Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fox on Fifteenth

 Dean Baker has taken to referring to the Washington Post as "Fox on Fifteenth" for the right wing agenda pushed in its editorials and op-ed pieces.  I wish more people would use this description to warn the unwary of the tendentious nature of the opinion coming from the WaPo.

I particularly enjoyed this comment from one of Mr.Baker's recent posts :
"...the folks at Fox on 15th Street, where the guiding philosophy is that a dollar in a worker's pocket is a dollar that could be in a rich person's pocket,...."
 I wish we could see more of this (justified) criticism from other sources.

Why Let Fox Go Unanswered?

As we know, Fox "News" is the mouthpiece of the Republican Party, serving approximately the same function that Pravda used to for the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.  (Roger Ailes who runs FNC used to be a media consultant for the Republicans, working to get favorable coverage for his party in the news media of the day.  But now he has his own network to push party propaganda practically 24 hours a day.)*

For a while back in 2009, the White House called out Fox on its distortions, but in typical wussy fashion backed off when Fox objected.  And one could argue that the White House should not be using taxpayer money to defend itself against media attacks from a specific source.

But there is no reason the DNC could not work to expose the distortions coming from Fox.  I would suggest that the DNC set up a dedicated website just to report on Fox's untruths - call it say "Fox's Daily Distortions" - and list on it all the misstatements and unfair rhetoric put out by Fox in the previous 24 hours.

But will they?  Not a chance.

(And yes, from time to time I've sent messages to the DNC with suggestions on improving the Democrats' messaging.  I've not once received an acknowledgement.)

* I'll acknowledge that there are interruptions to the propaganda mill, such as Shep Smith's reports

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Freedom

When I think of the freedoms I want to enjoy, I think of things like the freedom to breathe clean air, the freedom to swim in clean rivers, the freedom to enjoy the beauties of nature, the freedom from unsafe working conditions at my job, the freedom to have any site I visit on the internet to come up as quickly as any other - I could go on with a long list, but in general, I'm talking about the freedoms that my government protects for me.

There's another view of freedom loose in the land:  the freedom for farmers and factory owners to foul our air and rivers, freedom for coal companies to rip up mountains, freedom for employers to set whatever working conditions they choose, freedom for monied interests to decide whose internet sites may be visited more quickly - again, I could go on with a long list.  And infringement of such freedoms to do harm is disparagingly referred to as "government regulations", instead of what they really are:  protections.

In general, the Democratic Party favors the freedoms from harm, and the Republican Party favors the freedom to do harm.  Yet the Democrats seem incapable of drawing the distinction between the two kinds of freedom:  they allow the Republicans (and Libertarians allied with the Republicans) to claim the moral high ground in proclaiming that they are for freedom, rather than making clear to voters that there are two competing visions of freedom, and offering an informed choice between the two visions.

Another of the Democrats' rhetorical failures.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What's Wrong With the Press (yet another example)

On November 11, the Republican presidential candidates held their "debate" on foreign policy, when Governor Perry famously could not remember which agencies of government he would eliminate..

One of the moderators was John Harwood of CNBC and the NY Times.  On a post-debate discussion on PBS, he had this to say about Rick Perry's brain freeze::

" Well, first of all, I was happy because for most of the debate, the candidates had made a very determined strategic decision not to engage with one another. And when you have a debate, you’re hoping to provide something interesting for the audience and we thought we had some good questions for these guys, but they were not engaging with one another.  They were giving their typical answers.  Some of it was interesting on a policy level, but for viewership, not so sure."
 I would have thought that the whole purpose of a debate was to let candidates set out their policy prescriptions, so that viewers (i.e. voters) could determine whose policies they preferred, and vote accordingly.  But for Mr. Harwood and his ilk in the press, presentation of policy is damned with faint praise: it does not seem to be the point of such events.  He wanted to provide viewers with the entertainment of watching the candidates argue, and if they didn't, that viewers have at least some other form of entertainment.  He finished his remarks by saying:
"I’d never seen anything like that in a debate.  I guess none of us have.  And – and you know, you knew immediately you at least had something that viewers would remember from it."
 Huh?  Does that mean that his expectation was that viewers would not remember the policies presented by the candidates?  And if so, what did he think the purpose of the debate was?  Well - I'm asking a rhetorical question here - apparently in Mr. Harwood's mind the purpose was entertainment either from conflict ("they weren't engaging with one another") or from candidates' errors in presentation ("something that viewers would remember").

But serious consideration of policies that might be guiding the country in the next administration?  Not so much.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

1%

Dick Cheney is reported to have conducted the "War on Terror" by this standard: even if there's just a one percent chance of a terrorist attack coming, act as if it is a certainty.

We're facing a worse longer term threat than any terrorist attack:  the possibility that global warming will change the planet's climate so much that our descendants will face food shortages and mass starvation, water shortages, unbearable temperatures, and fierce struggles over the planet's dwindling resources.

I would apply Cheney's standard to that possibility: even if there's just a one percent chance of such a miserable future for those who follow us, act as if it is a certainty.  We should start a crash program to reduce carbon emissions now.

(Brad Plumer reports on how fast CO2 concentrations are rising, and the narrowing window we have left.
Joe Romm rounds up the dire predictions.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Helping Vets Get Jobs

I see that President Obama is pushing jobs for vets.

There is one very simple steps that states could take that would help ex-soldiers get jobs:  change state licensing laws to make military training and experience as a paramedic equivalent to civilian training, so that those who had served as paramedics in the military could sit for state licensing exams, and so become eligible for civilian employment as paramedics.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Democrats' Rhetorical Deficiency

I hear Mitt Romney repeating his claim that to revive the economy "we need government to get out of the way," and he appears to be getting traction with that kind of rhetoric.

An obvious response would be: "Well, government got out of the way of the banking industry, and look what happened," with the more general message that "when government gets out of the way, bad things can happen."  (There plenty of examples that could be brought up as what happens when government is "out of the way", going back to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire through the Cuyahoga River catching fire to the recent spate of pet deaths from tainted pet food.)

But do we hear Democrats countering Romney with such a simple and easy response?  No.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The USPS

The USPS is going bankrupt, they tell me.

A time of high unemployment (like now) is not the time to be laying off yet more working people, but looking ahead to a time when we are back to full employment, I have to ask:  why do we need 6 days a week mail delivery? (Particularly for residential mail.)  I check my mail service box twice a week or so - that keeps me sufficiently up to date with the few things that still come in the mail, while matters that need immediate attention come through email or telephone.

I would suggest that when the economy has settled down, we change to twice a week mail delivery for home delivery: say Monday and Wednesday to half the addresses covered by a sorting station, and Tuesday and Thursday delivery for the other half.  Perhaps businesses could have mail three times a week - MWF and TuThS.

By changing and consolidating delivery routes, it should be possible to cut the number of mail carriers down by half, if not more, saving the USPS a bundle on labor costs.

(As I said earlier, I'm not advocating doing this right now.  I'm not in favor of layoffs in a time of already staggeringly high unemployment.)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Number of Unemployed

I don't know how widely known this is:  we have more unemployed people in the US now (about 15 million officially, but actually more) that were unemployed in  the year of highest unemployment in the Great Depression, 1933 (about 13 million).

We need a serious jobs plan - not more half-measures like the 2009 stimulus.  Yes, it probably save the economy from falling into the abyss, but it was clearly inadequate, and we need more than another inadequate plan now.






Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Excess cash

Bloomberg reports that U.S. companies are holding about $2 trillion in cash,  that the amount keeps growing, and it's not being put to productive use.

Their editorial is a discussion on what to do with all this cash: pay dividends, buy back stock, or make acquisitions.  It's an interesting view into the mindset of the financial world that there is no mention of one obvious use for this cash:  paying the companies' employees more.

Wages have been stagnant for the last 30 years or so, lagging behind the growth in productivity, with the result that "the broken connection between labor productivity growth and compensation growth for average workers has undermined mass upward mobility and the ideal of a growing middle class", as the authors of this paper note.

The rewards from the growth in productivity have gone mainly to the wealthy.  If I were asked, I'd say: share the increased wealth, that $2 trillion sitting around, with the employees responsible for productivity growth by significantly increasing wages and salaries.  Not only would it be the right thing to do morally, but would also put money in the hands of those most likely to spend it, and so give our lagging economy a boost.

The economy needs a stimulus: it doesn't have to come wholly from government.

Burqa ban

Banning the wearing of the burqa in public seems to me misguided.  It is discriminatory against Muslim women.

But I'm not happy with people going around in public wearing masks.  I would suggest a complete ban on wearing masks in public, which would cover the wearing of the burqa without singling it out.

I do see exceptions to the ban:  costumes at Hallowe'en, for instance, and those face hiding motorcycle helmets while actually riding a motorcycle. 

But otherwise, show us your face.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Serpico

I recently watched the movie Serpico for the first time since it came out in 1973.  A brief description for those who haven't seen the movie: it's a dramatization of the true story of Frank Serpico, a New York policeman who tried to avoid the police corruption he saw around him, and was rebuffed when he tried to report what had witnessed to the higher echelons of the police force.

What struck me was that, while I remembered the basic story and situations, I had forgotten the particular crime that Serpico's unit was combating: it was the numbers game, the private lottery that was illegal (and I suppose still is) in New York.   At the time, there was a large underground lottery system, with counting houses, banks, and runners.  That's all gone away now: the numbers racket has been superseded by the state lottery.

Which made me think to myself: what a waste.  If the lottery is benign enough to be run by the state, why can't it be run privately? (With proper oversight and protection of the public against fraud, of course.)  What a waste of police resources that could have been used to prevent real crime.  What a waste of people's lives when they are imprisoned just for providing a service that is wanted by the public.  And also, it's just this sort of victimless "criminal" activity that is a fertile field for the corruption that so dismayed Frank Serpico.

If one looks back to the 1920s, one can see a similar waste of resources and ruining of lives (as well as the rise of organized crime families) in the enforcement of prohibition.

And today the same dynamic is being played out in the enforcement of drug laws.  Just as there was no really good reason to outlaw lotteries and alcohol, there is no really good reason to outlaw the more harmless drugs like marijuana, and even the mildly harmful like cocaine.  Again, I see the waste of resources and the ruining of lives (one reason the US has proportionately more people in prison than any other country is the enforcement of drug laws, along with convictions for the ancillary criminal activities that arise out drug trafficking), but other serious consequences as well.  The demand for cocaine in this country has devastated Colombian society, and US demand for marijuana has led to astonishing levels of violence in Mexico.  Yet I see no acknowledgement from our elected representatives of the havoc they are causing both in this country and in others by our wrongheaded insistence on passing and enforcing laws against some people's choice of recreation.

Yes, there is some danger in taking drugs, and serious abuse can be ruinous to some individuals' health.  The same can be said of tobacco and alcohol - yet we have never criminalized tobacco, and admit that criminalizing alcohol was a mistake.  Our drug laws simply make no sense.

I'm reasonably sure that at some future time marijuana, and perhaps other drugs, will be legal.  And future generations will be looking back at us and wondering: why such a waste?  So if only they'd ask me - I'd say repeal the drug laws. (And think of the money now wasted we'd save by eliminating the DEA - money that could be put to productive rather than destructive uses.)

The Diallo shooting

It 's been over twelve years since Amadou Diallo was shot by police in New York, but the case stays with me.

A reminder:  four police officers approached Diallo, thinking he might be the person they were looking for that night.  When he pulled out his wallet (presumably to identify himself), one of the officers yelled "Gun!", prompting the other officers to join him in firing at Diallo.  Diallo was shot nineteen times, and was killed. The officers were distraught to find there was no gun - Diallo had not been a threat to them.

The officers were charged with second degree murder, but were acquitted on the grounds that they reasonably considered themselves threatened.  I think the decision to try the four as a group was a mistake by the prosecution:  as the officers were tried as a group, the jury considered their group reaction to the misperceived threat, and clearly when the threat of a gun is loudly announced, police officers would be expected to respond in self protection.

I believe the officer who yelled "Gun!" should have been the only officer charged, and he should have been charged with manslaughter.  Yes, he made an honest mistake, but that mistake predictably led to the death of Diallo.  It's my understanding that making a mistake leading to someone's death justifies a manslaughter conviction.  And when a mistake can predictably lead to a death, it seems to me that there is a duty to be particularly careful NOT to make a life threatening mistake.

If I may make what may seem a distant analogy:  imagine you are driving on a city street, and see a pedestrian in a crosswalk. You jam on your brake - except you made a mistake, you jammed your foot on the accelerator thinking it was the brake, so the car sped up and killed the pedestrian.  Would your "honest mistake" absolve you from any criminal prosecution for causing that death?  I don't believe so.  A driver has a responsibility to be careful in controlling a car when a life is at stake - and a police officer has a responsibility to be careful in identifying threats if death is the likely result of a carelessly calling out a non-existent threat.  (One could also think of the well-known saying that free speech does not allow one to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater.)

So if I had been in a position to decide on prosecution in the Diallo case, I would have focused on the action that precipitated the shooting, not on the shooting itself.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Saving Social Security

There has been a lot of rhetoric lately to the effect that our Social Security system is going broke, and that benefits need to be sharply cut for future beneficiaries.

If someone were to ask me what to do, I would say raise the top level of the portion of income subject to payroll taxes.   Remember, the present  level of $106,800 was set in 1983, and if the level had been set to grow with inflation, it would now be over $250,000.  My recommendation would be to look at raising the top level beyond which social security taxes are not paid to the level set in the Reagan years, but adjusted for inflation to today's dollars, together with an ongoing commitment to raise the cap to keep pace with inflation.

Among those who wish to preserve Social Security rather than gut it, some say remove the cap entirely, others that the rate could be raised. To me the current rate of about 13%* (or the rate of about 15% that obtained until this year) seems plenty high enough, and I believe raising the cap as I propose would keep Social Security solvent for a long time, although Robert Reich is proposing a $500,00 upper limit.  I leave it to those more expert in actuarial prediction to make the calculations. 

As to eliminating the cap entirely, I oppose it for the following reason:  I believe we will need to raise income tax rates considerably to bring our national finances under control. Robert Reich has proposed income tax bracket rates that would top out at 70% for incomes over $15 million (along with lower rates for incomes below $250,000).  If those paying 70% in income taxes were also paying social security taxes, their rate would around  83%, which does seem excessive.  Yes, I know that in the Eisenhower years the top marginal rate was around 90%, but still....  And yes, I know there's little chance of Reich's proposals being enacted, but this is a blog on what I would say if asked!

* I'm including both employer and employee contribution, which is also the self-employment tax rate for the self-employed.

Monday, May 9, 2011

How To Pay For News

I've been thinking about how internet news sites could monetize their services to provide income to meet the expense of news gathering.

Paywalls are one way - monthly subscriptions,  just like print newspapers.  But what if I don't want to pay a fairly substantial annual amount for a lot of content (sports, etc) I'm not interested in?  I would prefer to pay for just those posts I really want to read.

The obvious answer is micropayments - paying a small sum, perhaps even just one or two cents per click.  I would be willing to pay for my news and commentary if it were so priced.  But what would be the billing mechanism for such small sums?

I think of how I pay to cross toll bridges here in the San Francisco area.  I buy a Fastrak for $30 with a credit card account. Every time I cross a bridge, the toll is deducted from my Fastrak balance, and when the balance gets low, my Fastrak account is automatically topped up from my credit card.

I visit  many websites in search of information.  I wouldn't want to be setting up multiple "FastrakNews" accounts, particularly when the incremental deductions from each account would be so small.  I am thinking that news and opinion websites could form a payment consortium:  I could buy website clicks ahead of time from the group operation, and for each click I made on a website, the owner of the site would be credited with the click fee, and it would be deducted from my balance.  As my balance got close to zero, my balance could be topped up from my credit card.  That way, I'd be paying only for what I wanted to read, it wouldn't be a burdensome expense, and the news organizations would be getting an income.  Perhaps not as much per reader as they would through a paywall, but with more readers, the micro payments could add up to approximate the paywall income.

Just a thought...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Policy Fail

Yesterday the president released his "long form" birth certificate.

On the White House Blog, spokesman Dan Pfeiffer wrote this:

"At a time of great consequence for this country – when we should be debating how we win the future, reduce our deficit, deal with high gas prices, and bring stability to the Middle East, Washington, DC, was once again distracted by a fake issue."

Noticeably missing:  any reference to the 25 million unemployed or underemployed Americans, which should be the administration's top priority.

My suspicion is that neither President Obama nor Mr. Pfeiffer are personally acquainted with any unemployed persons facing the financial ruin and personal devastation that unemployment and lack of income bring to ordinary people.  If they were, perhaps they would not be so cavalier in relegating unemployment to the not-worth-mentioning category.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Authorities and Officials

From today's Wapo:  " Authorities discovered highly radioactive water leaking from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant....."   "....the concrete was unable to set because the water washed it away, authorities said...."
From the AP: "...officials said it will take several months to bring the crisis under control..."

 I've noticed that reporters often refer to "authorities" and "officials" as sources for their stories.  Is it really that hard to identify the person/people who are the sources of information?  Not necessarily by name - but at least by a description of their position: tell us who these "authorities" and "officials" are, rather than dropping in the generic terms.  Every time I read these words, my first thought is: lazy reporting.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spend more!

There are something like 25 million Americans unemployed or under-employed, with the attendant misery.  Our national priority should be getting back to full employment as soon as possible, not reducing the deficit right now.  It is disconcerting to hear our president siding with those calling for "belt tightening" and spending cuts.

(Update 4/9/11:  and now we have Obama celebrating the cuts in the budget that will only slow down recovery, and put or keep more people out of work.)

What President Obama would have been saying if he asked me (although his rhetorical skills are better than mine, and the following would be phrased more eloquently):

"There are millions of people already out of work, and every month more people, particularly young people, are beginning the search for their first jobs - and not finding any.  So from now on my first priority is to create as many jobs as I can.  Business is not creating jobs right now - business is investing in new machinery, but is not hiring in sufficient numbers to make enough of a dent in the unemployment rate.  So we have to make a choice:  allow millions to continue a life of unemployment, with the loss of self worth that implies, or else as a people we step up to the plate, and act through our government to do what business will not: provide the millions of Americans now unemployed or under employed the feeling of self worth that comes with useful and gainful employment.  Let us follow the example set by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, when the jobs programs he started lifted millions out of poverty and despair.

It's not that there is no work for millions of Americans to be doing.  The work is there to be done.  Our roads and bridges are falling into disrepair.  We are falling  behind other countries in our development of new energy technologies and new transport technologies. The threat of climate change means we urgently need new non-polluting energy technologies. Our states and cities are laying off workers who provide the services our citizens want and need.  I repeat, there is work to be done, and we need to get to work now getting it done.  So I am today proposing a new works program.  Not a giant increase in federal government employees, but a program of grants to the states to allow them to retain their valued workers, and new contracts for our nation's businesses to repair and upgrade our infrastructure, and develop the 21st century technology that will keep out country competitive, and our economy growing with challenging and well paying jobs.

I hear my opponents say that we should be cutting our massive deficits.  And so we should - once we are back to full employment.  But right now is  not the time - now is the time to put people to work, not be putting more people out of work.  Because that is what "cutting spending" means - putting people out of work, both people who work for your government, and the people who work for businesses that depend on your government buying their needed goods and services.  And as we put people out of work, so their decreased purchasing power ripples through the economy, putting even  more people out of work.  So  no - I will not heed the calls of my opponents to put more people out of work.

I recognize that this new jobs program will add to our deficit and our national debt.  We would be in a much better position now if our debt had not been run up so irresponsibly in the Reagan and Bush years, an irresponsibility I might add that those who call for deficit reduction now enthusiastically supported at the the time the debt was being run up.

So yes, we will now for a period need to responsibly add to our debt.  It is a choice of that or prolonging the sad spectre of unemployment that haunts too many of our fellow citizens.  We also need to look forward to the day when employment is back to normal, when all who want a job, particularly our young people, can find one.  When that day arrives, we need to get serious about stopping the borrowing, and paying down our debt. Yes, that does mean raising taxes to the rates they were before the irresponsible tax cuts of the Reagan and Bush years, their foolish running up of the national credit card, which led to our present sad state of public finance.  And we also need to control the greatest driver of rising deficits, the cost of health care.  The Affordable Care Act has made a start on controlling costs, but we must do more.

But let me repeat: deficit reduction will come later, and yes it will be painful after these binge years of running up the national credit card, but right now, we must get Americans back to the dignity and self worth of valuable employment."

(Update 4/3/11.  The small rise in new jobs in March is being touted as good news.  A useful correction from Dean Baker here.)
(Update 4/10/11:  And the small rise is more than offset by the projected job losses resulting from the budget cuts just agreed to by Obama.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Government regulations

A common Republican trope is that business is being stifled by government regulations, and that regulations should be done away with. (e.g. John McCain: "I am fundamentally a deregulator.")

The rhetoric is that of an intrusive government managing (or mismanaging) our lives.  And who among us doesn't dislike the feeling that we are being regulated by outside forces?  There is also the claim that regulation hampers the growth of the economy, and contributes to our current unemployment woes.  So the Republican rhetoric strikes a sympathetic chord with the public.

But consider: government regulations are not an end in themselves - they are a means to an end.  And that end is our protection: protection from dirty air, polluted water, unsafe working conditions, unsafe living conditions, dangerous gambles by reckless bankers, and so on and so on. Yes, there is a legitimate discussion to be had on how much protection the public needs government to be affording us (the nanny state and all that), but let's at least have that discussion in terms of the issue, not just the mechanism.

So the proper counter to the anti-regulatory rhetoric is to reframe the discourse by using the term protection.  When Republicans call for removal of regulations, the Democrats' reply should be that the Republicans want to remove protections, and give examples of protections that are enforced by regulation, like those I mentioned above.  Instead, the Democrats in their customary wussy way are replying on the Republicans' terms - trying to defend regulation, instead of pointing out that regulations are just the mechanism and insisting on using the term protection every time a Republican talks about regulation.  Indeed, the Democrats should be setting the agenda themselves, accusing Republicans of wanting to remove protections, and reminding the public of the protections we now enjoy as a result of those denigrated "regulations."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Recording conversations

I see that police across the country have taken to arresting people for recording police activities in public, using the states' laws against recording conversations unless all parties agree.

Usually these laws are applied to telephone conversations, but they also apply to any conversation.

I've always been opposed to these laws against recording conversations.  It seems to me that if there's a later dispute as to what was said in a conversation, particularly in the course of a lawsuit, then a recording would remove the "he said. she said" difficulty of resolving the truth.  In effect, the laws against recording conversations are a license to lie.

(The cynic in me suspects that legislators passed these laws with a view to protecting themselves from being held accountable for what they may have said on one occasion, and then wanted to deny later.)

I don't understand the "invasion of privacy" argument.  The communication is being made - the person being recorded knows s/he's talking to the other person, even if ignorant of the recording.  How is his/her privacy being invaded?  Perhaps people think that publishing or broadcasting the recording would be an invasion of privacy;  it may well be, but how would that be different from a person publicly recounting a private conversation that hadn't been recorded?  If there is harm to the person whose words are being broadcast, the harm is the same whether a recording or a transcript is being made public, and the same remedies would apply.

So repeal the "license to lie" laws!


No fly zone over Libya

I see that the Arab League is backing a no-fly zone over Libya, but are expecting NATO to enforce it.

Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are quite well armed with modern air forces.

There seems to be no reason that the Arab countries could not themselves (in concert through the Arab League) enforce any UN authorized no-fly zome.

If only they'd asked me.....