Archive for the ‘US Politics’ Category

Carbon tax

Sunday, 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.



A few thoughts on foreign policy

Thursday, 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

Monday, 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

Sunday, 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.



so, what do we do?

Tuesday, 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

Monday, 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.

What does society look like in 2030?

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

I’ve just been reading a paper that sketches out four possible scenarios for “vulnerability” in 2030. It was written by something called the Institute for Alternative Futures for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and lays out a most likely scenario, a gloom and doom option, and two possible brighter futures (one of which we get to by having a catastrophe that allows for non-incremental improvements).

I’m somewhat chagrined that I think their baseline scenario is overly optimistic, especially with regard to education.  The gloom and doom scenario requires everything to go wrong — a double-dip recession, peak oil,  global climate disruption.  I think the odds of all of these happening in the next 20 years is very low — but it seems quite possible that one — or something not even on our list — could happen.

If you have the time to take a look at the report, I’d love some other reactions.  (There’s also a formal way to comment to the folks who wrote it.)

the email I just sent to Gerry Connolly

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Dear Rep Connolly

I am writing to express my deep concern about news reports that suggest that you are considering supporting extensions of the Bush tax cuts for the richest 1 percent of Americans.

In the long term, we can not continue to run large budget deficits.  Therefore, a vote to extend these tax cuts is a vote to cut spending on education, on roads, on health care, on job training.  It is a vote to take away money from child care and from senior centers.  It is a vote to accept the increasing inequality of opportunity in our society and to surrender the hope that government can make things better.

I know, some of your constituents are fortunate to make more than $250,000 a year.  But they benefit from a healthy society, and can afford to contribute.  Our economy grew very well during the 1990s when tax rates were at the levels that they would return to.

Please give me a reason to vote for you next month.


I sent the same letter (w/o the last sentence) to Warner and Webb.


I am really f-ing depressed tonight.   And I don’t see it getting better soon.

Update:  I meant to link to this  Center for American Progress report on what a budget balanced through spending cuts alone would look like.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Friday, August 6th, 2010

I’ve spent much of this week at work banging my head against the wall that of all the offsets Congress could have found to use to pay for state fiscal relief (FMAP) and education jobs, the one they chose to use was a cut in Food Stamps (SNAP).  And then the Senate decided to cut Food Stamps some more to pay for child nutrition programs.

I get that inflation has been lower than predicted, and so the Food Stamp increase in the recovery act is lasting longer than expected. But, as Dave Obey said, that would have just meant that “some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change.”  (And kudos to @AnnieLowrey for following the story from the start.)

At least with the FMAP/EduJobs bill, I can make the macroeconomic argument that it makes sense to spend more money today, prevent huge layoffs in the states and local governments, and cut spending in 2014.  (If the economy is this bad still 4 years from now, we’re going to have much bigger problems.)  But in the child nutrition bill, the increases would actually come AFTER the cuts.

Matthew Yglesias wrote about the child nutrition bill s today and noted that it really is robbing Peter to pay Paul — taking from dinners to pay for lunches, and from the summer to pay for the school year.  I wanted to highlight one of his commenter’s responses, since it’s rare to hear from people who are directly affected.  JRoth wrote:

I’ve been on SNAP benefits for over a year (family of 4, household income in ‘08 and ‘09 around $20k), and I can tell you that the margin between the old benefits ceiling (somewhere around $500) and the new (well over $600) makes a huge difference in my family’s grocery budget. With the former, I can just about squeeze the entire month’s food into the SNAP budget – a couple months we had to go the last 2-3 days on leftovers and cobbling together whatever was in the freezer. Under the new benefits, I can buy my kids fresh fruit without stressing over the difference between a $2 pint of blueberries and a $2.50 pint.

Point being, insofar as the public health goal of SNAP is enabling more healthful family eating, an extra $25/person/month goes a long way in obviating the (perceived) need to buy the high calorie/low nutrition food products that are implicated in low income obesity.

As for school lunches, the current budget is laughably small (under $2/child/lunch, iirc), and so any improvement in that number will represent an improvement. But school lunches remain a nutritional wasteland, even in places where there’s an awareness (my kid’s school offers whole grain in most meals and healthful-seeming dishes, but the reality is A. they still taste gross and B. the backup options are unconscionable things like Uncrustables.

That sounds right to me.  I was shocked and slightly horrified to read last month that Fairfax schools were selected best in the country for nutritious school lunches.  My kids eat the school lunch about once a week (N thinks it’s a huge treat, and would have it every day if we let him; D only wants to do it on the days that they have grilled cheese or breakfast for lunch.)  If that’s the best, I can’t begin to imagine what the worst looks like.

mental accounting

Monday, June 21st, 2010

I finally had a chance to listen to the Planet Money podcast from last month about payday loans.  Overall, it mostly covered familiar territory, but I was intrigued by the research suggesting that rate ceilings tend to act as “anchors” for interest rates, and wind up as floors.

I was also struck by one element of the story of the man who kept on coming back to take out high-interest loan after high-interest loan, in order to support his gambling habit.  In passing, they noted that he owned his house free and clear.  I think the implication was that he was making a mistake taking out payday loans, when he could have taken out a much cheaper mortgage.  Alternatively, I could tell a story that he had figured out a mental accounting scheme that let him keep gambling relatively small amounts, without risking losing his house.  The payday loans may not have been as irrational a choice as all that.

In perhaps related news, Jim McDermott and Barney Frank have introduced bills that would legalize — and tax — internet gambling.   In general, I’m vaguely supportive, mostly because I think it’s pretty much impossible to stop people from gambling on the internet anyway.  I like some of the causes that the money is supposed to support — although I’m also very aware that in most of the states where lottery sales are supposed to support education, they just supplant money the state would have spent from general revenues otherwise, with no net increase in spending.