Monday, August 30, 2010

Glenn Beck's Rally Write-ups

In case you didn't hear, and if you live in DC you had to have been under a rock not to, Glenn Beck held a rally at the Lincoln Memorial this weekend. I didn't wander down to the Mall myself.

I was concerned I would be found out as a socialist, fingers would be point, mob justice would commence, and some part of the Mall's landscape would be used to facilitate my end. I did, however, watch a little on C-SPAN. I only saw what I hope was the majority of Beck's comments, and on the whole his comments was just stupid blathering. I have no idea what point he was trying to make, but again, (finger point to self) socialist.

In fact, my biggest bone to pick was the whole "We were $600,000 short of our goal, and God provided." Now, a guy who made $32 million in 2009, should have $600,000 lying around and he certainly shouldn't weep because this ego-event wasn't going to make its goal. Maybe it's the socialist in me, but if a $5 million event is short by $600,000 and I make $32 million a year, I would just donate the other $600,000. But that's me and I also tend to believe social justice isn't a dirty word or Mao-ist plot.

Anyway, some interesting write-ups by reporters on the ground on Saturday and reflections on the people they talked with from and from The Washington Post. They both reach the conclusion, rightfully in my estimation, that the grievances most members of the Tea Party have aren't new. The new part is the complete distortion of background information they are receiving (from Mr. Beck on pretty regular occasion) and how that creates an impossible environment to actually deal with their grievances.

That's the real pity. Fellow citizens with legitimate grievances that are getting bad information, making them incapable of contributing to the solution.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Letting the Tax Cuts Expire – Doing the Math

There’s a great paper put out by the Tax Policy Center, which puts into greater detail what the effect of the Obama administration’s proposed tax plan would actually mean at different income levels. The paper determines:

The impact of the Obama proposal is virtually identical to that of extending all of the cuts for the vast majority of tax payers. Sizeable differences don’t emerge until you hit the top 1 percent of taxpayers – those households making at least $600,000.

This means that even for the administrations own rhetoric about households making $250,000 or more per year is a conservative estimate on how big a group will be impacted. The paper outlines that in the 90th to 95th percentile the real difference between the Obama proposal and the full extension of tax cuts is $2. That’s not a typo. Houses making on average $196,549 will receive a tax cut of $5,508 under the Obama plan, versus $5,510 under a full extension.

Take this in contrast to the 99.9th percentile of tax payers with an average income of $8,367,274, under Obama’s plan they would lose $310,140 in tax cuts, what amounts to 3.7% of the average income for those in the 99.9th percentile. It’s also worth noting that NO income level will see their tax liability increase to pre-2001 levels. Even at the highest percentile of earners, they will have tax cuts 1.1% great then they would if all the tax cuts were allowed to expire.

So why the uproar? It’s the same old song and dance I’m afraid. The Obama proposal will hit the folks in the top 1% of income earners, those folks making more then $1,000,000 per year, but for the other 99% the effect is shown to be minimal if nonexistent. We have long-run deficit problems in this country and the Tax Policy paper notes that this proposal is not a silver bullet, but it’s a modest first step, and a step worth making.

Alan Greenspan recently said that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t respond to a direct question if indeed the full extension of these tax cuts would pay for themselves. He avoided the question four times on how you pay for a full extension of the tax cuts. It’s worth noting that that Congressional Budget Office has determined a full extension of the tax cuts will add $3.7 trillion dollars to the deficit over the next ten years. You can talk about cutting spending all you want (and McConnell did) but the only actual proposal the Republicans have put forth is Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap” plan. This plan, by the way, was scored by the CBO with unrealistic assumptions and it was only because of those unrealistic assumptions (provided by Rep. Ryan’s staff) that the “Roadmap” did anything to reduce the deficit.

The Obama proposal is a limited first step in a long road to long-run fiscal solvency. To this point, we have had to ignore the short-run deficit and I would dare say that in the next four to six quarters we could continue to ignore the deficit, but letting the majority of tax cuts expire for the top 5% of earners in this country seems like a sensible step to move us down the road.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Outstanding Historical Gloss of the Day

"On the judicial side, the [late 1930's] ushered in a period of unprecedented goodwill towards the regulatory system."
--Robert L. Rabin, Federal Regulation in Historical Perspective, reprinted in Peter L. Strauss, Todd D. Rakoff & Cynthia R. Farina, Administrative Law 13, 17 (2003).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pirates of the Gulf of Aden

A federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia threw out piracy charges brought by the government against six Somali men who allegedly attempted to attack a US naval vessel. The defense, in challenging the charges, relied on the 1820 Supreme Court case United States v. Smith. That case defines piracy, according to the "law of nations," as "robbery upon the sea."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

All options on the table? - Public Sector Pensions

This is a great piece from's Democracy in America blog. I enjoyed it because it addresses the elephant in the room, puts together some calculations, and questions the value we place on teachers in this country.

As for commentary on it, I would simply say it's important to keep ALL options on the table if we're serious about reducing the deficit over the long run (I remain far less concerned in the short run), and it's disingenuous to blatantly cherry-pick the examples that allow you to stir up class warfare.

On a personal note, my dad was a fireman. He had to retire because of a medical condition, a condition directly related to his duties as a fireman, before he had put 20 years in. I don't think it's asking too much that he be well-compensated for his service to his community long after that service has to conclude.

Government Program, Employees: Efficient, Productive

At least when it comes to the United States Census which cost $1.6 billion less than expected. Savings are attributed in part to "workforce productivity across field operations"--the folks that knocked on your door if you did not return your census form.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Air Fares - A better deal?

This post springs out of a comment war from some time back between our favorite antagonist and the editors. The New York Times has this article out today talking about airfare prices over time. From the article, two things are clear:

1) Generally speaking air travel is getting more expensive.
2) Airlines are failing to report full fee collection data, essentially hiding the true cost of a ticket today as compared to historic ticket prices. We're trying to compare apples to oranges.

This lack of reporting leads to a higher level of imperfect information, creating a market inefficiency. A consumer does not know clearly what the cost of the trip is. This is compounded by the purchasing patterns in air travel where baggage needs of the traveler can change between the time of purchase of the actual ticket and the levying of fees at check-in.

Again, all we're saying is the customer experience has not improved and the price has increased. Those two facts would seem indicate that deregulation is not a Godsend.

Green Movement Reflection

Michael Singh takes the long view on Iran's Green Movement, declared dead by many.
On June 10, when the Iranian opposition movement cancelled its planned commemoration of the anniversary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection, commentators assumed that the Green Movement was finally finished. For months, it had been criticized as lacking strong leadership and for being unable to seriously challenge Iran’s entrenched regime.

But the history of political turmoil in twentieth-century Iran suggests that the movement may yet survive. After all, movements propelled by similar social currents have succeeded in dramatically changing Iran in the past.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Underplayed Story

About ten days ago, on July 28, something quite strange happened in the Straits of Hormuz. A Japanese oil tanker, owned by Mitsui OSK and carrying two million barrels of oil, was struck by something. Crew members reported seeing a flash. Damage included a blown off lifeboat, shattered windows, and a strangely regular shaped dent in the hull of the tanker near but above the water line.

Speculation as to the source of the damage abounded during the days in which the tanker sat in port being examined by officials from the UAE. Among these were freak waves, terrorist attacks, collisions with submarines, or collisions with a marine mine, potentially left over from the Iran-Iraq war.

Then, eight days after the event, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al-Qaeda affiliate responsible for attacks on resorts in Egypt in 2004 and 2005, claimed credit for what it termed an attack on the tanker. At that time, most experts dismissed the claim as untrustworthy because it came so long after the attack occurred, the damage to the hull of the tanker was regular, there was no apparent breach of the hull, and no scorch marks. But just one day later, Officials from the United Arab Emirates reported that their investigation had determined the tanker had been attacked using homemade explosives and dingy.

Attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf are extraordinarily rare. Any assault—attempted or successful—in the vital Straits of Hormuz should cause considerable concern. A successful assault in the Straits could potentially bottle up 40% of the worlds crude—at least temporarily. The effect on the price of crude would likely be astronomical.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Krugman almost always explains it best

Couldn't help but link to this blog post by Paul Krugman discussing why letting the high-income tax cuts expire is good policy. I'll let the Nobel prize winner speak for himself:

The basic framework we have for thinking about consumer spending goes back to none other than Milton Friedman, whose “permanent income” hypothesis says that people will save most of any income change they see as merely transitory. Telling rich people that we’ll keep their taxes low for a couple more years is, for them, a transitory income gain; they’ll save the bulk of it.

Isn’t the same true for lower-income people? Not to the same extent. Permanent-income reasoning doesn’t fully apply when some people are “liquidity-constrained” — they have depressed income, which would make them want to spend more than they earn right now, but they’re out of assets and unable to borrow, or unable to borrow except at relatively high interest rates. People in that situation will spend much or all of any temporary windfall.

So if we give money to people likely to be liquidity-constrained, they are likely to spend it. That’s why aid to the unemployed is an effective stimulus; it also suggests that tax cuts for lower-income workers will be relatively effective at raising demand. But the affluent, who typically have lots of assets and good access to borrowing, are much less likely to be in that situation.

For those that disagree, please identify the accepted counter theory against what Mr. Friedman outlined.

The Least Deliberative Body

It has become cliche to refer to the US Senate as the world's most deliberative body. In policy circles it would seem to serve as a reason for the Senate's inaction on any number of issues, and yet, after reading George Packer's piece in The New Yorker I was left thinking that the cliche is all wrong.

1. having the function of deliberating, as a legislative assembly
2. having to do with policy; dealing with the wisdom and expediency of a proposal

What struck me about Packer's article is, as Sen. Merkley mentions in the article, is how there really isn't any deliberation. There isn't debate. There's posturing, procedural maneuvering, and pedantic speeches given to CSPAN cameras, but no deliberation.

The Senate has been reduced from what de Toucheville once described as a place where "they represent only the lofty thoughts [of the nation] and the generous instincts animating it, not the petty passions," to a place where arcane rules are wielded to grind everything to a halt.

I think there are 3 reasons for this:
1) Fund-raising
2) Eternal Elections
3) A perversion of well-intentioned rules

The Constant Cash Scramble
I once read that a Congressperson needs to raise $10,000 per week from the moment they take office in order to be competitive in the next election. The infusion of money into the political system is not new, but the seeming acceleration of that infusion should frighten people. Sure every voter gets a vote, but how is that going to compete against a few million dollars from a specific industry with a targeted agenda? The Senators now serving have to play to these interests because this is where the big dollars are coming from. That means a lot of little favors that snowball into big hurdles for really moving things forward.

The Eternal Election
If you watch cable news, when's the last time you heard "possible presidential candidate, so and so?" Our media has become captured by the horse race and so have our elected officials. For the Senate that means really just three days of legislating every week. It also means the senators aren't talking to each other. They aren't spending time together. This isn't a wish for Harry Reid and Richard Shelby to go skipping down the Capitol steps together, but if you don't know someone how can you hope to negotiate with them? If you don't trust, don't know enough to respect them how do you deliberate anything? What's clear from Packer's article is you don't.

Rules Perversion
Most of us know there's a rule in the Senate that any senator can place an anonymous hold on an appointee and that rule has been used rather frequently (and frivolously) in the recent past. What I did not know until reading Packer's article was that the hold was originally intended to give a Senator that had to travel some distance (on horseback no less) to hold up confirmation until they could ask the appointee questions. It was never intended to be an instrument to hold an administration hostage. This is one example of several that Packer outlines where rules with good intentions have been perverted to satisfy a senator's "petty passions."

So what do we do about it?
If these are the main reasons (I'm quite certain there are others) then what is to be done to change things? First, we have to start taking the money out of politics. The Supreme Court set us back with that with the Citizens United decision. I, like many liberals, disagreed with that decision for one main reason. The decision, in essence, equated money with free speech. I think this is a dangerous precedent and a threat to a democracy. If we are truly a country of "one person, one vote" then we need to ensure that the rules of campaigns and fundraising follows along similar lines. This would allow senators to think grander and not feel so beholden to special interests.

Second, we need the media to stop reporting the horserace and start reporting the issues. There's a disincentive to do this. The horserace is cheap to report, flashy, and constantly evolving to satisfy the appetite of a news cycle that people feel the urge to constantly feed. But if the consumer demanded more, if it was as much about policy as it is about personality we would be taking a step in the right direction.

Third, the Senate needs to take steps to fix itself. This is probably the hardest and most perplexing aspect. The only people that can make the Senate more efficient are the same people that made it inefficient. There are some freshmen senators with an eye towards a rules change, but the old-timers are hesitant and as the freshmen become the old-timers they will likely be co-opted by the system they currently loathe. The Senate has the power to change, perhaps it lies in the people to give them the will.

What's next?
The cynic in me figures there will be a rash of blog posts (not unlike this one) decrying the Senate and urging change. That drum beat will quickly fade and nothing will happen. The optimist in me thinks that maybe these young guns in the Senate will force some change. The revolutionary in me thinks we're reaching a tipping point in our government, a dangerous tipping point where the people see the ineffectiveness of government and lash out against it. This could be a time of renewal and positive realignment where Congress can get back to the people's business. But there is so much anger, so much rage focused on an enemy, but not an alternative that this realignment could be a major step backward.

We did this to ourselves. We are all of us complicit in the degradation of a once deliberative body. We have the power to make the changes needed. Do we too have the will? The humility? The attention span?

David Broder steals my line. Irrelevant that his was published before mine.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rep. Weiner Explains Himself

The New York Times has an op-ed today by Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY-D) talking about his angry speech on the house floor last week. If you haven't seen it, take a look.

The op-ed is his attempt to draw attention less to the spectacle and more to the substance of his comments. In his opinion, there aren't people on the other side of the aisle prepared to act in good faith. There is simply a party united in saying "No" and trying to reassign blame by blaming that the Democrats are acting with a spirit of bi-partisanship.

Now Ben has been saying for some time that the Dems should go it alone. He surmised some time ago that Repos weren't serious about being bi-partisan, they just wanted to look bi-partisan so they had cover when the voted "no" all the time. I was more moderate. I had hope there could be true bi-partisanship. I had hope that there was a middle ground and reasonable men and women could find it. I misplaced my hope.

I have seen President Obama, Sen. Reid, and even Speaker Pelosi try to find a middle ground. I have seen them offer to take up Republican ideas in major legislation, but the Republicans always wanted more. They wanted to govern from the minority. Guys (cause there aren't many women current serving as Republicans, Bachmann barely registers as human these days), you lost the election. You lost in 2006 and in 2008. Hell, you seem primed to under-perform in 2010.

This obstructionism wrapped up in false bi-partisan overtures is what makes Rep. Weiner so angry. It makes me angry. I just don't get to pound a podium on the House floor. Pity that.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Shot Across the Bow

Anne Applebaum, a columnist with whom I infrequently agree, fires a shot across the bow of Republicans suddenly consumed with deficit spending and small government.

[Y]ou cannot start from scratch. You cannot forget history. You cannot pretend that the Republican Party has not supported big and wasteful spending programs—energy subsidies, farm subsidies, unnecessary homeland security projects, profligate defense contracts, you name it—for the last decade. Before the Republican Party can have any credibility on any spending issues whatsoever, Republican leaders need to speak frankly about the mistakes of the past.

They also must be extremely specific about which policies and which programs they are planning to cut in the future. What will it be? Social Security or the military budget? Medicare or the TSA? Vague "anti-government" rhetoric just doesn't cut it anymore: If you want a smaller government, you have to tell us how you will create one.

Quite right.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Tribes versus Government

Among a myriad of articles in today’s New York Times addressing Afghanistan, David Sanger pens one that purports to deconstruct the “what ifs” of Afghanistan: What if the Bush administration had put enough troops into the country to stabilize it after the Taliban’s ouster? What if the Bush administration had followed through on its promise of an Afghan Marshall Plan? What if the Bush administration had not been distracted by its war of choice in Iraq? Would then Afghanistan not have become a hash?

Though his tone is negative, Sanger is ultimately inconclusive. He does question, however, whether “30,000, or even 60,000, [troops] could have brought stability to a vast country, where tribes, not governments, are the ruling powers?” He notes, “The Taliban—a native movement—would almost certainly have waited it out, figuring Washington could not sustain so large a force for very long.”

It strikes me that Sanger’s analysis rolls up a bit of Orientalism with two curious assumptions. The Orientalism is obvious in Sanger’s contrast between government and tribes. The dichotomy is, of course, false. Tribal power and governmental power are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, tribes can be an incredibly effective mode of governance and an excellent building block on which to develop communal reconciliation and broader governance. Both the US experience in Anbar province in Iraq and the history of Somaliland since 1991 provide excellent examples of tribes behaving in just this way. The dichotomy, though, is not Sanger’s alone—the Western penchant for contrasting civic government, epitomized in Western states, with any mode of governance that is alien is well trod territory.

The curious assumptions in Sanger’s analysis are that he apparently believes the Taliban to both be static and monolithic, and popular. Sanger’s belief that the Taliban could have waited out a US/NATO deployment of 30,000-60,000 troops suggests that he believes the Taliban circa 2001 and the Taliban today to be the same, unchanging, and monolithic. Sanger’s implicit contrast of the Taliban, “a native movement,” with Karzai’s government and its supporters suggests that he believes the Taliban to have an Afghanistan-wide base of support.

Comparing the budding truth of Sanger’s second assumption to the origin of the Taliban—and its level of popular support in 2001—demonstrates that his first assumption is false. The Taliban began as a Pashtun movement and in large measure it remains so today. It is true that the insurgency is spreading from Pashtun heartlands—both in the south, Helmand, and in the north, Kunduz—to reach non-Pashtun majority provinces. The Taliban’s emerging national strength has only come through nearly a decade of Western malfeasance in Afghanistan—without failing to deliver on promises of reconstruction and improved livelihood, without scuttling the goodwill of the Afghan people by killing so many civilians, without supporting an obviously corrupt regime while pretending otherwise, it is unlikely that the Taliban would have garnered popular support beyond the ranks of the Pashtun. It is little wonder that the Taliban were able to inflict so little damage on the ISAF for so many years—it took time for ISAF to do sufficient damage to itself vis-à-vis the civilian populace for the Taliban to reap benefits in the form of increased popular support, greater numbers of fighters, and greater freedom of movement. Thus, a greater security presence at the outset—provided that security force employed COIN principles properly—would likely have made all the difference in the world.