Monday, March 27, 2006

More Screwy Budget Logic--From My Own Paper

Here's this week's installment. My proposed headline was "WWJD Means 'We're (un)Willing to be Just and Decent' " but the editor went with something far less poetic. If you want to read the offending Tribune editorial that set me off, it's here. The Kyl piece telling how the middle class benefited oh so much from the tax cuts (ha!) is here.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 26, 2006

If anyone ever doubts that the United States really isn’t a “Christian nation,” The Tribune’s editorial last Tuesday proved it.

Called “What to buck from state budget? Despite healthy surplus, some worthy proposals must be left out of the funding pie,” The Tribune showed that the Pharisees eventually won. Religion's role in public life has been reduced to bashing gays, restricting women, and cutting taxes.

The editorial almost, but couldn’t quite, endorse Gov. Janet Napolitano’s budget request to spend $8.5 million providing some 3,000 seniors with in-home care, to keep them independent and out of nursing homes, and $1.5 million to hire 30 more elder-abuse investigators.

The Tribune couldn’t actually support the increased funding, even though increasing in-home care should save money through better health outcomes and reducing the need for more costly full-time institutional care. And The Tribune probably believes that elder abuse is bad, too, but just isn't ready to actually do anything about either problem.

Instead, we got a hedged, mealy-mouthed quasi-endorsement: “More support for elderly care could easily fit onto [the Legislature’s] priority list, as long as we keep in mind that someone else probably will have to be turned away this year.”

Isn’t that just special? Maybe we could improve the lives of 3,000 seniors (and save money to boot) and increase the number of caseworkers, as now there are so many more seniors (and abuse reports) than five or ten years ago. But The Tribune can’t commit, because it views the ultimate goal of our constitutional democracy as “keeping our taxes as low as possible,” and if that requires ignoring 3,000 seniors and not investigating all elder abuse reports, then that’s the price of freedom!

The Tribune editorial contains three of the logical fallacies that underlie so much conservative budget bloviation. First, the editorial noted that much of the current state budget surplus appears temporary and thus unlikely to reoccur again, so we shouldn’t fund ongoing operations with temporary dollars.

However, The Tribune has no problem with using temporary dollars to justify tax cuts -- which, of course, are also ongoing. With the two-thirds vote requirement, a tax cut is far more permanent than any one-year appropriation. The Tribune can’t commit to helping those 3,000 seniors, because that might wreck future state budgets, but has no problem committing to permanent tax cuts, even though those will wreck future state budgets.

The second fallacy is The Tribune’s claim that “we have been overcharged for what it really costs to keep government running” while simultaneously admitting that we face a court mandate to improve English language learning instruction (which takes money) and want to address the federal government’s failure to reduce illegal immigration (which also takes money). In other words, we have to spend a lot more money but simultaneously we’ve been overcharged. That kind of know-nothingness may work in Washington, where the Bush administration can run the largest deficits in history, but it won’t work here.

Sure, government could be more efficient. But so could The Tribune. With all the improvements in productivity, why hasn’t the cost of my subscription gone down, not up? People working in a dying industry like newspapers may want to think twice about lecturing others about efficiency and value.

The final fallacy is the mantra that state tax cuts are absolutely vital to taxpayers and their finances. But why is that? Haven’t we enjoyed massive federal tax cuts, from which Sen. Jon Kyl claimed March 17 “the middle class benefits significantly”? That’s why he says he wants to extend those cuts -- and not enact new ones.

If you’re middle class, Kyl says you’ve had “significant” tax relief already. So those 3,000 seniors (and child abuse reports, pay raises for correctional guards, and all-day kindergarten, as well as ELL funding and border enforcement) could come out of the state budget, because federal tax cuts already have benefited middle class taxpayers significantly.

What? You’re middle class, and you aren’t paying less in taxes? Either you’re lying, or Jon Kyl is.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Fuzzy Math!

This week's column reports on the fun and games at the state capitol, where "fiscal discipline" would have to involve leather and chains. I've got a list of the bills if you're really, really interested. For non-Arizonans, "AIMS" is the Arizona Instrument for Measuring Standards, which is the high-stakes high school graduation test, which does have a math component.

Why GOP Budgeters Must Have Flunked AIMS
East Valley Tribune, Mar. 19, 2006

Here’s the key to understanding the fiscal fun and games at your GOP-controlled Arizona Legislature: They have the same sense of fiscal discipline as the GOP-controlled Congress, and the same command of arithmetic as President Bush.

It was candidate George W. Bush in 2000 who claimed that for every $3 of the projected budget surplus, he would use $1 to pay down the debt, $2 to cut taxes, and $1 to shore up Social Security and a Medicare drug benefit. You may detect a bit of a problem with that math.

And that’s before doing the harder calculations to discover that if you direct money to tax cuts and spending, then the surplus won’t be as big, then not as much debt gets paid off, then interest payments on the debt remain higher than forecast, then the surplus is even smaller, and so on. And al that’s before having to spending anything on homeland security, Katrina reconstruction, and the Iraq war.

The Bush administration -- and the GOP-controlled Congress, too; they have to pass every single one of these budget and spending bills -- managed to spend the surplus about three times over, which is why we’ve gone from Clinton’s record surplus to Bush’s record deficit. It isn’t 9/11 or WMD or Katrina; it’s the arithmetic. The “emergency” spending is just gravy.

That kind of hoping-you-also-can’t-add politics is running rampant at the state Legislature, too. The state is benefiting from stronger-than-projected income and sales tax receipts, and our budget surplus may exceed $1 billion. Based on bills introduced by your friends at the Legislature, the GOP caucus has a Bush-like fiscal plan. For every $1 of the surplus, they want to devote $1 to tax cuts this year, $2 (and change) to tax cuts next year, and $3 to tax cuts the year after that.

And what a list of tax-cut pork it is! GOP legislators want to shower tax cuts and incentives on “character education” providers, teachers, “energy efficient” products, investors, telecommunication companies, water utilities, electrical generating plants, contractors, manufactured buildings, liquid natural gas, and researchers. The legislators want to spend the surplus more than six times -- in just three years. Why not? The GOP Congress did it -- why not our GOP Legislature, too?

Of course, the tax-cut frenzy for their favored industries and friends is just one side of the coin. At the same time that legislators want to use the one-time surplus approximately 6.4 times on tax cuts, they’re also eager to devote more resources to border control and immigration, which are federal responsibilities not being met. Then there’s everything else that costs money, too. It’s a couple million here, a couple dozen million there, and a couple hundred million here, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

So that’s fiscal discipline, GOP-style. You have a good year after several tight budget years that required cuts to education, health care, and child protection. Instead of fixing what got deferred or ignored, you point to a surplus -- and spend it about a dozen times over. It worked in Washington, after all, where Republicans are having no difficulty campaigning against their own record.

To hear them speak, you’d never know that guys like Bill Frist or Jon Kyl were actually incumbents and voting when all this spending occurred. You’d never learn from Bush that he was in charge of the executive branch and let all this spending go into law, vetoing not one bill in six years. So why shouldn’t local GOP legislators try to emulate their betters with totally irrational tax and spending plans?

If you like what Bush and Congress have done with taxes and spending, you’ll love the Arizona Legislature. Just don’t expect any of their budget math to add up, and you’ll be fine.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Everything You Know About Juvenile Crime Is Wrong

There's a serious Arizona issue that I didn't have time to explain in this past Sunday's column, which as noted is based on very good reporting by Frank Greve of the Knight Ridder Washington bureau. As noted by a judicial friend, John Dilulio was one of the "experts" quoted during the Prop 102 campaign in 1996 sponsored by Fife Symington, Andy Thomas, and others that successfully changed the way juveniles were prosecuted in Arizona. Voters were told that prosecuting juveniles as adults would lower violent crime. As it turned out, we now know that violent crime among juveniles started decreasing before Prop 102 became law and continued going lower, regardless of state try-'em-as-adult policies. Prop 102 has not been used to transfer as many juveniles as predicted, but the number transferred has substantially increased. But what hasn't happened that was promised was a long-term study to see if the increase in adult prosecution would lower crime among those prosecuted as adults or actually increase adult crime because those juveniles were exposed to the adult prison system which has had a rich history of recidivism.

Children's Action Alliance has a task force studying the broader issue, and it certainly will be interesting to see a thorough study done. If Prop 102 and adult prosecution of juveniles actually gave us more crime and criminals, someone should be assessed responsibility. (After all, it's the Responsibility Era!) A 2003 report by CAA on juvenile justice is available here; it was prepared before the statistical trends became even more clear.

With dramatic drops in juvenile crime, it looks like all of the political advantage has been exploited for now. But someday another series of media-rich crimes will be blamed on juveniles and the usual political suspects will try to exploit them again for short term political advantage. Arizona's juveniles (mostly of color) and their families will pay the short-term price, and I'm willing to wager that we all will pay for the exploitation in the long run.

On a lighter note, I was Chair of the Arizona Democratic Party during the 1996 elections, and when a radio reporter asked me what the results "meant" (Clinton-Gore had carried the state, while Republicans gained elsewhere, and Prop 102, which had been opposed on a bipartisan basis, won) I said that the voters had spoken clearly; they wanted Gov. Fife Symington to be tried as an adult. Also, one of my Tribune readers pointed out that if juvenile crime is down to levels we haven't seen since the mid-1960's, then you can't blame higher crime on banning school prayer anymore. Won't that upset the 'wingers!

And my editor answers a crucial question differently than I would; I'd put the closing single quote inside the colon, not outside. But that's because I'm funny about colons. Or semi-funny about semicolons.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 12, 2006

Remember the “super-predators?” In 1995, the nation got its knickers all twisted over lurid predictions of increasing numbers of brutal, remorseless, even feral teenage boys who would explode the amount and viciousness of juvenile crime.

The theory originated with John Dilulio, one of the first to destroy his professional reputation by working in the Bush administration. Dilulio predicted that increasing numbers of males in the prime crime-time years of 15 to 24 would lack connections with civil society, families, and churches, and would wreak criminal-justice havoc. His theory received vast attention, in no small measure because of his sensational name for this demographic threat: Super-predators.

Dilulio expanded his theory in a book, Body Count, co-authored with John Walters and noted gambling expert William Bennett. They blamed the looming juvenile crime plague on “moral decay.”

Well, guess what? As documented by reporter Frank Greve of Knight Ridder, the juvenile crime wave never happened. (Hat tip: Kevin Drum.) Instead, juvenile crime is down, to levels not seen for forty years. Greve quotes James Rieland, the juvenile court services director in Pittsburgh, who tells new prosecutors, “Kids now are less violent than you were.”

Perhaps Dilulio and Bennett could acknowledge that actual statistics indicate our moral state has (gasp!) improved. That’s a concept completely alien to ‘wingers, that today could be better than the past. But with juvenile crime, it’s true.


Juvenile murder arrests have declined almost to a quarter of their peaks 20 years ago. Arrest rates for robbery, aggravated assault, and rape are down a third. The news isn’t all good; simple assaults are up, especially among girls, and the rate of decline has been intermittent, with some leveling off recently. But instead of exploding as the numbers of teen and young adult males increased significantly, crime rates had started dropping even before Dilulio made his predictions, and it’s staying at the lowest rates in nearly four decades.

Like the “crack babies epidemic,” the super-predators were merely meme-pleasing hype. It’s one of the dirty little secrets of punditry that you never have to apologize for being wrong on the downside -- and that the same people who complain that the media obsess about violence in Iraq and ignore that 80 percent of the country isn’t in a civil war obsess about one or two violent crimes and ignore the statistics showing that today’s kids commit fewer crimes than their elders.

Most experts interviewed by Greve believe that the drop in youth crime didn’t have one big cause, but rather many smaller causes, including the decline in crack cocaine abuse (but crime also fell in rural and suburban communities that never saw much crack), a strong economy, greater parental involvement in schools, and demographic shifts in urban areas from black to Hispanic. Some more controversial potential causes are increased adult incarceration rates and, according to best-selling economist Steven Levitt, legalized abortion.

Criminologists also tracked what strategies helped, and which didn’t. Some of the more voter-pleasing tactics, like boot camps, suspending or holding back students, and trying juveniles in adult courts, didn’t. Fuzzy-headed stuff, like mentoring programs and foster care with well-trained foster parents, actually worked. Greve reports that experts found that single-parent households aren’t necessarily an indicator of trouble; it turns out that “if one parent is strong and consistent, the second isn’t missed when it comes to preventing delinquency.”


Let's not be too hard on Dilulio; if you make predictions, you’ll make wrong ones. (Although it is interesting to note that he refused to return phone calls and messages when Greve tried to reach him for a comment.) But we need to acknowledge when we’re wrong, and make sure that we don’t let what seems like a good story to cause us to ignore the truth. The myth of impossible-to-educate crack babies provided a handy excuse to write off large numbers of urban kids and their schools. The imaginary hordes of super-predators looming on the horizon meant boring, useful things like education, jobs, and recreation seemed useless fripperies in what would be no-holds-barred urban warfare.

In both cases, the woeful predictions never came true, and real problems could be blissfully ignored. With juvenile crime and the “super-predators,” please wake up and smell the data.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Buy a Pixel, Hear a Point of View

My friend Bob Lord and Mike Newcomb report they are are working to preserve the presence of Air America Radio in Phoenix. KXXT, the former home of Air America Phoenix, was purchased by a Christian Broadcasting outfit, which pulled the Air America format effective March 1st. There is now a complete absence of liberal talk radio in the Phoenix area.

Bob and Mike have formed a group with the opportunity to lease or purchase another AM station, but must raise money quickly. To that end, they’ve established a website,, where people can buy pixels on the Air America site, the proceeds from which will be used to fund the new station. There's more details from Sheldon Drobny, co-founder of Air America, at Huffington Post.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Even In War, Appearances Matter More Than Reality

Here's this week's edition, from Sunday's paper. In the Tribune "Lack of Perspective" section, I appear on the same page with Linda Turley-Hansen, whose offering this week was summarized by the editor on page F1 as "This is not the time for a female president, especially Hillary Clinton." Ah. I'm not linking to something that dreadful; if you want to read it, find it yourself.

My choice for headline was "How to Win the War -- Special Bush Edition!" but the editor's choice was OK, I guess.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 5, 2006

We’re now seeing the GOP strategy for winning the Iraq war, just in time for this fall’s elections. It’s a three-point tactical plan: One: It’s the media’s fault. Two: It’s the Democrats’ fault, even though they don’t control anything. Three: We’re winning the war -- where it matters, in the media!

It was never about finding WMD or building a stable, secular Middle Eastern democracy. Who told you that? If you stop paying attention to what’s happening in Iraq, we’ve already won!

The “it’s the media’s fault” talking point interests me most. You have right-wing pundits claiming that it’s all hype, that there’s no civil war, that many Iraqis go about their business and aren’t in militias, bombing shrines, or being killed. It’s terrorism, not civil war, says Ralph Peters of The New York Post -- and don’t you forget it!

If only Mr. Peters had reported from Lebanon during their 15-year civil war. Lebanon suffered 100,000 casualties and 100,000 more wounded between 1975 and 1990 -- so some 2.4 million people weren’t killed or injured! About one-fifth of the pre-war population became refugees, which means that almost 80 percent were able to live almost, or somewhat, normal lives -- or at least avoid becoming statistics. How often did you hear about that? David Ignatius of the Washington Post calls Lebanon as the model for Iraq. That’s now the plan for “victory”: Fifteen years of civil war, then fifteen years of Syrian domination.

Perhaps these Bush apologists could have helped with American history, too. The Washington Times last month published an anachronistically outrageous celebration of Mary Chesnut, whose diary of her Civil War experiences became C. Vann Woodward’s Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (1981). (Hat tip: Brad DeLong, who calls the piece "The Washington Times Celebrates Black History Month.") Chesnut was the wife of a former U.S. Senator, prominent in Confederate social circles, who may have been a really nice person who treated her slaves well by the customs of the time.

The Washington Times piece contrasts Chesnut favorably with Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin because, after all, one shouldn’t demonize slavery and the “tragedy of a cause utterly lost” by obsessing about only the bad aspects. There were lots of happy slaves. Look how many schools got built and painted. The media unfairly sensationalized the evils of slavery’s and ignored all the good (or at least less evil) parts.

We needed these guys during the 1960’s as well. If only a William Kristol had said that we’ve been trying, but “we have not had a serious effort to fight the War on Poverty.” We needed columnists to explain that disagreeing with President Lyndon B. Johnson is out-of-bounds, because we have a patriotic obligation to stop arguing about a policy, no matter how wrong-headed, once the president announces it. Because -- and we’re not conceding that anything here yet, there’s still a chance for glorious success and I still may win the lottery, run a 3:15 marathon, or get elected president -- if the policy does fail, then it’s the critics’ fault.

The War on Poverty -- which only now we learn we could have fought entirely with borrowed money -- would have worked great if only conservatives hadn’t complained and presented a divided front and been motivated by hatred of a Democratic president. Democrats may have controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress, but that’s no excuse for Republicans causing the War on Poverty to fail.

Sound like nonsense? You bet. What kind of U.S. war planning assumes that there won’t be any criticism at home, ever? That any dissent of any type here is enough to tip the balance? I thought that the generals have all told Bush that they have enough troops to accomplish the mission -- but criticism of Bush means that the insurgency could win? That’s not much of a margin for error, is it?

How many times do these guys get to be seriously wrong before they become responsible for their mistakes? Or is it all the fault of the media, or the Democrats? That’s so much more pleasant, isn’t it?