The Problem With Spending Caps

The supposed purpose of a spending cap is to prevent the government from increasing spending (or, presumably, cutting taxes) during times of high tax revenue, on the assumption that such actions will lead to larger deficits and tax increases (or, presumably spending cuts) during bad times. This is, perhaps, a sensible goal. However, there are better methods to dampen the effect of economic downturns on the state budget (notably, by shifting toward property taxes and away from income and sales taxes).

The real effect of a spending cap is to remove flexibility from policy making. Even if the cap accounts for inflation and population growth, it only really allows the legislature to fund existing programs. Any new program or an expansion of any existing program would need to come at the cost of another existing program. New taxes could not be levied to fund an immediately new program, although since the cap is based on some calculation from the previous decade’s tax revenues, the higher taxes may, over time, allow for more spending. But even then, that adds a decade’s lag for the adoption of new policy, an unacceptably long wait.

More importantly, the cap will ignore significant other constraints on the budget. It will ignore the aging population and the corresponding strain on state health services. Additionally, health care costs have been rising significantly faster than inflation and income, again increasing the demand for and cost of state services. I don’t think it is much of a reach to suggest that even if no new programs were adopted, and the prison population remained the same, that the cost of running existing programs would still increase faster than inflation and population growth over the next 20 years. Ergo, a spending cap doesn’t prevent new spending, but locks us into future spending cuts as program costs rise in unpredictable ways.

Furthermore, spending caps are anti-democratic (small ‘d’), in that they prevent new spending desired by a majority of the public. However much Republicans may like to pretend, spending generally isn’t forced on an unwilling population by out of control legislators. Spending is something the public generally wants, and if it doesn’t, then it can replace the legislators and end the programs. Spending caps don’t have brains. They do not think or reason. They do not recognize that there was a natural disaster or that the public wants expanded arts education for their children or that massive water infrastructure spending is necessary to prevent the Central Valley from turning into a dust bowl. If we want a government by algorithm, let us replace the legislature with a computer and be done with it. Of course, the result will be that the computer says “no”.

Accountability Now: About Time

The New York Times has an article on Accountability Now, a new PAC formed by progressive bloggers in alliance with the SEIU and MoveOn.Org. The goal of the PAC is to sponsor primary challenges from the left to excessively ‘moderate’ Congressional Democrats who hail from safe or liberal districts. For a long time, one of the strengths of the Republican party has been its ability to exercise party discipline, largely through the efforts of outside groups like the Club For Growth. It is about time that something similar was formed for Democrats.

Now, I think there exists the obvious danger of imposing excessively rigid ideological tests on Democrats, especially those from competitive and moderate districts or states. Ben Nelson, though his fetishistic centrism tasks me, nevertheless hails from Nebraska and is probably the best Democrat we can expect from his state. At least he doesn’t go on Fox News to trash the party *cough* Joe Lieberman *cough*. Dianne Feinstein, on the other hand, has repeatedly sold out her constituents in favor of corporate interests and is one of the key forces in the Senate that pushed for collaboration with the Bush administration’s unconstitutional national security policy. She is out-of-line with the current political leanings of California, and has increasingly taken to dodging public appearances. She notably hid away last year over the 4th of July to avoid the inevitable protests over her position on the FISA legislation. I would love to see a primary challenge against her in 2012.

All-in-all, I’m glad to see a move toward imposing some accountability on Democrats, and, while I will want to see how the PAC picks targets in 2010, in the meantime I’ll be cautiously supportive.

Published in: on February 26, 2009 at 10:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Strange Bedfellows

The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday had an article remarking on the ‘slow’ response of unions to Proposition 1A, the spending cap placed on the ballot as part of the budget compromise passed last week.

The official ballot arguments have been submitted, and in what administration officials hope is an encouraging sign, the best-funded labor groups opted not to weigh in against the measure. At least not yet.

Frankly, it doesn’t seem that their response has been ‘slow’, but rather that the deadline to submit ballot arguments passed oddly quickly. The real issue, though, isn’t going to be the ballot arguments, but rather whether money is ponied up to run ads against the propositions. I certainly hope that they will.

This, however, is a new opinion for me, as of today. I am firmly opposed to spending caps of any kind, especially spending caps that are put in place after massive, unpopular, and extortion-driven cuts are made to the budget. Even spending caps that account for population growth and inflation ignore costs, like health care, that rise faster than the rate of inflation. However, I’ve had to spend the last week thinking about whether the desire to avoid a repeat budget crisis outweighed the intense belief that a spending cap would be dangerous in the long term. I am no longer conflicted. I am, however, willing to accept that the unions may need time to come to the same conclusion.

A far more interesting part of the article was on the division among anti-tax groups.

In addition, the state’s major antitax groups have split over the measure, with at least two supporting it even though it would prolong the tax increase that the Legislature passed last week. The California Taxpayers’ Assn. signed the ballot measure backing the spending cap, and Lew Uhler of the National Tax-Limitation Committee said he also favors the measure, called Proposition 1A.

“At this point, it seems to be a reasonable restraint device,” Uhler said in an interview Tuesday.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., said he was surprised at Uhler’s stance and said his own group would fight to defeat the measure.

“I’m not sure we’ll be able to match the proponents dollar for dollar, but we’ll certainly get the message out,” he said.

I never really expected to be on the same side of any issue as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association, even for completely different reasons. Still, the more opposition the better. I do wonder, however, how the public will response to differing arguments against Proposition 1A, one because of the tax increases, and the other despite them.

Addendum: See the discussion over at Calitics.

Not the Change We Need: Part IV in a Continuing Series

(This is not about the President’s address tonight, which I liked a great deal. I do find his focus on deficit reduction to be a little puzzling given his commitment to Keynesian stimulus, but that is a topic for another time.)

Constitutional Law Professor Jonathan Turley was on the Rachel Maddow Show again on Monday, this time to discuss Karl Rove’s failure to appear to testify before Congress. In the second half of the interview, however, the issue turned to the Obama Administration’s recent decision to adopt the Bush Administration position on a lawsuit over the retention or recovery of White House emails.

The Obama Administration is carrying a lot of water for the Bush Administration. Each day they seem to be taking the position of the Bush White House…He is doing exactly what the Bush Administration tried to do and that is to extinguish this litigation.

Among the carried water, Turley cites: statements supporting the Bush administration on treatment of detainees, the endorsement and adoption of Bush administration rhetoric of the war on terror, and the refusal to investigate war crimes.

He concludes:

These weren’t good arguments before. To argue them in court makes you equally guilty of the types of excesses of your predecessor.

I, and many others, supported President Obama during the campaign precisely because he campaigned against these kinds of executive overreach. It increasingly appears that it was unrealistic to expect that any president would willingly participate in any significant rollback of executive power. This is nevertheless disappointing from a candidate that preached both change and hope. With each decision by this president to continue the failed policies of his failed predecessor, I find it increasingly hard to find the audacity to believe in either.

Glenn Greenwald also has a post discussing other instances policy and practice continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations, citing specifically the approach to press management. It also discusses the highly disturbing reports from The Guardian that Binyam Mohamed may have been tortured while in American custody within the past few weeks.

Mohamed will arrive back tomorrow in the UK, where he was a British resident between 1984 and 2002. During medical examinations last week, doctors discovered injuries and ailments resulting from apparently brutal treatment in detention.

Mohamed was found to be suffering from bruising, organ damage, stomach complaints, malnutrition, sores to feet and hands, severe damage to ligaments as well as profound emotional and psychological problems which have been exacerbated by the refusal of Guantánamo’s guards to give him counseling.

Mohamed’s British lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, said his client had been beaten “dozens” of times inside the notorious US camp in Cuba with the most recent abuse occurring during recent weeks. He said: “He has a list of physical ailments that cover two sheets of A4 paper. What Binyam has been through should have been left behind in the middle ages.”

Lieutenant colonel Yvonne Bradley, Mohamed’s US military attorney, added: “He has been severely beaten. Sometimes I don’t like to think about it because my country is behind all this.

The possibility that this abuse may have occurred after President Obama’s inauguration is very concerning, and should be addressed by the administration as soon as possible.

Voting Rights for the District of Columbia

I fully support the proposition that the District of Columbia should have a voting member or members in the House of Representatives. I also believe that they should have voting representation in the Senate. However, I do believe that the legislation currently in the Senate is unconstitutional. I don’t really want to wade into that debate, for that I will point to Constitutional Law Professor Jonathan Turley.

Instead, I want to point out some posts by fellow progressives that suggest that arguing against the legislation on the basis of constitutionality is somehow improper. Consider this post on the front page of Daily Kos and this one from Firedoglake.

There may be any number of reasons why people oppose representation for D.C., some of them overtly political (the seats will be Democratic), others racist (so many black people). However, it is entirely possible for people of good conscience to oppose this legislation on constitutional grounds, and it would behoove people to be careful ascribing either racism or politics to their motives. Circumventing the Constitution for a good reason – like this – is no better than circumventing the Constitution for another reason.

Finally, if this seat is granted by simple legislation, rather than by an amendment, what is preventing the next Republican Congress from simply stripping the seat from D.C? The dubious constitutionality will only give them cover to do so. Far better to do this permanently and above reproach.

Los Angeles Neighborhoods

The Los Angeles Times has launched a new feature on their website showing the boundaries of all of the various LA neighborhoods, and asked for public comment.

The Los Angeles Times is unveiling the new map of neighborhoods today on its website at Years in the making, it is designed to be a tool that will allow reporters and editors to be consistent when describing neighborhoods in news stories in a city that sometimes seems to change the names like most people change socks.


Fortunately, those who disagree with the map have a chance to persuade the newspaper’s mapmakers to reconsider. Readers can use the interactive website to redraw any section of the map they feel is incorrect and submit the alteration for editors’ consideration. And editors may be busy.

This is an interesting project. Despite growing up in Southern California, and moving to LA just about three years ago, I still have a pretty poor understanding of where many neighborhoods outside of the Westside are. Equally, the public comments could be a fascinating collection of evidence regarding perceptions of the city specifically, and urban space in general. That said, I cannot help but feel that for a paper that has had to continually cut staff for local reporting over the past several years, this may not be the best use of their efforts.

Published in: on February 24, 2009 at 10:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bobby Jindal: Liar

In his response speech to Obama’s address, Governor Jindal lied, plainly, when he said that stimulus bill contained funding for a maglev train from “Disneyland to Las Vegas”. As has been remarked upon all over the place, that is not one of the approved high-speed rail corridors.

High Speed Rail Corridors from the Dept. of Transportation

High Speed Rail Corridors from the Dept. of Transportation

More importantly, why is this such a bogyman for the right? In many ways, that would be an ideal corridor, relieving a great deal of traffic between Southern California and Las Vegas without disrupting too many communities along much of its route. It would also be able to connect with the current California high-speed rail plan which calls for ultimately expanding the Los Angeles (Anaheim)-San Francisco line to San Diego through the Inland Empire.

Update: Here is video of David Shuster calling Congressman Darrell Issa on exactly this issue, yesterday.

Abel Maldonado: Not A Hero

As mentioned over at Calitics, the California media seems to be fawning over Abel Maldonado for successfully forcing an open primary amendment through the legislature. Without getting into a discussion of whether open primaries are good policy or good for the parties, I instead want to ask whether the process by which the proposal was adopted. First, George Skelton’s laudatory language:

Normally, it might take years for a citizens reform group to place an open primary proposal on a statewide ballot. Sen. Abel Maldonado did it in less than a week.

Actually, the heavy work was done in less than 24 hours.

The brashness, the audacity, the tenacity of this Republican lawmaker from Santa Maria in ramming such a landmark measure through a Legislature that ordinarily wouldn’t have touched it in a blue moon made him the single biggest winner of the budget-tax brawl that finally ended in the Capitol at dawn Thursday.

The state, broke, has been withholding income tax returns because it doesn’t have the money on hand. Infrastructure projects had been halted, and those that had previously been exempted on the grounds of public safety were also about to be shut down. State employees were being ordered to take mandatory furloughs, and tens of thousands were about to be laid off. California has the lowest municipal bond rating in the country. Months of Republican obstructionism had blocked any reasonable budget, and a dubiously legal work-around had been vetoed by the governor. Finally, a budget compromise had been worked out, in secret, with no hearings and few publicly released details, and only one vote in the Senate remained to get it passed. And Abel Maldonado saw an opportunity.

Actually, the heavy work was done in less than 24 hours.

No. The heavy work was on the budget, and had been going on for months while Maldonado complained about the costs associated with relocating the State Controller’s offices. There was no heavy work on the open primary. There were no hearings, no public comment, no testimony by expert lawyers or political scientists, and certainly no discussion of whether this kind of open primary will benefit the populace. Open primaries are an article of faith among some ‘centrists’ and ‘reformers’, so there was no need to have a debate on whether open primaries would drive up the costs of or lead to voter confusion. Washington state has this kind of open primary, but there was no discussion of the results there. Instead, the proposal was rammed through the legislature with nary a debate. Whatever ‘winners’ there may be in this entire debacle, good governance certainly isn’t one of them.

We have a word for people who exploit the fears of others for political gain. Holding hostage the welfare of the poor, the disabled, the young, the elderly, and the ill to advance some dubious electoral change is as morally reprehensible as taking civilians hostage to free a ‘political prisoner’. For 72 hours, Senator Maldonado, you held this state hostage in an attempt to ease your path to reelection, and for that I name you extortionist. And George Skelton, for your praise of his tactics and results, I name you apologist. May both of you be punished as the people of this state see fit.

Mileage Taxes

AP is reporting that the Secretary of Transportation would like to see the adoption of a tax on miles traveled by car rather than gas taxes.

Gasoline taxes that for nearly half a century have paid for the federal share of highway and bridge construction can no longer be counted on to raise enough money to keep the nation’s transportation system moving, LaHood said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled,” the former Illinois Republican lawmaker said.

Most transportation experts see a vehicle miles traveled tax as a long-term solution, but Congress is being urged to move in that direction now by funding pilot projects.

There are two problems with this proposal: 1) privacy concerns and 2) climate change.

On the first issue, there would have to be a serious discussion of how miles traveled would be calculated. Some proposals call for monitoring by GPS locators installed in the car. This has the possibility to be quite troubling, and any system that essentially rests on a ‘trust us’ argument from the government will draw considerable opposition. I am fairly ignorant about the inner workings of most cars, but I have to believe that either the existing odometers, or simple modifications to them, would be sufficient for any test program.

Personally, I think a far easier and less concerning measure would be a tax on tire sales – accidents and vandalism would upset the metric, but I believe that wear-on-tires must correspond fairly directly to wear-on-road. Higher taxes could be charged for studded tires or chains, which tear up the road but are necessary in some climates.

The second issue is more troubling. Gas tax revenues are falling, and will continue to fall, in large part because people are shifting toward less driving and/or driving more fuel efficient vehicles. Although the nominal reason for gas taxes may have been to fund infrastructure construction and repair, and because gas is a fairly inelastic good; currently gas taxes are also seen as a way to combat climate change. This is a good goal, and gas taxes seem an acceptable way to approach it, however much a full carbon tax would be better, and however much gas taxes will become increasingly regressive as those with the money to buy newer hybrid cars do so. For this reason, the gas tax cannot be eliminated in favor of a mileage tax. We should do both.

A mileage tax, either calculated directly or charged to tires, will be an increasingly fair way to fund infrastructure precisely because hybrid car drivers won’t underpay their fair share for infrastructure maintenance.

However, without the creation of a carbon tax, the gas tax comes closest to taxing the carbon output of cars and is necessary to create an incentive to drive more fuel efficiently. Indeed, the tax should probably be higher. More importantly, though, we are going to see increasingly high costs associated with climate change. Whether this takes the form of dike or levee construction, wildfire fighting costs, repair and rescue costs for storm victims, or new water infrastructure, we should expect them to increase significantly. (Any community that relies on snow or glacial melt for its summer water supply is going to have to build more storage capacity to deal with increasing seasonality of supply.) This, of course, is before anything truly catastrophic happens or we find ourselves host to hundreds of thousands of climate refugees.

All of this goes to say that in the absence of a new carbon tax, gas taxes should be retained, and increased, with their revenues reserved for climate change mitigation,  remediation, and prevention. By all means, let us adopt a mileage tax to pay for traditional infrastructure projects, but we need to keep the gas tax for other reasons. Yes, this would be a tax increase and no, maybe it shouldn’t happen in the middle of this particular economic crisis. However, every year that passes is going to result in greater costs associated with climate change and the sooner we start saving, and spending, to deal with it, the better.

Published in: on February 20, 2009 at 11:42 am  Comments (1)  
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Should John Yoo Teach?

Berkeley Professor Brad DeLong has called for John Yoo to be fired from the university’s law school. He makes a strong argument and I agree that Yoo shouldn’t be teaching law when he seems to have such a flawed understanding of it. I also have a great deal of respect for Professor DeLong in making such a public statement.

However, I have been uncertain whether it is actually worthwhile to fire him. At first, I thought my concerns were over academic freedom and the ethics of firing a professor for legal advice given as a lawyer to a client. However, in the wake of the news surrounding the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility’s unpublished report, those misgivings have more-or-less faded away. Fortunately, that allowed me to uncover the source of my concern – it isn’t big enough.

It isn’t enough to fire Yoo from Berkeley. (He will undoubtedly get another job, either at a law school desperate for attention, like Chapman, or at a conservative think tank). It isn’t enough to disbar him. For the role he has played in undermining the Constitution, the rule of law, and the dignity of man, those actions are insufficient. If he cannot or will not be prosecuted, then the public opprobrium must be so great that his opinions, like Carthage’s fields, are sown with salt so that nothing no policy there may grow. Yoo delenda est.

Despite our pretensions to academic freedom, professors get fired, or denied tenure, for any manner of comments found to be controversial. A 30-second google search found these two on the first results page. With his conservative credentials burnished by being fired by ‘liberal academics’, Yoo will move on to new heights from which he can launch attacks in op-ed pages around the country. This is not sufficient.

But for all that, I’m fairly certain it is necessary.

Update: I got unnecessarily rabid here, and conflated several issues. Yoo should be prosecuted for any crimes, especially war crimes, he committed. His opinions should be forcefully rejected by the public so they don’t form the basis for future policy. Firing him is insufficient for his potential crimes, inappropriate for his opinions, and necessary for his deficient professional ethics and practices. I conveyed this opinion exceedingly poorly.

Published in: on February 19, 2009 at 12:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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