2011 - %3, April

Florida's Genius Solution to Unemployment: Super-hero Capes

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 1:20 PM EDT

Forget job retraining or back-to-school money or even another stimulus package. An employment center in central Florida has the answer to ending the Sunshine State's chronic unemployment problem: Red super-hero capes.

Yes, that's right. As WFTV Orlando reports, a new marketing initiative unveiled by an outfit called Workforce Central Florida (self-described as the "region's workforce expert") called the "Cape-ability Challenge" gives red capes to jobless Floridians as a way to boost their job-seeking prospects. The state-funded workforce organization reportedly spent $14,000 on 6,000 capes as part of the campaign, which a state workforce group called "insensitive and wasteful." The capes fit in with Workforce Central Florida's comic book-inspired campaign that features a villain named "Dr. Evil Unemployment."

Now, the state is investigating Workforce Central Florida over the cape campaign. Hmm, wonder why. Here's more from WFTV:

The newest allegation of misspending involves a marketing campaign, in which the chairman of the board for the job agency marches around in a super-hero cape.

[...]

Job-seekers such as Gregory Bryant said the capes are a waste of money and they're offended by the cartoon-like portrayal of being unemployed.

"Would you wear this around?" WFTV reporter Bianca Castro asked Bryant.

"No, I mean, would you?" Bryant answered. "It's a mockery to Americans."

The bizarre campaign, however, didn't last long. In a Wednesday press release, the group announced it was canning the cape idea, which it described as an "admittedly out-of-the-box creative campaign."

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All Dems Opposing Medicare Panel Have Major Industry Ties

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 12:58 PM EDT

A small but growing Democrats are lining up to oppose a major element of Obama's deficit reduction plan—and all have received major campaign contributions to the health care industry. As I wrote last week, Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) became the third and highest-profile House Democrat to support a GOP bill to repeal a Medicare panel with sweeping authority to make spending cuts to health-care providers and services.

The Medicare panel, known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), raised the hackles of health care industry groups that could take a hit from such cuts. Unsurprisingly, all the Democrats who want to repeal the board—including two business-friendly New Democrats and one pro-labor liberal Dem—have received major campaign contributions from the health care industry. 

Health professionals were the top industry donating to Rep. Shelly Berkeley’s campaign committee in the 2010 election cycle, and they’re the second-largest industry to donate directly to her campaign since the Nevada Democrat's election to Congress in 2000. Similarly, as Jonathan Cohn points out, health professionals are the third-largest group to donate to Schwartz, who also receives big donations from the pharmaceutical industry. Finally, Pharma was the fifth biggest donor to Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), a liberal Dem who received more than $100,000 in 2010 alone from the industry. 

Unlike the Republicans who oppose IPAB, these Democrats don't cite industry concerns in explaining their support for repeal. Rather, they stress the argument that the board—made up of 15 White House-appointed, Senate-confirmed members—goes too far in bypassing Congress. But given the strong industry opposition to the board—and Obama’s recent vow to expand its authority to include Big Pharma, which isn't under the current purview of IPAB—there's no question health care lobbyists are making sure that sympathetic members of Congress are hearing out their concerns. 

Reality and Taxes

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 12:45 PM EDT

Ross Douthat has responded to my post on taxes, and I want to respond back. I know this kind of back-and-forth can get tedious quickly, so I'll try to keep it relatively brief. But I'd like to make five points:

  • I said that federal taxes had averaged 21% of GDP over the past 30 years, and Ross correctly points out that it's federal spending that's averaged 21%. On a macro level this might or might not matter ("to spend is to tax"), but it does matter if we're trying to figure out how voters will react to an increase in the total tax take. However, I continue to believe that the impact would be much less than Ross thinks. The federal tax take was around 20% of GDP during the Clinton era, so here's what we're talking about: letting the Bush tax cuts expire in a couple of years and then raising tax rates by about four or five points of GDP over the next 20 or 30 years. Done reasonably and fairly, I just don't believe that an increase this gradual would be wildly oppressive.
  • In any case, what choice do we have? Spending has averaged 20-21%, and it's just not plausible that we can actually cut that while the nation is rapidly aging. The best we can realistically do is rein in the growth rate. I think we'd be better off facing that reality and planning a decent tax code to handle it, rather than waiting for catastrophe and whatever disastrous tax plan would likely come out of it.
  • Am I happy about asking middle-class families to pay more taxes during an era, as Ross says, of middle-class wage stagnation and growing income inequality. Nope. And obviously I'd like to attack that inequality at its roots. Still, Social Security and Medicare are fundamentally middle-class programs, and I think it's fair to ask the middle class to pay for them. The rich should pay too, but they shouldn't be turned into welfare programs supported by the rich for the benefit of others. That's corrosive in a lot of ways, and like FDR, I don't support this.
  • Should Medicare be means tested so the taxes of the middle class aren't supporting healthcare for the rich? Maybe. I'm wide open to a lot of proposals for reining in healthcare costs, including some conservative ones. But even if we do a great job on this, Medicare costs are still going to go up. There's simply no plausible path that points in any other direction.
  • Would higher tax rates hurt economic growth? Both Ross and Reihan Salam say they would, but the evidence is slim to nonexistent. All taxes carry deadweight losses, but there's very little evidence that they affect growth rates noticeably at the levels we're talking about here. And Scandinavia — small, culturally homogeneous, and well educated — isn't the only reason to think that higher tax rates aren't economically destructive. Countries like Japan, Germany, and France have also done fine, and they're all large countries with widely varying tax rates and rates of ethnic diversity.

Needless to say, a lot of our disagreement is simply irreconcilable. We just have different views of what the social safety net should look like and how it should be funded. But really, the most discouraging part of all this is how pointless the conversation is. If I were put in a room with Ross and Reihan and we had to hammer out some kind of grand Medicare/taxing/spending/deficit plan, we might be able to do it. It would be pretty bloody, but maybe we could come up with something we all preferred to doing nothing. Unfortunately, Ross and Reihan are at the extreme fringe of the conservative movement. Any real-life deal has to go through real-life conservatives, and they're not willing to concede even Ross's modest view that "taxes will probably go up somewhat relative to the post-World War II average." They don't even think taxes should stay where they are today. They want to cut taxes in the face of an aging population, and they're still resolutely dedicated to this fantasy-based proposition, come what may. Liberals just don't have any negotiating partners here.

Education Roundup: "Socialist" Kindergartners?

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 12:00 PM EDT
  • Ah, kindergarten, where you learn that sharing is "socialist" and cooperation is...also "socialist." Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy examines GOP presidential contender Tim Pawlenty's controversial education record, which includes selecting an education commissioner for Minnesota who...well, read the rest here.

What Are You Really Covered For?

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 11:47 AM EDT

Would healthcare costs in the United States be controlled better if people had more "skin in the game"? That is, if instead of insurance picking up the tab for everything, we had to pay more for medical services ourselves, making us a little more selective about what medical care we need and what medical care we don't? There's some evidence that says the answer is yes, and if it's implemented in a smart way (as in France, for example, where copay amounts vary depending on the value of the treatment) there might be a place for this. The problem, as Aaron Carroll pointed out a few days ago, is that Americans already pay more for medical services than residents of most other countries, but our healthcare costs are going up faster anyway.

But why do Americans pay so much? Part of the reason is that published averages include the uninsured, who have high out-of-pocket expenses. But that's not all. Even the insured, it turns out, have pretty high out-of-pocket expenses. Via Catherine Rampell, here's a chart from the Labor Department that shows coverage of various conditions by private sector health plans. It includes everything that's even partly covered, and as you can see, it leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, office visits and basic hospital costs are covered. But if you need an organ transplant or kidney dialysis or diabetes care? You're probably out of luck. Hell, even maternity care and physical therapy are a crapshoot. But just remember: America has the best healthcare in the world, baby. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

Missouri Legislator Still Can't Explain Why He Wants to Ban Shariah

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 10:45 AM EDT

About a month ago, we told you about a bill before Missouri's legislature to ban Islamic Shariah law from being enforced in state courts. The proposal, introduced by Republican state Rep. Paul Curtman, drew its language from the sample legislation drafted by David Yerushalmi, an Arizona-based attorney who has previously called for Muslims to be deported. Since the beginning of 2009, two dozen states have considered proposals to ban Shariah, many of which have borrowed Yerushalmi's language.

Yesterday, the Missouri bill passed out of committee in the House, after a heated debate. Per KMOX:

"This bill will go to court and you are wasting your ink on this paper. Because this will not be upheld in court," [Democratic Rep. Jamilah] Nasheed said Tuesday. "You're wasting your time gentleman. You're wasting your time in this body."

Nasheed called on Curtman to provide a list of cases in which international law had been used in American courts but Curtman was unable to provide an example of such a case.

Why should that sound familiar? Because this exact same scenario unfolded in March, when Curtman held a press conference unveil the bill. Here was his response then when a reporter asked for examples:

"I don't have the specifics with me right now but if you go to—the web address kind of escapes my mind right now. Any Google search on international law used in the state courts in the U.S. is going to turn up some cases for you."

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How to Get a Pot Card: The Music Video

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 7:20 AM EDT

Just in time for 4/20, here's a sassy number from the comic troubadours Garfunkel and Oates. It's as if Snoop Dogg and Feist had a lovechild (or two):

Given my professional interest in pot cards, I decided to see what Garfunkel (a.k.a Riki Lindhomeand Oates (a.ka. Kate Micucci) had to say about the issue:

Kettleman City's Growing Toxic Web

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 7:00 AM EDT

Kettleman City just can't catch a break. This predominately low-income, non-white, industrial community in Central California, profiled by Mother Jones last year for its unusually high rate of birth defects, is about to add another smokestack to its long list of major pollution sources: a 600-megawatt power plant that will be exempt from current federal air pollution regulations.

How is that possible? The current federal emissions standards for toxins such as carbon monoxide, lead, and sulfur dioxide were created by the Environmental Protection Agency while the permit application for the plant was still pending. The plant's developer, Avenal Power Center, argued in court (PDF) that the agency should exempt it from the new standards. Earlier this year, the EPA signed off on its plan.

"This decision is bad not only for the residents of Avenal and Kettleman City, who will be breathing the emissions from this plant; it's also a bad precedent for the rest of the country," said Paul Cort, an attorney for Earthjustice, which filed comments on Sunday opposing the EPA's proposed exemption for the Avenal plant. "It would allow similar projects to be built even when we know that they will result in harmful pollution and even when they admit that they will not have best available pollution controls installed."

More pollution is coming to Kettleman City despite major problems with the dirty industries that it already has. Earlier this month, the EPA released a report (PDF) revealing a list of violations at Waste Management's huge toxic waste dump three-miles outside town. The report found that Waste Management disposed of "prohibited waste" that didn't meet treatment standards, inadequately analyzed waste in its lab, and created fire hazards. In an email to Mother Jones, and EPA spokesman called the report "part of an ongoing enforcement process which includes both compliance and potential penalties."

Despite the dump's long history of violations, including a $300,000 fine for improperly storing PCBs (a now-banned hazardous chemical linked to cancer and birth defects), the California branch of the EPA says that it "does not believe there is anything unique about the environment [in Kettleman City] that poses a risk to the community."This should come as good news to Waste Management, which is seeking to double the size of its dump—further increasing Kettelman City's cumulative toxic burden.

Environmental groups say the EPA is ignoring its own findings. Some violations detailed in the report took place during the same period the birth defects broke out, points out Bradley Angel, the director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a non-profit that initially discovered and publicized the birth defects. The EPA did not respond to a follow-up request for comment.

Embattled WI GOPer Sends Constituents to Adult Chat Line

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Randy Hopper, a Republican State Senator in Wisconsin, has had a rough few months. The target of a recall effort for his vote in favor of Republican Governor Scott Walker's anti-union "repair" bill, Hopper suffered quite the embarassment in March when protesters arrived at his home in Fond du Lac in eastern Wisconsin. Demanding that Hopper come outside, the protesters instead encountered Hopper's estranged wife, who explained that Hopper actually lived in Madison with a 26-year-old mistress. Next, it emerged that Walker's chief of staff helped land Hopper's mistress a prime job in the Wisconsin state government.

In the latest juicy news on Sen. Hopper, Raw Story reports that a letter from Hopper's office lists for constituents a contact number that is in fact an adult chat line. Callers to the number are greeted with a voice saying, "Hey there, sexy guy..." It's unclear how Hopper managed to send constituents to a service that bills itself as "the country's favorite live talk," but the gaffe is yet another headache for the embattled Republican.

Not as big a headache, of course, as Hopper's impending recall election. Democrats gathered more than 23,000 signatures on their recall petition targeting Hopper, well over than necessary amount needed to trigger a new election. Hopper's opponent in the recall election will be Jessica King, the deputy mayor of the city of Oshkosh. Hopper is one of four Republican State Senators who will face a recall election this year.