May 27, 2013

"Crumbling roads and bridges": A lesson in finger pointing

After last week's bridge collapse in Washington State (and the one in Minneapolis before it), the knee jerk reaction is to blame our nation's "crumbling roads and bridges" on a lack of funding, and by extension miserly Republicans who want to cut spending. And while there is a case to be made that a lot of our highway system needs repair, that is neither because of a lack of funding, nor Republicans standing in the way.

Between 2002 and 2006 when we had a Republican in the White House and Republican majorities in Congress, total public construction spending on roads went from $62,553,000,000 to $78,215,000,000, an increase of 25%. At the same time, we were fighting two wars, creating new national education and Medicare programs, and cutting taxes. Lest anyone think Republicans are anarchistic social Darwinists.

Between 2007 and 2010 the Republican was succeeded by a Democrat in the White House and Democrats took over both houses of Congress. Public spending on roads went from the previous $78,215,000,000 to $80,100,000,000, an increase of...wait for it...2%. Certainly it hasn't risen anymore since Republicans took back the House at the end of 2010, but if you're only going to increase it by 5% over 4 straight years of Democratic control, any argument about what the other guys do is hilariously hypocritical.

The really insidious thing about this data is what occurred right in the middle of that second time period: Stimulus! The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in February 2009 by the Democrat-led Congress and signed by President Obama was sold as an "emergency" measure designed to jump start our economy primarily by funding "shovel-ready" (HA HA HA HA HA) infrastructure projects and green energy investment. It did neither. The month the stimulus was passed, public spending on roads was $81,762,000,000. One year later it was 5% lower at $77,779,000,000 and didn't peak until May 2010 at $86,203,000,000.

The main thing the stimulus did (apart from cutting taxes, which I could have sworn was a bad thing...) is create a massive slush fund for public sector unions. At a time when tax revenues were down during and immediately after the recession, states took a hit to their bottom line and faced cutting employees. Given the overwhelmingly Democratic leanings of public employees, that just wasn't an option. So the stimulus basically propped up state budgets to keep their employees working (and contributing to their unions). That's why Department of Education appropriations from the stimulus were twice as high as Department of Transportation. Instead of repairing old bridges, we kept school administrators comfortable. Instead of repaving roads, the NEA stayed happy.

There is certainly an argument to be made (though not one I'd agree with) for maintaining state employment during tough economic times with massive infusions of federal tax dollars. But that's not the argument that was presented to the American people. Instead we were told that all our infrastructure problems would be solved and the economy would bounce back. Neither happened.

May 24, 2013

New Cynicus Prime policy: Don't engage bigots and homophobes

Thirteen years after the Supreme Court affirmed the Boy Scouts of America and other private organizations' right to limit their membership as they choose, delegates of the BSA voted yesterday by 61-39% to allow gay scouts to join (up to age 18). The reaction among the neandercon religious right was predictably swift, vile, and unchristian. Jesus befriended prostitutes, gamblers, and soulless bureaucrats. But you demand the "freedom of association" to not allow teh gheyz in your group? Really?

I've tried reasoning with these people in the past on this. I even tried last night in the fury of the immediate aftermath of the BSA decision. It's beyond futile. With polls rapidly leaving them in the dirt, it is no longer worth anyone's time to intellectually engage on these issues. They're wrong, they'll never accept it, and their hateful, ignorant position will be all but extinct within a decade.

May 22, 2013

No, an increase in 501c4 applications is not an excuse for IRS targeting

Many Democrats on Congressional committees investigating the IRS discrimination against conservative organizations applying for tax-exempt status have used an increase in these applications to excuse the discrimination itself. They suggest that applications "doubled" between 2009 and 2012, over the time the discrimination took place. Some go even further to suggest that the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case, decided January 2010, led immediately to the doubling of applications. They then ask if the resources allocated to the IRS to handle this "doubled" caseload was correspondingly increased.

This all seems like a reasonable argument, but for one minor detail. The IRS began targeting in March 2010. The cases "doubled" between 2010 and 2012, not 2009 and 2010. They only went up 30% the year after targeting began, and another 48% the year after that.

IRS officials would have had to be able to predict only two months after Citizens United that their caseload was going to increase significantly over the next three years in order for their actions to be even marginally excusable from an efficiency standpoint. But as the Treasury Inspector General has testified, even in that case, the specific targeting of certain types of groups is unacceptable.

May 16, 2013

A rough timeline of the IRS harassment scandal

5/13/09 - President Obama jokes about using an IRS audit to punish someone over an NCAA basketball tournament bracket.

March 2010 - IRS begins selectively and purposefully stalling hundreds of conservative groups' applications for non-profit status with prohibitively detailed information requests, while fast-tracking liberal groups' applications.

Star Trek, Through the Looking Glass

The latest Star Trek movie in JJ Abrams' rebooted franchise is titled 'Into Darkness'. It could just as easily be titled 'Through the Looking Glass'.

I'll avoid direct spoilers here, but as many production details over the last year suggested, Into Darkness is a remake of sorts of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.  Except after the chronology break that occurred because of the time travel in the last movie, most of the important points are reversed. It's an innovative, but extremely risky move, especially since Wrath of Khan is viewed by many Trek fans as the best film in the over 30-year franchise. 

The plot of Into Darkness on paper is excellent. Everything fits into place in sequence and with a purpose, but most of it feels like a puzzle that's been fit together out of lots of shiny pieces rather than a picture that started off whole but made of individual components. Loud chase sequence(s), classic Trek villain, the Enterprise in peril, flagrant violation of Starfleet regulations, logic vs intuition debates, obligatory "GRAB MY HAND!1!!" falling scene, inappropriate one-liners, it's all there. But it doesn't feel like it comes together to make one cohesive whole.

May 15, 2013

Impeachment, the worst idea ever

Stop. Seriously, just stop.

Impeachment is the civil punishment of a public official for "high crimes and misdemeanors". In the federal government it is voted on by the House of Representatives. The impeachment itself has no significant consequence. It is then followed by a trial in the Senate. If convicted, the possible punishment is removal from office and disqualification from future office. A regular criminal process can then take place.

None of these aspects of the process is advisable right now in relation to the Benghazi, IRS, AP, EPA, or other scandals.

May 13, 2013

Friday, May 10, 2013: The day the Obama administration came crumbling down

In April we had the Worst Week Ever, including the Boston marathon bombing and West TX explosion. For the Obama administration, last Friday was the Worst Day Ever.

The House Oversight Committee's hearing about the Benghazi terrorist attack was two days prior, and on Friday more details came out about the changes made to the talking points used by various administration officials in the weeks to cover their tracks following the attack.

Later that day, the IRS apologized for specifically targeting "tea party" and "patriot" labeled groups in applying for non-profit status.

Now we learn today that on Friday the AP was notified by the DOJ that they had seized two full months of telephone records for 20 of their reporters' phone lines.

May 10, 2013

What America really thinks about abortion might surprise you

A large portion of the last presidential election cycle was spent talking about abortion. It wasn't always front and center (the "war on women" was basically a smokescreen for abortion), but it was there. President Obama was obviously on the side of abortion rights, and he won. So it might surprise you to know that a large majority of the country thinks abortion should be illegal under all or almost all circumstances.

According to a new Gallup poll taken over the last week of 1500 adults, 58% of the country thinks abortion should be totally illegal or only legal in "a few circumstances" (presumably the standard exceptions of rape, incest, and life of the mother), essentially the Republican position. Only 39% think it should be legal in all or most cases, the Democrat position. How then was the President able to so effectively demagogue the issue in 2012?

Even more shocking, especially considering the campaign rhetoric last year, is the almost total lack of gender gap on the issue. Conventional wisdom is that women are more pro-choice than men. However, there is only a difference of 2% in the pro-life majority between men and women, with 59% of men and 57% of women opposing abortion in all or most cases.

May 2, 2013

A progressively gayer flag

I love the American flag. It represents so many wonderful things about our nation - its values, its history, its individual member states' sovereignty, its unity among those states. Not that it needs to be changed, but I often daydream about ways to represent new ideas on the already powerful image of the flag. Back in my more naively anti-capitalist youth, I thought of replacing the stars on the flag with corporate logos. It turns out someone had already done that.

Just today I thought of a new one while thinking about the ongoing struggle for marriage equality in the various states. There is already a rainbow flag, and an American flag with a rainbow instead of 13 stripes. But what if certain stars were replaced with the rainbow instead, to show which states had legalized gay marriage?

May 1, 2013

Chris Broussard: Unknowing bigot or theological outlier?

Yesterday on ESPN, reacting to Jason Collins coming out as the first gay NBA player, analyst and columnist Chris Broussard avoided the cultural and athletic angle and went straight for the theological.

Some called him courageous for his comments. Some demanded his suspension. I don't think Broussard should be either reprimanded or applauded for his comments. In terms of personal offensiveness, they were pretty tame. However, there are huge theological implications of what he said.