Wednesday, May 26, 2010

'Irresponsible' and 'misguided' are an apt descriptions

In an April 23 speech, President Obama described Arizona's new immigration law as both "irresponsible" and "misguided."
...our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others. And that includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona, which threatened to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.

In fact, I’ve instructed members of my administration to closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation. But if we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country
Remarks yesterday by city law enforcement officials describe how the new law is counter-productive, leading to more crime and less safety.
Arizona's new crackdown on illegal immigration will increase crime in U.S. cities, not reduce it, by driving a wedge between police and immigrant communities, police chiefs from several of the state's and the nation's largest cities said Tuesday.

The new Arizona law will intimidate crime victims and witnesses who are illegal immigrants and divert police from investigating more serious crimes, chiefs from Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia said.

..."This is not a law that increases public safety. This is a bill that makes it much harder for us to do our jobs," Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said. "Crime will go up if this becomes law in Arizona or in any other state."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Rand Paul: Sh*t happens

The new face of the Teapublican Party, Rand Paul, appeared on Good Morning America this morning. In the first part of the interview, Paul deflects questions about his comments and writing on the federal government overreaching with civil rights and other legislation. In particular, Paul wrote
Decisions concerning private property and associations should in a free society be unhindered. As a consequence, some associations will discriminate... A free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination – even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin.
Paul then went on to criticize President Obama for being too harsh on poor, misunderstood British Petroleum.

Just after the 6-minute mark, Paul says "What I don't like from the President's administration is this sort of ... 'I'll put my boot heel on the throat of BP.' I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business."

So, Paul thinks that it is "really un-American" to criticize a foreign company that has caused one of the worst ecological disasters in U.S. history.

He goes on to describe this as part of the "blame game society." He says that we should instead consider "the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen." He offers a recent mining tragedy as another example of "it's always someone's fault."

Paul's message is simple and clear. It doesn't matter what a business does--discriminates, wrecks the environment, maims or kills its employees. There's no scope for government regulation (not that Paul would overturn or repeal anything, wink wink), and actually no reason for blame. Government needs to get its "boot heel" off the throat of business, and the rest of us need to accept that shit happens.

Employment situation in North Carolina improving

The Department of Labor released its state-level estimates of employment and unemployment, and the report indicates an improving job market in North Carolina.

The estimated unemployment rate, on a seasonally-adjusted basis, dropped in April to 10.8 percent, down from 11.1 percent in March and 11.2 percent in February. At the same time, the estimated number of jobs in the state increased by about 7,500 in April, with the biggest gains coming in professional and business service establishments.

While the improvement is good news, North Carolina's unemployment rate remains substantially above the national average.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

National Research Council recommends action on climate change

The National Research Council yesterday released three reports on the evidence regarding climate change, the need for the United States to reduce its greenhouse emissions, and the need to manage and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

A summary of the first report on the evidence on climate change states
A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.
The report calls for increased research to improve our understanding of these links and of the efficacy of possible responses.

The second report recommends
a U.S. policy goal stated in terms of a budget for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions over the period 2012‑2050. With only so much to “spend” during this period, the nation should act now to: (1) take advantage of key near-term opportunities to limit greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., through energy efficiency and low carbon energy sources), and to create new and better emission reduction opportunities for the longer term (e.g., invest in research and development); (2) create a national policy framework within which actors at all levels can work toward a common goal; and (3) develop policy mechanisms durable enough to persist for decades but flexible enough to adapt to new information and understanding.
The third report recognizes that the U.S. will need to cope with some aspects of climate change.
Much of the nation’s experience to date in managing and protecting its people, resources, and infrastructure is based on the historic record of climate variability during a period of relatively stable climate. Adaptation to climate change calls for a new paradigm—one that considers a range of possible future climate conditions and associated impacts, some well outside the realm of past experience.
These findings by a non-partisan panel of the nation's leading scientists underscore the urgency of the Senate taking up the bipartisan energy legislation that was co-authored by Senators Graham, Kerry and Lieberman.

With every day that we delay, the problems grow worse, and the solutions become harder.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tax rate of 9.2 percent? Not really

Ed Cone and Allen Johnson have posted about a USA Today story about historically low tax burdens.
Amid complaints about high taxes and calls for a smaller government, Americans paid their lowest level of taxes last year since Harry Truman's presidency, a USA TODAY analysis of federal data found.

Some political conservatives such as "Tea Party" activists have criticized federal spending as being out of control. While spending is up, taxes have fallen to exceptionally low levels.

Federal, state and local taxes — including income, property, sales and other taxes — consumed 9.2% of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports. That rate is far below the historic average of 12% for the past half-century. The overall tax burden hit bottom in December at 8.8% of income before rising slightly in the first three months of 2010.
The USA Today analysis is interesting but misses a lot of tax payments and other payments to the government.

USA Today obtains its tax percentage by dividing "personal current taxes" paid to different levels of government ($1.1025 trillion in 2009) by "personal income" ($12.0261 trillion in 2009). The calculation, however, misses much (most actually) of what governments takes in.

In 2009, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (the source for the USA Today analysis) estimated that governments took in $3.745 trillion. Of this, $2.4282 trillion came from tax receipts, $0.972 trillion came from social insurance payments, and the rest was either direct revenue for services or returns on government assets.

Government tax receipts included the $1.1025 trillion in personal taxes but also $0.2895 trillion for corporate income taxes, $1.0234 trillion directly assessed on production or imports, and a small amount from foreigners. So, right away, USA Today is missing about $1.3 trillion in taxes that are paid by businesses.

The social insurance payments also are effectively taxes, so you can add another $0.972 trillion to the tax bite. Altogether, USA Today is missing more than two-thirds of what Americans pay in taxes and mandatory contributions.

When you look at total tax payments as a share of the economy (i.e., ignore mandatory contributions), the USA Today conclusion that we are taxed less than in 1950 still holds. The share of national income going to personal taxes is lower, the share going to production and import taxes is about the same, and the share going to corporate income taxes is down sharply.

However, when you include mandatory contributions to social insurance, the tax burden is several percentage points higher in 2009 than in 1950.

Taxes and mandatory contributions as a proportion of the economy are down substantially from their levels in 2008, which raises the question, why weren't the Tea Partiers complaining about taxes then? It wouldn't have anything to do with the change to a Democratic administration, would it?

And of course, the area where payments to the government have held steady go to government programs--Social Security and Medicare--that Tea Partiers hold as sancrosanct.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Original intent

The Republican Party and its chairman, Michael Steele have weighed in on the nomination of Elena Kagan to replace Justice Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court. The GOP and Mr. Steele have decided to make Ms. Kagan's support of Justice Thurgood Marshall an issue. From Mr. Steele's release.
Given Kagan’s ... support for statements suggesting that the Constitution "as originally drafted and conceived, was 'defective,'" you can expect Senate Republicans to respectfully raise serious and tough questions to ensure the American people can thoroughly and thoughtfully examine Kagan’s qualifications and legal philosophy before she is confirmed to a lifetime appointment.
The quote comes from the end of an article, "For Justice Marshall," that Ms. Kagan wrote in the Texas Law Review in 1993 and in which she was quoting Justice Marshall. The quote in full (p. 1130) is
During the year that marked the bicentennial of the Constitution, Justice Marshall gave a characteristically candid speech. He declared that the Constitution, as originally drafted and conceived, was "defective"; only over the course of 200 years had the nation "attain[ed] the system of constitutional government, and its respect for ... individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today." The Constitution today, the Justice continued, contains a great deal to be proud of. "[B]ut the credit does not belong to the Framers. It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of 'liberty,' 'justice,' and 'equality,' and who strived to better them. The credit, in other words, belongs to people like Justice Marshall. As the many thousands who waited on the Supreme Court steps well knew, our modern Constitution is his.
Let's put aside for the moment whether quoting Justice Marshall indicates unqualified support for every word he said (indeed, Mr. Steele can't even bring himself to say that, writing instead that her words were "suggesting" support).

The comments by the GOP and Mr. Steele raise some "serious and tough questions" of their own.

Wasn't a Constitution that included slavery, that treated each black as three-fifths of a human, and that ultimately led to a civil war "defective?" My gosh, no less a historian than Va. Gov. Bob McDowell has written "The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War." Are the GOP and Mr. Steele seriously arguing that we should go back to framers' document?

Weren't interpretations of the Constitution that allowed segregated schools, at least until 1954 when Thurgood Marshall brilliantly argued otherwise in Brown v. Board of Education, also defective? Similarly, weren't interpretations that supported Jim Crow and voting discrimination similarly defective? Is our system better with these reinterpretations or without them?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Job growth beginning to take off

The Department of Labor released its April jobs report this morning with mostly good news. According to the report, employment, as recorded in the household and establishment surveys, was up sharply last month. The household survey indicates that the number of employed people increased by 550,000 on a seasonally-adjusted basis, while the preliminary establishment figures indicate that the number of jobs increased by 290,000. Establishment figures for February and March were also revised upward. The March figures now indicate that 230,000 jobs were added that month rather than the 162,000 that were originally estimated.

Job growth in April was spread across nearly all sectors of the economy. Employment in manufacturing, services, and government were all up. The only major sector to see a decline was transportation and warehousing (a potential dark cloud for the logistics-heavy Greensboro economy).

Unemployment edged up to 9.7 percent, but this mainly reflected an incredible 805,000 people entering or reentering the labor force. The number of people who were unemployed because they lost jobs was down, while the numbers of people who were unemployed because they left jobs, reentered the work force, or were new entrants each rose. Overall, the percentage of the population that was employed rose to 58.8 percent, the highest percentage since August of last year.

It's not at all certain that this level of job growth will continue. The debt crisis in Greece is showing signs of spreading to other countries and provoking a wider financial crisis.

Two months of moderate job recovery, which have restored more than half a million jobs to the U.S. economy, are good news. Still, it will take another two and a half years at this pace to recover the 8 million or so jobs that were lost since the end of 2007. Let's hope for even better news.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Buy 'em by the sack

In a sure sign that the apocalypse is nigh, White Castle is selling a new scented candle.
What better way to celebrate National Hamburger Month than with the aroma of a greasy White Castle burger? With the fast food chain's new scented candle, burger lovers can now enjoy the smell of sliders and onions all day long.

The candle's "steam grilled on a bed of onions" scent was created by Nest Fragrances, and the limited-edition candle comes in a ceramic holder designed to mimic White Castle's hamburger packaging, the fast food chain said this week.
Thank goodness it's the burger scent and not the smell-in-the-closed-car-during-the-drive-home scent.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

VA AG moves to chill warming research

Virginia's wingnut Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli II, who is apparently unsatisfied with quixotic suits against the federal government, has found a new target for his politically-motivated ire, climate researcher Michael Mann. The Washington Post reports
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II is demanding that the University of Virginia turn over a broad range of documents from a former professor to determine whether he defrauded taxpayers as he sought grants for global warming research.

The civil investigative demand asks for all data and materials presented by former professor Michael Mann when he applied for five research grants from the university. It also gives the school until May 27 to produce all correspondence or e-mails between Mann and 39 other scientists since 1999.
Cuccinelli's short tenure has included several politically-motivated suits and investigations, including suits against the Environmental Protection Agency over its consideration of greenhouse gas regulations and against the new federal health insurance reforms. These and other misguided stunts make him a darling of the radical right, though his quixotic efforts should earn him the scorn of Virginia taxpayers.

The investigation of Professor Mann is harrassment, pure and simple. Professor Mann is a respected and accomplished researcher. However, Mann's research a decade ago on the "hockey stick" contributed to the findings U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and put him in the crosshairs for climate change skeptics. Mann's methods and results have been disputed, but the general findings have ultimately been upheld.

Mann has previously been subject to right-wing political scrutiny.

The message from these inquisitions is clear. Researchers, who accept federal funds or work at state-funded institutions, publish politically inconvenient results at their own risk.