Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Slavery? Beholden to a foreign master? Seriously, Sarah?

Correct me if I am wrong but didn't we have an election about 5 years ago in which the country told Sarah Palin to pack her bags and go back to Alaska?  I seem to recall her and her running mate losing by more than 7 million votes in 2008.  But hey, I'm getting older so my memory could be slipping.

So let's get this straight...Sarah Palin believes that the United States' $17 trillion dollar debt is the moral equivalent of slavery?  It is, in her mind, the equivalent of one person being able to own another and deny him/her basic human rights.  It gives our 'foreign masters' the right to whip us at will, sell us to any other party, or kill us without repercussion?  Is that what you're saying, Sarah?  I just want to make sure I understand before I proceed.

Okay, so what's wrong with Palin's analogy?  So much that I don't know where to begin.  I guess the beginning is as good a place as any.  Palin says,
"Our free stuff today is being paid for by taking money from our children and borrowing from China..."
What 'free stuff' would that be?  Government services aren't free and they never have been.  Fighting two wars in the middle east wasn't free.  Building a 21st century infrastructure of roads, bridges, rail networks, and schools is not free.  Caring for the weakest among us is not free.  Keeping 25% of the world's prison population locked up is not free.  All this 'stuff' costs money.  We, as a society, have chosen together to do these things, regardless of what you and your merry band of naysayers want to believe.  You and people of your ilk have engaged in obstruction, refused to allow the appropriate level of taxation to pay for the things WE have chosen to do together, leading us to the $17 trillion in debt we have racked up...most of which accumulated under Republican leadership.  The following graph shows the change in the debt as a percentage of GDP since WWII.

What we see in the above graph is that debt began to grow during the Reagan Administration and but for a few short years during the Clinton Administration has continued to grow ever since.  There are several reasons for that, including repeated tax cuts, increased spending commitments, and slow economic growth (except 1997-2000) when compared to the period from 1945-1980.  Another way to look at it is in terms of total dollars added to the debt, as the chart below shows.

Using this scenario, both President George W. Bush and President Obama have added a lot to our debt, though Reagan is still the debt king in terms of the percentage by which the debt increased while Clinton and Obama have increased it by the smallest percentages.  Perhaps this is due to Republicans rediscovering their fiscal conservatism whenever a Democrat is in the White House?  

What about Palin's primary claim that we are 'taking money from our children and borrowing from China'?  Is this true?  Yes and no.  We aren't literally robbing our children's piggy banks any more than a parent who buys his/her kids' Christmas presents with a credit card is taking money from them.  Only, we are not buying presents, we are investing in our future as a nation.  Yes, someone has to pay for that, whether it is the current generation, the next generation, or the one after that.  Unless economic growth returns to the 4-5% annual rate it was in the 1950's we won't have the money to pay for all our commitments without substantial tax increases.  I would, of course, argue that some tax increases are in order as we are currently paying the lowest rate of federal taxes in over 60 years and nearly half of all Americans pay no income tax at all (I'd rather abolish the income tax but that is for another day).  To move those individuals into tax paying status requires economic growth that includes substantial growth in wages for lower middle class workers, which have been stagnant for 35 years.  

Okay, so what about our 'foreign masters'?  Does China really own us?  Not really.  It is a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of lazy people like Sarah Palin to believe that.  Here are the facts:

The United States is currently a little over $17 trillion in debt, though that is somewhat misleading since we have $200 trillion in assets (oil, gas, land, buildings, etc...).  Of that debt, about 1/3 is owned by government agencies.  The single largest creditor for the U.S. government?  The Social Security Administration (SSA).  As of August 30, 2013 the SSA owns $2.764 trillion in government treasuries.  This is because for nearly 80 years Social Security has collected more in revenue than it has paid out in benefits.  The excess money is invested in US treasury bills, allowing the SSA to collect interest on the excess.  Someday, those T-bills will come due and the government will either have to raise taxes to pay them off or issue more T-bills and pay the old ones off with the proceeds from the sale of the new T-bills.  That is essentially what the government has been doing for 35 years.  The rest of this part of the debt is held by pension funds for the government, FDIC, and some other federal agencies.  

What about the other 2/3 of the debt?  Isn't that owned by China?  Well, no.  About $12 trillion of our national debt is what we call 'debt held by the public', which includes foreign held debt.  As of March 2013 almost half of the debt held by the public was held by the central banks of foreign governments.  Why?  Because America pays her bills and is viewed as a solid investment.  Or at least we were until Sarah Palin and the Tea Party started threatening to default on the debt.  Overall, $5.7 trillion of our public debt is held by foreigners.  China is the largest single holder of that debt at $1.27 trillion (August 2013), or roughly 10% of the total of public debt.  Japan's central bank is second at about $1.1 trillion.  But the largest holder of U.S. public debt?  The Federal Reserve Bank of the United States ($1.74 trillion).  

The fact is, most of our debt is money we owe not to China or other foreign interests but to ourselves.  We're in no danger of being whipped or hogtied by our 'foreign masters' because of the national debt. The debt is concerning for other reasons but fear of being a slave to our Chinese masters is not one of them.  

Full details on the debt can be found here.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Strange Bedfellows: The Tea Party and Karl Marx

Karl Marx died 130 years ago in London, yet his legacy lives on through America's latest populist uprising.  No, I don't mean the flame out that was Occupy Wall Street, though that group certainly shared some of Marx's ideological heritage as well.  The populists I speak of are America's own Marxists, aka the Tea Party.  To be sure, many who associate themselves with the tea party will take umbrage with the veracity of my analysis.  I don't care...if it acts and thinks like a Marxist it must be a Marxist.

I began thinking about this subject after a conversation with a gentleman who said Bill O'Reilly was too 'left of center' for him and that Van Jones was further to the left than Karl Marx.  When Bill O'Reilly is left of center I'm no longer certain where the center is.  Nevertheless, let's explore a little of the core beliefs of Karl Marx and the Tea Party.  I'll begin with Marx.

First and foremost, Marx was a philosopher writing about the political economy that existed in mid 19th century Europe.  What he saw everyday was hordes of workers shuffling off to the factories and fields, exchanging their labor for minuscule wages so they might continue to subsist.  Not thrive mind you but just continue to breathe.  This exchange of labor for pay was not voluntary, it was a form of forced servitude that removed the individual's freedom to be his own master.  Unlike modern neo-Marxists, Marx himself was not an egalitarian.  His primary concern was how the unbridled capitalism of his day restricted the individual from achieving his full potential.  Capitalism did this through the alliance of the bourgeoisie and the state.  Compare that with the Tea Party rhetoric opposing crony capitalism and the loss of individual freedom at the hands of the statists, of whom Barack Obama is supposedly the chief.

The free market, Tea Partiers argue, should choose winners and losers, not the government.  Perhaps, but it is now and always has been a myth that there is a truly 'free' market.  A truly free market would be based upon the free exchange of something of value for something of equivalent value.  That would leave neither party worse off nor better off than they were upon entering the market.  When a laborer exchanges his labor for a wage that allows him to survive does he enter that transaction freely and upon equal standing with the one who has a job that needs to be performed?  Only in an economy where there are exactly the number of workers needed to for every available job.  In any other situation, one side or the other is disadvantaged.  Usually, it is the laborer.  Additionally, the laborer is not free to abstain from the marketplace and open his own business because the cost of entry into many areas of commerce are enormous.  Suppose one wants to begin a railroad to deliver goods from a port to warehouses more efficiently than another.  The capital needed to create the infrastructure to compete in that market is prohibitive.  The effect is a monopoly that is usually supported by the state. Sure, the costs of entry may be lower and less prohibitive in some other markets but so too is the risk of market over saturation, which may lead to the collapse of some businesses and the falling into destitution Marx envisioned as stronger competitors eat up weaker ones.

Further, in order for the capitalist to survive, he must realize a profit from the exchange he has made with the one who labors.  If I sell eight hours of my time to an employer for $100 I must produce something valued at much more than $100 if the employer is to remain in business.  In this, Marx recognized how capitalism in his day had abandoned the Lockean principle of private property that meant the laborer had a right to keep what he produced or created.  Marx referred to this as the exploitation of the laboring class.  The greater the difference between the amount the laborer received for his work and what the capitalist could reap from it was the level of exploitation experienced by the worker.  This becomes important when discussing the Tea Party because it ostensibly opposes the oppression it perceives to come from the crony capitalists such as bankers and the political elites, or those who benefit from their affiliation with the state they oppose.  The irony is, of course, that the Tea Party by and large are white, male, and over 45.  They also largely support the Republican Party, which is every bit as state oriented as the Democrats.  Therein lay the roots of the civil war being waged within the modern GOP.

The Tea Party, like Marx, had he been alive today, opposes the modern welfare state, though for very different reasons than Marx would have.  For the Tea Party, the welfare state takes what they have earned from them by force and gives it to those who have not earned it.  Yet, much of the Tea Party opposes any changes to Medicare or Social Security, the two largest entitlement programs.  The Tea Party also largely supports the military industrial complex, the ones who carry the guns for the state they so deplore.  Rather, Tea Partiers oppose 'welfare' programs for the poor, who they see as lazy slackers.

Marx, on the other hand, would likely oppose the welfare state because it interferes with the rise of the proletariat by mitigating the effects of capitalism.  By providing a level of sustenance to the poorest and propping up many low wage earners with programs like SNAP and Medicaid, the impetus to organize and overthrow their oppressors is largely removed.  This why Franklin Roosevelt, in the midst of the creation of the welfare state, could say that he was 'The best friend capitalism ever had.'  Apart from the welfare state, it is likely America might have seen some uprisings such as have occurred in many poorer nations in South and Central America.

In sum, the Tea Party and Karl Marx share much in common.  The Libertarians in the Tea Party hate the state and see it as a coercive force that steals their God given liberty.  Marx saw the state as stealing individual liberty from the proletariat through its alignment with the capitalists.  Marx's hatred of the state drove his vision of a communist utopia that emerged from the wreckage of not only capitalism, but its successor, socialism.  Far from being anti-capitalism, Marx saw it as a necessary stage in the development of communism.  Ironically, the anti-welfare state mentality of the Tea Party, if made reality by gaining power, could very well be the catalyst that awakens the proletariat that has been lulled to sleep by the statists on the left and the right.  The very thing the Tea Party fears most may be what it ultimately creates.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Could Shutting Down the Government Cost Republicans the House in 2014?

Forrest Gump said, 'Stupid is as stupid does.'  More and more these days I am convinced he was talking about the American media establishment.  Serious investigative reporting has been replaced by nonstop discussion of the latest polling data, which quickly becomes the conventional wisdom among the media elites.  The latest example comes from recent polls that show Republicans are less popular than they have ever been...at least since modern polling began in the 1940's.  The most recent poll puts the party's approval rate at around 28%.  That's not very good but is it the end of the world for the GOP?  Not by a long shot. 

Social scientists have been gathering data on the voting habits of Americans for at least 60 years and we have learned a lot over that time.  One thing we know is that party identification is the strongest predictor of how an individual will vote in any given election.  Republican identifiers vote for Republicans and Democrat identifiers vote for Democrats at very high rates.  Additionally, most independents are not truly independents but are weak party identifiers who usually vote for the same party in most elections.  The idea of an American electorate that swings back and forth is a myth.  American elections are largely driven by structural factors, not careful deliberation by voters analyzing the nuances of public policy. 

The problem with all the discussion of the unpopularity of the GOP possibly costing the party the House next year is that no matter how unpopular Republicans are in national polls it doesn't amount to a hill of beans at the local level.  Midterm elections are driven by dynamics that are not present in presidential elections.  If 2014 were a presidential election year the discussion of Republicans losing the House might be more salient.  But it isn't. 

The party holding the White House enters every midterm election at a disadvantage simply because partisans affiliated with the party out of power are more motivated to vote and check the power of their opponents.  In 2014 this probably means that more Republicans than Democrats will turn out to vote in the midterm elections next year.  Those Republicans will vote for Republican candidates no matter how unpopular the party is nationally. 

Further, the way most congressional districts are structured provides the party currently holding the seat with an inherent advantage.  Democratic supporters are often packed into urban districts that may be 70-80% Democratic, which means that a lot of Democratic votes are 'wasted' electing a Democratic candidate who would win the election anyway.  Republican districts are not as compact and often encompass many rural voters unlikely to switch parties regardless of the current popularity of their party.

To be clear, this does not mean Republicans cannot lose the House next year.  Anything is possible in politics.  Consider, however, that the last two times the party holding the White House gained House seats in a midterm election the gains were 8 seats in 2002 for the GOP and 5 seats for the Democrats in 1998.  Democrats currently need to pick up 17 seats to take control of the House.  The last time a party controlling the White House won enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives in a midterm election?  It has never happened in American history.  Does that mean it won't happen in 2014?  No, but 225 years of history tells me it is highly unlikely.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Can the U.S. Actually Default on its Debt?

A new meme is beginning to emerge from some of the more hardcore conservatives in the GOP, particularly those in the Tea Party faction, claiming that it is not technically possible for the U.S. Government to default on its debt.  The thinking, if you want to call it that, is that since revenue to the treasury is forecast to be around $250 billion per month and monthly interest on the national debt is expected to be around $31 billion per month (see the president's 2014 budget here), then the treasury should have no problem paying the interest each month whether a debt ceiling hike is passed or not.  Technically speaking, they are absolutely right.  The problem, of course, is that the FY 2014 budget is estimated to be upside down by about $700 billion, or some $58 billion a month.  The treasury is then faced with a dilemma as to how to prioritize revenue outlays.  An additional problem is that the Treasury doesn't have the ability to prioritize payments the way a household might.  For example, a household could choose to pay the most important bills each month first (mortgage, auto, grocery, utility) and then pay the credit cards with what is left.  If the household comes up short, something doesn't get paid unless the household can take a loan to cover the shortfall...most households do this by making purchases on credit with the intent to repay it next month or over time. 

Treasury, however, does not have this luxury.  According to the wonkblog, the federal government receives some 2 million invoices a day for services purchased or debts owed.  Its computer systems are set up to pay invoices in the order received, whether that is grandma's social security check, a payment to a hospital for medical care provided, or an interest payment on a bond.  These invoices are not individually inspected by a human being but are checked by the computer for accuracy and then payment is sent.  There isn't a government accountant with a checkbook somewhere writing out and signing each of the 2 million or more payments processed every day.  Technically, it might even be possible for Treasury to reserve some cash to always pay the bondholders...but without the ability to borrow it would have to skip paying something else.  This could mean a government contractor owed a million dollar payment does not get paid.  He in turn does not pay his employees who respond by not paying the mortgage or car payment.  The consequences of sucking nearly $60 billion per month out of the economy would likely prove chaotic, even if the bondholders got paid. 

In short, what some members of the GOP are advocating right now is a horrible strategy likely to have ruinous consequences on an economy still struggling to pick up the pieces from the 2007-09 recession.  This could be enough to push it off the cliff and make that episode look like the 'good old days.'  That's why many in the business community, typically the GOP's stronghold, have had enough.  Many have begun siding with the president whose policies they have vigorously opposed in the past.  Some have even begun recruiting more moderate Republican candidates to oppose Tea Party darlings in GOP primaries next year.  Conventionally, many mainstream Republicans have avoided speaking out against Tea Party extremism for fear of being 'primaried' from the right next year.  It now appears that at least some Tea Party Republicans may face a challenge from the center.  That, in this writer's opinion, would be a welcome change and just might pull the GOP back from the cliff it seems intent to leap off. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Vacuous Leadership & Modern American Politics

As I write this the Federal Government in Washington, D.C. has begun the third day of what could be a very long shutdown that disrupts government services for hundreds of millions of people.  Millions more may either lose their jobs or suffer a crippling blow to their income.  I'm not just talking about the civilian workforce but those who depend upon tourism to national parks or payments to hospitals, for example.  Already we've heard reports of a significant drop in tourism along the Virginia coast leading to restaurants closing their doors, half empty motels, and layoffs.  The saddest part of this present shutdown is that it is completely unnecessary and pointless.  It is the result of mindless, ideological leadership in Washington, D.C., if we dare even to call it that. 

James Madison, it is said, believed that limited government (a phrase found nowhere in the constitution) required the separation of powers into the judicial, the legislative, and the executive in order to function well.  American children are taught this mantra from the earliest days of their civic education, so much so that it may as well be an edict handed down from God above.  However, as the late Richard Neustadt argued, American government is not so much a case of separated powers as it is 'separated institutions sharing power.'  Because of that power sharing arrangement good leadership depends far more upon the cultivation of individual interpersonal skills than on positions and titles alone.  In his classic book, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan, Neustadt makes the claim that true power is not the power to issue an order to do something but the power to persuade others to do something because it is in their own best interests to do it.  In fact, when leaders must resort to an order to get something accomplished Neustadt argues that it indicates a failure of leadership.  Sadly, that is the state of modern American politics. 

Whether it is the Democratic leadership in the Senate, which has failed to persuade the House to pass a clean continuing resolution that would fund the government, or the Republican leadership in the House that has failed to round up what Devin Nunes (R-CA) has referred to as the 'lemmings with suicide vests' in the House Republican conference, or the President of the United States, who has failed to build the kind of rapport with either congressional Democrats or Republicans that might allow him to engage in serious bargaining, it is clear that a leadership vacuum exists in Washington. 

Take, for example, Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) inability to persuade his caucus that passage of a clean CR, which funds the government at essentially the level that the House agreed to in passing the Paul Ryan budget (see chart below), has precipitated this completely unnecessary government shutdown.  The insistence of a small faction of tea-party Republicans to an incoherent, destined to lose position, reflects not only poorly on the Speaker's leadership but also on the weakness of the modern GOP.  It is, essentially, a party in the midst of a not-so-civil war that threatens to destroy it from within. 

On top of the war amongst Republicans in the House, we now have Senate Republicans claiming that a leadership vacuum exists with the GOP caucus there.  Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has claimed that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has effectively delegated leadership of the party to Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT), as well as the outside interest groups enabled by Citizens United who are promoting challenges to Republican Senators with well-established conservative voting records by redefining what it means to be a conservative. 

We've also now got evidence that Speaker Boehner has been less than genuine in his effort to eliminate subsidies to congressional staffers to help pay for their health insurance on the new healthcare exchanges...something Boehner apparently lobbied hard to keep in the healthcare bill, even going as far as a secret meeting with Harry Reid (D-NV) and President Obama to make sure the subsidies were preserved. Reid's staff has now leaked an email exchange of the discussions between Reid's spokesman and Boehner's spokesman.  These kind of failures in leadership lead only to further  entrenchment and an unwillingness to bargain, as well as deeper distrust between the so-called 'leaders' of their respective caucuses.

President Obama himself is not beyond reproach in any of these failures either.  His own leadership style has left much to be desired.  In his 4+ years as president, Obama has failed to reach out effectively to those in the opposition.  Granted, Republicans were never going to 'like' him but there are steps one can take to at least earn the respect of those with whom one disagrees.  Neustadt maintained that for a president to truly have power and be able to bargain with others, two things are essential.  The first is public prestige, for without the support of the public any president is doomed to failure.  In spite of frequent public addresses and even being reelected to a 2nd term, Obama has failed to move the needle when it comes to public opinion.  The second thing necessary for presidential power is a good professional reputation.  In other words, the president must work hard to earn the respect of those whom he depends upon to accomplish his agenda.  Like the first, the president has failed to cultivate such a reputation, leaving a vacuum in leadership in the White House as well as in Congress.  In a new book by Chris Matthews called Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, Matthews romanticizes about the good old days of the 1980's when two fierce adversaries, Speaker Thomas P. 'Tip' O'Neill (D-MA) and Republican President Ronald Reagan would go at each other publicly but then share drinks together after hours and celebrate each other's birthday.  Perhaps the stories Matthews tells are caricatures or overstate the relationship between O'Neill and Reagan, but it is telling that after Reagan was shot in March of 1981, the Speaker was one of the first to arrive at Reagan's bedside and held his hand while praying through the 23rd Psalm.  One thing is clear from all this:  Reagan and O'Neill had the ability to develop a working relationship with each other despite their personal differences.  Obama and Boehner have demonstrated a complete and utter inability to do the same.  One can only wonder how Republicans would react today if such a misfortune were to befall President Obama. 

For their part, Republicans set out to discredit Obama's presidency from day one, beginning with the infamous meeting in Washington by Republicans distraught over his election recounted in the book Do Not Ask What Good We Do, in which GOP members establish a strategy to delegitimize Barack Obama in any way possible, including personal character attacks, innuendo, and outright lies.  From Mitch McConnell's infamous 2010 statement that Senate Republicans "... single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president" to Joe Wilson shouting 'You Lie' during a joint address to Congress to the birther nonsense to current claims by right-winger Jerome Corsi that the president is a closet homosexual who frequented gay bars in Chicago in the 1990's, it becomes clear the conservative Republicans not only dislike Obama, in fact, they hate him. Reagan, for his part, was never subject to that kind of bitter hatred by those with whom he disagreed.  
The bottom line is simply that what passes for leadership in Washington these days is, in fact, anything but leadership.  It is vacuous, bitter, and destructive.  Unfortunately, we the people are the ones who put these self centered morons in office so perhaps we are getting the very leadership we deserve, which is to say none at all.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Long Slow Death of Shared Governance, or What Would James Madison Say?

At 12:00 midnight on October 1st the United States government came to a screeching halt, or at least it did for 800,000 'non-essential' federal workers, millions of citizens who depend upon them, their families, and many others planning to visit America's museums, national parks, and presidential libraries.  The shutdown is the result of a lame-brained strategy by a few Tea Party extremists who have read a little too much Ayn Rand and spent a little too much time smoking the peace pipe with Charles and David Koch.  Their shared hatred of the president (yes, they hate the president...take a look back at the images from tea bag rallies, the birther nonsense, and the lies they have concocted and perpetuated about the Affordable Care Act) have sent many of them into 'babbling spasms of stupid.'  There is nothing honorable about what this tyrannical minority, as James Madison might have called them.  Nothing worthy of being called U.S. Congressmen and Congresswomen in a single one of these fanatics.  If the American people had any common sense every single one of them would be voted out of office next year.  But they will not be, largely because they reside in congressional districts that have been constructed to ensure they are reelected again and again regardless of how destructive their actions are to American democracy.  Our shared belief in how self-government works has dissipated and our union is weaker for it.

How did we get here?  In some ways it is the culmination of a more than 30 year war on government that began when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980.  In Reagan's first inaugural address he rallied conservatives by declaring that government was not the solution, government was the problem:

The part most commentators miss about his comment is that he was specifically addressing the crisis that existed in 1981...a stagnant economy, high inflation, and widespread unemployment.  Reagan was not anti-government like much of the libertarian infused tea partiers are today.  In fact, Reagan used the tools of government, such as the Federal Reserve, to strengthen the economy, preserve Social Security, Medicare, and deal with the crises that existed in 1981. 

The challenges that exist in 2013 are vastly different than they were in 1981.  A 30 year tax cutting binge in Washington has left the government starved of revenue.  Add to that the stagnant wages of the middle class and you have a recipe for disaster.  Contrary to conservative mythology cutting taxes does not necessarily increase revenue.  If it did the government should just lower all tax rates to zero and then there would be plenty of money, right?  Uh, not exactly. 

Yes, the American economy is stagnant today and has been since the Great Recession began in late 2007.  Things are better than they were in late 2008 and early 2009 when the economy was shedding 400,000 jobs a month.  Yet, the economy is not as good as it should be.  The GOP wants to put the blame for that solely on the shoulders of the president, something they did not do when the economy plunged into recession 6 months into Reagan's first term and unemployment went from 7.4% to 10.8% after Reagan's 1981 tax cuts were passed.  More specifically, the GOP blames the future implementation of the Affordable Care Act for our present woes, even though CEO's say it is the brinkmanship in Washington that creates uncertainty and a reluctance to hire workers and expand their businesses. 

James Madison worried about factions a lot, so much so that he argued the only way to prevent a tyranny of the majority was to break the factions into so many little pieces and so dilute power as to forestall the emergence of any faction that might try to run roughshod over the nation.  The clarity of 236 years of hindsight shows us that his plan has failed.  The emergence of the modern two party system has rent Madisonian Democracy asunder.  The ideal we once shared that elections are about ideas and the way to implement those ideas is to win elections has become but a fond memory.  The GOP has opposed 'Obamacare' from the start, even though its own 'think tank', the Heritage Foundation, proposed a very similar plan in the 1990's, and the party's presidential nominee in 2012 implemented a similar plan as governor of Massachusetts.  First, Republicans lost the 2008 election to Barack Obama.  Then they began making stuff up about 'death panels', 'government takeovers of health care', and the like.  The disinformation campaign has been very effective as nearly 70% of Americans haven't got a clue what the ACA means to them.  Having failed to stop the ACA in 2010, opponents sued in federal court, which culminated in a decision by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. that the ACA and its individual mandate were a legitimate exercise of congressional authority.  Not satisfied with that, the GOP set out to 'repeal' Obamacare and the House has passed some 40+ bills doing that though not a single one to replace it with something else.  The party's presidential nominee in 2012 promised to sign a repeal of the ACA on day one if he won the presidency.  He lost by nearly five million votes.  So now the nonsense caucus in the GOP, a small but very vocal minority to be sure, has taken the rest of the party, and the nation, hostage to its demand that the ACA be undone.  They have effectively put a gun to the head of Speaker Boehner and told him to bring measures to the floor containing attacks on the ACA or they'll revolt and fire him.  So he has complied.  Failing to get anywhere with the Senate and the president through their childish antics they've now shut down the government. 

In a strange and eerie sort of way President Reagan was right when he said government was the problem in the current crisis.  Not all the government, just the 5th column tea baggers who managed to get themselves elected into government for the sole purpose of destroying what James Madison built more than two centuries ago.  Patriots they are not.  Treacherous traitors?  Indeed.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Shutdown Showdown, also known as Politics as Usual

As I write this America is 31 hours away from the first government shutdown since 1995-96.  On Friday the Senate voted to amend the continuing resolution by removing the House riders that would prevent any funding to implement the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is set to begin individual enrollment on Tuesday October 1st.  Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing I'll leave it to the reader to decide.  My concern is how we got to this point and what do we do about it now?

First, how we got here seems to be a matter of partisan preference.  Either the Republicans are acting like intransigent elephants by insisting on a bill that undoes a duly passed law or the Democrats are acting like stubborn jackasses by refusing to negotiate with House Republicans on the contents of the resolution to continue funding the government until a budget deal can be reached.  Again, where you stand probably depends upon which side of the aisle you sit. 

One thing, however, is particularly clear.  Most of what is passing for political discussion in Washington is simply a very loud public relations campaign.  Republican Ted Cruz (R-TX) took to the airwaves insisting that everything happening or about to happen lies solely at the feet of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for taking an 'absolutist' position that will force a government shutdown.  In his view, Reid should acquiesce to the GOP demand for defunding or delaying the ACA.  Reid, for his part, says the Senate will not consider any further resolutions pushed through the House on party line votes by the GOP.  Neither party is talking to the other in a serious effort to negotiate, though it is difficult to negotiate with those who refuse to do so, which aptly describes the leadership in both parties. 

A broader question remains to be addressed: how did we get to the point where one party believes it can make demands that must be met in order for orderly continuation of government?  The answer to that, I believe lies squarely in the Oval Office.  Governing from party created crisis to party created crisis began shortly after Republicans took control of the House in early 2011.  First, they wasted their breath passing repeal after repeal of the ACA that would never be considered by the Democratically controlled Senate.  The same with Paul Ryan's 'roadmap' budgets that contained dramatic cuts in discretionary spending, including the same $750 billion (over ten years) cut to Medicare that President Obama utilized to fund the ACA.  This was followed by the near breach of the debt ceiling in August of 2011 that resulted in a lowering of the nation's credit rating.  Days before the U.S. would default on its debts, the president made some concessions to the GOP in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling and a budget agreement through FY 2012.  A few months later came negotiations over the expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, followed by the collapse of the so-called 'Supercommittee' to reach a budget deal (resulting in the across the board cuts that took effect in March).  In late August and early September Obama announced his intention to launch punitive strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons in the sectarian civil war going on there but then backpedaled when Congress refused to back him (though claiming authority to act anyway).  In short, the president has encouraged the kind of nonsense politics playing out in Washington by repeatedly drawing a line in the sand and then scribbling it out to draw a new one.  Yesterday, the president vowed to veto any spending resolution that goes after the ACA in any way.  The question is, will he stand his ground this time or back down in the face of more GOP threats? 

How long will the brinksmanship continue?  Only until someone realizes there are winnable battles and unwinnable battles.  Only a fool wages a battle he cannot win.  But given recent history the GOP may think history will repeat itself yet again, making this battle seem all the more winnable. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Should Congress Listen to the American People?: The Myth of American Democracy

America is not a democracy.  Nor was it ever intended to be.  Let's get that notion out of our heads right now.  The founding fathers viewed democracy with great trepidation and fear, perhaps more so than they did 'big' government.  True, the American Revolution was fought to throw off the shackles of a distant government that ostensibly oppressed its citizens by taxing them to support the military campaigns waged on their behalf but without providing them with a voice about the level of that taxation.  But no one should be deceived by the notion that the revolution was about implementing the will of the people.  No, the revolution was begun and sustained by a small group of wealthy colonists who were fed up with British rule.  Once the colonies secured their independence the hard work of designing a new government began.  The first effort ended in miserable failure when Daniel Shays led a populist uprising that the new government was unable to put down, leading to the call for a constitutional convention to address the deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.  The result is what we call the United States Constitution, which does anything but establish a democratic system of government.  Let us take a brief look at two of the branches of government created by the Constitution in light of this argument.

The Presidency

For convenience sake I will begin with the presidency, though the authors of the constitution dealt with this institution in article II rather than article I of the document.  The framers clearly feared the rise of a demagogue as leader of the new nation so they instituted safeguards to limit popular influence upon presidential action.  In fact, the president was not to be the representative of all the people but the representative of all the states.  He would be selected by a majority of votes cast by electors, not citizens, in the states.  The selection of electors is left to the state governments.  Further, the president was to act as a check on unwise legislation originating from the Congress.  His job was to act in the best interests of the union, which is not necessarily the same thing as the best interests of individual citizens or even groups of them.  Modern presidents have developed constituencies comprised of the population and perpetuated the myth that they 'represent all the people.'  They do not and never were intended to do so.  The modern presidency is a bastardized version of what was created in Philadelphia in 1787. 

The Congress

First, let us consider the House of Representatives, which is probably the closest the U.S. Constitution gets to embracing democracy.  Yet, even here the only requirement is that every state shall receive a number of representatives proportional to its share of the national population but no fewer than one.  Exactly how the representatives were distributed within each state was a matter left for the states to decide.  As such it was not uncommon to have legislative districts that varied widely in terms of population and geographic coverage until the Supreme Court ruled in the 1960's that legislative districts must be as equal as possible, a concept found nowhere in the constitution.  This allowed states to structure their legislative districts to in such ways as to preclude majority rule and promote the agenda of the ruling coalition.  Most states continue to do this today by gerrymandering their districts so that a party that wins a minority of the popular vote can nevertheless control the House of Representatives.  For example, in the 2012 U.S. Congressional Elections, Republicans received 46.9% of the popular vote while Democrats received 48.3% of the popular vote.  Yet, Republicans hold 53.8% of the seats in the House while Democrats hold 46.2% of the seats.  If the House were truly a democracy, Democrats would control the chamber today. 

Turning to the U.S. Senate we can see the framers fear of democracy even clearer.  The constitution established a Senate whose members would be appointed by the state legislatures to represent the state for a six year term.  In the ultimate wisdom of some the constitution was amended in 1916 to establish the direct election of Senators, contributing to the system we have now where Senators are not dependent upon the state legislatures but upon the wealthy organizations and individuals who have the means to fund their very expensive campaigns.  Further, the Senate is granted the power to approve treaties, confirm presidential appointees, and hold trials for impeachment.  The framers did not place these powers in the hands of the 'people's chamber' but in the hands of the chamber that would resist the populist passions of the people.  Today, however, like the presidency, the U.S. Senate is merely a shadow of the Senate envisioned by the framers. 


Why does any of this matter?  Given citizens penchant to believe what they want to believe regardless of the facts, probably not much.  Yet, on the floor of the House and the Senate this week we have heard members of the Republican Party allege that the Congress is not listening to the will of the American people.  That's exactly right and that's exactly what the framers intended.  Yet, the politicians making these statements were lamenting the fact that Congress was not listening to the vast majority of Americans who are ignorant of public policy and its implications.  Consider this...would these politicians make the same argument if a majority of Americans thought it would be a good idea to bomb Canada?  Would Congress be right or wrong to ignore the will of the 'unwashed masses' in this case?  This is a key reason why the framers created a set of undemocratic institutions that would utilize their own wisdom to make decisions in the best interest of their states/districts and a president to do so on behalf of the nation as a whole.  Even if one were to concede that elected officials ought to be responsive to the wishes of their constituency, which I do not, none of these elected officials has a national constituency, popular perception notwithstanding. So Republicans are right about Congress not listening to the American people as a whole...but they're wrong when arguing that it should, especially when they themselves are not listening to the American people.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Irrationality of Rationality

As I write this the government is 7 days away from a shutdown that neither party will admit to wanting.  Yet, the irrationality of rational action may well produce this undesirable outcome.  At the heart of it lies the fact that some in the GOP, mostly freshman and sophomore Tea Party Republicans, hate the president and his healthcare law so much that they are willing to shut down the government and forfeit their own paychecks, prevent Social Security payments from being made, and cause IOU's to be delivered to hundreds of thousands of government workers.  Add to that the economic chaos as people dependent upon these checks stop going out to eat or to ballgames or shopping and it is a recipe for disaster.  All because of some misguided belief that the Affordable Healthcare Act is some kind of socialist medical bogeyman that must be killed no matter the cost to representative democracy. 

Yet, even though the Tea Party cannot win this fight it is one they want to and, indeed, must wage.  First, they cannot win because the parliamentary rules of the Senate preclude it.  Sometime in the next few days Majority Leader Harry Reid will make a motion to proceed on the continuing resolution (CR) stripping funding from Obamacare that passed the House on Friday.  This motion can be filibustered, which will put Republicans in the awkward position of opposing a resolution their colleagues in the House were urged to pass.  So either they don't filibuster the resolution or Reid moves for cloture on the resolution, which will take 60 votes (55 Democrats plus 5 from the GOP).  He will likely get many more than 60.  Once cloture has been invoked Reid can offer an amendment to the resolution that strips the defund language out, which can pass with only 51 votes.  Republicans can then filibuster the new resolution or allow it to pass, in which case it goes back to the House.  Speaker John Boehner will then have the clean continuing resolution he originally wanted to pass that maintains the sequester level of spending through mid-December.  However, this clean CR will still need to garner majority support in the House to pass and be sent to the president.  Here's where things get sticky for Speaker Boehner.

As of the start of the 113th Congress in January of this year the Tea Party Caucus had 49 members, all Republicans.  The GOP currently holds 233 seats in the House and needs 218 votes to pass the clean CR.  If the Tea Party Caucus remains firm in its resolve to defund Obamacare and vote against any CR that does not do so it leaves the Speaker in a bind.  Assuming Boehner, like all other members of Congress, is a self-interested, rational actor whose primary goal is winning re-election and maintaining his position (as Mayhew claims), he will not bring the clean CR to the floor for a vote.  Why not?  Because doing so will mean he must rely on Democratic support to pass the CR, thus violating the unwritten 'Hastert Rule', which states that a measure may only be brought to the floor when it can pass with 218 votes from the majority party (the minority is free to join in but cannot provide the votes that put the bill over the top).  Boehner has violated this rule on at least three occasions this year already but if he does it again he may well see a movement to replace him as speaker.  So the rational thing to do is stand his ground even if it results in the irrational action of a government shutdown.

Likewise for Tea Party members it is entirely rational for their self-preservation to oppose any CR that does not defund Obamacare.  Nationally, polls show that a majority of Americans, and even a majority of Republicans, oppose a government shutdown, the Tea Party Caucus members do not have a national constituency.  Only the president has that.  Tea Party members have a dual constituency of a different nature.  First, they must answer to the voters in their congressional districts that elected them to represent their interests in Washington, D.C.  In many of these districts the voters are as conservative, if not more so, than the members themselves.  The boundary lines in many of these districts have been drawn to elect Republicans to the House and have been made as safe as possible for the incumbent.  Further, most of these members represent districts that are between 10 and 15 percentage points more conservative than the nation as a whole, according to the non-partisan Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index of the 113th Congress.  A vote that defies the wishes of their constituents may well lead to a primary challenge from the right.  Thus, a self-interested Tea Party member must oppose the clean CR if he/she hopes to be reelected.

The second constituency for Tea Party Caucus members to answer to are the funders who paid for their campaigns.  Contrary to popular perception most Tea Party members did not arrive in Washington based on a groundswell of grass roots activism.  True, they may have won the district primary based on grass roots support but that alone does not win congressional elections.  It takes money, and lots of it to win a seat in the House.  Much of the fundraising comes from special interest groups like the Club for Growth or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  These organizations have vowed to make sure that the voting constituents know if a Tea Party member backs down on the defunding movement.  Thus, it becomes rational for Tea Party members to take a stance that may well result in the irrational act of shutting down the government and causing great harm to the national economy, the GOP, and many Americans. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Is Obamacare Really Turning Our 'Full Time Economy into a Part Time Economy'?

It must really be nice not to have to support anything you say as a member of Congress.  I sure wish I had that kind of immunity when I speak or write something.  Take, for example, Eric Cantor's (R-VA) statement about the effect of Obamacare on the U.S. economy.  In justifying his vote for the continuing resolution to keep federal spending at current levels while defunding Obamacare he said,
“Each week, we hear stories about how both major employers and small businesses are cutting back benefits and cutting back hours. The president’s health care law is turning our full time economy into a part time economy.”
 As a political scientist a good part of my job involves being skeptical about truth claims made by politicians, especially when they involve cause and effect.  So let's dissect Cantor's truth claim in the above statement. 

First, Cantor levels a generic claim about how 'major employers and small businesses' are 'cutting back benefits and cutting back hours.'  Notice that he does not provide any source for this claim other than '...we hear stories.'  Are these 'stories' representative of all major employers and small businesses?  We have no way of knowing because Representative Cantor does not give us any idea where these 'stories' are coming from.  That means we'll have to do some searching on our own.  According to Fox Business News, which cites two surveys but doesn't provide links to the data, approximately 20% of the 603 small business owners surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management have reduced workers hours because of the employer mandate requiring health insurance coverage by employers with 50 or more employees.  If my math is correct, that means 80% of the small businesses surveyed have not reduced workers hours.  Yet, we still do not have any idea if these 603 businesses are part of a random, representative sample or a convenience sample.  Unfortunately, one has to pay a membership fee to get access to the data and methodology utilized in this survey.  All we can tell from the results released is that a small percentage of small businesses have decided it is economically advantageous to reduce the number of hours part timers work to less than 30.  The problem with the first part of Cantor's statement is that he doesn't make it clear that this is happening among a small number of employers.  Further, as the Fox article indicates, some employers are actually increasing the number of hours full time (over 32 hours per week) are working to compensate for reduced hours by part timers.  Thus, the net economic effect is unclear.

The second part of Cantor's statement is more problematic as he makes the claim that Obamacare '...is turning our full time economy into a part time economy.'  Neither of the two surveys the Fox News story referenced indicated that any such thing is happening.  There is also no data to support the connection between increasing hiring of part time workers and the health care law.  Note that the surveys found that employers were reducing the hours of part time employees, not full time employees.  What Cantor is probably talking about is the fact that part time employment has been growing at a faster pace than full time employment in the U.S. economy.  But that trend began long before the Affordable Health Care Act ever saw the light of day.  The chart below shows the growth of part time jobs versus full time jobs since the start of the Great Recession in late 2007.  The full source of the data is here.

Once again, Cantor makes the fatal error of equating correlation with causation, as politicians and amateur statisticians are frequently apt to do.  That's not to say Cantor is wrong...it's just that there isn't enough evidence to support the contention he makes.  Further, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are approximately 144 million jobs in America today.  Roughly 81% of those are full time jobs.  It is unknown what percentage of people working full time jobs also have second part time jobs.  Even so, with 81% of American jobs being full time jobs with an average hourly wage of $23.98 it seems safe to say that we are in no current danger of entering into a 'part time economy.'  In fact, as more and more baby boomers retire from their full time jobs, they may welcome the creation of more part time opportunities. 

Yet another reason for the growth in part time employment is where the job growth is occurring.  Most job growth since 2009 has been in the hospitality and retail industries, which typically pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits than industries such as healthcare and manufacturing.  But this is part of a much longer term trend that began in the 1980's as American manufacturers found it easier and cheaper to outsource production.  As the country has moved from an economy that makes things to one that provides services employers have found more need for part time workers to give them the flexibility to adjust to lulls in the business cycle.  For example, in the restaurant industry, which has exploded in size over the past 30 years, it is not always necessary to have a full crew so there are many more part time jobs in food service.  That makes good economic sense.  The same is true in retail services.  It would be more troubling if industries that traditionally employed full time personnel were shifting to part time personnel to avoid providing health insurance.  Fortunately for the country (and unfortunately for Mr. Cantor), there is no evidence that such a shift has been or will occur because of the Affordable Care Act.  The truth is that most Americans who work full time already have health benefits provided by their employers and that is very likely to remain the case as the ACA enters full implementation in 2015. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Let's Just Mothball the Whole Dang Thing....

Of course, I am referring to the impending government shutdown if lawmakers in Washington cannot come up with a compromise continuing resolution (hereafter, CR) to maintain government operations beyond the end of the 2013 Fiscal Year (September 30, 2013).  Seems like we have been here before both in the recent past and nearly 20 years ago when Bill Clinton was president.  It did not go well for the majority party in Congress after the two shutdowns in 1995 and there is little indication it will go well for them this time, if it happens.  But, as Ezra Klein points out, the GOP has a collective action problem.  On the one hand it may be disastrous for the GOP if the government actually shuts down for any length of time.  On the other hand, most Republicans represent safe conservative districts (for a variety of reasons I won't go into here) so taking a staunch, fiscally conservative stance will win them brownie points with their core constituents back home and, perhaps, stave off the all too frequent 'tea-party' primary challenges emerging from the hard right these days.

The question before the House is a simple one:  What level of funding should the government operate at for fiscal 2014?  Had Congress done its job and actually worked out a budget deal over the past year, we wouldn't be having this discussion.  Yet, here we are on the verge of another needless crisis created by those who want to score political points on both the right and the left.  In reality, the issue is not whether to fund the government.  A clean CR that maintains the current level of funding, including the sequester cuts implemented in March, could probably pass with about 150 Republican votes and the rest coming from Democrats.  Of course, that would be deadly for Speaker John Boehner so he has to offer a CR that does all of that and includes the tea party pipe dream of defunding Obamacare.  So...that CR likely passes the House on a strict party line vote and goes to the Senate, which will strip the defunding of Obamacare from the CR, leaving us no closer to averting a government shutdown.

In yet another effort to repeal Obamacare, the Republican Study Committee released a new proposal that will completely repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with the American Health Care Reform Act.  The proposal includes the following main points:

  • Fully repeals President Obama's health care law, eliminating billions in taxes and thousands of pages of unworkable regulations and mandates that are driving up health care costs. 

  • Spurs competition to lower health care costs by allowing Americans to purchase health insurance across state lines and enabling small businesses to pool together and get the same buying power as large corporations.

  • Reforms medical malpractice laws in a commonsense way that limits trial lawyer fees and non-economic damages while maintaining strong protections for patients.

  • Provides tax reform that allows families and individuals to deduct health care costs, just like companies, leveling the playing field and providing all Americans with a standard deduction for health insurance.

  • Expands access to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), increasing the amount of pre-tax dollars individuals can deposit into portable savings accounts to be used for health care expenses.

  • Safeguards individuals with pre-existing conditions from being discriminated against purchasing health insurance by bolstering state-based high risk pools and extending HIPAA guaranteed availability protections.

  • Protects the unborn by ensuring no federal funding of abortions.
While many of these proposals are laudable and worthy of implementation they still will not address the biggest problem...the affordability of health insurance by lower middle income Americans who do not receive it from their employers yet are above the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) of $11,490 for a single individual and $23,550 for a family of four.  A single individual working for minimum wage would earn $15,080 per year, thus not qualifying for Medicaid if he/she worked for a company that did not provide health insurance coverage.  That is $1256.67 per month before taxes.  For 2013, the standard deduction and exemption for a single totals $10,000.  Add to that the $7500 in this proposal and our hypothetical individual would pay NO federal income tax.  They would, however, pay the FICA tax of 7.8% on $7580 of income.  That amounts to $49.27 per month for the feds.  In MS, such an individual would receive an $8400 deduction and pay tax on $6680.  The rate is 3% on the first $5000 ($150) and 4% on the additional $1680 ($67.20) for a total MS tax liability of $217.20, or $18.10 a month.  That leaves a net income of $1256.67-$67.37 or about $1189 a month to pay for shelter, food, clothing, transportation, and health insurance.  I doubt one could do that in low cost MS let alone more expensive places such as NY or CA.

So, while the Republican Study Committee proposal has some good aspects until it finds a way to deal with the affordability issue for the working poor it probably will go about as far as the CR that defunds Obamacare.  Which is likely a place filled with mothballs. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

If They Only Had a Brain...

...they could while away the hours, conferrin' with the flowers, Consultin' with the rain.  
And their heads they'd be scratchin' while their thoughts were busy hatchin'  

If they only had a brain.

I don't know about you but I've had just about enough of the mindless 'reporting' from the media.  Be it left, right, or center, they've all demonstrated a lack of an ability to think and express coherent thoughts over the past 24 hours.  How many headlines have you seen that says "Supreme Court declares DOMA unconstitutional" or "Supreme Court strikes down ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional"?  Plenty, I'm sure.  As I was driving to the office this morning I heard the mouthpiece on MPB (that's Mississippi Public Broadcasting for those outside the state...not allowed to call it NPR here) say "the Court declared DOMA unconstitutional" and "the Court struck down California's Proposition 8."  Uh, no they didn't.  On either account.  So what exactly DID the Court do yesterday?

Defense of Marriage Act
 The case for this is United States v. Windsor (2013) and involves same-sex couple Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, who were legally married in Canada but resided in New York.  The state of New York recognized the couple as legally married.  Ms. Spyer died in 2009 and left her estate to Ms. Windsor.  However, because federal law (due to DOMA) did not recognize same sex marriages Ms. Windsor was assessed an inheritance tax on the estate of about $363,000.  Had the federal government recognized their marriage the tax would not have been applicable.  Windsor sued the IRS, setting up the challenge to DOMA.  In 2011, President Obama announced that he would not defend DOMA in court so the House Republicans stepped in to defend the law.  The specific question before the Court was whether the federal government could establish a different definition of marriage than a state for the purpose of federal benefits and federal law.  Section 3 defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman for federal purposes.  

So what did the Court rule?  The majority opinion in the case, authored by Anthony Kennedy, is that section 3 infringed upon the traditional role of states in defining what is and is not marriage.  The federal government has never played a role in defining marriage and that is beyond the scope of the powers granted to it by the constitution.  Defining marriage is a 10th amendment power reserved for the states, or the people.  States are free to define marriage however they want and the federal government must recognize marriages that are legally sanctioned by a state.  Failure to do so creates two classes of citizens, one which has arbitrarily been denied due process of law.  The ruling invalidated section 3 of DOMA.

But the Court did NOT strike down DOMA nor did it declare it unconstitutional.  Section 2 of the law remains in force.  Section 2 exempts states from the Full Faith and Credit clause of Article IV of the constitution.  No state is required to recognize the official acts of another state regarding same sex marriage if that marriage is not legal in the state.  That part of DOMA is still law until such time as it is challenged.  When that happens, I think DOMA will fall because Congress lacks the power to exempt states from the provisions of Article IV without amending the constitution.

Proposition 8

Opponents of prop 8 argued that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment.  A District Court in CA agreed and struck down the law.  Proponents of the law then appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the District Court ruling in a 2-1 decision.  The proponents then appealed to the US Supreme Court.  In the 5-4 ruling yesterday by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. the Court ruled that the proponents of the law had suffered no injury or harm as a result of the District Court decision and that the 9th Circuit had unduly accepted their appeal.  Thus, the proponents lacked the standing to sue and so the 9th Circuit ruling must be vacated.  The Court then sent the case back to the 9th Circuit and ordered the Court to dismiss the case. 

What Does That Mean?
The short story is that it means the District Court decision striking down prop 8 stands...for now.  Same sex marriage will be legal in CA as soon as the 9th Circuit complies with the Supreme Court's order.  But...the ruling by the Supreme Court does NOT itself say anything about the validity of state or voter sanctioned bans on same sex marriage.  In other words, the Court dodged the question about whether the 14th amendment requires states to recognize same sex marriages on equal protection grounds.  It allows all the states that have such bans in place to keep those bans.  Nothing changes outside of California, for now.

So, the next time you hear a reporter or talking head say the Court struck down prop 8 just start whistling and singing like the famous scarecrow from Oz...if they only had a brain!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Death of the Voting Rights Act: A Law No Longer Needed or a Prescription for Voter Suppression?

After signing the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), which gave Congress and the Justice Department the authority to pre-clear any and all changes to voting practices, laws, etc... in the states (mostly southern) with past histories of grievous discrimination on the basis of race, President Lyndon B Johnson reportedly remarked that he had just ensured southerners would vote Republican for generations to come.  History tells us that his remark was accurate, though the change did not happen nearly as fast as Johnson had forecast.  A quick look at the electoral maps in the presidential elections since 1968 shows a growing pattern of southern voters, predominately white southern voters, switching from the Democrats to the Republicans.  By 1980, the transition was complete, though Bill Clinton, a moderate southern Democrat, was able to carry a few states south of the Mason-Dixon line in 1992 and 1996.  The transition was much slower in the House and the Senate, though today there are few Democrats representing any of the old confederacy.  Those that do are usually from districts drawn with a majority population that is African-American (i.e., Mississippi's 2nd Congressional District).  During that same period, African-American participation in elections, particularly in the South, rose dramatically to the point where it is now on par with that of white participation in elections.  There seem to be two primary viewpoints on the matter today.  I'll discuss them each in turn.

The first view is that because black participation in elections has increased to the level of whites, the Voting Rights Act is moot and no longer necessary.  Or at least the part of it requiring any changes to voting procedures by the states subject to the law be given clearance by the Justice Department prior to implementation.  That's what the Supreme Court said in a 5-4 ruling issued by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on June 25, 2013.  In Roberts' view, the states singled out by the 1965 law have changed.  Racism and voter suppression efforts are a thing of the past.  Thus, the formula determining which states are subject to the law is outdated and unnecessary.  The Court did not strike down the concept of pre-clearance, just the formula that was devised in 1966.  Given the dysfunctional Congress we have today, however, it seems the concept is effectively dead anyway. 

The second view holds that black participation in elections has reached the level of whites because of the protections afforded black citizens by the VRA.  They argue that if the protections are removed those who want to suppress voting by blacks and other minorities will enact laws aimed at doing just that.  Further, those laws, such as Texas' and Mississippi's voter ID requirements, will not be subject to clearance by the Justice Department.  This may lead to a decline in black/minority participation in the electoral process in those states, advocates of the VRA claim.  In essence, Jim Crow will once again thrive throughout the South.

I won't pretend to know who's right and who's wrong on this issue.  What I do know is that both major political parties and their supporters try to suppress the vote for the other party's candidates in every election.  Protections must be put in place to prevent majorities in power from manipulating the law to cement their own power at the expense of the minority.  What the Court did yesterday is to take the burden of proof that changes to existing voting procedures would not disenfranchise black/minority voters away from the states and their legislatures.  The burden of proof will now rest upon individuals, or groups of individuals, to prove that a law or procedural change has, in fact, disenfranchised them.  States will henceforth be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.  Given the extreme difficulty (and expense) of proving voter suppression and/or disenfranchisement, it seems the Court has given states (and the majorities that control their legislatures) free reign when it comes to election law.  My hope is that they will use this power to enhance the democratic process by making voting simpler and easier for all legal citizens.  My fear is that they will not.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Politics: It's as Dangerous as War...Battlestar Galactica Episodes 11-12

Episode 11 begins with the news that the fleet is running short on fuel.  Commander Adama sends scouts out to look for asteroids laden with fuel that can be mined.  What they locate is a Cylon base guarded by hundreds of Cylon Raiders.  Adama once again finds himself making military command decisions and decides that a surprise attack on a superior force is what he needs to do.  He chooses Starbuck to design the plan due to her unconventional thinking.  Roslyn comes aboard Galactica and stands in as Starbuck lays out the battle plan.  Roslyn approves and the battle is on.  It seems detente between Adama and Roslyn has settled in.

Episode 12 is all about politics.  Terrorist turned statesman Tom Zarek is named as a delegate to the council of 12 meeting with the president.  He says that it is necessary to choose a VP in case of Roslyn's demise.  Zarek is nominated by several delegates.  Roslyn initially chooses a long time friend but when worried that Zarek may win she chooses Dr. Gaius Baltar.  As the votes are counted Zarek takes a 6-5 lead over Baltar with one vote remaining.  Afterwards, Adama and Roslyn share a drink and Adama says 'Politics.  It's as dangerous as war.'  Roslyn responds 'In war, you only die once.  In politics, they kill you over and over.'  Truer words were never spoken.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Politics of Battlestar Galactica: Episodes 6-10

The tension between the civilian leadership (Roslyn) and the military leadership (Adama) continues to worsen.  It is somewhat reminiscent of the relationship Harry Truman had with General Douglas MacArthur, though Adama has not outright disobeyed an order from the president yet. 

Each side of the leadership is presented with several difficult challenges in these episodes.  On the military side, one of Adama's top pilots has disappeared after an encounter with a Cylon raider.  He dispatches a team to search for the pilot with no success.  All the while, the president is getting antsy about the entire fleet being exposed to an imminent Cylon attack if they do not jump to a new location ASAP.  Adama tells Roslyn that finding his pilot is a 'military decision' and she tells him that ensuring the survival of her people takes precedence over the life of a single pilot.  Adama concedes her point and orders the fleet to prepare to jump.

As a feeling of safety and security begins to permeate the fleet, President Roslyn tells the people that Cylons have managed to infiltrate the fleet and now look human.  Adama worries that this will lead to everyone suspecting everyone else, reminiscent of post 9/11 America and the fear that anyone among us could be a terrorist in deep cover. 

As episode 9 opens Gaius Baltar is accused of aiding the Cylons to destroy the defense ministry just prior to the attack.  The accusation is made by a copy of the number six model onboard Galactica, placing both Commander Adama and President Roslyn in a difficult situation as both have trusted Baltar and given him access to much data and equipment.  Baltar maintains his innocence in meetings with both Adama and Roslyn.  Adama hopes for Baltar's innocence but Roslyn's 'gut' tells her he is guilty.  Baltar asks forgiveness for not wanting to be executed based on her gut feeling. 

Episode 10 begins with the discovery of a Cylon saboteur who claims he has planted a nuclear warhead somewhere in the fleet.  He is taken into custody and tortured by the military officer in charge of interrogating him, though he refuses to give up any information.  President Roslyn arrives and asks what has been learned while expressing disgust over the military tactics.  She apologizes for the torture, offers to grant him a pardon in exchange for the information about the bomb and offers peace.  He admits the bomb is not real and tells Roslyn that Adama is a Cylon.  Roslyn then orders him tossed out into space through the airlock.  Roslyn has now taken control and, like Nixon, believes that being president makes her actions legal and beyond question.  Justice is now determined by a single judge, President Roslyn.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Politics of Galactica, Episodes 3-5

Episode 3: 33

The tensions between President Roslyn and the military continue to simmer.  On more than one occasion Commander Adama refers to President Roslyn as a 'schoolteacher.'  We see clearly a lack of respect for the political order (and politicians) as Adama believes the most important thing is winning the war (though he privately admits the war is over and humanity has lost).  More importantly, the Cylon attack fleet arrives every 33 minutes so the entire fleet must 'jump' to a new location every 33 minutes.  Until one of the civilian ships is left behind.  Then the Cylons do not arrive.  Both Adama and Roslyn agree that there must be some kind of tracker on the civilian ship that leads the Cylons to the fleet.  When the ship fails to shut down its engines and remain at a safe distance from the fleet Roslyn is faced with her first major executive decision.  Does she order the destruction of a ship with 1300 humans aboard or does she risk the entire fleet? 

Episode 4:  Water

After a saboteur destroys a large portion of Galactica's water reserve tanks, Adama sends pilots on a mission to locate water supplies for the fleet.  At the same time, Roslyn is wrestling with the decision she made regarding the civilian ship and confides in Lee Adama (the commander's son) that leaders make decisions and often second guess themselves.  Yet, even when they privately know a wrong decision was made they must stand by it in public.  Roslyn is quickly developing the art of being a politician.  Meanwhile, Commander Adama is stoic and resolute, saying that leaders make decisions and accept the consequences of those decisions, right or wrong. 

Episode 5: Bastille Day

Needing labor to retrieve the water from the moon, Adama and Roslyn agree to use prisoners as their labor force.  Adama sees them as criminals and slaves who can be ordered to do what he wants.  Roslyn sees them as human beings with dignity and prefers persuasion to forced labor.  One of the prisoners, Tom Zarek, an anti-government rebel organizes the prisoners to oppose the labor idea and begins a rebellion.   Zarek demands the resignation of President Roslyn followed by free elections.  Adama decides to storm the ship and take it back from the prisoners.  Lee convinces Zarek to have the prisoners help retrieve the water in exchange for elections within a year and turning the ship over to the prisoners.  Adama is angered by this and Roslyn at first expresses disdain until Lee reminds her that her term expires in 7 months.  If Democracy means anything and she respects the rule of law she will honor the constitution of the now destroyed colonial government.  Back on Galactica, Dr. Baltar, who is taking orders from Cylon number Six, tells Commander Adama that he can only build a Cylon detector if he has a nuclear warhead.  Adama is taken aback at this but decides to give it to him without consulting President Roslyn.  It seems we are always just one step away from a military coup.

Battlestar Galactica (2004): The Politics of Leadership

An interesting piece appeared on The Monkey Cage the other day by a former grad student colleague about the politics of Battlestar Galactica (2004).  It got me to thinking how much I had enjoyed the show but never really paid much attention to executive decisionmaking portrayed in the series.  So now I'm going back to watch all the episodes and plan to selectively blog about some of the highlights from a political science perspective.  I'll try not to spoil the episodes for those who have not seen the series.  For those who have, perhaps you'll see it from a different perspective.

Main Characters:
  • Commander William Adama (Commander of the Battlestar Galactica)
  • Laura Roslyn (Education Secretary, 43rd in line to the presidency)
  • Gaius Baltar (philanderer, scientist, traitor)
  • Number Six (one of the 12 models of human looking Cylons)  
  • Starbuck (Galactica's top fighter pilot) 

Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series (Episodes 1 & 2 on Netflix)

 The series revolves around the ongoing war between the human created Cylons and their creators (an analogy to the war man has declared against God, according to some biblical expositors).  One of the main characters, Commander William Adama, makes an allusion to this in his farewell address as the Battlestar Galactica is set to be decommissioned when he compares human beings to God. 

The series begins with the arrival of Education Secretary Roslyn aboard Battlestar Galactica for the decommissioning ceremony.  Commander Adama greets Secretary Roslyn and immediately lays down the ground rules...no networked computers aboard Galactica.  We see this rule enforced again when his son, Captain Lee Adama, arrives and is instructed he must do a 'hands on' landing rather than an automated one, per the commander's orders.  One of the themes we will see in the series is the recurring struggle between the leaders and those under their authority, much as we see in the political arena.  Adama is a military leader so he is used to simply giving an order and expecting his subordinates to carry it out.  Roslyn, on the other hand, is a political leader who must rely on skills such as persuasion and popularity to get things done, especially by those who disagree with her. 

After a devastating Cylon attack on Caprica, everything changes.  Laura Roslyn is sworn in as president on board Colonial 1 in a scene eerily familiar to when LBJ took office.  Commander Adama decides to take control of the military fleet after the death of the admiral and an ensuing power struggle between military and civilian control begins.  Roslyn must learn the art of persuasion while Adama must learn how to deal with challenges to his authority. 

More next time....

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Evolving Presidency of Barack Obama, Part I

The presidency, like life, is filled with a mixture of successes and failures.  Often times some of our worst failures lead to our greatest successes.  So it is with the presidency.

Americans often make the mistake of assuming the presidency is static rather than dynamic.  They impute unrealistic expectations onto their president and act as if he, like Harry Potter, could wave his magic wand and utter the words of a spell that promises to solve whatever problem is at hand.  Wishing does not, and never will, make it so.
Rather, the presidency is a dynamic institution larger than any one man could ever hope to be.  Stephen Skowronek observed that every president must "...construe his place in history and stake claims to certain warrants for the exercise of power within it.[i]  Some presidents do this exceptionally well and are remembered as great or nearly great.  Others do it from time to time and have flashes of brilliance that fade into mediocrity.  Yet, others never truly understand their place in history and are in turn forgotten by it.  Why are presidents like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan remembered so well while presidents like Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, and Warren G. Harding are cast aside?  Why did the former presidents overcome the limits of their institution while the latter presidents collapsed under the weight of it?  Richard Neustadt’s observation that ‘presidential power is the power to persuade’ may indeed be relevant here.[ii]

Most presidents are typically well-known, successful individuals before they enter the presidency.  Herbert Hoover was an engineer who performed humanitarian relief work, operated his own businesses, and served as Secretary of Commerce from 1921-29 before becoming president.  Hoover even had a distinguished post presidential career.  Yet, he is widely viewed as a failure as president, except, perhaps, by the late Archibald Bunker of the Bronx.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the other hand, was a state senator from New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, and Governor of New York during the Great Depression prior to entering the White House.  He was also disabled due to a bout with polio.  The question must then be asked: Why did FDR succeed where Hoover failed?  

Thousands upon thousands of books have been written to answer that question and I do not pretend to have a better answer than any of them.  Nor will I endeavor to answer that question save to refer back to Skowronek’s earlier remark about the exercise of power within one’s place in history.  Which brings me to the cause of my present musings.  Namely, what is Barack Obama’s ‘place in history’?  Will he successfully construe that place and exercise power in such a way that leaves a legacy or will he crash and burn like the many failed presidents before him?  I do not intend to prognosticate about his place in history from a partisan or even policy based perspective because there is no doubt in my mind that each man sees what he wishes to see through his party tinted lenses.  Rather, my goal is to examine the Obama Presidency through the lens of dynamic institutionalism.  Every president must make a choice to either shape the institution in a manner fitting to his exercise of power or to allow himself to be shaped by that very institution.  Here is where the story of the Obama Presidency begins.  Over the next several posts I shall examine the first four years of Barack Obama’s presidency as well as the beginning of his second term and his prospects for creating a legacy of his own.  I hope you’ll find it interesting. 

[i] Stephen Skowronek. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush.  The Belknap Press.  Cambridge, MA.  1995.
[ii] Richard Neustadt. Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents.  The Free Press.  New York, NY.  1990.