CPAC defends gay Republicans

Gay Pride Flag
Gay Pride Flag

Conservatives may have opposed the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and they may vehemently object to any notion of gay marriage, but CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) is currently under attack for being too accommodating to homosexuals.  In other news, pigs are flying and bears are now exclusively using indoor plumbing.

GOProud is a gay conservative advocacy group, which is a little like being a group of turkeys dedicated to traditional Thanksgiving celebrations.  Still, for the second year in a row they are co-sponsors of the annual CPAC  event.  In recognition of the cognitive dissonance it takes to belong to GOProud, several other groups have announced they will be boycotting the event.

The American Principles Project announced last month it wouldn’t attend CPAC for fear of catching the gay.  Specifically, Executive Director Andy Blom announced. “By allowing GOProud to be a prominent part of CPAC 2011, Mr, Keane and the American Conservative Union have demonstrated a dangerous disregard for the importance of faith, marriage, and the family in our conservative values.”

Piling on, but in a strictly manly platonic non-gay way, the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America have now also refused to attend.  CWA President Penny Nance said, “CWA has decided not to participate in part because of GOProud.”  Apparently she pines for the good old days before women had to compete with gays to be the oppressed group.

The organizations American Values, Capital Research Center, the Center for Military Readiness, Liberty Counsel, and the National Organization for Marriage are also declining participation this year.

Given the level of defection from key constituencies, the fact that CPAC has stuck to their guns and retained GOProud’s prominent role in the conference is unexpected and downright refreshing.  It will surprise no one if the other shoe falls sometime prior to the February event and GOProud gets sent to the back of the bus.  But for the time being, I’m typing words I never thought would flow off my fingers:

Well done CPAC.

The demand for economic demand

Shopping Carts
Idle demand results in flat job growth (Photo by Rupert Ganzer on Flickr)

As the country struggles to recover economically, unemployment remains the persistent immovable peg.  The national rate edged back up to 9.8% last month, and remains a burden on individual families as well as the economy as a whole.

The mantra for politicians of all stripes has been “jobs, jobs, jobs”—reflecting at least an agreement on the problem.  The solution presents a less unified stance.  There is no widespread agreement on how to get private industry hiring again.

What is known is that private industry is collectively sitting on $2 trillion in cash.  Further, the stock market is at its highest close since the 2008 meltdown, and all but four of the S&P 500 companies closed in the black this year.   Businesses have made a substantial economic recovery and even turned in record profits in the 3rd quarter of 2010.  So why hasn’t this resulted in more jobs?

One school of thought is that businesses are not growing because demand is flat.  There’s no point in building new widget factories or hiring new widget salespeople if there’s no one clambering to buy new widgets.

The other prevailing wisdom is that businesses are hesitant to invest in new capacity because of uncertainly about the economy.  They fear the national debt may result in new taxes, that healthcare reform will drive up their employment costs, or that onerous regulations will increase their cost of doing business.  Being fiscally prudent, they are holding their cash in reserve, rather than investing it, in order to cover these potential future expenses.

Interestingly, corporate mergers and acquisitions are up 10% in the U.S. this year.  This is the first uptick in this number since 2007, and reflects a desire for companies to invest their cash in something.  Companies have also bought back $273 billion of their own shares this year in an attempt to prop up their share prices.  Again, indicative of a desire to use rather than horde cash.  Additionally, U.S. companies have created 1.4 million jobs overseas this year, while creating less than 1 million here at home.  Many of these overseas jobs were created in growing economies with growing demand such as China and India.  So companies are hiring, but mostly in areas where there is growing demand for their products.

This should dispel any notion that U.S. companies are stockpiling cash for an uncertain economic future.  All indications point to businesses being eager to invest and eager to grow.  They just aren’t eager to grow in markets where demand is flat or falling.

Businesses are making good business decisions, and the data show they are being rewarded for that.  Increased focus on pro-business policies may further increase corporate profits, but show no signs of improving the plight of the American economy and the unemployed.  We need to be careful not to undo the corporate recovery already achieved.  But moving forward, the focus needs to be on priming the demand pump, something that additional business initiatives will not accomplish.

Cantor’s YouCut program invites public to judge merit of NSF programs

Mad Scientist
Science looks so much easier on TV (Photo by Stephen Edmonds on Flickr)

House Majority Leader-Elect Eric Cantor wants you to know he’s serious about cutting the deficit.  That’s why he’s initiated the YouCut website where ordinary folks can make recommendations for cutting wasteful government spending.

The principle is simple.  Each week a different target will be put up on the website and informed citizens can submit their opinions on government largess.  After all, “The American People” clearly know best how to spend every dime.

This week’s target is the National Science Foundation (NSF).  In a video at the top of the site, Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb) admits that NSF funds some good stuff, and that 150 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to people who have received NSF grants since 1950.  But he contends there’s lots of silly stuff there as well.  One of the examples he cites is a grant to study on-field contributions of soccer players, which arguably sounds funny when explained in those terms.

The actual study is a wee bit more complex than that.  It does involve a study of how soccer players are ranked in effectiveness in contributing to the team goal, but this is primarily a study within a field called complex systems.  The goal of this field of study is to be able to model systems where lots of independent contributors have both individual motivations and team goals.  Being able to model relatively simple systems like a soccer game might one day lead to the ability to model and predict military tactics, stock markets, or ecosystems.  Does it still seem so trivial and irrelevant?

The problem is, the vast majority of visitors to Cantor’s site haven’t the slightest clue about any of this.  Most of the grant proposals listed on the referenced site have names like “Integrated investigation of inertial particle pair dynamics in turbulence”, and “Shear thickening and defect formation in chemical mechanical polishing slurries”. This is even abstruse stuff to scientists not working in those fields. This is why the NSF has a vigorous review process where proposals are evaluated by experts in the domain of the proposal and are judged not only on their intellectual merits, but on the broader impact such research might have in the specific field.

It passes from arrogance to sheer folly to think that the average, or even above average, voter or Congressman is in a position to make an informed choice here. It would be like disassembling your car on the front lawn and then asking your neighbors to identify the non-essential bits. The government still controls the NSF funding and the process by which programs get approved. But once set up, this is a case where the execution of the process is beyond most citizens.  You wouldn’t hold direct votes on military tactics or monetary policy.  NSF funding isn’t different.  There are just some decisions that require specific expertise.

It’s important to put this in context.  The proposed NSF funding for 2011 is $7.424B.  This money is allocated to over 10,000 programs amounting to an average of just over a half-million dollars each.  The total is less than half of 1% of the projected $1.3T deficit, so even eliminating the entire NSF (which no one is proposing) doesn’t put a dent in the debt.  Eliminating a few million dollars of programs is simply noise, and is wasting time relative to the structural debt problem the USA faces. Cantor voted just this past week for adding an additional $858B to the deficit with the tax cut bill.  So his credibility for being a deficit hawk is already badly tarnished. Him taking a few whacks at the lab coat clad is nothing more that posturing.

New technologies breed new products, new cures, and new markets.  That’s new jobs and new hope for America as a 21st Century economic power.  But none of that happens without fundamental science research.  On TV, science is often the product of a lone genius on a intellectual weekend bender.  Real science is tedious, collaborative, and just damn hard.  And without public funding, much of that research will not occur.  Granted, not all paths yield results.  That’s the nature of the game.  Do NSF projects get funded that turn out to be dead-ends or silly endeavors?  Sure.  But those are the exceptions and not the rules.  No process prevents everything from falling through the cracks.  But there’s no evidence to suggest the NSF process is broken.

In the meantime, unless you feel qualified to weigh the merits of “Shear Transformational Zones in Amorphous Granular Packings” against the need for “Engineering magnetorheological fluids by controlling nonmagnetic particle interactions”, maybe we should just let the experts do their jobs and focus on the real problems Congress might actually solve.

Healthcare reform needs everyone in the pool

Doctor's Orders
Doctor's Orders: Everyone in the Pool (Photo by Lauren Nelson on Flickr)

Republicans are crowing over the recent district court ruling declaring the individual mandate part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.  This ruling will be appealed and also stands against four previous district court rulings that threw out similar cases as having no merit.  The likely outcome being an eventual hearing of this issue by the Supreme Court.

The core issue is whether or not the Commerce Clause may be stretched to require individuals to make a purchase.   That’s arguably pushing the envelope, but the Commerce Clause has certainly been stretched and distorted before in many creative ways.  For example, it was the basis for implementing No Child Left Behind as a federal program.  Regardless of the eventual court decision, it’s worth considering the impact if the individual mandate should be ruled unconstitutional.

Polls show the requirement of everyone to buy health insurance is far and away the unpopular element of the bill.  Meanwhile, prohibiting companies from discriminating based on pre-existing conditions, closing the donut hole, and eliminating lifetime coverage caps are very popular.  This amounts to people liking all the benefits, but not liking the method of payment.  At issue then is how would the popular reforms be paid for without the individual mandate.

Under the current plan, it is only by forcing everyone into the insurance pool that private companies would be able to abolish things like pre-existing condition clauses and lifetime caps.  Removing those restrictions without everyone in the pool would cause rates to skyrocket, and make coverage unaffordable for many more people.  If that were to happen, count on the GOP to tout how Obamacare made the healthcare problem worse.

Another alternative would be to make up the difference by providing large government subsidies to private insurance companies.  This money would have to be raised through new taxes or add to the already unmanageable national debt.  Again, a political victory for Republicans as they would roast the Democrats for being fiscally irresponsible.

Democrats might also recognize the impossibility of Obamacare moving forward without an individual mandate and move themselves to repeal the rest of the programs.  Again, the GOP would claim victory for forcing repeal, and possibly also strafe the Dems for taking away popular benefits.

Note that none of the above scenarios have a positive effect on you as the consumer of healthcare, but they all have a political upside for the Republican Party.  The individual mandate was initially a Republican invention.  It was explored by Presidents Nixon and Bush Sr. and was a key element of the GOP counter-proposal to Clinton’s plan.  It was the way to keep healthcare insurance a private industry and eliminate the need for an unarguably constitutional public option such as Medicare for all.

Any substantive reform of healthcare insurance requires everyone in the risk pool one way or another.  A public option brings everyone in via taxes while the private option requires the mandate.  Notably, employer provided healthcare already recognizes this as all employees are in the plan.  Businesses could not afford to provide a healthcare benefit if healthy people could opt out of the coverage and take the cash instead.

There simply are no other reasonably affordable options to having us all in the pool.  Healthcare is too expensive for the cost to be borne directly by any but the very rich.  Yet Republicans stand opposed to any incarnation of this key reform element—not because it’s what’s good for you, but because it benefits them short term at the polls.

The only potential upside for citizens in declaring it unconstitutional for the federal government to mandate the purchase of a private sector good is that it would also make the privatization of Social Security unconstitutional.  After all, if they can’t make you buy health insurance, they can’t make you buy retirement investments.

The other War on Christmas

War on Christmas
The War on Christmas isn't what you think

Right-wing media outlets are fond of reminding us this time of year that liberals are out to destroy Christmas.  It seems that if the political left had their way Christmas would be reimagined as a crass secular event focused on excessive shopping, and outlandish light displays paying homage to flying reindeer, elvin toymakers, a jolly fat man with Ninja-like stealth skills, and other symbols of pagan magic that would make Hogwarts seem positively Muggle-ish.  And we would never stand for that.  Christmas should be preserved as the solemn low-key religious celebration of the birth of the Christian savior.  Although, this argument seems oddly similar to the one that gays can’t marry because it would destroy the sanctity of Brittany Spears’ 55-hour long marriage.  The ideal of the institution already doesn’t match the reality.

This Christmas season, Congress is trying mightily to wrap up its business so all the little boy and girl legislators can get home for Christmas Eve in time to be judged naughty or nice by Santa.  But as Fox News shouts from the rooftops, Christmas is also a celebration of Christianity and a time to remind the faithful what it means to be Christian.  Given the Christian right has long been a supporter of Republican policies, and assuming that the GOP Senators and Congressmen don’t want coal in their stockings, it should follow that Republicans are advocating for the same laws and programs Jesus himself would vote for.  It is Christmas after all.

Yet that doesn’t quite seem the case.  Jesus was an advocate for the poor, the weary, and the downtrodden.  He brought hope to the hopeless, and love to the unloved.  He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick.  He brought a message of peace, understanding, and compassion.

It’s not remotely clear how to reconcile those values with the GOP opposition to unemployment insurance extensions to keep families in their homes and well fed over the winter, the down vote on the 9/11 responders care to provide relief to people and their families who sacrificed for us in our time of need, or the DREAM Act to allow marginalized people to come out of the shadows and live amongst us.  These seem like the sort of policies to which Jesus would have given a big thumbs up.  On the flip side, Jesus doesn’t say much about protecting the wealth of the rich.  He’s not known for speaking at length to the Roman aristocracy as an advocate for how important it was for the Empire to keep its taxes on the wealthy low so that coins would trickle down to the plebeians and out into the Hebrew homeland.

Some Christians have argued that Jesus wanted individuals and the church to carry out these good deeds and not the government.  Yet in a democracy where the government is of, by, and for the people, isn’t the government simply an extension of the individual?  It could be argued that if the government does it, then the minority is forced to go along and so that somehow doesn’t count toward your eternal salvation.  Yet aren’t some Christians also asking that Government enforce other Christian values on the minority like bans on gay marriage and abortion?  Why is it okay for the government to coerce some Christian behaviors and not others?

The Christmas season is often a time for reflection.  Perhaps you might reflect on Gandhi’s observation:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Are you like your Christ?  Are your politicians?  There may well be a war of sorts on Christmas, or at least the spirit of it.  But you may want to take a closer look at who is on the offensive.