Thursday, March 25, 2010

Science Still Suppressed in Obama-Salazar Interior Department

So far the Obama administration has a poor record on endangered species protection, better than that of Bush but not by much. The Obama administration listed
just two new endangered species in its first year, the fewest in the first year of any administration since Reagan. Furthermore, it followed in the footsteps of the Bush administration by removing the Northern Rockies gray wolf from Endangered Species Act protection despite scientists' assertions that its recovery still had a long way to go (see my post on this subject here).

The Fish and Wildlife Service continued this trend on February 25 when it
removed ESA protection for the desert nesting bald eagle. The desert nesting bald eagle is a distinct population of bald eagle, uniquely adapted to its hot and dry environment. Less than 160 survive, and their numbers are declining due to water removal from rivers i.e. dams, agriculture, etc. and habitat loss. According to the Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audobon, their demise would result in "a significant gap in the overall bald eagle range," meaning that the survival of the sub-species is important to preserving the overall species and demands protection under law.

As was the case with the gray wolf, this decision followed on the heels of
attempts by the Bush administration to remove protections for the desert nesting bald eagle. Those Bush-era attempts were rebuffed in court, and hopefully these terrible decisions will be as will. Still, it's remarkable how little change there has been in the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Interior at large.

If it sounds to you like this decision was not based on science, you're right. CBD and the Maricopa Audobon unearthed FWS memos demonstrating that top Service officials suppressed science in their drive to remove protection for the population. The FWS's own scientists found that the population is "discrete and significant" i.e. should be protected under the ESA, but FWS Assistant Director Gary Frazer told them to change their findings.
Newly obtained documents reveal that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bald eagle experts have again been overruled by their political superiors in order to remove Endangered Species Act protection for Arizona's desert nesting bald eagles. An August 24, 2009,memo from Regional Fish and Wildlife Director Benjamin Tuggle to Assistant Fish and Wildlife Director Gary Frazer states that the Arizona population "is discrete and significant" to the bald eagle population as a whole "based on its persistence in an unusual or unique [desert] ecological setting." Tuggle's memo summarizes more than 30 years of biological studies and the consensus of every recognized bald eagle expert.
In a response dated December 4, 2009, Frazer dismisses the experts' opinion, advising that his "…staff will work with you on development of the revised version of the finding. Obviously, the finding should not simply cite my conclusion…"
Like under the Bush administration, top officials shaped the science to fit pre-determined policy, which is the opposite of how a regulatory agency should function.

Adding imperiled species to the ESA list and providing them with sufficient "critical habitat" protection to survive should be a no-brainer for any administration that considers itself remotely in favor of environmental protection, such as the Obama administration and Democratic leadership. Preserving biodiversity is important for its own sake as we are in the midst of the planet's sixth mass extinction, but protecting one species's habitat can protect an entire threatened eco-system, which is so crucial as global warming progresses and species need space to adapt. Unlike say significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this doesn't involve new legislation, just enforcing existing law. Is that too much to ask for from a supposedly pro-environment administration?

The environmental BiNGO's need to exit the veal pen and start raising hell about the bad decisions of Secretary Ken Salazar's Interior Department. As I wrote in my post on the de-listing of the gray wolf, it's clear that Salazar, a rancher who while in the Senate voted frequently for oil drilling and ranching on public lands and for weakened wildlife protections, was a disappointing choice for Interior. This is especially true considering how much environmental groups contributed to the President's ground game in the campaign in terms of dollars and volunteers. He has certainly implemented more environmental protections than Bush-era predecessors, but has also presided over the de-listing of the gray wolf, allowing oil drilling off the Arctic coast of Alaska, and done nothing about egregiously destructive mountaintop removal coal mining.

Organized labor has been criticized by many as weak for continuing to support the Democrats as they fail to pass its primary legislative goal, the Employee Free Choice Act. But at least the unions got Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor, who is ramping up regulatory action against rule-breaking corporations (see this article in the current edition of The Nation). Lisa Jackson was a good pick for the EPA in my opinion, but Secretary of Interior is just as important in terms of environmental policy, and the environmental groups should have leveraged their crucial campaign work to get a favorable pick at Interior. Instead, most of them went out of their way to praise the weak choice of Salazar. The only dissenting voice that questioned the pick was, not surprisingly, the Center for Biological Diversity.

Johann Hari had a great piece in The Nation on the failure of the environmental BiNGO's to push for significant climate action, thanks to shamefully close ties to polluting corporations as well as politicians. I think Hari under-emphasized the problem of domestic groups who don't take much corporate money, if any, like the Sierra Club (outside of their stupid Clorox program they don't take any), that cultivate a close relationship with the Democratic party. During the Bush era too many environmentalists became convinced that kicking the Republicans out of power was the end-game of environmental politics. Now it is clear that their support for Democrats doesn't necessarily translate into progressive environmental policy.

The Center is a wonderful and highly effective organization, especially in the courtroom, but it can only do so much on its own. Unless more environmental groups, especially more visible ones like the Sierra Club or NRDC, assert their independence and directly call out Salazar and, by extension, Obama for these decisions, we will be stuck with 3-7 years of slightly less corporate- and developer-friendly policy at Interior than that of the Bush administration. Considering how bad the Bush-era Interior Department was, that is not acceptable.

EPMD--It's My Thing

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Must-Read Firedoglake Fact Sheet on Health Care Bill

The blog has been one of the best outlets for following the ins and outs of the health care debate. Their writers and the site's founder Jane Hamsher almost single-handedly raised a shitstorm over the Democrats' dropping a public option and drug price negotiation, which were key elements of President Obama's campaign platform on health care. Their combination of journalism and activism has been one of the few galvanizing forces for progressives disappointed at the watered-down, corporate friendly policies that the Democratic leadership tries to pass for progressivism. Please read their incisive fact sheet on the final health care bill here that exposes how this bill is a piece of junk.

There are good things in there. Expanding Medicaid to cover 12-14 million more people is a positive development. Medicaid is a public program with low administrative costs (no exorbitant shareholder profits and executive salaries) that will keep costs down and guarantee coverage for those people. Moreover, thanks to the work of independent socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the bill also increases funding for primary care health centers that serve under-resourced areas. These two provisions amount to a real expansion of the social safety net in our country. Contrary to the sanctimonious proclamations of the Democratic leadership, the rest of the bill does not.

The FDL analysis outlines the major structural problem with the bill: it requires individuals that don't qualify for Medicaid to purchase health insurance from private insurance companies or pay a penalty. The very same private companies that have been exposed for so callously putting profit above health. The very same companies that skim off the top so many of your premium dollars to pay for marketing, underwriting, lobbying, executive salaries, and huge profits for Wall Street. Yes, the very same companies the Democratic leadership has been railing against.

The mandate does come with subsidies for lower middle class families and some regulations, but they are inadequate, as the FDL analysis explains. A public option or a Medicare buy-in (a better public option in my opinion) would have protected some of those people from the profit-seeking chicanery of the insurance companies and held them partly in check through competition (I wrote on this here). Yet that public option was watered down and then finally flushed down the toilet to satisfy corporate Democrats. Indeed, the meek protest of the Obama administration, despite a strong public option being a part of his campaign platform, suggest that he was satisfied with the loss of the PO.

The result, in addition to forcing working families to pay too much for insurance, is that the bill doesn't get us even close to universal coverage. According to Congress's own budget office, the CBO, the legislation will only cover 56% of the uninsured by 2019. Remember that the next time someone compares this bill to the passage of Social Security and Medicare.

Until our leaders understand that expanding public health insurance programs is the way to go, Americans will continue to go bankrupt and even die from uninsurance and underinsurance and already exorbitant health care costs will continue to rise. As William Hsiao, architect of Taiwan's extremely successful health care reform, puts it:
You can have universal coverage and good quality health care while still managing to control costs. But you have to have a single-payer system to do it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The "Jobs Bill": Democrats Continue to Fail the Unemployed

President Obama signed a bi-partisan "jobs bill" this week, the centerpiece of which is a tax credit to businesses who hire unemployed workers. The $13 billion credit will allow businesses to avoid the 6.2% payroll tax that goes to the Social Security trust fund as long as they retain the worker for at least one year. The Democrats are patting themselves on the back for turning their attention to jobs and the economy. They are claiming this as a policy victory and a political victory. It is neither.

Businesses hire workers all the time. The net gain or loss of jobs each month doesn't reflect the much higher numbers of gross hires and gross fires. Many companies will hire workers regardless of the tax credit, yet they will receive the tax credit all the same. The idea behind tax credit is that it makes the cost of hiring workers temporarily lower (by 6.2%), inducing businesses to hire more workers than they would otherwise. According to its proponents, this should make up for the cost of paying the tax credit to employers who would have hired workers anyways, such as for seasonal positions. Theoretically this makes sense. However, the problem is, as my favorite economist Dean Baker aptly notes, that in the real world businesses' employment practices don't always change in response to the cost of labor as theory anticipates.

Baker cites several studies, ironically by several economists now in the Obama administration, showing that raising the minimum wage does not reduce the number of workers hired as classical economic theory predicts. He connects those studies to the effect of reducing the cost of labor as opposed to raising it:
If raising the minimum wage by 15-20 percent doesn't cause employers to hire fewer workers, then there is no reason to believe that cutting the cost of labor by 6.2 percent will lead them to hire more workers. There may be some substitution with longer term unemployed being hired instead of new entrants as a result of this tax credit, since it would only apply to people who have been out of work for at least six months, but it is just silly to imagine that it can have any noticeable impact on employment.
Furthermore, the hiring tax credit does not require a company to increase its payroll on the whole. So a company could drop one worker and hire a new one at a lower cost. Likewise companies can game the credit by hiring as employees people that were formerly contractors, which doesn't add to aggregate employment at all.

If it increased employment as advertised, this tax credit could be viewed as Keynesian public investment to stimulate still-lackluster aggregate demand and create growth. However, Baker's criticisms suggest that it might be more of a supply-side tax cut for capital. Without strong consumer demand, simply bolstering companies' balance-sheets with taxpayer money won't create the investment we need for sustained growth, and diverts public funds from potential projects that are much more effective such as infrastructure building and repair and direct job creation like in the New Deal.

The Democrats' next proposal for jobs demonstrates that they might be fine with that. The NYT article on the "jobs bill" says that up next is a proposal to extend corporate tax breaks. Wait, what party is in power again? It can't be the party of FDR, can it? I can't wait to hear them try to spin corporate tax breaks as a "jobs bill."

I suspect the public will remain skeptical that their government is doing its upmost to improve the employment and overall economic picture. If the hiring tax credit fails, it will come off as just another government intervention to benefit capital i.e. the wealthy, e.g. bank bailouts.

A better alternative would be major public investments. The "jobs bill" does transfer $20 billion to highway projects, but the NYT article suggests that those funds have just been transferred from elsewhere, meaning there will be reductions in spending elsewhere. We need NEW job-creating investments, and as long as we can fund our deficit at such low interest rates we might as well borrow to do so. Also there are much better alternatives than road building, such as investments in a modern high speed rail network, home retrofits, and wind and solar energy capacity. Not only would smart public investment be better for the economy than business tax breaks, but it would create real, tangible jobs plus public benefits that the Democrats could point to as evidence of good policymaking.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

INI--Fakin' Jax (produced by Pete Rock)

INI is a group produced by the incomparable Pete Rock, who is known for being part of the Pete Rock & CL Smooth duo. Their album wasn't released when except for this single when it was made in 1995, but it was finally released on a Pete Rock compilation in 2003. This some classic early to mid-90's New York funky jazz-influenced hip-hop, enjoy!

March 4th Solidarity with Students!

Today across the country and the world, students and members of the public higher education community walked out of class to protest the privatization of our state universities and colleges that is occurring . This writer for one stands with them and I hope the protests were successful in getting a lot of media attention.

The economic recession has hit public colleges hard. States faced with declining tax revenues have made massive spending cuts over the last two years to balance their budgets. Unlike the federal government, states for the most part have to balance their budgets each year, and thus face difficult decisions when a recession occurs. Given the choice of spending cuts or tax increases, most legislatures and governors opt for spending cuts, not surprising considering the unfortunate dominance of neo-liberal economic ideology in our country.

States often target public higher education first in spending cuts. These cuts attack higher ed in terms of accessibility and quality. Direct budget cuts forces schools to lay off professors, which leads to higher class sizes and less classes. It also forces schools to raise tuition and student fees, putting the expense of college out of reach for many working class students the schools were created to service. Most states have financial aid grant programs in addition to federal Pell grants that could help students deal with higher tuition, but typically these programs are cut as well, as the Cal Grant program has in California.

These protests are exciting because they are challenging the broader notion of privatization, not just the current cuts, as UC Berkeley student organizer Ricardo Gomez elaborates in today's DN! interview above. They remind us that public colleges were created to make quality higher education accessible to the broader public. Many are demanding not only the end to cuts but a move towards making higher education a free service to all. Quality higher education should indeed be a right, and hopefully these protests will coalesce into statewide and national movements to make higher education a right. Gomez and Professor Ananya Roy also criticize the privatization of dining services and student housing and union-busting oriented towards college support staff. Not only should college be a public service, but it should lead the way towards a more just society by treating its workers fairly and refusing to allow private corporations unfettered access to public coffers.

This broader social democratic vision allows us to make the connection between cuts to education and the recession. These students and university employees are paying for the recklessness of financial capital and terrible policy-making at the Federal Reserve, which allowed the housing bubble to go on unabated. This isn't just a battle over public higher education--it's a battle over the unjust structure of our economy. The students must connect with community groups and labor unions who are fighting neo-liberalism in other sectors.

As UMASS economist James Heintz notes here, state governments face a cumulative budget shortfall of $260 billion for 2011 and 2012. So far they have been propped up by funds from the federal stimulus package, but those funds expire at the end of this year. The cuts are only going to get worse, so this fight will certainly go on. Heintz also points out that the resulting job losses and reduction in aggregate demand may suppress our already slow recovery, or even cause a double-dip recession.

If we're to avoid these cuts that are devastating to working families in terms of unemployment and loss of public services, we must find the revenues to fill the gaps. Another UMASS economist Rick Wolff has called for states to follow the example of Oregon. In January Oregon voters passed two referendums to increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy to ensure continued funding for education, health care, and public safety. Not only does this protect working class and poor families who rely on public services disproportionately, but it generates growth by keeping public employees working and thus spending on goods and services. (Wolff is a Marxian economist, so he has a lot of interesting ideas for dealing with the crisis that you wouldn't normally hear, check his article out).

The federal government can help out as well. In addition to having broader power to raise money through taxes, the government has the flexibility to borrow money on the bond market. It should continue sharing these revenues with states as their budget crises continue, eithed through deficit spending or by taxes on the wealthy (a financial transactions tax would be an excellent idea, more on that later).

There's something else the federal government can do, although I highly doubt it will. During the financial crisis, the Fed propped up the financial sector by buying their junk securities, making loan guarantees, and providing loans at ridiculously low interest rates. How did it do this? By creating money out of thin air, also known as quantitative easing, which central banks do to pump money into an economy when it has dropped interest rates down to zero effectively. Marshall Auerback, brilliant economist at the Roosevelt Institute (their New Deal 2.0 blog is awesome by the way, best outpost for Keynesian capitalist ideas to deal with this crisis), suggested that the European Central Bank do the same for Greece and other EU countries, just as it did for the banks. Of course increasing the money supply in that way could cause inflation (ie. rising prices) eventually, especially because way less of the money would be hoarded as the banks currently hoard it. Still inflation is the last thing we need to worry about now, as Mike Whitney writes in Counterpunch.

Okay I went from discussing exciting movements to more wonky ideas to fix the state budget and broader economic crises. The point is that this movement for accessible and quality public higher education can lead to a broader vision that backs the creative ideas we need to a) get out of this crisis and b) move towards a fairer economy simultaneously. Keep organizing and agitating my student brothers and sisters!

Something related: Richard Estes's American Leftist blog has been discussing the tactics of California students driving this movement. Apparently liberal, center-left professors have sought to quell the more leftist students who are open to aggressive tactics like 60's-style building occupations in addition to advocacy and public protest. The occupations at Berkeley raised a lot of visibility for the student cause, so I think they were highly successful. There's nothing immoral about a non-violent occupation (illegal does not inherently equal immoral), and it's stupid not to do it when it can be successful. Definitely reminiscent of monied centrist Democratic Party loyalists trying to suppress sectors of the progressive movement moving towards opposing not only conservatives but the neo-liberal, free market-fetishizing ideology that both parties embrace (and that got us in this crisis).

I highly recommend the American Leftist blog. Estes is a more libertarian socialist/anarchist type. As someone who leans more towards the tradition of social democracy and democratic socialism, I don't always agree with him, but he digs up some great stuff on the economy and our foreign policy.