I Like Paying Taxes – With Them I Buy Civilization

Paul Krugman points a cautionary tale about small government: Colorado Springs.

COLORADO SPRINGS — This tax-averse city is about to learn what it looks and feels like when budget cuts slash services most Americans consider part of the urban fabric.

More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday. The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops — dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.

The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.

Neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.

This is just one of the many reasons Congress and the President need to pass a second stimulus plan aimed at filling gaps in the budgets of state and local government. Every government job lost at the local level represents not just another family without an income, but also a gap in the essential services relied upon by everyone else in the community.

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Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 11:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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Meditations on Torture: Thomas Paine

This meditation on torture is outsourced to Glenn Greenwald:

My email inbox and comment section are filled with King-like accusatory sentiments that to oppose Torture is to defend Terrorists, because Terrorists deserve to be tortured, and that to oppose their abuse is to be treasonous because it’s terrible to care if Terrorists are abused, etc. etc.  In his 1795 essay, which he entitled Dissertations on First Principles of Government, Thomas Paine wrote this as his last paragraph:

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.

Can that be any clearer?

No.

Published in: on August 27, 2009 at 1:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Only Mostly Dead

Well, after a lengthy and unplanned (but, perhaps, predictable) summer hiatus, we are live again, this time from Washington, DC. In theory, at least, I’ll continue to discuss California issues (as I remain registered to vote there), though perhaps not as much.

As an aside, I demand to see Congressman Bill Posey‘s birth certificate. I am uncertain if he meets the Constitutional mandate for service in the House of having attained the age of 25 years. He could, after all, have the Benjamin Button disease. Not that I am saying he isn’t at least 25 years old, of course, just that we should double check.

Published in: on August 27, 2009 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Judicial Recusal

(This was half-written when I left for vacation and is now rather untimely.)

The Supreme Court handed down an interesting ruling two weeks ago, Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal, et al. (08-22), on judicial ethics. From Justice Kennedy’s opinion:

After a West Virginia jury found respondents, a coal company and its affiliates (hereinafter Massey), liable for fraudulent misrepresentation, concealment, and tortious interference with existing contractual relations and awarded petitioners (hereinafter Caperton) $50 million in damages, West Virginia held its 2004 judicial elections.  Knowing the State Supreme Court of Appeals would consider the appeal, Don Blankenship, Massey’s chairman and principal officer, supported Brent Benjamin rather than the incumbent justice seeking reelection. His $3 million in contributions exceeded the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters and by Benjamin’s own committee.  Benjamin won by fewer than 50,000 votes.  Before Massey filed its appeal, Caperton moved to disqualify now-Justice Benjamin under the Due Process Clause and the State’s Code of Judicial Conduct, based on the conflict caused by Blankenship’s campaign involvement.  Jusice Benjamin denied the motion, indicating that he found nothing showing bias for or against any litigant.  The court then reversed the $50 million verdict.  During the rehearing process, Justice Benjamin refused twice more to recuse himself, and the court once again reversed the jury verdict.  Four months later, Justice Benjamin filed a concurring opinion, defending the court’s opinion and his recusal decision.

Jonathan Turley has a discussion of the opinion here.

This is a positive outcome. Justice Benjamin should have recused himself from the very beginning. The question, though, is how to apply this ruling in practice. If a corporation donates $3 million dollars to your opponent, who loses, need you recuse yourself?

Or, in a more topical possibility, consider the upcoming retention vote for Ron George, the Chief Justice of California. Suppose the court had struck-down Proposition 8 as an improper revision of the state constitution. We could, reasonably, expect a considerable campaign against his retention. If the campaign were significantly funded by Mormons (but not the church itself), but he was nevertheless retained, would he need to recuse himself from future cases involving Mormons or gay marriage?

So, while I favor the particular outcome here, I worry that the decision could create a kind of heads-I-win tails-you-lose gamesmanship for corporations and wealthy individuals in judicial election financing. Then again, I tend to think judges shouldn’t be elected in any event.

Published in: on June 22, 2009 at 9:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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Not the Change We Need: Part VIII in a Continuing Series

Robert Reich has some good thoughts on the Obama administration’s financial regulation plan:

The plan doesn’t stop stop bankers from making huge, risky bets with other peoples’ money. It does increase capital requirements and oversight, but it doesn’t require bankers to take their pay in long-term stock options or warrants, and it doesn’t even hint that banks should go back to being partnerships instead of publicly-held corporations.

All this means traders still have very incentive to place big and often wildly risky bets as long as the potential winnings are big enough, and top executives have very little incentive to monitor what traders are up to as long as the traders are collecting large commissions on the bets.

[Snip]

In short: It’s a mere filigree of reform, a sheer gossamer of government. Wall Street must be toasting its good fortune. Unless Congress shows some spine, the great Wall Street meltdown of 2007 and 2008 — which lead to the biggest taxpayer bailout in history, very likely the largest taxpayer losses on record, and the largest investor losses since 1929 — will repeat itself within a decade, if not sooner.

This is not the change we need. It is increasingly clear that Barack Obama has little desire to be a Roosevelt, either trust-busting Teddy or regulating Franklin. There seems to be no good reason for taking such a soft touch with the financial industry, though it is enough to make me wonder whether the President’s caution may in fact be timidity. Financial regulation may not have even been on the President’s radar when he launched his campaign, but it is now one of the most important issues facing him. And this plan is not sufficient. I acknowledge that he may wish to focus on health care instead (after all, this is why torture investigations cannot proceed, why don’t-ask-don’t-tell is still policy, and why climate change legislation is being ignored), but the economic benefit of a real health care reform plan could be easily consumed in another financial meltdown 10-20 years from now. This is not the change we need.

On the same subject, we have Paul Krugman, questioning those to champion breaking up the banks.

I’m a big advocate of much strengthened financial regulation. One argument I don’t buy, however, is that we should try to shrink financial institutions down to the point where nobody is too big to fail. Basically, it’s just not possible.

The point is that finance is deeply interconnected, so that even a moderately large player can take down the system if it implodes. Remember, it was Lehman — not Citi or B of A — that brought the world to the brink.

The interesting thing there, is that Krugman seems to assume that the impetus behind antitrust action against too-big-to-fail banks is the belief that if we had smaller banks, we wouldn’t need to regulate them as strongly. I disagree. I am less concerned about too-big-to-fail (a measure which, if it has any meaning, must be a measure of importance not size) than too-big-to-regulate. I have no real knowledge here, but I once witnessed the considerable work that would be needed to pursue even a fairly small alter ego claim. My instinct is that attempting to understand, let alone regulate, a multinational behemoth is a correspondingly Augean task.

Do the regulatory benefits of breaking up the banks, then, outweigh whatever benefits are obtained consolidation? I have no idea. But, this is question to ask, and it does not seem to be the one Krugman is answering.

Vacation Hiatus

I’m sorry about the unannounced hiatus that has occured of late. My move segued directly into an European vacation that will be continuing for several weeks. I may post occassionally, but it is unlikely. I’ve also been away from internet access, so finding out about this, today, was a disappointing surprise. When the Post does something stupidly self-destructive like firing Dan Froomkin, why, exactly, should we be sympathetic to the plight of the dying newspapers?

For more cogent commentary, I point to Glenn Greenwald.

Published in: on June 22, 2009 at 7:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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Sonia Sotomayor

Back from vacation but swinging directly into a big move this weekend. I have a lot to say on the California Supreme Court decision upholding proposition 8, the California budget, and the last two weeks of Obama’s assault on the rule of law, but it will have to wait. In the mean time, I have some links on Sonio Sotomayor.

I don’t have much of an opinion on Judge Sotomayor, so I’ll just point out some interesting links.

Jonathan Turley is ambivalent on the pick, and would have rather seen Diane Wood be the nominee.

While Sotomayor gives Obama a “twofer” with the first hispanic and a new female justice, Wood in my view has more intellectual firepower and would have been a better addition to the Court. One of the concerns from many is that Sotomayor, who is given bad marks on temperament, will be replaced one of the most easy going and civil justices on the Court. As I have mentioned on air, I am less concerned with this criticism. She is being selected as a justice, not a close friend or house pet. It is the weight of her opinions and writings that dictate the focus of our review. Even after this criticism, advocates have struggled to cite a single opinion that could be viewed as a brilliant or extraordinary treatment of the law. There are clearly important decisions in their result, such as the much cited baseball decision. However, unlike some of her colleagues, she was not cited as the intellectual powerhouse on that court. Does this mean that she may not prove to be such a powerhouse? Of course not. The question is the current record and the basis for the nomination.

This has echos of Jeffery Rosen’s hit-piece from a couple of weeks ago, but seems grounded in his reading of her opinions. When Justice Souter’s retirement was announced, I wrote that we needed a true progressive on the court. It is with this in mind, that Professor Turley’s analysis concerns me a little.

Sotomayor will be a very good justice and her life’s story will be an inspiration. She has obviously very intelligent. However, liberals openly called for a liberal version of Scalia. I am not confident that they found it in this nominee despite her powerful personal story.

Meanwhile, Erwin Chemerinsky takes a different view.

Sotomayor brings to the bench essential diversity. Every justice’s rulings are a product of his or her life experiences. As a woman, a Latina, a person who has faced a life-long serious illness (diabetes), and a person who grew up in modest circumstances, Sotomayor brings experiences that are unrepresented or largely absent from the current court. These certainly will influence her rulings and they also may help in the most important task for a Democratic appointee on the current court: persuading Justice Anthony Kennedy, the key swing justice on almost every closely divided issue. Sotomayor’s background, as well as her intellect and experience, make her ideally suited for this role.

[Snip]

But most of all, Sotomayor is an excellent choice because she is an outstanding judge. Her opinions are clearly written and invariably well-reasoned. My former students who have clerked for her rave about her as a judge and as a person. She has enormous experience as a lawyer and as a judge, both in the federal district court and the federal court of appeals.

Finally, over the weekend, Charlie Savage discussed the positions of various likely court nominees on presidential power. While Diane Hood is skeptical of expanded powers, and Elena Kagan supportive, little is known about Judge Sotomayor’s positions. Even though confirmation is very likely, without some kind of surprise scandal, this is a topic that will need to be fully explored in hearings. Judge Sotomayor will certainly be faced with a number of executive powers issues, from both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Addendum: SCOTUSblog has a discussion of a number of Judge Sotomayor’s opinions.

Published in: on May 27, 2009 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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May 19 Special Election Wrap-Up

(I’ve been out of town for the past couple of days, and will continue to be through the weekend. Posting will continue to be light.)

So, Propositions 1A-1E were defeated, in thoroughly unsurprising fashion. I don’t have all that much to say, that hasn’t already been said by others, so I’ll just post some links.

It is disappointing to see the continuing fail of the state’s Democratic leadership. I find it shocking that they actually believe that this was a referendum on new taxes, when the revolt on Prop 1A at the state party convention was clearly no such thing. Why assume that the ‘voters’ sided with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association rather than the Courage Campaign, especially when there is evidence to to contrary?

However, despite Democrat’s seeming acquisence to the governor’s Hooverite budget, there is finally a real discussion about the long-term structural reforms needed to get the state back under control. Of course, some people still don’t understand what the hell is going on. The problem is structural, not personal. On that note, an alliance of progressive organizations, including the Courage Campaign, have launched the Declaration of Democracy campaign, calling for a majority vote budget. Go here to support it.

Finally, OC Progressive has the run-down on the effect of the governor’s budget proposal on local police forces. I guess you’re only ‘soft on crime’ if you want sensible sentencing reform.

Teach the Controversy

controversy - pyramidOn Wednesday, Glenn Greenwald discussed the media’s tendency to call anyone who supports torture prosecutions the ‘hard left’. He makes the good, and self-evident, argument that those who are calling for prosecutions represent a bipartisan range of Americans; that pro-prosecution arguments are based on principle, not politics.

However, I was struck by this passage quoted from the comments of an earlier post:

I want to point out that the main reason, if not the only reason, for this overwhelming media view is because the only lens through which they can see this issue – like every issue – is the Republican/Democrat or conservative/liberal lens. When one’s entire point of reference for even issues of egregious lawbreaking goes no further than fixating obsessively over the identity of the people and parties to the “controversy” and the issue’s putative effect on partisan politics, whether a leader of one party was informed of the crimes of the other takes on a meaning perversely greater than the evil of the underlying conduct itself.

Our establishment media simply cannot get beyond this stultifyingly narrow framework. It is pathological.

In the face of repeated court-rulings, creationists have been unable to formally inject their beliefs into high school science classrooms, whether as creationism or ‘intelligent design’. Instead, they argue that we should ‘teach the controversy’ – if they cannot teach that God created the earth 6000 years ago, they want to teach the debate over whether God created the earth 6000 years ago. It is a crafty argument and finds some measure of support.

It is easy to see why – ‘teach the controversy’ speaks directly to the core beliefs of a liberal democracy. Through vigorous and unfettered public debate the truth, or the best course for the nation, can be charted. It is the premise behind both the 1st amendment and the principle of academic freedom. So, while the application of this kind of  modern disputatio to high school education is dubious, it is not surprising that a similar principle has wormed its way into the media.

In the interests of ‘balance’, we are told, it is necessary for the media to impartially present both sides of any argument. But this is not an arbitration – the adjudication of the truth is left as an exercise to the reader. This, in an open and intellectually honest debate, would be less objectionable. However, like calls to ‘teach the controversy’, the media now seeks out two-sides to all arguments – even those were no real argument exists. They actively present those among the fringe so as to create balance, giving an open microphone to anyone who disagrees with any position – frequently without providing any context whatsoever. Teaching the controversy is the traditional media’s default position. The effect of this behavior can be seen everywhere: evolution, climate change, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, even vaccine safety. It is the hallmark of the local news promo: Tonight at 11, why some people are questioning whether your children should eat carrots.

There are innumerable legitimate debates in this country and it is the media’s role to cover them. But, it is also the media’s role to help us learn about the important ones. By teaching the controversy, the media opens itself up to manipulation by any unscrupulous or fringe group that wants to bury a story  – by stirring up a fake debate, they turn real news into a petty his-says-she-says distraction. That the controversies come packaged in an easy partisan format is all the better.

And people wonder why newspapers are dying.

What Did Pelosi Know, and When Did She Know It?

This seems to be a matter of debate even among the pro-prosecution crowd, with Marcy Wheeler on one side with her fabulous timeline and Jonathan Turley and Glenn Greenwald on the other.

Frankly, I don’t care that much. There are, I think, three kinds of culpability Pelosi could have for the Bush torture regime: criminal, political, and moral.

On the moral front, Speaker Pelosi has already admitted to knowing that the administration might torture. Whether or not she knew they were going to or already had tortured, she already carries a great deal of moral responsibility for not speaking out, publicly. My moral calculus suggests she should have publicly opposed the program even if it resulted in a prison sentence. I know it’s existentialist, but she had a choice to make and made the wrong one.

On the criminal front, I doubt she’d have any even if she knew they were torturing. Intelligence briefings inform, but do not ask for consent. And Pelosi is not so oblivious so as to even cautiously support investigations if they were going to turn up her own criminal wrong doing.

So, I suspect that this tu quoque attack on Pelosi from the torture apologists rests largely on the political culpability issue. They believe that by revealing her knowledge they stand to cool the ardor for investigations among Democrats. They’re wrong.

The Democrats who don’t want to prosecute need no convincing. “Look forward, not back” is a Democratic motto. However, the Democrats who do want to prosecute are not doing it for political reasons. I do believe that torture prosecutions will be distracting and possibly politically damaging. However, we don’t have a choice. Even ignoring our legal obligations, for the good of the Republic we must confront this massive betrayal of our ideals. Evidence of Democratic complicity or complacency only increases this need. Only slightly less than seeing the torturers behind bars, I’d like to see the Democrats who enabled them shamed out of office.

The netroots gained so many members so quickly precisely because of Beltway Democrats’ refusal to stand-up to the Bush administration on anything. As many have said, now that we have more Democrats, we can focus on better Democrats. Any Democrat who allowed the torture program to proceed unimpeded is not a better Democrat. The Democratic party has a big tent with room for lots of policy differences; but when it comes to torture, I’m an ideological purist.

Published in: on May 16, 2009 at 10:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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