Monday, March 29, 2004

More Sauce for the Goose

Lots of fun this week. If you want the whole background on this week's column, on Thursday the Tribune ran an editorial suggesting that the 9/11 commission is a waste of time. You can read the original editorial here, and I summarize it in my piece (which if you want to see how it ran in the newspaper, is available here.)

It’s surely only a mere coincidence, but of course the Tribune editorial came out the same day that Peggy Noonan was writing in The Wall Street Journal that the 9/11 commission is a mere distraction we can't afford. After all, we’re in a War, a War that takes all of our unity, attention, and treasure -- at least after we’re finished amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage, adding a deceptively-expensive prescription drug benefit to Medicare, cutting taxes, and going to Mars. And don’t forget stamping out steroids in professional sport.

Nice "war" you got there, one that only restricts things that might interfere with Bush’s reelection. Remember, 9/11 changed everything, except that we're not supposed to want to find out what really happened. I guess that's a change, too.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 28, 2004

The 9/11 commission hearings must be going poorly for the Bush administration, or we wouldn’t have seen that extraordinary editorial in last Thursday’s Tribune, “Does 9/11 commission have truly worthy mission?”

The Tribune directed readers to focus on two questions: First, how would any investigation of past events tell us anything about the wisdom of current policies? Second, why should anyone grant “any particular credence” to the commission and its hindsight-aided conclusions?

It’s truly amazing, and downright scary, watching the Tribune go this deep into the tank for George W. Bush.

There are simple answers to both questions. First, you review what happened so you can learn from it. As Santayana said, those who fail to study history are condemned to repeat it. Unless the Tribune now believes that the government (the federal government!) is 100 percent right, why not investigate what happened to see if current policies, and current personnel, are truly wise?

Nobody got fired from their job due to 9/11. Oh, there’s a new cabinet department, but does reshuffling the organizational chart mean actual substantive change? You’d think a newspaper might want to know. In the case of the Tribune, you’d be wrong.

Second, the commission’s recommendations will stand or fall on their merits. We haven’t seen any yet, just a preliminary staff report, so we can’t judge their worth until they’re issued. But even if the commission produces no worthy insights, or ends in a partisan deadlock, it still could be useful by putting facts, under oath, into the record. You’d think a newspaper might want the facts. But again, in the case of the Tribune, you’d be wrong.

Here’s the clincher, folks. Can you ever imagine the Tribune writing an editorial giving readers the same advice about any investigation of the Lewis Prison hostage crisis by the Arizona Legislature and Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley?

After all, any investigation of what happened wouldn’t inform us “more than an iota about the wisdom of current policies.” Department of Corrections policies already have “changed dramatically,” so focusing on what happened in the past similarly wouldn’t help deal with the future.

And “why should anyone grant any particular credence” to the legislature and Romney? Criticism of DOC operations during both the Hull and Napolitano administrations also isn’t proof of “political neutrality,” because Napolitano will run for reelection, while Hull’s retired.

Also, isn’t Mel McDonald, whom Romley hired at taxpayer expense for the investigation, also “not necessarily going to be impartial about justifying” his appointment? Romley and McDonald also “are not necessarily going to want to look like namby-pamby sorts who can’t say the tough things that need saying.”

And won’t any recommendations from the legislature, Romley, and McDonald also “seem to benefit enormously from that which makes geniuses of us all: hindsight”?

If the Tribune ever says that any investigation of the Napolitano administration should be ignored or considered unworthy for the same reasons as the 9/11 commission editorial, then I’ll kiss Bob Schuster on both cheeks and give $100 to the charity of his choice. I feel safe I’ll never have to deliver.

In 2001, the Bush administration considered missile defense and Iraq more important than the Middle East peace process and fighting non-state terrorism like Al Qaeda. That’s a serious policy choice, and in a different world, they might have been right. But if we can’t investigate and debate their choices in an election year, then what exactly is democracy, anyway?

It’s pretty basic. Both Bush and Napolitano should answer to voters for their personnel and policy decisions. But if the Tribune thinks Bush should get a pass, then so should Napolitano.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

That's Gotta Hurt

Here's one ASU professor who probably wishes that the New York Times hadn't reviewed her new book.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Who Counts in Arizona, Kids or Cows?

I'll bet you didn't know that in Arizona, livestock vitamins are tax-exempt but vitamins for kids (or adults) are not. If you knew our legislature, you'd understand.

I spoke at the Soroptimist event Thursday night, where I had about as much time to talk about women, leadership, and politics as it took to read my introduction (the MC did thankfully omit the honors I had won in junior high school). And I got a column out of it, too. The highlight of the evening, at least for me, was Chuck Coughlin telling me that I was too nasty to politicians, that the debate really needed to be elevated. Yeah, he actually said that. Good old Chuck "Let's Play Nice" Coughlin. Give me a break.

Newspaper version available here.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 21, 2004

Five Arizona legislators (four House members and one senator) attended Soroptimist International of Phoenix’s annual legislative dinner last week. It’s such a tasteful group that nobody mentioned party affiliation, but I was impolite enough to count four Republicans and one Democrat.

Speaking to any group like Soroptimist, a politician eventually utters the usual clichés about the importance of voting and of contacting your legislators. But unlike actual clichés, one of usual “truisms” we heard is an actual lie.

A GOP House member said that it’s important to respect others’ views, even if you disagree, because everybody’s equal at the Legislature, you’re just one of 60, and everybody has the same one vote.

But that’s just not true at our Legislature this year. In all of their references to House members working on the budget, the Republicans neglected to mention that none of the groups, committees, and meetings includes any Democrats. The House GOP leadership decided that House Democrats don’t count, and can’t participate in any budget negotiations.

Maybe all political animals are equal, but in the Arizona Legislature, some animals -- those with an R -- are more equal than others.

Sure, politics is winner-take-all, and the majority rules. But if the majority is going to exclude the minority completely, then please stop using platitudes that have nothing to do today’s partisan reality.

Anyway, the Soroptimists asked the legislators questions (and yes, every legislator had to respond to every question, whether or not anything different got said; it’s apparently a job qualification). They asked about all-day kindergarten and the state’s military bases. It was quite interesting how these legislators answered the two questions so differently.

When asked about all-day kindergarten, the Democratic House member from Tucson of course supported it, but the Republicans didn’t talk about education, but rather about money. They talked about the cost, the overall budget, capital versus M&O funding, and especially about how unfair voters have been in approving initiatives without specifying dedicated and specific funding sources. (Imagine voters thinking that the general fund should fund programs generally. The nerve!)

I especially enjoyed Sen. Thayer Verschoor (R-very far right Gilbert), fretting that any move to all-day kindergarten would divert precious resources from giving state employees long-overdue raises, or improving Child Protective Services, or for the underfunded court system.

Of course, in this reality Verschoor would never actually support any additional money for those things, but they were handy diversions to distract the audience from his opposition to all-day kindergarten.

But when asked about the military bases, the legislators’ style suddenly changed. The Republicans didn’t talk about the budget or the structural imbalance between revenues and programs. They talked about the importance of Luke AFB to the state’s future, how we needed a coordinated effort involving money, land use legislation, and cooperation among all levels of government.

Republicans actually will talk about need and investments in the future and finding money somehow -- when the issue is something important enough to them. They know how to find the wallet, if they have the will. They just don’t think all-day kindergarten, or kids generally, are important enough.

They’ll find resources for the military bases preservation efforts, or for tax cuts for particular favored industries, but they’ll moan ceaselessly about how much education costs and never get around to funding what’s needed.

Ever wonder why, in Arizona, vitamins for livestock are tax-exempt, but vitamins for kids are taxable? It’s because to the ruling Republicans, cattle and military bases are needs. Children and education -- those are costs.

If only our legislators cared as much about kids as they care about cows.

Monday, March 15, 2004

A Multi-Trillion-Dollar Bait-and-Switch

The Tribune runs a bricks-and-bouquets feature at the bottom of the editorial column, throwing the appropriate "b" words at people for brief reasons. Last Sunday, they fell for the Social Security nonsense by Greenspan, so hence my column this week. Newspaper version is available here.

Quote of the day is from Frank Deford: "I don't play golf. It's amazing what you can do if you don't play golf.".

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 14, 2004

Last Sunday, the Tribune gave a brick to “the majority of members of Congress, who lack the political courage to cut federal spending and begin dealing with the looming problems of Social Security.” That editorial was wrong about the program, the problem, and the timing. Give yourself a brick, Tribune.

There’s no “looming” Social Security crisis. Major payroll tax hikes proposed by Alan Greenspan and approved by Ronald Reagan mean Social Security collects more in taxes than it pays in benefits until 2018. Current projections then show that 35 years of surpluses, invested in special Treasury bonds, cover benefits through 2042.

That’s nearly 40 years from now, and somehow people who won’t believe 10-year budget projects (they’re too uncertain, except when used to justify tax cuts for those making over $200,000) get all lathered up about is about to happen -- in 2042.

For those zealots claiming the Social Security trust funds are “accounting fictions” and those Treasury bonds merely “worthless” paper, here’s a challenge: If they’re worthless, give me some. I’ll even take bonds that don’t mature for 30 years. “Fiction,” my eye. Just don’t be stingy about the face amount.

The Tribune forgot the code used by conservatives intent on gutting Social Security: Don’t discuss just Social Security. Instead, discuss the “looming problems of Social Security and Medicare."

The Medicare program is a sick puppy -- one made more ill by the ill-conceived, ill-financed, and indescribable prescription drug benefit. (Yes, the one where the Bush administration ordered its chief actuary to keep accurate cost estimates secret from Congress until after the bill passed. That’s one problem with the Bushies -- they only like bad intelligence.)

Even if you extend the time horizon to 75 years, Social Security represents only 16 percent of any projected shortfalls in the entitlement programs. Five-sixths of the problem comes from Medicare, and cutting Social Security benefits doesn’t help much. (These estimates assume we can project what health care costs in 2079, nice work for people who can’t do 10-year budget projections.)

Despite that projected shortfall -- which assumes no unpredicted increases in birth rates, productivity, seniors working, or immigration -- keeping Social Security benefits intact requires increasing federal spending by about 2 percent of GDP over the next 30 years. Sounds significant, but such an increase would make public-sector spending a smaller percentage than during the presidencies of Reagan and Bush 41.

The “crisis” is a fraud, and the first villain is Greenspan. In 1983, he recommended hiking payroll taxes to create a surplus to help fund baby boomers’ retirements. Payroll taxes are regressive, falling much more heavily on the workers and the middle class than on the rich. Somebody making $200,000 (or more) annually pays not one penny more than somebody making $87,400.

So in 1983, Greenspan helped raise taxes on the middle class, to build a Social Security surplus. Then in 2001, Greenspan endorses using that surplus for Bush’s tax cuts, which mainly benefit people making over $200,000.

Now that the GOP can’t control government spending and revenues have collapsed (which, contrary to the Tribune’s belief, causes the great majority of Bush’s deficit -- not any increased spending), Greenspan wants to give more tax cuts to the rich and cut Social Security benefits instead.

The other villain? Bush promised we could have his tax cuts and protect Social Security. In 2001, Bush claimed his budget saved the entire Social Security surplus and that none would be used to fund other spending initiatives or tax relief. Also wrong, wrong, wrong.

Bush and Greenspan are running a trillion-dollar bait-and-switch scheme here. It’s a fraud, and they’re the ones who deserve many, many bricks.

Monday, March 08, 2004

The Most Important Principles Are Those That Restrict Other People

More Arizona politics this week. The eastern wings of my old congressional district wound up in District 6 in the 2002 redistricting, and some of you even may recall that Stan Barnes ran in the GOP primary in my year of 1992. He might have beaten the incumbent but lost narrowly--so narrowly that the media reports about his non-affair (but still somehow inappropriate) relationship with a state senate staffer (Not even an intern! What was he thinking?) might have made the difference to the primary outcome. We'll see how these guys go after each other.

But I'm most interested in how term limits now is bad, bad, bad--now that they've served their political purpose for the Republicans. Yuck. Another bedrock GOP principle--which only other people have to observe.

Newspaper version available here.

The District 6 Race

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 7, 2004

Did you catch last week’s announcement by GOP state House Majority Leader Eddie Farnsworth, endorsing Stan Barnes in his challenge to incumbent Cong. Jeff Flake?

You don’t often see a prominent GOP officeholder endorse a primary opponent of a sitting congressman. “Fast Eddie” is über-connected in GOP circles, and if the really big dogs were happy with Flake, it wouldn’t have happened.

There’s also that “Eleventh Commandment” business about not speaking ill of fellow Republicans. Also, anybody in the majority in D.C. should know how to pull strings and prevent stuff like this from happening. Flake, however, has made his name by not getting along with those in power.

The solidly GOP district means that Flake may have a safe seat in November, but he’s now in real danger in his September primary -- and GOP insiders aren’t that anxious to help, figuring that the primary winner will hold the seat for the Republicans.

We’ll get an old-fashioned East Valley political grudge match, knowing that in the end one of two Republicans will represent the district. Politics gets more vicious when the stakes are so low.

Especially because while Barnes couldn’t have guessed in advance, he picked the right year to challenge Flake. Why? Two words: gay marriage. It wasn’t planned this way; Bush was supposed to stay high above the fray, wooing swing voters with stuff like the Mars trial balloon and the steroids-in-sports business. But with conservatives awakening to the administration’s fiscal recklessness, Bush needed to toss some really red meat to the true believers, and announced his support for the constitutional amendment.

The irony here is that Flake, while he may have greater personal qualms, actually is a devout libertarian. He really does believe in a smaller government that shouldn’t be telling free people how to run their lives. He’s even taken on the Cuba travel ban, a GOP sacred cow for getting votes in Florida. He really shouldn’t support amending the Constitution to take away freedom and to impose a one-size-fits-all federal solution on the states.

Barnes, however, is a more natural politician and more laissez-faire personally, if you recall those 1992 news reports, and probably gets along better with all types of people than the more professorial Flake. But however easygoing his personality, with GOP primary roaring to save civilization by forcing Will to marry Grace, Barnes will have no problem joining Bush in bashing gays.

This election will a total reversal from the first time Barnes ran for Congress 12 years ago, when he opposed another GOP incumbent. Then, Barnes campaigned as “new blood” who would -- unlike the incumbent -- shake things up in Washington and refuse to kowtow to leadership.

Now, Barnes is campaigning against a supposedly ineffective incumbent who’s too busy trying to shake things up in Washington and refusing to kowtow to leadership. Whatever works, I guess.

It’s also ironic that Fast Eddie specifically said he supports Barnes because unlike Flake, who took a pledge to serve no more than three terms, Barnes “isn’t encumbered by term limits.” A few short years ago, Republicans hailed term limits as the most important reform possible. George Will even wrote a book called Restoration: Congress, Term Limits, and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy. But terms limits isn’t on the agenda now.

These days, term limits are an “encumbrance,” a disqualification for office. They served their purpose of electing, and then reelecting, Republicans, and now they’re apparently worse than useless.

Just like with abortion and banning gay marriage, the GOP sure knows what makes a “bedrock principle” -- something that only other people to have to follow.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

An American Letter Bomb Can't Be Terrorism

I got an email from S.R. pointing me to a lengthy post by David Niewert of Orcinus, who noted that the mail bomb received by Don Logan, the director of the City of Scottsdale's Office of Diversity and Dialogue, on Feb. 27 is being called by law enforcement an "isolated incident" or an "ordinary crime" that obviously has nothing, nothing! to do with domestic terrorism. If the mail bomb targeted at Don Logan isn't terrorism, what is? Does it qualify as terrorism only if the return address is in Arabic?

Monday, March 01, 2004

"Let's Put On Show, I Mean an Investigation!" "I've Got a Barn!"

How better to celebrate the Leap Year than to leap to conclusions? I sure can't think of a better one. Again, it's Arizona issues this week; of course, Arizona politics is what they call a "target-rich environment." I got top placement and a strange cartoon, a serpent's tongue with a dollar sign on it; here's the newspaper link. Libertarian Clip Art, I presume.

The Prison Probe
Legislature sticking county with legal costs for state's standoff inquiry

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 29, 2004

Why would the GOP legislative leadership make their so-called investigation into the Lewis Prison hostage situation as complicated as a Rube Goldberg cartoon? The answer, as always, is: Follow the money.

It might strike you as a bit, well, partisan that the GOP-controlled Legislature would appoint a special committee, which then calls on a potential candidate for governor (Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley), who then has to make a big show of stepping aside after supposedly picking a local version of an independent counsel, Melvin McDonald.

It’s not merely a complicated four-cushion shot instead of a straight line. It also put the Republican House speaker and Senate president in the awkward spot of trying to explain that nothing political -- nothing! -- was going on because all the political guy was doing was choosing some non-political guy to run somebody else’s investigation.

But why bother with those machinations, when the Legislature could have cut out the middleman and hired McDonald directly? Why even mess with Romley, thereby giving Democrats like me such an easy shot to complain about letting a potential Republican candidate investigate his future Democratic opponent?

Why? Because the Legislature doesn’t have the money to hire McDonald, or anybody else for that matter. They didn’t budget for this job, and ultimately they don’t plan on paying for it. Instead, they decided to call in favors from a nearby government, controlled by fellow Republicans, that apparently has money lying about for the Legislature to use.

House Speaker Jake “Obey Me or Lose Your Chairmanship” Flake and Senate President Ken “I Bought the Law, and My Family Business Won” Bennett consider this a win-win situation -- at least for them. They get their little investigation, on their terms, while Maricopa County taxpayers pick up the check. To these guys, “fiscal discipline” means using somebody else’s budget to finance your goodies.

We had to impose new taxes to build the Cardinals stadium and Bank One Ballpark and preserve the county hospital, but somehow Maricopa County has enough money floating around that the County Attorney can pay for the Legislature’s dirty work? The next time you hear one of our county supervisors talk about unfunded state mandates or belt-tightening their budget, just remember that they had plenty of money when the House speaker from Snowflake (in Navajo County) and the Senate president from Prescott (in Yavapai County) needed a slush fund for their political fun and games.

The supervisors may agree to this fiscal sleight-of-hand, because most of the GOP majority at Third Avenue is good buddies with the GOP majority at 17th Avenue, and because the Legislature easily can punish a county government that doesn’t do its bidding.

But if the supervisors really represent Maricopa County voters and aren’t just some farm team at the Legislature’s beck-and-call, they might want to ask the GOP to advance the funds first. Get the retainer for Mel up front, OK? Flake and Bennett most definitely aren’t the kind of guys you want to let run a tab.

Let me spell it out for you slower supervisors. Step 1: If you agree to fund Mel’s second big case of the year on the county tab, you’ll wait nervously for weeks for Flake and Bennett to put the reimbursement money into this year's budget bills. Step 2: At the last minute, they’ll insert the money into the conference report, but put the appropriation exactly where the governor can strike it with a line-item veto. Step 3: Flake and Bennett blame Napolitano, while the county gets the shaft.

Clear enough, guys? Call me if you have any questions.