2011 - %3, March

Meanwhile, in Ohio…

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 11:00 AM EST

Yesterday, Ohio Governor John Kasich delivered his State of the State address in a hostile environment. Some inside the Capitol booed him. Lots of people outside the building demonstrated against him. Someone even rewrote the lyrics of Queen's "We Will Rock You" to turn it into a vaguely threatening anti-Kasich screed ("We Will Stop You"), because that is how we protest in my home state.

As in Wisconsin, the Ohio legislature is proposing to drastically reduce unions' bargaining abilities, which prompted thousands of protesters to come out in Columbus last month. The city's protests have had a smaller turnout than Madison's, and no Michael Moore appearances, but the battle is no less significant. "I just want other states to know what we're going through," said my friend, who called me shortly after listening to Kaisch (or, as she calls him, "our big stupid douchebag governor"). We went to Ohio State together; she's been a public school teacher for eight years.

Here's what they're going through: The anti-union Senate Bill 5 barely passed after some shady, last-minute reshuffling of committee members to get it to a vote. SB 5 "severely limits my union's ability to collectively bargain," my friend said. "It involves jail times and fines for striking. It takes away employers' incentive to bargain in good faith. Then you're just at the mercy of your board. It's not like just because I'm in a union I'm bullying the board into raises. I've taken a zero for the last two years."

The rhetoric painting union workers as contentious, fabulous fat cats really pisses my friend off. The average Ohio Association of Public School Employee makes a whopping $24,000 a year. She also resents the propaganda about unions being disruptive strike machines. Ohio's current collective-bargaining law was passed in 1983. The State Employment Relations Board says that in 1978, there were 67 public-sector strikes; in 2008, there were just three.

Kasich called broadly for reforms, but didn't say much about what exactly he has in mind. It's not clear, either, what will happen with SB 5, which has gone to a House committee.

"It's all just political bullshit," my friend said, part of the "agenda to break down the Democratic Party by dismantling unions. But this happens to be political bullshit that affects my ability to feed my family."

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Quote of the Day: American Crossroads Edition

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 10:33 AM EST

Buried in Playbook this morning is the news that American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-led soft money groups unleashed by the Citizens United decision, are setting there sights even higher in 2012 (they're already running ads about Wisconsin). Via Mike Allen, here's Crossroads' press release:

American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (Crossroads GPS) announced a collective fundraising goal of $120 million … American Crossroads (the 527) also announced a new Presidential Action Fund, a new initiative that will be dedicated to shaping the issue environment and driving high-impact messages and themes… You can't outspend the unions—but you can outcompete them with a faster and leaner organization that offers more bang for the buck.

Actually, you can outspend the unions. By a lot. Per Open Secrets, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS spent a combined $39 million on outside expenditures during the 2010 election. The top union donor, the SEIU, contributed $17 million. The top four conservative outside groups outspent the top four unions $97 million to $40 million. For more, check out our reporting on the rise of dark money groups.

Update: A reader points out a WSJ report noting that AFSCME was the largest donor of the 2010 midterms (the Open Secrets data offered a more narrow look at outside spending beyond the confines of political parties). But the second and third largest donors in that report were the Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads. So even by that measure, corporate groups still managed to outspend unions.

Birther Bill Surfaces (and Dies) in New Hampshire (UPDATED)

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 10:28 AM EST

Birthers are making inroads in the New Hampshire statehouse, which is slated to examine a bill that would require presidential candidates to provide a long-form birth certificate to get on the ballot, the Associated Press reports. State Rep. David Bates, Republican chair of the election law committee, is behind the measure—an outgrowth of the conspiracy surrounding President Obama's birth in Hawaii. Arizona was among the first states to introduce a birther bill in January, and a handful of other states are trying to follow suit, as my colleague David Corn reported.

The New Hampshire House's election law committee will take up the birther bill on Wednesday, according to the AP. It's unclear whether it will go anywhere: Arizona's birther bill died in a Senate committee last month. Bates has tried to quiet some of the controversy surrounding his New Hampshire bill by offering to push its start date to 2013, in an effort to prove that it's not directed at President Obama. But even other GOP lawmakers in the state—which has long prided its position as one the first states to kick off the presidential primary contests—aren't having any of it.

"It is unnecessary and detracts from important business, namely our economy… Moreover, this potential amendment could represent a threat to our first in the nation primary as it gives other states reason and desire to try to jump us in line," New Hampshire House GOP Leader D.J. Bettencourt said in a statement.

*Update: New Hampshire's birther bill died in committee, 10-8, on Wednesday, which will likely end its chance of passing any time soon.

Fear of Terrorism Inverse to Actual Threat

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 8:07 AM EST

As you may have heard, there's this self-contradicting and rather paranoid dude out there, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who's holding a Congressional hearing tomorrow on the dangers of homegrown terrorists. Not the Timothy McVeigh, Jared Loughner, or Unabomber kinds of terrorists: the real ones. The Muslim ones. (Cue ominous music here) But King's hearing isn't the only one on terrorists in the US: Far from it. From 2004 to 2011 there have been approximately 933 Congressional hearings on terrorism, despite the fact that terrorism only kills around 30 US citizens a year, and that includes Americans killed overseas. Instead, heart disease remains the #1 killer of Americans, killing around 600,000 of us every year. Terrorism, on the other hand, is a negligible death threat. You're about 45 times more likely to accidentally poison yourself than you are to be the victim of a deliberate terrorist. As a 66-year-old white male, King is much more likely to die from heart disease or cancer than he is from terrorism. But good to know he's keeping an eye out, just in case.

This isn't to say we shouldn't have concerns about terrorism. Of course we should. 9/11 was a horrible tragedy and we should do what we can to prevent something similar from happening again. But the fact remains that the #1 killer of Americans is at least partially preventable, and we don't seem to be that concerned about it. At least, not that much compared to terrorism. Charts below.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stat note: Numbers for death chart are as of 2007, most recent year for which US Census mortality data was available. Numbers for Congressional hearing chart are results of Congressional LexisNexis searches.

Obama's Transparent Recovery?

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 7:00 AM EST

My friend of many years, author/thinker/activist Micah Sifry, who is co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident.com, has a new book out on the WikiLeaks affair. It's not a dig-up-the-dirt-on-Julian-Assange volume. Entitled WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, this book, as Sifry puts it, is "a report from the trenches where a wide array of small-d democracy and transparency activists are hard at work using new tools and methods to open up powerful institutions and make them more accountable, and to situate WikiLeaks in that movement." In this work, Sifry examines other fronts in the battle for openness.

One telling case study from the book—which was excerpted on TechPresident.com—involves the Obama White House's effort (that is, promise) to make the stimulus a model of transparent government. Sifry writes:

Two years ago, Barack Obama promised the public that he was going to run government in a more transparent and interactive way. Indeed, at public rallies meant to build public support for the signature initiative of his fledgling administration, the $787 billion "Economic Recovery" stimulus spending program, he told audiences that he would "enlist all of you" to help watchdog the spending. The centerpiece was going to a new dynamic and interactive website, Recovery.gov.

But….

Here’s what actually happened with Recovery.gov. According to a White House insider, during the transition planning, Obama was indeed shown a mock-up of an interactive site that would allow citizens to track all federal spending, not just the stimulus. But that vision was whittled down rather quickly, hobbled by a board made of up of the various agency Inspectors General, all of whom come from the old-school way of doing things. The "clay layer" of government bureaucracy, through which no light travels, was in charge.

At first, Earl Devaney, a former Secret Service agent who was appointed as the inspector general to run the stimulus program’s Recovery and Transparency Accountability Board, seemed to embrace Obama's stated vision. He promised that the site would invite Americans to be “citizens inspectors general,” helping track whether the money was indeed being used properly. “The website will unleash a million citizen IGs [inspectors general],” Devaney said in August 2009. “After getting a taste of this, people will not want to go back to the old ways,” he said.

No such thing has happened. First of all, the Recovery.gov site doesn’t really engage the public as “eyes and ears” apart from offering a way for people to report fraud, waste, or abuse via a standard electronic complaint form. In other words, all the real information processing about possible problems with government spending is hidden from the public; people have no way of seeing each other’s complaints or tracking whether something has been addressed. This isn't "Yelp for Government." All the real work is done by a sophisticated “Recovery Operations Center” where traditional law enforcement authorities use data-mining tools to uncover potential fraud. In no way has a community of citizen inspectors general been formed, and it’s not surprising that Recovery.gov has had no discernible effect on public trust in Obama.

Recovery.com yielded no revolution in citizen e-oversight of government.

You can read the rest of Sifry's account of this lost opportunity for government transparency here and find his new book here.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 9, 2011

Wed Mar. 9, 2011 6:30 AM EST

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is shown the inside of a MEDEVAC helicoptor during a visit to the Pedro Medevac unit at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, March 8, 2011. Defense Department photo by Cherie Cullen

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Peter King's Radicalization Hearings, Explained

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 4:01 AM EST

On Thursday, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, will hold hearings on what he calls the "radicalization" of members of the American Muslim community. King, who has previously called for the New York Times to be tried for treason and for WikiLeaks to be listed as a terrorist organization, has never shied away from confronting terrorist threats wherever he sees them—but this time he's struck a nerve. He's been denounced by the ACLU and Democratic rivals—who have compared him to Joseph McCarthy. His own party, meanwhile, has been conspicuously silent. So who's going to speak on Thursday? And what are they going to say? We've got you covered:

When: Thursday at 9:30 A.M. You can watch it live on C-Span, catch the webcast here, and follow my Twitter feed for live updates.

What's the back story? When King announced the hearings last December, he explained that law enforcement officials "are constantly telling me how little cooperation they get from Muslim leaders." King concedes that only a small fraction of American Muslims have ties to terrorism, but argues that those extremists have outsized influence, citing one figure that 80-percent of mosques in the United States are under the control of jihadists (that figure has been debunked). King believes "political correctness" is interfering with national security; as he explains it, the hearings are analogous to investigations into the Italian-American mafia.

Is there anything to that? Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's top law enforcement officer, has said the threat of homegrown terrorism "keeps me up at night," citing, among others, Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. In a speech last weekend, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough called combatting radicalization at home "part of our larger strategy to decisively defeat Al Qaeda." Other American citizens who have been charged with planning or commmitting acts of terrorism include Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, and failed Time Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. Law enforcement officials say Latino converts to Islam are increasingly vulnerable to radicalization.

But. But, critics of the hearings dispute King's central premise—that American Muslims are complicit in the radicalization of a tiny minority. A February study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, for instance, reported that Muslim-American terrorist attacks had dropped significantly in the last year, and that 40-percent of all terrorism arrests came after a tip from the Muslim-American community.

Deficit Views Remain Stubbornly Boring

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 2:44 AM EST

As usual, Americans don't want to cut spending on programs they benefit from and don't want to raise taxes except on other people. Bloomberg reports on their latest poll, which pretty much reprises the results of every other recent poll taken on the subject:

Almost 8 in 10 people say Republicans and Democrats should reach a compromise on a plan to reduce the federal budget deficit to keep the government running, a Bloomberg National Poll shows. At the same time, lopsided margins oppose cuts to Medicare, education, environmental protection, medical research and community-renewal programs.

While Americans say it’s important to improve the government’s fiscal situation, among the few deficit-reducing moves they back are cutting foreign aid, pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for households earning more than $250,000 a year.

In the long term, this won't work. We'll need to raise taxes on everyone and rein in healthcare spending even more than PPACA has done. In the short term, though, it sounds pretty good to me. Getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq would save noticeable amounts of money, and so would killing the Bush tax cuts for the rich. It's a good start.

Our Uncertain Oil Future

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 2:32 AM EST

Jeff Currie of Goldman Sachs is pessimistic about world oil supplies. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph reports:

Assumptions that OPEC has added 1.9m bpd over the last two years are wishful thinking. These new fields have been "largely offset" by attrition in old fields.

"We believe that OPEC spare capacity has already dropped below 2m bpd. The question therefore arises how much spare capacity is left to absorb potential supply disruptions in other countries," he said. If this picture is broadly correct, spare capacity is already close to the wafer-thin levels that led to wild price moves in mid-2008.

....Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review, said the long-denied oil crunch is starting to bite. "We cling to the comfort blanket that spare capacity exists, but it is mostly fictional, or inoperable. If you take 2m bpd off the figure, the whole dynamic of global oil supply changes," he said.

World oil prices are largely driven by spare capacity these days. When it gets down to around a million barrels a day, where it seems to be now, prices can gyrate wildly based on very small supply shocks. Libya isn't a huge supplier of oil on the global market, but the loss of their production probably removes whatever small cushion we've been operating with. Even a very modest disruption in another OPEC country could send oil prices skyrocketing.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe demand in China will slow down a bit as authorities there try to cool down their economy slightly. You never know. But spare capacity is key, and right now there's hardly any left. For more, see here, here, and here.

Pension Spiking

| Tue Mar. 8, 2011 6:10 PM EST

Karen Tumulty writes in the Washington Post today that most public sector workers get fairly modest pensions:

What makes headlines, however, are the stories of workers who exploit the loopholes....Some public employees end up getting paid more in retirement than they did during their working years, thanks to pension-benefit formulas that encourage practices such as "spiking," the inflation of salary and overtime payments in the final years before retirement.

"I've never understood why public employees themselves haven't policed these abuses, because it hurts everyone when they come to light," said Alicia Munnell, the director of Boston College's Center for Retirement Research.

Last year, New York's then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo — now the governor — investigated pension-padding and found cases where government employees who had never worked overtime in the early years of their career clocked more than 1,000 hours of it as their retirement neared. Cuomo said the abuse transcended "occupation, region or job title."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in January proposed banning the practice, but only for new employees. Unlike private employers, state and local governments are generally prohibited from changing the retirement benefits that they have already promised current workers.

Anyone who's serious about pension abuse should focus like a laser on spiking. Unions are wrong to defend it, and if Democratic politicians back them up on it, then they deserve all the public abuse that Republicans are able to hang on them. It's a bad practice and an indefensible one, and it ought to be an easy bipartisan target.

But I'm curious about the fact that "state and local governments are generally prohibited from changing the retirement benefits that they have already promised current workers." It certainly makes sense that basic benefit levels can't be changed once they've been agreed to and workers are counting on them, but can it really be the case that even something like spiking can't be changed when contracts are up for renegotiation? Or at least limited? Is this due to state law, or is it something mandated by the courts? I'll try to check into this.

In any case, surely states and local governments can crack down on this if they want to by simply not approving overtime for workers who are close to retirement? Or approving it only in limited amounts and with the approval of someone fairly high up the food chain? I'm not sure what would stop them from doing this. It's a collective action problem, to be sure, but not an impossible one to address.