Thursday, November 7, 2013

Policy-schmolicy... Show me the money!

Last Tuesday was election day in many parts of the country. Right now, you may be celebrating or thumping your head on your desk in disbelief. But were those election results proof that, like it or not, the country favors certain policy positions? Maybe not.

I’m going to list the top two contenders in a variety of races. I’m not going to tell you their views on taxes, guns or abortion.  I won’t say whether they have a position on gay marriage or marijuana. I won’t even tell you to which political party they belong. I’m just giving you their names. Oh and I'll tell you one other thing about them. 

See if you can pick the winner of each race.

Governor of Virginia
Terry McAuliffe—raised $35 million
Ken Cuccinelli—raised $20 million

Lieutenant Governor of Virginia
Ralph Northam—raised $2.3 million
E.W. Jackson—raised $1.2 million

Governor of New Jersey
Chris Christie— spent $11.5 million on TV and radio ads
Barbara Buono—spent $2.1 million on ads

Alabama 1st Congressional District primary
Couldn’t find actual figures for this race, but here's a spending ratio
Bradley Byrne—2
Dean Young—1

Mayor of New York City, New York
Bill de Blasio—$1.4 million in bundled contributions
Joe Lhota—$481,000 in bundled contributions

Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts
Martin Walsh—raised 1.8 million but got close to $3 million from outside groups
John Connolly—raised 1.9 million, got less than $1 million from outside groups

Mayor of Kentwood, Michigan
Stephen Kepley—raised $33,239 
Sharon Brinks—raised $28,482

If you guessed that the top candidate in each pairing won, you’re right! 

Regardless of the issues, the demographics of the electorate, or the competency of the candidates, the person with more money at his disposal won. Does that sound like your idea of democracy?

It doesn't have to be this way. Groups like Wolf-PAC are working to get a 28th Amendment to the Constitution, forever severing the connection between money and politics. Maybe then, our representatives will actually represent us.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Conflict of interest? What conflict of interest?


Republican Ken Cuccinelli is running for Governor of Virginia, and it doesn’t look good for him. As of last week, he was trailing his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe by eight points, and that deficit has been steadily increasing. 

You could argue that the good people of Virginia don’t agree that criminalizing sodomy (including for heterosexual couples) should be a top priority. Perhaps they likewise don’t think that God should punish the U.S. for allowing abortion, or that Obamacare should be repealed. They may not want a leader who doesn't accept the science on climate change or one who is against equal rights. And of course, there is the whole Virginia gift scandal, aka bribery problem. But for whatever the reason, Cuccinelli doesn’t look like he’s going to come out on top.

But don't despair, there is one way Cuccinelli could salvage the election, and that is to make sure that as few people as possible cast a vote. Cue the voter suppression. Over the past week, the Republican controlled state Board of Elections has rushed to purge nearly 40,000 voters from the rolls. 

Naturally, the Democrats are fighting this, though without much success. They’ve already lost one court challenge to restore all the purged names to the voter rolls, and the election is only a few weeks away. 

So, who was in charge of defending the disenfranchisement of 40,000 Virginians? Why, that would be the job of the Virginia Attorney General. You may have heard of him. 

His name is Ken Cuccinelli.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Do you believe in paying your bills?

Do you believe in paying your bills? I'm not asking whether you tend to be frugal or lavish with your money. I'm also not asking what kinds of things you think are worth buying. I'm just asking, after you've agreed to buy something, do you think you should have to pay for it?

Well, if you said yes, you agree with me and with the majority of other Americans. Unfortunately, many members of Congress simply don't agree. They are now mourning the fact that they didn't get to turn the United States of America into a country of deadbeats.

So who are these people?

In the Senate, 81/100 people voted to reopen government and pay the bills we already owe. Every Democratic or Independent Senator voted yes.

Eighteen Republicans thought defaulting on our loans and telling the entire world that we're a bunch of losers who can't be trusted would have been just great. One Republican wasn't sure and did not vote.

How about the House? 

There, the bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling passed 285 to 144. Who were those 144 people who emphatically stated 'hell no, we don't believe in fiscal responsibility!'  I'll give you a hint. Like in the Senate, all the Democrats voted yes. 

Yup, 144 Republicans voted no, which means that 60% of the Republicans elected to Congress shouldn't be trusted to buy used cars.

Because let's face it, what's less fiscally responsible than refusing to pay your bills?



Friday, October 11, 2013

Why should I be mad about the government shutdown?


Why should I be mad that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is in charge of monitoring oil transportation, is shut down? I don’t live near the 16,000 gallon oil spill in Oklahoma
or the 210,00 gallon oil spill in Arkansas 
or the 840,000 gallon spill in North Dakota 
or any of the other spills that occurred this year.

Why should I be mad that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is shut down? Not only do I not live near any oil spills, I also don’t live near any of the 500 toxic waste sites that are no longer getting cleaned.

Why should I be mad that the Veteran's Administration can no longer offer survivor benefits to the family members of people killed in action? I don’t have any family members fighting abroad.

Why should I care if the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are drained? I'm not trying to get into any clinical trials.

Why should I be mad that the Department of the Interior, which maintains the National Parks is closed? I’ve already been to Yellowstone. And Yosemite.

Why should I be mad that supplemental nutrition for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is suspended? I'm not trying to feed children on a minimum wage salary.

Why should I care if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food inspectors are furloughed? I've never been one of the 48 million Americans who are sickened each year by food-borne illnesses.

Why should I care if the Consumer Product Safety Commission is crippled? I don’t need any toys or car seats.

Why should I care if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is shut down? I don’t live in Tornado Alley or the hurricane prone regions of the country.

Why should I be mad that the National Science Foundation is closed? Other countries will still be able to make medical and technological advances.

Why should I be care if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is shut down? I've never had a problem with a nuclear reactor.

Why should I care if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is shut down? I don’t need to climb any ladders at work.

Why should I care if the Department of Homeland Security is shut down? Or the Department of Justice? Or the Department of Labor? Or NASA? Or any of the dozens of other government agencies that the Republicans have taken from us?

Because I have two things they lack: empathy and forethought. The Republicans who caused this totally unnecessary debacle should try them sometime.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

McDonald’s tries to be helpful

Low wage workers all over the country have been going on strike for better pay and working conditions. Not surprisingly, corporations do not want to give in to those demands. They've come up with a number of arguments for not raising the minimum wage, but McDonald's has provided my favorite so far.

Forbes calculates that a single childless person will net $1,160 per month by working full time at minimum wage ($7.25/hour). That’s with no vacation or sick days (and who are we kidding, these are minimum wage workers after all).  That may not seem like enough money to live on (less than $14,000 per year), which is why fast food workers have been striking for a $15 per hour wage. However, fast food corporations maintain that the wages they currently pay their workers are perfectly adequate. They argue that all their employees need is a proper budget, which the helpful folks at McDonald's have provided.

You can see a sample of their budget below. 

Notice anything striking?  

First, you may observe that the budget starts with the $1,105 you’d earn by working full time at McDonald's. This is about what Forbes calculated you’d net by working a forty hour week. So far so good. Right under that is the line where you can add the income from your second full time job. Yes, McDonald’s cheerfully suggests that you’ll have no trouble making ends meet as long as you follow their budget and work two full time jobs. You’d need to work over seventy hours per week to earn the $2000 a month you'll need to survive on their budget. On the other hand, McDonald's could pay their workers the $15/hour they're asking for.

You may also notice that the budget allows $50/month for heating. And that's on the revised budget. Earlier versions assumed you'd be paying nothing for heating. Just to be clear, this is not the budget for Miami Beach McDonald’s employees. This is for the whole country. Those of you who live in colder climes can judge for yourself whether this seems reasonable. $600 for rent seems optimistically low as well, especially considering that the nationwide average rent in 2012 was over $1000 per month. To avoid going over budget on rent, you’d better hope your McDonald's franchise happens to be located in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Like any good employer, McDonald's offers its employees a choice of health plans. The cheapest possible plan, which covers that employee alone and no family members, is $12.58 per week. That comes to a little over $50 per month. Take another look at the handy budget provided by McDonald's and you'll see that they allot $20 a month for health insurance. Apparently, McDonald's doesn't expect any of their low wage employees to be able to afford the McDonald's health plan. Perhaps the $20/month is intended to go toward replenishing a first aid kit.

So, the budget is a tad unrealistic. You can always rearrange the amounts to suit real life circumstances, right? For example, employees could take money for health insurance out of their monthly food allotment. Oh wait, there is no monthly food allotment. Food, clothing and household items all have to come out of the extra money you’ll save by working two full time jobs and living in a heatless warren over someone’s garage.

At this point, you may be thinking that the people making these low wages are mostly kids living with their parents anyway. They don’t need to buy health insurance or pay rent, they’re just looking for a little extra iTunes cash. Think again. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics over 50% of low wage workers are over age 24. Nearly a quarter of low wage earners have children to care for and 10% are single parents. I guess McDonald's believes that it's not all that hard to raise a family on the wages they're willing to pay as long as you're willing to forego luxuries like eating every day or spending time with your kids.

No one is suggesting that learning to budget is not a useful skill, but McDonald's budget is a slap in the face to poor people. They and other companies pay their workers so little that no amount of budgeting or penny pinching will allow them to feed and clothe their children without government assistance, and then those companies pretend that the problem lies with those employees.

Finally, even if you have no sympathy for American workers, think about this. Do you really want your food prepared by exhausted discouraged people in poor health with nothing to lose? I thought not.



Sunday, July 28, 2013

What’s the matter with North Carolina?

North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature has been extremely busy this year, and not in a good way. Here’s what the representatives of that fine state are serving up for their constituents.

Voter Suppression:
The Supreme Court recently gutted the historic Voting Rights Act (see my post for background on the Voting Rights Act and the scope of that Supreme Court decision).

As everyone except five of the Justices foresaw (and that’s giving them more credit than they perhaps deserve), immediately after the ruling, states began flagrantly changing their voting laws. Not to be outdone, North Carolina passed a whole slew of ‘reforms’ intended to make voting more difficult.


Why do I make that claim? Judge for yourself. To begin with, North Carolina enacted strict photo ID laws which may keep over 300,000 eligible citizens from voting. These laws are designed to prevent in-person voter fraud and work on the same principle that enables my wind charms to repel leprechauns. 


Keep in mind that not just any photo ID is acceptable for voting in North Carolina. You can only use a driver’s license, a passport, military or veteran’s ID or a tribal card. No student ID cards. This will make it much harder for students to vote, but Republicans believe that preventing a largely Democratic demographic from voting is a small price to pay to remove the nonexistent threat of in-person voter fraud. 

Don’t think photo ID requirements are the only obstacles put in the path of North Carolinian voters. The Young Turks gives a great run down of what’s been passed in that state. The first minute has the list of changes, the rest is explanation and discussion.



As you can see, between making it harder to register to vote, curtailing early voting, and allowing more intimidation at the polls, the North Carolina legislators are doing everything they can to ensure that as few people as possible cast a vote.


I just want to comment on one new provision. Before this bill, if there were long lines at a polling place, that precinct could be kept open until everyone who was already in line had voted. No more. Now, if you haven’t made it to the ballot box by the time the polls close, you’re out of luck. This is not an unlikely scenario, by the way. During the last election, there were some very long lines to vote. 

Poll waiting times

2012 Presidential Election wait times

Note that these are just median wait times, meaning half the people waited longer, sometimes much longer. How hard do you think it’s going to be for North Carolina to orchestrate the distribution of their polling places so that people only end up getting shut out in Democratic leaning areas?

Closing polling places exactly on time won’t disenfranchise nearly as many people as some of the other changes will, but it goes to the core of this entire legislative package. There is no reason to close polling places in people's faces, or to cut down on early voting, or to eliminate registration drives in schools except to be malicious and to hope that you can prevent people from voting.

Anti-gun control laws:
Congratulations, North Carolinians. You can now bring your loaded weapons not only onto colleges and universities, but also children’s playgrounds, as long as you keep them locked in your car. You can also bring guns into bars and restaurants (though owner’s are allowed to forbid this if they choose). Cities, townships or other subdivisions are prohibited from passing new rules or regulations about concealed carry.

It’s not a free for all over there though. It’s still illegal to bring a gun into the Governor’s mansion, State Capitol or Courts of Justice.  How nice for North Carolina's officials. I’m sure that’s a relief to parents. The creepy guy watching their kids at the playground may only be a few feet away from the gun in his car, but at least the Governor is safe.


Abortion restrictions:
We can’t close without talking about abortion. North Carolina recently passed a motorcycle safety bill. You’re probably wondering what this has to do with abortion. Obviously, motorcycle safety has nothing to with abortion (one hopes). That didn’t stop North Carolina’s legislators from including the following provisions:

  • Insurance plans participating in the new Health Insurance Exchanges cannot pay for abortions (which is interesting because North Carolina is one of the many states refusing to participate in those Exchanges anyway).
  • A doctor has to inform the woman that she’ll be having an abortion 24 hours before she can have the procedure. Just to make sure she clearly understands why she's there.
  • A doctor has to be present during the abortion, even if it consists of handing the woman a couple of pills. 
  • Perhaps most insidious, the bill includes TRAP laws designed to force abortion clinics to close.

A little less than one page about motorcycles was tacked onto the end of this five page bill. Democratic State Rep. and motorcyclist Beverly Earle commented:
I want to let my motorcycle buddies know when I vote against this, it’s not because I don’t care about their safety.
North Carolina already has a law requiring women to have medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds. It was part of North Carolina's 2011 Women's Right to Know Act. I guess women in North Carolina have the right to know that their male GOP legislators don't think they should be able to decide what goes into their bodies.

To sum up, North Carolina has passed a trifecta of bills designed to make its citizens much less safe and much less able to complain about it at the polls. However, these gross violations of the public trust have not been lost on North Carolinians, who have been participating in ‘Moral Monday’ protests organized by NAACP President Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, since April 29th. Each week, citizens gather to protest a particular North Carolina bill and they won’t be running out of things to protest any time soon. The 13th Moral Monday of the year will be held tomorrow.


Moral Monday 13 flyer

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Good news about Obamacare

The latest news about the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is that it might actually be even more affordable than we thought. To be fair, many of the provisions in Obamacare haven’t kicked in yet and until they do, the impacts of those laws are mainly speculative. However, one key aspect, the Health Insurance Exchanges, are just coming into fruition and the news is very good.

Health Insurance Exchangesor Marketplaces, give individuals and small business owners options for picking from a pool of health insurance plans. In coming years, states must either offer their own Health Insurance Exchange or allow the federal government to offer one in their stead. There were fears that insurance costs would skyrocket once states were forced to offer these plans. Not so much.


It’s hard to compare rates across states, especially since these plans aren't even available in most places yet (and different states have different metrics for explaining costs), but here’s what New York, Colorado and California are expecting to see.


In Colorado, about a dozen insurance companies will offer over 200 different health care plans. As an example, a 27 year old living in Denver would pay between $200-$375 per month for a‘silver level’ plan (about 70% of health costs are covered). A family plan (2 adults and two minor children) would cost between $700-$1360 per month. That doesn't sound that great, does it? However, those are the unsubsidized prices. People who make up to 400% of the federal poverty level will qualify for subsidized coverage. So, if our 27 year old were only making $25,000 per year, he or she could knock $158 off that price. A family of four making $80,000 per year would get a monthly credit of $539 toward their family insurance plan. Suddenly, these plans are looking extremely affordable for most people.


In California, our hypothetical 27 year old will pay about $150/month and our family of four will pay $633/month for health insurance.

Finally, New York just announced that individuals and families could expect to cut their insurance costs in half once their exchanges start operating next year.

To put all this in perspective, in 2010, the average monthly insurance cost for a family was over a $1000

I should also note that these prices are for people who can't get insurance through their jobs or through Medicare or Medicaid. To make insurance affordable to the poorest citizens, Obamacare also provides a provision to expand Medicaid to everyone making up to 133% of the federal poverty line. The Rand Corporation estimates that if all 50 states adopt this change it will save them a cumulative $18 billion per year.

There are hundreds of provisions in Obamacare. Some that have already gone into effect include free cancer and diabetes screenings, blood tests, prenatal care and well-baby visits. Young adults can stay on a parent’s insurance plan until they're 26, even if they're married. An estimated 3 million young people between the ages of 19 and 25 have gained health insurance thanks to Obamacare.


Perhaps most importantly, you can no longer be denied coverage for having a pre-existing condition. Not only does this give people options for getting health insurance for the first time, but it also frees people from being trapped in jobs they may not like. What do I mean by this?

Suppose you work at a company that provides health insurance and you develop a heart problem. Try as it might, your insurance company can’t quite declare your new condition to be ‘pre-existing’ so you get treatment. Now let’s say you’d prefer to leave this company. Perhaps you’re exposed to dangerous or unpleasant work conditions, or you don’t like the pay, or you just want to try something else for a change. Can you leave and get another job? Before Obamacare, the answer was most likely no. You would have been trapped at that company by your need for health insurance. The same is true if it's your spouse or your child who has a pre-existing condition. Thanks to Obamacare, it's much easier for people to contemplate changing jobs if they want to.


Don't get too excited about these changes yet though. The Republican party is doing everything in its power to see that Obamacare is repealed, or at the very least, postponed. House Republicans have voted to repeal Obamacare over three dozen times in the past few years. Since some of the provisions are not set to become law until 2022, it will take a rather extraordinary run of good luck for the entire plan to be implemented, and even then it might not be available in all states. 

As of now, 27 states are refusing to offer the insurance exchanges, all but one of them (Montana) run by a Republican governor. And this is true even though the federal government is offering grants to help states plan and implement the changes. Fourteen states are currently refusing to expand Medicaid and several more might refuse, even though they'll lose over $8 billion in federal funding and leave 3.6 million Americans uninsured by doing so. Guess which party governs those states.


Elections have consequences. This is yet another thing to keep in mind next time you go to the polls.