Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Grand (Same) Old Party

Hi Everyone,

CNN's website has a story today about the "Reborn GOP." This is in keeping with the usual media story that the Tea Party has somehow revolutionized the Republican Party. But let us look at the leadership of the GOP pre and post Tea Party.

In 2008 the GOP was lead by:
John Boehner (House Minority Leader)
Eric Cantor (Minority House Whip)
Mitch McConnell (Senate Minority Leader)
Jon Kyl (Senate Republican Whip)

In 2011 the GOP is lead by:
John Boehner (Speaker of the House)
Eric Cantor (House Majority Whip)
Mitch McConnell (Senate Minority Leader)
Jon Kyl (Senate Republican Whip)

Do you notice any differences? I sure don't. The only difference is that the titles of House leaders changed because the Republicans won the majority in that chamber. But they have the same leadership now that they had when the got creamed in 2008. So the Tea Party has not changed who is in charge. It may have changed the policies that these leaders advocate.

So what of those policies? The Republicans insisted on a tax cut for the rich that put enormous pressure on the deficit. In that deal they compromised on a range of issues about which the Tea Party might have been expected to be especially concerned and unwilling to give ground: DADT, FDA authority, START. Representative King (R-IA) will be Chair of a subcommittee of the Judicial Committee in the House and wants to hold hearings about ACORN (an old wining complaint of the far right from 2008). It seems to me that this leadership is both the same in identity and policy perspective. Their only priorities are tax cuts for the wealthy and political vendetta.

This suggests to me that we should not expect a great deal of influence by the Tea Party on the actual practice of governance by the newly empowered Republicans in the House.



Wow, a bit of good news from Tea Party Nation:

Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips put out a list yesterday of the "top five liberal hate groups," because "while the Left loves to accuse the Tea Party and Conservatives to be members of hate groups [sic], the simple fact is, there are a lot of liberal hate groups." And who made the cut for the top five? The NAACP, the Department of Homeland Security, the ACLU, the SEIU, and of course, the Southern Poverty Law Center.


The number two spot went to the DHS for taking part in "silly political posturing from the most corrupt regime in the history of this country." Referring to Secretary Janet Napolitano as "the DHS Clown in Chief," the list says that the "DHS will not enforce border security. It makes Americans go through a joke of a security system when they want to fly. It invades their privacy while not going after terrorists."
(emphasis mine)

Can I hold out hope that this means we will be getting rid of it soon, now that people on the left and right both distrust it? Or is it (as a jaded person might suggest) that everyone in America hates it except elected officials, and thus it will remain forever?

I also have this same question about indefinite detention.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hegemony, Decline and Normalcy

Hi Everyone,

Various of us have discussed the nature of American power in the world and the prospect of its decline. In the last two years, there has been an enormous amount of talk around (if not on this blog) about the supposed reality of American decline. This kind of talk is often combined with references to ascending new powers such as China. The usual contention is that China is replacing the United States as the world hegemon (i.e. the single greatest power on the planet). The purpose of this entry is not to discuss the validity of expectations of China's rise or to speculate about what sort of policies an ascendant Chinese government would pursue. Rather I would like to talk about something that has been on mind lately: namely that talk of China replacing the USA is rooted in the belief that a world dominated by a single great power is the normal state of affairs and that naturally, if the USA declines it must be replaced as "top country" by some other power and the most likely candidate is China. This view is badly mistaken.

A single power (or "unipolar") world, such as we have experienced since 1989, is not normal. Neither is the "bi-polar" world we lived in between 1945 and 1989. For most of human history different regions of the world were dominated by local powers sometimes with one power dominating a region, but more often with a small group of powers contesting for regional hegemony. For most of the time, these regions were only tenuously connected to each other and rival powers from different regions rarely came into direct contact let alone conflict. That began to change in the 17th century when a cluster of European powers began to transfer their previously regional conflicts to a global stage. That state of affairs held until after World War II with the additions of the United States and Japan to what otherwise had continued to be a European multi-lateral rivalry.

World War II changed all that for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, only the United States emerged from that war with a completely intact industrial base. Second, only the United States and the USSR emerged from the war with militaries capable of imposing their governments' wills in all regions of the world.

Between 1945 and 1989 two processes occurred that set up the unprecedented situation of a single global power. Those were Europe's and Japan's recovery from WWII on the one hand and the relatively rapid decay, within the span of a single human lifetime, of the USSR on the other.

Since 1989 we have seen processes that appear to indicate a decline of US power. These are the rapid industrialization of countries that until the 1940s and 50s were largely colonies of the great powers of the pre-WWII rivalry. This includes countries like China, India, S. Korea, Brazil, etc. Related to this is the ending of the post-WWII US monopoly on global economic power. Advantages that the US had briefly after WWII have disappeared. For example, no longer can American industrial laborer charge whatever they wish for their efforts without regard to what the industrial laborers of Europe, Asia, South America or even Africa are willing to charge.

But are these developments a valid pretext for declaring an end to American power? Far from it. The US remains the wealthiest, large country on the planet by far. It also remains by far the largest military power (many times more potent than China is really). At the same time, while the gap between US power and the rest of the world has narrowed somewhat of the world's ten largest military spenders, 7 are the US and its allies. China is one. Russia and India are the remaining two and while difficult to place squarely in the US camp, both have fought minor wars with China relatively recently and neither has much reason to support China's unrestricted rise. This suggests to me that while the gap between US and Chinese power narrows, the US still has a dominant advantage diplomatically. Chinese governments' positions on crises such as those involving North Korea or Iran do not help China's diplomatic status in the world.

What we are seeing is the return to the Pre-WWII multi-lateral arrangement but without the over representation of European powers that characterized the period from the 1600s to 1945. In my view what we have seen in the last 60 years is not so much the firm establishment of US hegemony as a transition from one 350 year period of multilateralism to the next period of multilateralism. What's more, this transition has been overseen by the US. In the grand scheme of things the advantage that the US realizes as a result of this position of dominance during the transition will prove a good thing both for Americans and the world.

Well, that's my two cents for now.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Big Government?

The phrase "Big Government" gets kicked around so loosely, that I think it is worth considering its meaning. Wasn't it Bill Clinton who said the "era of Big Government" is over? In his case, it meant offloading government services to contractors. But that is really a cosmetic change at best. So what is is, and why is it so bad?

What do conservatives and Tea Partiers mean when they talk about "big government" , what do liberals mean? And aren't there good kinds and bad kinds of big government? And what government is too big? We have so many levels of government: Federal, State, Local.

There is no way that a country, the size of the US with a now new population of 357 million, can avoid big Federal government. It takes a lot of money and people to keep it running.

When conservatives talk big government, they are usually referring to Federal Government, Federal Spending programs (Medicare, SSI, Unemployment insurance, education funding, etc), the people who work and run those programs (too many civil servants and the unions that represent them), any form of regulation and the bodies that enforce them (EPA, FDA, IRS, etc.), stimulus spending to get the economy on track. These are the things liberals see as good kinds of government.

The inherent contradiction is that conservatives support big government by constantly voting for military spending, costly weapons programs, nanny state regulation (no abortions, no drug legalization, anti-sodomy laws, etc.), block grants to states who are then forced to build bigger government to meet the obligations, subsidies to private industry and key constituencies, etc. This, in turn, is what liberals mean when they talk "big government" and they see it as bad kinds of government.

Citizens, what's your take?


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The GOP-Obama Tax Deal

This morning I read that some conservatives are claiming that the GOP gave away the store in dealing with Obama on the tax cuts - the only good news I've hear din weeks. Of course it's not true - they're just upset that the GOP gave away anything at all. Evidently the Tea Partiers are all in a huff about extension of the 100 year old Estate Tax, which they call the "Death Tax" that they say "ruins small businesses" and "double taxes savings." These little-minded people who know nothing! At the same time, they are angry about the deficit. Huh? My fear is that the GOP will scuttle the tax deal, then come back in the new year and demand even more, which Barack Obama will give them, since he seems to be spineless at this point. The only good thing about the deal is the payroll tax temporary reduction which is a very good thing for middle class people and will totally stimulate the economy. If only, again, this weren't blowing a hole in the deficit. I think calling this the "Obama Tax Deal" rather than the "Republican Tax Deal" is a way of setting up the President for another defeat. Wait for it.

Responsible government would put in the payroll tax holiday and keep the tax rates low on the first $50,000 of income, but would allow other rates - and especially the tax on estates - to rise back to their levels in the 1990s. Remember the 1990s? Balanced budgets, even surpluses, and economic growth? Instead, more supply sider crap.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

University Trends and National Security

There have been a spate of talk shows and news stories lately discussing how universities are cutting back on modern language programs. I have a few thoughts on this issue, and I would be interested to know what the Citizens think, as many of you have a better grasp of Academic politics than I.

The Department of Defense is throwing a lot weight behind language learning. The Marines now have a language requirement for all troops being deployed to Afghanistan (see MARSOC). Language Training Detachments are being opened at major Military Bases with focus on training Special Forces. The Army in its 2010 Posture Statement launched its "Army Culture and Foreign Language Strategy". The DoD has provided millions in grants to universities such as University of South Florida, University of Maryland, UCLA, to name a few to bolster language programs. So there is now doubt that foreign language is now on the same footing as math and science as a top priority.

Therefore, I get concerned when I hear about how the University of New York at Albany is not allowing new students to major in some foreign languages, like French and Russian. Bad news is that French and Russian are considered important languages for National Security. In addition, we need to be adding programs in new languages, like Arabic, Persian-Farsi, Dari (very similar to PF), Pashto, Hindi, etc. Granted, finding qualified people in some of these languages is very difficult, but not impossible. Currently, the only foreign language increasing enrollments is Chinese. At UC Berkeley I hear they can't add the classes fast enough. Of course, I am pretty for sure it's a lot of MBA types.

To replace the Modern Languages, there is a movement in Academia that says you can teach "world culture" through Anthropology departments instead of language and that this is just as good. I think you can teach world culture, but that does not negate the need for foreign language training . Language and cultural go together. As someone who focused on Cross-Cultural communications, I can tell you that language is 70-80% of the game. Just learning "culture" doesn't do the job. And what does that mean to "learn culture", anyway? I think this is just a lazy attitude. It is hard to learn a foreign language, it takes a lot of effort and time. So what you are really saying is that we don't want our students to take time and work hard.

One proponent of this idea is Linguist John McWhorter , currently a lecturer at Columbia University and former senior fellow at conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute, who went so far during an interview with NPR's Talk of the Nation to say that after a certain age, the ability to learn language is so greatly reduced, it's pointless to start. The age he sites is 18. After that, he says you will always have an accent. Where do they dig these people up and who is paying this guy?

Bottom line, we need more languages taught in our schools at younger ages. I've always believed that and I think it's more important now than ever before. I don't even care which ones are being taught. Learning any language is useful.


Friday, December 10, 2010

China as Enfant Terrible

Hi Everyone,

According to the Mirriam Webster online dictionary there are multiple definitions of "enfant terrible" and both apply to China: "a person known for shocking or outrageous behavior" or "a usually young and successful person who is strikingly unorthodox, innovative, or avante garde." So much is true of all great powers in history.

China has fit the second, more flattering definition when it managed a difficult transition away from totalitarian, Maoist communism towards a significantly less oppressive market oriented authoritarian dictatorship. In doing this China has established itself as a major world economic power while dramatically improving the standards of living for millions of its citizens. China's management of this transition has been far more successful and innovative than the Russian transition. China has also shown its innovative side when it devotes large resources to researching renewable energy (a farsighted policy for a country with rapid growth and not enough domestic fossil fuel reserves to meet future needs).

But China has also fit the less flattering definition. When China hypocritically claims to be the champion of non-interference in domestic affairs by major powers all while bullying aid recipients into buying Chinese or while supporting the horribly dysfunctional North Korean regime against the interests of the North Korean people and the entire region. China also fits this less flattering definition when it reacts so childishly to the Nobel Committee's award of the Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo.

China is on the verge of becoming a major global power. But they are still often stuck in the mind set of a petty dictatorship. Two recent events; one in North Korea and now this Nobel Peace Prize award highlight the ways in which China's leaders are not ready for prime time.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leaky, Leaky

Despite the high drama in the media about wikileaks latest disgorging, I don't see why the content is such a big deal. Most of what I've heard about so far seems rather typical and mundane. Of course people call world leaders names in cables. These are like private letters.

I think this event, and those to come raise several questions:
1) Who really did the leaking, and what was the real motivation or agenda?
2) What does this continued data dumping mean for governments trying to conduct private business?\
3) The 24 hour news cycle plays a serious role in the inability of government to function. It is partly responsible for the growing polarization we see among our political leaders, so how does such open and easy technology contribute to this?
4) How much can you disable technology, such as deactivating USB ports as the DoD has done, without paralyzing the functions of government?

I don't see think it is fair to compare this to the Pentagon Papers. That was the leaking of a specific report about a specific issue and it was done out of concern for the public good. This was indiscriminate and done to prove it could be done. The public good be damned.

What do the Citizen's think?


Federal Employee Pay Freeze

What do you think about the federal employee pay freeze? I'm surprised to find myself for it. State employees in my state have faced pay freezes for years now along with furloughs and layoffs. I don't see why federal employees should be let completely off the hook.

That said, I'd rather the federal employee pay freeze happen sooner rather than later because we do face the potential of future inflation because of the high debt levels. I'd rather see federal employees have their pay frozen during a period of flat prices than rising prices.


Monday, November 22, 2010

You are now Free to Roam the Country

The new TSA regulations about airport screenings are riling a lot of people. I have complained about them before on this blog. Needless to say, I very much hope I am not expected to travel anytime soon because I refuse to be strip searched by a scanner and I will not allow anyone to "touch my junk" either, unless it is part of a larger civil protest. I am not a criminal because I have chosen to fly. With that in mind, I encourage you to participate in the "Opt Out Day" if you are flying for Thanksgiving. This is acceptable civil disobedience.

And please, file your complaints about screening with the TSA. They keep saying that they are getting "minimal complaints". They are either lying or no one is bothering to file complaints. This article has information about IPhone aps for filing complaints. Let them hear you!

I have also been reading the blog Of John Tyner, the San Diego resident who used his cell phone to record his TSA encounter. He makes some very good points about contracts. I'd be interested what LTG thinks of his point of view.

I am most put off by the fact that the TSA threatened this man with fines because he left the screening area. He forfeited his ticket and agreed not to fly, at which point they threatened him.

And what is very disheartening is to hear people in the Obama Administration using the same scare tactics as Bush's people did. Here is what John Pistole said to the New York Times about the "Opt Out" protest, "If terrorists can anticipate that, it gives them an opportunity." Sad, very sad.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Income Taxes and Small Businesses

Hi Everyone,

The Republican argument against allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for tax payers making more than 250k/year is that raising taxes on this income bracket would kill off small businesses or at least slow their growth/recovery. They say this as if it is self evident but it raises a number of questions for me that I'd like to hear the opinions of some tax experts about (like maybe LTG or Seventh Sister).

First, are all small business profits treated as income for the owner for tax purposes?

Second, is there a way for a small business owner to reinvest their profits in their business before it can be taxed as income?

Finally, depending on the answers to the first two questions, shouldn't it be fairly straightforward to prevent what is intended to be a tax increase on the richest portion of the population from directly affecting small businesses in general?

Or is this just a typical Republican canard based on dishonest presentations of the facts?


Friday, November 12, 2010

Mandate? What Mandate?

Hi Everyone,

In a recent thread, a roving Republican commenter posted that in her opinion the country voted clearly to "stop Obama." As vague as that might be, it's probably a fair expression of where the Tea Party/Republican activists are. But what about the country as a whole?

I looked up some things on and found these little tidbits:

A poll by Pew Research Center found that 55% of Americans want Republicans to work with Obama while only 38% want Republicans to "stand up to Obama." That 38% is about the same as we see for any issue where the Republicans really differ from the rest of the country. So what this suggests to me is that the only people who think President Obama "has to be stopped" are the hard core of Republican activists. In other words, they are not riding a wave of broad support.

Similarly, 62% of Americans want Democrats to work with Republicans. I think we can assume that the 62% who want Democrats to work with Republicans overlap somewhat with the 55% who want Republicans to work with Democrats. I take this as an indication that the center of the political spectrum is sick and tired of the politics of intransigence and obstruction. It's a pity they keep voting for divided government.

When Pew asked Americans who should "take the lead" in Washington, 49% said Obama compared to just 30% who said Republicans. Again, not exactly what we'd expected to see if the 2010 election was really a broad based movement of opposition to President Obama.

Recent Polls by Pew and CBS both found that the number of Americans who approve of President Obama is about the same as the number who disapprove of him. Again, not really what we'd expect to see if there was really a fundamental change in American attitudes in general.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Speaking of Google

Not to reignite old posts, but I had the pleasure today of reading two articles about Employee compensation.

The first is that old saw from USA (on a mission obviously since they love publishing these) about how Federal workers are getting fat and happy on huge salaries and how the Republicans are going to try and crush Obama's proposed 1.4% raise for all us spoiled workers. Well, I for one am willing to give up the 1.4% if it helps the country recover (although I doubt it will). I also hope that these Congresspeople are willing to sacrifice as well. They live pretty well and bring up the average for all of us. The salary for the rank and file House Rep. and Senator is $174K a year. The Speaker earns a cool $224K. They get the same benefits as everyone else in government. And their wages affect those for all judges and the like.

For a pretty well balanced look at this debate see The Federal Salary War . It is pretty much a lot of smoke and mirrors.

My favorite part of these articles is when the Cato Institute says, "BLS data shows that a federal employee is more than 8 times less likely to quit than a private sector employee. We’ve argued that this indicates that federal employees recognize that the generous combination of wages, benefits and job security is hard to match in the private sector, so they stay put." Of course, you idiot. So we should raise job insecurity and the struggle to hang on the middle class status as some sort of higher value? Why such disdain for the American worker? The ultimate value of any job, or any product really, is what someone else is willing to pay for it. Why is it fair for a Wall Street banker to sew up sweet pay deals and compensation packages, but unfair for a middle class American to have some job security and a decent salary? The bankers say they have to pay a lot to get the best and brighest. This leads me to the second, happier article.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Google is offering its people 10% raises to retain them. Yeah for Google and it's "do no evil" mantra.

The irony is striking. Google has obviously highly skilled employees that it values. The government does too. It employs an awful lot of IT specials, Cyber security specialists, doctors, lawyers, technicians etc. And these people have to be paid adequately to keep and retain them. And we won't mention how many private sector jobs the government subsidizes through tax incentives and the granting of contracts. The American people deserve the best and they aren't getting it. The American people suffer when the federal government, ah-hem, can't entice the best and the brightest. Those guys move over to Google.


Thursday, November 04, 2010

Some Interesting Things About the Recent Election

Hi Everyone,

I thought I would blog about some interesting things about the election last week. Here is a link to the exit polls that I will use for most of the blog post.

I'll begin by pointing out that if Republicans think that this election represents a coherent mandate for conservative retrenchment they are mistaken. The first bit of evidence against what I'll call the conservative "tsunami" interpretation of the election results is the turnout. It was low. In low turnout elections, the electorate is older, whiter and more male than in high turnout elections. That tends to favor conservatives right from the start. So rather than representing a shift of opinion the 2010 election represents a shift in attentiveness to the election. In other words, its not that more Americans agree with conservatives now. It's that more conservatives voted. Here is a link to the exit poll from 2008. One thing that stands out is that in the 2008 election 44% of voters self identified as moderates. In 2010, moderates only made up 39% of the voters. In both elections most self identified moderates voted for Democrats. This begs the question of whether voters really wanted what the Tea Party and the Republicans were offering.

Now, what did the people who did vote really want? Did they - as the Republicans argue - vote in favor a Republican agenda of reversing what President Obama and the Democrats have done in the last two years? The answer is more complicated than Fox News would like to admit. On the one hand 53% of voters had an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party. 88% of that group voted for Republicans. On the other hand, 52% of voters had an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party. 75% of that group voted for Democrats. So really the Republicans won not because people love them now but because more people were holding their nose and voting for them than were holding their nose and voting for the Democrats. That's not exactly a basis for a rousing mandate (see tables from: 2010 Exit Poll).

What do 2010 voters want Congress to do and could Republicans possibly deliver it even if they had the kind of total control they had between 2000 and 2006? 19% think Congress should cut taxes. 39% think Congress should cut the deficit. And 37% think Congress should spend more to create more jobs. You might assume the people who want to spend for more jobs are all Democrats. But 30% of these people voted for Republicans. Cutting taxes and deficit reduction are clearly contradictory. When you throw in the significant number of Republican voters who want more spending and you have a tricky situation for the Republicans. What exactly are they going to propose? No matter what they do they risk alienating a significant portion of their vote (see table taken from 2010 Exit Poll).

Now consider that the Republicans don't have control over legislation. What they do have is some control over the agenda in the House and a blocking minority in the Senate. If they really want to change things, they'll have to compromise with Democrats to do it. If they insist on the ideological purity espoused by the most vocal elements of the Tea Party set, the best they can hope for is to lock in place the policies Obama and the Democrats instituted in the last two years. Speaking as a Democrat, that's a deal I'd gladly take. It's at least as likely that the Republicans would win more support from working to compromise with the Democrats on some less contradictory options than trying to respond some incoherent "mandate" that they imagine they have. As a Democrat, I'd accept reasonable compromises with the Republicans on some major issues. It wouldn't make me vote for Republicans in 2012 but it would make me think people who did vote for Republicans weren't insane.


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

If California were a country

If California were a country, the Democrats would be said to have scored a huge victory yesterday.

First, Jerry Brown was elected governor. Second, Barbara Boxer was reelected.

Third and probably at least as important as the other two, was that Proposition 25 passed. Prop 25 removed the requirement of a 2/3 majority to pass a budget and returned the rule to simultaneous majorities in both houses of the state legislature combined with the governor's signature. This means that the sizable Democratic majorities in the state legislature will be able (finally) to pass the kind of budget that the majority of Californian's clearly want. Second, it means that governor of California is no longer a weak figure head. Under the old system, the same vote was needed to pass a budget as was needed to override a veto. This meant that the governor was largely shut out of the legislative process especially if the governor in question was unable to exert any influence among the blocking minority. Governor elect Brown (and his successors) will be much more powerful than either Schwarzenegger or Gray Davis. This is a good thing in my opinion.

This new budget arrangement means that when one party controls both houses and the governorship, they will actually be able to govern. This also means that even when there is divided government (different parties controlling different houses of the legislature or the governorship), that the governor become a much more important player than had been the case before. What's more, in the event that one has one party controlling both houses of the legislature and a different party controlling the governorship, the new rules makes obstructionism a much more high profile strategy.

Consider the situation that California faced during Schwarzenegger's years in Sacramento. The Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature but not by the required 2/3. Schwarzenegger might have been inclined to compromise with them but he was not the reason compromise was so difficult. Rather it was radical conservative legislators, from districts far from typical for California, that held things up. The result was a deadlock that was imposed (repeatedly) by one party on the entire state under circumstances where the political costs one might expect to result from such behavior were either shared out or not imposed at all because of the narrowness of the constituencies of the legislators in question. If California had had the new budget rule in place back then however, the real fight over the budget would have been between Governor Schwarzenegger and the Democratic legislative majority. If Schwarzenegger had wanted to be as intransigent as the Republicans in the legislature had been, he would have had to do so under a spot light. He would have had to take center stage in the state and make his case for a veto. That's much harder to do because he would have had to appeal to a much broader cross section of the electorate than any one legislator would. And, as governor, he would get a lot more media attention for what ever actions he chose to take. I suspect that it would have made a Republican governor like Schwarzenegger much more reluctant to adopt the kind of scorched Earth approach so favored by Republicans in the California state legislature.

This won't solve California's problems. But it does at least make a solution possible. So let the healing begin California!


Some Good News For the Left

So progressives are probably a little down today. That's OK, the Democratic party took a bit a beating last night. But here are two bits of good news to consider.

First, the results last night do not indicate a shift to the right ideologically. Despite what the Tea Party crowd would like us to think, the results last night were driven by two things unrelated to their ideological agenda: high unemployment and low turnout (which boosts the share of voters who were white, male and older).

Second, in an election year with a large swing in favor of Republican candidates (because of the reasons stated above), Iowans crushed a move to hold a constitutional convention. The proponents of holding the constitutional convention were hoping the mandatory ballot measure (held every 10 years) would pass so they could amend the state constitution to forbid same sex marriage. Such a convention may only be held every 10 years and Iowans said "no" to the chance 67% to 33% in favor.


Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Election 2010 Blogging

Dems appear poised to win the WV Senate race and Ohio governor's race (based on exits). House is looking not so good. Struggling with incumbent seats in IA, VA, KY- all three early-poll-closing states (note: early poll closings are favored by the GOP to reduce turnout among workign people especially, which tells you about these three states).


Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Limits of the Welfare State

Hi Everyone,

US West's post about the protests in France provoked a response from me which provoked a response from LTG. All of that got me thinking it would be interesting to open a thread about what the limits of the welfare state are. I'll get things started by saying that there are two limits: a practical limit (i.e. what society can afford), and a philosophical limit (i.e. what society is obligated to provide).

For the purposes of this discussion let's use a really broad definition of the welfare state that includes direct transfer payments, government funded pensions, subsidies, funding for public education, bail outs of big companies to prevent layoffs, public works projects etc. I'm thinking of pretty much everything a government can spend money other than the military.

I'll start with the practical limit first. Obviously this varies by country quite a lot. I think the obvious hard limit is that governments cannot afford to risk ruining their national economies for the sake of providing additional welfare benefits. There is a point at which borrowing to pay for welfare states becomes unsustainable. There is also a point at which taxes become so burdensome that it hinders economic growth significantly. The Tea Party crowd are of the opinion that the US has already reached both of these practical limits. I disagree. We are among the least taxed people in a democracy and we currently pay among the lowest tax rates in modern American history. To the extent that our debt and deficit have become a problem it is largely because of the exceptionally low taxes that we pay (and the military adventures in which the previous administration embroiled us). A marginal increase in our tax rate could solve the other problem. This will be politically controversial but I tend to vote for candidates that advocate this solution.

Countries like France are bumping up against their practical limit. Debt and deficit levels are very high in France and their tax rate is relatively high (especially when you include sales taxes and value added taxes). They have to make adjustments and since they are probably at the point where they get diminishing if not negative returns to raising taxes the best way to make that readjustment is to reduce benefits. This will be political unpopular and people have a right to protest their reduced benefits. But if I was a voter in France I'd vote for a reduction in those benefits for the good of the society and the long term sustainability of the welfare state.

As for the philosophical limit, I think the purpose of the welfare state should be to ensure that being born with the deck stacked against you economically or having made poor decisions should not be a fatal condition. Basic human needs such as shelter, food, access to health care and education should be provided by the state if an individual cannot provide for them themselves. But I do not think that society has an obligation to ensure that everyone has a prosperous life style. We have a right to expect that our basic human needs will be met and it is reasonable to expect society to be willing to invest in our education to make us more productive members of society. But I do not believe we have a right to expect much beyond that.

Unless we are willing to insist that everyone regardless of their effort on their own behalf (or on society's behalf) is entitled to an identical standard of living, we must allow for variance in life style according to the variance of people's luck of birth, decision making in life and their own work effort. I contend that allowing for such variation is desirable because it provides a useful incentive for individuals to work not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of society. But at the very least the practical limit on the welfare state probably makes it necessary. Once we agree that such variation in living standards is desirable or at least necessary, then any debate about the welfare state boils down to where exactly we should draw the line for benefits levels based on what we can afford.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

French Protests Are Over the Top

French President Sarkozy wants to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age for receiving full state pensions from 65 to 67. This would be gradually introduced, adding 4 months to the requirement each year, reaching full implementation by 2018. The reforms he proposes are quite modest and much needed. The government has been borrowing from banks to make pension payments and now, with debt rising, the French government can no longer postpone reforms. Sarkozy, I think is correct to push reform now. With the Greek crisis, attention is mounting about national debt across Europe. The French system is actually quite flexible when it comes to retirement.

In general, the mandatory retirement age in France is 65. However, under current rules, one can opt for retirement at age 60 so long as one has worked 41-42 years. (Civil servants have to have 40 years of service). In 2008, the law changed so that mandatory retirement age is 70. So once one hits 60, retirement is an option. But one can also opt to work longer. In some professions, there are “special retirement regimes” such as public transport, mining, bus driving, etc. where retirement can start at 50-55. Then there are the early retirement programs. For instance, women earn two years for each child. These will remain unaffected by Sarkozy’s reform.

Students are protesting with the workers because they see the increase in age as a threat to their employment. Unemployment among the young is notoriously high, 23% among 15-24 year-olds. So they would like those at the top to cycle out so that they can cycle in.

The French have tinkered with the system for years. In 1981, Mitterrand actually reduced the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 60, something Sarkozy is now criticizing, saying that it postponed the inevitable, making it harder to reform now. In 1993, the government increased the number of years required for private sector employees to work from 37.5 to 40. It wasn’t until 2003 that the government succeeded in extending public sector employees to 40 years.

Currently only 12-15% of French workers between the ages of 60-65 are working (20% in the US). The average age of retirement age in France is 59 years (64 in the US). For those of us born in the US after 1959, the age for full benefits is 67. This change was made with little notice back in 1983. The earliest that Americans can start receiving benefits is 62. Civil servants are eligible for retirement after 30 years of service. There is no mandatory retirement age in America. (For a nice round up on retirement ages in OECD, visit The Society for Human Resources Management page.)

Many French workers received 50-60% of their incomes under state run programs, plus there are the company pensions and union benefits. Civil servants receive up to 75% of their final salary for life. Retirement benefits for American civil servants are based on the last 3 years of their income. In the current economy, this is encouraging many people to stay in the workforce longer so as to increase their last 3 years of income, and thus their benefits.

French students are blockading refineries. They may be arrested for this because under French law, preventing those who wish to from doing is punishable with prison time and possible civil penalties. Some 20 of 219 refinery are blocked. 4000 gas stations of 12,500 are out of gas. Distributors are pooling their reserves for distribution. In the end, the French Senate will approve the reform and the French economy will have taken a hit as a result of fuel shortages. So given the options for protest movements, I'll keep the whacky Tea Partiers.


Monday, October 11, 2010

"The Beats" vs. the "Tea Partiers"

I thought I'd share this rather interesting take on the "Tea Partiers" from the New York Times Book Review .

All protest movements are the same at their base- they are often against some notion of "elitism" and they are often driven by some sense of marginalization. I didn't know much about the "Beats", so I found this article rather interesting.


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Religious Knowledge VS Religiosity

Pew did a research study on Americans' knowledge of religion. It probably should not surprise us that the more religious you are the less you seem to know about religion. This is, of course, does not apply to our own Law Talking Guy. He is certainly an outlier. But the trend is pretty clear. If you click on the link provided in the first sentence you can take a short version of the quiz yourself and compare to different demographic groups. This story from the Daily Telegraph in the UK reports the full survey results.

I'm an atheist. I do not believe in the supernatural. I scored a 93% on the quiz and only missed scoring 100% because I misread a question and it won't let you edit your answers. Atheists and Jews performed the best overall. Hispanic Catholics the worst. According to the Daily Telegraph story, the region of the US that performed the worst was the South, the most religious demographic group in the country by far.

I think this shows evidence of a trend we already knew about. Namely that education and religiosity are generally negatively correlated. The better educated you are, the less likely you are to be strongly religious.

I also think this shows evidence of something most atheists know but most religious people refuse to acknowledge. Most atheists have given a good deal more thought to religion than most religious people have.

From a political perspective this really shows where politicized religious conservatism is coming from. In contrast to how they see themselves, the religious right is not a movement of orthodox religious people trying to apply to policy the Bible's teachings honestly and faithfully. It is far more accurate to say that they claiming the Bible supports the social views that they hold independently of any serious religious consideration or examination. In short, they are little different how they come to their views than the semi-literate graduates of the madrasahs in the Middle East and South Asia. We who oppose the religious right have thought this for years. But now we have a little chance to say "we told you so."


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Your Modern GOP

Michelle Malkin: it's okay for a Republican Senate candidate to say she dabbled in witchcraft because she was using that anecdote to explain why Halloween is bad.

No further commentary needed.


Are Democrats Institutionally Constrained to be Wussies?

I was thinking about this the other day and wanted to bounce it off the inter-tubes.

If Republicans are the party of the status quo (or reactionaries) and the Democrats are the party of progressivism and the US constitution's system of checks and balances (and supermajority requirements in the Senate) lead to a strong bias in favor of the status quo, are the Democrats doomed by the institutional context of the US government to be a bunch of wussies? That is, are they doomed to forever come up short of their supporters' expectations?

Republican have less of this problem. If they do nothing other than block changes to the status quo, they can make a real claim of success to their base. It is only when the Republican base starts demanding a return to the policies of the 19th century that Republicans run into the same problem that the Democrats always have.

And of course this means that the Republican base will ALWAYS be more supportive of their party when it is in the minority. Democrats look at their party in minority and complain (unreasonably) about how the Democrats don't do anything to advance the cause of progress. Republicans though see intrinsic value in obstructionism. Since our system is designed to favor exactly that strategy, Republicans have an advantage.

What do you think?


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Noting the Absurd

There are moments when I suddenly get a real sarcastic mood going and everything I hear in the news seems absurd. So here are some random thoughts on some of the absurdities that have caught my eye. They probably aren’t worth much for commentary, but maybe John Stewart will pick up a few ideas. And there is something in here for everyone.

The UN is meeting this week to “re-energize” the fight against poverty. HRC is promoting the use of “low-emission” cook stoves in “pre-industrialized” nations to improve the quality of life. Well, just great. Let them live longer so they can enjoy that poverty longer.

This comes the same week that the census bureau released U.S. poverty figures (useless as they are since they probably "mis-underestimates") showing a 3% rise on 2009. Well everyone, better pick up your low-emission cooking stove now. You can get the cheap model in straight black or a higher end model in your choice of colors.

The Fed says it’s ready to do more to aid the economic recovery. But we all know that the the “recession” is officially over. So what is there to recover? This is new norm.

The Vatican is involved in a money laundering probe. Well, surprise, surprise. How else was it going to shield its cash from the lawyers of molestation victims? Indulgence anyone? Sale next week at St. Peter’s- the sight of money in the temple is bound to bring Jesus back.

I just got back from Switzerland. Great trip, fine country. Loved it. The travel itself sucks. Jammed into to 2 inches of space, nearly threw my back out trying to climb over the armrest so I could get out to use the toilet, the indignity and stupidity of airport screening, having United Airlines remind you of your plight by telling you every 10 minutes that there are seats available in economy plus (an extra $100 per seat) where you get an extra 5 inches (I won’t go there on that Freudian publicity), being death marched past the 1st class cabin with its 6 seats that take up the space of 10 in economy (oh, but they get to board crossing over a red floor mat, you don’t.) etc. All that said, the airline profits are up. They are expecting $9 bil in profits this year. Gee, glad to see that the $1400 /ticket I paid went to a good cause.

Brazil is holding elections now. Dilma Rousseff is running strong. Check her out on the web. Where do you think the inspiration for her campaign logo came from? Posers.
Among the many candidates for several governmental positions, I hear there are entertainers, such as a clown called “Tiririca” running for the chamber of Deputies. There are also former residents of mental wards. Glad to see we aren’t the only ones who bring our nuts out at election time.

And a sure sign that pop cultural has passed me by: I listened to a local radio station and heard the ever romantic lycis from Jordan Sparks, "You're on my heart just like a tattoo. Just like a tattoo. I'll always have you ..."


Saturday, September 18, 2010

The New American Conservatism

Christine O'Donnell is the GOP candidate for US Senate in Delaware.

Some interesting facts about her:

She makes a lot of noise about "fiscal responsibility" but: She had her house foreclosed on by the bank for failure to make mortgage payments on a $90,000 loan (that's a fairly small mortgage and must have been a really small monthly mortgage payment!). It was about to be sold by the bank when she sold it first to her own Senate campaign's lawyer (do you smell a scandal brewing? that's fishier than anything involving the Whitewater investigation that plagued the Clinton administration for most of its two terms).

She owes $11,000 in backed taxes.

She was sued (successfully) by her alma mater because she hadn't paid her tuition.

She also still owes $23,000 to the staff of her failed 2008 Senate campaign.

But she's got all the far right wing pseudo-Christian fundamentalist street cred. For example, there is this little blast from her youth where she got herself on MTV arguing that masturbation was tantamount to adultery (but what if you masturbate while thinking about your spouse I'd ask). She also believes that "American scientific companies" are crossbreeding humans and animals. So she's a "Tea Party" favorite.

So what does this all mean? First, like Sarah Palin, O'Donnell is a publicity starved moron with little actual substance and a personal past full of hypocrisy. Her one and only skill is self-promotion.

To the extent she is a typical Tea Party activist/candidate, this shows us the true face of the Tea Party. The Tea Party is not the non-partisan, fiscal conservative movement it (and FOX News) wants to sell itself as. Rather they are just a rebranding of the Bush-Republicans that spend like drunken sailors and rant about their fringe religious views.

Candidates like this is why people like my father, a high income accountant in his 70s from a small midwestern town, have left the Republican party.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Thoughts on the Midterm Elections

We are past Labor Day, past the primaries, and finally coming into the general election campaign for real. It has been a lousy summer for Democrats largely because the BP oil spill and an economic "stall" of sorts dampened the public enthusiasm and economic recovery that had been building in the Springtime. Voters are unhappy by and large, somewhate fearful, and uncertain about their future. The voter who is not a committed partisan is largely unenthusiastic about Democrats but uncertain and unsure about Republicans. The far-right (Tea Party) is making waves and headlines, but they have not convinced the independent voters, by and large, that the GOP offers a better alternative to solving the country's economic problems.

The GOP has not offered the kind of unified slate and platform that they did in 1994 with the Contract on America. This will hurt their chances for winning the Congress. In fact, the 'enthusiasm gap' between Democrats and Republicans gets all the press, but the more enthusiasm important gap right now is between mainstream Republicans and the Tea Partiers. As one might have expected after 2006 and 2008 shrank the size of the GOP electorate, the far right has nominated some very far right candidates. But this is not a normal strategy to win the Congress back. For that, one would have expected a move to the center. Democrats are moving there as quickly as they can, into the void Republicans are leaving with their primary ballots for Tea Party candidates.

A midterm is expected to be a referendum on the sitting president. Here, it may also be a referendum on the Tea Party. To the extent it is, it will help the Democrats. Today, Alaska's center-right Murkowski announced a right-in campaign against the Tea Partier Miller who narrowly beat her in the primary. This gives the Democrat a possible opening. In Delaware, the lurch rightward may cost the GOP an easy pickup. Florida is seeing the same dynamic. The big story of 2010 is the intra-party GOP fight right now. Betting on enthusiasm for an the party's base rather than a centrist candidate is a tough bet. Democrats are becoming more optimistic as they see this happen.

This is not to say that the Democrats haven't had their own primary battles. They have. But these have not produced a strong leftward shift. The only real losers (see Specter) were Democrats who were substantially to the right of their party or who (see Specter) weren't real Democrats. These battles have probably strengthened the Democrats.

So what do I expect? (1) there will be some better economic news in September and October. While it's too late for a game-changer in terms of economics (this I had expected in the summer), it is fair to say that the public will be more optimistic and more disposed to the current admnistration than it is now. In other words, we won't see the building momentum we saw in 1994. (2) Tea party candidates will cost the GOP some seats they might otherwise have gained. This gives the Democrats a very good chance of retaining the Senate and an even chance of retaining the House. (3) The polls have largely focused on "likely voters" with strong assumptions about heavy GOP enthusiasm and participation. I expect the polls to tighten in favor of the Democrats as these assumptions become more realistic. (4) It's going to be ugly. Democrats have to win by portraying their adversaries as too extreme to be elected, and the Tea Party only knows how to be abrasive and ugly to begin with.


Wednesday, September 08, 2010

More on Glenn Beck's Idolatry

Glenn Beck is an idolator. That's right. He would put the US flag and constitution in a place that only God can occupy. I wanted to post these comments from the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2009 because I was struck by the condemnation of the notion of collective salvation. Yes, I know that individual salvation is a Protestant cornerstone, but it is wrong of him to claim that other doctrines have no place in Christian life. On NPR, an official of the Southern Baptist church called collective salvation an "oxymoron" - indicating that either (1) he doesn't know what an oxymoron is or (2) he is so closed minded he thinks of the idea as not just erroneous, but literally logically impossible and unthinkable. Not so fast. Of course, the concept of collective salvation is an old one in Eastern churches and has deep roots in Jewish theology.

Here are these remarks from last summer:

"The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy - that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being. **** The I only emerges as we connect - and that is really what the word means: I am because we are, and I can only become a whole person in relationship with others. There is no "I" without "you," and in our context, you and I are known only as we reflect the image of the one who created us."

It's important to realize, then, that Beck and his ilk are not just mixing religion and politics in a very unholy and un-American way (and I mean unholy, because it is a desecration to try to pin the transcendental to such mundane elements as the Tea Party), but they are peddling a specific version of Protestantism that is sectarian in nature.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Glenn Beck Attacks Obama's Religion

So Glenn Beck, fresh from his burlesque of a civil rights rally on the national mall (news flash: Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a talk show host), is now attacking President Obama's religious beliefs (not what Obama has said, but what Beck attributes to him). He attributes to Obama "liberation theology" which is a concept that Glenn Beck obviously does not understand. (It is primarily Roman Catholic in origin and was the subject of Pope John Paul II's condemnation, something continued by Pope Benedict XVI).

Two things stand out. First of all, attacking the President for his religious beliefs is a really Bad Idea for US politics. Americans (except for the fringe of evangelical/fundies) react pretty badly to such a blatant interjection of sectarianism into public life. The majority of Americans want a president who sounds like a Hallmark card, but don't want theological debates.

Second, the person who should be thinking about religion more is Beck, not the President. Let me repeat this so that every Christian (and Mormon) can hear it: God does not love America or Americans more than any other human beings. The United States of America does not have God's blessing any more than the Co-Principality of Andorra. The American Flag is not sacred. Our institutions are entirely of earth, not of Heaven. People have been trying to pull the trick of associating Jesus with a government ever since the Roman army murdered him. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher. All is but plain vanity. Sadly, that vanity is the heart of Republican nationalistic religion. It is more fascist or Shinto in inspiration than it is Christian.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was willing to die for his fellow man. Glenn Beck won't even countenance a mild tax increase on capital gains. He's never been asked to give up anything in his life for the common good. His only god is the Almighty Dollar. That's why Beck and his idiot fools will be gone tomorrow, but the Dream will remain.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

What Obama and the Democrats Have Accomplished

A lot of people on the left are complaining about things President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress haven't done that they think he should have done. But let's take a look at some of things they have accomplished. This post idea comes to me as I see reports that the last combat troops are leaving Iraq today.

The Stimulus: It's unpopular these days and Republicans are fond of saying that it didn't work but I think it's clear that the stimulus saved a huge number of jobs and set a relatively firm bottom at a time when the economy looked to be on an uncontrollable downward spiral. Yes, it's increase in debt/deficit risks inflation down the road but I'll take the possibility of inflation tomorrow over the certainty of deflation today 10 times out of 10. The risk of deflation is still with us but the stimulus has staved off a deflationary spiral.

Health Care Reform: Again, the standard media line is that this is unpopular but the nature of that unpopularity should be seen in light of disappointment on the left that the bill did not go far enough. This is still a big step forward in US health care policy. That it was passed in the wake of a massive economic crisis and two wars (all dumped on this President and Congress by the outgoing Republicans) is astounding.

Getting out of Iraq: Aside from saving American lives, getting our combat troops out of Iraq will have long term economic benefits. If we stayed in Iraq it would be a budget buster for the foreseeable future.

I'm sure there are more things we could list but these three are huge.

Sure there are things yet to be done that we had hoped would be done by now (like immigration reform and the final closure of Guantanamo etc). But do the people who voted for Obama and Democrats so enthusiastically really want to punish the record above? Do they really want to elect people who would have us stop all government stimulus spending and instead cut taxes for the wealthy (the same things that encouraged the Bush-Bubble in the first place)? Do they really want to elect people who think that rationing health care based on personal wealth of the patients is OK? Do they really want to elect the people who lead us into Iraq and would have us still stuck there if they had been in power for the last 2 years?


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bad News Bears

So my rosy predictions for the Fall are crumbling because the economy has taken a "pause" of sorts. The economic recovery has stalled and as the optimism of early Spring's job growth fades, so too have the President's numbers. For the first time in his presidency, his negatives outpace his positive ratings by a significant amount. Popularity ratings stuck around 45%. A look at the grahps and data shows that the president's popularity had approached 50/50 during the depths of the Health Care debate but had begun to climb back into positive territory before May. Then the oil spill in the gulf hit, with the perception of mishandling (note to president: next time, send the entire fifth fleet into the gulf and get accused of overreacting, not underreacting) and then the recovery stalled. You may recall that the unemployment rate actually climbed slightly in April because so many new people jumped into the workforce because they were optimistic about their chances. The unemployment rate has fallen back to 9.5% while the economy has shed a few jobs because people are leaving the workforce.

So this means bad news for the elections. Unless there are signs of economic recovery returning in the August reports out around Labor Day, the Fall will look grim for Democrats. Expect it to get uglier and uglier as the Dems realize they can only win by demonizing the Tea Party. And the Republicans will exacerbate this effort by running further to the right rather than to the
center. I still think that the loss of either house is unlikely, in part because the GOP was much more unpopular in 2006 and 2008 and it took two serious elections to swing the tide this far in favor of the Dems. That's a lot of ground to make up. It requires, for the GOP, taking senate seats in CA and Illinois, which seems very unlikely. But big gains, yes, that is looming.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Compensation for Federal Employees

Ok, I have been waiting for this. Here is a recent article from USATODAY that will turn heads. The grabbing headline "Federal workers earning double their private counterparts". OK, let's talk about this myth.

I am always curious about data like this because for me, it is more telling about the private workforce than the Federal workforce, of which I am a part. The private sector is exploiting its workers and reducing benefits while paying CEOs and bankers huge sums. The CEO of BP, for instance, is going to walk away with a nice sum. And they justify that because he had years of "good service" and it was part of his deal from the start. The government sector has maintained the good old middle class value of worker benefits and stability. It's the only place left where you can count on a paycheck. The real story of GS salaries is much more complex and nuanced than the general public is willing to tolerate. Where to begin . . . .

1) All Government service salaries are capped. The most any GS employee can make in salary is $155K. That means you have to be a GS15. All government salaries are public information. Want to see? Check here. To be a GS15 you have to climb up the latter, it isn't given for free. Within any GS rank, there are 10 steps before you turn over to the next rank. Many people retire at GS12 or 13 after years of service. To go from a GS11 to a GS12, you are looking at 10 years of strong performance.

2) Government employees have a nice health care plan. In fact, if you recall, Obama wanted this to be a model for the entire country until Republicans scuttled it.

3) Government employees do not change employers every 3-4 years. They stay and as the saying goes, "Slow and steady wins the race".

4) Pensions are not what they used to be. Currently, pensions are small but we have the equivalent of a 401K now. It's called the "Thrift Savings Plan". The plan is built around a small set of high-quality, straight-forward index funds with low management fees. The reason they do so well is because they are so big and so many people are participating. The government matches 100% the first 5% invested by the employee.

5) People who have been in the service since before 1984 were not able to draw social security and they didn't pay in. They had a pension and they paid into that. This was changed in 1984. We now pay in, but we don't have the pensions. Newer ones like me can take Social Security, but we don't have the pensions like they older workers do. to read more about this check the link and scroll down to myth # 2.

6) There is no mandatory retirement. So it is more and more common to see workers beyond retirement age maintaining their work. I've talked about this is previous posts. These people will drive the averages up because 30 years of 3% raises adds up. And, a concession to the article, GS pay raises used to be much more generous. The most I've ever gotten over 7 years that I've been in service is like 4%. But in the past, they could be as much as 6%-8%.

7) The jobs on offer now require higher qualifications. We are in a defense laden economy and often these jobs require specialized skills and technology backgrounds that command higher salaries. All government salaries are based on department of labor statistics. So when the initial salaries are set, they should be in line with private sector salaries. In fact, it's the Republicans that really pushed for contractors. We have a contractor who told its employees that to win the new round of bidding, they would all have to take pay cuts. That's lie. I know because I was part of the selection panel and we never saw prices. We based the decision on the quality of the proposals only. This is how the private sector treats its employees. Is that really what Americans want? I want to make all these people GS and get rid of these contracting companies who line their pockets at the expense of working people.

8)Many government agencies are located in expensive areas. Salary is linked to the cost of living in local areas. 35% of the base pay for federal employees in the California Bay Area is locality pay. Try living on less than that in these areas? And even at that, with property prices what they are, even in a downtown, many federal employees can't afford to buy. The Beltway, Maryland and Virginia have entire economies based on government salaries. And many of those are much higher than they would be in the middle of the country. In fact, The Washington Post covered this aspect of things in its articles. So these drive up the average. I would love to move to where my house is actually located and work in an area that is cheaper to live. And that community would love the jobs. I always said that Congress would work much better if it were located in South Dakota. The Beltway is little more than 68 Sq. miles surrounded by the real world.

I do not earn more than my private sector counterparts. I know this because there are others in my area that do the same or very similar job that I do and they make $20K more a year than I do. They also have benefits and stock options. SO I don't apologize for my solid, middle class existence. Read some of the comments from other Feds if you want a view other than mine. But we all agree that rather than complaining, people should look to Federal Employment as a model. Please, all you bitter private sector employees, come join us. We'd love to spoil you.


Friday, July 30, 2010

Valuing Families

Whose responsibility is it to raise the next generation of Americans? The conservative or libertarian answer is simple: you are 100% responsible for your own kids and 0% responsible for anyone else's. I believe, however, that we all have some responsibility for the next generation, whether or not we have children of our own. What about a couple who chooses not to have children, do they have any responsibility to other people's children? Imagine a world where the childless decide not to exercise good stewardship over the earth's resources because their own lifetimes are limited, while parents fight to protect the earth's resources for their children. That's not a good fight. Childless and child-bearing alike need to look out for the next generation. This is true not only for environmental issues, I suggest, but also for the actual education and rearing of children. In an important sense, children are everyone's future.

Libertarians and conservatives believe that if whoever chooses to be a parent should bear the entire burden of child-rearing, from education, medical bills. Libertarian/conservatives also believe that if raising children is hard to do while simultaneously holding downa job because jobs want 50+/hours week plus weekends/nights, you should take a different job, hire a nanny, or make your spouse (er, wife) stay at home. I disagree with all that. I think it is entirely proper for me, as a parent, to demand that we, as a society and a country, make changes to our educational system, health care system, and above all to our workplaces to enable parents to both have good jobs and raise children.

The libertarian/conservative view suggests that we each must choose between (1) having a highly successful career but being childless or living in a "traditional" family with stay-at-home wife [or perhaps having kids raised primarily by hired nannies] or (2) having a family and being an involved parent but never really being able to rise to the top of your profession. These are the choices that tend now to be faced by highly-paid professionals entering their 30s.

Do we have a right to choose a different path as a society? Is it an "unfair burden" on childless people to tell them that they shouldn't get promoted faster by working 24/7? Is it an unfair burden to require companies to pay for generous maternity and paternity leave even though childless couples will not get the same leave? Will our economy collapse if we make such demands on the workplace, as conservatives argue? What about providing decent daycare? IS it unfair to tax childless couples for this, or for any public school? These are serious issues that confront us as a society. These are the issues that confront families today in big ways.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why the Feds Can't Hire

Some recent stories on NPR pointed out that when the federal government shows up at a job fair, it's tables are packed with bright young grads, and now older folks, looking for a stable, decent paying job. CIA, FBI and DOD are the top of the list for government job seekers, according to these reports.

As promised, I want to share some insider info with you all. Let me start by saying that the Obama Administration is trying very hard with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to reform and streamline government hiring. So things may improve. But why was this necessary to begin with?

In some ways, private industry has some of the same problems as government. But it in government it takes too long to get a new employee and it takes just as long if not longer to get rid of a poor performer who will file frivolous lawsuits and EEO complaints. (I'm waiting for the Burqa clad to start filing.) This has made contractors very attractive. They hire fast and take on the liability and risk of employees, which they manage to dispense with very quickly.

1. To hire, you must first have an open slot which requires multiple levels of approval. If you have to create a new job descrioption, you must research it, and get the Dept. of Labor to bless it and a competitive salary for it. And for all those who like to claim that govenrment employees get paid too much, here is the pay scale for government jobs . I will post on this fallacy later.

2. Because there is no mandatory retirement, existing job slots remain occupied, sometimes with unproductive people. So my organization has about 100 people over the age of 70 occupying jobs. Because the work we do is not physically demanding, people often stay way beyond their usefulness. You don't give poor appraisals to these people because if you do, you will get hit with an with age discrimination EEO, which will result in the manager spending hours with lawyers only to end up with an out of court settlement that requires giving the old guy his job back plus a bunch of money. The lawyers who work for us rarely agree to go to court and when they do, they rarely win. We have truly bad lawyers. So the tax payer foots the bill as do current employees who see their organization's budget slammed with all these suits. My organization is a canary in the coal mine. Expect to see this problem more and more as the Boomers choose or are forced to stay employed.

3. Let's say you wind your way through the bureaucracy and get a new job slot. Now you call your personnel office that resides three states over. They will send you a list of potential candidates with computer generated resumes that are the result of a key word search in The list is ranked for you based on some obscure point system that heavily favors veterans. I have no major objection to this, except that many are not really qualified to do the work. Too bad. Gotta take the veteran or at least interview him. It used to be that you had to hire from the top three on the list. They did away with that rule, thank goodness.

4. The interview: never face-to-face, always by phone because "you might disciminate" as one manager was told. "I will," he responded. "I will not choose the person who has tattoos and 10 nose rings." We are way beyond racial discrimination now. No one cares about race or gender or even sexual preference. We really just want clean cut, literate, and drug free.

The result of this is that it breeds corruption among managers. I know Jane Doe. Jane is very qualified, but she isn't a veteran. So she probably won't make it on my list. So I write the job description with very carefully drawn discriptors and I tell Jane which ones to use when she inputs her resume on This way, she comes up on the list before the rest. If she doesn't come up, I close the job isting. Adjust it, and try again- like fishing. Hey, you do what you gotta do.

5. Let's say you follow all the rules- no corruption, and get an what you hope is an OK person. By now, you are 1 year or more into the hiring process.

6. Now the person gets a 1 year probation. This means that if the person doesn't show he can do the job, you have to do everything in your power to document and attempt to train this person to do the job. If he still can't do the job, you can fire the person, but only the lawyers agree you have sufficient documentation. You are now two years into the process. You haven't gotten decent work from the hire. And the newly fired person, disgruntled, files an EEO or a lawsuit, calls the VA,a congressperson, etc.

EEO has run amok. As LTG implies in his post on the Burqa, almost anything is an excuse to file and EEO. What really frightens me now is that courts are admitting genetic evidence , I start to wonder if next we will see EEO complaints based on genes. As a hiring manager, this thought just creeps me out.

So woe to thee if you are a government manager or a prospective job candidate for that matter.


Banning the Niqab/Burqa (full face veil)

So France, Syria, and likely Spain are banning the full face veil in certain walks of life. An interesting development all around. Such a rule probably could not be enforced in the USA, could it? I note that laws prohibiting wearing masks in public have been enforced since the 1870s. The masks under attack at that time were white sheets and hoods. Those laws, not always enforced, have been on the books for quite a while and are still upheld. It is unlikely that the ban on the burqa falls in the same exact category, but there is a precedent for regulating clothing in public for reasons other than simply "decency." I also note that courts have required burqa-wearing women to doff the headgear for photo IDs.

The First Amendment, however, both its "free exercise" clause and its "freedom of expression" will almost certainly protect wearing the burqa in the USA. The more interesting question for a legal scholar is which clause of the First Amendment matters more: religion or speech. This is a strange question for many today, since for many people the whole idea of "free expression" swallows up the idea of free exercise of religion. Worth thinking about whether this is so.


Friday, July 23, 2010

A Mosque at Ground Zero?

So there is much aflutter about a proposed mosque within two blocks of Ground Zero. You can always count on Newt Gingrich to hit the nail on the head, "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over." What is Gingrich saying? He is saying that we should act like Saudi Arabia. On behalf of the American people, let me say to Mr. Gingrich, NO. We don't want to be like Saudi Arabia. And we reject the idea that mosques are un-American while churches (and synagogues - do you really approve of synagogues, Mr. Gingrich?) are A-OK.

Just as important, we will not encourage Saudi Arabia to change its policies on religion by becoming bigoted ourselves. Gingrich doesn't really think that forbidding the mosque will encourage Saudi Arabia to be more open - he just wants to cheese them off and score points with Americans who are (understandably) fed up with the Saudis. We should be more grown up.

There are reasons not to erect a mosque right near Ground Zero. The biggest one, to me, is that it's in bad taste. The murders at Ground Zero were committed by zealots in the name of the Islamic religion, so there is a reason why symbols of that religion might be disconcerting and upsetting to the victims' families. I get that. It really doesn't matter that they mean totally different things to the people using the symbols. But we shouldn't bar a mosque because we are mad at Muslims.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

We Still Have This Policy

This isn't surprising, but it's still sad.

Most people who’ve been following the civil-disobedience efforts of Lt. Dan Choi may have thought he was already discharged by the Army under "don’t ask, don’t tell"—the military’s 17-year-old ban on gays and lesbians serving openly. After all, he had come out as gay on The Rachel Maddow Show more than a year ago, and his discharge process began shortly after. But Choi had always been in bureaucratic limbo and had yet to receive any official, conclusive word that his days in the military were over.

Earlier this morning he got the call. It was from his commander at the 1/69 Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard, and it was bad news. Choi had also just learned from another source that a letter had been received some time ago, with confirmed receipt by his father in Orange County, Calif., officially declaring him kicked out of the Army. "But my dad and I are not on speaking terms," says Choi, who had not been informed of the letter by his family.

Let's just dump the stupid rule and get on with our lives. While we're at it, let's dump DOMA too.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tom Coburn Does it Again

In a rather nasty article, Senator Coburn of Oklahoma attacks Elena Kagan saying she will "violate her oath" as soon as sworn in. By this he means that she does not ascribe to his right-wing judicial philosophy, not much more. Coburn's article is worth reading because it is such a prime example of what is wrong with right-wing views on the constitution. I sort of recommend it for that reason. Can the government mandate you eat vegetables? Surely, he says, that obviously is a proxy question for "can the government require purchase of health insurance." It is, but it's a dumb law, as Kagan said. She didn't go into why it's dumb, but here it is: the government could tax everyone for health insurance, just like social security. The issue is nowhere near the invasion of personal liberty - dare I say, the right of privacy? - entailed in a federal instruction about what to put in your body (eat).

Kagan also declined to talk about "natural rights" in the cosntitution. By that she declined to say that the constitution should be interpreted according to some divine "natural rights" idea. I think Thomas is the only justice who believes that his view of "natural rights" trumps anything in the constitution. That view would normally be conceived of as quite liberal if it meant, say, the right to privacy rather than what Thomas thinks.

Read Coburn's piece. Be glad he isn't on the court.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It Can Only Happen to Kafka

Watch out! If you are a Jewish writer, the state of Israel may claim your manuscripts as part of its cultural heritage.

In a Kafkaesque twist, Israel has prevented the heiresses of unpublished Kafka manuscripts from selling them. Israel is in effect practicing "eminent domain", saying that the manuscripts belong to Israel because, "Kafka was Jewish" and the works are part of their cultural heritage.

So what next? Will Israel claim unpublished Gershwin tunes?


Top Secret America Worth Looking Into

It has been ages since I have been really impressed by an investigative report. If you haven't examined the new Washington Post series on "Top Secret America", please do so. It is mind blowing!

If you click on "Explore the Connections" you can get this really well-done graphic that outlines all the areas where contract intel agents work. And then, you can drill down on every single colored bar. You literally drill down 4 levels- so you get a real top down approach to it all.

I can confirm that contractors are deeply embedded with government beyond the intelligence field. And managing all those contracts is fraught with problems. There is often a great deal of litigation when a contractor isn't selected with businesses contesting awards and the like. There are a lot of questions about the selection process. I know because I am trained now to look at contract proposals and to help determine awards. I am just a beginner, and I can probably name 5-10 problems I see in the selection process.

And, yes, contractors are way more expensive than government employees. And that money doesn't always go to the contractor's employees. In my office, contractors are earning $15 an hour to provide professional services, but the company is taking 60% of the contract profit for itself. And now it is telling its employees that the latest contract award will be "all about price" so that they may have to take pay cuts. This isn't true. So there are several abuses in contracting government work. Not only do the companies get rich, they don't always pay the big bucks to their employees preferring to operate more like Temp agencies.

In fairness to the contractor, working for the government isn't exactly a cakewalk. I have friends that are contractors and they are so resented by their government handlers that their assigned project is being sabotaged. Government employees aren't well trained in writing clear "Project Work Statements", so there are often misunderstandings between the contractor and the government about the scope of the work. My friends are a small business really trying to play fair. They offered a very fair price for their services, and now they are going to ask for adjustments upward because the government has "changed the scope" of the project simply by their own actions and their own useless processes. (I am totally on the contractor's side in this particular situation because I used to work for their government handlers and I left the division because of their stupid, unnecessary processes that guarantee that no project is completed.) So sometimes, contractors charge a lot because the government agency starts requiring more work than was originally envisioned or changing their requirements after the fact. And a contract poorly managed by government employees can easily break the very small businesses that are given preference in the award process.

The government hiring process is a disgrace and every hiring manager in government complains about it. EEO has become a monster that is out of control and beyond logic. Frivolous claims are being processed and the government lawyers refuse to go to court on the government's behalf, preferring to settle. (More on this for another day).

The Obama administration has tasked the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to reform the government hiring process to make it more transparent and easy for applicants and managers to hire. He is also telling agencies that they must slash contracting. In my office, the contractors will get 18 months more and then they must go or be hired by the government as civil servants. So progress is slow, but sure. My only hope is that we get Obama for a second term or many of these reforms may not be completed.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Democrats Must Turn Out!

Democrats need to get fired up about 2010! I'll begin with this classic message from Harry Truman to organized labor. At the time, organized labor was mad at Truman and was threatening to stay home - all but guaranteeing a Republican win in 1948.

In 2010, the Republicans are looking to take back at least one house of Congress. They have a legitimate shot at the House and a puncher's chance at taking the Senate. What will they do if they win? First, they will continue to block any attempt to further reform the dysfunctional government that the Contract With America and Bush saddled us with. For examples of the consequences of that see the failure of the financial regulations in 2008 or the BP oil spill and other disasters in the extractive industries in the last several years.

Second, they will use their subpoena power to initiate a series of trumped up and fabricated scandals against President Obama. It's their strategy for winning. It doesn't matter if there is nothing to investigate, they'll make it up and lie about it if they need to. And Fox News and the Drudge Report will there to whip up the frenzy.

If you want this to happen, stay home. If you want continued progress in the right direction get out and vote for Democrats! Get your friends to get out and vote! We need something on the scale of the get out the vote effort we had in 2006 and 2008.


Friday, July 16, 2010

American Conservatives Are Not Libertarians (again)

The American right LOVES to claim that they are "libertarians." They like to wear funny tricornered hats and wave Revolutionary period flags and claim privileged connection to the heritage of the American Revolution. But then do stuff like vehemently (and occasionally violently) opposing equal rights based on gender, race and religion. They also rail against welfare but have no problem with bloated defense contracts, agricultural subsidies and tax breaks for churches (as long as they agree with the political positions of the churches in question). The latest instance of this departure from libertarianism is the circulation of the private data (including social security numbers, addresses, etc) of hundreds of SUSPECTED illegal immigrants in Utah. Suspected by whom? Well, the tea party vigilante who ILLEGALLY collected and circulated the data that's who.

This is really disturbing. What's the next list of private data to go out? Some Christian Avenger's personal list of suspected homosexuals in the military? "Communists?" Or will they simple start digging around in the voter roles and publishing the financial data of people who they think don't vote the way they want?

I once made smoke come out of my Christian fundamentalist cousin's ears when he declared his politics were "libertarian" and I asked him what the libertarian justification for banning gay marriage was. It was like when Spock outsmarts a computer on Star Trek and it starts screeching "Error...error... does not compute..." He was forced to either give up and end the conversation or admit that his politics were motivated by his religion not some sort of "libertarian" principle - we walked away. I would like to ask the tea party people what the libertarian justification for this vigilante move in Utah is.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Time To Ban The R-Word

Here's something that happens way too often.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Leaders of the country's largest civil rights organization accused tea party activists on Tuesday of tolerating bigotry and approved a resolution condemning racism within the political movement.
The resolution was adopted during the annual convention in Kansas City of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spokesman Chris Fleming said. Local tea party organizers disputed claims of racism and called on the NAACP to withdraw the resolution.
It was not immediately clear how the resolution was amended during the debate, which was mostly closed to the public.

Look, maybe the tea party is racist and maybe they aren't. But that is not the point, and claiming they are racist distracts from the main issue here, which is how radical their policies are. Not only that, but if you make an attack like that, it is easy to deflect and may actually draw people to their side. Heck, even Sarah Palin (well, okay, whoever ghost-writes her Twitter feed) knows how to deflect this kind of criticism.

To reiterate: STOP CALLING PEOPLE RACISTS. It didn't work when Glenn Beck called Obama racist. It doesn't help when people call Rand Paul racist. The counterattack is too easy and it distracts from what's important. Everyone got it?


Worst Political Science Article Ever

So here is an article by Sean Trende for RealClearPolitics, an outfit that is becoming increasingly partisan (GOP). It's appallingly bad. It seeks to explain Obama's approval ratings by saying it's not the economy, but his poor handling of health care and spending. His own data shows that models based on economic performance nicely track the President's approval ratings, but he claims that it is significant that Obama's performance is consistently slightly below the prediction. The chart above - which he also prints - shows even more dramatically the same for Clinton, with no explanation. In fact, this article proves the opposite of what it is intended to do: regardless of how people answer pollsters, the economic news is the best predictor of the President's performance. Here on this blog I predicted a rosy summer after the good First Quarter. I was right for a month. Then the Second Quarter looked really bad. His approval ratings have fallen back to dead even with disapproval, and Dems everywhere are struggling in polls again. What will the third quarter bring? We'll know it when we see it. If the third quarter shows strong economic growth (ending Sept 30) then Sept and Oct will be good months for Democrats. If the economy starts growing again more strongly in July and August, the public will 'feel' it in September. They will know it when they get the stats in early October. If that doesn't happen, if the economy continues to stall out, it will be hard Fall.

The Health Care debate may have dominated 2009, but it was as much effect as cause.


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Free Markets and the Welfare State

It's been a recurring theme on this blog that Republican characterizations of an inherent contrast between "Free Markets" and welfare states (which are invariable labeled as "socialist" or more commonly "socialistic") are BS. There is a good discussion of the ideological aspects of this, as portrayed in a recent book by American Enterprise Institute President, Arthur Brooks, on Daily Dish here. The crux of the discussion on Daily Dish is that Brooks is making a false distinction between Free Markets and redistribution. That article also cites evidence from this study on the Economic Freedom of the World here. My interest in not so much in the debate about Brooks' book. Rather I want to delve in more detail in to the differences between different European systems and the US.

One of the things that Sullivan points out is that by some measures, American markets are less free than some European markets. But why is this? I've mentioned the world of Peter Katzenstein before on this blog and it comes up again. Katzenstein pointed out that a lot of smaller European states like Denmark and the Netherlands are forced by their small size to be open to international trade. That fact means that if they are going to respond to the political demands for compensation to people who lose out from this exposure to international competition they cannot do it through protection, they must do it through redistribution. But note that redistribution is funded through taxes and debt rather than restrictions on property rights or market competition.

For example, Denmark ranks 19th most free in terms of access to world trade while the United States ranks 29th. That indicates that the US is significantly more protectionist than the Scandinavian and therefore infamously "socialist" Denmark. Now, France ranks 40th so really what the Republican rhetoric is about, at least with regard to free trade, is setting up France as the only alternative system to a completely unregulated, tax free Cheney-esque plutocracy. They also see France as the universal representative of all things European. But the problem with this is that tax structures can be set up that don't prevent free markets from functioning or restrict trade. That's the difference between countries like Denmark and France.

But Republicans don't want to discuss the existence of a capitalist equilibrium that includes free markets, higher taxes and a relatively generous welfare state. Why not? Because what they most concerned with preventing redistribution not with preserving free markets. But they know that "Let me keep my stuff and screw you" is a poor vote getter. So they go to great lengths to equate any redistribution of wealth with the complete destruction of capitalism, private property and the American way.

Some on the left help them in their efforts by opposing any policy based on competition and individual liberty and initiative. When people on the left oppose every attempt to work with rather than against market forces, it only makes the Republicans' rhetoric look reasonable and well founded, which it is not.