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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

President Obama said in his State of the Union Address that his ability to effect legislative change is severely hampered by excessive partisanship in Congress. He declared that he would start using the power of the Presidential pen to dictate change through Executive Orders. Mr. Obama decided to selectively enforce the law of the land by unilaterally deferring various Affordable Care Act mandates until after the mid-term elections this year.

The chances of enacting new anti poverty programs or getting more money for education are virtually nil. The President’s domestic agenda is stalled and his signature legislative achievement is unpopular. International relations are perceived to be in disarray as Russia’s Mr. Putin carves up eastern Europe. Most Americans don’t quite agree with Mr. Obama’s view that America’s history of oppressing minorities at home and imperialism abroad means we do not have the moral authority to dictate how other nations are to behave. Our President is in danger of being marginalized as a lame duck for the next two years.

Trust in government is at near all time lows, and surveys now show that Americans on average believe that over half of all federal spending is wasted, a sharp increase from the 40% estimated by a Gallup Poll in 1979. This explains why most Americans believe that we do not need to cut spending on popular social programs and defense even as we run huge deficits. The President has given VP Joe Biden the task of reforming the 47 different federal jobs training programs that collectively cost about $20 billion, out of about $3.45 trillion in 2013 federal spending. But that’s playing “small ball”! Why not go much bigger and use his powers to structurally reform government to be more responsive to the needs of the 21st century?

It has been 80 years since FDR massively reformed the organization and cost of government. Instead of piling on more government, why not attack the waste of resources implied by the overlapping of many government departments? In the private sector, resources and organizations are reorganized regularly. Program or department reductions of 20% are not unusual. Contrast that picture with the public sector. When sequestration mandated cuts of $85 billion in 2013 (half from defense and half from discretionary spending), or about 2.5% of federal spending, one might have thought from administration warnings that the sky was falling, even as total expenditures for the year proceeded to rise anyway. The major problem with this approach was that cuts were made across the board without serious consideration to relative priorities. Air Traffic Controllers were furloughed, causing massive travel disruptions and most other employees were furloughed only to be paid later for their enforced time off.

When discussing waste and inefficiency in government, we are really discussing three separate issues: waste/fraud, duplication of programs, and unnecessary/low priority programs.  Most Americans can agree that waste and fraud could and should be eliminated, and eliminating duplication is also popular. But few can agree on what are unnecessary programs, each of which has or had a champion in Congress that worked to get the program enacted typically years ago. That’s because old federal programs never seem to die; over time they become local work programs.

Retiring Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has been one of the few in government that has valiantly fought to expose and eliminate waste and fraud in spending. For several years he has published The Waste Book documenting 100 separate programs or instances of low or questionable priority. The 2013 edition’s programs total about $30 billion and include such gems as $432 million for new aircraft the Air Force neither wants or needs, and which are being mothballed even before being put into service! A thorough restructuring plan should generate savings of at least 10% of federal spending, or about $350 billion annually, enough to continue funding for social programs and take a big chunk out of the federal deficit.

To do an effective restructuring, the President needs to control the agenda. He should create two new bipartisan commissions. The first would be a “Low Priority Programs Sunset Group” to do away with the silly programs that are so politically difficult to kill without the cover of a bipartisan up or down vote for the entirety of program revisions. The second bipartisan commission would be a “Departmental Restructuring Group” to recommend ways to reorganize all government departments other than Defense, which should have it’s own Low Priority Programs Sunset Group and a new Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) whose recommendations would also be subjected to a complete package up or down vote.

At the start of the process, the President should develop his own ideas as to where he wants these commissions to end up. Before appointing any Democrats to serve on these commissions, he should have frank discussions with the candidates, and not appoint anyone that has fundamentally different opinions. He should do the same with Republicans under consideration for the commissions to ensure they are at least vaguely in agreement with his goals. The President can do this because these commissions are his initiative, and not directed by Congress. Ultimately Congress will need to bless the results, but surely Mr. Obama will be able to guide the commissions conclusions more than he was able to do with the Simpson-Bowles Commission. Now is time for Mr. Obama to invest the last of his presidential capital in something he believes in: making government work so well that we can afford to provide for all.

Recently elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on the theme that he will seek to end “the tale of two cities” and narrow the gap between rich and poor in America’s largest city. He claimed to have achieved an electoral mandate, winning about 73% of the vote in the general election.

The Mayor’s first major policy initiative was to call for citywide pre-kindergarten for all children and the addition of after-school programs for older students. In order to fund this $540 million initiative, Mayor de Blasio wants a 0.5% tax increase on residents making over $500,000/year. However, the city does not set its own tax rates; the state retains that power. Longtime de Blasio ally Governor Andrew Cuomo fully supports that goal, and announced that he will create a statewide pre-k program, pre-empting the need for a tax increase. The Mayor responded that the state initiative did not provide long term committed funding for the pre-k initiative, and that he wanted the tax increase anyway even if it is not used for pre-k.  In other words, the affluent must be taxed more not for any public purpose but merely because the new mayor believes it’s ”fair and just.”

Let’s examine some of the Mayor’s assertions concerning the electoral mandate he claims. De Blasio captured an overwhelming percentage of the votes cast in this city, where Democrats outnumber Republicans six to one, representing some 85% of registered voters. So the Mayor actually received fewer than a representative  percentage of his party’s voters. All told, de Blasio received 74%, or about 753,000 of the 1,026,000 votes cast in the election, which had a turnout of less than one quarter of registered voters. When one examines the composition of those votes, the claimed mandate appears much narrower.

In 2012-2013, there were about 729,500 union members in the five boroughs of New York City. There are about 325,000 NY City employees, most of whom are union members. More than a quarter of New York’s wage and salary workers belonged to a union last year, according to a recent Labor Department report. That’s the highest rate of any state in the nation. In fact, New York has had the highest membership rate for 13 of the last 15 years, in part because of the many public-sector union members in New York City. So one might say that this is the mayor brought to you by union central casting, with the overwhelming percentage of his vote tally comprised of union members, even though union members represent less than 25% of total registered voters.

Now let’s look at the assertion that universal pre-k is a proper means of creating equal opportunity for the city’s poor children to narrow income inequality. Here, the results are mostly positive, although there appears to be substantial room for discussion. A  2012 Department of Health and Human Services review of the federal Head Start program found that the effects of such programs were initially positive but had dissipated by the 3rd grade.

If the Mayor is serious about creating equal educational opportunities for the city’s poor and minority children, why is he opposed to teacher reforms and accountability and to support for charter schools as advocated by his predecessor? Recent research at Harvard, MIT and Princeton has confirmed that well-run charter schools are achieving remarkable success compared with traditional public schools in improving the educational achievements of disadvantaged students in inner cities. The secret is autonomy. Freed from the bureaucratic straitjacket of teachers unions, charter-school leaders can hire and fire teachers more freely. They can also enforce standards for teachers and students that might spark protests and union grievances at a traditional public school. Charter schools take more risks, and they are held accountable for the results. When charter schools fail, they close. When other public schools fail their students, they mostly continue to cut off opportunity for more, mostly poor children.

In one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first shots at charter schools, his administration has proposed pulling $210 million in funds slated for buildings used by charters and nonprofit groups and using it instead for prekindergarten space. The city is effectively killing a Bloomberg administration program that paid for buildings that were mostly used by charter schools. The city owned the buildings but allowed charters to use the space. ”Once again, thousands of minority and low-income students and families have their educational future unfairly put in jeopardy,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, which supports charter schools.

About 50,000 children in NYC attend charter schools, and because of capacity limitations, 50,000 more are on on wait-lists to get in , out of a total school population of a little over one million children. Those who have the most skin in the game, the parents of children who are poor, are voting with their feet. The education battle is between a failing union monopoly and schools that are actually educating children.

So there you have it; the paradox of populism. Mayor de Blasio claims that his most important goal is to end income inequality, and that this goal is best achieved through education. But his solution is to pile on programs designed to feather the bed of teacher’s and other public worker’s unions rather than fix failing public schools. The pre-k programs he is proposing are little more than free day care for the children of the city’s poorer workers while at the same time vastly increasing union jobs to staff them. Because these programs will allow low income residents to spend even less time reading and playing with their children, does anyone really expect that the opportunity gap will be narrowed?

Last Wednesday, hours before a default, Congress finally agreed to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government…until January 15th, when we can repeat the drama. Of course, the bipartisan group set to negotiate a longer budget might come to broad agreement by December, but that doesn’t seem very likely.

Viewers of Spielberg’s Lincoln were were witness to the agonizingly slow process of achieving consensus for the permanent abolition of slavery in all states even at the late date of 1865. The film presents Lincoln using any and all means to cajole, bully and horse trade his way towards passage of the 13th Amendment.Lincoln was concerned that court challenges after the war might endanger the freedom of slaves freed by 1863′s Emancipation Proclamation, which he had issued as an Executive Order during the war. He wanted to have their liberty confirmed and slavery permanently abolished by writing it into the constitution. Contrast that imagery with the methods used to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2009.

ObamaCare was rammed through by crook. Americans were promised they could keep their health insurance if they wanted to. We were told it would bend the rising costs of health care down, and that the Universal Coverage Mandate was not a tax. Before the House vote, then Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the 2000+ page bill ”…we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it…”.  In the end, unlike the 13th Amendment or any other major entitlement program in American history, the ACA was passed along entirely partisan party lines, with no Republican votes.

So why are the Republicans still essentially crazed about the ACA? After all, the Supreme Court has confirmed the legality of ObamaCare’s Universal Mandate (as a tax), and the 2012 elections confirmed that new leadership would not repeal the law. Republicans have obstinately kept up defund Obamacare efforts because they believe government’s overhaul of the health care sector creates an expensive and unfunded new entitlement for all Americans at a point in time that any private person or entity would be looking to more prudently manage expenses. This fiscal house of cards must ultimately collapse,  and the resulting pain to Americans will make the ”great recession” seem like the good old days. As seen in the chart below, absent entitlement reform, these spending programs will crowd out all discretionary program spending by around 2030.

Actual & Projected Federal Spending & Revenue as % of GDP

 There hasn’t been a serious federal budget and tax overhaul since 1986. Discretionary spending in 2012 accounted for about 36% of the federal budget, but without reforms, these will be completely overtaken by entitlements in the near future unless tax revenues are significantly increased above historical norms. Compassionate citizens understand that all Americans should have some form of major medical health care coverage that does not bankrupt them, but ObamaCare is a terrible and costly way to achieve this end when there are many better alternatives. (see 7 Practical Solutions on Health Care)

Government spending is typically inefficient, but a look at the shutdown of the government and the rollout of Obamacare are especially illuminating. 800,000 government employees were furloughed for 16 days, inconveniencing taxpayers, and then were awarded back pay (over $6 billion including benefits) for no work done.

Healthcare.gov cost taxpayers over $500 million and was planned for years.Ill conceived and poorly executed; it simply doesn’t work. And clueless HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is still on the government payroll, and has the full support of the president. In an age when the U.S is home to the world’s largest, most successful Internet companies, how is it possible that our government can’t even manage to build a functional website without blowing through hundreds of millions of dollars? What would be the news media and public judgment be if Apple, Google or any other company promised a revolutionary new product for nearly four years, and then botched the introduction so completely? Why do the people who can’t build a working website also deserve the power to reorganize one-sixth of the U.S. economy?

The executive branch of government is so named because it is supposed to “run” the government. Even if Congress cannot agree, all Americans have a President who is charged to make it all “work”. When we look at our “great” presidents, they came from alternate sides of the aisles during our history in mostly a two party system. Among the traits they shared were meeting problems with a willingness to incorporate at least some of the other side of the aisle into their solutions.

The “system” of checks and balances is actually working in Washington today. A serious imbalance in the direction of government has unleashed as torrent of vitriol by the Republican right because the Democratic left has pushed too far, too fast without incorporating contrary views and opposing solutions. It is precisely this “winner take all, losers shut up” attitude that is making our country more difficult to govern. Elections do matter—almost as much as leadership. We want our President to act like a leader, not just a politician who gained a tactical advantage this week. The man who won the Nobel Peace Prize should now do something BIG… like being bigger than everyone else, make peace and do the people’s business.

For starters, form a new bi-partisan commission to tackle budget and tax reform. Unlike the Simpson Bowles Commission of 2010, this commission should be constituted with a mandate to present their conclusions for a simple up or down vote, without amendments, from both houses of congress and a commitment from the President to sign such legislation. Second, another bi-partisan commission should be formed to restructure government. Sen. Tom Coburn has documented $365 billion annually in waste, duplication and silliness in federal programs, but can’t enact reforms because of lobbying activities. If a bi-partisan commission were to make cutting and restructuring proposals that were guaranteed a straight up or down vote in both houses (like the periodic Base Realignment & Closure Commissions ), it could give Congress the political cover it needs to do the right thing. These commissions would be exercises in finding common ground, and could incrementally lead to better government as well as progress on immigration reform and other issues that urgently require action.

Americans require compromise solutions to end the gridlock and allow for greater economic growth that will lift all boats, including government coffers. The country rightly counts on its chief executive to bridge the gaps, make the compromises, and smooth the way to passage. We need less drama, less cost and more effectiveness. Trying to lead with constant partisan bickering is no leadership at all. It’s no way to run a country.

America has been both a constitutional republic and a representative democracy for over 225 years. During that period, we have continually redefined what those terms meant and what people they applied to. The constitution has been amended 27 times. 15 of these changes have expanded and enumerated the rights of citizens, while 7 have codified states’ rights and electoral procedures.

Our Constitution declares that the states shall determine how we vote in congressional districts, and how we tally those district votes in presidential elections. Indeed, re-drawing the map on how a congressional district is composed within a state is mandated every 10 years. So calling for election reform is not particularly unusual. Reform is particularly needed now, because our polarized congressional representatives appear incapable of reaching necessary compromises to enact important fiscal reforms needed to remove economic threats to our country and its future.

How Did we Get Here?

Gerrymandering by state legislatures over the last 15 years has contributed mightily to our dysfunctional congress.”Packing” has been used to push minorities, racial or political, into compressed districts to diminish their influence into only one district. The “cracking” technique draws voting districts so as to disperse minority votes across several districts in attempts to deny or dilute minority representation. The following chart illustrates how many Members of Congress represent “safe” districts. If incumbents can’t realistically be voted out, challenges to them decrease, and our voting rights are diminished. 

 

 

The chart also shows the success of state Republican legislatures in maximizing their party’s results in the US House. Of the 345 congressional districts that lean strongly to either party, one would expect that the party split would mirror the underlying population. A Gallup Poll of likely voters in 2012 found that 47% of Americans self identify as Democrats and 42% self identify as Republicans. Yet the “safe” Republican districts account for 42% of the House, and Republicans are able to contest another 90 seats, an additional 20% of the house. The magic of drawing partisan districts explains how Republicans could have lost the popular vote for the House in 2012 by more than a million votes nationally, yet kept control of the House by 33 seats.

The methodology for drawing congressional voting districts is easily subverted by the party in power doing the drawing, and in 1964 the Supreme Court ruled that congressional districts must be contiguous in order to be constitutional. This sounds reasonable, until one looks at the contortions employed to produce some very strange looking districts. Take for example theIllinois4th. It was intended to pack Hispanics, and is also known as the “earmuff district”, and is shown below. Unfortunately, there are many more such examples of oddly drawn districts.

Illinois 4th Congressional District


Solutions

Delegating specific responsibilities to the states results in the development of various responses to the same problem. The states are all over the spectrum in terms of the primary systems that they employ. 20 states allow each party to determine whether primary voters must already be registered as a party member (a closed primary). In 13 states, voters are able to declare themselves a party member and vote in the primary on primary day (a semi-open primary), and in 17 states voters are able to vote without declaring as a party member (an open primary).

Washington and California use a top two primary, which allows unaffiliated voters to vote for any candidate in a primary. The top two vote-getters from any party proceed to a final election. This system, which of course infuriates party officials, is meant to produce general election candidates who have the broadest appeal within the district. Proponents of the top two system think closed single party primaries exacerbate the radicalization that often occurs at the primary stage, when candidates must cater to their party’s “base” rather than the political center.

The top two primary is a positive electoral change that could easily be adopted across the country. The problem would still be that the congressional districts themselves are being gerrymandered in clear attempts to rob some of us our our democratic rights. Elections for the US Senate take place across every state instead of only house districts, and they are usually more competitive than House elections. If statewide elections are both more competitive and are not subject to gerrymandering, what changes in primary election procedures could capture these benefits in House elections?

The most intriguing idea is the Single Transferable Vote (STV).  Under STV, a voter has a single vote that is initially allocated to his or her most preferred candidate. As the count proceeds on election night and candidates are either elected or eliminated, that vote is transferred to other candidates according to the voter’s stated preferences. The exact method of reapportioning votes can vary, but the STV attempts to avoid “wasted” votes as compared to a simple one person, one vote system, because presumably it is better to count a voter’s second choice than to give that voter no voice. This system can be used for either one person or multiple person elections.

Maineand Nebraskause proportional voting for presidential elections, which are statewide and not subject to tampering by gerrymandering. Rather than winner take all for electors, each political party can claim some portion of the votes. But then when they vote for the House, these states revert to voting in gerrymandered districts. Some argue that the states should give redistricting authority to non-partisan groups. This never seems to resolve the issues, and is made even more problematic whenever a state loses a House district through relative population changes, because as in the game of  musical chairs, there is always a clear loser in such cases.

In the past few weeks local news in NY was dominated by the mayoral primaries, which were won resoundingly by Democrat Bill DeBlasio and by Republican Joe Lhota. If this had been an open primary, Bill Thompson, a Democrat, would be facing DeBlasio in the general election. Thompson received more than five times as many votes as Lhota. In fact, three other Democrats, Christine Quinn, John Liu and even the disgraced Anthony Weiner (a/k/a Carlos Danger) received more votes than Lhota. In November, voters will chose between the most progressive Democrat and a Republican, and a moderate, centrist candidate with perhaps the broadest appeal to all voters will not be on the ballot. The latest poll shows DeBlasio at 62% among eligible voters, more than 40% ahead of Lhota.

The preferred change would be to incorporate widespread use of the top two primary system in house elections. Ideally voters would vote in statewide elections, but this is impracticable in larger states that have many representatives such asCalifornia (55) andTexas (38). No matter how voting districts are drawn, more moderate voices should be capable of being elected if much of the country was less tied to a traditional two party primary system that is not working well forAmerica.

Like many New Yorkers, Diogenes was surprised by last month’s return to the political arena of Anthony Weiner. A former congressman from Queens, only two years ago Weiner resigned in disgrace after sending lewd photographs of his “little Anthony” to six different women he met on the internet even as his wife was about to bear their child. When reports came out, Weiner then proceeded to lie about it, claiming that his account had been hacked by someone else and he was being framed. When this lie was exposed, Weiner continued to claim that he was fully capable of representing his constituents before being pressed to resign by the House Democratic leadership.

After the scandal broke, Democratic candidates who had received contributions from Weiner donated those funds to charity. Republicans called for Weiner to return unspent funds to donors. But Mr. Weiner simply held on to the money, presumably contemplating a return to politics. He claims that while he was away from the public eye, he did a lot of thinking and learned a few things that have made him more mature.

In jumping into the New York mayoral race, Weiner entered a crowded field of Democratic contenders. Despite his scandal, Weiner has two advantages over his rivals. He has the highest name recognition of all the candidates, and retains about $4.3 million in campaign funds left over from fundraising for an aborted 2009 mayoral run. That money remains eligible for one-time matching funds from the city of about $1.5 million in the upcoming 2013 election. According to Bonny Tsang, press aide at the city’s Campaign Finance Board, if Weiner had decided not to run this year, his 2009 funds would not enter the matching program, which provides six public dollars for every eligible dollar raised. Weiner can hold onto the money indefinitely, as long as he files the proper disclosures according to the deadlines. The money can also be given to charity, contributed to other campaigns or given it back to donors, the Finance Board said.

A Marist College poll conducted late last month found that 53% of voters said Mr. Weiner deserved a second chance, while only 39% said he lacked the character to be mayor. His immediate support of about 19% put him in second place amongst the Democratic primary contenders. Weiner claims that he will outwork all the other candidates, and will win the election. Political insiders and some cynics believe the 2013 campaign is more likely intended to rehabilitate his reputation by inuring the public to his sexting episode so that he can run and win in a future election, or perhaps jump start a lucrative consulting business.

In sports as in life, fundamental and hugely important aspects of our character are only truly revealed when we are put under pressure. Sooner or later a crisis will occur for anyone holding office. When that moment arrives, we want our elected leaders to function well. Anthony Weiner argues that he should be given a second chance to hold our trust. But he has shown that under pressure, he lacks the intestinal fortitude to own up to his mistakes.

Our leaders should be role models for our children to emulate if we are to continue to have a civil society. They should have a history of integrity so that when crises arise, we can trust them to do what is best for all rather than what gains them advantage. Compare Anthony Weiner’s response to being caught in sexual scandal with that of General David Petraeus, who was serving as CIA Director last November when an extramarital affair with his biographer was discovered. The general immediately admitted his involvement and resigned.

The 19th century legal concept of moral turpitude typically was only loosely defined, but has been described as “act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellowmen, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man.” Anthony Weiner’s scandalous behavior was tawdry even by today’s lax standards. Even worse were his lies after being found out. He should be allowed to move on with his life, but his actions after being exposed should disqualify him permanently from holding public office as someone who simply cannot be trusted. New Yorkers can easily do better.

Where We Are

One of the amazing aspects of the American experience has been the ability to reconstruct our society over multiple generations by incorporating immigrants who do not share the religious, cultural or ethnic makeup of those already here. This great “melting pot” has turned settlers from all over the world into citizens even as they have changed what it means to be an American. The majority of children in our public schools are already racial minorities, and over the next couple of generations, as the chart below shows, our entire population will be majority minority.

In the not so distant past, overt racial, gender and religious discrimination were the norm in America. Comprehensive reforms in the 1960s such as the Civil Rights Act , the Voting Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Affirmative Action Programs were enacted to reduce racial discrimination and increase diversity in our society. Fifty years later the fact of a black President and black Attorney General presents strong support for the assertion that we have come a long way towards reducing discrimination against racial minorities in housing, education, the workplace and politics. The progress was painful, hard earned and took too long. But today virtually every organization in America, be it private, public or non-profit, has minorities at virtually all levels, even if they may be underrepresented in the C-Suites. Although far from eradicated, discrimination now is mostly covert. Perhaps this is because interracial social interaction was rare 50 years ago and is peaceful, easy and routine today. Based on demographics alone, our collective progress is likely to continue for years to come, obviating the need for aggressive new policies to increase diversity.

Disparate Impact

The Senate is considering President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez. He faced tough questioning by Republican senators, but will likely be confirmed. Mr. Perez is currently serving as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. He has been actively involved in promoting the continued use of Disparate Impact (DI) to determine if discrimination has occurred. DI states that the government and private litigants can rely on statistics and other measures to show that policies have a disparate impact on minorities, even if they lack proof of intentional discrimination.

Mr. Perez has attracted Congressional scrutiny for his involvement in an ethically questionable quid pro quo with the city of St. Paul in which he agreed to have the Justice Department drop a False Claims Act suit potentially worth $200 million to taxpayers in exchange for having St. Paul withdraw a case challenging DI before the Supreme Court. Mr. Perez may be a sincere crusader for the oppressed, but his sharp elbows in sustaining DI bespeak a desire to achieve a result by any means necessary. Although DI has been primarily applied to housing by HUD,  applying this theory in other realms would result in unintended and bizarre consequences.

“If a business, agency or school has standards for hiring, promoting, admissions or offering a mortgage that aren’t being met by individuals in some racial and ethnic groups, there are three things that can be done. First, the standards can be relaxed for those groups. That is what racial preferences do. Second, the government can attack the standards themselves. That is what the disparate-impact approach to enforcement does. Third, one can examine why a disproportionate number of individuals in some groups aren’t meeting the standards—such as failing public schools or being born out of wedlock—and do something about it. …Disparate impact makes illegal what any rational person would not define as discrimination. And by forcing a change in neutral standards for hiring, renting and the like in order to count outcomes by race, it actually causes discrimination.” Roger Clegg, WSJ 2/25/13

In 2003, the Supreme Court (Grutter v. Bollinger) permitted educational institutions to consider race as a factor when admitting students, but ruled that quotas are unconstitutional. Since then some states (California, Washington & Michigan) have banned affirmative action policies outright. So relaxing standards as a means to continue racial preferences is unlikely in the future. The third option mentioned above to increase racial diversity would require real progress in our schools and other social programs…which brings us back to Disparate Impact.

Fatal flaws in the DI theory can be seen in two policy outcomes that follow from its use. In our national prison population blacks are about three times as likely to be incarcerated as whites as compared to their numbers in America’s total population. Hispanics are about 50% more likely to be in jail than whites. Informed citizens realize that crime occurs by and between racial minorities in disproportionate rates because of a host of constantly shifting social and economic factors, not because blacks and Hispanics are more prone to criminal behavior. If we applied DI without making other structural changes to our society and forced our prison population to reflect the  greater citizenry, would our streets be nearly as safe?

Using DI in education can also lead to dubious outcomes. Blacks are under represented in the NY gifted and talented program outcomes even as Asian minorities are wildly over represented. Since the testing and standards for the test were developed by many people of many races, how could this be? Many cultural factors influence academic and economic success by various ethnicity. The beauty of our system is that the numbers will continue to change over time. Mandating racially representative results would make a mockery of gifted and talented programs which are by definition based on merit.

Why It Matters

Diogenes believes disparate impact is contrary to standards of fairness and equality upon which our society is based. The wonder of America is that our government truly seeks to create equal opportunity for every citizen. Virtually all of us support some concept of a safety net, but our government has never before advocated equal outcomes. Disparate Impact entirely reverses the proposition that we all need to struggle to achieve our places within society. The idea that all organizations should have quotas based on statistical ethnic representation within the greater population enshrines racism rather than merit. That’s just not the American way.

Current US Immigration Policy

There is huge demand in the world to emigrate to another country. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that 640 million people, about 13% of the world’s adults, would like to leave their country of birth permanently. About 150 million of them list the US as their top choice destination.

The United States has the most welcoming immigration policy in the world in terms of numbers, with about a million people coming here legally every year. About two thirds of these immigrants are being reunited with family members who are already legally here. The balance of those million legal immigrants are split between slightly more of those who were granted legal status for humanitarian reasons (political or religious persecution abroad) and somewhat less of those granted visas on the basis of their employment skills. Most other developed nations have greater percentages of skilled worker immigrants than does the US, because it is almost a canon amongst policymakers worldwide that highly skilled workers will create jobs for others.

US Work Visa Programs

There are several non-immigrant work visas issued to foreigners.  The best known of these are H-1B visas which are strictly limited to employment by the sponsoring employer.  Theoretically, this program provides a safety valve for employers to hire workers with specialized knowledge from around the globe whenever permanent residents or citizens are not available to do such work.

Congressional policy is to award 65,000 H-1B visas to employers each year. If there is heavy demand, an additional 20,000 H-1B visas for those having masters or higher degrees from US academic institutions are made available. This limit on H-1B visas has been in place for more than two decades now. If the US Customs and Immigration Service  (USCIS) receives more visa petitions than it can accept, a lottery system is used to randomly select the number required to reach the limit. This year’s lottery is the second since 2008. In recent years the cap has been reached between 73 and 300 days.

Although the H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa, it is one of the few visa categories recognized as dual intent, meaning an H-1B holder can have legal immigration intent (apply for and obtain the green card) while still a holder of the visa. In the past, the employment-based green card process took only a few years, less than the duration of the H-1B visa itself. Recently the legal employment-based immigration process has backlogged and retrogressed to the extent that it now takes many years for skilled professional applicants to obtain green cards. Because the duration of the H-1B visa hasn’t changed, this has meant that many more H-1B visa holders must renew their visas in one or three-year increments for continued legal status while their green card application is in process.

Problems With the Program

Even detractors of the H-1B visa program concede that it can fill important roles, including encouraging talented foreigners to permanently relocate to the United States. Critics want to require employers to prove that they’ve tried to recruit Americans before applying for foreign workers, and make sure that H-1B workers get paid as much as Americans do for comparable jobs.

The policy reason we have the H-1B program is that brilliant foreigners increase American competitiveness worldwide. However, most of today’s H-1B workers don’t remain in the US. In February, ComputerWorld reported that the top 10 users of H-1B visas last year were all offshore outsourcing firms such as Tata and Infosys. Together these firms hired nearly half of all H-1B workers, and less than 3 percent of them applied to become permanent residents. “The H-1B worker learns the job and then rotates back to the home country and takes the work with him,” explains Ron Hira, an immigration expert who teaches at the Rochester Institute of Technology. India’s former commerce secretary once dubbed the H-1B the “outsourcing visa.”

Reform Ideas

There is currently much discussion in Congress about immigration reform, mostly to address what to do about the 11 million+ illegal residents already here and to deal with temporary “guest workers”.  Congress should, but probably won’t, use this as an opportunity to deal with the problem of trained and talented people around the world who want to emigrate to the US, but are restricted from doing so by the byzantine rules of our immigration policy. Because they are unable to initially qualify for green card resident visas, many use work visas to get themselves into the country first and only later attempt to qualify for resident status. Hence the unexpected focus on the H-1B visa program.

In January, a bipartisan group of 10 senators introduced the Immigration Innovation Act (aka I-Squared Act) to raise the H-1B visa numbers to 115,000 next year and to 300,000 in later years. It is a great idea to increase the number of talented immigrant visas.  Current law limits the granting of these visas to no more than 7% of the skilled immigrant total from any one country, thereby increasing the wait times by years for those from high population countries such as India and China. But if the current program has been hijacked by outsourcing firms to train replacement workers, why would we possibly want expand the numbers of a flawed current program which would increase the harm to America?

Some from both sides of the aisle have long called on USCIS to “staple a green card to the diploma of every STEM graduate”. This isn’t a bad idea, but there are already 1.8 million American engineering graduates that are either unemployed or not working in engineering, so it’s not as if there are any shortages of BS degree holders. And around 2/3 of foreign PhD STEM graduates remain here five years after school, so it would appear that opportunities to stay already exist for them.

Diogenes believes that the best and most easily implemented reform would be to change the H-1B program to award visas to individuals around the world (via a lottery of all qualified applicants) rather than to companies. Lottery winners could have six months to get here, and would have to obtain employment within six months of their arrival. Job changes should be readily permitted to keep companies from paying legal foreign workers less than Americans. Awarding H-1B visas to individuals instead of employers would also disincentivize offshore sourcing firms from taking advantage of our immigration policies as they harm our economy, because those workers would no longer be so easily coerced to return to their home countries if they could easily change employers and remain here. Those who applied for these visas would have self selected to be aggressive, trained and talented additions to the American workforce.

Last Friday’s shooting deaths of 26 children and adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut is the latest in a long series of mass shootings of random innocents by deranged persons. Like many Americans, Diogenes is deeply troubled by these recurring tragedies, and thinks this is an appropriate time to consider the role of guns in American society.

The Right To Bear Arms

The 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution, as ratified by the states in 1791 states

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Why was this right considered so important that it was enshrined in the Bill of Rights? Here is a partial list of the key reasons:

  • The United States had only recently won its independence after a revolutionary war that had lasted eight years. There was an uneasy peace with England that would again devolve into war in the next 20 years.
  • There was no standing national army, and most (white) male American adults were members of armed militias that could be called out in the event of war.
  • Many of the states had western borders which had Indians (potentially) threatening American settlers on the frontier.
  • Hunting was a significant means of putting food on the table in all of the states.

Guns in the US Compared to the Rest of the World 

Gun regulations in America are lax compared to the rest of the world. Nearly half of all households (47%) have a gun, although many homes contain multiple guns. About 1/3 of Americans own guns, although the percentage of the population owning guns has been declining in the last 50 years. About 2/3 of gun owners state that they own firearms for personal protection, 2/3 for hunting and over 1/3 for target practice. The reasons overlap quite a bit and so add to more than 100%. According to the Washington Post, guns per capita are sharply higher in America than anywhere else in the world, and as the chart below shows, about double that of the rest of the developed world.

Data source: Small Arms Survey (Max Fisher/Washington Post 2012)

The National Rifle Association (NRA) will tell you that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Guns are only tools.” This may all be true, but gun violence in the US is higher than anywhere else in the western world, perhaps because we have more tools readily available?  A bit more than 100,000 Americans will likely be killed or injured in gun violence next year. To be “fair”, about 20,000 of them will be suicides, but guns are involved in about 2/3 of violent crimes in America, almost all of these are handguns. Hunting rifles are rarely used in violent crimes.

Current Gun Regulation and Proposed Changes

Policies at all levels of government have attempted to address gun violence through a variety of methods, including restricting firearms purchasing by youths and other “at-risk” populations, setting waiting periods for firearm purchases, establishing gun “buy-back” programs, targeted law enforcement and policing strategies, stiff sentencing of gun law violators, education programs for parents and children, and community-outreach programs. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she will introduce legislation next year to ban new assault weapons, as well as big clips, drums and strips of more than 10 bullets.

Perhaps of even greater significance is the call for more scrutiny of the ways government can keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Methods for doing so will require much discussion.

Guns & Self Defense

The 2nd amendment’s protection canards are at best disingenuous, as technology is wildly different today than in 1791. Guns then were almost all single shot muskets with limited effective range. No one had the capability to kill 10 or 50 people.

Today’s total of 290 million guns in almost 50% of households is ridiculous. The shooter in Connecticut took his mother’s guns to kill her and 26 others. Purchasing verification would not have stopped him.

Self defense, the stated primary reason for owning a handgun, is a non sequitor. A study from the University of Philadelphia suggests that victims in possession of firearms are 4.5 times more likely to be shot and 4.2 times more likely to be killed than those unarmed.

“gun possession by urban adults was associated with a significantly increased risk of being shot in an assault. On average, guns did not seem to protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. Although successful defensive gun uses can and do occur…such successes are (not) likely…

A gun may falsely empower its possessor to overreact, instigating and losing otherwise tractable conflicts with similarly armed persons. …individuals who are in possession of a gun may increase their risk of gun assault by entering dangerous environments that they would have normally avoided. Alternatively, an individual may bring a gun to an otherwise gun-free conflict only to have that gun wrested away and turned on them…

when victims had little to no chance to resist, they were almost always confronted with events that happened very suddenly, involved substantial distances, had no face-to-face contact, and had physical barriers between them and the shooter (e.g., bystander or drive-by shootings). These victims likely had no meaningful opportunity to use a gun even if they had one in their possession.”

“Investigating the Link Between Gun Possession and Gun Assault”, Branas, et al, American Journal of Public Health, November. 2009

What More Needs To Be Done?

Diogenes believes that current proposals do not go nearly far enough to safeguard the public from gun violence. The following steps should be taken to stop the continuing massacre of innocents.

  • Sale and possession of handguns should be severely restricted to law enforcement and those few occupations where armed force might be necessary, such as jewelers and armored truck drivers and guards.
  • Biometric “trigger locks” should be mandatory to prevent illicit sales and use of stolen firearms.
  • Possession and display of unlicensed firearms should be grounds for mandatory prison terms.
  • Federal funding should be made available for the buy back of semi-automatic weapons and handguns from the public using a carrot and stick approach. Time limits should be imposed for the purchase and surrender of such weapons, after which private ownership should simply be made illegal.
  • For those citizens who insist on personal protection, non lethal means of defense at close range should be used. Pepper spray and personal stun weapons such as Tasers are the solution. (The Taser fires two small dart-like electrodes, which stay connected to the main unit by conductive wire as they are propelled by small compressed nitrogen charges. The air cartridge contains a pair of electrodes and propellant is replaced after each use. There are a number of cartridges designated by range, with the maximum at 35 feet for law enforcement and 15 feet for consumer use. Tasers primarily function by creating neuromuscular incapacitation; the devices interrupt the ability of the brain to control the muscles in the body. This creates an immediate and unavoidable incapacitation that is not based on pain and cannot be overcome. Once the electricity stops flowing the subject immediately regains control of his or her body.) Taser devices are not considered firearms by the United States government. They can be legally carried (concealed or open) without a permit in 43 states. Tasers typically fire one cartridge, although a new model has three shots in case of a miss.

Armed criminals will always be a challenge  as long as handguns are made anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, these proposals would allow for legitimate hunting and sporting uses by citizens while adding protections for the general public. Knives and other deadly weapons will still be available, but mass killings would be made far more unlikely. It is time to break the “cowboy culture” of violence in America.

Americans are rightfully proud of the right to express their political opinions at the ballot box and expect a peaceful transition of government leadership to whoever wins a general election. Nevertheless, in most election cycles, substantial numbers of Americans are more motivated to vote against one candidate than wholeheartedly in favor of the other. Why don’t we have more, and better choices for our leaders?

Who Are Democratic Party Members and Primary Voters?

As they are currently constituted, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are dominated by the ideologically extreme ends of their memberships. On the Democratic side, union members accounted for 22% of Democratic National Convention (DNC)  delegates, and unions are major money contributors to the Democratic Party. Unions spent $1.1 billion on politics from 2005-2011 and another $3.3 billion on other activities such as lobbying, of which 92% was spent on the Democratic Party . This is so despite the fact that only 12% of workers nationally are union members, and 40% of union members are Republicans Party members or vote that way. Another 8% were “Greens” who favor much higher fossil fuel costs and more EPA Regulatory Rules which are cost multipliers for many businesses.

Who Are Republican Party Members and Primary Voters?

On the Republican side, as much as 50% of primary voters are Evangelicals and Pro-Lifers, about 10% of party members are Tea Party supporters who oppose new taxes as a means to repair the Federal fisc, and about 10% are also NRA members who believe that Americans should be able to carry assault weapons. There is considerable overlap amongst these segments.

Why Is the Composition of Political Party Members and Primary Voters a Problem?

The Democratic Party has about 30% of its membership with far left, non mainstream core beliefs. The Republican Party has about 30% of its membership comprised of those with far right non mainstream core beliefs. These extreme views are disproportionally represented in America’s political process because 30% of Americans consider themselves to be independents not allied or involved with determining policy positions in either party. Paradoxically, it is the vote of these independents that determines the outcome of general elections.

In order to incorporate the support of their extremist radical wings, each political party is forced to move away from centrist platforms that would likely appeal to the greater portion of the electorate. In particular, the Republican Party’s presidential candidate is perennially hobbled by conservative social policy declarations required to be made during the primaries to secure the nomination, only to attempt to backtrack during the general election campaign. As a result of these discrepancies between party participants and the general electorate,  the American Republican and Democratic parties are among the weakest in the world with respect to being able to present to voters a team of candidates united by coherent principles and a program for governing the country.

Why Does America Only Have Two Political Parties?

America’s founding fathers made many compromises in order the secure the approval by the states of a federally empowered central government under the Constitution. One of many checks and balances on federal power was the adoption of a bicameral legislative body with disproportional power given to smaller states in the Senate. Another was the adoption of the Electoral College. This indirect presidential election scheme is further reinforced by the congressional election methodology.

The main reason for America’s majoritarian character is the electoral system for Congress. Members of Congress are elected in single-member districts according to the “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) principle, meaning that the candidate with the plurality of votes is the winner of the congressional seat. The losing party or parties win no representation at all. The first-past-the-post election tends to produce a small number of major parties, perhaps just two…. Smaller parties are trampled in first-past-the-post elections.
—Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, The Price of Civilization, 2011
The single member plurality of our voting system also results in the disgusting spectacle of gerrymandered districts which further distort the ability of alternative voices being heard in elections.

What Can Be Done to Fix the Problem?

In what may well be a surprise to most of the American electorate, there are two other national political parties, the Libertarian and the Green Party. While the Libertarians manged to place their candidate on every national ballot, they won no states and received no electoral votes. As I wrote in Why Do We (Still) Have the Electoral College?, a proportional voting or parliamentary system is the solution. Such systems are  inherently much more open to minority parties securing better representation than third parties do in the American system. Currently, Maine and Nebraska are the only states that proportionally split their electoral vote, but there is no legal impediment to the adoption of such policies in every other state.

What Would a Proportional Direct Vote World Look Like?

A direct proportional vote within each state would have the practical effect of making presidential elections a popular vote. It would not truly be one because votes would be sub-totaled by each states’ Electoral College votes, and there could be rounding errors. The change could be implemented without requiring a Constitutional Amendment.

Candidates would place greater efforts on larger population centers which might skew heavily toward another party, because electoral votes would be available at the margin. Voter participation would likely rise dramatically, particularly in deeply partisan states, because every vote would count. From a public policy standpoint, this would be presumed to be good for America. The following chart shows that the US election system is responsible for one of the lowest voluntary voter participation rates in the developed world.

The rise of more centrist third, fourth or even fifth parties could unleash a torrent of choices for American voters. Because each of these smaller parties would need to build governing majority coalitions, compromise would be required for political success. The current gridlock  in Washington would be history. More independents would be co-opted to participate in the system because their narrower concerns would be better addressed by smaller parties.

America is a center/center-left nation. We are ethnically and racially majority minority for the first time in our history. It’s about time that our politics and our politicians better reflected this new reality and gave new voices a chance to be truly heard.

When Americans are asked what the most important issues are in this presidential election, they cite jobs and the economy. By any objective measure, the Obama presidency has been one of poor economic growth. No matter what hand a President is dealt, at some point, he owns the record. Since Mr. Obama is poised to be re-elected, some other factors must determine who we choose to vote for.

Do we want to vote for someone who looks like us?

In the 2008 heyday of hope and change, strong minority turnout helped push Mr. Obama to victory, especially in such swing states as Virginia and New Mexico. But as another election approaches, the minority thrill is gone. According to the Census Bureau, Hispanic voter registration has fallen 5% across the U.S., to about 11 million. Black registration is down by 7%

About 40% of whites who voted in 2008 crossed the racial divide and voted for a black man, while only 4% of blacks who voted did so for a white man. Most of Hilary Clinton’s supporters in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2008 were women, and for many, that was her greatest asset. We remain racially polarized on a political level in 2012, as the following chart shows. Each candidate’s total support among voters is broken down by race.

If we are ever to become a truly multicultural society, we need to make choices based on issues rather than appearance, race, ethnicity or gender. But how de we do that when so many voters are either incapable or don’t care to understand the issues and have no concept of macroeconomics? It’s almost perverse that we make naturalized citizens learn about our constitution and pass a civics test before earning their passports. Only about a quarter of the native born electorate could pass these tests. Is it any wonder how poor a job public education is doing in science and math compared to the rest of the world when in our public schools we don’t even properly teach our children their future rights and obligations as citizens?

Do we want to elect someone who promises to look out for us even if we doubt the ability to deliver?

President Obama has consistently promised that he would make the economy fairer and more level. Somehow his policies have had the opposite effect. The most recent report by the Census Bureau indicates that annual household income fell in 2011 for the fourth straight year. Between 2009 and 2011, income for the middle fifth of the population declined 1%, while income for the top fifth increased 4%. Seniors, dependent on their savings saw interest rates fall by over 31% (Jan. 23, 2009 to date), while inflation further reduced the value of their savings by 9%.

President Obama promised to create jobs. Since January 2009 the civilian labor-force participation rate has fallen by 2.2 percentage points, representing a loss of over five million jobs. His policies, though, have juiced the stock market. An investor willing and able to take risks profited by over 65% if he bought stocks tracking the Dow at President Obama’s inauguration.  The administration’s policies are hurting the poor more than they are hurting the workers and net taxpayers of America, i.e., the millionaires and billionaires.

Do we chose ideology over prosperity?

Without doubt, some of what comes out of the Republican Party with regards to social issues is simply hateful and fighting the tide of history. Opposition to gay marriage and “legitimate” rape are only two dark examples. The president’s economic policies have clearly hurt most Americans, whereas the policies advocated by the Republicans at least have a chance to improve the economy, and yet the Republicans are behind in the election race. Is it possible that America has reached a tipping point and finally prefers the “social equality” espoused by Democrats (equal shares of the pie) instead of unequal shares of a growing pie, also/known/as capitalism? Mr. Romney inelegantly makes the case that the “takers” in the 47% of Americans who do not pay income taxes, are now poised to overwhelm the “makers” he seeks to represent. Mr. Romney may know more about economics than Mr. Obama, but the public thinks he doesn’t understand the economic problems of average Americans.

Do we choose to vote for someone we want to spend time with?

As we approach the first presidential debate this evening, how will Americans decide who wins? Most of the audience will have long ago decided who they will vote for, if they vote (less than 60% of eligible voters will cast ballots.) Will any of the few truly undecideds in the electorate be swayed by the arguments that can be communicated within this rigid time frame?

Apart from their purely show-business aspect, do the debates in any significant way enhance our appreciation of the minds or the characters of the presidential candidates? Mostly the debates will show how quickly the candidates can organize and regurgitate sound bites and parry attacks without becoming flustered. A fast response has little to do with genuine thought, which requires brooding over a subject, laboriously working through its complications. Quickness of response, so central to the debater, is a useful  but minor skill that has little to do with handling difficult questions and serious problems.

In the final analysis, Americans usually vote in presidential elections for the candidate with the greater empathy, or likability. The clear exception here would be Richard Nixon, who it seems nobody liked very much. In this election, it’s not even close. Mr. Romney is another rich old white man, and Mr. Obama is seriously cool!