Monday, May 25, 2009

State of Paralysis

May 25, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist


California, it has long been claimed, is where the future happens first. But is that still true? If it is, God help America.

The recession has hit the Golden State hard. The housing bubble was bigger there than almost anywhere else, and the bust has been bigger too. California’s unemployment rate, at 11 percent, is the fifth-highest in the nation. And the state’s revenues have suffered accordingly.

What’s really alarming about California, however, is the political system’s inability to rise to the occasion.

Despite the economic slump, despite irresponsible policies that have doubled the state’s debt burden since Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, California has immense human and financial resources. It should not be in fiscal crisis; it should not be on the verge of cutting essential public services and denying health coverage to almost a million children. But it is — and you have to wonder if California’s political paralysis foreshadows the future of the nation as a whole.

The seeds of California’s current crisis were planted more than 30 years ago, when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, a ballot measure that placed the state’s budget in a straitjacket. Property tax rates were capped, and homeowners were shielded from increases in their tax assessments even as the value of their homes rose.

The result was a tax system that is both inequitable and unstable. It’s inequitable because older homeowners often pay far less property tax than their younger neighbors. It’s unstable because limits on property taxation have forced California to rely more heavily than other states on income taxes, which fall steeply during recessions.

Even more important, however, Proposition 13 made it extremely hard to raise taxes, even in emergencies: no state tax rate may be increased without a two-thirds majority in both houses of the State Legislature. And this provision has interacted disastrously with state political trends.

For California, where the Republicans began their transformation from the party of Eisenhower to the party of Reagan, is also the place where they began their next transformation, into the party of Rush Limbaugh. As the political tide has turned against California Republicans, the party’s remaining members have become ever more extreme, ever less interested in the actual business of governing.

And while the party’s growing extremism condemns it to seemingly permanent minority status — Mr. Schwarzenegger was and is sui generis — the Republican rump retains enough seats in the Legislature to block any responsible action in the face of the fiscal crisis.

Will the same thing happen to the nation as a whole?

Last week Bill Gross of Pimco, the giant bond fund, warned that the U.S. government may lose its AAA debt rating in a few years, thanks to the trillions it’s spending to rescue the economy and the banks. Is that a real possibility?

Well, in a rational world Mr. Gross’s warning would make no sense. America’s projected deficits may sound large, yet it would take only a modest tax increase to cover the expected rise in interest payments — and right now American taxes are well below those in most other wealthy countries. The fiscal consequences of the current crisis, in other words, should be manageable.

But that presumes that we’ll be able, as a political matter, to act responsibly. The example of California shows that this is by no means guaranteed. And the political problems that have plagued California for years are now increasingly apparent at a national level.

To be blunt: recent events suggest that the Republican Party has been driven mad by lack of power. The few remaining moderates have been defeated, have fled, or are being driven out. What’s left is a party whose national committee has just passed a resolution solemnly declaring that Democrats are “dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals,” and released a video comparing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Pussy Galore.

And that party still has 40 senators.

So will America follow California into ungovernability? Well, California has some special weaknesses that aren’t shared by the federal government. In particular, tax increases at the federal level don’t require a two-thirds majority, and can in some cases bypass the filibuster. So acting responsibly should be easier in Washington than in Sacramento.

But the California precedent still has me rattled. Who would have thought that America’s largest state, a state whose economy is larger than that of all but a few nations, could so easily become a banana republic?

On the other hand, the problems that plague California politics apply at the national level too.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Monday, May 18, 2009

Conservatives Gearing Up for Supreme Battle

Right votes

There's no need for conservatives to hear President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. They object already. The New York Times reports:

"Preparing to oppose the confirmation of Mr. Obama's eventual choice to succeed Justice David H. Souter, who is retiring, conservative groups are working together to stockpile ammunition. Ten memorandums summarizing their research ... dissect possible nominees' records, noting statements the groups find objectionable on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, the separation of church and state and the propriety of citing foreign law in interpreting the Constitution. While conservatives say they know they have little chance of defeating Mr. Obama's choice because Democrats control the Senate, they say they hope to mount a fight that could help refill depleted coffers and galvanize a movement demoralized by Republican electoral defeats."

In other words, howl about wedge issues in the hopes of ginning up the base and raising money.  If we were social conservatives, we'd feel used.

Better than no action at all…

Op-Ed Columnist

The Perfect, the Good, the Planet

Published: May 17, 2009

In a way, it was easy to take stands during the Bush years: the Bushies and their allies in Congress were so determined to move the nation in the wrong direction that one could, with a clear conscience, oppose all the administration’s initiatives.

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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Paul Krugman

Go to Columnist Page » Blog: The Conscience of a Liberal


Times Topics: Global Warming

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Now, however, a somewhat uneasy coalition of progressives and centrists rules Washington, and staking out a position has become much trickier. Policy tends to move things in a desirable direction, yet to fall short of what you’d hoped to see. And the question becomes how many compromises, how much watering down, one is willing to accept.

There will be a lot of soul-searching later this year for advocates of health care reform. (For me the make-or-break issue is whether the legislation includes a public plan.) But right now it’s the environmental community that has to decide how much it’s willing to bend.

If we’re going to get real action on climate change any time soon, it will be via some version of legislation proposed by Representatives Henry Waxman and Edward Markey. Their bill would limit greenhouse gases by requiring polluters to receive or buy emission permits, with the number of available permits — the “cap” in “cap and trade” — gradually falling over time.

It goes without saying that the usual suspects on the right have denounced Waxman-Markey: global warming isn’t real, emission limits will destroy the economy, yada yada. But the bill also faces opposition from some environmentalists, who are balking at the compromises the sponsors made to gain political support.

So is Waxman-Markey — whose language was released last week — good enough?

Well, Al Gore has praised the bill, and plans to organize a grass-roots campaign on its behalf. A number of environmental organizations, ranging from the League of Conservation Voters to the Environmental Defense Fund, have also come out in strong support.

But Greenpeace has declared that it “cannot support this bill in its current state.” And some influential environmental figures — most notably James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first drew the public’s attention to global warming — oppose the whole idea of cap and trade, arguing for a carbon tax instead.

I’m with Mr. Gore. The legislation now on the table isn’t the bill we’d ideally want, but it’s the bill we can get — and it’s vastly better than no bill at all.

One objection — the claim that carbon taxes are better than cap and trade — is, in my view, just wrong. In principle, emission taxes and tradable emission permits are equally effective at limiting pollution. In practice, cap and trade has some major advantages, especially for achieving effective international cooperation.

Not to put too fine a point on it, think about how hard it would be to verify whether China was really implementing a promise to tax carbon emissions, as opposed to letting factory owners with the right connections off the hook. By contrast, it would be fairly easy to determine whether China was holding its total emissions below agreed-upon levels.

The more serious objection to Waxman-Markey is that it sets up a system under which many polluters wouldn’t have to pay for the right to emit greenhouse gases — they’d get their permits free. In particular, in the first years of the program’s operation more than a third of the allocation of emission permits would be handed over at no charge to the power industry.

Now, these handouts wouldn’t undermine the policy’s effectiveness. Even when polluters get free permits, they still have an incentive to reduce their emissions, so that they can sell their excess permits to someone else. That’s not just theory: allowances for sulfur dioxide emissions are allocated to electric utilities free of charge, yet the cap-and-trade system for SO2 has been highly successful at controlling acid rain.

But handing out emission permits does, in effect, transfer wealth from taxpayers to industry. So if you had your heart set on a clean program, without major political payoffs, Waxman-Markey is a disappointment.

Still, the bill represents major action to limit climate change. As the Center for American Progress has pointed out, by 2020 the legislation would have the same effect on global warming as taking 500 million cars off the road. And by all accounts, this bill has a real chance of becoming law in the near future.

So opponents of the proposed legislation have to ask themselves whether they’re making the perfect the enemy of the good. I think they are.

After all the years of denial, after all the years of inaction, we finally have a chance to do something major about climate change. Waxman-Markey is imperfect, it’s disappointing in some respects, but it’s action we can take now. And the planet won’t wait.