Monday, April 6, 2009

Still Crazy After All These Years

It is not hard to learn more. What is hard is to unlearn when you discover yourself wrong. -- Martin Fischer
In this week's Sift:

Republican Budget: The song remains the same
One reason to read the Weekly Sift is that I do a lot of disagreeable things so that you don't have to. This week I read the 62-page House Republican Budget Alternative, which is supposed to prove that Republicans are not just the Party of No; they have ideas of their own.

They do have ideas -- Ronald Reagan's ideas from nearly 30 years ago, put forward as if the last few decades have nothing to teach us. They propose cutting both taxes and spending. As always, they're very specific about which taxes they're going to cut (rich people's), and very vague about what they're going to spend less on. It's worth noting that whenever Republicans have been in power, the vague spending cuts have failed to materialize, and the tax cuts went straight to the deficit.

Taxes. The tax cuts are a laundry list of everything the rich and powerful want:
  • the top tax rate goes from 35% to 25%
  • the corporate tax rate goes from 35% to 25%
  • the Bush tax cuts are made permanent rather than expiring in 2011
  • capital gains taxes are eliminated in 2009 and 2010. (Notice: This is the same "temporary" trick as the Bush cuts. As soon as it passed, Republicans would start complaining about the "tax increase" scheduled for 2011. Also: this cut goes almost entirely to the wealthy. Lots of middle-class people have a few hundred dollars of capital gains in a good year, but capital gains are a major portion of the income of the wealthiest Americans.)
  • the estate tax (a.k.a. the "death tax") is eliminated. (Again, this goes entirely to the wealthy. Currently, only estates larger than $3.5 million pay the estate tax.)
The one part of their plan that helps ordinary people is to raise the standard deduction to $12,500 ($25,000 for couples) and the personal exemption to $3,500. So a family of four would pay no tax on the first $39,000 of income. All other personal deductions are gone.

The spending cuts are just decrees that there shall be spending cuts. No actual programs are picked out for reduction or elimination, other than repealing the stimulus bill. So the hard part of budgeting -- telling people that they're going to lose their jobs or that their child won't get a liver transplant or that their bridge won't get maintenance again this year -- is punted down the field.

For example, the report says this about entitlements:
Total mandatory spending increases by an average of 3.9 percent per year for the next 10 years. This is slightly slower growth than projected in the Congressional Budget Office baseline and the Obama/Democratic budget.
It's an old Republican budgeting trick to talk about capping spending growth rather than cutting benefits. But if there's inflation and an increase in the number of people eligible for benefits (more old people, say), then the only way to cap spending growth is to cut per capita spending. Benefits for each individual go down, in other words, even though total spending on the program may go up.

More money is saved by giving states "more flexibility for their Medicaid recipients." In other words, someone else -- governors, most of whom are Democrats -- will have to tell poor people that they won't be getting as much health care.

Spending on defense and veterans is allowed to increase, but all other discretionary spending "is assumed to be level-funded through fiscal year 2014 before growing at a moderate rate through 2019." Again, this means that the hard choices are somebody else's problem. If you want to increase spending on, say, modernizing the electrical grid, you'll have to find something else to cut -- maybe college scholarships or food stamps.

This approach makes sense only if you assume that the federal budget is full of bridges to nowhere -- programs that can be eliminated without hurting anybody. But whenever Republicans try to identify some, they embarrass themselves. Examples: Sarah Palin talking about "fruit flies" in the fall campaign and Bobby Jindal ridiculing volcano monitoring in his response to President Obama's joint-session-of-Congress speech. This document doesn't risk getting that specific. But I have to wonder: If the government really is full of wasteful programs, is it too much to ask them to name one?

In fact, wasteful spending is fairly hard to find, the scale of it is nothing like the trillions of dollars in Republican tax cuts, and most of it consists of unnecessary weapons systems and pointless favors to big business -- not scientific research, welfare fraud, foreign aid, or most of the other things Republicans complain about.

Having decreed that spending shall not rise, the document then has some multi-color graphs showing spending not rising, and the national debt increasing more slowly than under Obama's budget. Of course, they could just as easily have decreed that spending would go to zero and then made a graph of that.

Energy. They do go into some detail about energy.
Despite abundant domestic resources, the Federal government has adopted policies that largely prevent domestic production of oil and natural gas.
Abundant is relative. We have proven oil reserves of 21 billion barrels, which sounds like a lot until you realize that we consume nearly 21 million barrels a day. So our proven oil reserves are about a three-year supply. If we explore more, we might find more. But people have been looking for oil in the U.S. for more than a century. If some new Saudi-scale oil field were down there, we'd have found it by now.

In order to more efficiently recover our "abundant" resources, the Republicans call for "streamlining of environmental laws and regulations." Because the environment is doing great, I guess, and we've been way too zealous about protecting it. And offshore drilling ... what could possibly go wrong with that?

To be fair, the document does admit that "Increasing domestic oil and gas production alone will not end U.S. dependence on foreign oil." And it does say that we'll have to transition more of our transportation to run on electricity. A lot of that electricity will have to come from "the most abundant and lowest cost of domestic energy resources" -- coal. Coal is also our dirtiest energy resource, but the Republican document cleans it up by calling it clean coal. (As the TV spot puts it: "Clean coal harnesses the awesome power of the word clean.")

But they're not relying on coal alone, because "increasing nuclear power generation is the most effective strategy at reducing emissions". Emissions of what? They're not saying. The term global warming (which is controversial in Republican circles) does not appear in the document.

Health Care.
The budget reforms the health care marketplace by making quality health care coverage affordable and accessible for every American regardless of pre-existing health conditions.
How? I have no clue. Maybe by harnessing the awesome power of the words affordable and accessible.

Wait, they do provide one clue: "Medicare and Medicaid themselves contribute in their own way to medical inflation." So over the long term (not affecting people currently 55 or older), their proposal privatizes Medicare so that the government subsidizes private insurance premiums instead of paying for care. I guess some kind of magic-of-the-marketplace (which hasn't worked up until now -- private alternatives to Medicare currently cost the government more per person than Medicare does) is going to create massive savings.

The truth here is simple, and runs exactly counter to what the Republicans claim. The main reason we spend more for health care than other countries and get worse results (see graph below, taken from here) is that we waste massive amounts of effort arguing about who is going to pay for care. In a single-payer system, that question is answered and the system can focus on providing care.
One more thing. The Republican budget repeats a talking point that has been bugging me at least since the 2008 primary campaign:
[Our proposal] reinforces the decision-making of patients and their doctors, not government bureaucrats
That focus-group-tested phrase sounds great. But if you've ever been seriously ill or injured, you know that this "patients and their doctors" thing is a fairy tale. Major medical decisions are made by insurance-company bureaucrats -- people whose companies profit by providing as little care as possible. If our fates are going to be decided by a bureaucracy, you can have the insurance companies and I'll take my chances with the government.

Social Security. The Republicans continue the alarmist rhetoric President Bush used when he tried to privatize Social Security.
Social Security as currently structured is going bankrupt and cannot fulfill its promises to future retirees.
Social Security has been "going bankrupt" since FDR created it in 1935. Every now and then the tax or benefit rates have to be rejiggered to make the numbers work out. The last time it got rejiggered (in the 1980s), the system was within a few months of having the checks bounce. As currently structured, it's good through 2041 under slow-growth assumptions and longer if growth matches the historical averages. As Paul Krugman says: "There is a long-term financing problem. But it's a problem of modest size."

The solutions the Republicans propose are technical and I can't figure out what they would actually affect. But there are no tax increases, so any shortfall is taken out of benefits.

Connecting the Dots Between Guantanamo and Your Safety
Rachel Maddow is turning into the liberal conscience of cable TV. Smart, calm, rational, and often even funny -- she manages to say the things that need saying without being nasty about it.

Friday, she connected the dots between prosecuting Bush administration officials and regaining our standing in the world. North Korea is holding two female American journalists from Current TV, and is rumored to be charging them with the vague crime of "hostile acts" -- which could land them in a North Korean prison camp for many years. Asked about their fate, North Korean officials reportedly laughed and said, "We're not Guantanamo."

Rachel sums up how our bad behavior can boomerang back at us in cases like this:
We inquire about how long they're going to be held, and they shoot back, "Well, it's been seven years plus that you've been holding hundreds of foreigners at your offshore prison at Guantanamo."

We inquire about charges: "What is this 'hostile acts' ridiculous charge?" And they shoot back, "Well, at least we're bothering to charge them. How many of the prisoners at Guantanamo and Baghram and the CIA prisons have had charges brought against them?"

We inquire about how well these women are being treated, and they shoot back by -- what? -- quoting to us from the list of approved enhanced interrogation techniques, maybe? Quoting to us from the transcripts of Dick Cheney on TV saying waterboarding ain't no thing? [She plays a clip of Cheney's ABC interview, where he says that none of interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, went too far.]

There is a new president in place now, one who has very, very, very, very different ideas about interrogations and prisons than Bush and Cheney do. But to a certain extent the damage has been done. We would never want Americans to be subjected to imprisonment for years in some foreign country without charges. We would never want Americans to be tortured. And if we're going to get back the power to stop Americans from being subjected to things like that, don't we have to make it clear that America believes no one should get away with treating people like that?

I know that Washington apparently has no appetite for Senator Leahy's truth commission, but maybe the need to fix this is bigger than the appetites of Washington politics. Maybe this stretches 13 time zones, into every corner of the world where Americans might find themselves in trouble and need some help.
There is another way to look at this, of course: That we should just stomp on any country that would treat Americans the way we treat citizens of other countries. It could work, I suppose. But we should be honest about what this is: a might-makes-right approach to the world. It means giving up completely on the idea that the United States of America represents something higher and better than what big powers have been in the past.

There are lots of appropriate labels for people who hold this view. But don't call them patriots.

Short Notes
For years, German police had been finding the same woman's DNA at crime scenes all over the country. But strangely, the crimes seemed to have no other connection. Finally they tracked her down: She works for the company that makes the cotton swabs forensic teams use.

Irish police mounted a equally successful manhunt to catch the notorious scofflaw Prawo Jazdy, a Polish man who had racked up traffic violations all over Ireland, but escaped justice by somehow inducing police to record a different address each time. Eventually an ingenious detective figured out that prawo jazdy is Polish for "driver's license".
Huffington Post names the five greatest April Fools pranks of all time.

Once again, Jimmy Kimmel demonstrates that anything sounds nasty if you bleep enough of it.

Ever since Glenn Beck started weeping on camera about how much he loves his country, a lot of us have been wondering what satirist Stephen Colbert could possibly do in response. Had Beck passed into a you-can't-top-this realm beyond satire? Clearly not.

I'm betting a bunch of Wall Street Journal readers didn't realize that Thomas Frank's recent op-ed was tongue-in-check. He's responding to a recent case in Pennsylvania, where two judges took kickbacks ($2.6 million) in exchange for sentencing kids to a for-profit juvenile detention facility. But Franks' combination of conservative get-tough-on-criminals rhetoric with pro-privatization rhetoric fits right in on the WSJ opinion page.

Today the do-gooders revile those efforts as "kickbacks," but before long we will see them as legitimate tools of justice. Our laws governing lobbying and campaign contributions have struck the right balance between the wishes of the people and those of private industry, so why are we so quick to doubt that the same great results can be achieved by putting the government's justice-dealing branch on the same market-based course?

The public will get to see their neighbors' kids go to jail, the judge who sends them there will be able to afford a nice condo in Florida, and the company that satisfies the public's desire for punishment will make a handsome profit. It will be a win-win result for everyone.

Same-sex marriage is for those way-out liberal states like ... Iowa?
Another important legal decision: Three prisoners at our Baghram prison in Afghanistan can appeal to a U.S. court. The Obama administration had continued making the Bush-administration case that the courts shouldn't interfer with Baghram because it's in a war zone. They lost because these three prisoners were captured outside of Afghanistan and moved there.

The court is right and Obama is wrong. Yes, the executive branch has to have leeway to operate in special situations. But when they start gaming the system by moving people into those special situations, specifically so that they can take advantage of those special powers, they've got to be held accountable somehow.

Things continue to get worse in Pakistan.
Interesting and more-or-less optimistic article about the future of news in the internet era. Steven Berlin Johnson uses a ecological metaphor, and advises basing predictions on the "old growth" areas of internet news coverage: technology and politics.

The Washington Times (the Moonie newspaper) reports that 12% of Americans still believe President Obama is a Muslim -- maybe because media outlets like the Washington Times keep finding ways to put Obama and Muslim in the same headline.

Following up on my article on the Employee Free Choice Act two weeks ago, here's an account of the tactics used at one company whose workers were trying to join a union.

It took four years to figure out that a Pakistani died in a New Jersey immigration detention facility. The NYT wonders: how many other deaths in detention have gone unrecorded?

Metaphor meets reality: Boats need a bailout.

Correction from last week: In my discussion of David Kilcullen's The Accidental Guerrilla, I noted that his preferred term for al Qaeda terrorists is takfiri rather than jihadi or mujahid. But I got wrong what takfiri means. There's a longer discussion of the word in Juan Cole's Engaging the Muslim World, and I think I get it now.

Takfir is a declaration that someone who claims to be a Muslim actually is not. A takfiri is someone who makes such declarations, particularly someone who makes sweeping declarations that lots of people aren't really Muslims. Al Qaeda does this, following the lead of its "ideological godfather" (Cole's term) Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Egypt's secular Nasser government in 1966. To Qutb, anyone who believed that humans can make their own laws (rather than receiving laws from God) was not really a Muslim.

Cole agrees with Kilcullen that this is a position held by a small minority of Muslims, and has been denounced by the most reputable and influential scholars. (It also ticks off ordinary people, the same way that Christians get ticked when some small group claims to be the only real Christians.) "Mainstream political Islam," says Cole, "roundly rejected [Qutb]." So labeling al Qaeda types takfiri calls attention to the way they differ from the majority of Muslims, while jihadi or mujahid are terms that al Qaeda embraces because ordinary Muslims view them favorably.

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