Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sequester .... still biting

Jared Bernstein has the goods.

The irony is that the Sequester was supposed to be so bad that it would force everyone to make a deal or reject it. Apparently it wasn't bad enough.

Silver lining: it's hitting defense spending. But still, we should be spending more on public programs, not less, especially with the interest rate up against the zero bound, absolutely no sign of inflation and unemployment at unacceptable levels.

I've got a personal stake in this, because high unemployment and lack of public investment is one of the reasons I'm a "makeshift" academic and not a permanently employed one.

Syria, Iran and Obama

I usually leave foreign policy to the experts, but has anyone else noticed that the Obama administration had two chances to get us involved in shooting wars in the Middle East in the past six months and instead negotiated comprehensive agreements in both cases?

First, there was Syria. It looked like the President had backed himself into a corner on by drawing a "red line" on chemical weapons usage. It looked like he was going to have to launch air strikes to save face. But instead his team took an last-minute opportunity and managed to secure the dismantling of Syria's entire chemical weapons stockpile.  The deal doesn't end the Civil War, but it does keep the United States out, prevents regionalizing the conflict and removes Assad's weapons of mass destruction (insofar as chemical weapons are that). Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Then, a few days ago, we hear that Iran and major western powers have reached a deal on Iran's nuclear program: for six months, the Iranians submit to tough inspections and dismantle some of their program and in return, we ease some sanctions and unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian assets. While this goes on, we try to negotiate a long-term deal. Again, it's kind of an unusual framework, but it seems like everyone gets time to think things through. Small successes can lead to bigger ones.

For about the last year or so, it seems like Obama's team is actually doing pretty well in getting productive international agreements without getting unnecessary people killed.

Now if we could just get the stupid NSA under control. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

From Consent to Advice -- other possible avenues to block judges in the Senate

Yesterday, we all crawled out from our radiation shelters to behold the charred remains of the Senate landscape. You see, Harry "Major Kong" Reid engaged the nuclear option last Thursday, blowing up chamber procedure and changing to require only a majority vote to end debate on executive and non-Supreme Court judicial nominations.

So now what? Over the short term, the confirmations should flow fairly quickly. There are currently four appeals (including the three D.C. circuit nominees) and 13 district court nominations that have passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and are awaiting floor action. They should fly through in a jiffy in December.

Behind that immediate flurry, the picture gets a bit murkier. There are currently 93 vacancies on the federal bench --  18 on the appellate level and 75 at the district level. Getting the 17 easy confirmations out of the way leaves 76 slots (14 appellate and 62 district). Of these Obama has nominees for six appellate and 30 district vacancies.

There are two ways Republicans can slow down or block nominations to these vacant slots.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Medicaid expansion rejection silver linings playbook: Deficit reduction

One of the biggest shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act (the post-Supreme-Court-decision-haircut version) is that it makes the state Medicaid expansions optional for states. As of this writing, 25 states have not signed on to the expansion, leaving millions of Americans below the poverty line without the ability to afford health insurance.

One piece of good news is the woodwork effect is real. Streamlining of the Medicaid enrollment process across all states will help many people who are currently eligible for Medicaid but never figured out how to apply will enroll, even in states refusing the expansion.

But there might be another silver lining to states refusing to expand Medicaid: deficit reduction.

First, a disclaimer:  My first-choice policy preference is to expand Medicaid. Actually, that's my second and third choices as well. And when it comes to prioritizing deficit reduction during times of high unemployment and recession, I side with the great Charlie Pierce:
Now I have only one opinion on economics — Fk The Deficit. People Got No Jobs. People Got No Money
However, all else equal, I would rather to see a lower deficit than a higher deficit and a lower public debt than a higher one. (If nothing else, it gives the Fix the Debt crowd less leverage when they argue for gutting the welfare state.) And I was thinking that since the Congressional Budget Office projects that the Affordable Care Act will slightly cut the deficit over time, what happens if a significant number of states reject the Medicaid expansion, which makes up about half of the spending for the ACA?

To answer this question, I looked up projected state-by-state Medicaid spending figures from this 2012 Kaiser Foundation study. Using a spreadsheet, I added up the federal fund the 25 states that haven't indicated they will be accepting the expansion don't accept it over the next nine years.
That number comes out to $437 billion ($78 billion from Texas alone). That's a lot of money.
In fact, nominally, it's about of $48.5 billion a year, which is roughly 7.5 percent of the 2013 deficit. That overstates the impact a bit, because the numbers aren't strictly comparable, because A.) they are nominal, not year-of expenditure dollars (i.e. this doesn't adjust for inflation) and B.) Medicaid expenditures will be larger in later years as health costs grow -- though the federal share of spending will drop back to 90 percent by 2018.

Again, I deplore cutting the deficit on the backs of the poor. But until state governors start wising up, at least we're not blowing that Medicaid money on tax cuts for hedge fund managers. In fact, we're taxing hedge fund managers -- about 25 percent of the revenue for the ACA comes from increasing payroll taxes on wealthy incomes -- including investment income.

So keep pushing to expand Medicaid in states that haven't yet. Political pressure from combined with financial realities likely will push many of the recalcitrant states into the fold over the next few years. However, in every state we don't succeed, take a bit of solace in the fact that we raised taxes on the rich to cut the deficit. 

That's almost as French as universal access to health care.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Doing my part to be a good citizen

I found this tucked under my windshield yesterday:

Yes, it looks like I'm doing my part to keep petty theft down in the Houston metro area. Of course, locking your doors and windows is easy and any criminal who saw my possessions would probably leave me $100 cash in sympathy.

In all seriousness though, I wonder if these sorts of awareness programs actually work to reduce crime and how the Houston PD actually evaluates them. It's an interesting question I might have to look into.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Medicaid expansion: Who's next?

Right now, we're all breathlessly watching the to see if glitches are getting fixed and people are signing up,  but let's pause from that briefly today and look down the road a bit.

One of the biggest immediate holes in the Affordable Care Act opened up when the Supreme Court ruled that states didn't have to expand Medicaid in order to keep their current federal support. Getting more vulnerable people under the poverty line access to health insurance needs to be  a major priority over the next several years. So which states might can we most effectively organize in to push Medicaid expansion?

Currently, 25 states have embraced the expansion, while 25 are still debating the issue or have rejected the expansion for now. (Three days ago, Alaska became the most recent state to announce that it wouldn't be taking the money).

But just because they say "no" today doesn't mean they'll say "no" tomorrow. As Kaiser Foundation research points out, offering lots of federal money to states eventually got nearly every state to deploy some sort of Medicaid program in the 1960s and 1970s and some sort of CHIP programs (children's health insurance) in the late 1990s.

Oddly enough, the Medicaid expansion of the ACA is getting adopted at almost the exact same pace that the original Medicaid was adopted. After one year of available matching funds in 1966, 26 states had opted into the program. A month before the expansion under the ACA goes live, 26 states are at least tentatively (and mostly firmly) in the expansion camp.

The similarities may end there, as Republican intransigence across a wide swath of the South and West will likely block expansion for the foreseeable future. However, even in some GOP-dominated states like Arizona and North Dakota, the expansion has been adopted, so this provision is not absolute.

More immediately though, there are several very ripe target states activists should focus on for immediate results. I list these below with how many uninsured people would be covered under Medicaid expansion (numbers again courtesy of Kaiser), in rough order of degree of difficulty of passing an expansion over the next two years.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Houston passes wage theft law

Annise Parker has certainly had a productive two weeks.

First, she signs an executive order extending benefits to same-sex married couples, citing federal law.

Then, the City Council unanimously passes a beefed up wage-theft ordinance.  The wage theft bill is something of a compromise, but it does prevent the city from contracting with firms convicted of stealing workers wages. That's big.

As the esteemed Laura Clawson has noted, wage theft nationally steals more than bank, gas station and convenience store robberies combined. So it's good to see a major city, in Texas no less, taking this seriously.

But what's even bigger is that those firms won't be able to get occupational permits or licenses for several years. So the law not only bans firms from doing business with the City of Houston, but also from conducting business in the City of Houston. Now, very few firms tend to get convicted of theft, but the threat of this sanction should serve as a nice deterrent and encourage scofflaws to settle up with their employees instead of gumming up the judicial process.

We still need workers to come forward with claims, and need to support those claims. That's a logical next step in the Down with Wage Theft Campaign, a broad coalition of community organizations spearheaded by the fine folks over at the Fe y Justicia Worker Center.  This was an effective grassroots campaign -- good work all.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Could a union have prevented this adjunct's death? Maybe not -- but it could have helped.

Slate's LV Anderson has a really thoughtful and well-researched piece up on the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of recently dismissed Duquense adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko.Vojtko's death became a national story when Daniel Kovalik, a lawyer for the United Steelworkers Union, wrote an op-ed about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, suggesting that the university's treatment of its adjuncts and its demoting of Vojtko (and non-renewal of her contract) played a large role in her desperate situation

Anderson chronicles the Duquense administration's attempts to aggressively block an adjunct union drive, by suing to overturn an National Labor Relations Boad-administered election in which 85 percent of adjuncts voted for a union. However, she also raises legitimate questions about whether a union could have averted Vojtko's personal tragedy.

I think the structure of a contract probably could have helped some, though it possibly might not have prevented Vojtko's untimely death or helped her accept support to treat her likely hoarding tendencies. 

Most labor contracts implement mandatory evaluation points for promotion/ or retention protections and a series of steps called progressive discipline for long-term workers who need to improve. The idea is that managers need to have a right to manage, workers need to have fair treatment and due process. Negotiating a labor contract ensures that both sides have a say and recourse in the matter.

One object of the evaluations and discipline process is for a worker to get useful objective feedback about her performance on a routine basis and given opportunities to improve if she's not meeting standards. Steadily increasing sanctions avoid arbitrary discipline or  at least provide contractually agreed upon discipline. Guidance and support should help a worker improve, or get treatment if necessary -- which is often helpful for employees who are battling addiction or other mental illnesses.

The process also provides worker protections: a clear, transparent grievance process would give the worker the chance to both productively discuss issues with her supervisor and confront them in a legally binding process if necessary, avoiding the clunky and slow appeal to the Employment Equal Opportunity Commission Vojtko was pursuing when she died. 

So instead of arbitrarily kicking her out and cutting her workload, Vojtko's supervisor could have instituted a formally agreed upon procedure, provided warnings and kick-started the evaluation process. Vojtko would have had representation, protection and retained much of her dignity in the proceedings. She also have the ability to keep administrators in line with the ability to file a grievance.

Additionally instead of ad-hoc attempts to help from various faculty, a clear process established by a mutually agreed upon contract and (hopefully good) working relationship would have been in place to determine precisely what support the college needed to provide.

In short, under a labor contract, managers would have guidance on and the ability to manage, and workers would have representation and access to protections and support.

And note how this entire discussion also omits the higher wages and better health insurance that union contracts often bring, both of which might have eased Vojtko's stress over paying for her cancer treatments and helped her get treatment for her hoarding tendencies.

I think it most certainly could have made a difference.


I should note that Anderson's article really gets at who Vojtko was as a person. Anderson doesn't lionize her as part of a cause, or engage in victim-blaming. It's wonderful chronicling, excellent storytelling and respectful to the many facets of Vojtko's life and her complicated situation.

Additionally, see Anderson's work on adjunct working conditions and options here. Slate, give this women a raise already.

Finally, kudos to Duquesne's student paper for first reporting on the story and hinting at some of the deeper issues surrounding Voktjo's dismissal and death. It's tough for novice reporters to handle a story like this, and they succeeded as well as anyone could expect them to do so -- especially with defensive administrators likely staring over their shoulders.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Excellent unemployment piece in the NYT

This. This. This. 1,000 times this:
A five-year spell of unemployment has slowly scrubbed away nearly every vestige of Ms. Barrington-Ward’s middle-class life. She is a 53-year-old college graduate who worked steadily for three decades. She is now broke and homeless.
Ms. Barrington-Ward describes it as “my journey through hell.” She was laid off from an administrative position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2008; she had earned about $50,000 that year. With the recession spurring employers to dump hundreds of thousands of workers a month and the unemployment rate climbing to the double digits, she found that no matter the number of résumés she sent out — she stopped counting in the thousands — she could not find work.
“I’ve been turned down from McDonald’s because I was told I was too articulate,” she says. “I got denied a job scrubbing toilets because I didn’t speak Spanish and turned away from a laundromat because I was ‘too pretty.’ I’ve also been told point-blank to my face, ‘We don’t hire the unemployed.’ And the two times I got real interest from a prospective employer, the credit check ended it immediately.”
For Ms. Barrington-Ward, joblessness itself has become a trap, an impediment to finding a job. Economists see it the same way, concerned that joblessness lasting more than six months is a major factor preventing people from getting rehired, with potentially grave consequences for tens of millions of Americans.

Annie Lowry nails it here. Great piece of reporting. Read it. Then read it again. Then staple it to the forehead of your local policymakers and HR directors.

This is my own personal nightmare.

Obamacare moderate emerges from the Louisiana jungle, but why?

Sam Knight, a smart guy who occasionally holds down the Washington Monthly's  Political Animal Blog for the weekend, notes some interesting election results in a Louisiana Congressional election on Saturday. Republican candidate Vance McAllister easily defeated fellow Republican Ned Riser, who was backed by tea-party groups, 59.6 percent to 40.4 percent

Knight argues that the election shows that the tea party is losing sway in its scorched-earth war against the Affordable Care Act, as McAllister suggested that he wanted to work with Democrats to improve the law, and hinted that these stances may show a recognition among GOP voters of the reality of Obamacare. Riser had the backing of other establishment Republican groups as well, while McAllister self-financed his campaign and earned a celebrity endorsement from Duck Dynasty reality-TV star Phil Robertson.

I hope Knight is right, but I suspect that there are some funky electoral dynamics at work here that may explain McAllister's stances.

Louisiana uses a two-stage "jungle primary" system in which a wide number of candidates jump into the first round, and if none win a majority, the top two candidates advance to a run-off. Riser finished first in the primary with 32 percent of the vote, while McAllister had 17.9 percent. (primary results here)

McAllister had more ground to make-up, but he had several avenues to get it:

1. He could try to pick up the votes from the other GOP candidates who got knocked out of the run off, whose support made up 18.2 percent of the votes.

2. He could try to pick up support from voters who supported the Democratic candidates -- none of whom made the run-off, who collectively collected 29.9 percent of the votes.

The math looks pretty obvious here. McAllister can probably keep his primary supporters, pick up at least a sliver of other supporters from eliminated GOP candidates and grab almost all the Democratic voters by running conservative on most issues (God and guns in this case) while speaking some sense on the side about health care.

He was able to increase his vote total by 36,000, while Riser only increased his by 3,800. Turnout only decreased from 21.2 percent to 18.3 percent of registered voters, so my theory at least seems plausible. (Since the results from the run-off aren't official, we don't know official turn out figures from partisans in either party. In any case, in this part of Louisiana those numbers are only marginally useful for our analysis, as Democrats still outnumber the GOP, but often tend to vote for Republicans in large numbers.)

I read this as a short-term tactical move to attract moderate and a few liberal voters in a two-way general election who liked the opportunity to keep a pure tea-partier out of office. Notice how as a federal office holder, he'll have no say in whether Louisiana will expand Medicaid, essentially making his election position a no-cost proposition. He'll have plenty of time to establish his hard-right credentials over a year in Congress during which he'll get to vote "no" on lots of things. Next year as an incumbent, he can run on that record and discard the Democratic part of his coalition.

Finally, as a self-funder, he's not as dependent on either tea-party or other GOP party organizations to put together a campaign, so he might be able afford to drift a bit from party orthodoxy on one issue. 

Incidentally, the Christian Science Monitor article that Knight cites hints at this dynamic as well, though Knight doesn't go into it:
Riser and McAllister largely agreed on many issues. Both opposed abortion, favor strong gun rights and criticize the levels of federal spending and debt.
Their sharpest distinction rested with President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
Both opposed the health overhaul, but Riser wanted only repeal, saying the law will harm businesses and families and can't be fixed.
McAllister said repeal had no chance with Democrats leading the Senate and White House, so he said Congress should work to improve the law. He also wants Louisiana to expand its Medicaid program to give insurance to the working poor, an expansion that Riser opposed.
The positions put McAllister at odds with some tea party supporters but generated support from Democrats who had no candidate of their own in the runoff.
(Italics mine)
Again, I'd love to be wrong here, but I think my theory is just as plausible as Knight's with the data we have.

The more general question is what sort of impact the "jungle primary" has on results, but I don't know too much of the political science on it -- though France has had essentially the same system for years with some odd results from time to time.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Why should the unemployed work for free?

So I now have a Linked-In account in my latest attempt to network and find a job. They have these "helpful" articles on their site on networking etc. One of the most recent ones noted that employed people tended to volunteer at higher rates than unemployed ones concluded rather blithely that the unemployed people should volunteer their time.

This particular idea is a pet peeve of mine. Why should I give my skills away for free? If my services are needed, a company or the public should compensate me for providing that service.

This seems to be a trend. From the senators who suggested that unemployment benefits be tied to community volunteer work, to unpaid internships (often illegal ones), to publications expecting writers to work without pay.

Look: we can haggle over the price, but zero isn't an option.

I find it quite damning that some elites seem to think that raising the top marginal income tax rate to 45 percent is somehow confiscatory, while making unemployed people work for free is somehow just.

The word "sociopath" is perhaps a bit strong, but is a better fit here than I'm comfortable with.

Friday, November 15, 2013

ACA Medicaid sign-ups lead the way -- even in states rejecting the expansion

The feds released the official enrollment stats for the first month of exchange and Medicaid sign-ups (shown in the last two columns of this handy spreadsheet compiled by the Dailykos commentator Brainwrap) Much of the focus has been on two things. First, commentators have been arguing about the portents of how many people have signed up for the exchanges, noting that it both has roughly matched Massachusetts' sign up rate and that sign-ups have fallen short of federal projections. The other strand has noted that the Medicaid sign-up rates have been a success.

But there's something else that's interesting in those Medicaid numbers as well -- lots of new people are getting covered in states that have refused to expand Medicaid. Of the roughly 392,000 people who enrolled Medicaid between October 1 and Nov. 2, about 111,000 enrolled in states that aren't expanding.

"Wait, how does that work?" you say. "I thought Rick Perry and people like him were going to stop that sort of nonsense at the state line."

But he can't. These are people who were eligible for Medicaid before the ACA, but either didn't know they were eligible, or gave up going through their state's onerous application procedures.The ACA streamlines these procedures through its "no wrong door" policy of making states provide multiple ways to apply for Medicaid -- including through or the equivalent state portal. The Supreme Court decision that made expansion optional didn't touch these improvements.

I wrote about this about a month ago:
Better administrative procedures aren’t a cure all. According to Kaiser Foundation's numbers, 8.4 million people won’t be covered under the Medicaid expansion in the foreseeable future in states that opted out, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision.  (about 5.1 million won't even be eligible for the subsidies on the exchanges, while the rest will at least have those).
But if Kaiser’s analysis is right, standardizing and easing application procedure across the board will significantly increase enrollees – by roughly 2 million people across the states that haven’t yet accepted the Medicaid expansion (more than 500,000 in Texas alone).
Texas had 11,000 new people sign up for Medicaid last month thanks to these changes. Again, this isn't a cure-all -- states that aren't expanding Medicaid have about 51 percent of the currently uninsured population and only 28 percent of the new Medicaid sign-ups. However, by cutting punitive bureaucracy and making it easier to apply, the ACA is already helping hundreds of thousands of poor people in the red states, despite the efforts of their reactionary governors.

We've got a long way to go, but things are getting better.

Now get that federal Web portal working, Obama.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Hyperbole and a Half Interlude: Allie Brosh gets interviewed about ALL THE THINGS

NPR's Fresh Air has an outstanding interview up with with Allie Borsch, the artist, blogger, author all-around hope for the human race who created the magnificent Web site Hyperbole and a Half.

Terry Gross gets Allie to talk about how she thinks about art, comedy and the nature of humor. In short, it's hard work to be intentionally funny. Brosh's style is famous for looking like an over imaginative six-year-old drew it (in fact, much of it derives from her own exploits during her hell-raising childhood, but that's part of the charm of the whole enterprise.) But all of those stories take a lot (not alot) of time to put together and draw in just the right way to elicit the proper emotion. During my time as a journalist, I got to interview several children's authors, and they all told me how hard it was to put together simple stories and draw the pictures just right; I think Brosch's work is an analogue for that.

I also really appreciate her frankness with discussing her struggles with depression. I've had my own issues with mental illness (fortunately mild, but difficult enough) and I really think she richly describes exactly what depression feels like: the emotional deadening, the feelings of isolation, and the almost clinical detachedness from the world around you. I found myself nodding along vigorously during some points of the interview.

I also remember sharing her fears about going on medication -- you're afraid that it will do something to you that will take away that thing that makes "you" be "you." Fortunately, I found that my two years on medication simply helped me feel like a better version of me.  Of course medication isn't the only part of treating mental illness, but for many of us, it helps a lot (again, not alot)

Allie courageously talks in great detail about her struggles both during the interview and in an incredible two-part comic on her blog that manages to be poignant, devastating, insightful and tremendously funny all at the same time. I can't imagine the courage and time it took her to do so, but its a tremendous service (and artistic achievement on its own merits)

For those of you who have never seen Hyperbole and a Half, you need to procrastinate for the next two hours and read all the archives RIGHT NOW. (and buy Allie's book too!)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Making connections

So I was closing up shop last night at the tutoring place where I do some contract work at and the cleaning crew was on their way out.  One of the two of the crew wished me a good night. I replied almost automatically in Spanish, for some reason.

"Habla español?"  he asked with notable surprise.

"A veces" I responded.

He turned, walked back across the room, shook my hand, introduced himself and asked me where I was from. We chatted for about two minutes in Spanish.

Nice end to my day, and I'm glad I got to connect a bit with a side of the Texas workforce I suspect most Anglos take for granted and never really think about.  This Anglo for one will be thinking about them a bit more now.

I always feel a little nervous about speaking Spanish with the Hispanic population here, because I don't want to seem like I'm showing off and their English is generally much better than my Spanish. Still though,  the night cleaning man seemed to feel really validated when I addressed him in Spanish. I felt validated by his response. I hope Juan and his co-worker had a good night (and are able to get decent health insurance -- cleaners get paid badly down here)

Small victories. 

Virginnia Attorney General Update (or: Your daily dose of good government, non-snark edition)

One of the things that has struck me about monitoring the ongoing canvassing and checking surrounding the dead heat in the Virginia Attorney General's election is how professional the whole process has been. The State Board of Elections and county boards have acted with patience, diligence and professionalism. 

Example: The GOP asked for a recanvass in several heavily Democratic Richmond precincts. The local board of elections complied and found a voting machine and several paper ballots that had been left out of the county, which ended up netting about 100 votes for Democrat Chris Herring.  The board then voted unanimously to accept those ballots and update the count -- and the board is majority Republican.

The State Board of Elections issued a clarifying rule to Fairfax County to adjust its handling of provisional ballots in line with state law, saying that voters had to be physically present if they wanted additional testimony on their behalf to be heard for why their provisional ballot The county then extended its deadline for voters to come in and represent themselves.  (Note that provisionals can be accepted without the voter present and often are, contra some bad info going around the Twitterverse)

These sorts of things happen in every election, but usually  the margin is wide enough where finding the occasional extra paper ballot doesn't matter. Here it does. A lot.

That doesn't mean that the U.S elections system couldn't use massive improvements in access and reliability, but this particular election shows that most elections officials strive to be transparent, and scrupulous in how they administer the machinery of democracy.

Herring is now up by 117 votes -- out of 2.2 million cast.

For a run-down, follow the twitter feed of Dave Wasserman (of the Cook Political Report) and Max Smith of WTOP.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Political Cues and Stealth Campaigns, or "How we elected a complete wackaloon to the Houston Community College Board of Trustees"

And just when I thought that local Houston elections had gone reasonably well in the "let's not embarrass ourselves in front of the country" metric,  I find out that Dave Wilson, a noted anti-LGBT activist, busybody and general slime ball who makes a living as an infected boil on the body politic, beat a respected incumbent on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees. Great.

Via the ever-handy Charles Kuffner  (criticizing the Houston Chronicle's coverage):
So a 24-year incumbent gets ousted in a race decided by 26 votes, and what do we learn about his victorious opponent? Just that he’s a “small-business owner”. Not that he’s a notorious, longtime anti-gay activist who ran against Mayor Parker in 2011 and is currently embroiled in a legal battle against the Harris County Democratic Party over his attempts to run for County Commissioner while claiming his business address as his residence. Not the fact that he meddled in the HCC 1 race by sending one of his patented attack mailers, sliming Zeph Capo and Kevin Hoffman for being gay. Not the fact that the mail he sent on his own behalf would make you think he himself was African-American, which he is not. Just, you know, a “small-business owner”. Nothing to see here, folks.

 Incidentally, Kuffner entitled his post "Why Stealth Campaigns can Work," which is a great statement about the political science behind how Wilson got elected.

In crowded, low-profile local races on ballots with lots of items, information is at a premium. Voters don't have time to extensively investigate every race, so they rely on cues. (Political Party is an example). What Wilson did was pretend he was black to get a heavily African-American community to identify with him. In effect, he scrambled the cue to voters in order to mislead them.

It's the same principal that helped unscrupulous petition gathers get Michigan's notorious 2006 Proposition 2, the so-called "Michigan Civil Rights Initiative" that banned affirmative action, on the ballot. Canvassers would go door-to-door in African American neighborhoods and tell them to sign up to support civil rights.

It's also the same reason why "Right-to-Work" or "Freedom-to-Work" campaigns are so lethal. Their proponents cloak anti-worker union-busting laws in pro-worker language to camouflage their true intent.

Guess I won't be teaching at HCC anytime soon. 

And Kuffner's criticism of the Chronicle here is spot on. By not even mentioning Wilson's past or tactics and identifying him merely as a "small business owner" they actively aid his deception. Of course, it's often tough for reporters -- especially new ones, and I've been there -- to know the history of local politicians, but some one in the editorial chain should have caught this one.

For more on cues, how voters use them and how political operatives use false rhetoric to hide them, check out the work of political scientists Arthur Lupia and Matt McCubbins. Or read George Orwell.

On the bright side,  Wilson has never claimed to be Santa Claus. Clearing that bar means he's at least marginally better than at least one congressman I could name.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Virginia Attorney General Barn Burner & hilarious hashtags

Lost a bit in the brouhaha over the narrow victory for Terry McAuliffe in Tuesday's Virginia gubernatorial election is the incredibly close race in the state's attorney general race -- an office the Democrats haven't controlled in several decades.

Republican Mark Obenshain ran out to a lead of 60,000 votes early on Democrat Mark Herring then watched the lead dwindle to nearly nothing as the later-reporting Democratic areas of northern Virginia and urban Virginia weighed in.

Currently, Obenshain leads Herring by 55 votes (out of more than 2.2 million cast) according to the Virgina State Board of Elections. However, the Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman has identified several discrepancies in Richmond precinct canvassing totals that will flip that margin in favor of Herring by 82 votes. Seriously, this guy knows more about ballot-counting jujitsu than... well, he knows a lot. You should follow him.

All absentee ballots are in. Most provisional ballots have been reported, except in a few small rural counties (which will favor Obenshain) and 494 in Fairfax, (which will likely favor Herring). The question is how many of those ballots will actually count, considering a recent rule clarification by the state elections board that will make it somewhat more difficult for voters to get their ballots to count.

This one is headed for a recount, folks, as a single tallying error could easily flip the race (and several already have).

If nothing else, the race has given us one of the most unintentionally funny Twitter hashtags in a long time. Considering the obsessive focus of the current Virginia AG, Ken Cuccinelli, on reproductive issues, however, the #VAAG tag seems quite fitting.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mental health finally gets equal status -- and thanks to the ACA, it actually means something

Coverage for U.S. Mental health care just got a big boost yesterday.

Via the New York Times:
The regulations, which specifically put into effect the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, would affect most Americans with insurance — roughly 85 percent of the population — whether their policies are from employer plans, other group plans, or coverage purchased in the market for individual plans.
The final parity rules do not apply to health plans that manage care for millions of low-income people on Medicaid. However, the administration has previously issued guidance to state health officials saying that such plans should meet the parity requirements of the 2008 law.
This finally evens standards between the traditionally relatively generous coverage in American insurance plans for physical ills and the cut-rate coverage for mental health care. Specifically, it evens standards for co-pays, deductibles, co-insurance, number of visits and network coverage; including the residential treatment and outpatient programs often employed for treating drug addiction.

This rule has some personal meaning for me. This specific issue was one of the final sticking points in contract negotiations for my grad local union at the University of Michigan in 2008 -- it was like pulling teeth to expand the absurdly low limits on out-patient visits to manage mental health conditions. Grad students tend to be physically healthy, but we have very high rates of depression and anxiety disorders.

As the Times' story notes, that status-quo changed later that year with the passage of the Mental Health Parity Act. Oddly enough, this passed as a rider on the TARP package; who knew that bailing out the banks would be good for Americans' mental health?

The final rule announced yesterday supersedes an interim rule put into place in 2010 and completes a five-year journey from the act's passage.

The rule is important in and of itself, but its importance multiplies when combined with the coming implementation of the Affordable Care Act. For the first time millions of people currently without insurance will get insurance. And now that insurance will actually guarantee good access to mental health care. The implications of the Medicaid expansion for substance-abuse treatment and reducing violence alone are astonishing and welcome. The implications for reducing the stigma around mental illness are also significant as well.

Of course, the fight isn't over and the rule mandating parity with mental health won't mean diddly for those below the poverty line in states refusing to expand Medicaid -- which makes it all the more imperative for Medicaid expansion to become the No. 1 policy priority for progressives in the 2014 and 2016 state-level elections

But overall, today is a good day for Americans' mental health.

Read the full final rule here.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Obamacare's other subsidy --help with cost-sharing

Richard Mayhew over on Balloon Juice just pointed out a very important (but little known) part of health reform: subsidies for low-income people to alleviate cost sharing.

Short summary: You know that $3,000 deductible on the Silver Plans you're worried about? Well, the working poor get a big discount on it.

Longer explanation:  So we (hopefully) all know now about how the Affordable Care Act's subsidizes insurance premiums for people below 400 percent of the poverty line pay their monthly premiums. For example, an individual making $17,235 a year (150 percent of the poverty line) would have to contribute no more than 4 percent of his income to paying the premium of the second-lowest Silver plan on the market.

But that still leaves cost sharing if you actually get sick and need health care. A Silver plan on average has an actuarial value of 70 percent, meaning that consumers as a whole will end up picking up 30 percent of the plan's costs through deductibles, co-insurance and co-pays.

And though preventative services are free, that $3,000 deductible attached to most individual Silver plans looks pretty frightening. If Joe has a heart attack on a  $17,235 income on a Silver Plan, how the heck is he going to be able to come up with $3,000? (Remember, this is a vast improvement over having to pay the whole $20,000 or $50,000 bill and getting dumped by his insurance before health reform, but still, it's a tall order).

The answer is that he won't.  Cost-sharing subsidies improve the actuarial value of the plan for people with incomes below 250 percent of the poverty line ($28,725 for a single) -- ranging from slight increases to 73 percent all the way up to 94 percent, which is the equivalent of a platinum plan.

So our poor heart attack victim actually gets a break on his insurance deductible. Since his income is so low, his cost-sharing bracket leaves his Silver Plan with an actuarial rating of 94 percent.  Instead of $3,000, he'll owe a $600 deductible instead -- a cool 80 percent discount.

A $600 bill still isn't fun, but it's not something one generally has to declare bankruptcy over.

Then insurance picks up the tab for everything else that year.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has this convenient table outlining both the premium subsidies and cost-sharing here.

And remember that these benefits for working class Americans come from raising taxes on high-income Americans.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

New Texas water fund offers some risks -- but also huge opportunities

Imagine that it's January 2015 and Governor Wendy Davis announces her first major budget initiative with a speech in drought-ravaged central Texas:
"My Fellow Texans, we stand at a start of a new journey. For too long, we have failed to invest in this state's people. We have failed to invest in this state's future. We have failed to invest in jobs. We have failed to invest in common-sense conservation initiatives that wisely use our resources and protect both our economic growth and our natural environment.

Today, that all changes.
Today my administration proposes that we invest $2 billion in this state's infrastructure.Today, we propose investing $2 billion in generating jobs.  Today, we propose investing $2 billion to help our communities who and in wisely using a precious natural resource.
It's fitting -- we're taking money from our rainy day fund and helping our drought-affected and cash-strapped communities gain access to much-needed water. And $200 million of the fund is reserved for the smallest parched rural communities who need water the most yet can't afford it.

But we're not going to be merely giving water away to Fracking companies profligate users. Getting access to water is important, but using it wisely is too. That's why least $400 million of the fund is strictly reserved to finance conservation projects -- better water pipes and control systems in our cities to stop waste, more efficient drip irrigation to make our successful agricultural sector even more competitive and storage projects that reduce erosion and runoff while simultaneously recharging our groundwater supplies.
 I know I would be pretty happy with that speech.

Well, the contents of that "speech" are essentially what Proposition 6 did.  It takes $2 billion from the rainy day fund and uses it to create a revolving loan fund -- essentially an infrastructure bank -- for water projects called the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT).  The general principal is somewhat similar federal funds out there already. At least $400 million of SWIFT goes to conservation programs and an additional $200 million is reserved specifically for rural and agricultural conservation projects.

Follow me below the fold for details

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Cincinnati Pensions: Obscure yet important ballot proposal blogging

So voters resoundingly rejected an idiotic Tea-Party backed proposal that would gut city worker pensions in Cincinnati, Ohio


Pensions do present long-term fiscal challenges to companies and governments. But one thing that drives me crazy is that we seem consider pensions, which are debts owed to existing and former workers, as expendable, while we consider debts we owe to banks and bondholders somehow non-negotiable.

If I were a cynical observer of public policy, I might suggest that this double standard in popular perception and bankruptcy law is because bankers are rich and well connected while city and school district employees tend to be of more modest means.
But that would mean that I wasn't a Very Serious Person.

Incidentally, it also drives me nuts when we take pension problems that were created by companies or governments not making their contributions and blame them on workers -- who usually contribute large portions of their salary to the pension fund.

I suppose I could link to recent such happenings in Detroit and Illinois, but I'm feeling lazy today.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Costs of Voting: or "I blew it again" or "Who the heck is running for this office?"

Here's another installment in my ongoing series about the costs of voting.

So it's an off-year election here in Texas, which means local elections and statewide constitutional amendments.

For the most part, I didn't have a problem. I took about an hour to research the nine different state constitutional amendments. A few required some thought, but most were no-brainers.  The mayor's race in town was an easy choice, especially after Ben Hall decided to come out against policies that would start treating gays and lesbians like human beings.

That was probably another hour of research.

There were no school board seats up in my district, the two local bond issues were well covered and my local City Councilwoman was unopposed. 

That's another hour, but still so far so good.

And then I got to the five at-large council seats.With interviews from sites like Texpatriate, and Kuffner's, as well as candidate web sites, I was able to get enough information to make a semi-informed choice on four of five. For one, a good working relationship with Annise Parker made the decision, on another a good interview on planning issues put me over the top. For another, seeing a list of accomplishments on his Web site leaned me in his direction, while for a fourth candidate earned my vote because a local progressive had volunteered for her campaign.

This was about two hours of research.

But I STILL couldn't figure out who I wanted in one of the races.

You see, there's always one electoral race that I have no clue is coming or overlook. In Ann Arbor, it was always the local library board. There always seemed to be four people running for three slots.  Three of the candidates were usually nice, upstanding, stewards of the community -- and the fourth was a raging lunatic. The problem was that I could never suss out the lunatic and information was usually thin on the ground.

And so I -- a guy who has either covered or studied politics for a living for the past 15 years -- still have not filled out a complete November ballot in my life.

Also, even after five hours of research,  note how many of my choices were made by cues and vague impressions and not necessarily carefully considered information.

The costs of voting are real -- and that's even without my having any problems with ID, or having to wait in line at my conveniently located rich-neighborhood well-run polling place.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Why I'm a liberal democrat (and a Liberal Democrat): respecting the rules of the game, election day edition

Permit me to open with a personal story.

About a decade ago, I was running a small weekly newspaper in upstate New York’s Wayne County. One day, I ran across an item in the neighboring town’s paper describing some complaints some fine upstanding citizens made at a school board meeting about the annual district budget vote (which had passed).

One of the residents, a woman named Penny Frederick, complained that officials weren’t vigorously checking voter eligibility of what appeared to be “high school students” in front of her.
That seemed a bit discriminatory, and raised my hackles – after all, 18-year-olds can vote, right? She then went on to suggest that voters should need to go through a “qualifying” process, which set me growling audibly in my office.

She then said the following:

"We believe that if school were not in session, there would be next to no students voting. We believe that students were excused from class to vote. What a shame that students who do not pay taxes are encouraged and frightened into voting for more spending."

Let that sink in for a few moments.

It sounds really similar to another rather infamous recent pronouncement, doesn’t it?

At the time, I wrote a furious column; pointing out that A. Ms. Frederick had no evidence that students were intimidated into voting for the budget and B. whatever stance they took was a moot point as 18-year-olds are entitled to the same voting rights as anyone else under the 26th amendment of the Constitution. It’s a close cousin to the 15th and 19th amendments, which set the same parameters for race and gender. And oh yeah, you don’t have to own property or have tax liability to vote -- that’s the 24th amendment, which dispatches with those pesky poll taxes.

(The column appeared in the July 8, 2004 edition of the Wayne County Mail, which is, alas, not online)

One thing that we emphasize in political science is the “rules of the game.” That is, in order to have a stable democratic government, we can disagree on policy, but we need to respect certain parameters: universal suffrage and other civil rights on one hand, and the legitimacy of duly elected office-holders or governments on the other.

It’s arguments like Frederick's that frighten me about the future of democracy in the United States, because they drip with contempt for the rules of the game. They think if you’re young, you’re too stupid to vote. They think if you receive welfare payments or don’t pay income taxes, you have too much of a conflict of interest to vote (Senior citizens who rely on Social Security or CEOs who take advantage of corporate tax breaks always seem to be exempt from this requirement, though). They think if you don’t have a driver’s license, you can’t be trusted to vote. They think if you’re a convicted felon, you don’t deserve to vote. In practice, all of these requirements seem to count double for the poor, for females, and for racial and sexual minorities.

We’ve seen these arguments come to a head over the last five years: the bizarre fixation on our president’s citizenship; the attack on community organizing groups like ACORN; the unprecedented obstruction of routine executive appointments to the cabinet, regulatory agencies and the court system; and the spread of voter disenfranchisement laws.

But as the statements I encountered above show, the sentiment isn’t new.  I discovered mild symptoms nine years ago in an upstate New York school budget election. But much more dangerous strains showed up in the hard-right reaction to Clinton’s presidency, the John Birch Society and the Jim Crow southern segregationists, and the pre-Civil War slaveholders, who plunged the country into Civil War rather than give up power to own their fellow human beings.
Fortunately, thus far, we’ve always had just enough citizens and leaders who have pushed back on these claims – radical Republicans during the Civil War, Liberal Democrats during the New Deal and Great Society, socialist labor organizers, populist farm organizers, and activists for any number of important civil rights causes.

Look, I’m a Liberal Democrat (capital letters) because I believe in a set of public policy goals: a well-run government, a clean environment, a fair shake for workers, universal access to quality health care, education, child care and employment, a constructive foreign policy, a fair tax system, and equal protections for all regardless of gender, race or orientation.

But more fundamentally, I’m also a liberal democrat (lower-case letters) because I believe in the rules of the game: the legitimacy of elected leaders and in the legitimacy of all citizens to choose those leaders and take part in the governing process.

Making some people (by which I mean "those people") jump through ridiculous hoops to vote is an affront to the rules of the game.

Participatory democracy is a fragile thing.  One of our goals as progressives (and Progressives) is to cherish it by making sure all citizens have the real right to participate in it. 

We can do better. We must do better. And that Journey starts on Election Day -- though it most certainly cannot stop there.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Reconsidering the "Lazy progressive voter" crutch

Noah Horwitz over at Texpatriate has been beating the drum recently about how Democratic voters need to turn out in midterm elections.

That's a perfectly legitimate stance -- fall off in Democratic turnout helps dooms progressives in mid-term elections.

But where we part ways (at least partially) is their description of "lazy" voters.

Turnout is a two way phenomenon -- people have to get up and vote. They have to be interested and be invested. This is true.

However, we need to remember the other side of turnout are the costs of voting. Registration takes time. You can't take off work. You can't get child care. There's a line out the door at your polling place. You have to get the proper IDs -- which entail more standing in line and more missing work you can't afford to miss.

And the major thing that limits the cost of voting in mobilization -- and how good were progressive mobilization efforts in a place like Texas in 2010 (in a few places, quite good, in most others, not so much)?

So when we talk about "lazy voters" we need to remember the institutional hurdles we throw up to participation in this country and in this state -- both in the formal election process and in the underlying economic environment.

Breaking those chains needs to be huge part of  progressive politics over the next decade (and every decade)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Voter guides and voting info, Texas-style

So who's on Row A?

We've got a lot of low-intensity, yet rather important local elections and state-wide amendments on the ballot.  To help disentangle the issues, here's a list of voting guides.

The folks at Burnt Orange Report check in with their votes on proposed constitutional amendments here.

Progress Texas has their own (slightly different) recommendations here

(Note, all these places giving endorsements come from a general left stance, which mirrors many of this blog's views)

For interviews with literally every (and not in the Joe Biden sense) candidate for local Houston or Harris County office, check out Charles Kuffner's site. Kuff has been doing great work on local politics for years and he also has coverage of important local bond issues like the prison bond and the Astrodome project, as well as local issues like Pasadena's proposed redistricting.

Also, here's a handy guide for what you'll need to vote in this state.

Please vote, and vote in an educated way on Tuesday.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Coming FRA rule changes will boost passenger rail, cut costs, maintain safety

Little bureaucratic rule changes can sometimes make a big difference. And a pending rule change at the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees safety on America's railways, will drastically cut costs, improve reliability, and maintain or increase safety standards.

The FRA has traditionally focused on safety in terms of "collision survival" while its European and Japanese counterparts have evolved to think of it as "collision avoidance." As a result, other countries have invested heavily in Positive Train Control systems, which track train location and speed and automatically stop trains to avoid collisions. In contrast, the U.S. has stayed with a traditional safety style of armoring its trains to protect occupants in a collision.

Despite several high-profile crashes, European passenger rail systems have a sterling safety record  Many U.S. rail corridors are investing in PTC technology to meet an FRA deadline of 2015 to install it on all Class I railroad mainlines. The mandate may be delayed, but the Northeast corridor and major Amtrak routes are making progress on the mandate (notably in Michigan and Illinois)

But for now, this difference in regulations also means that it's illegal for standard European and Japanese train designs to run on U.S. tracks, which are considerably ahead of their U.S counterparts technologically. (They invested in passenger rail between 1950 and 2000, while we abandoned it in favor of highways and air travel.)

As a result, we need to special-order train sets that cost more. The transit expert Alon Levy has estimated  that the incoming Amtrak City Sprinter locomotive costs 35 percent more than the established European design that it's based on -- which works out to around $70-150 million for the order. (That's enough money to make significant improvements on a moderately traveled medium-distance Amtrak train route)

Worse yet, the heavier trains consume more fuel and often cost more to maintain due to the increased wear and tear the extra weight places on things like braking systems (which also degrades safety).

The pending FRA rule change will greatly ease many of the obsolete standards to allow modern European designs onto U.S railways, which will ease the issues of cost and poor performance that plague intercity AMTRAK equipment and American commuter rail systems.

The rule improvement is important, but it isn't isolated -- It's part of a slow and steady change that's been coming over the American passenger rail system for the last decade or so.

For example, despite its problems caused in part existing weight rules, the AMTRAK Sprinter order (which will serve on standard-speed NE corridor and the eastern Pennsylvania Keystone service) actually is an improvement over past practices. First, the order is large enough that it will spread the costs over a reasonably number of units (70) instead of past orders, which relied on as few as 16 units. Second, it standardizes the locomotives in use for the NE Regional Service, currently operates three different locomotives. which should ease training costs, and lower maintenance form the current investments necessary to maintain the three locomotives currently used in the service. And finally, the Sprinter does represent a number of improvements in performance and efficiency from its predecessors.

So two cheers for the bureaucrats who finally look like they are getting this one rule right. I'll take any piece of good news on public policy these days. And here's hoping that the changing culture at the FRA can keep looking forward to ease the expansion of rail travel in the United States (which is up 50 percent on Amtrak since 2001.)

Now, if only we could get some follow-on investment from the feds in rail capital improvements, and fewer governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich and Rick Scott.

H/T to  Atrios and Robert Cruickshank