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The Ron Paul Presidency You Will Never See

What do the following have in common?

  • Limits on the amount of money corporations can spend on political candidates
  • Government regulations and testing to make sure children’s toys are not contaminated with lead
  • Environmental Protection Agency standards ensuring clean water
  • Laws protecting workers against sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Laws protecting whistleblowing offshore oil workers from retaliatory firing
  • Public schools

The answer? These are all things Ron Paul opposes.

Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear: I respect Ron Paul personally. I think it is wonderful that he has remained true to his principles, and not conveniently changed his views for political gain. I admire his ability to unflinchingly take unpopular stands and break rank with his nominal party (I say “nominal” because although Paul is technically a Republican, it would be more accurate to describe him as a Libertarian). I like that he has brought obscure economic ideas into the public spotlight for debate. And, not for nothing, he also seems to me to be a genuinely honest guy.

So for that, I respect him. Of course, I also think he is generally unelectable and would make an awful president. This is the point at which I expect some people will stop reading and immediately begin pondering ways to decry this post as a vast conspiracy of big business, big government, and the media. But before that happens, let me just ask that this post be judged on its accuracy, rather than any emotional attachments to Paul’s candidacy.

Bizarrely, some Ron Paul supporters point to the fact that Paul was elected to Congress as evidence of his electability, regardless of the fact that he represents a district of only 651,619 Texans. To put that into perspective, that is about 0.2 percent of the United States population.

A more common claim is that his second and third place finishes in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively, support his electability. Of course, Rick Santorum finished second (or first, perhaps) in Iowa, but I have yet to hear someone tell me with a straight face that they think Santorum is electable, largely for the same reason that I think Ron Paul is unelectable: once the public takes Paul’s views to their logical conclusions, they will shy away.

Perhaps the Santorum comparison is unfair. After all, Rick Santorum’s views are extreme and out of touch with public opinion. Banning abortion under any and all circumstances? Bombing Iran? That’s crazy talk. Any Paul supporter will tell you that he wants to pursue commonsense reforms, like rolling back our overreaching military and cutting a bloated federal government.

Things start to break down when the discussion goes beyond these generalities into specifics. Paul’s libertarian utopianism envisions a country in which private industry self-regulates itself at almost every turn. Should the government ensure that citizens have clean drinking water? Or that every child has access to a public education? Most Americans think so, even if they advocate some sort of reform of the current system. But Paul eschews such things. This is an ideology based not in small, efficient government — but, rather, in no government (or, as close to no government as you can get).

The problem is that following his positions to their conclusions produce grim results in the real world. Unemployment benefits would end for thousands of people, causing a large contraction in demand in the economy, helping derail a fragile economy and causing greater hardship for the unemployed. Failure to raise the debt ceiling (an action against which Paul voted) would have caused enormous turmoil, and the first ever American default, exacerbating, rather than alleviating, the current economic situation. As it happened, the near-failure caused the first ever downgrade in America’s credit rating.

Many Americans agree that the Pentagon should share the sacrifice of spending cuts, but Paul’s advocacy of large-scale shuttering of overseas military bases is dangerously naive. Despite the harsh lesson America has learned about its own limitations over the past decade, it remains the global hegemon, and a stabilizing force. An Economist article notes the possible unintended consequences of military cutbacks in Europe:

The thinking behind the “rebalancing” looks flawed for several reasons. The first is that far from being on oasis of stability, EUCOM’s 51-country region covers some pretty flammable trouble spots, among them Georgia’s border with Russia, Kosovo’s border with Serbia and Turkey’s border with Iraq and Syria. Israel is also within EUCOM. There are less conventional security threats too, from terrorists moving between safe havens to cyber attacks.

The second is that—quite apart from possible flashpoints in its own region—Europe is closer to many of the fights that American forces may be committed to in the future than bases in the United States.

The third is that the new strategy places great emphasis on military-to-military co-operation with other countries. The best way of enhancing that is for American soldiers to train with their counterparts from other nations. General Hertling says that after training, the command’s second priority is to enter into effective partnerships with the many different countries in its region. “By sharing ideas, tactics and procedures,” he says, “you build trust with partners.” During the final readiness exercise before deployment to Afghanistan, the 172nd trained with troops from nine other countries, the same ones, notes the general, whom they would later find themselves fighting alongside.

And that article is talking about President Obama’s comparatively modest rebalancing of American forces. Paul advocates a much larger drawdown, which would inevitably gut NATO, and further weaken our military capacity and lessen global stability.

The thing is, people can get behind the generalities of his platform. They (rightly) do not think we should be overreaching in two simultaneous ground wars. But, more than that, I think people can get behind the Ron Paul persona. Americans love to identify with the underdog and the straight-talker, and Paul has both in spades. His unpolished speaking style has a genuine, endearing feel to it that many Americans take to heart. He’s that kindly old gentleman that could well be your own uncle (albeit, your slightly crazy old uncle).

And, indeed, polls of Republican primary voters show Paul ranks highly in questions about his personal character and human interactions. Voters say he stands up for what he believes in and is honest, and that counts for a something when faith in government (and Congress in particular) has fallen to new lows. Indeed, right now he is polling fairly well among independents.

But throw him in the general election and that will all change. His views will not only be revealed as outside the mainstream, but will also leave him open to attacks from both the right (on defense and social issues) and the left (on economic and labor issues). President Obama’s current edge in the polls when hypothetically matched against Paul would quickly expand.

Yet, for a moment, let us imagine a world in which Ron Paul wins the nomination and the presidency. What then? Well, as president, he would have little control over enacting his particular agenda and would face a Congress that has absolutely no interest in moving his legislation. The right would bristle against his demobilization, while the left would staunchly oppose gutting entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. His average man persona would be of no help in dealing with Washington’s power brokers.

You thought the gridlock of the past few years has been bad? A Paul presidency would be a million times worse.

Economic liberalization and free trade agreements, which one might hope for from a libertarian candidate, would languish. This seems counter-intuitive, considering Paul’s ideology, but his voting record in Congress (against free trade agreements) shows that the strictures of his views lead him to the belief that free trade results from less government intervention, not from agreements with foreign nations. While wonderful in theory, this, of course, is utterly unrealistic.

Stymied by Congress and his own beliefs, Paul’s biggest effect would be through his appointive and veto powers, the latter of which he would undoubtedly use with relish.  Congress, not up to the task of overriding his vetoes, would sit by helplessly as little to nothing becomes law. The de-stimulative effect of vetoed federal spending would shrink the economy (sorry, no more unemployment benefits for you, never mind that your job search keeps turning up nothing), possibly even pulling it into a double-dip recession, like the austerity-laden Europeans. Courts and federal agencies would be filled with people that believe the job they are being paid to do should not exist in the first place, and that the federal government has little role in anything at all. So, in sum, little would get done, but the effects would be long-ranging.

I appreciate Ron Paul’s character, his dedication, and his role in bringing alternative economic ideas to the public debate (no matter how incorrect I believe that they are). All of that makes him a man that I would love to sit down and have a nice, pleasant dinner with. What it does not make him is a good president.


States, Stimulus, and Saving Jobs

One of my recent blog posts (“Balancing Budgets: The Government is Nothing Like a Family“) stimulated a lively discussion about the effects of budget-cutting on the economy. As I noted in that post, large-scale austerity measures (cutting spending and raising taxes in order to balance the budget) have the perverse effect of actually causing deficits by depressing the economy further if the economy is not yet strong enough to withstand the fiscal tightening. Widening deficits add more to the debt and amplify demands for more austerity, which then leads to further depressed economic activity, and a vicious cycle ensues. This is  not an argument against deficit reduction, but rather against deficit reduction while the United States economy (and the global economy, as well) is still incredibly fragile.

Yet there is another aspect of the debate over stimulus and austerity that many Americans tend to overlook — the fact their government has been slashing spending and raising taxes to balance budgets, only at a state and local level. Forced by balanced budget provisions in most state constitutions, these government entities have undertaken the kinds of measures many conservatives are clamoring for at the federal level. The result has been a drag on both national and state economies.

This week’s Economist (Jan. 7-13, 2012) had an excellent article on the effects of state austerity packages on the national economy. From that article:

In 2009 and 2010 this austerity offset much of the expansionary effect of federal-government stimulus. Even in 2011, according to a Goldman Sachs estimate, government spending cuts reduced America’s GDP growth by half a percentage point. State and local governments bore most of the blame: they have been responsible for nearly 600,000 government jobs going since the recession’s end.

State and local governments trimmed 16,000 jobs in November—down from 45,000 in May but still a negative number. Yet the worst appears to be over. And just as local austerity amplified the previous economic decline, its end should reinforce the recovery.

A November 2011 study by the Keystone Research Center shows the huge impact Governor Corbett’s 2011 budget cuts have had on Pennsylvania’s economy:

From September 2009 to September 2010, Pennsylvania outpaced most other states in job creation, ranking fourth in the number of jobs created and seventh by job growth percentage. Between April 2011 and September 2011, we shifted into reverse and are now headed in the wrong direction. A wave of public-sector job losses has driven job growth in the Commonwealth into the bottom 10: 47th measured by the change in the number of jobs and 43rd measured by job growth percentage.

It is also interesting to note that the same people calling for fiscal tightening at the federal level also decried the “failure” of the stimulus package. That the stimulus package passed by the United States Congress in 2009 did not suddenly rocket the entire economy out of the recession is not an admission of its failure. The stimulus performed a much-needed role by helping states plug their deficits as tax receipts plunged, preventing an even larger tightening. As the Economist notes, state cuts “offset much of the expansionary effect of federal-government stimulus,” which allows the package’s opponents to get away with the claim that the stimulus had no effect.

It is difficult to run on a political platform of ‘things would have been much worse if we had not passed the stimulus package,’ but nonetheless there it is — things would have been much worse. Without aid to the states, cuts would have been deeper and tax increases greater, deepening the recession. And yet, still, talk of immediate austerity, balanced budget amendments, and the “failure” of economic stimulus somehow persist.

–FURTHER READING–

http://www.economist.com/node/21542445

http://keystoneresearch.org/sites/default/files/Public-sector-job-losses-PA-recovery-11-2011.pdf

http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=711

http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=13003068

http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/06/budget_cuts.html

http://gaudini.wordpress.com/2011/12/24/government-balancing-budgets/


The Ideology of Superman: Breaking Down the Old Order

This is Part 3 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World here (when the post is ready).
Read Part 6: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–BREAKING DOWN THE OLD ORDER–

Many factors shook American society through the late 1960s and the 1970s: the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, oil shocks, the feminist movement, a new environmentalist movement, rampant inflation coupled with high unemployment, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s subsequent resignation, and so on. The first of the baby boom generation (born in the late 1940s) were reaching maturity and causing shockwaves throughout society. Many rejected the traditional outlooks of their parent’s generation, endorsing the counterculture of the hippie movement.

Comics began to leave behind the outdated and outmoded Comics Code Authority. The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 featured a story arc in which the webslinging hero’s friend, Harry Osborn, is shown to be addicted to pills. The Comics Code Authority refused to give the issues its approving stamp, but Marvel ran it anyway. It sold tremendously well, condemning the Comics Code Authority to increasing irrelevancy.

DC dealt with various issues, including cocaine addiction, in its "Green Lantern" title.

DC also dealt with tough issues, most notably in its Green Lantern title, written by Denny O’Neil. That book constantly pitted Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) in a battle of ideologies against his friend and sometime partner, Green Arrow (Oliver Queen). The series addressed issues such as environmental protection, race relations, and, famously, drug addiction as Green Arrow discovered his ward, Speedy, was addicted to cocaine. And yes, countless others have noted the irony of a character named Speedy eventually being addicted to cocaine, so I don’t need to do so. But really, Green Arrow should have seen the writing on the wall with that one.

Superman’s world changed as well. The late 1960s saw new creative teams and a new art style mark a departure from the Mort Weisinger era (Weisinger edited the Superman comics during the 50s and 60s. He retired from DC Comics in 1970.).

The familiar elements of a Superman story changed drastically. An all-new supporting cast was introduced, new villains challenged the Man of Steel, new situations arose. As CBR’s Robot6 blog notes:

Before long, readers got to know his neighbors in 344 Clinton Street’s apartments, as well as various Kryptonians (like Supergirl, Krypto and the other Super-Pets, the Phantom Zone criminals, and residents of the Bottle City of Kandor).

Indeed, the revamped Superman titles added new characters of their own almost from the very beginning. Cat Grant, Jose “Gangbuster” Delgado, Maggie Sawyer, Colin Thornton, Ron Troupe, Jerry White, and Emil Hamilton all interacted with the existing supporting cast, and with each other, in various combinations.

Print journalist Clark Kent got a promotion when Galaxy Broadcasting System president, Morgan Edge, bought the Daily Planet and made Kent a TV news anchor. Big business was back in action, and deregulation was gaining steam. A Republican governor named Ronald Reagan was gearing up for a presidential bid to unseat incumbent Gerald Ford.

The 12-issue maxi-series "Crisis on Infinite Earths" rebooted the entire DC Universe.

The structure of a Superman story changed as well. Gone were the normality-interrupting gimmicks that defined the previous period. Now, stories were more character-driven. Writers were disassembling the status quo of Clark Kent’s world, albeit less violently than many of the social and economic forces challenging America in the real world.

American confidence was sinking, and with it Superman’s powers. Denny O’Neil’s brief stint on the comic saw Superman’s powers diminished by a third in a story arc entitled “Kryptonite Nevermore!” The description for the collected edition even says that “this story turned Superman’s status quo on its head.” The depowering would not last for long, however, as subsequent writers soon took to re-powering the Man of Steel for their own purposes, but Superman was no longer a static character replaying the same tired formula over and over again. His world was in flux.

Superman’s world would shift hugely one last time in the 1980s, and then settle into a new norm. The huge, company-wide crossover blockbuster event of 1985-86, Crisis on Infinite Earths hit the re-start button on all of DC’s properties, including Superman. The Man of Steel was de-powered yet again, his cast culled and revised, and his convoluted history streamlined, all marking a new normal.

It was morning in America.

 

Continue to Part 4: Morning in America here.


The Ideology of Superman: The New Deal Democrat

This is Part 1 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–THE NEW DEAL DEMOCRAT–

Superman, "Champion of the Oppressed."

When Action Comics #1 hit newsstands, America was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Although still nursing an isolationist foreign policy, U.S. domestic policy had shifted radically. An ascendant Democratic Party brandished the full force of the federal government. Without passing any judgment (positive or negative), it is safe to say that during this time unions were strengthened, social safety nets fortified, big business strictly regulated. This was FDR’s New Deal.

New Dealers were self-proclaimed champions of the common man, and Superman was no different. In fact, Action Comics #1 describes him as a “champion of the oppressed.”

This image may seem foreign to many people today who see Superman as the embodiment of the status quo, but Superman of the 1930s and 40s was a social crusader, in both identities. Muckraking journalist Clark Kent spoke truth to power in his job at the Daily Star (later, Daily Planet), while pining after Lois Lane. In another indicator of the times, Lois Lane was introduced as a gossip columnist who wrote “sob stories,” but desperately wanted to a real reporting beat. The ironic twist of the comic was that Lois Lane was “manlier” than bumbling, impotent Clark Kent, though Lane’s pursuit of true news pieces would inevitably lead to some sort of danger from which the masculine ideal (Superman) would need to rescue her.

Superman destroys slums so that the government will be forced to improve living conditions.

Not much escaped the super-crusader’s youthful eyes in those days. Though he could only jump an eighth of mile (a far cry from his later ability to fly), Superman had no trouble taking on wealthy mine owners for the lax safety standards they subjected their workers to, or slick businessmen who tried to co-opt the Superman image for profit. In fact, in Action Comics #8, Superman destroys a city’s dilapidated slums in order to force the government to rebuild better housing. Just before he does so, he tells a group of delinquent children: “It’s not entirely your fault that you’re delinquent– it’s these slums– your poor living conditions.”

As a product of the times, Superman was also something of an isolationist at first. A story spanning Action Comics #1 and 2 saw Superman taking on the fiendish military-industrial complex about 23 years before Dwight D. Eisenhower made the term famous in his farewell address. The complaints sound incredibly familiar: corrupt politicians, influential lobbyists, deceitful arms producers and manufactured wars. Who says Superman isn’t in touch with today’s issues?

Luckily for the fictional Americans of the late 1930s, Superman was around to prevent the United States from being needlessly embroiled in a conflict between two fictional (though perhaps European) countries.

Superman joins the war effort.

All for naught. America’s isolationist tendencies would crumble before the full force of the Pearl Harbor attacks. And even before that, President Roosevelt angled to help the Allied cause in any way possible, through programs such as “Lend-Lease.” And as America mobilized for war, so too did Superman. The July after Pearl Harbor, for instance, Superman was seen on the cover of Superman #17 holding a shocked Adolf Hitler and grotesque Prime Minister Tojo, the much-despised leaders of the Axis Powers.

Families across the United States bought war bonds, rationed goods, planted victory gardens, and build weapons to help the war effort. Superman assaulted Axis leaders on the covers of his comics.

American had entered the second World War.

Continue on to Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.


The War on Our Border: Why Mexico is Important

The United States needs to have a serious discussion about Mexico and spillover violence from its war with drug cartels. Here’s why it matters and what can be done.

–WHY IT MATTERS–

Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, announced a war on Mexico’s drug cartels in late 2006. Since that time, at least 35,000 (and probably more) people have been killed. Corruption remains rampant, with the cartels often recruiting directly from police forces. A recent Time article by Tim Padgett reported that:

The corruption watchdog Transparency International estimates that Mexicans paid $2.75 billion in bribes to police and other officials last year. Meanwhile, 95% of violent crimes in Mexico go unsolved.

Drug thugs killed by their competitors are easily replaced. In a country where most workers earn less than $10 a day, the cartels have little difficulty recruiting new legions. The Chihuahua state attorney general estimates that close to 10,000 Mexicans work for drug cartels in Juárez alone, not least because even foot soldiers can earn hundreds of dollars a week as sicarios, or triggermen. It isn’t just the unemployed who get sucked into the war. If you have a pilot’s license, for example, you’re useful to a cartel, which makes you a target for rival gangs.

But the crisis is not confined to Mexico. Violence has spilled over into U.S. border states. An ABC article from March notes that:

The ambush of two U.S. special agents in Mexico last month, the December murder of a Border Patrol agent in Arizona by Mexican bandits and the beheading of a Phoenix man in October by Mexican cartel members are the latest signs that the drug-fueled violence has even become a direct threat to Americans.

Additionally, American drug, gun and immigration policy directly affects to both the cartel war in Mexico and the spillover violence in the border states. Guns smuggled in from the United States arm the cartels, with “70% of the guns seized in Mexico in the past two years” coming from the U.S. Drug use in the United States fuels demand for the cartels’ product, sustaining them and ensuring that they continue to operate in their U.S. market.

And defective U.S. immigration policy forces many regular, non-threatening Mexicans who are desperate for jobs to immigrate to the United States illegally. Previously, immigrants would turn to “coyotes” to help smuggle them across the border, but cartels have since gotten into the human trafficking business themselves. They charge illegal immigrants huge sums of money for a journey many immigrants don’t survive — often because the cartel members rape and murder them along the way.

All of these factors sustain demand for the cartels, and keep them economically strong: heightening demand for drugs and trafficking services, as well as producing a steady supply of weaponry. Stronger cartels keep Mexico mired in a state of corruption, violence and dysfunction that contributes to lower economic growth, which further contributes to higher levels of illegal immigration. It should be noted that Mexico has huge potential for growth, as a result of free trade agreements (NAFTA), and attracting foreign investment. But violence caused by the cartels creates a volatile atmosphere that is not attractive to investors or conducive to business.

–WHAT TO DO–

So far, the United States has taken some steps to address this issue. President Obama has expanded the U.S. border patrol and provided more funding for Mexican law enforcement, but these address mostly consequences, not causes. The administration did, in 2009, launch an initiative (“Operation Fast and Furious“) to track guns purchased in the United States back to the cartels. But it ended up losing track of many of these weapons, leaving them still in the hands of gangsters.

The Economist also notes several steps the Obama Administration has taken:

The administration has stepped up security co-operation with Mexico, deploying drones and American agents south of the border and allowing Mexican police to use American territory as a launch pad for surprise raids southward. It helped to organise a donor conference in June aimed at improving security in Central America. It is paying Colombia to provide training for helicopter pilots and police from Mexico and Central America.

The United States and Mexico are also working more closely together to speed legal trade across the border. Earlier this year Mr Obama at last allowed Mexican trucks to operate north of the border. And the two countries work together on many world issues at the United Nations, says Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador in Washington, who says the relationship is closer than at any time in the past 15 years.

Admittedly, addressing the sources of this problem does not seem politically viable in today’s partisan atmosphere — especially considering the issues at stake (guns, immigration and drugs). Nevertheless, I will present several brief policy options I think could help in the war against the cartels.

  • Gun Control.
  • Immigration Reform.
  • Reassessing Drug Policies

–GUN CONTROL–

Let me preface this section by saying that I support the right to bear arms — but that I do believe that it is within the government’s purview to regulate gun ownership. In the same way, government regulates automobile travel for the purposes of public safety. Especially when discussing spillover violence from Mexico, there is a direct correlation between firearm availability in the United States and the arming of cartels.

Several gun control measures might help on this front:

  • Strong background checks, to prevent guns from being sold to people who will funnel them to the cartels. Of course, I should note that this is not without its own limitations — one of which being the simple fact that cartels will try to enlist people who will pass such checks. Background checks may make it more difficult (or costly, if they are forced to pay more for agents who can pass such checks) for cartels to acquire weapons, but it will by no means make it impossible or implausible.
  • Requiring gun permits or licenses, and registering transactions at gun shows. Again, these measures would make it more difficult for cartels to acquire guns, and will provide law enforcement with more information with which to track guns that do find their way to the cartels, and gun traffickers. But they will not stop such purchases fully, either.
  • Assault weapons ban. This is a measure for which President Obama has voiced support. As a 2009 State Department travel advisory noted: “Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades.” [emphasis mine]

Such measures seem to have had an effect in California, which accounts for only 3 percent of guns smuggled to Mexico (and later recovered).

–IMMIGRATION REFORM–

As noted earlier, cartels thrive on the demand for human traffickers from illegal immigrants. Immigrants that, it should be noted, are willing to face potential raping and death at the hands of their cartel traffickers in order to find employment opportunities and a better life in America. Comprehensive immigration could, among other things:

  • Streamline the immigration process
  • Strengthen border patrol and law enforcement to crack down on cartels
  • Provide guest worker program

The guiding principle of immigration reform, as it relates to the cartel problem, should be to make the immigration system in America more responsive to changes in supply and demand for immigrant workers, as well making it more streamlined and efficient. This should lower the incentive for illegal entry to the United States.

And lowering incentives for illegal immigration could help focus law enforcement on fighting cartels, instead of draining precious time and resources to track and deport illegal immigrants — immigrants who, as workers, are adding to economic activity.

Also, reform can help lower illegal immigration by including immigration policies that promote Mexican economic development. (It should be noted that the number of illegal immigrations has decline recently, for various reasons including the recession, fallen Mexican birth rates, and economic development in Mexico). An Economist blog post advocates

…an EU-like common North American labour market, as well as expanded Mexican access to American colleges and universities. But I would happily settle for a large guest-worker programme that would make it much easier for Mexicans to legally live and work in America, as well as taking the risk out of cycling back home.

With incentives for illegal immigration lowered, a strengthened border patrol could focus their energies on violent criminals smuggling drugs into and guns out of the United States.

–REASSESSING DRUG POLICIES–

U.S. demand for cartel-provided drugs obviously helps keeps the cartels in business. The main policy options I would advocate here are drug prevention and rehabilitation programs.

They would relieve our overburdened court systems and overcrowded prisons. Such measures would approach drug use as the non-violent, or “victimless crime” that it is, rather than focusing on jail time and harsh punishments. For drug users, prison is not a huge deterrent anyway. A March 2009 report by the Berkley Foundation Drug Policy Programme in London notes that:

For problematic drug users, it is perhaps not surprising that the threat of
punishment will have a limited effect. Many suffer from other serious
problems and it can be argued that being punished is not an over-riding
concern for them. For example, according to the US government’s
Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 53% of drug
users have a diagnosable mental disorder. Many hard-core users in
inner cities already lead such high-risk lives on the streets that prison
is not perceived as a much riskier or more threatening alternative.

Shifting focus from punishment to treatment would not disrupt deterrence, because current prison sentences do not do much in the way of solving drug issues anyway. The report also says that “many users have been led to control or give up their drug use because the toll on personal relationships and home and work lives was too high and the rewards for quitting were attractive.” Supporting these factors with better treatment programs would help address drug issues and, in turn, decrease the demand for cartels’ services.

–CONCLUSION–

The Mexican government’s war with drug cartels should concern all Americans. Violence from the drug wars spills over the border into the United States, while U.S. drug and gun policy figure prominently into the supply and demand of cartels. Smart policy options work to decrease the supply of guns to the cartels while simultaneously working to decrease demand for the drugs and illegal immigration services cartels provide.

A stable and successful Mexico is in America’s best interests — both from a security perspective, and an economic one. And working to systematically weaken its drug cartels should be a priority for the United States going forward.

–SOURCES–

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1651508,00.html

http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2080608,00.html

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/mexico-president-calderon-prods-obama-drugs-guns-violent/story?id=13047470

http://www.economist.com/node/18621268

http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2011/07/arms-trafficking

http://www.economist.com/node/18744547

http://www.economist.com/node/21528271

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2010/04/trade-offs

http://www.economist.com/blogs/lexington/2010/04/wrong_immigration

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/obameter/promise/289/promote-economic-development-in-mexico/

http://www.economist.com/node/16274535

http://www.economist.com/node/21526899

http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/23/nation/na-human-smuggling23

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=6960824&page=1

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/07/mexico-migration-and-growth

http://www.bucknell.edu/Documents/RecreationServices/Mexico%20Travel%20Advisory%20-%202-2009.pdf

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CDMQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.beckleyfoundation.org%2Fpdf%2FBF_Report_16.pdf&rct=j&q=drug%20use%20prison%20deterrence&ei=LlpkTr-kJOLX0QGthdisCg&usg=AFQjCNHFrLAJ5vvzGCYaXWbuNJ3anNDZmg&cad=rja

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CB8QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww-old.gov.harvard.edu%2Fstudent%2Frios%2FMexicanDrugMarket_Riosv2.doc&rct=j&q=cartels%20economic%20growth%20mexico&ei=n7NGTsr6PITcgQfKwJ3EBg&usg=AFQjCNFbq-goC75ieInetM5AAsDsyQtOzQ&cad=rja


Fact Check: Who Commits Domestic Terrorism?

President Obama recently got into an off-the-cuff debate with Tea Party activists in Iowa. Most of this back-and-forth focused on Vice President Biden allegedly saying Tea Party Republicans “acted like terrorists” in holding the credit of the United States hostage during the debt deal. The video is below:

However, we’re going to focus in on another, brief point that was brought up by the female Tea Party activist around 47 seconds into the video.

She said this:

“You do realize that 90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals and not people like me.”

The number — a whopping 90 percent — seemed a bit high. So I did some fact-checking. I do not know which source she is quoting (and would be interested to find out), but all evidence I’ve reviewed pointed to one conclusion. Namely:

Status: False, with bits of truth.

Before I begin, let me clarify my analysis of this claim as false: the woman that made this statement is right when she says terrorist attacks are not done by people like her. She seems to be a political activist (from what little I can tell from the video), not any sort of terrorist. I am not, in any way, implying that she or anyone in the Tea Party, are terrorists. I am not, in any way, equating right-wing terrorists with right-of-center ideals. Neither am I, in any way, equating left-wing terrorists with left-of-center ideals.

I am simply analyzing her claim that “90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals.”

And while environmental radicals perpetrate a huge number of domestic terrorist incidents, I find no evidence to back up such a high estimate as 90 percent. Two other points provide necessary context that her assertion is lacking. The first is that right-wing terrorism has seen a marked rise in recent years. The other is that left-wing and environmental terrorist groups generally target property, while right-wing terrorism often targets human beings.

–DEFINING TERRORISM–

First, we should define terrorism, to make sure everyone is on the same page.

  • Terrorism

    U.S. law defines“domestic terrorism” according to several points. Domestic terrorist acts:(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
    (B) appear to be intended—
        (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
        (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
       (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
    (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

    The FBI provides a more succinct definition of terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

So, terrorism is an inherently political or ideological act. But let’s focus our definitions further, to differentiate different types of terrorism. We’ll use definitions found on the FBI’s website:

  • Left-Wing Terrorism

Generally profess a revolutionary socialist doctrine and view themselves as protectors of the people against the “dehumanizing effects” of capitalism and imperialism.

  • Right-Wing Terrorism

Primarily in the form of domestic militias and conservative special interest causes…Right-wing extremists champion a wide variety of causes, including racial supremacy, hatred and suspicion of the federal government, and fundamentalist Christianity.

  • Single Issue (Or “Special Interest”) Groups:

Single-issue extremists attack targets that embody distinct political issues like environmental degradation, abortion, genetic engineering, or animal abuse.

One problem is immediately evident. The woman in the video (Stacey Rogers) described “left-wing environmental radicals.” According to the FBI’s definitions, however, left-wing terrorists are distinct from single issue terrorist. We can probably safely assume that in her statement, “left-wing” is only a descriptor, and that the true focus is on the “environmental radicals” aspect.

But even so, special interest terrorism, as a category, seems to cut across ideological lines. It contains both left-wing single issue causes (environmentalism, animal rights) and right-wing (abortion). FBI classification lumps environmental terrorists in with other special interest terrorists, making it a little harder to isolate environmental terrorists from the other special interest terrorists in our analysis.

This would seem to suggest that the 90 percent claim is wrong on its face. After all, if environmental radicals were responsible for 90 percent of all domestic terror attacks, would they really be lumped into a category with several other terrorist causes? That would leave only 10 percent of all terrorist attacks to be divided not only among the various causes in the special interest category, but also among the two other categories the FBI lists alongside special interest terrorism.

–WHO COMMITS DOMESTIC TERRORISM?–

One of the initial difficulties we run into when fact checking this statement is that it doesn’t describe any particular period. And terrorism, like anything else, changes over time. For instance, an FBI report notes that right-wing terrorism dominated the interwar period:

In the period between World War I and World War II, the domestic threat primarily came from right-wing groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, which often adhered to principles of racial supremacy or embraced antigovernment and antiregulatory beliefs in favor of individual freedoms.

So it is important to observe, for the sake of context, that terrorism and terrorist ideas evolve and change along with the times. However, it is obvious that  Rogers is not describing the interwar period. Why would she? We can safely assume she is describing some sort of recent history — but what period should we include?

To provide context (and reach a more accurate conclusion) we will consider most of the post-war period (the late 1940s to today), with a concentration on the past decade. As we shall see, certain shifts have occurred in the targets and perpetrators of domestic terrorism.

According to an FBI report, left-wing terrorism generally dominated the post-war period, with such groups as the Weather Underground.

Beginning in the 1950s, the most serious domestic terrorist threat shifted to leftist-oriented extremist groups that generally professed a revolutionary socialist doctrine and viewed themselves as protectors of the people against the adverse effects of capitalism and U.S. foreign policies.

The decline of this type of left-wing terrorism seems to have been caused both by law enforcement and the collapse of the Soviet Union “depriv[ing] many of these groups of their ideological foundation and patronage,” according to that same report.

I use the term “this type of left-wing terrorism” because left-wing terrorism continued in the 1990s and 2000s, but in a different form.

With respect to domestic terrorism, left-wing political groups and special interest terrorism—that is, terrorism committed by extremists who use violence to compel society to change its attitudes about specific causes—asserted themselves during the 1990s… The majority of domestic terrorism incidents from 1993 to 2001 were attributable to the left-wing special interest movements the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

The vague statistics I’ve been able to dig up support this. Another FBI report breaks down the numbers of terrorism incidents from 1980 to 2001 (domestic and international).

Terrorism Statistics. Original chart found on the FBI website.

Terrorism by Group Class 1980 – 2001 Total 482

International 164

Left-Wing 130

Right-Wing 85

Special Interest 81

Individual 14

Unknown 8

If I’m reading this chart correctly, then the 318 terrorist incidents not classified as “International” are domestic. Now, we are trying to analyze what percentage of these terrorists are “environmental radicals.” Problem is, this is a sub-group within the special interest category, and we can’t separate them out. So, instead we’ll just take the percentage of special interest terrorism as a whole, knowing that it will include other categories like animal rights terrorism and anti-abortion terrorism.

About 25 percent of listed incidents from 1980-2001 were special interest terrorism incidents. And since this category contains various groups, the number for environmental terrorism incidents is surely less. That falls far short of 90 percent.

But Rogers did characterize these movements as “left-wing,” so let’s take a look at the left-wing numbers too. Left-wing terrorism made up about 41 percent of all domestic incidents (defined as incidents not labeled in the chart as “International”) from 1980-2001. Still short of 90 percent.

Combining both left-wing and special interest terrorism still only brings us up to about 66 percent. This is obviously a huge percentage. But only a portion of it includes environmental radicals. Furthermore, some right-wing groups are included in this 66 percent, like anti-abortion terrorists. And more importantly, it is 24 percentage points short of 90 percent.

And, significantly, these numbers are only through 2001. The 1990s, as noted, saw a rise in environmental terrorism. But have any notable shifts occurred since then?

An FBI report looking at the period between 2002 and 2005 said that 24 recorded terrorist incidents happened in this period, and 23 of them were domestic. Of these 23 incidents, all but one “were committed by special interest extremists active in the animal rights and environmental movements.” But, in the next paragraph, the report says that “eight of the 14 recorded terrorism preventions stemmed from right-wing extremism, and included disruptions to plotting by individuals involved with the militia, white supremacist, constitutionalist and tax protestor, and anti-abortion movements.”

So, even though almost all domestic terrorist attacks were perpetrated by environmental and animal activists, the slim majority (eight of 14) of all preventions were of right-wing terrorist threats.

Why is this? While I did not see any explanations in this report, allow me to offer a theory. The same report notes that although left-wing terrorism remains pervasive, right-wing terrorism is more dangerous. This seems counter-intuitive. All terrorism is dangerous, how can one be more dangerous than another. The answer to that is in what the two brands of terrorism target.

In short, left-wing terrorists tend to target “materials and facilities rather than persons.” Right-wing terrorists, however, often targets human beings. The report observes:

Right-wing extremism, however, primarily in the form of domestic militias and conservative special interest causes, began to overtake left-wing extremism as the most dangerous, if not the most prolific, domestic terrorist threat to the country during the 1990s. In contrast to the ALF and the ELF, which have pursued a philosophy that avoids physical violence in favor of acts of property damage that cause their victims economic harm, right-wing extremists pursued a qualitatively different method of operation by targeting people.

This shift of right-wing terrorism overtaking left-wing terrorism as the more dangerous extremism seems to have started in the 1990s, according to an FBI report from 2002.

A South Poverty Law Center report notes that right-wing terrorist threats in the form of militias seemed to die down during the early 2000s, but then began appearing again toward the late 2000s.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning about a resurgent right-wing terrorist threat, caused by racial tensions, economic hardship and the expansion of social programs.

–CONCLUSION–

I’m not quite sure where Rogers got her information. I certainly could not find any evidence to corroborate her claim that “90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals.” The only information that even approached validating this statement was the report on terrorist activity between 2002 and 2005, which said that all but 1 of domestic terrorist attacks during that period were perpetrated by environmental and animal rights extremists.

But that ignores the fact that plotted incidents prevented by authorities were a majority right-wing. Furthermore, her claim is stripped of any and all context. Right-wing terrorism is, generally speaking, more dangerous to individuals than left-wing terrorism. That is because right-wing terrorism generally targets people, while left-wing terrorism mostly targets property and materials.

Finally, the comment implies an absolute, and ignores the fact that terrorism patterns shift. Such a shift seems to be upon us right now, with right-wing terrorism currently on the rise. The statement does not indicate any of this.

Her general point about the pervasiveness of left-wing — and, in particular, environment — terrorism is correct. It is the more pervasive form of domestic terrorism. Though, stripped of context, and using a number that seems (at best) misleading and (at worst) incorrect, I rate her claim false.

–SOURCES–

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/obama-tea-party-video_n_928025.html

http://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/the-threat-of-eco-terrorism

http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terrorism-2002-2005

http://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/the-terrorist-threat-confronting-the-united-states

http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/splc-report-return-of-the-militias

http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terror/terrorism-2000-2001

http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/rightwing.pdf

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0811/60421.html

http://www.fbi.gov/albuquerque/priorities

http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/2331.html


Abstract of the PA General Assembly

Using information from the PA Department of State, Ballotpedia, and Project Vote Smart, I’ve compiled a fairly comprehensive breakdown of the post-election Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Some of the main points I’ve taken from the data are below (the full Excel files are at the bottom of the blog post).

On the General Assembly:

  • Pennsylvania is the sixth largest state in the Union (population-wise), whereas it has the 2nd largest state legislature (at 253 members in both houses). As an aside, the largest is New Hampshire’s (424) and any comparison with Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is poorly based. New Hampshire’s legislators are part-time and paid only $100 per year, as opposed to the full-time PA legislature.
  • Even with this high number of legislators, Pennsylvania is one of the less representative states, ranking low in the “Constituents per Legislator” category (about 62,573 people per House member and 254,048 per Senator).
  • The vast majority of legislators in both houses are re-elected — though re-election rates seem greater in the Senate.

On the PA House of Representatives:

  • The average Representative has spent 11 years or 5.6 terms in the House and no time in the Senate.
  • The average margin of victory in a House race in 2010 was a whopping 56.8 points.
  • Representative Mark Cohen of the 202nd District is the longest-serving legislator in the House. He was first elected in 1974.

On the PA Senate:

  • The average Senator has spent 11.3 years (and 2.8 terms) in the Senate, as well as 4.4 years (and 2.2 terms) in the House.
  • In general, the average Senator has legislated in both the House and Senate for about 15.7 years.
  • The average margin of victory in a Senator’s last election was 46.9 points.
  • Recently deceased Senator Mike O’Pake of the 11th District holds the record for longest-serving senator in the PA Senate. Stewart Greenleaf is the longest-serving living Senator. Greenleaf was elected to the PA House in 1976 and to the PA Senate in 1978.

The full files are linked below (sources and notes are on Sheet 2 of the files):


Why the DREAM Act Should Pass

A recent Gallop poll shows a slight majority of Americans favor passing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (or DREAM Act). The DREAM Act was first sponsored in 2001 by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (UT). It passed in the House this year and even had a majority of support in the Senate (55-41), where it failed to overcome a filibuster.

Basically, the bill would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children if they join the military or pursue higher education. Read the text of the Senate bill here, and the House bill here.

The consideration of the DREAM Act by this Congress stands as perhaps the most meaningful attempt at immigration reform since the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. That bipartisan bill (brought down by bipartisan opposition) actually contained the DREAM Act as one of its provisions. While the DREAM Act is only a small step on the longer road to comprehensive reform, it is nevertheless worth passing. Here’s why:

  • It is a step toward resolving the status of illegal immigrants currently living in America
  • It will provide the military with ample recruits
  • It will yield economic benefits for the entire country and raise government revenue

Let’s examine these points one by one.

–RESOLVING THE STATUS OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS–

Illegal immigration is tough to measure, but a Department of Homeland Security report places the number of illegal immigrants in America in 2009 at approximately 10.75 million. For context, that’s about 3.5% of the entire U.S. population that same year (which, according to Census Bureau estimates was about 307,006,550 people). That’s bigger than the population of Native Americans (1%) and only a little bit less than the Asian American population (4.6%).

The question that has been plaguing Congress is: what do you do about this sizable segment of the population?

Although many conservatives advocate mass deportation, this is a costly and utterly unrealistic solution. Prominent Republicans like President Bush and George Will have recognized this fact. Immigration and Customs Enforcement head Julie Myers has placed the cost of mass deportation at around $94 billion. From CNN.com:

“An ICE spokesman later said the $94 billion did not include the cost of finding illegal immigrants, nor court costs — dollar amounts that are largely unknowable.

He said the amount was calculated by multiplying the estimated 12 million people by the average cost of detaining people for a day: $97. That was multiplied by the average length of detention: 32 days… Finally, the department looked at personnel costs, bringing the total to roughly $94 billion.”

What is notable about these rough calculations is that they also fail to take into account the economic impacts of mass deportation. Illegal immigrants both work and consume — two basic tenets of any human existence. In fact, many illegal immigrants came to America because of the job availability. In 2009, Mexicans were about 62% of all illegal immigrants. Part of the reason for the influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico is due to the fact that Mexico’s labor market cannot currently sustain the number of workers it has at its disposal (though this may change in the near future). Put another way, there’s too many people and not enough jobs. Combine this with American companies’ willingness to hire low wage workers in order to keep prices down, and you have a recipe for mass migration, though the poor economy has actually decreased the number of illegal immigrants in America in the last few years.

The result is that illegal immigrants are firmly implanted in the American labor market. In fact, immigrants often produce jobs where they live, mainly due to the basic economic laws of supply and demand. Immigrants, like every else, have to consume in order to survive. They must rent a home, buy food, clothes, etc… This increased economic activity gets money circulating and creates jobs. Removing this large segment of low wage workers would shock the American job market by removing a huge segment of the population that contribute to both supply and demand.

And that’s only if the government had the stomach for taking such drastic measures. For one thing, mass deportation is a political nonstarter. It would be a difficult issue for American businesses to support. The reasons for this are simple: companies always want to have the advantage over their competition, and immigrants provide companies with that advantage. A 2009 paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta concluded that “firms employing undocumented workers enjoy a competitive advantage over firms that do not employ undocumented workers.”

Illegal immigrants are too frightened of deportation to complain about poor working conditions or low wages, and so accept these conditions, which drives prices lower for the consumer and provides the company with an advantage. Rising prices would be bad for business, as would be losing thousands of workers, so its easy to see why large businesses would likely oppose a mass deportation plan. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, predicts that mass deportation would reduce United States’ GDP by 1.46%. Also, mass deportation could take years to fully implement (and that’s only if it turned out to be possible), and companies would not wish to see their advantage erode if rivals were able to maintain their advantage for a bit longer.

So, that is the state of the debate. To be sure, there are issues I have not touched on, like whether illegal immigrants cause violent crime (studies show they do not, and they may even make some areas safer) or depress wages (maybe for a smallest, lowest paid segment of the population, though it is also linked to wage increases for many others), but this blog post is to focus mainly on the DREAM Act, so I don’t want to get too sidetracked.

With mass deportation untenable, the only other plausible way of solving this issue is some form of legalization. Critics like to use the term ‘amnesty’ to describe any legalization of illegal immigrants currently in the country, despite the variety of ways it could be handled. For historical context, one should remember that President Reagan signed a bill that both tightened border security and provided amnesty for about 3 million illegal immigrants living in the country.

The lack of real alternatives to some sort of path to citizenship and the partisan attacks on ‘amnesty’ has led to an atmosphere where Congress refuses to pass any immigration reform, and states end up taking matters into their own hands. The DREAM Act, however, stands as a politically viable bill that could partially alleviate some of the problem (though not all).

The Migration Policy Institute reports that around 2.1 million illegal immigrants could become citizens under the DREAM Act’s provisions. That same study estimates “that roughly 38 percent of potential beneficiaries — 825,000 people — would likely obtain permanent legal status” under the DREAM Act. Under the Senate version of the bill, illegal immigrants who entered the country as children (younger than 16) and have lived continuously in the United States for longer than 5 years are eligible. Even though it still leaves some illegal immigrants in America without a path to citizenship, it nonetheless provides a sizable segment of the illegal population with the opportunity to become American citizens. This will have economic benefits for the country (as described in the final section) and brings the entire country a step closer to resolving the status of illegal immigrants already living in America.

–MILITARY BENEFITS–

The DREAM Act would provide the American military, currently fighting two wars, with additional, much-needed recruits. A key provision of the bill dictates that one of the ways an illegal immigrant child could become a citizen is through military service.

This would be a boon to the military, which saw a dearth of recruits in the 2000s and failed to meet many of its recruiting standards. In those years, according to a 2005 Guardian article, the military “stopped battalion commanders from dismissing new recruits for drug abuse, alcohol, poor fitness and pregnancy in an attempt to halt the rising attrition rate in an army” and “recruiters, who were under pressure to meet their monthly quotas,” let their standards slip.

The recession has largely reversed this trend, as more people are unemployed and attracted by the pay and benefits of the military as opposed to the uncertain American labor market. In 2005, the unemployment rate was around 5%. Now (December 2010), it stands at almost double that (9.8%). Still, this is no reason to discount the benefit of added recruits that the DREAM Act would provide. For one, the enhanced recruitment numbers of the recession may continue into the recovery, or they may not. This likely depends on the state of the job market, which is lagging behind most other recovery indicators with high unemployment. Either way, the DREAM Act would be beneficial for the purposes of recruitment levels.

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute noted in “Staying Power” in Foreign Affairs that counter-insurgency doctrine “implies that security in Afghanistan could be maintained by a competent force of roughly 400,000 troops.” He adds that by the end of 2010, “there will be roughly 300,000 competent security personnel in place, half foreign and half indigenous,” which is far short of 400,000. Theoretically, 100,000 Afghan or coalition forces should make up this gap. Now, it is extremely unlikely that President Obama will send an additional 100,000 troops to Afghanistan. O’Hanlon notes that already, “Obama has more than doubled the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.” This, along with the administration’s decision to provide 30,000 additional troops instead of the higher requests made by then-Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2009 and the hope for a drawdown makes it unlikely that Obama will consent to doubling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan yet again. Still, the commander-in-chief cannot command troops that do not exist. The DREAM Act provides the ways and means, though the ultimate choices of command lies with our leaders.

The main point is that the DREAM Act would provide a needed supply of soldiers in return for granting them citizenship. And, really, would we want to deprive American citizenship of men and women who are willing to defend America with their lives?

–ECONOMIC BENEFITS AND GOVERNMENT REVENUE–

Some opposition to the DREAM Act is coming from people who do not want federal dollars extended to these immigrants to help pay for their schooling. Participating illegal immigrants would be able make use of various loan programs (Federal Direct Loans, Perkins Loans) and work study programs, although they would not be extended grants (like the Pell Grant).

The key difference here is that loans are repaid, unless they default (but, of course, default has its own consequences). Recent figures suggest a 7% default rate of college loan borrowers (legal) in the United States — an increase over earlier years, likely due to the recession.

In general, criticism of this facet of the bill (providing college loans to illegal immigrants) seems to come from people who do not want federal dollars to go to illegal immigrants for a couple general reasons:

  • They think that this would reward breaking the law and incentivize people to come to America illegally, and
  • That illegal immigrants (because they are not citizens) should not benefit from tax dollars.

These are legitimate concerns, but (in my estimation) the long-term benefits outweigh any short term costs.

The first concern is easy to address. The law specifically identifies young children (younger than 16 years old when the entered the United States) who have been in the U.S. “for a continuous period of not less than 5 years” before law passes. In other words, it will only be available to illegal immigrants who were not the decision-makers in their families, and who have already been in America for several years. It (unfortunately) does not address the underlying needs for more comprehensive immigration reform, and thus would not reduce the rate of illegal immigration, but neither would it prove to be an opportunity for new illegal immigrants. It would only apply to those already here.

The second concern takes a bit more explaining to address. For one, illegal immigrants do pay taxes — various studies say that between 50% and 75% of illegal immigrants pay state, local, and federal taxes. Certain taxes are inescapable, like sales and property taxes. Corporate taxes can be included as well, since those are generally passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices. Illegal immigrants also pay payroll and income taxes through withholding (and “about 6 million unauthorized immigrants file individual tax returns each year” according to the IRS).

This latter point about withholding and entitlement taxes is especially important. Because of withholding, many people qualify for refunds come tax season. Illegal immigrants often do not file for refunds because they do not want to attract any federal attention. Likewise, illegal immigrants still pay Social Security and Medicare taxes even though they will not be able to use either program unless they become legal.

Still, illegal immigrants seem to be a drag on state and local budgets. Whereas federal tax money goes to programs illegal immigrants will never utilize (Social Security and Medicare, for example), state and local dollars are spent on things like education and welfare services, which illegal immigrants families will use. In general, the amount of state and local tax dollars spent on illegal immigrant families is a small part of the total, but it is still more than they contribute to state and local taxes.

The obvious solution (since mass deportation is unrealistic and expensive) is to remove all the boundaries to their attaining higher paying jobs, and paying taxes on those higher wages. A Center for American Progress study noted some of the effects of the 1986 immigration reform. For instance, barriers to illegal immigrants’ upward mobility are removed, and their newfound citizenship “encourages them to invest more in their own education, open bank accounts, buy homes, and start businesses.” Additionally, it notes that legalization is correlated with higher wages (which translates into increased tax revenue)

Yet, the DREAM Act does simple legalization one better. It encourages higher education. In 2008, the median income for male high school graduates was $32,000, while that of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 71.88% larger ($55,000). The jobs these college graduates will be going into will not only be higher-earning, but also more highly skilled, which should help the United States stay competitive in a global marketplace. Legalization will also have the benefit of making these higher incomes fully taxable.

Providing student loans is crucial to this goal, despite opposition to the parts of the bill that allow the government to extend them to illegal immigrants. First of all, it is incredibly difficult (if not nearly impossible) for students from low-wage earning families (as most illegal immigrants are) to make their way through college without some kind of student loan. American students of many different socio-economic backgrounds take out student loans. If a middle class American must borrow in order to feasibly pursue a higher education, how much more difficult will it be for a lower class illegal immigrant to fund higher education?

If the aim is to encourage higher education (and thus higher paying jobs) and citizenship, it would seem counterproductive to deprive these children of the means to invest in their (and our) future.

–CONCLUSION–

The DREAM Act is not a comprehensive immigration reform that will provide a needed overhaul of the current system. Yet, it deserves passage because its provisions would greatly benefit the country — it would take a step toward solving the issue of illegal immigrants currently residing in America in return for a service. That service (either military or educational) would yield future benefits for American security and prosperity. The DREAM Act may have recently failed passage in the Senate, but it is a proposal that has been around for almost a decade. Here’s to hoping it stays around, and becomes law in the near future.


Band-Aid Plan To Fix Health Care Won’t Work

(Published in the Main Line Times and the Delco Times)

As the attempt to reform our health-care system crescendos, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the debate lost its way. Perhaps it never truly began in the right direction.

Between the fear-mongering and the screaming, it seems some of the most pressing issues – medical inflation and warped incentives – have been sidelined. And why? Perhaps because they are more complex. These issues require quite a bit of explanation and historical context, which doesn’t always fly too well in a sound-bite culture.

One of the main problems regarding our health-care industry is its lack of any organization. There was no grand design in its creation; it is a Frankenstein monster, cobbled and patched carelessly together since its birth in the wage controls of the World War II era, with little regard for consequences.

Yet, any grand design is practically doomed from the beginning, as the only two viable options – a single-payer system or a complete overhaul of incentives and the creation of a truly free market – are both met with opposition. Consequently, we receive a bill that is the worst of both worlds.

True, the House bill does work at creating a marketplace in the health insurance exchanges (an important, but underplayed, provision), but it also includes a public option. Supposedly, the public option is meant to control prices by adding a more virtuous competition into the marketplace, but when you look at the details – its limited eligibility, and the fact that prices will be set by negotiations with health care providers – it doesn’t seem as if it will control prices at all. After all, medical inflation has not left Medicare and Medicaid, two government plans, unscathed.

So, who is to blame? The Democrats or the Republicans? Both. To their credit, the Democrats have actually gotten the ball rolling on health-care reform and have put forth a bill, though their proposal remains flawed.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are too busy trying to give President Barack Obama his “Waterloo” (this can be seen in the misnomer “Obamacare,” which would be more accurately titled “Congresscare”) and preaching about fictional provisions such as nonexistent “death panels” to actually provide legitimate criticism and a legitimate alternative.

Both accept money from the big health insurance and pharmaceutical giants and allow them to actively craft the bill as well.

We, the citizens, are also to blame. We are too easily led by the talking heads to one particular conclusion. A single-payer system is not the devil, and it does not ration care any more than our current system does. Any system we adopt will require a give-and-take.

A single-payer system will cover everyone, unburden businesses that pay for employees’ health care (and thus help small businesses). It will purge the system of waste, but everyone will be required to pay through taxes and waiting lines — secondary, optional care will be a bit longer (though primary care may very well be shorter, as it is in Britain).

Remember, the government is already inextricably involved in our health-care system. A complete rebuilding of the health-care free market, hand in hand with other reforms (like tort reform), can control prices through innovative market forces and reshaped incentives. Both plans are bold and both have their strong and weak points. What we can’t afford is another plan that simply slaps a Band Aid on the issue and kicks it along to the next generation.


What You Need to Know About the House Health Care Bill

The House of Representatives passed their version of the health care reform bill last night. But what does it all mean? The media coverage on the issue has been decidedly mixed. I’ll try to boil down for you the most important points on the House bill.

The first thing I should probably spend some time on is clarification. With all this debate over the validity of so-called “Obamacare”, many people may not realize that there are various versions of health care reforms bills floating around, and that none of them were authored by Obama (hence the irony of the name “Obamacare”).

Here are the details of the House version of the bill: (a good source of information are the NYTimes, and an NPR podcast entitled Health Care Legislation Deconstructed)

How the House Bill Expands Coverage to Uninsured Americans

  • Projected to cover 96% of legal residents under age 65.
  • Provides subsidies for individuals up to 400% of the federal poverty level $88,000 for a family of 4)
  • Expands Medicaid to 150% of federal poverty level ($16,000 for an individual; $33,000 for a family of 4)
  • No denial of coverage or higher premiums due to pre-existing conditions

How the House Bill Effects Businesses

  • Most employers will be required to provide health care for employees or pay a penalty of up to 8% of payroll.
  • Businesses up to $500,000 in payroll a year are exempt.
  • Penalties are phased in for businesses from $500,000 to $750,000
  • Small businesses are provided with tax credits to help them purchase health care

The House Bill’s Public Option

  • No state opt-out
  • Negotiated Rates — the public plan will talk to hospitals, doctors, and health care providers to negotiate a state-level payment rate

Costs of the House Bill

  • Gross Cost $1.1 trillion over ten years.
  • However, the Net Cost is $894 billion because of revenue raisers.
  • Revenue will come from surcharge on high income earners (taxes on individuals that earn above $500,000, or on couples that earn above $1 million  – projected to raise $460 billion)
  • Penalties for businesses who don’t provide health care (up to 8% of payroll)
  • Penalties for individuals who don’t buy health care (2.5% of income — but can apply for hardship waivers if can’t afford)
  • Medicaid/Medicare cuts
  • Corporate taxes/ fees

Health Insurance Exchange

  • The Exchange is essentially a marketplace where people can go to shop for health insurance. Currently, with our employer-based system, you can only really choose from the plan(s) your employer offers. Going out and buying your own insurance is expensive and messy. The Exchange creates a market of insurances options and allows you to choose which plan you want, allowing market forces to take their toll — the better plans will thrive and the uncompetitive ones will die.
  • Would begin in 2013.

Lobbyists’ Role in the Bill

  • Why was there no large-scale campaign launched against this reform by insurance industries, drug companies, and the like? Because this time around, they were brought into the fold. Yet, with lobbyists winning, the biggest loser stands to be — in many instances — the consumer. The pharmaceutical industry has lobbied for amendments, like one that would grant 12-year exclusivity to biologics, instead of 5. Read the article in TIME for more on that, but basically, it means that instead of allowing generics onto the market after a shorter waiting period (say, 5 years), it will now take 12 years for this to happen, when concerning biologics, which is rapidly growing. The downside to this is that generics help control costs by offering similar solutions for much less money. Essentially, this monopolizes the market for 12 years for each new biologic.

There was a Republican alternative to the House Bill, which included:

  • No public option
  • Individual mandate
  • State high risk pools
  • Not having language barring pre-existing conditions
  • Businesses can combine resources and buy health insurance across state lines
  • Reforms to control costs