Monday, August 31, 2009

Conservatives Finally Embrace Great Society

Lyndon Johnson must be dancing in his grave. He could never have imagined that conservatives would come to embrace Great society so much.

Let me explain. In the last few weeks, conservative groups have left no stone unturned in their efforts to prevent healthcare reform. One such effort has been to turn senior citizens against healthcare reform by launching ads arguing that proposals to cut Medicare amount to achieving universal healthcare on the backs of seniors. You can see one such ad here.

This is ironic because conservatives have traditionally opposed government run health programs. Here is something Ronald Reagan said about health reform efforts in the 1960s:

But at the moment I'd like to talk about another way because this threat is with us and at the moment is more imminent. One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine.

There are three possibilities here:

1. Conservatives have suddenly fallen in love with government run healthcare programs

That after all, is what Medicare is. So that begs the question, if Medicare is such a good system that it doesn’t need any cuts, what’s so bad about a potential public option in healthcare? Also, can someone who supports such a large entitlement program, even for the elderly really be considered a conservative?

2. Conservatives think it’s unfair to take away Medicare since benefits have been promised, but still think “socialized medicine” is a bad idea

This is the most favorable interpretation of what some conservatives are doing. The logic goes that people pay taxes into Medicare, and have been promised benefits for decades, so taking away the benefits is unfair, even if Medicare is a bad program in conception. Still Medicare has well known fiscal issues in upcoming years. Currently, the program is on track to deplete the trust fund financing its hospital benefits in 2019. You’d think conservatives would be in favor of doing something about that.

3. This is a totally cynical ploy to torpedo healthcare reform

Seniors vote more than other age demographic. Cutting billions of dollars is sure to be unappealing, at least until the Obama administration does a better job making its case that cuts won’t affect the care Seniors get. By mobilizing Senior citizens, conservatives can make it very difficult to achieve any meaningful reform.

Regardless of which of these three it is, conservatives have unwittingly bought into the Great Society welfare state.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why Do Black People Believe Crazy Conspiracy Theories?

Do you remember the Jeremiah Wright Reverend Wright controversy last year? If not, here’s a youtube video of his famous “God damn America sermon” that forced Obama’s race speech last year.

This represented well some of the conspiracy theories that subsections of the Black community believe. It’s hard to understand how anyone could believe such conspiracy theories if you don’t know a lot about Black history.

This summer, I worked on a story about black pro-life groups, and found that many of them believed legalized abortion was a plot against Blacks. Everyone I interviewed mentioned Margaret Sanger and her racist views. One person mentioned that a lot of Black pro-lifers believe that Planned Parenthood deliberately targets Blacks.
At first, they sounded a bit out there, but as I dug into the history of Margaret Sanger, and her racist and pro-eugenics views, I understood why they believe that.

In 1939, she worked on something called the “Negro project.” In a memorandum, she wrote:

We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.

Little wonder many Blacks think Planned Parenthood sets up shop in Black neighborhoods for the purpose of exterminating Black babies.

Or take the example of AIDS. A 2005 study by RAND and Oregon State University showed that a majority of blacks believed that a cure for AIDS was being withheld from the poor; that nearly half believed that AIDS was man-made, with a quarter believing that it was created in a U.S. government laboratory and 12 percent naming the CIA as its source.

This seems crazy until you read about the Tuskegee experiments. For 40 years, starting in 1932, the public health service studied Black men who had syphilis. Medicine was withheld from the men since health officials wanted to see how the disease spread, and how it affected people. When you add this to a history of slavery and segregation, it becomes easy to see how Blacks—especially older ones— could think the government is out to get them.

That history is where Black paranoia comes from.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Are We Living in the End Times?

This is a question I’ve pondered some in the past few days. Recently, I read Are We Living in the End Times? by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, the authors of the popular Left Behind series. In the book, the two men assert that sin has increased substantially in recent years, and as a result, the end times are nearly upon us.

As evidence they point to changes in sexual morality, which has of course changed. Homosexuality is accepted to a much greater degree. Cohabitation, premarital sex, and looking at porn are common behaviors among the current generation.

But is the current generation really more sinful than previous ones? I’m not even sure that what traditional Christianity would call sexual sin is on the increase. People have always committed adultery and had premarital sex. The only difference is that those behaviors are more acceptable in society.

Even if we grant that society is more sinful in some ways, it can’t be in others.

Let’s take a look at history. Are we really worse than the generations that enslaved millions of Africans? Are we worse than generations that violated treaty after treaty with Native Americans and took their lands? There can be no doubt that society is more tolerant of minority groups than it was centuries ago. Working to treat all people fairly, including minorities would please Jesus, I’d think. Similarly, he must have been angered and saddened by chattel slavery, or the use of deception to drive people off their lands.

Here’s a truly interesting question: are we worse than the generation that crucified Jesus? That generation (if you believe the Biblical accounts) was one so wicked that it rejected the only begotten son of God who performed miracles in front of its very eyes.

So while I’m no expert on end-times theology, I just don’t see that sin has gotten any worse in recent years.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Harry Reid in Trouble

It’s hard to believe, but Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) might lose his seat in next year’s midterm elections. A recent poll saw him losing to either of the two Republicans who might emerge from a primary to take him on.

What happened to Reid? In part, his association with the Obama administration is likely hurting him. On every initiative, from the stimulus to healthcare reform, Reid is closely allied with Obama. Remember that Nevada has traditionally been a moderate-to-conservative state.

True, Nevada went for Obama in the 2008 election, by a surprising 55%-43% margin. But in 2000 and 2004, Nevada went for Bush. Prior to that, it went for Clinton twice in 1992 and 1996, but then for every Republican nominee since the 1964 election.

So by no means is Nevada an easy environment for a Democrat, particularly one identified with a liberal President. Midterm elections are usually referendums on the President and the party in power. And Obama and the Democrats’ approval ratings have fallen in recent months.

It is not unheard of for a party leader in the Senate to lose. For example, in 2004, Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), then Senate minority leader, lost his seat to Jim Thune.

None of this is to say that it’s hopeless for Reid. It’s not. He’s planning to spend $25 million on his reelection campaign, and bring in big guns like Obama to campaign for him (not sure how much this will help). More importantly, Nevada has more registered Democrats than Republicans. Now, many of these are more conservative, blue dog types. Still, there is a partisan advantage to be had.

And of course, the Republicans still have to go through a primary which could turn nasty. That could sap enthusiasm in the Republican grassroots, and deprive the eventual nominee of resources. I do expect the RNC to pitch in a fair bit of money though, as Reid would be quite a prize to knock off.

Going forward, Reid needs to work on turning out his base in large numbers and winning over the conservative Democrats who aren’t now backing him. He also needs to tout the benefits of having a Senate majority leader in terms of pork. Being able to point to specific projects which boosted the local economy would be helpful for wavering moderates worried about the economy. He can argue that a new Senator won’t be able to help Nevadans as much.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Merit Pay For Teachers?

School is starting back up across the country. So now is a good time to consider the quality of America’s teachers. Reformers have been touting merit pay for teachers for some time now. Would it help?

People respond to incentives in life. One such incentive is money. If a teacher knows that he’ll make $40,000 if his students do poorly, but $100,000 if his students do well, it seems like he’d make more of an effort to ensure that his students do well. He’d put more time into developing his lesson plans and more time staying after class to help with questions. He would also have an incentive to experiment with different teaching styles in an effort to reach all the kids in his class.

Under status quo, once teachers get tenure, they are often locked on a pay scale by seniority. They can’t be fired, and they’ll get raises or stay at the same level no matter their performance

Now, many teachers are more altruistic than say an investment banker or corporate lawyer. But it is hard to believe that financial incentives couldn’t be tempting.

There is a question of fairness. Why should teachers be punished because some students come from difficult backgrounds, or don’t care about their subjects? But in every other field, people have obstacles to deal with. And in no field is just showing up enough. When Lebron James steps onto a basketball court, he can’t complain about being double-teamed, or fans waving signs while he shoots free throws. He’s held accountable for his results. If a doctor has patients die year after year, no one will come see him. He can’t say that he had perfect attendance at all his surgeries, or that some of the conditions were tough. He is judged on his results.

A serious concern is that merit pay could lead to too great of a focus on standardized tests. Teachers could have an incentive to spend all of their time helping students game tests instead of learning substantive material. But perhaps that is a reason to try and change standardized tests to reflect substantial material. For sure though, implementing merit pay could be a challenge.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Huckabee in Israel

With all the recent coverage of healthcare, most of us missed Mike Huckabee’s comments last week in Israel.

He said,

“Should the Palestinians have a place to call their own? Yes. I have no problem with that. Should it be in the middle of the Jewish homeland? That's what I think has to be assessed as virtually unrealistic.”

Why would Huckabee say such a thing?

It can’t be because he wants to pander to Jewish voters. Even the Netanyahu government in Israel thinks there should be some form of Palestinian state, even if it is demilitarized. And a majority of Jewish voters support a Palestinian state.

I think there are two explanations. The first is Republican Party politics. The second is Hucakbee’s evangelical faith. While Huckabee’s comments are out of the mainstream, there is a significant subsection of Republican primary voters who agree. Support for Israel among evangelical voters who dominate the important Iowa caucuses is particularly high. For example, 89% of American evangelicals say they have a “moral and Biblical obligation to support” Israel.

That of course begs the question of why many evangelicals would support denying the Palestinians a state in the Middle East. Part of the explanation is surely sympathy with Jews for the persecutions they have endured for centuries. After enduring so much, allowing the Jews to have a state is only fair.

For many evangelicals, support for Israel is indeed Biblical. There is a gut appeal to having God’s chosen people (the Jews) have their old homeland back. And many would like to see Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.

I think these factors explain staunch evangelical support more than anything. Some like to point to Christian end-times theology to understand the high support. The reasoning is that Israel is to play an important role during the last days and so it needs to preserve its identity as a Jewish state. There are indeed some evangelicals whose support for Israel derives from reading end-time prophecies.

But I’m not sure why. The Christian God is omnipotent and omniscient. Surely he doesn’t need human help to accomplish his plan. If it is his will that the end-times happen, then it will happen.

So while all of this explains why a Christian like Huckabee might strongly support Israel, I’m still at a loss for why he opposes giving Palestinians land in well, Palestine.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Death Panel Nonsense

I saw an interesting article from Froma Harrop that was worth sharing.

So I wonder if Sarah Palin really thought her death panel talk through. Does she know how often that private insurers do this sort of thing? Does she even know that it happens in the first place?

What if her special needs child didn’t have a Governor for a mother? Some insurance company would do all it could to deny care. I’m sure treatment for such a baby would run hundreds of thousands of dollars. An insurance company wants the maximum amount of profit possible, so it has every incentive to cut down on the care it offers. Since most Americans get their health insurance through an employer, they have little or no recourse.

By contrast, a public option would be less likely to do such a thing. Government is subject to the votes of the people. If the government starts euthanizing grandmas left and right, people will quickly vote the public option out of existence, and the politicians who supported it out of office. That means bureaucrats and congressmen have every incentive to make sure no one is denied life-saving care.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that Palin is right and there will be death panels. Even then, you’re better off with a public option. Insurance costs will go down, and everyone will at least have some coverage. That means relieving a strain on small business and putting more money in the pockets of working families. If we stick with the status quo, we’ll still have death panels, we won’t cover everyone AND we’ll have exploding costs that will bankrupt us in the next decade.

Have a great weekend!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Why Conservatives Oppose Healthcare Reform

Why do conservatives, almost to a man, oppose universal healthcare? Why do they oppose things such as a public option, or even single payer?

It can’t be because of their support for business. A public option could in fact help business as, I’ve detailed before.

It can’t be because of rationing
, whatever conservative rhetoric. The truth is that rationing already happens in a couple of ways. First, millions of Americans have no health insurance, simply because they can’t afford it. For others, paying monthly premiums is enough of a hardship that they can’t save for college or do other important things. If you make $70,000 and have to pay $15,000 a year for a family after taxes and mortgage payments, that severely limits what else you can do. So “rationing” can’t really be why conservatives oppose universal healthcare and a public option.

I think it comes down to four things then. The first is taxes. If universal healthcare is passed, whenever conservatives want to cut taxes for the affluent, Democrats will be able to say that lower tax revenue will mean the government can’t continue to pay for universal healthcare. If the new healthcare entitlement is popular, then conservatives will have a hard time selling such tax cuts ever again.

Second is a commitment to their view of capitalism. Economic conservatives believe that people who make more money should be able to have more things, and this includes better health insurance. Why should a factory worker who makes $50,000 a year get the same health insurance a CEO of a major corporation does? Despite the fact that many conservatives believe that those with more should get better healthcare, they won’t say it out loud.

Third, conservatives can deal a big defeat to President Obama and the Democrats by defeating the healthcare proposals. Senator James DeMint said that a healthcare defeat could be Obama’s “waterloo.” With Democrats seen as a failure, maybe conservatives can make gains in the 2010 midterm elections.

Fourth is conservative opposition to the welfare state in general. Conservatives have opposed federal entitlements since the New Deal. They’ve lost battle after battle on Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid for example. In their heart of hearts, many conservatives would repeal these entitlements; there just isn’t the political will to do so. Universal healthcare would represent the greatest expansion of the welfare state in US history, and conservatives are determined to fight it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

You Should Fear Our Current Healthcare System, Not Reform

I’ve been watching these town halls. Many of the people going have all kinds of fears, ranging from death panels to rationing. But I think it’s important to remember some fears that people should have, but haven’t expressed much in the past weeks. Here are some fears you should have:

1. You could lose your job

That’s especially true in this economy where jobs are being shed left and right. That’s a problem when the healthcare system is based on employment. That means if you lose your job, you lose your coverage. We need reform that enables people to maintain coverage should they lose a job.

2. Your insurance company denies you care

While a strong majority of Americans are insured, many of them are under-insured, and at the mercy of their insurance companies. These companies have been known to cancel coverage for sick people, or deny treatment. They have every incentive to do this because their job is to make money. So if your treatment hurts their bottom line, they’ll try to prevent you from getting it.

3. Healthcare premiums rise to the point where you can’t afford them

Right now, workers pay $1600 more for family coverage than they did in 1999. Since 2000, the average employee contribution to employer health insurance has risen 120%. Pretty soon, many employees won’t be able to afford to contribute to their employer plans. And for people who purchase insurance as individuals, God help you. Premiums will be prohibitively expensive.

4. You’ll go bankrupt

50% of Bankruptcy filings are partly the result of medical costs. 1.5 million families lose their homes each year due to healthcare costs. What if you get hurt at work, or you need quadruple bypass surgery? There’s a chance you could become bankrupt too if your deductible or co-pay is too high. And your insurance company has every incentive to make that co-pay or deductible as high as possible.

5. High healthcare premiums erode your wages

As already noted, health insurance premiums are rising much faster than the rate of inflation. Many of those who have employer benefits think they’re getting a free lunch. They’re not. Businesses take money out of your wages to pay for healthcare. The more money they have to spend on healthcare, the less for you.

The statistics in this post come from the National Coalition on Healthcare.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Michael Vick Back in the NFL

Michael Vick is going to be a Philadelphia Eagle. His ambitions were given a boost when Tony Dungy backed his reentry to the league over a week ago.

Nonetheless, many remain fiercely opposed, particularly animal rights groups. Why should a vicious dog killer get to make millions of dollars, and be a role model for kids again?

Let’s do a cost benefits analysis to the Eagles. The downside is that the team would lose fans and viewers. But how many? Something tells me that many of the PETA activists who attend animal rights conventions aren’t the biggest football fans. Moreover, I’d think that a lot of Americans have either forgotten about the incident, or no longer care, especially given important issues like healthcare and the economy.

Assuming Vick is able to play at a high level, he could help a team. If the Eagles become more competitive in the league, and have a chance to win the Super Bowl, more people will come to games and watch on TV. So Vick could be a net benefit.

What about the morality of it all? Is it right for a man who killed dogs to play again? It seems to me that Vick paid his debt to society by going to prison for a significant stretch of time. America is a place of second chances. At some point, it’s fair to allow him to make a living again. If he makes that living in the NFL, so be it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Obama Backing Away from the Public Option

President Obama is signaling that the public option is not a necessary component of his health reform proposals. This begs a couple of questions, which I’ll try to address here:

1. Will this improve chances of passage?

Yes, I think it will. Some healthcare plan would have passed the House of Representatives where the Democrats have a huge majority and Nancy Pelosi. But in the senate, there are several conservative Democrats like Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson, and Kent Conrad. A public option may well lose their support. And Republicans will remain uniformly opposed. Since there are 40 Republicans and several conservative Democrats, public option supporters lack the votes to invoke cloture on a filibuster.

Removing the public option will soothe some fears. Many Americans are worried that they will be forced onto a government option which rations care and contains death panels. Now, it is easier for everyone to believe that they won’t have to make any changes in their healthcare.

Of course, there is still a chance that Democrats could push through a partisan bill through Congress. Perhaps the Democratic leadership could twist enough arms to get passage. If conservative Democrats in the Senate can be cajoled into opposing a filibuster, then a party-line vote might approve healthcare reform.

2. Is this good policy?

While it makes political sense, I’m not sure it is. Part of the reform package is supposed to be cost control. But trusting private insurers to rein in cost seems a fool’s errand. In just two years, Massachusetts—which relied on private insurers for its reform—has seen its cost go from $630 million to $1.3 billion. Still, the state has more than 200,000 uninsured. Insurance companies will charge all they can. Meanwhile, if reformers are serious about making sure the 47 million uninsured now have insurance, they will have no choice but to shell out large sums. We already have large deficits, and I see a reform like this only adding to it substantially.

Even worse, some government policies will give insurance companies an excuse to charge more. Preventing companies from denying coverage based on preexisting conditions means that companies will increase premiums to cover the increased costs. Now, some conservatives are touting reforms like letting people buy insurance across state lines. That should help, but it I don’t see it restraining costs all that much.

So I’m worried we’ll get the worst of both worlds. Some people will still lack healthcare, while costs are still too high. Some compromise.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Crack Laws Reformed

The drug wars will hopefully be getting some much needed reform soon. At the end of last month, the House Judiciary committee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing act of 2009.

This legislation eliminates the infamous 100-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Previously, just five grams of cocaine were enough to land a person in prison for five years. In case you’re wondering, five grams is the equivalent of about two sugar packets.

Surprisingly though, the bill didn’t garner unanimous support in committee. In fact, it passed on a party line vote, 16-9. Ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said “this bill sends the wrong message to drug dealers and those who traffic in ravaging human lives: It sends the message that Congress does not take drug crimes seriously.”

Please. There are plenty of ways to reduce the number of people doing crack. We can fund better education in schools to get youth to steer away from the drug. We can make more use of rehabilitation programs. And of course we can direct our law-enforcement resources against true drug kingpins. Years of draconian sentences against low-level drug users have not stopped the use of crack. In fact, the number of new users has increased with time. In 1986, there were 300,000 new users of crack; in 2000, the number was 361,000.

But five grams of crack does not a drug kingpin make. A person caught possessing five grams is more likely to be trying the drug for the first time, or an occasional user. Does such a person really deserve to be in prison for five years with rapists and murderers? Should he go to jail in the first place? The answer to both those questions is no.

What purpose does sending a crack user to prison for five years automatically serve? It can’t be to rehabilitate. No one who possesses five grams of crack requires that long to be rehabilitated. In fact, such a harsh sentence is counter-productive. The drug user will come out with a grudge against society, no ability to get a job or financial aid for college because he’s a felon, and substantial exposure to true criminal elements.

The only thing left for him as a practical matter is a life of crime—the very thing I thought Smith wants to stop.

It can’t be for incapacitation. A youth caught with two sugar packet’s worth of crack doesn’t need to be quarantined from society for five years. In fact, putting so many drug offenders in jail is a waste of resources that might be better used on dangerous criminals.

And it can’t even be for retribution. Punishment is supposed to fit the crime. But can anyone really believe that five years in prison for five grams of crack is anything other than cruel and disproportionate?

The only thing that could possibly justify these sentences is a desire for deterrence. But then it is incumbent on proponents of this disparity to show that the harsh sentences actually deter crack use which I have shown haven’t. Moreover, deterrence can’t be the only consideration in punishment. Otherwise, we could impose death sentences on people who drink underage to stamp out the problem.

This sentencing disparity should have been done away with long ago. It’s racially discriminatory. 80% of crack defendants are black, while whites tend to prefer powder cocaine. Add Hispanics to the mix, and some 96% of crack defendants are non-white. The result has been a huge surge in the number of minorities in prison.

That fuels a perception of racism in the communities most affected by the laws that strains relations between minorities and law enforcement at a time when crime really is a problem in many minority neighborhoods.

Truth be told, our approach needs more fundamental changes. Mandatory minimums and the idea of jail time for drug possession need to be reevaluated. Eliminating the disparity for crack and powder cocaine is a good first step on that journey.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Aritcle on Drug Sentencing

Enjoy an extra article from the Gadson Review this weekend addressing changes being considered in sentencing for crack cocaine.

To read the story, go here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The First Glimpse at 2012: Obama's Reelection Chances

President Obama has had a tough couple of months. But by no means are things hopeless for him. And it’s important to remember that whatever his trouble, his approval rating hasn’t fallen below 50%. Today, I want to consider Obama’s reelection prospects as they currently stand.

I have said before that I think Obama will win or lose on the economy. There is still a lot of truth to that. If the economy is doing poorly come 2012, he will lose. If the economy is booming in 2012 a la 1984, then he will cruise to an easy victory.

The uncertainty comes in a middle scenario. What happens if the economy is demonstrably better than it is now, but still struggling in 2012? Obama could win or lose in that case.

There are a number of factors that would determine if he won. The first would be the Republican candidate. If it’s someone like Sarah Palin whom voters perceive to utterly lack gravitas then I think Obama will still win. If it’s someone like Mitt Romney who has a coherent economic message, and is perceived as being capable of being President, then Obama could lose.

The second factor is Obama’s record of achievement on other issues. I think most prominent here will be healthcare. If Obama is able to get a meaningful bill through that Americans think has lowered premiums for middle class families and expanded access, he will be able to run on a record of reform.

If Obama botches healthcare reform though, it could be fatal. Now many of you might be thinking that Bill Clinton was able to survive even though health reform failed in 1994. But remember the other circumstances. The Republicans shut down government in 1995, and were seen as extreme. Also, they ran a lackluster candidate against him in Bob Dole. Obama can’t count on either of these things happening.

Still things are looking promising for his reelection. The economy is starting to rebound, however slowly. If he can regain his momentum on healthcare—which I think he can—he will be well positioned for next year’s midterm elections, and ultimately for 2012. Any reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Do We Need a Balanced Budget Amendment?

Many people are worried about the large deficits we’re running up. High deficits will lead to higher interest rates, and cause government borrowing to crowd out private borrowing they say. So is the solution to have a balanced budget amendment?

I think it’s an interesting idea. Such an amendment could have an exception for times of war or economic crisis. But the problem is defining what an economic crisis is. Surely, economists and politicians could well disagree on whether economic difficulties rise to the level of a “crisis.”

Balancing a budget in the middle of an economic crisis would be bad policy. During a recession, consumer spending and demand usually fall. To stimulate the economy, government could pursue any number of measures from tax cuts to infrastructure spending.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to cut entitlement spending for the most vulnerable members of society, or education spending. And the country could be in a foreign policy environment when it needs to retain a robust military presence. During recessions, tax expenditures often fall meaning that government would have less tax revenue to finance spending.

This all means that government is likely to run a budget deficit. And I think that’s the most important problem the amendment would run into. Making sure the government can run a deficit in a genuine emergency.

There is also a question of how the amendment would be enforced. If Congress were unable to agree on cuts, what would happen? Would the Supreme Court be forced to step in and raise taxes and cut programs? That’s certainly unappetizing.

But otherwise, an amendment makes lots of sense. Politicians will always be under pressure to provide more government services and cut taxes. The reason is that voters like government services and dislike taxes. So politicians’ incentive is to spend and cut taxes to get reelected. An amendment would provide a legal requirement for them to make the hard choices necessary to balance a budget.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Thoughts on Bill Clinton's Trip to North Korea

Bill Clinton was back in the news recently. He went on a trip to North Korea to go meet Kim Jong-Il and win the release of two American hostages. Was it right from him to do so?

Some conservatives are saying that Clinton is responsible for “rewarding bad behavior.” However, I fail to see what Kim Jong-Il got in return. He can’t think the US is suddenly going to stop trying to prevent him from acquitting nuclear weapons. And certainly, the US isn’t going to help him get those weapons. The only thing he might have gotten was a promise for more international aid to feed his starving population. Is that really so bad?

This returns us to the conservative trope for the past few decades that meeting with a dictator is always appeasement. Every such situation becomes Munich in 1938. The dictator is Hitler, while the other leader is Neville Chamberlain. Someone who talks tough is Winston Churchill.

But I think that’s wrong. Chamberlain didn’t appease Hitler because he met with him; he appeased him because he let him have the Sudetenland. 1938 shouldn’t guide every foreign policy decision we make. And if we insist on letting it, then we should at least draw the right lessons. Just talking doesn’t hurt our national interests.

So I ask the question: would you rather have two Americans be made to suffer in North Korea to look “tough?” What would not talking to North Korea have accomplished?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Healthcare Silliness

Surely, there are many of legitimate questions to be asked about what potential healthcare reforms mean. But the arguments I’m listing below have really begun to grate on me.

1. The Democrats are going to kill grandma

There has been a much hyped provision in one of the bills that covers end-of-life counseling for elderly people who want it. And so this has been taken to mean that in a public option, some doctor will come along at age 75 and tell poor grandma that it’s time to die, and offer her end-of-life counseling instead of surgery.

First, Democrats have a stake in not killing grandma. If the public option does pass, then it will look pretty bad to go to constituents to talk about a program which killed their grandmas. The public program will be voted out of existence by angry constituents real fast if grandmas are being euthanized left and right. That means a public plan will more likely than not, cover that life-saving surgery.

Second, it’s unclear to me that grandma will fare any better under status quo. Unless she has a really good insurance plan, or a pile of cash lying around, she can’t afford certain surgeries unless Medicare (gasp, a government program) helps out.

2. A public plan will ration resources

This has become a trope that conservatives have returned to for decades. The problem for them is that rationing already happens. Millions of people are rationed out of the healthcare system each year because they can’t afford it. Moreover, private companies have been known to do everything they can to wiggle out of providing care. They discriminate on the basis of preexisting conditions, terminate coverage for sickly patients, or just decide not to cover a procedure or medication. This sure seems like rationing to me.

Now, if conservatives think that their method of rationing is better, then they should simply stand up and say so. They can say that they’re fine with people who have more resources getting care, and people with fewer getting less care or worse care.

As I said, there is a legitimate debate to be had about healthcare reform. Will it decrease innovation? Will it mean the end of private insurance as we know it in America? I doubt it. But let’s hear people make their case. Just please stop with these two above arguments.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Our New Supreme Court Justice

The results are officially in now. Sonia Sotomayor is our next Supreme Court Justice. She was sworn in over the weekend. This is surely a proud day for Hispanics, as she is the first member of that ethnic group to hold such a powerful position. Here are some questions to ask about the whole thing:

1. What does this do for Obama?

Politically, this buys him some time on immigration reform, which a lot of Hispanic voters are clamoring for. There is simply no way Obama can address immigration this year while he deals with the economy and tries to achieve healthcare reform.

But in the short term, some issues may have hurt, particularly with white voters. Most notable are the “wise Latina” comments, and her ruling against white firefighter Frank Ricci. But I think at the end of the day, the economy will trump all other concerns for voters going to the polls next year, and in 2012. So I think this will wind up not having a big effect.

2. Did Republicans hurt themselves with Hispanics?

Maybe to some extent. They repeatedly asked her about her “wise Latina” comments. And at the end of the day, they’ll be seen to have voted against a highly qualified woman who happened also to be the first Hispanic nominated to the Supreme Court. But as I said earlier, the economy will trump all. If Republicans can’t articulate a coherent economic message next year, and in 2012, then Hispanic voters will be the least of their problems. If they do so, then many Hispanics will probably be inclined to forgive if the economy is doing poorly and the Republicans seem like they can help.

3. What kind of a Justice will Sotomayor make?

I have absolutely no idea. In the confirmation hearings, she simply explained what a precedent meant, and said that she respected it, often calling it “well-settled” law. John Roberts did much the same thing during his hearings. Many observers think she’ll be a moderate liberal. But who knows? Many of these same observers thought that David Souter would make a reliable conservative. That certainly turned out not to be the case. When Sotomayor is released from having to follow precedent, she may surprise us all.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Affirmative Action Article

Here is an article on the subject I published at a newspaper I'm working for this summer. Please enjoy, and have a great weekend! Go here.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Do We Need Hate Crimes Legislation?

I came across an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post this week about hate crimes statutes. That got me wondering, do we need them, and are they fair?

A case can be made that hate crimes are indeed unfair since they punish thought and speech. We’re punishing someone for being racist or homophobic. But it’s constitutional to think racist or homophobic thoughts. The action of killing someone is what’s illegal.

Proponents of hate crime laws argue that they serve as a deterrent against certain crimes. Let’s understand their logic. Hate crimes don’t just affect one victim; they affect an entire community. A white man who kills a black person out of hate is on some level attacking the whole black community. A hate crime charge could deter acts of violence against a whole community, which would be a good thing.

But is a hate crime bill really needed to deter? Already, you could get the death penalty for killing someone, whatever his race. Will the possibility of getting charged with a hate crime in addition to capital murder really make someone think harder about killing that minority?

The one useful function of punishment hate crimes might serve is retribution. Society is expressing its moral outrage that someone would kill based on racism. But then, one might ask, is that crime really worse than when say, a husband kills his wife?

There is also an interesting question of which groups should receive hate crime protection. Should it go to historically oppressed minority groups only? It’s perfectly possible for a black person to kill a white person out of hatred. Should white men be a protected group? Come to think of it, most of the time, someone kills another person out of some kind of dislike or hatred.

What do you think? Take my poll. Are hate crime laws justified?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Read My Lips: Your Taxes Are Going Up

Your taxes are probably going up in the next couple of years. In the past, President Obama has insisted that taxes are only going up on those making more than $250,000 a year. But I don’t see how he can keep the pledge.

The government has taken on a lot of new debt to pay for the stimulus package and bailouts. There is every possibility that universal health coverage will add to that deficit unless politicians enact true cost-cutting measures in the final legislation. This is all on top of a substantial deficit left by the Bush administration. Right now, we have an $11.6 trillion deficit.

To make matters even worse, tax revenues are projected to fall by more than 18%, the steepest year over year decline since the Great Depression. This is because millions are out of work, or underemployed, meaning they have very little income available to tax. I suspect that capital gains revenues are also down as investments tanked in the last part of 2008.

Letting such a large debt go unchecked could have negative consequences for the economy. Interest rates will have to go up as investors demand higher yields on US bonds to keep buying them. Higher interest rates could make consumers less likely to take on mortgages or borrow money to start a business or even just spend. And the longer tough choices are put off, the more interest will have accrued on the debt.

To generate enough money to pay down the debt and pay for the level of government we need, the tax base needs to be as broad as possible. That means middle class and working class families will probably see higher rates. It might even mean adding a value-added tax (VAT).

All of this will be tough politically. Most people don’t like paying taxes. And the majority of voters are middle or working class. That means telling the majority of voters (who will determine if Obama gets a second term) that their taxes are too low, at a time when they feel they are already under assault from high living expenses.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Is the Recession Over?

The economy is getting better. Or at least, its getting worse at a slower rate than before. In the second quarter, GDP declined by only 1%. So does this indicate the economy’s going to get better soon?

My intuition right now is that does not. What’s really going to signal a recovery in the economy is consumer spending. And I’m not sure that’s going to pick up in a sustained way any time soon.

This is because consumers are busy paying down debt. Right now Americans have around a 7% savings rate. Money spent paying down debt is money not spent shopping. Household debt topped out in the last quarter of 2007 at 133.7% of disposable income. For a lot of families, they have years of debt still to pay off. That’s money they can’t spend.

And they will have to do so as the employment picture stagnates or worsens. In June, the US lost 62,000 jobs, which is some improvement from previous months. But the point is that we are still losing jobs. And Americans will be left with their substantial debt burdens to deal with while the economy is still hemorrhaging jobs.

That is not to say that there aren’t some improvements. Consumer spending was up slightly in June for the second month in a row. Housing starts were up 3.6% in June. The economy will get better; it’s just going to take a while.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Taxing Employer Health Benefits Revisited

One of the provisions in the recent healthcare proposals that have attracted some Democratic and Republican support is the proposal to tax employer health benefits, which I wrote about previously. I saw an interesting article in the Washington Post last week on the subject.

It argued persuasively (in my opinion) that the benefits of taxing employer health benefits on reducing healthcare inflation have been overstated. The idea behind taxing the benefits is that people over consume because it’s not their own money. This follows the maxim “that rarely do we spend other people’s money as wisely as our own.” This is surely true in many areas of life, but I’m not sure it is in healthcare.

It seems strange that people would choose to spend the day at a doctor’s office getting tests, and preparing for surgery just because they’re not paying. Most people would rather watch tv, or hang out with friends. As Steven Kreisberg, director of collective bargaining for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees put it in the article, no one says “ I have great chemo coverage so I think I'm going to go get cancer.”

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t tax employer health benefits. I detailed in my last post on the topic about how taxing these benefits would be fairer to employees who have to buy coverage with after-tax dollars.

Taxing benefits might also do two other things. First it could make employees more cost-conscious with the type of plans they get. Maybe young workers only need a catastrophic plan and something that pays for basic tests, not a $15,000 plan. Having to pay taxes on that $15,000 plan could make them see the costs of it. This could have the effect of lowering health costs for business.

Second, it would also raise money to expand coverage to the uninsured. And if it taxed only plans of more than say $10,000 it would do so without hurting working class employees who get coverage at work.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Thoughts on Beerestroika

Maybe the biggest news event last week was the beer summit between Henry Louis Gates, President Obama, Joe Biden, and Sergeant Crowley, following the arrest. There are a couple of questions from the summit:

1. Will this help President Obama?

Obama originally bungled this whole affair by saying the police acted “stupidly.” A Pew poll found that 41% of Americans disapprove of his handling of the affair, while 29% approve. As I noted in a previous post, I think this is partially responsible for Obama’s recent ratings decline.

Before, Obama could have been accused of automatically taking the black man’s side and not listening to the white man’s side of the story. But with this summit, Obama is seen listening to Crowley and working to transcend race, which was a central promise of his candidacy. The photo op could help Obama maintain that image. What would be really awesome in 2012 would be to have Crowley, who did not vote for Obama in 2008 to campaign for him in 2012.

2. Will this improve race relations?

Even hours ago, I was skeptical of that. I thought this was a silly photo-op. But I think there is promise. Gates and Crowley have decided to meet again. Seeing a rapprochement between these two would show that Americans really are capable of overcoming racial divides.

This has been referred to as a “teachable moment.” I think one of the most important things to remember here is that all involved are good people. The police officer seems like a good man, as does Gates, and the woman who called the police. What this means is that even good people can become embroiled in racial misunderstandings.