Wednesday, February 26, 2003

More on Estrada

Today's Tribune runs an editorial about Democratic obstruction of the Estrada nomination, but concludes that any obstruction is payback, well within the rules of politics as currently practiced:

President Bush and Senate Republicans are waxing righteously indignant over Democrats' obstructing the confirmation of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

And yes, it's a terrible thing. Democrats should abandon their procedural antics and let Estrada's nomination go to the Senate floor.

But first let us acknowledge the stench of hypocrisy hanging thick in the Senate chamber. It was just a few years ago that Democrats were screaming bloody murder over Republicans' obstructing many of President Clinton's judicial nominees.

U.S. Sen Jon Kyl's press secretary has tried to convince us that Democrats' tactics this time are somehow different and more heinous because they're threatening a filibuster. Our view is that whether the tool of choice is a crowbar or monkey wrench, the resultant jamming of the procedural gears is essentially the same.

* * *
So here we are, locked in stalemate. What to do?

The right thing would be for Democrats to get out of the way and let the full Senate vote on the nomination. Indeed, every president's judicial nominees should be handled so forthrightly.

Of course, this being politics, what is right may very well have to take a back seat. President Bush may be forced to find somebody else. It won't be the first time that's happened.

And, if it comes to that, Bush and his GOP cohorts in the Senate will have no right to point fingers.

Usually, libertarians are the undocumented workers of the VRWC--imported to do the jobs that are too distasteful, or don't pay enough, for real Republicans, then ignored or worse when it's time to divide up the booty. It's nice when they turn on their usual employers, and we need to encourage them when they do so.
Two Quotes I Hadn't Seen Before

Two worthwhile quotations from Larry Coben, a friend of my wife Beth and me, who now is a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, having done apparently all he needed to do as an investment banker:

"As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life -- so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls." -- M. Cartmill

"The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us." -- Paul Valery, 1895

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Playing the Race Card on Estrada

I ran this week on Tuesday; apparently things just got too crowded in this week's "Lack of Perspective" section. This column responds to one of the GOP "Team Leader" letters that ran in The Tribune last Thursday morning on the Estrada nomination. To run in limited space, I got chopped a bit, and I've taken the liberty of restoring some of the excisions and, doing the lawyer thing, putting back in the citations for the Scalia and Rehnquist quotes.

Hey, all you "just cut spending" types--is this what you had in mind?

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 25, 2003

The standard GOP spin on the opposition to the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals is that Estrada’s Hispanic; Democrats oppose him; therefore, they’re bigoted against Hispanics. Naturally, a Democrat making this argument would get roundly criticized for “playing the race card.”

But the race card plays both ways. Jaime Molera was Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, the only Hispanic Republican ever to serve statewide. Last year, he lost in the GOP primary. Should we ask, “Why are Republicans afraid of a Hispanic nominee?”

It’s the same logic. Molera is Hispanic; GOP voters defeated Molera; ergo, GOP voters are bigots (or, at least “afraid of a Hispanic nominee”). If the standard of proof for discrimination is opposing or delaying a minority appointment, Republicans should answer for their treatment of Clinton’s judicial nominees.

It’s also inaccurate to refer to Bush’s Hispanic nominees in the plural. With 42 circuit court vacancies, Estrada is the only Hispanic Bush nominated. Clinton submitted 11, but the GOP-controlled Senate blocked three from getting a vote, either in committee or on the floor.

Republicans also claim that Democrats oppose Estrada because he’s too conservative. There are two fatal flaws with this claim. First, the GOP spent years opposing Clinton’s judicial nominees as too liberal. Oh, Republicans whipped up some amusing pretexts for their ideological opposition, but so have Democrats opposing Estrada. It was great fun for the GOP to delay and deny a Democratic president’s judicial appointments. Why shouldn’t Democrats enjoy the same fun now?

But the real problem is that nobody knows Estrada’s beliefs and ideology for certain. There’s absolutely nothing on the public record, and he’s steadfastly refused to give any clues to what he thinks.

As Michael Kinsley noted, at his hearing Estrada pled the nominee equivalent of a criminal defendant “taking the Fifth”: “My view of the judicial function, Senator, does not allow me to answer that question.”

To answer that particular argument, here are this week’s guest commentators, Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist (thanks to Sam Heldman, and the Wyeth Wire for digging out the quotes).

Scalia: “A judge’s lack of predisposition regarding the relevant legal issues in a case has never been thought a necessary component of equal justice, and with good reason. For one thing, it is virtually impossible to find a judge who does not have preconceptions about the law. . . . Indeed, even if it were possible to select judges who did not have preconceived views on legal issues, it would hardly be desirable to do so. . . . And since avoiding judicial preconceptions on legal issues is neither possible nor desirable, pretending otherwise by attempting to preserve the ‘appearance’ of that type of impartiality can hardly be a compelling state interest either.” Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765 (2002) (emphasis added).

Rehnquist: “Since most Justices come to this bench no earlier than their middle years, it would be unusual if they had not by that time formulated at least some tentative notions that would influence them in their interpretation of the sweeping clauses of the Constitution and their interaction with one another. It would be not merely unusual, but extraordinary, if they had not at least given opinions as to constitutional issues in their previous legal careers . Proof that a Justice’s mind at the time he joined the Court was a complete tabula rasa in the area of constitutional adjudication would be evidence of lack of qualification, not lack of bias.” Laird v. Tatum, 409 U.S. 824 (1972) (emphasis added).

It’s yet another case of the core GOP philosophy: That was then; this is now.

Monday, February 17, 2003

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Ponders Municipal Services in Scottsdale

A really local issue this week. I'm giving two talks to service clubs this month on the Bush budget, so my column goes local instead. But speaking about the budget, isn't it just amazing how the very same people who were so darn certain that we needed to amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit deficits are now saying that so long as the budget deficit is less than a certain percentage of the size of the economy, it's just peachy?

For those who find asking actual firefighters about the future of emergency services distasteful, I presume it's similarly disturbing to inquire of actual physicians about the future of health care policy?

And yes, the "dog that didn't bark" is from Silver Blaze, not The Hound of the Baskervilles.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 16, 2003

In investigating the mystery of whether Scottsdale voters should decide to end their city’s fire services contract with Rural/Metro, perhaps we should request the services of that fabled detective, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes might deploy the same deductive powers that he displayed so splendidly in solving the confounding disappearance of the valuable racehorse “Silver Blaze” in 1892:

Colonel Ross, the horse’s owner, asked Holmes, “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” Holmes replied.

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Indeed. Holmes learned that a dog was kept in the horse’s stable, and though someone had entered and taken out the horse at night, the dog had not barked. Holmes realized that “the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.” The clue to the mystery was the dog that didn’t bark.

Similarly, as the Scottsdale fire services debate plays out -- with the latest convolution being The Tribune’s inquiry into who might eventually compete (not, as last week’s editorial noted in its best Jerry Seinfeld imitation, that there’s anything wrong with that) for the separate ambulance contract if (a) Rural/Metro loses and (b) can’t make ambulance service work standing alone -- voters instead might want to consider what they’re not hearing.

Current Scottsdale firefighters won’t bad-mouth Rural/Metro. It’s not part of the firefighter culture, and it’s also arguably a violation of each firefighter’s employment contract. Big and not-so-big companies fire, and sue, employees for much less all the time.

But absolutely nothing stops Scottsdale firefighters from volunteering to testify that current service levels, response times, equipment, and facilities are adequate and appropriate. Nobody’s contract prevents them from supporting their employer, and nothing in firefighter culture stops anybody from bragging about their team.

That’s what we don’t seem to be hearing amid all the hubbub about cost, quality, and who’s suing whom. We can’t expect the current firefighters to risk their jobs by taking public stands against their current employer. But if the firefighters thought the status quo was just peachy, they’re totally free to say so. Any political consultant knows that Rural/Metro would put actual Scottsdale firefighters front and center in their battle to keep their contract with the City -- if only they could.

How would an ordinary citizen figure out whether Scottsdale’s 3-on-a-truck staffing, response times, dispatcher and communications systems, and mutual aid arrangements are sufficient? Probably the first thing to do would be to talk with an expert. You wouldn’t want to hear from a finance guy, or rely on the obvious self-interest of a business owner.

If you’re getting advice from the self-interested, you’d want to hear from the firefighters themselves first. Their self-interest -- not just in doing their jobs well, but in staying alive -- is far closer to the public interest than the self-interest of competing businesses. For questions of public safety, instead of hearing from people worried about rates of return on investment, I’d much rather hear from the people willing to risk their necks to save mine.

In a perfect world, Scottsdale voters would research the issues independently and exhaustively. But in our world, people use shortcuts in voting. Those who want government to run more like a business might stop looking once they learned that Pulte Homes recently and quietly terminated Anthem’s contract with Rural/Metro.

Others would want to hear from the firefighters. And if we’re not hearing from them, just think of Sherlock Holmes, who saw the significance of the dog that didn’t bark.

It just might solve this particular mystery, too.

Monday, February 10, 2003

Zero-Based Budgeting--The Latest Procedural Gimmick to Avoid a Substantive Problem

This week, they matched me up with Kevin McCarthy of the Arizona Tax Research Association. His point was that you can't keep education, health and welfare, and prisons "off the table" and hope to limit state spending. But McCarthy's still talking only about lack of flexibility, and efficiencies, and process, nothing substantive to be cut. Don't want to give any specifics, just process. The usual crapola, pardon my French.

And why is it such a blazing priority to balance the budget anyway? All this fiscal discipline talk seems pretty bizarre, given the $300+ billion deficits we're being promised from George W. Bush for the next five years. We should just follow the moral example of our president (isn't that what conservatives wanted?) and spend money we don't have. Heck, if deficits don't matter, why stop at $309 billion? Let's just borrow it all. Why pay any taxes? Don't do as Bush says, do as he does.

I also should mention I'm recovering from a bout of cognitive dissonance brought on by attending the tribute dinner in honor of the retirement of our friend, Monsignor Ed Ryle, as chair of the Arizona Catholic Conference. (Yes, he really does make friends all over the spectrum.) The evening was styled as a political convention, with people coming together to cheer for affordable housing, medical care, education, and such, at the direction of the evening's Master of Ceremonies, Martin Schultz, the lobbyist for Arizona Public Service. Of course, Msgr. Ryle's efforts to preserve public assistance and to enhance health care, education, and housing always seemed to run into the brick wall of lowering taxes at the state legislature. Nobody was impolite enough to notice that all the wonderful ideals being saluted just never quite got to be as important as improving returns for APS shareholders. But with a charitable donation, the brick wall gets to host your retirement dinner, and maybe rewrite history--unless enough of us have sufficiently bad manners to mention it.

Carter-style budgeting no solution

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 9, 2003

Jimmy Carter lives -- in the GOP-controlled Arizona Legislature!

The GOP legislative leadership has a brand-new budget gimmick, zero-based budgeting (ZBB). Proving those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, they’re using Jimmy Carter’s discarded idea.

Wonder how “Fast Eddie” Farnsworth looks in a cardigan?

ZBB sounds logical, leading smart guys like former President Carter to try it in government. Carter learned about ZBB from a 1970 Harvard Business Review article by Peter Pyhrr of Texas Instruments. Carter used it as Georgia governor, and launched ZBB at the federal level in 1977.

ZBB requires all agencies, programs, and “decision units” to justify all spending. Instead of beginning with last year’s budget, everybody starts from scratch. But like a lot of easier-to-express-than-to-apply ideas, ZBB didn’t work as theorized.

First, ZBB fits the private sector better, where all employees have some stake, however remote, in overall profitability. Unfortunately, in government, there are no profits and little cross-fertilization; police don’t benefit if agricultural inspections become more efficient.

Moreover, government simply can’t abandon basic functions. Motorola can stop manufacturing semiconductors, but we can’t close down the prisons because the Department of Corrections isn’t as productive as the Office of Tourism.

Second, ZBB is terribly time-consuming. Examining all spending takes tremendous time and effort, which can’t be devoted to providing services, and is imposed on agencies required to shed administrative “fat.” Carter required federal agencies to submit three different budgets, showing results of a 20 percent cut, current funding, and increased resources -- which doubled or tripled the planning workload.

The real burden, however, fell on the reviewers. Few budget staffers, much less legislators, have time to read, much less understand, the paperwork that an honest examination of all spending requires. The Carter administration got bogged down in forms and details, and lost sight of the “big picture” that ZBB was supposed to clarify. The federal government still collects acres of data on productivity annually -- so much that nobody ever seems to use it.

(The current Bush administration hasn’t done better. They instituted a rating system, declaring certain programs “ineffective.” The punishment? Generally, 10 percent budget cut. They have yet to explain why spending 10 percent less makes an ineffective program actually work.)

ZBB failed because it didn’t change the culture of the players. Of course, bureaucrats could “game” ZBB by suggesting politically-popular programs for cuts, effectively shielding lower priorities. The process rewarded schemers and penalized those who were honest about accountability.

However, the more effective enemy of ZBB wasn’t the bureaucracy, but Congress. Virtually all government spending has both a public and a legislative constituency. We’ve heard plenty about how much government spending is mandated or entitlements, but the real change recently has been the increase in line-items and earmarked funds since the GOP took control of Congress in 1995.

Even if bureaucrats admitted their failures, Congress insists on controlling spending. Given legal and legislative requirements and directives, no agency ever gets much say on spending -- thereby making the whole prioritization process irrelevant. ZBB ignored politics, but politics beats good-government theory almost every time.

ZBB’s revival probably means less legislative oversight. More time reviewing a few agencies means many others get ignored. As an Arizona legislative staffer noted, “The mere fact that agencies attend [budget] meetings and answer questions makes legislators more knowledgeable. But the fact is, you address the issues that are before you, you’re drawn to the issues of the moment.”

Of course, what the GOP is doing really isn’t ZBB. Their budget already allocated all the money. Programs under review don’t just have to justify their spending; they also must convince legislators to take money back from other programs.

Despite the name and the association with Jimmy Carter, the GOP isn’t reinventing the wheel here. Unlike ZBB, the wheel actually worked.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

"A Republican and a Democrat Meet a Homeless Person"

Andrew Tobias is taking apart, piece by piece, that stupid story about "The 10 Men and the $100 Dinner" on his website (see here and here). But I got by email a different little Internet myth, the one about "A Republican and a Democrat Meet a Homeless Person." It goes like this:

A Republican and a Democrat were walking down the street when they came to a homeless person. The Republican gave the homeless person his business card and told him to come to his business for a job. He then took twenty dollars out of his pocket and gave it to the homeless person. The Democrat was very impressed, and when they came to another homeless person, he decided to help. He walked over to the homeless person and gave him directions to the welfare office. He then reached into the Republican's pocket and got out twenty dollars. He kept fifteen for administrative fees and gave the homeless person five. Now you understand the difference between Republicans and Democrats.

But that's not the real story. Here's how it really goes.

A Republican and a Democrat were walking down the street when they came to a homeless person. The Republican gave the homeless person $20. The Democrat, who wasn't nearly as well-off as the Republican, gave the homeless person $10, the address of the local job center, and recognizing that the reason why the homeless person probably didn't have a job in the first place was because of substance-abuse problems, turned to the Republican and said, "We need to increase funding for treatment, so people like this homeless person have a way to pull themselves up out of the gutter."

The Republican was impressed with the Democrat's compassion, but told the Democrat that he had it all wrong. "What we really need to do," said the Republican, "is cut taxes paid by the wealthy and the rich. After all, they're the ones with the time and money to spread these stupid tales about 'The 10 Men and the $100 Dinner' and 'The Republican and Democrat Meet a Homeless Person' that contain such logical fallacies and factual inaccuracies. And we want to give the wealthy those tax cuts instead of funding job training and substance-abuse treatment, or even basic public health needs."

"It doesn't matter," continued the Republican, "that the overall U.S. tax system--when you consider federal, state, and local taxes together--is essentially flat right now." (Being an Internet-savvy Republican, he even thoughtfully provided the link to the New York Times article with the chart to prove his point.) "It's our plan to reduce the share of progressive taxes paid by those at the top end, even if that means making people like this homeless person wait longer for help--if they ever can get help."

The Republican paused. "But that's not the whole story," the Republican said. "We're cutting those progressive taxes, while at the same time increasing regressive taxes, particularly state and local taxes consumption taxes and the federal payroll tax. So even if you gave the homeless person $20, more of that money would go to taxes imposed on food or clothing purchases. Meanwhile, my thousands of dollars of dividend income will become completely tax-free. Not a bad strategy for helping the rich get further ahead on the backs of working families, much less raising taxes--sales taxes--paid even by the homeless?"

The Democrat appreciated the Republican's honesty about motives and tactics. But the Democrat still had one question. "I just wonder why you gave the homeless person $20 if that's how you really feel," the Democrat said. The Republican answered, "First of all, I make far more than twice as much as you do, so it's very easy for me to give $20 to one homeless person--far easier than it was for you to give $10, and as I itemize my income taxes and you just take the standard deduction, I'll find a way to deduct this contribution and save nearly 40% of it on my taxes."

The Republican continued, "Second, it's a fabulous economic deal for me. I give one measly $20 contribution and can wave it around like a bloody shirt to prove my individual compassion. It's well worth $20 for me to use one small incident of personal compassion to help justify thousands of dollars of tax breaks for me. And you'd be amazed at the people who don't understand how taxes work and the nonsense they'll swallow. I'll be chuckling in astonishment all the way to the bank"

And now you understand the real difference between Republicans and Democrats.

Monday, February 03, 2003

More on Bush and Taxes

I wrote my column Wednesday, submitted it Thursday, and it was edited on Friday for Sunday's paper--but that got scrapped, obviously, with the Columbia disaster on Saturday. So I'm talking about what seems like ancient history this morning.

Read Gregg Easterbrook on why the shuttle program should be scrapped.

What a weak headline--the Bush plan will make taxes much more regressive. "Won't do much" my butt, as Bart Simpson would say.

Unequal Burden

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 3, 2003

The Tribune editorial page claimed last Wednesday that “the Bush tax cut would actually make the system even more progressive than it is now.” I stopped counting the misstatements in that sentence at three; I only get some 600 words to explain tax reality. Here’s the deception that outlandish claim requires.

First, federal income and estate taxes are progressive, but federal payroll and miscellaneous taxes are regressive, taking a bigger share from people at lower incomes. Three-quarters of tax filers overall, and 90 percent of those with incomes under $100,000, pay more payroll than income taxes, so the overall federal system is not that progressive.

Second, even if federal taxes overall are still progressive, nobody pays just federal taxes. State and local taxes are markedly regressive; people earning less pay a greater share of income. Combining federal, state, and local taxes, we’ve essentially got a flat tax system now.

Any progressivity in the federal system is matched by regressive state and local taxes. In 2001, people earning in the bottom 20 percent of all incomes paid about 18 percent in taxes to all levels of government; people earning in the top 20 percent paid about 19 percent.

During the past decades, the overall tax system has become more regressive. According to the Tax Foundation -- not necessarily the best source, as their methodology overstates tax burdens by about one-seventh by including as taxes public employees’ pension payments and rent on government property -- the impact of the federal income tax on the median family declined from 8.7 percent in 1955 to 8.4 percent in 1998. It’s state and local taxes and federal payroll taxes, all highly regressive, responsible for all of the subsequent increase in the median tax burden.

Third, these claims of increased progressivity require considering only a small part of Bush’s latest proposal while ignoring most of it. Virtually all benefits to families earning $50,000 or less come from three planks: the 10 percent bracket expansion, the child care tax credit increase, and the “marriage penalty” deduction. Even with adding in the unemployed worker accounts proposal, these progressive proposals constitute merely 21 percent of Bush’s plan.

Unfortunately, by a factor of nearly 4-to-1, the great majority of the Bush tax cuts reduce progressive federal taxes but leave regressive ones alone. Simply by definition, these tax cuts make the federal system less progressive, not more.

The good things The Tribune cites will happen even if we junk the vast majority of Bush’s plan. You want my positive proposal? Let’s do what George W. Bush and The Tribune talk about, not what they actually propose. Accelerate the 10 percent bracket expansion, the child care tax credit increase, the marriage penalty fix, and the worker accounts -- and still have $531 billion left for Medicare reform, AIDS, and hydrogen cars.

Sure, one-fifth of the Bush plan is progressive -- but four-fifths is wickedly regressive. One step forward and four steps back ain’t progress.

Watch their lips. When Bush or The Tribune say “taxes,” they mean only federal income taxes. By artfully discussing only one tax and only a small part of the Bush proposal, and hoping you don’t notice, they can bandy about such bogus statistics as the “average” taxpayer getting a refund of $1,000 -- in the same sense that over our careers, Hank Aaron and I averaged 377.5 home runs each.

Here’s what’s accurate: Parts of the Bush tax cut would actually make the federal income tax more progressive than it is now, but far more of Bush’s plan would make federal taxes less progressive -- and the overall tax system, already basically flat, more regressive.

I know -- it just doesn’t have the same zing.