Political Microtargeting Alienates Supporters

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Have you been interminably microtargeted by political interest groups that you’ve financially supported in the past? If so, perhaps you can relate to the cynical attitude I’ve developed about the whole process, and why I’ve opted out of four or five overlapping political-interest email lists over the past few weeks.

I don’t have anything negative to say about the microtargeting of undecided voters in the months shortly before an election. This allows campaigns to maximize the efficiency of their operations, and since I’m almost always well-decided well before election day, I appreciate being passed over by the in-person hard-sellers (and so does Katie, our dog, who freaks out at the slightest hint of a visitor at the door). But what has increasingly come to irritate me are the endless email invitations I receive from movements I’ve financially supported in the past – invitations that are clearly seeking ever-more specific information about my particular interests in order to follow up with more specific pleas for funds. If I thought that my signing a petition or taking a poll authored by these groups would have any political impact whatsoever, including altering the priorities of the groups themselves, I might participate. But since the petitions and polls are so transparently merely ploys to gather more data about me for further fundraising purposes, they just cause me to lose interest in the entire political process.

A brief web-search on the topic of political microtargeting indicates that even those who agree with me that such microtargeting “dehumanizes” individuals (by treating them as mere data-points and potential resources to exploit) seldom condemn it. Rather, they cynically accept it as a political necessity. But political parties and interest groups, as well as commercial corporations, ought to beware of the long-term effects their marketing practices might have. Politically conscious individuals may at some point say, “Microtargeted-to enough already!”, and find alternative ways to form political and economic alignments.

David Simon On The “Horror Show” That Is America

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I’m a big fan of David Simon’s classic HBO series, The Wire, as well as his more recent project, Treme. He’s a clear-eyed, street-smart social critic who understands the limits of both capitalism and Marxism, and consistently avoids viewing individuals or groups as exclusively victims or victimizers. If Simon has an ideological commitment, it is to try to safeguard the intrinsic value of human beings against the devaluation that usually occurs when capitalists and capitalist institutions regard them merely as costs. His thinking isn’t particularly subtle, but it is refreshingly direct and to the point. Here’s an excerpt from a column he recently published in the Guardian, which is worth reading in its entirety-

I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.

And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That’s the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course. Unless we take into consideration, if not the remedies of Marx then the diagnosis, because he saw what would happen if capital triumphed unequivocally, if it got everything it wanted.

And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labour. They would want labour to be diminished because labour’s a cost. And if labour is diminished, let’s translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.

From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximise profit is juvenile. It’s a juvenile notion and it’s still being argued in my country passionately and we’re going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I’m astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?

(Thanks Erik).

Minnesota Versus Wisconsin (Redux)

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I recently noted that Minnesota, with its proactive implementation of the Affordable Care Act through its state-run exchange, enjoys significantly lower premiums for comparable insurance policies than Wisconsin, with its reluctant implementation of the Act through the federal exchange. Job recovery is yet another dimension of this Tale Of Two States, as Lawrence R. Jacobs noted in a recent New York Times Op-Ed-

A month after Mr. Walker’s inauguration in January 2011, he catapulted himself to the front ranks of national conservative leaders with attacks on the collective bargaining rights of Civil Service unions and sharp reductions in taxes and spending. Once Mr. Dayton teamed up with a Democratic Legislature in 2012, Minnesota adopted some of the most progressive policies in the country.

Minnesota raised taxes by $2.1 billion, the largest increase in recent state history. Democrats introduced the fourth highest income tax bracket in the country and targeted the top 1 percent of earners to pay 62 percent of the new taxes, according to the Department of Revenue.

Which side of the experiment — the new right or modern progressivism — has been most effective in increasing jobs and improving business opportunities, not to mention living conditions?

Obviously, firm answers will require more time and more data, but the first round of evidence gives the edge to Minnesota’s model of increased services, higher costs (mostly for the affluent) and reduced payments to entrenched interests like the insurers who cover the Medicaid population.

Three years into Mr. Walker’s term, Wisconsin lags behind Minnesota in job creation and economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Walker promised to produce 250,000 private-sector jobs in his first term, but a year before the next election that number is less than 90,000. Wisconsin ranks 34th for job growth. Mr. Walker’s defenders blame the higher spending and taxes of his Democratic predecessor for these disappointments, but according to Forbes’s annual list of best states for business, Wisconsin continues to rank in the bottom half.

Along with California, Minnesota is the fifth fastest growing state economy, with private-sector job growth exceeding pre-recession levels. Forbes rates Minnesota as the eighth best state for business. Republicans deserve some of the credit, particularly for their commitment to education reform. They also argue that Minnesota’s new growth stems from the low taxes and reduced spending under Mr. Dayton’s Republican predecessor, Tim Pawlenty. But Minnesota’s job growth was subpar during Mr. Pawlenty’s eight-year tenure and recovered only under Mr. Dayton.

Republicans often argue, quite cogently, that the states should be the laboratories of democracy. Given these comparisons two such demographically and geographically similar states, progressive Democrats should certainly agree.

More Competition + Less Regulation = Higher Prices

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At least when it comes to the insurance rates charged for comparable plans in Minnesota and Wisconsin under The Affordable Care Act, the conservative mantra that more competition plus less regulation is the way to lower health insurance prices is clearly false, according to an informative story published in the Oshkosh Northwestern yesterday (Sunday 11/10/2013).

When Minnesota state lawmaker Joe Atkins hunkered down to draft legislation outlining the way Minnesota would implement the Affordable Care Act, he had no idea the results would be so dramatic. The Gopher State is now enrolling individuals through its health-insurance exchange by the thousands and at health insurance premium rates that are among the lowest in the country. Next door in Wisconsin, the numbers of Obamacare enrollees have barely hit the hundreds and premium rates are between 25 and 35 percent higher than in Minnesota.

The reason for the large gap in rates is unclear but could be, in part, because of the more aggressive approach Minnesota has taken to implementing the law. The most obvious difference between the two states is their exchanges. Minnesota has its own online marketplace where residents and small businesses can shop for and buy insurance, while Wisconsin is relying on the federal government marketplace, which has been plagued with bugs and technical failures and doesn’t accommodate small businesses. If and when the Obama administration fixes that, the rate differentials will remain. And they are stark.

A 50-year-old Minnesotan who lives just south of the Twin Cities in Dakota County can buy a mid-level, silver plan for $241 a month. Just 20 miles away, across the state line in St. Croix County, the least expensive silver plan available to a 50-year-old Wisconsinite costs nearly three times that price — $622 a month.

Analysts say premiums are based on a number of factors, from health costs and demographics to market competitiveness. But when it comes to Wisconsin and Minnesota, none of those appears to account for such a wide disparity. The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that health care costs in the two states are roughly the same. Per capita expenditures were $7,409 in Minnesota versus $7,233 in Wisconsin, according to the most recent data released in 2011 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. And the costs have grown annually since 1991 at nearly the same rate — 6.7 percent in Wisconsin and 7 percent in Minnesota. As for competitiveness, only five insurers are offering plans on the Minnesota exchange. Wisconsin’s exchange has 13 carriers.

Cynthia Cox, a policy analyst at the Kaiser foundation, said regulation also plays a role in premium levels. In Minnesota, regulators forced insurers in several cases to resubmit lower rates because they questioned the justifications. In Wisconsin, regulators took a more hands-off approach and let all the rates go through as-is after reviewing carriers’ justifications.

“The fundamental difference between the two states, which are similar geographically and demographically and have very similar underlying medical costs, is that Minnesota has embraced the national health care reform law and is using the tools it provides to deliver more affordable health insurance, while the Walker administration has tried to undermine the law at every turn,” Citizen Action CEO Robert Kraig and researcher Kevin Kane wrote in a scathing op-ed recently published in The Capital Times of Madison.

Why I Support Obama On Syria

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One word: ignorance. My own.

The fact is, I don’t understand the situation in Syria. I doubt that the vast majority of Americans do. For that reason, I’m glad that I don’t make Syria policy, and I’m also glad that the majority of Americans, many of whom could not find Syria on a map, don’t make it. But I do pay taxes, and I expect my taxes to help pay for the best intelligence and foreign policy expertise in the world. I also trust Obama’s basic ability to make good use of that intelligence and expertise. He’s clearly not interested in starting unnecessary wars (unlike some other presidents we’ve had recently). So, until I hear some good reason to think that he’s mistaken, I’ll continue to support his efforts. Frankly, I’m surprised that so many of his supporters on other issues won’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this.

There are also many moral arguments in favor of action, but the sorts of simple analogies that sometimes suffice fall short when the situation is so complicated, and more theoretical arguments are notoriously unpersuasive unless one is already prepared to accept the conclusion. We are, however, presumably talking about the intentional gassing of children and other innocents. If the reasonable desire to prevent more of that doesn’t create at least a prima facie case in favor of acting, I don’t know what does.

Of course, there is no need to act militarily on this issue if current diplomatic efforts to neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal succeed. But I buy the argument that they will succeed only if a credible threat of military action is maintained. Obama requires all the political support he can get in order to maintain that threat’s credibility.

To remind you of just what Obama’s policy preferences actually are, rather than how they’ve been distorted in the media and on the net (on both the Left and the Right), here’s a video of his speech last night-

Finally, for those who suggest that military action should be ruled out because any such action would strengthen the more radical opposition to Assad, consider this exchange between Fareed Zakaria and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy (with ellipses added for clarity):

ZAKARIA: One of the reasons I was supportive of the intervention in Libya was it struck me that there were many forces in Libya that were pro-Western, secular, you could [see] them, you could talk to them, you could understand how they wanted to shape the country. In Syria, do you worry that so many of the forces seem to be quite sectarian … because the regime was very sectarian. I mean it was an Alawite regime that radicalized its opposition, remember, Hama, … so, … there’s a radicalization of the opposition that makes me worry, who are these people … you see the violence that they, the opposition is able to perpetrate.

LEVY: Of course. There is a radicalization of the opposition. That’s true, undeniable. But on the other side, on Bashar al Assad, everybody seems to forget that the allies of Bashar al Assad, Iran, the ayatollahs of Iran who are not, as far as I know, moderates. Hezbollah, who are the best warriors of Bashar al-Assad. … Hamas, which was sheltered, the political headquarters of Hamas was in Damascus. So you have radical Islam in the two sides. But … if the West intervenes … you will see how the landscape in the opposition will move. If Obama does not strike, the radical Islamists will take the lead. If the West appears to be on the good side, which is the side of the people, the radical Islamists will lose ground in the opposition. It is always like this. When the West takes the lead, the pro-West take advantage. When the West is Munich spirit, then the radical Islamists take credit for the fall of the dictator, they take credit for the revolution as in Egypt with the Muslim Brothers and it’s bad for everybody. That’s one of the other reasons why it was so important … for the international community for the West, for America, for France to build this strong alliance with some Arab countries and so on.

For a more complete transcript of their conversation, click here.

Happy Fourth of July

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You know, I sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” countless times in elementary school, but I’m quite sure we never sang the last three verses. On this Independence Day, as many state politicians seek to sell off public property, discourage public education, and generally devalue the very notion of a public sector, here’s the whole gall-darn beautiful song-

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

President Obama’s Climate Change Speech

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Amazingly, at least in my neck of the woods, only one cable news network covered President Obama’s full speech on climate change policy today: Fox Business, which immediately followed it with an interview of an electric company executive who is investing heavily in coal. Interestingly, even he had to be goaded by the hosts into criticizing the policies outlined in the speech. The other cable news providers, even MSNBC, had other stories that they deemed more important. So I’m linking to a video of the speech here, and I would urge everyone who has heard about it only second-hand to watch it. Although it’s not one of Obama’s best-delivered speeches, what with the heat in D.C. today (not a bad way of setting the scene, given the speech’s topic), the policies outlined in it are significant.

The President’s failure in the past to act more decisively and to speak more explicitly on the climate problem has disappointed me. I’m no longer disappointed.

An Atheistic Conscientious Objector Wins Citizenship

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Finally, a win for reason against the age-old prejudice that moral conviction can only be justified by religious affiliation. As the Huffington Post reported:

Margaret Doughty, an atheist and legal resident whose application for U.S. citizenship was nearly rejected this month over her non-religious opposition to war, will become a naturalized citizen next week, the blog Divided Under God first reported on Thursday.

According to Divided Under God, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services decided to retract a demand that Doughty show proof “on official church stationery” that her stated conscientious objector status was a function of her being a “member in good standing” of a pacifist religious group. Here’s the text of a letter she received from her congressional Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), who intervened in the matter:

“This Service hereby withdraws the request for evidence (RFE) issued on June 7, 2013. This Service accepts your detailed statement in satisfaction of the information requested by the RFE. Your application for naturalization has been approved.”

Doughty, who has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years, is set to be officially naturalized on June 26.

If Congressperson Blake Farenthold really was instrumental in convincing the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to reconsider its initial demand that Doughty join a church, he’s to be commended – particularly since he is otherwise quite clearly a very conservative Republican. Perhaps it was just his dislike of the federal bureaucracy that trumped his party’s extreme distaste for atheists, but at least the consequences were good in this case.

Free Pussy Riot!

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I’ve never much liked the punk-anarchistic aesthetic-ideology, mostly because it defines itself almost entirely negatively, in opposition to traditional norms of art and society, and so inadvertently comes to mirror the rigidity of the most overbearing applications of those norms. Punk music, for instance, is most easily identified by its adamant rejection – in contrast to mere ignorance – of traditional musical norms (related to melody, harmony, virtuosity, etc.), while its positive political agenda – when it has one – is, at best, vague, utopian, and intentionally unorganized. All of these weaknesses are clearly on display in the HBO documentary, airing this month, on the Russian feminist performance-art “collective” known as Pussy Riot. But watching “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” managed to convince me that, at least in some situations (such as Putin’s Russia), the punk aesthetic can be put to very good use. For, using a minimalist style almost devoid of commentary, the documentary effectively shows how Pussy Riot’s quickly aborted performance in a Russian Orthodox cathedral precipitated an incredible over-reaction, throwing into stark relief the repressive, authoritarian tendencies of the Putin administration – tendencies that unfortunately seem to be reflected in the post-Soviet society at large.

Two of Pussy Riot’s members – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina – are still serving 2-year sentences in penal colonies. No one, and no thing, was physically harmed by their performance; at worst, as their defense attorney suggests, they should have been charged with misdemeanors. Unfortunately, their chosen setting allowed them to be charged with a hate crime – even though they explicitly denied being motivated by hatred, apologized for offending anyone, and insisted that they are not even anti-religious, but were rather protesting the political connections between the Church and the Putin administration. Here’s the (very brief) trailer-

The repressive over-reaction continues. The BBC reported yesterday that the Russian Duma voted unanimously to criminalize providing information about “non-traditional sexual relations” to persons under 18, and the lower house also passed a bill criminalizing those who “offend religious believers”-

Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, has passed a law imposing heavy fines for providing information about homosexuality to people under 18. The measure was passed unanimously and will become law when approved by the upper house and President Vladimir Putin, a virtual formality. … The lower house also passed a bill imposing up to three years in jail on those who offend religious believers. The law comes in the wake of the imprisoning of members of the punk band Pussy Riot for performing an anti-Putin protest in an Orthodox cathedral in February 2012. … The new law on “offending religious feelings of the faithful” will also take effect after approval by the upper house and the president.

Thank God – or at least The Founders – that we have free speech in this country. But Americans should bear in mind that the sorts of tendencies on display in Russia today are not that far removed from those displayed by some members of the religious right wing of the “Tea Party” movement right here at home.

Who Vouches For The Vouchers?

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As the Republicans put their finishing touches on Wisconsin’s next budget, including a modest but still significant expansion of the state’s school voucher program, The Oshkosh Northwestern today offers an article in which questions are raised about the credibility of a study purporting to show that schools financed by vouchers feature a higher graduation rate than public schools-

Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators are using research paid for by the same special interest groups that support many GOP candidates to push for a statewide expansion of the school voucher program, campaign finance reports show. The study cited by Republicans has come under fire by researchers who say it doesn’t meet academic standards or provide proof that the school voucher program provides a better learning experience for students. Republican lawmakers pushing the expansion have been citing research that claims students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program graduate and attend college at higher rates than their public school counterparts. The research conducted by the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas is paid for primarily by special interest groups that also donate to politicians pushing for the voucher expansion.

Now, if the article had only pointed out the funding connection, it would be committing an ad hominem fallacy, since pointing out that the researchers have a partisan funding source does not in itself constitute an objection to the study. But the article goes further, pointing out some of the study’s apparent flaws-

Critics say the study showing voucher students are 4 percent to 7 percent more likely to graduate is essentially useless because:

• More than 56 percent of students it tracked didn’t stay in the voucher program for the length of the four-year study;

• Wolf, the lead researcher for the school choice project, used looser statistical standards in some cases than commonly accepted for academic studies of this type;

• Students were matched on certain demographic data rather than randomly assigned, meaning researchers could have missed a key factor that could have significantly altered the study’s results.

For more details, read the whole article.

Even if the study’s conclusion turns out to be true, questions would remain about what such a fact might prove. For instance, suppose that children who spend several years in voucher schools do in fact graduate at higher rates. Would this show that the schools themselves are responsible for that fact? Not really. After all, parents who go to the trouble of enrolling their children in voucher schools might generally provide more educational support for their children. In other words, merely establishing that there is a difference in graduation rates does not explain the difference.

There are, of course, other, more ideological concerns with voucher programs. One is that public funding of private schools siphons money away from the public schools, resulting in their further deterioration. Of course, conservatives often push for voucher programs precisely because they want to diminish the public domain more generally; smaller public school systems result in less significant state and local governments. But the other conservative motivation for voucher schools is the fact that they can be directly affiliated with religions in a way that public schools constitutionally cannot be. This raises an important – and surprisingly unsettled – constitutionality question, as this article at the ADL site suggests-

Proponents of vouchers are asking Americans to do something contrary to the very ideals upon which this country was founded. Thomas Jefferson, one of the architects of religious freedom in America, said, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves… is sinful and tyrannical.” Yet voucher programs would do just that; they would force citizens — Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists — to pay for the religious indoctrination of school children at schools with narrow parochial agendas.

Of course, Wisconsin’s supreme court ruled in 1999 that vouchers are constitutional: “We conclude that the [voucher program] does not violate the Establishment Clause because it has a secular purpose, it will not have the primary effect of advancing religion, and it will not lead to excessive entanglement between the state and participating sectarian private schools,” Judge Donald Steinmetz wrote for the majority. The SCOTUS subsequently refused to review the case, allowing the Wisconsin ruling to stand (without explicitly endorsing it). But, as this helpful article at the Freedom Forum mentions, it’s far from obvious whether present and future voucher expansions in various states will, in the end, hold up to constitutionality challenges-

In 1992, Mary Ann Glendon, a constitutional scholar and professor at Harvard University, wrote that “the Supreme Court’s religion-clause case law has now reached the state where it is described on all sides, and even by the justices themselves, as hopelessly confused, inconsistent, and incoherent.”

Have such matters changed much at the highest levels of jurisprudence in the last 20 years? Given the ambivalence towards religion that founders like Thomas Jefferson quite clearly had, it would be surprising if they had.

Video Ideas For Senator Ron Johnson

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Dear Senator Ron Johnson-

I read in the Oshkosh Northwestern (our hometown newspaper) today that, as part of your official duties as a U.S. Senator, you are producing videos of people that have been harmed by government intrusion or red tape. The paper went on to describe the subject of your first video, the sad story of Steve Lathrop, “a man who bought an old dump in a flood plain and converted it into a lake to prevent future flooding”…

The nearly three-minute video says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers subsequently threatened Lathrop with fines and jail time unless he converted the land back because the Army Corps had designated the area as wetlands. The video said the Corps of Engineers also referred Lathrop to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for prosecution, but the EPA declined to charge him. Lathrop instead planned to follow EPA guidelines to create new wetlands on the adjacent farm, which required a permit. The permit still has not arrived from the Corps of Engineers even though Lathrop applied for it 14 years ago, the video said.

Johnson is inviting people who watch the first video to click on a link and share other stories that could provide the basis for future installments.

Waiting for a permit for 14 years! What an injustice! How intrusive!!

Well, if you really want to expose intrusive government, there’s really no need to wait for people to click on your link. There are 305 stories just begging to be publicized over at The Innocence Project. These are stories not of people that have been waiting for a permit (to do something that they apparently don’t want to do anyway), but rather of people that have been convicted by the government of crimes they did not commit, and as a result have rotted away in prison for, in some cases, over thirty years. I suggest you direct your keen eye for intrusive government at them; here are a few of the most egregious cases to get you started-

Last Name First Name State Year Convicted Year Exonerated
Bain James FL 1974 2009
Peacock Freddie NY 1976 2010
Diamond Garry VA 1977 2013
Evans Michael IL 1977 2003
Terry Paul IL 1977 2003
Barbour Bennett VA 1978 2012
Gray David A. IL 1978 1999
Gray Paula IL 1978 2002
McKinney Lawrence TN 1978 2009
Moore Curtis Jasper VA 1978 2008

Lest We Forget…

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On this synchrodipitous [adj. derived from ‘synchronic’ and ‘serendipitous’] confluence of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and President Obama’s second inauguration, let us not forget how recently the events recorded below occurred, nor how history tends to repeat itself when forgotten…

Featuring a super-funky-bluesy-gospelly version of “Eyes On The Prize” by Ms. Mavis Staples. Take it, Mavis-

(Thanks Berry)

Liberal Cuts To Government Spending?

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As the “fiscal cliff” looms unthreateningly, media hype notwithstanding, I’ve been wondering if liberals like me have ever suggested broad government spending cuts. I’m sure they have, somewhere, but you rarely see any in the mainstream media doing so, and a quick google search shows only one prominent blog post that even comes close to qualifying: Derek Thompson’s “The Liberal Case For Cutting Domestic Spending“, on Ezra Klein’s blog-

You don’t see many liberal economists writing about the best places to cut domestic spending in the next few years. But maybe they should be — if only for the selfish reason that it might clear the way for their spending ideas. When I asked Adam Hersh, an economist from the Center for American Progress, to identify some non-security discretionary items he could part with in exchange for infrastructure money, he acknowledged that the pickings might be slim. But there are still pickings.

“You could shift spending from activities with low stimulating multipliers to higher job multipliers — like shifting timber subsidies toward infrastructure and R&D,” Hersh said. Cut farm subsidies, eliminate duplicate and wasteful domestic programs, and throw in the president’s promise to freeze non-security discretionary spending and federal wages, and you’ve got tens of billions of dollars that could offset spending projects under the conservative House’s cut-go rules. Who knows if this would lure Republicans across the aisle. But what’s the harm in identifying cuts that would make important initiatives more palatable to moderates?

I have nothing against such neutral ways of shifting spending from less to more productive programs, but it seems to me that liberals should be able to identify a lot of government spending that could be cut outright. Here are just a few ideas (including ones involving the military), each of which I’m willing to be convinced would not work or should not be done-

1) Cut military programs (e.g., big-ticket weapons systems that the Pentagon has said it does not need or want). The concern about displaced military-industrial workers could be eased by providing modest tax credits for converting military factories to more productive uses. And, of course, close unnecessary bases overseas, and try to avoid being drawn into endless conflicts.

2) End the war on drugs (a no-brainer, dude). This would also cut the prison-industrial complex. Shift resources to less expensive medical treatment options for drug-abusing addicts.

3) Cut subsidies to Big Oil, Big Agriculture, and any other industry that is obviously self-sufficient.

4) Cut Homeland Security. I’m all for a strong Intelligence community, but does anyone really believe that, since 9/11, there has been no serious waste and duplication of effort in this area?

5) Drastically simplify the tax code. Doing so should reduce the size of the IRS, and free up private resources for more productive uses than tax-minimization, thereby increasing revenues. This is an issue liberals should champion just as loudly as conservatives (if not more so, since the current tax system has been constructed by special interests with the money to lobby Congress and give big donations to candidates).

6) Control medical costs directly. Anyone who has ever looked at a medical bill knows that the price of medical goods and services is ridiculously high. The Affordable Care Act already limits the profits that medical insurance companies can make. Next, pass a law to limit the profits of medical equipment suppliers, drug companies, and perhaps hospitals. (I’m leaving medical personnel off this list, but only because we presently need to encourage more people to enter those professions). This would significantly reduce Medicare and Medicaid expenses, and hence spending. (I realize that profits have to be high enough to encourage private R&D, but particularly over the next thirty or forty years of baby-boom retirement, these sectors should be highly profitable even under reasonable controls).

7) Increase the age of Medicare eligibility by a year or two. I know this is not a respectable suggestion in some liberal circles, but it seems to me a reasonable response to the projected Medicare deficit and significantly increasing life-spans. If The Affordable Care Act is properly implemented, most seniors could probably afford to purchase private medical insurance for at least a couple of years, and those who couldn’t should be eligible for subsidies.

8) Election reform. Limit election seasons to a month or so, by law, and limit candidates’ election fund-raising to a couple of months prior to the (shortened) election season. This might make politicians more productive, and hence save the tax-payer a little money. Also, to decrease the cost of elections and increase access, develop secure ways of voting via the internet (if and only if doing so is technically feasible).

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head, and there are probably problems with each of them that I haven’t recognized (not the least of which being the lack of political will to see them realized). But surely there are hundreds of other sensible cuts liberals could propose, and thereby help to counter the conservative charge that liberals just want Big Government. Suggestions, anyone?

Double Entendre?

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Is it just me, or, given the recent news about General Patraeus’s resignation, does the title of Paula Broadwell’s glowing biography of the general – “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus” – take on a whole new meaning?

Yeah, I know: it’s just me.

A Reasonable Republican

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I’ve had some pretty harsh things to say about Republicans on this blog over the last few years. Mostly I’ve been distressed by their apparently willful ignorance of plain facts and/or their pandering to the most uninformed, prejudiced, and superstitious among us. But as the 2012 election season comes (thankfully!) to a negative-ad-encrusted close, it is refreshing to see comments such as the following from Republican State Senator Mike Ellis in today’s Oshkosh Northwestern-

State Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, said partisanship in the Legislature stems from campaign money. “The interest groups have their tentacles over the Democrats. They have their tentacles over the Republicans,” he said.

Ellis, 71, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1970, said he raised about $55,000 for his 1982 state Senate campaign – all from his district. “There were no third-party (groups), there were none of those so-called issue ads back then,” he said. Ellis said today, millions of dollars have taken over the independence of the candidates. “They are deciding what the issues are and they are painting, in a negative way, what the message is, and that is a crime against our democracy,” he said.

Ellis said the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that government couldn’t restrict political expenditures of unions and corporations, has resulted in groups inundating airwaves with false and anonymous messages. “The Supreme Court,” Ellis said, “has put a dagger right through the basic principal of a democracy, that elected people should be accountable to their constituents, not national, multi-state special interest groups … who will be back three months from now demanding that you vote for a piece of crap because they got you elected.”

I haven’t looked at Ellis’s voting record, and I’m guessing that I would disagree with him about a great many economic and social issues. But in the spirit of bipartisan compromise, which will be more necessary than ever after November 6th, kudos to Senator Ellis for expressing at least implicit agreement with President Obama on a prime cause of our current political malaise.