Saturday, March 2, 2013

Sequestration and solitary confinement

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: This is the big documentary film festival weekend in Columbia, the True/False festival and the thermometer is stubbornly staying at 32 degrees so that when I put my Ford 150 in gear all that happens is the wheels spin. Yesterday, the temperature rose a little so I rode with Marshall to town and I got to see the grandkids, in from sunny California for the festival. James and I built a hospital ship out of leggos, his cousin’s leggos as he reminded me frequently. So we were very careful not to lose any. We got the ship built and rescued three sick Leggo people—one with malaria, one with what James called “infinity diarrhea” and one with hypertension. Since we were out of people, having only three, we had to build a robot doctor. Fortunately, we had barrels of medicines on the ship and cured the malaria quickly. The diarrhea case was a little more tricky, since the medication made him cough. Not a good outcome for someone with diarrhea. We were lucky, though, and found the right pills to get it under control. The Leggo guy with hypertension was also in handcuffs. Did you know they make handcuffs for leggo characters? Do you find that outrageous? Since I’ve spent much of the snowstorm in my cozy bedroom working on an essay about women in the prison system, to accompany the memoir of a prison superintendent, I find it insane that our society will buy for plastic handcuffs for child play. Should we next begin telling them to build isolation cells from Leggos for plastic dolls in solitary confinement? It ain’t normal, folks. Solitary confinement, which visiting experts found in a Missouri reform school, was deemed inhumane in the 1920s and had a resurgence in the 1930s. Again, the experts discouraged it but even enlightened superintendents and wardens have used it all along, even though there are barrels of medicine available that supposedly control people. With this year’s budget “sequestration,” which sounds sort of like putting money in solitary confinement, we’re going to hear a lot about isolation, confinement, shackles on our most cantankerous folks. With no money for education, medications or any kind of reward system for good behavior, it will not be surprising if officials are driven to medieval systems of treatment. Budget cuts for federal employees? Let’s start with Congress and the President. Judges, too. One of my dairy friends, living on credit cards, figured out that if milk prices had risen like government salaries, milk would cost $25 a gallon.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Editorial: The Debt Alarm Sham

From the March 15, 2013 edition:

Democrats and Republicans alike depicted a hellscape if the federal budget “sequester” was allowed to take effect on March 1. The only difference is that Republicans were looking forward to blaming the apocalypse on President Obama.

That is, until House Speaker John Boehner was reminded that in July 2011 he told House Republicans the sequestration process was included in the Budget Control Act of 2011 to force $1.2 trillion in cuts across the board over 10 years if a joint committee couldn’t agree to more targeted cuts and/or revenue increases.

Boehner thought that, as the sequester deadline approached, the House would be able to force the Senate and President Obama to accept a substitute bill that would keep the military budget largely intact but force the cuts disproportionately on domestic programs. (But Republicans didn’t bother to pass that bill in the current Congress. Instead, they left town.)

When the President insisted that any sequester deal include tax reforms that limit tax breaks for the wealthy, Republicans balked, saying they would not go beyond the restoration of the pre-Bush tax rates for the wealthiest Americans that was approved in January. The Republican intransigence on taxes is proof that their alarms over the federal budget deficit are a sham. Rational Republicans know that budget cutting during a recession doesn’t close a deficit; it merely puts more people out of work — an estimated 750,000 jobs could be lost from the sequester — and those lost jobs reduce tax revenue, further increasing the deficit.

We know that tax rates must generate about 20% of the gross domestic product during normal economic times to balance the federal budget. That’s what Bill Clinton and the Democrats set up in 1993 when they raised tax rates modestly without a single Republican vote in favor. Instead, Republican leaders denounced the Clinton tax-raising budget as an economy killer that would certainly bring on a recession. Of course, the economy boomed. Through the ’90s we saw low unemployment rates, the Treasury reaped the benefits and, when he left the White House, Clinton turned over to new President George W. Bush a balanced budget that was on course to pay off the national debt by 2010.

But Bush denounced the surplus as proof that the government was collecting too much money. Then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan warned that paying off the national debt too fast could be bad for the nation. So instead Bush cut taxes on the wealthy, even as he ramped up two wars. The problem of retiring the national debt was solved!

Republicans did not discover the problems of the ballooning debt until Jan. 20, 2009. While Barack and Michelle Obama were making the rounds of Inaugural balls, GOP leaders met secretly to vow to do everything they could to make sure Obama did not succeed in pulling the economy out of the tailspin Bush had put it in.

Revenue as a percentage of the GDP bottomed out at 15.1% in the depth of the Great Recession in 2009 and 2010, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Deficits of $1.4 trillion in 2009 and $1.3 trillion in 2010, when measured as a share of GDP, were the largest since the end of World War II — representing 10% and 8.9% of the nation’s output, respectively. But with the economy in recovery and the slightly higher tax rates on the wealthy that were approved in January, tax revenue this year is expected to increase to 17.8% of GDP and 19.2% by 2017 under current laws.

If those laws do not change, the Congressional Budget Office reported Feb. 5, the budget deficit will shrink this year to $845 billion, or 5.3% of the GDP, its smallest size since 2008. But the CBO also reported that the economy shrank by a tenth of 1% in the last quarter of 2012, largely because of a reduction in federal spending, and the fiscal contraction would shrink the growth rate to 1.4% this fiscal year.

The nonpartisan CBO expects deficits to continue to shrink over the next few year to 2.4% of GDP by 2015. But a poll conducted for Bloomberg News (Feb. 15-18) found that 94% of Americans did not know the budget deficit was shrinking. The survey found 62% thought the deficit was growing, while 28% said it was about the same and 4% were not sure. Only 6% correctly said the deficit was smaller.

So there is no emergency and Democrats in Congress must reject any deals President Obama might reach with Republicans that would cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid and put the burden of deficit reduction on the poor and/or the elderly.

In the first place, Social Security has nothing to do with the federal deficit — the Social Security Trust Fund is self-sustaining through the payroll tax and promised benefits are secure at least for the next 20 years. The “problem” is that Congress borrowed $2.5 trillion from the Trust Fund to keep income taxes low while Bush was fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Congress doesn’t want to pay the money back to Social Security.

Assuming Congress honors its obligations to seniors and pays its debt to the Trust Fund, if there is a longer-term problem in paying promised Social Security benefits — and that is only indicated under pessimistic economic projections — the shortfall could be closed by removing the cap on income subject to the payroll tax, which is now $113,700. But you wouldn’t know about that solution from listening to the pundits, most of whom don’t want to pay more payroll tax.

In the second place, the Affordable Care Act is projected to reduce the deficit by billions over the next 10 years, and it already has played a role in reducing the growth of Medicare costs. Since the health care reform was passed in 2010, the projections of the growth of health care costs has dropped by $511 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. At least some of that slowdown in health costs may be due to the the passage of Obamacare, which is phasing in new incentives and reforms to make health care delivery more efficient.

In the third place, Medicaid expansion will help to reduce costs to insurance companies, healthcare providers and local taxpayers because they will no longer have to subsidize health coverage of uninsured working-class families whose employers cannot or will not provide health coverage.

Simply put, any Democratic member of Congress, in the House or Senate, who supports cuts in benefits to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in an attempt to resolve the latest Republican-imposed budget crisis should get a challenger in next year’s Democratic primary. Labor unions should make it clear that officeholders who agree to cut Social Security — even the “minor” cuts envisioned in the proposed “Chained CPI” changes — will find themselves banished from labor’s push cards.

As Dean Baker has written, the Chained CPI, which reduces benefits compared with the current schedule by 0.3% annually, adds up to a 3% cut in annual benefits after 10 years. Since Social Security provides more than half of the income for almost 70% of retirees, a 3% cut in Social Security benefits amounts to a reduction in their total income of more than 1.5%. “By contrast, if a wealthy couple has an income of $500,000 a year, as a result of President Obama’s tax increases, they would be paying an addition 3 percentage points in taxes, or $3,000, on the income above $400,000. That comes to just 0.6% of their income,” he noted.

If the Chained CPI cut is not a big deal for Social Security retirees then the tax increases on the wealthy are even less of a big deal. And the One Percenters can better afford them.

Yet even if progressives keep Congress from raiding Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to settle the sequestration, the Republicans will come back after them at the next self-imposed crisis, when funding for the current fiscal year expires on March 27, and again in mid-May, when the Treasury is expected to run up against its borrowing limit again. The economic terrorists won’t quit, and neither can the rest of us. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2013
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Selections from the March 15, 2013 issue

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Snow can't stop the Missouri Senate from evil--can we?

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: It feels like a long time since the snow started, but it’s only been a week. We got our chores done, everyone settled with food and water, made our run to town for eggs (hens don’t lay eggs in bad weather, FYI if you’re getting hens) and got back in time for the snow to begin in earnest. Then the electricity went off for a day, 24 hours, and we really felt sorry for ourselves. No internet. No TV. No radio. After a day, I started calling neighbors and found out that being cut off is harder on some folks than others. We were generally OK, but one neighbor was having panic attacks at being alone. I tried to get him to go to the gas station and hang out, maybe he did. You know how it is when you get to a certain point and you can’t think what to do? He was at that point. My idea, to get out, seemed brilliant to him and he thanked me over and over. Another neighbor heard the timbers of his barn cracking at night when he was in bed and he was too worried to go out and look. Had the roof fallen completely in? Did it kill his livestock? He couldn’t bring himself to go out. After talking to a few folks, I felt really lucky. Our barn is OK and we have plenty of food in the cupboard and wood in the woodpile. Chilly, but lucky. Everything has been cancelled for the most part, but wouldn’t you know the legislature figured out a way to hold sessions and that old bugaboo, Senate Bill 41, “the polluters’ protection act” is making its way through the Missouri Senate again. We defeated it last year, but Senator Munzlinger, a Farm Bureau puppet, brought it up again. You’d think, as a Republican, that he’d know that his bill takes away constitutional rights of farmers and landowners to protect their property & property rights through the court system. In my neighborhood, the hog CAFO owner nearby does a great job of keeping his place clean and only mildly stinky but he didn’t do that until some of the neighbors threatened a lawsuit and settled out of court. Still, corporate lobbyists have once again convinced some legislators of the need to protect a very small minority of corporate industrial livestock operations at the expense of the property rights of the majority of family farms, rural landowners and other property owners. But, hey, this law wouldn’t affect only rural folks. Anyone living near an industrial facility—a landfill, chemical plant or even a sausage making plant—can be affected by runoff and bad air. SB 41clearly favors the “rights” of corporations over the rights of Missourians, our families and our communities. So, yeah, we’re back on the phone today. Tonight, the legislature goes home and enough snow has melted that I’ll get out tomorrow. A whole new world out there!

Monday, February 25, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Drone

By Charles Cullen

I'm going to make an argument that few progressives on Earth will be entirely comfortable reading. But I'm making it because the subject is one of the few areas where progressives are as scattered and self-deluded as the Right. As long as the Right continues to insist on taking a leave from sanity, the task of governing falls to us. And this is an issue we need to get straight.

Every pious Progressive knows how they should feel about drone strikes and drone technology in general. We are supposed to reject drones as a kind of neo-imperialistic affront to humanity; a rough beast that never should have been brought forth from the belly of the War Machine, and should be abandoned as soon as possible. But whenever we talk about drones we end up mixing the issues regarding drones and stirring these issues into a fine sauce of nonsense and general outrage. General outrage is incredibly dangerous here because it's useless in this case — it won't get anything done. It's dangerous because this is something we have to get right and because specific outrage is so desperately needed.

Chances are you have a few progressive friends. The next time you're having a drink with them, try talking drones. I guarantee that within seconds you will have managed to weave policy, legality, intelligence, and the knee jerk reaction to something fearful and inhuman roaming the skies into a finely knit crimes-against-humanity sweater. I'd like to pull the strands apart.

First we have several legal arguments about governance: how and when and on whom drones may be used, and then we have the argument about general constraints on the drone master. We need to look at each of these issues individually (as many, including the President, have already suggested). We need clear rules governing the use of drones, careful oversight of drone-strikes, and a policy commitment to sustaining excellent, actionable intelligence.

But we cannot allow a general fear of drones as a technology to bleed into our discussion of law or policy. It's fine if you're outraged by the very idea of drones, but I hope you are at minimum equally outraged by all troops currently stationed in other countries as they fight our ongoing war on a concept. As long as we are at war with “terror,” we will never be free of the need to assert some sort of military presence in countries not our own. We will always have to have some way of destroying terrorist networks, and that will usually involve killing people. As inaccurate as drones can be, I would argue that when tasked with killing enemies of our State, panicked, insufficiently supported soldiers are just as inaccurate and more likely to fan the flames of anger among members of the occupied foreign populace. People don't like houses blowing up without warning, causing collateral damage. They like being occupied even less. This is why violent occupation has and always will lead to organized resistance. If you, as an oppressed member of the native populace, pass your enemy every day on the street, folks suggesting creative ways to deal with your oppressors start sounding more and more reasonable by the day. Just ask the Taliban.

Soldiers have to deal with the shattering emotional toll of killing another human being (assuming of course they aren't killed themselves) and we are just seeing the start of what that means as veterans try to reeintegrate into normal life. Drones, as far as I know, are pretty ok with the whole thing.

So here's how the argument has to go: First, what legal changes do we need to make to drone policy? Second, what governmental changes do we need to make as far as the implimentation of policy and general oversite? And specifically, how much oversight can we ask for without jeopardizing the quick-strike necessity of drones? Third, what changes can we make to drone technology to lessen the possibilty of collateral damage in drone kills and make sure the only people we kill are the ones we mean to kill.

Countless advancements in killing technology have been greeted by people with a strong moral radar as the final step over the line; too far for a society to go and still call itself a just society. And that's good. It's necessary. But if we think that drone outrage is the first time people have looked at a weapon and recoiled, we're kidding ourselves. Certain members of the English military considered the crossbow to be “unsporting,” and some refused to use them. Refused, that is, until the other side picked them up.

And that is essentially where we find ourselves: in the grip of a policy, not a technology crisis. We can have the ethical argument when we decide to stop passing the ethical buck. If we suggest abandoning drones, we must also offer a comprehensive way to prevent our soldiers from having to sneak around buildings in the middle of the night, house to house, using the same intelligence we might give to a drone, kick down the door of the (hopefully) correct place, and execute whomever happens to be inside. Until we do that, we're worse than hypocrites, we're lazy, sadistic hypocrites.