Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Moving the Goalposts Has Made Moderation Moot

With due respect to my editor at The Tribune, the headline to this week's column is just wrong, and it's a perfect example of the problem I described in the column. The "donut" metaphor implies that both extremes are moving out from the center, but that's not the case. It's the right wing moving away; nobody with any heft or power on the left is getting more extreme. We're just getting angrier. If you don't understand what I mean, that will be this week's column, so I'll explain later.

My choice for a headline was "Until a Republican Is 'Too Conservative,' Being a 'Centrist' Is for Suckers." But maybe the donut analogy isn't completely wrong, because people may say they're in the middle, but I don't think they really are. Sheesh. I used to be idealistic; now I try to be cynical, but as Lily Tomlin once said, I just can't keep up. Hope you like the gender gap joke.

East Valley Tribune, May 28, 2006

Joe Lieberman is discovering that being a moderate just isn’t as much fun as it used to be. With Republicans insistent on moving farther and farther to the right, trying to find common ground requires Democrats to move larger distances and forget more of our core principles. Once the GOP started denouncing Barry Goldwater as too liberal, where exactly should Democrats find compromises worth making?

Republicans aren’t just moving the goalposts, but insisting on moving their side of the playing field to an entirely new (and usually publicly-financed) stadium. In Arizona, Democrats wax nostalgic for the days when we had to reach compromises with Burton Barr. Then the GOP threw him over as too moderate, and we had to find common ground with Jim Skelley or Jane Hull. Then they both retired, and being moderate meant agreeing with Mark Killian until he got term-limited; then we had to find something on Jeff Groscost's agenda that wasn’t too much to stomach.

Now, of course, Groscost is a retired statesman and we’re stuck trying to find anything Jim Weiers or Russell Pearce want to do that isn’t totally vindictive, regressive, and foolish -- and most legislators, on those salaries, just can’t afford that powerful a microscope.


Lieberman now faces a surprise revolt among his home-state Democrats, in the form of a primary challenge from Ned Lamont. (Lamont is a college classmate of mine. I recall him as a swashbuckling hockey player, but now he looks like a nerdy cable television executive, which he is.) While Lieberman has never lost a statewide election, Lamont’s prior political experience consists of service as a city councilmember and an unsuccessful 1990 state senate race.

Lamont managed to get on the ballot despite Connecticut’s incredibly cumbersome primary system, designed by incumbents for incumbents. While Lamont is a virtual unknown, he’s riding a wave of anger among base Democratic voters.

It’s not just Lieberman’s support of the Iraq war, which of course isn’t a positive today either in Connecticut or nationally, according to the polls. It’s his almost-delusional support for the war that doesn’t comport with what people see and know about what’s happening.

It’s a gender-gap kind of thing, with people who supported going to war based on what is now clearly bad information, bad planning, and bad execution, insisting that Americans want to "move on" and "not rehash the past" and instead focus on "achieving our goals."

Lots of women have heard that reasoning from a philandering husband or boyfriend who got caught, but who then insists that nothing good can come from assigning blame and that instead the couple should focus on the future. It doesn’t sound any better coming from Joe Lieberman than it did from that cheating no-good.


But as Paul Krugman wrote in his recent column, "Talk-Show Joe," the real problem is that what talk shows and journalistic lions consider a centrist isn’t someone who actually reflects the center of public opinion. Instead, a Democrat is considered a centrist solely based on the extent he (or she) agrees with Republicans. That used to be a good working definition, but once Republicans started acting like contestants on some "Who Is More Right-Wing?" reality show, it kind of lost its value. Now, finding "common ground" with Republicans means abandoning both Democratic principles and clear majorities of voters on issues like Iraq, Terri Schiavo, Social Security, and health care and the minimum wage.

That definition of "centrist" also has suffered from how Republicans treat their moderates. After so-called moderate Senate Republicans caved for yet another time to the Bush administration and the right wing, most Democrats have awoken to the short-term and long-term folly of trying to strike deals with people who always insist that we bargain against ourselves.

Lieberman’s trying to change his image by suddenly calling for investigations of the Bush administration and discussing his own "anger" at GOP mismanagement and malfeasance. But he’s made his national image based on the outdated insider definition of centrist, and it may take all of his overwhelming advantage in name recognition and fundraising to change it in time for his August primary.

Monday, May 22, 2006

I Got Here Yesterday So All These Other People Have To Leave Right Now

The debate on illegal immigration has an even weirder aspect in Arizona, where the people complaining the loudest about it have been here less time that the illegals. Anyway, I had fun with this one, but my suggestion for the headline was even more subversive: "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm, señor?" But the Tribune editor didn't much go for ethnic humor, although he did let me keep all the other zingers.

East Valley Tribune, May 21, 2006

It looks like Bush’s speech last week on immigration worked about as well as the Harriet Miers nomination. But what, exactly, made immigration the most important thing in politics today?

It’s not like Iraq war is going swell. The budget’s totally out of whack, Hurricane Katrina showed the Bush administration as grossly unprepared for natural or man-made disasters, and while those at the very top are getting absolutely huge compensation packages and enormous tax cuts, real wages for everybody else have declined. And don’t forget the Libby indictment, the administration’s view of the Constitution and bans on torture as things it can ignore at the president’s pleasure, and the congressional-and-CIA hookers-cigars-and-earmarks scandal.

With so much incompetence from which to choose, why has immigration suddenly caused so-called “conservatives” to question or abandon President Bush? Big majorities of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, but it took day laborers loitering in Home Depot parking lots to make die-hard Republicans rethink things?

Little hard evidence exists that undocumented aliens living and working in Arizona have increased that much, in percentage terms, from 10 years ago when immigration wasn’t really an issue. Border Patrol arrests are way up, but those numbers are affected by changes in enforcement resources, both here and in neighboring states, and arrests aren’t necessarily a good guide to how many are here already. There’s anecdotal evidence of a qualitative change, that border-crossers today are more violent and less, well, nice than previously -- just like how these kids today are no good! And that noise they call music! It’s not like when we were kids in 1969!

Of course, estimates of illegal immigrants are notoriously unreliable, with results depending on the different methodologies used to estimate numbers of people actively trying to avoid detection. It makes sense that we have many more undocumenteds in absolute terms than a decade ago, because Arizona (and its economy) is that much bigger and more populous. Yes, census estimates of the percentages of immigrants and Hispanics have increasing, but it was already high, and growth in the number over the past few years is a point and a fraction.

But without any statistical proof, it seems almost everybody is acting like previous generations did when the next wave of immigrants arrived behind them. Translate J.D. Hayworth into Yiddish and he sounds much like the German Jews complaining when those déclassé Eastern European Jews (like my grandparents) reached Ellis Island. Why?

Peter Laufer had a theory in his book Wetback Nation, excerpted in Washington Monthly magazine last year and plugged by Paul Glastris on the magazine’s Web site recently. Laufer predicted that immigration would become the Next Hot Political Thing as migrants started settling in “non-traditional” (meaning Red State) locations.

It was traditional, and expected, for new immigrants to land in border states or big cities. But changes in the U.S. economy have shifted demand for lower-cost labor from “traditional” urban and border locations, where people are used to the continuing cycle of immigration and assimilation, to new communities in the Sun Belt and suburbs. Immigrants of all types have gone where the jobs are, and that’s where lots of existing residents aren’t used to immigrants, and the existing folks don’t like it much.

Instead of being happy that you can now get pretty good Mexican food in Georgia or Virginia, people who don’t read much anyway are furious that so many signs are in Spanish. People here understand that Hispanics have been in the East Valley since even before the first Anglos, but previously newcomers stayed in the Hispanic neighborhoods or lived way out by the farms. But there are no farms “way out there” anymore; they’re now new subdivisions. People resent that nobody today respects our good old American traditions, like de facto segregation.

So you have Bill O’Reilly, as if reading from The Protocols of the Elders of Mexico, claiming that there’s a powerful, secret immigrant cabal seeking to dominate the country. Fox’s John Gibson pleads with white people to have more babies. That’s today’s immigration debate -- and there are fewer things more pitiful than powerful white guys worried life is passing them by.
Yet More Evidence There Are Only 3,000 People In The World

I learned this weekend that Ned Lamont is my college classmate, and we both were in Lowell House. He hasn't asked for money yet, but it's only a matter of time.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Folks Crying "Class Warfare!" Are Actually Waging One

A report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, "Tax Reconciliation Agreement Distorted by Obsession with Capital Gains and Dividend Tax Cuts: Middle-Income Households to Receive Tax Cuts Averaging Only $20," was my primary source for this column. David Corn also used the CBPP numbers here. You can get some of the analysis on the difference between the top-line economic numbers and how the economy feels to most Americans from Ezra Klein here, but what you really want to read is the LA Times commentary from Jared Bernstein ("You Know How To Add, Don't You?").

Class Warfare Continues

East Valley Tribune, May 14, 2006

While you ponder last Thursday’s revelation of the Bush administration’s database containing the date, time, and phone number of every telephone call you’ve made since 2001 -- created without a warrant, legislative authorization, and without telling us -- you might not have noticed the latest piece of really, really bad GOP tax legislation.

You may have missed it because unless you’re in the top fifth of taxpayers, the tax cut won’t really benefit you -- because that’s what it was designed to do.


According to the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, the effect of the latest $70 billion tax cut package is pretty striking. Using current data, taxpayers in the bottom 20 percent will get no tax relief at all, zero percent of the benefits. Taxpayers in the middle 60 percent -- the second, middle, and fourth quintiles -- share 6.3 percent of the benefits; the tax breaks range from $6 for taxpayers in the second 20 percent to $115 in the fourth 20 percent. The vast majority -- 93.7 percent of the total -- goes to taxpayers in the top 20 percent.

But even within top 20 percent of taxpayers, it’s still painfully true that the rich get richer. The top 1 percent of taxpayers get 30.9 percent of the benefits, and the top 0.1 percent get 18.4 percent of the swag.

In other words, taxpayer with incomes of $100,000 or less get 12.8 percent of the tax cuts, with 87.2 percent going taxpayers with incomes above $100,000. But it’s not enough to make $100,000, because even within that select group, 55.1 percent of the entire tax cut goes to taxpayers with incomes above $200,000. But even that pales next to the share going to taxpayers with incomes above $1 million; they get 22.1 percent of the tax cut, an average break of $41,977.

Oh, the usual argument is that people who pay more in taxes should get more of the tax cuts. Swallowing that argument requires that you pretend that people making $35,000 or $50,000 or even $75,000 don’t pay taxes. But they do: Social Security. Medicare. State and local sales, income, and property taxes. Gasoline taxes. They just don’t pay taxes on dividend and capital gains income because they don’t have any; even if they own those assets, they’re in tax-deferred pension plans. So a tax cut focused on income that overwhelmingly goes to the well-off asset-rich misses most Americans entirely, and winds up instead in the pockets of those already doing pretty well.

If you make less than $100,000 a year and think any of these tax cuts benefit you, you’re a chump. You’re being scammed by people whose sole mission is to help the comfortable and assist the better-off. That’s why they’re pretending that extending cuts to dividend and capital gains income taxes in 2008 and 2009 is a tax cut for you -- when, unless you’re in the top 1.0 or 0.1 percent, it isn’t.


You’re hearing loads about how the economy is doing well and how the voters haven’t given the Republicans credit. But that’s not how voters feel; the "wrong track" number in polls is amazing, even to skeptics like me. If you want to know why voters at large feel so poorly about the economy despite pretty good top-line numbers, you should examine this latest tax cut for enlightenment.

It’s not a lack of GOP communication skills; it’s that the overwhelming share of benefits of economic growth have skewed to those at the top. The economy may be growing, but real wages actually fell despite the recovery. Just like with this GOP legislation, in which for every dollar of tax cuts, 6 cents gets shared among 80 percent of Americans and 94 cents is reserved for the top 20 percent, with a third of their share set aside for the top 1 percent and over half of that reserved for the top 0.1 percent.

The GOP wants to stiff most of the people all of the time and still expects them to feel grateful. No amount of world-class spin can fix that.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Mesa Sales and Property Tax Elections

It's local news this week, as I come out in favor of the Mesa tax referenda on the ballot May 16. You can read about the CATO study about lowering taxes leading to more spending (at the federal level) from either Kevin Drum or Daniel Drezner. The column itself is also available on the newspaper website here. The overall polls don't look particularly good, but (as in virtually all local elections) it all depends on turnout. My editor said the last graf gave folks at the Tribune a chuckle.

East Valley Tribune, May 7, 2006

Although it hurts write this sentence, in its editorials on the Mesa sales and property tax election, the Tribune has been brave, consistent, and correct.

Mesa has the tax system of a small town of 60 years ago, but faces the challenges that come with being one of America’s 50 largest cities today. Mesa is the largest city in the country without a property tax. The city’s revenues come from retail sales taxes and fees, all of which fluctuate with the economy and which haven’t kept pace with inflation and population growth -- much less problems that simply didn’t exist in 1945.

Don't Sell Future

You can pretend that the budget cuts coming if the tax increases fail are merely “soft services” or some similarly dismissive term. But one family’s “soft service” is another family’s key to safety and success. The city’s neighborhood revitalization and Apartment Watch programs may not have sirens and carry guns, but both prevent crime. Maybe reducing crime and assisting the city’s already-pressed police force is a “soft service” to critics, but it doesn’t seem all that soft to crime victims and cops.

Maybe selling the city’s Pinal County water rights raises short-term cash, which critics (who’ll be long gone when future city residents actually need that water) think is fine. But those who view Mesa as more than a temporary stop might not want to sell the future short and leave their kids and grandkids facing water shortages.

The tax vote has two different sets of critics. The first group imagines Mesa as a libertarian paradise, with police and fire departments and nothing else. They think it was good enough in 1945, by jiminy, so it’s good enough today. I can’t argue with people who actually buy into the whole philosophy; any non-adolescent who still considers Atlas Shrugged great literature is beyond help, although they should move to Idaho with the others -- and not sign up for Medicare when turning 65.

For people actually living in the Mesa portion of the reality-based universe, it’s not such a great idea to eliminate the Park Rangers program, or to cut library and museum hours and staff, or eliminate Dial-a-Ride service for seniors or recreation services for the disabled. The Mesa of 1945 didn’t need 54 arterial streets projects, costing more than $800 million. There’s $585 million in regional funding available for that construction, but only if the city provides $251 million in funding -- money that won’t exist if the vote fails.

The other group of critics acknowledges that Mesa’s revenues haven’t kept up with population and inflation, and that the city faces real needs that didn’t exist 60 years ago. But they’re just not convinced that the current city leadership “deserves” additional taxes.

These folks say they’d vote for new taxes, but not unless all city officials are certified magicians, able to do their jobs and then prove to everybody that absolutely everything has been tried to keep providing more and more in services without paying anything more.

Of course, these folks wouldn’t want that standard applied to themselves; who would take a job where you had to prove, every day and to all comers, that everything you did was perfect and beyond criticism? And if you demand municipal employees who can change water into wine, you’d have to pay market rate for those skills.

Vote 'Yes' Twice

The worst part is that the argument that “if you give government more money, they’ll just spend more” is empirically wrong. William Niskanen of the Cato Institute (a/k/a Libertarianism Central) found that federal data from 1981 to 2005 show that cutting taxes increases government spending, while raising taxes actually reduces spending growth by the same percentages. Not only is it wrong to ask to get increasingly more from government without paying for it, it actually grows government bigger.

So on May 16, for once, follow the Tribune and vote yes, twice. Way to go, Bob Satnan; with you, Keno Hawker, Pat Gilbert, and me all agreeing on something, it’s clearly doomed.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Family Business

Forgive some familial bragging, but it was a very good week for the extended Coppersmith family. First, how about my sister Sue, whose election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences was announced last week? Alan Alda, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and the other new fellows can only seem even more lustrous due to their association with the Chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can read all about it either here or here. The latter, a UW-Madison press release, has about the best simple explanation of Sue's work that I've seen and I'm putting it my PDA so I'm not such a dolt when people ask me what she does.

Then last Friday, son Ben was honored by the Scottsdale Charros, which is a Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce-affiliated group that honors outstanding teachers from every school in the Scottsdale Unified School District and also an outstanding male and female student from each of the 7 district high schools. Ben was named by his teachers as the outstanding male student for Arcadia High School. You can get a bit of Ben's responses to the questions the Scottsdale edition of the Arizona Republic asked each student here (scroll down to the fourth entry). But the online version leaves out his best Q&A:

Q: Describe your perfect day.
A: Around 10 a.m., Keira Knightley wakes me up and tenderly hands me a large mug of freshly made cocoa and a tray of warm waffles and syrup. She looks stunning….Then, Dick Vitale shows up, and we drive to the Suns game. Anything that happens after that is just gravy.

Q: What is one thing you want to accomplish by the time you're 30?
A: My perfect day.

By way of comparison, the outstanding female student from Arcadia lists the Young Republicans Club as one of her activities and is holding a Bible in her picture. Yes, as the saying goes, the snark doesn't fall very far from the wisenheimer. Or is that vice versa? Ben said that once he realized that it wouldn't mean that they wouldn't find a cure for cancer if he didn't list finding a cure for cancer as his goal, it became much easier to write the questionnaire.
Changing Titles, But Not Changing Jobs

For this week's column, I had a better headline: "Fox News Commentator Becomes Bush Administration Spokesman. Like You Can Tell The Difference." But there wasn't room.

East Valley Tribune, Apr. 30, 2006

It’s not easy to get people to leave cushy private-sector jobs to accept the lower pay and higher stress of public service -- especially when it’s a highly unpopular president (32 percent approval? Clinton was never, ever even close to being that unpopular) in the last years of his term doing the asking.

Luckily, the administration found a “loaned executive” instead, with a Fox News commentator becoming the official Bush administration spokesman. It’s the ultimate in changing a job title without changing the job. What Tony Snow does at work won’t change one bit when he leaves Fox News to become a Bush mouthpiece. He probably doesn’t have a waiting period for health insurance, either.

(I won’t go so far as humorist Andy Borowitz, who predicted a merger of the Bush administration and Fox News parent News Corporation, pending working out of the final detail of whether President Bush reports to Rupert Murdoch or continues reporting to Dick Cheney.)

The real shame here is that the appointment of a new press secretary is an official Big Deal for this administration. They’ve spun it to an unusually credulous Washington Post that Snow brings an “outsider perspective” and “fresh thinking” needed by a “too insular” White House. Because that’s what this administration considers its job, creating the illusion of progress.

What’s in the Medicare drug benefit and how much it costs are irrelevant; what matters is having something, no matter how grotesquely costly, confusing, and inefficient, that you can call a Medicare drug benefit. What matters isn’t making progress in Iraq, but ginning up something, anything, that you can call progress. After all, the latest Big Step Forward that the Shiite coalition’s choice for prime minister, whom Bush feted in Washington during the 2004 campaign as a true patriot and partner, has now been replaced by a different guy from the Da’wa party. And bonus points to any of you ‘wingers who know their names. (It’s Jawad al-Maliki and Ibrahim al-Jaafari -- but no points unless you know which one is which.)

And there’s immigration, where Republicans are ever-so-unified. You’ve got the Republican National Committee running ads on Spanish-language radio saying that it’s the Democrats’ fault that the GOP House-approved immigration bill makes illegal aliens felons. You have Sen. Jon Kyl saying that “nobody” is really calling for that felony provision. Thus, we have official GOP confirmation that Rep. J.D. Hayworth is a nobody. Good luck crafting a policy that satisfies GOP campaign contributors grown dependent on cheap labor and the readers of this page that think if we just deport 15 million people, it’ll be 1960 again (and those readers will be 40 years younger, too).

It’s also worth noting that it took John O’Sullivan, a conservative columnist for the conservative New York Post, to notice that enforcement of employer sanctions has nosedived under Bush. During 1995-1997, while Bill Clinton was president, the government arrested 10,000 to 18,000 illegal aliens at worksites each year, and served 1,000 employers with notices of fines for employing them. In 2004, with George W. Bush as president, worksite arrests fell to 159, with all of 3 fine notices to employers nationally. Yep, 9/11 sure changed everything -- except anything that might interrupt the GOP’s care and feeding of its campaign contributors’ economic interests.

It’s almost pitiful watching President Bush flail around for something, anything, to do about gas prices. Maybe you saw his Al Gore imitation, calling for alternative fuel vehicles and decrying our national dependency on the internal combustion engine. Then there’s his call for an investigation of gouging, which turns out to have been performed a year ago the last time gas prices spiked, but they hope you can’t remember what happened a year ago. It would be pitiful, except that the posturing on gas prices is exactly of a piece with an administration that confuses spin with reality, posturing with progress, and rosy hopes with reality.

Good thing “the grownups are in charge.” Maybe there’s a pony in there somewhere, but I doubt it.