Monday, April 30, 2012

Obama choosing the turf

The Obama campaign is running the show so far in the campaign.  Since Romney locked up the nomination, he has gone out of his way to say he supports lower student loan rates the same week Obama was scheduled to take up the issue.  Now the issue of the past couple days has been the Obama campaign's attack on Romney's previous statements on whether he would send troops to another country to capture/kill bin Laden.  While Romney did, as always, leave himself wiggle room in his original statements, having the topic in the discussion can only help Obama.

In August 2007, then-Sen. Obama stated he would be willing to send troops into Pakistan if he had actionable intelligence that bin Laden was there.  Romney responded with a statement that our troops "shouldn't be sent all over the world" and "We want, as a civilized world, to participate with other nations in this civilized effort to help those nations reject the extreme with them".  In other words, I want to make Pakistan get bin Laden, if that's where he is.  A few days later at a debate he said he agreed that we would have the right to take bin Laden out of Pakistan but didn't agree that Obama should have made it explicit.

So if you really dive into it, Romney never said he wouldn't send troops to Pakistan to get bin Laden, but he's kinda wishy-washy about what he does say.

By comparison, Obama's argument is (paraphrasing) "I said I'd get him, and I got him."  So it's a nice argument to be having.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Republicans continue to obfuscate

After Romney's statement of support for not letting some student loan rates double, Republicans had to set about denying Obama a victory on the issue.  They couldn't allow a straight vote on the issue, since many of their members would be forced by their ideology to vote against a popular program.  So they decided to link continuing low rates with cuts to an Obamacare program.  Republicans would be free to vote for the bill, which passed the House yesterday, knowing the bill would never become law because the Senate and Obama would stop it.

This would seem to be a good strategy that deprives Obama of a line of attack, because Republicans say they support helping students but only disagree about how to fund it.  But they made the mistake of choosing a program which, among other things, provides funds for breast and cervical cancer screenings.  So Obama can issue a veto threat and portray the Republicans of continuing their "War on Women".

These are the kinds of mistakes that can be forced when Romney and the GOP are forced to take specific stands on issues.  Vague generalities about the economy that echo Herman Cain and Rush Limbaugh work fine when people aren't paying close enough attention to really understand the specifics.  As the campaign progresses and more and more specific issues like student loans are raised, it can only help the Democrats.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ryan rejects Rand

Thanks to Paul Ryan for clearly demonstrating the tension that inevitably arises when a political party tries to embrace both Ayn Rand and Jesus.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Microeconomics is not Macroeconomics

Every now and then I hear an argument that the government needs to tighten its belt and cut spending just like a family or a business would have to in the face of increasing debt.  The government, however, is significantly different from a family or business, because it is large enough to influence the entire economy with its spending.  While it is perfectly legitimate to advocate for spending cuts, it is  unreasonable to use comparisons to individual households/businesses to support the claim.

If I lose my job and have to cut my spending, it won't have a significant effect on the economy of the nation, or even my street.  During my hypothetical unemployment, it would have no effect on my employment prospects whether or not I max out my credit cards, because I don't have the economic power to significantly change the output of the whole system.

The federal government, which has a total budget of around $3.8 trillion, has such power.  Spending/borrowing cuts by Washington would cause shifts in the economy which would hurt total output (at least in the short term, and in the long term as well according to classic economic theory).  Given the link between total output and government revenues, it's not even a lock that cutting spending would help the deficit.

Across Europe, government have been slashing their budgets in an attempt to balance the books.  But the continent now finds itself sliding back into recession, with countries that cut their government spending more slowing more than countries with governments that cut less.

The economy's complex.  Professional economists spend their careers trying to come up with scientific ways to explain this or that.  We can't afford to have voters making decisions based on false comparisons like confusing a family's budget with the government's.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It appears Obama's... wrong?

I've spent several hours over the last few days trying to wrap my head around Obama's threat to veto any spending bill which cuts discretionary spending below $1.047 trillion for next year.  In the Budget Control Act (BCA), which was the act which raised the debt ceiling last year, a series of budget caps were imposed, including a cap on discretionary spending for the 2013 fiscal year (FY2013), which runs from October 1, 2012 through September 30, 2013, of $1.047 trillion dollars.  It also included a "sequester", which is a series of automatic spending cuts which will go into effect on January 2, 2013.  This sequester could have been avoided if the budget supercommittee had managed to agree on budget cuts.  But the supercommittee failed, so spending will automatically be cut on January 2.  Under the sequester, the cap for discretionary spending will be reduced to $965 billion.

Obama appears to want to keep things at $1.047 trillion despite the sequester.  The director of Obama's Office of Management and Budget, Jeffrey Zients, sent a letter to Congressional Republicans last week saying any cut below $1.047 trillion would "break our bipartisan agreement".  But under the BCA, spending is set to be reduced to $965 billion, so the House Republicans' budget which cuts spending to $1.028 trillion should be seen as an improvement.

I think Obama's plan is to keep spending levels at the $1.047 trillion level through the rest of this year, which per Keynesian economic theory would keep the economy from slowing as a result of budget cuts before the election.  He would then, during the "lame duck" session of Congress, fight to get rid of the sequester.  He might be successful at that, since the sequester would devastate the economy and the national defense industry.  The sequester would chop the same percentage from every budget item (except for a few exemptions like Medicare and veterans' benefits), rather than making changes based on how well each department might be able to accommodate a cut.  Once he can convince Congress to re-open the BCA to adjust the sequester, he hopes to make the argument that any cuts would be bad and restore funding to $1.047 trillion.

I've had a tremendous amount of trouble wrapping my head around this issue.  It's not the only topic where I've disagreed with the President, but I find myself confused mostly by the weakness of Republicans in their response to all of this.  Their House budget doesn't get to $965 billion.  The Senate Appropriations committee, which includes 14 Republicans, agreed to budget based on the $1.047 trillion figure by a vote of 27-2.

So I just don't get it.  I'm a reasonably smart guy who follows this stuff pretty closely, but I just can't make any sense out of what either side is doing on this issue.  It sure looks like Obama is planning on breaking the BCA agreement while accusing Republicans of being the deal-breakers, and the Republicans appear to be going along with it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Sorry, no full post today.  I'm doing some reading on the budget process and Obama's threat to veto a budget that wouldn't meet spending levels agreed to under the Budget Control Act which raised the budget ceiling last year, but it seems that the BCA included an automatic trigger for lower levels than Obama is trying to enforce.

If you happen to know of a good source on this, please pass it along.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Romney gets specific

In an effort to blunt Obama's upcoming attacks on college affordability, Romney announced his support for an extension of spending to keep interest rates low on student loans.  He had previously voiced support for Paul Ryan's budget, which decimates federal education spending, including on student loans and grants. 

Romney is damaged by having to take a specific position on a popular program.  If he is able to run on generalities of "small government", he can hedge his bets via tone and exact wording to keep anyone from getting too upset with him.  But, as with this issue, over the course of the campaign he will be forced to take clear stands on dozens of specific issues.  By focusing on these specific policy questions, Obama can splinter Romney's support.  Diversions from discussions of policy, such as Obama's "silver spoon" rhetoric last month, can only help Romney,

Sunday, April 22, 2012

So much for one man, one vote

Apparently Ron Paul is sweeping entire contingents of delegates in Minnesota, despite getting clobbered in the actual vote.  He has won 20 of the 24 available delegates at the congressional district level, with more delegates to be chosen at the state convention later on.

Why is this ok again?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Research into health-care savings

Capitalism is great at providing a service when it's profitable for someone to provide it.  But what if, for one reason or another, no market exists in which it can make someone money?

Take, for example, medical research.  I have told any overseer of my education that I have no interest in any type of research, yet I still got the pleasure of mandated attendance at several lectures on how a drug goes from basic research to the patient's medicine cabinet.  The system is set up to make it easy to make money getting new therapies to market.  Companies with the ability to make huge sums from a patented medication can fund huge amounts of research to back up their claims.

These claims made in research go largely unopposed, except the rare bit of backbone from an underfunded, partly industry-funded FDA, which has an annual budget of about $2 billion in regulating industries with a $1 trillion in annual sales.  Who else would have a motivation to fund research to keep a new drug off the market?  Competing drug companies might have an interest, but would they really want to provoke responses which would lead to a system where they have to fight harder to get a product to market?  Individual insurance companies or consumer groups would run into the Free Rider problem, with insurers and consumers who don't want to pay for opposing research would benefit from the lower costs despite their lack of contribution.  So you wind up with a system with unopposed research on new ways to spend money.  Is it any wonder that medical costs are spiraling out of control?

What is needed is more research on ways to limit costs, and because of the market's failure to provide it, it must come from the government.  It might lead to a dystopian hellscape of death panels, so it would be helpful if there were already a system in place which would freak the fuck out if any government body ever said "we can save $x million for every patient we allow to die" to keep the system from ever preferring cheaper treatments which led to worse outcomes.  We can use the paranoia of Fox News and the Drudge Report for a good purpose.

The program I'm discussing, of a government body seeking ways to limit costs without affecting outcomes, is essentially the role of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a fifteen-member body set up under Obamacare.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Journalistic integrity

MSNBC hostess Mika Brzezinski refuses to read a story about Paris Hilton at the top of her show, on a day where more important news was happening.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Got to admit it's getting better

This is the President sitting on the same bus where Rosa Parks kicked off the civil rights movement. In my parents' lifetime, we have gone from a nation where black people had to give up their seats to a nation led by a (half-) black man.

I'm increasingly optimistic about the direction of our world. Of course it's not perfect. There remain a multitude of improvements to be made, but to say that no progress is being made is silly. Gitmo is bad, but we are not locking up whole ethnicities of Americans like we did to George Takei and other Japanese-Americans in the 40's. The Vietnam and Korean Wars would make Iraq and Afghanistan look like minor border conflicts. We retain the power to annihilate ourselves, but the number of nuclear weapons in existence today is a fraction compared to the height of the Cold War, and the main nuclear threat is a terrorist organization getting one or two devices, not two superpowers shooting tens of thousands at each other.

There is a lot of doom and gloom in our political discourse these days. The parties fall over each other to convince voters that we are all doomed if we don't enact their policies immediately. There's this tendency to believe that things were better years ago, whether it's the 90's or the 80's or the 50's or, for Ron Paul, the 1880's. But today, the world is healthier, richer and, as demonstrated by the picture above, more fair and ethical than it has ever been.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Obama comment unnecessarily confrontational

At an event today in Elyria, President Obama said the following while discussing his job training policies:
I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Michelle wasn’t. But somebody gave us a chance, just like these folks up here are looking for a chance.
It's clear even in context that this is a jab at Romney. Obama's best electoral strategy is to emphasize that he has been the "adult in the room" trying to get things done while Republicans blindly opposed him at every turn. It hurts this narrative when attacks on Romney's personal history come from the President.

That's what surrogates are for.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cut out the middle man

I'd intended a mathematical breakdown of Romney's tax policies, but this article beat me to the punch.

So let's talk more broadly about taxes. You don't have to listen to talk radio for long before you hear someone refer to the rich as "job-creators". And it's true that part of what the rich do is start and run businesses that allow punks like me blog and watch soccer instead of worrying about billing and scheduling and many other aspects of my field I find repulsive. I am all for cutting the hell out of taxes in support of creating jobs.

But why do we choose to subsidize rich people, who may or may not use the subsidy to hire people, instead of subsidizing hiring people? We spend tens of billions of dollars a year on capital gains tax cuts and other advantages for the wealthy on the premise that it will spur job growth. Rather than cutting taxes for every rich person, why not only cut tax for those who actually create jobs by directly tying the cuts to hiring?

So we raise the top tax rate by X%. With the increased revenue, we cut the employer's share of payroll taxes by Y%.

Democrats get their tax increase on the idle rich. Republicans get their tax cuts for job creators.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Secret message Mitt

Mitt Romney continues to play games to send signals to one group of voters or another. He has spent the last five years tacking to the right, but then he has sympathetic columnists "report" that his private views on things like immigration might not be as conservative as he sounds. He proposes huge tax cuts to be paid for by "closing loopholes", but the loopholes he suggests only offset about a fifth of the cost of the cuts (more on this tomorrow). His public vague comments about reform are backed up by slightly less-vague recent "behind closed doors" comments about eliminating/reorganizing entire cabinet departments.

It's perfectly legitimate to advocate for huge changes to the structure of government. But voters deserve to know what those plans are before they vote. And Romney, if he is so sure that his policies are correct, should be willing to discuss his positions openly. But Romney seems to be trying to make everyone happy, through sometimes-contradictory overt and covert messaging.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

More on 92.3%

Mitt Romney has used a meaningless statistical quirk that men's unemployment relative to when Obama took office is almost back to zero to say that Obama is anti-woman, since they have still lost jobs. I think it would be useful to go into the math at play a little bit more.

Since Obama took office, statistics show that men have lost 57,000 jobs, while women have lost 683,000 jobs.\

Female jobs lost/total jobs lost = share of jobs lost by women
683,000/(683,000+57,000) = 0.923

So let's assume that next month the job market grows by 110,000 jobs next month, equally split between men and women. So the share of all jobs lost since Obama lost by women would be:

628,000/(628,000 + 2,000) = 0.997

Since the two lines for changes in male and female unemployment will most likely cross Zero at different times, it is inevitable that at one month or another, there will be a time where one line is very close to zero, giving the temporary result of a huge majority of jobs lost by one side or the other.

So why does the men's line hit zero first. Men were more likely to be in industries hit early on in the downturn, like construction and manufacturing. So the market for men hit bottom sooner, with most of their losses coming before Obama's term, and their recovery began sooner.

The above chart shows change es in jobs since the start of the recession, with the employment at the start of Obama's administration as the baseline. Here we see that men had more of job losses earlier and primed for a quicker recovery.

What's particularly dishonest about Romney's attack is that he neither proposes a mechanism by which Obama supposedly waged his war on women, nor does he propose a remedy.

One possible remedy would be increasing hiring in fields in which women are more likely to be employed, such as education. Obama proposed funding to states to hire teachers as part of his jobs bill, but he was opposed by Republicans who now blame him for the state of women's employment.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Muddying the waters


Mitt Romney is getting destroyed in polls among female voters. His poor performance makes sense when you consider that, as the above image points out, Republicans across the country have in multiple substantive ways sought to limit the rights of women. Losing women by 19 points is no way to win an election, so Romney has to do something to get women back on his side.

He appears to be trying to increase support by saying it is in fact Obama who is attacking women. To any objective observer, his attempt is futile. But to the conservative voter who generally supports Republicans but are uncomfortable with their policies on women's issues, stories like the meaningless 92.3% statistic discussed yesterday, as well as the freakout over a comment by a liberal pundit, serve to provide psychological cover. If they can in any way convince themselves that Democrats are even on the same spectrum as the GOP when it comes to women's issues, they can pull back some support. This potential benefit comes at essentially zero cost, as most liberals and moderates are already horrified by the legislative actions of Republicans vis-a-vis women, so a few disingenuous attacks on Obama on the matter won't turn anyone else against them.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Great explanation of Romney's 92.3% boondoggle

Romney has been repeatedly saying in recent days that 92.3% of all jobs lost during the Obama administration were lost by women. Romney is attempting to use a statistical anomaly to say that a linberal war on women is being waged. While researching a post on this subject, I came upon this great summary.

In a nutshell, Romney is exploiting the fact that the net number of jobs held by men has returned to the level it was at when Obama took office. When you then compare the change of jobs held by men and by women, most of the decline is in female employment, since men's employment has returned to baseline. Romney makes no attempt in what way Obama has perpetrated this war. He makes no specific proposals of how to increase female employment. He instead is making a pointless ad hominem attack in a desperate attempt to obfuscate which party is attacking women.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Rosen's comment doesn't matter

Gaffes happen. People say stupid things that sound terrible, whether or not they're in their full context. Not all gaffes have the impact of "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it." The gaffes that stand out are the ones that reinforce preexisting ideas in a campaign.

Hilary Rosen's attack on Ann Romney as having "never worked a day in her life" has been the focus of the political world today. But unlike the Romney campaign's etch-a-sketch gaffe, which crystallized concerns about Romney's sincerity, the comment by Rosen does nothing to dramatize Obama's principles. Unless you want to make the argument that this attitude toward women somehow subconsciously permeates liberal thought in general, or President Obama in particular, it doesn't hold any water and isn't worth all the fuss.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

We need public funding of elections

Thanks to the huge influx of cash allowed under Citizens United, spending on all elections, from dog catcher to President, is expected to rise to $9.8 billion, up from about $7 billion in 2008. In exchange for providing the lion's share of this amount, corporate America exerts a huge influence over the policies of government at every level.

Why do we allow corporate America to buy our government so cheaply? $9.8 billion is less than the federal government spends every day ($3.796 trillion/366 days = $10.3 billion/day). Since the $9.8 billion figure includes spending at all levels, not just federal, we determine that it takes less than 14 hours for government to spend this amount ($6.3 trillion/366 days/24 hours = $717 million/hour, 9.8 billion/717 million = 13.7 hours).

So why not institute massive public financing of elections? In exchange for say three days of government spending (just over $50 billion), taxpayers could swamp corporate election spending, leading to the other $6.2 trillion being spent far more efficiently.

In 93% of House races and 94% of Senate races in 2008, the candidate with the most money won. For a congressional candidate without public financing, there is enormous fundraising pressure. The average winner of a House seat in 2008 spent just over $1 million. If the taxpayers gave each candidate $2 million (and had money left over to support independent and minor party candidates through a system using petitions and performance in previous elections, as we've got over 5 times the previous spending levels to play with, if we spend $50 billion where the current system spends $9.8 billion), then candidates won't have to sell their souls to the highest bidder, because even if they raise nothing from corporate America, they'd still be competitive.

For a tiny fraction of our tax dollars, we can keep corporations from controlling how the rest of our taxes are spent. Our leaders need to listen to us, and we have the capability to make sure corporations can't buy their attention.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

RIP, Tea Party

Remember when the Tea Party railed against RINOs (Republicans In Name Only)? Or when they began to define what it meant to be a Republican, with several Republican figures beaten by the likes of Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell?

That Tea Party is gone, co-opted by the Establishment of the Grand Old Party as personified by Willard Mitt Romney. After years of arguing that what they need is a strong Reagan conservative to argue their case, they go with a former Massachusetts governor whose history includes support for cap-and-trade, abortion rights and the model on which the dreaded Obamacare is based.

In fact, Romney's vanquishing of Santorum exposes the lie that the Tea Party was ever anything other than the traditional base of the Republican Party. Republicans in power have portrayed the Tea Party as a bold new voice in American politics, a force that cannot be resisted. "I'd like to make Compromise X, Mr. President, but the Tea Partiers in my caucus..."

The best evidence that the Tea Party was the traditional Republican base in silly hats is that there has been no separate Republican base for the past 3 years. It's not like there were three groups: Establishment Republicans, the Tea Party and the Republican base. The Tea Party was the base. Romney's victory shows that the Establishment was always the most powerful faction in the party and could have stood up to the party's radical base if it had wanted.

But the party didn't want to do so, because the myth of the Tea Party helped push the entire country to the right. Obama has taken over John McCain's all-of-the-above energy policy and cap-and-trade, has continued elements of Bush's foreign policy and fought for Mitt Romney's health care policy.

Romney's victory breaks the stranglehold the Tea Party held over the GOP. The myth had an influential run.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Why I'm a social liberal

The conservative (or, at least, Republican, along with too many Democrats) view of social issues is that government knows better than the individual what is best for the growth and development of the individual. This is why I'm a social liberal.

So what separates a law preventing self-insurance for health care, which I support, and a law preventing gay marriage or marijuana use, which I would oppose? In the case of the former, there is a demonstrated direct harm to others which results from the banned behavior (unreimbursed costs of care), while in the latter, there is no such evidence.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Republican Party needs to be punished

There is this ridiculous false equivalence that Obama and the GOP are equally to blame for the current environment in Washington. Critics on both sides lament the ability of Washington to get anything done. The only things that did manage to pass were feats of partisan dominance, with 0 House Republicans and 3 Senate Republicans voting for the stimulus bill, and 0 Republicans in all of Congress voting for Obamacare.

This is not a situation where voters should blame both sides. It would be one thing if such overwhelming, automatic Republican intransigence were in response to an extremist, socialist agenda. If Obama were pushing for single-payer health care, a 70% top income tax rate, and released all the prisoners at Gitmo. But the huge Republican freakout is about a President who has passed an individual mandate that was supported by such flaming liberals as Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Milton Friedman, and the Heritage Foundation. He has sought to raise taxes all the way up to where they were during the 90's boom, which was a great decade to be rich. He has continued many elements of Bush's foreign policy, and has in fact taken a more aggressive stance on drone attacks and targeted killings. He supports cap-and-trade, which used to be a Republican idea. Obama is not in any sense an extremist President worthy of such uniform opposition.

While President Bush garnered a significant degree of hatred from the left, including from yours truly, the major achievements of Bush's administration encountered nothing near unanimous opposition. His 2001 tax cut was supported by 11 Senate Democrats (by my quick count) and 28 House Democrats. The resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq got 82 Democratic votes in the House and 29 in the Senate

What should be the consequences for a party plunging our political system into the abyss in which it currently finds itself? The only way to do it is to inflict losses at the ballot box. The system just won't work if major legislation can only pass when one side or the other has 60 votes in the Senate. So hopefully enough voters will say enough is enough to keep either party from acting like this ever again.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Why I'm an economic liberal

The traditional conservative view of a free job market is that an employer and and employee freely come together to negotiate an agreement regarding work and wages. If one side or the other feels the division of the products of the arrangement is unfair, they are free to leave and pursue arrangements with someone else. Sounds great, right?

But consider the effects of the "freedom" of the transaction if one side would starve to death without entering into an agreement with someone (i.e., if you can't find a job that would pay subsistence wages). And there are millions of other people in your situation. And there aren't enough jobs for everyone. And employers know it.

Employers would be able to demand long hours, low pay, no benefits and whatever else they wanted to extract from the worker, because if the worker refuses, the worker's life is in peril and the employer finds someone willing to work for peanuts. They know they will always be able to find a worker willing to work for less than they're worth, because the worker has no bargaining strength.

Ours, thankfully, is not by and large a society set up like this. Through a combination of government programs and private charity, we don't require that people have a job for their very survival. Workers have the option of grants and student loans to go back to school to gain marketable skills. They have access to basic needs through food stamps, federal housing programs and shelters. It would be great if we could add a more robust guarantee of access to health care, which is necessary for a long, healthy life, but the current set-up is better than it has been in the past.

There is this movement amongst some conservatives towards an Ayn Rand laissez-faire capitalism. The thinking goes that by removing these basic protections and "allowing the free maket to work", everyone will be made richer. But without a guarantee of basic economic security for every citizen, it allows millions to be left behind and forces them into uneven agreements. If the goal is a just society with truly free involvement in the economic sphere, there can't be a system where the very survival of one side of the negotiation is at risk. So until and unless we have a robust system of private charity which can guarantee basic security for everyone, we have to come together through the government to provide that guarantee.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Ryan won't be the VP nominee

Romney has dedicated his campaign to being a blank, generic candidate who won't take a firm stand on anything. Paul Ryan is the personification of a controversial, explicit policy. Therefore, Romney will not choose him as his running mate, because it he did, he couldn't "etch a sketch" his way out of supporting/defending it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The folly of long-term projections

Ezra Klein makes a great point about long-term budget projections in a column today titled "Don't Worry About Deficit That Will Heal Itself":
[T]here’s something ridiculous about extrapolating current trends all the way
out to 2080. By that point, we’ll probably either be robots, the servants of
robots or a bit of both. Either way, the health-care system will probably
undergo dramatic change.

Look what happens when you turn back the clock 70 years from today. That
puts you in 1942, the year John Bumstead and Orvan Hess first saved a patient’s
life using penicillin. There were no pacemakers, oral contraceptives or
chemotherapy. Water wasn’t fluoridated, and health insurance was a niche
product. Imagine trying to predict the trajectory of today’s health-care system
from that vantage point. How incredibly, hilariously wrong would we have

In part for that reason, we don’t balance the budget for 70 years at a
time. Indeed, we usually don’t even balance it for 10 years at a time. Instead,
we muddle through, striking deals that are smaller than wonks like, but
sufficient to keep us out of the woods. That’s what we did in the 1990s, which
featured deficit-reduction bills in 1991, 1993, 1995 and 1997. We’ll probably
follow a similar path in the decade to come.

My day with Paul Ryan's face

Over the last several days, I did so much googling about Paul Ryan's budget using so many different iterations of keywords that an ad for his Super PAC is popping up on just about every page I vist.

Damn you, Google!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ryan's ridiculous budget, Part 2

I've been frustrated this evening trying to find any specifics about the tax changes proposed by Paul Ryan and passed by the Republican House. I can't find anything apart from a vague outline of changing to a system of only two tax rates of 10% and 25% and making up the difference with elimination of unspecified tax deductions and "loopholes". Ryan appears to be proposing massive changes to our entire economy without having any idea how his own proposal would work. When asked if his tax policy would result in distributional changes (that is, would the rich and poor pay more, less or the same in taxes compared to what they pay now) last month of Fox News, Ryan refused to answer, saying "I don't know" and "It's impossible to answer that question".

While his budget claims hundreds of billions of dollars a year in eliminated tax credits and deductions, he makes no effort to state where exactly these vast sums will come from. He is essentially offering a "free lunch" of lower tax rates without explaining how the lower rates will be paid for. Such offsets would likely require changes to popular deductions like the mortgage interest deduction, which benefits just about all homeowners. By following the Romney tactic of hiding the true implications of your policy ideas, he is hoping to get Americans to vote for the benefits without discussing the costs.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ryan's ridiculous budget, Part 1

Last week, the House of Representatives voted to pass Paul Ryan's budget without any Democratic votes. Mitt Romney "applaud[s] it" and calls it "an excellent piece of work, and very much needed." Over the next few days/weeks, I'll examine various aspects of the budget. Sneak peak; there are some problems with it.

Today, let's look at the effects of the Republicans' budget on the discretionary budget. Ryan batches all discretionary spending together to include both defense and non-defense discretionary spending, along with "mandatory" spending. He takes several pages in his proposal discussing that cuts should not come from the military, leaving non-defense spending on the chopping block.

First off, non-defense discretionary spending includes just about everything that the government does except for Social Security, health care spending (Medicare/Medicaid), servicing the debt, and, of course, defense. It includes food stamps, Pell grants and other education aid, national parks, unemployment insurance, the EPA, housing assistance, and just about everything else you think of when you think of the government.

In the Congressional Budget Office analysis (.pdf, Table 2 on page 13) of the Republican plan, we see the long-term impact of Ryan's proposal relative to current law/policy. Under the Republican plan, total federal spending on defense and non-defense discretionary spending will fall from the current level of 12.5% of GDP to 3.75% by 2050, a 70% cut, or under half the percentage of GDP under current law.

What would a cap of 3.75% mean? Ryan famously stated a few years ago when asked about the implications of his policies, said "I'm a budgeteer; I just bring down the cap". But a 3.75% cap would devastate the millions of Americans who depend on all those programs listed above.

With the 3.75% cap including defense and non-defense spending, it's worth looking at the history of American military spending. Since World War 2, there have been only four years (1998-2001) where just defense spending was below this level all by itself. There is also the matter in the future of the rise of China as a true world superpower, with military spending increasing by 10% or more every year for the last two decades. It is foolish to think, given the history of such things in America, that we wouldn't respond to China's rise by exploding our own defense spending. But with caps in place and a Republican Party unwilling to raise them under any circumstances, vital domestic programs would be cut even further.

The Republican strategy, as previously discussed and as the "budgeteer" Ryan admitted, seems to be to only talk in vague, general terms about the implications of their policies and brush under the rug the actual effects on average Americans. Along with massive cuts to health care spending previously discussed, Republicans hope to "save" trillions of dollars from programs which mostly benefit the poor and middle-class. They would take these "savings" and give huge tax cuts to the wealthy, which we'll investigate tomorrow.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Prisons in a "civilized" nation

What country has the world's highest incarceration rate, as measured by inmates per 100,000 people? Is it a communist country like Cuba or China? Or a chaotic, poor country like Rwanda? Or Putin's Russia?

As Fareed Zakaria points out in an excellent article (only a portion linked, as the whole thing is behind a pay-wall), the United States dominates all other countries when it comes to locking up its own people. The incarceration rate is 25% higher than the rate in any other country in the world, and it's 3 times the rate of any other large/wealthy country (Brazil). Even comparing our present to our past shows our current system is out of control. Our incarceration rate was only a quarter of its current level just in 1980.

It's not like our prisons are a model of rehabilitation, or even safety. A recent study by the federal Department of Justice, as reported in Reason, estimated that over 200,000 inmates are sexually assaulted every year. In 2003, Congress unanimously passed Prison Rape Elimination Act. A bipartisan commission came up with a batch of solutions to the toxic environment in our prisons. These solutions were rejected by Attorney General Eric Holder on the grounds that they would be too expensive to implement.

Even without trying to implement a system where we don't allow our citizens to be raped while in our prisons, we spend a fabulous amount of money on prisons. Zakaria discusses that the rate of increase in prison spending has increased 6 times faster than spending on higher education since 1992. In my lifetime, California has built one college and 21 prisons.

So what's the solution? One easy place to start is to roll back the War on Drugs, which we'll discuss more in the near future. The rate of arrests for possession went up tenfold between 1980 and 1996. There were 1.66 million arrests in 2009 for possession. By not wasting billions locking up stoners for simple possession, we can free up enough money to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act recommendations and to put some money back into states' coffers.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Romney fumbles Obama's open mic gaffe

Libby and I decided on a house today (in Bath, close to her parents and mine), so no full post today. Here's an article about Romney's utter failure to capitalize on Obama's being caught on tape telling the Russian President he will have more flexibility after the election. It should have been a big problem for Obama, given the sense among conservatives that Obama's only pretending to be non-radical and is only waiting until after the election to turn us into a socialist state, but Romney stepped on the story by calling Russia our greatest geopolitical foe, which is just silly.

It's things like this that give me hope for the election.

Obama does need to be more careful though. Fuckin' pitchers and catchers put their baseball gloves over their mouths every time they have a conference on the mound, so Obama shouldn't discuss these things in public, even if there aren't microphones around.