Political MoJo

Time for a Gas Tax

| Fri Feb. 17, 2006 3:05 PM EST

In the New York Times, Robert Frank discusses the gas tax: "A Way to Cut Fuel Consumption That Everyone Likes, Except the Politicians." Indeed, it's not clear why a $2-a-gallon gas tax—which would then be refunded to Americans through reduced payroll taxes—is so politically unviable, except that it was unpopular when Jimmy Carter first proposed it, and has been stuck with a bad reputation ever since. But here's the bottom line: "In the warmer weather they will have inherited from us a century from now, perspiring historians will struggle to explain why this proposal was once considered politically unthinkable." Right, exactly.

Now there are some decent arguments that a gas tax would have an unfair impact on certain people in the United States: it would fall especially heavily on those who live in rural areas and can't easily adjust their driving habits. Perhaps regional tax credits of sorts could help those who are being disproportionately hurt, but yes, there will be quite a bit of pain. Moreover, there's some evidence that stricter CAFÉ standards on automakers could increase fuel efficiency more gently than gas taxes would (although drivers might just respond by driving more, and total fuel consumption wouldn't go down).

Still, the main point here is that reducing fuel consumption in the U.S. and somehow averting global warming is going to be a massive and radical undertaking—perhaps a near-impossible one. The idea that we can somehow achieve this by doing stuff that doesn't inflict any pain whatsoever is an unrealistic one.

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The Internet Debate Heats Up in Congress

Thu Feb. 16, 2006 9:55 PM EST

Yesterday the Congress human rights subcommittee held a seven-hour hearing on the internet censorship debate. Republicans and Democrats chastised internet giants Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco for allowing the Chinese government to limit citizens' access to preapproved websites. Tom Lantos (D-CA), co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, accused the four companies of "nauseating collaboration with a regime of repression," while Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) equated support for China's totalitarianism with assistance to the Nazi's during World War II. Smith later brought Google to center stage, mocking their motto "Don't Be Evil", calling the conglomerate "evil's accomplice."

Tracking the RFID Revolution

Thu Feb. 16, 2006 7:21 PM EST

Tiny chips implanted under your skin tracking access and movement: that may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but these identity tags, more commonly known as RFIDs, could become the wave of the future. As tiny as a grain of rice and medically implanted in your forearm, the chip functions like a UPC code, scanned to access restricted areas, or to help morgue workers identify missing persons or remains. At the moment, the RFID is technically a "passive" chip and doesn't send out any sort of signal, and and isn't used for tracking or surveillance -- at least not yet. With implant machines already used for a wide range of benefits, I wonder how resistant most people would be to adopting something like this. After all, if you're hearing impaired, you get a cochlear implant. Heart problems are often relieved with a pacemaker. So are RFIDs entirely out of the question?

The Pakistani-U.S. Alliance Evolves

Thu Feb. 16, 2006 4:50 PM EST

Despite nearby chants of "death to the U.S.," a lasting result of the cartoon controversy raging in Europe, U.S. army medics held a small ceremony in Pakistan yesterday to say goodbye to the last U.S. MASH unit there.

The Mobile Army Surgical Hospital has been stationed in Pakistan for the last four months in response to the October 8th earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people. The $4.5 million unit in Northern Pakistan consisted of 84 beds, a surgical suite with two operating tables, two intensive care units, a pharmacy, laboratory, radiology units and a power generation system. The entire operation was donated to Pakistani doctors as the U.S. transitions into using smaller, more flexible, traveling medical teams.

According to U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the MASH unit "caused tens of thousands of Pakistanis up in this area to change their view of America." Crocker called the recent violent uprisings and slogans the product of a few "agitators," claiming they are not representative of broad Pakistani sentiment towards America.

New Abu Ghraib Reports

| Thu Feb. 16, 2006 2:22 PM EST

Hard to say which is worse in this Sacramento Bee story about Abu Ghraib. Is it the fact that military officers were harassed and demoted for speaking out to their superiors?

Spc. Samuel Provance, also dressed in Army green, said he was demoted and humiliated after telling a general investigating the Abu Ghraib scandal that senior officers had covered up the full extent of abuse during interrogations of detainees at the U.S. military prison in Iraq.
Or is it reports that children were allegedly being kidnapped and used as "leverage" in interrogations?
Provance made a new allegation about the Abu Ghraib controversy, saying that U.S. forces had captured the 16-year-old son of an Iraqi general under Saddam Hussein, Hamid Zabar, to pressure the general into providing information.
Meanwhile, Salon has obtained thousands of new documents and several new photos related to Abu Ghraib. One early observation: As Jeanne of Body and Soul notes, at first glance, it certainly doesn't appear that a lot of the more horrific allegations by, for instance, Seymour Hersh in his public speaking engagements (notably, of "boys being sodomized") are backed up here at all. Either that means there's still more evidence to come or else Hersh was simply wrong. I would hope the latter, but it's hard to know what to think, really.

San Francisco's Newest Archbishop

Thu Feb. 16, 2006 1:59 PM EST

When San Francisco Archbishop William Levada left for a new position in Rome last year, gay Catholics were left wondering if a conservative ideologue would replace him. Yesterday afternoon, George H. Niederauer, who is rumored to be sympathetic to homosexuals in his flock, was installed as the eighth archbishop of San Francisco. Several thousand attended the mass at St. Mary's Cathedral—including Mayor Gavin Newsom—where the mood was joyous.

Niederauer, a native of California who earned a PhD in English Literature at the University of Southern California while a priest, spent much of his homily discussing Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical Deus Caritas Est [God is Love, issued three weeks ago], and referenced poets Robert Frost and T.S. Elliot, as he extolled the values of humility, charity, and love for all. It is still uncertain what the new appointment will mean for San Francisco's gay believers, but Niederauer did praise the "rich diversity" of Catholics in the city. As one longtime Bay Area Catholic in attendance remarked, "Now we wait and see."

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Increasing the Number of Uninsured

| Thu Feb. 16, 2006 1:40 PM EST

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has released a new study by MIT economist Jonathan Gruber showing that President Bush's proposal to expand Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) would actually increase the total number of uninsured people in the United States. While 3.8 million people would gain coverage, another 4.4 million would actually lose coverage as a number of employers responded to the new tax breaks by dropping their insurance plans. So on net, more people are uninsured. And this all comes at a cost of $156 billion over ten years. Absolutely brilliant.

Now from what I understand, it seems like Gruber's arguing that those 4.4 million would actually see little or no change in real compensation—what will happen is that many small businesses will just prefer to pay their workers in wages rather than health insurance once the tax advantages towards doing the latter disappear—and those 4.4 million would simply choose not to buy insurance. So it's not clear that the situation is entirely catastrophic. (Although those 4.4 million would all likely be relatively healthy people, and their exit from the insurance pool would raise premiums for everyone else.)

Still, we know that HSAs won't reduce total health care costs (how could they, when 80 percent of costs in this country are due to 20 percent of all patients, and that small minority simply can't and won't control their costs by taking out a high deductible?). They do virtually nothing to address the main health care problem in this country: that 60 million people go uninsured in any given year. Besides which, they transfer the costs of health care from the healthy and wealthy to the sick and the poor. In what universe is this a good use of money? We already have a perfectly good single-payer system in this country—Medicare—that, despite Republican efforts to screw it up, does a wonderful job of controlling costs and achieving universal among a vulnerable and expensive population group. A serious health care proposal might look at expanding that rather than tinkering around with frivolous tax breaks at the margins.

Gay airline employee told he cannot use his free tickets

| Thu Feb. 16, 2006 1:17 AM EST

Rob Anders of La Mirada, California, is a long-time airline industry employee. At his company's Christmas party, Anders won a pair of round-trip airline tickets from Northwest Airlines, to be used by him and a companion. He chose his partner of fifteen years, and they decided to use the free trip to visit Anders' mother and attend a family reunion in Florida. The airline, however, refused to accept Anders' partner as the other passenger. A Northwest representative said that the airline would recognize only a spouse, another airline employee, or a dependent child as a "companion."

There is plenty wrong with this picture. It is unknown whether Northwest included this strange caveat in the fine print at the Christmas party drawing, but the assumption is that it did not. But let's say that somehow, the restriction was announced; what an odd restriction. Let's say Anders was heterosexual and wanted to take his girlfriend on the trip: according to Northwest, he could not. Let's say he wanted to take his brother on the trip; according to Northwest, he could not.

These issues are interesting, but they are not as important as the fact that Northwest was willing to permit a spouse to accompany the winner of the drawing. Under Califnornia law, 'full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever' without regard to sexual orientation or marital status" must be granted to all citizens. A letter sent to the airline from the ACLU of Southern California states that:

Because same-sex couples who wish to marry cannot currently do so under California law, using marriage as a criterion discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. Northwest's policy also discriminates on the basis of marital status because it does not permit unmarried heterosexual individuals to bring the companion of their choice.

Anders and his partner registered as domestic partners in 2004, but the airline representative specifically stated that Northwest would not accept a domestic partner in lieu of a spouse.

Whistleblowers Need Protection

| Wed Feb. 15, 2006 5:21 PM EST

Last week I did a long post arguing that current whistleblower protections for those who want to complain about wrongdoing by the government are hardly sufficient to ensure that everything that needs reporting gets reported. Today the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have a new editorial out that puts this issue in historical perspective and comes to a similar conclusion. The relevant parts below are well worth reading in full:

In the 1980s, CIA employee Richard Barlow discovered that Pakistan, with the blessing of the Reagan and Bush I administrations, was able to buy restricted nuclear technology-related items in the United States. Barlow also unmasked a coordinated attempt by the U.S. intelligence community to lie to Congress about Pakistan's activities. The result? His security clearance was suspended, and he lost his job. The Reagan and Bush I administrations covered up Barlow's discoveries because, at the time, they needed Pakistan's help to fund and supply the Afghans in their bloody fight with the Soviets.

Confronting the NSA Spy Scandal

| Wed Feb. 15, 2006 5:07 PM EST

Digby has a fantastic post noting that Democrats are quickly becoming afraid of confronting Bush over the NSA spying scandal, and then making the case for why they shouldn't be scared: "If the Democrats in Congress simply stood together on principle instead of listening to overfed, out of touch strategists who have misdiagnosed the problem for years, they would begin to crawl out of this hole on national security."