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.