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19.3.09

Helen Sadow, 1923-2009

(To understand why this is appearing in this space, read about my father. Thanks in advance for any comments that might be left.)


While my father was more about direct political action -- writing letters to policy-makers and newspapers, running for office, etc. -- my mother's contributions to politics were less publicly visible and stemmed from her vast enjoyment of philosophy. especially when they intersected with her deep religious faith. In an undergraduate philosophy class her Jesuit instructor once quizzed on some matter of philosophy and she volunteered an answer. He asked how she had formulated that and she said, "It's obvious" and gave a brief explanation. After class, he took her aside and told her that particular concept usually did not become understood even in a simple form to most students until the end of the semester and then some still never got it. The complexity of her level of understanding, he noted, he rarely ever encountered.


Probably her greatest pleasure came from exploring the nuances of the nexus of philosophy and theology; besides her poetry appearing in the high school yearbook of her senior year there is a telling passage in the "Class Will" section that reads "Helen Haddock, our argumentative senior, leaves her glamor to ...." Even as she very much enjoyed the contemplative aspect of philosophy and theology, she did extend that to the world of politics, basing her beliefs on incredibly logical and informed presuppositions. A few around Monroe probably remember her activity in the Republican women's club. But even earlier in life she extended belief to action. When she began working in the deep South in the 1940s, she was appalled at the segregationist culture and would subvert it in small ways, such as (only occasionally having access to a car) giving rides to black co-workers at her hospital who otherwise would have to walk.


Unlike my father, who read this space, my mother never was into computers. Regardless, some understanding about her should be left in cyberspace. So long, Mom.

18.3.09

Tobacco tax hike more motivated by politics than policy

An effort to raise taxes on cigarettes illuminates not just a pair of interesting public policy questions, but also a political battle that has taken on personal connotations for its sponsor.

Democrat State Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, the second in command in the House, plans to offer a bill to increase the state’s tobacco tax a dollar per unit to $1.36. This is on top of a projected increase in the federal tax of another dollar. She said it could raise in the neighborhood of $200 million a year just off cigarette pack sales to fund state coffers, although she does not propose that it specifically go towards health care. She opined that it would constitute “fair share” of health costs of these products to do this and could be used to avoid some budget cuts this year proposed by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.

There are a few policy dimensions to this idea. First, if used as a tactic to raise revenue for government, it is an unstable and unreliable means. While “sin taxes” may be the least objectionable form of government expropriation of the people’s resources because they simultaneously discourage presumed sub-optimal behavior, this concept creates an internal contradiction: discouraging the activity limits its usefulness as a revenue-raising agent because the decline it brings in behavior concurrently reduces the revenue. In other words, particularly in the long run, any revenue increases probably will be minimal. So if this just another way to raise revenue, it’s not going to be very effective.

Also, the best public policy tries to connect a revenue source to its public policy purpose. In this case, that implies that the revenue should go into health care spending, and even more directly to activities related to the presumed ills caused by smoking, But Peterson did not make that explicit which makes the budgeting process and its execution less predictable, increasing the potential for distracting adjustments in the middle of a fiscal year. It also can lead to political posturing, the mode in which former Gov. Kathleen Blanco operated when she championed a similar idea.

Still, one could argue that the health and fiscal benefits alone should justify such a tax; that is, a presumably healthier population encouraged by this move should reduce costs to government and by the private sector in treatment of diseases allegedly induced by smoking. Unfortunately, from a fiscal perspective, this isn’t even true. Studies show that while smoking cessation in the short run would cause health care costs to come down, in the long term health care costs as a whole probably would increase, simply because longer lives bring additional and typically even more costly medical complications. Bluntly, people dying earlier from believed smoking-related causes cost the health care system less than if they lived longer.

Understanding these aspects of the issue leads one to conclude that the motivation behind this idea really has a political, if not personal, basis. If Peterson really were concerned about smoking and general tobacco use, from the moment she was elected she would have stumped for this as a health issue. Instead, she catches this religion in the second year of a governor’s administration that has cut taxes and specific pet projects from legislators and now proposes to do the same for general government spending.

Peterson, it must be understood, like a significant portion of the Legislature, wants more, not less, government control over people’s lives. She, and others, have become increasingly upset with Jindal’s support of tax cuts, his refusal to consider tax increases (which has lead him to state he will not support this), his past vetoes of legislators’ pet projects, his present cuts in spending generally identified as welfare-related, and (if never spoken then surely in the background) Jindal’s unsteady handling of a legislator pay raise to full-time status issue last year that ended up with his veto and plenty of bad publicity for legislators. Therefore, this measure not only accomplishes the goal of, on the surface, appearing to improve public health and avoiding spending cuts, but at a deeper level satisfies a desire for bigger, more intrusive government, yet at the most basic level of all is an attempt simply to defeat Jindal for its own sake. Peterson’s challenging rhetoric implying she could defeat a veto lends credence to this belief.

As this bill wends it way through the legislative process, its argumentation will focus on matters of health, finance, and government power over people’s lives. But beneath it all, recognize it represents a struggle between those who want to empower government against those who wish to empower people, and that for some in the conflict it will take on very personal undertones.

17.3.09

"Cyberbabble" from Bossier causes credibility loss

There’s a new word being spawned that relates to efforts by area politicians and those living off of their efforts to justify the roughly $107 million taxpayers – including about $15 million and $35 million, respectively out of the pockets of Bossier Parish and Bossier City residents – have coughed up in the government venture capital project known as the Cyber Innovation Center. Prompt one of these individuals on the subject, and they produce, et voilĂ , “cyberbabble.”

Understandably, Bossier elected officials should be increasingly nervous as one of the biggest capital expenditure items in their governing bodies’ histories looks to be a failed gamble. The idea was provide a compelling reason for the Air Force to set up its cyber-warfare headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base by creating an infrastructural hub at taxpayer expense. Lost in the breathless predictions of as many as 10,000 jobs to be created was the hard, cold economic (a resource-poor cyber environment for which a new building could not compensate) and political (too many other national politicians interested in a piece of this pie) facts which thinking leaders should have considered before hanging this tab on the citizenry.

To distract the public from the fact that there is not going to be anything close to what they hoped would constitute federal government stimulation of the industry here, given military decisions to dilute the cyber-warfare element, Bossier politicians have shifted their emphases from deeds to words. Thus we get from the bureaucrat that runs the CIC, Director Craig Spohn, subsequently echoed by the Bossier Parish police juror most on the hook for the decision, Parish Administrator Bill Altimus, that “over the past year, the CIC has had an economic impact totaling over $13 million in outside federal spending in the region …. $11 million is ongoing research and over $2 million from outside the state related to the two symposiums hosted in the area by the CIC.”

Now, what is being claimed here is, what exactly? That $11 million has entered the local economy that is here only because of the CIC? If so, doesn’t that beg the question why we need a $107 million complex because a few ramshackle offices already got us this? Or is it $11 million in projects of which some small proportion ever directly enters the local economy? And can you reasonably say it was the CIC and CIC-conceived-as-$107-million-complex only that brought this research to this “region?” (And as far as $2 million generated in symposiums, if that’s all there is to it to generate economic growth, why don’t we have one every week – oh, that’s right, that was the idea behind Shreveport’s Convention Center, build it and all these out-of-town dollars would cascade here.)

Just to set the table, if the presence of the CIC complex ended up creating the incredibly optimistic scenario and assumptions of a thousand private sector jobs at $50,000 annual salary on average, whose families would spend 40 percent of that on Bossier purchases and buy houses in Bossier worth at least $200,000 each, that would generate an extra $1.5 million a year in sales and property tax revenues to Bossier City and Parish. At a low annual rate of return of 2 percent that the $50 million could have been invested in, it would still take 55.5 years for the local government investment to pay off. Put in more realistic assumptions, and you can see it’s more likely that an asteroid will plow into the complex before it will ever pay for itself.

What every Bossier citizen should demand from his elected officials (especially those running in Bossier City elections this spring) and bureaucrats when asking how their hard-earned resources are being used in this whole caper is not cyberbabble about nebulous research and gabfests, but hard data. How many permanent jobs have been created here only as a result of the $50 million local share that would not be here otherwise? How much in taxes do they pay as a result? What private-sector enterprises have come about or located here that would not have without the CIC complex? How much of what they spend translates into local tax revenue?

I invite Spohn, Altimus, or any other person in the know to enlighten us on these measures which I suspect in each case is close to if not a big fat zero. Maybe that will change one day, we all can hope. But to irresponsibly imply, as has Altimus when he stated “$13 million brought in on a $107 million investment, not bad by anyone's accounting,” that $13 million out of nowhere suddenly entered the local economy only because $107 million is being spent on some buildings only further damages the rapidly eroding credibility of the entire CIC idea. That’s the last thing we need if the enterprise ever hopes to return to the people benefits that even remotely match the costs they paid, courtesy of the ever-wishful thinking of Bossier politicians.

16.3.09

In search of hypocrites, Melancon need only look in mirror

With his latest published comments, one must wonder just what kind of cipher has been going on three terms representing Louisiana’s Third District in the U.S. House of Representatives, who doesn’t have the intellect to understand he does exactly what he accuses political opponents of doing.

In an interview, Democrat U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon accused Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of being “hypocritical” in his televised response to the speech given by Democrat Pres. Barack Obama last month that touted an unprecedented increase in the amount of federal government spending and the deficit. Jindal had noted that he would refuse, as was his option, some spending directed to expanding the scope of unemployment benefits because of a tax increase they would entail that would depress economic activity. Melancon said this left him “puzzled” because Jindal had, as a congressman, voted for extending the time period for employment benefits to be received by people losing their jobs because of the destruction of the hurricane disasters of 2005, thereby to him meriting Jindal the “hypocritical” label.

But the puzzlement of Melancon is itself puzzling to anybody who can think clearly. The hurricanes wiped out a tremendous segment of productive capacity in the state for an extended period of time, unlike the current situation where productive capacity remains only slightly diminished. Further, then Jindal argued only for an extension of benefits, while now he fights an extension of coverage – two very different things that Melancon seems unable to distinguish.

More puzzling still is the utter lack of logic he expresses in his argument why Jindal ought to take the money and its conditions anyway – that the state’s unemployment trust fund may be more likely to run low because of increased demand the solution to which could be an increase in taxes on business anyway. Let’s see, take the money now and raise taxes for some job-killing into the indefinite future, as Melancon argues, or refuse that extra portion which can only go to the expanded purpose, accept the extra funds to cover the present scope of policy, and if any taxes have to be raised down the road they will be much more minimal, as Jindal suggests? If Melancon really believes his alternative is better, it only solidifies his big-government credentials.

Perhaps this explains why Melancon also appears to lack the capacity to understand just such a large hypocrite he is on the issue of government spending. Melancon regularly tries to convey the impressive that he is not a tax-and-spend liberal. Yet he voted for the budget-crippling spending package that denies every principle on this score that he claims to represent and tries to defend that by a display of ignorance of history, making the discredited argument that the big-government New Deal got the country out of the Depression when in fact it made matters worse (besides the historical record, common sense should tell him that a set of policies that depressed economic indicators more towards the end of the period than its beginning and lasted over a decade didn’t work).

Yet Melancon can’t dig a hole on this issue fast enough when he also tried to draw a parallel between economic conditions assumed these days by Obama and those inherited from the Democrat Pres. Jimmy Carter era, oblivious to the fact that Republican Pres. Ronald Reagan’s policies that brought the country out of the most severe recession other than the Depression in the twentieth century are exactly the opposite of those he now proposes – Reagan’s being broad-based and permanent tax cuts, restraint of government spending in many areas, and slashing regulation.

In a state known for its slick, vacuous politicians, Melancon seems determined to set a new standard on this account. And if he’s willing to go looking for elected hypocrites in the state, every time he passes by a mirror he need only look into it to find one.