2011 - %3, February

Do Unions Advocate for the Greater Good?

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 12:19 PM EST

The other day I linked to a post suggesting that states with higher union densities also had more progressive taxation. Via Ezra Klein, I see that University of Washington grad student Barry Pump took a look at the evidence and concluded this wasn't true. There's apparently no correlation at all. But how about social spending? That's a different story. It turns out there's a very strong correlation between union density and state spending on social programs, as the chart on the right shows. Pump comments:

While unions may be rather powerless to affect taxation, they may be able to influence where the tax revenues go. Unions generally support social welfare spending and a strong safety net, so greater union membership would result in more social welfare spending....It seems, based on the data above, that unions probably spend more time trying to influence where the taxes states do get ultimately go rather than from whom states receive that tax revenue.

Now, there's no telling if there's really any causation here. It could be that states with progressive politics simply tend to produce both strong union movements and higher social spending. But this is something that would be worth a followup. One of the arguments in favor of organized labor is that they advocate for broad social change even on issues that don't directly affect union members. (For example, national healthcare and high minimum wages. These don't really affect union members much since they've already negotiated health coverage and wages far higher than the minimum, but unions have consistently fought for them anyway.) This behavior is actually a little mysterious, since interest groups usually stick to fairly narrow parochial concerns, but there's a pretty broad consensus that unions have always acted this way, both in the U.S. and Europe. If Pump's correlation holds up, it's another piece of evidence that unions really do tend to produce more egalitarian social policies in general, not just policies that favor union members.

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What Will the Senate Dems Cut?

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 11:14 AM EST

Faced with the looming prospect of a government shutdown, Senate Democrats are scrambling to put together their own spending plan for the remaining seven months of the year. Republicans only need four Democratic Senators to defect for them to pass the House GOP's budget bill, which includes a whopping $61 billion in cuts. Senate Dems, however, are trying to outflank them by putting together their own budget to fund the government for the remainder of 2011.  

Senate Dems are aiming to craft a short-term budget bill to satisfy moderates without enraging liberals—legislation that must be passed before March 4, when the government runs out of money. Democrats are reportedly going to propose some $41 billion in cuts "to avoid the blame if the government shuts down, showing that they are willing to compromise—unlike their adversaries," Politico's Manu Raju reports

The bulk of the cuts—$33 billion in total—will follow recommendations that Obama had put in the 2012 budget, with an addition $8.5 billion in earmark spending. But it's unclear exactly which programs the Senate Democrats will choose to target, as Obama's own budget contained some proposals unpopular with his own party, Raju explains. Will the Senate follow Obama's cut to low-income heating assistance, risking liberal rage? Or risk pushback from coal-heavy state legislators by cutting subsidies to the industry? 

One thing's for sure, though: Senate Democrats aren't going to touch funding for health-care reform. According to Senate aides, "that means no defunding of the health care law, and no defunding of Planned Parenthood either." 

Wisconsin Assembly Rams Through Walker's Budget Bill

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 9:59 AM EST

It was an ugly end to 61 hours of debate and deliberation. After days of Democrats attacking Republicans and Republicans attacking Democrats, hundreds of amendments being offered, and Democrats using every move in the book to delay a vote, the Wisconsin state Assembly finally voted on Republican Governor Scott Walker's controversial "budget repair bill," which would gut collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions, among other things. In the end, the final vote was 51 to 17, with 28 members—25 Democrats, two GOPers, and one independent—not even voting.

Why? Here's how it went down. A shade after 1 a.m. on Friday morning, the Assembly speaker pro tempore suddenly cut off the debate and demanded a vote. Then the voting window was opened for just a few seconds, long enough for a GOP majority to cast its votes and approve the bill. The moment the vote ended, the Republicans picked up and headed for the door. The move stunned the Democrats in the Assembly, leaving them livid. Some Democrats yelled "Shame!" and "Cowards!" at their Republican counterparts; others hurled papers into the air; one even threw a drink.

The whole thing caught Assembly Democrats by surprise. For one, they still had 15 speakers on deck to debate the bill. Republicans also failed to invoke the traditional motion and roll call used when signaling that the debate is over and it's time to vote.

The post-vote comments by Democrats hid none of their anger. "What a sad day for this state when we are willing to ignore the traditions that people died for in this state, that people fought bitterly for," said Rep. Peter Barca, a Democrat. "We ignore our forefathers who made this a great state." Said Democratic Rep. Kelda Helen Roys: "We never imagined they would do it as they did, not even properly using the nuclear option."

Mike Tate, the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement, "Under cover of darkness, in a practice that Scott Walker denounced while he was campaigning for governor, the Republicans of the Wisconsin Assembly sold their soul. Upending seven decades of labor peace and putting Wisconsin up for sale to the likes of their Koch Brothers masters, they voted to sanction the most divisive piece of legislation in our state's history."

Republicans saw nothing wrong with the move, which they say brought an end to days' worth of delay. "In the end, we're going to head the state in the right direction," said Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, the speaker of the Assembly.

Of course, the fight is only half over. The state Senate now takes up the bill. But with that chamber's 14 Democrats still in hiding—their "filibuster on feet," as one senator called it—it's unclear if or when the senate will take up the bill. Democrats say they have no plans to return anytime soon, not until Gov. Walker relents and throws out his ban on collective bargaining. "I'm not paid to be their rubber stamp," Sen. Chris Larson, a Democrat, told me last night. "I'm not elected to be their rubber stamp."

Eco-News Roundup: Friday February 25

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 8:52 AM EST

News on health, the environment, and energy from our other blogs.

Va. is for... Lovers?: Anti-abortion forces in Va. win a victory over clinics.

Bad Jokes: Florida mayoral candidate yukks it up over bombing abortion clinics.

Midwest Melee: Iowa is the latest state to propose legalizing murder of abortion doctors.

Loophole: Some poor families' varying incomes may hinder government assistance.

Cost of Care: As GDP goes up, we can expect rise in health care spending too.

High Cost: Oil companies are still exempted from royalties they should be paying.

Long Wait: Bill in South Dakota mandates 72-hour wait for abortions.

GOP #Fail: GOP blocks creation of children's product safety commission.

Vote Right: Gov. Scott Walker's voting history reads like a pro-life handbook.

Gone Too Soon: New film looks into increasing suicide, depression in kids.

 

 

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 25, 2011

Fri Feb. 25, 2011 6:29 AM EST

U.S. Army Ranger students make the final push in a rubber boat across a lake during the swamp training phase at Camp Rudder on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Feb. 15, 2011. U.S. Army photo by John D. Helms

This Week's Dear Anna: How To Curb Your Social Media Habit

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Help! I feel like all my social media-ing is cutting into my productivity and life. I'm on all these different sites now, and sometimes I feel like I come to work basically to read Twitter all day. How can I get my social media fix without feeling like an Internet loser and/or getting fired?

~Intertube-Tied

Is there a bigger timesuck in the history of ever than the Internet? One minute you're trying to do your taxes, and the next thing you know you're skimming Portuguese newspapers, watching Skins recaps, Googling "hilarious condoms," and learning that tutorials exist for people who want to have sex with dolphins.

Wading through the muck and white noise of the interwebs can certainly be a daunting task. Here are some tips to help you strike a balance between taking a few bites of Internet cake and sticking your whole head in there like a diabetic Ostrich and never coming out again.

Create boundaries

I know, self-control: zzzzzzzz. What are you gonna tell me next, to eat more kale, exercise, and wear taupe because it goes with everything? No, asshole, you don't look good in taupe! But the self-control part we can totally work on. Start small. Tell yourself, I will only log-in to Facebook three times a day. Or I will only check my email once an hour. Or Twitter is reserved for lunchtime. If you find you can't adhere to your own rules, then consider enlisting the help of addiction-curbing websites like LeechBlock, which is a Firefox extension that blocks up to six websites during times you specify. Of course, this can be easily sidestepped by using another Internet browser, like Safari or Internet Explorer, since most of us have more than one on our computers, but LeechBlock can at least slow you down and help you realize just how Facebook-crack-addled you really are. Another perk/judgment LeechBlock provides is the ability to track how much time you spend playing Farmville or watching Justin Bieber blowdry his hair on YouTube, thus effectively shaming you into recovering a little bit of your dignity.

Read the rest at SF Weekly

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More Tips for Kicking Ass Before Yours Gets Grabbed…Or Worse

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 4:00 AM EST

So you're lying on the floor with your eyes closed, and all of a sudden a guy pins your arms to your side. When your eyes flash open and you start to struggle, he holds you tighter and barks, "Behave!" You do, because you haven't figured out what else to do, and because he's put all his weight on top of you and put his nose to yours. His fingers are tight around your wrists and he's crushing your chest, and you go completely limp.

This non-response response is called Going To Zero. It can be a self-defense strategy if you use it to plan your next move, a fake out. But in this particular case you have just been paralyzed by the awfulness of what's happening and his breath on your face. "You thought you were tough, didn't you?" he coos. "But look at you now with your weak, hot ass."

It's the second eight-hour day of my full-force personal-safety course, an emotional- and physical-self-defense primer on deescalating unwanted advances and surviving a sexual assault. We've come to the So You Are In The Incredibly Unfortunate Position Of Being On Your Back And About To Get Raped module. Here's how to snap out of Going to Zero: Wait for your assailant to start strangling you so you can grab your elbows above your head and then clamp down, trapping his forearms against your chest hard enough to knock the wind out of yourself but long enough to roll him off, walk your way up his body, then kick him in the face. Or wait for him to pull your pants all the way down to your ankles so you can kick him in the face. Pretty much all your options lead to a dirty ground fight in which you'll have to free your legs from his grasp with a move called "pistoning" so that you can land enough heels on his (in this case, elaborately padded and protected) head to knock him out.

The Next Step in Union Busting

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 2:37 AM EST

Today's Wisconsin-themed Twitter humor:

There's gotta be a million like this. Leave yours in comments.

The Politics of Envy

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 7:57 PM EST

Ezra Klein reprints this chart from David Leonhardt, which shows that there's been no surge in government employment over the past two years (the short blip in 2010 is from temporary census hiring), and makes this comment:

But I also think the chart above speaks to what's driving the events in Wisconsin: a perception that people in the "real" economy have suffered greatly, while public workers have been cosseted by their union contracts, their lobbying might and stimulus dollars. And there's some truth to that. The public sector basically sat out the first year of the recession.

Unfortunately, Ezra is almost certainly right that this perception informs the way a lot of people think about economic downturns. It's an unfortunate example of the way we like to view recessions as morality plays rather than macroeconomic events to be dealt with as efficiently as possible.

Start with the private sector. Why did companies shed so many workers? Answer: not because their workers were slothful layabouts, but because business was bad. If your widget sales decline by 10%, you don't need as many sales people, you don't need to run as many shifts in the factory, and you don't need as many accounts receivable clerks. So you lay them off. You don't really have any choice if you want to stay in business, but it's still unfortunate since people without jobs don't buy widgets, which just makes your situation even worse. If you could manage it, it would be pretty helpful if no one got laid off at all.

Now how about the public sector? It's exactly the opposite because the public sector isn't in the business of selling things. If the economy tanks, that doesn't mean there are fewer fires, less crime, or a smaller number of kids in school. That's why cops, firefighters, and teachers don't get laid off. Not because they're a bunch of cosseted union goons, but because the demand for their services is just as high as it was before the recession. In some cases, in fact, it might be higher. There's actually more demand during recessions for clerks to handle unemployment applications or Medicaid reimbursements than there is during boom times.

And it's a good thing, too, since, as Ezra says, "The worst thing for an unemployed person is another unemployed person. It means more competition for job openings, lower wages and less job security." The best outcome for everyone would be for government to employ more people during recessions and to keep their wages high. This would reduce competition for jobs and help keep consumption from falling, which is why, in a perfect world, the federal government would be running big deficits in order to fund the ability of states to keep the lights on.

But the fact that this makes sense doesn't mean most people see it this way. We're biologically wired to be envious of anyone who has things better than us, and there's never any shortage of demagogues to stoke that envy. So we demand that if we're going to suffer, then everyone has to suffer. And guess what? That's exactly what happens.

Huckabee Blasts DOMA

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 6:04 PM EST

In his failed 2008 bid for president, Mike Huckabee cast himself as the Family Values candidate, and he seems to be rehashing the same gambit for 2012. Appearing at the National Press Club on Thursday to promote his new book, "A Simple Government," the former Arkansas governor unloaded about the economic cost of broken families, attempting to wed social and fiscal concerns. At times, Huckabee—a former pastor—struck the moralizing tone of a church youth group leader. "Families that do not have frequent dinners together around their own table are twice likely to use tobacco, marijuana," he told the crowd. He lamented single-parent families for passing on costs to the taxpayer—though he didn't go so far as to utter the word "welfare queen."

Huckabee's comments seemed to regurgitate old debates over the welfare state. But while fiscal concerns continue to eclipse social ones on the national level, there are a few issues that could fit into Huckabee's wheelhouse. On Wednesday, President Obama indicated that he would no longer support the Defense of Marriage Act. When asked about the president's decision, Huckabee laid into Obama for changing his stance after having supported "traditional marriage" during his 2008 campaign:

The president has made an incredibly, amazing inexplicable political error. He is out of touch with the voters in every state in which this is on the ballot...Had he taken this position in the campaign, he might not have been elected. He supported traditional marriage with a man and woman [in 2008]. Either not being honest then or he's not being honest now. Or he changed his mind, and he needs to explain when and how that happened, and why.

Despite his political attack on Obama, Huckabee laid off from moralizing against homosexuality or gay marriage, both of which he adamantly opposes. And he may choose to avoid that tack during the Republican primary in an attempt to reach out to more libertarian-minded tea party types. 

But he could conceivably use a fiscal argument to inveigh against "non-traditional marriage." In an interview with Slate, Huckabee said he didn't know Obama's reasons for flip-flopping on DOMA, but added: "I do know there is a definite economic impact of the breakup of families in this country." When pressed by Mother Jones as to whether gay marriage truly imposed an economic burden on the country at the Press Club, Huckabee declined to answer.

But Huckabee did make time to crack a gay joke during his Thursday appearance. As Huckabee wrapped up his speech, he received a signal from the event host, Bob Webb, that it was time to move on to the question-and-answer session with reporters. "I think I'm getting the question signal—either that or you were making a pass at me, I'm not sure," he told Webb, as the audience chuckled.