Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Problem with National Popular Vote

The electoral college is broken, States like Wyoming that have a tiny population still get three electoral votes giving them far more electoral power than they deserve based on their population. Blue Oregon pointed out that we nearly had two consecutive elections in which the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral vote. In response a group called National Popular Vote has begun a campaign to convince States to agree to send their electors to the winner of the popular vote, bypassing the Constitutional Amendment process that would be needed to get rid of the electoral college. They seem to have convinced an Oregon legislator to introduce a bill sending Oregon's electoral votes to the nationwide winner.

This is a bad idea, because it means that Oregonians get less of a voice than anyone else in the Presidential election. By agreeing to send our electors to vote for whoever won the National popular vote, Oregon's concerns will be tossed aside for the concerns of voters in all the other States. If a candidate wants to win Oregon's electoral votes, that candidate needs to be able to convince Oregonians that he's the best candidate, and that he shares Oregon's values and concerns. His policies need to reflect the policies that Oregonians want enacted. By doing this, Oregon would in essence be agreeing to throw away the votes that are cast be Oregonians.

I don't believe that the electoral college is a good idea, but in order to chance it we can't go looking for the easy way out as this does, it undermines the voting rights of the resident's of the State who get nothing in return. If its going to be changed it must be done by Constitutional Amendment. Personally I favor removing Senators from the equation to calculate electoral votes, which would mean that while some States might still be overrepresented, their overrepresentation would be minimized. If only Representatives comprised the electoral votes then Gore would have recieved 227 electoral votes (assuming I counted right) and Bush would have won 213 electoral votes. Al Gore would be the President if Senators (which every State has two of) were not included in the formula for determining electoral votes. Bush gained 19 electoral votes over Gore by winning smaller States than Gore did. This is the hard way, because it requires a Constitutional Amendment, but it is also the right way because unlike the plan being offered for Oregon it doesnt take away one State's voting rights. There are other plans that would be reasonable as well, but any of those plans would also require a Constitutional amendment.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Smith Filibusters Minimum Wage

After griping for the last three years about Democrats occassionally filibustering things, the Senate Republicans have already excersized their right to filibuster, demanding that any increase in wages for the lowest paid workers must be coupled with tax cuts for those higher up on the income ladder.
WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) — Senate Republicans rejected an effort by Democrats to pass minimum-wage legislation without breaks for small businesses on Wednesday, setting the stage for a potential impasse with the House, where lawmakers are demanding a “clean” bill.

The Senate vote of 54 to 43 was six votes short of the 60 needed to move ahead with a wage measure that does not include tax benefits for employers. Earlier this month, the Senate Finance Committee voted to add $8.3 billion in tax breaks to the bill.

And who joined this cynical Republican filibuster? None other "moderate" Republican Gordon Smith. That's your "moderate" Republican from Oregon, working hard in the Senate to stick it to workers every day. And if it takes a filibuster to make sure he can stick it workers, Gordon Smith will filibuster.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Cwechblug State of the Union Response

First, excellent Democratic rebuttal by Sen. Webb. There were a few things in the State of the Union that struck me as interesting, bad ideas, or idiotic. First, I was surprised at how little substance there was in this State of the Union. Very few coherent policy objectives, and a lot of fluffy nice sounding rhetoric. The few things that he did propose left me perplexed however. Why did Bush propose the National Guard?
A second task we can take on together is to design and establish a volunteer Civilian Reserve Corps. Such a corps would function much like our military reserve. It would ease the burden on the Armed Forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them. And it would give people across America who do not wear the uniform a chance to serve in the defining struggle of our time.

If anyone can tell the difference between what he proposes in this section of the speech and the National Guard, please tell me, because I am still perplexed about why Bush proposed the National Guard tonight.

Moving on to Health Care. This is quite possibly one of the worst ideas I've ever heard. The following is what Bush proposed tonight in regards to health care.
For Americans who now purchase health insurance on their own, my proposal would mean a substantial tax savings — $4,500 for a family of four making $60,000 a year. And for the millions of other Americans who have no health insurance at all, this deduction would help put a basic private health insurance plan within their reach. Changing the tax code is a vital and necessary step to making health care affordable for more Americans.

My second proposal is to help the States that are coming up with innovative ways to cover the uninsured. States that make basic private health insurance available to all their citizens should receive Federal funds to help them provide this coverage to the poor and the sick. I have asked the Secretary of Health and Human Services to work with Congress to take existing Federal funds and use them to create “Affordable Choices” grants. These grants would give our Nation’s Governors more money and more flexibility to get private health insurance to those most in need.

There's been much debate about the problems with Wyden's plan, namely that it doesnt do enough to contain costs. But this is truly rediculous. If you make health care costs tax deductable and do nothing else, you merely give insurance companies the ability to charge any amount of money at public expense. Rather than contain costs as we need to do, insurance premiums would drive straight through the roof. Because once everyone has the ability to deduct health care costs from their taxes, insurance companies will have a huge market available to them for which there is no demand curve. There is nothing to contain costs of insurance. People by health care at price 1, deducting their entire premium from their income taxes, insurance companies raise prices because they can make more money, cost 2 is now far higher than cost one. Consumer purchases health care at cost 2 and deducts it from their taxes. It is a giant Federal gift to insurance companies that seems limitless. I'm also wondering about people who have so little income that they dont pay anything in taxes. Are they going to recieve money back from the government to cover their health care costs. This may be universal, but its a monumentally bad idea.

The proposal to give a Federal grant to encourage States to "find innovative ways to provide private health insurance to their citizens." This is really a way to prevent States from going single-payer on their own and stop the movement at the State level where it is beginning to take shape. This is not encouraging States to come up with innovative new policies, it is limiting them to a narrow set of policy options that are more likely to fail than single-payer. The specification of private insurance here is important.

Finally, Bush once more proposed health savings accounts, which have the fundamental flaw of assuming that health care is a normal consumer item. If I want a banana, I know that a banana is what I need and I can shop at a place in which I can get a good price for a banana. Health care isnt like this at all. If I need an MRI, the only way I know that I need an MRI is that the doctor who is going to make money through the process told me I need an MRI. I cant make the rational consumer choice that I dont really need an MRI, if I choose not to get one I run considerable personal health risks. The money in a health savings account would be limited, so if I develope a major health problem I might run out of money in the account and end up paying out of pocket. Not to mention the question of what one does if they dont have any money to put in the health savings account to begin with. So that's three bad ideas in health care by my count.

Bush also engaged in a little bit of Ron Saxton style rhetoric, claiming that we're going to keep medicare healthy, expand the war in Iraq, cut taxes, create a new National Guard (huh?), and balance the budget. A friend of mine commented "We're raiding Canada," and as near as I can tell that's the only way to do it. We're not going to cut programs, we're going to cut taxes, and balance the budget. It all sounds nice but cant be taken seriously, I guess Saxton's magic "inefficiences" have returned.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Oregon Takes a Lead on Health Care

While California gets most of the press for Health Care reform, Oregon seems to be moving forward with plans to dramatically restructure the State's health care system. And unlike in California it has a chance of passing in Oregon (California has some screwed up laws on budgetary matters allowing a minority to easily block the legislation). The debate is beginning in Oregon, and not just on the topic of whether universal health care is the best policy (it is), but rather about exactly what plan is best to do that, good serious proposals are being made and sent into committee in the Oregon Legislature, there seems to be a growing consensus that something needs to be done and that the health care system as it is today is unsustainable. Former Governor John Kitzhaber is leading this charge with the Archimedes movement.
Former Gov. John Kitzhaber rolled out a bold legislative plan for overhauling Oregon's health care system Wednesday, hoping to leverage a national debate on health care reform that will spread to the 2008 presidential race.

"The health care system today is unsustainable," he said. "It is remarkable we are utterly unable to change our direction."

The plan would pool roughly $7 billion from employer tax deductions for health care and from state and federal tax money spent on Medicare and Medicaid in Oregon. The pool then would be spent in a more efficient and rational system that would provide a "core benefit" of essential health services to every Oregonian, including the 609,000 who now have no health insurance, said Kitzhaber, a former emergency-room doctor, during a news conference in downtown Portland.
Kitzhaber's bill will go to the Senate Special Committee on Health Reform, said the Democratic co-chairs, Sen. Alan Bates of Ashland, and Sen. Ben Westlund of Bend. The committee will consider Kitzhaber's plan along with at least three other health reform plans: one developed by a Senate commission led by Bates and Westlund and others from the Oregon Business Council and the Oregon Health Policy Commission.

"What is most significant and shows the true depth of this (health care) crisis is the number of groups that have come together to propose solutions," Westlund said.
No plan will work if it does not contain costs, Kitzhaber said.

Like other plans before the Legislature, his would seek administrative efficiencies, include incentives to keep costs low and the quality of service high, and would guarantee Oregonians health care no matter where they work.

Its a shame Kitzhaber appears to have no plans to challenge Gordon Smith for the Senate seat in 2 years, but it does little good to dwell on that. What Kitzhaber recognizes that Ron Wyden doesnt is the section I put in bold from the Oregonian article. Wyden seems to think that we cant effectively control the costs but we can ensure access to health care for all. This concedes ground in the debate that doesnt need to be conceded, one of the most compelling reasons for health care reform is the runaway cost of care in the current system. Massachussetts, Vermont, and Hawaii have all drastically reformed their health care systems, if California and Oregon do it too then perhaps the US Congress will begin to really take this issue seriously and do something about a broken system. The Oregonian piece also mentioned that Kulongoski is backing a bill to guarantee coverage for all children, and if we're going to take baby steps toward this thing that's certainly admirable, but it fails to deal with the larger health care crisis in the State and the country choosing instead of focus on select social groups while ignoring the larger problems. If a universal plan cannot get through the legislature than Kulongoski's plan to cover all children would be nice, but if we can make health care in this State more efficient and change its fundamental structure we should.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Weather Griping

Ok, this is directed at everyone in western Oregon and Washington. You're all wimps. Linfield College was cancelled yesterday and the local news out of Portland acted as if all hell had broken loose when the roads were what I would describe as "clear" in both cases. Even so, lets entertain for a moment the possibility that the roads actually were dangerous. Linfield College delayed its opening today, my question is this: how can it take more than 24 hours to get the roads clear? If the roads arent clear by now someone isnt doing their job. Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging (also known as complaining about more relevent things than the weather).

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Effects of Higher Minimum Wages

The New York Times ran a good story today on the way minimum wage law acts on the Idaho-Washington border where the highest minimum wage in the country meets the lowest. They pointed to the relationship between Post Falls and Liberty Lake. But the story was the same where I grew up in Moscow Idaho/Pullman Washington.
But instead of shriveling up, small-business owners in Washington say they have prospered far beyond their expectations. In fact, as a significant increase in the national minimum wage heads toward law, businesses here at the dividing line between two economies — a real-life laboratory for the debate — have found that raising prices to compensate for higher wages does not necessarily lead to losses in jobs and profits.

Idaho teenagers cross the state line to work in fast-food restaurants in Washington, where the minimum wage is 54 percent higher. That has forced businesses in Idaho to raise their wages to compete.

With a lowball minimum wage, Idaho businesses who pay minimum wage sacrifice more committed workers who cross the State line to Washington and is stuck with the bottom of the barrel labor at least in town near the border. One of my good friends in High School who commuted to Pullman to work every day made the comment once to me "why would anyone in this town want to work in Moscow, yes you pay a little more for gas to commute but its more than made up for by the difference in wage." Idaho businesses near the border, this article pointed out excellently are at a huge disadvantage if they fail to pay close to Washington's minimum wage to their employees.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bush Ignores Democrats

It seems that Bush is still excluding Democrats from the decision making process in spite of the fact that the Democrats now hold both Houses of Congress.
President Bush yesterday began promoting his plan to send more troops to Iraq, bringing more than 30 Republican senators to the White House as part of a major campaign to rally the American people behind another effort to stabilize the country.

So the Democrats won an election recently, largely because of anger over the Iraq war, yet the President still wont talk to Democrats? Interesting.

Congressional Diary Day at DailyKos

It seemed to be Congressional diary day at DailyKos today as I recetly noticed three different recomended diaries at the same moment by Congressmen. One by Senator Edward Kennedy, one by Senator Dick Durbin, and the third by Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer. There is one (fairly minor) piece of Rep Blumenauer's diary that I want to key in on here.
Amidst all of that churn, Thursday’s events in Washington, DC were the most uplifting and positive that I've experienced as a member of Congress. Fifty-one new members, Republican and Democratic alike, came with a sense of enthusiasm and energy. Even some of my Republican friends quietly conceded that they might have more influence with the Democrats in charge with the way that we've vowed to run the House versus the DeLay machine.

Hopefully, in spite of Kos' silly objections to bipartisonship that he has expressed recently, the Democratic Majority lives up to its rhetoric and opens up the political process to Republicans such that we can govern with fairness and deliberation. The legacy of Delay and Newt of pushing the minority Party entirely out of the political process must go. By ending that legacy we can return to some good faith legislating in which all voices are taken into consideration as policy is made. Its excellent that some Republicans are excited about the upcoming session, it shows a readiness and a desire to work together accross Party lines when reasonable to achieve shared goals. Does this mean that we should be softening good progressive legislation for the benefit of the minority party or entertaining social security "compromises" that serve to weaken the program? No, it merely means that the opposition party is given a fair chance to participate in the process. A bipartison process does not preclude a partison clash, the Democrats should not blow the positive vibe that Blumenauer described in his diary by acting like Delay and company, they should live up to their rhetoric of opening the process up again after 12 years in the darkness. We cannot be as the Republicans have been, hostile to letting the democratic process work.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Patience My Friends

The health care debate seems to have picked up steam since Ron Wyden introduced a plan for universal health care a few weeks ago. Today, Paul Krugman wayed in on what needs to be done in the short term.
Universal health care, much as we need it, won't happen until there's a change of management in the White House. In the meantime, however, Congress can take an important step toward making our health care system less wasteful, by fixing the Medicare Middleman Multiplication Act of 2003.
What should Congress do? The new Democratic majority is poised to reduce drug prices by allowing -- and, probably, requiring -- Medicare to negotiate prices on behalf of the private drug plans. But it should go further, and force Medicare to offer direct drug coverage that competes on a financially fair basis with the private plans. And it should end the subsidy to Medicare Advantage, forcing H.M.O.'s to engage in fair competition with traditional Medicare.

Conservatives will fight fiercely against these moves. They say they believe in competition -- but they're against competition that might show the public sector doing a better job than the private sector. Progressives should support these moves for the same reason. Ending the subsidies to middlemen, in addition to saving a lot of money, would point the way to broader health care reform.

It seems to me that the calls for a national single payer health care program have been getting much louder the last few weeks, which is good. I agree with Krugman however, and have articulated this before (though perhaps not on this blog). In terms of necessity the time for this is absolutely now, today in a perfect world we should institute national health insurance. However, the institutional standing of our country at this moment does not lend itself to this possibility. Before we can institute such a program, Democrats absolutely have to control the executive branch. If we push too hard, too fast for national health insurance without controlling the executive branch we risk losing the argument at a time when there was never any possibility of passage. Bush cannot hold the veto pen when we pass such a program. That's why I believe Krugman is correct here, ultimately we need national health insurance, but in the meantime we cannot possibly get it signed into law today, so we should chip arround the edges of American health care to make some good positive changes for people that we can get passed into law.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

George Will: The Working Class Arent Human

Sounds pretty rediculous eh? But I've read it twice and that clearly seems to be what George Will is saying, that low wage workers are not in fact people. In a bad article opposing the minimum wage, one of the worst such article I've read not for its position but because it isnt well written or well argued, George Will ended with the following:
But the minimum wage should be the same everywhere: $0. Labor is a commodity; governments make messes when they decree commodities' prices. Washington, which has its hands full delivering the mail and defending the shores, should let the market do well what Washington does poorly. But that is a good idea whose time will never come again.

Labor is a commodity? Now I know a lot of economists like to talk in this language, even a lot of liberal economists do it, but lets think about the assumption being made to make that statement. You don't hear Will or anyone else talking about entrepreneurs as a "commodity," in part because they arent a commodity just as labor isnt, but also because they understand that to treat a person as a commodity is to make them something non human, something that is merely bought and sold, not something to be engaged with, not something to concerned for the well being of. At best maybe the "commodity" argument contends that labor is like a dairy cow, something whose health and life need to be protected only because production stops without it.

Please Mr. Will, you wrote a shitty article to begin with, but please dont reduce your fellow human beings whose well being and general welfare need to be defended to a mere commodity. They are far more important to our country and to our economy than a mere cow. Our fellow human beings have value to us far beyond any capital good, or any good at all for that matter, please dont demean their existence by reducing them to such an unimportant social status, it just shows your readers that you're self concerned and antisocial, and I'm sure you dont want them knowing that.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Keith Ellison and the Koran Controversy

The debate over Keith Ellison's decision to take the oath of office is such a non-issue and silly discussion that I've basically ignored it up until now. The Washington Post today pointed out that Representative Ellison would be sworn in on a copy of the Koran which is an english translation that was owned by Thomas Jefferson. Washington Monthly praised the decision by Ellison saying "Good for Ellison. Sounds like he's a pretty smart cookie," but never really expalaining what about this move makes him a smart cookie. They are correct, this is a smart move, but only because it answers the criticism without actually engaging the argument (an argument that in my view isnt worth engaging).

At the heart of this discussion lies the provision in Article 6 of the Constitution which provides that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." This is one of only two places in the entire Constitution where religionis mentioned, the other of course being within the First Amendment in the establishment and free excercise clauses. The religious test provision dates back to Jefferson's Statute of Religious Freedom adopted by the State of Virginia in 1786 after James Madison introduced the provision. The major provisions of this statute (those mentioned already, religious tests and the first amendment) were included in the United States Constitution. The major proponent of these provisions was undoubtedly Jefferson, who wrote about religious tests in his autobiography:
"[the religious test] was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohometan, the Hindoo, and the infidel of every denomination."

It seems that we're reliving the same arguments that were settled by 1791 through Mr. Ellison's obvious decision to swear in upon the Koran. Using Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Koran serves as a reminder that our country has already had this fight, and that he has an absolute right to be sworn in on the holy book of his faith, Jefferson and others who supported these provisions felt that we could not afford to become a Christian Nation, after waves of immigrants and the clear reality that the United States is a pluralistic country, now more than ever it is important to uphold Jefferson's vision of what our country would be in this regard. For as a nation of immigrants there is not even any national faith to turn to, far more than in 1786 Americans are Hindus, Muslims, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and anything else that one can think of. If it was relevent enough to include in the Constitution then, it is far more relevent today. Keith Ellison's decision gives us a subtle reminder of this history as the religious right tries to bring back the days before the Constitution of religious tests.

Monday, January 01, 2007

General 2007 Discussion

Without looking arround very specifically I'm sure nearly every blogger in the universe is doing something similar to this, but I retired for the last week and need to get back in the game, and it strikes me as a good idea to get the first post of 2007 off my chest. This is just a general, uninsightful, semi-meaningless discussion of what awaits us in the coming year.

About 5 American soldiers a day have been dying recently, and it sure seems like every day we find a pile of 50 bodies somewhere in Iraq of the recently murdered. A recent informal panel of academics assembled at 12:10 AM today seemed only able to conclude that its a total mess. Josh Marshall has a good observation, as it seems all there are regarding Iraq are good observations and no good solutions.
If you watch the video of the moments leading up to Saddam Hussein's execution, am I wrong that it bears a certain resemblance to the terrorist snuff films we've watched out of Iraq over the last three years? A dark, dank room. The executioners wear not uniforms of any sort, either civilian or military, but street clothes and ski masks. We now learn that the executioners were apparently taken from the population of southern Iraq, the country's Shi'a heartland, where Saddam's repression was most severe. And in an apt symbolic statement on what the Iraq War is about, two of the executioners who saw Saddam off started hailing Moktada al Sadr in Saddam's face as they prepared to hang him. Remember, al Sadr's Mahdi Army is the force the 'surge' of new US troops is meant to crush next year. That's where we are.

Paul Krugman recently argued that when economists cant agree on which way the indicators are pointing we're probably shifting directions. At the very least it seems we're at risk of a significant downturn. That said, things are looking up for working people relative to how things have been for the last 6 years as Democrats seem prepared to increase the minimum wage, pass an expansion in workers rights to unionize, and to examine possible solutions to the health care crisis.

USC will defeat Michigan today. The PAC 10 will send Arizona, UCLA, UW, Oregon, and Washington State to the NCAA tournament in basketball. I have no clue who will win the World Series except to say that Detroit looks good again and that Santana and Liriano are one hell of a 1-2 punch. The Mariners will finish with roughly a 0.500 record as they produce runs and Felix Hernandez begins to look like a top pitcher, however a lack of depth in the pitching staff creates too many problems for them to be a real contender.

The Democratic Legislature will allow Kulongoski to accomplish something, a nice change from his previous term. It looks like Kulongoski is preparing an aggressive agenda on health care and gay rights, hopefully a coalition can be built to pass some meaningful legislation in these areas among others. The State will enact a plan to build a bypass road arround Dundee, they will toll both the bypass and 99W. Consequently revolution will break out in Dundee requiring the Oregon National Guard to quell the chaos. Unfortunately the Oregon National Guard is in Iraq and unavailable.

Putin will confirm the trend that Russia is currently headed on by declaring himself Czar after inviting the entire Duma to a buffet of polonium laced food. Its ok though because Bush looked into his soul.

Presidential Candidates
Barack Obama will decide not to run for President, towards the end of the year the primary campaigns for 2008 will be kicked into full gear. The Democratic field will include Kucinich, Hillary, Edwards, Biden, Vilsac, and Richardson. The Republican field will include Newt, St McCain, Huckabee, Brownback, and Romney. I wont comment in this post on who either Party will nominate because that happens in 2008.