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Monday, March 26, 2012

2012.03.24 Weekly Address: President Obama Says House Must Pass Bipartisan Transportation Bill

Bringing Back Earmarks
By Leo Brown
[President Obama's Weekly Address]

In an unusual moment of bipartisan legislation, the Senate has passed a transportation bill that would allocate $109 billion to the construction of roads, bridges, and transit infrastructure. If House Republicans support the bill, we will have secured two years of funding for construction projects.

House Speaker John Boehner has felt the heat from all sides, as his proposal did not fly with hard-line tea party Republicans. His ambitious five-year, $260 billion bill includes drilling in the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge, anathema to environmentalists and liberal Democrats. Tea party Republicans refuse to support the bill because of its price tag, which cannot be supported by oil and gas tax revenues.

The main problem with the Senate bill, from the perspective of the House GOP, is that it is full of earmarks. According to Speaker Boehner, "You take the earmarks away, and guess what? All of a sudden people are beginning to look at the real policy behind it. So each one of these bills will rise or fall on their own merits." The GOP House blanket ban on earmarks, now more than a year old, upholds this notion.

Regardless of whether transportation is funded by a long-term bill or another 90-day extension, a ban on earmarks does not accomplish sound policy and needs to be reconsidered. Earmarks, which dedicate federal dollars to local projects, are one of many ways the government can allocate funding. In the past, earmarks have been used irresponsibly, but there is nothing inherently less effective about earmarks than other forms of federal grants. Concerns about corruption and pet projects can be largely addressed on a case-by-case basis, as legislative funding is widely available on individual representatives' websites and on the Office of Management and Budget website. If the House Republicans feel that the system of including legislative earmarks is flawed, they need to propose a bill that will reform this system. Such a bill might require representatives to maintain a competitive, transparent process through which their constituents can vie for earmarks. A boycott, though, will not yield an intelligent result, and it is painfully obvious that our country is worse for the wear.

In the interest of both sustaining funding for worthy local projects and addressing Speaker Boehner's concern about legislative integrity, we might consider a third way. What if earmark spending, which typically amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget, were simply factored into the budget? Congress could pass bills that were entirely dedicated to earmarks. For this, they would have a certain amount of money, roughly equal to what has been spent on earmarks in the past, and individual Congressmen and Senators would have the responsibility of advocating for projects in their districts. This system would allow a certain amount of federal money to support projects that are otherwise sponsored by the state. The system would be institutionalized, streamlined, and much easier to monitor, and the transportation bill would not need to contain any earmarks.

This is only the beginning of an idea, but surely, any idea is better than a thoughtless boycott that fails to address the needs of our communities.

Monday, March 19, 2012

2012.03.17 Weekly Address: Ending Subsidies for Big Oil Companies

Subsidies and the End of Oil
By Leo Brown
[President Obama's Weekly Address]

If only because I read (the print edition of) Ranger Rick as a little boy, I have long taken for granted that oil companies are greedy, heartless, and dangerous for the health of our planet. Glossy spreads of charismatic megafauna and a bright future powered by sun and wind inspired my young convictions.

I'd like to think that my views are a bit more sophisticated today; I understand that we need oil in the near-term. But my distrust of fossil fuels and the lords of the extraction industry remains, and I can't help but expect that some day, maybe in my own lifetime, we will no longer depend on their opiate.

Environmentalists, scientists, and some politicians have been saying for decades that we need to invest in alternative forms of energy. This drumbeat reached a fever pitch in the summer of 2010 as the events of BP's Deepwater Horizon explosion unfolded. 24-hour submarine video feeds dominated the airwaves. Members of Congress lambasted BP CEO Tony Hayward and delivered impassioned soliloquies in defense of the spill victims. In the wake of the worst environmental catastrophe of our nation's history, the case against Big Oil was laden with populist fury and disgust over the industry's latest disaster.

To speak in defense of the oil industry was not a political option (as Rep. Joe Barton quickly discovered). It seemed that, perhaps, we had reached a tipping point that would require lawmakers to clear the path for alternative energy's emergence as a big business in its own right.

Today, President Obama rides what remains of this sentiment and invests his political capital in the inevitability of a green energy revolution. Oil companies don't deserve taxpayer money, he contends. They are wealthy enough already, and we need to look towards a green, sustainable future.

In his argument, the President does not announce outright that he hopes to see the oil industry recede and, ideally, transform into a producer of alternative energy. (Such a transformation would probably be necessary in order to avoid massive loss of employment.) His omission of this position leaves him vulnerable to the legitimate criticism that he is unfairly singling subsidies to the oil industry. Their tax relief is like that of any other big business, and as a result, his argument that oil companies don't need our money, while true, isn't particularly compelling. A more salient point would be that, in the interest of national security, economic viability, and concern for the environment, the oil industry needs to end.

In other words, the government should not pay for what it does not need and does not want. Even if government would, in the end, lose revenue - a very possible outcome - President Obama needs to make the case that this would be a worthy sacrifice.

Oil subsidies are not unique or especially heinous aside from the industry they maintain. If President Obama wants to get rid of them, he needs to move beyond the populist argument that oil CEOs are filthy-rich scoundrels and focus on the fact that the oil industry is what tethers our economy and our environment to the dirty 20th century.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

guest post

Russia Upon a Threshold
By Jared Nourse

Vladimir Putin is back in the office he built. Depending upon who you ask, that could mean a variety of different things. Ask the majority of Russians, and they'll tell you it's a very good thing. Putin represents stability in Russia - the kind of stability that can bring you out of a decade of not knowing when you'll get your next paycheck. Stability is a brand in Russia, a political ideal so high it is unthinkable to challenge, and so Putin found it easy to market himself.

But across the country, there are some remarkable indicators that after 12 years of Putin’s rule, all is not well. Corruption remains unchecked across the country. A guarantee to the rule of law depends on who you are. Life expectancy is a mere 66.46 years, lower than every other post- Soviet country except Tajikistan. Russians die younger than North Koreans. The population is shrinking and the economy is still all too dependent upon natural resources. The education system is failing, and opportunities are still largely available only to those with connections or money.

These problems get a lot of lip service from Putin. But rather than addressing the nation's systemic issues that cause these problems, he prefers to build or exaggerate threats to the Russian people and arrange a decisive response. In fact, Putin’s statism relies on these systemic issues: selective rule of law allowed for control of television and opposition, while corruption gets a wink and a nod for the loyalty of the security services.

The results have had a startling impact on the minds of young Russians. Corruption is considered a fact of life in Russia; if you get stopped, you pay the bribe. It’s a natural economic transaction, a friend explained. "Russians expect it. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just the way it is. Nichevo sdyelat'. There’s nothing to be done."

Schoolchildren beyond a certain age turn to private tutors if their family can afford it. A friend once described to me her English classes at school: "Usually, we go over the homework and then we speak in Russian." The other day, her teacher had given a lecture on politics in Russian to the effect that the only important thing in politics was good looks. Nothing else mattered.

Putin is very handsome, or so it is said.

There are bright spots in schools, of course, but students rely on outstanding individual teachers because they can't on the system. When it comes to finding a berth for higher education, students have the option to pay school administrators to change their all-important test results and improve their chances. It's a discouraging system.

Young Russians have found a way to explain the inequality of Putin’s Russia. Eto Rossiya, they say. This is Russia, it means, but it also means a lot more. This is Russia, it means, and we have some big problems. But this is Russia, nichevo sdyelat'. There’s nothing to be done.

Cynicism runs very high among young Russians. The political arena is a dirty place and if you're honest, you stay out. Our leaders may lie and steal, but so do all of yours, they say. It's a myth that happens to be particularly convenient for the regime, so it's promoted both directly and indirectly. When people think everyone steals, they're more likely to roll over for you.

Some Russian teenagers have been turning to suicide to deal with the problems that this structure causes them, an issue that has been getting more attention of late. But the greater part just wants to leave. I once asked my closest Russian friend how many of her own friends wanted to move to other countries. "Oh, not that many," she replied. "Maybe fifty percent." And they've done their research, too. America can be difficult to get into. Chances are better with Australia, Canada, or a number of Western European countries.

But in the meanwhile, young Russians are also discovering a voice of their own. Finding issues that they care about, they are surprised to learn that they can be heard. As they do, they see how the effects ripple out and change their surroundings, not in ways that threaten the stability that Putin built, but in ways that begin to address the problems he’s failed to address. The actions are simple: attending a rally to express dissent, getting together with a group of friends every week to discuss not problems, but possible solutions, even just spending time every week taking care of street animals. My friends and students did all of these things and more during the time I spent in Russia, contributing what they could towards the growth of civil society in Russia.

With practice, and despite the odds against them, young Russians are slowly disproving that great myth, nichevo sdyelat'. With time, what they do in greater numbers every year will give a new meaning to another phrase, as well. Eto Rossiya, they will say, and it will mean, “This is Russia. Look, this is the Russia we built for ourselves.”

Jared Nourse has worked as an English teacher in Vladimir, Russia, and he is currently exploring other regions of the former Soviet Union. He graduated from Williams College in 2011 with a major in Political Science and a concentration in Leadership Studies. Jared's post is part of an ongoing "Guest Blogger" series. If you're interested in writing, do click the link and be in touch!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

2012.03.10 Weekly Address: Investing in a Clean Energy Future

Our Ball and Chain
By Leo Brown
[President Obama's Weekly Address]

It is astonishing that President Obama needs to convince us that energy efficiency is an important priority. His argument is clear and basic, and he presses on.

Of course, funding (and fear of the unknown, but that's another story) is a big part of why the nation isn't rallying around this cause. President Obama is correct that investment in clean energy would pay manifold dividends in the near future. But we must also, for example, mend our archaic system of education, riddled as it is with perverse incentives and slack. As we lag behind other developed nations in science and math, can we afford to ignore this expensive problem? Must we choose, or do we have enough cash on hand to address both challenges?

I might not be asking these silly questions had the United States not invaded Iraq in 2003. Because hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent to that end, we are left bickering over whether to invest in energy, education, or nothing at all.

However, we must consider that if the United States had not invaded Iraq, we probably would have found another way to spend those few hundred billion dollars. Pressing issues - education and energy efficiency - that pertain directly to the economy and national security would most likely have been neglected anyway. So what is it about our government culture that makes such a dim fate seemingly inevitable?

In an op-ed that President-elect Vladimir Putin wrote prior to the March 4 elections, he accused the United States of  being "obsessed with the idea of securing absolute invulnerability," and announced that this is "the root of the problem." In fact, this is quite an accurate assessment. Americans are obsessed with "securing absolute invulnerability"; one might argue that this is necessarily the aim of a government, even if it is a distant dream. But because our sphere of influence is so immense and our military so vast, remaining invulnerable gets to be quite expensive and, from President-elect Putin's perspective, intolerably invasive. This would be so even if the United States were to refrain from launching wars of choice based on emotional fervor and pitifully faulty intelligence briefings.

Just as Russia is saddled with more land than any single country could possibly manage well, we have consolidated power to an extent that requires most of our economic might to maintain it. This is why we are in debt, and this is why we don't provide for our citizens at the standards of other developed nations. This is why a commitment to clean energy remains a distant dream.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

2012.03.03 Weekly Address: Taking Control of Our Energy Future

The President-elect's Choices
By Leo Brown
[President Obama's Weekly Address]

In the last decade, the Russian government has expanded their web of gas and oil pipelines to such a degree that domestic production will soon be unable to maintain full export capacity. This problem will worsen as western Siberian oil fields, the wellspring of Russian oil since the 1970s, run dry. But instead of investing in new technology to extract oil from other regions, the government will continue to funnel resources into the state-owned pipeline operator, Transneft, and ambitious expansion projects. Though new pipelines will be born, they might well sit underutilized and decrepit.

The muddy economic rationale for these projects caves under the realities of Russia's rising energy needs and finite production capacity. These pipelines are built primarily to allow Russia greater geopolitical leverage and flexibility. The idea is that when a 'transit nation' hosts a Russian pipeline, that nation profits as Russian energy flows. But if Transneft and the government have options of simply doing business elsewhere and rerouting through a different pipeline, the transit nations have much less political leverage. They have a choice of either not dealing with Russia at all, or doing so according to Russia's political, economic, and military conditions.

For these strategic reasons, Russia has, and will continue to have, more pipelines than are economically viable. However, it is still possible for Russia, the world's leading oil producer, to have it both ways.

The Russian economy is quite energy intensive compared to other European nations, and its rapidly expanding auto market is a major contributing factor. Regulation of Russian auto industry standards are lax and, as a result, the potential to fill the new pipelines with oil exports is lost to domestic consumers driving inefficient vehicles. If President-elect Putin sees to fruition President Medvedev's modernization program, the Russian market might be able to function on significantly less oil and gas, thereby freeing up Russian reserves to be strategically exported.

President Obama notes that American fuel efficiency standards are tighter than ever, and the Big Three auto makers are building vehicles that produce many more miles to the gallon. This may bode well for American efforts to develop energy independence while investing in alternatives to fossil fuels. But if President-elect Putin is serious about growing the Russian economy while maintaining a sophisticated network of energy security, he will make a case to his people that the push for energy efficiency is not a Western plot connected with a global warming hoax, but rather a vital component of national security and geopolitical influence.


For a full analysis of Russia's energy choices, refer to Adnan Vatansever's Russia's Oil Exports (or the abstract), published in 2010 by the Energy and Climate Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lots of backlash since my last post on what America should do about its oil addiction. Mostly on facebook and in person, acquaintances have been enlightening me with conflicting announcements of how most of America's oil is exported to China, anyway, or alternatively, around 90% of our oil is domestic, anyway, so our 'dependence on foreign oil' is largely hot air. I try to keep things factual when I can, so I'll be doing some more research to substantiate further posts, as the issue is obviously not going to slip from prominence.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Revival In American Manufacturing, Led By Brooklyn Foodies
This four-minute piece, produced by NPR's Planet Money, explores one route which might enable our land of highly skilled workers and highly particular consumers to compete in the global market. Food for thought.

2012.02.25 Weekly Address: An All-Of-The-Above Approach to American Energy

Four Billion Dollars in Context
By Leo Brown
[President Obama's Weekly Address]

In the interest of developing an "all-of-the-above" approach to American energy, President Obama has reissued his call to end oil subsidies. Without such generous tax breaks, more money could be invested in the development of alternative energy sources or used to pay off the deficit.

But by reducing the oil company's profits, we will, in the short term, reduce domestic production and increasingly rely on foreign oil. Gas prices will rise due to transit costs and tariffs. Without the ability to produce our own energy, our influence in negotiations with foreign governments will dwindle.

Furthermore, the money that oil companies lose will not be taken from monstrous corporate salaries and bonuses. Big oil will simply save the difference by investing in oil production abroad, thereby dodging the matter. The rich will remain rich, and many American refineries will go the way of mid-century mills and plants.

Alternatively, if these companies were incentivized to drill in America, they would be subject to the rules and regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Internal Revenue Code, and US labor laws. But unless there is some impetus to produce domestic oil, profit-driven transnational corporations will inevitably opt for the lax environmental regulations and labor laws of production of Russia, the OPEC nations, and international waters.

"Drill, baby, drill," crooned the GOP, at least until the Deepwater Horizon BP Gulf oil spill of 2010. This call to drilling has been mocked, rightly, as economically backwards, Islamophobic, and ignorant of environmental risks. However, an anti-oil backlash, too, would yield economic and environmental devastation, so long as Americans continue to use oil. We often hear about the quest for energy independence, but an equally important priority is the collection of tax revenues from oil companies - revenues that can be invested in the development of alternative energy sources and used to pay off the deficit.

American oil production, along with the extraction of natural gas (fracking) from Marcellus Shale, can ease our reliance on foreign oil. If the government seriously considers the warnings of scientists and environmental activists, these endeavors can be less environmentally dangerous than foreign extraction, cut down on wasteful transit, and support the American economy.

So, with any luck, President Obama will not spend the entire election season playing word games about saving "four billion dollars of your money" by eliminating tax breaks for oil companies. Surely, he realizes that we could save a great deal more by investing in stringent regulations, incentivizing oil companies to stay in America with tax breaks, and using the revenue to ease the tax burden and invest in alternative energy. Unfortunately, this is not a logical opportunity for the 99% to take their revenge against wealthy CEOs, who will simply take their business abroad if we give them no reason not to.


For a more detailed analysis of the economic consequences of these options, you might like to read Scott McNally's guest post on Scientific American's PluggedIn blog.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

This week's post will be a bit late because I am busy in Washington, DC having an interview!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

guest post

Who Cares About Obamacare Versus Romneycare?
By Jamal Jefferson

During a recent Republican primary debate in Jacksonville, Florida, Senator Rick Santorum questioned Governor Mitt Romney's electability. Governor Romney, who was the probable nominee at the time (Senator Santorum has won three of the five primaries since), continues to defend his involvement in Massachusetts’s Health Care Insurance Reform, which he engineered while serving as governor of Massachusetts. The issue at hand is that the Massachusetts law is similar in its framework to President Barack Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). Senator Santorum called this a "fundamental issue" that Republicans could not tolerate. The "fundamental issue" is that both the Massachusetts law and the new federal law require individuals to purchase health insurance.

The individual mandate is a feature that is considered by many to be anathema to conservative philosophy. Governor Romney, if he wins the Republican nomination, will have to answer tough questions in the general election as he defends why he would repeal the PPACA when Obama himself claims that Romney's reform was the model for the national bill. In a heated quarrel, Santorum said, "I read an article today [and it] has 15 different items directly in common with Obamacare." Unfortunately, it has been difficult to locate this article.

Nevertheless, I have come across several websites that stack up Obamacare vs. Romneycare. Some of the same issues raised during the passage of PPACA bill appear. Yet some of these points were, and still are, irrelevant.

The national healthcare law is over 2,000 pages long, while the Massachusetts bill is only 70 pages. This is a fact that cannot be disputed, but it does not come as a surprise. As the national bill pertains to all 50 states and not just one, it makes sense that the bill is more complicated, and it follows logically that lawmakers needed more trees to create the bill. PPACA was about 1,000 pages in its genesis, but doubled to a little over 2,000 as lawmakers made amendments in efforts to make sure that the bill appeased both sides of the aisle.

Such length is not unusual for national legislation. Major spending bills frequently run more than 1,000 pages. According to Slate Magazine, "[the 2009] stimulus bill was 1,100 pages. The climate bill that the House passed in June [of 2009] was 1,200 pages. Bill Clinton's 1993 health care plan was famously 1,342 pages long. In 2007, President Bush's [budget bill] ran to 1,482 pages."

Furthermore, if you actually read the bill, or any bill, you will notice that not every page is filled like a textbook, or even an essay with 12 point font and one inch margins. Page numbers can be misleading because of these assumptions. In fact, if you take a look at the number of actual words, the bill is as long as a Harry Potter book (counting substantive language), though probably not as gripping, entertaining and comprehensible if you haven't attended law school.

A shallow comparison of these two separate bills allows us to say that they are indeed different, but nothing definitive about the content. However, in the following weeks I will examine the substantive differences between Obamacare and Romneycare. In the mean time, check out Governor Romeny's plan to repeal and replace PPACA that he presented last May in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Jamal Jefferson works as an aide to a radiologist in Cincinatti, Ohio. He graduated from Williams College in 2011 with a major in Biology. Jamal posts regularly as part of an ongoing "Guest Blogger" series. If you're interested in writing, do click the link and be in touch!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

guest post

Whistling Past the Center
By Stefan Ward-Wheten

Bemoaning the failures of the democracy we have is the spectator sport of every election season. The refrain is a familiar one. The two-party system is broken, so goes the logic: left- and right-wing partisans alike are to blame for both the hyperbolic ignorance of the public discourse and the failure of our political institutions to effectively address the acute and growing issues at hand. Columnist David Brooks recently offered up a neat opening statement for the prosecution in the New York Times. "The Democratic and Republican parties used to contain serious internal debates - between moderate and conservative Republicans, between New Democrats and liberals. Neither party does now." Brooks closed by prognosticating that some "third force" would emerge to sweep away the gridlock in Washington in a quasi-Biblical flood.

Right on cue, a third force has indeed emerged from the wings. Americans Elect, a cohort of largely anonymous movers-and-shakers of diverse partisan shades, is organizing a political movement on the sidelines. They've already qualified for the ballot in 14 states, and the campaign, utilizing more than three thousand paid organizers, has raised $22 million so far. The kicker? There isn’t even a candidate yet. Once a slate is assembled, Americans Elect will host the nation's first online primary in June: the candidates will answer questions from AE's members (about 300,000 so far have signed up through the website), and then one will be elected on the Web. Among the prospective hopefuls: Jon Huntsman, former U.S. ambassador to China and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Third parties are often relegated to the butt end of jokes, or at least the quixotic end of political idealism, languishing as they often do under a steep disadvantage in media access, organizing ability and, most crucially, money. Even billionaire Ross Perot, who garnered millions of votes in the 1992 and 1994 elections, garnered mostly derision from his portrayals in the press. This time may be different: Americans Elect appears to have the support, or at least the sympathy, of both the conventional media and of some deep-pocketed donors. Though the full list isn't public, most of known backers come from preeminent business or financial backgrounds. The coverage has been markedly favorable so far, as well. Thomas Friedman, another gadfly from the pages of the Times, eagerly anticipated that the new kids on the proverbial block would "blow the doors off" this election. "Write it down: Americans Elect," Friedman insisted.

One reason for this preemptive welcome, aside from the prospect of spicing up the news cycle, is that rather than distinguishing itself with innovative policies or campaign tactics, Americans Elect presumes to speak from the ideological center. "Our goal is to open up what has been an anticompetitive process to people in the middle who are unsatisfied with the choices of the two parties," declared Kahlil Byrd, CEO of Americans Elect, speaking to Friedman in that same piece. Unlike outsider mavericks like Perot or systemic critics like consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Ackerman and company claim to represent a frustrated but heretofore disenfranchised swath of "middle America" - a new silent majority, if you will.

Such sentiments dovetail nicely with those of commentators like Friedman and Brooks. It is less clear, however, that they will find such a comfortable niche in the current electoral marketplace. Other critics have been less kind to the neophyte caucus. "No one from labor, the clergy, the environmental community, civil or women's rights groups, anti-tax organizations, or any political activist group of any persuasion is on the list," notes Harold Meyerson, writing in the American Prospect. Richard Hasen, a prominent political scholar, pointed out bylaws in the campaign that allow the board and its selected committees to overrule candidate nominations even over members' objections, lambasting the project's leaders for its "democratic deficit."

More partisan critics are quick to point out that the political "center" is a crowded place. "We already have a centrist party," groused Robert Kuttner at the left-liberal online journal AlterNet. "It's called the presidential Democratic Party." By this logic, centrism is based on a misguided belief that both parties have raced towards the radical margins. However, President Obama has aroused the ire of many in his own party by compromising on budgetary and policy issues, and even the more ideologically rigid Republican base sees electability in Mitt Romney’s moderate image. Neither party will cede ground among moderate voters without a fight.

Despite financial heft and media savvy, Americans Elect may well be muscled out of the running by the institutional strength of the 'Big Two,' have many third party hopefuls before them. Still, it's telling that an as-yet-untested electoral model can muster this amount of buzz. For the first time in recent memory, nearly every sentient American is deeply dissatisfied with the political system. Such collective disenchantment, however, disguises fundamental differences in opinion regarding just how to fix things. Staunch left-liberals like Kuttner and Paul Krugman offer a separate diagnosis of current political ills from that of David Brooks, who in turn sees things very differently than libertarians like Ron Paul.

A true "e pluribus unum" moment will not come to pass unless the public is allowed to have honest debates about what they want the United States of America to look like. A high-minded appeal to vague cross-partisan solidarity is unlikely to spark such a moment, and certainly not one that eschews policy in favor of rhetoric. Instead, it requires a transparent and accountable political and business class, an independent and rigorously accurate news media, and a genuine willingness on the part of every citizen to take seriously the task of democratic self-governance. Reformers of any stripe should see to it that these demands, uncomfortable though they are, do not fall by the wayside.

Stefan Ward-Wheten graduated from Williams College in 2011 with majors in Political Science and Comparative Literature. His post is one of an ongoing "Guest Blogger" series. If you're interested in writing, do click the link and be in touch!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

2012.02.18 Weekly Address: Continuing to Strengthen American Manufacturing

How to Bring Jobs Home
By Leo Brown
[President Obama's Weekly Address]

Though China can produce goods more cheaply, "we can make things better." And the cost of setting up shop abroad is rising. And so, the President says, with middle-class families struggling through a slow recovery, we need to give tax breaks to companies that manufacture at home, and not the other way around.

Apple springs to mind. Apple has taken a torrent of flack over the past few weeks as human rights organizations, including and, have singled out the labor conditions of its factories in China.

President Obama doesn't mention this controversy. Instead, he announces that "we can make things better," by which presumably he means 'higher quality,' a claim that anyone who has laid their hands on an iPhone knows is false. Even if products 'Made in America' were, once upon a time, objectively better than imports, this is no longer so. The myth of American exceptionalism is a wan distraction from the threats and opportunities of emerging economies.

Apple, and plenty of other companies, have figured out a way to manufacture goods abroad both cheaply and well. This leaves the President with only one indisputable leg of his argument: that jobs continue to seep offshore, and the government needs to stem the tide as our nation gropes for a semblance of economic vitality.

Tax breaks for companies that manufacture in our country make complete sense. This is a straightforward approach to leveling the playing field in our country of high living costs and stringent labor laws. The President would strengthen his argument by acknowledging the disparity between American labor laws and those of China, India, and other outsourcing hubs. Perhaps this is what he means by saying that "we can make things better," but we can't afford to grant President Obama the benefit of the doubt.

The iPhone may never come home. But if the President wants to bring any jobs back to America, he needs to make a clear case that labor conditions abroad are unacceptable and come down hard on companies that pay little heed to the rights of their employees. Not only could this be considered a moral obligation, it would be a much more compelling case for moving jobs home than "we want them back."

Ignoring the problem won't make it go away, and waxing eloquent about the quality of American goods won't move the bottom line. The President wants to adjust the tax code, and there is a good reason to do it; we are waiting for him to spell it out.

Monday, February 13, 2012

2012.02.11 Weekly Address: Extending the Payroll Tax Cut for the Middle Class

Culture War Queen
By Leo Brown
[President Obama's Weekly Address]

Much ado has been made of the American tendency to vote against our own economic self-interest. In his famous response to Karl Rove's 'conservative coalition' of the 2004 presidential election, Thomas Frank published a book entitled What's the Matter with Kansas? Mr. Frank makes the case that social issues are used as a distraction while the conservative elite push through discriminatory tax and spending policy.

In a two-party system, there might not be a candidate who opposes gay marriage while favoring progressive tax policy, and poor evangelical Christians don't have the option of mixing and matching.

Eight years after the beginning of President Bush's second term, social issues - the 'culture wars' - remain at the fore, but the terrain has shifted. As state after state legalizes gay marriage, LGBT rights are increasingly considered civil rights, if only as a matter of grudging pragmatism. Other social issues that were once blamed on immorality and the degradation of Western culture, such as abortion rights and environmental activism, have been complicated by a richer understanding of our circumstances. Less often, today, do we hear about the supposed Judeo-Christian origins of our nation. Tempers and passions may not have chilled, but a sense of slight chaos has permeated some of these most iconic ideological standoffs.

Budget concerns, on the other hand, have emerged as the latest opportunity for posturing and political feud. It's clear that over time, all but a few pariah states will legalize gay marriage, but no one is sure how the budget mess will resolve. In this sense, it is a perfect political tool, allowing for grandstanding and condescension from all angles.

Furthermore, though Americans have been receiving handouts from the government since the Declaration of Independence, it seems to have become passe to publicly ask for them. This is a familiar and sad perversion of 'self-sufficiency,' a most treasured folk value firmly grounded in American exceptionalism.

In his weekly address, President Obama asks us to consider how $40 per paycheck might impact a working family's financial situation. It's clear where he is going with this. Will the underprivileged masses vote with their wallets, or will they buy a manufactured narrative of warped nostalgia that disregards their economic needs? Will they choose cash or pride?

Republican voters have found in a presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, the embodiment of their oppressor. The enormously wealthy Mr. Romney doesn't seem to viscerally feel the 'culture war' values of the Republican base, but he croons conservatism and callous economic policy. It remains to be seen whether Republicans primary voters will buy his pitch.

Certainly, Mr. Romney's family wouldn't miss $40 per paycheck. But how would he answer President Obama's thought experiment? Regardless of whether Mr. Romney really believes conservative economic policy is best for our GDP, does he realize how it would impact an average family? Has he ever bought his own groceries or a tank of gas?

Friday, February 10, 2012

guest post

Santorum Rising
By Meredith Annex

Every time Romney's imminent nomination is banally announced, something seems to happen that re-opens the fray. This week, that 'something' was Rick Santorum's three-fold victory in Minnesota, Colorado, and the Missouri "beauty contest."

Colorado and Minnesota are both states that Romney won in the 2008 primary season. As Maggie Haberman of Politico notes, "four years ago, when [Romney] won Colorado and Minnesota, John McCain was the likely nominee, and the former Massachusetts governor was seen as the electable conservative alternative." Now, Romney is the likely nominee, and the 'electable alternate' is, well, questionable. Until a few days ago, I would have said Newt Gingrich: a man with a proven track record of upholding Republic ideals, if not family values. But something, perhaps the growth of the Tea Party, has led caucus voters to find themselves with Santorum.

Even more worrying, in this light, are the results in Missouri. Sure, the Missouri poll doesn’t result in delegates. But in 2008, John McCain, the front-runner and by most standards the moderate candidate, was voted as Mr. Missouri. How, then, can we interpret the fact that Missouri finds Santorum prettier than Romney?

Really, the most certain conclusion is that voters are still looking for alternatives to Mitt Romney. In the October Straw Poll, Nevada voters rode the concurrent Herman Cain wave, giving the pizza guru a 31% approval to Romney’s 29%. Similarly, Public Policy Polling found in August 2011 that, on the verge of Rick Perry’s rise, Coloradans were equally split between Perry and Romney. Given the historic eagerness of these voters to support alternatives to Romney, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find Santorum topping these caucus results. That’s not a silver lining for the Romney campaign, but it’s not a resounding endorsement for Rick either.

A similarly ambiguous factor is the role of the recent news outbreaks in the United States regarding abortion rights. Politico’s Heberman notes that the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood controversies likely motivated support from the ultra-right, whose political positions tend to favour Santorum. If news coverage actually had a significant role in shaping the primary results, then this goes to show the volatility of every candidate’s popularity right now.

A final factor to consider is, of course, money and campaign effort. The Washington Post reports that, "Gingrich did not compete in Missouri and spent limited time in Colorado and Minnesota. He looked past Tuesday's contests and instead campaigned in Ohio, one of several delegate-rich states voting on Super Tuesday." The Post's analysis may explain Gingrich’s lower performance, but cannot account for Romney's poor showing despite having the best-funded campaign. Perhaps, here, Santorum is on the money when he stated: "If money made the difference, we wouldn’t have won four primaries so far...We’re not running for CEO of this country – we’re running for someone who can lead this country."

Given this, what should we look for going into Super Tuesday on March 6? Romney’s superior campaign finance may give him a slight edge, but so far this hasn’t translated into clear-cut victories. The polls also indicate a bumpy few weeks. An October poll has Maine voters supporting Herman Cain over Mitt Romney, suggesting that this state’s caucus on February 11th could easily follow a similar pattern to Minnesota and Colorado. Any “surprise” victories for Gingrich, Santorum, or both in the caucuses leading up to Super Tuesday would be yet another obstacle for Romney’s nomination and would make the Republican field that much messier. Yet winning in Maine, Michigan, and Arizona can’t ensure a victory for Gingrich and won’t clear a pathway for Santorum either. Super Tuesday has the potential for some very close races that could change the tides in this Republican primary season. In the meantime, I’d suggest keeping up with roller-coaster headlines and finding a comfortable seat.

Meredith Annex is pursuing a master's degree in Environmental Economics and Climate Change at the London School of Economics. She graduated from Williams College in 2011 with a major in Economics and concentration in Environmental Studies. Her post is one of an ongoing "Guest Blogger" series. If you're interested in writing, do click the link and be in touch!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

guest post

A Fallacy of Comparison
By Jamal Jefferson

In President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, health care was scarcely mentioned. Only in a segment of his speech in which he speaks about the oil spills off the Gulf of Mexico does he add, "I will not go back to the days when health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny you coverage, or charge women differently from men."

Meanwhile on the Republican presidential trail, the candidates have not been shy on the matter. The remaining four candidates all vows to repeal the bill once elected as President. And if the front runner of the Republican Party, Mitt Romney, does in fact become the Republican Party nominee, this issue will be one of the hot topics of debate, as many claim the Massachusetts health care reform law ("Romneycare") is the framework of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare").

Outside of politics, some in academia are looking at the health care problems in a different light. Instead of focusing on the issues of clinical medicine, some are focusing of the issues of preventative medicine. But the problems are interdigitated between clinical and preventative health and solutions will not come from one branch of medicine or the other. Therefore, strong proponents of preventative health may also miss the mark when it comes to finding truly effective solutions to the US’s health issues.

On December 8th, 2011, Dr. Elizabeth H. Bradley, professor of public health at Yale and faculty director of its Global Health Leadership Institute, and Lauren Taylor, a program manager at Yale’s Global Health Leadership Institute, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled "To Fix Health, Help the Poor." The authors point out that the US spends more on health care than any other country, yet still ranks low in life expectancy, infant mortality, and maternal mortality among developed nations. They claim that the US does not spend enough on social programs, which in turn relates to our sub-par health care statistics. According to Dr. Bradley’s research, in 2005, "Sweden, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark dedicated 33 percent to 38 percent" of their gross domestic product to health and social services combined, compared to the US, which only spent 29 percent. But is it so easy to look at these numbers and simply conclude that spending more on social services would improve US health statistics?

It is doubtful that the reallocation of funds from health care to social programming will have a significant effect on our world health rankings. The article did not present any "real" or applicable examples of reallocation and relied primarily on a macroeconomic approach which would naturally support their conclusion. In fact, the issues preventing the US from improving their world health rankings are far more complicated. When describing the factors particular to health inequity among women in Detroit, where white women experience 4.6 deaths per 1,000 live births while black women experience 16.6 deaths per 1,000 live births, Dr. Talat Danish of the Wayne County Health Department suggested six different issues: 1) unemployment, 2) a lack of education, 3) women being socially isolated, 4) poverty, 5) a lack of gender equity in pay, and 6) the social perception of women. These deeply rooted issues are the crux of many of our health disparities in America. The article did not provide enough evidence to support the rudimentary claim that more money in social programming will sufficiently tackle these complicated issues plaguing America.

The authors' macroeconomic stance bears fallacy because it compares the United States with other countries with dissimilar health care systems. They do not mention that developed countries like Sweden and France have some kind of basic health care systems funded by taxes and levies, allowing citizens access to health care free of charge (not including taxes, of course). For example, preventative health measures are more easily accessed in countries with universal health care systems because they do not pay out pocket for health services. The fundamental differences in how the health care systems work do not allow for accurate systematic comparisons, leading the authors to inaccurate conclusions.

I agree that social programming is needed to improve our health disparities in our country. However, the authors’ large scaled comparison is too simplified for such a complex issue.

Jamal Jefferson works as an aide to a radiologist in Cincinatti, Ohio. He graduated from Williams College in 2011 with a major in Biology. Jamal's post is the first in an ongoing "Guest Blogger" series. If you're interested in writing, do click the link and be in touch!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

In response to yesterday's post, a reader brought this Super Bowl ad to my attention, "Halftime in America." Whether or not American values are held in common, whether or not they exist at all, this spot leaves little doubt that the very notion remains powerful in our popular culture.

Moralizing political narratives or otherwise, we've got some soul-searching to do.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

2012.02.04 Weekly Address: It’s Time for Congress to Act to Help Responsible Homeowners

Doing The Wrong Thing
By Leo Brown
[President Obama's Weekly Address]

Since I'm still here, I'll pass along a news bit of interest from the UK. There's been a row with Argentina, apparently, about the status of the Falkland Islands. The Falkland Islands were uninhabited until colonial powers started bickering over them in the seventeenth century, and not much has changed since. Today, a few thousand Brits live there, but the Argentinians feel sovereign, as the islands rest on their continental shelf.  This all resulted in a war and hundreds of deaths in 1982. So, the question has been kicking around certain circles of London: are these islands really worth it? Why not just repatriate these southerly Brits and end the madness?

For one thing, there might be oil there.

This week, President Obama paints with broad strokes, his narrative of the past decade grounded in morality and "American values like fairness and responsibility." When some of us strayed from those values, our society was punished with a housing crisis and financial collapse.

The President could make just the same policy proposal - providing financial assistance to responsible homeowners who were swindled by the financial industry - without the tale.* But it is election season now, a time of oversimplified scripts that blame a faceless enemy (or an incumbent president) for the nation's woes. For President Obama, especially as the Occupy movement resonates and a campaign against Candidate Romney emerges, bankers and investors provide an excellent moral foil.

President Obama is practiced in making a case based on "doing the right thing." He, as so many American politicians, speaks often of "American values." Perhaps such platitudes from all angles are what have made it so difficult to muster a coherent exchange of ideas.

American values? What are these, and what do we Americans have in common that might endow us with a set of values? Not a common heritage, not a common religion. Our cultural chaos, if anything, might be our most legitimate claim to individuality among nations. Some things that we do have in common, such as democracy and freedom of speech, are no longer especially American. Other things, such as the deranged consumer culture that we export like opium, America could do without. The treasures and shames of our local folk cultures are hardly universally shared or understood.

Fairness and responsibility? Our nation may have been founded upon these ideas, but they are far too subjective to use as a basis for a policy argument. This has been proven time and again, with politicians of all stripes crooning to their bases about "doing the right thing." Because we have so little in common, there is no consensus on what the "right thing" is, so naturally, nothing is accomplished.

On the other hand, we might accomplish a great deal if we seriously engage a popular question of today: what are the government's actual responsibilities? More specifically, what is the government legally obligated to do? As much as I'd like the government to act morally, I know that sometimes it won't, according to my personal views. Put another way, I know that it usually hasn't, and I'm not foolish enough to expect moral justification to suddenly swing in my favor.

I don't expect that Congress would suddenly function if we stop posturing about morality. But it couldn't hurt. And maybe then, once we've acknowledged the absence of a moral consensus about anything, our government could return to its proper business of providing citizens with the services we are willing and able to finance at tax rates that don't favor the oligarchs.

*But who is really responsible when a big bank deceives an uneducated homebuyer and bets on their failure, all while managing to obey the law?

Monday, January 30, 2012

2012.01.28 Weekly Address: President’s Blueprint Includes Renewal of American Values

Our Government is a Laughingstock
By Leo Brown
[President Obama's Weekly Address]

For now, I am stranded in London, the result of a travel documents SNAFU. London is not such a terrible place to be stranded.

America looks quite different from across the pond. Who supports the Tea Party, anyway, the Brits ask me. Doesn't the Republican primary contest remind you of reality TV? Do you realize what the stakes are for the next election? Why are American men so obsessed with masculinity?

It's tricky for Londoners to figure out quite why American politics work the way they do, because they're used to something a bit more functional and dignified.

For the last few days, the news here has been all about a proposed welfare cap. Should an unemployed person collect more from the government than the average worker? What about additional benefits for families with children? Can we figure out a plan that is fair, humane, and without a perverse incentive to produce more babies and remain unemployed?

As in America, the debate is based on conflicting theories of what the government ought to do for its people. But here in the United Kingdom, you can see why people might disagree, and you can see where they're coming from. Whereas political sound bytes in America are scripted and calculated, often with little regard for facts or the public good, the UK elected officials speak with passion, conviction, and logical progressions of thought. They prove that two opposing positions can both make some sense. It is inspiring to hear a government argue and weigh the benefits and drawbacks of a proposed bill.

Most Londoners have been confused about why Sarah Palin or Herman Cain are taken seriously as politicians. And yes, folks like these do shame us as a nation. But our more serious problems are the sort that President Obama bemoans once again in this week's address: "the corrosive influence of money in politics," unchecked "personal ambition," and an obsession over political differences. These fundamental problems, more than any laughingstock faux politician, are what threaten our rights as citizens and quality of life.

Of course, the UK government is not perfect. But ours is just embarrassing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

2012 State of the Union Address

[video] [transcript]

President Obama is determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and he "will take no options off the table to achieve that goal."

But why does he expect Iran to cooperate? He must realize that brutal economic sanctions will turn Iranian people against America and the West while strengthening the rhetoric of Iran's extremist government. And why would President Ahmadinejad listen to America as we chastise him for aspiring to elevate his country's military might? He would probably be less intent on developing a nuclear arsenal if we didn't have one of our own. In any case, if President Obama and NATO somehow bully Iran into publicly backing down, will surely continue a nuclear program in secret.

So it seems that President Obama is setting himself and his country up for the tough choice between failure and war. But what are we doing to brace ourselves and the world for a nuclear Iran? Are we afraid to talk about that?

Monday, January 23, 2012

2012.01.21 Weekly Address: America is Open for Business

Luring the Russians
By Leo Brown
[President Obama's Weekly Address]

As Brazil, China, and India develop their middle classes, the United States might benefit from an influx of curious, newly mobile tourists. President Obama speaks this week about the importance of the tourist industry and what he is doing to support it.

Led by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, Congress and the President have already passed the Travel Promotion Act of 2009. This act imposes a $10 fee on international tourists, money which is then used to support Brand USA, an entity charged with promoting the United States as a vacation spot. Now, President Obama is pushing for an easier visa application process, further development of Brand USA, and an expansion of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board to include a new group of CEOs in the industry.

This all will help. But if you ask a Russian (yes, Russia's middle class is growing, too) why they haven't visited America, two common responses are:

"It's too expensive to get there," or

"It's too expensive to get around once you're there."

This second issue is huge. Even if Russians could get to America for free, it would still be a better deal to visit Europe, simply because everything there is closer together. Many Russians consider a trip to America silly, but not because they don't want to come here. Their concern is that all of the best-known and most enticing places in America - New York, Miami, Las Vegas, to name a few - are so far apart. For the price of a flight from Washington to Hollywood, a Russian could fly to Paris twice or Thailand thrice. A trip to the States is not cost-effective.

It's safe to assume that Congress will not pass a bill subsidizing flights for Russians tourists who want to hit up Vegas for the weekend. But surely, we could convince Russians that it's worthwhile to visit a section of America rather than the whole thing. As for the northeast, we could capture their imaginations with glossy advertisements for Berkshire leaves while handing out spoonfuls of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. While everyone knows that one can rage on the beaches of Miami, international tourists might not realize that they can drive for an hour in one direction to the Florida Keys or in another to the Everglades. And no tour of central California would be complete without a visit to Fort Ross, the southernmost outpost of the Russian Empire, situated less than an hour from San Francisco. Brand USA is promoting travel to America, but in order to make a realistic and enticing impression, they need to showcase specific regions, rather than the Top Ten Most Famous Spots of Americana, which are undeniably scattered every which way.

Needless to say, our more serious problem with international tourism is the result of American hostility to language learning and non-Americans in general. We could start by translating signage in major cities to Mandarin, Hindi, and Spanish. But while we tackle the endemic malfunctions of our education system and national superiority complex, we might also buy some billboard space near Red Square, or perhaps simply produce some welcoming YouTube videos trumpeting all that specific regions of our country have to offer. No need to keep it a secret.