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Republicans Are Cutting Taxes on the Rich and Raising Them on the Poor

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 12:52 PM EST

Shaila Dewan surveys the tax policies of actual Republicans who are governing actual states:

A number of Republican-led states are considering tax changes that, in many cases, would have the effect of cutting taxes on the rich and raising them on the poor.

Conservatives are known for hating taxes but particularly hate income taxes, which they say have a greater dampening effect on growth. Of the 10 or so Republican governors who have proposed tax increases, virtually all have called for increases in consumption taxes, which hit the poor and middle class harder than the rich.

Favorite targets for the new taxes include gasoline, e-cigarettes, and goods and services in general (Governor Paul LePage of Maine would like to start taxing movie tickets and haircuts). At the same time, some of those governors — most notably Mr. LePage, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and John Kasich of Ohio — have proposed significant cuts to their state income tax. In an effort to relieve some of the added pressure, Mr. LePage’s plan includes a tax break for the lowest-income families.

This gets back to what I was talking about a couple of days ago. Contrary to what Republican reformicons are proposing, Republicans on the ground continue to focus most of their attention on cutting taxes on the rich. Or, in a pinch, if they have to raise revenue, they're raising it from the poor and middle class. This is despite the well-known fact that virtually all of the income gains in recent years have gone to the well-off.

There are ways to make consumption taxes progressive. It's not impossible. The problem is that Republicans simply don't want to. Their goal is, and always has been, to reduce taxes on the wealthy. Any other tax agenda just isn't on the table.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg: "I Wasn't 100 Percent Sober" During SOTU Address

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 12:21 PM EST

Contrary to earlier speculation that she had power-napped through last month's State of the Union Address because it was just so damn dull, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg revealed on Thursday it was actually due to the fact she wasn't exactly "100 percent sober."

The 81-year-old justice told a crowd of George Washington University students:

The audience for the most part is awake, because they're bobbing up and down, and we sit there, stone-faced, sober judges. But we're not, at least I wasn't, 100 percent sober. Because before we went to the State of the Union, we had dinner together... Justice Kennedy brought in... it was an Opus something or other, very fine California wine, and I vowed this year, just sparkling water, stay away from the wine, but in the end, the dinner was so delicious, it needed wine.

According to Ginsburg, she was thankfully flanked by colleagues, who, like any good friends, casually nudged her awake when they noticed her dozing off. Watch below:

Republicans Are Shooting Themselves in the Foot Over Net Neutrality

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 11:35 AM EST

I've written before about the GOP's peculiarly uncompromising stance on net neutrality. At its core, net neutrality has always been a battle between two huge industry groups and therefore never really presented an obvious reason for Republicans to feel strongly about one side or the other. But they've taken sides anyway, energetically supporting the anti-neutrality broadband industry against the pro-neutrality tech industry. Today an LA Times article dives more deeply into the problems this is causing:

As tech firms and cable companies prepare for a fight that each says will shape the future of the Internet, Silicon Valley executives and activists are growing increasingly irritated by the feeling that the GOP is not on their side. Republican leaders have struggled to explain to their nascent allies in the Bay Area why they are working so hard to undermine a plan endorsed by the Obama administration to keep a level playing field in Internet innovation.

....The fight comes at a time when Republicans had been making gains in Silicon Valley, a constituency of well-heeled donors and coveted millennial-generation voters who have generally been loyal to Democrats....Republicans have hoped to seize on recent Democratic policy moves that riled tech companies, including a push for strict anti-piracy rules and the Obama administration's continued backing of National Security Agency surveillance of Internet users.

But the hot issue in Silicon Valley now is net neutrality. And on that issue, the GOP and the tech industry are mostly out of step...."It is close to a litmus test," said Paul Sieminski, a Republican who is the general counsel to Automattic, the company that operates Web-making tool WordPress.com. "It's such a fundamental issue for the Internet," said Sieminski, who has been active in fighting for net neutrality. "I guess it is a proxy on where a candidate may stand on a lot of issues related to the Internet."

The obvious and cynical explanation for the Republican view is that President Obama is for net neutrality, so they're against it. The more principled view is that they hate regulation so much that they don't care what it costs them to oppose net neutrality. It's regulation, so they're against it.

Neither one truly makes sense to me, and I suppose their real motivation is a combination of both. Most Republicans probably started out moderately skeptical of net neutrality because it represented a new layer of regulation, and then gradually adopted an ever more inflexible opposition as it became clear that Obama and the Democratic Party were staking out the pro-neutrality space. Eventually it became a hot button issue, and now the die is cast.

But it's sure hard to see what it buys them. It's already eroding any chance they had of appealing to the growing tech industry, which is going to be even more firmly in the Democratic camp after this. And while the support of the broadband industry is nice, it's not big enough to tip the fundraising scales more than a few milligrams in either direction.

All in all, it's an odd fight. It remains unclear to me why Republicans have chosen this particular hill to die on.

Republicans and Democrats Are Both in Favor of Approval to Fight ISIS

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 10:44 AM EST

So what does the public think of President Obama's request for an authorization to use military force against ISIS? According to a new NBC/Marist poll, they're basically in favor:

Greg Sargent has a partisan breakdown, and approval of the AUMF is surprisingly bipartisan: 60 percent of Democrats approve and 52 percent of Republicans approve. So I imagine this is going to pass before long, probably without too many major changes.

The poll has some other responses that are a bit odd. Only 45 percent of the respondents have much confidence in President Obama's strategy, but 66 percent think we're going to be able to defeat ISIS anyway. Is this a triumph of partisanship over actual belief, or the other way around? Or just the usual incoherence you get in practically every poll about everything?

In any case, it will be interesting to see what line Fox News and the rest of the right-wing punditocracy take on this, and whether this affects future poll results. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a much bigger partisan split on this question a couple of weeks from now.

A Torrent of Tributes to David Carr

Thu Feb. 12, 2015 11:58 PM EST

Upon news of the New York Times columnist's death on Thursday night, Twitter exploded with shock, remembrances, and praise for David Carr. Here are some highlights:

The Kansas Economy Sucks, So Let's Do a Little Gay Bashing to Distract Everyone

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 5:55 PM EST

Michael Hiltzik reports on Kansas governor Sam Brownback's move this week to revive the culture wars:

Brownback's latest stunt is to abolish state employees' protections against job discrimination based on sexual orientation. In an executive order Tuesday, Brownback reversed a 2007 order by his Democratic predecessor, Kathleen Sebelius, that had brought state anti-discrimination policies in line with most of corporate America and 31 other states.

....Possibly, Brownback is hoping to deflect attention from the disastrous condition of the Kansas state budget, which has been hollowed out by Brownback's extremely aggressive tax-cutting. Income tax receipts continue to fall below Brownback's rolling projections -- the latest estimates show them coming in 2% below forecast made just last November.

....The economic suffering that Brownback's policies have imposed on Kansans is bad enough; to add to the pain by removing protections against workplace harassment over sexual orientation is a new low.

As Hiltzik points out, there's no special reason for Brownback to do this now. The anti-discrimination policy has been in place for eight years, and Brownback apparently felt no particular angst about it during his entire first term.

But things are different now. When he was first elected, Brownback promised that his planned tax cuts on the rich would supercharge the Kansas economy and bring about prosperity for all. That turned out to be disastrously wrong, and now he's slashing spending on education and the poor to make up for the catastrophe he unleashed. This is understandably unpopular, so what better way to distract the rubes than to engage in a bit of gay bashing? That'll get everyone riled up, and maybe they won't even notice just how much worse off they are than they used to be. It's a time-honored strategy.

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Real Talk on Cops and Race From the Head of the FBI

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 4:15 PM EST

In a rare and candid speech on Thursday, FBI director James Comey urged police officers to begin engaging in honest conversations about broken race relations in America, saying it was time for officers to stop resorting to "lazy mental shortcuts" that have too often lead to the mistreatment of minorities.

"Those of us in law enforcement must re-double our efforts to resist bias and prejudice," Comey said in an address to Georgetown University. "We must better understand the people we serve and protect—by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us."

The speech follows the high-profile police killings of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the widespread anger expressed over the lack of grand jury indictments against the officers in both deaths. The fatal shootings sparked massive protests across the country, with demonstrators demanding for police reform.

On Thursday, Comey referred to both Brown and Garner, along with the two NYPD officers who were shot execution-style in their patrol car in December. Calling their deaths a "crossroads," Comey said it was time for law enforcement agencies to acknowledge that a large portion of police history "is not pretty" and rife with instances of persisting, unconscious prejudices.

Comey's rationale aligns with psychological studies indicating that even in the absence of overt racist views, individuals–particularly police officers–often act with bias, especially in instance where a split-second decision is required. 

"If we can’t help our latent biases, we can help our behavior in response to those instinctive reactions, which is why we work to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all," he said. "Although the research may be unsettling, what we do next is what matters most."

Read the full speech below (emphasis ours):

We Put Way Too Many People in Prison

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 2:11 PM EST

Earlier this morning I mentioned the Brennan Center's new report on the decline in crime over the past two decades, and one of its prime focuses is on incarceration. One of the authors of the report explains at 538 what they found. Basically, it turns out that locking up more people does have a deterrent effect, but that effect plummets when you start locking up people at huge rates—as we've done:

It’s because of these elevated levels that we’re likely to see diminishing returns. If we assume — fairly! — that the criminal justice system tends to incarcerate the worst offenders first, it becomes clear why. Once the worst offenders are in prison, each additional prisoner will yield less benefit in the form of reduced crime. Increased incarceration — and its incapacitation effect — loses its bite.

....And diminishing returns are what we saw. Crime rates dropped as incarceration rates rose, for a time, but incarceration’s effect on crime weakened as more people were imprisoned. An increase in incarceration was responsible for something like 5 percent of the decrease in crime in the 1990s, when its levels were lower, but has played no meaningful role since. If I were speaking to a fellow economist, I’d say the incarceration elasticity of crime is not distinguishable from zero. At a cocktail party, I’d say that crime no longer responds to changes in incarceration.

That sounds about right to me. The 5 percent number might be debatable, but the basic idea that we went way overboard on incarceration is hard to argue with. It was pretty reasonable to believe that incarceration rates were too low in the 60s and early 70s, and that tougher sentencing laws would help deter crime. So we passed tougher laws and built more prisons. But by the end of the 80s, we'd almost certainly gone as far as we needed to. Locking up ever more people just wasn't having much of an effect. But we did it anyway. We didn't just double prison capacity, we doubled it again and then built even more after that. I'd say it's almost a dead certainty that the last doubling was simply wasted money that had no effect on crime rates at all.

It's also worth noting that this is an inherently hard subject to study. After all, crime rates did skyrocket during the 70s and 80s. And if you have twice as much crime, then you're likely to lock up twice as many people. Needless to say, that doesn't necessarily mean that higher incarceration rates had an effect on anything. It was the other way around: higher crime led to higher incarceration rates. That's perfectly natural, but it makes it hard to then work backwards and try to estimate the effect in the other direction.

There's a Labor Dispute at West Coast Ports, But No One Will Say What It's About

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 1:29 PM EST

West Coast port operators are shutting down for a few days because "they don't want to pay overtime to workers who, they allege, have deliberately slowed operations to the point of causing a massive bottleneck." This is part of an increasingly rancorous labor dispute, but as usual, we really have no idea what the dispute is about:

Dockworkers are among the best paid blue-collar workers in the country, earning between $26 and $41 an hour, depending on experience and skill.

Union spokesman Craig Merrilees has said the two sides are very close to a deal, but has declined to say what is tying up the talks....According to employers, a major hurdle is a union demand that both sides have the ability to unilaterally remove local arbitrators at the end of a labor contract....Employers say that if such a change is made, alleged union slowdown tactics would become constant, because the union could "fire judges who rule against them."

The union said Wednesday that employers are "grossly" mischaracterizing its current bargaining position. "It seems to us that the employers are trying to sabotage negotiations," union President McEllrath said.

This is pretty normal, and it's one of the things that makes it hard to unilaterally support either side in labor disputes like this. We already know that dockworkers are very well paid, and that's apparently not a bone of contention. But what's the deal with the arbitrators? Who has the better of the argument? There's no telling.

The public probably doesn't care much about this unless it eventually gets nasty enough that it affects the ability of stores to keep stuff in stock. So maybe public opinion doesn't matter. But to the extent it does, it sure seems like unions would have a better chance of getting public support if they were more forthcoming about exactly what it is they're holding out for.

(Or maybe not. One of the big problems with the huge decline in union density over the past few decades is that the public no longer has much of a stake in supporting unions. In the past, there was some sense of solidarity. If one union negotiated a healthy raise, it increased the odds of everyone else getting a healthy raise too. But not anymore. If the dockworkers do well, they're just the last of the lucky bastards with good union jobs. The rest of us get nothing from it except maybe higher prices for the goods and services we buy. It's hard to see a way out of this dynamic.)

The Internet Is Freaking Out About This Video of Obama Using a Selfie Stick

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 1:06 PM EST

BuzzFeed got Obama to use a selfie stick. Here is the video.

 
 

Why is a selfie stick news? Because when the president does it, it's news.