Pleasant Valley Winery

Pleasant Valley Winery


Friday, October 24, 2014

Texas law requires govs to show proof of IQ

George W. Bush at a Republican Governors Association meeting. (photo: Getty Images)
George W. Bush at a Republican Governors Association meeting. (photo: Getty Images)

By Andy Borowitz, The New Yorker
23 October 14

controversial new bill in the Texas House of Representatives would require those running for governor to show proof of the minimum I.Q. necessary to perform the duties of the office.

If the bill were to become law, every politician in Texas with gubernatorial ambitions would be issued an I.D. card featuring his or her photo, current address, and performance on a state-administered I.Q. test.

Carol Foyler, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, acknowledged that the idea of a minimum I.Q. for candidates was viewed as incendiary in some circles, but insisted that the requirements of the I.D. card were not onerous. “All they have to do is show mastery of simple tasks, such as uttering complete sentences and things of that nature,” she said.

But the bill faces an uphill fight in the House, where representatives like Harland Dorrinson, of Plano, have vowed to defeat it.

“I know that the folks behind this so-called bill are well meaning,” Dorrinson said. “But if this had been enacted fifteen years ago, it would have choked off our supply of governors.”

We need to confiscate and redistribute wealth

The one percent. (photo: Shutterstock)
The one percent. (photo: Shutterstock)

Everyone in America Would Be Better Off if We Soaked the 1 Percent

By Bryce Covert, ThinkProgress
23 October 14

90 percent tax rate on the top 1 percent of American earners wouldn’t just significantly reduce income and wealth inequality and boost government tax revenues. It would also be the optimal level for Americans’ welfare, according to a new paper from economists Fabian Kindermann and Dirk Krueger.

They find that the top marginal tax rate that maximizes government revenues before being so high as to discourage the wealthiest from earning more is very high, or 95 percent on those who are among the top 1 percent of earners. They also find that a 90 percent tax rate on the richest 1 percent could significantly reduce the Gini index, a measure of income inequality, and wealth inequality would also steadily decline.

But these effects aren’t worth the policy change in and of themselves, they argue. In an email to ThinkProgress, Krueger wrote, “One could certainly reduce inequality in the economy to zero, by the government confiscating all income and wealth and redistributing it equally among all households… Of course people would stop working and saving and the outcome would be disastrous.” But the interesting finding in their paper is that the same tax rate that would maximize revenues and drive down inequality is nearly the same one that would make everyone better off, or what they call the optimal top marginal tax rate.

Everyone’s welfare is improved if a tax change allows the government to compensate them with enough wealth so that they are at the same level they were before the change, but the government still has money left over. “The more is left over, the better is the reform,” Krueger said. Everyone’s welfare improves or stays steady, including that of the 1 percent, under a 90 percent top tax rate. In fact, the welfare gains are “very substantial,” they note in the paper.

There are trade offs to such a policy change. About 10 percent fewer people would enter the labor force and consumption would decline in the long run by about 7 percent. But most of this would happen at the very top and not impact most Americans. Average consumption for people who don’t make it to the top 1 percent would actually be higher. Most of the labor force reduction is also among the richest. “Not knowing whether one would ever make it into the top 1% (not impossible, but very unlikely) households would be eager to accept a life that is somewhat better most of the time…and significantly worse in the rare case they climb to the top 1%,” Krueger noted.

The top 1 percent paid an average tax rate of 23.5 percent in 2011, below a peak of 27.6 in 2001. The rate had been dropping for many years, although what they’re paying now represents a slight increase. Either way, though, the rate is much lower than 90 percent.

While conservatives warn that higher tax rates on the wealthy will hurt so-called “job creators,” economists point out that higher taxes and economic growth can go hand-in-hand. After World War II, higher economic growth occurred alongside higher top tax rates, averaging 2.23 percent while the top rates were above 70 percent between 1950 and 1980 but just 1.68 percent when the rates were lower between 1980 and 2010. Job growth has been weakest when the top rate was lowest and stronger when it was higher.

Without any policy change, however, income and wealth inequality are set to keep growing. Income inequality has been growing steadily since the 1970s and the recession has made it even worse, while wealth inequality is now where it was in the 1920s and continues climbing.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shocker: Superrich grab half world's assets

 Photo Credit: via Compfight cc
Lynne Stuart Parramore

Photo Credit: via Compfight cc
Campaign for America's Future
According to a new report, the richest one percent have got their mitts on almost half the world’s assets. Think that’s the end of the story? Think again. This is only the beginning.

The “Global Annual Wealth Report,” freshly released by investment giant Credit Suisse, analyzes the shocking trend of growing wealth inequality around the world. What the researchers find is that global wealth has increased every year since 2008, and that personal wealth seems to be rising at the fastest rate ever recorded, much of it driven by strong equity markets. But the benefits of this growth have largely been channeled to those who are already affluent. While the restaurant workers in America struggled to achieve wages of $10 an hour for their labor, those invested in equities saw their wealth soar without lifting a finger. So it goes around the world.

The bottom half of the world’s people now own less than 1 percent of total wealth, and they’re struggling to hold onto even that minuscule portion. On the other hand, the wealthiest 10 percent have accumulated a staggering 87 percent of global assets. The top percentile has 48.2 percent of the world wealth. For now.

One of the scary things about the wealth of the supperich is what French economist Thomas Piketty pointed out in his best-selling book, Capital in the 21st Century. Once they’ve got a big chunk of wealth, their share will get bigger even if they sit by and do absolutely nothing. Piketty sums up this economic reality in a simple and horrifying formula: r > g.

Basically, this means that when rate of return on wealth is greater than the overall rate of growth of the economy, as it has nearly always been throughout history, the rich will grow inevitably richer and the poor poorer unless there is some kind of intervention, like higher taxes on wealth, for example. If r is less than g, the assets of the super-wealthy will erode, but if r is greater than g, you eventually get the explosion of gigantic inherited fortunes and dynasties.

This is happening now: If you look at the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people in America, you see a lot more inherited fortunes in the upper ranks than you did a couple of decades ago, when the policies that held inequality at bay began to get dismantled. In today’s top 10, there are more scions of the Walton family than entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. These people have essentially done nothing of value for society, and yet their undue influence shapes our political landscape with the wave of a wad of cash.

There have been moments in history when things were not so lopsided. During the post-war period, inequality was contained because governments made sure their rich didn’t accumulate at such alarming rates by doing things like taxing their estates at a high rate. At the same time, they created policies to lift the incomes of the less well-off and allow them to have some basic security. But that’s an exception in history. Most of the time, this kind of intervention did not happen, and so the rich kept gobbling more and accumulating more power to keep it that way until one of two things happened — a revolution or some kind of catastrophe or disruptive event, like a war, shook things up.

As the Credit Suisse report states:
“[Wealth inequality] has been the case throughout most of human history, with wealth ownership often equating with land holdings, and wealth more often acquired via inheritance or conquest rather than talent or hard work. However, a combination of factors caused wealth inequality to trend downwards in high income countries during much of the 20th century, suggesting that a new era had emerged. That downward trend now appears to have stalled, and possibly gone into reverse.”
That’s right. We’re on a turbo-charged ride back to the days of Downton Abbey. Piketty warns that we’re in the early stages of reverting right back to periods of massive inequality, like 19th-century Britain or 18th-century France, where great dynastic fortunes ruled and everybody else fought for scraps.

What the statistics and formulas don’t show is the kind of human suffering that results from this kind of extreme inequality. While the global elite zip around the world in private jets and watch their stock portfolios expand on computer screens from within their gated mansions, the bottom half stays awake at night trying to think of how to pay for medicine for a sick child. The things that give life dignity and meaning, like a quality education, a decent job, and the security of knowing you have a roof over your head and a doctor to care for you when you are ill grow further and further out of reach. Anxiety never leaves because one unforeseen mishap can push you down into poverty, and if you’re already there, you spend much of your time searching, often fruitlessly, for a way out.

But there’s a little bit of anxiety percolating at the top, too. On the June cover of the conservative magazine American Spectator, a cartoon shows an incensed mob looking on as a monocled fatcat is led to a bloody guillotine — a scene evoking the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. The caption reads, “The New Class Warfare: Thomas Piketty’s intellectual cover for confiscation.” In the story that accompanies the image, James Pierson warns of revolution and a growing class of suffering people who want to punish the rich and take away their toys.

That would be one way to address things. Another would be the recognition that inequality is extremely destabilizing and dangerous, and that non-violent interventions are possible, as we saw in America with the New Deal. Things like robust tax reform, unions, regulation, changes in corporate governance and CEO pay, affordable education, jobs programs, expansion of Social Security and universal healthcare.

Or we could just do things the old-fashioned way and wait for a disaster even bigger than the meltdown of 2007-’08. In that case, fasten your seatbelts. This ride could get very rough.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Make millionaires pay Social Security taxes

5 Reasons Why Democrats Should Push Social Security Expansion – Now

Richard Eskow

The problem is that Republicans keep changing the subject, and Democrats keep letting them. Rather than letting themselves be kept on the defensive – about President Obama, the Affordable Care Act, Ebola, or the Middle East – Democrats would be wise to pick one or two key issues and keep hammering away at them.

The Democrats should be using Social Security expansion as a key part of their 2014 election strategy. (See “Democrats Can Win on Social Security – By Fighting to Increase It.”) A few of them have, and in recent days Social Security has been raised in several more Democratic races.

But the days are dwindling down to a precious few. There isn’t enough time left to promote Social Security expansion in depth, but Democrats can still use it as a key campaign tool. Here are five reasons why they should: 

1. Social Security is a “core value” – and a winning issue.
As Celinda Lake told me in a radio interview (available here), there is “overwhelming” support for expanding Social Security and taxing millionaires to do it. This support is present among voters of all political leanings, including self-identified Republicans and independents. Social Security is a “core value” for voters, and Lake described it to us as a “valence issue” – that is, an issue that is likely to sway their vote.

Her observations came from a study of likely voters, nationwide and in several key states, which she conducted for Social Security Works and the Center for Community Change. Voters were asked how they felt about “increasing Social Security benefits and paying for that increase by having wealthy Americans pay the same rate into Social Security as everybody else.” 

90 percent of Democrats said they support the idea; 75 percent strongly supported it.
  • 73 percent of independents support it; 55 percent strongly supported it.
  • 73 percent of Republicans support it; 47 percent strongly supported it.
  • 63 percent said they are more likely to vote for a member of Congress who votes to increase Social Security.
  • 70 percent said they are less likely to vote for someone who votes to cut Social Security benefits.
These findings reinforce several earlier polls (compiled in, such as the one that found that “87 percent of voters favor protecting Social Security and Medicare.”

When I asked why more Democrats weren’t embracing this idea, Lake answered, “I can’t imagine.” 

2. It helped them win in 2006.
When the Democrats took back the House of Representatives in 2006, Social Security was a key part of that victory. President Bush and Congressional Republicans tried unsuccessfully to privatize the program in 2005, which proved to be deeply unpopular with voters. The memory of that attempt was fresh in voters’ minds when they went to the polls the following year.

That year the Democrats held a nearly 30-point advantage among voters who were asked, “Which party do you trust more on Social Security?” (Wall Street Journal/Lake Research Partners) Four years later, after the Obama White House began flirting with Social Security cuts through the Simpson/Bowles Deficit Commission, the Dems’ 28-point lead had become a 3-point deficit. Voters actually trusted Republicans more on the issue, if only by a slight margin.

The Democrats lost the House that year. 

3. It’s a great way to distinguish themselves from Republicans.
Social Security is a “core value” among voters. It’s also a signature Democratic accomplishment, one that Republicans tried to dismantle less than a decade ago.
Of course, few Republicans are foolish enough to boast of their anti-Social Security efforts in an election year. That’s why candidates like Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor of Arkansas have begun running attack ads highlighting their opponents’ support for cutting Medicare and raising the Social Security age to 70.

But attack ads alone probably won’t be enough. Social Security expansion draws a clear line of demarcation between privatization-friendly Republicans and Democrats who want to expand the social safety net at a time of diminishing prosperity for most Americans.

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich understands this. He was one of the first Democrats on the Hill to embrace Social Security expansion, and he’s making it a cornerstone of this year’s race. That’s an interesting choice, given that he faces an uphill battle in a decidedly red state. (Remember demi-governor Palin?)

The latest Senate candidate to embrace this approach is Iowa Senate candidate Bruce Braley. This week Braley came out with a plan to expand Social Security that tracks closely with Lake’s polling. In a new television ad, Braley says that his plan would “Make millionaires pay Social Security taxes on all of their earned income,” “keep Social Security strong,” and “increase monthly benefits.”

That tracks with proposals from senators Begich, Bernie Sanders, Tom Harkin, and Elizabeth Warren. 

4, People don’t like getting shafted.
The American people understand that the raw deal they’ve been given includes the lousy service they’ve been getting from everyone, especially big businesses like the cable operators. They know that when you cut administrative costs, you’re taking a chunk out of their day – and sometimes out of the services to which they’re entitled.

Now, thanks to overzealous budget-cutting in Washington, even Social Security suffers from this private-sector syndrome. Its administrative costs are a fraction of those in the private sector, and they’re fully funded by Social Security contributions (that is, by you and me).

The number of backlogged disability cases is now approaching one million.

Nevertheless, Congress keeps cutting Social Security’s administrative budget. They’re closing field offices, which negatively affects people’s ability to receive timely attention – or even to receive the benefits to which they’re entitled. (We interviewed Witold Skwierczynski of the American Federation of Government Employees here about this and found his comments informative.)

They’re planning to continue these cuts, and perhaps even to close Social Security’s offices altogether in favor of an Internet-based system and outsourced “private partners.” (See “A ‘Secret Plan’ to Close Social Security Offices – and Outsource Its Work.”) These service cutbacks are being implemented even as Baby Boom retirements are beginning create an enormous additional demand for services.

Voters understand that cuts in Social Security’s operating budget deprive them of something they’ve been paying for throughout their working lives. The next phase of Social Security expansion should also call for expanding, not shrinking, Social Security’s administrative functions. 

5. It changes the subject.
As we were saying, Republicans have been setting the agenda this year. Ebola. ISIS – they want to talk about anything except what they have in mind for the vast majority of Americans.

Instead of answering silly questions like “Did you vote for Obama?” Democrats could keep doing what Bruce Braley is now doing in Iowa. His new ad points to opponent Joni Ernst’s support for Social Security privatization and emphasized the riskiness of that approach. And the narrator in a new Louisiana ad says (in that grim “narrator” voice):

“When it comes to seniors, Congressman Bill Cassidy has a plan: Raise the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare to 70.”

It’s late in the campaign, and voters’ minds may already be pretty much made up. But it only makes sense to put Republicans on the defensive for supporting proposals that would hurt American families – and for contrasting that with proposals that would make things better for those families.

But if Democrats are going to do that, they better act now.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Energy companies trying to stop solar power

Does this setting sun represent compromise over solar policies? Sure, why not? (photo: Kevin Dinkel/Flickr)
Does this setting sun represent compromise over solar policies? Sure, why not? (photo: Kevin Dinkel/Flickr)

By Brad Plumer, Vox
22 October 14

f you ask the people who run America's electric utilities what keeps them up at night, a surprising number will say solar power. Specifically, rooftop solar.

That seems bizarre at first. Solar power provides just 0.4 percent of electricity in the United States — a minuscule amount. Why would anyone care?

But utilities see things differently. As solar technology gets dramatically cheaper, tens of thousands of Americans are putting photovoltaic panels up on their roofs, generating their own power. At the same time, 43 states and Washington DC have "net metering" laws that allow solar-powered households to sell their excess electricity back to the grid at retail prices.

That's a genuine problem for utilities. All these solar households are now buying less and less electricity, but the utilities still have to manage the costs of connecting them to the grid. Indeed, a new study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory argues that, without policy changes, this trend could soon put utilities in dire financial straits. If rooftop solar were to grab 10 percent of the market over the next decade, utility earnings could decline as much as 41 percent.

To avoid that fate, many utilities are now pushing for reforms that would at least slow the breakneck growth of rooftop solar — say, by scaling back those "net metering" laws. And that's opened up a war with many fronts. There are solar advocates who'd prefer not to see any changes. There are conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) pushing to pare back solar subsidies. And there are even Tea Party groups now defending solar. Meanwhile, state regulators are struggling to find compromises that would both allow solar to expand but also ensure that there's enough money to maintain the existing grid.

Battles over solar are now raging in more than a dozen states — from Arizona to Utah to Wisconsin to Georgia. (They're also flaring up abroad, in countries like Germany and Australia). And the debate raises some legitimately hard questions about how best to deal with a new energy technology. Here's a broad overview:
How cheap solar could lead to a utility "death spiral"

Solar panels are still a niche product. But the cost of solar rooftop systems has been plummeting in recent years (see chart). Firms like SolarCity will now install solar systems at no upfront cost to customers who can then make monthly payments.

Plus, there's a 30 percent federal tax credit for residential solar systems until the end of 2016.

So even though solar provides just 0.4 percent of America's electricity, it's growing at a shocking rate. Rooftop solar generation has roughly tripled since 2010. By some estimates, a new solar system is installed every four minutes in the United States.

To electric utilities, this poses a dilemma. As rooftop solar becomes more popular, people will buy less and less electricity from their local power company. But utilities still have plenty of fixed costs for things like maintaining the grid. So, in response, those utilities will eventually have to raise rates on everyone else. Trouble is, those higher electricity rates could spur even more people to install their own solar rooftop panels to save money. Cue the death spiral.

Sound far-fetched? This was the doomsday scenario laid out by the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group, back in January 2013. Even a relatively modest increase in rooftop solar power could cause havoc. David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, has called these trends "a mortal threat to the existing utility system." (Some utilities also have their own solar plants, but that doesn't pose a threat to their business model.)

One recent study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that some utilities could face serious financial trouble in the coming decade. Distributed solar now makes up nearly 2 percent of retail sales in some areas. If solar penetration reaches just 2.5 percent, shareholder earnings for some utilities could fall an estimated 4 percent. (Electricity prices, meanwhile, would rise just 0.1 to 0.2 percent.)

That's just the beginning. If the penetration of distributed solar reached as high as 10 percent — an admittedly aggressive scenario — a typical utility in the Southwest could see its earnings drop 5 percent to 13 percent, while a typical utility in the Northeast could see its earnings decline 6 percent to 41 percent. This is similar to what's happened in Germany, where distributed solar has halved the market value of some utilities.

The LBNL study did argue that there are policies that might help utilities recoup their lost revenues. Some states are trying to modify regulations so that utility profits are no longer wholly dependent on how many power plants they build and how much electricity they sell — a process known as "decoupling." But whether this softens the blow really depends on the fine details.

Utilities pushing to scale back solar subsidies
The potential disruptions caused by solar power have triggered a number of fierce policy disputes at the state level.

Some of the biggest fights are over "net metering" policies, found in 43 states and DC, that essentially require utilities to buy excess rooftop solar power from homes and businesses at retail prices. (These retail prices are higher than the wholesale prices that utilities typically pay for electricity generation.)

Electric utilities argue that these policies have become far too unwieldy. After all, these new solar-powered homes and businesses are all still connected to the grid (not least because they still need electricity from traditional power plants when the sun isn't shining). But the utility is getting less money from these customers to maintain and repair that grid.

As such, utilities argue that they should be allowed to charge rooftop solar owners a maintenance or connection fee of some sort. Alternatively, in some states, utilities have proposed reducing the price paid to these households for their excess solar electricity.

Solar advocates, for their part, counter that solar power provides a wide variety of ancillary benefits — it doesn't pollute, it helps address global warming, and it provides a handy source of peak power on hot days when A/C use surges. So, they say, solar should get some sort of subsidy for this, and net metering makes sense.

The first big battle over net metering came back in 2013, when Arizona Public Service proposed a new $50 monthly fee for all households with rooftop solar. That sparked a huge backlash from solar proponents, and regulators eventually pared the fee back to $5 per month.

Similar disputes are spreading to more and more states. As Zack Colman recently reported in the Washington Examiner, measures have now been filed in 20 states to either scale back or eliminate net metering laws. In Wisconsin, for instance, the largest utility in the state, We Energies, has proposed reducing the price paid to rooftop solar owners for their electricity, as well as charging all homeowners a higher price for connecting to the grid.

Some of these rollback efforts have been backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that has drafted "model legislation" to weaken net metering. Their argument? The growth of rooftop solar will force utilities to raise rates on the rest of us in order to maintain the grid.

Yet policies to moderate the growth of solar can be motivated by a variety of concerns — it's not just a conservative plot. On Hawaii's Oahu island, for instance, anyone who wants to install solar panels on their roofs now has to get permission from the local utility, which argues that the current grid can't handle the strain. In Pennsylvania, utilities want to limit how much solar power a homeowner can install on his or her roof to 110 percent of what the house needs in a year, so as to limit excessive profiting off solar panels.

Some Tea Party groups taking pro-solar stance
The debate over solar has also created some surprising tensions among conservatives. On the one hand, right-wing groups like ALEC are opposed to the heavy subsidies given to solar power by Congress and states. But another subset of conservatives have begun to view solar power more favorably — and oppose efforts by states to restrict it or impose new fees.

Case in point: Earlier this year in Oklahoma, the legislature passed a bill that would charge rooftop solar owners more for the electricity they sell back to the grid. This bill quickly attracted the ire of conservative group TUSK, which stands for "Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed" and is led by Barry Goldwater, Jr. (See Slate's Josh Voorhees for the full Oklahoma story.)

TUSK, for its part, has argued that rooftop solar offers homeowners greater energy choice and should be valued by conservatives. "Monopoly utilities want to extinguish the independent rooftop solar market in America to protect their socialist control of how we get our electricity," its website notes. "They have engaged in class warfare and tried to sabotage net metering, a billing method that gives individual homeowners fair credit for power produced on their own rooftops."

Similar conservative splits are now showing up elsewhere. In Georgia, the Green Tea Coalition — a Tea Party offshoot — is pushing for policies that would allow homeowners to buy solar systems from third parties (something that Georgia restricts). "Solar empowers the consumer and the individual," Debbie Dooley of the Green Tea Coalition explained to Midwest Energy News. "These giant monopolies want to take away that consumer choice unless they can control it."

Possible compromise on solar power?
In the meantime, some states are trying to find a balance here, mulling over policies that both promote solar power but don't leave utilities struggling to maintain the grid.
Minnesota, for one, has put forward a "value of solar" policy, in which regulators determine a "fair value" for electricity generated by rooftop solar panels — taking into account both their environmental benefits and the costs they impose on the grid — and then letting utilities buy electricity at that price (rather than buying it at the retail electricity rate, which can fluctuate over time).

Still, even this policy has created rifts among solar proponents, with some arguing that current net metering policies work just fine. (One key difference? Under net metering, homes only sell the electricity they don't need back to the grid, whereas under "value of solar" policies, they have to sell all of it to the utility.)

If solar is to keep growing, though, regulators will ultimately have to figure out a workable compromise here. Indeed, a recent report from the International Energy Agency argued that the success of solar would depend on policies that "facilitate distributed [solar photovoltaic] generation while ensuring [transmission and distribution] grid cost recovery."

The issue's only likely to become more contentious as solar power keeps growing — and some experts are already suggest that utilities may be forced to make more drastic changes to their business model. See, for instance, this recent post by Matt Lehrman and Peter Bronski of the Rocky Mountain Institute on how radical changes to the old electricity-pricing model could be the best way to resolve this debate.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why DC is OK with Broken States of America


It seems the government is in a permanent state of gridlock and Congress has become even more dysfunctional throughout the years. Should we expect Washington to remain gridlocked for another decade?

  • Since 1992, the Democrats’ presidential candidate has won a majority of the popular vote in all but one election – Bush vs. Kerry in 2004. In the 2000 election – decided by the Supreme Court, not the electorate – Democrat Al Gore outpolled Republican George W. Bush by over half a million votes.
  • Due in no small part to systematic partisan redistricting in every state in the Union, Republicans are now firmly in control of the lower house; if they succeed in taking control of the Senate, where seats are awarded via state-wide contests rather than in gerrymandered congressional districts, they can easily pass laws pursuant to an extreme pro-business, anti-immigrant, military interventionist agenda.
  • The chances that a Republican will be elected president in 2016 are remote: loyal Republican voters constitute a mere 25% of the electorate according to a 2014 Gallup poll, while fully 42% identify themselves as Independents.
  • People who consider themselves Independents are generally moderate, middle-of-the-road voters who vote for candidates rather than parties; they tend to shun extremist candidates and parties; if Congress is dominated by one party, especially one in thrall to the likes of Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and the Tea Party, they are like to vote for the other party’s presidential candidate.
  • President Obama will veto laws and programs passed by a solidly Republican Congress with an extreme rightwing agenda, and even the tepid Democrats in the Senate will use the filibuster to sustain Obama’s vetoes for the next two years.
  • The Democratic presidential candidate elected in 2016 election will almost certainly be re-elected, virtually guaranteeing eight more years of gridlock.
Hence, the ominous prospect of a coming decade of dysfunctional government and politics looms over the republic like the proverbial sword of Damocles.

But, unlike the rest of us, the denizens of the Nation’s Capitol have nothing to worry about – Washington, D.C., continues to prosper even as Detroit and other American cities that were once pulsing with energy and industry decay. Fact: Washington is the richest metropolitan area in America.

What the paradox of a gridlocked, debt-ridden government and a corrupt US Congress with trillions of tax dollars at its disposal means for the country and the world is the subject of my next post.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Right's sneaky new strategy to control women

Clinics that council against abortions are popping up all over the country. (photo: Third Box)
Clinics that counsel against abortions are popping up all over the country. (photo: Third Box)

By Amanda Marcotte, AlterNet
18 October 14

Their latest effort to hoodwink women is even more shameless than usual.

ecent months have revealed a scary new trend in the anti-choice movement: claiming, falsely, that anti-choice conservatives are the ones trying to give women more control over their reproductive decision-making. Yes, the new lie coming from anti-choicers is to pretend, as hard as it may be to believe, that they are actually pro-choice.

In the Bay Area, a crisis pregnancy center whose entire purpose is to try to guilt and bully women out of abortions is now trying to trick people into believing it’s a pro-choice counseling center. As reported by Katie Baker at Buzzfeed, the city of San Francisco passed a law requiring crisis pregnancy centers, which often pretend to be abortion clinics in order to lure women seeking abortion, to put up signage to explain that they do not actually offer abortion services. After their lawsuit to stop the law failed, the crisis pregnancy center First Resort has started a rebranding effort, calling itself Third Box and claiming it’s a counseling center for “undecided” pregnant women.

Third Box goes out of its way to give the appearance of being a pro-choice organization, even using the phrase “pro-choice” in a press release. Its website insinuates that women will be given fair and honest counseling about all their options, including abortion. Most women would, in fact, get the impression from the website that Third Box offers abortion referrals. That’s highly unlikely, however, because, as Baker pointed out in her article, the CEO of Third Box, Shari Plunkett (who also runs the First Resort crisis pregnancy centers that have been called out for trying to trick women out of getting abortions) celebrated the closing of local abortion clinics in a 2011 email, writing that they offered “one of the most amazing opportunities we’ve ever had to serve abortion-minded women.”

You also see a turn toward "pro-choice" language in the campaign over Amendment 1 in Tennessee. Currently, the state constitution provides broad rights to medical privacy that have made it hard for legislators to pass unnecessary regulations to close down abortion clinics. Amendment 1, which is a ballot initiative, would remove those protections and allow the legislature to pass intrusive laws banning abortion, which is exactly the point of putting this on the ballot for November.

But even though the goal of the “yes on 1” forces in Tennessee is to end legal abortion in their state, advocates pretend that they have no intention of removing women’s reproductive choices.

“You're saying yes to making the constitution once again neutral on the issue of abortion,” Sharon White of the Yes on 1 campaign told WTVC, falsely implying that her campaign is about neutrality, which sounds awfully pro-choice. In fact, her campaign is about ending neutrality, and allowing the legislature to single out abortion clinics for regulations that aren’t applied to any other clinics. It’s the opposite of neutral, and sure isn’t pro-choice.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is another prominent example of an anti-choicer masquarading as pro-choice. After Emily’s List released an ad highlighting Walker’s long and storied campaign to end legal abortion in his state, Walker hit back with an ad implying he’s actually pro-choice. After admittedly briefly that he’s “pro-life,” Walker goes on to falsely suggest that his personal views on abortion don’t influence his policy ideals. “That’s why I support legislation to increase safety and to provide more information for a woman considering her options,” he says, even though all his actions as governor have been about reducing a woman’s options. “The bill leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor.” 

As Andy Kroll at Mother Jones noted, a voter watching that ad “could easily conclude that Walker is personally opposed to abortion but supports the right of a woman to decide (in consultation with a doctor) to choose an abortion.” After all, more than half the people who call themselves “pro-life” also believe that abortion should be legal. In fact, 43 percent of Americans identify as both “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” Walker’s ad was clearly meant to suggest he is one of those Americans who believes abortion to be wrong on some level but who doesn’t want it to be banned.

But the implication of his ad is flat-out false. Walker may be trying to pretend he’s a moderate, but he has been open in the past about his desire to ban all abortions, even in the case of rape and incest. The bill he mentions in the ad was actually a medically unnecessary restriction on abortion providers in the state that was clearly intended to shut down as many abortion clinics as possible, a move denounced by Wisconsin doctor and former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Doug Laube.

Walker’s hostility to reproductive rights doesn’t stop at hostility to abortion. As Robin Marty at Talking Points Memo notes, Walker tried to ban the coverage of birth control in Wisconsin’s healthcare plans and has been trying to shut down family planning clinics across the state, even if they don’t offer abortion. “[I]t’s clear that contraception is just as big of a target to him as abortion is,” Marty writes.

Walker is an extreme example, but many anti-choice wolves are trying to dress up in pro-choice sheep costumes in a bid to trick female voters into thinking they aren’t so bad. Take the number of Republican candidates for Senate this year claiming to support over-the-counter birth control pills. These candidates, such as Cory Gardner, Thom Tillis, and Ed Gillespie, are all rabidly anti-abortion and are generally hostile to Democratic efforts to improve both reproductive healthcare and healthcare, because they oppose both the Affordable Care Act and the HHS requirement that insurance companies cover contraception. But in order to distract from the fact that they support policies that would make contraception (and healthcare generally) harder for women to get, they’ve been touting themselves as the real protectors of choice with this OTC birth control pill idea.

It’s 100% for show. Congress doesn’t determine what drugs are over-the-counter and what are prescription-only (only the FDA has that power), so they never have to actually make good on this supposed support for OTC birth control pills. It’s nothing but an effort to look like they’re supportive of reproductive choice while continuing to push for the same old policies to reduce reproductive choice. Like Scott Walker’s ad, the whole plan is to appear pro-choice while actually wanting to take women’s choices away.

Being perceived as pro-choice is clearly desirable, particularly if you want to appeal to women. Pro-choice is widely understood, for good reason, as the only stance that actually respects women’s intelligence and basic right to equality. Pro-choice is the bare minimum standard in order not to be understood as a misogynist waging the war on women.

However, none of these Republican politicians—much less crisis pregnancy center leaders—are actually pro-choice. It’s just an illusion, an attempt to hoodwink women long enough so that they can take their choices away.