Sunday, June 30, 2013

ToT: Tobin pretends to understand science and economics

I'm frequently amazed at how comprehensively a single person can illustrate the depth of a problem simply by saying what they think.

In this case the problem is the inability of some Republicans to cooperate with anyone they identify as an adversary. Here District 1 Representative (really the senior and better title, but he insists on ignoring it in favor of the supposedly grander Speaker of the House) Andy Tobin rails against the Obama administration's plan to bring the Navajo Generating Station into something resembling compliance with US laws against egregious polluters.

But before he gets to his complaint, he tips his hand to what it's really about: "... the federal government has fought against Arizona leadership ...." Note the delusion that "Arizona leadership" is on anything like a par with federal power. Note the self-importance required to imagine that the federal government cares in the slightest what he or Jan Brewer thinks. Note the comical and ignorant use of ellipses.

Andy complains that the EPA wants the station's operators to install new scrubbers at cost of something like a billion clams. Then he proudly states the station's economic value as $20 billion over thirty years. Leaving aside the preposterous idea that we'll still be generating significant energy from this or any other thermal coal plant in thirty years, simple arithmetic says that the state recovers the value of the upgrade in a little over a year. Sounds like a good loan risk to me.

Of course, the dollars and cents of the deal are not Andy's problem, rather it's the idea of the federal government coming into Arizona (like it ever left) and doing its job, presumably as he became so accustomed to its neglect under the Bush administration.

Air quality is not just for the tourists, it's how we survive on the planet. Andy's selective reading of the DoEnergy study (which we can expect will favor energy, duh) — or, I should say, of the choice excerpts circulating from ALEC in brief bullet points, no doubt involving words no longer than four syllables — ignores the very real benefits of cleaning up the plant for everyone who lives downwind, primarily natives, Utahns and tourism business in Southern Utah, which obviously Mr Tobin cares nothing about.

His dire warnings of shutting the plant down are pure hokum, obviously. I look forward to his apoplexy when the new rules come down from the new CO2 policy that  the President outlined last week. Better dust off some of those binders of energy legislation you've personally blocked, Mr Tobin, and look for ways to put our solar and wind-energy industry to work.

Days Past: Huntin' Injuns for sport

I love the historical articles that appear on weekends in the paper and the weekly Capitol Times. They're often pretty arcane in terms of relevance to history, but they deliver interesting stories of real people who walked our streets and shaped our communities not so long ago.

So with that anticipation going in, I was aghast reading today's entry, which gleefully recounts the pursuit of a small band of Apaches escaping from bondage and their eventual slaughter as an heroic "battle." The story is disgusting, and the language — "hostiles" for "people," "squaw" for "woman," for examples — which harks back to the bad old days of Manifest Destiny, and importantly the disinterest in presenting any context or contrasting view are shameful and callous. How would you react to this story if it was about the murders of your own relatives?

This should never have been accepted for publishing. I find it incredible that Sharlot Hall Museum would really allow its name attached to it.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pricing water

In his ToT today, Howard Mechanic stumps for more rational pricing of effluent water to help balance revenues and address our water-mining problem. He sensibly takes a bite that's small enough for the average reader to chew, but we will need to go farther, of course.

Pricing is the most effective and arguably the easiest method for encouraging conservation and rational use of water, and it is vastly underused here given the magnitude of the problem we face.

As we wind up into the council election, I'd like to see a public debate on pricing that includes big changes in favor of conservative use. (We'll also need to look hard at legislation that will allow us to keep what we conserve for the future — there are some legal complications that need addressing.) If we can price water according to something like its real value, what we give up in green lawns we will more than get back in secure water resources into the future.

Another waste-of-time debate

Today we have yet another letter (this one from Noel Dusek) in the endless and pointless debate over whether the Founders were Xtians. There's nothing new here, again, and as usual the argument is pitched over utterly irrelevant ideas.

The Enlightenment Xtians of the 18th century had very little in common with the deranged evangelicals of today, so it's more than a little silly for today's extremists to cite the professed faith of the signers of the Constitution as proof that the US was meant to be a "Christian nation." But it's also silly to debate them on that ground, because it's completely irrelevant.

Whatever their individual choices of faith, the men who debated and signed the Constitution agreed that there should never be a state religion here. That says conclusively that they put rational governance above their own superstition and understood the value of that. This is, by the way, a hallmark of Enlightenment thought.

Like Mormons reading the obits, evangelicals want to draft the Founders onto their team to support their aspirations to Xtian dominionism and a religious state.

So for gad's sake quit debating whether the Founders were deists or whatever. We have the document that they hammered out and agreed on. We know them by their fruits.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Williams: Artless deflecting

Buz childishly deflects from the conviction of Rick Renzi (R-Military-Industrial Complex) by pointing fingers at Dems he doesn't like. It's a complete waste of the paper's space and the reader's time, as usual.

You voted for him, Buz, twice. That's on you.

Here's a more pertinent and useful link.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The pain and gain of taxation

Between the news story from Cindy Barks, Tom Cantlon's column and the letter from Tom Britzman, local taxation is the theme of today's Courier.

The immediate issue is the City of Prescott raising our primary property tax coincident with a larger reduction in a secondary tax with the payoff of Willow and Watson lakes. I say "coincident" because the raise in the primary is not set out as a specific offset, rather it appears that Council sees a rare opportunity to bump up revenue in a way that won't likely attract a lot of opposition.

In his letter Britzman complains cynically that a tax, once instituted, never goes away, and overstates the situation — in fact, property taxes will go down, just not by as much as they would have without the primary hike — but he has a point in that Council is doing this hike opportunistically and without the public vote that many Arizonans have come to expect on new taxes.

In his column Tom points out some of the inconvenient complexities of taxation that prevent us from doing the sort of simple-minded "simplification" that many non-economists advocate. In going for the big picture, one complication he doesn't get to is why Prescott sees the need to boost property taxes: with the bursting construction bubble, we were badly burned by overreliance on sales taxes.

Social and economic scientists broadly agree that sales taxes more heavily burden low-income people, yes, but they also carry a land mine for governments that rely on them, in that when you need them most in an economic downturn, they disproportionately dry up.

At its core, the mission of government is to organize and deliver needed public services. Public reliance on those services increases in hard economic times, so depending on revenue streams that rise and fall with the economy exacerbates those problems.

The wise budgeter says, "So we should be saving up during good times so we have the funds available when things go sideways," and that makes all sorts of sense. Unfortunately the anti-tax powers-that-be in Arizona have amended our constitution to prevent that sort of forward planning.

Shifting from sales to property taxes will help make our public revenues more reliable over the long term. To do this most responsibly Council should be linking the property-tax hike with a reduction in the municipal sales-tax rate, which will be a marginal boost for both low-income residents and local retail businesses.

And since we're talking taxes, I have to add my usual rant that if we aspire to good and useful government, we have to change the conversation about taxes. It shouldn't be about how much money we pay individually, rather about how much value we receive for it. There is way too much focus on the dollar, and nothing like enough education about what it buys for us.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Voting Rights Act strikedown: Win or loss?

I expect most Arizonans don't know that our state is one of those selected for special scrutiny under Article 4 of the Voting Rights Act, struck down today by the Supreme Court. AZ won this honor with persistent,direct and official discrimination against minorities, particularly our native population.

An optimist who isn't paying much attention might think, terrific, we're finally past the era of racial discrimination, we can move on with an officially color-blind society. Sounds great.

Those paying closer attention will more likely raise an eyebrow. The continuing political fracas over "immigration issues," right-wing code for keeping the brown people in their place, and voter ID is prima facie evidence that the reflex to discriminate and segregate remains alive and well in our official apparatus. Does that warrant us having to run changes in our election laws and procedures through the Justice Department? Well, someone has to be the adult in the room, and as the majority of Arizona voters so far are clearly not up to the task, I think I'd prefer it.

Then there are those who are paying attention with different motives, and this ruling simply enables those who would continue to use and encourage racial fear to build their own power and wealth. They can say that the Supreme Court says there's no more discrimination, so we needn't worry about it anymore.

Without the federal backstop against voting discrimination, it falls to us as Arizona voters to take more responsibility to ensure that we not only don't backslide further, but make real progress on being an open and fair society for all our citizens.

Update, Thursday: Think Progress has the story on how seven of the nine preclearance states have already moved to restrict voting rights as a result of the Supreme Court decision. I'm guessing Arizona's reactionaries are only regretting that their legislative session didn't last long enough to get them in the game, too.

Editorial: Cheap is gooder

I've read today's editorial three times and I still can't say with much confidence that I understand what the unnamed editor is getting at. It verges on a drunken ramble, full of non-sequitur and tangential dead-ends and apparently unscathed by proofreading.

Peering through the murk, the best I can tell is that he's reacting to outlay for vital public services, using fire suppression as an ideal good (he could see the fire from his house), and comparing that skeptically to the removal of the widely hated traffic cams in PV in favor of live police officers, speculating that maintaining the level of traffic safety that the machines brought will cost more.

Let's posit for the sake of argument that PV officials never slanted their estimations of the effect of the cameras to justify their own decisions to apply them, and so the reductions in traffic injuries have been real and related to the cameras. Most people still hate them, and want live officers to handle traffic enforcement. Therefore the public sees higher value in getting rid of the cameras and, if necessary, paying more for that higher-value enforcement. That's just how our political system works, and understanding it requires a little better ken of economics than the Walmart model.

Of course, the exclusive "this thing or that thing" argument is far too simplistic to matter. If traffic safety is secured by reducing vehicle speed, then we could accomplish the goal more cheaply and effectively by, for example, removing paving or adding frequent speed bumps. The point here is that even if you believe that the cameras have been effective (and I think there's a persuasive argument against that), you have to admit that there are other ways to accomplish the goal that people will hate less.

Note: "Ravish" means "carry away for the purpose of rape," and is usually used archly today, though its application to a mountain remains outside even the boundaries of satire. (He meant to use "ravage," of course.)

Monday, June 24, 2013

Editorial: It must be Obama's fault

The unnamed editor suddenly discovers the growing shortage of physicians and somehow sees it as a problem stemming from the ACA. This has been a talking point on the right for years, and like so many of them, is completely spurious.

This sort of shortage is in large part a consequence of the baby-boom bubble. That large generation of doctors is retiring with their contemporaries, taking themselves off the market just as their generation begins to need the most medical attention.

The problem is also increasingly rooted in our high-cost, high-debt education system. Those medical students who aren't filtered out by the high up-front costs of the programs are forced into high-dollar specialties just to stay ahead of their debts, leaving an inevitable shortage of generalists. Add in our ridiculously obstructive state-by-state and skill-by-skill licensing regimes, and you really have to wonder why anyone would not expect a shortage in this area, and nothing to do with Obamacare, which of course is not yet implemented.

Sure, I've heard the stories of medicos so put off by the idea of "socialized medicine" (we're so far from that it's laughable) that they're getting out, just as they've been so unhappy with Medicare reimbursements that they won't take those patients. Frankly I'll lose no sleep over these guys, as they're most likely either incompetent (as shown in their inability to understand how the system is really designed to work) or just greedy.

The only failing specific to Obamacare that I can see as a real factor here is its neglect of coverage for integrative and complementary medicine in fulfilling its mandate to improve prevention and wellness care and reduce costs. Many forward-thinking health-care professionals are choosing these disciplines because they work better than the traditional allopathic industry, which has long been hijacked by Big Pharma, mechanistic thinking and profit motive. I'd like to hope that Congress will tweak the ACA to bring these smart, science-based professionals into the system sometime relatively soon. We'll see.

The truly ironic thing here is that had Obama not tried to start fixing our absurd health-care system, we'd still have these same problems, but the editor wouldn't be able to blame him for them.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Barnes on leadership

Welcome back, Ron.

Ron Barnes has been a leader on leadership for decades, and deserves great credit for positive effect on this community from his hard work to walk the talk. His book Lessons for Leaders is a good manual for those who aspire to do well in doing good. Obviously a single column can't cover the entire gamut, though, and while Ron's comments today are certainly valuable, I'd like to build on it and invert their focus. Yes, we need effective, service-oriented leaders, but I think we are far more gravely and generally in need of better followership skills.

The only power of leadership is in inspiring and motivating others. The best and most dedicated servant-leader can have little effect where few people are able to distinguish those leadership qualities, respect and embrace the value of those who have them, or understand the system principles necessary to effective collective action.

Where the culture is generally cynical about the motivations and competence of anyone who would take up the responsibilities of public service, why would anyone with any sense get involved? We tend to get the kind of leadership we deserve, sad to say.

But culture isn't about uniformity, it's about thresholds. If enough people hold a given value, it becomes a cultural norm, and the "enough" to trigger that shift need not be anything like a majority.

Promoting the PAL program is a good thing, but I think a followup on followership from Ron could spread more effective seeds.

And by the way, the Courier's headline for this column indicates just how far we have to go in teaching people to distinguish the qualities of servant-leadership. The editor saw "effective leader," passed it through the filter of his/her own ideas and reflexively applied the reactionary dog-whistle "moral compass," which you'll notice appears nowhere in the column. Note the commenters following the scent.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Oh, I am cut to the quick.

A reader alerts me that Courierwatch is no longer on dCourier's "Blogs" pulldown. This is the first I've heard about it, but since the editor didn't ask before putting me there, I don't suppose I would be in the loop when being removed, either. (Thanks, Tim, for letting me know you care.)

There was an interesting anomaly today in the 5pm hour, in which I got a huge burst of hits. Something getting around in a certain workplace, perhaps? No way to tell.

I've been holding back a little story that is likely related to this, and which holds something you need to know.

I mentioned at the end of my recent Muggs entry that I'd quit Pop Rocket. I thought that would be the end of the story, but I guess not. In any case the story begins a couple of weeks before that.

As is my occasional wont, I commented online on the paper's Memorial Day editorial. Late that evening while checking the new headlines, I looked back for new comments and found one directed at me by name. It was from the frequent anonymous commenter who styles hermself "The Rev," and it accused me of plagiarism.

That's not something a pro writer can take lightly.

I wrote Tim W directly and told him it was unacceptable, not only because the comment was slanderous, but as the Courier was complicit in the slander by publishing it. Tim wrote back, "Thank you for bringing this to my attention. We have edited the offending comment."

I replied that I expected a lot more action than a ellipsial fig leaf, in detail, including at least an apology. I've  yet to hear another word. I decided I can't work with people who won't take their own work seriously enough to follow their own policies or take responsibility for the harm they cause. After a week and a half of silence from Tim, I wrote that I was done with Pop Rocket.

What you need to know in all this is that the Courier's rules against personal attack and illegal use of the comments are at best poorly enforced, therefore the comments should not be considered safe against any kind of attack. By neglect or intention the editors are enabling the trolls. Sensible people should not participate.

Monday, June 17, 2013

SCOTUS caps Prop 200: Toldya

So in a 7-2 decision the US Supreme Court has ruled that the requirement to show documentation of citizenship to register to vote, installed here a few years ago with Prop 200, is an unconstitutional infringement on federal law and invalid. This is no surprise.

This is exactly what I and many other commentators predicted during the campaign and the period of widespread confusion and angst among voters in the ensuing years. It was as obviously illegal then as now.

Can we hope that the now so-fashionable spending hawks on the right will rise up in anger over the waste of literally millions of public dollars pushing the legislation through, retooling the elections bureaucracy to follow it, and defending it in court against obstructed and justifiably pissed-off voters?

Now that the law has been clarified by what everyone agrees is a conservative-leaning Court, can we hope that the armchair lawyers who proclaim themselves Constitutionalists will power up the criticism machine against the tenthers, birthers and haters of brown people who pushed through this predictably unworkable law?

Let's say I doubt it.

We knew it would be shot down in court, and we said so at the time. We knew it with Arpaio's immigrant sweeps, and with the show-me your-papers provisions of SB1070. We were right, though it takes years for the process to cancel what fear-driven voters did in hours. We knew that the volunteer border militias would wind up killing innocent people in spectacularly awful ways. Shawna Forde and JT Ready proved the point for us.

We knew that Al Gore won more votes in 2000. We knew that the neocons would leverage 9-11 in favor of the military-industrial complex. We knew Afghanistan would be a disaster. We knew Iraq was wrong from the beginning. We knew that the Patriot Act would wind up creating a surveillance/security state, and even its most ardent supporters would come to hate it. We knew the War on Terror would create more enemies than it would ever kill.

We were right, they were wrong. We know we'll never get any credit from the other side for this foresight, and why should we? Every one was as easy to predict as the sun coming up in the morning.

We know that single-payer, non-profit health care is the only sensible and sustainable system. We know that the genetic engineering of food is causing more suffering than it could ever relieve. We know that allowing 1% of the people to own 90% of the wealth is bad for us all. We know that allowing the germ of race distrust to bloom into hate hurts us all. We know that more guns create more violence. We know that human-caused climate change threatens our very existence as a species.

We're right, they're wrong. It's not ideological, it's not elitist, it's just a matter of correct or not correct.

When can we get past the debate between the stupid idea and the not-stupid idea, and move on to debating whether doing the smart thing this way or that way is smarter? If the US were a person, we'd be stuck in the third grade, and our college exams are coming very soon.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

You're surprised? Really?

Building on yesterday's release of the secret extension of authorization for the NSA to vacuum up metadata on Verizon calls, today the headlines are afire with indignation over further revelations of the NSA's Prism program (© 2007 GW Bush & Co.) and its years of doing the same with pretty much every email, phone call and online search in the country.

If I recall correctly, this is exactly what we on the loony left were jumping up and down about years ago when all the Very Sensible People were constructing logical card houses to explain why the draconian USA Patriot Act was necessary to national security. I dunno about you, but since that became what passes for "law" in this country, I've taken it for granted that privacy in electronic communication is a thing of the quaint and rapidly receding past. C'mon people, try to pay attention!

Update, Saturday: The unnamed editor concurs.

Muggs: Radical Bipartisans Stage a Coup

Pop Rocket, June 2013

We have a small group of subversives and traitors in the Arizona Senate working to undermine American values and turn this country into a socialist dependency state. At least that's what their most vocal opponents are saying about them. The funny thing is that the subversives and their opponents wear the same party lapel pins.
     I've written before about the conflict going on for years now within the Republican Party in this state. In May that conflict erupted into open war on the floor of the Senate as the body came to its vote on the (re-)expansion of our Medicaid system (AHCCCS) to include Arizonans making up to 133% of the income level the federal government defines as the poverty line. A very reluctant Governor Jan Brewer brought the measure to the Legislature not because she cares all that much about the thousands of working poor that would be able to access basic health care with state support, nor the many health-care workers who would be employed in that care, but rather because of the large pile of federal matching dollars that would come with it. For her the choice was stark: do the expansion and bring a couple of billion clams into the state, or don't, and spend half a billion out of the general fund. Every year. Not passing it would have been just stupid.
     If you've been paying any attention you likely know that the Senate passed an amended version of the governor's proposal as SB1492 on May 16, and as of this writing the bill is facing a gory flaying in the House. What you may not know is who made it happen and how, and why this vote was an important sign of positive change in our Legislature.
     To get this vitally important bill passed, five Republicans crossed the aisle to vote with the Democrats: Bob Worsley, Michelle Reagan, Adam Driggs, John McComish and our own Steve Pierce. Driggs is the majority whip, McComish the majority leader, and Pierce the immediate past president, illustrating that the fracture in the majority cuts through to the very top.
     I trace the history of this vote back to the zenith of Tea-Party power and the brief tenure of Russell Pearce as Senate prez. The utter craziness of those sessions led to Pearce's recall and unprecedented defeat by his own voters in a special election, but while that occupied the headlines, influential non-crazy Republicans realized it was time to take their party back.
     They replaced Pearce as president with Prescott rancher/developer Steve Pierce, whom veteran legislator and political consultant Stan Barnes called "the adult in the room." With clear disdain for the over-the-top talk and pointless theatrics so beloved of the Tea Partiers, Pierce got the Senate back to work and kept it out of the headlines. The right wing knocked him to the back bench in the following session, replacing him with the reliably extreme Andy Biggs, but Pierce wasn't finished.
     As early as mid-March this year Pierce and his small group of like-minded senators began exercising muscle by siding with the united Democrats in the sort of bipartisan coalition voting that hasn't been seen in Phoenix in a very long time. Ahead of the Medicaid vote, just as a demonstration and warning, they even went so far as to defeat a perfectly good bill that everyone wanted passed, then they brought it back and passed it. At about that point Biggs' rhetoric clearly showed less confidence he could block the Medicaid expansion, even resignation to its passage. It was a classic palace coup, and while Biggs still occupies the chair, he no longer wields the power.
     Regular readers know that I don't share much with Senator Pierce in terms of policy positions, but over the years I've gained some confidence in his practicality and personal integrity. He doesn't say much, but he means what he says, and when he described his vote in an op-ed in The Arizona Republic as "not an act of courage, but simply what we were elected to do," I didn't read any false modesty.
     That's not to say that there won't be consequences. The battle is far from over, and we can be confident that the rightward forces will at least try to knock all five of the radical bipartisans out in the 2014 primaries. But it seems to me that the Tea Party star is fading and Republican voters are almost as sick of the crazies and the gridlock as the rest of us, preferring the party would focus on solving real problems over beating up on Republicans who won't walk the crazy talk.
     It's about time. For too many years sensible Republicans have been honoring Ronald Reagan's eleventh commandment ("Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican") and watching their party slide into chaos and defeat as simpletons and hate-mongers have had their day. I've seen the wincing on their faces as they groped for excuses to explain the sorry behavior of their wayward brethren, even as the nutbars were throwing them under the Big Bus of Righteousness for their trouble. Former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole recently said that the party should put up a "closed for repairs" sign for the coming year and try to figure out a positive agenda. I hope that those among our state Republicans still attached to reality will take that advice, find their spines and continue the work that Steve Pierce began here.

Update, June 6: In the past week Speaker Tobin has indicated that he does not have the votes to block the Medicaid expansion in the House. The House Appropriations Committee may still strip the Medicaid language from the budget bill, but if that happens supporters will very probably restore it through floor amendment and pass it anyway.

Note: This is my final column for Pop Rocket. I think that while the deep pockets of Western Newspapers will likely keep it afloat out of proportion to its real value, the paper's relentless mediocrity makes it an ultimately pointless waste of time and effort for me.