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.

Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 11:58 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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The LA Times on the May 19 Special Election, Again (Updated)

Faced with polling that shows that voters aren’t buying their last editorial, the Los Angeles Times tries, once again, to convince people to vote yes.

Some voters seem to think that rejecting these measures will send politicians a message. It will. It will tell them that Californians won’t stand for constructive compromise of the sort that Republican state Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto and Assemblyman Mike Villines of Clovis sought when they agreed to the deal, and that we’ll grant political points for intransigence but none for actual accomplishment. It will tell them that we are suckers for grandstanding. It will tell them to keep fighting and stay deadlocked.

California must get on a different road, change its political dynamic and perhaps its political structure, but it can do that only if it can move. And to move, voters must pass the ballot measures. There is little point in arguing over the next turn if the discussion takes place in the back seat of a rusted-out hulk.

First off, the entire car metaphor (not quoted), is ridiculous, but for those of you who bothered to follow through to the whole editorial, I’ll play along. The spending cap, prop 1A, is the equivalent of reducing the size of gas tank so we’ll never be able to travel as far while also deciding not to pay for regular maintenance. The car will keep running for a while and will cost less – right until the transmission falls out.

More seriously, passing the ballot propositions won’t actually keep the state running. Prop 1A doesn’t have any effects for 3-4 years. The education funding in Prop 1B is already owed to the schools by the state. Indeed, the California Federation of Teachers has sued the state to get that money. Prop 1c will only help the state if we can find anyone to buy our bonds – a problem we are already having – and with lottery revenues down there isn’t much incentive for potential purchasers. Propositions 1D and 1E just shuffle money around, at the cost of our state’s worst off; and prop 1F has nothing to do with the budget at all.

Even if all of the ballot measures pass, we are still looking at a budget short-fall of $10 billion dollars on May 20th. It would be nice if the LA Times recognized that simple fact. There is no significant up-side to passing these ballot measures, and a considerable cost in future  budget flexibility. Unless, of course, you are a centrism fetishist who cares more about ‘bipartisan compromise’ than actually solving our state’s problems.

Since we’ll still have a budget crisis on May 20, there is no good reason to create a spending cap on May 19. Instead, we need real long-term budget reform, in the form of a return to a simply majority requirement for both the budget and taxes. I agree that the majority vote won’t solve our immediate problem – but neither will Prop 1A. If nothing else, the Times should recognize that if we can afford to put off a majority-vote reform until the present crisis has passed, then surely we can do the same with an ill-conceived and poorly debated spending cap.

Update: The Sacramento Bee has different numbers:

The Republican governor’s Department of Finance has projected a budget gap of $15.4 billion if the May 19 special election ballot measures pass and $21.3 billion if they fail. The state would gain nearly $6 billion in solutions if Propositions 1C, 1D and 1E pass, including $5 billion in 1C’s borrowing against the California Lottery.

Ken Calvert’s Telephone Town Hall

So apparently Ken Calvert held a telephone town hall last week accompanied by a number of robocalls telling people that he had done so. According to his robo-call voicemail message, the major topics were the economy, Iraq/Afghanistan, illegal immigration, and local transportation.

Looking at the summary at the link above, I find it hard to believe that these were the real questions asked – the tenses of the opening paragraphs are all confused, suggesting this was drawn up before the call. More importantly, though, it is highly unlikely that there was not a single question about the state budget crisis, the bank bailouts, or the stimulus plan. Indeed, three of the eight questions appear to have been related in some way to immigration. This is certainly one of Calvert’s favorite topics, but I doubt that is true of 30,000 random constituents. Have I mentioned that this robocall was on Cinco de Mayo? Congressman, you are a classy classy man.

In case you are wondering, the Congressman’s call indicated that he is “fighting for” tax relief, job creation, and the development of new energy sources, while he opposes amnesty and wasteful government spending.

Finally, I don’t remember getting a single robocall from Calvert during the campaign last year. So, I’m going to take his efforts now as a sign that Bill Hedrick has him worried – a good sign.

Addendum: I’d be interested in knowing what was actually discussed during the town hall, if anyone knows.

Published in: on May 10, 2009 at 1:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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Obligatory Arlen Specter Post

First impression: Rank opportunism.

Second impression: This could be bad.

Third impression: File this under never gonna happen, but it is nice to imagine.

Fourth impression: What does this say about the “better democrats” part of “more and better democrats?”

My first thought here, of course, is that it says nothing. The Republican brand and conservative ideology are losing followers rather than gaining them, so attempting ideological primaries is a dangerous game. The Democratic brand, on the other hand, is rising, and the public’s openness to progressive leadership is robust. But, that is a hefty dose of hubris, almost up there with the “permanent Republican majority.”

That said, I do suspect that there are national trends that could be harnessed into a progressive (or populist) consensus similar to that at the turn of the century. It need not be partisan, though with the current state of the Republican party, I suspect that it would be. In that case, the ability to primary corrupt, insider, or lobbyist-tainted politicians would be high, even if such challenges would be interpreted by the media as ‘coming from the left.’ In this, I believe that Accountability Now has largely struck the right note. However, being less comfortable with populism than progressivism, this possibility also makes me a little uneasy.

Final thought: This is it. Thanks to months of media reporting on the need for Democrats to get 60 votes in the Senate, we can now do exactly what we want and establish a socialist state. I hope that my portion of the means of production consists of a distillery.

Honestly, from this point forward, any failure to get things passed in the Senate is going to reflect very poorly on either Harry Reid or the president. To anyone who has been paying real attention, of course, Nelson, Bayh, and Lieberman have always made the 60-vote threshold  a myth. That won’t stop the media from playing it that way anyway. The flip side of this is that it may give a certain confidence vote flavor to cloture. Democratic senators who hope to ride Obama’s coattails may be less willing to see him fail on key reforms if they know the blame will no longer be apportioned to the party of no.

Or, at least, I can hope.

Published in: on April 28, 2009 at 10:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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