Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

The New Party of NO

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

“We need to quit, you know, kind of rattling the economy with things that are perceived by the voters as disturbing,” Mitch McConnell

A funny thing just happened.

After six years of obstruction, the Republican Party is finally in the position where they can be blamed for their own misconduct.

The result is that they are starting to change their behavior.

History
Mitch McConnell has acknowledged that he is the author of the obstructionist strategy that Republicans adopted in 2009. They were fresh off an historic loss to the nation’s first African American President. At the time, there was plenty of discussion of a post-partisan post-racial era that would recapture the golden New Deal age of Democratic dominance.

McConnell’s insight was that if Republicans refused to participate in the process of government, they could convince enough of the public that this new charismatic leader was at least partly to blame. He recognized that when an idea enjoys the support of both parties, it also receives the equivalent to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from mainstream voters. Anything that passed without that seal was suspect.

Republicans rode that suspicion to a 2010 victory.

Effectively grinding government to a halt was risky. It meant that Congress would fail at even routine tasks. It created the most dysfunctional government since the Civil War with historically low approval ratings for Republicans. But it also succeeded.

Republicans intended to destroy the American legislative process, and they did. Republicans set out to exacerbate partisan tensions, and they did. Republicans hoped to make Obama less popular by making it vastly more difficult for him to get anything done, and they did. Republicans hoped to parlay public discontent into electoral victories, and they did. Republicans made a conscious decision to prevent the president from bringing the country together, and they successfully made the national chasm larger.

Obama went from a figure of hope and change to the president who hasn’t signed a major bill into law since 2010. In 2014, Democrats were running for cover and Republicans were rewarded for their strategy.

Now What
The real reward from the 2014 elections is an opportunity to govern. On closer investigation, voters did not reject Obama’s policies. Many of those policies either in direct ballot initiatives or exit polling reports are very popular.

Voters also did not endorse McConnell’s obstructionist strategy.

Quite the opposite. Voters want a government that works and they have now put Republicans in a position where they have to demonstrate that they can do a better job.

Obama again has demonstrated his acute political sense. Rather than play the traditional role of powerless executive, he realizes that he is finally free to enact large portions of his agenda. He is betting, just like Mitch McConnell did, that the voting public will reward whichever party gets the most done in the next two years, and he has a head start.

He has already taken landmark action on immigration and the environment. He has a huge Pacific Trade agreement in the works. There is also the possibility of a nuclear agreement with Iran. The economy is recovering faster than the rest of the world and the Saudi’s will keep oil prices low for the next two years to discourage competition. He can’t move on things that require appropriations like infrastructure or legislation like tax reform. But there are plenty of other areas where he can and has been active, all the while calling out the Republican majority to do their job and pass something substantive that he can sign.

The incoming Republican majority now has a choice. They can focus all of their energy on slowing Obama down, or they can take up the challenge that Obama has given them and begin passing their own legislation to address the issues that concern voters.

Both strategies have risk. In the first case, they are ignoring voters and hoping that there is still some life in the obstructionist strategy. In the latter case, they have to demonstrate that government CAN be a force for good, but only if Republicans are in charge. To accomplish that, they will need the same thing that they have withheld for the past six years from Obama – bi-partisanship.

Summary
Actions speak much louder than words. The actions of the incoming Republican majority suggest that the message of the last election was not a rejection of Obama’s policies as they have said. It was instead an opportunity to demonstrate that they can in fact govern, and a warning that they will be punished again in 2016 if they fail.

While it is interesting that John Boehner can describe a nine month spending bill as “long-term”, what it does say is that the new Republican controlled Congress will forgo holding the government hostage at least until September, 2015. That is a good sign.

We believe in Science

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

“We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth.” Elizabeth Warren

This was part of a longer list of progressive values that Elizabeth Warren listed in a July speech to Netroots Nation.

I agree with her list, but I thought it interesting to dig into why progressives believe in science. It might also be interesting to compare those beliefs with the implied opposing conservative view. Since this is just my opinion, I’ll change this perspective from “we” to “I”.

Why I believe in Science?

Science is inherently about the search for truth. While any human endeavor is vulnerable to bias, the scientific community celebrates revolutionary thought rather than suppressing it.

These claims are the result of the modern scientific method.

That method employs what we would now call crowd sourcing as a protection against bias.

Science, at least the hard sciences, depends on mathematics. Mathematics has no bias.

There are two types of scientists in the world – theoretical and experimental. Theoretical scientists rely on mathematics to create new models to explain or predict experimental results. Experimental scientists test these theories through experiments.

All scientists publish the results of their work in peer reviewed journals. The scientific community engages through these journals to verify the math, confirm experimental results, and comment on new theories.

If the math behind the theories survives review by independent groups, the theories gain credibility.

If the theories accurately predict experiment results, the theories gain credibility.

If the experimental results can be duplicated by independent groups, they gain credibility.

As theories gain support in the scientific community, more scientists engage in exploring the boundaries of those theories. As the experimental evidence accumulates and the boundaries of the theories emerge, those theories become accepted by a majority of the scientific community.

That’s where we are with climate science. The boundaries are still evolving, but the basic assumption that the current changes in climate that we are seeing are caused by human activity is accepted by 98% of those qualified to have an opinion.

I believe in science because I believe in the purity of mathematics and reliability of the peer-reviewed crowd sourced model.

Why do liberals believe in science?

The answer here is more nuanced.

The facts are that we are all fundamentally emotional decision makers. That’s what moral intuitionism is all about. The difference is that when it comes down to a choice, it is easier for liberals to alter their views in the face of contradicting facts than it is for conservatives.

We’ve also talked about how liberals and conservatives operate emotionally from two different sets of moral foundations. Liberals focus on fairness and care. Conservatives share those foundations but are also concerned about liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Science is inherently fair. Liberals view science as a tool to determine how to best address the problems of those who need care and protection.

That isn’t to say that liberals don’t also have their biases and areas where these emotional moral foundation-based decisions cause them to be science deniers. Vaccinations, though not exclusively a liberal issue, is a good example.
Finally, studies also show that liberals are fundamentally accepting of change while conservatives fear it. If science has any bias, it is toward change. Scientists are motivated toward answering the unanswered questions. That inevitably leads to upending accepted theories and replacing them with new ones.

Why are conservatives science deniers?

Conservatives weren’t always science deniers. The coalitions created by Nixon and Reagan, aligned conservatives with Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christians ARE science deniers. The result has been the politicization of science because it calls into question beliefs that spring from a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Big Tobacco developed the political tools to cast doubt on mainstream science. It was the only way they could continue to sell a product that killed people. A long line of conservative political operatives have refined those tools to create wedge issues, build conservative coalitions, and attack liberalism.

Conclusion

Mathematics is one of the few things in our existence that is pure, absolute, and rational. That is not an indictment of emotion or belief. Science, because it is based on mathematics, simply stands in stark contrast to belief.

Those who attempt to base their lives on belief, for example, have no choice but to deny science. Science isn’t specifically attacking their beliefs. Science is simply creating theories to explain experimental evidence that is being discovered. Any damage that any particular belief suffers is generally unintended.

Here’s just a simple thought experiment to illustrate the point. If at some point in the future, science discovers that there WAS evidence of some “creative event” that could only be explained by intervention from a higher power, liberals would have no problem accepting that theory. Liberals would find themselves more closely aligned with conservative Christian beliefs on this particular topic. Atheists would then find themselves in the curious position of denying science in order to defend their position.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way and that’s the basic challenge of this age.

For liberals, science largely guides belief.

For conservatives, belief trumps science.

Magic Thinking and Personal Interest

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

We’ve talked about confirmation bias in the past and how we are all susceptible. Confirmation bias is when we accept those things that support our particular view of the world and reject those things which call that view into question. A version of this is Moral Intuition. That’s when we respond to a particular issue emotionally and then use our rational brain to create arguments supporting what we have already decided must be true because it aligns with our moral foundations.

These biases lead to Magic Thinking. That is when we invent or accept views completely unsupported by science or fact because this particular view is consistent with our world view.

Here’s an example of Magic Thinking.

God makes political choices
This is a simple one to work through. God, as described in the Bible, is all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfect. He created us in His image and likeness which means in His eyes we are perfect too. He supplies our every need. So why would this God involve Himself in politics at all? It is akin to praying that God influence the outcome of a sporting event. Why would He bother? It is our responsibility to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling”. Then Paul goes on to say, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Events unfold to further God’s will, not to satisfy our own particular personal plan. That will is His desire for us to increase in grace and in our understanding of Him. So the unfolding of God’s plan is generally the path that does the most good and blesses everyone. There are no losers in God’s plan. Winning is strictly a human concept. It is Magic Thinking to expect a prayer for victory to be answered. A much more effective prayer is one that humbly seeks direction and alignment with the plan that is already in place for us.

Magic Thinking is dangerous for our democracy because it transforms important issues from facts to belief. Beliefs are highly emotional subjects. So any attempt to debate them is divisive. That’s because beliefs by their nature are personal. So when you question a belief, you are also calling into question the intelligence and honesty of the person holding that belief.

Some who seek to manipulate the public in order to advance their own agendas put a lot of effort into transforming political positions into beliefs.

Here are some other examples.

Climate Change
From a scientific perspective, there is wide agreement that the climate is changing and that the change is PRIMARILY caused by human activity. That doesn’t mean that all scientists agree on everything. There are certainly a small number of climate scientists who have dissenting views. It also doesn’t mean that the scientific models are perfect. They aren’t because our planet is a complex system. But those models continue to improve as climate scientists better understand how our planet is responding to the increased heat being retained by our atmosphere.

Magic Thinking claims that climate change is some sort of liberal conspiracy. The politics of personal interest is the best way to disprove that. Self interest in the scientific community is strongly biased toward disproving accepted theories. That’s how scientists make a name for themselves in their peer community. The scientific method REWARDS the person who is able to demonstrate that a popular theory is flawed. That reward is shared with those who can duplicate the experiments which support the new theory. In other words, a dissenting view supported by good research is always welcome in the scientific community.

There is also no proof that scientists who disagree with the generally accepted theories about climate change suffer financially. In fact, it is much the opposite. Those small number of dissenters from the majority view are richly rewarded for their positions by the powerful interests who oppose actions restricting the use of fossil fuels.

The politics of personal interest also provide a simple explanation for conservative opposition to any government actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The majority of the money financing conservative politicians who deny climate change comes from organizations linked to the Koch Brothers. Their wealth is based on fossil fuels. Their personal interests are opposed to any restrictions on the use of fossil fuels.

They have successfully deployed the same techniques originally developed by the Tobacco Industry to create doubt and confuse science and belief. If anything, it is testimony to the ethics of the scientific community that most climatologists have resisted the temptations of participating in the lucrative practice of junk science.

Free Markets
The Magic Thinking here is that free markets can regulate themselves. So any failure for free markets to operate successfully is attributed to too much government intervention rather than companies that have become too big to fail.

The reality is that while it is certainly possible for government to overreach, there is no evidence that free markets can effectively operate without regulation.

The politics of personal interest are a reliable measure of where this argument came from too. Who stands to benefit the most from a deregulation? Those entities that had been previously regulated, their management, and their stock holders. Who back the conservative politicians who promoted the agenda of deregulation? The same group.

One need look no further than China for examples of how industries behave in economies where there are no regulations. The environment is polluted. Workplaces kill workers. Products kill customers.

The Magic Thinking is on the part of individuals who have been convinced by these larger monied interests that deregulation benefits them. Just ask the people in Charleston, West Virginia where “business friendly” state regulations allowed a toxic chemical storage facility to be built upstream from their drinking water intake pipes. Magic Thinking in this case is the Libertarian view that the marketplace will punish bad corporate behavior. The facts are that at least in our version of capitalism, short term profits always trump long term unfunded liabilities (externalities).

What happens instead is that the offending company profits from their bad behavior. Those profits flow to company management and shareholders. When the externalities finally catch up with the company, the real costs of production are revealed. The cost of the damage done to either the environment, the workers, or the customers far outweighs the assets of the company. The company declares bankruptcy and taxpayers are often left holding the bill. Lawyers may make a little money attempting to recover some costs from those who profited, but most of those profits are long gone and will never be recovered.

Immigration
Just like climate change, this country is facing an undeniable demographic reality. Our population is aging. If we fail to embrace immigration, we will suffer the same bleak economic outlook that Japan has been struggling with the past decade. Combine that with the major demographic shifts in the electorate that were the foundation for Obama’s two Presidential victories and Republicans are facing a stark choice. Either embrace immigration reform or die as a relevant national party.

The Magic Thinking is that conservative Republicans can continue to be a force in the House because of gerrymandering and the lower voter turnouts during off year elections. As long as they can retain that majority, they don’t need the White House or the Senate. They can do this by suppressing the vote, preventing immigrants from becoming citizens, playing wedge politics with their base, and outspending the opposition.

The reality is that conservatives are simply going to run out angry white voters. When they do, it will be hell to pay for the tactics that they employed to hold onto the power that they had.

Abortion
The facts are the no one can say when life begins. We can recognize when something is living, but there is no agreement when something starts living.

The rest of the facts are that Roe V. Wade did not decide when life begins. It also had nothing to do with personhood. It was decided based on the rights of the mother. Her rights take precedence until the point in time that the fetus can survive independently. There is NOTHING that the current right to life movement can do to change that perspective short of a constitutional amendment.

Magic Thinking, however, suggests that the Justices make a bad decision. They simply didn’t have the facts that we have today. If we just get some different justices on the bench, the decision will get reversed. It’s not going to happen.

The politics of self interest call into immediate question why this issue continues to fester for decades after this decision was made. The people who benefit from this continued controversy are the advocacy groups (for both sides) and the politicians who are able to raise money by aligning themselves with one group or the other. It is not unlike divorce lawyers to make their money asserting the rights of their client, when they know full well that judges are loath to give one parent sole custody of the children, support an inequitable property split, limit child support, or these days provide alimony. If both parties in a divorce were told what the likely settlement would be, they would start to work out the details on their own rather than invest money in lawyers attempting to “win”. The same is true here. No one will win. It will instead be a trench war that will only stop when the next generation refuses to continue to fund special interest groups.

The Poor
Poverty is a complicated subject. The facts are that programs like Social Security and Medicaid have dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly. We already dug into the economic costs of poverty and the benefits to reducing it.

The Magic Thinking, however, is that poverty is the fault of the poor. They must have made a bad decision somewhere in their lives for them to end up in the position that they now find themselves. As a result, any attempt to help them escape poverty does nothing to resolve the more fundamental character weakness that got them in this condition to begin with.

Ayn Rand has written the “Bible” for this particular form of Magic Thinking. The challenge is that those who advocate this gospel of “personal responsibility” and “greed is good” are also dealing in belief rather than fact.

Conclusion
Magic Thinking masks the politics of personal interest. Those special interests are well versed in the tactics required to transform political points of view into beliefs. Once a political position becomes part of an individuals belief system, they are no longer open to a fact based discussion. Those who embrace these beliefs will only accept the facts that support their beliefs. They will reject the facts that call those beliefs into question. They will defend their positions using the stock arguments of Moral Intuitionism. Those include media bias, conspiracy theories, flawed polling, and junk science.

The result is an increasingly polarized electorate, gridlocked government, and crumbling economic and physical infrastructure. The only times that we are able to make any changes are during the first two years of any new administration when the majority party can actually pass parts of their agenda by imposing their will on the minority.

This is no way to run a country.

When Ideology Confronts Personal Reality

Friday, January 17th, 2014

Increasing Healthcare Costs

I was getting my hair cut the other day. The guy doing the work owns the salon. He was complaining that his bill for healthcare insurance almost doubled from last year. He purchases his insurance through a well-respected local insurance broker. He has conservative verging on libertarian political views, so his immediate reaction was to blame the Affordable Care Act in general and President Obama in particular.

He was also upset at what he felt was poor service form his broker. They met in November and the broker couldn’t provide any detailed information about what it would cost for him and his wife to renew their policy. The next thing he knew, he received a bill in the mail in late December that he had to pay immediately if he wanted to continue his coverage.

I asked him some questions about the nature of his previous coverage. From his description, the silver plans might work just fine for him. I asked if he had gone to healthcare.gov to check out other options. He was surprised that you could do that sort of comparison shopping without creating an account. I assured him that he could and that he could also probably cancel his existing plan if he found something better. We agreed to check back in a couple of weeks.

Just out of curiosity, I checked the site too. I found that the MOST expensive plan listed there from his current insurance company was $200 less a month than the bill that he received. I found silver plans from other companies could REDUCE what he paid LAST YEAR by as much as $300/month.

It will be interesting to see what he thinks about the Obamacare the next time I see him and who he feels is to blame now for the sticker shock he experienced in December.

Long Term Unemployment Insurance

As we’ve been discussing in previous posts, Republicans are opposed to extending long term unemployment benefits because they feel that those benefits reduce the incentive of the unemployed to find a job. They believe that those who are unemployed CHOSE to collect their benefits rather than look for another job. They argue that eliminating those benefits will be just the encouragement that the unemployed need to get back to work.

Republicans have been under a lot of pressure from Democrats who don’t share their beliefs and feel that cutting off benefits is both cruel and bad economic policy. Republicans said they would consider passing an extension if the Senate could find a way to pay for it. Senate Democrats did find a way to pay for it, but Republicans didn’t like it. So now I guess the Republicans are saying that they would consider passing an extension if the Democrats could find a way to pay for it that caused the Democrats some pain. The result is another impasse with more people every week finding themselves without any benefits. Not surprisingly, some of those people are Republicans.

Here are a couple of quotes.

The standoff infuriates people such as Lita Ness, who lost her job as a civilian contractor at Peterson Air Force Base in August 2012 and just received her final check from the unemployment office.

“I’m registered as a Republican, but if they continue to use this not extending our (aid) I’m probably changing to Democrat,” Ness, 58, said as she took a break from a computer training class at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center. “People in our district who vote `No’ on this, I’m not going to support them.”

And

Others feel that after having contributed to society, they are now being abandoned by the government. “I paid my taxes. I’ve helped people my whole life,” said Barbara Greene, 59, who lost her job as a medical secretary in a hospital last year and expects her jobless benefits to end in March, “and now they’re just throwing me to the side.”

The spokesman for Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn who represents that district said, “It’s $6 billion, doesn’t do anything to create jobs. House Republicans remain focused on creating jobs and improving the economy.” It is easy for him to say this because he HAS a job. His constituents who are losing their benefits don’t share his belief that money spent on unemployment benefits is wasted on the unemployed.

The unemployed know this claim isn’t true. So do economists. The data that I quoted in an earlier post shows that unemployment insurance actually DOES create jobs. That’s because the benefits are spent immediately on goods and services. That spending flows into the hands of grocers, landlords, gas station owners, and other retailers. Every dollar of unemployment insurance generates $1.55 dollars of benefit to the local economy where that dollar is spent. No other private or government program is as efficient.

Rep Lamborn may still be re-elected to represent Colorado Springs in November, but fewer people are going to vote for him because they are beginning to realize that his ideology (smaller government and lower taxes) is not delivering the prosperity for middle class folks that he told them it would.

Climate Change

Three interesting studies came out recently with regard to climate change.

In the first, researchers found that opposition to the concept of climate change varied based on the weather. The hotter it was, the more support there was for the concept of human driven climate change. The colder it was, the more opposition to the concept. This has to do with the discovery that when it is hot, our memory reminds us of all of the other times we’ve experienced heat. Same thing when it’s cold.

What climate scientists predict, however, is that climate change will drive more extreme weather. Here in the upper Midwest that means MORE precipitation particularly in the winter and particularly at night.

But clearly that didn’t stop climate change deniers like Donald Trump who proved the studies point by tweeting, “We are experiencing the coldest weather in more than two decades-most people never remember anything like this. GLOBAL WARMING anyone?”

The reality, however, is that climate change is threatening Donald Trump’s home in NYC, his Casino’s in Altantic City, and his golf courses in Florida.

A second study documents the dramatic rise of sea levels on the east coast. They rose eight inches over the past 130 years. They are projected to rise another eight inches in the next 35 years. By 2100 that eight inches will become 36-39 inches.

Hurricane Sandy had a peak storm surge of 14 feet and caused $65B in damage. As the sea levels rise, less powerful hurricanes will cause similar damage more frequently.

Rising sea levels have already inundated barrier islands which protect the mainland from storm damage. An additional three feet of sea level change will eliminate most of the barrier islands on the east coast including Hatteras.

We are already seeing the financial consequences of this creeping disaster. Those with property in the expanding flood zone can’t get 30 year mortgages. Flood insurance has already going up dramatically and in some areas is no longer available from private sources. The federal flood insurance program is $24B in the red. Some Republicans, in an interesting turnabout, are demanding that the government DO MORE to protect commercial and residential interests in their districts.

The reaction in states like NC is to simply deny these changes. In 2012, the state legislature passed a bill banning state agencies from reporting sea-level data. Two weeks after that bill passed, a study from the US Geological survey documented that sea levels along the coast line from Cape Hatteras to Boston were rising at four times the global rate. You may have guessed by now that since 1980, NC leads the world in disappearing shoreline.

Same thing is going on in Virginia where the legislature budgeted money to study the problem, but only after all references to sea-level rise and climate change had been removed. In towns like Norfolk — where neighborhoods are already flooding repeatedly even in the absence of storms, and where some homes have become unsaleable — people are starting to pay attention.

“In the last couple or three years, there’s really been a change,” said William A. Stiles Jr., head of Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk environmental group. “What you get now is people saying, ‘I’m tired of driving through salt water on my way to work, and I need some solutions.’ ”

In the third study, an Iowa state poll of farmers added a question last year about whether or not farmers believed that climate change was real and human caused. Clearly this is a group that is politically conservative, deeply religious, and highly dependent on weather patterns for their living. Last year 67.7% answered yes. This year that jumped to 74.3%

Conclusion

We are finally seeing what happens when political positions arrived at through emotional decisions based on moral choices confronts undeniable reality.

Obamacare DOES save people money regardless of whether you are a liberal, a conservative, or a libertarian. The only difference is that it is difficult for conservatives and libertarians to accept that fact.

The unemployed AND the economy benefit from assistance. During times of economic downturn when job seekers outnumber jobs, unemployment benefits do not increase the unemployment rate. Putting money into the hands of the unemployed actually REDUCES the unemployment rate. Unemployment benefits help everyone regardless of whether you are a liberal, a conservative, or a libertarian. The difference is that it becomes increasing difficult for conservatives to claim that the long term unemployed have only themselves to blame, when they themselves join the expanding ranks of the long term unemployed.

Increasing sea levels is a fact. The sea doesn’t care if you are a liberal, a conservative, or a libertarian. The people who do care are those who finance and insure property. Their actions speak volumes about whether or not climate change is real. Property values in the affected zones are dropping. Banks are unwilling to make new long term loans. Insurance companies are raising rates, or canceling policies. Conservative evangelical Iowa farmers are including climate change predictions in their agricultural and livestock planning. Conservatives and libertarians are having to come to grips with the reality that ideology cannot hold back the tide or make it rain no matter how hard you try.

Frankenstein Party

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”
― Mary ShelleyFrankenstein

Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, made headlines earlier this year by telling his fellow Republicans that they needed to stop being the “stupid party.”

This week Republicans are demonstrating to the voting public that they not only rejected Jindal’s characterization, they embrace it.

Here’s how Tom Friedman describes it.

We’ve got messes aplenty abroad and the Republican-dominated House of Representatives is totally paralyzed. Indeed, the G.O.P.-led House has become a small-minded, parochial place, where collaboration is considered treason, where science is considered a matter of opinion, where immigration is considered a threat, where every solution is a suboptimal compromise enacted at midnight and where every day we see proof of the theory that America is a country that was “designed by geniuses so that it could be run by idiots.”

Before we proceed let’s recap to put this in perspective.  The Republican Party failed to win the White House in the last election even though voters were living through the worst economy since the Great Depression.  They failed to retake the Senate after winning the House in 2010 and even though there were more Democratic seats being contested than Republican.  They even lost the popular ballot for the House by 1.4M even though through gerrymandering they managed to retain their majority.

The past two elections proved that the Republican base is shrinking while the Democratic base is growing.  The Chairman of the Republican Party addressed this issue earlier this year.

The way we communicate our principles isn’t resonating widely enough…Focus groups described our party as ‘narrow-minded,’ ‘out of touch,’ and ‘stuffy old men.’ The perception that we’re the party of the rich continues to grow.

When Republicans lost in November it was a wake-up call….We know that we have problems. We’ve identified them, and we’re implementing the solutions to fix them.

If the last week is any indication, the Tea Party elected representatives in the house are still asleep.

In no particular order, here’s what we’ve seen.

SNAP cuts

The House cuts $40B cut from the food stamp program.  Conservative Republicans claim that there are people receiving food stamps that should be working, but the data doesn’t support that view.  The SNAP program (current version of food stamps) already has provisions which require those who can work to at least demonstrate that they are trying to find work or suffer the consequence of losing their benefits.

Studies have shown that SNAP is one of the most effective government programs we have.  It has an abuse rate of about 1%.  Most of that is private retailers buying SNAP benefits for cash rather than providing approved groceries.  It has a stimulus multiplier of 1.73, which means that every dollar of benefits generates $1.73 dollars in economic benefit.  That is the highest of any government program.  It’s better than corporate tax giveaways.  It’s better than military spending.  It’s better than bailouts and stimulus.

It also provides essential public health benefits to low-income people and that has an economic impact also.

The Trust for America’s Health, a health advocacy organization that focuses on disease prevention, warned recently of the consequences of cutting food stamps: “If the nation continues to underfund vital public health programs, we will never achieve long-term fiscal stability, as it will be impossible to help people get/stay healthy, happy and productive.”

Indeed, according to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “research shows that low-income households participating in SNAP have access to more food energy, protein and a broad array of essential vitamins and minerals in their home food supply compared to eligible nonparticipants.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “good nutrition can help lower risk for many chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, some cancers, diabetes and osteoporosis.” As it is, public healthcare expenses for diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease cost taxpayers more than $100 billion annually.

Cutting SNAP will impact the economy, cost jobs, reduce health, and increase the healthcare costs.  I’ve also posted that the stress associated with food insecurity actually affects brain development in children.  That inhibits academic success and ultimately affects employment prospects.  72% of those receiving benefits today are families with children.

We have enough food.  What we suffer from is a misguided ideology that suggests that benefits create a culture of dependency. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 30% of SNAP recipients worked in 2010, up from fewer than 20% in 1990. Most of the rest are either elderly, children, or disabled.

Fortunately the Senate will not pass this massive reduction in SNAP and a more modest reduction will likely emerge from the conference process.  House Republicans know that too.  This was an ideological vote to re-enforce the conservative Republican position that hungry people chose to be in that state because they are too lazy to find a job.

Defund Obamacare

This is a similar bit of Kabuki Theater.  Senator Ted Cruz was elected based on his pledge to defund Obamacare.  His rants and accusations finally goaded the House into action.  They passed exactly the bill that Cruz has been asking for.  That bill will expose what people have been silently saying for a while.  Cruz isn’t even close of having the votes in the Senate to accomplish what he promised to deliver.  He has already tried to lower expectations.

Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so….At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people.

Boehner would have none of it. He responded.

We’ll deliver a big victory in the House tomorrow. Then this fight will move over to the Senate — where it belongs. I expect my Senate colleagues to be up for the battle.

So at the end of the day, Cruz’s bluff is going to be called.  He doesn’t have the votes and will go down in flames as a result.

John McCain told CNN on Thursday: “In the United States Senate, we will not repeal, or defund, Obamacare. We will not. And to think we can is not rational.”

Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, said of the House Republicans’ strategy of threatening a government shutdown to force the defunding of Obamacare, “I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.”

Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, has said: “There isn’t anybody that thinks that Obamacare is going to get defunded. It cannot happen.” He added, “It is as impossible as anything can possibly be in Washington, D.C.”

Republicans may have gained some points in the process with their base, but the rest of country will be left scratching their heads over the spectacle.

Regulating Sexual Relationships

Finally last week in Michigan, Republican AG Bill Schuette argued in a brief supporting Michigan’s ban against same sex marriage that states have the obligation “to regulate sexual relationships between men and women so that the unique procreative capacity of such relationships benefits rather than harms society.”

This is really a simple calculation for any rational Republican.

How many of the 47M people receiving SNAP are going to vote for Republicans in 2014?

When the Republicans shut down the government or force the government to default on its debt obligations in an effort to stop Obamacare, how many voters are going to blame Democrats – particularly given what even some Republicans are saying?

Finally, how many people are going to support a party that claims the government has the right to “regulate sexual relationships”?

This is the logical conclusion of the cynicism that began with Nixon’s southern strategy.  Republicans exploited racial backlash to promote the economic goals of low taxes for the rich and deregulation.  They were remarkably successful in convincing low information whites to vote against their self-interests.  Instead they blamed four decades of middle class wage stagnation on the poor, liberals, and unions.  Sustaining this strategy, however, required morphing from racial fear to an embrace of fringe conspiracy group paranoia.  These fringe groups have always existed in US politics, but only gained credence as their apocalyptic fears of a black man in the White House came to pass.

Now the monster that Karl Rove and Fox News created to take back the House in 2010 and continue to promote the agenda of low taxes for the rich and deregulation has broken loose and is running amok.  Even Karl Rove can’t control it.

Any strategy to repeal, delay or replace the law must have a credible chance of succeeding or affecting broad public opinion positively. The defunding strategy doesn’t. Going down that road would strengthen the president while alienating independents. It is an ill-conceived tactic, and Republicans should reject it.

When ideology leads to extremism, it always demonizes its opponents.  Ultimately its opponents includes its previous allies.  It narrows its focus and base of support until it finally collapses under the weight of its own self-destructive rage.  Tea Party driven conservative Republicanism has reached this point.  They are willing to alienate hungry voters and shut down the government to demonstrate the purity of their ideology.  We will suffer the consequences of their actions between now and 2014.  Then voters will hold them accountable and the Tea Party will become another footnote in history.  Frankenstein died because he couldn’t figure out how to live in this world.  Tea Party-backed Republican Conservatism is going to suffer the same fate.

Sequester the Sequel

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

While many are suggesting that the first year sequester cuts weren’t that bad, they are generally unaware that the sequester bill included five years of scheduled across the board spending reductions.

So let’s take a look at what has happened already and then what is coming.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, over the first half of 2013, the federal government has subtracted 0.8 percentage point from GDP growth—this as the economy grew a paltry 1.1 percent in the first quarter and 1.7 percent in the second.

The CBO has projected that if the next round of sequester cuts were canceled, we would see another .7% in GDP growth and add another 900,000 jobs by Q3 2014.

As Business Week says, this isn’t rocket science.  “We’re living through the biggest contraction in federal spending in 60 years, and this is one of the weakest recoveries on record. Coincidence?”

Conservatives counter that every dollar that isn’t spent by the government goes back into the pockets of taxpayers.  The implications are that individuals will spend that money in the same ways that the government will, we will see the same growth, and we will be better for it because the government is inefficient and political.  The problem with this simplistic view is that in uncertain times like this individuals DO NOT spend their money.  Instead they reduce their debt and increase their savings.  Businesses respond to reduced demand by doing the same thing.  So we end up with a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines and economic growth slows, which is where we are today.

The CBO says we are operating 6% below our capacity right now.  That is $1T in economic capacity that is sitting idle because of lack of demand.  The problem, for anyone willing to take a look, is clearly NOT too much government spending.  It is too little consumer demand.

Here are a few more quotes if you remain unconvinced.

“The idea that spending cuts generate growth in a demand-constrained economy is nonsense,” says Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“To say the sequester is good for the economy is wrong on a scale that’s impressive,” says Neil Dutta, chief U.S. economist at Renaissance Macro Research.

“I don’t know how you can make that claim,” says Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group, who estimates that the sequester has stolen about 30,000 jobs from each month’s payrolls total since it was enacted in March.

If there is good news in this story, the economy appears to have survived the assault with a blunt instrument that the first sequester administered.  We are now in a position where the GDP can grow faster than the debt.  That means simple focus on short term economic growth will likely complete the recovery and put us back in a situation where debt as percentage of GDP is going down even though the debt in absolute terms may be going up.

So what is the Republican agenda?

First, threaten to shut down the government if Obama doesn’t repeal Obamacare.

Second, threaten to throw the government into default, if the Obama administration doesn’t agree to ANOTHER round of spending cuts in addition to what is already on the books.

So it doesn’t sound as though there is much political appetite at the moment to replace the sequester with something more constructive and there is certainly the possibility that it will get worse before it will get better.

That said, here’s a short list of the impacts we’re dealing with beyond those already mentioned.

States

This next round is going to impact states even more than the previous cut.  States will see $4.2B less in federal funding.  Targeted programs include public housing assistance, money for schools with low-income students, food inspection, scientific research grants, and environmental protection programs.  While states absorbed a $4.6B cut last year through reductions is staff in reductions in programs, this year they will be forced to start eliminating programs completely.

The other state complication is that most states are required by law to balance their budgets and the 2014 budgets have already been passed.  If the next round of sequestration is implemented, most states will start their fall legislative terms with significant budget shortfalls.

From a USA today article

“They are already in a difficult spot because they already have imposed major cuts to their schools and other public services,” Leachman said. “If they enter those legislative sessions having to deal with additional cuts in federal funding for schools or law enforcement or clean water or programs that help low-income families, that makes their job even more difficult.”

Pennsylvania budget secretary Charles Zogby said his state managed to get through the first round of sequestration budget cuts without massive cuts in personnel—but that may change. “Thus far, that hasn’t been part of the challenge. It may be in round two,” he said.

Headstart

Headstart, one of the most successful programs we have to alter the future of poor kids, is going to have to cut fall enrollment by 57K because of sequestration cuts.

Public Defenders

The federal public defender system has been decimated by the sequester cuts.  According to the WSJ, this ends up costing tax payers more than what has been saved through the cuts because our constitution guarantees that those who cannot afford an attorney will have one appointed for them.  When public defenders are not available, court dates are delayed and courts ultimately hire private attorneys.  We pay for all that.

Overburdened defenders also make mistakes and miss evidence that could have cleared their clients.  These mistakes create more appeals.  As Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer noted in March in congressional testimony about the effects in general of the sequester, it is “cheaper to have a decent lawyer in the first place.”

Medical Research

Even George Will decries the effects of reductions in basic medical research caused by the sequester.

For Francis Collins, being the NIH’s director is a daily experience of exhilaration and dismay. In the past 40 years, he says, heart attacks and strokes have declined 60 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Cancer deaths are down 15 percent in 15 years. An AIDS diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Researchers are on the trail of a universal flu vaccine, based on new understandings of the influenza virus and the human immune system. Chemotherapy was invented here — and it is being replaced by treatments developed here. Yet the pace of public health advances, Collins says, is being slowed by the sequester.

This will be, Collins believes, “the century of biology.” Other countries have “read our playbook,” seeing how biomedical research can reduce health costs, produce jobs and enhance competitiveness. Meanwhile, America’s great research universities award advanced degrees to young scientists from abroad, and then irrational immigration policy compels them to leave and add value to other countries. And now the sequester discourages and disperses scientific talent.

Forest Management

The sequester has also reduced our ability to manage our forests which has contributed to the unprecedented scale of wildfires that we’ve had to fight.

The Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program was $500 million last year, went down to $419 million this year under the automatic budget cuts, and has been proposed to go to $292 million next year.

“The fires that are ripping through Oregon and Idaho and California and the West are just proof that the fire prevention policy is broke,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said from Lincoln City.

“There are years of neglect. The fuel load builds up and it gets hotter and hotter on the forest floor. Then you get something like a lightning strike and a big inferno. Then the bureaucracy takes money from the prevention fund to put the fires out and the problem gets worse. The cycle just repeats itself again and again.”

This brings us to the basic question of why.

The only answer I can come up with is that Republicans have lost touch with reality.  They have won the war against debt.  Rather than take a victory lap and set themselves up for a potential change in control in the senate, they are determined to pump another bullet into the wounded economic recovery.

Their fantasy that cutting government spending would stimulate economic activity has failed.  We can now document the damage it did to the economy.  With the second round of sequester cuts looming, we have an opportunity to reduce the damage.  Just stopping the austerity program will have a positive economic effect.  But we can’t seem to even have a rational discussion on how to do that simple thing because of ideology and politics.

Since it is unlikely that Republicans will unilaterally abandon the ideology that is driving their actions, the only other possible solution is a political one.  If Republicans suffer another defeat in 2014 similar to what they experienced in 2012, maybe then the survivors will finally realize that there are real political consequences to imposing a minority agenda on an unwilling majority.

That was Then, This is Now

Monday, May 27th, 2013

A terrible tornado struck Oklahoma earlier this week.

The Governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin is sounding very similar to Chris Christie from New Jersey in calling for Federal assistance.  She is saying the FEMA is doing a great job, but Congress is moving much too slowly in authorizing additional aid for those in need as a result of this historically destructive tornado.

The two Senators from Oklahoma were some of those responsible for delaying the aid to Hurricane Sandy victims for two months.  Jim Imhofe called the aid to the victims of one of the most destructive hurricanes in our history, a “slush fund” because it included aid for victims outside of New Jersey.  His counterpart, Tom Coburn, held up aid for Sandy victims because he insisted that it be balanced by cuts to other spending.  When that didn’t happen, he voted against it.

He doesn’t have the same dilemma here because the scope of the damage in Oklahoma can be covered by the existing FEMA $11B budget.  But he neglected to say in his comments that he and Jim Imofe voted against the very FEMA funding that he is now suggesting are going to be the source of relief for his storm-ravaged state. He also has gone on record to say that if FEMA disaster recovery funds are exhausted before the end of the federal fiscal year (October), he will again require that any additional funding required to help others recover from any other natural disasters that may occur between now and then will have to be matched by other cuts in spending.

Sequestration which both Imhofe and Coburn supported included an 8.2% cut to the National Weather Service.  According to the organization representing weather service employees, that means there is “no way for the agency to maintain around-the-clock operations at its 122 forecasting offices” and also means “people are going to be overworked, they’re going to be tired, they’re going to miss warnings.”

Summarizing the problem, a letter from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce put it bluntly: “The government runs the risk of significantly increasing forecast error, and the government’s ability to warn Americans across the country about high impact weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, will be compromised.”

While the NWS was able to provide 16 minutes notice of the storm which is three minutes more than the average, $24M of the of “slush fund” money authorized for Sandy relief went to the NWS for computer upgrades.  Those upgrades will improve forecasting and provide even more notice to those in the path of deadly weather.  This funding, however, will only bring us on par with the types of systems Europeans use to forecast dangerous weather.  They, for example, were able to forecast the path of Sandy more accurately than the NWS.  This is only a fraction of the funding, however, needed to create a state of the art system which, as Oklahoma proved, could save lives.

NOAA also has warned that our weather satellite system is aging.  We may be facing a 53 month gap if they fail before they are scheduled to be replaced.  The reason for this gap?  The Republican-controlled house cut $700B from the NOAA budget in the 2011 debt ceiling shutdown.  Those funds were restored earlier this year in the fiscal cliff compromise.  Both Imhofe and Coburn voted against the fiscal cliff compromise bill.

Finally, both Coburn and Imhofe are climate change deniers.  Coburn said there is, “no hard evidence to support global warming” and that it is “just a lot of crap.” Imhofe wrote a book entitled, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.  He supports the Dominion Theory which states that the whole concept of climate change is contrary to the Bible’s statement that God gave man dominion over the whole earth. So human activities can’t be detrimental.

Coburn and Imhofe are two of the top legislators supported by the oil industry.

What’s the moral of the story?

Spending cuts have consequences.  Our weather systems are aging.  Even though we suffer more deaths and property loss than any other country in the world, other countries have found a way to invest more money in more accurate equipment than the United States.

Private industry, non-profits, churches, and local government CAN’T provide all of the services that citizens need.

Government DOES have a role in the lives of its citizens.  Even conservatives are willing to admit this, at least when it is their state or district in need of help.

FEMA when properly staffed and funded CAN effectively respond to natural disasters.

When you cut funding for NOAA and NWS and when you politicize FEMA (as occurred during the Bush administration); people die.

Climate change is real.  The number of natural disasters has been increasing dramatically over the past decade.  Insurance paid out $35B in claims last year alone.  That’s $11B over the average.  This is at least one industry that is taking global warming seriously.

Eventually the American people and their representatives will come to the same conclusion.

Failure to Communicate

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

The Republican Party recently released an analysis of their shocking Presidential campaign loss last November.

“Our message was weak; our ground game was insufficient; we weren’t inclusive; we were behind in both data and digital; our primary and debate process needed improvement,” Party Chair Priebus said of Mitt Romney and the GOP’s 2012 loss. “There’s no one solution. There’s a long list of them.”

The report outlines the need to reach out to women, African-Americans, Asian, Hispanic, and gay voters.  They are going to do this by hiring staffers across the country to begin engaging those communities.  They support comprehensive immigration reform, shortening the primary process with fewer debates, moving the convention date earlier in the summer, and investing in more technology.

“To be clear, our principles are sound, our principles are not old rusty thoughts in some book,” Priebus said, but the “report notes the way we communicate our principles isn’t resonating widely enough.”

Sally Bradshaw, a GOP strategist who was also on the committee, added that the GOP “needs to stop talking to itself” and needs to open the tent in order to win presidential elections in the future.

So the Republican Party is admitting that it can no longer win elections depending exclusively on the votes from old angry white men.  That is progress.

The problem is that they are blaming their loss on a failure to communicate.  They continue to insist that if women, minorities, young people, unions, and educated professionals voted for Obama ONLY because they didn’t understand what the Republican message really was.

A wonderful example of this delusional thinking is how Chairman Priebus handled the question of marriage equality.  He held up Republican Senator Rob Portman’s recent public support of same sex marriage as an example of this new philosophy of inclusiveness.

“I think it’s about being decent,” Priebus said. “I think it’s about dignity and respect that nobody deserves to have their dignity diminished or people don’t deserve to be disrespected.

“I think that there isn’t anyone in this room, Republican, Democrat or in the middle, that doesn’t think that Rob Portman, for example, is a good conservative Republican.

“He is. And we know that. … I think that party leaders have to constantly remind everybody that we can’t build a party by division and subtraction. We can only build the party by addition and multiplication. We get that and that’s going to be our endeavor.”

When asked if the Republican Party supported Portman’s position, Prebius said, “It’s his decision. It’s not a matter of whether I support his decision. I support him doing what he wants to do as an elected person and as an American. If that’s his opinion, then I support him having that opinion.”

In other words, the Republican Party is going to continue to oppose marriage equality but will allow some who hold opposing views on the subject to still call themselves Republicans.  The fact that this is newsworthy is testimony to the depths of the problem.

Conservative Republicans are so invested in their positions, that they can’t imagine why anyone familiar with those positions could oppose them.

They can’t imagine why women would object to being told that rape isn’t that bad, only whores use contraception, or if they become pregnant, regardless of the circumstances, they lose the right to make decisions about their own health.

They can’t imagine why Hispanic and Asian citizens object to being told that their efforts to fix a broken immigration system are just a thinly veiled attempt to secure amnesty for criminal behavior.

They can’t imagine why young people reject a party that says that homosexuality is sinful and college education should be available only to those who can afford it.

They can’t imagine why educated people reject a party that says that says that creationism is a science and climate change is a hoax.

The Republican Party doesn’t have a communications problem.  Voters clearly understand where the Republican Party stands.  The real problem is that voters REJECT Republican Party positions.

The best evidence of this is the most recent budget debate.  House Republicans passed a reworked version of the Ryan budget that voters had just rejected in November.  In fact, this new budget was, if anything, more cynical than the previous one.  If you recall, the campaign budget had a math problem.  This new budget solves some of the math problem by KEEPING the recently approved tax increases that Ryan and Romney campaigned so hard against.  It also kept the taxes included in Obamacare, which Ryan claimed were job killers, while repealing the rest of the healthcare bill.

The Republican Party doesn’t have a communication problem.  In fact, some of the steps they have recommended (fewer debates and a shorter primary season) may be intended to reduce the amount of information the party shares with the public.

The Republican Party has a philosophical problem.  They underestimate the intelligence of the American voter and their ability to tell the difference between what the party says and what it does.

Crazy Train

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

This has been a remarkable week for exposing the crazy side of conservative Republicanism.

Women’s Issues
Suburban women were a significant part of Obama’s winning coalition in 2008 and were also the reason why so many Tea Party Congressmen were elected in 2010.  So how are the Republicans doing with this particular voting block this year?

Look no further than Todd Akin the tea-party backed Congressman running against Clare McCaskill in the Missouri senate race.  He referenced a loony theory created by Dr. Jack C. Willke, the father of the antiabortion movement, that pregnancy from rape is rare.  This theory is important to the pro-life movement because it allows them to argue that the current exclusions of rape from abortion bans are unnecessary.  Not only is this whole concept deeply offensive to women across the political spectrum, but the theory has no basis in fact.

It has also shined a light on Paul Ryan’s record regarding women’s rights.  Ryan and Akin co-sponsored a bill which attempted to introduce this concept of “legitimate rape”.  Ryan’s 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee is the result of his support for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, and the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.  Ryan and Akin were also co-sponsors of the Sanctity of Human Life Act which sought to give a fertilized egg the same rights of “personhood” as a human being and would not only ban all abortions but outlaw some forms of birth control.

Ryan has said he will support the Romney position of allowing abortions in the case of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother.  Some women are already wondering what would happen if Romney were elected and then could no longer serve?

Climate Change
We are going through the worst drought in 60 years which deeply affects famers.  New scientific studies are released almost every week attributing this drought specifically to climate change caused by human activities.  Yet, John Shimkus of Illinois who heads the house subcommittee on climate change says there is nothing to worry about.  “The earth will end only when God declares it to be over,” he said, and then he went on to quote Genesis at some length.

John Barton is on the same committee.  He’s the one who among other things apologized to BP because he felt the Obama administration was being too demanding following the gulf oil spill.  Barton cited the Almighty in questioning energy from wind turbines.  Careful, he warned, “wind is God’s way of balancing heat.”  Clean energy, he said, “would slow the winds down” and thus could make it hotter.  “You can’t regulate God!” Barton barked at the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in the midst of discussion on measures to curb global warming.

Michele Bachmann and Jim Inhofe claim that global warming is a hoax.  Mr. Inhofe is a senior member on the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.

Romney’s energy plan calls for increased oil drilling and relaxation of EPA regulations on the use of coal.  He promises North American energy independence by 2020 (assuming Canada still likes us by then).  He depends on a study by the Citigroup for his data but ignores the portion of the study which also recommends dramatic increases in conservation standards in order to achieve energy independence.

Finally Romney also promises freedom from foreign oil and cheaper gas.  As long as oil is a globally traded commodity, he can’t deliver on either of these promises unless he is willing to restrict domestic oil exports.  He’s said he won’t do that.  So though the US balance of trade may improve when the US becomes a net oil exporter, prices will still fluctuate based on international events that could affect supply, and we will still be burning foreign oil.

Education
Jack Kingston of Georgia, a 20-year veteran of the House, is an evolution denier, apparently because he can’t see the indent where his ancestors’ monkey tail used to be. “Where’s the missing link?” he said in 2011. “I just want to know what it is.” He serves on a committee that oversees education.

Romney has taken the position that college students don’t need the loan supports they currently receive.  His advice to a college student asking about how they are going to afford the costs of college is that they shop around for a cheaper college or borrow the money from parents and relatives.

Taxes
Romney does not want this election to turn on whether or not he releases his tax returns.  However he continues to assist the Democrats in keeping this issue in the news.  The latest evidence of this is from a talk he gave recently to a small business group.

“We’ve got to make it easier for small businesses,” Romney told a crowd of about 300 people at a high-dollar fundraiser in Minnesota. “Big business is doing fine in many places -they get the loans they need, they can deal with all the regulation. They know how to find ways to get through the tax code, save money by putting various things in the places where there are low tax havens around the world for their businesses. But small business is getting crushed.”

So not only did he echo Obama’s remark regarding the private sector, and effectively take that off the table as a future talking point for his campaign, but one of his recommendation for helping small business appeared to be easier access to tax havens.  This remark came on the heels of several reports on Bain’s practice of setting up tax havens for their customers and additional analysis of Romney’s public returns suggesting extensive use of off-shore accounts to avoid US taxes.

Budget
Romney has promised to balance the budget, but recently he also said he was going to add back $700B in Medicare spending which the Obama administration had listed as cost savings in the Affordable Care Act.  This $700B, as many have already pointed out, is coming from reduced re-imbursements primarily to hospitals who have agreed to the cuts in return for seeing a reduction in their costs for caring for the uninsured.  The other major source of that reduction comes from reducing the rates paid to insurance companies for the Medicare Advantage coverage since the Affordable Care Act also addresses many of the gaps in Medicare coverage that the Medicare Advantage plans filled.  I’ll address the whole Medicare issue in another more detailed post.  But Romney also hasn’t said how he hopes to pay for this additional $700B in spending and still keep his promise to balance the budget and reduce the deficit.  His math didn’t work before.  It has only gotten worse.

Birtherism
Romney has said that he doesn’t dispute Obama’s citizenship.  At the same time, he met with Donald Trump during the primaries and recently made a joke about his own citizenship in a talk in Michigan where he said “no one ever asked to see my birth certificate”.

Welfare
Romney’s claim that the Obama administration is dismantling welfare work requirements has been widely criticized as a thinly veiled bit a race-baiting.  It is factually inaccurate because if anything, the states requesting waivers of the current work rules were attempting to put MORE people to work rather than less.  Instead it was an appeal to the portion of the Republican base who distrust an African American President and the motivation of the African Americans who support him.

Conclusion
There are a couple of things going on here.

There is a segment of the Republican party that hold beliefs well outside mainstream America.  34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.  51% doubt his citizenship.  50% feel that he is a socialist.  You can see that extremism in the Republican platform which includes a pledge to pass a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion without exception.  It includes the construction of a giant wall along the US border with Mexico, mandatory use of electronic verification by private employers, no support for a path to citizenship, the blocking of funds to universities offering in-state tuition fees to the undocumented, and an end to federal lawsuits against controversial anti-immigrant legislation such as Arizona’s SB1070.  There’s even language suggesting an annual audit of the Federal Reserve and a “gold commission” to investigate return to the gold standard.

Romney’s strategy to become President has shifted over the last month.  Some pundits say that his selection of Ryan had much more to do with needing to put Wisconsin in play than it did anything else.  That’s because many say that Romney can’t win Ohio.  Romney has to win one of the rust belt states to have any hope of a November victory and he was willing to put Florida at risk because of Ryan’s unpopular Medicare proposals in order to improve his chances in Wisconsin.

The other shift in Romney’s strategy is that he has refocused his attention on his base.  Selecting Ryan made it more difficult for him to win women, but it did guarantee a vigorous attack from Democrats.  That attack and Romney’s recent statements on energy, welfare, and birtherism all indicate that the focus of the rest of his campaign is going to be on turning out the Republican base.  He wants every Republican voter (including those with loony beliefs) so energized that they will be first in line when the polls open.  The added benefit is that a divisive campaign not only gets his base to the polls but also suppresses the less partisan undecided voters who may decide to just stay home because they are so disgusted with the whole process.

This scorched earth strategy  may work to get him elected.

It won’t leave much room for him to govern if he is successful.

I Think We’re All Bozos on this Bus

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

For those of you too young to remember, that’s the title of Firesign Theater‘s fourth album released in 1971. One of the founders of Firesign Theater, Peter Bergman, passed on recently.

While the album ponders man’s place in a world dominated by technology, I think it is also an appropriate description of the political theater surrounding gas prices.

First the facts, the price of gas has gone up $.26 over the past year. That’s around 7%. We’ve seen those sorts of price spikes before, but this time the rise was more rapid than it has been in recent past.

The Republicans, who have been frustrated with the improving economic picture, have seized on this issue to support their claim that the current administration’s policies are really hurting the economy rather than helping it.

The general theme that all of the Republican presidential candidates have used is that more domestic drilling will bring down the price of gas. Gingrich has gone so far as to promise to bring the price down to $2.50.

The truth is that this President HAS increased domestic oil production dramatically. The last time we produced this much domestic oil was 2003. As a result we are reducing our dependence on foreign oil, but the cost of crude on the open market has still gone up.

The other reality is that oil is a globally traded commodity. As a result, there is precious little any President can do to affect the price over the short term.  In fact the current run up in price has little to do with supply and everything to do with speculation.

From Politifact.com

“What can you do to change the market in the short term? The answer is not much,” said James Bartis of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research group that provides independent policy analysis. “It takes many years to open up a new oil field, to prepare and get production from a new oilfield. Generally, I would say a decade is the minimum.”

So why are gas prices going up so quickly?

  1.  Speculators are concerned about the rising tensions between Iran, Israel, and the United States. In particular, the most recent jump in prices started more or less the same time as Republican candidates began talking about how they wouldn’t hesitate to attack Iran if Iran continued to enrich uranium.
  2. The growth of the economies in India and China are driving up demand for cars and gas. Oil companies are expanding their production capabilities in these countries because they see the opportunity for growth. They are REDUCING their refining capacities in this country because demand for gas in this country is going down – 7% in the northeast since 2005. When demand goes down, refineries lose money. When refineries lose money, they close, as two did last year in Pennsylvania, another did last month in the USVI, and a huge Philadelphia refinery will in July if a buyer doesn’t step up. If this last refinery does close, gas will go up in the Northeast because it will have be transported from the Gulf or overseas. Huge new refineries in India are already delivering 40,000 gallons of gas a day to customers in the Northeast.
  3. It is increasingly expensive to extract crude oil because all of the “easy” oil has already been pumped. That means more risk, more spills, and more expense. Domestic or international doesn’t matter. There is no “cheap” oil left in the ground.

While it may not be convenient for the Republicans to accept, the reality is that our best long-term options are not going to come from drilling another hole in the ground. They are going to come from more efficient use of our current resources and development of alternative energy sources and transportation options to replace fossil fuels.

That is best done by everyone getting on the same page regarding the components of a thoughtful energy policy.

Unfortunately, the clowns that populate the current political landscape seem incapable of having that sort of conversation.