Thursday, September 12, 2013

Backwards Boehner

Speaker of the House John Boehner met with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew today to discuss the debt ceiling, which could be breached as early as a month from now.  Lew held to the administration's sensible position not to negotiate over the limit but Boehner is attempting to get some sort of debt reduction packaged with it.  This position led to this interestingly backwards statement by Boehner, as reported in the Wall Street Journal

“Every major effort to deal with the deficit over the past 30 years has been tied to the debt limit,” Mr. Boehner’s office said in a statement. “This time should be no different.”

This statement is framed in an intentionally misleading way.  The issue on the table is the debt limit.  It has been raised many times whether Congress was controlled by Democrats or Republicans without tying it to a deficit reduction package.  That is what the administration is seeking.  So Boehner would not be able to factually say: "Every time the debt limit has been raised over the past 30 years has been tied with a major effort to deal with the deficit."  But he can make the reverse (and irrelevant) statement that deficit deals have been tied to the debt limit.  It's like all squares being rectangles but not all rectangles being squares.  Just because all deficit packages deal with the debt ceiling doesn't mean all debt ceiling deals have dealt with the deficit.  But he doesn't want you to think about it that hard.  Boehner's statement is a bait-and-switch to attempt to tie debt ceiling deals with deficit reduction deals, but it is misleading and dishonest.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Good Government: Brownfield redevelopment edition

Government plays important roles that private enterprise can't or won't.  One of those functions is to clean up after defunct private enterprises that leave a mess behind for the greater community.  Corporate bankruptcy serves a valuable purpose of sorting out the scraps when businesses fail, but its use means that somebody is going to be shorted, and often it is the surrounding community that suffers. 

For example, old industrial companies whose operations were no longer profitable in the United States in comparison to cheaper foreign competition were driven to bankruptcy throughout industrial cities.  These bankrupt companies have left behind abandoned factories and polluted land that have had strong negative effects on their cities.  This is worse than a productive business simply moving out of town and leaving behind a neutral spot of barren land; it is turning the land from a formerly positive effect on the locality to an actively negative one.  When it is not cost effective for private enterprise to rehabilitate polluted brownfields, governments have to step in.

The Midland-Ross steel company in Cleveland manufactured automobile frames dating back to the Model T.  But when it declared bankruptcy in 2003 it left behind a useless and commercially unattractive brownfield.  However, thanks to a $5.3 million cleanup effort from a combination of federal, state, and local funding, the 23 acre site is now a clean slate, ready to be leased for a new productive use.  This was not done by private enterprise.  This was an investment of public funds for the greater good.  The land can now go from a drag on the city of Cleveland to a positive, tax generating employer.  When someone says government does not create jobs, brownfield cleanup projects like this one can be cited as examples that such sentiments are blatantly false.  Private enterprise does not solve all of our problems and government expenditures of tax dollars make our communities better places. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Good Government: Mars Curiosity Edition

With so many conservatives claiming the government is overwhelmed with wasteful spending, it can be useful to point out examples of good government spending.  Headlines are grabbed by the outlier events where tax dollars are wasted; in the vast majority of government spending where funds go to productive uses there is no story to report.  Thus, public perception is skewed to overemphasizing the rare examples of waste.  So now that the Mars Curiosity has been exploring another planet millions of miles away for a full year, it is a good time to remember its accomplishments:
http://gizmodo.com/curiositys-greatest-hits-in-its-one-year-on-mars-1029853730

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Metro Closes Doors

Random thought about riding DC Metro: Why can't train operators open and close doors on an individual basis? 

Broken train doors are one of the biggest sources of congestion.  Metro train announcements have to constantly remind riders not to try to hold the doors open because they don't work like elevator doors.  They don't automatically retract if someone is in the doorway, so if someone tries to hold them open they will break.  People regularly run to catch trains as they are leaving, jumping into closing doorways, risking damage.  If someone is stuck between the doors, the train operator has to reopen and close the doors, but the operator cannot only open the door in question, all doors on the train are operated together. 

To open one door that cannot close, a train operator has to open all eighteen doors on a six car train.  This gives other people on the platform a chance to try to jump into a quickly closing door, causing another opportunity for doors to malfunction.  If a door cannot close, or gets broken by the force of riders trying to hold the door open, the entire train has to be offloaded.  This is the last thing needed during rush hour, adding a trainload of riders back onto a crowded platform. 

So in order to minimize the risk of doors getting jammed, they should be able to open and close independently from each other.  That way, when one door is stuck, all the other doors can stay closed and avoid risk of another adventurous passenger attempting to jump in.  It also means that an entire train would not have to be offloaded when a door won't close; the forced disembarking could be limited to the affected car and the rest of the cars can go along their way.

Another way to reduce the risk of train doors getting jammed, if you were designing a subway system from scratch, would be platform screen doors, although it would be expensive to retrofit an existing system. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Random thought on the fiscal cliff deal

It's after the fact, but in the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, why was the starting position of the White House to make the Bush tax cuts for 98% of earners permanent?  Was the possibility of another 10 year extension considered? 

Obama didn't want taxes to go up for the middle class for appropriate political and economic reasons, but permanently establishing these tax rates makes it virtually impossible to raise them again.  Obama had leverage in the fiscal cliff deal because the tax cuts were temporary and scheduled to go up unless the law was changed.  Why didn't Democrats even attempt to recreate this situation 10 years in the future?  Of course, Republicans would not have willingly agreed to this policy, but by not even putting it on the table, Democrats undermined one point they could have used in negotiations. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

How Boehner can win the debt ceiling debate

After the fiscal cliff deal, the debt ceiling stands as the next great debate.  What Congress should do is simply raise or eliminate the ceiling, because all it does is prevent the government from paying the bills it already owes, but Republicans have another idea.  Speaker Boehner's goal is to maximize spending cuts in a deal to raise the ceiling while President Obama's goal is a clean increase without cuts.  Here's why Boehner can win.

President Obama has pledged not to negotiate over the debt ceiling.  Prior to last year it had always been customary to increase it whenever it was reached, but Obama got suckered into agreeing to spending cuts because it looked like Republicans were crazy enough to hit the ceiling and cause a default of the U.S. Government.  This time, Obama promises to hold the line and refuse to negotiate, and he may stand his ground, despite some liberals' complaints that he gives in too easily.  Obama may feel that he has leverage because the public will blame Republicans for failure to make a deal, but Boehner can take Obama out of the equation.

Boehner doesn't need to strike a deal with Obama, he needs to strike a deal with 51 senators.  Boehner has already said that he will no longer deal with the White House, as he has done on the two failed attempts at a "grand bargain".  Instead he will take negotiations through normal legislative channels.  This has been reported as a result of bad blood from two contentious, failed negotiations, but what it actually does is give Boehner more bargaining power.  It would be easy for Obama to hold the line and refuse to negotiate because he is one individual.  But if the House passes a debt ceiling increase with a 1:1 ratio of spending cuts and sends it to the Senate, only six of fifty-five senators in the Democratic Caucus need to defect to some sort of deal that includes spending cuts. 

As the clock is ticking over the next two months there will be increasing pressure to raise the debt ceiling.  If the House has passed a bill and the ball is in the Senate's court, that pressure will be squarely on centrist Senators in the Democratic Party.  Senators like Joe Manchin, Mary Landrieu, Max Baucus, and others could easily agree that some amount of spending cuts are necessary.  Even if Harry Reid is able to hold his party together and get a clean vote on raising the debt ceiling, then it goes to conference with a House bill full of cuts.  Either way, the bill presented to the President will have more than zero cuts.  The President has said he refuses to negotiate, but would he veto a bill raising the debt ceiling that included spending cuts?  If time was running out?  I don't think so.

Recommended Read

This write-up of how one man figured out how to get his girlfriend on The Price Is Right is an enjoyable read:
http://deadspin.com/5972765/how-my-foolproof-scientific-system-got-us-onto-the-price-is-right

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Real Purpose of Today's NRA Press Conference

Today Wayne LaPierre of the NRA hosted his press conference in response to the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.  Given the organization's statement that it would offer meaningful contributions to the discussion over guns in this country there was speculation that he would offer some conciliatory measure of gun control.  Instead, he blamed video games and the media for violence then proposed a federal effort to put an armed police officer in every school. 

There are reasons to believe this will not be an effective policy.  For one, during a time of budget cuts, it would cost billions of dollars.  Secondly, an armed guard may not prevent school shootings, seeing as Columbine High School had such a guard.  But the real purpose of today's press conference was not to enact a particular policy, it was to limit the gun debate to school shootings and ignore the epidemic of other gun killings that occurs everyday. 

Gun violence has been so widespread that it has turned into background noise.  Since the December 14th shootings in Newtown, far more deaths from gun violence have continued throughout the country in non-school settings.  The outrageous event in Connecticut had refocused attention on the broad issue of gun violence and politicians are starting to move towards legislation such as an assault weapons ban and limits on magazine size.  The genius of LaPierre's press conference is to turn the debate from these broadly applicable measures and restrict the discussion to school violence.   

The debate LaPierre seeks to have is: "Is the NRA proposal a solution to school shootings?"  But these events are exceedingly rare outliers among the daily episodes of gun violence.  The real question needs to be: "How can we reduce the widespread episodes of gun killings throughout the county?"  The answer to that question requires far more than armed guards in schools. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

First Debate Analysis Analysis (and the "Rotten Tomatoes" Effect)

So we're a few hours away from the Vice Presidential debate and most people have probably processed their thoughts about the first Presidential debate, but let me throw in my two cents, particularly to the reaction of commentators.  First, there has been historic empirical evidence that viewers' opinions of who "won" a debate are formed by what commentators say.  This herd mentality was in effect last week.  Watching the response on CNN, the comments immediately after the debate focused on optics, theatrics, and non-substantive issues, and to that extent all the talking heads said Romney won.  However, there was no discussion of which issues either candidate had better (or more factual) arguments.  But there was widespread agreement that Obama looked sluggish, so this became the conventional wisdom. 

Basically everyone agreed that Romney did at least a little better.  Now, this has resulted in what I call the "Rotten Tomatoes" Effect.  On the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, different reviews are categorized as either positive or negative and the movies are ranked on the percentage of positive reviews.  The problem with this methodology is that there is no room for gradation of an individual reviewer's opinion.  If everyone thought a movie was just a little below average then that movie gets a "zero" rating, even though no individual reviewer thought the movie was of zero quality.  (A far better method is used by Metacritic)  The same thing has happened with the conventional wisdom of reviews of the first presidential debate.  Basically everyone thinks Obama lost, at least by a little bit.  Because everyone thinks Obama did at least a little worse than Romney, the aggregation of those opinions has been perceived as Obama being blown out of the water, even if few individuals held that opinion.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Privitization is bad, m'kay

As Mitt Romney argues to cut pennies of the national debt by ending federal subsidies for public broadcasting, Little Green Footballs provides a reminder of the harm that can be done in that the cable channel TLC started as a channel for NASA and now enriches America with "Honey Boo Boo":

http://littlegreenfootballs.com/page/286613_How_the_Privatization_of_NASAs

Romney claims his test for the validity of a government program is whether it is worth borrowing money from China to fund.  Disregarding the fact that China only holds a small portion of our debt, I think that maintaining the high quality of PBS meets this criteria.