Sunday, September 27, 2015

The editors get it right this time ... for the wrong reasons

This week's Leader Times' editorials get it right.   The first editorial is based on a set of NY Times reports that the US military has been instructing soldiers to look the other way when US-trained Afghan military and police commit sexual abuse of children.  You have to read the Times articles to get a sense of the evidence for the claims.  IMHO it's quite good, which means that the editorial's conclusion is entirely correct:  "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved painfully that the US. cannot change engrained cultures.  But enabling their worst elements, or simply ignoring them, is an abomination."

The second editorial decries recent questions raised by government officials about pay-to-play fantasy football companies such as FanDuel and DraftKings.   The officials are questioning whether this is gambling and/or should be subject to the same laws and tax policies as gambling.  It seems to me that ultimately the editors are right that fantasy football is a relatively-harmless diversion and that charging people money to play and paying the winners part of the proceeds is not gambling.  Well, maybe not so harmless, if you assume that players would find something more constructive to do with the time they spend on fantasy football.  In any event, they may be right that the government officials raising these questions are eyeing FanDuel and DraftKings as an additional revenue source.    Both the companies and the money winners are already subject to taxes. 

My problem is not with these editorials.  My problem is with the larger goals of the editorial board.  They are not raising these particular issues for the same reasons I would.  They raise the issues  because 1.) they object to taxes generally and 2.) the government actors in each case are Democrats, and they are inherently against Democrats because of the policies they represent.  Anything that makes Democrats look bad should be highlighted so that Democratic policies are less likely to get enacted.   We already know that the editorial board has had a long history of Randian libertarianism when it comes to economics and militarism when it comes to foreign policy.  These editorials are simply subtle ways of achieving these skeevy goals.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

BAP, Illustrated

This week's Saturday Leader Times editorial page included one pleasant surprise. As usual, they published only two letters from readers, but both letters were from readers who expressed relatively progressive opinions. One letter was written by a former union member who encouraged the members of the USW who were locked out of ATI to stick together. The other was a plea to voters to stop blaming PA governors for the nearly annual budget impasses we have experienced over the last decade and instead to vote out of office the local house representatives who keep refusing to compromise.

The editorial board added two editorials. The first criticized attorney general Kathleen Kane's office for opposing the release of staff emails to the Philadelphia Inquirer on the grounds that they are not public records since they do not address matters related to agency business. IOW, they were emails dealing with personal matters delivered through a government email system. The editors are correct that this is a bad argument, but I just don't have the time or proclivity to dig into the Kane case in any detail. The editorial board, along with the editorial board of the parent Tribune-Review, has had it in for Ms. Kane for several years. They will tell you it is because of public corruption and/or incompetence. I haven't been following any of these stories closely enough to agree or disagree and don't plan to now. It seems that a lot of bad things were going on in the attorney general's office before she got there, but her tenure may have made things worse. It's a sad story all around. That's all I've got to say on that matter.

The second editorial attempts to argue that the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan will be too costly and should be rejected by the states. They base this argument on two major points drawn from a study by Nicolas Loris of the right-wing think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Yeah, that Heritage Foundation, the one that draws support from people like the Koch brothers and -- surprise, surprise! -- Scaife family foundations, the same people who founded the Tribune-Review and whose endowments help keep papers like the Leader Times in print. As for Loris himself, he was an employee of a Koch brothers foundation before joining the Heritage Foundation. OK, that's enough information to raise suspicions about the reliability of the source, given the history of the Heritage Foundation's prior advocacy efforts and the supposed public-mindedness (cough, cough) of its funding sources.

The editorial's first main point is that California's Clean Energy Jobs Act "increased taxes on corporations to fund energy-saving inititatives and green programs, primarily at schools. The initiative was supposed to generate more than $550 million annually and create 11,000 new green jobs, notes Nicolas Loris of the Heritage Foundation. Three years later, more than half of the $297 million doled out to schools has been sucked up by consultants and energy auditors. A board created to oversee California's initiative and provide annual progress reports has never met the Associated Press reports. So, of course, fumbling politicians who foisted this farce on Californians are calling for better oversight."

The second main point is that the section of the 2009 Federal stimulus bill that was dedicated to promoting green energy initiatives produced only 11,613 jobs that lasted more than 6 months, about 16% of the goal. Conclusion? "Unless states intend to follow California's abysmal example, they must reject the feds latest green scheme."

This editorial is a classic illustration of the BAP ("bullshit asymmetry principle"). I cannot hope to uncover every misrepresentation or refute every bad argument in this editorial, much less in Loris's report, especially since a lot of the refutation depends on first telling you what Loris and the editorial board fail to mention. My goal is to present enough of the missing information to demonstrate the logical error that invalidates the editorial's conclusion.

OK, now for the missing context regarding California's Clean Energy Jobs Act (AKA Proposition 39). First off, "fumbling politicians" did not foist this on Californians. The editorial board was apparently too apoplectic to remember that in California propositions are enacted by a plebescite. The proposition passed during the 2012 elections and was put into effect at the beginning of the 2013 fiscal year. The law rolled back a previous arrangement whereby corporations were given two different ways to calculate their state income tax liability. The previous arrangement had the pernicious effect of rewarding corporations that moved facilities and employees out of California with lower tax rates. The changes instituted by Proposition 39 mostly affected a small number of large corporations. Both Loris's report and the editorial skip over that little detail.

It turns out that the factual claims about the goals and results of Proposition 39 in both Loris's report and the editorial come from an Associated Press article written by Julia Horowitz. Why they treat this article as an oracle of God I don't know. As far as I can tell the factual data she includes in the article is correct, but she fails to provide supporting evidence and misleads by failing to put the apparent shortcomings of the law's results in context. As has been pointed out here and here the law's requirements lead to precisely the pace of development that has taken place so far. I could figure that out for myself, since the target of the funds raised was schools. Had the funds gone directly to utilities there would not have been as much money spent on auditing and consulting in the early stages. It could be argued that this is a flaw in the design of the program if the intent was to stimulate job growth quickly, but the law is written to prioritize genuine energy efficiency gains over quick job growth. Obviously schools are not experts in efficient green energy projects and so needed plenty of lead time to obtain metrics and guidance on how to meet the requirements for the stimulus money. Furthermore, by directing the money to schools rather than utilities, the projects will be "off-grid" in the sense that the schools are not likely to invest directly in efficient generation of utility power. For many schools that will mean infrastructure changes, including major building renovations or new buildings. These types of changes can take years to get completed. The law stipulates that schools have until June 21, 2020 to submit green energy project plans and June 21, 2021 to submit a final report on project completion. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that many schools have not even applied for stimulus money yet. They may simply not be ready to begin a major building project. Since a lot of the generated employment will be in construction and related fields, it is again not surprising that only a few new jobs have been created so far. Assuming that the stimulus funds raised are all eventually distributed, there should be significant job gains in the next five years. None of this makes the law a failure. Ms. Horowitz simply does not have enough experience to offer a realistic evaluation of the law. Loris and the Leader Times editorial board don't have this excuse. Oh, and let me point out that conservatives have been screaming about how the administration's Clean Power Plan timeframe is too ambitious and will force utilities to make costly upgrades too soon. Why do they now insist that California must rush to complete its energy efficiency projects or the program is a failure?

On the other hand, the law also required an oversight board keep watch over distribution of the funds and monitor funded projects to ensure that the requirements are met. That board has not met yet, and the article's exposure of that failure has stimulated overdue action to get the board moving. It is also true that the law has failed to generate the revenue originally projected. While that may be disappointing, it doesn't at all entail that the law should not have been passed or that the energy efficiency projects that can be funded are not worth the investment. The law's supporters can be faulted for promising too much, but that doesn't mean the law itself is bad or the money raised is being wasted.

There is no point in ignoring the failed green enterprises, e.g. Solyndra, funded by the 2009 federal stimulus bill. On the other hand these failures pale besides the huge increase in green power generation kicked into high gear by that stimulus money. Just don't expect the Leader Times editorial board to tell us about that. It doesn't fit into their narrative that government ruins everything it touches (except, of course, the military). The editorial board is correct that as of 2012 the 2009 stimulus bill had failed to produce anywhere near the number of "green" jobs originally promised. But that is not the whole story by any means. For one thing, they fail to mention that the stimulus bill's kickstart has propelled a lot of growth in renewable energy generation in the intervening years. Of course, conveniently for conservatives, the 2013 sequester killed the government program that was tracking "green" job growth, making it far more difficult to come up with reliable numbers. But the green energy stimulus was never just about jobs; it was also about jump-starting migration away from fossil fuels, and in that regard the stimulus has had significant impact. And there is every reason to believe the Clean Power Plan will do the same.

This leads me to the editorial's conclusion. Since the results of California's Proposition 39 are not abysmal, the editorial no longer has a valid basis to predict that the Clean Power Plan will be an abysmal failure either. Could Proposition 39 yet fail spectacularly? Anything is possible, but it doesn't look likely. Did the federal green energy stimulus fail spectacularly? No. It didn't accomplish everything President Obama promised, but it has accomplished much. Therefore, the narrative that government ruins everything it touches is false. Without that narrative, the editorial's conclusion doesn't follow even if Proposition 39 had failed spectacularly. Just because one government program fails doesn't mean that another government program administered by a different jurisdiction and targeted at a different set of objectives will also fail. In short, the editorial's argument is bullshit.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Letting readers do the dirty work

This week the Leader Times is 1 for 2 on the Saturday editorials page.  The first editorial urges all other law enforcement agencies to adopt policies similar to  new the Federal Justice Department policy requiring warrants in order to use cellphone-tracking devices.  The editors and I are on the same page here, as are most Americans.  We want all levels of government to obtain warrants before performing mass surveillance.

The second editorial praises the REINS act, which would require Congress review and approve any new regulations issued by Federal agencies that would have a cumulative economic effect greater than $100 million.  This legislation has been approved by the House but is unlikely to pass the Senate and would be vetoed by the President if it did pass.  The editors believe this law will "more than likely expose faults and reduce litigation."  After all, they argue, it is better to have elected representatives review regulations rather than allowing "diktats typically drafted behind closed doors" to be "dumped on the public."

This opinion is misleads the readers about how federal agencies typically introduce new regulations.  First, no regulations get issued in the first place without a law passed by Congress authorizing the executive branch to establish some means to derive details regulations from the law passed by Congress.  In most cases, the law includes an authorization for a new or existing agency to develop regulations that implement in some detail the requirements of the law.   Second, as time passes and circumstances change, federal agencies may need to modify, remove, or add regulations in order to continue administering existing laws as they were intended.  Third, changes to federal regulations are subject to review by Congress via committees.  Typically, federal agencies announce periods for comments on proposed regulatory changes.   During this period interested parties can review and offer suggestions and criticisms of the regulations.  They can also petition their Congressional representatives to press for changes to the proposed regulations.  Finally, Congress has collective options to restrain regulatory agencies whose actions they find unacceptable.  They can use budgets to force agencies to redirect their resources in a way more pleasing to Congress.  They can even change the law so as to remove regulatory authority from an agency or even eliminate it altogether.    Federal regulations are not "diktats typically drafted behind closed doors" and suggesting they are is dishonest.

Congress and the people already have plenty of options available to them to limit the regulatory powers of federal agencies.  People are already generally frustrated with Congress's inability to get anything useful done.  This law will just gum up the works even more. 

My real complaint for this week, however, is with the letters from readers appearing on the Opinion page.  For the third week in a row, only two letters appear, both of them taking hardline right-wing stances on topics not addressed by the editorials.  I am beginning to think that the editors are hand-picking for publication letters whose opinions they approve of.  Are we to believe that the only readers who bother to send letters to the editors of the Leader Times are conservative Republicans?  Sorry, I doubt it.  Therefore, I intend to test their sincerity by sending them a series of letters from a clearly progressive standpoint until they publish one.  To increase the chances that they will publish, I will keep each letter short and restrict it to topics addressed by articles published in the Leader Times during the previous week.  Since they probably have a policy of publishing letters from as many different readers as possible, I will assume that once they have published one of mine I can expect no further letters of mine will be published for at least a few years.   Therefore, once one is published the experiment will end.  Furthermore, the week following that Saturday's Leader Times I will post to this blog the contents of each letter sent.  Let's see what happens. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Supporting the First Amendment and Dumping on the Down and Out

Back after a week's vacation!  This Saturday the Leader Times posted two  editorials.  The first involved the recent US District Court decision by judge Terrence McVerry that ruled the monument of the Ten Commandments on the property of a Connellsville Area School District junior high school unconstitutional but allowed the monument to remain on the property because the complainant no longer attends the school.   The editors call this decision a non sequitur and complain that it leaves the taxpayers of the district exposed to the costs of another lawsuit to have the monument removed.   They point out that the judge should have ordered the monument removed on the grounds that its presence is unconstitutional, regardless if anyone comes forward to complain about it or not.  In this the editors are entirely correct.   The editors could have urged the school district to remove the monument anyway, but since Connellsville is in Fayette County, they may have felt that's somebody else's job.  Fine with me.

The second editorial comments on a recent action by the PA Ethics Commission threatening fines against Department of Human Services caseworkers who have failed to submit the required annual financial disclosure statement.   The editorial is a follow-up on a recent news article that appeared on the TribLive website.   (If that article also appeared in the Leader Times, I missed it.)   The editors approve of the Ethics Commission's action, as it protects the interests of PA taxpayers against possible malfeasance the delinquent caseworkers may be trying to hide.  As a matter of prudence, I have no problem with the financial disclosure requirement.  But I have to wonder why this is a matter worthy of comment in an editorial?  First, has there ever been sufficient evidence of widespread corruption on the part of DHS caseworkers to warrant annual financial disclosures?  As it turns out, caseworkers were not required to submit annual disclosures because of a change in the law resulting from discoveries of corruption, but because of legal advice offered by the state Ethics Commission to Gov. Rendell's office in 2008.  Since the caseworkers decide whether taxpayer dollars go to welfare recipients, they should submit financial disclosures, the advice said. So, there was no scandal or evidence of widespread DHS caseworker corruption that led to the change; it was simply a matter of being consistently transparent.

I bring this up not to excuse the delinquent caseworkers.  Since the job requires it, they should have submitted their disclosures.  Rather, I sense here is an underlying animosity toward the entire concept of public assistance.  The linked article above quotes Rep. Darryl Metcalfe questioning what the delinquent caseworkers are trying to hide and reports that he is pressing for severer penalties for caseworkers who don't comply.  Why am I not surprised that Metcalfe, of all people, has a bee under his bonnet about 273 DHS caseworkers?  It is true that the department with the largest number of delinquents is DHS.  Of course he could instigate an investigation, but since he is likely not to find enough evidence of corruption to justify the time and expense of investigating, he can score cheap political points with his rabid anti-welfare constituents (see the comments section of the linked article above for a sampling) by attempting to ratchet up the penalties.  What about the other 483 state employees who failed to submit financial disclosures in 2015?   I'll bet plenty of them are responsible for much larger sums of taxpayer money than DHS caseworkers and that corruption on their part could cost the state a lot more money.  Why isn't Metcalfe making public statements about them?  And why is the Leader Times bothering to comment about this in the first place?

I call it exploiting readers.  Humans have an innate tendency to suspect that we are being cheated and get especially incensed when the cheaters are considered peers.    Readers of the Leader Times are largely working-class rural folk, who are more likely to be incensed about alleged cheating by a poorly-paid DHS caseworker supplying welfare benefits to the ineligible (aka "lazy") than, for example, a more highly-paid DEP regulator taking bribes to overlook violations of environmental law at natural gas wellsites or a Department of Banking regulator accepting bribes to look the other way at safety and soundness shortcuts made by a state bank to increase its profit margins.  Dishing up a piece of red meat regarding welfare increases the chances that target readers will continue buying the Leader Times.