Friday, July 20, 2012

What Do AIPAC and the NRA Have in Common?

The NRA provides voters who care about guns with a single summary measure of politicians' stand on issues related to guns. But many of these voters have no idea that the organization's positions are actually far more extreme than the voters' own. As a result, the organization has great political clout, and can intimidate politicians into supporting extreme positions, lest they be labelled "anti-gun."

Substitute "Israel" for "guns," and you've got AIPAC. Interesting phenomenon.

The Real Scandal Is What's Legal, Colorado Div.

From The New York Times:

Another law enforcement official said that information investigators had obtained about the purchase of the AR-15 rifle indicates that it was bought locally and apparently legally, as were the other guns, adding, “there’s nothing nefarious there.”

Friday, July 13, 2012

How to Save American Democracy. Really. No Kidding.

The perennial issue of money in politics is back with a vengeance this year. We have seen Republican primaries where money from corporations and the very rich has had a decisive impact. This trend is particularly worrisome to Democrats, of course, who can expect to get the short end of the stick from large contributors, and who have begun looking around for solutions.

The approach that's now popular among Democrats is a Constitutional amendment saying that corporations do not have a Constitutional right to free speech, thereby making it possible to restrict their political spending. This approach has been advocated by Nancy Pelosi, several Democratic senators, and others.

But there are a couple of obvious difficulties with that solution. First of all, it's not serious; nowadays it’s wildly implausible that anything controversial could get the votes of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of state legislatures. Second, even if that happened, it would leave untouched the ability of a small number of billionaires and hundred-millionaires to drown out the opposition.

In fact, the whole approach is wrongheaded. The most effective cure for the problem of money in politics is... more money in politics. The real issue is not that billionaires and corporations are giving too much money; the real issue is that they are giving too much relative to everyone else. Instead of relying on support from the voters, politicians have to court big donors, because that’s where the money is.

Yet economy-wide the amounts of money involved are not very large. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, expenditures on all Federal elections totaled about $9 billion in 2008 and 2010 combined. Meanwhile, U.S. GDP over the four years from 2007 to 2010 was more than $56 trillion.

So how do we tap the power of small contributors? Here’s a simple way: Every taxpayer gets up to a $100 tax credit (not deduction) for political contributions. This means that contributions up to $100 have no net cost to the taxpayer. The credit could be refundable so that those with no tax liability could still get it.

In 2010, there were 143 million tax returns filed in the U.S. Suppose that, after some period of adjustment, 50% of filers take advantage of the opportunity to make political contributions of $100 at no net cost to themselves.

That comes out to $7 billion a year (somewhat more if we give two credits to joint filers), or $28 billion over a four-year election cycle. Even allowing for state and local elections, it is clear that the hundred-dollar contributions would dwarf everything else.

Over the years, we have devoted a huge amount of energy to trying (in vain) to keep money out of politics. It's time to stop. If we get enough small contributions, we won't need to worry about keeping money from billionaires out. It just won't be very important anymore.

It becomes plausible, in fact, that a Senator or Congressman could get reelected with no special-interest money, and without devoting huge amounts of time to fundraising. Instead, legislators would have to spend more time on appeals to constituents.

Voters’ relation to the political process would be different, too. Political contributions today are the province of a small minority of the electorate, and voters justifiably feel that their own voices are less important than those of big donors. This would change, not so much by raising the importance of individual voters (that’s always going to be difficult, given the large number of individuals) as by lowering the importance of big donors.

And politically this plan seems far more achievable than a Constitutional amendment. It would only require a simple majority (or three-fifths in our modern Senate). While Republicans are likely to be unenthusiastic, it will be hard for them to come up with an ideologically consistent and politically compelling argument against tax credits.

As to how we pay for this, it hardly matters. We could tax an additional 1% of the income of the richest 0.1%. Or we could just say that the national debt will go up by an additional 0.05% each year. I don't think future generations will mind.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The New York Times Finds a New Synonym for "Lie"

Delicate Pivot as Republicans Blast Rivals on Medicare Cuts

WASHINGTON — For much of the past year, Republicans assailed President Obama for resisting the Medicare spending reductions they say are needed to both preserve health benefits for older Americans and avert a Greek-style debt crisis. Representative Paul D. Ryan, the House Republicans’ point man on the budget, has called the president “gutless.

Yet since the Supreme Court upheld the Democrats’ 2010 health care law, Republicans, led by Mitt Romney, have reversed tactics and attacked the president and Democrats in Congress by saying that Medicare will be cut too much as part of that law.


...the $500 billion in reductions would come through cuts in the projected growth of Medicare and would mainly affect hospitals and other providers of medical care, some of whom supported the health care measure nonetheless because it would extend coverage to up to 30 million uninsured Americans, raising the number of paying customers. Other savings would result from lower subsidies for private insurers selling Medicare Advantage plans, which offer older people extra features like vision care and gym memberships. The insurers could not cut basic Medicare benefits. 

Democrats used the projected $500 billion in savings to help pay for expanding older people’s benefits. The health care law says that some preventive care services like mammograms must be free to patients, and it closed the “doughnut hole” in the Medicare prescription drug program, which had left many older people paying full price for prescriptions above a certain level.

--NYT, June 6, 2012

I don't think it's too much to say that this article exemplifies what's wrong with American journalism. There are two ways to control Medicare costs: by reducing benefits or by controlling medical costs. The Republicans have chosen the first, the Democrats the second. Now Republicans are desperately trying to muddy the waters. Yet the Times is too delicate to make the story about the truthfulness of the claims, so it's about how the Republicans have "reversed tactics." Elsewhere, they say, "The result is a messaging mess...

A messaging mess? Really, New York Times, who cares? Your foremost responsibility as journalists is not to give us knowing insider stories. It's to help us distinguish fact from fiction.