Monday, April 25, 2005

This is corruption

This is one for the textbooks. You will probably never hear a more clear-cut example of, or at least admission of, official corruption than this statement from White House spokesman Trent Duffy: "We wanted people who would represent the Administration positively, and--call us nutty--it seemed like those who wanted to kick this Administration out of town last November would have some difficulty doing that." Here the administration is admitting that its reason for removing some delegates to The Inter-American Telecommunication Commission was that they had given money to Kerry and/or not enough money to Bush.
There is a bright red line in American politics: you do not use the power of the government to reward your supporters or to punish your opponents. Yes, most political appointments go to the appointer's supporters; however, financial support cannot be the reason for the appointment--or the un-appointment. Similarly, a congressman like Tom DeLay can vote against a bill after accepting money and perks from its opponents without it being corruption--provided that the reason he voted against it was not the money and perks. As long as DeLay is smart enough to say that the vote had nothing to do with the payments, it is almost impossible to prove corruption. But if he is stupid enough to make the kind of admission the White House made, then he could face removal from office or even prison.

The President, unless he changed his name to Clinton while I wasn't looking, probably won't.
Permalink 12:30 AM

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A Few Thoughts On The Filibuster

I have to admit that, in principle, I don't like it. Is it constitutional, or democratic? I don't think so. Imagine for a moment that the required majority were even larger. Say that the Republicans, knowing that the Democrats were going to get big gains in the next election, raised the required number to end a filibuster from 60 to 90--effectively making all work impossible without overwhelming Republican support. What would we do?

We'd use the nuclear option, that's what. We'd simply void the rule and say, "tough cookies!" Now, before you start complaining that allowing a mere %11 to block any legislation is very different than allowing 41%, let me point out that the smallest 20 states represent less than 10% of our population! That's right, under present filibuster rules, the Senators from the smallest 20 states--plus one Senator from Mississippi (the 21st), together representing 10.9% of the American people--can block any appointment and almost any law.

Of course, if they ever tried it, the rest of the Senate would use the nuclear option--void the rule and say, "tough cookies!" But that's just admitting that the rule we have now is made to be broken. Maybe a better rule would be to allow Senators representing 50% or more of the American people to sustain a filibuster. The Democrats in the Senate (plus Jeffords) represent 51% of us today (seldom mentioned by the SCLM), but the Republicans would need only one defector to get all their judges confirmed.

That change would be a big win for Republicans right now, but might be worth it for the Democrats and for democracy in the future. In the near future, Democrats are likely to regain both the Presidency and the Senate. But even if they represent a super-majority of the American people, they are unlikely to ever again be able to break a Republican filibuster--without going nuclear. The Senate rules are just too skewed towards the small--mostly Republican--states.
Permalink 10:40 PM

Monday, April 18, 2005

Conservatives Are Lousy Parents

As the father of a teenage daughter, I understand parents wanting to keep their daughters virginal. And I just showed her this article on the HPV virus, as one more argument in favor of her staying that way. (Bet you can guess how well that went over.)

So of course I plan to get her vaccinated against it just as soon as a vaccine is proven safe and effective--who wouldn't? Conservatives, like Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, that's who! They're afraid that they will not be able to control their little darlings' urges without having the threat of cervical cancer later in life to hold over their heads.

Of course, we all know that the threat of increased cancer risk is a powerful parenting tool. Without it, many children would probably be smoking, tanning and drinking diet beverages. But does anyone really think that cancer is an appropriate punishment for premarital sex--or even post-marital, if her husband is a carrier? Unfortunately, I'm afraid some people do. Which is why we will probably need to make the vaccine mandatory--for the same reason that the mumps, measles and rubella vaccines are mandatory, and a basic education should be mandatory--because some children need protection from their parents.
Permalink 8:35 PM

Friday, April 15, 2005

Relax, It's Just A Gun

More news on the lighter side.

It is now illegal to take a cigarette lighter on any US commercial passenger aircraft. This applies to checked baggage, as well as carry on--or in your pocket. Ironically, it is legal to have a gun in ones checked baggage; and some people, like the pilots and the air marshals, can even carry them on their persons.

This puts an amusing twist on the old gag where one is frightened by a gun that turns out to be a cigarette lighter.
Permalink 12:37 PM

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Sounds like a Sick Joke

This woman claims to have found a finger in her bowl of Wendy's chilli. A few days later, a woman with a finger missing claims that it belongs to her---she lost it when a leopard attacked her. For more on this bizarre story if you have sick and twisted sense of curiosity, check out this.
Permalink 1:33 PM

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Right-Wing Talk About Judges

Stirring up antipathy towards judges seems to be a recurring pattern among conservatives. I wish these sorts of quotes were coming from the loony fringe, but it appears that they are the mainstream of the GOP. And these are the people who want to foster a "Culture of Life"...

Representative Tom Delay: "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

Sen. John Cornyn: "I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in - engage in violence"

In the following quotes, conservative discuss Anthony Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan appointee:

Phyllis Schlafly ... said Kennedy's opinion forbidding capital punishment for juveniles "is a good ground of impeachment."

Michael P. Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association: "[Kennedy should be the poster boy for impeachment... If our congressmen and senators do not have the courage to impeach and remove from office Justice Kennedy, they ought to be impeached as well."

Lawyer-author Edwin Vieira: "[Kennedy] upholds Marxist, Leninist, satanic principles drawn from foreign law....[Joseph Stalin] had a slogan, and it worked very well for him, whenever he ran into difficulty: 'no man, no problem,'"

(the full quote from Stalin was: "Death solves all problems: no man, no problem.")
Permalink 12:49 PM

NY GOP Gunning for Hillary

According to this AP story, (which I read in the Ithaca Journal):
Claiming Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for the White House on a path "paved with her lies and distortion," New York's GOP chairman has kicked off a national "STOP HILLARY NOW!" fund-raising effort to thwart her 2006 re-election bid.

For some reason, the only people who give a second thought to the possibility of Hillary Clinton running for President are Republicans. I can understand why they would not want Hillary as President, but why should they fear her running for President? She would likely lose every state except (maybe) New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and California.

Perhaps the Republicans are playing a Brer Rabbit/briar patch game with the Democrats: "Please don't nominate Hillary! Anyone but her!" Or maybe, being superstitious folk, they believe that Hillary really is a witch who will use black magic to win the general election.

More likely, they are playing on the anti-Hillary hysteria of their base in order to generate enthusiasm and donations for defeating Hillary's reelection to the Senate in 2006.
Permalink 12:34 PM

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Bush Misleads on Social Security

As reported in the New York Times, President Bush said on April 5,

"You see, a lot of people in America think there's a trust, in this sense: that we take your money through payroll taxes and then we hold it for you, and then when you retire, we give it back to you," Mr. Bush said. "But that's not the way it works."

"There is no 'trust fund,' just I.O.U.'s that I saw firsthand, that future generations will pay - will pay for either in higher taxes or reduced benefits or cuts to other critical government programs," Mr. Bush said.

Sigh. The US is currently, under the leadership of a certain G.W. Bush, spending $400 billion or so more per year than it is taking in. The difference will be paid for by future generations of Americans, either in the form of higher taxes, or in the form of inflation (or more seriously, bankruptcy). Social Security is irrelevant to this fact.

Where the Social Security trust fund comes in is the issue of who is financing all this deficit spending. Currently, a big chunk of the deficit is being financed by the Social Security surplus, which means that Uncle Sam is getting a loan from US wage earners. If there were no Social Security trust fund, then the US would have to make up the money some other way, such as borrowing more from foreign investors.

What that means is that in the future, when we must start paying for the fiscal recklessness of the Bush years, the repayment money will go towards Social Security benefits, instead of paying off foreign investors.

So how in the world is this an argument against Social Security in its current form? How is it an argument that Social Security is in crisis? It's not---it's just demagoguery.

Suggesting that the "IOUs" are worthless paper is no different from suggesting that US Savings bonds are worthless paper. Considering that the US is only staying afloat, financially, by selling those things, it is completely irresponsible for Bush to say that they are worthless. If they are worthless, it is because the US has become, under the leadership of GW Bush, unwilling or unable to meet its financial obligations. If Bush is right about the worthlessness of the Social Security trust fund, it is because he has trashed the reputation of the US, and made us into an unacceptable credit risk.

Yes, Social Security is in crisis in the sense in which the US as a whole is crisis until we elect more responsible leaders.
Permalink 8:31 AM

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Another Sex Post

Of course, my posts about sex are remarkable in their complete lack of anything titillating. Here's a question that I have wondered about: Throughout most of human history, across most cultures, men have had more political power than women. Why is that? The easy answer is "because they were oppressed by men", but then the question, why were men able to get enough power to oppress women, in the first place? If you answer "because of cultural indoctrination", then that just brings up the question of why did male-dominating culture arise, in the first place? This is a Jared Diamond-like question (see "Guns, Germs and Steel" for a discussion of why Eurasia dominated the Americas, Australia, and Africa throughout much of history).

It seems like to me that there are a number of plausible explanations:
(1) Innate differences in inclinations, or levels of agression of men and women.
(2) The role of childbirth.
(3) The role of physical size and strength.

I've wondered how society would be different if there were no differences (on the average) between men and women in terms of physical size and strength. In today's world, strength has very little importance in how most of us perform our jobs, but the the strength difference between men and women still has a strong social effect. How would society be different if professional football players or muggers were as likely to be women as men?
Permalink 10:35 PM

Liberal vs Conservative Identification Hasn't Changed

As pointed out by Kevin Drum, this pair of graphs show that the relative number of people who consider themselves "liberal" or "conservative" has changed very little in the last 20 or so years. In contrast, the relative number of people who consider themselves Democrats has dropped considerably.

This confirms that the declining fortunes of the Democratic Party are not really due to the country becoming more conservative, but due to conservatives leaving the Democrats.
Permalink 10:24 PM

Walmart Goes After Estate Tax

In USA Today's Money Section, via Facing South:

[I]n a little-noticed move, the company's founding family has plunged into a fight to pass income tax changes and other legislation that could preserve its grip on the USA's biggest business and the family's $84 billion fortune.

Led by Sam Walton's only daughter, Alice, the family spent $3.2 million on lobbying, conservative causes and candidates for last year's federal elections. That's more than double what it spent in the previous two elections combined, public documents show.

Once the estate tax is eliminated, the fortunes of billionaires should last for eternity, or until the US goes bankrupt, whichever comes first.
Permalink 10:06 PM

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Tax Plan To Kill K Street

Yes I stole the title from George Will. Unlike will, I don't think we can kill K street by 'simply' changing our fundamental tax structure. Whether we tax based on income or sales or assets, K street will do just fine. But there is a much simpler change we could make to the tax code that would go a long way towards reducing its power. Those little boxes on the tax forms that ask if you want $3 to go to the presidential campaigns... change them so that they ask which campaign, party or political action committee you want your $3 dollars to go to. The top ten or so could be listed right on the form, and there could be a space for a write-in.
Under the present system, most people do not check the box. Famously, George Bush did not, even though he accepted the money. But if he knew that the whole $3 would go to Republicans, instead of being split with the Democrats, he certainly would have--and he would have made an effort to encourage every Republican to do likewise. The same goes for the Democrats. That would effectively raise the Federal election fund from about $100 million every four years to about $600 million a year--enough to seriously weaken the power of the lobbyists. They could be weakened even further if people let their favorite party or politician know that the more they get from K street, the less they'll get from the people.
Here's how I think it would play out. I'm not about to vote for Nader just because Kerry has taken too much from United Special Interests Of America, but I might send my $3 elsewhere. If enough people do that, then Kerry (or Joe politician) might realize that K street's money just isn't worth the trouble.
Permalink 6:29 PM

Linder's Plan

I just read George Will's Thursday column: "The Tax Plan To Kill K Street" touting Rep. John Linder's (R (of course), Georgia) plan for a national sales tax. There were parts of it worth considering. I appreciated him admitting that the payroll tax is regressive--more on that later. And I agree that the tax system is too complex. A "single tax" has a certain appeal--although I think it should be a national ad-valorem tax, rather than a sales tax--but I appreciate Linder and Will for opening the debate.
Here's one big flaw in the sales tax plan: the numbers don't add up. Linder suggests that a 23% sales tax would be enough to pay for the government--which consumes about 23% of GDP. But GDI (Gross National Income) is substantially less than GDP--about $6 trillion vs. $11 trillion, and gross sales receipts are even less. Put it this way, payroll taxes are 5.2% of GDP but require a 10.8% income tax (12.4% of the first $87,000). So to generate 23% of GDP, we would need a 48% flat income tax or a 92% sales tax. 92%. And that's before we allow any deductions such as Linder proposes to relieve the poor and elderly.
Any tax plan looks a lot better if you grossly understate what it will take. Don't like my national ad-valorem tax idea at 6%? Heck, I'll just pretend that it'll only take 1.5%! That looks a lot better, doesn't it? Of course it does! A free lunch always looks good.
Permalink 4:22 PM