Carbon tax

January 6th, 2013

Can someone explain to me why the folks who are organizing around climate change (like  are so focused on getting colleges to divest from energy companies and aren’t pushing for a carbon tax?  Over vacation, I finally read Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article in which he goes through the math of climate change (bottom line: we’re in deep trouble), and was mostly convinced that the changes we’re making now are just not going to have enough impact fast enough to really make the difference.  But I don’t see divestment moving the needle any faster.

And I do think that right now, there’s a strong case to be made that we should be looking to a carbon tax (with appropriate provisions to assist lower-income households, who would otherwise be badly affected) as solution that simultaneously address climate issues and the deficit.  President Obama is clear that he thinks that revenues need to still be on the table in the next round of deficit negotiations — the basic argument is that the Budget Control Act in 2011 was spending cuts only, the fiscal cliff deal was revenue only, and the next round should be both.  But he seems to agree that the rates, at least for personal income taxes, are not going to move further.  The White House fact sheet on the deal says “The agreement leaves substantial scope for reducing tax expenditures for high-income households, reforming corporate taxes to broaden the base and cut the rate to make America more competitive, and to take further steps to reform entitlements.”  I’m just really skeptical that he’s going to identify enough tax expenditures to cut to get to where we need to be on revenues — the charitable deduction, the mortgage interest deduction and the exclusion of health insurance coverage from income all seem to be pretty much politically untouchable.  Rather than banging our heads against that wall, it seems to be time to pivot and suggest a completely different approach — a carbon tax.  (Of course, the Republicans don’t want to allow any more revenue, but that’s another story.)

But given the well financed, well organized opposition to a carbon tax, it’s never going to happen unless there’s an organized effort to support it.  And the folks who are trying to create a mass movement around climate change don’t seem to be pushing for it at all.  I really don’t get it.  If you have an explanation, I’d love to hear it.



2012 books

November 30th, 2012

At the NY Times’ motherlode blog, KJ Dell’Antonia has a post in which she admits that she has read none of the NY Times 100 Notable Books of 2012.  I had to laugh, because for a while I had a regular annual post on this blog, where I wrote about which of the Notable Books of the year I had read.

Somewhat to my shock, I have read 10 of the books from the list this year, the most in any year where I’ve been tracking it:

  • Bring Up the Bodies, by Hillary Mantel — this is the second in her series about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII.  It’s a quicker read than Wolf Hall, and I liked it a lot.
  • NW, by Zadie Smith — had to push to get through this one, given the combination of the stylistic experimentation and the British slang that I didn’t know.  Can’t say I felt it was worth the effort.
  • This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz.  I loved Oscar Wao, but these short stories didn’t work for me.
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander.  A very mixed bag of short stories.  A few of them are totally haunting and others were just eh.
  • The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers.  Overwritten, but still compelling.  I’m glad I read it, but mostly because I enjoyed talking about it with my dad.  His take is that it could have done with one less round of revision.
  • Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel.  Not nearly as good as Fun Home.  I’m just not that interested in therapy.
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo.  Stunning and heartbreaking.  Shattering.
  • Coming Apart, by Charles Murray.  I made a point to take this out of the library because I didn’t want Murray to get my money, but was surprised to find how much of this I agreed with.  In particular, I think his geographical analysis explains why people who make $250,000 a year don’t think they’re rich — everyone around them makes just as much or more.
  • How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough.  A quick read.  I’ve heard a lot of the pieces before, but it was interesting how he put them together.  The contrast between how different schools think about “character” was striking, and made me think about my own parenting values.  I’d love to read Murray’s response to the story of the middle school kid who is ranked as a chess master, but got terrible scores on standardized tests– how do you fit that into an pure IQ framework?
  • The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro.  This took me most of the spring and summer to get through, but was worth it.  A very different take on RFK than I’m used to hearing.  I still need someone to explain to me why at this time, the Dems wanted to cut taxes and the Republicans didn’t, and when this changed.

I also started Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon, but couldn’t get into it.  I seem to either love his books or find them unreadable.

All of these, except for the Caro, I got from the library.  I got the Caro on my kindle, because there was no way I was ever going to read it if it involved carrying a 700 page book around.  I did manage to destroy my kindle while on vacation (it fell out of its case and something broke), but Amazon gave me a nice discount on a replacement.




A few thoughts on foreign policy

September 13th, 2012

Foreign policy has suddenly become part of the political discussion again, and I wanted to spend a few minutes mulling over the Obama administration’s foreign policy.   There’s not a clear “Obama doctrine” — but Romney has also been pretty vague about what exactly he would have done differently, other than suck up to Netanyahu more..

In a lot of ways, it’s easier to describe what the Obama foreign policy has NOT been:

  • It’s not isolationist.  To the frustration of some of the peace-left movement, as well as the Ron Paul fans, there has not been a significant withdrawal from military involvement overseas.
  • It’s not the “America as the sheriff of the world”  aggressive interventions of the Bush era.
  • But in the places where we have taken action (Afghanistan, Pakistan, to some extent Libya), it has not been as deferential to local governments and the international community as might have been expected based on some of the things that candidate Obama said

I liked Kevin Drum’s piece today, about David Frum’s criticism of Obama for being too soft on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

He writes:

Conservatives too often assume that American power can accomplish anything we set our minds to. But it’s not so. Sometimes there just aren’t any good options, and the best path forward is to ride out the storm and refrain from doing anything foolish. It’s not very satisfying at a gut level, but nine times out of ten it’s the best you can do.

Frum may disagree, but if he does I’d sure like to hear his side of the argument. What exactly is the more tough-minded policy that he thinks would have produced a better result?

If Romney has made a coherent argument for what he’d have done differently. I haven’t heard it.  Here’s what his website says about the Middle East.  If anyone reading this can explain to me how what he says he would do about the Arab Spring  countries or Syria is substantively different from what Obama is doing, I’d love to read it.

And here’ s the page on Afghanistan and Pakistan: “Mitt Romney will work with both the Afghan government and Pakistan to ensure that those nations are fully contributing to success in Afghanistan”  Um, how?  That’s a goal, not a strategy.




My review of the Obama Adminstration

September 3rd, 2012

This is the second in a series of posts about the election inspired by a facebook conversation.

When Obama was elected I said that if he got us out of Iraq, passed a universal health care bill, and turned the economy around, I’d consider the presidency wildly successful, even if he didn’t accomplish anything else.  So, let’s start with these three issues:

1)      Got us out of Iraq.  Done.  I’m not going to say that Iraq is a peaceful democracy, but it didn’t completely implode the moment we pulled out, which is frankly better than I expected.  Bonus credit for getting bin Laden.

2)      Passed a universal health care bill.  Done.  It’s far from perfect and sure not the bill I would have hoped to have seen, but it’s still a BFD, as Biden said.  It’s a Rube Goldberg contraption of a bill, and made even more convoluted by many states’ resistance to implementing it, by the Supreme Court decision that the Medicaid expansion is optional, and by the way that employer-provided family coverage is being treated, but it’s still a huge step forward.  It’s already made a difference in millions of lives — particularly people with serious illnesses who are no longer subject to lifetime limits, but also young adults who are able to stay on their parents’ plans — and will make a difference to millions more come 2014.

3)      Turned the economy around.  Well, you could technically say that the economy is “turned around” because the situation is no longer getting worse, but I don’t think there’s anyone who disputes that the economy is far worse than we’d like it to be, and is not getting better fast enough.   That said, I am completely convinced that the economy is far better than it would have been absent the stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), and it would have been even better if the Republicans in the House hadn’t blocked additional stimulus at the point that it became clear that the recession was far deeper than anyone had realized in February 2009.

There are plenty of people who say that the President is the “captain of the ship” and that he or she gets credit or blame for whatever happens.  This is basically the core of Romney’s economic message, and the econometric models suggest that the economic situation often tips elections.  I think the President (and Governors) have relatively little power over the economy, so I don’t subscribe to this approach, but if you apply it fairly across parties, and say that you never vote to reelect a President when the economy is bad, I don’t think I can argue with you.

For me, the more interesting question is what could Obama really have done differently, given the economic conditions he inherited and the political situation, that would have made a difference in the economy?  I think there are three possible answers, and I’m not sure if any of them are really compelling:

  • There’s a progressive argument that Obama should have pushed harder and earlier for a big second stimulus, in particular one that involved direct job creation in public sector jobs.   The Administration was very reluctant to go that route, in part for political reasons, in part because they were anxious that the majority of the spending on the stimulus bill should have dual payoffs — both in immediate job creation and in long-term shaping of the economy. That’s why they put so much money into things like solar energy and health care information technology.  A lot of these took a long time to get going, and the payoff wasn’t visible even when the spending started.  I think there’s at least a possibility that if the President had pushed for direct job creation, it would have gotten public support.
  •  I’m not an expert on housing policy — I feel like I need a t-shirt that says “everything I know about the housing collapse, I learned from Planet Money” — but there seems to me to be a reasonable argument that the Administration could have done something more effective to respond to the housing market collapse, and the failure to do so has been a drag on the economy (see articles from the Washington Post and the NY Times for more detail).

So, I don’t think the Obama has been a perfect president, and I think he looks particularly bad in comparison to the overinflated expectations created by the Hope and Change rhetoric from the last campaign.  But I think he’s been a pretty good one, and I’ll be voting FOR him in November, not just against Romney and Ryan.


the welfare waiver controversy

September 2nd, 2012

This started out as a Facebook response to some of my friends, but got long enough that I decided I should just post it here.

I’m going to write about the welfare ads that the Romney campaign has been running ads about, and particularly the claim that “Obama gutted the work requirements.”   Let me start by noting that I’ve spent the past 16 years of my life working on TANF and related programs, 10 years as a civil service (non-political) employee of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, and the past 6 for an advocacy organization.

Having said that, let me add the disclaimer that I’m writing this as an individual, not representing my organization.  If you want to read what I wrote about the waivers in my work capacity, it’s at:

I’m writing this on my own time, on my own computer, on my own blog.  And while I know many of the people at HHS (both career employees and political appointees) who work on this issue, I did not know of the policy before it was announced to the public, and I haven’t had conversations with them about their motivations since.

So, what did the Administration do that Romney is claiming “gutted” welfare?  They issued a memorandum to states, which you can read for yourself,  “to notify states of the Secretary’s willingness to exercise her waiver authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”

There are two different questions which are both in play: a) does the Administration have the legal authority to grant waivers of the work participation rates under TANF? and b) is proposing to grant such waivers, “gutting” or “undoing” welfare reform?

On the first question, I think the answer is yes, but I will accept that this is a point on which rational people can reasonably disagree.*   It’s fair to say that the Clinton Administration did not think that they had the legal authority to do this, but they also had a strong political interest in being able to say to liberals “we don’t have the authority to give waivers” rather than “we choose not to” so I don’t think they looked hard for the legal arguments to support waivers.  It’s also fair to say that the Republicans in Congress who are most outraged by this have accepted similar legal stretches under R administrations.

Moving to the substantive question, the memo says  very explicitly that states can get waivers in order to test whether there are better ways to get people to work.  The current work participation rate is a truly lousy measure — all it does is look at whether someone put their behind in a seat for the required number of hours a day, not whether the program did any good at helping them get jobs.  And states spend an enormous amount of time and effort documenting these hours of participation, which is just not a good use of the limited resources (e.g. taxpayer money) available for this purpose.   It is 100% true that governors — including Mitt Romney when he was Governor of MA — have been asking for this kind of flexibility for years.

Moreover, the proposal for waivers came with a very large string attached — states who get waivers are going to have to do random assignment evaluations to see if their programs are actually working better than the status quo.  And, unlike in the pre-welfare reform waiver period, the federal government isn’t going to put up any new money to support the evaluations.  So a state that does this has to be really convinced that it’s got a better way to do things, and be willing to tested.  This is NOT the easy way out.

I sincerely think that the folks at HHS thought that they had written this memo carefully enough, with a strong enough emphasis on work, that it wouldn’t be controversial.  With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that they were wrong, but I think this was a misjudgement not a strategy.  The idea that Obama did this for political advantage is truly crazy — if the Heritage Foundation and the Romney campaign hadn’t taken this on, I don’t think there would be more than a couple of hundred people in the entire country who would have noticed that this memo was issued, and I would be shocked if it changed the vote of a single one.

But Heritage jumped on the waiver memo as soon as it was released with screaming rhetoric about undoing welfare reform.  This is their way of doing things — they made similarly outrageous claims about the Emergency Fund that was part of the Recovery Act.  I don’t think there’s ANYTHING that the Obama Administration could do on welfare that Heritage wouldn’t immediately jump on.  And I’m personally convinced that the Romney campaign picked up the Heritage rhetoric without actually reading the memo or having the foggiest idea what it was actually about.  What’s sad is that they’re not backing down in the face of widespread coverage of the falsity of the claim because it’s a political winner.   One of the most frustrating parts of this whole discussion is that it’s shown how little the public understands how much welfare has changed since 1996 — how hard it is to get benefits in most states, that there are work requirements, that there are time limits.



what’s the story behind declining male employment?

July 8th, 2012

in which I test whether anyone is still getting notified when I update this blog….

Matt Yglesias has a graph up showing the trends in the employment-population ratio for men and women over the past 50 years.   He observes “One striking thing that pops out is that the labor market for men never recovers from recessions. Each trough is followed by a new peak, but the new peak is lower than the previous peak.”  (By contrast, there’s an overall trend up for women.)

There’s at least two ways of thinking about this phenomenon.  One is that this graph shows the intersection of a two unrelated factors — cyclical variation in employment driven by the economy, and a secular decline in employment driven by something else (some combination of increases in education, lower retirement ages, the growth of incarceration, and other factors).  But what Yglesias seems to be implying is that the recessions are in fact part of the cause of the decline in labor force participation.  This is a possibility — we know that the longer that people are out of work, the lower the likelihood that they’ll ever get back to work — but then you’d have to make a case for why it would affect men differently than women.  (Or you could argue that recessions have depressed women’s labor force participation — but that the other factors promoting it have had even more of an impact that it would appear on face value.)

I just finished Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (I didn’t want to give him my money, so I had to wait to get the top of the list at the library).  This decline in male employment is one of his main indicators for the decline of American civilization.  He notes that it’s true even if you just look at white prime-age men, for whom incarceration, retirement and education are not a significant part of the story.  He attributes the decrease primarily to moral factors — the decline in “industriousness”  and the decline in marriage — rather than primarily economics, although at times he suggests that the government safety net, particularly disability benefits, is part of the story.

I do think there’s a real phenomenon going on in this prolonged recession, where older less-educated workers with health limitations, who could have kept their old jobs in a normal economy, but were laid off for economic reasons, are then finding it particularly hard to find new jobs.  And a lot of them are either taking early social security (if they’re old enough to qualify) or applying for disability benefits (which they may or may not get).  And that probably does reduce their likelihood of working in the future, even if the economy picks up.  But I think this is peculiar to this particular moment, and not enough to explain a 50 year trend.

What’s your explanation?



In memory

February 6th, 2012


It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but I needed to acknowledge the passing of Susan Niebur, otherwise known as WhyMommy.  She fought breast cancer and its metastases, hard, for nearly five years, while parenting and blogging and doing science and friending with more passion and love and fierceness than many fit into much longer lives.  I’ve written about her before, here and here, but I don’t think I had realized just how many lives she had touched until I read the love fest that her friends made for her on Facebook.  I’ve been reading people’s comments on her page and her blog and her twitter feed, and the only consolation is that she knew how beloved on the earth she was.

If you want to support breast cancer research and you’re still pissed at Komen (and I am), you might consider giving to one of these organizations:

  • Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation (IBC is what Susan had.  Short version — not all breast cancer produces lumps.  If you have a change in the skin texture, or a bruise that doesn’t go away, get it checked out.)
  • Lucy Fund for Metastatic Breast Cancer Research.  The majority of people who die of breast cancer in the US die of metastatic breast cancer.  And yet, as Susan pointed out repeatedly, only 3 percent of breast cancer research funding goes to research on metastatic cancer.  It’s worth hassling the big funders (e.g. Komen) about this, but also giving to dedicated research funds.

And go look at the moon tonight.  It’s beautiful.


A tale of two parties

March 31st, 2011

Two quotes from today:

“a senior Democratic senator” as quoted in the Hill:

Democratic lawmakers said they will be in a stronger position to offer tax increases after agreeing to between $30 billion and $61 billion in discretionary spending cuts for the rest of 2011.

“We Democrats have demonstrated that we’re willing to make these cuts; we’ve gone over halfway. Are they being so unreasonable to say we can’t raise any revenues?” said the senator.

Representative Mike Pence, as quoted in the Washington Post:

Also Thursday, several vet­eran Republicans spoke to a gathering of 200 or so tea party supporters in an event near the Capitol. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said compromising with Democrats would send a signal of weakness on what he considered the paramount issue of spending and debt.

“By picking a fight and winning this one small step towards fiscal discipline, the American people will see…that we can fight and we can win,” Pence said. He finished his speech with, “Let’s go pick a fight!”


The Democrats may or may not be winning the fight for public opinion, but the Republicans are clearly winning the policy fight.


so, what do we do?

March 29th, 2011

Someone responded to my angry post from yesterday, asking what do we do to fight back.

Here are some answers — I’d love to hear yours.

1)  Write the President.  He’s not taking this on the way many of us who worked to elect him think he should.

2) Write your Senator and Representative, even if you think they’re totally uninterested.  At least let them know that someone’s paying attention.  Give them grief if  they claim to worry about deficits but have signed an anti-tax pledge.   Email is fine, but personalized emails, not just clicking on an online petition.

3)  If you have awful Senators, or Representatives, figure out who might be running against them, and give time or money to them now, not a year from now.  If no one is running yet, look around for someone you admire, and try to get them to run.  Or run yourself.

4)  Find 10 people you know, and get them riled up too.   If you’re religious, see if your congregation has a social action or social justice ministry and get them engaged.  Be the crazy woman (or man) at the playground who risks pissing people off.

5) Go to an April 4 rally next week.  Make a big homemade sign about the issue that you’re most concerned about, and tell the people around you why.

6) Keep breathing.




in which I despair over American politics

March 28th, 2011

Today I sent an email to my colleagues in which I said that the more optimistic newspaper reports suggest that we’re heading for a government shutdown, while the more pessimistic ones suggest that the Democrats will just cave completely.

The Republicans in Congress are proposing deep cuts in core services, and the Democrats seem to be meeting them half way.   The deficit commission itself included in its core principles that we should not balance the budget on the back of the most vulnerable, and that we shouldn’t cut so quickly that we put the recovery at risk.  They suggested that we should start stabilizing spending in 2012,  and yet we’re slashing services in this year’s budget, with the year half way gone.  I’m increasingly convinced that  for a significant part of the Republican party in Congress, cutting social safety nets is a goal in itself, not a means to the end of cutting deficits. And if given the choice between cutting taxes and cutting deficits, they’ll choose cutting taxes every time. Meanwhile, the Democrats take the rhetoric about deficit cutting and shared sacrifice seriously, and go after their own base to show that they’re serious.

And it’s killing me, because it was completely predictable that this would happen in December, when they made the grand bargain to extend unemployment benefits for another year, and the Bush give aways to the rich for two more years, but didn’t pass a continuing resolution, and didn’t extend the debt ceiling.

I just finished reading Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner Take All Politics, and I am deeply depressed and scared.  I’m not entirely convinced by their economic analysis (which I’ll write more about another day), but I am totally persuaded by their tale of how big business and the financial sector have consistently blocked increased taxation  of the hyper rich and regulation.  (Not that this is a new story to me, but they do a good job of putting it in historical context.)  But the book came out last year, so they leave it pretty much as a story about how divided government and the increased use of the filibuster protects against any progressive changes through “drift”.   But what we’re seeing now is not drift, but an all out attack on the role of government.

And meanwhile, I get lots of messages on Facebook and twitter about the attack  on abortion rights and the threats to NPR, but most of my lovely middle-class progressive friends don’t seem to have noticed that there’s an all out war on the poor.  I know, that’s not quite fair, some of you have.  And I haven’t been banging the drums about it myself, because it doesn’t feel like it will make any difference.  But unless we can build a movement that Chuck Schumer is as afraid of as John Boehner is of the tea partiers, we’re going to get compromised down the river every single time.