Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Political oppression or standard procedure?

Update, May 21: With a few more days' information, I find out that the whole story was hogwash from the start. Crooks and Liars has the whole thing laid out with citations, just go there. Bottom line: It was an attempt at triage in an overworked office, involving no unusual inquiries, and directed at groups of all political persuasions equally. The inquiries were not "extra thorough," rather the IRS followed procedure on these and allowed other organizations to sail through. Three organizations were denied status, all of them from the progressive end of the spectrum. It's a big fat pile of steaming BS. What's amazing is that almost all media are bought into the Republican narrative on this and are missing the bones of the story.

Original post: 
When the IRS "admitted" that it profiled Tea-Party groups for special scrutiny last year, it touched off a media brushfire and charges of politically motivated retribution. As always, there's more to the story than the headlines can provide.

For starters, let's say you're a tax inspector and you see, in an election year, a bumper crop of brand-new 501(c)4 organizations popping up with missions specifically related to tax resistance. Then you notice that many, perhaps nearly all, of them are raising and spending money to influence election results. The (c)4 code allows political activity, but it may not legally be the primary activity of the organization. Might you think that there could be widespread violation of the rules in the category?

When even a player as cagey as Karl Rove was unable to prevent conflict with the law in operating his (c)4, I'd expect that more than a few of these groups really didn't know what they were doing legally.

So now, Ms/Mr IRS Inspector, you have to decide whether your job is to enforce the law or to back away from a high potential for violations because enforcement might make things sticky for the administration, leaving an ugly precedent for the future. I'm pretty sure I know where I'd be on that question, regardless of the specific politics.

You may think that the Obama administration is as ethically challenged as Nixon's, but you don't need nefarious intent to see how this action could come about. Occam's Razor says keep it simple.

But there's more, and I haven't seen this noted anywhere in the press. My mom worked as an accountant for decades, and recalls that it was standard IRS practice as early as the '80s to select categories of businesses and organizations for special scrutiny in a given year. This makes sense from the standpoint of efficient management of limited resources. It doesn't mean audits for all, but it did look at common practices in an industry or category.

So for a very long time the IRS has used organizational profiling to look for common violations as standard practice. The Tea Partiers made a big, broad push in 2012 with new organizations, and so hit the IRS radar. Are you surprised?

The thing to look for is how many TP groups were actually audited. From that you can gauge whether there was any real pain involved. My bet is it'll be a very small number, if it comes out at all.

Update, Friday: Since I wrote this more details have come out about what the IRS was doing, particularly that it was being  "extra thorough" about applications for (c)3 and (c)4 status, auditing before the fact, as it were, and substantially delaying the applications with demands for information, a pretty classic bureaucratic tactic. The President has acted quickly to roll a head that appears to have been actually responsible from the outset. It's also come out that in the weeks before the suspect behavior began, the IRS was under extreme rhetorical attack from the newly minted Tea Party groups, including having one nutbar fly his plane into the Austin IRS building one week before.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Williams: How many fetuses can dance on the head of a pin?

The Courier's current bearer of the torch for reactionary anti-thought on the editorial page, retired cop Buz Williams, pulls another index card from his box of right-wing talking points and compares fetuses to slaves, building on this an argument that they deserve legal protection as full citizens.

The magical thinking begins in the first sentence, where Buz disregards the blood, sacrifice and hard work of our forebears to ascribe the rise of this nation to magical intervention, fairly warning that the column will not be about logical thought.

So why even read it, let alone respond? It's not as if the people like Buz, who've bought deeply into this circular mind-trap, will ever be convinced otherwise. But I have to believe that there are far more people who are not so committed and would like to see a path to resolving this persistent open wound in American political discourse.

After spending half the column on an embarrassing logical failure to equate the enslavement of black people with sensible family planning, he builds his argument on the idea that a fetus has human DNA, and so must be a citizen. Logical reduction leads to giving my fingernail parings the vote. But it's interesting that even in his bleary attempt to be expansive in his definition of what is legally human, he chooses an arbitrary, science-based limit, which is fertilization.

Digging a little further into this line of thought shows that any choice like this is equally arbitrary. In reality the reproductive process is a smooth continuum in which a woman and a child slowly diverge, starting while she is still a fetus and her eggs are developing with her. It's only our perceptual decisions that make a child separate at any point.

For the time being we are guided by millennia of tradition in recognizing the new human upon its successful birth, as seen in our Constitution, which assigns citizenship rights based on being "born." But we have to admit that this is as arbitrary as any other choice.

We are in a time of transition for women from essentially zero control over conception to, at some point in the relatively near future, complete control. Once a woman can and does consciously determine whether she will conceive, the barbarity of abortion will recede into history. But in the meantime we have to make a choice in law about how to deal with the conflict inherent in an unwanted or unhealthy pregnancy.

That choice is well established and I have little fear that the magical thinkers will do anything but harm their cause by insisting that fetal rights have priority over the mother's.

But I have a suggestion for the transition period. I would happily support a law reassigning the arbitrary choice of when a person begins to exist from the state to the mother. In other words, if you believe that your fetus should be recognized as a citizen, you can make that choice and accept the associated responsibilities and risks. Not fathers, because they risk much less, only mothers, and only their specific fetus, not someone else's. Birth becomes the outside limit at which the state takes over.

Accepting this compromise would give the religionists the beginning of the legal structure they want and show their commitment to a solution.

They won't, of course, because their objection to abortion and contraception has never been about the rights of the child. It has always been about paternalist control over the woman. It's not that they want  new rights for fetuses, rather they want fewer rights for women. As long as this is the basis for the conflict, it will not end, and sensible people will continue to resist it.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Comments in trouble again

I note that over the recent past something has changed in how the Courier editors are dealing with online comments.

Updates are infrequent, down to what appears to be about twice a day.  This substantially reduces the capacity for dialogue, and probably frustrates many commenters, seen in the higher frequency of repeat comments.

I can't know much about the sort of comment editing I note below, but it has been out of sight for a long time, and its return is worrying. Maybe it was one weekend substitute that really didn't know the drill. We'll see.

Editorial: Editor takes the bait

In today's column the unnamed Courier editor looks at the Legislature's latest attack on the Clean Elections system, and follows its seductive billboards into what amounts to a roadside clip joint.

Even after the editor acknowledges that the proposed initiative sets up a cynical and false conflict between funding for elections and funding for education, at the end of the piece he falls right in line with it. This is of course because the paper has never favored our system of public funding for election candidates anyway.

Along the way I find it telling that the editor believes our legislative representatives only work during "much of their winter and spring." This shows that he doesn't follow the real action any better than the public at large.

Legislative sniping and court reversals have already robbed the Clean Elections system of much of its power to assist regular, not-rich people in running for state offices. There may be better ways to accomplish this noble goal, but regardless of how you feel about the system, you have to be able to see that setting it up in a false priority comparison with school kids is unfair, particularly since the same people who are calling for diverting Clean Elections funds to the schools have been entirely responsible for defunding those schools over the past five years.

Make no mistake, this initiative will not be about improving the schools, rather it's about starving political competitors, exactly as the editor lays out.

The best way to fund the schools is to go ahead and fund the damn schools. Cynically using a self-inflicted crisis in education to kill off a program that well-heeled Republicans have always hated is despicable, and voters should reject it out of hand.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Muggs: Cracking Open the Door

Pop Rocket, May 2013

It's starting to look like Republicans, at least at the national level, are losing enthusiasm for their anti-immigrant strategy and cracking open the door to positive reform for our immigration system. This may be happening largely out of fresh respect for the expanding power of the nonwhite vote — there's nothing like an electoral spanking to get a pol's attention — but beyond the fairness issues, a host of factors make this kind of reform important to both our economy and each of us personally.
     Sure, it's all the rage to think that we already have too many foreigners knocking around for the number of jobs we have available. But big changes are near at hand that will dump that idea into the bin with economic isolationism and doubleknit bell-bottoms.
     Last year the Labor Department released a projection that labor-force growth will fall by 7% between 2010 and 2020 against the previous decade. Currently more than 200,000 baby-boomers are leaving the labor force every month, and that exodus will continue for a couple of decades. The Defense Department projects, "Over the next several years, the Federal Government will experience the largest unplanned exodus of middle and senior management talent in the history of our nation as significant numbers of older workers currently in federal service become retirement-eligible. … eventually the need to replace outgoing expertise, and to fill newly created jobs, will result in a significant demand for talent within the labor market."
     It may be difficult to imagine a surplus of jobs with unemployment nationwide still drifting down from eight percent, but the demographics are inevitable and this is just around the corner in economic terms.
     The aging-workforce problem is not new. Germany and Japan are already deep into it, and it's coming on for the rest of Europe and developed Asia just as it is here. It scares economists because when a population has too few workers, the tax base shrinks and capital, which can only do so much to increase productivity, has to seek resources elsewhere. This further hollows out the industrial base, potentially leading to a cascade effect that makes us all steadily poorer, making recovery that much harder.
     Things are looking up for educated and connected workers, who can look forward to a seller's market for skilled talent as the boomers hit their deck chairs. But younger Americans are generally neither aspiring to nor training for the manufacturing, service and craft jobs that other boomers are leaving as well. Beyond the obvious need for construction and agricultural workers, business will be looking to fill a lot of middle-class jobs over the first half of this century.
     Where business can't find talent and can't export the job, the invisible hand says it has to pay more for the work, certainly at least encouraging inflation. This may not be so bad for well-off retirees relying on asset values for income, but it's clear that will describe a minority of boomers. Only a productive, moderately expansive economy can keep the costs of maintaining a large elder population from impoverishing us all.
     As columnist Christopher Matthews wrote recently in Time Business, "Steady population growth is a good thing for the economy. New entrants to the workforce don't just supply labor, they also demand it," creating more vibrant economic activity. But higher rates of education and higher average incomes typically depress the birth rate, so where will we get those new entrants? From outside the country, that's where.
     The immigration bill currently under consideration in Congress is designed primarily to address the status of the roughly 11 million undocumented already living and working here. That's good as far as it goes, and it will help in terms of regularizing tax contributions, wage levels and legal compliance in all sorts of ways. But in looking at new visas, the bill only opens a few tens of thousand slots. This approach will be woefully inadequate to meeting demand for millions more skilled and assimilated workers between 2020 and 2050. Despite high-ish unemployment and underemployment right now, we're already falling behind for the future.     People cross our borders illegally to work because we've set arbitrary limits on legal immigration that do not meet the real demand for workers. It's only practical to look ahead at our needs, open the door a little wider, and make it easier for immigrants to live and work here legally, learn the ropes and build the experience and training necessary to work their way up.
     We have to get past the idea that "immigrant" necessarily means "wants to be a citizen." The "path-to-citizenship" centerpiece of the legislation is a comfort feature, implying that the foreign-born will become more like us, but for the foreign-born it's not a core interest. Speaking as a former illegal worker myself, what matters to them first is a prosperous life free of official harassment and employer exploitation, like everybody else.
     Meeting those needs isn't hard. We use the systems we already have in place, change the target numbers and give more immigrants legal working status. The result will be a richer, healthier economy for the long term.
     The baby-boom bubble is passing. It's time to look more closely at returning to our heritage as a nation of immigrants. We're gonna need them.

Education, and clipping the comments

I responded to today's editorial and its first comment, but an editor intervened. Here's the complete comment, emphasizing the section the editor found objectionable:

The well-off and anonymous private-school parent pays the additional costs of what seems a better education, thereby proving that more money can promote a better result, but would withhold that advantage from those who can't afford it. Not much of an argument for a PhD, and the basic spelling errors make that claim suspect as well.
Advocates of austerity argue against overfunding education despite having never seen an overfunded public education system. No one favors waste of public resources, but when placed in the real-world context, that argument boils down to "I got mine and to heck with the rest of you." The neglected piece is the broad benefit to all of better education, particularly for those less fortunate.
One can try to argue that profit or religion or antisocial fear produces smarter people, but I'm not buying it, that's ridiculous on its face. Better that we accept the premise that a public system offers the greatest potential for all and work together to identify and correct the problems that will inevitably dog any human system.

(Astute readers will have noticed that the editor used an unclosed ellipsis in place of the elision, a basic punctuation error.)

It's fascinating that whoever's fielding the comments this morning found the energy and motivation to screw around with this one, and all the more ironic that it happened in the context of a discussion of education.

I've sent in another comment to point readers here for the complete first comment. We'll see whether the anonymous editor will allow that.

Update, 11:30pm: And the answer is: no.