Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Big Surprise

We've become so accustomed to Justice Kennedy being the swing vote on the Supreme Court that just about everybody waiting for the ruling on Obamacare (ACA) was going crazy trying to figure out what he might do.  Personally, I didn't have much confidence that he would uphold the individual mandate — and I turned out to be right.  He didn't.

The real surprise was that the swing vote, this time, came from Chief Justice Roberts.  Mind you, he didn't uphold the mandate based on the Commerce Clause, as the four liberal justices did.  Roberts construed the mandate as a form of a tax, and hence within the powers of Congress to enact.

Actually, it seems only reasonable that one of the conservative justices, at least, would find it possible to approve a plan designed by the Heritage Foundation.  It may be that Roberts, while ideologically conservative, is less political than Thomas, Alito, and Scalia.  It may also be that he wanted to find a way to approve the ACA for the sake of the nation's health.

We know that the Republicans in Congress will try to overturn the law, but as long as there are 41 Democrats in the Senate, it won't happen.  In the meanwhile, some states my try experimenting with public options, which have to bring down insurance costs because they would be non-profit and require no advertising.  We'll see.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Montana v. the Supremes

The big Supreme Court decision today, from a news media perspective, was the decision on Arizona's immigration law.  I have no comment on that, since I expect it will be back before the court not all that long after Arizona actually starts enforcing the provision the Supremes upheld today.

More important, from my perspective, was the Supremes' refusal to uphold Montana's ban on corporate contributions to political campaigns.  Citizens United was upheld, presumably by the same five to four majority that made the original ruling.  If I recall correctly, I have not had much to say about Citizens United in earlier posts — actually, I don't think I weighed in on it at all.  Well, here I go: Constitutionally speaking, I think the decision was correct.

Corporations are not persons, however the law is interpreted.  Not being a person, however, should not deprive an institution of First Amendment rights — at least not until the First Amendment is rewritten to apply only to individuals.  Anyway, it wouldn't make a difference so long as there are individual persons like, say, Sheldon Adelson, whose fortunes rival those of some pretty big corporations.

The real problem is that some people are just too goddamned rich, given that money is power.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the class war is over, and we lost it.  The plutocracy reigns.

Montana (where Frank Zappa hoped to raise a crop of dental floss) had a history of plutocrats (most notably, copper barons) buying its political leaders.  Its century-old legislation that sought to combat that problem, sadly, turned out to be unconstitutional.  Well, what can I say?  That's the Constitution for you.

On the other hand, I have no idea why 501(c)(3) organizations should not be required to disclose who the hell their donors are.  Donors to truly "charitable" groups — no matter whether they're rescuing puppies, fighting rare diseases, or even providing rehabilitation to persons previously kidnapped by aliens — should not object to having their names disclosed.  Hell, they're doing good, right?

Going one step further, 501(c)(3) organizations whose objectives are entirely political — like Crossroads GPS — not only should have to disclose their donors, but should lose their non-profit status.  They're not promoting any sort of public good.  They're just promoting plutocracy.


Here's another thought: Mitt Romney tithes to the LDS Church.  I'm not sure how much of that money is devoted to genuine good works.  Personally, I don't see any public good at all in converting Samoans, Nicaraguans, and (in Mitt's case) the French to Mormonism.  Just because it's "good" for the Mormons (or the Catholics or the Seventh Day Adventists or the Sunni Muslims) doesn't mean it's good for the public at large.  A lot of Mormon money went to fighting same sex marriage in California.  Is that a public good, or just more politics?

Moreover, who cares if the Pentecostals are saving "souls" in Kenya if they are not simultaneously saving Kenyan children from malnutrition or river blindness or being forced to become child soldiers?  Wouldn't it make sense to separate out ideology from action?  Public good should be observable and measurable in terms of life expectancy, reduction of suffering, and the general well-being of real people.  Changing someone's belief about what you have to do to get the gods to like you should not count.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Keynes and Democracy

Back in the seventies, Richard Nixon said, "We are all Keynesians now."  He was half right.

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) recognize that it is written by a confirmed Keynesian (and not one of those Neo-Keynsians either.)  I am a Keynesian in large part because the theoretical framework is just so elegant, but also because practical experience has thoroughly demonstrated that supply-side economics just doesn't work.  So, if we all were Keynesians back in the seventies, and if Keynesian theory actually works in practice, how did we get into such a mess over the intervening years?

I suppose we could assign some of the blame to supply-siders who came to prominence beginning in the Reagan years, starting with Arthur (Laughable) Laffer*, who posited that cutting taxes would increase tax revenues.  Well, he was dead wrong, but that didn't bother Americans (especially the rich) who wanted their taxes cut, and were perfectly happy to take food out of the mouths of impoverished children so it could happen.  Still, that doesn't explain the failures of Keynesianism.  After all, if it was working properly, it would have been hard to push aside.

The problem is that only half of the Keynes model ever is put into practice — the stimulus half.  The other side of the Keynesian coin requires raising taxes and cutting spending when times are good, both to create a surplus for use during downturns, and to cool down an economy when it is overheating.  That never happens.  (Okay the Clinton tax increases of the nineties were, at least, movement in the right direction — but then came Bush.)

What gets in the way of practicing a little austerity in boom times?  Representative democracy.

Elected officials like to be re-elected, so they can continue peddling influence, trading on insider information, and getting their asses kissed.  Hence, if times are good and tax revenues are increasing, they inevitably cut taxes and increase spending because they have the money to do it.  "Irrational exuberance" inflates the inevitable bubbles, and the next Congress can try to work things out when the bubbles pop.

I can't see any way to break that destructive pattern.  Can you?

*Arthur Laffer, discredited though he may be, currently is advising the Romney campaign.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Election Day!

Egypt, Greece, and France held elections yesterday, with mixed results.

In Egypt, needless to say, the Supreme Military Council (aka military junta) stripped the soon to be elected president of all his powers even before the first vote was cast, so nobody really cared what happened.  What will Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi do with his empty title?  Beats me.  Is it time to to heat things up again in Tahrir Square?  Maybe — but Egypt could make Syria look like Luxembourg.

In Greece, fear triumphed, mildly, over hope (or anger) with the "victory" of the New Democrats — who really are not all that different from the Clinton-Gore New Democrats of the USofA.  Obama may be thinking about genuinely joining a religion so he might more effectively pray for a financial turnaround in Europe.  So far, New Democracy has not managed to form a government.  I suppose Pasak will join in by tomorrow or the next day, provided the alleged "socialists" are offered enough graft — but that coalition will be very fragile.

Greece could be facing new elections in a matter of months, unless the Germans get the steel rods out of their asses and let Greece ease up on its current austerity program, which has driven the country into depression.  In case you hadn't noticed, Germany is the country that has profited most from the euro — the euro is worth a lot less than a deutschmark would have been worth at this point, and that has been the primary factor driving Germany's export oriented economy for many years.  The losers were the net importing Eurozone countries of the south.  As I suggested last November, the best way to save the euro would be to kick out the Germans and generate some healthy inflation.

The good news is that Hollande and his Socialists have solidified their political control in France, creating a counterweight to Merkel and the Germans with regard to austerity.  If it's not too late, the Greeks, Spaniards, and Portuguese will appreciate Hollande's efforts.  It might even cheer the sad, suffering Irish a bit.  Countries cannot afford to watch their best and brightest young people emigrate because there is no work at home.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Short Subjects

Banking Committee kisses Dimon's ass

Is anybody surprised?  The JPM PAC hands out a load of money to members of the banking committee, and Congress really is not interested in banking reform or they'd have brought back Glass-Steagall instead of farting around with the Volcker Rule.

Egyptians notice it was a military coup all along

Hell, even the American press has noticed, at last.   To me, it seemed pretty obvious in February 2011.

When the Mubarak appointed Supreme Court voided the results of the Parliamentary elections and confirmed the right of Mubarak apparatchik Ahmed Shafik to run for the presidency, it became harder to ignore.  That same court gets to supervise counting the votes, so let's try to guess who's going to win.  (Was the US in on it all along?  Well, maybe.)

Obama and his Drones

The rest of the world has had a pretty good idea of the impact of Obama's greatly increased use of Predator Drones for quite a while — especially the people in their target areas — but the American press finally seems to be waking up to the fact that we've been killing a lot more civilians than the Pentagon reports.  I'm willing to bet that a large majority of the American people don't even know we've been using them in Yemen, and that an even larger majority can't find Yemen on a map.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Politics of Envy

What happened in Wisconsin on Tuesday?

Walker defeated Barrett by seven percentage points — it wasn't even close.  While it is true that Walker supporters, including most of the same out-of-state multimillionaires funding Republican superPACs, outspent Barrett supporters by more than three-to-one, I'm not sure that the relentless barrage of television commercials was entirely responsible for the outcome.

To the average private sector worker, it looks like public employees have it good — and they are not wrong about that.  Teachers, police, firefighters, etc. have benefit packages and pension plans, by and large, far superior to anything even unionized private sector workers have been able to achieve.  There are reasons for that, of course.  State and local leaders, in the past, were willing to promise benefits in lieu of salary increases — it helped them keep current taxes low, and passed on the costs to future politicians, long after the original negotiators had left office. The public employee unions sacrificed salaries for benefits, and properly believe they now deserve the benefits they were promised.  In the intervening years, though, state and local governments were either underfunding or outright looting public employee pension funds so they could pretend their budgets were "balanced."

Meanwhile, back in the private sector, workers were being royally screwed.  They lost both salary (adjusted for inflation) and benefits over the past thirty or so years, thanks to the intensely pro-corporate environment created by the Reagan-Thatcher revolution.  They look at public sector workers and, predictably, feel envy.  It was that envy that was exploited (partly through TV commercials) to bring Walker his victory — albeit the exploitation was paid for by the very same plutocrats who had created the situation in the first place by suppressing unionization, off-shoring jobs, and recreating what Mark Twain once called "the best Congress money can buy."

Monday, June 4, 2012

Religious Free(dom?)

While we chew our nails in anticipation of tomorrow's elections in Wisconsin, I thought I might distract you a little by looking at the latest "religious freedom" controversy.  In short, Catholic institutions (as distinguished from most Catholics) don't want to pay for contraception for their various Catholic and non-Catholic employees.  Given that Catholicism in America is a pretty large cartel, there are a lot of women with unwanted pregnancies — both Catholic and not Catholic — who work for that cartel.  The bombastic bishops are being goosed ahead by the evangelical right.

When Obama moved the responsibility for contraception from the religious institutions to their private insurance companies, it was a cop-out, of course.  Our President's 2012 campaign song ought to be Paul Simon's "Slip Sliding Away."  Presumably, he didn't use enough lube, because the bishops are still (sans lube) up his ass (despite the fact that he passed through puberty many years ago.)

Personally, I think there's not nearly enough separation of Church and State.  When the right-wing religious ideologues start yelling about the First Amendment, I am inclined to step back, gather up a few thunderclouds, and shout, "Hypocrites!  Woe be unto you!  Surely, the command from the Lord, thy God, is to go fuck thyself!"

Okay.  Let us zipline down from the mountaintop, and get a little more analytical and less emotional.

Mitt Romney tithes to the Mormon church, and 100% of his tithe is tax deductible (even if he doesn't really need the deduction.  He's got more than ample deductions, rate advantages, and credits just by virtue of being rich.)  How much of his tax-deductible tithe was spent on, for example,
  • Baptizing dead people, including dead celebrities, victims of the Holocaust, etc.?
  • Converting hapless adherents of other faith systems by sending young missionaries around the world?  (Romney, as you may know, was sent to convert the French.  Sacrebleu!)
  • Actions to influence the outcomes of legislative initiatives and/or elections?
  • Acquiring real estate and hence making it nontaxable?
There's more, of course, but why belabor the point?  I'm not saying that religious organizations never do valuable and real charitable work, nor that the Mormons are worse than any of the others.  Catholic Charities does a great deal of good for the poor, especially children, so donations that go to that aspect of the Catholic Church certainly should be deductible.  On the other hand, donations that go to projects like gilding the cupola, shuffling kiddie-diddling priests around, and suing the United States government over contraception regulations should not.

In other words, I think charity should be defined as money going to do measurable good to those actually in need — and by that, I mean in this life, not some hypothetical next life.

I'm not allowed to deduct my contributions to the ACLU, because they might go to work that is somehow political.  Well, if you think today's churches, synogogues, mosques, etc. are not political, then your head is up your ass.  Isn't it time to take a look at how tax advantaged religious organizations are using the taxpayer money they gain through their tax advantages?

As a totally secular individual paying taxes to subsidize other people's superstitions, I do.