2005 - %3, June

The Libertarians Get It...

| Tue Jun. 14, 2005 4:59 PM PDT

Since I got a chance to agree with a conservative, below, I may as well go all the way and note that the libertarians at CATO make a very good point about immigration. (Okay, so it's a liberal—Doug Massey—writing for a libertarian site. Still.)

Increased border enforcement has only succeeded in pushing immigration flows into more remote regions. That has resulted in a tripling of the death rate at the border and, at the same time, a dramatic fall in the rate of apprehension. As a result, the cost to U.S. taxpayers of making one arrest along the border increased from $300 in 1992 to $1,700 in 2002, an increase of 467 percent in just a decade.

Enforcement has driven up the cost of crossing the border illegally, but that has had the unintended consequence of encouraging illegal immigrants to stay longer in the United States to recoup the cost of entry. The result is that illegal immigrants are less likely to return to their home country, causing an increase in the number of illegal immigrants remaining in the United States. Whatever one thinks about the goal of reducing migration from Mexico, U.S. policies toward that end have clearly failed, and at great cost to U.S. taxpayers.

A border policy that relies solely on enforcement is bound to fail. Congress should build on President Bush's immigration initiative to enact a temporary visa program that would allow workers from Canada, Mexico, and other countries to work in the United States without restriction for a certain limited time. Undocumented workers already in the United States who do not have a criminal record should be given temporary legal status.

There's nothing even remotely approaching a consensus on immigration in this country; if you look at this Pew poll, the main proponents of temporary visas for immigrants are liberals, pro-business "enterpriser" Republicans, and swing voters positive about the economy. And even within that position, there's a lot of leeway: I would argue, for instance, that handing out "temporary" work visas without offering a clear path for citizenship, as Bush is proposing, will only encourage immigrants to work for three years and then "disappear" shortly before their time is up, staying on illegally. Widespread legalization is the way to go. Nevertheless, setting aside the larger disputes here, people ought to be able to agree, at the very least, that the emphasis on "increased border enforcement" as a panacea for all our immigration problems is inhumane, expensive, and largely ineffective.

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Who Hates Filibusters?

| Tue Jun. 14, 2005 2:46 PM PDT

Captain's Quarters, a conservative blog, looks at the Senate's apology for failing to pass anti-lynching legislation decades ago and concludes... that the Senate ought to be apologizing for the filibuster. I agree! The filibuster is a terrible thing, and has long been a terrible thing throughout history. The captain gets his facts a bit muddled (Southern Democrats most certainly did control the Senate, via committee chairmanships that they acquired through seniority), but his larger point is correct. Were it not for the filibuster, this country would have had: anti-lynching laws, faster progress on civil rights, universal health care, stronger labor rights. In other words, it would have been easier, in general, to pass progressive legislation. I'm glad that conservatives are hopping aboard this project, for whatever reason.

Now does that mean the filibuster is inappropriate in all cases? No, not necessarily. I happen to think it's an appropriate measure, on principle, for judicial nominees, though I'll admit I'm not really all that adamant on this point. But it's also true that liberals have found, more often than not throughout history, that they have the votes to pass progressive measures, only to be quelched by a handful of reactionaries in the Senate wielding the filibuster. The most recent case I can think of was a labor bill during the Clinton administration that would have prevented striking workers from being permanently replaced. Blocked by Republicans. (They also ran the clock out on the health care debate in 1993 with the filibuster.) So yes, right now is certainly as good a time as any to use the Senate's shameful history on anti-lynching as an opportunity to examine whether having a sluggish and wholly unrepresentative legislative chamber is the best thing for this country to have, both now and in the future.

Reach for the Stars

| Tue Jun. 14, 2005 2:29 PM PDT

The New York Times runs a fun piece today on young wingnuts-in-training who get plum summer internships at the Heritage Foundation. There aren't too many surprises here—they've all been trained well, apparently, in the black arts of whining about oppression on college campuses—but this part was just plain odd:

Katherine Rogers, a junior at Georgetown, is spending the summer in the Keith and Lois Mitchell room, on the Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Smyth floor, just upstairs from the Norma Zindahl Intern Lounge, which is adjacent to the William J. Lehrfeld Intern Center. Ms. Rogers's father is a longtime Heritage donor, and she is working in donor relations, which she thinks will be useful in her intended career as a pharmaceutical lobbyist.

That's her lifelong goal? Was it the epic battle over the Bayh-Dole Act that first inspired her as a child, perhaps?

"Culture of Life" Indeed

| Tue Jun. 14, 2005 2:16 PM PDT

I missed this when it popped up last week, but it deserves, even in retrospect, a resounding "What the f—?"

Today [June 9th], 11 anti-choice Republican members of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending for health, labor and education programs voted against a proposal offered by Rep. David Obey (D-WI) aimed at making it economically easier for low-income and vulnerable women to choose to carry pregnancies to term.

I never thought the obvious needed to be stated, but apparently so. Rep. Obey's measure would have, in all certainty, reduced the number of abortions in America by making it easier for women to carry their pregnancies to term. No matter what delusions Republicans seem to be laboring under, many women abort not because they're frivolous people or don't respect the "culture of life," but because they respect it all too well, and understand that it's cruel to bring a child into the world that can't be provided for properly. That's not a difficult concept to grasp. Or it shouldn't be. But really, what's the use arguing here? These House Republicans don't care. The point of pregnancy and birth, for them, isn't about creating life or raising children or sustaining a healthy society. The point seems to be nothing more than making sure that women, as pseudo-Adrienne put it, "fulfill their biological duties." Charming, all of them.

On a related note, I can't imagine there are many people who haven't read this post yet, but if not, it deserves a read.

UPDATE: Hm, after doing a little searching around, it seems that many of the health and education cuts Obey was railing against were made necessary by the need to free up some $900 million, in order to help pay for George Bush's 2003 Medicare bill. Which, as we know, extended that all-important helping-hand to those pharmaceutical companies that were trampled on, oppressed, and otherwise down on their luck. Life is hard, you know.

The WSJ on Exxon and the global warming "debate"

| Tue Jun. 14, 2005 11:15 AM PDT

The May issue of Mother Jones featured a terrific piece of reporting by Chris Mooney on ExxonMobil's strategy on global warming, which has been to deny its reality while funding think tanks that cast doubt on the scientific consensus that climate change is real and largely human-influenced. In the same issue we had a piece by Ross Gelbspan scorching the US media for being M.I.A. on global warming.

The Wall Street Journal today has a front-page article titled "Exxon Chief Makes A Cold Calculation On Global Warming." (Subscribers only, I'm afraid.) It opens thusly:

At Exxon Mobil Corp.'s laboratories here, there isn't a solar panel or windmill in sight. About the closest Exxon's scientists get to "renewable" energy is perfecting an oil that Exxon could sell to companies operating wind turbines.

Oil giants such as BP PLC and Royal Dutch/Shell Group are trumpeting a better-safe-than-sorry approach to global warming. They accept a growing scientific consensus that fossil fuels are a main contributor to the problem and endorse the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which caps emissions from developed nations that have ratified it. BP and Shell also have begun to invest in alternatives to fossil fuels.

Not Exxon. Openly and unapologetically, the world's No. 1 oil company disputes the notion that fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming. Along with the Bush administration, Exxon opposes the Kyoto accord and the very idea of capping global-warming emissions. Congress is debating an energy bill that may be amended to include a cap, but the administration and Exxon say the costs would be huge and the benefits uncertain. Exxon also contributes money to think tanks and other groups that agree with its stance. ...

And continues:

Exxon's approach to global warming typifies the bottom-line focus of its entire business. It is slogging away to improve the energy efficiency of its refineries -- primarily to cut costs, although this is also shaving global-warming emissions. But it says the business case for making more sweeping changes is still weak. It's a conservative, hard-nosed approach that has helped make Exxon the most profitable oil company in the world, with 2004 net income of $25 billion. ...

Here's where it gets really good:

Mr. Raymond disagrees [that Exxon should be investing significantly in renewable energy]. Spending shareholders' money to diversify into businesses that aren't yet profitable -- and that aim to solve a problem his scientists believe may not be significant -- strikes the Exxon chief as a sloppy way to run a company. "If I were to ask you if you want to buy an insurance policy, you've got to ask yourself a couple questions. No. 1, what are you trying to insure against? And No. 2, what are you willing to pay on the premium? And I haven't heard a very good answer to either one of those," he says. (emph. added)

His scientists? Oh yeah, his scientists. Them.

The Journal piece takes a very even-handed approach to the "debate" over global warming (and I don't intend that as a compliment). I'd simply suggest reading it, then reading Mooney's piece (and checking out Exxonsecrets.org), and drawing your own conclusions.

Underinsured in America

| Tue Jun. 14, 2005 10:23 AM PDT

A new study in Health Affairs takes up an issue often neglected in debates over health care, but quite important: namely, the underinsured. These people have coverage, but it's usually inadequate, leaving them vulnerable to high out-of-pocket costs and often forcing them to forego essential care. About 12 percent of adults, some 16 million, fell into this category in 2003, which can be tacked onto the estimated 45 million without insurance at all. Most of the underinsured were either minorities, had low incomes, or were sick.

The other big story here is that the vast numbers of underinsured are the result of an increasing trend in America. Employers, wracked with health care costs, are responding by pushing more and more of the financial burden for coverage onto the workers themselves, whether that includes higher deductibles, patient cost sharing, or restricting benefits. As a result, many workers are left without adequate coverage, and end up seeking out less care in the end. (Cost-sharing, almost by definition, hits the poor and the sick the hardest.)

It's doubtful that this trend can be reversed, and at any rate, it probably shouldn't be. Employers were never meant to be in the business of providing health care, and that goes double in an age where workers switch jobs frequently and firms need to be competitive in the global economy. Eventually, the government will have to take over the business of managing care. That's inevitable. The problem is that unless the transition period is well-managed—which is certainly not the case right now—then we're in for a long period of time where companies are slowly and steadily loading the costs onto the backs of their workers and more and more employees become unable to afford adequate care. Eventually it will all hit a crisis point and voters will demand some sort of national health care system. But who knows when that will be? The interim period, meanwhile, will be devastating.

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Floods, gales, glaciers crashing down! As not seen on US TV.

| Mon Jun. 13, 2005 5:43 PM PDT

As we all know, global warming is a hoax foisted on a gullible world by vegetarians and others who hate America. And, look, it's claimed another dupe:

The chief executive of [the utterly massive British Telecom] has become the first boss of a British company to admit that climate change is already affecting his company, and that environmental damage could threaten the stability of the world's financial system.

Talking exclusively to The Observer, BT boss Ben Verwaayen reveals that extreme weather in the form of flooding and high winds has hit BT's British operations, and he fears that this is just the beginning.

He says: 'Since the beginning of the year, the media has been showing us images of Greenland glaciers crashing into the sea, Mount Kilimanjaro devoid of its ice cap and Scotland reeling from floods and gales. All down to natural weather cycles? I think not.

Well, I don't know what kind of media they have these days in Britain, but he didn't get those images from the US media. No Sir.

Housing correction anyone?

| Mon Jun. 13, 2005 3:20 PM PDT

From Sunday's New York Times:

The American housing boom in recent years is nothing compared with the price run-up in countries like France, Spain, Britain, Ireland, Sweden and Australia, even though markets in Australia and Britain have cooled in the last year.

Cooled? This from today's Guardian:

House prices [in Britain] fell in April and annual price inflation dropped almost 50% from March, according to official figures published today.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) said the average price of a UK property was £181,832 in April, down 0.8% on March's figure of £183,346.

Annual house price inflation across the UK fell from 12.6% in March to 6.9% in April, while in London the year-on-year price increase fell from 9.8% to just 2.7%. [emph. added]

"Shameful" Campaign Finance Reform

| Mon Jun. 13, 2005 2:40 PM PDT

The New York Times editorial page today excoriates a new campaign finance bill percolating through the house:

A shameful bill that would undo much of the post-Watergate reforms is being rushed to the House floor. It would scrap a donor's current limit of $40,000 for candidates across a two-year cycle and let him give $2 million or more. Further, the bill would attack the more recent McCain-Feingold campaign controls by letting the national parties wheel and deal in unlimited amounts in supporting favored candidates.

Shameful? Yes, probably. At the same time, this little screed misses the larger point. The main flaw with McCain-Feingold is that it's near-impossible to restrict the supply of political money. Campaign spending will, for better or worse, always find its way into the hands of those who want it, whether by going to the candidates directly, or through 527s, or through increasingly shadowy organizations that nestle themselves into loopholes in the tax code; Nick Confessore documented a number of these groups sometime back, including 501(c)3's and other oddly numbered groups. If anything, all you get is a loss of accountability and transparency.

Proper campaign-finance reform would reduce the demand for political money, which involves better public financing for various political campaigns or reforms that set aside airtime for all candidates, along with full disclosure rules for giving. Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres have come up with one such approach with their "Patriot Dollar" idea. Fixing the money-in-politics problem isn't easy; but any starting point should recognize that putting the clamp down on private campaign spending, while laudable, doesn't get at the source of the problem.

Education Isn't Enough

| Mon Jun. 13, 2005 12:25 PM PDT

In the Washington Post today, Sebastian Mallaby suggests that the key to solving America's income inequality problem is… better education:

Now, you want to hear something really bad? The poorest fifth of Americans has experienced a rise in incomes of just 3 percent over the past three decades. The real problem in America is not about the middle class. It's about the underclass; about Americans who lack the skills and habits to advance at all.

Now it is true that workers with less education have fared much, much more poorly over the past few decades. According to the Economic Policy Institute's ever-useful The State of Working America, from 1979-2000 real hourly wages declined by 1 percent for those with less than a high school education and 0.1 percent for those with only a high school diploma. (Wages climbed, albeit grudgingly, for those with some college, a college degree, or an advanced degree.) So Mallaby's claim seems plausible enough on the surface. The usual story proffered here is that the rapid technological transformation in America has meant that too many unskilled workers can't meet the demand for high-tech know-how, and hence, are being left behind. If we could only train these workers, the story goes, they could hop on the high-tech space-wagon and reap the massive returns of the knowledge economy. Then there would be candy for everyone.

It's an elegant story, sure, but it's probably not true. For one, according to the EPI book, the timing and rate of technological innovation don't quite line up with the rise and pace of income inequality. During the late 1990s, remember, a writhing, thrashing technology boom was sweeping the nation, but that was precisely the period of time when hourly wages were finally rising for the uneducated, and wage inequality was decreasing between groups of different education and experience. That doesn't quite jibe with Mallaby's story, eh? Second, according to EPI, over half of the growth in income inequality has occurred within groups of roughly similar education and experience. The gap between the educated and uneducated doesn't line up with the gap between the haves and have-nots. Many educated workers have been losing out too. How would more schooling alone solve that problem?

Meanwhile, it's not at all obvious that high-tech, high-skilled jobs are the only ones being created in this new economy: the demand for low-wage, de-skilled jobs is still quite high. A study by economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane has noted that both types of companies exist: "Some firms may choose to compete for larger shares of standardized products produced by low wage workers carrying out relatively simple tasks. Other firms may choose to tailor production to a high value-added, high quality product at the upper end of the market." Not to mention the fact that there are a whole host of low-skill service jobs that simply aren't going to disappear anytime soon—who's going to serve coffee at Starbucks? who empties the trash? who mops the floor?—and there's no reason to think that improving education will automatically improve working conditions for these particular workers. Something else needs to be done, whether that's strengthening unions, boosting the minimum wage, pursuing full employment policies, or some other measures. Education's a laudable goal, and I'm all for it, but education alone won't fix the worker inequality problem.