Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Korematsu and Warrantless Eavesdropping

I had my first experience with the new editorial page editor, who took my suggestion for a headline--his predecessor never did--but who decided he didn't like my lede and rewrote mine. He changed the first two paragraphs to read thusly: "For the Bush administration and its supporters, the Constitution is like the "Pirates' Code:" more like guidelines. Nice, but if the law gets in the way of doing what they claim is necessary, then it becomes irrelevant -- permanently." I like my version better, so I changed it back. But you can see the newspaper version here. He also inserted the two internal headlines, which I've added.

The Bush quote is from a transcript available on the White House website. Hat tips: Kevin Drum for the Schlesinger quote, Timothy Noah for the link to the White House transcript.

So I'm quoting from Justice Robert Jackson, Arthur Schlesinger, Eugene Rostow, and Pirates of the Caribbean in this column. Just another week at the East Valley Tribune.

We Always Regret It In The Morning
East Valley Tribune, Dec. 25, 2005

There’s little danger of the Constitution becoming a suicide pact, because the Bush administration (and its supporters) don’t consider the Constitution an actual “pact.”

Instead, the Constitution is like the “Pirates’ Code”: more like guidelines. Nice, but if the law gets in the way of doing what they claim is necessary, then it becomes irrelevant -- permanently.

Because (cue theme music) September 11 changed everything, forever. People who used to worry about FBI files and jack-booted thugs now willingly trade their freedom -- and yours -- for “security.” They’re more than happy, as one ‘winger blogger put it, “to give up a portion of ‘privacy’ that I didn’t realize I had in order to more effectively combat the people who have declared war on us and are trying to kill us.”

Never mind Benjamin Franklin, who said that “those who would give up essential liberty for temporary safety deserve neither.” Franklin got tossed overboard, along with the Bill of Rights.

Government of Laws?

Here’s what it now means to be a “conservative”: Supporting warrantless searches and eavesdropping. Supporting an overseas network of secret prisons, and cruel and inhumane treatment. Supporting broad executive powers that can be reviewed by, or known to, only the executive -- including the right to hold U.S. citizens indefinitely without charge and without trial. And all because you “trust” the current president, because Sept. 11 gave us a government of men, not laws, and if I don’t agree, then I’m a traitor.

President Bush called the 2004 elections his “accountability moment.” We now learn that he thinks the election gave him approval for things he’s kept secret from most of Congress and the American people. Now that’s accountability!

Here’s Bush, in April of 2004: “Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so. It’s important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution.”

Exactly. We value the Constitution -- except when we don’t. Who needs the terrorists to hate us for our freedom, when the Bush administration and its supporters are doing such a terrific job already?

Inspired Argument

In law school, I took my first-term Constitutional Law course from the late Eugene Rostow. Prof. Rostow was nearing retirement, and any thrill of explaining basic concepts to another group of wet-behind-the-ears law students had worn pretty thin by then. I grew increasingly disenchanted with the class until the day I stumbled across Rostow’s 1945 law review article, “The Japanese American Cases -- A Disaster.”

It was the law school equivalent of seeing Willie Mays in his prime. Rostow mercilessly tore apart the shoddy logic and abdication of thought in the Supreme Court decisions upholding the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans. He attacked the court for blindly accepting assertions by government officials as sufficient to detain citizens, largely based on race and ethnicity, without limit and without remedy: “Unless the courts require a showing, in cases like these, of an intelligible relationship between means and ends, society has lost its basic protection against the abuse of military power.” And -- in 1945! -- he presciently attacked the court for approving those detentions, for converting “a piece of war-time folly into political doctrine, and a permanent part of the law.”

History has shown that there was no good reason to intern Japanese-Americans; we abandoned our principles unnecessarily, to our shame. It’s easy to scare people into abandoning some freedoms permanently for a threat that turns out to be overblown, often fancifully. But as Arthur Schlesinger once said, whenever America does things like this, we always regret it in the morning.

Professor Rostow knew that America had gone overboard and made a permanent mistake, one that every serious historian recognizes today. Aren’t there any “principled conservatives” willing to take up Rostow’s mantle today?

Monday, December 19, 2005

"Disemvoweling" the GOP Coalition

The Tribune has a new editorial page editor; Bob Schuster leaves to oversee the Arizona Republic's Southeast Valley edition editorial pages, and will be replaced by Bob Satnan, who had been the Scottsdale editor. The "New Bob" seems to be a hard news guy (here's a 1998 article describing Thomson's purchase of the Tribune papers, which mentions him and which of course is now ancient history as it's a Freedom paper now; in 1993, he was promoted to Scottsdale Editor. His nickname is "Big Dog." I have no idea what this means for the Tribune's editorial stances, but I suspect that the Freedom people will make sure that it doesn't mean all that much. (Vouchers! Tax cuts! Less government except we're cool with warrantless wiretaps!)

In his last encounter with my stuff, the outgoing editor took out "la visas Bush" in the 8th paragraph and "Clintonesque? That's got to hurt." at the end of the 9th paragraph. It doesn't appear to be a space issue. I've put them back in.

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 18, 2005

I’d rather argue religion with strangers than try to fix U.S. immigration law, but as a connoisseur of political disasters, I plan to enjoy watching this year’s wedge issue divide the Republicans for a change.

Normally, the GOP and its media allies carefully select bogus “cultural” issues that discomfort only Democrats. School prayer, Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays, flag burning, “freedom fries” -- there’s nothing too insignificant to deserve a constitutional amendment and the constant focus of Bill O’Reilly.

But immigration is different. First, it’s a government issue, whose solution can’t be “outsourced” to India or the private sector. Suddenly, it matters that Republicans totally control all three branches. They can try blaming Ted Kennedy, but nobody’s buying that.

Second, usually all Republicans either robotically repeat the talking points or get well out of the way. Even so-called “maverick” John McCain, who once derided George W. Bush as a “Pat Robertson Republican” and called Jerry Falwell a “peddler of intolerance,” now hobnobs with both reverends and endorses teaching “intelligent design.”

But the GOP base has definite ideas on immigration that don’t fit with the administration’s political plans. The Bush administration had developed a carefully-calibrated scheme, one that really wouldn’t do anything to resolve the immigration and border messes, but one that pretended to give something to each key part of the GOP coalition. There’s tough-sounding border enforcement for the base, and there’s a guest-worker program, key for both big business and Hispanic outreach.

It should have worked, because the Bush guest-worker program is designed as precisely (and as fraudulently) as the Medicare drug benefit. As UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff wrote, no rational illegal alien would take Bush’s offer of a three year permit. Most undocumenteds are here for a better life, for themselves and their families; that’s nearly impossible to manage with only three years at lower-end wages.

The real beneficiaries of the guest-worker proposal would be big business, particularly agriculture. Currently, they keep the workers in line by threatening them with deportation. Under Bush’s plan, they’d have to fire troublesome employees first, but as soon as they lose their job, they’re deportable again. For the cost of a photocopy, agribusiness keeps its supply of low-wage, no-rights workers.

But a guest-worker program sounds good (especially in Spanish: “las visas Bush”) to Latino voters the GOP covets -- who turned California solidly blue in reaction against Pete Wilson and Prop. 187. That it’s a crummy deal for the illegals, and that it’s actually designed to avoid employer screening and sanctions, are beside the point, which was to make the GOP seem sensitive to Hispanic concerns.

As Prof. Zasloff notes, unfortunately the GOP base didn’t get the memo. They are screaming bloody murder because they view this doomed-to-failure guest-worker plan as an amnesty that would reward to those who came here illegally. It’s too generous for the angry, angry base: Rep. Tom Tancredo’s spokesman called President Bush “Clintonesque” for advocating amnesty under a different name. Clintonesque? That’s got to hurt.

Meanwhile, it’s caused Arizona’s congressional delegation to overdose on turning nouns into verbs. Rep. Jeff Flake complains that Rep. J.D. Hayworth “has gone Tancredo on us,” while Hayworth demurs: “I have not been Tancredoed. I’ve been Arizonaed.” Neither is helping the cause of the English language.

Usually staunch GOP allies, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, and the Associated General Contractors, are vehemently opposed to the House GOP immigration bill. These groups claim they will consider it a “key vote” for determining future support. Will the GOP will cave to the lobbyists, or will the lobbyists cave to the GOP? I’m betting on the latter, because what lobbyist can’t be bought with a couple hundred million of unrelated tax cuts?

It’s “Sesame Street” politics. Today, we’re learning that nobody, in either political party, can trust Bush on things that start with the letter “I”: Iraq, intelligence, and now immigration. Welcome to the wedge!

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Latest Stupid Right-Wing Healthcare Idea

This column had an incorrect headline--I wrote about the brand new 'winger pipedream, South Carolina Medicaid reform, but my editor gave it the headline, "GOP Medicare reform: Pay more for less care." That's true, but that's not what I wrote about. He also left in the editorial italic cues ([ital] and [unital]). Must have been a busy week.

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 11, 2005

Social Security privatization died, and the Medicare drug benefit is a mess, so what’s the latest hot conservative idea? Combine and package them as “Medicaid reform”!

Right-wingers’ latest infatuation is South Carolina’s plan to give most Medicaid beneficiaries a “personal health account” to choose either a health insurance plan or a physician network to manage their care. Some beneficiaries (the healthiest and savviest, only 5,000 people by most local estimates) could even “self-direct” their care.

Unfortunately, this plan combines the worst of Social Security privatization (changing a defined-benefit program into a defined-contribution one, which never works well for the rank-and-file, even if those at the top benefit) and the Medicare drug benefit (with its increased administrative costs, confusion, and mandated inability to negotiate lower costs).

The plan also fundamentally misunderstands the statistical basis of insurance. Under managed care, Medicaid or a private insurer gives a provider a set amount per patient, and with a sufficiently large number of patients, ones that need less care than average help make up for patients who need more. But if you try to make each person meet the average, it just doesn’t work. That’s the South Carolina plan -- hoping that, just like children in Lake Wobegon, everybody’s above average.

Only people covered by really good group insurance (like the federal employee pool), or who never have gotten sick, could like this plan. Personal health accounts are, as one expert put it, umbrellas that melt in the rain. That may be economically interesting, but it’s not insurance -- as you’ll learn if, in healthcare terms, you’re forced to move from the desert to Seattle.

South Carolina’s plan also is based on several falsehoods. It’s not true that Medicaid costs more than private insurance. It’s not true that Medicaid encourages people to use more healthcare than necessary. And it’s not true that Medicaid has more administrative costs than private insurers.

Comparing Medicaid to private insurance is like the joke about the two hikers who stumble across a bear. One guy stops to put on running shoes, and his friend asks, “Why bother? You can’t outrun a bear.” The man replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”

According to the Bush administration’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, nationally Medicaid’s administrative costs are 6.9 percent of total program costs, while private health plans’ administrative costs average 13.9 percent, twice as much. In 2004, South Carolina’s administrative Medicaid costs were only 4.6 percent. South Carolina essentially plans to triple its administrative overhead and costs -- and that’s before any new costs of counseling beneficiaries on their options and managing the proposed home health networks.

Counseling for beneficiaries would be absolutely necessary. What South Carolina proposes is a Medicaid-based version of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. You know how simple and easy-to-understand that’s been for your over-65 friends and relations? And how enjoyable you find reviewing dozens, even hundreds, of potential investment strategies for your 401(k) plan? That’s the South Carolina plan!

But the real point of what South Carolina proposes is to give politicians plausible deniability when hundreds of thousands of people pay more and get less care. It’s really about making the poor and working families pay for tax cuts for the rich, the same old story we’re seeing in Congress, too.

South Carolinians got a vivid example of this reality when a U.S. Senate subcommittee came to Charleston to support the plan. The GOP-controlled hearing had a half-dozen Republicans in support and one lone Democratic opponent. No current Medicaid recipient got to speak.

The State newspaper quoted Kimberly Snipes, a Medicaid recipient who sat through the hearing: “You mean they couldn’t find one person out of 850,000 on Medicaid that was educated enough to have any ideas or any thoughts about how money could be saved and how health care could be improved? And they say these are the people they want to empower?”

Medicaid needs fixing, but this plan isn’t it. This latest infatuation isn’t about empowerment, choice, or better care. Instead, it’s all about the Benjamins.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Right-Wing Nutjob Turns Out To Be Corrupt Right-Wing Nutjob. But I Repeat Myself.

The newspaper version of this week's column is here. Meanwhile, I have now written the Fiesta Bowl out of my will (like they were there anyway) for choosing Notre Dame over Penn State. I have no specific expertise on whether we'll get a better or worse football game, but I can clearly state that the parties here just won't be as good with the Barash-Coppersmith-Fredman family going to the Orange Bowl instead.

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 4, 2005

Funny how people who know so much about governing two countries (the U.S. and Iraq) had absolutely no clue Randy “Duke” Cunningham was thoroughly corrupt.

Cunningham was an 8-term California GOP congressman who -- after promising to fight the charges -- admitted taking bribes and resigned his seat. It was guaranteed to end badly when, as the initial charges became public, Cunningham was called a “hero” and “an honorable man of high integrity” by Tom DeLay. Takes one to know one.

Duke’s a crook -- and one who liked to impugn other people’s honesty and patriotism, like when he said House liberals should be “lined up and shot,” or made crude jokes about a gay colleague, or called Rep. Pat Schroeder a “socialist,” or said President Clinton was a “traitor” and that “Tokyo Rose had nothing over Clinton.”

Cunningham also sponsored the “No Frills Prison Act,” which was a sound-bite masquerading as a bill, pretending to do away with unnecessary prison amenities. He’ll now get examine the problem, from the inside, for up to five years per guilty plea.

With so many legal ways of taking money from lobbyists and government contractors, like funneling money to a foundation sponsoring “educational” trips to Scotland’s golf courses or hiring your wife as a lobbyist, it’s amazing that Cunningham just took out-and-out bribes. The story broke when newspapers reported that in 2003 Cunningham sold his home to Mitchell Wade, president of defense contractor MZM Inc., for $1.675 million. Wade then sold the house several months later, during a housing boom, for $700,000 less. A local realtor, who wrote a letter justifying the sale price, was a long-time Cunningham campaign contributor. To top it off, Wade also let Cunningham stay for free in D.C. on Wade’s 42-foot yacht, the aptly-named “Duke-Stir.”

There was more -- Cunningham made about $400,000 in profit selling a boat to businessman Thomas Kontogiannis, who had been convicted of embezzlement and who says he sought Duke’s advice about getting a presidential pardon. Another defense contractor, Brent Wilkes of ACDS Inc., gave Cunningham use of his boat. Duke also took payments to cover the capital gains tax he incurred when he sold his former house to Wade, to pay for his daughter’s graduation party, and for $30,000 for purchase and repairs to a Rolls-Royce he bought in 2002.

But that was just the cash. Cunningham also got some surprisingly frou-frou gifts: three antique nightstands, a leaded-glass cabinet, a washstand, four armoires, and one buffet. But my favorite is an antique 19th century Louis-Philippe commode, valued at $7,200. (For those not up on congressional corruption or French, a commode is a chest with drawers, not the other device.)

It all added up; according to the indictment, in 2004 Cunningham reported taxable income of $121,079, when his actual income (including bribes) was at least $1,215,458.

So what did Cunningham do to “earn” that money? He used his perches on the House Defense Appropriations and Intelligence committees to stuff money in appropriations bills that could be steered, then leaned on officials at the Pentagon to give contracts to MZM and ACDS. But how does just one congressman, even a well-placed senior one, manage to steer millions in contracts to people paying him bribes?

Part of the answer may be in the magic words “war on terror,” which can cloak a multitude of sins, including financial ones. The Defense Department’s classified budget has increased significantly (about 48 percent) since 9/11, to $26.9 billion this fiscal year. While any member of Congress can go to the secure room in the Capitol to study the secret spending, in practice nobody does -- so the “black budget” can be a wonderful place to hide things that can’t stand the light of day, like unnecessary contracts to companies paying bribes.

So the next time you hear members of Congress bloviate about rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse, ask how much time they’ve spent reviewing the black budget before approving $26.9 billion of spending. And ask how good a job they did in uncovering the blatant corruption of one of their colleagues, Duke Cunningham.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Loopholes for Everybody (Only in Arizona, and not quite everybody, but give anyway)

Those of you from outside Arizona may not realize exactly how the Arizona income tax system is semi-voluntary; you get to decide whether to pay taxes or make contributions to legislatively-favored charities. I remind East Valley Tribune readers of the importance of playing tax credit bingo each year around Thanksgiving; I hope we get some new people each year in the habit of giving.

If you want to see the column as it ran in the paper, click here or if that link fails (as it will in 2 weeks), try the printer-ready link here. I've redone the column to include links for online charitable forms below, without the neat drawings and internal headers my editor provided.

I'm also recommending to everybody an article by Linda Hirschman in The American Prospect. Linda speaks for herself and doesn't need me to blurb her stuff. But if you need a blurb, consider it done.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 27, 2005

It’s time for your annual reminder to take full advantage of Arizona’s many tax loopholes. A menu of state tax credits lets you make certain types of contributions instead of paying taxes, so generosity ultimately won’t cost you anything.

Playing the Arizona tax-credit game requires that you itemize deductions, aren’t subject to Alternative Minimum Tax, and have the cash on hand before Dec. 31. If so, make a contribution, then get an exact credit against your state income tax, while your federal taxes remain unchanged because you’ve merely swapped a state tax deduction for a charitable one. Net cost to you: Zero.

And thanks to some surprises when the legislature conformed the Arizona tax code to changes Congress made to the Internal Revenue Code, the credit limits have increased -- for married taxpayers only, however.

First, there’s the credit for donations to “private school tuition organizations” [these next 3 links are to last year's forms, but the form numbers won't change; check back at the Arizona Department of Revenue website after January 1]. You contribute to a PSTO by Dec. 31, then get a dollar-for-dollar credit against your Arizona income tax in April. The limit is $500 for individuals, but for married couples this year it’s $800, and next year it’s $1,000.

There are about five dozen PSTOs in Arizona, but please consider writing your check to Schools With Heart, 1131 E. Highland, Phoenix, AZ 85014, or click here; designate your check for the Family School, a unique school serving children from diverse backgrounds.

Second, taxpayers also can take a separate-but-not-equal credit for public school contributions [last year's form]. Single taxpayers can give and get back up to $200, while the limit for married taxpayers increases this year to $300 and next year to $400. You must write the check directly to the school, not to a PTO or foundation.

Please consider a gift to the Isaac School District, 3348 W. McDowell Road, Phoenix, AZ 85009, or click here [note: The amount listed on form was not updated for the 2005 legislation], or call (602) 455-6700. Inner-city Isaac receives only a fraction of the tax credit donations that wealthier suburban districts can collect. The state tax credit is “reverse Robin Hood” legislation, taking from below-median taxpayers (who also can’t itemize) and assisting upper-median districts, whose schools don’t face nearly the challenge that Isaac does, with the vast majority of its students (more than 90 percent) at or below poverty level and in non-English-speaking homes (about two-thirds). Make Arizona school finance slightly less perverse by contributing to Isaac, at no cost to you.

Third, donations to charities assisting low-income residents qualify for another tax credit [again, last year's form], (provided your gift is above your “baseline” charitable giving). The credit for single taxpayers is $200 but increases this year for married taxpayers to $300, and to $400 in 2006. As a board trustee, I can strongly recommend that you make one of these free contributions to Devereux Arizona, which is part of the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of behavioral health services.

Most children Devereux serves in Arizona are in foster care and residential programs, and most of these children come from abusive or neglectful homes. Devereux’s “My Little Stocking” fund pays for holiday gifts for children who wouldn’t otherwise get anything, and who already have suffered greater losses than most of us even can imagine. Send your check to Devereux at 11000 N. Scottsdale Road, Suite 260, Scottsdale, AZ 85254, or contribute online here, or call (480) 998-2920 ext. 2105.

Fourth, you can help fund Arizona’s system of publicly-financed elections. You can help reduce lobbyist influence and encourage public participation, all for free. The limits are quite high; $550 for individuals and $1,100 for couples, or up to 20% of your total state tax liability -- whichever is more. Send your check to the Citizens Clean Election Fund at 1616 W. Adams, Suite 110, Phoenix, AZ 85007. You can't contribute online, but the form to accompany your contribution is here.

Finally, consider giving something that also won’t cost you a penny -- your blood. The holidays always seem to stretch blood supplies, so it’s a perfect time to schedule a donation. You can call United Blood Services at (602) 431-9500, or make an appointment online.

Don’t let 2005 end without taking as much advantage as you can of Arizona’s upside-down tax system. If you live here, it’s the law, so make our community a slightly better place by writing some no-cost-to-you checks before year’s end.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The TEL-Tale Heart

I'm originally from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and not only served with Jack Murtha in Congress, but also knew him when he served with my father in the state legislature, so I can tell certain members of the Bush administration that "I knew Jack Murtha. I served with Jack Murtha. Mr. Vice President, you're no Jack Murtha." Maybe that's this coming week's column. This week, it's state politics again (but with national implications).

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 20, 2005
As printed version available here.

Just watch as those who absolutely loved the ratchet in October now sorrowfully describe it as a “glitch” that shouldn’t detract from their rejected-by-voters-who-lived-through-it tax expenditure limitation (TEL) scheme.

For those arriving late, in 1992 Colorado voters approved a TEL, called TABOR, which limited state spending to inflation and population growth, with a “recession ratchet.” If revenues dropped -- which they did, by 17 percent during the 2001-02 recession -- spending couldn’t recover with the economy, but instead ratcheted down permanently. Public services that people demanded faced cuts, and voters approved gutting TABOR, to the dismay of Grover Norquist groupies.

Until November 1, the ratchet wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. The Heritage Foundation called TABOR “the gold standard” and, like most so-called conservatives, strongly opposed elimination. The Goldwater Institute touted the Colorado model as “the best” and used the ratchet in calculating the supposed benefits of a TEL here.

So when ‘wingers now tout some alternative TEL without the ratchet, they’re rewriting history. You can look it up. Everybody knows rewriting history isn’t for local amateurs; leave it for seasoned pros, like Dick Cheney.

You also can look up how the “gut TABOR” campaign depended not just on Democrats, but also prominent, respected Republicans like Gov. Bill Owens, former state GOP party chair Bruce Benson, and University of Colorado president (and former U.S. Senator) Hank Brown.

The Colorado referendum wouldn’t have passed without support of business leaders and Republicans fed up with the ‘wingers and their infatuation with numbers at reality’s expense. A prime example is Tom Clark of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, quoted in The Washington Monthly: “For businesses to be successful, you need roads and you need higher education, both of which have gotten worse under TABOR and will continue to get worse. I’m a Republican, but I made the decision not to give any money to the state party.”

However, my lack of space to praise Bill Owens and Hank Brown in my earlier column can’t be criticized by local Republicans, because here the GOP remains in thrall to the ‘wingers, who believe that the only good Republican is a “drown it in the bathtub” Republican. But voters in red states like Colorado and Virginia think otherwise, and may lead Arizona to its own three-party system: ‘wingers, Democrats, and reality-based Republicans.

Finally, TEL boosters talk a lot about expenditure limitations forcing government to act more like a business. But government isn’t a business, and shouldn’t act like one. If we limit expenditure growth to inflation and population growth, how then are schools supposed to be qualitatively better than in 1992? We demand higher standards -- but doesn’t doing more, with more kids, and with inflation, take more money?

In 1994, 2 kids in 10,000 were diagnosed with autism or a related disorder. Ten years later, the Centers for Disease Control reported that autism-type disorders affect 1 in 166 children -- a 30-fold increase. Nobody knows why, but other countries are seeing similar numbers. If we limit increases in autism programs only to inflation and population growth since 1994, who tells all the new kids with autism that, too bad, a TEL means rationing treatment?

It just won’t work to say treating autism will just have to become more efficient. The functions we expect from government -- healthcare, education, insurance -- are the ones with the lowest productivity gains, in both the private and public sectors. Working with autistic kids is labor-intensive, and if the Goldwater types have a way to make a one-on-one therapist 30 times more productive, they should leave their think tank and start treating kids.

You can’t deal with the explosion in autism, and raise school standards, and lengthen and mandate prison sentences, and have more DPS patrols on new freeways and have more secure driver’s licenses by muttering “priorities.” Until you’re willing to tell those autistic kids that they just don’t matter as much as numbers do, tell the TEL to go to heck.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Clinton:Sex = Bush:Torture

My deadline is Thursday for a column that runs on Sunday; meanwhile, according to Eric Altermann, a letter to the editor in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that ran on Saturday--but not yet posted to their website--had much the same theme as my column ("The naive bleeding hearts who oppose Vice President Dick Cheney's efforts to secure an exemption to the ban on the use of torture when interrogating those who are a threat to our security need to wake up to reality. This is the post-9/11 world. If some evildoer needs to be squeezed a little to obtain information that will potentially save American lives, we need to do it. The torture of Lewis (Scooter) Libby should begin this minute and continue until he gives up every neocon-man, war profiteer, misguided zealot, shock-and-awe peddler and lying politician who participated in the conspiracy to manufacture this war in Iraq.") Darn early deadline.

Regarding last week's column, I didn't have nearly enough space to point out that the Colorado campaign to eliminate the TABOR ratchet brought together not just the Democrats in the legislature, but also the state's GOP governor, the chamber of commerce, and various usually-Republican-but-fed-up-with-Grover-Norquist business types. It was everybody else against the 'wingers, both the "drown it in the bathtub" anti-taxers and the religious fundamentalists, who crawled into this bed and seem determined to stay in it. But the great thing about writing about TABOR in Arizona is that none of the Republicans here are willing to speak up for Bill Owens, so my lack of room to give him credit hasn't been called out. Instead, they want to pretend that the only good Republican is a "drown it in the bathtub" Republican, so the good work by Owens goes unremarked here (while the same people who used to call TABOR "the gold standard" of tax-expenditure limitation legislation now cluck sorrowfully that the formerly "gold standard" ratchet was an ill-designed glitch that shouldn't let anyone doubt the underlying idea).

Newspaper column link here.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 13, 2005

It’s going to take way too long to find out if Karl Rove and Lewis Libby broke the law if we have a regular trial, due process, and constitutional rights. So instead, let’s torture them.

I don’t mean real torture. As President Bush says, the United States government always acts “under the law. We do not torture.” But that statement depends on (ahem) what the meaning of “torture” is.

According to our president, some things may sound like torture or “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” banned by the U.N. Convention on Torture, to which the United States is a party, but they aren’t really “torture.” The Bush administration spent lots of energy drawing these fine distinctions; they think about torture and evading international law as passionately as Bill Clinton thought about sex.

Call it “not-torture.” Stuff like “water-boarding” -- dunking detainees in water repeatedly to near drowning. Secret prisons in former Soviet facilities in Eastern Europe. Tying naked detainees outdoors, where they die overnight from exposure. Beating a detainee’s legs, or smashing his feet with hammers. Locking a detainee’s arms over his head, which in turn is inside a plastic bag, until he suffocates. In the Bush administration’s view, all perfectly copasetic. That’s why they’re fighting so hard in Congress to keep “not-torture” legal.

The Bush administration contends that it isn’t torture if you are “without intent to cause permanent injury or loss to vital organs.” So you can break bones (which usually heal), or pry off fingernails (which usually grow back), or maybe even pull out teeth (some dictionary should confirm that teeth aren’t organs). If anybody dies, you really didn’t mean to kill them and therefore lacked the requisite intent.

Getting the hang of what’s permissible “not-torture” yet?

After all, we’re repeatedly told that you can trust this president. He nominated Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, and asked conservatives to trust him, and we know how well that turned out. So of course we trust him when he says these things aren’t torture, and aren’t cruel and degrading or inhuman. So there’s no reason we can’t use “not-torture” techniques on Rove and Libby, right?

But, some panty-waisted due process ACLU types may complain, you can’t do that to American citizens! Says who? After all, we’re at war, and the Bush administration has made clear that they believe there should be no oversight by Congress or by the courts in how the Commander in Chief decides to fight the War on Terror -- or exactly what he (and he alone) decides to consider part of the War on Terror.

The PATRIOT Act now allows dozens of Justice Department officials to issue secret, unreviewable “national security letters” against American citizens who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies; some 30,000 are now issued annually, without any oversight by anyone, either before or afterwards. Information about approximately 1 million tourists who visited Las Vegas in December, 2003 during an investigation of a possible terror attack remains in FBI data banks.

The Bush administration claims the right to hold a U.S. citizen who is a suspect in this amorphous and continuing War on Terror in military prisons -- on nothing more than President Bush’s determination. So how hard would it be for him to decide that Rove and Libby have something to do with the War on Terror, and that these special rules should apply to them? Once he decides they're "ticking time bombs," the administration’s lawyers already have the court filings ready to refuse to let either Congress or the courts interfere.

Maybe some still quaintly think we shouldn’t “not-torture” Rove and Libby because it would be (gasp!) wrong? Unfortunately, that train left the station long, long ago.

Of course, Bush won't treat Rove or Libby that way. Heck, he’ll probably follow in the family tradition and grant ‘em both presidential pardons, and people who railed at Clinton’s pardons will be suddenly struck dumb. But mainly Bush won’t treat people he knows personally according to the rules he (and Congress) apply to people they don’t know.

“Not-torture.” Makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Death of a Bad Idea

The Bad Idea is TABOR, the so-called Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which is really just mandated tax reductions ratcheting downward, ever downward. Just don't fail us now, California (where they vote tomorrow on their version, Prop. 76; let's hope they help, forgive me, Terminator the idea.)

Arizona was supposed to be one of the next stops for a TABOR-style initiative, but we can hope that Colorado may have just taken that particular wind out of those particular sails. My choice of headline was "Grover Norquist Wants Arizona To Be More Like Mississippi--And Mississippi To Be More Like Honduras." But the editor went for less metaphor and more viciousness. There's also an ambiguous cartoon accompanying the column (you can see it here). I call it ambiguous because you can't tell if the angry man demanding that the mother and child put coins in his cup is a legislator demanding they pay taxes, or a rich guy demanding his tax cuts. I guess it's a cartoon Rorschach which one views in accord with one's existing predispositions.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 6, 2005

Last week, Colorado said “no” to the politics of personal irresponsibility. Here in Arizona, let’s hope it’s a trend.

By a 52-48 margin, voters approved suspending Colorado’s “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights” (called TABOR), foregoing upwards of $3.5 billion in otherwise-mandated tax refunds for five years. The vote also eliminated TABOR’s “recession ratchet,” which limited state spending and revenues to inflation and population growth. When the 2001-02 recession and drought decreased state revenues by 13 percent one year and 4 percent the next, Colorado couldn’t put a temporary hold on projects until the economy recovered. The TABOR ratchet meant that spending never recovered from the sudden revenue drop.

Of course, the whole point of TABOR is ‘wingers’ belief that we should replace legislators with machines, making public policy totally automatic. It’s their “never mind what people need, here are the numbers” philosophy -- which, not incidentally, separates anti-tax extremists from the actual consequences of their proposals.

Given that mandatory health care costs, which don’t limit their growth to inflation plus population, represent huge chunks of every state’s spending, the formula concept is flawed from the start. TABOR was the highest expression of these zealots’ impervious-to-reality belief that taxes always, always, always must go down -- no matter what’s actually happening in the real world.

Colorado found itself rapidly approaching Mississippi-like levels in funding higher education and Medicaid. Despite a voter-approved initiative increasing support for K-12 education, the state dropped farther behind in funding. The state budget office announced that Colorado would have to close 11 state parks, raise university tuitions, cap the prison population, cut funding for healthcare, end instant background checks on firearms purchases, and eliminate ski lift inspections -- which cuts would close only $255 million of the TABOR-required $365 million in reductions.

The ‘wingers realized the stakes in Colorado, and they brought in a healthy amount of undisclosed out-of-state money for the “no” campaign. (These guys talk a lot about transparency, except when it concerns them. They also hate “government by initiative,” except when it’s their initiative.) Opponents ran ads claiming that all the money somehow would go to illegal immigrants. But voters weren’t buying, and recognized that their taxes actually buy useful things like healthcare, education, parks, and ski lift inspections -- and they wanted to keep them.

Colorado’s rejection of TABOR -- and of the “drown it in the bathtub” fanaticism of Grover Norquist, the man who nearly single-handedly has converted the “Party of Lincoln” into the “Party of Jack Abramoff and the No-New-Taxes Pledge” -- is good news for rational and responsible governance elsewhere. California voters get to decide on their version of one of these fiscal straightjackets on Tuesday, and Arizona was thought to be one of the next places to roll out this cookie-cutter idea.

As Douglas Bruce, the author of TABOR, said on election night, “The establishment is going to say we had 13 years of experience with spending limits and we changed our minds.” Well, yes, people might just say that, because it’s true.

That’s what the Republican House minority leader in Colorado, state Rep. Joe Stengel, told a conference call last week: TABOR is “as good as dead” in Colorado, and the voters killed it. “I think we now have become a blue state, frankly,” he said. Of course, the fact that Stengel’s Republicans lost both houses of the legislature and a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, and last week 52 percent of Colorado voters went with the other side, probably means he’s correct. There’s nothing like looking at closing state parks, eliminating funding for state universities, and slashing healthcare for the poor to show people that the extremist wackos really are pretty extreme.

So last week, the people who had to live with the consequences of the very latest in “stupid conservative governing tricks” have said it was a terrible mistake. How about if we in Arizona learn from their experience, and not make the same mistakes Colorado did?

Monday, October 31, 2005

Recipe for Failure: Add 1 Helping of Michael Brown

You write a column ahead of deadline, and then get up in the morning and find out that you not only lost your bet, but you have to rewrite really, really quickly. But it's nice to see that former FEMA director Michael Brown found new work, isn't it?

Miers' withdrawal means that we really can't trust Bush when he claimed that she was the Woman Most Deserving (WMD), right?

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 30, 2005

When did it stop being true that every presidential nominee deserves an up-or-down vote?

The one time I depend on Bush sticking to his guns -- I bet one of my law partners a dinner that the Harriet Miers nomination wouldn’t be withdrawn before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings began -- Bush caves. That’s what I get for listening to people like the committee chair, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), as quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Despite an outcry among some conservatives over the nomination, Specter said yesterday [Oct. 17] that he doubted Miers would withdraw from consideration or that Bush would ask her to. ‘It would be seen as a tremendous sign of weakness to have her withdraw,’ Specter said.”

Weakness! Can’t have that. But then Bush folded like the Astros and went down without taking a single game. (Yes, I was rooting for the White Sox. We couldn’t let Houston win the World Series. Hasn’t Texas made the rest of the country suffer enough already?)

We Democrats had a response to the Miers nomination, what one wag called the “popcorn strategy”: Watch as Republicans argue with each other, and pass the popcorn, please. It was working pretty well, no?

I really enjoyed seeing being given over to a debate over whether a Bush nomination should be withdrawn. Conservatives could sign up with, where you could list yourself as favoring withdrawal, “deeply concerned,” or (for senators only) “have expressed reservations.” That “deeply concerned” group sure looked like the place to be; where else would The New York Times, Rush Limbaugh, and Robert Novak hang out together?

Apparently it’s no longer true that we should, in now-inoperable words uttered by Sen. Jon Kyl in 2003, “take the politics out of the confirmation process, give nominees the up or down vote they deserve, and move the orderly process of justice forward.” That was then; this is now.

Just like how perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges were incredibly important, vital, and impeachable in six years ago (Kyl again, in 1999: “John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, said ‘there is no crime more extensively pernicious to society’ than perjury, precisely because it ‘discolors and poisons the streams of justice”) but now perjury is just, well, not worth bothering about.

Now, the administration that brought us Michael D. Brown as head of FEMA (and which continues to pay him as a consultant, at $148,000 annually, to “help review the agency’s response to Hurricane Katrina”) is hardly likely to nominate anybody all that good.

At this point, I can hear some readers complaining about the unfairness of linking Harriet Miers to Michael Brown. But it’s a valid connection, because I immediately asked if I could retract my bet when I learned that the day before Miers withdrew, The Washington Times reported that Brown was part of the team working for her confirmation (thanks to The Corner and Josh Marshall for the link).

Describing him as a “conservative activist,” The Times had Brown citing internal GOP polling showing strong support for Miers by “ordinary Republicans beyond the Washington Beltway”: “The administration is ‘disappointed that conservatives inside the Beltway are fighting among ourselves over this nomination, and it fuels the fires for our enemies, for Democrats,’ said Mr. Brown, the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director.”

I guess Brown’s FEMA consulting gig is only part time; he’s able to work on judicial confirmation efforts, too. But why rely on Michael Brown, of all people, to make the case for Miers? What, was Enron's Kenneth Lay too busy?

With friends like Brown, Harriet Miers certainly didn’t need any enemies. And maybe Democrats will catch a case of “Miers remorse” when Bush nominates somebody worse, either more ideological or more of a crony. But just as the doomed Social Security privatization removed the administration’s veneer of self-applied triumphalism, this bell can’t be unrung, either.

The next time we’re all just supposed to trust President Bush’s judgment, which anti-Miers conservative should I quote?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Republicans Denouce Reagan As "Too Moderate"

I didn't like the editor's choice for my headline this week because I think it's not correct. I thought that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were so much larger than the tax increases in 1991 and 1993 that restoring the 1986 tax code would actually be an increase; the only roll back is only in the number of pages in the Code and in the forms. But it's a useful point to make, that today's Republicans would be opposed to reinstating the 1986 tax code because they've moved so far to the right that they can't support what Reagan actually did because it's too centrist. Thus, my choice for the headline, above.

I bet one of my law partners dinner that Harriet Miers would appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, that her nomination wouldn't be withdrawn before then. After all, aren't conservatives supposed to believe that every nominee deserves an up-or-down vote? And why would the Bush administration start caring suddenly about doing things with majority support?

Finally, root for the White Sox. We can't let Houston win the World Series; hasn't Texas made the rest of the country suffer enough already?

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 23, 2005

The quasi-release of recommendations from President Bush’s long-awaited tax reform commission prompts me to release my own far simpler and far more surprising tax reform plan.

So far, Bush’s commission proposes to make your health insurance taxable and to limit your home mortgage deduction. They want to do that to pay for full repeal of the alternative minimum tax, so rich people who have lots of loopholes won’t have to pay income taxes.

Even without this bone-headed idea, the commission already seems like a loser. The basic problem is that any laundry list of tax proposals immediately fractures any sort of coalition for reform.

People don’t look at the overall picture, but instead evaluate whether each single proposal benefits or hurts them. Tax reform requires logrolling. Unless you must swallow it whole, a list only lets those of us from Arizona explain why a tax credit for replacing air conditioner filters is essential for American competitiveness, while deductions for public transit is tax pork.

So I have my own seamless, complete tax reform package: Let’s re-adopt the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, exactly the way that Ronald Reagan signed it.

Every change to the tax code since then gets removed. We roll the clock back to 1986, when the Gipper was president and Bob Dole ran the Senate and Republicans hadn’t taken money yet from Jack Abramoff.

There’s something for everybody in my proposal. Politically, Republicans keep pretending that the first President Bush and both Clinton terms never happened -- and, tax-wise, that’s fine with me. Democrats get something equally valuable, a complete do-over of George W. Bush tax policy. (It’s the reverse of the classic The Onion headline from 2001, “Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over’”.)

Economically, it’s a win for the country. We have fewer brackets, forms, deductions, and credits. The code and the forms required each April become shorter and less complex.

Fiscally, it’s also a winner. The tax hikes in 1991 and 1993 were more than outweighed by the back-loaded and top-weighted cuts in 2001 and 2003. Unlike in 1986, we now tax income from capital and wealth at far lower rates than income from work. We can keep the nominal top rate at 1986 levels, as long as we tax dividends and capital gains like how we tax salaries, just as Reagan did. Given the increase in income inequality and the continued multiplication of CEO salaries over those of the actual workers in most corporations, we wouldn’t run Reagan’s deficits, either.

I’d like to make a couple of tweaks to the 1986 code. We should keep the increases to the earned income tax credit, and “percentage-index” the alternative minimum tax and estate tax so both affect exactly the same percentage of taxpayers as each did in 1986. But if making those changes open the door to any of the lobbyist-driven, fiscally-irresponsible, and wantonly-regressive changes made since 1986, then forget it. Better to take my Reagan pure than to give this corrupt Congress a chance to fish for campaign contributions by rigging the tax code yet again.

There’s no reason put Reagan’s name on airports or his face on Mount Rushmore. He wasn’t the kind of guy who wanted special treatment or personal honors; he was just a regular guy who happened to be president, right? So if Republicans really want to honor him, why not re-enact his version of the Internal Revenue Code? It’s already been written, and Congress could pass it and the president could sign it tomorrow.

So let’s get rid of the past 19 years of mistakes and political favors, and go back and party like it’s 1986. Since then, the Republicans have moved so far to the right that they’d probably dismiss Reagan as a (ugh!) moderate, so it’s up to this die-hard Democrat to promote the actual substance of Reaganism. What’s happened to the tax code since 1986 only makes me nostalgic for Ronnie. What about you?

The Internal Revenue Code of 1986: Let’s do it -- for the Gipper!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

They're Finally Calling for Sacrifices--By the Poor

I had picked a different headline for this column; my choice was, "If It's All About Judeo-Christian Values, What About Us Judeos?" But my editor didn't like that. The newspaper version is here.

I got an angry email from a 'winger about this column, demanding to know exactly how I defined rich, and how much the rich should pay in taxes, and how much the government has spent on the less fortunate since 1969, and a list of more long-and-impossible-to-answer questions. So I wrote the guy back, and said that before I started writing term papers at his command, I just wanted to know something that he'd have to answer anyway to do his taxes next spring: What was his largest charitable contributions this year? I wanted to make sure he was pulling his weight in the community before I spent hours responding to his questions.

Of course, I have had no response. I wonder if he has made any charitable contribution this year larger than throwing a couple of coins in a collection plate or Salvation Army kettle?

But his email made me think about a point Kevin Drum made, that conservatives focus (like laser beams!) on a distorted parody of liberalism (Liberals want to tax everything! They hate the rich!), no matter how extreme or ill-noticed (Ward Churchill, anybody?). I'm not sure if I buy Kevin's idea of focusing on conservative extremism, but the "name your charitable contribution" turned out to be a nice piece of rhetorical judo for this particular crank, and I commend it to you.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 16, 2005

The High Holidays prayerbook we use at Temple Solel has a series of short meditations that you can read before Yom Kippur services begin. The stories include one of my favorites, about a famous 18th century Chasidic rabbi, the Maggid of Koznitz.

One day, a rich man came to the rabbi for a blessing. But before dealing with his spiritual question, the Maggid first asked, “What are you in the habit of eating?” The man replied, “I am modest in my demands. Bread and salt, a drink of water, I need no more.”

The rabbi is outraged. “What are you thinking? You must have a good goose for dinner, or a steak, and a really good wine. And you must eat a luxurious breakfast each morning.” The rabbi did not let the man leave until he promises to change his ways.

The rabbi’s disciples hear him instructing the man, and they can’t believe their ears. A sinner wants to atone, and the Maggid tells him to eat well instead! So afterward, they ask him why. The rabbi explains, “Not until he eats meat will he realize that the poor need bread. As long as he himself eats only bread, he will think the poor can live on stones.”

The Maggid of Koznitz wouldn’t have much trouble figuring out what’s wrong with today’s U.S. Congress. The majority’s latest plan for dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina would “pay” for recovery by cutting $35 billion in programs like Medicaid health coverage, food stamps, and other services for the less-well-off while giving $70 billion in new tax breaks targeted at the richest Americans. This is an opening bid, apparently; so-called “conservatives” are pushing for deeper cuts to programs that assist people with illnesses and disabilities, or the hungry, or families who can’t afford rent or health insurance, so the legislation can provide even more tax cuts to the wealthiest.

Those of you with adequate math backgrounds may notice that the widely-heralded offsets in the initial plan are merely half of the new tax breaks. So despite all the noise about fiscal responsibility, it’s a plan to increase the deficit -- and it’s likely that the “improved” plan will have a lower spending-cut-to-tax-cut ratio, thereby increasing deficit spending even more.

For the past half-decade, the administration’s and congressional majority’s response to any problem (a slowing economy, two land wars in Asia, projected shortfalls in Social Security) is to give tax cuts to the very richest and wealthiest Americans. But the largest natural disaster in American history has emboldened the ruling party to add a new “improvement” to their governing philosophy. They’re finally calling for sacrifice -- by the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable, whom they expect to pay for new top-down tax cuts by doing without healthcare, food, and shelter.

President Bush and key lawmakers must not know anybody who depends on Medicaid, or food stamps, or housing aid to believe that it’s a good idea to take from the poor to give to the rich. But 27 Arizona organizations which do know better -- which work every day trying to help people in Arizona, including those displaced here by Katrina -- have called on our congressional delegation to oppose this latest reverse-Robin-Hood proposal. (A copy of the letter is available at

These groups, which include Children’s Action Alliance, Southwest Human Development, AARP Arizona, and Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL), devote themselves to improving the lives of the sick, the infirm, and those in need of food, shelter, and training. (Disclosure: I serve on the board of one signer, Devereux Arizona, and another, Catholic Healthcare West, is a client.) They know what these programs do and how they affect actual lives; to them, these aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet.

Just like the Maggid of Koznitz, these groups know that the poor and less-fortunate can’t live on stones, or get healthcare from the air. Let’s hope they can help educate our elected officials about their moral responsibilities. After all, it’s the Judeo-Christian thing to do.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

To Get to No, Say Yes

Despite a couple emails I'm getting from partisans on my side, if Democrats want to stop Harriet Miers from getting on the Supreme Court, then we shouldn't oppose her vocally. If a Democrat becomes the focus of opposition, then her appointment becomes a customary R-vs.-D battle. At that point, all the Republicans will fall in line, like they always have before. Remember what John Podesta said about any strategy that depended on moderate Republicans: It means you need a different strategy. Once a Democrat, any Democrat, takes a stand against her, all (or virtually all) the Republicans will abandon their qualms and support her.

Instead, the most effective Democratic opposition available is Harry Reid’s support--unless Hillary Clinton is willing to champion Miers, which would trump Reid and really drive the ‘wingers crazy. Thus, my not-so-contrarian conclusion: The best way to stop Miers is to have Hillary Clinton support her. You read it here first.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Another Outlet

Starting today (10/10/05), posts here also will be cross-posted on; the direct link to my blog is here. Thus, you can read (and link) to my stuff in a much richer graphical environment. Movin' on up, as it were.
Harriet the Cipher: Affirmative Action for Evangelicals

This column was edited strangely by The Tribune, so I'm sending it as I wrote it instead of how it got printed. What got deleted in the newspaper was the third sentence in the fourth paragraph ("We have learned that she belongs to Valley View Christian Church….") and the entire next-to-last paragraph ("People who think the sky is falling…."). I don't understand why my editor decided to cut that stuff, but he did. The headline was good, however, so I've kept it. But you might side with my editor, and can read the as-published version here.

Don't you feel for those better-qualified male atheists who got passed over for this job? Where's their Jesse Helms?

The Miers Nomination

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 9, 2005

Instead of Harriet the Spy, Bush gives us Harriet the Cipher. His choice for the Supreme Court is a lawyer seemingly unknown to anybody but Bush and his inner circle.

But does it bother anyone else that when conservatives questioned Miers’ relative paucity of qualifications and the total lack of her writings on any issue of constitutional interpretation, the initial White House response was to organize national conference calls to discuss her religious beliefs and church membership?

(Please note that it’s conservatives who are questioning her qualifications; Democrats may have questions, too, but right now we’re more focused on holding coats so the other guys can fight among themselves. We’re also waiting for those GOP senators who thought it was, like, totally improper to ask John Roberts questions about judicial philosophy are now demanding that Harriet Miers spell out just exactly what she believes before they can vote to confirm her.)

Faced with conservatives’ questions, the Bush administration arranged for Justice Nathan Hecht, who sits on the Texas Supreme Court and who is described as her “on-again, off-again boyfriend,” to discuss Miers’ religious beliefs. We have been instructed that she is no longer a Catholic and instead is now an evangelical Protestant. We have learned that she belongs to Valley View Christian Church, and have been treated, at some length and with obvious White House involvement, to descriptions of her church as a place where pastors preach abortion is murder, homosexuality is a sin, and the Bible is the literal truth.

It’s also worth noting that the White House presented endorsements not from distinguished lawyers, but rather from the National Right to Life Committee. Can we dispense with talking about Democrats’ "extremism" on a woman’s right to choose, please? Republicans clearly have their own “litmus test” that’s just as strict, if not stricter, than the Democrats. The only difference is that their position has less support among Americans than my side’s.

So we know nothing about how Miers might decide cases before the Court, and when asked about her qualifications for the job, we’re told about her religion, her faith in Jesus, her church membership, her adult baptism, and her service on her church’s missions committee and as a religious class teacher. In other words, the Constitution may prohibit a religious test for public office, but we are instructed by the White House and its friends that Miers’ religion is her qualification for her position.

It’s also odd how conservatives believe in affirmative action, provided they benefit from it. A representative of the American Center for Law and Justice said that evangelicals need “to see someone with our positions put on the court.” Miers may be taking a job away from a better-qualified male atheist, but it’s important that evangelical Protestants — who are so underrepresented in American life that they include only the current President, his predecessor, the Senate and House leadership, and pretty much any Sun Belt politician in office — get additional jobs reserved just for them.

People who think the sky is falling because of affirmative action in higher education are suddenly struck dumb at this White House set-aside for evangelicals. In case you think that’s an exaggeration of what’s happening, imagine if Harriet Miers were Jewish. Would her religion be a qualification for her job?

Conservatives decry group identification, the culture of victimization, and any form of affirmative action. They demand that the best-qualified person get the job, and that blacks and Hispanics or Native Americans should just stop complaining about discrimination already. But now that President Bush has created his very own little set-aside program based on both gender and religion, where are their voices?

Monday, October 03, 2005

On Harriet Miers

I work at an 8-lawyer law firm, and 4 of my partners are both women and more qualified than she is. (Our associate just hasn't been in practice long enough yet.) Just wondering, that's all.
I Don't Write The Headlines, Unfortunately

First, the newspaper stuff. I don't write the headlines--my editor does, and this one is inaccurate. The highway bill had lots of pork for Arizona, too, and Rep. Hayworth is proud of it. Light rail funding! That should make my editor at The Tribune simply delirious with joy (they hate light rail, but never seem to notice that their boy J.D. is on board).

Also, when I file my column, I begin the email with a word count and most times, a quip or an attempt to try to pull my editor's chain. (This style should be very familiar to those reading this blog.) This week, for some reason, the opening quip--that "I await reading the Tribune's position on the new national ID card (sure, it's not called that, but what else is it?) in the forthcoming Hayworth immigration bill"--became the lede of the column. Either this kind of self-referential stuff is now expected in op-ed columns, or else my editor really doesn't bother to read my stuff. So the newspaper version starts off oddly, which you can read here. I've taken out what shouldn't have been included in this version.

Next, here's the background on this column. Last week, I wrote that the desire by Sen. Kyl and Sen. Sessions to locate a victim of Katrina who would have to pay estate taxes was a search for "a myth, a non-existent 'urban legend.' Just like 'compassionate conservatism' -- or Jon Kyl’s heart." So here's the difference between Democrats and Republicans. Some of my readers that language was too extreme, an unwarranted personal attack. Of course, that very week, Hayworth called our governor "no better than the brazen looters who seized on a natural tragedy to plunder downtown New Orleans" for, as noted below, asking the federal government for money to take care of problems on the border. Hayworth, when called to account for that somewhat over-the-top description, proceeded to justify it at 800 words. So hence, this week's column.

Another version of this point is a cartoon in this week's The New Yorker, showing guys in a Capitol Hill office sitting around a desk saying, "We need to find a way to blame the federal government that doesn't implicate the administration." (And no, I saw the cartoon after I had filed my column.)

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 2, 2005
* [See above: Headline isn't accurate. Lucre was lavished here, too.]

Rep. J. D. Hayworth feigned outrage last week that Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano had the effrontery to request that the federal government pay some of Arizona’s costs from the feds’ failure to keep control of the border. Hayworth even called Napolitano a “looter” and screeched that she would be stealing food from hurricane victims -- because any dollar spent here in Arizona would come from hurricane relief.

This is amazing stuff, even for someone with Hayworth’s stubborn aversion to reality. Despite his loudly-stated and oh-so-convenient concern about Katrina’s victims, he somehow never managed to visit the evacuees during their three weeks at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Hayworth honks that it’s criminal to spend money repairing the problems caused by illegal immigration here in Arizona. But remember that pork-laden transportation bill that Congress passed and President Bush signed this summer, the one with nearly 6,500 “earmarks” worth more than $24 billion? Hayworth voted for them all.

$2.3 million for beautifying California’s Ronald Reagan Freeway? $6 million for graffiti elimination in New York? Hayworth voted yes. $1.2 million for lighting and equipment at the Blue Ridge Music Center? $207 million for the “Prairie Parkway” through GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s district? Hayworth thought those were fine uses of your tax dollars.

Why fix the federal government’s failures here in Arizona, when instead we could get a $3 million hiking trail in Richmond, Indiana, and $10 million in waterfront walkways in Newark and Hoboken, New Jersey? $3 million for Rails to Trails in Modesto, California, and $5 million for an Intermodal Transportation facility in Bridgeport, Connecticut? Hayworth said, “Sure.”

Hayworth’s generosity -- with your money -- stretches across nearly a dozen time zones, including $5 million for an “Auto Tour Route” at the Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge and $6.5 million to restore the Wilmington Train Station in Delaware, to some $941 million on 119 projects in Alaska, including $223 million for a mile-long bridge to an island with 50 residents, $231 million for a new bridge in Anchorage to be named after the congressman who sponsored the earmark, and $3 million for a movie “about infrastructure that demonstrates advancements in Alaska, the last frontier.” On all these, Hayworth voted “yes!”

Hayworth howled that any federal money spent addressing illegal immigration comes from hurricane relief, but he approved $2.4 million for the Red River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Louisiana. You think folks in Louisiana might want floodwalls repaired rather than a new visitor center? It’s too late; Hayworth already voted yes.

Horse riding facilities in Virginia ($600,000)? A Vermont snowmobile trail ($5.9 million)? Parking at a New York City hospital ($8 million)? A bicycle and pedestrian trail in Tennessee ($532,000)? Each time, Hayworth voted “aye.” A daycare center and park-and-ride facility in Illinois ($1.25 million)? Dust control mitigation for rural Arkansas ($3 million)? The National Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio ($2.75 million)? Hayworth spells each project “Y-E-S.”

If anybody’s a “looter” in this scenario, it’s Hayworth. He’s voted for all these projects -- and now claims that spending money solving Arizona’s problems would be a crime.

But the best example of Hayworth’s hypocrisy was his bleat that “I take a back seat to no one in my criticism of the federal government” when it comes to its failures in dealing with immigration. He claims to be working on a bill (which he plans to introduce, nine months into the session).

Here’s the truly galling part. Hayworth has been in the House for nearly a dozen years, his party has controlled Congress virtually all that time, and it’s a Republican administration, right? Hayworth’s paychecks come from the federal government, which also provides the health insurance he used to pay for his stomach-stapling surgery. (Unable to lose weight on his own, he needed a federal subsidy -- but he won’t support helping Katrina victims get medical care through Medicaid.)

Hey, J. D.: You are the federal government.

Hayworth isn’t in the back seat -- because he’s driving. He may not have noticed, however, because he’s been too busy blaming others for his own failures of responsibility.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Three Great Lies

Hey, this one was fun. At what point do these die-hards stop believing that George W. Bush will respect them in the morning?

East Valley Tribune, Sept. 25, 2005

It’s time to revisit the “three great lies.” Oh, “the check’s in the mail” and “I’ll respect you in the morning” still stay on the list. ‘Wingers used to like to say that the third lie is, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” But President Bush has ruined that one.

After all, anytime somebody criticizes this administration’s policies, their response is to pretend that the critics were attacking the front-line grunts. Concerned about the administration’s woeful planning and dreadful execution of the Iraq war? Their response is outrage that anyone would think that our brave men and women on the ground aren’t doing the best they can.

So the next time somebody tries to claim the “third lie” is that government one, just do what Bush does: Hit back with outrage at the horribly unfair denigration of those members of the Coast Guard who risked their lives to save stranded hurricane victims off roofs, or the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries officers who were out in their boats saving people almost the minute the storm passed, or the National Guard troops still protecting property and saving lives. Attention, ‘wingers: All those folks are from the government, and they are indeed there to help.

Instead, these days the third lie is when Bush and the GOP Congress say, “We’ll pay for it by cutting spending.” This is nonsense on several levels. First, Bush and the GOP have been promising fiscal discipline, but instead delivering deficits and excuses, for five consecutive years. Fool me once, maybe twice, but five times?

Second, is there really $200 billion in waste, fraud, and abuse in this year’s budget? If so, Republicans put it there. They’re running the government, and it’s their budget, so it’s their waste, fraud, and abuse. Are they really doing that bad a job? And doesn’t it bother anybody?

Third, if you’re unwilling to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, defense, and interest on the debt, then all other so-called “discretionary spending” amounts to about $500 billion annually. Apart from those items, everything else (help for border hospitals, student loans, education, research, you name it) would have to be slashed by 40 percent to pay for Katrina. It just isn’t going to happen. It’s so “not going to happen” that anybody who pretends it could happen is either lying, deluded, or can’t add.

But apparently there are plenty of people who, so long as it’s George W. Bush speaking, still pretend to believe that the GOP will cut spending by $200 billion. They’re probably willing to believe, as long as it’s President Bush telling them, that the check is in the mail. And I guess that when Bush says it, they still believe that he’ll respect them in the morning.

Speaking of morning-after respect, Sen. Jon Kyl, who accused me of “playing on the grief everyone feels for victims of Katrina,” isn’t above playing more than a bit himself. As reported by Time, Kyl and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., were talking about new difficulties they faced trying to eliminate the estate tax, something that in 2003 would have benefited a grand total of 328 taxpayers in Arizona. Apparently, concern about spending some $200 billion on Katrina may make some people less certain of the need to cut taxes so much for so few.

Sessions left an anti-estate-tax proponent a voice-mail message, “Jon Kyl and I were talking about the estate tax. If we knew anybody that owned a business that lost life in the storm, that would be something we could push back with.”

In Kyl’s world, there are natural disasters that level whole counties, leave major cities unfit for human habitation, and render tens of thousands homeless. Then there’s the possibility that somebody might have died unexpectedly with too much money. Guess which of those problems actually concerns Kyl?

Despite vigorous searching throughout the Gulf Coast, the estate tax people haven’t found a dead rich guy to “push back with.” He must be a myth, a non-existent “urban legend.” Just like “compassionate conservatism” -- or Jon Kyl’s heart.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Medicare Prescription Drug Plan

Best citizen analysis yet, from a Sierra Vista Herald report on the Senior Medicare Forum in Bisbee on September 19:

Sister Carol Huss of Double Adobe probably summed up all the complexities best when she joked, "I've been sitting here listening to this carefully, and I've decided the best thing for me, is to pray for a happy, snappy death."

Monday, September 19, 2005

If a Petard is Hoisted in a Forest but No One is Listening, Does It Make a Sound?

One delightful side effect of the right wing excusing the federal government by blaming state and local officials for the response to Katrina is that we happen to have a state official here in Arizona that they might not want to make the beneficiary of this new-found demand for competent governance. But you never know.

Another almost-completely-missing-the-point headline, but that's how it goes. I guess the "blame the administration" stuff was too subtle this week. But it's an excuse to repeat The Late Show Top Ten list from Friday:

Top Ten Questions For The FEMA Director Application

10. "Are you able to convey a false sense of security?"
9. "What percentage of your resume is fabricated?"
8. "In a crisis, which state or local officials would you blame?"
7. "What are your plans after you resign?"
6. "Do you mind if the last guy left the office smelling like Arabian horses?"
5. "Which is most serious: A disaster, a catastrophe, or a dis-astrophe?"
4. "Does Robert Blake dating again count as an emergency?"
3. "Can the president easily add '-ie' to your last name to form a nickname?"
2. "Can you screw up bad enough to take the heat off the president's mistakes?"
1. "Michael Brown...Idiot or moron?"

East Valley Tribune, Sept. 18, 2005

This past week, conservatives have been extra-special busy making the case for reelecting Gov. Janet Napolitano.

It turns out that despite forming a huge new bureaucracy in the Department of Homeland Security, in spite of vast oceans of spending on DHS, the federal government isn’t capable of, and apparently isn’t supposed to be capable of, taking care of Americans in the event of catastrophes.

Instead, we’re told that if a disaster occurs, we should view the feds -- despite their size, funding, resources, and rhetoric -- as second-tier players. The real key when the worst occurs is our state and local officials. FEMA exists only to dole out money (to politically well-connected companies and friends of the administration) after the fact.

Even with a couple of days advance warning, the feds will be late and spend more time talking with lawyers than paying attention to the weather reports. Until TV anchors tell them what’s going on, they won’t know and won’t seem to care.

This administration and Congress can drop everything and act immediately if there’s an argument over removing a brain-dead woman’s feeding tube, but if hundreds of thousands of people have their homes and communities destroyed, well, that takes them a while longer to respond. We’ll interrupt the president’s vacation immediately for meaningless Terry Schiavo legislation, but after all, she was one person. Destroying Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana is merely statistics.

So we’ve learned that, for at least the next three years, if trouble hits, whether here or in neighboring California, we’re basically on our own for the first week or so. And if anything goes wrong, we’re supposed to depend on our governor and mayors, not the loftily-named Department of Homeland Security. So who do you want to be responsible for protecting you and your family while the feds diddle: Don Goldwater? John Greene? Teresa Ottesen? Or Gov. Janet Napolitano?

You always knew that governor was a big job. But now you know that for so long as the current administration and their buddies in Congress view the federal government as a dumping ground for hacks and campaign flacks, choosing a governor can be a matter of life or death.

That’s what the 2006 elections should be about -- which candidates will do a better job of keeping us safe and making the right decisions in a crisis. Anybody can give a good speech; too often we confuse a nice speech with the right stuff. Anybody can spend tons of money, after the floodwaters recede; too often we confuse quantity (of dollars) with quality (of leadership and response). But among those asking to be our governor through the end of the decade, who has the smarts, experience, and cool head needed to make the right calls in a crisis?

In 2006, you could vote for a former state and federal prosecutor, an experienced governor who diffused a dangerous prison hostage standoff with no loss of life. Or you can look to the other team, which so far is offering somebody whose only claim to fame is being a nephew, an insurance lawyer, and a college student.

Napolitano didn’t need to cut short her vacation to deal with the Lewis prison hostage crisis. She and her team didn’t let critics distract her from keeping those involved alive. Meanwhile, Republican officials, just like their fellow hacks in FEMA, spent their time consulting with lawyers, seeing if they could abuse the grand jury process for political gain.

Despite what the party currently ruling Washington may think, the point of government isn’t to cut taxes on the rich while simultaneously fighting two land wars in Asia and increasing spending by leaps and bounds. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you have no choice but to trust that your government has prepared, and has the resources, for an emergency -- and that competent people are in charge.

Conservatives are telling you that you can’t count on the feds, at least not while they run things. So listen to them. Your life may depend on having a competent governor, so make sure you elect (or in this case, reelect) one.

Monday, September 12, 2005

How Come It's Class Warfare Only When We Fight Back?

This week's column answers two questions that I've always wondered about: Can I get Yiddish into the Tribune? And if a Yiddish tree falls in the East Valley forest, would anybody other than me understand what it means? So far based on the emails, the answer is pretty much, other than my editor, "no."

But I love a good political food fight. In response to my column on 9/4, Kyl wrote a piece published on 9/8, which had enough material in it that despite having to catch a plane at 2 pm, I could dash off this week's column in the morning. We'll see if he wants to continue dragging himself down to my level in the public prints. You can read him in printer-ready format or in newspaper format, as well as the printer-ready version and newspaper version of my column if you wish. I plan on having no official position whatsoever with the Pederson campaign, so my columns will continue to pass muster under the Chuck Coughlin-Horizon standard of impartiality.


East Valley Tribune, Sept. 11, 2005

If Sen. Jon Kyl’s defense of repealing the estate tax were a stock, the SEC would bust him for fraud.

Kyl says that his estate tax “compromise” will “only” cost one-third of my estimate, or $290 billion instead of nearly $1 trillion. He (and the Congressional Budget Office) get the smaller number because they include (as I painstakingly noted in the original column) only four actual years of repeal. So the real cost of 10 actual years is $745 billion, plus another $225 billion in additional interest costs. Again, this is the same sort of budget trickery that made the administration’s Medicare drug “benefit” fit the budget, for a year -- then the numbers exploded when you have to include a year with the plan actually in effect.

Kyl claims that we can give a new estate tax cut because “the deficit is currently on track to drop by half.” Note that he can’t claim that the deficit will be eliminated; even under their best possible projections, the GOP and Bush administration will spend far more than the government’s revenues. This is called “moving the goalposts” -- victory isn’t a balanced budget, but merely one that’s somewhat less out of balance.

And those figures are now even more inaccurate, because (as I also noted) they don’t include any spending for the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, or the recovery from Hurricane Katrina -- which is now at over $70 billion, and according to the Bush administration, that’s just for the next few weeks. None, zero, zilch of this spending is included in those rosy deficit-reduction scenarios.

What’s worse, those scenarios also include resumption of the estate tax at 2000 levels in 2011, because that’s current law. So not only is billions of spending that we know is coming -- that Kyl has already voted to spend -- not included in those projections, so are billions in revenue that he wants to give back to really rich people.

So that’s Kyl’s budget flim-flammery. Now in talking about the estate tax, he claims that “members of the tiny minority of extraordinarily wealthy Americans . . . usually avoid the death tax altogether.” Nowhere does he cite any study or evidence of this absurd proposition.

Think about it. If Kyl’s little fairy tale is true, then why are those extraordinarily wealthy Americans spending all this money on lobbyists and TV ads? Why in the world would extraordinarily wealthy people like the Mars candy and Campbell soup heirs and the publisher of the Seattle Times care about the tax rate --unless they actually face paying the tax?

The Wal-Mart heirs never got involved in politics before, but they’re spending tons of (non-deductible) money on this particular cause. Why? As Michael Graetz, a former Bush I Treasury official noted, those heirs “would save billions of dollars in tax” if Kyl gets his way.

If the point is to protect small businesses ($10 million being “small”), then we could bump up the lifetime exemption. But that wouldn’t help the very rich -- which is why Kyl, on their side in this particular class war, wants to use most of the amount on the rate cut, not increasing the exemption.

Finally, Kyl acts like it’s some natural disaster which nobody could foresee that the estate tax disappears in 2010 and reappears in 2011, and that we need to fix that pronto. But that’s exactly what he voted for in 2001. If that’s a problem, he created it.

Lots of observers (like me) pointed out the absurdity of the one-year repeal at the time. (“Grandpa, for New Year’s, we’ve decided to take up skydiving. You first.”) If the Bush tax cut only had room for so much in estate tax relief, it could have been used for a permanent increase to the exemption. But Kyl and Bush decided that this no tax in 2010, and full resumption in 2011, was better. And now they’re so surprised that they were wrong.

Not only are Kyl’s numbers as bogus as a Fife Symington financial statement, but he’s complaining about a problem he himself caused. Only a Yiddish word can describe this kind of behavior: Chutzpah.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth? Not if Jon Kyl Can Help It.

Frist's office just announced that they're putting off debate and votes on cutting the estate tax this week, given the need to pour money into the Katrina relief effort. But they didn't sound happy about it. And why, exactly, are any Democratic senators supporting cutting the estate tax?

Another headline that doesn't quite capture the point of the column.

East Valley Tribune, Sept. 4, 2005

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., hopes to have one of those “only in Washington” reactions to what may be the most extensive, and expensive, natural disaster in American history. With President Bush announcing the largest relief effort in recorded history, with an entire major U.S. city uninhabitable for months, and with the costs of rebuilding not yet known but undoubtedly staggering, Kyl has a plan on how not to pay for it: With a huge estate tax cut to benefit only the top 1.2 percent of taxpayers.

You might think that with the country fighting two land wars in Asia simultaneously and with the recovery effort from Katrina gearing up, a prudent person would hold back, might want to put some money aside, and at the very least would try not to run up more debt. But that’s not Kyl and the Bush administration.

Remember that while the federal government is already projected to run a big deficit, the real numbers will be worse, because of GOP insistence on paying for both wars through so-called supplemental appropriations. This tactic means that budget and deficit projections don’t include the wars’ costs. We know we’re spending some $60 to $80 billion a year for years to come. But you’re allowed, apparently, to strut and loudly refuse to cut and run -- but you never have to explain where the money comes from, or even to account for it.

We also know that disaster relief for Katrina will be an emergency supplemental, also not in the budget, and which therefore will make the deficit picture worse. Nobody has a clue now how much rescue, much less rebuilding, will cost. It’s likely to cost plenty, given that the Bush administration is catching flack over lack of preparedness and slow response, and their customary reaction to criticism is spending a ton of money. It’s will be money that the government doesn’t collect now, and must borrow -- making the deficit picture worse, because of additional interest payments on that new debt.

(For those of you thinking, “let ‘those people’ suffer, they chose to live there” -- remember that, apart from the immorality, folks in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana could say the same about our complaints that the federal government isn’t spending enough to stop illegal immigration. After all, we “chose” to live here, in a border state.)

So what’s the Kyl plan for dealing with a $300 billion deficit that will be made worse by another $100 billion in war and Katrina spending? An estate tax cut costing nearly $1 trillion over 10 years, a huge gift to the wealthiest 1.2 percent.

Unless he’s embarrassed by the pictures of suffering along the Gulf Coast, Kyl hopes to have the Senate vote this week on so-called estate tax “reform,” which would mean huge tax breaks to people inheriting $10 million or more. This “compromise” plan would cut federal revenues by $745 billion over the first ten years -- which money would have to be borrowed, increasing interest payments on the national debt by another $225 billion.

Kyl is using typical Washington-style “fuzzy math” to claim the cost is “only” $290 billion, by including in his 10-year estimate only four actual years of repeal. He massaged the calculation by including in the cost estimate six full years before the cut ever would take effect.

(This accounting trick should sound familiar. It’s how the Bush administration, in addition to lying about the actual numbers, claimed that the new Medicare drug benefit would cost “only” $400 billion. They delayed the program’s start date so there were fewer actual years in the estimate to make the number smaller. Everybody acted really, really surprised when next year’s budget numbers came out, and the cost -- and the deficit -- suddenly jumped. Fool you once, etc.)

We’re at war and watching what may be the largest natural disaster in our history. Unless the pictures of Americans who have lost everything to floodwaters shame him, Jon Kyl thinks we should respond by giving a $745 billion tax cut to the Wal-Mart, Gallo, and Campbell Soup heirs.

It’s called “thinking like an incumbent.”