Sunday, June 1, 2014

After Santa Barbara


After the (most recent) mass shooting in Santa Barbara, I posted the following on facebook; I am reposting it here for continued accessibility.

So we live in a surveillance/military state, where the NSA knows who we are talking to and when and for how long, where to get on a plane we must leave our water bottles and put our toiletries in clear bags, where our bus passes and bridge passes and phones track our whereabouts, where the local cops have armored personnel carriers and assault weapons, where we spend massive amounts of our tax dollars on the most advanced weapons ever made.

But are we safe? All of this "war on terror" - at a huge cost to our finances and our freedoms - has done nothing to protect the victims of attacks at Sandy Hook or Washington Navy Yard or Santa Barbara.

Maybe that is because we looking for terrorists in the wrong place - all of our money and resources are focused on protecting us from "the other," those bearded and turbaned 9/11-style terrorists. But these terror attacks (a "mass shooting" must count as a terror attack) are not by others, but by us - the fellow student, the co-worker, the neighbor, the relative.

Yet we keep focusing on and fearing the other, taking action to counter the latest moves (that we deem suspicious) by Iran or Russia or China or North Korea or al Qaeda or Venezuela or Cuba, and doing little to even think about the source of the domestic shooters (or bombers) who have killed far more Americans, and most of whom having boring, "American" names like Harris or Rodgers.

There is a problem with our society (and it is deeper than, but connected to, guns and misogyny), and I think Michael Moore was partially on the right track when he focused on an American culture of fear. (Which is ironic given our wealth and power.)

But it is not just that - the erosion of a sense of community, or society, or civilization has added to that. The emphasis on the individual, the cult of celebrity and wealth worship, the "greed is good/grab what you can" mentality, the naked use of power and influence, all erode social cohesion and remove barriers to profoundly selfish, fame-seeking acts that harm others, with the killings being an extreme form.

If we were less isolated from each other, less encouraged to victimize each other for our own personal gain, we would be less afraid. There would be fewer guns, less misogyny, and most importantly, fewer killings. Let us strive for connection and overcome fear. Peace to all, and peace to ourselves.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Nanny State

Some folks on the rightward end of the political spectrum seem to like to use the phrase "the nanny state," and while their application of that label seems to somewhat arbitrary and scattershot, I actually kind of like the phrase.

It seems to me, however, that we get most into a "nanny state" when dealing with social welfare programs for low-income folks.

For example, you can get what used to be called "food stamps" (now WIC), but there are very detailed requirements about what foods you can and cannot buy.  For example, only certain species of canned mackerel can be purchased, and no olives or pickled vegetables or imported cheeses are allowed.  Check it out: http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/wic-food-packages-regulatory-requirements-wic-eligible-foods

Likewise for housing assistance or "Section 8" housing.  You have to provide the government all sorts of information about your family and income, and they have to inspect the housing you find to make sure it is acceptable.  http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/topics/housing_choice_voucher_program_section_8

For unemployment insurance, you need to provide the government specific information about why and how you left your last job (among other things), and then they will determine if you are eligible for unemployment: http://www.edd.ca.gov/Unemployment/FAQ_-_Eligibility.htm#Whataretheeligibilityrequirements

So we have all these huge bureaucracies that exist to look in detail at every person who wants help buying a can of mackerel or renting an apartment, and will tell that person what food they can buy and what apartment they can rent and if they left their job for the wrong reason.  If you want small government that is not intrusive into peoples' lives, it would make sense to eliminate these bureaucracies.  It would certainly reduce the "nanny state."

So how can we do that?  Provide a basic minimum income to everyone - enough money for basic housing, food, clothing, medical care, utilities, etc.  And then leave it up to the recipients how they want to spend it - they can spend it smart or spend it stupid, just like everyone else, with no government oversight over what food they are buying, what apartment they are renting, or why they left their last job.  And we could get rid of all of those administrative "nanny" bureaucracies...



Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A New Tax System

I have been thinking about taxes, particularly about what we tax.  And I have been listening to some of the right-wing criticisms of classic liberal tax concepts, such as the progressive income tax.  And frankly, I think the right-wingers have some valid criticisms, although they don't seem to have any actual solutions. ("No new taxes" is not a solution, unless you think the existing tax system is perfect.)

First, it seems odd to tax things that we want to encourage.  It is generally a good thing for the economy if people have an income, and if that income goes up.  So why would we tax income?  Similarly, like it or not, we have a consumption-based economy - we want people to buy stuff.  So why would we tax sales of stuff?

Second, it seems like we should tax things that we want to discourage.  We already do to a small extent  with "sin taxes" on tobacco and alcohol, but that is not really my focus.  I would prefer resource extraction taxes - you take something out of the ground, like oil or gas or minerals or lumber or water, and you pay a hefty tax for doing so.  After all, once you have taken it, no one else can take it, and eventually we will run out of those things.  It seems like a good idea to discourage folks from depleting resources too easily and cheaply.

Similarly, I don't have a problem with property taxes.  Real property is finite, so the more you accumulate, the less there is for anyone else.  Maybe property taxes should be progressive, so owning a little property to live on doesn't cost you much, but the more you own the higher rate you pay.

In addition to resource extraction and property taxes, I would like toxics taxes.  Less poison in our food, water, and air would be good.  Hey, it might even reduce the incidence of cancer. (I would really like it if fewer people died of cancer, wouldn't you?)  So if you produce or use a toxic substance, you would pay a hefty tax for doing so.  That would likely reduce the number of toxics that are used just because it is cheap or easy to do so.

One right-wing complaint about high income taxes is that the people who are making those high incomes deserve those incomes because of their unusual hard work or special skills - in other words, they have earned that money, and it is not fair to take it away.  (Presumably lobbying skills count, too.) To ensure that this is in fact the case, it would make sense to have a high estate tax, at least on larger estates (whatever large is).  After all, inheriting money does not entail much work or skill (stay alive, don't annoy your relatives too much), so those who inherit large chunks of money have not earned that money.  And besides, Thomas Paine and Warren Buffett both support this idea.

So here is the basic outline: no income tax, no sales tax.  Progressive (with quantity of land) real property tax.  Sharply progressive estate tax.  Steep resource extraction and toxics taxes.

Monday, November 26, 2012

We Are Rich!

Really, we are rich.  As a country (USA) and as a state (California).  You can tell just by looking around - the expensive restaurants are crowded, there are BMWs and Range Rovers on the street, there are lots of high rises cloaked in polished stone, we have Armani and Tiffany and Hermes stores, houses in San Francisco and Marin and La Jolla and Malibu are still expensive, everyone is using an electronic gadget unknown just a few years ago, from smartphones to tablets to ebooks to flat-screen monitors and TVs.  There is money here - lots of money.

If you look further, it only becomes clearer how phenomenally rich we are.  Not just stuff - we have resources: human resources, natural resources, design and engineering and manufacturing resources.  California produces oil and gas, tons of food, wine, clothing, biotechnology.  Apple and Google and HP and Chevron and Levi's and Disney and Pixar and Tesla are here.  We have world-class universities and research institutions and art schools.  In short, we have a lot - money, assets, and resources.

But Stockton and San Bernardino have gone bankrupt, Oakland laid off police officers, Berkeley closed two public swimming pools, 20,000 teachers got pink slips earlier this year, course offerings at community colleges and public universities have been cut, state parks have been closed and infrastructure is not being maintained.  This only makes sense if we are poor.  Why would we want to lay off teachers and police, not maintain our roads, and reduce the quality and quantity of education?  These things - education and infrastructure and public safety - are investments, not costs.   You would only not invest if you did not have the money to invest.  But we have the money.

There is enough money for another dinner at Gary Danko ($75-100) or a Hickey Freeman suit ($1500) or a BMW X5 ($60,000) or tearing down and rebuilding a La Jolla oceanfront home ($12 million).  But there is not enough money to pay for police officers or school teachers or college professors?  Nah, there is enough money.  It just is not in the right place - it is an issue of how the money is distributed, rather than how much there is.  The problem is with how the pie is sliced, not the size of the pie.

More later on re-slicing the pie...




Monday, October 29, 2012

Ballot Measures - The Tricky Ones: 31, 33 and 35

These ones are a bit trickier, for various reasons.  Two are well-meaning, but likely to create problematic unintended consequences.  The third one looks innocuous, but is a narrow special interest move.

Proposition 31
This one is an attempt to reform and reshape the (dis)function of California state government.  It does a whole bunch of things, the effects of which are hard to predict.  Some of them I kind of like, others I am not so sure about.

It would move the state from a one-year budget cycle to a two-year budget cycle.  I like this idea, as it would presumably result in more stable funding levels, and avoid the annual budget fiasco.  Except that a big part of California's budget problem is that the state (post-Prop 13) is highly dependent upon income and sales taxes, both of which are highly volatile and hard to forecast.  How can you do a longer-term budget when you don't know what your revenues will be even over one year?  So this is nice in theory, but unlikely to work in practice.  The way the Proposition addresses this is to give the governor more budget cutting authority if revenues are falling short.  I have concerns about this, and it undercuts the additional certainty a two-year budget cycle would provide.

Proposition 31 also rearranges the relationship between the state and local governments in fairly sweeping ways.  I can't figure out exactly how this would work in practice, except that there would be a lot of confusion and probably litigation.  Again, the idea is interesting, but it is not clear that this has really been thought out well.  Whatever you think the appropriate balance should be between the state and the locals, right now it is relatively clear (and there is still litigation over it).  If this passes I am concerned that the chaos and uncertainty would outweigh the possible benefits.

The proposition also has a number of provisions that attempt to add discipline to the budget process.  Again, this seems like a good idea, but the reality is more likely to be an increase in bureaucratic box-checking rather than real reform, so once more the costs might outweigh the benefits.

Finally, it requires that bills be published at least three days before the legislature votes on them.  (Yes, the legislature often does not have time to read the bills they are voting on.)  This is a great idea, that should have been put in place long ago.  

I like this provision, but it is not enough to overcome my concerns with this proposition.  I am reluctantly going to vote no on Proposition 31.

Proposition 33
This is the latest attempt by Mercury Insurance to undo prior legislation limiting what car insurers can charge.  On its face, its looks innocuous, as it just allows insurance companies to give a discount in certain situations.  The reality is much nastier, as it would allow Mercury (and other insurance companies) to charge significantly more money to many customers.  Vote no on Proposition 33.

Here is a good description of what is going on here: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/21/business/la-fi-hiltzik-20121021

Proposition 35
This one is difficult.  This proposition has the support of well-meaning and knowledgeable people, who are legitimately concerned with human trafficking.  They want to bring attention to the (very real and thorny) problem and crack down on it.  On the other hand, it does this in large part by increasing prison terms for human trafficking, just when we may be starting to move away from the "more years in jail is better" model (see Proposition 36) as being expensive and counterproductive.

It also has the potential to significantly increase the number of people required to register as sex offenders (a practice I already find disturbing), and the opponents to the proposition argue that the spouses or children or roommates of prostitutes could be considered guilty of human trafficking, and have to register as sex offenders.  To the extent that this proposition would have prostitution arrests or convictions require registration as a sex offender (as argued by some similarly well-informed and well-intended opponents), it may actually re-stigmatize the very victims it is trying to help.

I am concerned that the side effects will be more damaging than any good that it might do.  There must be better ways to address human trafficking. I am going to vote no on Proposition 35.

Here are a few editorials on it:

http://obrag.org/?p=67263

http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/endorsements/la-ed-end-prop35-20121010,0,1226807.story

http://www.thedailyaztec.com/2012/10/prop-35-sex-traffic-law-vaguely-expands-police-power/




Friday, October 26, 2012

Ballot Measures - The Easy Ones: 32, 34, 37 and 40

The last post was about the propositions with budget impacts.  This one is about the ones that are just so clear (okay, clear to me) that it is easy for me to figure out how to vote.

Proposition 32
This is a particularly shameless power grab by the 1%, trying to neutralize the only really organized opposition to them that exists: labor unions.

It pretends to be neutral, by prohibiting both corporations and unions from funding political contributions from paycheck deductions.  But gee, only unions fund political contributions that way - corporations take the money they need for political contributions out well before it gets to workers' paychecks.

And it prohibits both corporations and unions from making political contributions.  (Which might not stand up under Citizens United.) But it allows Super PACs and uber-wealthy individuals to still make those contributions.  Vote no.  No, no, no.

Here are some editorials that lay it out pretty well:

http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_21583886/contra-costa-times-editorial-proposition-32-is-deceptive

http://www.sacbee.com/2012/09/23/4843939/endorsements-proposition-32-power.html

Proposition 34
This one would end the death penalty in California.  (Okay, I know I already posted about this, but I feel strongly about this proposition.)  I am excited that this is on the ballot. Vote yes!  Yes, yes, yes!

As I put it when I was running for California Attorney General in 2010:


The death penalty process in California is broken, and the costs of California's death penalty are too high.  The costs are too high for taxpayers, for crime victims and their families, for the court system, for the convicted criminal, and ultimately for all Californians.

The death penalty has become an absurdity.  A criminal has already been convicted and is locked up in prison, yet we spend 20 or even 30 years more on the case, continuing to argue about whether we should kill him. Stop already! Move on, go after the violent criminals who are still out there.

As these cases drag on for decades, the costs of the lawyers on both sides are being paid by California's taxpayers.  Victims and their families keep being reminded of their trauma as the cases drag through the already clogged court system.  And what is the product of all this time, money, energy and pain? The state gets to kill one of its citizens.  Or maybe not.  The whole process is a pointless waste. The costs are far too high and the benefits far too low.  

The solution is to end imposition of the death penalty.  Life in prison without possiblity of parole would become the maximum sentence imposed in California.  With this one change, the appeals process could be cut to a fraction of its current duration, the state would save millions of dollars, our most capable and experienced prosecutors would be freed up to go after more violent criminals, court backlogs would be reduced, crime victims and their families could try to move on with their lives, and the state would no longer be in the business of killing.

Eliminate the death penalty.  California cannot afford it. 

And now we can eliminate it by voting yes on Proposition 34.

Proposition 37
Do you want to know what is in your food?  Proposition 37 would require that genetically engineered food be labeled to disclose that it has been genetically engineered.  Seems like a good idea to me, so I am voting yes on 37.

Countries in Europe and Asia already do this.  With labeling, if you like genetic engineering, you can buy foods produced that way.  If you don't like it, you can avoid them.  Right now you can't do either, because you can't easily tell from the label whether something has been genetically engineered or not.

Here are a couple of editorials:

http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/11/opinion/la-oe-imhoff-prop-37-gmo-labeling-20121011

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frances-moore-lappe-and-anna-lappe/gmos-facts_b_2009917.html

Proposition 40
This one is a bit odd, and the back story is way convoluted.  But in the end it is pretty simple.  (The answer: vote yes.)

Remember how a few years ago we voted for a citizens commission to redraw legislative districts, rather than having the legislature gerrymander districts into weird shapes?  Well, even if you don't remember, we did that, and the commission drew up new maps accordingly.  Voting yes on Proposition 40 just confirms that yes, we do in fact want to use the maps drawn up by the process we voted for.

So yes means yes, we meant yes, and we still mean yes.  And pretty much everyone actually agrees on this one.  Vote yes on 40.

An editorial:

http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Yes-on-Prop-40-for-fair-redistricting-3954742.php

And for the truly masochistic, here is the background story (that I can barely sort of follow):

http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-prop-40-fiasco-20121023,0,7870049.story


Ballot Measures - The Budget Propositions: 30 and 38, 34, 36 and 39

Okay, I figured I would give a quick rundown of my take on the various ballot propositions.  This post focuses on the ones that have budget implications: 30 and 38, 34, 36 and 39.

Propositions 30 and 38
I don't really like either of these, but I am reluctantly supporting both of them.  Proposition 30 is Jerry Brown's proposal to raise income taxes and sales taxes to support education and to help balance the budget.  Proposition 38 is Molly Munger's proposal to raise income taxes to support education.

On the down side, I don't like sales taxes - like or not, we have a largely consumer-based economy, so putting a tax on the main driver of the economy seems to be counterproductive.  It also tends to be regressive, as lower-income people spend a much higher proportion of their income and wealth than do wealthy people.  

While I am sort of okay with income taxes, I would prefer a heavier reliance on resource extraction taxes (you pay to take oil or water or timber) and toxics taxes (you pay to make or sell or use carcinogens, respiratory irritants, and other poisons), along with limiting Proposition 13 protections to a primary residence.  (If a business model, such as real estate development or commercial leasing, depends upon and assumes increasing property values, but the taxes on that property do not reflect those same increasing property values, you have a subsidy.)  Car taxes also are a reasonable way to ensure that those who impose costs (air and water pollution, road building and maintenance) help pay for them.

That said, California needs more revenue.  On a per capita basis, our government (believe it or not) is relatively lean.  Physical infrastructure and education are investments in our future, not costs to be minimized.  I do believe in cutting costs (more on that later), but we cannot cut our way out of our current hole.  So I will vote for these two measures.

Why both? Because I want to show that Californians understand the need for more revenue.  If they both fail - for whatever reason or reasons - the conventional spin will be that California is opposed to taxes, and really wants to just cut things.  The result would severely damage California and its economy to an extent I don't think people fully realize.

Proposition 34
This would end the death penalty in California, and replace it in life in prison without possibility of parole.  This is a great idea, and would save lots of money that is now wasted - we spend millions of dollars every year paying lawyers to argue if some criminal already in prison should be killed or not.

We should spend our money catching and prosecuting the criminals out of the street, not the ones already locked up.  And besides, the state should not be in the business of killing people.  The arguments I made during my campaign for attorney general can be found here: http://www.peterallenforag.com/main/page_crime.html

Anyway, the death penalty is a ridiculously wasteful and unnecessary money sink, and should be eliminated.  Yes on 34.

Proposition 36
This proposition would soften California's "three strikes" law that currently requires stiff sentences (like life in prison) for a third criminal conviction.  Proposition 36 would alter that law so that a life sentence would only be imposed when the third conviction is serious or violent.  This would be a step in reducing the huge size of the prison population and its corresponding cost.

It is not clear how much it would save, but we can use any savings right now, and this seems to take a reasonable approach.  So I am voting yes on 36.

Proposition 39
Proposition 39 would eliminate a recently-created tax loophole that allows out-of-state corporations doing significant business in California to evade paying California taxes.  That same loophole also discourages them from opening facilities in California.  So 39 would fix this nonsensical arrangement, and potentially bring in an additional $1 billion per year, without raising taxes on Californians.  So far, so good.

Here is an L.A. Times piece that describes the issue: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/10/local/la-me-cap-prop39-20121011

But 39 then goes on to earmark half of the money for energy efficiency and alternative energy projects by creating a new fund, with its own oversight board.  While energy efficiency and alternative energy are good, I have concerns about yet another budget-by-ballot measure that prevents us from spending the money on something that turns out to be a more urgent priority, and I also don't think we need to create a new government program and entity now.

So I am leaning slightly toward yes, since the tax loophole is really big and stupid and problematic, and it is not clear whether the legislature can get its act together to fix the problem.  If you think the legislature will be able to fix it, then voting no on 39 makes sense.

More on other races soon!