Sunday, February 24, 2008

McCain and Pledges

I agree with the entry below on McCain's no new taxes pledge.

1) The battle over the economy is going to be fought in a time of recession so taking a strong stance in favor of stimulus and against any form of tax increase will create a stark contrast with Obama/Clinton.

2) This shores up the base without spending much time or money.

3) It creates free press.

4) As stated below, McCain is not likely to run again, so why should he care.

Finally, McCain's tendency to do what he wants is precisely what conservatives have hated about him. By making pledges to tow the line on issues like tax McCain will play to the one thing most conservatives don't doubt about him, his honor. So, pledges allow McCain not only to create contrasts with is potential opponents and set minds at ease in the present but they also do the more important work of binding McCain to the Republican party in key areas - reducing his freedom and tendency to do what he wants to do. That doesn't mean he's hamstrung since taxes and abortion and regulation and so forth are a small portion of the issues on facing this country.

I say this is a good call by the McCain camp and I suggest they make a contract with america set of 10 pledges to rally the base for the showdown this fall.

Obama - the guy without a resume

Barak Obama is leading the battle for the Democratic nomination and Hillary Clinton is completely confused as to how to gain ground against her rival.

In the debate in Texas she essentially asked the American people why they would consider nominating and potentially electing a man who lacks the qualifications to be President. The answer is the very thing she attacks, his inspirational story and speeches. That raises an interesting question: How "qualified" is Obama to be president relative to his opponents and recent history.

Here's my cheat sheet:

Education and Inspiration: Grouped together, does someone feel like a leader.
Type of Experience: Has someone been a Governor, Senator, Atty. General or led a major corporation? Governors tend to have the edge here because their experience seems more relevant to being the chief executive of our country.
Grasp of the Details: Does the candidate know the details of the policies he/she proposes

I'll give each candidate a rating based on a four point scale in each category. Feel free to debate my scoring.

E&I: 4
Exp: 1
Detail: 2

H. Clinton
E&I: 2
Exp: 2.5 (first lady bonus)
Detail: 4

E&I: 2.5 (war hero bonus)
Exp: 4
Detail: 4

Bush #2
E&I: 3
Exp: 3
Detail: 1

E&I: 1
Exp: 4
Detail: 4

E&I: 2
Exp: 4
Detail: 4

B. Clinton
E&I: 4 (-1 for personal behavior leading into his second term)
Exp: 3 (4 in his second term)
Detail: 4

Bush #1
E&I: 2
Exp: 4
Detail: 4

E&I: 4 (despite his educational shortcomings)
Exp: 3 (first term), 4 second term
Detail: 2

E&I: 3
Exp: 4
Detail: 4

E&I: 2
Exp: 3
Detail: 4

So, what sort of conclusions can we draw from this relatively simple approach to scoring our candidates?

First, it is clear that, as has been stated earlier in this blog, seeming presidential is worth more than the right types of experience and understanding the details of the major policy questions of the day. That's why, no matter what Hillary Clinton does, without a major shift in the electorate to a need for details she is in big trouble against Obama going forward. The economy may be that chance but the economic downturn needs to be felt very hard over the next few days...which isn't likely to happen so she's still got a tough rode ahead. (Superdelegates, however, tend to overvalue experience because that's their claim to fame - they're a superdelegate precisely because of their experience so she may be able to win the nomination anyway.)

For McCain v. Obama the question becomes is McCain's vast advantage in foreign affairs, military issues and policy making in general (as well as his relatively moderate stances on some of those issues like campaign finance reform, the environment and immigration) going to be enough to blunt Obama's charisma advantage? I believe the answer will be it depends. If Iraq continues to improve so McCain seems vindicated in his treatment of that issue then Obama will not have the arrow that he used to blunt Clinton's experience advantage - her vote for the war.

If McCain really wants to win he best hire some comedy writers to pump up his jokes a bit because the Straight Talk Express is in for a battle with the All Talk, No Record Northern Line and its making all stops.

Friday, February 22, 2008

You heard it hear first!

So I was reading this piece by Carl Leubsdorf, linked on the Real Clear Politics website, which more or less states the obvious - that McCain may be getting himself in George H.W. Bush-like hot water with his 2008 version of the "No New Taxes" pledge.

This got me to thinking, regardless of his need to pander to the Right, which has well publicized misgivings about his status as the presumptive GOP nominee, it is just plain looney to make a "multibillion-dollar promise" like this. And then, it hit me.

McCain has NO INTENTION of running for a second term, should he win the general election this fall. To me, it makes perfect sense. Promise no new taxes, promise to abolish the Dept. of Education, promise to bomb Iran....promise it all. The day after the election, it won't really matter, and in a way, McCain should feel quite liberated.

Should he win, this might even produce a much kinder, gentler, and productive GOP Administration than I would have expected, even from the relatively level-headed McCain.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Raising Taxes to Stimulate the Economy?

I wanted to point out a fascinating Op-Ed piece in the NYT by Len Burman (thankfully not the once-kinky NBA basketball announcer but rather the Director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center).

He makes what seems to me to be the novel case that sunsetting the Bush tax-cuts two years early would actually do at least as much to stimulate spending than any other proposal currently on the table because it would motivate investors to take their capital gains now, when the long-term capital gains rate is still low, rather than waiting to sell, when the capital gains rate would be higher. He then suggests that if only 20% of his estimate of the $500 billion in gains were consumed by investors (rather than reinvested, which I think is a huge assumption), we would easily generate as much if not more economic stimulus as is being proposed by the Administration and Congressional leaders.

As someone who invests for a living, I think that at least part of this story is likely correct. I can say that were Congress to announce a impending increase in long term capital gains rates, we would immediately go through our portfolio, asset by asset, and make our best assessment as to whether the future expected appreciation in the value of that asset would be greater, on a present value basis, than the value we would realize, post-tax, were we to liquidate under the low-tax regime. I'll spare you the math, but if you use your best guess about interest rates and future asset price appreciation, and apply the appropriate tax rates at the appropriate times, you can estimate this. So in that sense, I agree that an acceleration of the sunset would lead to some tax selling.

Where I think the story might break down is in what happens next. First off, one of the factors which is currently driving the losses in the stock market over the last few months is the loss of leverage on the part of hedge funds and other institutional investors. Put simply, these actors had been buying stocks on borrowed money - money which was being supplied largely by the massive international banks which are currently neck-deep in mortgage-backed securities / sub-prime losses. If you've been following the financial press, you've probably noticed that large banks like Citigroup and Merrill Lynch have recently taken in meaningful capital injections from sovereign wealth funds at pretty absurd terms (11.5% preferred dividend per year in the case of Citigroup).

The long and the short of this is, banks like Citi and Merrill are pulling back on their lending lines to these hedge funds, because a) they want to reduce their credit risk to these funds and b) because their own cost of funds has risen substantially. This pull back in credit has forced hedge funds and other institutional investors to sell assets as the lent money which was used to buy these assets is being "recalled" by the big banks.

So now back to basic economics, if there's a large pool of sellers and very few buyers, that drives prices down. What do you think would happen if a change in the tax law created a whole new set of incentives for investors to sell even more assets? Answer: this induced tax selling might very well push asset prices even lower, thereby a) exasperating the credit crunch (because lending lines collateralized with assets that are falling in price would be curtailed even further through the inevitable margin calls) and b) changing the above expected returns analysis, thereby making it less economically advantageous to take your ever-shrinking gains today rather than tomorrow, even if the tax rate will be higher.

Furthermore, investors like me might very well take the gains, pay the relatively lower taxes, and then plow the post tax money back into the same assets we just liquidated, rather than consuming the proceeds. Such a scenario would do nothing to stimulate the economy and would only increase asset price volatility and potentially deprive the government of future capital gains tax revenue....

Its a complicated question to be sure, and an argument can certainly be made that this would be a very progressive way to stimulate the economy, as the stimulus would be borne on the backs of wealthy individuals who had reaped prior gains from the arguable asset price bubble which helped get us into this mess, but to me, its entirely unclear as to whether the benefits would outweigh the unintended consequences.

Monday, January 21, 2008

God Standards

OK - so to follow up on what I said about Huckabee a few weeks ago and his freedom to discuss his religion - his recent comment on amendments to the constitution went a little too far and bordered on religious oppression:

"[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it's a lot easier to change the constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that's what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards."

Seriously? While every candidate should be allowed to discuss their religion - putting it in the constitution is really not appropriate.

However, we can only hope that the GOP nominates him leading to a landslide victory for the democrats...

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

She's BACK...

Ah, just that fast Hillary Clinton went from being down and out to up and coming. MSNBC called it one of the greatest political comebacks in American history. (I wonder what that makes John McCain's New Hampshire revival? Perhaps its the greatest political coma recovery in American history?) That claim is just silly.

1) Hillary Clinton had a solid lead in the state until Iowa

2) John McCain was bound to siphon of some independents from Barak Obama

3) The Clinton's are well liked in New Hampshire and have strong support from the Democratic establishment in the state

The media did not get the Obama victory it was pushing for. (Which is too bad because I was really starting to think that Obama might win and then the Republicans could crush him in a general election when everyone came to their senses.)

Take heart though. Slate's political betting markets have swung strongly toward Obama. The media and the crowds may lack wisdom but we can still hope that Obama wins Nevada with the support of the Hospitality unions and wins one of Michigan/South Carolina. That will put him in a strong position to make a run at the big prizes on Feb. 5th.

Obama seems like a smart, if green, senator and I actually have no doubt he'd do a half decent job as President but Clinton is the stronger candidate hands down. She matches Obama's intellect, has more real political experience, deeper connections and a husband who is both a great asset and liability to boot. Make no mistake, she is still at the helm of the most formidable political machine in the race. It is that machine that Republicans need to hope goes down in flames if they have any chance of retaining the White House.

That said, I do love seeing the polls being so completely wrong. I wonder what the crowds in the betting markets will do tomorrow? I may have to put some money down on Clinton while there's money to be made.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year

I'd like to echo Philo's holiday specific comments. Happy New Year to our readers.

This year will be marked by another Easter, 4th of July and Christmas. Each of these holidays that allow us to remember our nation's (and the rest of the western world's) religious, philosophical and political heritage and evolution. As we celebrate them this year they will be accompanied by another celebration of the evolution of the western world, a good old fashioned political campaign.

Though I will not buy into the eventual hype and hyperbole that will come around as the campaign intensifies this is as critical a presidential election as any in recent memory. The ground between the major candidates in the two parties is not as great as they would all like us to believe but the differences are real enough in the areas of war and peace, trade, tax, health and on social issues of importance that the trend in the character of the nation will be impacted by the election.

So on to Iowa and Happy New Year - here's to good health and good cheer when it comes time to celebrate Christmas this year.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Merry Christmas

I just took a look at the Mike Huckabee ad that was running on TV where he wishes us all a Merry Christmas and mentions the "birth of Christ." This ad has received much attention and criticism.

I personally don't really see how this is any more offensive than any of the candidates or politicians saying "god bless" or talking about their faith.

Anyway, I'm off to do my "holiday" shopping so that everyone will have something to open on "holiday" morning.

Monday, December 17, 2007

When You're Losing, Change the Rules

Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe filed an interesting piece regarding how the Bush administration is looking to inject itself into the promotions process within the JAG core by basically instituting a political veto over all promotion decisions.

**Sarcasm on** Makes sense to me. If the courts are going to force you to act in accordance with annoying little suggestions like the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions when dealing with detainees, the least you should do is create structural incentives such that the military lawyers who are involved in the process must either choose between their careers or what's "right" given our legal and moral national traditions. You're either with us or against us, after all... **Sarcasm off**

More on Picking Your President

While I'm loathe to do so, because we so rarely disagree, I have to take issue with Cassandra's characterization of the Sullivan piece in the Atlantic.  While I am personally deeply torn as to whether Obama or Clinton would be the better choice for President, I do think that Sullivan's principal contention - namely that putting another Clinton in the White House will simply stamp our collective passport for a minimum of four more years of the petty political bickering on the part of the various political operatives cum talking heads - is a veritable certainly.

Where I do agree wholeheartedly with Cassandra is with respect to this silly notion that we should be electing someone who "looks Presidential" or with whom we'd like to "have a beer." I also agree that it is somewhat offensive to imply (though, in his defense, I don't actually think Sullivan meant it in this way) that by simply electing an African-American, we can somehow, in one stoke, change the trajectory of our foreign policy, without really getting down to the nitty-gritty (read: boring stuff, at least to those who think looking Presidential is the number one qualification for the Presidency) of his policy prescriptions.

But I do think that right or wrong, we have proven ourselves incapable as a nation of getting past all the Vietnam / Baby-Boomer baggage. I think that eventually time will do it, as the principal actors and their followers in the electorate will ultimately just age out of their positions of political and economic influence. That being said, I think there is a persuasive case to be made that Obama could hasten this transition along, as could anyone, quite frankly, who hasn't thrown in, either by word or by deed, with one camp or the other.

Where I would tend to differ with Sullivan is whether or not Obama could actually deliver on this mandate. If this session of Congress has proven anything its:

a) that the Republican minority is very good at generally refusing to negotiate and is much more successful at sticking to first principals, even if they are unpopular,

b) without substantial majorities (which don't appear to be forthcoming any time soon given the laughable degree of gerrymandering in House districts and the counter-majoritarian structural deficiencies in the Senate) you don't really have a hope of enacting a comprehensive agenda, and

c) the vocal elements of the Left don't seem to get point b

I'm not sure any degree of Hope/Uniter not a Divider/National Dialog/Agent of Change talk is really going to move the needle. There are many, many examples of issues with strong national support (getting our of Iraq, however wise or unwise that might be, and stricter gun control laws, just to name a few) which go nowhere even with leaders willing that champion the cause.

But I do think that Obama will be harder to attack on the traditional political axes of hypocrisy or pandering, and he will certainly be better positioned to take the high ground when he is attacked by the talking heads on the Right and the Left. Whether that's enough to really move the needle on the overall polarization issues (and, for me, the real issue, whether his policies are actually right for the nation) is difficult to say.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Picking Your President

Epicurus gave me a copy of the Atlantic featuring a profile of Barack Obama, which I have heard much about but not seen since apparently my copy was lost in the mail. At the time I sent a nice email to the folks at the Atlantic about it, but now I have to confess I might well stop worrying about it.

Sullivan's central premise seems to be that we should elect Barack Obama not for any political reason, not for any ideological reason, indeed not for any reason at all except - get this - he would make American look good.

Now, I thought it was bad enough when people discuss in all seriousness after candidate debates that they liked the candidate who "looked more presidential." (Always reminds me of one of my favorite Bloom County cartoons - "shrimp or wimp.") Bad enough indeed that Americans want to elect a "regular guy" - apparently we reserve demanding excellence from our sports stars, who can be fired on a whim no matter how nice they are for failing to win 30 games in a season (sorry Tubby).

So we're going to elect Barack because he can help us put Vietnam behind him. Make Americans respected again just by being him. Close the ideological divide and magically make Bush v. Gore a memory.

Now, I think this might put a wee bit of heavy burden on someone, being the savior of a generation, but perhaps I'm wrong. Personally, if I'm Barack, I think I would be insulted. That's really saying I'd be President only because I'm black and inoffensive and didn't serve in the military but was young enough to not have that be a question for once. In short, it would be because I fit what the country should need, not what the country should want.

I've got a suggestion. One way, just perhaps, to put all that behind us is to...put it behind us. (Every time I sit through some endless story about the baby boomers all I can do is wonder how one generation lasted forty years. I mean, this has to be the longest generation in American history.) Sullivan says each candidate is trapped by a past, by a sense of who they were in a past career. Instead of being a quite legitimate part of a political inquiry into a candidate's, or reflecting badly upon those voters who can't or won't admit that all our candidates have a past, Sullivan somehow sees this as an ultimate failing of America. This mess is really all our fault, America, and by this mess, I mean whatever might be making you unhappy: war in Iraq, same-sex marriage, right on down the line. Obama by contrast is a man of the world who has arrived to save us all from those thorny little problems. (I should note I don't blame Obama for this piece - unless that's really how he sees himself.)

So now I read why I should elect a candidate to atone for past mistakes of American policy, society or just plain human nature. That might be the dumbest reason I've heard to choose a president. If the job is really a figurehead position, then go ahead. Elect someone to make you all feel better about things you did or didn't do forty years ago. But the rest of us have to live for the future, in the future and we are more interested in understanding where our candidates want to take the country than how our candidates reflect the country.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Taxes and Transparency

I won't pretend to have much background in American tax policy. Like most Americans, I figure that of the two certainties in life, death is by far easier to understand than taxes. But as I was ready to post my prior draft - a firm populist rant which more or less said that I don't have any philosophical problem at all with someone making seven times my income paying more in taxes proportionally than I do, I realized the problem really isn't with what is being proposed.

I'd like to understand our tax code, and I'm with Hector that I think it is a fundamentally good thing if taxes were more transparent. But I'm not at all convinced that simplicity in the tax code in itself is a holy grail - it's probably bad memories of Reagan assuring everyone that the benefits of his tax breaks would eventually trickle down to the rest of us. I'm sure that there is much more to the story about why those benefits never seemed to arrive, but that's the perception I think I share with most Democrats: that they never arrived. Instead, it seemed that the gap between the working class and the upper class got wider - regardless of how all Americans seem to want to consider themselves "middle class."

This perception I freely admit may not have anything to do with reality. But there is no source I can really look to for information. Almost any news source is open to charges of a political bias. Almost any government official has a vested interest to protect. So where do you go to separate fact from fiction? Classical economic theory to predict how a marketplace behaves seems far removed from a world of imperfect information, unequal bargaining power and mounting federal obligations.

This isn't a perfectly performing capitalist machine that we live in, and there is no doubt that there is definitely an element of social re-engineering in any tax policy that is advocated - liberal or conservative. Why is it that the words 'social' and 're-engineering' are always put out there as liberal goals? Hector seems to assume that Democrats are using the tax code as some blind for funding underhanded programs Americans don't know of. Let's face it - every party does that, and this government, supposedly the party of small government, is as guilty as any other.

The problem isn't that Americans are unaware that our federal government spends a lot of money on a lot of programs. The problem is that Americans aren't given concrete policy information to evaluate those choices. This administration's commitment to secrecy has done more to shortchange Americans in that respect than any other in recent history.

If we can't understand our tax policy - if we can't understand our budget - then there is no way for us collectively to decide what those social re-engineering priorities should be. If we can't get access to information that tells us how our programs are performing, or how candidates would like them to perform, then the majority of Americans will always be captive to the handful who do have that information. And there is no incentive here for anyone, either a candidate or an elected official, to share that information.

It's not that most Americans can't understand tax policy. It's that most Americans don't have any frame of reference for doing so. Certainly our political leadership is uninterested in really discussing substantively any plans - most likely, they feel that platitudes are sufficient to convey their general feelings on any given subject. Detail always seems to lead to trouble in campaigns. Attempts to explain nuance are seen as waffling. Apparently Americans prefer their leaders to be single minded in all things, making politics the only profession that rewards ignorance.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Keeping America Competitive

The election is a year away, time to get serious…I was looking at the statements on the websites of the presidential canditates on the issue of investing in this country’s science and engineering as a way to keep America competitive – a personal favorite topic of mine. All and all kind of dissappointing…

On the republican side: Rudy Giuliani says “America must encourage entrepreneurs in future technologies such as advanced hybrid cars and hydrogen fuel cells.” But doesn’t really say how he is going to do it.

Mitt Romney wants to keep America competitive by lowering taxes for all and emphasizing math and science in education.

Hillary Clinton’s solution to restoring the US’s standing in the world involves building
alliances with other countries. She does support increasing funding for reasearch on green technologies. I do like Hillary Clinton’s new fashion statement though with her plan to create “green collar” jobs.

Obama says a little more on the subject: Obama wants to solve the nations competitive problems by investing in information technology. From the Obama website: “An Obama administration will invest in human capital to ensure that our young people have the skills to fill the growing number of information technology jobs being created globally and will also support pilot programs that provide incentives for businesses to grow their information technology workforce in inner-cities and rural communities.” Obama will also make the R&D tax credit for businesses permanent.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Taxocrats and Other Fine Luxuries of the Republic

First, I must say that the last posting to this blog was a deft attempt to deflect us from a discussion of the Democratic candidates and their desire to punatively tax higher wage earners to achieve their social engineering objectives. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the Democrats are essentially offering up their classical argument around taxing the rich and, in that sense, offer us nothing new.

With that said, I'll switch gears and take the bait. What my dear friend proposes sounds a lot like Mike Huckbee's plan for consumption taxes that was recently discussed in the Economist. The resulting consumption tax rate would have to be north of 30% which, though I have some sympathy for the concept, I believe the complexities inherent in this approach limit its viability.

That said, I am in favor of a simplier tax code with some very basic threshold deductions that allow people of all income levels to (a) know what they made and (b) know, regardless of their life choices, what they will have to spend. I believe a modified flat tax would be simple to administer and make it easier to track down fraud which in turn would further step up treasury revenues. What do I mean by a modified flat tax? To start we have a floor, say the federal poverty line + 20%, under which no income will be taxed. This floor adjusts itself very modestly based on household size. Second, all wage/other income, capital gains and the like would then be taxed at a flat rate until the household hit a maximum income of x (which would need to be determined). After which, I believe a relatively increase in tax should be considered. By taxing all income, regardless of source, at the same rate the government would stop playing social engineer in our lives and force us to make our own decisions. I also like this approach because it would add millions of people back to the tax rolls. I believe it is important to the Republic that everyone pay taxes even if the money they pay is redistributed back to them shortly thereafter.

This approach should be married to an abolition of all state income taxes. States should focus on base consumption tax and property taxes within their own borders and adjust those tax levers as a appropriate to encourage the type of economy that the people of each state want to have.

As I said, while I appreciate Huckabee supporters, like my friend, I just can't see the benefit in replacing one overly complex system with another. If we're going to stick to complexity then we should just discuss what the right deductions are in the current federal income tax system.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Taxes, Taxes and Better Taxes

Oh my goodness....Hector speaks! I guess I shouldn't be talking, given my recent dearth of posts, but at any rate, it's nice to hear from you.

I guess my response would be simply that the entire tax system is one large wealth redistribution engine, and while different people can (rather subjectively) draw the line between "good" redistribution and "bad" redistribution as they see fit, I think it is probably more constructive to talk about how to tailor the tax system so that it best promotes sound macroeconomic policy while still providing sufficient revenue to accomplish our democratically determined social priorities.

In that vain, given the power to remake the tax code, I would shoot for a progressive consumption-based taxation scheme, with a progressive (rates based on consumption levels) "luxury tax" component on capital gains above a certain (quite high) threshold.

Unlike many consumption-based tax schemes which are bandied about, I don't think mine would necessarily make the tax code all that much simpler, but it would align incentives more efficiently. At a high level, I would set allowances for consumption of staple goods (a non-exhaustive list would include housing, gas, electricity, food, clothing) indexed to regional CPI indices. Beyond those allowances, I would back into consumption levels (by subtracting out what isn't consumption - savings, investment, home improvement, charitable giving, again a non-exhaustive list) and I would set marginal tax rates to be applied to taxable consumption based on total ordinary and capital income. So those who earn high incomes would be taxed on their taxable consumption at a higher rate than those who have low incomes. One huge drawback to this is what I'll call planning issues - for starters, withholding becomes a nightmare....

For the "luxury tax" piece, for those over some high threshold of capital gains income, I would apply a progressive luxury tax with marginal tax rates rising as the taxpayer's ratio of consumption to capital income rises. Put simply, Paris Hilton would pay a much higher luxury tax rate than Warren Buffet.

I think a system like this, while high on administrative costs to be sure, would correctly align macroeconomic incentives. For all those people Republicans love to talk about who create jobs, their tax bill would be low. For middle class and working poor America, the consumption allowances would be set in a way as to make their tax bill relatively small. The people who would carry the heaviest load under my system are those who consistently take from the economy and give nothing back.

As an aside, this also solves the estate tax issue, as inheritors of family wealth would still be taxed when they consume that wealth, If they never do, it goes untaxed forever, presumably because it is still doing "work" in the economy. It also creates a natural curb on what I think is consumer over-indebtedness on the part of Americans. Debt capital used for consumption still counts as consumption...

The big issue in this grand scheme is what to do with corporate taxation. I don't have an answer for this one, as I think double taxation as it currently exists is an inefficient yet vital source of revenue. State and local taxation also becomes tricky, as does managing tax revenue during periods of recession. This system could make the volatility in budget deficits and debt requirements go up...


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Taxes, Taxes and More Taxes

So the Democrats are huddling in Iowa talking about a couple of interesting tidbits. First, they want to roll back the social security exemption for incomes above $200,000. So let's get this straight - the Democrats want to get rid of the doughnut in the perscription drug plan but they want to create one in social security - taxing people who, in theory, they already are going to tax with their failure to renew the current tax rates. So the Democrats are in effect proposing approximately a 5.6% income tax increase (see notes at and a 6.2% social security tax increase on the wages of the top 5% of American wage earners. That's an 11.8% tax increase on income over $200,000. Meaning that someone earning $300,000 would see their taxes on the last $100,000 of their income climb from about $34,000 to $45,800...and we're back to punishing success in the name of redistribution. I have no problem with a progressive tax system but there comes a point where it is not good for the economy, right to specifically target one group of individuals for redistribution. Of course, we have also heard from several Democratic candidates about their desire to restrain federal spending by cutting all sorts of wait that was just a fantasy.

Monday, May 7, 2007

More of the Same

Silence I suppose is golden except for being a lousy way to run a blog. I think that on some level both Epicurus and myself would prefer to simply tape political speeches as well as our sometimes enlightened, sometimes snide (but hopefully never petty) comments on them than post. Time seems to slip away and lacking any desire on my own part to do any sort of investigating or reporting, I'm left with a half-dozen ideas on things to write and never seem to get around to writing any.

Why? I think part of it is clearly information overload - it's a tough market to choose from. Pick any number of administration actions and you get a wide swath of bland statements from all sides saying the exact same things they've said any number of times. I'm tired of hearing about the posturing to force some sort of timetable for withdrawal in Iraq, a war that has every indication of becoming our own grind-along affair, the sort of which every dominant world player has engaged in over the years where its fighting forces are deployed far from home in a controversial and unpopular action the administration swears is important to national survival, or at the least, national pride. There's no immediacy to any action anymore: every side got to say their piece on the war resolution and veto, and having congratulated themselves on making a fine photo op out of what should have been a substantive discussion on what "success" now really means, all sides take a breather. The only certainty seems to be that everyone agrees Iraq is really important - no, really important, and that they really care about the troops, and really worry about our national credibility. Too bad they don't really care about doing anything.

The presidential candidates debate have at least given up any appearance of substance - I tuned into the post-debate coverage only to see the primary topic of discussion was who looked more presidential. That's pretty bold, I think. We've really given up even soundbites now for a high school election based on who looks more presidential? I can't wait then for the usual complaints about why American doesn't vote. Did you vote in your high school election?

I can't watch the cable news shows - I have no interest in hearing from broadcasters in New York or California what Americans think based on some opinion poll where some research group talked to the 5% of adults haven't yet learned to screen their calls and asked them their thoughts. There is a reason that folks my age get their news from the Daily Show - and it's because Stewart asks the questions we'd like to ask, to the people we'd ask them to if only we could. Instead of talking about how politicians look, or how they sound, or what the party is trying to do, Stewart shows us what they have said. Period. There's humor, to be sure, and more than a little not-so-good natured emphasis on the more stupid things the administration has said. But I hope that the humor simply shows all of us why we need so desperately to move from soundbites to subtlety in our politics.

What is said is never as important as what is done and I suppose it's unfair to hold politicians - who really only have one way of doing anything, and that's voting - for not doing more. Far more often though it seems politicians worry about the appearance of their words rather than the substance. Is it really so ingrained in every politician's makeup that winning reelection is the most important thing? Can it really be that good a job that you are not willing to risk any controversial, any honest, any simply sincere discussion just because it might hamper your chances of getting back to Congress? There must be a few folks who would rather be judged on what they want to do as President rather than whether they look like a President. The disappointment is that none of these folks, wherever they are, seem interested in running for president. As Adlai Stevenson said, "In America, any boy can grow up to be President, and I suppose that's just one of the risks we take." In the last weeks of listening to the news, that's the only newsworthy statement I've heard any candidate say - and he's dead.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

I have to admit that I've done far more basketball watching than news reading. I've come to two conclusions: first, that it's either a great day or a really sad day when you can pick the higher seeds and win, and second, clearly none of us should ever commit anything to email again. The fact that we can all be entertained reading the Bush adminstration's inner-thought processes on firing U.S. Attorneys should give us all pause. I mean, they're not up there with the famous Brownie emails, staring at disaster and pondering rolling up his sleeves, or Foley's creepy getting-to-you-know text messages, nonetheless, it drives home that nothing we say is ever really confidential. Or undiscoverable. Or, in fact, really that necessary. Couldn't the Bush folks have just walked down the hall and chatted like the rest of us?

Like most Americans, I think I'm fascinated by the idea of a showdown over Congressional subpoenas. I picture Karl Rove tucked behind the White House gates, refusing to come out, and angry congressmen singing "We Shall Overcome" on the Capitol steps. (I also picture the Supreme Court going on vacation suddenly, figuring they must have learned a lesson from the Bush-Gore thing.) Think Iran-Contra, sans Playboy-caliber secretaries (pretty sure that doesn't happen in George Bush's America).

I have no objection to the hiring and firing of top government officials for political reasons - it happens all the time. But this seems sloppy, and just that one step too far I've come to expect. Take a basic idea, e.g. that top executive branch officials serve at the pleasure of the President. This is not a new concept. These are relatively routine actions. And yet instead of simply clearing house, we get selective firings, of attorneys with high performance ratings who might have a notion to prosecute political corruption.

And again, we have an administration that couldn't make its up mind exactly what it wanted to do, or how it might accomplish what it wanted to do. We have emails over a few months going back and forth among a handful of folks, hemming and hawing before finally acting. Having acted, the administration delays responding to criticism. Delays become denials until criticism becomes overwhelming. Then the administration alienates its allies. Once the allies are gone, the wagons are circled, and the waiting game begins: how long can the President hold onto his indignation at being questioned before he bows to the inevitable and lets someone go?

The sad thing is, we all know that's how it will end. We all know the best thing to do is admit that, in the classic phrase, "mistakes were made," and move on. And yet, conventional wisdom and common sense to the contrary, the President will maintain that his way is the best way, the only way, and that not to worry - he's doing a heckuva job.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Interesting CRS Report on Congressional Subpoenas

As a result of the US Attorney firings and the dust-up which has ensued, I was interested in finding out a little more about the history of Congressional subpoenas to the Executive Branch and the eventual outcomes of those clashes between Congressional prerogative and Executive Privilege. I found this Congressional Research Service Report on the matter, which I thought was fairly insightful.

It outlines the history of similar confrontations between the branches and how these confrontations eventually resolved themselves. It even highlights what I think is a particularly relevant wrinke to the current conflict, namely that it would be the Justice Department who would have the responsibility to enforce any Contempt of Congress citations which might eventiually be issued, were one of the Houses to issue a subpoena which was subsequently defied by the White House or the Justice Department. If one of the Houses were then to vote to cite the subpoened party with Contempt, enforcement would fall to the Justice Department.

More specifically, quoting from the CRS report:

"...the Office of Legal Counsel wrote an opinion on May 30, 1984, concluding that as a matter of statutory interpretation and separation of powers analysis, a U.S. Attorney is not required to bring a congressional contempt citation to a grand jury when the citation is directed against an executive official who is carrying out the President’s decision to invoke executive privilege. The memo regarded the threat of criminal prosecution from a congressional contempt citation as an “unreasonable, unwarranted, and therefore intolerable burden” on the President’s exercise of constitutional authority, and that Congress “has other methods available to test the validity of a privilege claim and to obtain the documents that its seeks.” The memo cautioned that its analysis was “limited to the unique circumstances that gave rise to these questions late in 1982 and early 1983,” and that “prudence” should limit the conclusions in the memo “to controversies similar to the one to which this memorandum expressly relates, and the general statements of legal principles should be applied in other contexts only after careful analysis.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Illunimating Post on Balkinization

Nothing much to add here, other than to suggest that you read this post at Balkinization by Scott Horton, a law professor at Columbia. It is basically his list of the most important legal developments brought on by the Bush Administration which need to be undone, in his view, ASAP.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Patrick Fitzgerald's Class Act

So I was watching Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald give a post-trial press conference (Real Player required) yesterday on C-SPAN and I couldn't help but be impressed by him and by his office's conduct throughout the entire CIA leak investigation and subsequent Libby trial. In contrast to the behavior of prior prosecutors investigating intra-governmental malfeasance (Kenneth Starr, among others, come to mind), I was particularly impressed with his continued unwillingness, even after the conclusion of the trial, to delve into either the details of the investigation or the indirect consequences of the Libby conviction.

This is in some ways a difficult step for me because I was, and to some degree still am, disturbed by his efforts to aggressively pursue notes and testimony from reporters who had given promises of confidentiality to their sources. In the end, his campaign to secure this evidence led to the imprisonment of Judith Miller, a former New York Times reporter, for over two months on contempt of court charges for her refusal to comply with his subpoenas.

In the press conference, I thought Fitzgerald gave a very reasonable accounting of his actions, and stressed that he thinks the subpoena of reporters' notes and/or testimony is a very serious decision, not to be taken lightly. He highlighted the existence of the
Justice Department guidelines which make it clear that reporters should only be subpoenaed when the evidence or testimony they possess cannot be obtained in any less intrusive way and there are also exigent circumstances which highlight the criticality of the materials to be subpoenaed.

He also made the largely fair distinction that, in this case, the sources which were being protected were not whistle-blowers but rather were political operatives who were potentially usurping the tool of source confidentiality in an attempt to achieve a desired public relations outcome. Furthermore, in the case of Libby specifically, Libby was making certain conversations with reporters, and the the timing of those conversations, issues of fact which were inextricably linked to the truth regarding the lies which led to his indictment.

I think Fitzgerald's larger, though somewhat unstated point, was that the notion of source confidentiality shouldn't exist to protect the careers of reporters when crucial evidence in a criminal prosecution is at stake, and when the invocation of a reporter's privilege is made to protect not a whistle-blower who is performing a public service but rather a political operative who is pushing an agenda. I think that is an incredibly difficult distinction to draw, and I think it is a very complex question which needs to be debated and addressed explicitly rather than left in the hands of the Justice Department and potentially individual prosecutors (unsurprisingly,
not all at the DoJ are as even-tempered as Mr. Fitzgerald).

That being the case, given where we sit today, I think Fitzgerald tried and largely succeeded in taking a very considered, very balanced course, and made the decisions he made while mindful of the many difficulties which exist in this arena. When he was actually arguing and succeeding in throwing Judith Miller in jail, I didn't have this view, but now that he's had a chance to explain himself a bit (remember at the time the case was still under investigation and he, unlike many prior prosecutors working similar cases, was not commenting on the case at all), I am much more sympathetic to his point of view.

This Op-Ed piece by former Times columnist Anthony Lewis highlights how complex this issue is and makes the surprisingly simple case that maybe we should just let the judicial system decide, on a case by case basis, where the public good is best served. Hardly a solution the "put-the-reporters-in-jail" national security crowd will like, given the distinct lack of balls and strikes to call, but one which might actually serve to best depoliticise the outcome.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Secrecy of Mr Cheney

Sorry it's been so long. There's been a vacation and some minor family illnesses which have intervened and kept me from staying on the ball.

Nevertheless, I found the secrecy surrounding the Vice President's trip to Pakistan quite amusing. I don't doubt the need for secrecy, but what I find absolutely hilarious are reports like these, last Sunday, before it was announced that he had been in Pakistan. Apparently on the "way home" from Sydney, the Vice President's had to make an emergency landing in Singapore after Air Force 2 had mechanical problems.

Maybe this is not common knowledge for most Americans, but you would expect members of the press reporting this fact to know that Singapore is NOT on the way to the US when coming back from Australia. In fact, it is essentially in the exact opposite direction from the "way home", which would have taken Air Force 2 out over the Pacific, towards Tahiti, Fiji, Hawaii, and ultimately the West Coast. Again, I obviously don't take issue with the landing, and given the secrecy the traveling press corps was sworn to, I don't doubt that it was local reporters in Singapore which reported the landing.

My question is this, you would figure that if keeping the trip so secret was of vital importance for the security of the Vice President, they would have either a) found a secure location at which to make the emergency landing, or b) assuming that was not possible for some reason, rescheduled the trip to Pakistan? Now it is certainly true that ex ante, we didn't know where the VP was going, but I can tell you that when I heard these reports, I immediately thought that something was going on. I should have written something right then, but I know you all are very trusting readers :)

The larger point is how this fits in with this Administration's general obsession with secrecy. If secrecy in this instance was warranted, fine, but how critical could it have really been once the concealment of the fact that Cheney was returning home had been disrupted, and yet they continued along their way to the "secret meetings"?

Friday, February 9, 2007

Managing the Message: The Epicurus 6 Step Program For Policy Denial

So in watching the coverage of the global warming debate heat up (no pun intended) over the last couple of months, I've gotten to thinking about how the debate on this issue has evolved over the years. In thinking about this, I've come up with a rough outline for how those who wish to mount opposition to a particular set of policy proposals often go about it. I don't think this recipe is unique to any particular issue, though I do think in the case of global warming, the GOP has executed this playbook in sterling fashion. So here it is, my 6 step program, using global warming as an example which illustrates the overall progression through the steps:

Step 0. Decide upon your desired outcome. Before the debate even gets underway, you need to decide upon the pre-determined optimal outcome based on your political, economic, or sometimes personal considerations. Perhaps it goes without saying, but if you're not predisposed to a particular outcome, the 6 step program isn't really for you.

Step 1. Completely deny the existence of the underlying problem or problems which have prompted calls for the policy proposals with which you disagree. This strategy is a good place to begin because oftentimes, you can cut off debate on an issue very early on. In the immediate case, opponents of measures to curb global warming for years pointed to "evidence" that we weren't heating up the globe. They thoroughly denied the existence of the problem and refused to believe that there were even good reasons to be having the debate. Some, like Sen. Inhofe, have never moved beyond step 1.

Step 2. Loudly proclaim that there is much disagreement about the existence and extent of the problem and call for more study/research/hearings, etc. This is an excellent second step because it can really slow things down. If you can't completely scuttle the initiatives with Step 1, the next best option is to slow any forward progress and bring action to a standstill. In the global warming context, opponents trotted out the few experts who held contrarian views, and pointed to their research as perfect examples of how more study is needed. A corollary to this rule is to equate in the minds of the public and the media the views of a very small but vocal minority with those of the large, growing, and oftentimes more passive majority thereby implying that they have equal standing with respect to the underlying truth of the matter. This only further bolsters the justification for calls for more study. Given the nature of governmental bureaucracy and the halting pace of Congress in general, this can be a very effective and quite long-lasting step in the policy denial process.

Step 3. Call into question the motives of those who support policy reform and attempt to conflate the newly questionable motives with the underlying validity of their point of view. If you're loosing on the facts, change the subject. By moving the discussion to one of peoples' motives, you can shift attention away from the underlying issue. Furthermore, if done well, this step can call into question the validity of the underlying conclusions by getting people to focus on something other than the facts. With respect to global warming, this was done by conflating legitimate, peer reviewed scientific research with policy or position papers which were circulated by environmentalist groups. By working to associate the scientific community with a sometimes unpopular advocacy community, opponents of global warming reforms successfully changed the subject and clouded the issues.

Step 4. Admit the existence of the underlying problem but characterize it as completely intractable, thereby implicitly rejecting any proposed policy prescriptions. There's a pretty large chasm between Steps 3 and 4 and, as such, moving from one to the next should be done only after careful consideration. By actually admitting there is a problem, you have the potential to lose some credibility, but this can be mitigated by pointing to the confirming nature of the additional studies/research/hearings you called for in Step 2. In the climate change context, this step essentially involved the circulation of a variety of conventional wisdoms. A few include a) the notion that we are merely powerless to influence our climate without massive unintended consequences, b) we can never measure the results of any actions we do take or be sure of the ultimate cause and effect, therefore any specific policy solution is futile, c) because climate change is a global problem, any steps we take to fix the problem will just be exploited by other countries who don't choose the same costly policy reforms. There are many others, but you get the idea. The duration of this step can be elongated by engaging on the details of particular proposals in an attempt to further confuse the issue.

Step 5. Gain control of policy solutions which are rising in popularity by exaggerating or minimizing the costs or benefits of the given solution. Now that we're all the way at Step 5, things by definition have become more dire. We really need to pull out all the stops or we may actually lose control of the situation. To regain control, you need to make the specific solution which is on the table unpalatable. The GOP is currently in Step 5 with global warming. Currently, they are executing Step 5 by painting dire predictions of the costs to our economy, our way of life, and at times, even the "American Dream" were we to undertake any of the particular approaches being bandied around these days. Conveniently absent from the analysis of those using the 6 Step Plan are are the substantial and largely un-refuted consequences of inaction. In a related, inverted example, the "One Percent Doctrine", which was proposed in Ron Suskind's book of the same name, is an excellent example of an attempt by Dick Cheney to paint the costs of inaction with respect to terrorism as so dire that all traditional analysis and evidentiary standards should be set aside when there is even the smallest hint of negative consequences to inaction. Wouldn't it be funny if the Administration applied the "One Percent Doctrine" to global warming.

Step 6. Take control of the issue by putting forth a counter-proposal which is largely unworkable but can be used as an excuse by users of the 6 Step Process to brand the original reformers as defeatists, or even worse, opponents to action, when they inevitably reject the counter-proposal. This is by far the most risky step, as it can have a way of becoming quickly unmanageable, but I have no doubt that over the next couple of years, we will see the GOP minority in Congress move to Step 6 from Step 5. You can take it to the bank that we will see some fatally flawed voluntary emissions reductions proposal, or a carbon cap-and-trade scheme with some serious loopholes, emerge as a GOP proposal, and when the Democratic majority highlights the deficiencies, they will be branded as soft on the environment and as unwilling to make the "hard choices" required to fix the underlying problem which the GOP will claim they have been "leaders" about for time immemorial. You can already see the Administration moving to Step 6 with respect to the health care debate by proposing the tax deduction for the purchase of private health insurance plans and the accompanying tax increase on those who already have better than average coverage from their employers.

While there was admittedly a fair bit of sarcasm in the above, the kernel of truth is that managing the evolution of the debate on a particular policy is almost as important as ultimately obtaining the desired policy outcome. Because policy is so much easier to make than it is to un-make or reform, there's huge advantage to be had by those who slow down the pace of change as much as possible when they disagree with the current trajectory of the debate.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Sure, It's Humane, Just Trust Us

If any of you out there have any doubt that we're mistreating some decidedly innocent people, listen to this interview on The Story (an NPR program) with a lawyer who is representing a detainee in GTMO who has already been deemed a non-enemy via a CSRT hearing, yet is still sitting down there, rotting away (quite literally, from his untreated Hepatitis B). This stuff makes me sick.

Managing the Message: All Things Must Now Be Secured

In recent days the phrase "energy security" has popped up with rather alarming regularity. While the phrase is certainly not new, it appears this is the preferred way of talking about American dependence on foreign oil and natural gas. I have no beef with the idea that America should be reevaluating its energy usage, energy generation and (hopefully) the long-term stability of worldwide oil and natural gas reserves. What I am concerned with is that once again we are identifying a rather amorphous goal with a definitely belligerent edge: America's energy sources must be secure, and if we fail somehow to get our slice of the worldwide pie, our nation's very existence will be threatened.

The problem is that this implies not conservation, not adaptation to changing environmental considerations, but a rush to calculate and then control how much oil and natural gas Americans will need for the next say, hundred years. The phrase "energy security" I'm sure is quite deliberately meant to invoke "national security," and to build the impression that if the United States is not actively involved in research, exploration and capture of new sources of energy, the United States will be left out in the cold while the rest of the world marches on to a brilliantly lit future. It's meant to add another worry to the American voter's mind: if we don't secure our energy, we will damage our country.

For another problem, Vladimir Putin seems thrilled to hear the phrase. A recent article by the New Yorker shows a president who is embracing the newer, more martial approach to energy conservation - namely, a man who is confident that his country, sitting atop large reserves of natural gas and oil, is only waiting for the chance to exploit that natural advantage. I realize the list of American allies is not as large as it used to be, but perhaps we should pause when we hear someone like that echoing the White House line. (Though to be fair, the White House was not the first to use the line.)

The United States should be concerned with energy, and it should be one of the top agenda items for any administration or Congress. But instead of such a nebulous - and martial - goal, why not focus attention on what could solve the problem? If America was really concerned with energy security, the same breath that speaks those words would add "energy independence," the rather hackneyed phrase from the last oil crisis. Or what about "environmental security," meaning to make America's natural resources - including our natural gas, oil and coal reserves - work for us in the most environmentally-friendly way. Why aren't our environmental assets considered worthy of security: the swamps and wetlands that are carbon sinks for instance?

What's the alternative to "energy security?" Energy insecurity? When will we know we are now energy secure? "Energy security" enables us to place the problem outside our control. Like national security, it becomes something which is threatened externally, rather than arising from internal policy decisions. We know what the answer is: either the US uses less energy, or it creates more. Period. These are not security problems but behavioral problems, economic problems. Producing energy and changing the environment go hand in hand, from the time we first chopped firewood to burn for light and heat. It's a connection that we have to examine if we are ever going to be secure, not just from foreign threats but from the consequences of our own actions.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Supreme Court Clerk Influence

Yesterday, Cassandra and I were discussing offline the role of clerks in influencing outcomes with respect to Supreme Court opinions.

Sure enough (as so often happens), today I saw an interesting post on SCOTUSBlog by Prof. David Stras which references another statistics-laden academic law paper which tries to quantify the effects of clerk party affiliation on opinion outcomes. I'll leave it to you to read the post and the paper if you're interested. Briefly, the paper, while not without shortcomings, indicates that clerk party affiliation does appear to have a statistically significant effect on opinions.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The NPR Bush Interview

While I don't intend for this post to become another in a long line of comments which pokes fun at the President's unscripted speaking skills, I must say, that I literally snorted my coffee while listening to this (audio here, transcript here) interview between NPR's Juan Williams and the President.

As an aside, I found it interesting that the President likely conditioned this interview on it being conducted by Juan, as Juan is also a Fox News contributor. While I think Juan is a great reporter, and in general, I take no issue with his reporting, it just strikes me as interesting that the Administration likely equated Juan with Fox. I don't think the questioning was particularly tough, but then again, no one really "goes after" a sitting President during an interview anyway. A couple of sections (well many sections, actually) which really stood out as I was listening:

-- "MR. WILLIAMS: Now, you've got a vote tomorrow in the Senate to consider a resolution opposing the troop buildup. Vice President Cheney said last week that vote would validate the insurgents' strategy. And so, do you agree?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, there's a lot of strong opinions about it. My attitude is – my feeling to the Senate echoes what Joe Lieberman said the other day – Senator Joe Lieberman – and that is it is ironic that the Senate would vote 81 to nothing to send a general into Iraq who believes he needs more troops to do the job and then send a contradictory message. The legislatures will – legislators will do what they feel like they've got to do, and, you know, we want to work with them as best we can to make it clear what the stakes of failure will be, and also make it clear to them that I think they have a responsibility to make sure our troops have what they need to do the missions."

In my mind, this is a classic Washington talking point. If the Congress had failed to confirm General Petraeus, the White House would have been up in arms about how it's the Executive who runs the conduct of the war, and that the Congress should let the President choose the people who he sees bet fit to conduct it. I don't think this confirmation has anything to do with the underlying question of whether or not we should withdraw from Iraq. We're there now, we need a commander in the theater, and Bush broadly has the right to choose that commander.

-- "MR. WILLIAMS: All right. You know, you mentioned timetables. NPR has a reporter embedded with the Minnesota National Guard in Iraq, and one of the soldiers there asked the question – says, my name is Specialist Ryan Schmidt (sp) from Forest Lake, Minnesota, and my question for you, Mr. President, is what if your plan for a troop surge to Baghdad does not work?" What do you think?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I would say to Ryan, I put it in place on the advice of a lot of smart people, particularly the military people who think it will work, and let us go into this aspect of the Iraqi strategy feeling it will work. But I will also assure Ryan that we're constantly adjusting to conditions on the ground."

I'm certainly not the first person to mention this, but I think it is completely disingenuous to suggest that we're undertaking the "surge" at the advice of our military leaders. Much has been written about how General Casey and others felt that increasing troop levels in Iraq was not the wisest course. It seems pretty obvious to me that Bush shopped around for military leaders who agreed with (or at least could tolerate silently) his conclusion and then installed them as the new leaders of the Iraq operation.

-- "MR. WILLIAMS: By the way, just quickly, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader says that if you have an incursion into Iran, he expects that you would come to the Senate for approval.

PRESIDENT BUSH: I have no intent upon incur—going into Iran. I mean, this is the kind of thing that happens in Washington. People ascribe, you know, motives to me beyond a simple statement – of course we'll protect our troops. I don't know how anybody can then say, well, protecting the troops means that we're going to invade Iran. If that's what he's talking about, there's – I mean, we will protect our interests in Iraq. That's what the American people expect us to do. That's definitely what our troops want to do, and that's what the families of our troops want us to do. And if we find the Iranians are moving weapons that will end up harming American troops, we'll deal with it."

Classic non-denial denial which almost dares the Iranians to step up activity in Iraq. This fits perfectly with the bluster foreign policy strategy which this Administration seems to thinks works well, and which the remaining informed observers think has been a miserable failure. For a more detailed discussion of this, see Friedman's piece in the NYT today (subscription required).

-- "MR. WILLIAMS: By the way, in the speech, you spoke about the Democrats. You said, you congratulated the Democrat majority. And I notice your prepared text said Democratic majority. I surely think that you know that for the Democrats, they think when you say Democrat, it's like fingernails on the blackboard. They don't like it. They like you to say Democratic.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah. Well, that was an oversight then. I mean, I'm not trying to needle. Look, I went into the hall saying we can work together and I was very sincere about it. I didn't even know I did it.


PRESIDENT BUSH: And that I did, I didn't mean to be putting fingernails on the board, I meant to be saying why don't we show the American people we can actually work together? There is a lot of politics in Washington – in my judgment, needless politics. And it's almost like, if George Bush is for it, we're against it, and I – and if he's against it, we're for it. And the American people don't like that.

And I'm going to tell you some big issues we need to work on. One is entitlements. Your grandchildren are going to grow up with a Social Security system that is broke unless we do something about it. Now, I understand how hard that is. I mean, it's—But the solution can be done. But it requires a lot of political, you know, capital to be spent. And there is distrust in Washington. I am surprised, frankly, at the amount of distrust that exists in this town. And I'm sorry it's the case, and I'll work hard to try to elevate it. So the idea that somehow I was trying to needle the Democrats, it's just – gosh, it's probably Texas. Who knows what it is. But I'm not that good at pronouncing words anyway, Juan."

This is where I did my spit take. An "oversight" which he ultimately chalked up to his lack of pronunciation...please. I think it's telling that the text of the speech had the name of the party correct - wouldn't want that kind of inflammatory dig in writing now would we? If he really doesn't know the distinction and how petty it is for him to use the "abbreviated form" than he is as clueless as people say....

-- "MR. WILLIAMS: Mr. President, you're bringing out a new budget next week, and I presume you're going to have healthcare, health insurance plan in it. To pay for some of the plan, some people who don't pay taxes on their health insurance plan now will have to pay taxes. Isn't that a tax increase for them?

PRESIDENT BUSH: No, really what it is, it's a rewriting of the tax code. We've got a tax code today that says if you get your insurance from a large employer, for example, it's part of your – it's a non-taxable event. And yet if you're an individual, like Juan Williams out there as an independent contractor, and you buy your own health insurance, you're at a tax disadvantage. And so I'm asking the Congress to reform the tax code to treat everybody fairly. And in my judgment, such a plan will encourage and enable more individuals to be able to buy health insurance, which will help us deal with the uninsured. "

Love to hear the President dancing around this one. If I was inclined, I could go out and find one of the 1000's of times this Administration has claimed that allowing the Bush tax cuts to sunset in 2010 would be a tax increase. While the underlying principal of the plan is indeed very "conservative" in its interpretation of the underlying economics of health care, it is sweetly ironic (not to mention internally inconsistent with conservative economic thought) that it relies on a tax increase to provide the correct incentives. As for my take on the plan - I think that the Administration's contention that the market for health care is broken because people aren't forced to contemplate and internalize the cost of the care they purchase is largely correct though I also think the idea that providing a non-refundable tax deduction to solve this problem is laughable.

-- "MR. WILLIAMS: So, some people would say, well, if you believe in spending restraint, why haven't you vetoed one bill, you know, one appropriations bill?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Because the United States Congress that was controlled by Republicans exercised spending restraint. Now, I didn't particularly like – the size of the pie was what I requested. It's some of the pieces of the pie that I didn't particularly care for, but that is why the president needs a line-item veto, and that is why Congress has got to reform the earmark process. What the American people need to understand is that sometimes special projects get put into bills without ever having seen the light of the day. In other words, they don't get voted on; they just show up, and we need transparency in the earmark process, and expose the process to hearings and votes so that the American people will know that any project was fully heard on the floor of the House and the Senate."

Another spit take. Also, I think at this point in the interview, the President started to get tired, because many of the answers from here on out are nearly indecipherable. To argue that the GOP Congress exercised spending restraint is akin to arguing that that the sky is green. Furthermore, to imply that earmarks are the problem which is causing the budget deficit is also absurd. Earmarks are problematic for other reasons, but their impact on the long term deficit and debt are practically a rounding error.

-- "MR. WILLIAMS: Mr. President, you have talked about Harry Truman and the challenges that President Truman faced during his time here. He wasn't popular toward the end of his presidency, but history ended up judging him very well. Is that your hope now?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, you know, Juan, my hope is that we see improvement in Baghdad. My vision is dealing with the problems at hand. I have got a lot on my agenda and believe we are going to get a lot done. At home, we want the economy to remain strong, and we want our children educated. That is why I'm pushing for a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. And abroad, I'm not only working with a great team to deal with Iraq, but we're dealing with Iran, Middle Eastern peace, North Korea. I mean, there is a lot of issues we are dealing with.

My own view is that history will take care of itself. History has a long reach to it. I told people that last year I read three analyses of Washington's administration, and my attitude is if they are still writing about the first president, the 43rd doesn't need to worry about it. And so, the other thing is, is that, I think it's very important for people – for a president to make decisions based upon principles. You know, you can be popular, but you may be wrong. And I would rather, when it's all said and done, get back home and look in the mirror and say, I didn't compromise the principles that are etched into my soul in order to be a popular guy. What I want to do is solve problems for the American people and yield the peace that we all want."

There's actually an interesting nugget in this answer which I think illuminates the President's decision-making process. He says that he makes decisions based on "principals." Not data, not evidence, not necessity, not analysis, but principal. Forget for a minute that I could argue that given extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, waterboarding, the Military Commissions Act, the Terrorist Surveillance Program...the list goes on and on, that he is NOT acting on principals, or if he his, his principals are different from those which are consistent with the history and traditions our country. In any decision-making process, principals play a role, but so many other things, including, I might add, being somewhat respectful of the wishes of the people. But a principals-based approach sure cuts down on the reading, doesn't it.

And finally, this:

"MR. WILLIAMS: One last thing, Mr. President. When you look at the quality of intelligence that you're getting about the nuclear program in Iran right now, do you think it's better than the quality of intelligence you were getting about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

PRESIDENT BUSH: No question that there is a certain skepticism about intelligence. We all thought that that – that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and "we all" being not only the administration, but members from both political parties in the Congress. The previous administration felt that the intelligence indicated there was weapons of mass destruction. The international community – in other words, I just want you to know that there was a universal belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction including critics of Iraq, like the French, who voted for 1441 in the Security Council.

And therefore when it turned out not to be true, there is a certain skepticism about intel. And however, the skepticism about intel, while it needs to be tempered by, you know, the – by an analysis of statements or other fragments of intelligence – what I am trying to say that I take the Iranian nuclear threat very seriously even though the intel on Iraq was not what it was thought to be, and we have to.

Now – so how do you solve the problem on intel? Well, you get more human intelligence. You constantly reevaluate the system itself and make sure that these really fine souls that work for the different intelligence agencies are given the tools they need. And so – look, I'm like a lot of Americans that say, well, if it wasn't right in Iraq, how do you know it's right in Iran? And so we are constantly evaluating, and answering this legitimate question by always working to get as good intelligence as we can."

This to me seems like at best a laundry list of catch phrases and impact words which he strung together in an attempt to answer the question as innocuously as possible. At worst, it's borderline unintelligible. How exactly does one temper skepticism about intel with "analysis of statements or other fragments of intelligence." Eventually, the President cut to the chase and just delivered what he *wants* the answer/outcome to be, without really worrying about if/why the intel. process might be broken.....

Good stuff.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

My Kingdom for a Horse

I'll start by saying I'm one of those people who was sincerely saddened to hear the news yesterday that Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner who broke down in the second leg of the Triple Crown last spring. I grew up in Louisville, and every year have picked my Derby horse and usually faithfully watched the race only to see that horse finish somewhere towards the rear.

Last spring I picked Barbaro, and while I'd love to say it was based on some fine analysis of his record, pedigree, confirmation, it was really because of his attitude. I'd never watched one of his races but I saw him work on tape and that was it - I was sold. Like many fans, I was thrilled to see that promise realized on Derby Day, and like them, I really thought that at last, within my lifetime, I would see the Triple Crown won.

When I heard the news, I went to the various news sites and read the articles and the tributes, and then at the last moment clicked onto the New York Times, which had set up a post encouraging readers to share their thoughts.

Most shared their sympathies with the Jacksons, Barbaro's owners, and the veterinary staff at the New Bolton Center. Several expressed outrage at the horse racing industry in general, and what they called the callous decisions of the owners at all points of Barbaro's career.

What was most puzzling to me though was the outright hostility of others with regards to the outpouring of emotion generated by Barbaro's death. Several comments were one line only: "It's just a horse." Now, I think anyone who has had a pet would take issue with that statement, so I'll leave that one alone.

But I did want to abuse the forum here a bit to say my piece with regards to other comments, which dealt with some sort of perceived contradiction between caring about a horse and the many problems facing us all in the world. (They usually ran along the lines of, why don't the folks posting about how sad they are for Barbaro care about say, Darfur, AIDS, global warming, the war in Iraq, child poverty, malaria, etc., etc., etc.)

Somehow there seems to be a feeling in some folks out there that compassion is some sort of finite resource: caring about a horse automatically means we can't care about people. Love one thing, and then love another, and you must love less.

Really? I am usually the most cynical person in the room, and this seems an incredibly sad statement about the human race.

Are people really born with a finite amount of empathy? We as a society do not have a perfect system of making choices. While I might want us to address any number of problems in the world, the fact is I cannot force those choices on anyone. Instead, I have to do what I can to help where I can, and trust that others care enough to help where I cannot.

ll of us make choices every day to show what we care about: we spend our time, our money, our energy to show the world what we wish to about ourselves. We wear T-shirts, go to rallies, sign petitions or watch TV, and each thing makes a statement about who we are and what we believe.

I believe that the world can take a moment and appreciate the fall of a horse, as goes the fall of a sparrow. If we believe life is sacred, then all life is sacred, and all should be valued. If we can care about a horse, it gives me hope we can care about others. If we can pause and think of what it is like to lose something we care about, then we can imagine what it is to lose something more precious than a racehorse. Perhaps we can imagine losing a limb ourselves or losing a loved one.

This is the imagination that will fuel our choices, and those moments we pass through each day leave lasting memories that we carry forward each time we leave the house. If we lose the ability to empathize with the sufferings of others, the loss of others, we lose what makes us human. To be sad because others are sad, to feel pain because others feel pain, hopefully means we think twice before we make those choices and argue for those actions that cause others loss and pain.

All of us get chances to make statements with our lives, and there are far worse statements to make than that we cared, however briefly and however deeply, about the loss of any life.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Interesting New Resource

I just discovered a very cool primary source blog called No Easy Answers for many of the motions which went back and forth in the Libby trial and in NSA wiretapping related cases. Its run by the same guy who runs Senate by Cboldt, which is a real-time ticker of sorts for the goings-on in the Senate. I totally disagree with his politics, but to his credit, he's laser focused on providing the actual primary source materials and then providing his analysis. Both of his blogs are really useful resources and they are both listed as sites we like on the sidebar.

Law Meets Statistics

I found this incredibly interesting academic paper (thanks to SCOTUSBlog for starting me off with this post, which eventually led me to the paper) which uses network theory to synthesize the citations to and from the ~28K Supreme Court majority opinions which have ever been issued, and using the resulting model, predicts which case will become important in our body of law going forward and which cases will rise or fall in their importance as time passes.

This paper is nearly inaccessible for those without an extensive background in statistics (I found it very overwhelming and my MBA was concentrated in statistics and econometrics), and if you go and read it, be prepared to get the "gist" of it without understanding any of the details.

The brass tax, their model does a much better job than all previous methods (examples including a) looking to see if the case made it onto the front page of the New York Times and b) how many amicus briefs were filed with respect to the case in question) of predicting the probability that a given case would be cited, based on which other cases cited the case in question and which other cases the case in question cites (even summarizing their research is confusing).

One question I have after a first reading: This study does not attempt to compare the citation flow with any measure of which cases the Court decides to put on its docket. By this I mean, the Court has complete control over the cases it chooses to hear. With that as a given, how does the docket construction (and implicitly, the importance/interest level each Court places on/in certain areas of law) influence this analysis? I think that would be one interesting area for followup research.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Line Item Veto Analysis

I stumbled across this interesting review of the line item veto proposal sent up to Congress by the Administration last March. The current debate in the Senate over a substantially similar proposal appears stalled, as the Senate just failed to invoke cloture on an amendment to the Minimum Wage bill which would have added the line item veto provisions as an amendment.

My general feeling is that, regardless of who holds the White House, it is a bad idea for Congress to give up its power to appropriate to the President. This line item veto provision would allow the President to force votes to rescind appropriations in the House and the Senate, by lumping these items into packages of his choosing, thereby enabling him to exert pressure over lawmakers based on how the rescission requests are packaged. Furthermore, regardless of whether on not such a power would be good for the country structurally, there are serious Constitutional questions regarding the specifics of how a line item veto can be structured legally.
Clinton v. City of New York is the authoritative Supreme Court statement on the matter.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

UPDATE: Here and There

As is usually the case, experts in their field typically know much more than the rest of us when it comes to the details surrounding complex issues.

In this instance, I wanted to note this incredibly detailed explanation of habeas corpus and the history of this right as ensconced in the Constitution and our common law tradition, posted recently by Prof. Jack Balkin on his blog.

I won't even begin to summarize it here, except to say that it is very illuminating and it gives the requisite context which I glossed over (read: didn't know). It's a must read.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Here and There

Two fairly unrelated comments, but lest I post twice, I thought I'd try to combine them.

- First up, this exchange from yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, which I first noticed in the comments to
this post on Balkinization. You can find a full transcript of the exchange here . In fairness, I think the AG might just have been acting petulant, but still, the statement on is face is shocking. Also, the emphasis added is mine:

Specter: Now wait a minute, wait a minute. The Constitution says you can't take [habeas] away except in the case of invasion or rebellion. Doesn't that mean you have the right of habeas corpus?

Gonzales: I meant by that comment that the Constitution doesn't say that every individual in the United States or every citizen has or is assured the right of habeas corpus. It doesn't say that. It simply says that the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended.

Is that chilling or what? The Attorney General of the United States is not convinced that the Constitution guarantees the right of habeas corpus to every American citizen. I realize some might quibble with me that he said the Constitution doesn't explicitly say that, and that he might personally think that all citizens unequivocally do have that right, but to me, the fact that he would even hint that there is any ambiguity on this point is shocking.

This is particularly disturbing when read in conjunction with the
MCA , an act which some legal experts (look here, here, and here) have read to allow the President to designate American citizens as unlawful enemy combatants, and thereby deny them any habeas rights. While that provision would likely be interpreted as unconstitutional, it's disturbing enough on its face that the Administration sought such a provision to be included in the act in the first place. When you couple that with a statement like the one AG Gonzales made yesterday......well, the above notwithstanding, I'm pretty much speechless...

- Interesting bit number 2: this
editorial by Charles Krauthammer. In it, he lays out what I think is an intriguing case for a "Plan B" in Iraq which would involve essentially withdrawing American troops to the safe parts of Iraq and forcing the Iraqi government to deal with the mess in Baghdad and Anbar on their own, should they refuse to engage on President Bush's newly-minted "Plan A".

If you think that withdrawal from the country might be harmful to our national interest (I'm personally on the fence about this), Krauthammer's Plan B might be a very effective way to motivate the Iraqis without completely relinquishing our ability to protect out interests (assuming, of course, that our physical presence affords us such an ability in the first instance). There has been some suggestion in pieces like
this one that some senior military officials think given the current plan, the Shiite militias will just lay low for a few months, while the US force is increased, and leave us with no one to fight but the Sunnis. Then later, once we reduce our force, the militias can return unfettered. This would allow them to protect their monetary and political gains without giving up too much.

This Plan B would make the militias do the heavy lifting. Of course, a major objection to this idea should be that it essentially makes us complicit in what is likely to be, at best, major sectarian strife, and in the worst case, full-scale sectarian cleansing. We would be all the while on the sidelines, just waiting to move back in and put the pieces back together. After all we've done to turn Iraq upside-down, this seems a little like throwing salt in the wound, but it might be better, both morally and strategically, than pulling out altogether.