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."

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Republican Dystopia

I've been thinking a lot lately about what our country would look like if Republicans got what they wanted. I'm not talking about them forcing government shut downs or a default on the national debt which is what they are threatening if they don't get what they want. Rather I'm thinking about what the consequences would be if they actually got their wishes fulfilled. Granted, not all Republicans agree with the dominant faction within their party on each issue but I think we can have a pretty good idea of where they would take the country if we assume that for each faction the usual suspects will drive the GOP's policy.

Foreign Policy: Our foreign policy in the Middle East would continue to be based on military conflict with "terrorists" and unconditional military support of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and a slew of less important but more violent regimes. We would put ground troops in Libya to overthrow Qaddafi even while openly speculating about the Al Qaeda connections of the rebels. Would this mean that Republicans envision a 10 year nation building project in Libya along the lines of what they attempted in Iraq and Afghanistan? My impression is that a Republican policy in the rapidly changing Middle East would be confused and directionless - but violently so.

Taxes: Taxes on corporations and higher income individuals would be lowered. Taxes on inheritances would eliminated altogether. To the extent that the government needed to raise revenue to pay for "necessary" things like constant warfare in the Middle East and subsidies for big oil and big agriculture, they would institute a national sales tax.

Health Care: The so-called Obama Care would be repealed and replaced with a privatization/defunding of Medicare and Medicaid. Even if we take the Ryan plan as it is spun by the Republicans, it includes at it's core a voucher system for health care costs to replace public financing of health care under those plans. But the voucher's values are supposed to be indexed to inflation and health care costs are rising considerably faster than inflation. So the plan has built within it a gradual defunding of public health care support for the elderly and poor.

Education: The Republicans are really hostile to public higher education. They're not thrilled about public primary and secondary education either. The attacks on public education by Republican governors like Walker in Wisconsin and others are well known. In a Republican America, public school teachers would earn wages and benefits similar to, if not worse than, the average worker regardless of skill level and far below the wages typical of college graduates. All this while public funding for public universities was cut so much that college graduates would have to be either from wealthy families willing to pay the high fees/tuition or incur enormous student debts (which would be entirely provided by private banks at unsubsidized interest rates). Who would take a job as a teacher under such conditions? Certainly not the best and brightest?

The world the Republicans envision is not what they say it is. They would have us believe that they offer a return to some nostalgic post-WWII, pre-Vietnam golden age (a Boomertopia if you will). But what they really offer is much more like the 1890s (but with more wars) than the 1950s. I find it hard to believe that more than a small minority of Americans actually wants to live in this kind of world. But the Republicans have become masters of speaking to emotions while obscuring the consequences of their policies.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Obama and the Middle East

There is an emerging meme in the media that Obama "is a weak president." It's getting to the point where the parrots in the news cycle have repeated it so often that this has become the starting point for any discussion of Obama's foreign policy in particular. I think this is not only unfair but a serious misunderstanding of the American position with regard to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.

In the Libya the US is supporting an allied effort to prevent Qaddafi from wiping out a nascent revolution with heavy weapons. Critics (like Senators McCain and Lieberman) argue that the US should engage more directly and more forcefully. I give them points for consistency, but I really think repeating the Bush strategy from Iraq in Libya would be a disaster waiting to happen. It's much better to let the British, French and Italians take the public lead (by sending advisors - we all know where that can lead) while remaining dependent on US power to actually accomplish anything. The recent introduction of low flying pilotless drones into the Libyan mix will give NATO the ability to counter Qaddafi's latest tactic of deploying his forces in small units that are difficult to identify from high altitude. Most importantly in this, Qaddafi is very unpopular in the Middle East and the rebels are asking for our help - loudly.

In Bahrain, the US largely stayed out but when the local government cracked down (with Saudi help) made strong critical statements against the crackdown - albeit without actually doing anything about it. In Yemen, the US is staying out of the issue as well.

Now, Syria which is turning out to be rather key. The demonstrators in Syria are showing a willingness to continue hitting the streets despite repeated bloody crackdowns by the Syrian government. That government is now getting major support from Iran. And Secretary Clinton and then President Obama announced that Iran was backing these violent crackdowns and condemned that assistance strongly.

Here is why what Obama's been doing makes sense. If we had been following a Neo-con approach like that advocated by McCain and Lieberman, we would have supported Mubarak in Egypt. If that had succeeded in propping Mubarak up, there likely who not have been rebellions in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya or Syria. At the same time, we might have found ourselves backing, like Iran is now, an increasingly bloody minded dictatorship. But if Mubarak had fallen anyway, which may well have happened, the US would be in a horribly undermined diplomatic position in the region. If the rebellion in Libya had taken place anyway, the neo-cons would have had us invading Libya to support that even while Mubarak was shooting people in the streets with US support. Under those circumstances, any criticisms we would level at Iran at that point would be completely transparent.

Instead, the US picked the correct side in Egypt and Libya. This makes our criticism of Iran have real force, not only with Europe but with people in the Middle East. The center piece of the Obama foreign policy has been to isolate Iran by behaving reasonably in the region. That strategy has been far more successful than the Bush/Neo-con strategy of isolating Iran through constant and often military confrontation.

The Middle East is at a crossroads now. It is still unclear which way things will go. Egypt and Tunisia may transition to democracies or not. Libya may get rid of Qaddafi quickly or settle into a prolonged stalemate. Syria's Assad has been revealed as a bloody tyrant and may be overthrown or not. Regardless of the turn events take, the US is in a position to be a constructive force for positive change. Or if you prefer a more 'realpolitk' frame - in a position to end up on the winning side. In contrast, Iran is clearly on the side of bloody crackdowns and the status quo. No matter what happens, this cannot be good for Iranian influence in the region. It is true that Iran seems to be behind some of the nastier factions in Iraq but that is the one country where we've dug ourselves into the deepest whole, thanks the reckless policies of the same people criticizing Obama for being weak. And even there, I suspect that the popularity of any politician with close ties to Iran will be trying to spin what their constituents are watching on Al Jazera. If the US had backed a crackdown in Egypt and/or then invaded Libya that explaining would be laughably easy for them to pull off.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Thought on the Military Budget

There is no doubt in my mind that we can and must cut the Defense Budget. In fact, it is arguably the most poorly run budget in Federal Government. In 2010, the GAO declared the department’s finances “unauditable”. No surprise. But le'ts think about the DoD budget beyond the weapons systems and soliders.

One of the reasons the DoD budget is so big ($664 bil.) is that it is basically the 51st state of the union. To give you an idea, in 2010-2011, California will have spent $230 bil. (I am sure it, too is unaditable.) The DoD has all the facilities that your state government has, and then some. If you start looking at the budget in detail, you will be amazed at what that department does:
Take a look at The Sec. Of Defense’s Operations and Maintenance Overview from 2010 to get an idea. This isn't even its totality. Here's a short list:

1) Infrastructure maintenance: The DoD has to maintain all the military bases and offices across the globe. This includes base housing and transportation networks for military and dependents, medical facilities for active duty, roads, and even air ports. Computer networks must also be maintained and secured. Utilities have to be provided to base residents. Each base has its own police and fire department. The family housing budget, but the way, was cut by 20% between 2009 and 2010, but military construction was up by 19% in that same period. Non-combat Infrastructure has to be upgraded and maintained just like everything else.

2) Subsidized Shops: Because many military personnel are paid less than people in the private sector, they have to shop at the PX, which are grocery and household goods stores. There, products are sold at lowered prices that are more in line with military pay. Usually the “discount” is that federal and local taxes aren’t applied to purchases. Sometimes prices are lower because the military can cut a good deal with wholesalers. These are especially important overseas where US military personnel and their families are discouraged from shopping “on the economy”, meaning in local stores. So basically, the DoD runs a “Wall-Mart” style business for its personnel.

3) Environmental Protection: The DoD funds several programs to limit it’s environmental footprint and protect the health and safety of its military and dependents. They run restoration programs, clean ups, research programs, etc.

4) International Sporting events: Who do you think pays for all those jet fly overs at football games? In addition, the military has to maintain a budget in case they are called upon to provide security at international sporting events.

5) Humanitarian work: Schools for Afghans and water treatment for Iraqis. Assisting in natural disasters around the world. That sort of thing.

6) Dept. of Defense Education Activity: This is a civilian run organization that is part of the DoD . It runs 194 schools in 14 districts located in 12 foreign countries, seven states, Guam, and Puerto Rico serving 86,000 students (military dependents). I once heard that this is the largest school district in the world. In 2009, it cost about $3bil.)

These are just a few that I can come up with off the top of my head. But when people start talking about cutting Defense, they need to think about all the functions that the DoD actually has to manage. I liken it to a socialist country. They subsidize, control, and operate everything for their personnel and their dependents.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Political Implications of Demographic Shifts

In 2008 pundits said that the Republican Party was doomed. Then with the election results in 2010 many of the same pundits are saying the Democratic Party is doomed. This view has been compounded by people doing naïve analyses of the electoral vote changes resulting from the 2010 census. However, a closer look at these demographic trends yields a picture more favorable to Democrats than the commonly expressed interpretation would (Here is a map of population changes by county that might make for a good reference for this discussion).

The 2010 census revealed a shift in population from the Northeast to the South and West. With one exception, Michigan, all US states gained population between 2000 and 2010. But the size of those population gains has been higher in the South and West than in the North and East. This has led to a shift in the apportionment of congressional representation and Electoral College seats that seems to favor states that usually vote for Republicans. For example, eight states (AZ, FL, GA, NV, SC, TX, UT, and WA) gained congressional seats. Of those, Obama won three (FL, NV, WA) and two of those, FL and NV, are notoriously closely fought in most elections. On the other side of the equation, ten states lost congressional seats (IL, IA, LA, MA, MI, MO, NJ, NY, OH, and PA). Of those, Obama won all but two, LA and MO. Many people are taking this to indicate a shift in favor of Republicans for 2012 and beyond.

Two factors undermine the argument that the Republicans are going to clean up as a result of this shift: the increasing Hispanic population and the increasing urbanization of the South and West. Hispanics make up an enormously disproportionate share of the population growth in the highest growth regions of the country. This is politically relevant because Hispanics are also much more likely to vote Democrats and Republicans. This trend is showing few signs of changing as the Republican party becomes more and more associated with anti-immigrant, nativist attitudes and policies. Most worrying for Republicans, Texas, their great bastion of electoral votes, is becoming increasingly Hispanic at a much faster rate than the country as a whole. This could mean that even as Texas adds 4 Electoral College votes (!), it could be moving away from being completely safe for Republicans and towards something more like Florida where both parties can hold out hope of a win (I’m not saying this is going to happen overnight, just that this is the direction things are moving in Texas). Most of this has been well covered in the mainstream media. And of course the low rate of voter registration among Hispanics mutes this effect somewhat.

The effect of urbanization is perhaps much more important and has gotten much less attention. Urbanization is happening in both the high growth and low growth parts of the country. This is politically relevant because voters in urban areas are much more likely to vote for Democrats than are rural voters. For example, in Ohio, it used to be the rule that the Cleveland metropolitan area voted for Democrats and the less densely populated Central Ohio area was a Republican bastion. As the population of Cleveland declined and that of Columbus rose, many Republicans saw reason to believe that Ohio was becoming a solidly Republican stronghold. However, as Columbus grew it became increasingly prone to vote for Democrats and for the last several election cycles the county around Columbus has emerged as a safely Democratic bastion within Ohio even as Cleveland's influence on statewide results has declined. To link this with the discussion above, it's worth noting that the Hispanic share of the overall population of Franklin County (in which Columbus is located) has increased by 129% and the African American share of the population increased by 29% while the share of Franklin county that is "White" declined by 2%. That cannot be good news for an increasingly xenophobic and anti-urban Republican party.

Two examples of how urbanization impacts the population shift can instructive. Utah is one of the fastest growing states in the country but it’s not the rural areas of Utah causing that growth. Rather it is booming metropolitan area centered on Salt Lake City that is driving this growth. Utah is going to get another congressional seat (and Electoral College vote). And it is also true that Utah is overwhelmingly Republican in its voting history. That may mean that Utah’s extra electoral vote will likely go to Republicans for the foreseeable future. However, the congressional seat will likely have to lead to more representation for urban voters in Salt Lake City. Because the newly drawn districts in Utah will have to have roughly the same population within them and since most of the new population is concentrated in and around Salt Lake City, it will be hard to avoid, even with gerrymandering contortions, either creating an entirely new urban district or make several existing districts significantly more urban. So even in Utah, perhaps the safest state in the country for Republicans, the population shifts may pose some hard choices for Republicans and some opportunities for Democrats. When one considers that a lot of the population growth in Texas is not only Hispanic but concentrated in urban areas, like Houston, that are already starting to trend Democratic, one starts to see the fly in the demographic ointment for Republicans.

On the other side of the equation we have Iowa losing a congressional seat and an electoral vote. However, within that state, the population is becoming more urban (at least by Iowa standards). Most of the rural counties in the state are losing population while most of the population growth is concentrated in the relatively urban counties around Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Iowa City, and Davenport. The new plan for the new districts has been proposed and is likely to pass. It combines the district in rural SW Iowa with the district around Des Moines. This new district would be the home district of the long standing incumbent Democrat who has represented Des Moines for several terms. The plan also shifts boundaries of the districts in such a way that the two Republicans who had represented two rural districts in NW and SW Iowa are now both residing in a single rural district in NW Iowa. At the same time, the boundary line between the two districts in the more urban eastern part of the state was shifted so that the two Democrats who represent those two districts are now both residing in the same district. One of those two Democrats lives very close to the boundary and has announced his intention to move to the other side of the boundary and take up residence in what would otherwise be a district with no incumbent, most of which had been part of his old district. The result is that while Iowa is losing a seat, it will most likely be a Republican who gets eliminated. A similar process is likely taking place in Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. Only in Michigan and Ohio where large urban areas are in serious decay (Detroit and Cleveland) could there be some serious deviation from this effect.

America's population is shifting to the South and West, traditional strongholds of Republicans and conservatism. However, as it makes this shift, the American population is becoming more urban and less "White." The result of all of this could be that while the Republicans will see a short term advantage in the Electoral College, they will see a short and especially a long term disadvantage in Congress. And even the short term advantage in the electoral college may prove difficult to realize for Republicans as the vote rich, and once safely Republican, Florida becomes increasingly likely to vote for Democrats as its population also becomes more urban and more (non-Cuban) Hispanic.