Archive for the ‘ news commentary ’ Category

Immigration reform and amnesty

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has a column out today about how he wants immigration reform to play out. Through all the immigration debate, conservatives have been carping about not wanting to allow “amnesty” for undocumented migrants, even though the requirements to gain citizenship will likely be quite strict. Krauthammer lays out his case for why this is indeed “amnesty.”

It is true that only after some commission deems the border under control do illegal immigrants become eligible for green cards and, ultimately, citizenship. But this is misleading because on the day the president signs the reform — long before enforcement even begins — the 11 million are immediately subject to instant legalization.

It is cleverly called “probationary” legal status. But the adjective is meaningless. It grants the right to live and work here openly. Once granted, it will never be revoked. Consider:

Imagine that the border-control commission reports at some point that the border is not yet secure. Do you think for a moment that the 11 million will have their “probationary” legalization revoked? These are people who, in good faith, would have come out of the shadows, registered with the feds and disclosed their domicile and place of work. Do you think the authorities will have them fired, arrested and deported?

To which I say: yes Charles, that’s the point. The proposed bill framework is meant to give a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented migrants currently living in the US. Its purpose is not to give a pathway to citizenship to the people who are able to remain hidden between now and 2020 when a panel half-full of Republicans finally certifies that the border is “secure” in their estimation.

Everyone agrees that having 11 million people living and working in the US in a state of legal limbo is not a good situation. It would make no sense to pass a bill that prolongs this untenable situation for years and years for no good reason.

The border is now more secure than its ever been, thanks to President Obama’s strict border-enforcement policies. Deportations are at record highs and the number of undocumented immigrants has even dropped by a million since 2007 and is unlikely to ever resume the pace set in the 2000s or even significantly grow again. How much more border security progress do these people need?

Moreover, while on “probationary legal status” immigrants will still have to show good behavior and remain ineligible for many government programs, such as Medicaid.

Bringing these people out of the shadows is the right thing to do and America shouldn’t have to wait for a commission full of Jan Brewers or Joe Arpaios to say we can. The purpose of comprehensive immigration reform is to solve this problem, not to put it off even longer.

Republicans attempt to rig the next election

After two large back-to-back Presidential losses, Republicans have started looking around to try to find ways to put one of their own in the White House in four years. One way of doing this would be to try to adopt more moderate and popular positions that appeal to America’s median voter. But that would mean…becoming more sensible and moderate, so the GOP isn’t interested. Instead, many plan to go with option two: trying to rig the next election so that even if America doesn’t vote for Marco Rubio in 2016, it won’t matter and he will win anyway.

Reince Priebus

Reince Priebus, Chairman of the RNC

 

They will do this by messing with our arcane Electoral College system in selective states. Right now, the candidate who wins a majority of the votes in Pennsylvania wins all of PA’s 20 electoral votes. Get 270 electoral votes  and you win the Presidency. Yes, this system is weird and cooky and it would be much easier to just give the Presidency to the person who gets the most votes across the country. But Republicans aren’t trying to fix this quirk. They’re trying to make it worse.

 

Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee has just endorsed a scheme that would instead award an electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district in only Democratic states. This ploy would still ensure that the Republican nominee got all 38 of Texas’ electoral votes, but would only give a Democrat 7 of 16 electoral votes in Michigan, even if they win the state handily, as Obama did this last time. That’s right. Republicans could lose Michigan by 10 points and STILL get a majority (9) of the state’s electoral votes under this vote-stealing technique.

Crucially, Republicans are only proposing to do this in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Ohio and Florida. These are states that Obama won last year but that also have Republicans controlling their state governments. If this proposed system had been in place in 2012, Obama could have lost the Presidency even as he won the national popular vote by 4 points.

Republicans can do this because of the big wins they scored in the all-important 2010 mid-term elections. This win (their only winning cycle since 2004) gave them control of the state governments in most swing states. Crucially, this let them re-draw congressional districts in their states so there are no longer more than a handful of competitive congressional elections in our most closely divided states. And now that Republicans have decided that Pennsylvania, a blue state, will always have 5 Democratic and 13 Republican representatives, they want to make sure that no matter how the people vote, their votes always count for the Republican!

These proposed changes are, quite literally, the greatest threats to democracy in America. These proposals have no redeeming qualities. They are simply to make sure Republicans have a huge advantage when electing the next President.

Yes, Republicans are to blame for the polarization in Congress

Of course since I’m a Democrat I’d think this, right? But hear me out, there is very good evidence showing that Republicans have become radically conservative over the past few decades. Democrats, on the other hand, have remained a centrist party and in many ways also have gotten more conservative. Our current problems with political polarization are almost entirely to blame on a Republican Party that has marched steadily to the right for over three decades. Additionally, anyone who says “both sides have become extreme lately” is clearly wrong.

A new study by two political scientists provides a good visualization of this trend:

Starting roughly in 1976, Republicans started becoming an unprecedentedly conservative party. In good years the GOP becomes more conservative, in bad years it becomes more conservative, without fail. Contrast that to the Democratic Party, which was about the same distance from the political center in the mid 60s as they were in 2009-2011. (Unlike with Republicans, electoral victories tend to move Democrats closer to center, while those representatives left after electoral defeats lend to be more liberal)

This is a nice graph of this trend, but more importantly, here are concrete examples of this phenomenon.

Health Care

The health care plan passed by Democrats in 2010 was much more conservative than the one proposed by Clinton in the early 1990s or any of other earlier Democratic plans. In fact, Obama’s plan was first proposed by Republicans in response to Clinton’s plan and first enacted into law by Republican Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Today, Republicans say that same health care plan represents the death of liberty in America. Clearly on this issue, Republicans have moved to the right to oppose a plan they once favored and Democrats have moved right by passing a plan that Republicans once favored.

The Environment

You may remember that it was Republican Richard Nixon who first created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Today, it is the Republicans who are talking about repealing the EPA or putting coal and oil executives in charge of the agency. This is clearly a major rightward turn for the party.

In the debate over man-made climate change, Republicans have gone from proposing solutions to the problem to denying that it even exists. A cap-and-trade solution to limiting carbon emissions was (you guessed it) originally a Republican idea. The 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain even went around the country advertising cap-and-trade as his solution to climate change. In 2009-2010 Democrats moved and adopted cap-and-trade instead of their old idea of a carbon tax. Predictably, Republicans now say cap-and-trade is the greatest job-destroyer in America. On this issue (again) both parties have moved right.

Taxes

It used to be, taxes were just the way we paid for the things we wanted government to do. Democrats and Republicans went back and forth over how taxes should be structured and over their levels sometimes, but no party has ever denounced taxes as a moral evil and as antithetical to American values the way the current Republican Party is. Every Republican president up until Bush Sr. raised taxes at some point in his Presidency (to my knowledge). Now to do so would be blasphemy.

Democrats have also moved to the right on the issue of taxes.  Democrats raised taxes under Clinton before Bush Jr. lowered them in 2001  and 2003. Now Democrats don’t even want to raise all of our taxes rates to the place they were under Clinton, they only want to raise taxes on those making more than $200,000/year. On this issue as well, both parties have moved far to the right. Republicans now see taxes as the devil and Democrats refuse to raise taxes on 98% of the population!

Immigration

In the 2000s, some Republicans favored compassionate and fair immigration reform. Now, you’d be hard pressed for a Republican spouting anything less than “round ’em all up,, shove  ’em in jail and post automatic machine guns to mow down anyone trying to cross the border.” Republicans are even against giving citizenship to children who were brought to the US as children have lived here almost their entire lives and agree to go to college or serve in the US military (a bill called the DREAM Act).

Under former President Bush, many Republicans favored an even looser version of the DREAM Act. This version would have only required prospective DREAMers to graduate high school and did not include many other provisions restricting access to this benefit. Democrats still favor the DREAM Act, but Republican support for it has all but disappeared.

Conclusion

Looking only at issues overlooks procedural ways the Republicans have increased polarization, such as how they now filibuster every small issue that gets brought up in the Senate, where before only major issues were seen as deserving of a filibuster.

As should be obvious, Republicans have moved sharply to the right over the past couple decades. I cannot think of any issue where  the Democrats have similarly moved to the left (except on gay rights, I suppose). As studies show and party rhetoric confirms, Republicans are mostly responsible for the polarization and dysfunction in our government today. The solution to these problems involves finding someway to change the Republican Party.

How Republicans have already won on Health Care Reform

The US Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week (principally) over whether the “individual mandate” in President Obama’s signature health care reform bill is constitutional. This issue is dominating political news coverage this week, just as the issue of the individual mandate has dominated coverage of the Affordable Care Act since Obama signed it into law. This is why Republicans have already won the messaging war on health care reform.

Unfortunately, when most people hear the words “health care reform,” “Obamacare” or “Affordable Care Act” they immediately think of the individual mandate, which (starting in 2014) will put a tax penalty on people who have not signed up for health insurance. It is a tragedy (though not an unpredictable one) that this one small part of the bill has become its best-known feature. The bill does so many good things for people in America, but the continuous media coverage of the court challenges have made sure that the individual mandate is the one thing people associate first with Obamacare. In politics, name association and messaging are everything and the strong popular connection between “health care reform” and “individual mandate” is probably the main reason why health reform remains unpopular.

This is extremely ironic because the individual mandate was originally a conservative idea, advocated by Republicans as an alternative for Pres. Clinton’s proposed health care reforms. Obama didn’t like it when he ran for President, and liberals have never liked it. Conservatives (predictably) turned against it when Democrats included it in their health reform package. And the only reason it made it into the Democrats’ bill was because of a desire to make the bill more appealing to Republicans and centrists. But alas, the mandate is now integral to giving people the good parts included in health reform. I could go on for 10 posts about this but here are some of the good parts:

  • Over 30 million people will be given access to health insurance. Anyone without money to buy insurance will be given a government voucher or will be added to expanded Medicaid rolls.
  • People can no longer be denied coverage because of “pre-existing conditions” or whatever other reasons insurance companies can come up with to deny health coverage.
  • The plan will save tens of thousands of lives every year.
  • The plan will reduce the deficit by over $100 billion in its first 10 years.
  • The plan also starts experiments in payment reforms which could hold the key to bringing down our skyrocketing medical costs.

Imagine if any of these major parts of the bill were what was dominating the news coverage around Obamacare. The individual mandate is a provision that will affect very few people in America but is given out-sized significance. Its too bad, because if people knew the Act contained all these beneficial and popular provisions, our health care debate would be very different. Instead of focusing on the most unpopular part of the Act, we could all be talking about how the US is joining the rest of the world in offering health care to all of its citizens. And that, my friends, is why Republicans have already won the messaging war over Obamacare.

Romney responds to Obama’s Kansas speech

Readers might recall that one of my favorite writers is a man named Jonathan Chait,  who now writes for New York Magazine. Today he made an excellent post on Romney’s rebuttal to Obama’s economic speech in Kansas earlier this week. In that speech, Obama decried the growing wealth inequality in America and called for more of a “fair deal” for the nation’s middle class. Obama also tore down Republicans’ supply-side economics saying that plastering the rich with money only helps, well, the rich. Mitt Romney, Obama’s likely GOP opponent next year, responded with the typical Republican boilerplate of calling anything he doesn’t like “communism,” and “redistribution of wealth.” Chait says:

In a speech today (excerpts of which have already been released by his campaign), Mitt Romney accuses President Obama of trying to create complete economic equality:

“President Obama is replacing our merit-based, opportunity-based society with an entitlement society,” Romney is expected to say. “In an entitlement society, everyone is handed the same rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to others. And the only people to enjoy truly disproportionate rewards are the people who do the redistributing — the government.”

Really? Obama’s plan is for everybody in society to have the same rewards? So, under Obama’s plan, I get to have the same stuff that Mitt Romney has?

This accusation is approximately as accurate as claiming that the Republican party wants to pass laws forbidding poor people from making more money. Yet this absurd claim is so common nobody even thinks to challenge it anymore….

Obviously, not even the most left-wing Democrat proposes anything of the sort. The actual Democratic platform is to impose a slightly more progressive tax code, close to what prevailed under the Clinton administration, and to finance some basic public provisions while doing very little to stop rampant rise in income inequality. The right’s inability to argue against that actual program, continuing instead to pretend that they’re arguing against a world in which nobody can have more money than anybody else, is deeply revealing of its lack of confidence in its own argument.

That last sentence is what  I really liked about Chait’s article. If Obama’s and Democrats’ plans are so bad, then why don’t we ever hear any intelligent discussion about why the rich cannot possibly afford to pay more money in taxes than they do now? Instead we always get an earful about how Democrats want to make the US into a communist utopia. Give me a break.

Republicans and being “pro-life”

I tend to stay away from the so-called “moral issues” on this blog as much as I can.  But allow me a note on the enthusiasm for death that the GOP is currently displaying. Ask any Republican and they will tell you that theirs is the party of “life.” Recent displays at the past two Republican Presidential debates should assure us that this is definitely not the case.

In the first debate this month, the subject of Texas and the death penalty came up. At the mere mention that Texas executes more people than any country this side of China, the crowd rose up in applause. Applause? At the mere mention of the death penalty? Are we in the ancient Roman Colosseum? Does this crowd value life or doesn’t it? Don’t they know innocent people can be killed by the death penalty? (Here’s one guy I bet conservatives wish hadn’t gotten the death penalty)

Now, in theory the death penalty may be an OK idea, but in practice its a boondoggle. For one, you can get sentenced to death simply because you are black (no joke). For another, the death penalty costs much more than just sentencing a man to life in prison. So we know its not fiscal conservatism that leads to people liking the death penalty.

Maybe conservatives just have faith in their infallible government to always do what is right? I mean, the courts are part of the government. (That was sarcasm) I honestly do not understand this blood lust from a “pro-life” crowd.

Jacob Weisberg explains what happened at the second debate this month, in a question to Rep. Ron Paul:

What should happen, the moderator asked hypothetically, if a healthy 30-year-old man who can afford insurance chooses not to buy it—and then becomes catastrophically ill and needs intensive care for six months? When Dr. Paul ducked, fondly recalling the good old days before Medicare and saying that we should all take responsibility for ourselves, Blitzer pressed the point. “But, Congressman, are you saying the society should just let him die?” At that point,the rabble erupted in cheers and whoops of “Yeah!”

Again, this was a Tea Party debate with an assumedly a very pro-life crowd. “Let him die” is their new health care plan. Everyone better make sure they have their insurance card on them at all times. If you pass out in the middle of the street, the Tea Party ambulance isn’t going to take you to the hospital without it. Is that the kind of society we want to live in? One where  necessary medical care is denied to those who need it because they can’t pay? Morally it makes no sense. Even economically it would be stupid to have a society like that.

The thing that these examples prove above all else is that we need to stop calling people who are anti-abortion “pro-life.” If you asked the “let him die” crowd or the “yay death penalty” crowd, they would tell you that they are “pro-life.” Those people obviously aren’t. They are anti-abortion and pro-death if you mess up after you are born. I guess that’s fine if you feel that way, just don’t use a misnomer to classify yourself as something you’re not.

Obama, regulations and the economy

Republicans have been hammering President Obama over “regulations” lately, saying that they have been hurting the economy and are partially responsible for our slow growth. Its a fairly powerful claim. The Obama administration has gotten a reputation as a prolific regulator since their health care reform and financial reform bills  passed, so this claim seems to stick. But this accusation is also extremely vague. What regulations have been hurting the economy? How? Are there more regulations than usual? How does this compare to other countries? Are there other beneficial effects of the regulations passed?

In short, simply making the claim that “regulatory burdens are hindering job growth” leaves a lot of  information out of the picture.

Obama recently has been fighting the Republican-derived moniker of “regulator-in-chief.” Earlier this year, he ordered a government-wide review of all regulations on the books. As a result, the administration “produced reform plans from 26 agencies. A mere fraction of the initiatives described in the plans will save more than $10 billion over the next 5 years; as progress continues, we expect to be able to deliver savings far in excess of that figure.” In addition, the President just nixed a proposed regulation that would have reduced ground-level smog, because of the complaints of his critics. So, the White House has made  a concerted effort to reduce regulations on businesses.

The White House also noted this interesting tidbit: “‘the costs of final, economically significant rules reviewed by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs were actually higher in 2007 and 2008 than in the first 2 years of my Administration.’ He also argued that in 2009 and 2010, the benefits of those rules ‘exceeded the costs by tens of billions of dollars.'” There were  more costly regulations coming out of the Bush White House than out of the Obama White House? How can anyone complain about Obama’s regulations when they have been no more taxing than those under his regulation-averse predecessor?

Now for the international picture. Is the business environment in the US making us less competitive in the global economy? The answer would appear to be no. Conservative stalwarts The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation put together a list every year called the “index on Economic Freedom. This year’s Index (scaled to 100) puts “business freedom” in the US at a 91 (the world average was 64). This ranks the US ahead of comparable countries like France and Germany and light-years ahead of the  Brazilians and Chinese on that measure. The US also had an almost perfect “labor freedom” score of 95.7. These good scores  indicate that, in the big picture, regulations are a very small burden on US companies. Even using conservative measurements, regulations are not making the US significantly less competitive in the world economy.

Its  also important to note that the Obama administration is only currently considering six proposed regulations that would have an impact of $1 billion or more. A billion is a lot of money, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of a $14 trillion economy.

This debate is especially important  now as Obama is  about to make a huge speech outlining ways to improve the economy and put people back to work. His speech will likely advocate spending money on programs that boost consumption and put people to work repairing our crumbling infrastructure. Doing this would be an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. But Republicans will likely counter that cutting spending and de-regulating are the best ways to employ people. They are wrong  on spending while the Obama administration is already aggressively targeting costly regulations. Not that it matters much anyway, because regulations just don’t have very much effect on the economy. “Getting rid of regulations” makes a great tag-line, but it just won’t lead to that many more people getting jobs (though it may harm public health).