Saturday, October 5, 2013


Congressman Steve Cohen appeared on msnbc this morning to promote a cause that I strongly believe in... a check on the power of Congress to draw its own districting lines.  One only needs to look at the results from the 2012 congressional elections to reach a head scratching conclusion:  State legislatures have drawn the lines in a way that predetermines the outcomes of elections.  Republicans hold 55% of the seats in the house of representatives, while gaining only 46% of the vote.  That is not to say the Democratic state legislatures aren't doing the exact same thing.  

At some point, Americans have to come together and decide what is good for democracy should triumph what is good for your own political party.  Gerrymandering is a proxy for the slide of our society into a defacto dictatorship.  Voters in California rose up to strip the powers of redistricting from the legislature, and more states should be following their lead.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Continuing Resolution to spend

The United States government has shut its doors.  Congress has been unable to reach an agreement to continue spending...  this time, the Republican house has put at stake a one year delay in the Affordable Healthcare Act.  The problem is, Republicans have aimed at the wrong target.  This politically motivated attack trying to undermine an increasingly unpopular law with the only leverage they seem to have left does little to address independents concerns about the growing debt burden.  What they should be leveraging against is spending targets, demanding spending reductions in a continuing resolution.

Passing a continuing resolution as currently formulated really means let the government grow at its own pace, unchecked by congress.  For many fiscally liberal congressmen, this isn't a bad proposition.  Many on the left believe that the government should be taking advantage of low interest rates to borrow and spend more... increasing the deficit and debt, but perhaps providing temporary relief to the American workforce in the form of new jobs and social programs.  To them, the "status quo" of a continuing resolution looks like an easy win.

The reality is that our nation is drowning in a debt that neither us, nor our children, will ever emerge from.  If house republicans really wanted to make a difference, they would do it by insisting that each piece of the budget was passed one part at a time.  Funding the most important programs would come first... things that everybody agrees are important.  Funding for programs of controversy that can't gain majority support are clear targets for reduction in spending.  If a compromise can't be achieved in those agencies, well then maybe for them, a government shutdown is an appropriate step.

The current shutdown is theatrics only.  Both Republicans and Democrats are equally responsible for shirking the key responsibilities of our generation... and that is simply coming together to find a way to live within our means.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Your Tax Receipt

I find it fascinating how people will argue their ideologies about federal budgeting without actually considering the details of how exactly their tax money is actually spent.  Republicans will say "spend less", without considering where their spending is going, and how that may personally impact them.  Democrats will say "spend more", as if our bank accounts are a bottomless pit to be drawn from.  What are your personal priorities within the federal government?

How much do you think is your personal fair share for:

  • social security
  • medicare
  • national defense
  • health care
  • job and family security
  • education and job training
  • veterans benefits
  • natural resources, energy, and the environment
  • international affairs
  • science, space, and technology programs
  • immigration, law enforcement, and the administration of justice
  • agriculture
  • community, area, and regional development
  • All additional Government programs
  • Net interest on the debt

I'd encourage you to think of a number you feel is appropriate for each of these areas.  Then I'd like you to head over to the government's Taxpayer Receipt website, and enter your tax information in.  Where were you over-predicting your contributions?  Where were you under-predicting your contributions?  A reasonable starting point for exploring your personal convictions is examining your personal contributions to the government outside of what your party tells you you should think.  It can be a first step towards freeing yourself from the prison of partisan politics.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Strike Syria?

If there were ever a case to be made that the institution of the Presidency is far too dangerous for a single person to control, it couldn't be made better than by looking at Barack Obama's upcoming decision about what to do of the chemical weapon attack in Syria.

Consider this:

  • American's strongly oppose military intervention in Syria, by nearly a 2-1 margin.  
  • Though the constitution mandates that the power to declare war lay with congress, they are unlikely to get a chance to vote on it.  For the long standing practice of having undeclared wars, I would say that an act of war is as strong a declaration of war as there is.  If the Japanese had said after Pearl Harbor, "just kidding"... would that have slowed down our response?  
  • It won't be internationally recognized by the United Nations either, as they just rejected a call for military intervention.  
And yet, warships steam towards what seems like an inevitable destination to drop their bombs.  I think everyone agrees that what the Syrian government did to its own people is outrageous, and deserves international intervention.  But I more strongly believe the will of the people should hold the day.  Does this even remotely look like Democracy in action?


Edit: Looks like Congress will get its chance to vote on a strike in Syria.  While I thank the Obama administration for seeking the consent of American's in committing an act of war, I still believe he very well could have carried out the strike had he wanted to... for instance, he never sought a vote in attacking Lybia.  Because of this, I stand by my previous opinion that too much power lay with the institution of the presidency.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Corporate influence of politics and the disengagement of the general public

There is a strain of thought through American politics that corporate influence in government has grown so far beyond the term "influence" that you might as well say their candidates have been bought and paid for.  Corporate money flows through the vanes of election coffers, and has become the lifeblood of a candidates reelection prospects.  And if elections are the blunt instruments of change, campaign contributions from lobbyists are the the scalpel, laser focused on individual issues, or even individual phrases in bills related to issues.  So does democracy even offer tools for the greater public to weigh in on a policy level?

On the one hand, the reality is there needs to be a place for so called "special interests" to be heard.  We have chosen a representative democracy specifically because the electorate doesn't have the time to become an expert on legislative matters.  But some people are, and they can help guide representatives towards the expertise they need to make a qualified decision.  Take for instance, the computing industry has a strong interest in the concept of net neutrality, a term that most Americans couldn't even explain.  Software engineers and internet companies must take the lead in clarifying policy repercussions for any semblance of a coherent strategy.

On the other hand, there aren't very many avenues for mainstream people to engage with their representatives on issues which they have come to informed opinions.  Corporate money guarantees face time with lawmakers, and even a hand in drafting legislation.  Most public campaign donations are contributed to political parties or individual candidates, which tend to focus again on the blunt instrument instead of the scalpel.  Not surprisingly, the public has become disengaged with the issues, allowing elections to be driven by personalities instead of policy.

There are some common sense reforms to our democracy that could help restore the balance in a non-partisan manner, and engage the greater body politic in issues again.  First of all, we can recognize that corporations benefit tremendously from the economies of scale when it comes to donations.  TV advertising has a built in fixed cost barrier that must be overcome before political money becomes effective.  On a per voter basis, this becomes feasible only when the size of the electorate for an election reaches a critical mass.  The President's campaigns are more cost efficient than a Senator's, and in turn a Senator's is more cost efficient than a member of the house of representatives.  Can you even remember the last time you saw a TV add for a city council member?  Consider when the country was founded, we had one member of the house of representatives for every 30,000 people... a ratio very similar to that city council member.  Today, we are approaching 1,000,000 people for each representative.  If we were to restore that ratio, the pool of corporate money would be diluted on a per representative basis to levels not seen in a generation, and we would see a waning of corporate influence... at least in the house of representatives.  Another benefit of this system is that people can have a lot closer contact with their representatives when they have to represent such a smaller group.  It could serve to empower people to seek out their representatives on a personal level.

Another possible way to provide democratic institutions with the mechanisms to support issue level representation is to change the way we vote.  Consider that the house of representatives is formed of a number of committees that are much more issue focused.  These committees are designed to allow representatives to become experts on individual issues, and are a driver of legislation before it reaches the wider house of representatives for a vote.  But these committees are appointed by the leadership of the parties, largely on a seniority basis.  In a two party system like are own, it virtually guarantees that Americans who care about issues have no say at the ballot box, unless all their issues align with one of the two party choices.  If instead we had many parties, where people could vote nationally for the parties that best matched their personal ideologies, we could have a better reflection of the American will on individual issues in these committees.  Better yet, we could even potentially have issue specific parties, which the public votes separately for on a per committee basis.  I could vote for my charter schools party for the Education and Workforce committee, and my deficit reduction party for the Budget committee, and my isolationist party for the Armed Services committee, and so on.  Imagine the engagement Americans could have in such a system!

In conclusion, corporate influence in American politics is not a problem to be addressed in and of itself, but a symptom of a greater problem of public disengagement in the issues of politics.  Common sense reforms which empower individuals to engage with their representative democracy would naturally dilute the influence of special interests, yet preserve their rights to engage in the political process with their expertise.  Changing the levers of elections to allow voting for committee members would turn politics on its head, and help bring the body politic back in line with the values of the people they represent.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

where are the real civil libertarians?

The two party system has created a principle schism in the American political landscape.  The limitations of this means that unless you are aiming to be marginalized, you must compromise on your principles to fit into one of these two groups.  One of the casualties of this structure is the authoritarian/libertarian axis of politics, which is orthogonal to the current alignment of political parties.  It can be seen explicitly on sites like the political compass.

One of the appeals of the Tea Party during its formative years, was an alternative that crossed political boundaries to embrace libertarian ideas.  Their core focus was making government smaller and less intrusive in our lives.  But the movement got co-opted by the far right.

I genuinely seek a government that doesn't intrude in our lives... so I thought a good test would be the recent vote against restricting the NSA from sweeping powers to spy on Americans who have done nothing.  Counting the votes from the Tea Party, this can help me decide what kind of organization it is.

Tea Party member's votes on a bill limiting the powers of the NSA:
For (27) Against (20) Abstain (1)

For: (27)
Joe Barton
Rob Bishop
Diane Black
Michael Burgess
Paul Broun
Bill Cassidy
Mike Coffman
Jeff Duncan
Blake Farenthold
Stephen Fincher
John Fleming
Louie Gohmert
Tim Huelskamp
Lynn Jenkins
Doug Lamborn
Kenny Marchant
Tim McClintock
Gary Miller
Mick Mulvaney
Rich Nugent
Steve Pearce
Ted Poe
Tom Price
Phil Roe
Dennis Ross
Steve Scalise
Joe Wilson

Against: (20)
Rodney Alexander
Michele Bachmann
Gus Bilirakis
John Carter
Ander Crenshaw
John Culberson
Trent Franks
Phil Gingrey
Vicky Hartzler
Steve King
Blaine Luetkemeyer
David McKinley
Randy Neugebauer
Steven Palazzo
Ed Royce
Pete Sessions
Adrian Smith
Lamar Smith
Tim Walberg
Lynn Westmoreland

No Vote: (1)
Howard Coble

One the one hand, these results surprised me... I had taken a more cynical view of the Tea Party in recent years, and am actually quite pleased to see that a majority of them voted for the new restrictions on the NSA's secret powers.  Compared to the 40% of republicans on whole who voted for the amendment, 56% of tea party members voted for it.  On the other hand, 55% of democrats voted for this measure, which really doesn't distinguish the Tea Party's libertarian credentials.

As a side note, Chris Christie came out strongly against the libertarian position, calling it dangerous.  In the words of Benjamin Franklin, he who trades liberty for security deserves neither.  That is a deal breaker for my support in the 2016 presidential cycle.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

George Zimmerman and Blackstone's formulation

On October 3rd, 1995, my 9th grade Geometry teacher dialed the radio in to the reading of the OJ Simpson verdict.  This was a case that captivated the nation, scratching the still fresh racial wounds centuries in the making.  Everyone had a strong opinion, and I found myself thinking that it was obvious that he was guilty.  How else did he get her blood in his car?  Why else would he run from the police?  He certainly had motive and opportunity.  When the verdict of "Not Guilty" rung through my ears, I was stunned.  How could anyone believe he was not guilty, after what had been presented?  But there were droves of people who believed he was innocent, and that I was a fool for believing him guilty with the same evidence laid out before them.

Flash forward to this past week.  The nation again found itself gripped in a trial laced with racial undertones.  George Zimmerman had undeniably shot young Trayvon Martin, a young black man he had believed to be a neighborhood thief.  But he claimed to have done it in self defense.  Again, I lined up the facts of the case, and could only conclude the verdict was correct.  If he had thrown the first punch, he was guilty as sin... if Trayvon had... then his claim of self defense was valid.  The prosecution had done very little to prove who had done that.  They should have looked for autopsy evidence that Zimmerman had struck martin with a punch, but they couldn't.  If he had made up his story on the spot, it certainly fit well with the physical evidence and witness testimony... so it seemed plausible.  When Zimmerman was set free, I was not surprised at all.  However, many across the nation rose to protest that an injustice had been done.  Injustice.

How is our justice system supposed to function here?  I think in both these trials, reasonable people could look at the body of evidence, and come to very different conclusions.  Regardless of what horrible thing has happened, we must be sure of ourselves when we reach a verdict.  We must not compound one injustice with another.  It got me thinking to Sir William Blackstone, who in 1765 stated "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer".  This is fundamental to how we must approach justice.  We convene juries that must reach a unanimous decision, because if reasonable people can disagree about the innocence of a person, then only injustice can result from an arbitrary result.  The benefit of doubt must lie with the accused.

George Zimmerman is a free man today.  It may be because he truly acted in self defense.  It may just be because the prosecution couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt otherwise.  The same could have been said for OJ Simpson.  And either result strengthens my faith in our criminal justice system.  We live under the rule of law, where personal biases of an individual are trumped by collective certainty in the outcome of a trial.  And for that, I am thankful.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The activist courts

This week the Supreme Court announced a historic ruling, declaring federal discrimination against gay couples seeking marriage to be unconstitutional.  For many, this was a day to celebrate the protections of minority rights that many thought unachievable only a few years ago.  This came on the back of a ruling overturning key provisions in the landmark 1965 voter's rights act, once credited as the greatest civil rights achievement of the 20th century.  The dichotomy of these two rulings got me thinking about the purpose of the court in American politics.  Is it an institution that should be limited in nature, identifying and overturning laws that usurp only from our most commonly agreed principals, or should it be an institution that seeks to apply those principals as broadly as possible, with the purpose of protecting those who congress is unwilling to protect?

It is important that the mission of the courts in determining the constitutionality of laws be crystal clear, as this small group of citizens is given unprecedented powers to invalidate legislation passed by a majority of a democratically elected members of congress, while themselves never facing a direct election by the public.  Their stamp on public debate is final, leaving us with no alternative but to follow what they decree.  They are ideally supposed to live outside the pressures of politics, applying the basic principals on which our government was founded as a litmus test to the validity of laws.  But reality is a far different animal.

The modern court is filled with ideologues bent on stamping their own dogma permanently into America's legal system.  These judges were hand picked in turn by ideologues in the white house, who seek to use the court as a proxy in political fights to ensure that their agenda cannot be challenged.  Controversial rulings often swing on a single vote, a single person, deciding the fate of laws critical to millions of Americans.  We require the principals on which they rule to be passed by two thirds of both the house and the senate, and then three fourths of the states must vote to ratify the expansion of the freedoms outlined.  They were designed to be broadly agreed upon, not controversial in any manor.  Yet the reality is the words of the constitution are twisted to fit whichever argument is championed by a justice, seen in the many many cases having dissenting views.  Why do we not hold these justices to a similar standard as the constitution?  We require criminals to be found unanimously guilty by a jury of their peers, but the whole class of law to which they are tried to rest on a tiebreaker yes or no swing vote?  Absurd.

The modern court is an activist court, both on liberal and conservative causes.  It embraces controversy... We've seen that in recent days, in the overturning of the long standing voter's rights act, and throughout courtrooms of the past century, from Roe vs Wade, to Bush vs Gore.  I believe the powers we have enshrined in this institution need be flexed only when there is widespread agreement.  The courts should need more than majority, they should need super majority to apply their ideals.  It could be done, as over 60 percent of rulings were unanimous at one point this year.  Deferring to the will of the elected legislature should resolve controversies.  The panel should be expanded, so that a wider range of views is represented by the votes.  Members of the court should be nominated by a wide body, not stuffed by any one president.  Some mechanism should be included to ensure minority views are also represented.  Our courts have been sliding down the slippery slope to the political muck.  It is time we bolster the institution with the protections to insure that it functions as it was originally intended, as the bellwether protector of the principals on which we all stand.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

racial inequality without racism

In 2003, I stood on the campus of UC Berkeley among a massive crowd of protesters, who were arguing for radical changes to university admittance policies.  They shouted that racism was ingrained in our country, that white people hid behind a vale of political correctness that masked an underlying modern day Jim Crow society.  How could this be, I thought.

Everything my personal experience told me suggested otherwise.  Nobody I ever personally knew was racist.  I had grown up in a rural predominantly white community, and the one or two fringe people flying their confederate flags weren't exactly what you'd call "difference makers" in town.  If I had to bet based on my personal interaction with people I met at Berkeley, I'd guess well north of 99% believe in civil rights, and embraced the diversity that made our campus special.  A Jim Crow UC Berkeley just didn't fit into my world view.

Last night, listening to the Tavis Smiley show on the way home, I heard this fascinating interview with Nancy DiTomaso as she discussed her book "The American Dilemma, racial inequality without racism".  There, she noted that after interviewing thousands of individuals, she found that for 99% of people, 70% or more of their job opportunities had came because they had some extra help from a friend or former coworker.  This type of networking has the effect of marginalizing social mobility, because if you come from a community where there are already no job opportunities to be shared, it makes it that much tougher to break into a market where you do not have a connection.  This is a reality that fits well in my understanding of how the world works.  Personal connections make getting a job 10 times easier for someone seeking employment.

But why does the world work that way?  Businesses have a financial interest in hiring the best candidates for the job.  They want a meritocracy.  The reality is that the hiring process in the modern workplace is totally broken.  How can you really know what a person claims to understand on their resume, amongst rampant exaggeration?  How can you project how an employee will do based on a 30 minute call and a 45 minute in person interview?  It is a joke.  A bad hire is far worse than not hiring anyone at all, and companies must hedge against this risk however they can.  So they turn to personal recommendations.  Nothing really identifies a star in the workplace like working with them for months on end, staying up late at night, relying on their good ideas to make a team successful.  If you can convince people you ALREADY know are good to come work with you, it is a huge win.  At the cost of an unintended structural inequality, without racism.

Top Coder Ratings
What could we do to improve on this system?  We need to improve the hiring process to make it more merit based.  Companies need tangible evidence about the people they invest in.  There are a few areas where I could see wins both for companies and minorities in my industry, software engineering.  First, there are competition based sites such as Top Coder and 99designs, where contracts are won on a merit based system via direct competition.  Statistics on these sites give you a quantitative difference between the results of different individuals, which can be meaningful when hiring a full time employee.  This is a meritocracy in its truest form.  Next, if companies can increase the ratio of interns to full time employees, they provide low cost, low risk opportunities to identify potential candidates based on an extended period of working along side them.  These kind of jobs provide invaluable inroads for people just starting their career, and improve the long term quality of employees that a company brings in, without having to rely on personal recommendations to hedge risk.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Entitlement Deficit

People look at the budget deficit as more or less "solved" by the recent budget sequester and tax hikes, but the truth of the matter is that we have a nearly insurmountable structural deficit in entitlement spending.  This recent article captures the scope of that deficit... roughly 100 trillion dollars over the next thirty years.  That is an unfathomably high number.

Republicans, after a decade of lavish spending when they had their turn at the helm, have finally painted themselves into a corner of permanent minority status.  Their shift back to a financially tenable position as just come too late.  Democrats are loathe to take the needed steps on the third rail of American politics, seemingly covering their eyes and ears in public about the looming debt.  So does a path exist that could return America to long term fiscal solvency?

In the late 1990's, republicans and democrats came together under the Contract for America to enact welfare reform, the first major reduction in entitlement spending in a generation.  The benefits were almost immediately tangible, with millions of capable people going back to work and off the welfare roles, and the first government surplus in over a generation.  I'd identify that as the last time we saw a victory for fiscally responsible policy... and it could be a template again for responsible government.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden was living a privileged life.  He lived comfortably, working at a desk job in Hawaii, and was paid handsomely to do it.  But there was a catch.  He was being asked to spy on American citizens, in an all intrusive manor, encompassing every recorded detail of our day to day lives, and all part of a program without the knowledge or consent of the public.  So he stepped away from his job with the NSA, and leaked the existence of this program to the media.  "I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things", he said.

The civil libertarian in me applauds his actions.  I listen to him thoughtfully lay out his case for the decision he made, and can come to the same conclusions.  The government should have no authority to unilaterally impose Orwellian surveillance programs on their own people without the informed consent of the public.  There is no good excuse for this reach for power.

Now, if politicians could have a public debate about the merits of such a program, and an open vote to enact it, I'd be singing a different tune.  After all, this program probably does save lives, and it is up to the people to decide how much they are willing to compromise their personal liberties and privacy in the name of security.  But that is not what happened here.  The US government kept it secret in hopes of making it a more effective tool.  But claiming that mere revelation of the program's existence,  something that has even widely assumed to have already been in place, that it could fatally cripple it's viability in gathering intelligence... well that is just absurd.  Any major nation that could do us damage assuredly knew of the existence of such a program to begin with.  For individuals, the revelation of this program will not likely change their online behaviors.  Any terrorist organization which must further isolate itself from modern communication technologies is likely to become less effective.

The only important reason to hide it is fear that the American people would not grant them such sweeping authority.  We live in a world where more and more power is concentrated in fewer hands.  In a land founded in the name of liberty, to be governed by the people, we instead creep ever closer to granting Caesar the reigns, and letting the republic fall in its wayside.  Democracy is the light, but it's dusk approaches.

Friday, June 7, 2013

domestic spying

The recent disclosure of a massive domestic spying on American's cell phone records is an extensive expansion of executive authority, to say the least.  Starting in the Bush administration, and massively expanded in the Obama administration, this dragnet is a tool which the administration has told us has been used to foil at least one terrorist plot.

The real story here in my opinion is the secret power grab by the executive branch.  Never was this authority requested from the American people.  In fact, for the longest time, it was outright denied.  The Bush administration held focus on warrentless wiretapping which ONLY applied to conversations between suspected foreign terrorist sympathizers, and yes maybe American's were on the other end of the line.  The Obama administration denied this program existed in public hearings, when they claimed that they were not "wittingly" collecting American phone records.  It is clear now that both administrations expanded their own authority well beyond what the public was willing to accept, and denied it all the while.

Today, we live in a country where new powers can be dictated from the executive branch without the consent or even the notification of the people they govern.  That is a terrifying world, not because of where it is, but where it inevitably will end.  Our country has a generations long story of the great experiment called democracy, where the people decide the laws to which they will be held accountable.  But this story is changing tune, to one where those who govern ultimately usurp that power from the people, and consolidate it for themselves.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

shouldering the burden...

Last year in the United States, there was a push from the Obama administration to raise taxes on the rich, saying that they need to pay their "fair share".  It was a clever bit of rhetoric, never defining what their fair share is, and implying that somehow they are paying less than the rest of us.  It is an argument that can be seductive in the absence of facts.  The reality is that the rich shoulder the burden of taxes in this country, and when asked what "fair share" should mean for the rich, when pressed for a number, most Americans actually think the marginal tax rates should be lower than they actually are.

But when this argument is allowed to compound unfettered, we get what is happening in France.  Some of the rich people there have a tax rate higher than 100% of their income.  How can that possibly be their fair share?  Its convenient to draw a circle around a small part of the total population and say "these people should be treated differently"... but it goes against the very principals of equality under the law.

I think an honest assessment of fairness would be to raise everyone's tax rates to the same level.  Make it an equal playing field.  Then you can raise taxes to your hearts content, as far as I'm concerned... at least maybe then we'd tackle some of the structural deficit problem.  But as long as we see the rich as a demon, skirting their obligations... we seem to feel free to spend wildly, with no accountability, because hey: eventually the rich will be forced to pay their fair share.

Friday, April 26, 2013

At the precipice...

The Debt to GDP is approaching 105% in the United States, up more than 25% in the last 5 years.  Its only a matter of time before our creditors won't lend to us anymore.  For Greece, it was a Debt to GDP of 120%... and even with huge bailouts by the rest of Europe, they had 25% unemployment.  And just who is going to bail us out?  Wouldn't count on Germany for that one... and you weren't holding out hope China would lend us a big hand.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

a political take on equality

  I would have at one point been convinced that one of the core separations between Republicans and Democrats is their perception of equality.

  In my view, Republicans seek equality under the law, and there are many examples of this in practice.  A flat tax, often pressed by conservative pundits, treats all citizens equally in terms of responsibility to bear the burden of government programs.  Affirmative action in schools and business are to be shunned, not because Republicans are against racial equality, but because they see that equality expressed in a meritocracy, where employers and schools will want the best students to attend their universities.  They believe social programs like welfare must be shrunk to the minimum safety net, in part because it constructs a false class hierarchy of those who should provide for others, and those who should be provided to, rather than individualism that advocates equal opportunity, and equal consequences.

  It seems to me that Democrats, on the other hand, seek a practical equality in the world.  They see deck is stacked from birth.  Income inequality is the great impediment to practical equality in our country, and social programs that seek to restore a balance in wealth for the poor should be paid for by the excess of the extraordinarily wealthy.  They see affirmative action as necessary because institutional racism prevents practical equality.

  This interpretation of views on equality doesn't quite fit into the context of the current debate over gay marriage.  I wonder what the debate would look like if it did?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Gun Control

Gun control legislation is just on the horizon.  Will any significant change make it through congress?  It is hard to say...  Powerful lobbies like the NRA are throwing their full weight into defeating any new laws that might crop up.  I find myself having mixed feelings about gun legislation.  I have never owned a gun, and probably never will.  Guns are incredibly dangerous, and due diligence should be done to make sure gun owners are sufficiently capable of handling guns responsibly.  We make teens take drivers education classes, and only allow them to drive with an adult supervisor for something like 500 hours.  We make barbers take nearly 2000 hours of classes before they can cut hair.  To get a gun?  As long as you have the money, there is a legal way to get it.  That is a scary prospect.

And yet, I find myself coming back to the arguments against much of the proposed legislation, and find it more compelling.  There is a striking amount of fear mongering and sheer ignorance that goes into pushing these controls.  Many people hear "assault weapon ban", and think they are talking about banning machine guns.  Semi-automatic weapons must be m-16s, not handguns, right?  Wrong.  Automatic weapons are already banned.  Most hand guns are semi automatic.  Deaths are misrepresented as murders, when in fact, most deaths are suicide (another issue that I have mixed feelings on), and many are accidental.  Right now, the FBI has told us 323 people were murdered by rifles in 2011.  Is that really a good enough reason to take away someones rights?  Consider, 34,367 people were killed by cars.  More than 34000 more!    That seems like a much larger safety risk to the public.  More than 728 murdered by "hands and feet".  Does that number keep you up at night?  Probably not.

Then consider the effectiveness of the laws being proposed.  The reality is that handguns are far more dangerous in society.  They are easy to conceal, and account for the majority of gun deaths.  But the legislation seems to be focused on which guns look scariest, not which guns are most responsible for gun violence.  I looked through the restrictions proposed by Senator Feinstein, and just scratch my head at the lack of common sense.  Banning weapons that have a pistol grip, a detachable stock, or a forward grip.  How does that make a weapon more dangerous?  I've seen no quantitative evidence that makes a compelling case for these restrictions.  As far as I can tell, these restrictions produce a set of weapons that looks scary, and could shake the confidence of the voting public.  Nothing more.

 Perhaps the biggest concern I have is that gun rights are enshrined in the very document that protects us from government intrusion into our basic rights.  People often argue that the 2nd Amendment is a relic, meant for times when people needed guns in their daily life just to survive.   But there were other reasons, first most in my opinion, giving the people a means to check tyranny.  I watch power endlessly being channeled into the institution of the presidency, and I think it could only be a matter of time before someone comes along and tries to consolidate it for themselves.  It has happened in democracies like Venezuela with Hugo Chavez, Russia with Vladimir Putin, and once upon a time, democratic elections in Germany elected Adolf Hitler.  I have a hard time looking at the Arab Spring, watching defenseless civilians slaughtered by their own government, and thinking that these people are in a better position to stop tyranny without guns.

Perhaps more importantly, what does it mean if we chip away at our common principals, the lines in the sand we claim the government can't cross.  It is awfully hard to deny that the 2nd Amendment explicitly says the government can't deny the right to bare arms.  If I argue that a fluid constitution should be interpreted through the lens of modern times, what happens when the next guy tries to do the same thing with the 1st Amendment?  To me, its more important that we prevent the erosion of our cherished principals, even if it carries a high price.  We've sent hundreds of thousands of men to fight and die around the world for this reason, always because it means that much to us.  If ever we were to strictly limit weapons, I'd insist it would start with modifying the constitution.

So I circle back to the beginning.  I still truly have mixed feeling about gun control.  But the gimmicks put forward by congress aren't really about making us safer, and come with a high cost to our rights.  I would support an effort to revoke the 2nd Amendment BEFORE passing comprehensive gun control legislation.  I would support a reasoned debate, not based on fear mongering, but on a quantitative analysis of the costs to our freedoms vs the benefits.  I want all gun owners to be responsible and well trained.  This is the kind of action I want to see.  Not the theater we instead get.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

finding the deficit hawks

  Its a tricky thing being a deficit hawk... it means being willing to tighten the belt, cut funding to programs that people like, but are unwilling to pay for.  From a thousand feet, most seem to agree that it is important for our nation to live within it's means, but when it gets down to voting for which programs get the ax, it means lost votes and lost elections.  Its hard to lead in that frame of existence.  So I went out today to try and figure who on the right and the left have shown the fortitude to actually put their reputations on the line.

  A list like that is actually surprisingly hard to come by.  Some meaningless interest group lists claiming to represent fiscal responsibility don't take seriously the issue of the federal debt, and instead present a ballot card that reads like a party election mailer.  So I will start by giving credit to the group of elected officials who participated in the Simpson Bowles commission.

  Two names poke out at me... Paul Ryan, who's Vice Presidential candidacy was characterized by his willingness to stand behind a plan (however unpopular) that addresses the long term fiscal responsibility, represents many of the qualities I look for in a deficit hawk.  On the left, I'd point out a candidate who's district is just a few miles down the road from me, Xavier Becerra.  While I don't know much about his positions, I do know he served both on the Simpson Bowles commission and the Super Committee that sought middle ground solutions in a bipartisan manor.

  Since I think creating a single list of candidates would be hard to remove party biases from, I'd instead to prefer to keep a separate ranking of republicans and democrats for their relative merits.  My intention is to eventually have a list of candidates I can best justify supporting, and a list of candidates who should be challenged either in a primary or a general direction.

  Holding our leaders accountable for their lack of leadership on the federal debt is the only way we will ever get meaningful reform.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

real spending on the rise

Over the past four years, real spending by the government (after inflation) has increased by $822.90 per household, according to this report.  That is a 7% increase in the size of government, excluding population growth and inflation.  The government would have to cut $362,069,530,000 from the budget just to reach the spending levels of the Bush administration.  That is 362 billion, borrowed from your pockets, not the pockets of the rich.  The sequester cuts that congress is raising a big stink about add up to 1.1 trillion over the next ten years.  So even after those cuts, the size of government has grown.

Do you feel the benefit of that 822 dollars you gave the government has made a positive impact in your life?

How about the $31,024.03 total the government spent on your family's behalf last year?  Are you getting your bang for your buck?

How about the $52,841.19 you still owe?  That is the share that each member of your family will have to pay back.

At the very least, shouldn't we be cutting the tremendous waste in the federal government, something almost all Americans can agree on?  If we aren't ready to stop the deficit train barreling towards the real fiscal cliff of default, maybe we can convince our politicians to slow it down.

I would pledge a dollar in new revenue for every dollar cut BELOW the real spending level in 2008.  I think its time to get serious about this fiscal crisis.

Monday, February 18, 2013

review of the debt and the debt talks two years ago

This is a repost of an old blog of mine, examining the structure of the deficit in 2011...
I'd like to add my take on the national debt and the current debt crisis, firstly because it is the most important political issue to me (and has been since I was a teenager), and secondly because I think there is a lot more focus on the fluff of the debate than the substance.  I've tagged each section separately, if you want to just browse the areas that interest you the most.  Hopefully this can help be a cheat sheet on the debt, so you can express your opinions with some knowledge on the issue.
National Debt:  The national debt currently sits near 14.2 trillion dollars.  That is 14200000000000 dollars, or roughly 40000 dollars for each man, woman, and child in the country.  This number has doubled in the past decade, and ignores future unfunded liabilities that could eventually reach as high as 70 trillion, roughly 5 times current gdp.  This graph shows the debt in two terms: raw debt, and debt as a percentage of GDP.  Note the current public debt is around 70% of GDP, which is the highest its been since we were paying down our debt on WWII.  The difference between the two debts is one was due to temporary spending to fund the war effort, and one is driven largely by long term liabilities, and will not be going down any time soon.  Public debt is held by a number of institutions, including the federal reserve, foreign nations, and 
National Deficit:  This is the amount of money we spend each year beyond the revenue which we take in.  The current federal deficit is roughly 1.2 trillion dollars every year, according to the CBO.  That means about 40 cents of every dollar the government spends is not backed by revenue coming in.  The last time we were deficit neutral was the beginning of the Bush administration, which was a result of bipartisan management of the budget during the end of the Clinton administration (cutting spending on military and welfare), as well as the economic expansion due to the internet in the late 90's.  In my view, unfunded spending amounts to a type of hidden tax, where we get less value out of the dollar we spend due to the future interest we have to pay on it.
To be fair in assessing the long term damage, we need to know where all this new debt has been coming from over the last decade, and moving forward.  There isn't one source of the problem.  We want to figure out where that 7 trillion dollars have gone, as well as where the future problems lie.
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:
Since 2001, the total expenditures for these wars has totaled about 1.2 trillion dollars, around 17% of the debt problem over the last decade.  Moving forward, it is expected these wars will contribute less and less to the debt as the wars wind down and troops are brought home.
Bush Tax Cuts:
With projections of as much as a 5 trillion dollar surplus at the start of the 2000's, Bush pressed tax cuts through congress, and again following the 9/11 attacks to stimulate the economy during the dot com recession.  The total cost of those cuts over that decade were about 1.6 trillion dollars, and may expand to 2.8 trillion over the next decade due to the Obama expansion of the cuts.  People paint these tax cuts as targeting the rich, but keep in mind 2/3 of these cuts went to people making less than 200k per year, or families less than 250k per year.  Obama's plan to extend these cuts for the middle class would increase the debt by 2.2 trillion dollars over the next decade.
New Entitlements (Prescription Drugs):
President Bush pressed a prescription drug plan through congress in 2006, without increasing taxes to pay for the new entitlement.  This adds approximately 550 billion dollars to the debt between 2006 and 2015, or about 400 billion to the current debt total.  This will add approximately 70 billion dollars per year to future deficits.
Tarp (Bailout of Financial Institutions):
The Fed, the Bush administration, and later the Obama administration, spent nearly 1.5 trillion dollars to buy failing mortgage backed securities, bail out financial institutions, and prop up auto makers.  It remains to be seen how much of this money comes back in the form of repaid loans and stock gains in government owned corporations. 
The Internet Bubble, 9/11 attacks, and The Great Recession:
Its much harder to gauge the impact of loss in revenue as a result of the recessions over the past decade.  This graph shows the direct revenue of the government over time. We can clearly see that revenue declined significantly during periods of recession. Government spending is pretty steadily increasing, not matching losses in revenue when GDP shrinks.
Economic Stimulus Plans (Bush and Obama's attempts to dull the hit on the economy):
The Bush administration pushed through 120 billion in tax cuts in the early days of the great recession.  The Obama administration passed approximately 750 billion through the Economic Recovery Act.  Neither was particularly effective, and combined added nearly a trillion dollars to the debt.
Like Europe, America is approaching a period where a greater percentage of the population reaches retirement age.  In combination with the raising standards of health care (at a higher cost), the percentage of GDP spent on healthcare will rise from 4% in 2007 to 18% by 2080.  This represents a major problem moving forward, where the big problems with the federal debt remain ahead of us.
Social Security:
Social security currently runs at a surplus, but represents a major part of future unfunded liabilities.  In around a decade, social security will start paying out more than it brings in.  Social security basically works by having current young working people pay for the elderly people's retirement, while young people in the future will pay for ours.  The combination of the shift of demographics to an older population (meaning less young people per retired individual), and the increasing life expectancy (meaning the longer amount of time young people must pay for the elderly) make this a huge source of future problems.  Additionally, the "savings" that social security has accumulated have been "loaned" back to the federal government, meaning there will be an immediate impact on federal deficit spending as soon as yearly liabilities exceed expenditures.
Debt Ceiling:
There are a couple of points of interest regarding the debt ceiling.  First, this is a hard cap on borrowing, beyond which the treasury is not allowed to issue new securities.  We are at a point where we need to borrow more money to pay interest on previously borrowed money.  If we don't pay the interest on these bonds, then investors will no longer lend us money going forward at our current interest rate, and borrowing becomes much more expensive.
One might ask what is the point of the debt ceiling if congress rubber stamps increases?  I believe that it was intended as a lever to force the government to address debt problems on a regular basis.  Election cycles make representatives focus only on near term issues, and long term problems (like the federal debt, global warming, and so on) are unable to be properly addressed.  I think the house is actually using the debt ceiling as it was intended to force the government to address the deficit problems.
One thing you will hear in the debate is the time frame we want to push the debt increases out.. Congress historically has extended the debt ceiling about once a year.  Keep that in mind when considering the different plans.
The Proposed Plans:  All plans are an attempt to reduce the amount of new debt added 10 years from now, so any numbers you hear are amortized over a decade.  Some projections say that the debt will increase by about 15 trillion dollars over the next decade.  We will use that as a baseline to evaluate the deals proposed.
The Simpson Bowles Plan:
President Obama created a bipartisan commission to provide long term solutions to budget problems.  This commission came up with comprehensive reforms to address social security, health care, and tax reforms that would result in the long term solvency of the federal government.  I would have personally strongly supported this plan, but the results were ignored by the president, and nothing came of it.  Perhaps it will be a basis of a bill following the next election cycle.
The Grand Bargin:
When it became clear that the house of representatives wouldn't raise the debt ceiling unless it was combined with some attempt to address spending problems, there was a bipartisan effort to decrease the debt by 4.5 trillion over the next decade, thus limiting debt increase to a new cap of approximately 22 trillion.  House republicans are insisting on a dollar for dollar exchange of debt ceiling increases for spending cuts over the next decade.  The bill would have included 3.5 trillion dollars in spending cuts, along with 850 billion dollars in tax increases.  The tax hikes would have come right away, while the cuts would have come towards the end of the decade (with only a few billion dollars actually cut in the first few years).  I think talks broke down when republicans became concerned that paper cuts wouldn't materialize in future classes of congress (who would be asked to make those cuts), and democrats insisted on increasing tax increases to 1.2 trillion dollars.
The Reid and Boehmer plans:
Both the Reid and Boehmer plan are based on two principle demands of the house republicans.  First, a dollar for dollar increase of the debt ceiling, and second no new taxes.  The Reid plan actually calls for deeper cuts than the Boehmer plan, the reason behind that being allowing the next debt fight to happen after the next election cycle.  There is one major problem with the Reid plan, in that about a trillion in "cuts" are from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which many argue are savings that would be occurring anyways.  If those cuts were ignored, you'd basically have the original Boehmer plan, which were the collection of cuts broadly agreed to in the grand bargin.  The senate was planning on rejecting this plan anyways, so republicans tacked on a "balanced budget amendment" to the constitution, something broadly supported among conservatives.  So the current squabbling over the proposals centers around one core issue... the democrats don't want to face debt reduction again in an election cycle, because it is a losing issue for them, while republicans want to use this political pressure to extract deep cuts in spending.  I think if democrats offered the Reid plan with real cuts instead of bogus war cuts, you'd probably find a compromise acceptable to both sides.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


  I think this is a film everyone should take the time to see.  It captures the seriousness of our country's financial woes in a way that can shake you awake.  The full version is available on netflix streaming, but if you want a condensed version, it is available here on youtube.  GO SEE THIS FILM.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Fair or Compassionate

  A good friend brought up a memory of a few years back that I'd like to share, because I think it sheds light on my view of the progressive taxation debate that just concluded in congress.  We were working at a company that was in the process of restructuring its health care benefits, as many companies were forced to do in the face of rising health care costs.  Our company had an odd demographic mix, with a large bulge of younger workers in their twenties, largely fresh out of college, and a large bulge of older workers nearing retirement.  The new plan being proposed involved a substantial jump in costs for everyone, but especially for the younger workers.  When the young guys started grumbling, our VP got up in front of the group and told us that the older guys with families, a group with much larger health expenses, were expected to pay so much more out of pocket for their benefits... and to make it more fair, they were distributing some of those costs back to us in order to make it "more fair".  After relaying this episode to me, my friend turns to me and says, "really it wasn't that they were trying to be more fair, but that they were trying to be more compassionate."  This is a point that has stuck with me.

  It makes for good political stew if you can say that the rich aren't paying their fair share.  You can boil up a sense of lack of justice, informed by nothing, but driven by rhetoric.  The rich need to pay more.  How much more?  I don't know, just more.  And if the rich really were somehow not paying their fair share, I'd jump right on that bandwagon.  So lets start by proposing a metric for fairness, and analyzing how fair our system of government is...  lets see if the rich are getting back more from the government more than they put in.

  On the spending side, we can group spending into several major categories... the big ticket items are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Interest on the debt, Military, and then a bunch of smaller discretionary programs.  Lets consider the big ticket items...

  The first 20% of the budget is Social Security, paid for primarily via payroll taxes.  The CBO scores social security as a progressive program, noting that the highest quintile earners gets 60 cents back for every dollar they put in, while the lowest quintile receives two dollars for every dollar they put in.

  Medicaid and the safety net programs make another 18% of the budget, but they have strict eligibility requirements.  Wealthy Americans are ineligible to receive these benefits, which requires participants make no more than 133% of the poverty line.

  Medicare makes up 13% of the budget... this is healthcare for the elderly.  Eligibility requirements are determined by age, so there is nothing especially progressive about that.  The wealthy are charged higher premiums on part B services that they, and as of this year are charged a higher rate on payroll taxes than most workers.  Starting in 2013, the payroll tax itself will be rising on wealthy income earners from the 2.9% we all pay to 3.8%, as part of the Affordable Healthcare Act.  I might argue that patient costs are largely income agnostic, so by paying a percentage of income for a fixed cost service naturally lends to a progressive model.

  Interest on the debt makes up 7% of the debt, and its a rising percentage.  It reflects the shared burden we have on previous budgets, which were equally progressive in their spending.  Thus, the responsibility to pay old debt reflects the overall progressiveness of the budget.

  The last big piece is military spending, making up 20% of the budget.  There is nothing inherently progressive about this spending... but most of that budget goes directly to operations and personnel.  These costs are about projecting power abroad, and the benefit we gain is shared.  A cynical view might argue that a majority of foreign military spending is to secure low energy prices, but even then, energy costs disproportionately make a higher percentage of personal spending for lower income earners, and thus the benefit helps them more.

  The remaining costs of government go to programs like transportation, veterans benefits, subsidized houses,  student grant programs, and so forth.  I would admit there is a good deal of corporate welfare in the system, but the primary benefactors of all these programs tend to be towards lower income Americans.

  So we've managed to outline where most of the money gets spent, and it is fairly obvious that the vast majority of spending is progressive in nature.  But when we consider the revenue, we recognize that it is also extremely progressive in nature.  The top 10% of income earners contribute more than 55% of the revenue pie.  They don't just pay their fair share, they shoulder the burden of taxes, and receive much less back in return.

  This circles back to my original thoughts... what we have here is a system that isn't about fairness, but about compassion.  And that is not a bad thing.  We ask the wealthy to do more than their fair share to help our fellow citizens at the bottom obtain a higher standard of living.  In this frame, we can ask how compassionate does our system need to be?  Can we rationally speak about how the burden should be shared, given our understanding of who puts what in and who takes what out?  Can it be free from jealousy of the wealthy, and the artificial injustice about what they contribute?  The burdens of government should truly be a shared burden for all of us.  I think we must be prepared to raise taxes on ourselves whenever we ask the wealthy to carry an even heavier burden.  It is the fair thing to do.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Budget Hero

  The great sword of the United States government is the power of the purse.  We can wield that sword to attack poverty, safeguard the environment and elderly, and project power across the world, among many other pursuits.  And we share that burden through revenue raised on individuals and corporations.  It is so important, this power, that I believe it has become the fundamental divide in American politics.  What should we spend money on?  How are we going to pay for these programs?

  But there is a fundamental flaw here... the American public is largely unprepared for this debate due to a lack of education about where we are at.  Most Americans don't know how we spend our money.  They may know they would be hard pressed to get a credit card with a 50,000 dollar limit, but I'd bet they'd be shocked to know the credit limit the Federal Government has issued them and spent on their behalf is much higher than that.  They don't understand that our education system is mostly paid for by state and local government, not the federal government.  They wouldn't know that entitlement programs make up more than half the budget.  They also don't know how we pay for it.  They don't know how mandatory payroll taxes are taken out of our paychecks. They don't know how the tax burden is currently distributed.  They don't know that for every dollar they pay in taxes, the government is borrowing another 64 cents that they are expected to pay later.

  And the problem is, this leads to simplified arguments.  We hear politicians say "rich people need to pay their fair share", and we echo back "they should pay more", but when we ask them what a rich person's fair share is, they quote a tax rate lower than what the rich currently pay.  When Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland, he was exasperated when Oakland residents passed a ballot measure to increase the number of cops on the street, and then shot down the measure that would have paid for the added cops.  There really is  no way to sensibly govern when rational analysis isn't a part of the equation.

  So what do we do?  Well I think that young American's need to be better prepared to understand the crux of the spending and taxing issues they will vote on later in life.  We all remember the civics and economics classes we took in high school, right?  They focused on the theory of how our government works... a house and senate, a supreme court, separation of powers... supply and demand curves...  but nothing said about how the government appropriates budgets.  Nothing practical, about the history of how our budgets and taxes look.  Nothing to prepare us to consider future generations.  And this needs to change.

  I think students should be first allowed to construct their own governments, with their own houses or senates or parliaments or whatever... then make their own budgets and set up their own taxation system, all with tools that model reality and long term outlooks.  Then teachers come back to show our history of how its done.  Maybe even the history of how its done elsewhere in the world.  Then they should analyse the consequences of their original choices, as well as the choices that were really made by our government.  And then they should build a budget again.  This kind of exercise is the kind of thing that can have a life long impact on people.  When they consider how they vote, they can compare their own values which they've already analyzed to what the politicians are promising.  And they can make rational decisions.

  I also believe there is a great tool out there already, called budget hero.  Its a simple game that lets you take actions to change the current budget, and see how it plays out over time.  It is a good start towards the type of system that could engage young Americans in that impacting kind of way.  I encourage you to play around with it... see what kind of system you would come up with... and compare that to other demographic groups out there.  Its another step we can take towards improving how our government works.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The CALM Act, and the fiscal cliff negotiations

  I'd like to give a shout-out to Joe Manchin, Democratic Senator from West Virginia, for introducing the CALM act in the midst of the fiscal cliff tax talks.  While it wasn't adopted, the idea of phasing in the tax increases over three years could have helped avoid recession while returning the tax rates to Clinton levels.  I am a strong believer that broad based taxes both better address long term debt, and are a more fair mechanism for sharing the burdens of government.  While Manchin admitted it was perhaps the best of a bunch of unpalatable choices at the time, I would have supported it.

  I think that the agreement that was reached can best be explained by its political maneuvering.  The Obama administration was largely more interested in producing a more progressive taxation system than it was in dealing with the national debt, at least while republicans hold the house.  They also are more satisfied with the structure of the current scheduled spending cuts, which reduce military and discretionary spending by 10%, while leaving entitlements untouched.  By decoupling the spending and tax negotiations, the talks turned from a grand bargain addressing the debt problems to a debate about how progressive taxes should be made.  Since revenue increases were the republicans primary leverage in grand bargain talks, addressing that issue first puts the administration in a much stronger position in the coming spending cut talks.

  The only point of leverage republicans have left is the debt ceiling... which the president has repeatedly claimed he won't negotiate with.  Without that, I'd anticipate the administration would largely press for a reduction from the scheduled 10% cuts to discretionary spending.  I'd encourage republicans to press for either another dollar for dollar extension of the debt ceiling to cuts ratio, or to negotiate an extension to the debt ceiling by shifting some of the debt cuts to the long term structural entitlement reforms.