2010 - %3, August

The Rich and Their Discontents

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 1:27 PM EDT

Paul Krugman on the Republican jihad to extend the portion of the Bush tax cuts that affect the rich:

This has nothing to do with sound economic policy. Instead, as I said, it’s about a dysfunctional and corrupt political culture, in which Congress won’t take action to revive the economy, pleads poverty when it comes to protecting the jobs of schoolteachers and firefighters, but declares cost no object when it comes to sparing the already wealthy even the slightest financial inconvenience.

So far, the Obama administration is standing firm against this outrage. Let’s hope that it prevails in its fight. Otherwise, it will be hard not to lose all faith in America’s future.

What really gets me about this whole thing is that conservatives are barely even trying to defend their position. As Krugman says, they talk a bit about the impact on small business owners, but this is so transparently flimsy you can almost sense their embarrassment when they bring it up. And then there's sort of a pro forma insistence that raising taxes a few percentage points on the wealthy would stall the economic recovery, but there's virtually no evidence for this. In fact, just the opposite. A small tax increase on the rich would probably have the smallest economic effect of practically any revenue-raising policy you can imagine. It would barely be measurable.

There really is, literally, no reason to favor extending Bush tax cuts for the rich except purely as a gift to the rich. As the Tax Policy Center chart below shows, the million-dollar crowd would get a 3.3% income boost and the ten-million-dollar crowd would get a 5.8% boost in their incomes. And the deficit would increase by the better part of a trillion dollars. That's it. That's all that would happen if the top end cuts were extended.

I sure wish there were a political movement that cared as much about the $50,000 crowd as the conservative movement does about the million-plus crowd. I wonder what we'd call it?

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Karen Hughes and the Mosque

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 12:55 PM EDT

Over the weekend, former Bush aide (and longtime pal) Karen Hughes wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post suggesting that although Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has the right to build a community center and mosque anywhere he wants, she thinks he would be wise to voluntarily choose a different location that's farther away from Ground Zero:

I recognize that I am asking the imam and his congregation to show a respect that has not always been accorded to them. But what a powerful example that decision would be. Many people worry that this debate threatens to deepen resentments and divisions in America; by choosing a different course, Rauf could provide a path toward the peaceful relationships that he and his fellow Muslims strive to achieve. And this gesture of goodwill could lead us to a more thoughtful conversation to address some of the ugliness this controversy has engendered.

This all sounds very calm and reasonable. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. But I think Hughes has skipped at least a couple of bases here.

First, this isn't a matter of asking Rauf to take into account a spontaneous wave of pain and raw feelings generated by his project. If it were, Hughes' proposal would at least be understandable. But the Park51 project produced no reaction when Rauf first announced it. Opinion leaders thought it was fine, ordinary citizens thought it was fine, and planning commissions thought it was fine. But months later a lunatic bigot named Pam Geller managed to get the attention of a few columnists, and then Fox News and Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich weighed in and suddenly it was a massive affront to dignity and a sign of Muslim triumphalism on hallowed ground. Responding to real emotion is one thing, regardless of whether the emotion is justified. Anybody with a heart at least gives it consideration. But responding to a wholly ginned up controversy that's driven by ideologues and partisan politics? That's just capitulation to the mob.

Second, would it be a powerful example? I don't see how. I wonder what Hughes thinks the reaction of the mosque opponents would be if Rauf took her advice? Would they all calmly praise Rauf for his statesmanlike stance and lead their flocks in demonstrations of support and interfaith harmony? Or would they scream war whoops and declare a historic victory over the infidel hordes at the metaphorical gates of Vienna? Do I even need to ask?

The mosque controversy is no grass roots movement. It's a cynical political ploy, and giving in to it merely provides strength to the next one that the right decides to gin up. It's a bad idea. Better to simply stand up for what's right and ask the cynics to stand down instead.

Behold: The (Blank) Act of (Blankety-Blankety-Blank-Blank)

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 11:41 AM EDT

Bills change a lot on the way to becoming a law. Their contents change as members of the House and Senate push pet provisions. They get longer (or shorter) and more (or less) expensive. Even their names change. Sometimes, that can lead to mistakes. Take House Resolution (HR) 1586, a bill originally intended to modernize the air traffic control system (and reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration). In August, the Senate gutted the bill and used the HR number as a vehicle to provide money to save teacher jobs and Medicaid aid for the states. There's just one problem: somewhere along the way, the bill lost its name. That's right: the teacher jobs bill (as passed by the House and the Senate and enrolled for the president to sign) is called the "XXXXXXAct ofXXXX." And they didn't just make the mistake once. They made it twice. There are two substitute amendments to the bill with blank-blankety-blankety-blank names. 

Sure, the important thing is that states got money to save teacher jobs and close budget gaps. But it's still funny that Congress doesn't even bother to name its bills anymore. And no one seems to care. After all, this isn't a secret. It's in the congressional record. It's possible that a change was made after the bill was passed and sent to the president (a procedure known as an "enrollment correction"). I've asked the Government Printing Office for a copy of the bill signed by the president to see if that happened. But if that wasn't done, the president himself had to have seen the funny name when he signed the bill on August 10. It's right at the top:

SHORT TITLE

Section 1. This Act may be cited as the `XXXXXXAct ofXXXX'.

Here's a screengrab:

Check all this out for yourself in THOMAS, the Library of Congress' congressional database. Here's the timeline. Here's the list of versions of the bill. And here's the bill itself, as passed by the House and Senate and enrolled for the President's signature. Read it and weep.

How Corporate Campaign Donors Can Evade the IRS

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 10:30 AM EDT

Deep-pocketed donors are just beginning to take advantage of the post-Citizens United world of campaign finance by pouring money into elections as they never have before. As both corporations and unions ramp up political spending, the Washington Post takes a close look at just how easy it is for big spenders to cover their tracks. TW Farnam explains that the Supreme Court ruling has "largely tied the hands of the Federal Election Commission," preventing it from forcing political advertisers to reveal their donors. Instead, it's now fallen on the Internal Revenue Service to take up far more of a watchdog role, determining which groups are legally obliged to disclose their donors and which aren't.

Bad News for Breathers?

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 10:26 AM EDT

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency quietly delayed the release of final rules on ground-level ozone pollution standards, better known as smog. One clean-air group called the delay "a potentially ominous development," as the agency has been pressured to forgo the new standards.

The agency proposed tough new rules in January, tightening controversial Bush-era regulations that experts believe imperiled public health. But EPA has faced push-back from the industry and a group of senators, who asked the agency to hold off on the new rules. Opponents of the standards argue that it's only been two years since the Bush administration released the last set of rules, and updates are generally issued every five years (they failed to mention, however, that the Bush rules were far weaker than the agency's own scientists recommended).

The final rule was supposed to be released at the end of this month; now EPA says it won't be issued for at least another two months. In a statement, EPA said it still intends to issue a new rule:

EPA remains committed to protecting public health from the dangers of ground-level ozone, a key component of smog. We are continuing to carefully consider the proposed options and the information we received during the public comment period on the January 2010 proposal. There will be a slight delay in finalizing our decision on any new ozone standards. We expect to finalize the standards towards the end of October 2010. We have spoken with the litigants and have updated the court on our status.

But Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, thinks the delay is a bad sign for the rules. "Obviously, we want EPA to make the best possible decision, using the best possible science. But this delay is bad news for breathers," said O'Donnell. "We can only hope it is a temporary setback, and that the EPA does not bow to political pressure on an issue so significant."

How to Avoid Being Crushed to Death at a Concert

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 7:03 AM EDT

Back in 2003, a nightclub fire in Providence, Rhode Island broke out when the pyrotechnics of the ‘80s metal band Great White malfunctioned and ignited the ceiling. At first, patrons thought it was just part of the show. But within 90 seconds, what are known as “crush conditions” began to develop in the crowd—that is, the force of compression inside the panicked mass became so great that people started to suffocate.

This death by compressive asphyxia was undoubtedly what killed many of the 96 victims who never escaped the club that night, as it is thought to be responsible for almost all deaths that occur in out-of-control crowds. One of the reasons compressive asphyxia is so common is that crush conditions develop too quickly for anyone of authority to respond. The only way to stop them is to detect them before they happen.

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Battling Till The End For FL Gov

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 6:38 AM EDT

When Florida Republicans vote tomorrow on their pick for governor, one of the most bruising, bitter primary campaigns will come to a close. For the past few weeks, Republicans Bill McCollum and Rick Scott have traded blow after blow in their gubernatorial primary fight in what quickly became an overwhelmingly negative race. The pair even took their fighting into the lord's house over the weekend, with the two accusing each other of lying and skewing facts and track records in respective visits to Florida mega-churches.

A new poll from Public Policy Polling shows Scott's attack ads may be working. Scott leads McCollum 47 percent to 40 percent, an advantage, it's worth noting, that's within PPP's margin of error. According to PPP pollster Tom Jensen, McCollum slightly leads Scott among moderate voters. Which is to say, if Scott wins, "it will be because he destroyed McCollum's reputation with conservative voters," Jensen writes. Scott leads McCollum among conservatives 50 percent to 39 percent.

But as Jensen notes, whoever wins the GOP primary for Florida governor tomorrow will emerge a wounded candidate in voters' eyes:

Regardless of who emerges as the winner Tuesday night Republicans' chances of holding the Florida Governor's office will have been considerably damaged by this primary campaign. Only 46% of primary voters have a favorable opinion of Scott and just 38% see McCollum in a positive light. They've left GOP voters with mixed feelings about them and Democratic and independent voters with pretty negative ones. Five months ago we would have said Alex Sink looked like a dead duck. Now with the way this contest has unfolded she looks like the favorite.

Workers: Pay Up, Jeff Greene

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 6:12 AM EDT

Jeff Greene, the self-made billionaire running for US Senate as a Democrat in Florida, likes to say that "Creating jobs is priority number one." His slogan is "Jobs. Results. Florida." In a new ad, "Never Let You Down," Greene tells Floridians, "I've created thousands of jobs, I understand the economy, and I know what it will take to get things moving again."

Imagine, then, the surprise of some part-time workers for Greene's campaign who claim to have been stiffed by the candidate. In the run-up to tomorrow's primary vote, Greene's campaign said it'd pay $50 each day for workers to canvass neighborhoods, call prospective voters, and otherwise promote the wealthy, largely self-funded Greene. Now, some of those workers claim they're not getting paid for their work. Here's the Miami Herald's Beth Reinhard:

"He's a crook," said 22-year-old Sabrina Height, picking her teeth with a toothpick after enjoying the spread of free food [at a Miami Gardens restaurant on Sunday]. She said she was owed $200. "He's giving us the runaround," she said. "To tell you the truth, I don't even know why I voted for him."

James Alvin, 43, who said he was owed $250, said he would probably vote for Greene's rival, Kendrick Meek "because of what his mom done." His mother, Carrie Meek, served in Congress from 1992 to 2002, when Kendrick was elected.

Greene spokesman Luis Vizcaino insisted that everyone who worked on the campaign would be paid. "They're here for a back-to-school event,'' he said of the people leaving the restaurant with armfuls of spiral notebooks, folders and No. 2 pencils.

Greene faces Rep. Kendrick Meek in the Democratic primary for US Senate, for which voting day is tomorrow. (Early voting has already begun.) While Greene has challenged Meek, and even surged past Meek in the polls, his controversial past has caught up with him in recent weeks and dogged his campaign. According to a new poll from Public Policy Polling, Meek leads Greene by a whopping 51 percent to 27 percent. As PPP pollster Tom Jensen put it, "Jeff Greene made a bad first impression on Florida Democrats and the more they got to know him the less they liked him."

Disaster Politics

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

The Pakistani government's response to the massive floods that have devastated the country isn't getting the best reviews. Government food aid, medical supplies, and rescue services have been slow to reach affected areas, critics charge. At a press conference on Thursday, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari provided some clarification: he's "not the government", just "governance"—and "governance" doesn't like it when people criticize the government. Cutting a vacation short to return to his flood-devastated country, Zardari struck out against "undemocratic forces [that] were maligning the government with their false propaganda about possibilities of corruption in [sic] utilisation of funds." Such "allegations against the government . . . are malicious and baseless as always, aimed only at weakening the democracy."

Zardari's bizarre statement may be amusing, but reports that Islamist charities have been quick to fill the relief vacuum left by an absconding, slow-footed Pakistani government are no small matter. Regional expert Steve Coll considers how disasters expose what we know about a government, a country, and its most helpless:

A few days after an earthquake, you feel immediately the presence of the state—or its absence. People have reasonable expectations that their government or military or social or religious charities will scramble into action and make themselves felt after an earthquake. Where are the bulldozers? Where are the portable hospitals? Open those roads! If a government doesn’t perform, people can get agitated pretty quickly. Governments rise and fall over earthquakes. [emphasis added]

The point is simple, striking, and a terribly mean-sounding: disasters are opportunities for everyone. If Zardari can't do what the Islamist charities can, he'll continue to shed political capital. That's exactly what seems to be happening, and no one seems particularly surprised.

As Pakistan-based columnist Mosharraf Zaid writes, there's also broader narrative unfolding. Zaid notes the aid dollars donated so far to flood victims—around $16 per affected Pakistani, vs. $1250-per-2004-tsunami victim, and $1000 per Haitian earthquake victim. Here's his theory about that:

[I]n this case, the humanity of Pakistan's victims takes a backseat to the preconceived image that Westerners have of Pakistan as a country. Pakistan is a country that no one quite gets completely, but apparently everybody knows enough about to be an expert. If you're a nuclear proliferation expert, suddenly you're an expert on Pakistan. If you're [a] terrorism expert, ditto: expert on Pakistan. India expert? Pakistan, too then. Of South Asian origin of any kind at a think-tank, university, or newspaper? Expert on Pakistan. Angry that your parents sent you to the wrong madrassa when you were young? Expert on Pakistan. The net result of Pakistan's own sins, and a global media that is gaga over India, is that Pakistan is always the bad guy.

In other words, Pakistanis are too often seen as a project, not a people. Their country is the perfect subject for almost any geo-political dissertation topic. That makes it hard for foreigners to respond to the floods as a human tragedy. Bad things happen in Pakistan because it's Pakistan; from AQ to Zardari, it's all catastrophe. We've come to expect Zardari to screw up, for the Islamist charities to swoop in, and for the American and Pakistani armies to wage a hearts-and-minds campaign because that's just what happens over there.

A Sense of Where We Are: Westward Expansion

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 5:45 AM EDT


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