Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ignoring Character Flaws

While on vacation in Hawaii, President Obama said some nice things about Michael Vick's return to the NFL. He cast is as an example of convict-makes-good. There was never any question about Vick's abilities as a football player. What is in question are his qualities as a human being. Remember, he went to jail for dog-fighting. His hobby was watching dogs kill each other and he personally killed under performers. Vick claims to have reformed and has even asked to be allowed to own a dog as part of his recovery. If he has actually learned to form an attachment to dogs then this would be far more worthy of mention than his abilities on the football field.

There is a human tendency to overlook flaws in our heroes. The more we agree with someone the more willing we are to overlook their flaws. President Obama fell victim to this tendency.

Another, more important example is Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the charges against him. Several celebrities starting with Michael Moore contributed to Assange's bail. They insist that Assange did nothing wrong and that the charges against him are political.

A lot of misinformation was tossed around about the charges, even before they were filed. Basically Assange had sex with two women. Both of them made it very clear that they only consented to sex if he wore a condom. The first woman's complaint was that he eventually put one on but she was convinced that it was torn. Presumably Assange knew if it was or not but he did not let her examine it.

The second woman's complaint is stronger. Again, she insisted on a condom. After sex, the two of them fell asleep. Assange woke up first and decided to have a second go at her without a condom. This would be murky under US law although many colleges would count it as rape. It is better-defined under Swedish law where it took place and is a crime there.

Wikileaks provokes emotional responses. Supporters of the leaks are willing to forgive the leakers almost anything. Glenn Greenwald of Salon has been attacking Wired for revealing details about the actual leaker.

These emotions lead to double-standards. President Obama may slip and say that there are 57 states but the general press does not cover it. Sarah Palin slips and says North Korea instead of South Korea during a live radio show and it is reported for weeks, even though she corrected herself later in the show. The difference - the media admires Obama and hates Palin.

Going back further, many Democrats held that Clarence Thomas was unfit to be a Supreme Court justice because one woman complained that he used crude language around her amounting to sexual harassment. When women came forward and said that Bill Clinton had used his authority as governor to coerce sex from them, there was a stunning silence from these same Democrats. The head of the NOW even offered to give him oral sex because he kept abortion legal.

The point of this is that laws and mores have to apply evenly to everyone. We cannot have exceptions for heroes. The President should not be applauding Vick and Moore should not judge Assange's sexual behavior based on his political actions.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The DREAM Act failed the lame duck Congress but it will be back. For those who were not paying attention, the DREAM Act is being pitched as a way for the children of illegal aliens to become citizens by getting a college degree or joining the military. It is described as an act of fairness for children who were brought here without their consent by their parents. Some descriptions of this group make it seem as though they are the smartest kids in America.

Ok, that's the spin. What is really going on?

Foremost, this is an act of pandering by Democrats to the Hispanic voters. The hope is that they will be able to capture the Hispanic vote the same way they did the black vote, eventually leading to a permanent Democratic majority. Citizenship is a serious matter and should not be used in cynical vote mongering.

Not surprisingly, the DREAM Act is not exactly what it is being presented as. (note - I'm working from the summary in Wikipedia and a separate site here.) The act would grant permanent residency and a path to citizenship to people who meet some basic requirements - either serving two years in the military or completing two years of college.

Before I go any further, I would like to clarify that I think that allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship through military service is a great idea. As long as their English is good enough for them to communicate effectively they should be allowed into the military. I would, however, prefer a 3-4 year hitch since training in the modern army takes so much time. A two-year hitch does not give enough time for proper training and deployment.

My main complaints are with the college part of the act. Most of the PR talks about minors gaining citizenship but the act would cover anyone between 12 and 35 (Wikipedia says 30). The act gives them six years to complete two years of college so the upper limit would apply to people aged 42. If the act is supposed to help minors then limit to minors with a cut-off of either 18 or 21 for enrollment. Age 21 is consistent with the provision that people applying have to have entered before the age of 16 and have resided here five years (16 + 5 = 21).

Allowing six years to complete two years of college is also too generous. I'd like to see them complete a four-year degree in that time. Someone who takes six years to finish two years of college is not serious about getting a degree. Remember, the education requirement is an alternative to military service and this is being billed as a way of retaining the best and brightest of the illegals. Anything less is nothing but a back door amnesty (what a surprise!).

Something else that I don't like about this act is the financing. Applicants under the DREAM Act cannot qualify for Pell Grants but can get federally-funded student loans. The act would also allow states to grant subsidized resident rates for state schools instead of the higher out-of-state rates.

If it is toughened up the DREAM Act might be useful but the most recent version was more of an effort to pander for votes than a real proposal to provide an educated American workforce.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Civil War

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has begun. In some ways, the war is being fought all over again. The latest shot is a column by E. J. Dionne Jr. Dionne's main point is that the war was about slavery instead of states rights and that no one should argue the point.

In the interests of history, I am going to argue the point. I will start out by agreeing that slavery was a root issue. The fight over slavery was a major defining point of 19th century politics up to that point. The Republican party was created mainly around anti-slavery. The only disagreement within the party was how to do it. Many demanded that Congress simply declare slaves freed. Others, including Lincoln, wanted to stop slavery from being allowed in new territories and states with the goal of isolating the slave states and slowly forcing them to give up their slaves. The southern states were well aware of this and succeeded.

The succession did not start the war. Lincoln forced the issue by insisting that the US Government retained ownership and control of forts, even ones in the heart of the South. He provoked South Carolina by resupplying Fort Sumter which controlled access to Charleston, the South's most important port. South Carolina responded by shelling and eventually taking the fort. Lincoln used this to declare the South in a state of rebellion and got authorization to pacify them.

But, while slavery was the root cause, it was not what the armies were fighting for. We know that from recruiting posters and other period records. Soldiers from the North did not sign on to free negroes. They wanted to punish the rebels. Similarly, most southerners did not own slaves. They were fighting against what they saw as northern aggression.

By reducing the war to nothing but a fight over slavery, Dionne and others are also trying to divide it into a simple conflict between good and bad. This has subtle political implications for today.

Keep in mind that the word "state" usually means the government. When the United States was founded it was meant to be a collection of small countries, united for their own defense, much like the European Union is now. That is why we call if the "federal government". In the wake of the Civil War the North felt that the states had been allowed too much authority. This is when federal law started taking president over state law.

Now, many people feel that the federal government has taken too much authority and are calling for a reversal.

That is why Dionne and others are simplifying the Civil War. If the war was a fight between good and evil and the evil side invoked "states' rights" then any modern person who uses those words must be evil and "states' rights" is nothing more than code words for reestablishing slavery. Similarly, any commemoration of the war must be a racist celebration of slavery.

In essence, how we remember the Civil War has become a new battleground in the fight over expanding federal authority. Ironically, the Party of Lincoln is now trying to stop a trend that he began and the party that was willing to accommodate slavery is now invoking the fight against it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas - War or not?

So, is there actually a war on Christmas or are people who celebrate Christmas simply tone deaf to the new realities of a multicultural America? One way of telling is to look at how generic terms like "happy holidays" are used. Are they really used in an effort to include multiple faiths or are people really trying to suppress any mention of Christmas?

One telling indicator is that there are some items that are exclusive to Christmas. The decorated evergreen is the prime example. It is part of Christmas but it is not part of Christianity. It is not part of Christian faith. It's origins are obscure and may be pagan. So why do governments and businesses refer to them as "holiday trees" or "winter holiday trees"? Who are they fooling?

No one according to Chase Banks. They forbid putting up evergreen trees in their branches no matter what it is called. They still allow the poinsettia which is another plant that is exclusive to Christmas which shows that they are simply confused. Maybe it is because the poinsettia doesn't have "Christ" or "Christmas" in the name?

This works the other way, also. Are any items associated with other December holidays given a generic name? Does anyone sell a "holiday candle holder" instead of a menorah?

There is also the date. Hanukkah moves around. This year it came in early December so there is no way that you can wish someone a happy holiday in late December and include the Jews. The Winter Solstice was December 21 so the same problem applies as of the 22nd. That only leaves Christmas and Kwanzaa. My wife recently saw a sign saying that a business would be closed December 23 and 24 for the Winter Holiday". There is only one holiday that this could apply to so why not say it?

Kwanzaa deserves a special mention. It was invented in 1966 as a holiday that blacks could claim as their own. As this article points out, very few blacks celebrate it. Because of its associations with black nationalism it is pretty much limited to black nationalists.

The real giveaway came from NPR personality Nina Tottenburg who said, "And I was at – forgive the expression – a Christmas party at the Department of Justice". So people from NPR feel the need to apologize in advance if they use the word "Christmas" in any form.

If this isn't a war on Christmas then what is it?

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. 

UPDATE: Nina Tottenburg now says that she has not problem with saying Christmas and that her comments were meant as a dig at the DOJ's "Holiday Party" and that they are the ones who refused to use the word "Christmas".

Monday, December 20, 2010

Politifact and the Leak of the Year

PolitiFact, the non-partisan political fact-checking site, has named the Lie of the Year - that Obamacare was a government takeover of health care.

Wow! They admit that the phrase was used more times than they could count so they have just called nearly every conservative including the new Speaker of the House liars. Given PolitiFact's claim to be neutral, they must have a really good case for this, right? Well, not so much. In fact, their whole case rides on semantics and preconceived ideas of what constitutes a government takeover.

Their case is:

"Government takeover" conjures a European approach where the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees. But the law Congress passed, parts of which have already gone into effect, relies largely on the free market:

Employers will continue to provide health insurance to the majority of Americans through private insurance companies.

• Contrary to the claim, more people will get private health coverage. The law sets up "exchanges" where private insurers will compete to provide coverage to people who don't have it.

• The government will not seize control of hospitals or nationalize doctors.

• The law does not include the public option, a government-run insurance plan that would have competed with private insurers.

• The law gives tax credits to people who have difficulty affording insurance, so they can buy their coverage from private providers on the exchange. But here too, the approach relies on a free market with regulations, not socialized medicine.

The biggest issue here goes unremarked. Obamacare was not health care reform. It was health care insurance reform. It essentially transformed medical insurance from a regulated business into a utility. Granted, Republicans did not make this distinction but neither did the Democrats. Did Obamacare amount to a government takeover of medical insurance? PolitiFact never even considers this.
What they do give is a straw man definition of a government takeover. What they describe is not the approach that most European countries have used. Even in the UK hospitals are government-owned but doctors are still in private practice and able to accept patients who pay for their services (in exchange for preferred treatment). Their description comes closer to Cuba than Europe. Similarly, did anyone making the claim takeover claim ever imply that it would cover everything as PolitiFact claims?

Other points that PolitiFact missed:
  • It includes an expansion of the government-run Medicare and Medicaid systems.
  • The insurance exchanges may consist of private insurers but the exchanges only exist because of government mandate.
  • The law includes incentives to make it less desirable for employers to offer insurance.
  • According the to CBO Obamacare represents an unprecedented expansion of government power by requiring the population of purchase something as a condition of citizenship.
PolitiFact gives this poll result as evidence of the lie's effectiveness:
By March of this year, when Obama signed the bill into law, 53 percent of respondents in a Bloomberg poll said they agreed that "the current proposal to overhaul health care amounts to a government takeover."
Since all of the details of the plan had been played out in public for months, my take on this is that the general population is using a different standard for government takeover than PolitiFact uses.

PolitiFact did not offer a single contrary opinion. Instead they quoted the editor of the left-of-center-and-proud-of-it site Slate.

To completely jump the shark, they went on to interview former DNC chair Howard Dean about the meaning of their finding.

Naming this the lie of the year will hurt PolitiFact in several ways. The fact that they consider their argument to be iron-clad shows that they are in a political echo-chamber without a dissenting opinion to keep them intellectually honest. Most conservatives really believe that Obamacare represents a government takeover (at least one of medical insurance). Their reaction will not be to apologize for misleading the nation. Instead they will attack PolitiFact's piece, just as I am right now. The long-term damage will be that conservatives will be able to dismiss PolitiFact as being another liberal attack site like Media Matters. Any negative finding from PolitiFact can be waved off as partisan.

This cannot be dismissed as an isolated incident, either. Last year's Lie of the Year was Sarah Palin's prediction of death panels. What she meant was that government health care would lead to panels making life or death decisions based on cost/benefit. The UK already has these. They are ironically named NICE.

A runner-up for this year's award was the claim that Obama's trip to India cost $200 million per day. This figure came from an Indian news service was was quoted by Michele Bachman. PolitiFact attributed it to her because she repeated it directly instead of verifying it first. Hey, Politifact, you guys are in the news. Are you saying that repeating what you tell us counts as lying? The original story gave a number of specifics in how the trip could cost so much. These included sending several navy ships to patrol the area and building a temporary tunnel for the President's car to use. I never saw any of these invesitgated not did the White House ever give a rough figure for what the real costs were. They simply denied that it was $200 million.

Politifact's record on Social Security and global warming is similarly poor. They already know the "truth" so on these issues they quote a single favored authority and rate contrary claims as false.

This does not mean that PolitiFact is totally partisan. On most of their rulings they actually give the person quoted a chance to document the claim. They usually present both sides then rank the claim. If you bother to read the whole piece then you can make your own decision. That said, the final rating on a six-point scale ranging from true to pants-on-fire is a judgment call and often comes down harder on the conservative.

Friday, December 17, 2010

No Labels?

I'm suspicious of any "centrist" movement that is promoted on the Huffington Post. This was true for Jon Stewart's Return to Sanity Rally and it is also true for the new "No Labels" movement. This wariness was enforced by an E, J. Dionne column. Dionne is no centrist. He is a proud liberal. So why is he promoting a movement that claims to be apolitical? The obvious answer is that it is not what it claims to be.

The No Labels group was founded by some Democratic consultants. Most of the people they have attracted have also been left-of-center. The few Republicans associated with them were all defeated in the primaries for being RINOs (Republican in Name Only).

Dionne comforts us that the country has already moved to the right:

The basic difficulty arises from a false equivalence they make between our current "left" and our current "right." The truth is that the American right is much farther from anything that can fairly be described as "the center" than is the left.

Indeed, there is no far left to speak of anymore. Even among socialists - I'm talking about real ones - almost all now acknowledge the benefits of markets, no longer propose state ownership of the means of production, and accept the inevitability of inequalities in wealth and income. What they oppose is the rise of extreme inequalities that are antithetical to both a healthy democracy and a healthy market economy.

I'm glad to know that the socialists have finally given up but I'd like to know when they had this epiphany? Just a couple of years ago they wanted President Obama to nationalize the banks.

In the meantime, large parts of the right have moved to positions that Ronald Reagan didn't dare take, or abandoned in the name of realism: voucherizing Medicare, partially privatizing Social Security, insisting that the New Deal represented an unconstitutional power grab, and eviscerating inheritance taxes and progressive income taxes.

All of these ideas have been floating around Libertarian circles since I first learned about them, back during the Reagan administration. True, Reagan didn't try any of them. By the same token, a large percentage of the Left really, really wanted British-style socialized medicine but settled for what they could accomplish. They are still complaining about it. Does that move the country back to the left?

At its heart the message of the No Labels people is, "Stop your partisan bickering and admit that we are right!" That isn't a new message, just a rebranded one.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What's Wrong With Education

The US scores poorly against other countries in multiple subjects. One response has been to call for more school funding. I have a better idea - let's fire all of the teachers and replace them with people who will actually teach their subjects.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. An english teacher wrote to the Columbus Dispatch in response to a suggestion that teachers should be evaluated according to how their students do in standardized tests.

I will not teach my students the 21st-century skills of working collaboratively, using technology wisely or communicating effectively (except in the short-answer or five-paragraph-essay formats). I will not teach them how to be problem-solvers, how to be innovative or how to work well in a culturally diverse environment. I will not encourage creativity or original thought. My students and I will not discuss how literature connects with and reflects on our lives.

I will teach them the important skill of how to take a test. In class we will scrutinize multiple-choice tests, reading random passages out of context with no relevance to their lives. I will teach them how to bubble in correctly and how to erase completely. They will learn the difference between a No. 2 and a No. 3 pencil.

I will get to school at 7:15 a.m. and leave promptly at 2:45 p.m. I will take nothing home with me. I will stop caring whether my students have enough to eat (except on testing days, of course), whether they are able to sleep between the gunshots or their parents' screams, whether they are depressed or whether they have time or a place to do their homework. I won't ask why they are crying or where those new cuts came from. I will care only about how well they can take a test.

This is part of a common complaint by teachers about "teaching to the test". It is also symptomatic of the teaching profession as a whole. They don't teach their subject any longer. Instead of teaching high school English, this teacher is teaching "problem solving", "using technology wisely", and "working well in a culturally diverse environment".

I suspect that most parents, when they see that their child is taking English, expects that the class will consist of reading an analyzing English literature or will teach proper grammar and word usage. Instead he has gone off on his own.

Schools are redundant. The same basic skills are taught at different levels. If a single high school teacher goes off the tracks and teaches his own curriculum instead of the one in his job description then his students will still have a working set of skills. But what happens when a lot of teachers stop teaching their subjects? Test scores decline against other countries where the teachers still teach what they are supposed to.

That is why standardized tests are so important. We need to see if the teachers are actually imparting any knowledge in relevant subjects. Teachers take this as an affront because it gives them less control over what they can teach. Tough. If they had been teaching their subjects in the first place then this would never have come up.

There are other harmful theories in modern education. Many teachers insist that their job is not to impart knowledge. Instead they feel that their job is to instill a desire for knowledge in their students. This sounds nice but to date no one has found the magic formula to do this. The worst example of this sort of mushy thinking was a math course called "Mathland" which was used briefly in California in the mid-1990s. No actual math was involved. Students were judged on how much effort and reasoning they put into problem solving. Someone who got the right answer would get a lower score than someone who put more effort into getting a wrong answer.

In contrast to this feel-good philosophy, studies have shown that the only way to teach math is the old fashioned way - memorizing tables and doing drills. It works but it is boring and modern teachers hate to make the kids work so hard (to say nothing of having to score all of those worksheets) so few schools do this any longer. They don't even teach long multiplication or long division any longer. Instead they teach the students to use estimates and to depend on calculators.

Then there is the cult of self-esteem. Educators don't want to make the kids feel bad by letting them know that some students are smarter than others. It used to be a joke that the kids at Lake Woebegone were all above average. Now it is the grade curve. How else can you explain students graduating with grade point average of 4.5 on a four point scale? Or a class having multiple valedictorians?

So, we need to purge the schools of anyone who has ever taken a class in education and start over again with teachers who actually teach.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Assange and JFK

Supporters of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks insist that they are preventing government abuses and providing transparency. If so, I wonder how they feel about this real-life example, the Cuban Missile Crisis?

During the Fall of 1962, US intelligence discovered that the USSR was arming communist Cuba with nuclear missiles capable of striking most of the US. JFK demanded that they be removed and blockaded Cuba. The USSR demanded that we lift the blockade and refused to remove their missiles as long as we have missiles in Turkey that could reach the USSR.

Things heated up. The US began planning on bombing the missiles. Castro and Che were all for obliterating New York City. We came closer to a nuclear war than any other time in history.

Then things were settled. The agreement was that the USSR would remove its missiles. In exchange we would lift the embargo on Cuba and promise that we would never invade it. We also agreed to remove our missiles from Turkey but this was kept a strict secret. JFK had campaigned on a platform of military strength. It would have killed him politically if it was known that he backed down from the USSR so this was a deep secret. JFK insisted that if this got out, the deal was off and we were back to the brink of nuclear war. In accordance, it was kept a secret until the fall of the USSR and the release of its archives.

40 years later we have WikiLeaks and it founder, Julian Assange who does not see why any government should be allowed to keep secrets. Right now he only hopes that his leaks will cause the US to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq but what if he had been around in 1962 and had access to JFK's secret deal. Would he still believe that government secrets are bad or would he release the information even if it meant restarting a nuclear confrontation?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Obama, the Democrats, and the Tax Cut Compromise

President Obama's compromise with the Republicans should have been a huge win for the President. He got a re-imposition of the estate tax, extension of unemployment benefits, and a moderate stimulus. True the Bush tax cuts were extended for everyone but only for two years and the estate tax is less than it would have been without the deal. The deal also clears the way for the rest of the Democrats' lame duck agenda (the Dream Act, DADT, STARTetc.) This is the sort of compromise that you expect from a "post-partisan president". You would think that the Congressional Democrats would be celebrating. Instead they are revolting. The story has gone from a triumph for the President to a battle. What happened? This probably relates to the President's disinterest in political compromise and his delegation of control. His previous anti-rich rhetoric didn't help either.

From the first, Obama undercut himself. In the press conference announcing the deal he started talking about negotiating with hostage-takers. He was pissy. It was obvious that Obama personally hated having to compromise with the Republicans. I'm guessing that he delegated the negotiations and only accepted the deal because his economic team told him that his presidency depended on supporting it. Since then the message from the White House has been mixed. The President himself appears to be conflicted but his economic team insist that the compromise is the only thing standing between us and a double-dip recession.

The reaction from the Congressional Democrats is illuminating. Many of them have indicated that they would rather see taxed rise for the entire country than see the "rich" keep the Bush cuts. After two years of complaining that the Republicans will not compromise, they have revealed their own reluctance to compromise. For the record, they did not compromise with the Republicans over health care. They compromised with their own moderates and shut out the Republicans.

The Democrats have only themselves to blame for their dilemma. More specifically, they should blame Nancy Pelosi. President Obama delegated most of his legislative agenda to her. She was the one who delivered health care after Obama seemed to give up in November, 2009. She was also the one who decided that the most controversial elements of the Democratic agenda would be put off until a lame duck session. This gave the Republicans the extra bargaining power they needed to force the compromise. The Democrats stuffed months of work into a few weeks. They do not have time for a significant fight. The Republicans used that to threaten to hold up everything.

So, why did Pelosi put off so much until a lame duck session? Dishonesty. She knew that many of these issues will hurt the Democrats. Don't Ask/Don't Tell (DADT) has been controversial since 1993. The Dream Act is a form of amnesty for illegal aliens.

The tax cuts are the most contentious issue and the one that the left believes most strongly in. Pundits have been calling for Obama to fight hard to raise taxes on the rich. Obama has been pledging to do this since he was a candidate. Pelosi would have had little trouble getting this through Congress a few months ago. Why didn't she?

This was probably a cold-hearted political calculation. The Democrats like to call the Republicans the "party of the rich" but for the last several years people making more than $200,000 have contributed a great deal more to the Democrats than to the Republicans. Many of these people voted for Obama and were shocked to be demonized by him. With a tough election, the last thing the Democrats needed was to alienate this group further and cut off a source of campaign contributions. A lame duck session is as far from an election as is possible and Pelosi probably hoped that by 2012 rich donors would have forgotten and/or forgiven being singled out for a tax hike.

The whole lame duck session is inexcusable. No new emergency happened to make this so urgent and the current Congress lost its mandate in the November election. Everything under consideration could either have been taken up months ago or could wait until Congress's next session. The only reason that so much business is being conducted is that Pelosi wanted the cover of a lame duck session for legislation that would hurt her party. They are more interested in pushing an agenda than in representing the electorate.

That means that they cannot start fighting with the Republicans over principle. The sacrificed those months ago.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Doubling up on Doublethink

I barely finished pointing out the doublethink exhibited by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman before he compounded it in a new column.

Krugman spent the last two years saying that we need to ignore the deficit and spend money like the country did in World War II. He said this a lot. Admittedly he was talking about the government doing the spending instead of allowing individuals to do their own spending but even Krugman admits that there is some stimulus value to tax cuts. More on that later. In the meantime, here is Krugman's new line:

We're talking about almost $4 trillion in lost revenue just over the next decade; over the next 75 years, the revenue loss would be more than three times the entire projected Social Security shortfall. So giving in to Republican demands would mean risking a major fiscal crisis — a crisis that could be resolved only by making savage cuts in federal spending.

And we're not talking about government programs nobody cares about: the only way to cut spending enough to pay for the Bush tax cuts in the long run would be to dismantle large parts of Social Security and Medicare.

In the past Krugman has suggested spending much more that $4 trillion. As recently as September 5 he tossed the figure $30 trillion around when talking about WWII spending that he wants us to emulate. So, we can afford to spend $30 trillion but $4 trillion (actually $3.7 trillion rounded up) will ruin the country. I guess that you have to win a Nobel prize to understand that sort of logic, It somehow escapes me.

The other bit of doublethink come here:

A few months ago, the Congressional Budget Office released a report on the impact of various tax options. A two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts, it estimated, would lower the unemployment rate next year by between 0.1 and 0.3 percentage points compared with what it would be if the tax cuts were allowed to expire; the effect would be about twice as large in 2012. Those are significant numbers, but not huge — certainly not enough to justify the apocalyptic rhetoric one often hears about what will happen if the tax cuts are allowed to end on schedule.

So, he admits that the tax cuts will have some stimulus effect although his discounts it as minor. This is the same guy who, only last week, insisted that freezing the pay on federal workers would hurt the economy.

A couple of final points. One is that you cannot directly compare the cost of not raising taxes with the cost of actual spending. Once money is spent it is spent but tax rates change regularly. President Obama's deficit reduction panel recommended a total overhaul of the tax code, flattening the tax rates and eliminating most deductions. Also, raising the tax rate does not increase revenue in a direct proportion. If you double the tax rate the tax revenues will be less than double because of people sheltering their earnings.

Krugman's real complaint is not the cost of extending the tax cuts. There was no question that the cuts would be extended for most people accounting for $3 trillion. Krugman has not condemned this. He suddenly got anti-deficit religion because the Republicans won the tax argument. Krugman does not want President Obama to compromise with the Republicans. He wants continual war with them. This would ruin the Obama administration since Republicans control the House and have enough votes to block the Senate. Krugman would prefer the pyrrhic victory of seeing all of the Bush tax cuts expire than see Obama and the Republicans reach a compromise.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Liberal Doublethink

The novel 1984 introduced the term "doublethink" which means to believe two contradictory things at once. The last few days have been full of liberal doublethink.

The two hottest issues of the day are President Obama's pay freeze on federal workers and extending the Bush tax cuts for everyone or letting them expire for a portion of the population.

The arguments against the federal pay freeze as given by Paul Krugman are:

The actual savings, about $5 billion over two years, are chump change given the scale of the deficit.

Anyway, slashing federal spending at a time when the economy is depressed is exactly the wrong thing to do.

You know the old expression - a billion here, a billion there and pretty soon we're talking real money.

So, according to Krugman, any cut in federal spending is bad - exactly the wrong thing to do. But hold on a minute. He also wants to raise taxes on the wealthy. If keeping federal workers from getting $2.5 billion in the next year will hurt the economy then what will it do to the economy if we take $70 billion a year from the group that accounts for nearly half of all consumer spending?

Do you see the paradox? Obviously Krugman does not? How do we explain this paradox? Apparently only federal spending stimulates the economy and salaries count as federal spending but only for federal employees.

One wonders about federal employees who make more that $200,000 per year? According to Krugman, they need to keep getting increases in order to keep the economy going but they also need to have their taxes raised because they are wealthy and make too much money.

There are other issues but these are seldom discussed. For the federal workers, there is the fairness issue. A huge number of the population is unemployed or underemployed. Another huge portion has had to cope with pay freezes of actual cuts for the last couple of years. At the same time, the government was giving pay increases to its employees with borrowed money. This shows an arrogance towards the average worker.

An argument against extending the Bush tax cuts for a portion of the population is that it will raise the deficit by $700 billion over the next ten years. Seldom mentioned is that the Bush tax cuts as a whole will cost $3.7 billion over the same period. Liberals concentrate on the $.7 trillion and ignore the $3 trillion.

Are conservatives engaging in their own doublethink? Not really. They are least explain their apparent contradictions.

First, the pay freeze was President Obama's idea. conservatives may applaud it but it was never high on their list of priorities. That only leaves balancing tax breaks against cutting the deficit. There is no major contradiction here, either. Since the days of President Reagan, conservatives have been for lower taxes in order to improve the general prosperity and for cutting the federal deficit by cutting government. Liberals are asking them to abandon their quest for smaller government in order to cut the deficit.

Also, the numbers are not a hard as they sound. People avoid paying taxed. Raise their taxes and the put more effort into avoiding taxes. Back when the highest tax rate was above 70%, no one actually paid this percentage. They put their money into tax shelters. These cost money but the high tax rate made it worth the effort. The liberals want to bring back those days.

Taxes are also  drag on the economy. The government does not spend money, it reallocates it. In takes money that might have been used to buy a new car or invest in a new business and uses it in other ways. One hopes that it is at least spent wisely but often it ens up in earmarks and pork barrel projects. Krugman and company only look at the good that federal spending does without considering the good that private spending can also do.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Constitution and the States

There is enthusiasm for a new constitutional amendment that would allow the states to nullify a federal law if two thirds of the states voted in favor of nullification. The reaction of Washington Post columnist, Dana Milbank is typical.

The amendment is an obvious reaction to Obamacare which passed with a small, partisan majority. As the Congressional Budget Office pointed out, Obamacare represents a major expansion of government power. Never before has the government required the purchase of a product as a requirement of citizenship. The fact that such an expansion happened without any Republican votes should be a warning to both sides about partisan overreach.

If Milbank was honest, he would have mentioned Obamacare in his column. He did not. Instead he mentioned racism and slavery. Repeatedly. Milbank presents the amendment as a move by the South to restore slavery.

"This repeal amendment gives states a weapon, a tool, an arrow in their quiver," he told a group of state legislators assembled at the Hyatt in downtown Washington. Of course, states have fired similar arrows before, and it led to a Civil War and Jim Crow - but Bishop wasn't going to get into that.


Then there's the unfortunate echo of nullification -- the right asserted by states to ignore federal laws they found objectionable - and the "states' rights" argument that was used to justify slavery and segregation.

He is also offended by the idea that just any states should have so much power.

The mechanics of the amendment are also a bit odd. It would allow the repeal of any federal law - from civil rights to health care - if two-thirds of the states say so. But that could mean that the 33 smallest states, which have 33 percent of the population, have the power to overrule the 17 largest states, which have 67 percent of the population.

He must be deeply troubled by the US Senate which also allows a majority of the smaller states to overrule the larger ones. This quickly becomes a numbers game. 25% of the population resides in just three states (California, Texas, and New York). Add in Florida and Illinois and you have a third of the population in 1/10th of the states. How much power does Milbank want to give to those three states?

Milbank also sees a paradox in politicians who value original intent but want to amend the Constitution.

Republicans gained control of the House last month on a promise to "restore the Constitution." So it is no small irony that one of their first orders of business is an attempt to rewrite the Constitution.


Several amendments? Would it be easier if they just got some red pens and walked over to the National Archives to do the job?

Let's be clear about how Conservatives want the Constitution to be treated. It was never intended to the the end world on any subject. That is why in includes the process for amending it (which, by the way, also allows smaller states with a minority of the population to override the larger states). Conservatives feel that the Constitution should be accepted as it is. If it needs updating then go ahead and amend it. That fits right in with the writers' original intent.

Instead, for the last several decades, Liberals have insisted that the Constitution should be treated as a "living document" and constantly re-interpreted for the modern world. The 2nd Amendment debate is an example of this. It is true that the Framers had no concept of automatic weaponry when they said that the right to bare arms shall not be abridged but they wrote what they wrote. If you disagree then get an amendment passed. Liberals prefer to short-circuit this process by finding a sympathetic judge or simply ignoring the Constitution.

Another factor in the debate is the way that the relationship between the federal government and the states has changed. Originally the states were assumed to have authority over most things. Congress's authority in the Constitution is actually pretty limited. After the Civil War, the North decided that the states could not be trusted so the federal government was given power over the states. This led to a huge growth in the size and scope of the federal government, eventually leading to Obamacare.

In its entire history, the US government has never before asserted the authority to compel its citizenry to do something. All previous laws were either prohibitions (you will not do this) or conditional (if you do this then you must do it this way). If this stands then eventually the Conservatives will use it in a way that the Liberals do not approve of. Liberals should remember this and support the amendment.

Also keep in mind that getting 2/3s of the states to agree on anything is tough. Look at how few times the Constitution has been amended. If 2/3s vote a particular way then it means widespread dissatisfaction.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Net Neutrality

For many, mainly on the left, net neutrality is an ideological battle akin to free speech. It is the struggle to keep the mega-corporation from strangling the little guy. In practice, it is a replay of the Tragedy of the Commons.

The Tragedy of the Commons is based on the old idea of the commons - land that is held in common by everyone in a village and available to everyone for grazing their sheep. In this example, the commons can only support 100 sheep but there is more demand. Each time a villager adds an extra sheep to the commons he hurts the entire herd a little but profits by an entire sheep. Driven by relentless logic, the villagers keep adding sheep to an overtaxed commons. In this simplistic model, the villagers are unable to cooperate to limit the size of the herd and thus doomed to keep adding sheep until the entire flock starved.

Net neutrality works a lot like this.

Take Netflix and their new web-only version. That sucks up bandwidth. If too many customers start subscribing to Netflix then customers are going to start complaining and demanding action. But they will not be complaining to Netflix. They will be complaining to their internet provider, expecting the provider to increase bandwidth. That's why one of the providers, Comcast, wants Netflix to pay for the bandwidth they are using.

It gets more complicated, though. Comcast has its own streaming movie business that is competing with Netflix.

So, is this an example of Comcast trying to throttle competition? Not really. If Comcast's streaming business eats up so much bandwidth that customers complain then it is Comcast's problem. They will have to pay for the upgrade but the costs will be offset by the profit they made by streaming the movies in the first place. If Netflix causes the same problem then Comcast still has to pay but this time they don't get any of the profits. Netflix is freeloading. It's as simple as that.