Rand Paul shows why Cruz is winning

Remember when Rand Paul was a “libertarian?” Sure, it was always a stretch, but he tried to carry that banner for a while. Paul’s great mission was to somehow meld traditional libertarianism with religious fundamentalism, building a new Neo-Confederate appeal. The problem with that strategy was always the libertarian part. Now Paul is dropping the pretense and kneeling at the cross of Republican Jesus.

At a prayer breakfast this week in Washington Paul abandoned his relatively friendly stance on gay marriage, calling it a “moral crisis,” but he didn’t stop there. After explaining that “religion is part of our government,” he went on to deliver this whopper:

“We need a revival in the country. We need another Great Awakening with tent revivals of thousands of people saying reform or see what’s going to happen if we don’t reform.”

For anyone who used to like Rand Paul, this must be a stomach-churning moment. As a former McCain volunteer, I can relate to your pain.

In fairness, these were not prepared remarks and they were delivered in a relatively private meeting. No one seriously thinks this represents Paul’s personal views, not even the people he was pandering to. This does not represent an official, deliberate policy flip for Paul, at least not yet. However, the fact that he could deliver that speech without vomiting in his mouth a little says a lot about him and about the emerging shape of this nominating campaign.

What you are seeing in that video snippet is the long shadow of Ted Cruz. Candidates are no longer calculating how to position themselves to beat Jeb Bush.

For the next eight months every minimally credible Republican candidate will be racing to carve out real estate in a territory Ted Cruz already owns and militantly defends. Already, this is shaping up as a contest in which Cruz faces off against umpteen other people, each of whom insist that they are just like Ted Cruz on all of the issues Republican primary voters care about. They will be forced to distinguish themselves from Cruz on matters that Republican voters do not care about, like electability, willingness to compromise, likeability, experience, and basic sanity. Every other candidate will be pretending to be what Ted Cruz has proven his is.

Get ready to hear Jeb Bush’s awkward and unconvincing conversion experience. Get ready to hear Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson explain that they are even more like Ted Cruz than Cruz himself. There isn’t a single issue on which Cruz will have to dodge and weave the way Paul just did on gay marriage and theocracy. Being Ted Cruz means never having to apologize.

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Posted in Election 2016

Salesforce.com cancels Indiana

In response to Indiana’s new law protecting religious bigotry, Salesforce.com has been the first company to announce that it will be curtailing its Indiana operations. More are coming.

Here’s what their CEO stated: “Today we are canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination. We are forced to dramatically reduce our investment in IN based on our employee’s & customer’s outrage over the Religious Freedom Bill.”

Salesforce is only a $4bn company, but it is an up-and-coming heavyweight in the tech industry. Having such a high-profile announcement from such a powerful player so quickly was a big surprise. Even if no one else openly joins them, their absence from trade shows, user groups and other activities is going to reverberate, creating pressure on other companies and hurting Indiana businesses.

Flanked by powerhouse Chicago on one side and the booming tech center of Columbus on the other, Indiana is a state that already struggles to compete in this lucrative, well-paid field. It is difficult to develop and retain technical talent and well-paid jobs there in the wake of a collapsed manufacturing base. Becoming a pioneer in discrimination is unlikely to help.

There seems to be a fundamental disconnect in Republican circles over the political value of gay-baiting. The environment changed very fast, and Republicans are not known for their speed of adaptation. Picking on gay people is no longer a winning political tactic. Even Jan Brewer recognizes this. Can we just accept this and move on?

As for the “religious exemptions,” you can’t possibly be serious. We’ve been here before. If the ability to persecute gay people is a central tenet of your religious faith, then your religious faith sucks. We all bear a Constitutional duty to preserve the basic rights of religions that suck, but only up to the point that your religion starts ruining other people’s lives. If you want to hold a job that serves the general public you will be expected not to act like an asshole, even if you think your religion commands it. Be an asshole in private where your right to be an asshole remains sacred.

How bold is Salesforce’s decision? Not nearly as bold as you might think. That’s the other piece of this scenario that GOP figures seem unable to grasp. The supposedly “business-friendly” states like Indiana and Kansas and Alabama and so on are economic pygmies. Skipping out on direct business in Indiana would have less impact on Salesforce.com than if they lost the ability to sell to Malaysia or South Africa. It doesn’t matter. They can skip and Indiana and the only impact will be some savings on travel.

A comparison might be helpful here. Hyper-regulated California, where Salesforce.com and nearly every other major tech player is based has a GDP approximately seven times the size of Indiana while maintaining exactly the same economic growth rate. California’s economic output is almost a third higher than the second ranked state, Texas. Yes, Texas has been growing a lot lately, thanks to the energy business. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, California and New York together account for more of the country’s economic production than the bottom 28 states combined. The San Francisco metro area generates more than one and a half times the output of the whole state of Indiana. Salesforce is not likely to lose any money on this move. In fact, it will probably swell the company’s bottom line and especially aid in recruiting.

Those who want to enshrine a right to discriminate into public policy are overplaying a very weak hand. It is getting weaker by the day. Fortunately for those who cannot reconcile their religious convictions with the rights of my gay friends to live their lives in peace, there is an option. There’s lots of cheap land in Amish Country, where you won’t be bothered. Bring solar panels, unless the mysterious witchcraft that makes them work violates your religion.

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Posted in Civil Rights

When whacko birds come home to roost

People have learned to assume that a Republican candidate is winking when he speaks on certain subjects. No, Jeb Bush is not actually going to repeal the minimum wage. He is not going to roll back equal rights for gay and lesbian couples. Enough voters understand a Republican candidate’s need to appease religious radicals that the candidates can remain credible despite some very dubious public positions.

For twenty years Republican candidates for Federal offices have survived on a kind of built-in duplicity. Victory depends on pandering to people who believe all those bullshit forwarded emails and Facebook posts. Electability in this context has a very special meaning. A Republican candidate becomes “electable” by appeasing base voters while convincing general election voters that he didn’t mean what he said. Needless to say, this institutionalized liar’s game has created tensions in the Republican Party. Ted Cruz is threatening to break the game.

The Tea Party was the first successful attempt by religious extremists and Neo-Confederates to start electing Republicans who share their wildest delusions. Mitt Romney was pandering. Characters like Joni Ernst, Rand Paul and Mike Lee actually believe what they are spouting. With the Presidential campaign of Ted Cruz, the whacko birds are coming home to roost.

Cruz has the potential to destroy the Republican Liar’s Game. If he does, the party alignments we have lived under since the Reagan Era will become unsustainable. No one but Ted Cruz is going to win the Republican nomination in 2016 by claiming to be the most conservative candidate. There is nothing to the right of Ted Cruz other than armed sedition. His campaign represents the end of the road in our race toward extremes. The party will have to either embrace its looniest ideas publicly, from top bottom, or explore a different approach to politics for the first time in a generation.

Political experts have largely dismissed the Cruz campaign as a stunt, placing him in a category with other Republican performance artists like Mike Huckabee, Herman Cain, and Pat Robertson. You can be certain that the Bush campaign isn’t making this mistake.

Cruz is a deadly serious candidate for two reasons. First, he is far more intelligent and capable than any of the party’s previous extremist candidates. Second, and more importantly, for the first time in more than fifty years we’re in a campaign cycle that favors grassroots appeal over insider organization.

His ideas may be crazy, but his previous opponents can tell you that he is sober, disciplined, and savvy. Whoever thinks they are going to beat Ted Cruz by watching him self-destruct needs to have a long conversation with Texas’ not-Senator David Dewhurst. This is the first time in the party’s modern history that a candidate from the extreme fringes of the far right possesses the personal and political capacity to run a fully credible national campaign.

Planning to wait for him to run out of money? Cruz isn’t going to need the usual collection of big GOP donors. He’s the Barack Obama of the right and not just because of the controversy over his birth certificate.

There isn’t a Republican alive with a more rabid, committed base of support. He probably won’t rake in the massive donations from the usual suspects, but he will dry up the well of small-scale support for everyone else, including support in the precincts. And this year, unlike in the past, that pool of grassroots support is likely to decide the nomination.

For the first time since 1964, the party is entering the primaries without a presumed nominee. The most precious resource in Republican Presidential politics is organization. Unlike the Democrats who possess a massive patronage machine that places boots on the street in any campaign, Republicans always struggle to man the precincts. That struggle is particularly difficult for a new candidate seeking the nomination for the first time.

That’s why the party almost always nominates the guy who finished second last time. The presence of a standing organization, thousands of electors, county party chairs, volunteers and other critical elements of support spread across fifty states is crucial to success but takes time to build. That’s why McCain outlasted everyone else in 2008 even though much of the party base despised him. That’s why Romney won in 2012.

No one has this advantage going into the 2016 campaign. In 1968 and 2000, party leaders plugged that gap by uniting around a candidate early. Bush and Nixon started their nominating campaigns with an almost insurmountable lead. That hasn’t happened this year. No candidate has broad enough appeal to dominate the race and no organization inside the party is strong enough to press their will.

This race is open. The base will pick the nominee.

If the base will pick the nominee then it’s hard to imagine how anyone has better odds than Ted Cruz. He is lined up with the base on every single issue to the farthest possible extent. He doesn’t have to apologize, explain or dodge on any issue that matters to them. Never once has Cruz compromised his “principles” to make anything function properly. Here is a man who has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he will do what the base wants no matter how stupid or catastrophic it may be.

A Cruz candidacy does open up new possibilities for a more rational Republican future. McCain’s 2000 playbook would work like a dream in this scenario. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single Republican candidate who is positioned to run that kind of campaign. They have all set themselves up for a run to the far right. It’s too late for any of them to pull back.

Other candidates will be forced to claim that they agree with him on almost every issue, but that they are more “reasonable” than Cruz. They will have to convince primary voters that they are more “electable” than Ted Cruz. They will have to convince a frothing grassroots base that their methods of achieving those policies will be more “effective.” They will have to play the Republican Liar’s Game.

Maybe it will work, but the Cruz campaign probably breaks the game.

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Posted in Election 2016

Oil pressure is building

Oil prices began their collapse almost a year ago, yet the impact to the industry and speculators has been light. There have been no major hedge fund failures. Large energy companies have taken advantage of the opportunity to conduct some layoffs, but there have been no high-profile business bankruptcies. Most important of all, the price decline has not yet triggered cascading CDO/CDS calls of the type that brought down the mortgage industry in the ‘aughts.

There is a chance that the industry may avoid a reckoning, but only if producers and traders can navigate an ugly challenge over the next few months. It appears that the US is running out of cheap oil storage. At the current production pace we will run out of capacity at the main “contango” facility at Cushing, Oklahoma in June. Avoiding a price crash will depend on finding new places to store the stuff until production finally declines and demand recovers – whenever that might be.

Energy traders have benefited so far from one of the unique characteristics of oil – it is relatively easy to store. For more than a decade as production has consistently outpaced demand, steadily expanding capacity at the main storage facility in Cushing has allowed traders to cheaply store unsold oil contracts, waiting for better conditions. A lot of people made serious money from this “contango” strategy in the last crash, storing cheap oil until prices recovered.

Get caught in a long position on oil? Monthly storage might cost as little as 33 cents a barrel. At those prices there is no reason to dump oil on the market. Until you run out of places to put the stuff.

Storage at the cheapest location, the Cushing facility, is running out. Having surpassed its previous all-time high last year, Cushing is expected to reach 80% of its overall capacity in April. Unless production slows it could fill by June, trigging much higher storage prices. There is capacity available in Midland, Houston, and Nederland at modestly higher prices, but it is unclear how much storage they have available. New capacity is being added, but owners are waffling, unsure how long this party might continue.

The next cheapest option for oil storage is on tankers at sea, but that capacity is being rented out quickly as well. Prices for seaborne storage have doubled on some providers since last fall.

With the Saudis continuing to pump oil at a fantastic rate while drilling new wells, there is no supply relief in sight. US production is unlikely to drop much until some companies go out of business. Once a well goes online, it costs money to shut it down. Better to bring in some money than no money.

Ultimately it seems that we are in an oil storage race. As long as new storage capacity can be brought online at a somewhat reasonable price, traders will continue to hedge their losses in the hope that demand and prices will recover. This is a game that traders and producers have been playing and winning for well over a decade as the financialization of commodities markets have pushed prices out ahead of market forces. The music hasn’t stopped yet. If storage can be built or found in time, the band might keep playing a bit longer.

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Posted in Economics, Technology

The Mark Kirk Dilemma

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk is a sound, rational, all-around decent guy who represents the best that the GOP has to offer. In 2010 I made phone calls, walked the precincts, and generally laid out to get him elected. It isn’t clear yet who will challenge him in 2016, but it doesn’t matter. I won’t support him.

Sending Mark Kirk to the Senate has accomplished absolutely nothing other than to empower Ted Cruz and Jim Inhofe. Remember when Kirk stood up to Cruz over his ridiculous filibuster of a budget deal? No, I don’t either. He did it as quietly as possible, with a vote for cloture but no attempt to organize any opposition that might have rallied sane Republicans into a relevant power bloc.

Remember the time Kirk called out Rand Paul over his conspiracy-driven filibuster of a nominee to head the CIA? Nope. That’s because Kirk supported him, even making a show of bringing Paul a thermos and an apple, in reference to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Cute.

Contrary to popular belief, the Republican Party has a rich base of solid citizens with the country’s best interests at heart. Many of those Republicans occupy some of the country’s highest positions of authority. Senators like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Rob Portman and Lamar Alexander are just a few examples.

The problem with these folks is that they are spineless in the face of opposition from the “whacko bird” caucus. Sensible Republicans have been trying for years to get a voice in national politics, but the people we elect have fled from every fight. That’s the Mark Kirk Dilemma and that’s why I won’t support him or any other Republican for a Federal office anytime soon.

Back here in Illinois, Kirk has been proud to support immigration reform. In Washington, silence. In Illinois Kirk has claimed to embrace scientists’ positions on climate change. In Washington when he could have taken a stand that mattered, he has hedged.

Kirk will claim that he’s been “courageous” in taking a stand with Democratic Senator Menendez to impose sanctions on Iran. What courage does that take exactly? Show me the powerful, well-funded pro-Iran lobby in Washington. In Washington, “taking on Iran” is just as courageous as taunting an asthmatic fat kid on the playground.

Kirk has reserved all his “courage” for political targets that can’t fight back.

Sane, sensible Republicans who occupy influential positions in Washington will tell you they are doing all they can. They will claim that they are carefully picking their battles. Climate change, immigration reform, and restructuring the tax code are issues they would like to push forward, but the party at the national level isn’t ready for sound solutions. I’m beginning to think they are right.

In that case, those folks shouldn’t be in Washington. They should be back here in the precincts with us fighting to change the party on the ground. They may claim that they can accomplish more from a position in the House or Senate, but so far there is no evidence to support that position. If Mark Kirk can’t use his platform in the Senate to fight climate change, push back against racist immigration rhetoric, promote sensible fiscal policy, or in any other way counter the power of Neo-Confederates inside the Republican Party, then he needs to come home.

Until someone in the Republican Party is willing to take a visible, courageous stand for sanity in the style of John McCain circa 2000, there is no reason to keep voting for them. I helped send Mark Kirk to the Senate in the hope that he might counter the influence of some very frightening people inside the Republican Party. That was a mistake I am not going to repeat.

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Posted in Climate Change, Election 2016, Environment, Illinois, Immigration, Neo-Confederate

Perhaps if we understood the minimum wage…

Jeb Bush, who is trying to brand himself as the sane alternative to the Republican Presidential field, just backed the repeal of the Federal minimum wage. So, that’s that.

Meanwhile, there is still time for Republicans to prepare a credible challenge in the 2020 Election. As we search for ways to restore some basic rationality to GOP politics, perhaps the minimum wage is a good starting point. The insights required to gain even a distant understanding of minimum wage economics would break apart dozens of damaging misconceptions about poverty, race, and social mobility in America.

First things first – Why do we need a minimum wage? Won’t a free market set wages at the correct rate?

A minimum wage is necessary to create a free market for labor. There is no free market if one side can coerce the other, or if one side has such disproportionate power that they can collude to manipulate prices. In a labor negotiation, particularly for low-end labor, one side has access to capital, political influence, and relative wealth. The other has a hungry family and a ticking clock. Remove the minimum wage and other protections and potential employers earn the ability to coerce potential employees, robbing them of value. That’s not a free market.

Over the long term, everyone including the employers ends up poorer, but no one can stop that downward pressure on overall wealth. This is just one of many examples of how an absence of regulation eventually destroys capitalism. A minimum wage allows us to bring some real market forces to the labor market with very little bureaucratic overhead. The minimum wage is one of the lynchpins of capitalism.

But doesn’t a minimum wage destroy jobs?

A minimum wage destroys jobs in exactly the same way that capitalism destroys jobs. In a series of escalating cycles, a minimum wage eliminates low-value activities replacing them with more sophisticated, higher-value activities, just like capitalism does. Overall, this creates declining demand for human labor which benefits everyone. Whatever jobs are rendered unnecessary as a result of a free market for labor probably didn’t need to exist in the first place.

To see this in action, take a look at child-labor laws. Opponents of child labor laws were concerned that Federal legislation would eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs. They were right and it was good for everyone.

Elimination of child labor sped the adoption of new manufacturing and mining technologies. This created new, better paying jobs higher up the value stack making it possible for fewer employees working shorter hours to earn vastly more money, thereby supporting more people. More children could attend school and develop new skills rather than descending into the mines as soon as they could walk. Better living standards for more people enriched the entire economy and culture.

If you claim to love capitalism and markets then you shouldn’t be concerned about the jobs destroyed when workers gain more power to negotiate. That’s capitalism at its best.

Won’t markets force innovation even without a wage floor?

No, not always. Innovation requires capital to be invested and investment involves risk. Most of those new ventures fail. To the extent possible, capital owners will seek to extract rents from their capital rather than risking it by investing in technology. As long as they can continue extracting new revenue by pressing down wages instead of taking on risk, innovation will stall. Setting rules that limit the ability to squeeze rents from capital can press capital into new investment and create massive new economic growth.

Doesn’t a minimum wage limit opportunity for the poor and minorities?

Yes, a minimum wage limits the opportunity of poor and minority workers – to be coerced into work that will get them nowhere while dragging down the wider economy. This is a particularly ugly, condescending argument that deserves to die. Everyone who deploys it is making an ass of themselves.

Again, let’s refer back to child labor laws because exactly the same argument was deployed there with exactly the same realities sitting behind it. Child labor laws completely destroyed the ability of ten year old kids to earn money for their families by dropping out of school and working twelve hours days in dangerous conditions. That’s what it was designed to do and that’s what a minimum wage does.

The argument against the minimum wage assumes that this is a bad thing. It is not a bug, it’s a feature. Leaving the fourth grade to work in a sweatshop was an “opportunity.” Quitting school to feed your family with a WalMart job is a very similar kind of “opportunity.” Like child labor laws, a minimum wage is supposed to eliminate jobs that accomplish nothing for workers or the economy while encouraging the development of new, more valuable economic activities. What would this mean for the poor? Good things.

As usual, research backs up what experience demonstrates on the ground. Those who take low-wage jobs at any point experience depressed incomes for the rest of their lives. Jobs eliminated by a minimum wage are not an opportunity, but a trap.

Higher wages stimulate growth

This concept should be easy for a Republican to understand. The mechanics are very much like the effect of a tax cut in a supply-side scenario, except that raising wages actually works. When working people earn more money they spend more money. The money they spend feeds economic growth. Unlike tax cuts, this economic growth is accomplished without ruining public finances. As a consequence, while higher wages might cause some jobs to disappear, it tends to foster the creation of new, higher earning jobs.

Instead of two parents and their two children all having to work to make ends meet, three jobs might be eliminated. One, much higher-paying job might replace those three and be enough to support the whole family. Children can further their education. A parent might have time to care for the kids. And value is created all up and down the economy and the culture. See how easy that was?

Okay smart-ass, why shouldn’t the minimum wage be $35, or $100 an hour?

Maybe it will be some day, but like almost any innovation it pays to embrace evolution over revolution. It would take time to replace or automate every activity that currently pays between $10-20/hour. The capital investment cycle is not instantaneous. In theory, a large disruptive move could create long lags between the destruction of low value jobs and their replacement with higher-value activities. Given that assumption it makes sense to have a minimum wage set on an index which allows it to slowly climb over time.

We have implemented the opposite arrangement. US minimum wages have been in steady decline for the past forty years, dropping over 10%. That doesn’t make any sense, though it explains a lot.

When government intervenes in very small ways to create a credible market for employment, everybody wins. A minimum wage is a very simple way to build a richer, more dynamic economy with only a very light government intervention. Repealing the Federal minimum wage is one of the stupidest and most politically crippling ideas to emerge from the Neo-Confederate renaissance. Can we please stop talking about this and move on?

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Posted in Economics, Election 2016, Neo-Confederate

Rahm Emanuel versus the machine

Important things are happening in Chicago. With the fastest-growing urban core in the nation, Chicago is at the crux a major cultural transformation. Wealth and influence that shifted to the suburbs in the years after World War II has pivoted back downtown. Out of that transition, nascent political alliances are emerging. If those new alignments can survive a conservative backlash inside both parties, they might eventually offer relief from our national partisan gridlock and signal an urban renaissance.

A nominally Republican Illinois Governor and a nominally Democratic Chicago Mayor are joined in an awkward alliance to replace what remains of the old political machine. Resistance to this change is so strong that Mayor Emanuel faces the first runoff election in the city’s history after failing to win 50% of the vote in the first round.

Frustrated by the muddle of Chicago politics, pundits are mischaracterizing this election as an effort by the Democratic left to reassert itself. It is easy to get confused. A mayor with major financial backing is fighting against unions. Unions always represent the interests of struggling poor people. Hence, the distorted narrative.

Nothing remotely like this is happening on the ground. Let’s be clear, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is facing a challenge from the Democratic right. More to the point, Emanuel is facing a reactionary challenge from the Democratic Party of the 1950’s.

Emanuel is in trouble because he has openly challenged the last well-organized bastion of the machine that has run the city for nearly a century. His decision to close public schools that the city no longer needed and could not afford violated the code. His decision to push back against corrupt pension deals that are bankrupting the city and the state was a cardinal sin.

Political influence in Chicago has always been based on the ability of the mayor and the Democratic Party to dole out public jobs to loyal operatives. Since the Shakman decrees in the late ‘70’s it has been harder to operate this machine in the open.

It is now illegal to expressly tie public employment to party loyalty. Public employee unions have grown more powerful in Chicago as a sort of proxy between the machine and its politically tied employees.

Emanuel, in typical Emanuel style, identified Chicago’s thorniest problem from the outset and immediately determined to untangle it. Chicago’s future growth and prosperity is stunted by a school system that does not meet its students’ needs and a collection of pension obligations it will never meet.

Chicago’s public schools do not suffer from a funding problem. CPS spends just as much per student as some of the most elite suburban districts. Chicago suffers under a school system which has, over the course of half a century, developed into an extension of the machine. Its mission of educating young people is subject to its primary mission – to reward loyalists with good paying jobs.

Enrollment has, not surprisingly, been in steady decline for decades. Enrollment in Chicago schools has dropped by a third since 1970. Meanwhile the number of schools continued to grow, rising almost 20% over the same period. This increase emerges from the disconnect between the schools’ public service mission and their political mission. If the machine cannot produce new public jobs then it cannot feed itself.

Meanwhile the long-term costs inflicted by decades of machine politics are showing up in the city’s pension obligations. Next year’s nearly $7bn budget includes just under $700m in pension costs. Under present obligations that rises to at least $2.4bn in 2017. In other words, more than a third of the city’s revenues will be siphoned away with no compensating services or revenues.

Emanuel, with help from the incoming Republican Governor is trying to engineer pension reforms that would share the burden while keeping Chicago solvent. A combination of tax hikes and benefits cuts could create a workable balance, but public employee unions are fighting for a fantasy alternative based entirely on new taxes. The revenue simply does not exist. If they get their way they will kill the city’s growth and drive Chicago into bankruptcy.

Contrary to the popular narrative, Chicago’s public employee unions are not “unions” in the traditional sense. These are not coal miners fighting for safe conditions and reasonable wages. Public employee unions, for the most part, aggregate the political power of educated white collar workers. They are fed by largely minority and poor communities who are trapped depending on them for services. In other words, these are bizarro-unions in which a white, largely well-educated and already politically connected workforce can suppress the power of the communities that they serve.

In suburban Naperville or New Trier, the power of public employee unions is countered by relatively small political units with relatively affluent, well-connected constituents. Their harm is limited.

Meanwhile in Chicago, the massive weight of an enormous school system is set against minority and immigrant communities with relatively little organization, influence or money. The outcome is schools that consistently fail to meet students’ needs while siphoning resources away from those communities and toward the unions. Cloaking this political dynamic in traditional “union” rhetoric helps further confuse the matter, complicating efforts by those communities to gain access to the services they need and deserve.

Emanuel’s efforts to make the schools function for the benefit of students have directly challenged the power of the unions. By closing down schools that had largely emptied, he disrupted a jobs and patronage engine that had turned CPS into a piggybank for local political interests.

Efforts to introduce accountability both in financial and educational terms have earned him powerful opposition. This election is likely to determine whether city public services can be made to serve citizens or whether Chicago’s public schools will continue their long decline in enrollment. Along the way it may tell us whether a new politics of pragmatism, forged on alliances across party lines, can bring new dynamism to our cities.

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Posted in Chicago, Cities, Civil Rights, Education, Illinois

This is how you know you’ve lost

Inviting a foreign head of state to Congress to undermine American foreign policy was childish and dumb. This idiotic letter from 47 Senators to the Iranian government is even worse. As reckless as this move appears on its face, there is an even more worrying message lurking between the lines.

Worded as a condescending children’s primer on treaty law, the real message of the letter is more subtle. Looking past the embarrassing Constitutional error they made in the document itself and the grave Constitutional violation in their decision to write the letter in the first place, the real shocker in this incident is what it says about Republican ambitions.

Clearly, at least 47 Republican Senators are convinced that the party will never again hold the White House.

Let’s be clear. This has never happened before. We’ve had Congressmen visit countries against the wishes of the executive branch. We’ve even had a few instances where individual outreach from a specific Congressman complicated US diplomatic efforts. We’ve had Jane Fonda crawling around on North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns. None of those incidents compare.

There has never been an instance in which an organized partisan bloc in the Legislative branch disregarded the separation of powers in order to publicly and intentionally undermine US foreign policy. Disagreements over foreign policy have often been bitter, but they have been tempered by an understanding that they can be resolved by elections. I may not like a President, but undermining the office itself will haunt me when my party finally wins.

It seems clear that many Republicans have lost their belief that the party can compete for the Presidency. No other logic explains their willingness to burn down the office itself. The demographic realities are brutal and the Blue Wall looms large. This kind of behavior will only get worse, and more dangerous, in 2017.

Seven Republican Senators declined to sign this letter. They deserve some recognition.

Lamar Alexander (TN)
Susan Collins (ME)
Bob Corker (TN)
Dan Coats (IN)
Jeff Flake (AZ)
Lisa Murkowski (AK)
Thad Cochran (MS)

As a quick postscript, here’s the text of the Logan Act:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply, himself or his agent, to any foreign government or the agents thereof for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.

Quick thought exercise. Imagine that a clutch of Democratic Senators had sent a letter like that to Saddam Hussein in 2002. How many of them would still be in Guantanamo today?

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Posted in Foreign Policy

Senate considers reclassifying marijuana

In a potentially groundbreaking development, the Senate is going to consider for the first time a plan that would change the way marijuana is listed as required by the Controlled Substances Act. Currently marijuana is listed as a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive category. That’s more restrictive than cocaine or meth.

The proposed bill would place marijuana in Schedule II. Here’s the description of Schedule II drugs:

Schedule II drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with a high potential for abuse, less abuse potential than Schedule I drugs, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence. These drugs are also considered dangerous. Some examples of Schedule II drugs are:

cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), oxycodone (OxyContin), fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Ritalin

The bill would also expressly legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Rescheduling marijuana would not change the status of marijuana as an illegal drug in general terms, but it would accomplish some very important goals. It would force senior politicians to declare themselves on this issue in an way that could influence future elections. Along the way it would provide new legitimacy, making future schedule downgrades a lot easier.

This also offers an interesting opportunity to scramble the otherwise rock-hard partisan political alignment that have gridlocked almost every legislative effort. Marijuana decriminalization has broad support that is largely bi-partisan. This bill has sponsorship from Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.

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Posted in Drug War

Republicans for Same Sex Marriage

This is what the GOP might look like when the culture wars finally end.

Republicans in Massachusetts have openly backed same sex marriage, joining an amicus brief filed by former RNC Chair and Bush Administration official Ken Mehlman.

Almost all of the party’s major figures in Massachusetts have signed the brief including new Governor Charlie Baker. Also signing the brief are Maine Senator Susan Collins and Republican donor David Koch.

The brief makes the conservative case for same sex marriage rights, citing a laundry list of favorite conservative cases and authors. This quote from Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative is particularly biting:

“The Conservative is the first to understand that the practice of freedom requires the establishment of order: it is impossible for one man to be free if another is able to deny him the exercise of his freedom. … He knows that the utmost vigilance and care are required to keep political power within its proper bounds.”

A few other excepts:

The governmental bans at is-issue here rest on similarly ungrounded, archaic, and obsolete beliefs—however sincerely, strongly, or long held—and thus the Fourteenth Amendment requires recognition of the bans’ invalidity.

This Court has repeatedly made clear that although legislators and voters may generally exercise power over certain subjects—including many contentious social issues—the government’s power is limited when it comes to injurious incursions upon the freedom of minorities.

No one at any point in this decades-long debate has been able to describe any credible harm that might rise from same sex marriage. Cut through all the bullshit, and the argument against same sex marriage is absolutely singular – “my religious convictions dictate that homosexuality is wrong.” That’s it.

People are asking the government to discriminate against homosexual couples on the basis of sectarian religious beliefs. There is absolutely no defense for that practice under our Constitution.

When same sex marriage is finally settled law in this country, religious people will remain free to hold their beliefs about the sinfulness of gay couples. They will lose their ability to use those beliefs to constrain the basic Civil Rights of other people.  We all have a right to our religious beliefs. No one has a right to legislate their religious beliefs.

This isn’t a dispute about religious freedom. This is a dispute about cultural supremacy. That’s why the last, most bitter holdouts against gay marriage are the same institutions, people and states who were the last bitter holdouts against the Civil Rights movement.

Gay marriage is likely to destroy something, but it’s not marriage. The fight over gay marriage is going to severely damage the lingering cultural supremacy once enjoyed by white Protestants.

We are on the cusp of experiencing real pluralism for the first time in the country. That’s why same sex marriage matters and that’s why the battle lines are drawn across the same boundaries as in the Civil Rights movement.

Massachusetts Republicans are recognizing, a little late, what most of the rest of the country has already come to terms with. If the party at large has the good sense to drop this issue then a lot of future harm can be avoided.

The full text of the conservative amicus brief in favor of same sex marriage can be found here.

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Posted in Civil Rights, Neo-Confederate, Religious Right

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