Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

Faulty Hypothesis

Flickr/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
One of the great political shifts in the past decade has been the move of scientists toward the Democratic Party, a casualty of the Republican Party’s war on reality. It’s not about politics for scientists, it’s about the fact that only one party accepts scientific findings on everything from global warming to evolutionary theory to what does and doesn’t prevent pregnancy. Only 6 percent of scientists identify as Republican , whereas 55 percent identify as Democratic. In October of 2012, 68 Nobel-winning scientists co-signed a strong endorsement of Obama, saying the President “has delivered on his promise to renew our faith in science-based decision making.” Which is why it was so strange to read Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University, argue in Nature that it’s wrong for scientists to throw their weight behind electing Democrats. Sarewitz’s opening sentence lays out his argument neatly: To prevent science from...

Biden versus Goliath

When President Obama announced that Vice President Biden would be chairing a task force to come up with recommendations on gun restrictions, he said, "This is not some Washington commission. This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside." Anyone who has been around Washington for a while had a right to be skeptical; commissions and task forces—select, blue-ribbon, high-level, and every other kind—come and go, and rarely have much of an impact on policy. But perhaps— perhaps— this time will be different. After all, 695 Americans have been killed with guns since the Sandy Hook massacre, and we're now taking notice in ways we haven't in years. That isn't to say the NRA and its allies in Congress won't put up a fight over even the most modest measures to contain the carnage. But cracks are beginning to show in their heretofore impenetrable wall of opposition, and public opinion is turning...

A Standardized Testing Revolt

Flickr/albertogp123
Over the past year, there's been a steady and ongoing revolt in Texas. Not about secession or guns or the many other fringe topics that the state is usually associated with. This battle has been waged primarily by parents and teachers, and the demand is relatively simple—cut back on testing our kids. There's been similar sentiments simmering in states across the country, but in Texas a new set of tests, put in place last year, sparked the outcry. Now, the push that began in school board and PTA meetings has finally reached the halls of power. When the biennial state legislature gaveled in on Tuesday, it didn't take long for newly re-elected Speaker of the House Joe Straus to mention testing. "By now, every member of this house has heard from constituents at the grocery store or the Little League fields about the burdens of an increasingly cumbersome testing system in our schools," he said. "Teachers and parents worry that we have sacrificed classroom inspiration for rote memorization...

The Problem with "the Wrong Hands"

The other day, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly (or as he is for some reason always referred to as, "Astronaut Mark Kelly"; I guess if you're an astronaut you get that) announced that they have started a new initiative, Americans for Responsible Solutions , to push for new laws to limit gun violence. I have great admiration for both of them and I hope they succeed, but there was something I heard Kelly say in an interview that was worthy of note, and a bit unfortunate. He noted that they're not trying to take away anyone's guns, and they're gun owners themselves. They just want to make sure guns stay out of "the wrong hands." The problem with this—and I think it's something well-meaning people probably say a lot without giving it too much thought—is that it assumes that the lines are clear between the right hands and the wrong hands, and if we could just make sure no wrong hands got guns, we'd all be safe. There are some people who should definitely...

Are Republicans Winning on Diversity?

Wikipedia
Writing for ABC News, Amy Walters notes that for all the criticism of Obama’s traditional cabinet—which, thus far, is heavy on white men—the bigger problem for Democrats is that their presidential hopefuls lean heavily on the conventional side: For all the hand-wringing over the lack of diversity in the Obama Administration’s second term Cabinet, Democrats should really be more depressed about the fact that their potential 2016 field is a lot less diverse than the GOP’s. Take away Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic bench looks more like that picture in the New York Times than it does the picture of Obama’s 2012 voting coalition. It’s true that if there’s anything you can say about the GOP’s likely field for 2016, it’s that it’s pretty diverse—for which the party deserves real credit. Two of the top contenders, of course, are Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Beyond them are lesser-known politicians like Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and New Mexico...

The Great and Terrible News about American Health Care

This is how much people elsewhere love their health systems. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
If you've been paying attention to debates on health care over the last few years, you're probably aware of how poorly the American system performs compared to other similar countries. We're the only advanced industrialized democracy that doesn't provide universal health coverage to our citizens, and though there are many variations in those systems ranging from the completely socialized (as in Great Britain) to the largely private but heavily, heavily regulated (as in Switzerland), they all do better than we do on almost every important measure you could come up with. That's the big picture. But a new report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine compared the United States to 16 similar countries (mostly in Europe but including Canada, Australia, and Japan) on a range of health measures has some fascinating details. Unsurprisingly, the United States comes out at or near the bottom on most measures of health. We have the highest infant mortality, the highest...

Is Jack Lew the Best We Can Do?

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew in the East Room of the White House in Washington T o no one’s great surprise, President Obama has appointed his chief of staff, Jack Lew, to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. Mainly, the choice signals that there will be no change either in the Obama-Geithner approach to reforming Wall Street (not very much), or on fiscal politics, where deficit reduction is a paramount goal despite a faltering recovery. The positives of Lew are these. He’s not a hard-core deficit hawk like Erskine Bowles (low bar). He’s not a bully like Larry Summers or Rahm Emanuel (even lower bar.) He’s a highly competent, detail-oriented numbers guy, and a skilled negotiator. That combination seems to drive some Republicans nuts, because in the infighting over the budget deal of 2011, Lew’s knowledge of the details enabled him to win some tactical victories in what was otherwise a rout for the administration (this was the deal that created...

Obama's Options on 2013's Big Issues

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Anyone who thinks congressional Republicans will roll over on the debt ceiling or gun control or other pending hot-button issues hasn’t been paying attention. But the President can use certain tools that come with his office—responsibilities enshrined in the Constitution and in his capacity as the nation’s chief law-enforcer—to achieve some of his objectives. On the debt ceiling, for example, he might pay the nation’s creditors regardless of any vote on the debt ceiling—based on the the Fourteenth Amendment’s explicit directive (in Section 4) that “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.” Or, rather than issue more debt, the President might use a loophole in a law (31 USC, Section 5112) allowing the Treasury to issue commemorative coins—minting a $1 trillion coin and then depositing it with the Fed. Both gambits would almost certainly end up in the Supreme Court, but not before they’ve been used to pay the nation’s bills. (It’s doubtful any...

How Obama Can Win the Debt Ceiling by Threatening Mutual Destruction

Wikipedia
Last week, The Washington Post ’s Greg Sargent had the great idea of talking to an actual hostage negotiator, for a little more insight into the current situation with congressional Republicans and the debt ceiling. Throughout the interview, the negotiator stressed one key point: If you want to defuse a hostage situation, you have to show the hostage taker that you’re in control. For police, this is straightforward—they have lots of guns, and the hostage taker doesn’t. President Obama can’t sit the National Guard outside of John Boehner’s home, but the idea still holds. If congressional Republicans can see that he holds the cards in the situation, then they might walk away and agree to lift the debt ceiling. Obama already has one, important card—public opinion. Already, a solid majority of Americans say that the GOP is too extreme. If the government defaults on its obligations as a result of hitting the debt limit, there’s little doubt Americans will blame the Republican Party. But...

Solis Steps Down

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File
There has never been a more pro-worker Secretary of Labor than Hilda Solis, who announced yesterday that she’s stepping down from her cabinet post. But for much of her tenure, she was swimming upstream—confronting not just most anti-labor congressional Republicans in modern American history, but also an Obama White House inner circle that she, like many of her fellow cabinet members, never really permeated. Within those considerable constraints, Solis did what she could to get the federal government to intervene on workers’ behalf. Unable to advance many new policies, however, that often meant enforcing established pro-worker policies with uncommon vigor. During her tenure, the Labor Department collected record amounts of back pay for workers cheated by their employers, and moved to strengthen mine-safety inspections. The administration also announced new regulations that would bring nearly 2 million home-care workers under the coverage of the federal minimum-wage law, but,...

What's the Matter with Lew?

So what'll it be: Is Jack Lew an anti-Semite? Did he say something cruel in 1985 about A Flock of Seagulls, displaying his bias against differently coiffed Britons? Is he a vicious anti-dentite? There has to be something. Today we learned that Lew, currently the White House chief of staff and formerly the director of the Office of Management and Budget, will be nominated by President Obama to replace Tim Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury. So if recent history is a guide, in the next day or two Republicans will discover that though Lew may look like a bureaucrat's bureaucrat on the outside, within him lies a twisted heart beating with radical ideas. Particularly if he is revealed to support the extremist policy agenda of the Kenyan anti-colonial socialist in the White House. Lew's confirmation hearings will no doubt feature discussion of the debt ceiling, and President Obama's oft-stated unwillingness to negotiate over it (the administration's position is that it needs to be raised...

What Goes Around (Comes Back Around)

Google
I find little to disagree with in Scott Lemieux’s look at the legality of minting a trillion-dollar coin . For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, the idea is simple. When the president is required to spend all money authorized by Congress, in most instances, that requires the Treasury to borrow money to fulfill congressional obligations. But Congress has also imposed a borrowing limit on the Treasury. In the past, Congress has lifted the limit with little fuss, but beginning in 2011, House Republicans have used it as leverage for spending cuts. If Treasury reaches the limit without paying its full obligations, it defaults, which would have catastrophic consequences for the global economy. At the moment, Republicans are threatening not to lift the limit (though, there is some question of their sincerity). This leaves President Obama with three options: He can let the government default, triggering a global recession. He can concede spending cuts to the GOP, giving further...

The Banks Win Again

AP Photo/Mike Groll, File
Last February, the big banks agreed to a major “settlement” to protect themselves from litigation by state attorneys general stemming from fraudulent documentation of mortgages. Though some, such as New York’s crusading attorney general Eric Schneiderman, believed that the government had leverage to get a lot more, the settlement required the banks to pony up some $25 billion to settle outstanding charges. The banks, without admitting wrongdoing, agreed to reform fraudulent practices, such as “robo-signing” and proceeding with foreclosures on one track while supposedly helping borrowers to adjust terms on another. The settlement reserved the government’s right to continue criminal prosecutions. But there was a lot of double counting of funds already committed, and at the end of the day the banks parted with only a few billion dollars in new money, precious little of which went to relief of damaged mortgage holders. Only about $2.5 billion has found its way to actual principal...

The Clear Legality of the Platinum-Coin Solution

It's likely that early this year we will once again see another debt ceiling crisis, with Republicans in Congress threatening the credit of the United States in order to win unpopular policy concessions. One increasingly popular idea for getting out of this cycle of hostage-taking is for the president to mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin that would allow the federal government to meet its outlays even if Congress refuses to lift the debt ceiling to allow the executive branch to cover the expenditures is has already required. Support for the idea, however, is far from unanimous. Mother Jones 's Kevin Drum has argued and reiterated that progressives are wrong to support the idea. The platinum-coin idea, Drum argues, is "not legal," and a legal challenge "would go against Obama 9-0 if it ever made it to the Supreme Court." Drum's objections, however, are erroneous. The platinum coin would be legal, and if the Republicans were to shoot their metaphorical hostage (i.e. the American...

Assault-Weapon Bans Are Not Enough

Flickr/M Glasgow
Flickr/M Glasgow Gun buyers examining merchandise at the Houston Gun Show T he Newtown elementary school massacre has finally sparked a discussion about what to do about the 80 gun deaths in America each day, seven of which are children. But the dialogue remains constrained, as if we know we have to talk about gun control but we’re still afraid the National Rifle Association (NRA) will scold us as anti-freedom oppressors or start shooting. Beyond the obvious—banning assault weapons and limiting the size of gun clips—there is little information or analysis about concrete reforms that could make a difference. We’re still shying away from basic issues like how criminals, youths, and mass murderers get guns, why existing laws don’t seem to provide rudimentary safety, and why so little attention is paid—and so little responsibility ascribed—to the purveyors and profiteers of the gun industry. Gun crimes are usually discussed as if the transactions and guns involved are illegal, but the...

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