Friday, August 29, 2008

My Problem With the Palin Pick
It's basically this, as noted by Andrew Sullivan:
"In picking an unknown, untested, half-a-term woman governor from Alaska to be his running mate, John McCain is following in a long line of reckless men who have rolled the dice for a beauty queen. Except in this case, McCain is taking one of the biggest, boldest gambles in modern American political history," - Dan Gerstein, a former adviser to Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Shouldn't there be at least lip service paid to the idea that whether "the gamble" works is less important than. y'know, the good of the country?

This isn't a slight against Sarah Palin, who seems as or more intelligent, and certainly more authentic, than most of the names that were kicked around on the Republican side. And maybe McCain and his team are absolutely certain that she has all the attributes of someone who very easily could be called upon to lead the country, as well as (for Republican purposes) what her views and mindset are across a large number of policy areas. But that's somewhat hard to credit when it's announced that they barely know each other.

No, it's pretty surely a pick exclusively about politics--picking off Clinton-supporting women who aren't primarily guided by the issues, exciting the dispirited rank-and-file Republicans, reinforcing the pro-drilling (the one thing we know Palin favors) campaign promise, whatever. Which itself should be really troubling, if you think about it. The consideration is whether it will pay off for McCain, not what the consequences might be for all of us. For that matter, there's very little sense of what areas of policy Palin has expertise or even interest in and could take an active role for in her vice-presidency. Sullivan puts it this way:
For me, the more I think about it, the more this pick is about McCain's contempt for Obama. He really seems to think that Palin is as qualified as Obama to be president.

My only qualification to this is that the other party McCain shows contempt for with this choice is the American public. At best, he has "an instinct about her" that she will be both an effective leader and one consistent with his principles, should the need arise (not, obviously, a huge hypothetical given McCain's age and health history). At worst, he simply doesn't care--and he doesn't think the voters will care either.

My first reaction to the pick was that Palin's selection seemed like something you'd see on television--as a plot contrivance in a reality show or a lousy, soon-to-basic cable movie about politics. Right now, it's closer to sadness and even dismay that the McCain campaign seems to think we're dumb enough that it might "work" for their political purposes.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Okay, Now I'm Excited
All week, I've been keeping my distance exposure-wise from the Democratic National Convention. In part, it's because I find the staged nature of modern political conventions both uninteresting and mildly disgusting, and in part it's because the Phillies have been on TV each of the last four nights. The bits I've seen have been fine: Michelle Obama's speech Monday night, Biden's last night, slices of other ones. The Clintons evidently acquitted themselves pretty well, and I saw enough of Bill Clinton's remarks last night to marvel again at how much better he is at making the populist economic case than any other pol in my lifetime.

In a few hours, Obama will try to pull off a similar feat. I've been nervous about this speech, because the atmospherics of it are too obviously rock-concert and the expectations are almost impossibly high. But now I'm more curious than nervous, because Obama's economic philosophy--superbly laid out in this article by Times economic reporter David Leonhardt--has really revolutionary possibilities. The piece is actually so good that I'm hesitant to quote any of it; essentially, it describes how Obama takes the approach that market operations often present the best solution to policy problems, but that they're neither infallible nor sacrosanct. It's perhaps the clearest expression of the often vague post-partisanship Obama is said to represent--essentially fusing the ends of classic liberal Democrats with the means of market-focused Reagan Republicans--and, if successful, could truly revolutionize public policy in this country.

I strongly urge you to give it a read.

Friday, August 22, 2008

It's Biden
Here's the Times story.

At work today, we were waiting and waiting and waiting for the announcement, and getting more agitated as the afternoon wore on because it just isn't done that BIG NEWS is released late on a Friday--much less over the weekend. From that perspective, the fact that this leaked tonight rather than in the morning suggests that Obama totally "lost control of the process." That will cost him style points, I'm sure, with the punditariat.

In the larger scheme, though, I have trouble believing that matters to anybody outside of those who follow this nonsense so obsessively as to dwell on "political stagecraft." CNN has 24 hours a day to fill, and if Wolf Blitzer and his gaggle of idiots were put out by having all that time to fill and no news to fill it with, and they tomorrow cluck about the timing, so be it. I think--and again I largely blame the Clintons and Bushes for this--that stuff has come to overshadow the substance.

And on the substance, I think Biden's a pretty solid pick. The objections to him, at least in lefty circles (because they're easily offended) and among those same pundits (because they're even more easily distracted), will revolve around the dumb things he's said over four decades in public life. As if every public figure hasn't said dumbassed things. The upside of Biden and his "experience" is that the guy sends a signal to certain groups of voters that Obama's "change" isn't revolutionary and scary; it's grounded in previous traditions. There's not only a measure of positive continuity to it, but even renewal.

Expect to see and hear Biden presented as a throwback to the Democrats of the 1960s and '70s: not the special-pleader activists but the "regulars" who had a sense of fair play, moderate-to-hawkish political instincts, and a focus on the pocketbook issues of their constituents. The Kennedys and Hubert Humphrey and even Scoop Jackson, rather than the much more compromised and debased Democratic leaders from 1980 to the present. For that matter, Biden's blunt or artless remarks, while they might wrinkle noses at Daily Kos, also might actually send a positive signal to a lot of Americans who certainly don't consider themselves bigots, but have made the occasional dumbassed remark. There's even a chance that his inartful statements might prod some reporters to re-examine McCain's plentiful trove of verbal fuckups.

The last thing about it is that, a bit like Bush picking Cheney in 2000, the selection of a "statesman type" who won't change the electoral math in any obvious way also sends the signal that this is a confident nominee who's looking ahead to governing rather than trying to win one state. Picking someone like Tim Kaine or Evan Bayh might (or might not) have boosted Obama's chances to win by tipping Virginia or Indiana. But neither selection would have had any chance to deepen that appeal. Biden might do that by, say, tempering the trepidation of older voters.

And he's going to be a hell of an attack dog, which will help--if just by giving the mainstream press more shiny things to jump after while repeating Obama's themes and priorities.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Let's Make It Interesting
The format of the presidential debates was announced today. There will be three presidential and one vice-presidential debates, all 90 minutes in length and all moderated by establishment journalism types: Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Tom Brokaw (presumably filling in for the late Tim Russert), Bob Schieffer. The first presidential debate will be on national security and foreign policy; the second a "town hall" format where, in theory, anything goes; and the last one domestic and economic policy. (The details of the one VP debate will be finalized after the selections are announced.)

I guess one could play the DC pundit game and think about who is advantaged how by the items on this schedule: McCain's expectations will be higher for the first debate, Obama's for the last, McCain might have an edge in the town hall format or at least thinks he will, and so on.

But really, fuck that. With few exceptions, the debates are as predictable and dull and staged as everything else in our politics. And, once again, they fall during the baseball postseason--which means that a big chunk of the country won't be paying attention or (as I remember doing in '04 with the Twins/Yankees ALDS), flipping back and forth. More and more, I wonder (and I'm far from the first to suggest this) if the dismal quality and scheduling of our political discourse is intentional in how easy it becomes for most Americans to disengage from the whole circus.

So I'm thinking, as I did during the primary season (and might have written about here), that we need to sex up the debate formats. I honestly believe there are ways to do this that would be enlightening for the voters as well as entertaining for the audience. Here are my proposed debates:

1. Time's Yours Debate: A two-hour exchange in which any topic is fair game with minimal moderation, in which each candidate has a total of 50 minutes, with the moderator and commercials accounting for the other 20. The candidate can use his/her time however they see fit--but when it's gone, it's gone. This would showcase the candidates' multi-dimensional decision-making and prioritizing: given the matchup this year, McCain might want to use more of his time on foreign policy since he perceives that as his strength, but if he totally neglects pocketbook issues, he knows the media types might call him out on that afterward. An added wrinkle: with the time constraints still in effect, the candidates directly question each other for the last hour. Do they use it on (loaded) questions or lengthy answers? Do these decisions help or hinder?

2. Tag-Team Debate: A two-hour "team" battle in which each candidate can bring two advisers to the stage with him/her, either to whisper advice or offer additional answers. This would give some insight into the sort of people the potential president would call upon for support--and whom they would want to put forward in front of the country--and also by inference how they make those decisions. Given how important teamwork and cohesiveness are once the candidate takes office, I think this would be fascinating, offering both a preview of who might serve in the Cabinet or informally as advisors and what sort of internal leadership the would-be president might show.

3. Japanese Game-Show Debate: This isn't exactly what I'd call it, but I like the name. It's a town hall format with a twist: both candidates have to take a shot every 15 minutes, on-camera, through the two hours of the debate. The first hour is radio-only; the second hour is live TV. Also, in the second hour the questioners are replaced by ringers: third-party candidates and other high-profile public figures identified either with public service or a particular issue set (David Gergen, Lance Armstrong, etc). In addition to being just fucking great TV, we'd really get a chance to how the candidates respond in a volatile situation with many variables--like the White House is.

(Only problem is that this would advantage either more serious drinkers or larger candidates. And it would be embarrassing if somebody barfed. Maybe it would be best to replace the shots with that zero-g simulator astronauts train with, though I guess the vomit risk might still be a concern.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Faint Praise
A piece in today's paper asks the question: "Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?" The feature, while well done, is essentially a valentine to The Daily Show, and says pretty much what you'd expect it to say. Though this was interesting:

When Americans were asked in a 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press to name the journalist they most admired, Mr. Stewart, the fake news anchor, came in at No. 4, tied with the real news anchors Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw of NBC, Dan Rather of CBS and Anderson Cooper of CNN.

Here's the original poll; the fact that Katie Couric, who's proven herself a rather lousy journalist, and Bill O'Reilly, who's no more (and arguably less) a journalist than I am, got the most votes suggests that maybe this isn't something we should take all that seriously.

Later in the day, I read this typically eviscerating post from Glenn Greenwald, which I think gets at why Stewart might be held in higher regard than his more "respected" peers. Greenwald starts by recounting comments made in an online chat earlier this week by Michael Abromowitz, the Washington Post White House reporter; asked to name some of his "favorite people at the White House who are not in the spotlight," Abromowitz immediately launched into rhapsodic praise of the "lower-level press aides" in the White House press office and others at the deputy staff level with whom he's become close, before taking pains to mention that the individuals he named are "extremely discreet, so it's not like anyone is really dishing on the president!" This doesn't sit well with Greenwald--as, of course, it shouldn't:

That sounds like a really fun and playful circle of friends -- just a great, great group of people -- and Abramowitz seems to derive much satisfaction from being able to be a part of it. Only a curmudgeon -- or some shrill, angry Leftist type that just doesn't understand How Journalism Works -- would begrudge Abramowitz his fun.

But, in theory at least, White House press officials are the principal impediments to a White House reporter's being able to do his job. The core function of the White House press officials with whom Abramowitz loves to "hang out" and of whom he is obviously so fond is to manipulate his reporting in favor of the White House, to conceal or distort facts that are incriminating of the President, to disseminate narratives that promote the Government's goals. That's true in general, and particularly so for the most secretive and manipulative White House in modern American history. For that reason, healthy "watchdog" journalism would dictate that such officials are viewed with suspicion, that the relationship would be far more adversarial than affectionate, that reporters would speak of such officials dispassionately rather than gushing with the kind of personal praise one generally reserves for one's dearest friends and closest colleagues.

He goes on to remind us that the investigation into the Valerie Plame leak revealed how Dick Cheney's office routinely used "Meet the Press," hosted by the late Tim Russert, which a Cheney staffer referred to as "our best format." Greenwald adds:

Just think about what that meant: the single greatest source of government disinformation and corruption in America -- Dick Cheney's office -- viewed Tim Russert as the most pliable and effective instrument for disseminating their propaganda to the country. That's not media critics or rabble-bloggers saying that. That was the view of Russert which Dick Cheney's office had -- and understandably so.

And yet -- or, more accurately, "therefore" -- it's the very same pliant instrument of government disinformation -- Tim Russert -- who was viewed more or less unanimously by the media class as being the embodiment of everything that a Good Journalist should be. The very same person who -- by Dick Cheney's own assessment -- served most eagerly as a propaganda tool for the political class was simultaneously viewed by his colleagues as the Consummate Journalist. If you wanted to prove how subservient our establishment media is to the Government, would it be possible to invent better evidence than that?

It's never nice to speak ill of the dead, and Russert was probably no more culpable here than most nationally prominent print or broadcast journalists. But the point helps explain why we no longer hold any journalist in the same regard that Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley or Edward R. Murrow once enjoyed. Jon Stewart and The Daily Show might not be the ideal vehicle for news, but certainly over the last eight years we haven't had to worry about their being spun by the government or compromised in "reporting" because of personal ties to administration officials.

Critics of The Daily Show on the right could argue that Stewart and his writers are liberals, and their bias comes through in what makes it on the air. I agree that they're liberals, but I think he's equally tough on Democratic officials and liberal-leaning guests as he is on those with more right-wing perspectives. Now that public affairs is such an integral part of the show (as it wasn't, to my knowledge, during the one year he hosted while Bill Clinton was still in office), the test will be if he trains the same level of skepticism and mockery on a Democratic president as he has on Bush. My guess (and hope) is that if given the opportunity by the electorate, he will--and if this is borne out, he might garner even more respect.

Monday, August 18, 2008

John Edwards: Dickhead
I don't think there's all that much to say about the John Edwards adultery scandal that hasn't already been said. The guy showed sufficient arrogance, naivete and flat-out bad judgment in his evident belief that he could run for the presidency and never have this come out that we can all be thankful he'll never sit across the table from world leaders as an equal, and it's now virtually certain that he won't even have the cabinet-level job or high-profile position ("poverty czar") in an Obama or other future Democratic administration that, before the story broke, he might reasonably have expected.

But in addition to his foolishness and dishonesty, we now are informed that he begged a home-state newspaper, the Charlotte News & Observer, to sit on the story during the campaign last year out of regard for his cancer-stricken wife:

About 9 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 11, former Sen. Edwards reached me on my office phone.

Earlier that day, while campaigning in South Carolina, Edwards denied a report in The National Enquirer that he had an affair with an unnamed woman who once worked in his campaign.
...
By the time Edwards called, we had decided not to publish the story in the Friday paper. But Edwards didn't know that. I wanted to hear what he had to say. We still could have reversed our decision.

Edwards told me that the allegations were not true.

He said The N&O was the paper that arrived on his doorstep every day, the one read by friends of him and his wife, Elizabeth.

He said he'd never called before to complain or state his case. Given Elizabeth's health -- she has cancer -- he said it was especially important to him that the story not run in The N&O.

When the story broke earlier this month, Edwards said--and Elizabeth Edwards confirmed, on Daily Kos--that she had known about the affair long before the time frame in which this conversation took place. So not only did he do this thing, cheating on his wife, and then have the brass to think he could get away with it--get elected president, in fact--but when it first looked like the story might see the light of day, he used his wife's illness in an emotional appeal to keep things quiet.

I can understand (not condone) adultery. There isn't a person alive, so far as I'm aware, who's utterly impervious either to physical lust or ego gratification, one of the sweetest forms of which is someone wanting to rub up against you nekkid. And while I think marriage vows are to be taken seriously, that adultery isn't just "another decision," we're all human and we're all fallible. And I think I can even understand, at least in the abstract, how Edwards might have reached the conclusion that his agenda of economic justice and social inclusion was so important that it was worth the effort to conceal his cheating was justified. (It was still incredibly stupid. But that didn't stop Bill Clinton, the pol to whom Edwards was always compared during his rise through 2004.)

What I can't fathom is how, doing all those things, he could then appeal on the basis of the woman he betrayed--not only his wife but his most effective champion and political surrogate, a political powerhouse in her own right whose illness gave undeniable emotional potency to his second run--to protect his lies. Anyone who could make such a choice lacks the character to handle the unimaginable moral burdens of the presidency. As sympathetic as I sometimes was to Edwards' policy views and his critique of our politics, I'm glad and frankly relieved that he's irrevocably gone from the stage.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What's at Stake
I saw in the Times today that Democratic leaders are starting to get fidgety about the presidential election, fretting that Barack Obama has yet to put McCain away and suggesting that he needs to start offering more specifics. This strikes me as correct in part and wrong in part: they're justified in the concern, but wrong in what should be done. The Democrats' generic advantage remains so strong, and public revulsion at Bushism in all its aspects so vivid, that Obama (or, perhaps, his surrogates) should go on the attack--not hyperbolically, not sarcastically, but factually.

The campaign needs to make the point that presidential power is primarily fourfold, and that in the exercise of every one of those facets of power, Obama and the Democrats are much more in tune with the current priorities and wishes of the public than McCain and the Republicans.

The first two facets are the powers of appointment to the judiciary and bureaucracy. I think it's generally agreed that the Bush approach to these executive prerogatives has been a net negative: the courts now seem to be to the right of the public, certainly on economic matters and arguably on social matters. The example always used--in fact, the only aspect of this ever discussed in the mainstream media--is that one more anti-abortion vote on the Supreme Court throws reproductive rights into probably fatal jeopardy; but that's really the least of it. The appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito have led to a series of decisions limiting workers' redress against employment discrimination, corporate liability for irresponsible conduct, and governmental power to regulate political campaigns among many other broadly unpopular holdings. The Bush-era abuses of the bureaucracy--the unstated view that, in the eyes of conservatives, inept government is the best government, as well as the comprehensive politicization of essentially administrative agencies (embodied by fanatical dimwits like Monica Goodling)--are even more viscerally repugnant to voters--or would be, if Obama were to hit the issue hard enough.

On both issues, Obama can leverage the Democrats' current voter-ID edge because the nature and typical usage of these powers--which get minimal attention during the campaign, of course--is why partisan voting almost always is the rational course. If you want judges of a certain temperament and mindset, or you have more or less blind faith in "the market" to produce outcomes that serve the general good, that's almost always going to lead you to support one party or the other at the federal level based on its core philosophy. This is also where the Ralph Nader/George Wallace argument that there's no difference between the two parties falls apart.

The third facet of presidential power where Obama has the advantage is the president's ability to either thwart or enable Congress. If you take it as read that the Democrats will maintain control of Congress, and probably expand their margins somewhat, having Obama simply "get out of their way" will mean that a lot of popular measures George W. Bush has blocked--including stem cell research, S-CHIP reauthorization and expansion, and a drawdown of forces in Iraq among many others--will go forward. It might seem counterintuitive to link the presidential candidate with a stunningly unpopular Congress--until you recall that a big reason for that unpopularity is because they've gotten so little done, and that Bush and the Republicans have blocked most of these popular measures.

This brings us to the fourth facet of presidential power: shaping the national agenda. (I'm putting foreign policy in this bucket, though it certainly could merit its own.) McCain has said, "There will be other wars." The enthusiasm he's shown for open-ended commitments in Iraq, a belligerent posture vis-a-vis Iran and Russia and maybe China, and generally the way he seems to perk up at the figurative smell of gunpowder suggests he is, at least in this instance, truly offering "straight talk." And, in probably my biggest single disappointment given his history, he hasn't breathed a word that I'm aware of about pruning the unfathomably bloated Pentagon budget.

(I actually don't think Obama has the political courage to take on defense spending; probably no Democrat would, other than maybe Sen. Jim Webb if somehow he became President. No Republican would, of course, because it's evidently axiomatic to them that defense spending is never "wasteful." But Obama won't look eagerly around for new wars to fight--as McCain's recent saber-rattling on Georgia and Russia again suggests he would. That's a pretty big deal. I also suspect the Democrat would be much more assertive in ending torture, pursuing diplomacy where appropriate and re-examining some old orthodoxies (like the Cuba embargo), and emphasizing a pro-worker agenda in trade negotiations.)

In terms of domestic/economic priorities, Obama has talked endlessly about universal health care and ending dependency on foreign oil. McCain shrugs away the problems of the health care system, and while he talks a decent game on oil, he couldn't even be bothered to show up and vote for the extension of the alternate-energy tax cuts he claims to support. His domestic/economic agenda boils down to more-of-same from the last eight years: tax cuts for the richest, and irresponsible--actually incoherent--budgeting. His talk about spending cuts won't ever fly in a Democratic-controlled congress, for better and for worse. The resultant gridlock would amount to a replay--maybe an intensification of--the Bush-era pattern of absurdly draconian domestic budgets and a pushback from Congress, serving both sides' political interests (the Republican executive valiantly tries to hold the line on spending, while the guys who face the voters more frequently stand up for the citizenry that depends on those programs) but not the national interest. Certainly, forget about the big new investments in infrastructure and education that most Americans seem to support. The one arguable positive domestically of a McCain administration is the possibility of a grand compromise on immigration, along the lines of what he proposed a year or two ago... which of course would infuriate the Republican right. But I think that would be almost equally likely under Obama, who presumably wouldn't be as worried about what Michelle Malkin or Rush Limbaugh "think."

So that's how I would contest this race were I an Obama strategist: remind the public relentlessly that McCain is a Republican, and force him either to own up to the disastrous and unpopular Bush legacy or repudiate it, driving a large chunk of his base to the sidelines.

One last point, sort of along these lines but also the way I'm starting to rally myself to care about all this again: I think the single most important aspect of this election is for American voters to show the world that we repudiate the Bush legacy of torture, partisan polarization of even everyday government functions, economic irrationality and short-sightedness, and near-mindless belligerence on the world stage. Since McCain has chosen to embrace the bulk of that legacy, he must be defeated. The way the race is playing out in the moronic media, it's all about Obama--but to me, this is still about Bush and the foul perversion of American governance he's perpetuated since 2000.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Two Flavors of Frustration
While “working” at home Thursday afternoon, I had the distinct non-pleasure of watching the Phillies get shut out by the Florida Marlins, 3-0. The shutout was the seventh the supposedly potent Phils offense has endured in 2008, after getting blanked a total of six times combined in 2006 and 2007 (and as I type, they're bidding for #8, with a scoreless game in the 8th inning). And yet again it wasted a strong outing by team ace Cole Hamels, who pitched into the seventh inning and allowed two earned runs while striking out seven. Hamels has the best ERA on the team at 3.35, but just a 9-8 record to show for it. The biggest reason why is the team’s utter lack of offensive support: in ten of Hamels’ 24 starts this season, the Phillies have scored two runs or fewer, including three of the shutouts.

In addition to losing a game of their lead over the second-place Marlins, the Phils also allowed the Mets, who were playing at the same time, to creep one game closer in the competitive NL East. New York won their game, 5-3, on a two-run walkoff homer by David Wright. But the Mets starter yesterday, Johan Santana, might be even more frustrated than Hamels: for the seventh time in 2008, he left the game with a lead only to see the bullpen squander it behind him. (The Phillies accounted for two of those, and unlike yesterday, the Mets lost those contests. It’s the only good thing the Phils have done against the Mets this season, as New York has won 9 of the teams’ 13 games.) For the year, Santana has been even better than Hamels: his ERA is 2.85, fifth best in the NL and more than thirty points below his outstanding career mark of 3.18. But his record is only 9-7.

There’s obviously a lesson (at least one) to be gleaned from all this, but articulating anything along these lines would seem to be little more than an exercise in clich├ęd statements of the obvious. All I can say for sure is that the Phillies have blown a lot of good work by their best pitcher, and that the Mets’ shitty bullpen could wind up costing me money in two fantasy leagues in which I paid top dollar for Johan Santana.

And on that note, I’m off for a short vacation. Back next Friday.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Burn the Witch vs. Soak the Rich
Probably like most people in my field, I get the Crain's New York Business Daily every afternoon around 4. Most days, there isn't anything particularly bearing on what I do (whatever that is), but they're relevant or interesting often enough that it's a worthwhile skim. Today is one of those days, with Crain's offering the news that New Yorkers evidently are concerned enough about the state's budget problems--which do not constitute a "fiscal crisis"; more on that in a bit--and sufficiently disgruntled with the current level of public services, that they're receptive to a so-called "millionaire's tax":

Even as personal budgets feel the pinch, the city and state finances are also reeling from rising costs and budget shortfalls. Gov. David Paterson estimated last week that the state budget deficit for fiscal year 2009 stands at $6.4 billion, after having swelled by 30% in less than four months.

To help offset the shortfall, voters surveyed by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute overwhelmingly approve of taxing the state’s richest residents with a “millionaire’s tax.” Nearly 80% of those surveyed, including a majority of Democrats, Republicans and Independents, were in favor of raising the state income taxes of residents who make more than $1 million a year.

The millionaire’s tax vote disappointed at least one business leader, who called the proposal gimmicky.

“The fiscal policy of the state needs to be balanced through discipline,” said Ken Adams, chief executive of the Business Council of New York State. “I know the economy is tough and people are worried, but we believe the solution is to cut spending, not look for new revenues.”

I know Ken Adams slightly; he's a longtime friend of the Center, was an outstanding member of the city Workforce Investment Board when he served as president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, and has been a source (always on the record, I think) for various things I've written. Probably because I've always thought highly of him, I'm less inclined to dismiss his words here as the typical, if not necessary and inevitable, protestation of a business leader on behalf of his constituents. But I think the most pertinent question is which solution to the budget problems of the state does more harm: increasing taxes on the best-off (which could spur relocation out of the state, thus shrinking the revenue pool), or cutting services through shrunken public budgets (which would exacerbate current deficiencies in education, social services, public facilities--libraries and parks--and so on)?

The Working Families Party, which for years has been calling for a rollback of the upper-income tax cuts passed during the Pataki Administration, doesn't find this a very tough call. They too cite the Quinnipiac poll, and posit the same choice between less spending and more revenues. But in their Budget Battle Bulletin blog post from yesterday, WFP calls upon a Nobel Laureate economist to make their case, while taking a whack at a conservative columnist:

Bill Hammond at the Daily News, however, isn't buying any calls for ration and calm:

“It would be easy for Gov. Paterson to play down the gravity of New York State's fiscal quagmire. It would be easy to ignore the steep slide in tax receipts, to pretend that Wall Street will bounce back in a couple of months…”


He goes on to bash calls for raising taxes on the wealthy as part of the solution to the budget gap:
“[Paterson] could just go along with the easiest of easy fixes - hiking taxes on the wealthy, further pummeling the state's battered economy.”


That’s an interesting argument, considering that the last time New York asked its most fortunate citizens to contribute a little more to keeping society running (2003 – 2005), the economy kept right on growing. In fact, although Governor Pataki had predicted a negative impact on the economy and on the number of high income earners in New York during the last budget battle, tax filers with incomes above $200,000 continued to grow steadily.

But Hammond raises the right question - what would be better for the state's economy, raising taxes on the wealthy or cutting spending?

Lucky for us, Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winning economist, has weighed in on exactly that topic, telling Albany leaders in a March 17th letter:

“New York, like most states, is now facing an unenviable choice: either taxes have to be raised, or expenditures cut…When faced with such an unpleasant choice, economic theory and evidence gives a clear and unambiguous answer: it is economically preferable to raise taxes on those with high incomes than to cut state expenditures.”

“The reasoning is straightforward: in a recession you want to raise (or not decrease) the total level of spending – by households, business, and government – in the economy.”


Bill, you may want to slash New York’s healthcare and education spending for ideological reasons, but most New Yorkers don’t want to use the economic downturn as an excuse for more Bush-enomics.

Reading Hammond's original column, though, I see something that might be important: a quote from Governor Paterson about the addictive nature of taxes.

"I really don't want to discuss the issue of taxes, because as soon as you do, it perpetuates the addiction," he told the Daily News Editorial Board on Friday. "It was taxes, in many ways, that got us here. There's always somebody who will bail you out."

And here we get to the essential difficulty in debates like this one: the loudest voices belong to the ideologues, the likes of Hammond who (I assume, not knowing much of anything about the guy) view every tax increase as anathema and the WFP who, since they've been calling for higher taxes on the rich at every opportunity for years, through good times and bad, have little credibility to draw upon in advocating that solution for this particular problem.

So to me, that brings us back to the question I asked earlier: which direction yields less long-term pain? Another opinion piece published today, by a Queens Assemblyman named Rory Lancman, suggests that if we all calm the hell down a little, we actually can figure this out.

Lancman also explains why the state's current predicament is really not comparable to the full-blown fiscal crisis New York City faced the mid-1970s: back then, nobody would buy the city's bonds, and it looked like bankruptcy would be the near-certain consequence. Now, we merely face a series of budget shortfalls:$600 million this year, in the context of a $121.6 billion budget (less than half of one percent) and projected deficits of $6.4 billion, $7.7 billion, and $10.5 billion over the next three years. That's an unpleasant prospect, certainly, but one within the state's power to solve through taxing and spending decisions--as opposed to the city's fiscal crisis, which required outside assistance to solve. That said, it's a relevant precedent in that the city's fiscal crisis was so scary that public officials at both the local and state level have been loathe to decree tax increases or undertake big new spending initiatives ever since. The fiscal crisis made austerity a political winner.

[W]hy is it so important that we acknowledge that there is no crisis, but merely a serious challenge?

Because crises produce bad policies, while serious challenges produce serious, thoughtful responses.

Witness the rush to judgment of our state's editorialists and political commentators, crying out for cuts, cuts and more cuts to education, health care and our work force; and no new taxes, even for those earning over a million dollars a year. Have the fiscal and social consequences been thought out of our consigning another generation of New York City schools kids to an inadequate education after we finally got them their fair share of state education money; of denying access to health care for the working poor or elderly; of ignoring the gross inequities in our tax policies that leave middle class families paying a far higher share of their resources in state taxes than our wealthiest citizens?

The late summer, one-day special legislative session three weeks before the September primary elections called by the governor is a perfect recipe for the bad policies bred of overstated crises, and should give those who care about good government serious pause for concern. New York has a detailed and elaborate budget-making process, essentially running from January through March, culminating in an approved budget by April 1 (a target date the state has more or less hit with consistency the last few years after two decades of absurdly late budgets).

The process is filled with good government stuff we should be loathe to throw overboard for a one-day special session at the first whiff of stormy seas: budget hearings covering every subject area and state agency; detailed budget analyses and economic forecasts provided by each legislative chamber's majority and minority parties; public budget conference committee meetings and reports; and a state comptroller with the power and pulpit to arbitrate revenue disputes. Perhaps most importantly, the budget process is filled with context — the context of an overall budget that strives to meet the many varied and competing interests and needs of New York's extraordinarily diverse population — urban and rural; upstate and downstate; young and old.

Now, obviously Lancman has a pretty clear point of view here; he's with the WFP. (And in fact he's cited in today's WFP budget blog.) But his process description is the key point: we can run the numbers and make an informed decision. If those crying that a "millionaire's tax" will do more harm than good can prove their case with budget projections, then by all means let's emphasize spending cuts. If, on the other hand, his argument about the damage such cuts would do to the work of schools, hospitals and other publicly funded services is proven valid, then that's the proper direction for policymakers. It should be data, not ideology--anyone's ideology--that determines the course of action.