Monday, June 23, 2008

Look! It’s a Distraction! From the Budget!

Dogs and cats living together, Le and Sam agreeing – talk about disasters of biblical proportions. My suggested headline was above but the editor tweaked it.

East Valley Tribune, Jun. 22, 2008

It’s June 22nd. Do you know where your state budget is?

With few days remaining, really good ideas for closing a massive budget gap are in high demand. The new fiscal year starting July 1 has a $2 billion deficit, so we need only $285 million per day (assuming they take Sundays off).

That seems an impossible task for this legislature, something requiring divine intervention. That’s Old Testament, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria divine intervention. So to encourage the impossible, here’s a once-a-millennium event:

I agree with Le Templar.

It won’t happen often, but the Tribune’s senior opinion writer got it right in his blog post on the so-called economic stimulus and job creation package unveiled last Thursday by House Commerce Committee chair Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale. Her press release described it as “a new effort to bring thousands jobs to the state.” (Plenty jobs, few prepositions.)

The legislation would create a tax-increment financing “entertainment district” south of Chase Field for an owner of the Diamondbacks; let Pima County create a Cactus League stadium district; and give tax credits for research and development and for solar energy businesses. You got your tourism and entertainment, lots of baseball, and clean energy. They left out biomedicine and conventions, but otherwise touched ‘em all when it came to economic development hot topics.

Le dislikes the stimulus package for two reasons. First, as a good libertarian, he objects to legislative benefits for favored businesses in “hot” industries or select locations. If tax credits and waivers boost the economy, he wants them for everybody, not just “a select few that hire the right lobbyists or use the most powerful buzz words.”

Second, Le notes, putting out this package on June 19 “is a political maneuver to keep the rank-and-file lawmakers interested and optimistic while legislative leaders sit in the backroom wringing their hands over a budget they can’t finish.”

Le’s second comment is totally correct. You’ve got a huge budget hole and you’re running up against the state constitution’s requirement to have a budget on July 1. The only reason to roll out some new whiz-bang proposal now is as a distraction. Each of these proposals has been wandering fruitlessly around the Capitol this session, but none got approved -- and blending each dish together in a last-minute casserole won’t make it tastier.

Why is the Legislature like a singles bar? Because these ideas haven’t gotten better but you might think they’re better-looking as closing time approaches.

As for Le’s first complaint, I’m not a good libertarian (to say the least!), so I don’t object to government making choices; that’s what government’s supposed to do. I don’t have a huge problem with the package’s “somewhat awkward political compromises” (what you would call logrolling.) You get the liberals with solar energy and Pima County legislators with their new stadium so you can give away the store (in the future, of course) to the Phoenix developer with baseball tickets. That’s politics.

But this rag-tag collection of pet projects is the wrong stuff at the wrong time. Our economy already is overly dependent on development. Construction jobs are temporary and cyclical. And each of these “stimulus” items has a long fuse, so any economic benefits arrive after the business cycle already has turned.

Actually, it’s worse than wrong; it’s unoriginal. In the 1980’s, developers used to argue for their zoning cases by claiming the projects would create jobs, then the project would never get built. In the 1990’s, high tech companies claimed that having to account accurately for options would kill jobs. This decade, we got the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 from President Bush and the GOP Congress. (Yes, I’m sure you really benefited from the manufacturing deduction that replaced the foreign sales corporation/extraterritorial income provision.) Hey -- shouldn’t that law be creating jobs right now, making this ungainly grab-bag of state proposals irrelevant?

This isn’t an economic stimulus package. It’s hype from shills, distracting you with bright, shiny objects. It’s this decade’s version of the Superconducting Supercollider. And July 1 looms.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

If You Give A Blogger An Embedded Video, You Amuse Him For A Day. But If You Teach Him How To Embed A Video, You Help Him Become Really, Really Tiresome

This one is for Ted Prezelski:

Monday, June 16, 2008

How About We "Have A Beer" With A President Who Knows What He’s Doing?

That was my suggested headline, but the editor decided to go in a more straightforwardly partisan direction. But this week, you have a choice. You can read the column, or you can watch McCain himself make my point in this video:

It takes about the same amount of time to read as to watch, it just depends on what format you prefer.

East Valley Tribune, Jun. 15, 2008

Presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain is getting lots of advice about separating himself from President George W. Bush. Bush’s approval rating, in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, is 28 percent. (CNN says 32 percent, but CBS has 25 percent.) A Google search for “Bush approval rating lowest” gets over 400,000 hits.

According to pollster Peter Hart, Bush is a “200-pound ball and chain around McCain’s foot. Unless he figures out a way to cut it loose, he’s going to be dragging it throughout this election.”

So we’ll probably see a lot of discussion of how different McCain is from Bush, largely based on personality quirks and styles. This tactic strikes me as odd, because the problem isn’t that Americans don’t like President Bush personally; it’s that they don’t like President Bush’s policies.

The media will concoct all sorts of reasons why McCain’s personality differs from Bush’s. Of course, this is the same Bush (and the same media) who told us how much Americans liked Bush personally in 2000 and 2004, despite qualms about his policies.

Here’s USA Today’s Richard Benedetto, in 2004: “President Bush, despite his many problems, strikes most of the American people as a pretty nice guy -- the kind of guy they would feel comfortable with if he showed up at their front door….Bush comes off as less pretentious and more down to earth….‘Nice guy’ is the way many express their response to Bush (who is) seen as the friendly neighbor next door.”

Here’s Mark Halperin, now senior political editor for Time: “When George W. Bush ran in 2000, many voters liked his straightforward, uncomplicated mean-what-I-say-and-say-what-I-mean certainty. He came across as a man of principle who did not lust for the White House; he was surrounded by disciplined loyalists who created a cheerful cult of personality about their candidate.”

Americans haven’t lost a willingness to like the charming ex-frat boy. Those supposed millions who were willing, in the now-clich├ęd phrase, to “have a beer with” Bush aren’t suddenly switching toward having coffee with some angry introvert. It’s not the personality, it’s the policies.

Bush and McCain may indeed have different personalities. But where, exactly, do their policies differ?

Iraq? Don’t make me laugh. The McCain argument is that he was calling for the administration to change course and finally, after an electoral drubbing in 2006, Bush took McCain’s advice and fired Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and sent additional troops to Iraq.

Except that until Bush fired Rumsfeld, McCain never actually called for his removal; he griped about stuff but never said publicly that Rumsfeld should be fired. And second, in realizing that the war effort wasn’t going well but not saying so, all McCain was doing was agreeing with Bush -- who said in an interview that he realized in 2006 things weren’t going well but didn’t want to say so publicly for fear of discouraging the troops.

If anything, McCain is more committed to a US presence in Iraq than Bush. If you think invading Iraq was a good idea, and want US troops there for years to come, then McCain isn’t just a continuation of Bush’s policies; he wants to push Bush’s policies harder.

Or take the economy, where, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Institute. McCain’s tax plan is even more regressive than Bush. McCain’s plan throws even larger tax cuts at households at the very top of the income distribution than the tax cuts McCain originally opposed in 2001 because they were too generous to the “most fortunate” at the very top of the income distribution.

So how different is McCain, if on the biggest issues -- Iraq and the economy -- any differences between McCain and Bush are that McCain is more extreme?

If someone believes the country is headed in the wrong direction, would they really think that the solution is to keep going in that same direction, only faster? Other than John McCain, that is.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Last Dinosaurs Were Probably Angry, Too

This week's column--with a “This Is Spinal Tap” joke! Which my editor got, and loved! And even wanted to put it, “Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?” but it was too big a stretch! Good headline, too; I’d forgotten about the GEICO cavemen, proof that if 30 seconds is good, 30 minutes isn’t guaranteed to be better.

East Valley Tribune, Jun. 8, 2008

When the dinosaurs went extinct, I’m certain nobody announced the exact moment. The day dawned just like the one before it, but the fearsome carnivores then ruling the planet were the last ones of their kind. The final tyrannosaur was as fierce as the first, but after he died, nobody took his place.

Extinction may happen quickly in geologic time, but it probably dragged on forever to generations of mammals eluding predators. And when our world changes, particularly on cultural matters, it’s a slow-motion process. It’s not like remembering where you learned Kennedy was shot, or the Challenger exploded. One day it seems like everybody’s upset over gay marriage, then some gays marry and the sky doesn’t fall, and eventually it’s only a few crackpots railing against gay marriage like slaveholder re-enactors at Colonial Williamsburg.

Evolution probably didn’t permit it, but the last dinosaurs should have had a prehistoric equivalent of talk radio, where they could complain about those new-fangled mammals and their disgusting live births. The hosts would urge listeners to demand that the government control the borders and keep Laurasia a reptilian homeland, the way it was always meant to be.

Oh, today’s political dinosaurs are still fierce enough, but it just feels different somehow; they’re the last of their kind and their descendants have different political and cultural DNA. To their kids, the whole “homosexual agenda” business seems about as important as whether you root for the Sun Devils or Wildcats. They’ll notice and might even care, but it’s just not the same.

Those kids today (with that noise they call music!) just don’t want to fight the same cultural battles. Remember how cranky Grandpa seemed when you were your kids’ age? Well, guess what? You’re now older than Grandpa was when you first had that thought, so just imagine what your kids think about your rants.

I thought of cranky Grandpa frequently this past week. Talk-show host J.D. Hayworth, the human equivalent of Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier that goes up to eleven, went ballistic over a mariachi group playing at a state event. I’m waiting for his station to ban salsa in the employee cafeteria, because real Americans only use ketchup.

A KTAR (92.3 FM) talk-show host explained his immigration program, hermetically sealing the borders and banning all immigration to the U.S. for five years. If somebody fell in love and wanted to bring their new bride or groom to live here, too bad. Tourists could visit or do business, briefly, but this guy wanted to stop the clock and calendar.

Americans used to welcome progress and change, but now there’s a real market in trying to freeze things as they are, like an insect in amber. Lots of dinosaurs got to freeze things permanently, too. They’re now called fossils.

So I can only imagine how these folks are handling the possibility that the next president could be a black guy with an unusual name. But if they’re having cognitive difficulties, it turns out they’re not alone.

One of the big mysteries of the Democratic campaign was Hillary Clinton’s support among African-American voters throughout 2007. Some observers thought her margin -- upwards of 20 points in many polls -- was due to minority support for her husband, or her policy proposals, but it turned out that many black voters just didn’t think a black candidate could win. Not just that it might be very hard for a black candidate, or that Obama wasn’t the right candidate, but that it just couldn’t happen. Not in this lifetime, anyway.

So when Obama won Iowa, black voters realized his campaign wasn’t a novelty act, but serious and with a good chance to win -- and what had been a major pillar of Hillary Clinton’s support suddenly shifted to a different candidate. She managed to garner other supporters, primarily among white male ethnics, but never managed to increase her overall support significantly.

Black voters figured out the world has changed. But it’ll probably be a couple years yet before our local angry white guys realize they’re dinosaurs.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Super-Duper Majoritarianism

I need to file my Sunday column on Thursdays, so imagine my chagrin when Ted Prezelski put up a post on this same initiative (and making most of the same arguments) on Friday. I’ve got the sent email to prove I wrote before he posted, but being a dead-tree columnist means I’m older (of course) and more stale (too bad) than these younger, strictly pixilated digital guys. I wasn't happy with my proposed headline (above) and I have to go with the editor's choice this time. Newspaper version is here.

East Valley Tribune, Jun. 1, 2008

Certain ‘wingers can’t criticize Hillary Clinton for arguing that Michigan voters who picked “undecided” should get counted for her, because they’re trying the same tactic here in Arizona.

It’s called the “Majority Rules” initiative. Their slogan is “Let the People Decide!” but it really should be “Let the Non-Voters Decide!”

If it passes, any initiative that involves a tax, fee, or other revenue source would have to be approved not by a majority of those voting, but by a majority of all registered voters. In other words, if you don’t vote, you voted no.

For a typical presidential election year in Arizona, if 60 percent of registered voters (including all those “dead” registrations that haven’t been purged yet) cast ballots, an initiative would need at least 83 percent approval. For a typical off-year election, with under 50 percent turnout, no initiative involving a spending or tax requirement could pass, even with absolutely every voter in favor. They wouldn’t be a majority of all registered voters.

Initiatives for taxes are pretty much the ballgame in Arizona, because legislative tax increases require supermajority votes, so a 33 percent minority can block everything. Making initiatives pass with a majority of registered voters would give a minority of 25 or 15 percent the same power to block everything. It’s not accurate to call requiring -- without saying so -- 80 or 90 percent approval a “supermajority” requirement. It’s more accurately a “super-duper impossibility” requirement.

And when I say block everything, the initiative means pretty much everything. Any initiative that “mandates” a “spending obligation” on either the state or any “private person, labor organization, [or] other private legal entity” needs approval of a majority of registered voters. So our statewide smoking ban might have needed 80 percent approval, because lawyers could argue that banning smoking imposed spending obligations on bar owners or on the state for enforcement.

The initiative depends on a cute legal trick, switching the way people usually talk about elections with a phrase that means something entirely different. We’re comfortable deciding things based on a majority of voters. That’s how we elect candidates, right? But switching the common term “voter” for “qualified elector” means that those people who actually vote no longer get to decide, because those who don’t vote suddenly count.

The initiative campaign has raised all its money so far from TCAG Management Services of Irvine, California (which is Jim Click, the Tucson auto dealer and big GOP donor), the Beer &Wine Distributors of Arizona, and Services Group of America of Scottsdale.

Services Group is one of the country’s largest privately-held businesses, distributing food to schools, hospitals, and government and military facilities. While it also sells to restaurants, the company makes most of its money on government contracts. So, of course, the owner’s politics are all based on reducing taxes, excepting only those that go to purchase food distributed by Services Group.

Services Group and its owner both admitted to campaign-finance fraud in Washington state in 1998. Over four election cycles, the company paid bogus bonuses to employees that were shifted to the corporate political action committee. The owner was sentenced to 60 days home confinement, 160 hours of community service, and a fine of $100,000; Services Group was fined $4.2 million. And these are the people who want to lecture Arizonans about the proper role of government?

And let’s raise a toast to the beer and wine distributors. You know, if they believe so deeply in true majority rule, then let’s have an initiative that would make liquor licenses subject to approval by a majority of qualified electors. Want to sell beer or wine? Just get approval from a real, he-man majority. Not one of those namby-pamby majorities of a city council or government board, and certainly not a mere half-baked majority of those voting. Nah, beer and wine licensees should have to get a majority of all registered voters.

After all, what sauce goes with both goose and gander? Beer and wine, baby, beer and wine.

Maybe This Is Why The NRCC Has Lost 3 Specials In A Row

I take it the fundraising woes of the National Republican Congressional Committee are worse than I thought if now they're depending on me for contributions.
Nice to be recognized as a successful Arizona business leader, though.