S. economy billions. But it can sow that panic, in large measure, because of the way those commentators respond. The extent to which Americans fear terrorism has a lot to do with the way the media discusses terrorism, and that discussion differs radically depending on the ethnicity and religion of the terrorist. Perhaps the next time al Qaeda tries something in the U.S., we should all stop, take a deep breath, and pretend it’s Jared Lee Loughner.

Read the whole thing. Put a different way, why is it that we're not hearing shrill calls that Loughner must be tried in a military tribunal, waterboarded, or detained indefinitely without trial? Could it have anything to do with the fact that his name is "Jared Loughner" and not "Abdul Muhammed"? I'm far from the first person to say this, but when a person has a Muslim name, our commentators blame all Muslims. When it's a white guy, he's just a lone crazy guy. There's something wrong with this picture.

Free Speech

I don't have a lot to say about the tragic shooting in Arizona that hasn't already been said. I've linked to a few articles on twitter about the mental illness aspect of the situation (not always favorably). I also want to point to Vaughn Bell's excellent article in Slate explaining why just saying "he was crazy" is NOT an explanation for why Loughner did what he did.

There's been a lot of talk about overheated and violent rhetoric in the past few years and whether or not that contributed in any way to this tragedy. I frankly don't think we know enough yet to say. I do still think that bringing guns to rallies, talking about "Second Amendment Remedies" and other such targeted imagery is legal but should be avoided. The wonder of our democracy is that it IS so peaceful. In the abstract, it is amazing that George W Bush could lose an election to Barack Obama and just hand over the nuclear football, because that's how it is done in this country. Despite the wide gulf between their views of the world, power is handed over peacefully. The constant use of such violent rhetoric and imagery is antithetical to the ideals this country was founded on.

That isn't to say, however, that it should be outlawed. It is possible to condemn something without outlawing it. Voltaire's (possibly apocryphal) quote really does apply here. The proposed law to outlaw putting bulleyes on your opponent is a bad idea. To be sure, putting bullseyes on your opponent is also a bad idea. But it should continue to be protected speech. There is a difference between norms and laws. I think we would all be better off if norms turned decisively against things like putting your opponent in a bullseye. I do NOT think we are better off if that sort of thing is outlawed. Free speech is important. This may not seem like much of an assault on free speech, but it is certainly an unnecessary one.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Angry Birds? Or terrorists?

Sully doesn't think the suicide-bombing birds are terrorists:

[T]he angry birds do not seem in any way devout. Their madcap glee seems to bubble up from non-fundamentalist sources. There's a shallowness to them that somehow reassures.

Terrorists or not, the game is unbelievably addicting. Now excuse me, I need to go get three stars on every level...


From the office of the president, regarding congress' attempt to disallow the closure of Gitmo:

Despite my strong objection to these provisions, which my Administration has consistently opposed, I have signed this Act because of the importance of authorizing appropriations for, among other things, our military activities in 2011.
Nevertheless, my Administration will work with the Congress to seek repeal of these restrictions, will seek to mitigate their effects, and will oppose any attempt to extend or expand them in the future.

In other words, without trekking further into Bush-Cheney style assertions of executive power, there wasn't much Obama could have done. Hence the statement released on Friday afternoon, when nobody is paying attention.

Does anyone think this will be repealed anytime soon? I don't. I guess the best chance is for the ACLU to successfully challenge these provisions in court...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

It has been too long

Pearlstein kills it:

There is an unmistakable redbaiting quality to the "job-killing" rhetoric, a throwback to the McCarthy era. It reflects the sort of economic fundamentalism better suited to Afghan politics than American. Rather than contributing to the political dialogue, it is a substitute for serious discussion. And the fact that it continues unabated suggests that Republicans are not ready to compromise or to govern.
So the next time you hear some politician or radio blowhard or corporate hack tossing around the "job-killing" accusation, you can be pretty sure he's not somebody to be taken seriously. It's a sign he disrespects your intelligence, disrespects the truth and disrespects the democratic process. By poisoning the political well and making it difficult for our political system to respond effectively to economic challenges, Republicans may turn out to be the biggest job killers of all.

Welfare reform? Let's do it again

But this time, we should target the welfare that benefits people who don't need it:

If every year, the government sent every American -- from the richest CEO to the greenest public-school teacher -- a check covering 30 percent of their health-care costs, we'd think that a bit weird. We'd think it much weirder if we only sent the checks to the workers who happened to be at firms that offered benefits.... Yet that's pretty much exactly what we do. We just hide it in the tax code rather than write it on a check.

Yglesias adds:

At any rate, the whole setup is . . . clever. A program like Social Security essentially yokes the interests of poor Americans to those of the middle class. A program like the health care tax break instead yokes the interests of the middle class to the interests of the rich.

There's a reason I mention tax expenditures as a place to look when trying to reduce the deficit. The progressivity of the tax code could be improved immensely by ditching these tax breaks the benefit the rich and upper middle class vastly more than the poor and working class.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Free and open society

Serwer on Peter King's "Muslims are evil" hearings:

Nothing says "this isn't a witch hunt" like a politician responding to criticism by suggesting his critics should be prosecuted for espionage.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

Or something like that:

Dafna Linzer reports that, in the face of Congress' unprecedented decision to cut off funding for terrorism trials of Guantanamo detainees, the White House is preparing a signing statement that will contest those limits. Liberals pounced on President George W. Bush's use of such statements to essentially disregard the law. Ironically, if the Obama administration goes forward with this, it will be doing so in order to undo one of the most visible remaining legacies of the Bush administration's terrorism policies.

I think this is a crappy approach to a ridiculous power-grab by congress. I guess I side with Spencer Ackerman on this one. A signing statement is not the way to go. This is an argument that can and should be won on the merits. 

My position on detainees is well-documented at this point. I am in continual disbelief that the responsible centrist position in this country has so decisively turned against civil liberties. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any high-profile figures willing to make a full-throated defense of civil liberties in this country. It's going to take more than the ACLU to win this fight.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Transit policy is screwing me over (V)

TNR's The Avenue blog has a great post on the gas tax as deficit reduction. The upshot is that since the transportation fund is constantly getting bailed out by the general fund, a higher gas tax will move us back to where user fees are paying for transportation. They even link to a very awesome chart(warning, PDF) showing those bailouts.

Sarah Goodyear also has a nice post up at Grist making the same point. (Incidentally, it draws on a study by my old employer USPIRG. Good job, guys!) For the umpteenth time, drivers do not pay their own way. In fact, something like $600bn in general funds have been used to fund road construction since the 1950s.

I know this is getting quite repetitive, but it's a point that doesn't seem to get made often enough outside the tiny circle of urban development enthusiasts: car-based development receives subsidies through many different avenues, while transit is constantly admonished to pay its own way. That needs to change. Because my commute to work could really use dedicated right-of-way improved transit is a big part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing the planet from cooking.