Flip-flopping, considered.

May 31, 2010

Flip-flop.  It is a word that is used constantly in today’s political culture.  But what is it, really?  Is a flip-flop always a bad thing when it occurs?

The term flip-flop became a major part of our political lexicon during the 2004 Presidential election, when U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) was caught in a confusing twist of words.  He was explaining his stance on the Iraq War, and in the course of explaining an appropriations vote for the war, he stated that “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”  What he was actually saying was that he voted for an alternative funding bill that rolled back some of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts to pay for the supplemental war funding.  When it became evident that the measure would not pass, he came out against the funding.  Nevertheless, this caused Republicans to call him a “flip-flopper”.

Since then, however, the term has been used in such an exhaustive and expansive manner, that simply reconsidering an earlier position after looking at the experiential evidence will cause you to be labeled a “flip-flopper”.  I see this as dangerous because it will essentially prevent elected officials from making corrections to bad policy.  This is not to say that flip-flopping does not happen; it is to say that Americans should not view every change of heart as a bad thing.  For example:

1. U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC)

  • Jones is a Republican that represents North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District, a district that includes Camp LeJeune and Cherry Point Marine Base and encompasses much of the eastern part of the state.  Jones is a pretty conservative Congressperson, scoring high marks on legislative votes from groups like the American Conservative Union.  He was initially a strong supporter of the Iraq War, which is not surprising given the heavy military population of district.  He was also the proponent behind changing the menu in the House cafeteria to read “freedom fries” after France objected to the war.  However, in 2007, he decided that the evidence did not add up, and switched his support.  Said Jones, “I just feel that the reason of going in for weapons of mass destruction, the ability of the Iraqis to make a nuclear weapon, that’s all been proven that it was never there.”
  • Verdict: I think that more Congresspeople should have the courage to admit when they are wrong, and to show that by changing the way that they vote on an issue, which Jones has done by introducing a bill that would require Congressional approval before going to war with Iran, and introducing the War Powers Resolution, which would require an act of Congress to go to war.  He is not a flip-flopper.

2. U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA)

  • It has only been very recently that I have been able to put that D next to his name.  Specter has not always been a Republican; prior to 1965, he was a registered Democrat.  So while he may have been hoping that the voters of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would see his 2009 switch to the Democratic Party as a coming home for the prodigal son, they did not.  Specter was defeated in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary on May 18.  How did this happen?  How did a Senator that had represented the Commonwealth in the Senate for the past 30 years end up defeated by an upstart Congressperson from Delaware County that was only in his second term?  Well, because of this:

And this:

And this:

  • Verdict: While he may have been a Democrat at one time, Democratic primary voters could never forget that he gave the Bush administration plenty of cover because of his sometimes liberal stances and experience as a District Attorney for Philadelphia County, PA.  Had he issued a statement like “I am not leaving the Republican Party, the Republican Party has left me” or something like that, he may have been able to keep his seat in the Senate.  But because he laid bare his political calculation behind the switch, you have to consider him a flip-flopper.

People love to rail against against a seemingly unresponsive government, yet they do not allow for the people that make decisions to listen to the public and consider their position thoughtfully.  Officials get called “ditherers” or “flip-floppers” for doing so.  I, for one, value the person that can go beneath the surface on an issue, do some hard, gut-check thinking about their position, listen to the people that matter to them (in this case, constituents), and decide that maybe they got it wrong.  I have no doubt that the best elected officials always do.


The Flat Tax – Is It Really All Bad?

May 30, 2010

A few days ago, Craig examined the Fair Tax which is a tax system based largely on sales tax. Today, I will examine the pros and cons of the Flat Tax which is a tax system based on income taxes with everyone paying the same rate. Because everyone pays the same flat rate and loopholes are eliminated in the process, everyone pays in and everyone pays less than they do under the current system. Estimates often suggest a tax rate of 10-15%. Compare that to current rates.

Often, it is rejected out of hand as a regressive tax. At one time, I too recited the usual talking points on the issue. But after examining the issue during my undergraduate career, I began seeing it in a different light. And in recent years, a few liberal economists (a tiny minority) have begun to soften their position on the issue. The fact is that people would pay the same rate so by definition it is not a regressive tax. A regressive tax is one where those with lower incomes pay relatively more. Under a Flat Tax system, everyone would pay the same.

Today, we are locked into a system that has been rigged for the wealthy and corporations. Credits and loopholes exist for everything imaginable. As a result, of this and recent reductions in tax rates for the wealthy, the lower and middle income earners have picked up the slack through increased property taxes, sales taxes, and various other taxes and fees.

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Affirmative Action – A Collaborative Discussion

May 28, 2010

Affirmative Action is a complex and confusing topic that often incites passionate views in one direction or another. But when the dust settles, there is some room for consensus about the benefits of affirmative action and some diverse views about what affirmative action policy should look like going forward. Below, the four of us take on this hot button issues.

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The Unfair “FairTax”

May 27, 2010

For my first post, I thought I would tackle something that divides Republicans. Gaining momentum in the Missouri legislature has been to exchange the Missouri income tax system and replace it with a sales tax, commonly known as the “FairTax” system. The Missouri House has shown that they are able to pass it, but the Missouri Senate is where the plan has stalled.

In Missouri, the sales tax plan would “not exceed 7%.” Switching to a sales tax-based plan is a bad idea. The champions of the plan argue that everyone will get a probate, or check that would cover the increased cost in taxes on necessities. No incomes taxes and receiving a check by the state each month sounds good right? Re-evaluate this with me with 3 major considerations.

1. The plan does exempt a few services such as tuition paid for education and donations to charities to be exempt. The following is a small list of what would be charged sales taxes that do not currently charge sales tax:

  1. Rent
  2. Healthcare/Dental Care
  3. Prescription Drugs
  4. Utilities (including cable/internet)
  5. Child care
  6. Purchasing cars/homes, etc.

While a 7% sales tax may not be much on a $10 a month prescription drug, it is significant on that home that did cost $100,000, has increased to $107,000. Rent for us college age students would rise from $600 per month to $642 a month.

2.  While the plan said the statewide sales tax wouldn’t be more than 7%, would this bring in enough revenue to Missouri? Because no state has made a transition fully to a “fair tax” system, to reach current revenue estimates, this tax rate could need to be as high as 12%.

Because the plan is capped at 7%, if Missouri makes this transition and were to bring in say $7 billion instead of the anticipated $8 billion, the state would be forced to make cuts to balance the budget. The Missouri legislature just cut over $500 million in General Revenue from its budget, and that was incredibly difficult to do. We will see a tougher budget year in 2012. Do we want to see a change in our tax system to create instability when budget times are already incredibly tight?

Let’s take myself as an example. Under the current tax system, while it is complicated, I hired an accountant to do my taxes. As both full time students, my wife and I had no tax liability (state or federal) and had a nice tax return. This wouldn’t be possible under the “fair tax” plan. The only calculator that I found online to attempt to compare the two systems was on the Fair Tax’s website. This calculator is of no help because it compares a federal “FairTax” plan.

3. An argument for the “FairTax” is that it would lower consumer prices, and increase consumer spending. While saying that if we take away taxes from a business, that they will immediately drop the cost of the product by the amount they are taxed is speculating, let’s go with it.

Because this plan is just for Missouri, would a company decrease their prices in Missouri and not the rest of the country? I don’t think so.
The “FairTax” model plans on consumer spending. The average family is over $8,000 in debt in credit cards alone by purchasing consumable items. Assuming a family does save money under a new system, do they help keep the economy afloat by purchasing a higher taxed item or do they pay down their credit card debt or pay bills with? Or, do they go to Illinois or Arkansas to purchase their $20,000 car instead of Missouri?

I would encourage everyone to read about the “FairTax” before making their opinion. Many research groups (proponents would argue these groups are liberal organizations) have said that moving to a consumption tax in Missouri would increase taxes for 95% of Missourians. During public testimony, dozens of groups testified in opposition to the proposal. Fortunately for Missourians, this proposal will not appear on the 2010 ballot, but this proposal isn’t completely dead yet.

Term Limits, considered.

May 26, 2010

There is one thing that the proponents of term limits have gotten right: legislatures should be of, for, and by the citizens.  While I heap praise on Europe for many things, the fact is that the legislatures in other countries have become dominated by the alums of a few schools (in the United Kingdom, it is Eton College, which is home to 18 Prime Ministers; in France, it is the Ecole nationale d’administration).  The great thing about America is that you have legislators from such varying backgrounds.  We have legislators from the best colleges in the world (President Barack Obama) and legislators with no college degree whatsoever (Rep. Michael Michaud [D-ME]).

Another great thing about our country is that we are a democracy, and in this democracy, we have the ability to vote out those that we do not like, and keep those that we do.  Term limits, however, subvert this notion of a democracy.  Term limits make the Gregorian calendar a bigger arbiter of democracy than the ballot box.  I bristle at this notion that no term limits breed professional politicians.  If you look at the best managed states in the nation (Utah, Virginia, Nevada), these states have no legislative term limits and, with the notable exception of Virginia (which has a single-term limit on governors), no gubernatorial term limits either.

If you really think about it, term limits places more power into the hands of two entities:

1. Political Parties.

  • Because of term limits, you essentially place the power of the legislature in the hands of party nominating conventions.  These conventions tend to be more politically extreme than the electorate as a whole, and could send up legislators that have no intention of seeking solutions that attract votes from across the aisle.  Unless you live in a state like Massachusetts or Wyoming, compromise is usually required to pass through meaningful pieces of legislation (omnibus bills in education, transportation, etc.).  Certain legislators have built up enough rapport with the electorates in their various states (Rep. Collin Peterson [DFL-MN] and Sen. Olympia Snowe [R-ME] come to mind) where they have inoculated themselves against challenges from their party.  But a state legislator who has only been in office for a couple of terms cannot do that, and is beholden to party leaders for support.

2. Bureaucracy

  • If you have a professional class working within state government that has been there longer than any of the legislators, who is going to have the balance of knowledge within state government.  This should scare a lot of the people who are for term limits, the biggest reason being that most of these people tend to be conservative and wary of the auspices of government.  Instead of having an institutional knowledge of sorts, you have the capitols of various states being run by bureaucrats and lobbyists, who have the upper hand in the information necessary to craft bills and cast informed votes on said bills.  Conservatives seem to rail against the “Washington bureaucrat”, yet they are willing to hand over the breadth of the government to them by imposing term limits on legislators.

Now make no mistake, I am for Presidential term limits.  While I believe that FDR’s four terms brought about some of the most profound and substantive changes in policy in American history, I do not know that the country would have been similarly better off with three or four terms of Ronald Reagan.  So while I would have enjoyed an extra term of President Clinton, I think that the 24th Amendment is a good thing.

However, on a state and Congressional level, if someone like former Gov. Terry Branstad (R-IA) wants to come out of retirement and run for what would be his fifth term as Governor of Iowa, so be it.  If Rep. John Dingell wants to run for his 29th term this fall, so be it.  The people should be the judge of when someone leaves office, not a page on a calendar.

Medical Marijuana: The Road to Legalization?

May 25, 2010

The issue of medicinal use of marijuana is of growing national concern. Some 14 states have made it legal to use marijuana for medical purposes, with more likely to follow. In California, perhaps the best known example of a state legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes, they may soon be voting on the issue of full legalization. This would put them at odds with the federal government which under the Controlled Substances Act classifies marijuana as a drug in the same class as heroin, LSD, and others. There are a couple of issues at hand: whether or not there is some benefit from the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and whether or not this limited level of legalization will lead to complete decriminalization. (Actually, in the interests of accuracy I believe there is a difference between legalization and decriminalization; however, for my purposes  I will use the term interchangeably)

There appears to be a growing consensus on the potential benefits of medical marijuana. In 2007-2008, 27 states considered medical marijuana legislation during their respective legislative sessions. Aside from the states which do protect patients and caregivers from criminal penalties, as many as 17 other states have statutes which recognize the benefits of medical marijuana but rely on cooperation from the federal government to be effective (which hasn’t happened). Meanwhile, the medical community has produced literature and evidence demonstrating positive results with marijuana to treat a range of diseases or symptoms including pain relief and appetite stimulants for cancer-stricken or HIV-positive patients. In many cases, patients find marijuana preferable to pharmaceutical alternatives because of fewer side effects. From a personal standpoint, I know which substance I would rather put in my body even if it were smoked.

The logical question then becomes whether or not this is more of a strategy to get the ball rolling on marijuana legalization in America. After all, sure there are benefits to medical marijuana, but there are also alternatives available which show to be effective in clinical trials. Why, then, is the nation’s largest marijuana legalization advocacy organization, NORML, pushing so hard for increased usage of medical marijuana? Sure, America has gone on a bit of a natural/organic-type health kick, but I don’t think marijuana gets lumped in there. There is always a benefit to having options, especially considering every person is different and certain drugs may work better for certain people. Realistically, though, marijuana seems to have relatively limited applicability in the medical field. So yes, medical marijuana is probably more of a legalization strategy than anything; and you know what? GOOD!

The prohibition of marijuana is one of the most asinine public policies in history. I would say it is right after Prohibition, but it’s lasted a hell of a lot longer, so isn’t it worse? How long will the shadow of Harry J. Anslinger’s ridiculous anti-marijuana campaign be cast over America? Marijuana won’t make you insane after a few uses. There is little scientific evidence which lends credence to the gateway drug theory; you usually are just dealing with individuals predisposed to experimentation or drug use. Is marijuana good for you? No, of course not (with the exception of particular medical patients). Is it any worse than tobacco, or even alcohol? Again, no.

The criminalization of marijuana has a tremendous impact on other aspects of public policy, too. From a criminal justice perspective, untold numbers of nonviolent marijuana offenders have been stigmatized by prison sentences and exposed to criminogenic networks within prison. Research shows that treatment is a much more effective policy than punishment, yet the lion’s share of funding goes to punishing drug offenders. President Obama has recently acknowledged this fact, but his budget priorities don’t share this recognition as funding remains largely disproportionate. And what about the possible revenue from regulated marijuana? California generated over $100 million in state taxes from their medical marijuana business.

So yeah, medical marijuana probably is part of a big-picture strategy for marijuana advocates in America. But, so what? Maybe they’re right, and you can’t fault them for pursuing a strategy which has largely been successful to-date. Polls show Americans favor legalization for medicinal purposes, but not for recreational use. Maybe it is the case that there is only one way to discredit the lies and absurdities which persist from the Anslinger era and that way is to slowly change the perceptions of marijuana and marijuana users. If it helps change one of the worst public policies, in my opinion, in American history then I’m all for it.

The GOP’s November Strategy, considered.

May 24, 2010

From Arizona to Kentucky to Indiana to that one sex club in Los Angeles, the GOP has been in one imbroglio after another. In the “election of the angry-at-anything-voter”, what is the GOP strategy for victory in November?

To be honest, I do not know if they quite have one at this point. I mean, it looked like the Tea Party was going to be the catalyst for a Republican landslide last year. These conservatives were fired up and ready to demolish the Democrats over weak leadership, an “unpopular” health care bill, and a general sense of depression among liberal activists over the seemingly insurmountable odds staring them in the face with regards to the implementation of the Democratic agenda that swept into office only months before.

A few things have changed since then, the most pressing thing being the position of the Tea Party in the Republican Party. While they were simply seen as a force for protest in 2009, they have become a monster all their own, and the Republican Party may end up being its own biggest casualty. Tea Party-backed candidates have triumphed in Utah, where three-term conservative Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) will not appear on the Republican primary ballot after failing to garner enough votes at the Utah State GOP Convention. They have also triumphed in Kentucky, where Dr. Rand Paul is now the Republican nominee to face Attorney General Jack Conway in that state’s U.S. Senate race.

The problem, though, is that these candidates may not be very polished and, by extension, worse candidates. Take the Paul conundrum over civil rights. Now, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed 46 years ago and is settled law. When asked about his views, he could have simply said, “I feel that the de jure racism of our past is a settled matter. I support freedom for all, regardless of creed or color. Period.” Yet, he could not resist making his libertarian defense of freedom from regulation, and it may cost the Republicans a safe seat in the U.S. Senate. Now, can anyone tell me that Trey Grayson would have somehow been less conservative? That is what I thought, too.

The same situation has played out in Arizona, where pressure from Tea Party operatives and right-wing immigration groups forced Gov. Jan Brewer’s (R-AZ) hand in signing some of the most regressive immigration policy since the internment camps of World War II. This will have a grave effect on efforts to recruit Latino support for Republican candidates in the fall. The much ballyhooed strategy to recruit minority GOP candidates may have been seriously damaged by these events.

Then, you have the sex scandals. Their effect on depressing the GOP faithful needs no further explanation besides to say that I’m pretty shocked that a party rocked by these sorts of events in 2006 would not have learned its lesson by now.

So, my question is this: given all this, what is the path for Republican victory?  First, we must define victory.  A victory must be more than usual; simply winning 20-25 House seats and 4-5 Senate seats is no victory.  That is normal for a first-term President’s first midterm election.  A victory would constitute a 30+ seat gain in the House and a 7+ seat gain in the Senate.  How possible is this?  On the House side, it is quite possible.  With the bulk of new Democratic Congresspeople coming from places like Idaho-1 or Virginia-5 (rural, conservative districts that strongly tilt red in federal elections), I would expect that a lot of these will be swept out of office.  They would still need a few swing districts, and after the Critz victory in Pennsylvania, those doors may not be as open as once thought, especially if the economy continues to tick upward.  In the Senate, it is nearly impossible.  Winning all five tossups plus a Connecticut or a Washington?  I do not see that happening.  The GOP will campaign on the deficit, and that will get people fired up for sure.  However, how many people can even say what the federal deficit is?  How about the national debt?

This election will come down to GOTV; midterms always do.  But with the recent missteps from the GOP, the tidal wave that appeared to be ready to thunder onto the electoral shores of November may end up gliding in like a gentle wave.  It will sure be fun to watch.