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How States Can Save Billions

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We’ve been reading a lot about fallout lately.  The Fukushima power plant disaster is now providing a lasting legacy all over the world.  This animation from the French national meteorological service, Météo-France, illustrates how the spread of the Fukushima fallout is migrating.

For the past three years, we have been living with the fallout from a financial “meltdown”, which resulted from deregulation, greed and the culture of “pervasive permissiveness” at the Federal Reserve, as discussed in the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report.  The fallout from the financial meltdown has also spread across the entire world.  Different countries have employed different approaches for coping with the situation.  In Ireland, the banks were bailed out at taxpayer expense, crippling that nation’s economy for generations to come.  As a result, the Irish citizens fought back, went to the polls and ousted the perfidious politicians who helped the banks avoid responsibility for their transgressions.   On the other hand, in Portugal, the government refused to impose austerity measures on the citizens, who should not be expected to pay the price for the financial mischief that gave rise to the current economic predicament.  Given the additional fact that Portugal, as a nation, was not a “player” in the risky games that nearly brought down the world economy, the recent decision by the Portuguese parliament is easy to understand.

In our own country, the various states have found it quite difficult to balance their budgets.  High unemployment, which refuses to abate, and depressed real estate valuation have devastated each state’s revenue base.  Because the states cannot print money, as the Federal Reserve does in order to pay the federal government’s bills, it has become necessary for the states to rely on creative gimmicks to reverse their misfortunes.  Most states had previously deployed numerous “economic development projects” over the years.  Such projects are taxpayer-funded subsidies to attract corporations and entice them to establish local operations.  Rex Nutting of MarketWatch recently took a critical look at those programs:

And yet, study after study show that these subsidies create few, if any, net jobs.  For instance, California’s Enterprise Zone program – which is supposed to boost business in 42 economically distressed communities – has cost the taxpayers $3.6 billion over 27 years, but to no avail.  A legislative analyst report in 2005 found that “EZs have little if any impact on the creation of new economic activity or employment.” Read more from the legislative analyst report.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed to kill the EZ program and the even-more expensive redevelopment agency program, but he faces an uphill fight in the Legislature.  Such subsidies are popular with the legislators who receive boatloads of campaign contributions from businesses lucky enough to find a government teat to latch on to.

Nationwide, such giveaways from state and municipal governments amounted to more than $70 billion in 2010, according to Kenneth Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, who has specialized in studying these subsidies.  That’s more than the states collect in corporate income taxes in a good year.  Read about Thomas’s book: “Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital”

And that $70 billion is twice as much money as would be required to fully fund the pensions owed to state and local government workers, the very same pensions that budget-cutting politicians across the country claim are responsible for the fiscal hole we’re in.

What Rex Nutting has suggested amounts to the elimination of a significant number of corporate welfare programs.  He has also dared to challenge the corporatist mantra that corporate welfare “creates jobs”.  We are supposed to believe that the only way states can balance their budgets is through the imposition of draconian austerity programs, designed to force the “little people” to – once again – pay the tab for Wall Street’s binge.  Because the voters have no lobbyists to protect their own interests, venal state and local politicians have set about slashing public safety expenditures (through mass layoffs of police and firefighters), closing parks and libraries, as well as under-funding public school systems.

Never mind that state and local governments could save $70 billion by cutting just one form of corporate welfare.  They would rather let you watch your house burn down.  You can’t afford that house anyway.


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Bad Report Card Haunts Democrats At Mid-Terms

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It doesn’t take much time or effort to find out how or why the Democrats have alienated so many independent voters (and so much of their own base) during the 2010 election cycle.  You don’t need to look to the Fox News or Andrew Breitbart for an explanation.   Reading through the opinion pages of The New York Times should provide you with a good understanding of what the Democrats have been doing wrong.

One common theme voiced by many critics of the Obama administration has been its lack of interest in prosecuting those responsible for causing the financial crisis.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to initiate any criminal proceedings against such noteworthy individuals as Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo or Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers.  On October 23, Frank Rich of The New York Times mentioned both of those individuals while lamenting the administration’s failure to prosecute the “financial crimes that devastated the nation”:

The Obama administration seems not to have a prosecutorial gene.   It’s shy about calling a fraud a fraud when it occurs in high finance.
*   *   *
Since Obama has neither aggressively pursued the crash’s con men nor compellingly explained how they gamed the system, he sometimes looks as if he’s fronting for the industry even if he’s not.

The special treatment afforded to the perpetrators of the frauds that helped create the financial crisis wasn’t the only gift to Wall Street from the Democratically-controlled White House, Senate and Congress.  The financial “reform” bill was so badly compromised (by the Administration and Senate Democrats, themselves) as it worked its way through the legislative process, that it is now commonly regarded as nothing more than a hoax.  Frank Rich finds it ironic that the voters are about to return power to “those who greased the skids” to facilitate the financial catastrophe:

We can blame much of this turn of events on the deep pockets of oil billionaires like the Koch brothers and on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which freed corporations to try to buy any election they choose.  But the Obama White House is hardly innocent.  Its failure to hold the bust’s malefactors accountable has helped turn what should have been a clear-cut choice on Nov. 2 into a blurry contest between the party of big corporations and the party of business as usual.

David Weidner of MarketWatch recently discussed the idea of appointing a special prosecutor to bring the Wall Street culprits to justice.  After acknowledging the often-used pushback argument made by those opposed to such a prosecutorial effort — that those cases are impossibly difficult to advance through the legal system — Weidner made this observation:

These cases may be difficult, but they’re not impossible.  And given the creation of a lawless marketplace where one economy-destroying decision can be made on top of another for short-term personal gains, something has to be done.

But nothing’s happening.  Maybe it’s because of the money Wall Street lavishes on Congress.  Perhaps it’s the close ties between the industry and the administration.   It could be, as Nouriel Roubini said in the new documentary “Inside Job,” investigators are “afraid” of what they will find.

A special prosecutor, in a bid to make a name for himself or herself, might be immune to such pressure.   It’s our best hope for outing the scoundrels and creating an industry where greed finally takes a backseat to the law.

Back at The New York Times, Charles Blow brought our attention to the recent rant by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless, who – despite his uselessness in the aftermath of the financial Ponzi-crisis – stands at the ready to prosecute marijuana smokers in the event that Proposition 19 becomes law in The Golden State.  One would think that the Obama administration might prefer that a large bloc of voters should remain stoned for as long as possible, so as to prevent those citizens from realizing what a lousy job their President is doing for them.  Worse yet, Charles Blow explained how the Democrats have been advancing the Clinton-era Byrne Formula Grant Program, as a vehicle for financing a war on pot smokers, over the objections of former President George W. Bush and conservative groups, who emphasized that the program “has proved to be an ineffective and inefficient use of resources.”  Nevertheless, the Democrats were able to direct two billion dollars from the financial stimulus program to the so-called Byrne Grants.  Remember: that’s two billion dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – which was supposed to put people back to work and save the economy – misappropriated to the effort of putting pot smokers in jail.  I guess that the Obama Justice Department has to look like it’s doing something.

Another issue that has not escaped the public’s radar – despite the efforts of the Obama administration – is the never-ending catastrophe in the Gulf of Corexit, caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout.  Washington’s Blog recently featured an important posting, with links to several articles about this environmental disaster, which the administration wants you to forget about (at least until after the election).  The BP-sponsored, mainstream media seem more than happy with the claim of  “mission accomplished” voiced by Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft (the man in charge of the federal response) and his top science adviser, Steve Lehmann.   A review of any one of the articles linked at the Washington’s Blog posting will scare the hell out of you — just in time for Halloween (and Election Day).  Nevertheless the people who will get the worst haunting of Halloween 2010 will be the Democrats.  Unfortunately for us, most of them deserve it.


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No Jews Allowed In Rick Warren’s Heaven

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December 22, 2008

There has been quite a bit of attention focused on Barack Obama’s choice of conservative evangelical minister, Rick Warren, to deliver the invocation at the Presidential inauguration ceremony on January 20.  Most of the outrage over that choice stems from the fact that Warren was actively involved in promoting Proposition 8, the controversial California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriages.

A large number of objections to Warren’s participation in this historic ceremony are coming from Hollywood.  As Tina Daunt reported in the December 20 Los Angeles Times, the entertainment community’s reaction to Warren’s role in the inaugural was “swift, angry and bitter”.  Her article quoted Hollywood publicist, Howard Bragman who said the following about Barack Obama:

“What he didn’t realize was how much untapped energy there was in the gay and lesbian community because of the passage of Prop. 8,” said Bragman. “Obama didn’t realize, after all the support he got from the gay and lesbian community, we feel betrayed right now.”

Meanwhile, back at the nation’s capitol, Barney Frank, the openly gay Senator from Massachusetts, had much to say about Warren’s role in the inaugural ceremony.  As Jason Blum reported on December 21 at the Bloomberg website, Senator Frank said this about the inclusion of Warren in the event:

“Giving that kind of mark of approval and honor to someone who has frankly spoken in ways I and many others have found personally very offensive, I thought that was a mistake for the president-elect to do.”

I particularly enjoyed the piece written by Christopher Hitchens for Slate on December 19.  I thought the televangelist lobby would have been run out of Washington in the wake of the 2008 elections.  Chris Hitchens appears to be sharing my disappointment over that group’s enduring presence on Capitol Hill, despite the efforts of many to preserve the separation of church and state.  The most impressive point made in this article concerned Warren’s insistence that there are no Jews allowed in heaven:

It is a fact that Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., was present at a meeting of the Aspen Institute not long ago and was asked by Lynda Resnick — she of the pomegranate-juice dynasty — if a Jew like herself could expect to be admitted to paradise.  Warren publicly told her no.

Similarly, Time magazine’s Joe Klein had this to say in his December 16 posting on his Swampland blog at Time.com, concerning Warren’s insistence that Jews can’t go to heaven:

I am not a big fan of Rick Warren’s.  He thinks I’m going to hell.  He said so in mixed company, at an Aspen Institute forum.  He was asked if Jews were going to hell.  He said yes.  He can go ahead and feed every poor child in Africa and I’m still going to think he’s a fool for believing that.  Reverend Rick is also not too big on gay or women’s rights.  (Indeed, if Jews–and all other non born-again Christians–homosexuals, feminists, and anyone who has either had an abortion, performed an abortion or reluctantly agrees that it’s none of our business who has abortions  …  if all those people are going to hell, then heaven’s got to be about as interesting as linoleum.)

Regardless of the controversies over Proposition 8 and same-sex marriage, is it really appropriate to have a man deliver the invocation at the Presidential inauguration ceremony, when that man professes that Jews are not allowed into heaven?  Does Warren believe that there is a big “No Jews Allowed” sign at the pearly gates?  Has heaven been getting away with something that American country clubs have not been able to do, since the 1970s?

There is obviously plenty wrong with having someone of Warren’s ilk speaking at the Presidential inauguration.  Gay weddings constitute just one of many issues these characters have on their list of things to not tolerate.  Chris Hitchens suggested three questions to be asked of the Obama transition team, before the inauguration proceeds:

— Will Warren be invited to the solemn ceremony of inauguration without being asked to repudiate what he has directly said to deny salvation to Jews?

— Will he be giving a national invocation without disowning what his mentor said about civil rights and what his leading supporter says about Mormons?

— Will the American people be prayed into the next administration, which will be confronted by a possible nuclear Iran and an already nuclear Pakistan, by a half-educated pulpit-pounder raised in the belief that the Armageddon solution is one to be anticipated with positive glee?

Remember John McCain’s old expression, “agents of intolerance”?  Who would have thought that one such agent would deliver the invocation when Barack Obama is sworn in as our next President?

Silver’s Streak

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November 24, 2008

One of the most interesting characters to emerge from the 2008 election cycle is a young man named Nate Silver.  Not to be upstaged by Sarah Palin, once he caught the interest of the mainstream media, Nate immediately picked up a new, snappy-looking pair of eyeglasses.

Nate is a 30-year-old math wizard who turned the world of political polling on its ear by introducing said ear to some new sounds that make nearly perfect mathematical and sonic sense.  He graduated cum laude from the University of Chicago in 1980 with a major in Economics.  He then took a job for a few years, working for a consulting firm.  During that time, he developed a statistical system to forecast the performance of professional baseball players.  In 2003, he went to work for a group producing an annual book on professional baseball player performance analysis and performance forecasts, called Baseball Prospectus.  He then sold his statistical analysis system to that company and joined their staff.

In November of 2007, Nate began using his skills and systems to make forecasts of the Presidential primaries, using the pseudonym:  “Poblano” on the Daily Kos website.  On February 11, 2008, neocon William Kristol wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, wherein he made note of “an interesting regression analysis at the Daily Kos Web site” done by Mr. Silver.  The next month, Nate started his blog, FiveThirtyEight.com, where he utilized his new system for analyzing and forecasting Presidential primary results, as well as the ultimate outcome the 2008 Presidential election.  As a consequence of this endeavor, the studios at CNN and MSNBC quickly became familiar surroundings to him.  By November 14, 2008, The New York Observer had this to say about Nate:

Mr. Silver’s statistical skills were ratified when the outcome of the presidential race aligned almost exactly with his final predictions both for the popular vote and the Electoral College breakdown  …

Later that day, Leon Neyfakh reported on The Observer website that Nate had inked a book deal with Penguin Group, USA including a $700,000 advance.  Although this advance is only ten percent of the amount allegedly offered as an advance to Sarah Palin for “her” “book”, you need to keep in mind that Nate is only 30 years old and Sarah will be a grandmother soon.

As the recount for Minnesota’s Senatorial election moves along, Nate’s November 23 posting on his FiveThirtyEight.com website has received quite a bit of attention.  The title alone says it all:  “Projection:  Franken to Win Recount by 27 Votes”.  Will Mr. Silver’s “streak” continue?  A reader, identified as “Max” posted the following comment on that blog:  “If you are right about this you should put all others out of business.”

Nate provided us with another interesting take on the 2008 election, with a particular focus on the state of California.  I was surprised at how Maureen Dowd’s article in the November 23 New York Times exhibited either an unfamiliarity with Nate’s California analysis or (less likely) a refusal to agree with it.  To my disappointment, I detected Ms. Dowd’s apparent acceptance of the “conventional wisdom” concerning California’s controversial ballot initiative:

This month, gays who supported Barack Obama had the bittersweet experience of seeing some of the black and Latino voters who surged to the polls to vote Democratic also vote for Proposition 8, which turned gay “I dos” into “You can’ts.”

She should have known better.  I would expect a pundit of her stature to be familiar with Nate’s November 11 posting on FiveThirtyEight.com:  “Prop 8 Myths”.  Here is some of what he had to say:

But the notion that Prop 8 passed because of the Obama turnout surge is silly.

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At the end of the day, Prop 8’s passage was more a generational matter than a racial one.  If nobody over the age of 65 had voted, Prop 8 would have failed by a point or two.  It appears that the generational splits may be larger within minority communities than among whites, although the data on this is sketchy.

Get with it, Maureen!  If Al Franken turns out to be Minnesota’s new junior Senator, you will no longer be justified in overlooking the observations of Nate Silver.