Thursday, 9 December 2010

What the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Says: Tax Cuts

I'm still reading. Still thinking.

What the White House Says: Tax Cuts Explanation

Never post angry. Or uninformed. Or confused.

The above are three reasons why I have not yet written anything about the tax cuts deal recently cut between President Obama and the Republicans in Congress.

But I will. I just want to take a little time to think about it and read more first, because I keep changing my mind about it.

I think it's safe to say, though, that the deal has prompted strong emotional responses from both sides - and for us progressives, especially in response to President Obama's press conference. Which I haven't seen yet. Again, need to dig more.

But I am leaning towards the view that this might wind up being a pretty good deal for Progressives (a very good deal under the circumstances - with the new Republican Congress soon to take over) that has been very poorly communicated.

Anyone else have thoughts on this?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Elizabeth Edwards, 1949-2010

The progressive advocate, health policy reformer, author, mother, and (yes) estranged wife of former Presidential candidate John Edwards died yesterday after a long battle with cancer.

I had the pleasure of meeting her once, and found her funny, smart, down to earth and thoughtful. May she rest in peace.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Wikileaks Part 2

I didn't want to write any more about the Wikileaks document dump, but I must admit the issue keeps turning over and over in my mind, and I'm not 100% sure I'm right or - if I am - what should be done about it.

I'm unwilling to declare the publishing leaked information should be a crime, because it is so often vital that people feel free to publish information that is in the public interest.

On the other hand, I do believe that you have to strike a balance between the public's interest in knowing what their government is doing (which is real) and the public's interest in having their government negotiate on their behalf to prevent wars, disarm enemies, or even just build allies under tense circumstances.

Where I instinctively tend to come down is on the side of giving the benefit of the doubt to peacemakers and am inherently sceptical of warmongers. Diplomats are often responsible for conducting tricky, private negotiations to try to prevent nations from going to war with each other. And if they are successful, you may never hear about it. So I have an inclination to say there are a lot of useful things that they do that can't be done in secret. A friend and colleague challenged me today whether there really are things that governments need to do that they should be allowed to do in secret in a Democratic society. My answer is a cautious and carefully managed yes - I don't think they should have a blank check to conceal all their actions from the people who put them into power, but if I have to balance the chance of deescalating a conflict with Iran or risking nuclear war (for instance) I'm willing to be kept in the dark for a period of time.

What I struggle with, and what I honestly don't know, is what the ultimate effects of a world of perfect leakability would be. I can imagine a number of scenarios. I suspect the most likely is that government officials simply adapt their working practices, as TSA officials have, to elevate their privacy concerns to the next level. You can easily envision a rule that diplomats are only allowed to brief their superiors in person or by secure telephone and may not put anything in writing.

The end result? No paper trail is created, making it impossible for anyone to leak but also for future historians to ever know what "really" happened. Also, potentially, this would lead to spectacularly biased and wrong-headed foreign policy as the top leaders could never see a horses mouth analysis or summary.

Or, if the world adapted to a situation where it was understood that all communications take place in the open, then we would have to treat every delicate discussion with crazy regimes like North Korea as if they might be listening. This means that either we can't frankly assess their situation (For instance, you couldn't say, "The Dear Leader is very old and may die soon, after which the nation may be plummeted into disaster. Meanwhile, he's desperately trying to aquire nuclear weapons before the End of Days.") or that we can never in fact engage in diplomacy with such regimes.

I may be wrong - I honestly don't know. How do you envision this playing out?

Ha ha ha....

Tee hee...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Filibusters Are No Fun These Days - but we can fix em!

Long term readers of this blog will know that I blame the evils of the current filibuster ssystem in the Senate for just about everything that goes wrong in America. But perversely, the Republican gains in November's midterm elections have actually made it marginally more likely that Democrats might have the will and ability to actually fix this system. And Josh Marshall points out the perverse incentives that make the current system so terribly unworkable.
In the outgoing Congress it would have meant getting all 60 Senators to stay on the floor indefinitely while the GOP only had to make sure one senator was on the floor at any one time to raise an objection to ending debate. Maybe two at any one time if you figure the need for occasional bathroom breaks. And since each party is going to have somewhere on the order of at least 40 senators, taking shifts indefinitely just isn't a problem. And even though people think you've got to sit there reading the phone book or talking forever or whatever else, you don't. You don't have to do anything except sit there and be ready to stand up for 30 seconds and make an objection. So while the majority needs 60 Senators cooling their heels on the floor, the minority can just have one or two sitting there playing Angry Birds on their iPhones.

Here's another part of the equation. Everyone knows you need 60 votes to break a filibuster. But it's not 3/5 of the votes, it's an absolute 60. That's why you'll note that when a filibuster is a broken it's usually by a vote of 60 to 30-something. In other words, the folks in the minority, the folks filibustering, don't even need to show up. I'd like to say they can just dial it in. But actually they don't even need to do that.

These are, to put it mildly, very perverse incentives.
When Mr. Smith goes to Washington these days, he doesn't make heroic speeches for hours on end until he collapses with exhaustion. No, he just stands up and says, "I object," then proceeds to check his e-mail, while 60 of his colleagues scramble to try and get some work done.

The filibuster was never a part of the Constitutional design of the Senate. It was created by accident in 1805 by America's Worst Vice President Aaron Burr (shortly after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a Duel. No, seriously!), and no one noticeduntil years later that the procedural change led to this possibility.

And for a while it meant dramatic scenes of Senators doing marathon speaking sessions, and literally peeing themselves on the Senate floor because they couldn't afford to leave the chamber lest they break the filibuster. Dramatic stuff. But it's not like that any more.

Senators no longer have to actually speak up about the bills they are trying to block. They can just make sure it never comes to a vote.

Time to put a stop to this nonsense.

Oh, and for the record - let's remember that the so-called glory days of marathon filibustering was not some brave stand in favor of the oppressed minority. Actually, it was used for such noble causes as blocking civil rights reform and preventing the passage of anti-lynching measures. If today's Strom Thurmonds want to block unemployment insurance, or insist on tax cuts for millionaires, let them have the courage to display that shame on the Senate floor at the very least.

Or better yet, let's let the majority actually get on with leading the country.

DADT Repeal and Gay Marriage - For Different Reasons

As the Senate has been considering repeal of the appalling Clinton-era Don't Ask Don't tell rule this week, I've been giving a lot of thought to how far the country has come in the last decade and a half on our attitudes towards gay rights. And it caused me to reflect on the fact that, although I personally feel very strongly about both the importance of repealling DADT and also offering access to marriage for gay men and women, I think of the two issues a bit differently.

Don't Ask Don't Tell is, as I see it, the most straightforward and indefensible example of outright legal bigotry still in place in our system. I can't think of any other group of individuals who are straightforwardly banned from participating in any part of our civil society purely on the basis of who they are. Can you? What if we told Jewish soldiers that they could serve with their Christian comrades, but only if they never aknowledged their faith? Of if we told Hispanics that they could serve only if they could "pass" for anglo? What if we told married heterosexuals that they could serve only if they never told anyone of their marriage, or did anything that might allow their fellow soldiers to understand that they were married? That is quite literally exactly what we are asking gay men and women to do - and all for the priviledge of fighting and dying to defend... us. It's appalling, it's morally reprehensible, it unduly traumatises good men and women who want to serve, it harms our national security by preventing highly qualified people signing up, and there is broad agreement from both the top military leaders and the rank and file soldiers themselves that repealling it would do no meaningful harm to our military capacity. In fact, of the 70% of currently serving military who said that they believed they already were serving with gay or lesbian colleagues, 92% of them said that it had had no effect on the performance of their unit.

Everyone who continues to defend this policy should hang their heads in shame, as they no longer have even a fig leaf of a reason to do so.

Yes, I'm talking to you, John McCain.

But gay marriage is something different. Although I fully accept and agree with the contention that it is also bigoted to exclude gays from this institution,  I can understand the rationale of the people who say that this to some extent change the nature of the institution. Marriage WOULD change if gays and lebians were allowed to fully participate in it. Just as it changed when it turned from a financial arrangement in which the bride was offered up as collateral for a bargain between two men. Just as it changed when women gained legal rights to property within marriage.

I support the innovation of allowing gay men and women to participate in the institution of secular civil marriage because I believe that this would not only be of great benefit to the couples who would now be allowed to marry, but also because (as with heterosexual marriage) encouraging two people to make a lifelong commitment of mutual responsibility and promise solemnly before the state and their loved ones to honour and care for each other is of enormous benefit to society as a whole.

Very large numbers of gay households are raising children - I believe it's better for children to have two parents than one. Sometimes, in gay couples, one partner will find themself in financial difficulty - I believe it's better for the community if that person is financially supported by their partner than through the welfare system if this is possible.  Sometimes, in gay couples, one partner will become sick - I believe it's better for them and everyone if that person is not only loved, cared for and supported by their partner but also, yes, has access to their partner's health insurance so that they avoid having to potentially end up in medical bankrupcy. Sometimes in gay relationships, one partner come from another countries - I think it's better that they are able to stay in America rather than have to flee the country to be somewhere that their relationship can be aknowledged by the immigration authorities. Sometimes in gay relationships, people fight. I think on the whole, if they still love each other, that there be some reasonable expectation that they make an effort to work things out.

I support marriage for gay people, in other words, for the exact same reasons that I support it for straight people. And because I think it would be a change to the institution of marriage that would improve it.

Also, because... weddings. Dontcha just love em?

The Week's Worst: Republicans Block Tax cut for All Americans Because Democrats Won't Let Them Cut Taxes for Millionaires Even More

So I took a little pause from the Week's Worst series last week in honour of the Thanksgiving spirit. But this week we're back looking at Terrible Things Republicans Do That Hurt the Country(TM) with a doozy of an example. This week, after the House passed a bill that would keep in place the Bush era tax cuts for every American, but would restore tax on incomes over $250,000 to the level they were under the Clinton Administration, Republicans in the Senate successfully "defeated" the Senate's attempt to do the same. That is, it was defeated with 53 people voting for it and 4X voting against. In other words, most Senators agreed that the this is the approach we should take, but by taking advantage of the filibuster, Republicans were once again able to ensure that they look out for the interests of the richest at the expense of... well, everyone else.

What fascinates me is that this is a wildly unpopular position Republicans have taken. 67% of Americans polled agree that it is time for these tax handouts for the wealthiest to end. Even 52% of REPUBLICANS agree that tax cuts on income over $250,000 should expire. It's just what makes sense - the wealthy have been the group of people least affected by the economic crisis, their incomes have been rising while everyone elses's has been stagnating, they certainly don't suffer from high unemployment, and they won't be deeply harmed by restoring them to Clinton-era tax rates under which, if you recall, they also did pretty darn well.

Billionaire Warren Buffet agrees, pointing out that,
"The rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we'll go out and spend more and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you. But that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on,"

So why are Republicans so determined to offer this hand out to the people who need it most, at the same time they are trying to deny unemployment insurance to the people who need it a lot?

Well 2 reasons, I guess. 1) They really, really love millionaires. I mean, a lot. Way more than they like the rest of us. They just love them. That's why they're Republicans after all. Duh. But also 2) they calculate that any political failure for the Democrats and the President is good for them. And they may be right.

But I'm really hoping that the American people will see that a bunch of people who would fight tooth and nail to help the few who are least in need and will fight equally hard to avoid helping the many who are in need is not a party that's got the interests of the country at heart.