Monday, May 23, 2005

If Democrats Had A Philosophy, Would It Matter As Little As The Republicans' "Philosophy"?

I find that if I'm unsure about what to write about for my Sunday column (which is due Thursday at noon), I just read the paper's editorials on Thursday and usually there's something to complain about. But this time I found something to applaud. Here's Bob Schuster's original editorial, and the newspaper link for me as well. "Oafish"? Well, I guess my editor will stretch for assonance when he feels like it.

East Valley Tribune, May 22, 2005

Most of the time I use this space to take shots at Bob Schuster, so it’s only fair to salute him when he gets it right. (Plus, maybe it’ll keep him off-balance for my next attack.)

Last Thursday, The Tribune came out against the initiative to amend the state constitution to ban not only gay marriage, but any sort of second-class civil union substitute. But the initiative wouldn’t stop there; it also would prohibit public employers from offering partner benefits and it would interfere with private citizens’ rights to designate their agents for healthcare or child-rearing decisions or the beneficiaries of their wills.

This is pretty extreme stuff, and The Tribune rightfully opposed it, based on their support of Arizona’s libertarian tradition of letting people live their own lives. The editorial quoted the late Senator Barry Goldwater, who was our last prominent pro-choice Arizona GOP politician.

Quoting Goldwater, however, is a sign that in today’s Arizona GOP, you’re losing the argument. These days, Arizona Republicans still quote Barry, but follow his actual beliefs about as often as electing a Hispanic or black Republican. That is, basically never.

I’m definitely not a Republican, but this marriage amendment cuts across each of the party’s core beliefs. Republicans are supposed to be for lower taxes, smaller government, and a strong military, and this anti-gay stuff is contrary to all three.

Our national defense suffers, because despite a chronic shortage of Arabic speakers in our military (and 130,000 of our troops in Iraq, desperately trying to win hearts and minds), the Defense Department is discharging perfectly capable troops solely because of homosexuality. Our current all-encompassing “war on terror” is rather peculiar, if things are so serious that America needs to use interrogation techniques we used to consider as torture, but not so serious we should stop drumming out qualified gays from the military.

Getting rid of good soldiers and competent linguists doesn’t make the military stronger. (Neither does torture, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Lower taxes? Well, if you look at the numbers, gays tend to earn above-median incomes while having fewer kids and needs for government programs. Thus, they pay more taxes and use fewer services. I don’t see where “conservative values” get advanced by singling out people to pay more, get less, and serve as scapegoats for society’s ills.

But it’s the “smaller government” bit that really gets a trashing from the gay-bashing. People who refuse to believe that government can operate a competent healthcare financing system or good schools want to use that same government to enforce their own sectarian religious beliefs on everybody else. What’s worse, they’ve chosen two areas -- gays and abortion -- where their demand for “morality” asks nothing of themselves, only of others.

None of the people proposing this amendment plan to enter into a gay marriage. But they are so concerned that other people may do things of which they don’t approve that they insist that the government stop those other people, right now. Then, having made others, by force of law, follow the proponents’ religious beliefs, those proponents can feel pride in their superior, state-enforced morality.

It’s so much cheaper, faster, and easier than out-of-style anachronisms like charity and good works. Such a warm, comforting religion that makes the only morality that matters is getting the state to stop other people from doing things that won’t ever affect you.

Bob’s right -- the amendment is a bad idea. But despite all the Barry-quoting that we’re going to hear, the amendment is a bad idea being pushed almost entirely by Republicans, despite it violating every ostensible Republican core value. Yet unless Sen. John McCain decides opposing these religious extremists could help in 2008, it’ll be tough to find any living Republican politicians brave enough (or with so little to lose) that they’d publicly oppose the anti-gay folks and this awful amendment.

Apparently, some things are just more important than principle. Like winning elections -- for which Republicans need the religious right. (And tribal casino money, too.)

Monday, May 16, 2005

I Don't Write the Headlines, Folks

Heck of a headline this week. I certainly wasn't expecting anything along the lines of "Bush Lies Like a Rug on Social Security" from The Tribune, but that's what I got. And, also surprisingly, I haven't gotten a lot of angry feedback; perhaps even diehard Republicans are having a hard time understanding exactly what Bush is trying to prove with his Social Security proposals.

I also made a brief appearance in the Arizona Republic, in what Andy calls a "hamburger helper" article--no meat, only filler. "A Napolitano fan"? Don't I at least get a t-shirt or something? It was the lead article in the Sunday paper, and Slate put it, in the land of the newsless, the feature is king--but the Republic couldn't even bother with a feature, so instead we got aimless political speculation. It's refreshing to get political analysis based on the profile of the "unnamed Republican" which, as we Democrats know, mean that when you finally have an actual candidate, he or she not only has those general negatives, but a bunch of specific ones as well. In politics and in romance, no actual person ever looks as good as a "potential candidate."

The Mark Schmidt essay/post cited in my column is available here. Bob Schuster's piece from last week, which spurred my column, is available here.

East Valley Tribune, May 15, 2005

Last Sunday, Bob “Stop me before I privatize again!” Schuster let himself get bamboozled by Bush on Social Security.

Bob’s first whopper was that Bush proposed means-testing Social Security benefits, to benefit those at the bottom. Wrong. Bush instead proposed “progressive price indexing,” which wouldn’t limit benefits based on means, but rather based on prior wages -- not nearly the same thing.

First, lower-income earners wouldn’t get more; instead, people at all income levels would have projected benefits cut, with those earning less than $20,000 getting smaller cuts, but cuts nonetheless. (That’s the cost of those carve-out “personal” accounts.) That’s because in addition to steeper cuts as a wage-earner’s income increased, the cuts also grow larger over time. The White House calculations were based on average benefits in 2050, which includes people who retired in earlier years when cuts would be smaller; those retiring in 2050 and later, even in the bottom 20 percent, will face larger reductions.

Second, Bush’s sliding-scale reductions are based on lifetime earnings, so it’s not a means test. A worker’s average earnings doesn’t automatically mirror their means in retirement. Just ask any retired United Airlines employee.

A widow or divorcĂ©e with benefits calculated on the earnings of her deceased or former husband would face a large reduction, even if she has few other assets. As Mark Schmidt points out, a worker who averaged $50,000 in annual earnings but never could save much for retirement because of sending multiple kids through college or an expensive medical condition, or a company pension bankruptcy, gets a benefit cut. Another worker who never made more than $30,000 but who receives an inheritance, or sells his house for ten times its purchase price, could be well-fixed for retirement but wouldn’t face a cut.

If you support means-testing, the most efficient method is to use the income tax system. You’d make most Social Security benefits taxable for those making over the threshold levels of incomes in retirement -- which is a far better gauge of means in retirement than prior earnings.

Actually, the 1993 Clinton budget deal did that, making 85 percent of Social Security benefits taxable at levels considerably higher than Bush’s $20,000 threshold ($25,000 for individuals and $32,000 for couples, significantly higher, in constant dollars, than Bush’s $20,000 in 2005 dollars).

As Schmidt noted, partially taxing benefits is progressive and it’s actually related to means. And not a single Republican voted for it. People who actually understand this stuff may be a bit skeptical when conservatives -- and those, like The Tribune, who supported Bush's wildly regressive tax cuts -- now claim that they really, really love progressivity and raising taxes on higher earners by lifting the earnings cap.

Yeah, right. It must be the medication talking.

The second lie is that Social Security is headed for “a fiscal train wreck.” This statement requires you to consider $100 billion annual shortfalls in the Social Security trust funds 30 years out as a disaster, but $300 - $400 billion shortfalls in the General Fund budget last year, this year, next year, and the year after that (et cetera) as mere trifles, not worth worrying about.

It also requires you to project productivity growth over the next decade averaging 1.6 percent when talking about Social Security, but almost twice that (a “conservatively” estimated 2.6 percent) when discussing the General Fund budget, so Bush can pretend the deficit will be cut in half in 5 years.

If we’re living just fine with today’s budget deficit, why is Social Security, a smaller problem we don’t face for 3 decades, a “train wreck?” Why is calling for zero sacrifices today and large cuts in the future evidence of “leadership?”

The final lie is that Democrats should swallow Bush’s dissembling and deceptions and his cockamamie clawback and personal/private accounts out of “bipartisanship.” But Democrats aren’t supposed to have a say on anything else, like judges appointed for life, or tax cuts.

Exactly where else do Republicans care what Democrats think? If Bush’s “plan” for Social Security is such a good deal, then the Republican majority should vote for it. If they won’t, then maybe it isn’t a good deal after all.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Reverse NASCAR

Stock car races run around the track counterclockwise--so they're always turning left. At the Legislature, these guys only know how to steer to the right. So they just don't seem to understand how that gives Gov. Napolitano the center.

I have a Thursday noon deadline for my column, but the budget deal at the legislature came together around midnight that day, 12 hours after I had to file. So I had to switch gears, and tenses, because the legislative leadership caved and gave the Governor basically everything she wanted (CPS salary increases, $7 million for the downtown Phoenix medical school, increased funding for all-day kindergarten) and what the Republicans got was a $15 million tax credit for private school tuition donations. I think this will be this coming week's column, but $15 million a year is a lot less than what we're paying for the new Cardinals stadium, and that is now my new minimum level for ginning up outrage.

So, about the headline: I do think it's correct that at the legislature, ideology trumps facts. But getting out of the session trumps even ideology. The really jarring thing in the paper, though, was seeing the University of Arizona referred to as UA instead of U of A. But then we're a metro Phoenix paper, so tough luck, Wildcats.

East Valley Tribune, May 8, 2005

Some experts have speculated that because conservative ideology is so bulky, filling so much space inside the brain, it leaves ‘wingers with insufficient room for less important stuff, like facts.

Several letters to the editor this past week provided support for this hypothesis by insisting that the U.S. Supreme Court was perfectly justified in any overreaching to stop the 2000 Florida recounts because the justices were only slapping down an out-of-control state judiciary.

This isn’t a principled position at all, because it means conservatives support an out-of-control federal judiciary, provided they like the outcome: “Two wrongs make a right -- if we go last.”

But one actual fact squeezed out by their ideology (yes, this means you, T.K. of Mesa) is that it wasn’t Gore who originally asked the courts to step in. The case is called Bush v. Gore, at both the state and federal levels, for one reason -- Bush went to Florida state court first, demanding that judges take over. You could look it up, but you won’t; it’s more comfortable that way. No room.

This same problem, of space being unavailable for facts that don’t fit the ideology, was also on display in the state GOP legislative leadership’s budgetary stonewalling of the proposed new Phoenix campus of the University of Arizona College of Medicine. While they finally threw in this towel late last week, for most of the session it appeared as if their determination not to let anything happen that could be viewed as a victory for Gov. Napolitano wouldn’t let any actual facts to enter their consciousness.

This cranial overcrowding apparently prohibited GOP leadership from understanding the proposal or acknowledging the already-completed work behind it, and freed them to repeat, and repeat, things that simply weren’t true, like insisting that “there’s no plan” for the new school.

The reality -- like anything as minor as “reality” would matter to these guys -- is that there were numerous plans already in place for the new medical school, including for each stage of the remaining organizational and start-up process. There’s the accreditation plan, preliminary work on which has already been submitted to the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the national accreditation authority for medical schools. The Arizona Board of Regents finished the facilities plan, for renovating the three historic building to be used for the classrooms and clinical rotations. UA prepared the staffing and equipment cost plans for the “Level I” first phase of 24 students per year, plus consolidation of existing Valley-wide clinical rotations.

ASU completed its plan for its Biomedical Informatics Department that will co-locate with the medical school and play a key role in future medical education. ASU even has provided cost projections for the next 6 years. Finally, the Flinn Foundation has retained a consultant to develop the plan for building, expanding, and funding possible expansion to the next, Level II, phase.

To use technical medical terminology, the new medical school had more already-prepared plans than Carter’s has liver pills.

(That’s a lot more plans, you’ll note, than these same legislators’ instant voucher proposal, which costs far more and yet has no Arizona studies behind it. But ideology leaves no room for consistency, either.)

Since UA opened the only medical school in the state decades ago, the population of Arizona has multiplied several times. You might think that leaders of the state would see the need to expand the number of doctors being educated and trained to keep up with that growth. But that would require knowledge of facts, and unfortunately for Arizona, in any contest at this Legislature between facts and ideology, you know where to bet.

Physicians also should recognize how their GOP “friends” at the Legislature view government’s role in public health. As Sen. Ron Gould (R-Lake Havasu City) said, doctors make enough money that educating them should be their own problem.

Maybe the legislators’ cranial space shortages kept them from being able to deal with actual facts. But in putting their partisan battles with Gov. Napolitano ahead of the public interest in fixing Arizona’s chronic physician shortage, it’s our health that will suffer.

Monday, May 02, 2005

We Want Judges Who Decide Things Our Way. Doesn't Everybody?

I found that there's one thing that gets those 'wingers going, and it's mentioning Al Gore. I got a chance to exchange emails with one of my frequent conservative critics, who said that Gore should have been a "statesman" like Nixon and just conceded the close election in 1960. That gave me a chance to remind him that while Nixon personally didn't contest the election, largely because Eisenhower refused to play along and it wouldn't have been politically palatable, lots of Nixon surrogates made challenges in 11 different states--and, in fact, the electoral votes for Hawaii did change as a result of a court challenge, but in Kennedy's favor.

So we had to disagree that Nixon had it right by pretending to abide by the vote count but having his supporters run those challenges, with his knowledge, and Gore should have been sneaky like Nixon instead of actually playing a role in the Florida challenge--or something. But at least I got him off the "Nixon was robbed and behaved himself" meme, for a while. Anyway, the background for this bit of American history is available here, for those of you interested.

And if you think I'm being hyperbolic, over the weekend Pat Robertson said that federal judges are a more serious threat to America than Al Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorists. Hard to top that one. And if Pat Robertson doesn't count against Republicans, can someone explain again to me who Ward Churchill is and why I'm somehow responsible for him?

The link to the Gore speech, mentioned below, is here.

East Valley Tribune, May 1, 2005

With all this right-wing talk about “black-robed tyrants,” maybe we should listen to one American with recent personal experience with an out-of-control and unaccountable judiciary.

That would be Al Gore, who last Thursday gave a speech that doubled as a history lecture, putting into perspective -- using words of the Founders of our republic -- the current ruling party’s desire to eliminate deliberation, dissent, and democracy, and their efforts to change the rules and pack the courts.

If anybody can speak with authority and experience about judicial overreach, and tyrannical judges, and legislating from the bench, it would be Al Gore.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to stop votes from being counted, in an unsigned decision they found so embarrassing that the opinion said it isn’t precedent and shouldn’t ever be cited again. While Gore disagreed with the decision, he didn’t contest it -- and he certainly didn’t attack the courts or the judges like the Republicans have.

Following the Court decision, U.S. Senators didn’t try to excuse killers of judges and their family members by saying, on the floor of the Senate, that maybe those criminals took offense at Bush v. Gore.

The U.S. House majority leader didn’t issue over-the-top warnings the justices to “watch their back,” that he would find a way to “deal with them later” for making George W. Bush president.

So all this complaining today by Republicans about judges isn’t about principle; it’s all about power.

Right-wing extremists want to remake the judiciary not in their image, but as their lapdogs. They don’t care about respect for law, and precedent, and democracy. What they really want is activist judges who don’t respect the law and who instead will place personal beliefs -- their extremist views -- ahead of their judicial responsibilities.

They want to own the courts the same way that they are working to seize the mantle of religion, that only people who believe exactly as they do are “people of faith.” Everybody else who believes something else, well, their faith -- my faith -- will be as much a second-class citizen as are non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia.

And, of course, the same Republicans who insist that every judicial nominee deserves a vote by the full Senate are down at the state Legislature preventing Democrats from having any chance to vote on the state budget -- which they insist must pass with only GOP votes.

I used to think that sometimes I was being overly alarmist, that the Republicans would stop well short of imposing a theocracy, just like Iran, where fundamentalist mullahs tell legislators and judges what to do, and they do it. Then we saw what the GOP White House and Congress did with the Terri Schiavo case. That should teach us all that one must work really, really hard ever to exaggerate what these people want and just how far they’ll go to get it.

In his speech, Gore quoted Madison in Federalist No. 10 warning that “a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction.” What Madison warned about appears to be the case today.

It’s wrong. There’s got to be a limit. We’ve got to tell the Republicans no, there are limits to your power. Our rights depend on it. Our democracy depends on it.

Author Anne Lammot tells the old joke about the new arrival getting the welcome tour of heaven from St. Peter, who points out the various wonders the residents enjoy, such as verdant hills, pleasant meadows, gentle streams, concert halls, art galleries, hills and mountains for those who want to climb, fragrant flowers and sweet music everywhere. Then they come upon a great walled fortress.

“What on earth is that?” asks the man. “Oh,” says St. Peter. “That’s where the fundamentalists live. It’s not heaven for them if they think anyone else got in.”

Maybe these folks have the real story about heaven, and they can limit the hereafter to those who believe and think exactly as they do. Maybe. But that’s no reason, here on earth and in this life, to let them trash the courts and the Constitution.