Sunday, March 28, 2010

Your Bizarre Tax of the Day

If there are two things most Americans love, they're a) sports and b) whining about taxes. So fuck it, why not combine the two?
Brian Rafalski of the Detroit Red Wings was pretty vocal this week about a so-called 'privilege tax' in effect in the State of Tennessee. Essentially, it forces visiting players from teams such as the Wings to pay $2,500 when their teams play the Nashville Predators.

As Dirk Hoag of On the Forecheck pointed out when the tax was put into place last year, it effects opponents of the Preds and the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, but not those who play the NFL's Tennessee Titans, despite the fact that football players generally make more money then their hockey and basketball counterparts.

It applies to both teams - the Preds and Grizzlies and their opponents - and can be assessed for up to three games, or $7500 a head total.

Highly-paid players like Rafalski probably aren't hit badly by it, nor are superstars like LeBron James in the NBA - but what of fourth-liners and benchwarmers making the league minimums in the NBA and NHL? Or what about temporary minor-league callups to the Preds and Grizzlies, or other called-up players that just happen to be with their pro teams when they go to Tennessee? Turns out they actually have to pay to go to work that day.

Oh, and why do the Titans and their 8 home opponents not have to deal with the tax? According to SB Nation, the NFL would have punished Tennessee had they taxed Titans players. Translated - the NFL has enough power to where it can say to Tennessee something along the lines of "if you implement this tax we'll fuck you up" and have that threat be credible. The NHL and NBA are apparently less powerful, and thus their franchises* are now subject to a tax. Somewhere, Mancur Olson is laughing his ass off.

Minor-league baseballers are also exempt - good thing, too, because asking someone who plays for the AA West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx at $25000 a year to pay $7500 on top of normal income taxes just because they had the misfortune to be drafted by the Mariners would be a disaster.

So why's the tax there? Beats the shit outta me. Tennessee's official website about the tax is here - I couldn't find a justification for it at all.

Yeah, it's tough to cry for NHL and NBA players getting paid a "piddling" $500000 a year. Just remember - pro sports aren't the only thing on which an asinine "privilege tax" can be assessed.

*I say that the franchises are assessed this tax because now, in order to keep players, the Preds and Grizzlies are going to have to shell out an extra $7500 per player just to compete on an even playing field with players on teams who play in a different division.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Why Statistics Annoy

Via Greenwald, here's a CNN poll that claims that 39% of America supports the health care bill while 59% oppose it. Strong numbers, right? That's what the Republicans are talking about when they're saying Democrats ignored Americans on this, right?

Well, not so much. See, 13% of Americans opposed the bill because it's not liberal enough. Which means that 52% of Americans - a majority - either want this bill or want a bill that went further than this bill. So when Republicans say Democrats didn't listen to Americans, it's bullshit - only 43% of Americans wanted to kill the bill because it went too far.

Like it or not, health care reform was one of the main things Democrats were elected to do, and a majority of Americans apparently still want it. Conservatives who are thinking of going all-in with this "OMG HEALTH CARE REFORM WILL DESTROY AMERICA" rhetoric might want to keep this fact in mind.

Also worth noting from the poll: when it comes to who they trust on health care, Obama beats Congressional GOP 51-39, and Dems win 45-39.

Don't Look Back In Anger

Back from New Orleans and ready to blog again. If you want to see what I was doing while I wasn't blogging/researching, go here.

This space has been pretty quiet on healthcare for most of the course of its meandering trip through Congress. That's because I have a lot of mixed feelings about this bill - there were good things about it, but it was clear from the beginning that Congress was never going to deliver the kind of structural reform that our health care system needs, so I kind of checked out of the process and watched with amusement as liberals made bullshit claims about how this bill was the greatest thing since sliced bread and conservatives made even bullshittier claims about how this bill would DESTROY AMERICA ZOMFG !!!!111!!1!1!!. Now that the long health care fight is almost over, and some sort of incremental reform has reached President Obama's desk, I guess I should comment on the bill, what we've learned from the debate process, and what that means for a battle I care a lot more about - the looming fight over immigration reform...

First, the substance of the thing. The way I see it, there are two main problems with our current health care system. One is the employer-based insurance delivery system. Currently, government subsidies encourage employer purchasing of health care over individual purchases. The main problem with this is that employers aren't going to buy a policy that suits individual employees. Thus, there's no way an individual can force companies to compete for his/her specific business. The second problem is the reliance on insurance for routine care. Imagine a car insurance policy that paid out every time you filled up your gas tank or got an oil change. Pretty ridiculous, right? But that's exactly the kind of health insurance policy we expect to have currently. This leads to cost distortions so bizarre that a fancy 4-D ultrasound actually costs less than a routine OB/GYN visit during pregnancy - but since the insurance is paying for the latter, you don't know that.

The bill's centerpiece is an individual mandate and subsidy similar to that proposed by Republicans in the early 1990s and more recently implemented by the Romney administration in Massachusetts. This isn't a horrible idea in that it starts to chip away at the employer-based system. Removing the subsidy for employer-based health benefits - which I believe was a proposal from McCain during the 2008 campaign - would have done more to move us towards a consumer-centered system, but politically that's too much of an upheaval to expect all at once. I'm uncomfortable about the mandate, but the individual subsidy is a very good idea. However, the bill charges employers if the government subsidizes its employees' care - which is an absolutely awful idea.

While the bill does take shots at the employer-based system, however, it utterly fails to address the problem of overinsurance. The excise tax on super-inclusive plans is a good idea, but I think it's out in the reconciliation package. A better plan would have been to encourage people via subsidies to buy catastrophic health insurance, either from the government or from private insurers, which would pay out under unforeseen circumstances like serious illness or accidents. You know, like how insurance is supposed to work. Instead, if I remember correctly, the mandate actually includes lower limits on the benefits your plan can provide, which only perpetuates the overreliance on insurance that is distorting costs in our health-care system.

There are also a series of minor tweaks to Medicare and Medicaid, and a whole bunch of regulations on insurance coverage. All of these things are important, but none are particularly huge. All in all, we got an incremental reform where deep structural changes were needed. It's hardly the historic reform bill Democrats are touting today. Of course, it's a far, far cry from the socialistic government takeover of health care that Republicans are whining about.

Which brings us to what we can learn from the debate over health care. The most important thing Democrats can learn is this:

Don't muffle the fringes.

If you're not familiar with the concept of the Overton window, let me digress a second to describe it to you. The Overton window describes a range of policies that are acceptable to most people. The idea here is that these Overton windows can be "moved" - that is, people can be led to accept previously unthinkable policy ideas - by advocating ideas so far out of the mainstream that ideas just a little bit out of the mainstream seem acceptable by comparison. While Overton himself never did so, it's clear to me that this concept applies to rhetoric as well.

Policy-wise, this means the Democratic desire to take single-payer off the table early was a big mistake. We were never getting single-payer health care, but having people like Weiner and Dingell out there advocating it would have moved the Overton window towards the left a little bit, making liberal ideas like the public option seem a lot less radical by comparison. As it happened, though, the public option became the left fringe idea, and was thus sacrificed.

And furthermore, Republican attacks followed the rhetorical Overton window model. So many on the far right were spouting such obviously ridiculous rhetoric - death panels! IRS conspiracies! - that telling tamer-sounding lies like "government takeover" became a "reasonable" argument. What's more, Democrats allowed this to happen by not responding to right-wing demagoguery until it was too late. When absurd statements like the death panel thing go unanswered by facts, they can grow a life of their own, and when that happens, Republicans can go pretty far out into the right-wing thicket and still be thought of as reasonable. Democrats, meanwhile, seemed to keep a lid on their far-left allies, which gave them no cover to support the bill and still sound reasonable doing so.

This is especially important now because next on the table for Democrats is an issue that's almost trivially easy to demagogue - immigration. Democrats need to do three things better on this issue. One is to allow liberal think-tanks and left-wing members of Congress to propose a sweeping liberalization of immigration laws, possibly involving complete amnesty for illegal immigrants and a radical restructuring of the quota system (and perhaps its abolition altogether). This will give congressional Dems cover for a better immigration reform proposal. Two, Democrats should not muzzle the far left. Allow ultra-liberal members of Congress and left-wing pundits to sound off, because this makes mainstream Democrats look good when they take a position to the right of their peers. Three, Democrats need to anticipate Republican demagoguery and answer it with facts. I can tell you what the Republican talking points will be right now: immigrants bring crime, they take jobs away from Americans, they'll change our culture, they won't speak English. Democrats would be wise to point out a few things immediately. One, that immigrants (even illegal ones) commit crime at lower rates than native populations, and that high-immigration cities like New York and El Paso are among the safest in the country. Two, almost every economist worth listening to generally links immigration to economic growth, which will benefit even blue-collar workers. Three, even among modern Hispanic populations over 90% of third-generation immigrants speak English as their first language, a rate which compares favorably with previous non-Anglophone immigrant groups. And yeah, they'll change the culture somewhat, but if you like spaghetti and drink green beer on St. Patrick's Day then you can just shut the hell up.

Immigration will be a hell of a fight, and this close to an election it'll make the health care battle look quaint. Here's hoping Obama and the Democrats are ready.

Oh, you thought I was going to post an Oasis vid here, didn't you? Sucker...

A long, strange trip indeed.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Why The Arctic Fart Matters

Apparently a whole hell of a lot of methane that was frozen under the East Siberian Shelf of the Arctic Ocean just unfroze, and is now being released into the atmosphere. In other words, the Arctic Ocean just let a massive fart. Mother Jones' Blue Marble blog explains why it matters, and what consequences it might have for our climate. Hint: invest in air-conditioning companies.

Criminal Approach to Terror Vindicated... So Why Abandon It?

Apologies for the blogging hiatus, which will only get worse as the month rolls on - I'll be leaving for New Orleans on Sunday and not returning until after St. Patrick's Day. Probably no blogging while I'm down there.

Anyway, as I've reported in previous posts, the Obama administration's treatment of Najibullah Zazi and Captain Underpants Umar Abdulmutallab has, like the case of Richard Reid before them, vindicated the idea of treating terrorism as a crime. Both suspects were put through the legal system with little to no problems; both are cooperative and are giving good intelligence. Furthermore, as the judge who put away Reid pointed out, treating terrorists as criminals delegitimizes them, while treating them as soldiers gives them more legitimacy than they deserve. Oh, and it also proves to the rest of the world that the American system of government is so robust that even the most heinous acts of violence can't shake it.

To sum, the criminal approach to terrorism a) leads to useful intelligence, b) delegitimizes terrorists, c) makes us look good, and d) works. So the Obama administration is reacting to the overwhelming good news about the criminal approach by... abandoning it?
President Obama's advisers are nearing a recommendation that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, be prosecuted in a military tribunal, administration officials said, a step that would reverse Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s plan to try him in civilian court in New York City.

The president's advisers feel increasingly hemmed in by bipartisan opposition to a federal trial in New York and demands, mainly from Republicans, that Mohammed and his accused co-conspirators remain under military jurisdiction, officials said. While Obama has favored trying some terrorism suspects in civilian courts as a symbol of U.S. commitment to the rule of law, critics have said military tribunals are the appropriate venue for those accused of attacking the United States.
OK, first, I don't see how giving a military tribunal to someone who is not even remotely related to military activity makes a lick of sense. Second, you know you've made a bad move when even the people in the military commissions office are ripping into you:
Marine Col. Jeffrey Colwell, acting chief defense counsel at the Defense Department's Office of Military Commissions, said it would be a "sad day for the rule of law" if Obama decides not to proceed with a federal trial. "I thought the decision where to put people on trial -- whether federal court or military commissions -- was based on what was right, not what is politically advantageous," Colwell said.
Third, how on earth is America helped by not putting KSM and his cronies on trial? What risk is there to doing so? What do we gain by using a military tribunal when the criminal justice system is more than adequate? It makes absolutely no sense to me. There's no legitimate reason why KSM can't be tried in a criminal court (and spare me the tired "but we're at war" rhetoric, it has no place here). This seems like nothing more than a craven move to score political points by Obama - but in reality, it's just caving in to conservative concern trolling. The playground bullies on the right just stuffed Obama in a locker, kids. Let's all point and laugh... and wonder why the hell we ever elected someone so spineless as our president.

In other news...

It's difficult to believe that sentient beings wrote and produced this video:

The stupidity here is absurd. Let's start with the cartoonishly vapid name of the organization, "Keep America Safe." Makes "Americans for Puppies and Apple Pie" seem deep and meaningful. Moving on, let's address the meaning of the video, which is that someone who represents Gitmo detainees in court is a terrorist sympathizer. The entire idea falls apart under the most cursory inspection - first, not all Gitmo detainees are terrorists, and second, lawyers don't have to sympathize with someone to take their case. I half expect the next ad from this group to accuse Ted Bundy's lawyers of being serial killer sympathizers. Or John Adams of being a Redcoat sympathizer.

Moving on...

"Mr Wilders has called Islam a backward religion, wants a ban on headscarves in public life and has compared the Koran to Hitler's Mein Kampf." Ladies and gentlemen, your frontrunner for Dutch prime minister! One wonders how the British will handle state visits from the Dutch should Wilders win, seeing as how he's banned from entering the UK.

Oh, and Dutch? You play dirty football too.

Well, if all these stories prove anything, it's that this song continues to be relevant: