Friday, June 29, 2012

Obamacare fallout

In the short run, yesterday's Supreme Court decision upholding the individual mandate in Obamacare was a win for the President. It means that he has something to show for his first term besides a sluggish economy and the head of bin Laden (which cannot be shown). That short run may have already expired. Obamacare is still unpopular and the ruling on Medicare means that it will be more expensive. Polls taken before the Court's ruling showed that 75% of the country was hoping that it would be overturned. Conservatives just plain don't like it. Liberals really wanted single-payer and are afraid that they will never get it as long as Obamacare stands.

This adds an urgency to Romney's campaign. For the last couple of months it was assumed that Obamacare would be struck down leaving the economy as the main issue. Realists know that Romney will be limited in what he can do to stimulate America in a world economy. Conventional wisdom says that the economy will not get any worse if we keep Obama. That makes it harder for a challenger.

Now Romney has a second issue and a clearer choice. Obamacare will not be repealed while Obama is in the White House, If you want the law overturned then Obama has to be voted out.

A lot of people already figured this out. Romney's campaign received over $4 million yesterday. Much of this came from small donors who have previously not given Romney much money.

President Obama has already suggested that we should accept the Court's decision and move on. Romney's response is that the Court ruled that the law is constitutional, not that it is a good law.

Another problem for Obama is that the Court ruled that the individual mandate is a tax. This will hit the young and poor the hardest, violating Obama's pledge that he would not raise taxes on anyone making less than $200,000/year.

So, while Obama might be pleased that the legislation that was to be his legacy survived, it remains unpopular and will serve as a rallying point against Obama's reelection.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Health Care decision

The Supreme Court upheld most of Obamacare. This was not a total victory for the Obama Administration. The Individual Mandate was upheld as a tax instead of as part of the Commerce Clause. It was upheld in part because it does not include prison time.

A big problem for the Obama Administration is that the Court upheld a state's right to opt out. Obamacare threatens states with total loss of Medicare funding if the opt out but the Court ruled that the new law can only touch new Medicare funding that is part of the law. This has some serious implications for Congress's future power over the states. Often they force the states to go along with new legislation by threatening to cut existing funding. This ruling may stop that practice.

Allowing the Individual Mandate is just the most recent in a string of rulings that could have limited federal power but did not. A couple of other cases involve copyright and eminent domain. The Constitution says that copyright will eventually expire but that has not happened in decades. Hollywood, especially Disney, keeps lobbying Congress to extend the length of copyright. The excuse is so that Disney will not lose the rights to Micky Mouse (Technically, they would only lose the rights to early Micky movies. The character himself is protected as a trademark which does not expire). The Court agreed that there should be some limit on copyright but declined to say that we have reached it.

With eminent domain, the Court agreed that the government can seize someone's land and give it to a private developer even if the only public good is an increase in taxable value.

With all of these decisions, individual liberty is being slowly eroded in favor of moneyed interests. You would think that the outcry would be coming from the liberals instead of the conservatives.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Holder and the Gun Walking

The Justice Department ran an operation code-named Fast and Furious. Ostensibly the purpose of this was to track the flow of guns from American gun dealers to Mexican drug gangs. The operation had a number of serious flaws. It instructed gun dealers to make obviously illegal sales - ones in which the gun dealer recognized that the guns were going to be resold to drug dealers (this is known as gun-walking). These sales would never have happened without the operation so any results from tracking them would be dubious. Regardless, they lost track of most of the guns, up to 2,000 of them. Then these guns started showing up at crime scenes. One US Boarder Control Agent and 200 Mexicans have been killed with these guns.

How could this have happened? Congress held hearings to try to determine what the goals of this operation were, who approved it, and how high knowledge of the operation went?

The Justice Department responded with a letter stating that no gun-walking had happened. This was later retracted.

The current dispute between Congress and the Justice is over the letter. They are demanding all documentation on how the letter was authorized and retracted. The Justice Department has not provided sufficient information on this so a Congressional sub-committee voted to hold Eric Holder, the Attorney General, in contempt of Congress.

Things got even messier when President Obama announced that this information was covered by executive privileged. Normally this would be reserved for communication between the president and the Attorney General which raises some interesting questions including how deeply the President was involved in this.

Conspiracy theorists worry that the operation was originally set up to deliver guns to Mexican gangs in order to justify new gun-control legislation. It was obvious from the beginning that the Justice Department was unable to track these guns so why was the operation allowed to go on for so long?

Apologists say that the Bush Administration ran a similar operation. This is incorrect. The Bush administration tried an operation that would track guns that had been fitted with RFID chips using helicopters. The operation was cancelled as soon as it was found that the tracking technology did not work as hoped.

Apologists also point out that much of the rhetoric has centered around the slain boarder patrol agent but the subpoenas have been for documents from after his murder. At this point the sub-committee is investigating the letter that claimed that no gun-walking happened.

The Obama Administration appears to be stalling on the investigation until after the election. That implies that people at a high level were involved. Forty years after Watergate, politicians still need to learn the lesson that it is not the crime, it is the cover-up that brings down an administration.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Crying over Wawa

Last week the Romney campaign was planning a stop at a Wawa location. (Note, the chain is spelled "Wawa" as in Wawa, Pennsylvania which it was named for.) The Obama campaign was set to launch a protest but Romney's people got advance notice of it. The Romney campaign bus detoured to a different location and the event was a success. Later Romney contrasted the experience at Wawa with an optometrist trying to file a change of address notice to the government. The optometrist had to fill in a 32 page form. In contrast, a customer at Wawa can use a touchpad to order a custom sandwich.

This was too much for MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell. She showed an edited clip of Romney's speech that only showed the part where he talked about the Wawa and suggested that this was his supermarket scanner incident (in which George H. W. Bush was described as being amazed in 1992 by technology that had existed since 1980). She also suggested that Romney hasn't been inside many Wawas.

She may be right about that but not because Romney is isolated from everyday life. She may not realize it but Wawa is very much a regional chain. It has a lot of locations in the DC area but it is only in four states (with a planned expansion into Florida). Maybe Andrea doesn't get out of DC very often to see where people buy their gas.

Romney had a right to be impressed by the touchscreen. Wawa is a leader in implementing this. If you don't have a Wawa near you then chances are pretty good that you have never seen a touchscreen in a convenience store. Only 1% of convenience stores have them. More likely you found a pile of pre-made sandwiches of dubious origin.

So, rather than show Romney's cluelessness, Andrea exposed her own as well as her bias against Romney.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Imperial Presidency

Not so long ago Democrats were up in arms over George W. Bush's "Imperial presidency". One of their big complaints was signing statements. These have been used for decades and are a way for a president to signal any reservations when signing a bill into law. Wikipedia notes

In July 2006, a task force of the American Bar Association stated that the use of signing statements to modify the meaning of duly enacted laws serves to "undermine the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers".[2] In fact, the Constitution does not authorize the President to use signing statements to circumvent any validly enacted Congressional Laws, nor does it authorize him to declare he will disobey such laws (or parts thereof). When a bill is presented to the President, the Constitution (Art. I) provides three choices: do nothing, sign the bill, or (if he disapproves of the bill) veto it in its entirety and return it to the House in which it originated, along with his written objections to it.
Note that all of this outrage was about new laws and how they will be implemented and enforced. Also, Bush's statements were often meant as a warning that he would be directing the Justice Department to file a constitutional challenge to all or part of a law rather than a blanket refusal to enforce the legislation.

So what are we to make of President Obama's new immigration policy? This is not a signing statement on a new law. He simply announced that parts of current law will no longer be enforced. It amounts to an entirely new law.

This is something that Obama had previously said he could not do. Less than eleven months ago he said this:

The idea of doing things on my own is very tempting, I promise you, not just on immigration reform. But that's not how our system works. That's not how our democracy functions

Apparently the President gave in to temptation. This is not the first time. His EPA has expanded its power over areas previously controlled by Congress such as mileage standards.

Regardless, this is his most naked power grab. Think of the precedent that this establishes. Could the President grant future tax breaks by announcing that he will not enforce tax laws above a certain percentage? How would this be different?

The President's argument that he is changing this policy because it is the right thing to do is flawed, partly because his new policy is not what he says it is. He claims that it is aimed at young people who were brought into this nation unwillingly as children but it affects people up to 30 years old. Many of those affected came here alone of their own volition instead of being carried along by parents.

But even if it was everything he says, it still sets an unconscionable president. Even if you think that Obama was justified, would you want to see this power in the hands of a President Cheney?

So where are the people who worried about Bush becoming an imperial president who was not answerable to Congress? Why are there no calls for impeachment?

I can think of a few possible reasons. It is possible that Obama's supporters are willing to overlook and transgressions done as part of his reelection campaign. Or they may see this as a desperate act of a failing president. Most worrisome is that they approve of Obama taking on new powers. When Obama was first elected many people wanted him to become a temporary dictator and "just fix things". They may be cheering that he is doing just that.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Economic Speech - the Choice

President Obama gave what was supposed to be a major address on the economy yesterday in Cleveland. It was a total flop. Even Obama-supporters among the press corps were bored.

This is a sign that the Obama campaign knows that it is in trouble. The standard pattern is that every time the President is in trouble he gives a speech. Unfortunately for him, this has not worked since his inauguration. This speech offered nothing new.

Obama's main point was that this election offers a choice between two economic views. He is correct in this although he is wrong otherwise. He claims that electing Romney would bring about a return to the policies that lead up to the crash. In fact, his administration has done nothing to keep such a crash from happening again. On the contrary, his version of financial reform enshrines the idea of "too big to fail". Knowing that it will be bailed out by the government allows large companies to take risks that would be too dangerous otherwise.

But, back to the choice. Romney has a background in business and will be a business-friendly president promoting growth on the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats. Yes, the rich will get richer but he hopes that the poor will get richer, also.

Obama is for fairness and expansion of government regardless of the cost. He has not advanced a serious agenda for his second term so it would probably consist of entrenching the accomplishments of his first term. At best he has a tepid relationship with business (remember his reluctance to talk with the head of BP about the oil spill because doesn't trust CEOs?). His wants to raise taxes on some but his only justification is punitive. Under Obama, the EPA has taken over powers previously assigned to Congress (i.e. vehicle mileage standards) and his justice department seems bent on redefining citizenship.

If Americans want a poorer country in which the government enforces fairness then they should reelect Obama. If they want a more prosperous country then they should vote for Romney.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"Doing just fine"

Last week President Obama said that the private sector is "doing just fine" but that the public sector needed help. He then proposed sending subsidies to the states and cities to create more jobs for teachers, police, and construction workers. Within hours he was trying to walk back that statement, saying that the economy is not doing fine. So what did he really mean?

Taken in context, the President's message was that the private sector is creating jobs but the public sector is shedding them. This causes a weakness in the economy that can only be fixed by adding new public employees. Even after admitting that the private sector has its own troubles, Obama continued to call for more spending on public employees. What does this tell us?

First, Obama is still reading Paul Krugman's columns. Krugman believes that the more a government spends the more prosperous it will be. He has suggested that the world's governments make up a threat (alien attack) as a justification for spending tens of trillions of dollars on a defense that will never be used. This level of spending will usher in a new golden age. Critics complain that it will bring in an age of crushing debt.

Obama is still a believer in the multiplier effect. This holds that for every dollar that the government takes out of the economy and spends, it generates $1.25 in new economic activity and thus pays for itself. The multiplier effect is heavily debated and is nearly impossible to accurately measure. Economists have pegged it somewhere between $0.80 and $1.50 meaning that it might depress economic activity or it might increase it. To make matters more complicated, different spending produces different results. The groups that Obama mentioned are popular but unlikely to cause direct, immediate economic benefit.

The most recent winners of the Nobel Prize for economics took on Keynesian economics and the multiplier effect. Keynes assumed that people would have a Pavlovian response to increased money supply and not care where it came from. The new theory is that people are rational actors. They will not make long term plans based on short-term stimulus spending. This implies that stimulus spending is doomed from the start. 

It is no coincidence that Obama's intended beneficiaries are all heavily unionized supporters. This may be nothing more than an attempt at firing up the base.

Finally, there is no guarantee that Obama's proposal will deliver on its promised results. In the 1990s, Clinton sent money to put more cops on the street. Instead, many police forces used the money for other purchases - things like communications equipment. Obama's stimulus bill was sold as going for "shovel-ready jobs". Later Obama admitted that these do not exist. Money from the first stimulus was distributed according to how well-connected the local congressman was, not to places with high unemployment. It is likely that any new stimulus spending would be politically distributed.

Obama's original assertion on the private sector leaves two possibilities. One is that he really does think that the private sector is doing ok but the public sector need help. The other is that he knows that the economy as a whole is still in trouble but the only solution that he will consider is to increase spending on government employees. Things like tax rationalization that would directly benefit the private sector do not even occur to him.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

"Fairness" as a campaign ploy

A few days ago the Republicans in the Senate voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act. Liberals quickly began insisting that this proves that Republicans are against women. The bill is designed to eliminate the gender gap in wages by forcing employers to justify differences in wages between people doing "equivalent work". There are three problems with this bill.

The first is that there is no workplace discrimination according to the Department of Labor. Yes, women make less than men on the average but there are multiple factors at work. Women take time off for childbearing, sometimes years. They tend to work fewer hours or take jobs with more flexible hours. They are also less likely to take jobs that require physical labor. Most of this reflects the reality in our society that women still do more child-rearing than men. Employers are not to blame for this so any act aimed at employers is misguided.

Woman's groups have argued that there is still discrimination between "equivalent jobs". There are a disproportionate number of women in clerical jobs and men in construction jobs. They argue that these should be considered equivalent and paid the same. By making this law, the Paycheck Fairness Act would ensure decades of legal action as every possible job is rated against every other possible job. This is the second problem with the law. It is too far-reaching. The full effects would not be known for decades. The regulatory cost of the bill would be enormous since every wage would have to be justified, not only against other people doing the same job but against everyone else possible.

The final problem is that the Democrats are not really serious about passing the bill. They knew before the Senate vote that it had no chance of passage. The House already signaled that it would not consider the bill. This is nothing but a cynical attempt to paint the Republicans as anti-women. I could go into detail but an activist at the Nation has already done so. The bill was rushed to vote so fast that the text of it still has not been posted. Like the jobs bill that President Obama proposed last Fall, this bill was meant to fail in order to give Democrats a talking point besides the economy. Like the Life of Julia, the Democrats have decided to court young unmarried women and convince them that they need the Democrats in order to achieve their life's ambitions.

The Wisconsin Recall

Tuesday's failed attempt to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was the fourth attempt to stop or roll back limits on public service unions. The first attempt happened when several Democrats left the state in an effort to keep the legislature from having a quorum. After that failed, the union supporters turned what was supposed to be a non-partisan judicial election into  referendum on the legislation by supporting a candidate who promised to find the law unconstitutional. Next they tried to take over control of the state senate by forcing a recall of several senators. They were partially successful. They gained two seat but failed to get a majority. Finally they forced a recall on Walker himself as well as the remaining Republican senators.

Walker won by a healthy margin. The Democrats appear to have taken the senate although the margin of victory was less than 1,000 votes. That will not be enough to roll back the legislation.

So, what does this mean? Many, especially union supporters, are attributing Walker's win to the fact that he outspent his opponent by a huge margin. This contradicts stories from before the election on how little effect Walker's ads were having. You can't have it both ways.

This recall actually represented two losses for the unions. Their preferred candidate did not win the primary so they had to make do with the guy who did win. The whole purpose of the recall was to demonstrate to elected officials the power of the unions. Instead they demonstrated that they can make a lot of noise but the do not represent the majority of the voters.

The alliance between Democrats and public service unions was always incestuous, anyway. The Unions are one of the Democrats biggest supporters. In return, the Democrats make sure that the law favors the unions. Walker threatened this by making union membership voluntary instead of mandatory for public employees. The unions lost between half and two thirds of their members (and their members' dues).

A lot has been said recently about the contribution of the unions to the middle class. This may be true, but it is irrelevant. Those days are long past. Today's unions seem more interested in enriching their management than their members. Regardless, it was not the public service unions that made these contributions in the first place. They are a relic, only able to hang on because of that incestuous relationship with the Democrats.

One final thing, Democrats have been taking solace in exit polls showing that President Obama still leads in the state. These polls should be taken with a grain of salt. They do not include absentee voters who broke heavily for Walker.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Life and Obesity

If you can only have one, which would you prefer - a shorter, healthy life or a longer one with some minor health problems? Without any debate, the government, especially Mayor Bloomberg, is deciding for you and choosing the first option.

Here is the background - major studies on weight show that people who are classified as overweight live the longest. People who in the normal and obese ranges live around the same length. The people with the shortest life spans are the underweight and the morbidly obese.

These figures came out a few years ago and totally disrupted the government's message that being "normal" weight is the best option. So they backtracked a bit and announced that being overweight leads to all sorts of health problems, things like diabetes. that quickly became the new message and is the reasoning behind the announced ban on large sugared soft drinks in New York City. A big part of the justification for government intrusion on something as personal as body weight is the cost for government-provided medical services required for the obese.

The thing here is that I am not sure that the link between weight and health problems is as iron-clad as they are making out.

A related issue is salt. It turns out that the link between salt and high blood pressure is very tenuous and that limiting yourself to the government-recommended daily intake of salt could actually hurt your health instead of improving it. The government is full of anti-salt bigots who insist that "if we let people have more salt then they win" ("they" meaning food producers). So valid research has been suppressed because of personal bias.

The same thing happened for decades with dietary fat. There is no link between dietary fat and heart disease but a few researchers decided that there was in the 1950s and shouted down anyone who disagreed.

The wisest quote I have heard on these subjects came after the study that showed that overweight people lived longer. It was "We tend to medicalize conditions that we do not approve of." In other words, overweight people offend us so we are sure that there must be some medical reason why people should lose weight. And if there is no actual reason then we invent one.

There has been no national debate on the best weight, not even within the medical community. There is only the insistence that we need to be thinner, even when studies show otherwise.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Unwarranted Smugness

Last week someone I know posted a link on Facebook to an article indicating that people's skulls are getting taller and narrower  in the last 150 years along with a comment about evolution. He believed that this was an example of evolution and that his belief in it makes him superior to creationists. The problem is that this is not evolution. I pointed it out to him and his responses showed that he does not have a clear idea of what evolution is or how it works.

Before I go any further I want to say that I do believe in evolution. In fact, my belief in evolution was strengthened after reading a book arguing against it. The anti-evolution book had gaping holes in its logic and spotting them deepened my understanding of evolution.

Evolution is a genetic change and happens as either a response to changing conditions (I.E. a new Ice Age) or because of a beneficial mutation. Major evolutionary changes happen over hundreds of thousands of years minimum. The length of time needed is directly related to the length of a generation. In humans, this is generally figured as 25 years so we are only talking about six generations.

There are two likely explanations for head sizes and shapes changing. One is that the composition of Americans has changed. We are a nation of immigrants and there have been different waves. The study was limited to whites but there have been waves of Irish, Germans, Poles, and other ethnic groups over the time being studied,

A more likely explanation related to nutrition. Americans have gotten taller and heavier over the same period, It stands to reason that this could also change the shape of people's heads. This change in size is mainly attributed to improvements in nutrition, especially during pregnancy and the first two years. Studies have shown that the average size and health for people born during periods of famine show a dip from the rest of the population.

I pointed this out to my friend but he still thought that evolution was somehow involved,

Here is my point - he feels superior because he believes in evolution but he does not understand it. He only believes in it because people he trusts have told him that this is the proper belief. That puts him on the same level as most creationists. As far as I am concerned, you cannot feel smug for believing in the scientific thing unless you understand it.

This ties in with a recent study on belief in global warming. It turns out that most liberals believe in it no matter what their educational level (no surprise there). The surprise is that the better educated a conservative is the more likely he is to be a sceptic. That shocked the people doing the study. They assumed that disbelief in warming is caused by ignorance and that conservatives just need to be educated. Instead, it turns out that the more educated you are the more holes you see in global warming theory.

Again, liberals tend to be smug about their belief in global warming. The book The Republican Mind speculates that the issue is just too difficult for conservatives to understand. This study complicates that view.

In general, liberals tend to think of themselves as superior because they believe in the right things. As I said above, simply believing in the right things is not enough. If you don't understand them then it does not count.