Politics Archive

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Response to E-mail: 'Brilliantly Explained', Is Government Spending Out of Control?

Dollar SignI received an e-mail the other day with the subject line, 'Brilliantly Explained'. I've put it below the fold if you want to read it in full, but the summary is that it compared U.S. tax revenue, the federal budget, new debt, the national debt, and recent budget cuts. It then trimmed a bunch of the zeroes to put it into a perspective easier for most people to grasp - arguing that the current situation is untenable, and that we should cut the budget further rather than raise the debt ceiling (I assume this e-mail began circulating some time ago).

I haven't bothered to fact check all the figures given in the e-mail. Rather, I decided to take a step back and look at the big picture. Is spending by the government out of control?

Here's an interesting link to a website that shows government spending as a percentage of GDP, from 1902 on up to today. Note that these numbers include direct federal spending, as well as state and local spending.

Here's a link to the official Office of Management and Budget site that details federal spending.

Federal spending has actually remained fairly constant at right around 20% of GDP since 1950.

From the mid '50s through the '60s, total government spending was fairly constant at just under 30% of GDP. It began creeping up until the '80s, when it leveled off at around 35%, and then just recently jumped up to a little over 40% of GDP in 2009, but has been slowly decreasing since. The highest spending ever as a percentage of GDP (both total & federal) was during WWII - up close to 50%, higher than today's spending. (I know I've mentioned this before, but a majority of economists argue that that type of government spending was a major contributor to getting us out of the Great Depression, and that similar short term spending now would help get us out of the current recession. - Wikipedia)

So, for the past 60 years, about a quarter of our nation's history, federal spending has been nearly constant, and total government spending has been between about 30% and 40% of GDP. Granted, it may be a little higher right now, but it doesn't seem unsustainable.

Here's an article from Wikipedia on government spending.

That Wikipedia article has similar graphs, but it also has government spending per capita for various nations. The U.S. is below the average for the World's 20 largest economies. So again, it doesn't appear that spending from the government in the U.S. is exorbitant.

Here are some other links I've included on this blog before dealing with tax rates, both the history of taxes in the U.S., and comparisons to other countries.

These show a history of tax rates decreasing since the 1960s, reaching an all-time low under Bush Jr., but being almost as low right now under Obama. The comparison to other countries shows that the tax burden in the U.S. is well below that of other prosperous democracies.

So, looking at the history of government spending, there's nothing about current levels too out of line with the past 6 decades worth of spending or with other countries, but taxes, a major source of government income, have been decreasing. Nobody particularly likes taxes, but it seems like if we want to enjoy the types of infrastructure and services the government's been providing ever since we've been old enough to remember, we're going to have to suck it up and pay our fair share. What would be irresponsible and out of line with traditional monetary policy would be to call for further tax cuts that cripple the government's ability to pay what have been normal expenses for the past half century*.

*Don't get me wrong. I think there's plenty of room for improvement in how government money is spent. My wife works on a military base, so believe me, I've heard plenty about how wasteful the government can be. My main point is to avoid hyperbole. Government spending is not drastically out of line with the past, and so doesn't require drastic cuts. Modest cuts along with more tax revenue would get the job done, and get us back into our nation's traditional position.

It's also worth pointing out that the jump to spending over 40% of GDP occurred under Bush's tenure with 2 wars and a severe economic recession. You'd fully expect government spending to increase under those conditions.

And as one final note to address the original e-mail, it should be obvious that the debt ceiling is set in absolute dollars, not as a percentage of GDP. Such an absolute debt ceiling is going to have to be raised periodically just to account for inflation if nothing else.

Continue reading "Response to E-mail: 'Brilliantly Explained', Is Government Spending Out of Control?" »

Monday, August 6, 2012

Chick-Fil-A, Bigotry, and Rights

Chick-Fil-A, Bigotry, and Rights

Chick-Fil-AMost people have by now heard of the Chick-Fil-A brouhaha. There are a few issues related to it that I'd like to discuss. But first, just for anyone who hasn't heard of what's been going on - a few weeks ago, Chick-Fil-A's president and CEO, Dan Cathy, made the following comments on The Ken Coleman Show (source: Christian post:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,'" Cathy said. "I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

The comments ignited a firestorm of protest and a bit of a scandal in their response. Opponents of marriage equality were understandably happy with Cathy's comments, and at the suggestion of Mike Huckabee, this past Wednesday was Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day, giving the chain record sales. Supporters of marriage equality came back with a Same Sex Kiss Day on Friday.

I have to say, I'm really rather surprised that this whole fiasco blew up so suddenly. After all, it's not as if Chick-Fil-A's position on marriage equality was a secret. In 2010, the company donated nearly $2 million to anti-gay groups. A local franchise in Pennsylvania donated lunches to an anti-gay marriage seminar, without any censure from the home office. Here's an article from 2007 in Forbes detailing the discriminatory practices of the company. And there are plenty of other examples of the company behaving badly. I'm not sure why these recent comments have caused such an uproar.

One issue is whether or not we should care about the political opinions of the heads of companies. Lots of people have crazy ideas, and if we limited our patronage only to those businesses run by people that we agreed with on every issue, there wouldn't be many businesses we could go to. However, some issues are more important than others, and wanting to deny basic rights to a particular segment of the population is certainly a big one. But still, just an ideological disagreement of opinion, in my mind, isn't enough of a reason to boycott an establishment.

The problem comes when the disagreement is more than just opinion, or just the actions of individual employees of the company. When the company institutes official policies that are discriminatory (go read that Forbes article), then I do start to question whether or not to support that company. And when they use company profits - money I paid them - to donate to such organizations as Exodus International or the Family Research Council (officially designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), then I really must draw the line. It's no longer just a difference of opinion, but giving financial support to bigoted organizations actively campaigning to deny people civil rights.

In fact, due to their policies and donation history, I've had my own personal 'soft' boycott of Chick-Fil-A for a few years now. On my own, I won't eat at the restaurant. However, if I'm with a group of people, and they decide to go there, I won't refuse. So, in the past 5 years, I'd guess that I've been to Chick-Fil-A 3 times. I don't think the slight profit on 3 chicken sandwiches has significantly contributed to the anti-marriage equality movement.

This is also one of the areas that's surprised me a bit in the coverage I've seen of this issue. So much of it has focused on Cathy's recent comments. Why hasn't their been more discussion of the company's donation history?

Unfortunately, this situation has brought out some bad reactions from politicians on the left. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, among others, have gone on record as willing to block Chick-Fil-A from setting up shop in their cities. Emanuel had this to say:

Chick-fil-A's values are not Chicago values. They're not respectful of our residents, our neighbors and our family members. And if you're gonna be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect Chicago values.

And Menino wrote the following in an open letter:

There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it... I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston.

Sorry guys, but you can't do that. No matter how much you may disagree with Cathy, or how odious you may find the organizations Chick-Fil-A has donated to, it's their First Amendment right to do so. As public officials, you can't stop them from expressing their views, or try to block their business because of it. All of us private citizens are free to boycott the company in protest, but the government can't interfere.

Although I'm surprised that Cathy's recent comments set off such a firestorm, I suppose it may have been the trigger in a situation that was already at its boiling point. As I pointed out above, Chick-Fil-A's position on marriage equality has been no secret for quite a while, now, and their record of donations to bigoted organizations and hate groups is well documented. It was a bit disheartening to see such an outpouring of support for Chick-Fil-A's position on this particular matter, but it was also troubling to see left wing politicians wanting to infringe on Chick-Fil-A's First Amendment rights. For my part, I'll continue to avoid eating at the restaurant.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The 2012 Texas Republican Platform

Republican ElephantThe latest Texas Republican Party Platform has been out for a few weeks now. Others have already covered it (such as The Texas Freedom Network, Think Progress, Why Evolution is True, and Pharyngula), but since I commented on the 2008 and 2010 platforms, I figured I'd add my two cents on this one as well.

You can download a PDF copy of the platform from the Texas Freedom Network to read the whole thing for yourself.

This latest platform is largely similar to the past two. To quote my previous entries, they've "simply reinforced what I already knew about the Republican Party - their mangling of history, the injection of religion into politics, their opposition to science, the suppression of free speech, their bigotry towards homosexuals, their isolationist views on international issues, their desire to impose their morality on everybody," along with "their disregard for the checks and balances in the federal government, with their desire to limit the judiciary's power," and, surprisingly, how "much of the platform was based on utter nonsense".

Since this latest platform is so similar, I'll try not to repeat too much of what I've written in those previous critiques, and stick to new additions, or items I missed in reviewing the previous platforms. However, some planks are just so outrageous that I can't help but discuss them again.

Continue reading "The 2012 Texas Republican Platform" »

Friday, June 29, 2012

Obamacare Lives (A Discussion of the Individual Mandate)

CaduceusAs practically everybody knows by now, the Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act. To be honest, I don't actually know enough detail about the full law to know how good of a solution it is. I can say, from what I have heard of it, that I think it's decent. I've written before about universal health care, and why I thought it was a good idea, if implemented properly. In that entry, I linked to a good article on Denialism Blog, Are Patients in Universal Healthcare Countries Less Satisfied?, which did a good job of comparing the U.S. health care system to those of other industrialized nations (the U.S. doesn't fare so well). When the Affordable Care Act was first passed, Denialism Blog had another article, Healthcare reform, which is a good summary of the law, giving both pros and cons (in his opinion, most of the cons seem to be that it didn't go far enough in overhauling the system). So like I said, from what I have read of 'Obamacare', it sounds like a decent start to reforming our health care system.

Perhaps what I've always thought was most important in health care reform was actually making it universal, which Congress implemented in this case with the individual mandate - that everyone must buy insurance or pay a penalty. To quote part of my previous entry:

One issue is that we already do have a de facto national health care system. Publicly funded hospitals cannot turn away anyone for a life threatening emergency. And honestly, I like that. I don't want to show up at a hospital bleeding out, and have to wait on some clerk to clear my insurance before the surgeons fix me up. And I don't want paramedics to be the ones making decisions on whether or not I get treated when the ambulance shows up.

So, seeing as how insured and non-insured alike get treated by hospitals, the individual mandate guarantees that there will be no more parasites getting free medical care from those of us that actually pay into the system.

Unfortunately, the individual mandate seems to be what bothers the right wing the most. They see it as an infringement on their freedom. And to be perfectly honest, it is a bit, but that's part of the price you pay to live in a society.

We live in civilized society, not an anarchy. To live in such a society, you must necessarily give up some freedom to ensure the greater good. To think otherwise is analogous to the impertinent child, who when scolded for misbehaving, claims it's a free country so he can do whatever he wants. Or, to use a popular saying, my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins. Of course, we value freedom very much in this country, so we must be ever on the alert to ensure that the freedom we lose is within acceptable bounds, and to keep government from becoming too intrusive. The debate is where to draw that line. To take an outlandishly extreme example, you can't go outside and fire a gun randomly into the air, because the bullets may come down and hurt somebody else. I doubt anybody would question that law. Similarly, when someone wrongs you, you can't gather up a group of vigilantes and hunt them down with a posse. You have to rely on the police and the court system. Moving on to a slightly different class of examples, when society requires certain infrastructures, we expect all members of society to contribute, even if it goes against your freedom of inaction, or your freedom to spend your money however you want (in fact, taxes themselves are an example of giving up some freedom). We have an interstate highway system that is open to everybody. And even if you're one of the rare people who never uses it, odds are very high that you benefit from the cheaper shipping costs possible with that system, so everybody has to contribute. And moving to two examples that I consider very similar to health care, we have publicly funded fire departments and police forces. You can't try to get out of paying the taxes to support those institutions by saying that you'll take your chances on your house not catching fire, or that you'll buy a gun and protect yourself. Those entities exist to help the public in general, and they would come to your aid if you were ever unfortunate enough to require their services. Further, even if payment were voluntary, there would be no practical way to determine during emergencies whether or not you were one of the people covered by their protection*. So, the only practical solution is to compel everybody to contribute to those services.

For the specific case of health care, where it's a service that everybody participates in, and where the practical effect of mandating that everybody have insurance is that insurance premiums and even overall cost will be less for everybody, I don't see why there's a big debate on whether or not this is one of those times where we're willing to contribute our part for the greater good. It just makes sense that everybody should be insured.

*Actually, it's not entirely true that fire departments can't determine who's paid up or not. To read what happened in a rural area when a homeowner had forgotten to pay a $75 fee to the local fire department, read this article, No pay, no spray: Firefighters let home burn. So, in some areas, it is technically feasible to only help those who have paid ahead of time, even if it seems atrocious. However, in other areas, like cities, letting a fire burn in one building would endanger adjacent buildings, so it's not really an option.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Texas Primary Results for SBOE

TEA LogoThe primary elections took place in Texas this past Tuesday. You can find general discussion on it plenty of places (such as here), but most news stories don't spend a lot of time on the State Board of Education (SBOE), if they mention it at all. If you've followed this blog, you'll know that I've discussed the SBOE a few times before. An extreme right-wing faction has pulled some sleazy and dishonest stunts over the past few years, from last minute back door dealings that not all board members were privy to, to trying to inject creationism into science, to trying to change history standards to some alternative reality.

This is a unique year. Normally, only a few of the SBOE seats are on the ballot each year. But because of the recent redistricting here in Texas, all 15 seats are up this year. Although several of the extremists were voted out in recent elections, this is still an opportunity to help expunge the remainder, and the primary is the first step.

The Texas Freedom Network has a very good summary of all the candidates and who won each district, and I'd highly suggest you go take a look. Here's a very short summary.

District Republican nominee Democratic nominee
1 Carlos "Charlie" Garza (Uncontensted, Incumbent, Extreme Right) Martha M. Domingu├ęz
2 Laurie J. Turner Runoff - Ruben Cortez, Celeste Zepeda Sanchez
3 David Williams (Uncontested) Marisa Perez
4 Dorothy Olmos (Uncontested) Lawrence Allen (Uncontested, Incumbent)
5 Ken Mercer (Incumbent, Extreme Right) Rebecca Bell-Metereau (Uncontested)
6 Donna Bahorich (Uncontested) Traci Jensen
7 David Bradley (Incumbent, Extreme Right) none
8 Barbara Cargill (Incumbent, Extreme Right) Dexter Smith
9 Thomas Ratliff (Incumbent) none
10 Runoff - Tom Maynard, Rebecca Osborne Judy Jennings (Uncontested)
11 Patricia Hardy (Incumbent, Uncontested) none
12 Runoff - Geraldine "Tincy" Miller, Gail Spurlock (Extreme Right) Lois Parrott (Uncontested)
13 S. T. Russell (Uncontested) Mavis Knight (Uncontested, Incumbent)
14 Sue Melton none
15 Marty Rowley (Extreme Right) Steven Schafersman (Uncontested)

So, it's kind of a wash. A few extremists lost in the primaries (Veronica Anzaldua - 1, Randy Stevenson - 9, Jeff Fleece - 10, and incumbent Gail Lowe - 14), but a few others won, including David Bradley who has no Democratic opposition.

With the redistricting, I got put into a new district, so my representative on the SBOE has changed. I'm a little disappointed, because I was looking forward to voting out my previous representative, Gail Lowe, who has been involved in a lot of the shenanigans (though she did redeem herself somewhat in the Science Instructional Materials adoption). But at least now I have the opportunity to vote for Steven Schafersman, though I doubt he'll win given this region's political leanings.

Now it's time to wait and see how the runoffs turn out, and then the real election. I honestly don't care if the Board is made up of Republicans or Democrats, as long as they're not extremists who put their own ideology ahead of our children's educations.

More Info

Here's a humorous take on the SBOE from the Daily Show from a little while back.

Here are a few links to external sites with good information on the recent election.

And here's a list of all the times I've discussed the SBOE or TEA.


Selling Out