Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Gerrymandering and Standoff Politics

Speaker of the House John Boehner claims that his caucus is protecting the American people from the Affordable Care Act.  Speaker Boehner claims that the House is just expressing the will of the American people.  Pundits all proclaim that this standoff is politics as usual.  On the Sunday show circuit, Speaker Boehner says all that is needed to break the impasse is a phone call from the President to negotiate.  The big difference between this fight and past fights is the way in which a third party has used gerrymandered districts to control a major political party.  The Tea Party now has control of a part of the GOP’s brain, and will not relinquish its control unless it achieves its objectives, no matter the cost to the country or to democracy.
It is certainly true that the Affordable Care Act has been a lightning rod of partisan positioning for years.  It is also certainly true that the Congress has used the power of the purse to enact or frustrate policy on a wide range of issues, specifically through budget riders. 

But the current fight was not a last minute sticking point, but a calculated and strategic ambush of the federal treasury.  Earlier this month, journalists reported on the planning that went into the shutdown fight.  For months, Ed Meese helped coordinate a strategic plan to use a shutdown of the entire federal government to sabotage “Obamacare” by starving it of funding. 

The Tea Party movement to sabotage the Affordable Care Act is not starving for funding at all.  According to the Times Article, hundreds of millions of dollars in donations are funding the long term fight.  The New York Times reported “The largest recipient of Freedom Partners cash — about $115 million — was the Center to Protect Patient Rights, according to the groups’ latest tax filings. Run by a political consultant with ties to the Kochs and listing an Arizona post office box for its address, the center appears to be little more than a clearinghouse for donations to still more groups, including American Commitment and the 60 Plus Association, both ardent foes of the health care law.” 

Add on top of this big pile of organized money, a small third party with strong convictions and you have a truly strange sight in American politics: the parliamentary tyrant.  Tea Party Patriots believe that shutting down the government and even ignoring the debt ceiling are not economically damaging.  Yet they see that their opponents value these objectives and must defend them.  The Tea Party’s opponents here are everyone else: both the GOP and Democrats.  It is a three-way standoff.

Which brings us to how the Tea Party uses gerrymandering to get their candidates’ influence increased within their host party, the GOP.  As gerrymandered districts increased in the wake of the 2010 census, this increased the number of districts where a primary threat was more significant than a general election challenger.

In the 2012 elections, American voters in House Races cast 59,967,096 votes for Democratic Candidates and 58,523,501 votes for those from the GOP, a vote margin of more than 1.4 million in favor of Democratic candidates.  After the smoke cleared, the people’s house had 234 GOP Reps to 201 Democratic Reps.  At the end of the day, more Americans voted to elect Democratic Congressman than voted for GOP, but more GOP got elected anyway.  Most, but not all, of that difference is the intended result of GOP gerrymandering, packing Democratic voters into bizarre districts.

So to put this in context, consider the 12th Congressional District in North Carolina.  It is 120 miles long and barely 20 miles wide.  It looks like a snake, rather than a salamander.  The 12th District’s current boundaries were drawn by the GOP majority in North Carolina.  In the 12th District in 2012, President Obama won the hearts and minds of 78.5 % of the voters casting ballots.  Only a challenge from the left of 12th Congressional District could conceivably defeat the incumbent.   The same is true in the 1st and 4th Districts, although the 12th is demonstrably the worst gerrymandered district in the United States.  As for the rest of the North Carolina Congressional Districts, a primary challenge from the right is the real threat, with the exception of District 7, held by Democratic Congressman Mike McIntyre against the odds.  The gerrymandering in North Carolina has now made the primaries more important than the general elections in determining who represents any person.  David Price won his District 4 seat by 14 points in 2010 and by 48 points in 2012.  Now the too-comfortable margin for Rep. Price has become the comfortable margin for new GOP reps.

And so, to protect a majority of GOP House seats, the GOP has killed representative democracy’s chances of governing from the middle.   Only the fringes are left for contention in their bizarre maps.  At present, the fringes who are making primary challenges are the Tea Party. Thus we have created a legislative tyranny of a minority faction who believe that they must root out GOP members who are willing to compromise.  
Princeton’s favorite dirigible has opined that President Obama must have skipped class on the day they taught separation of powers in Constitutional Law. In addition, Dr. Will compared the Affordable Care Act to the Fugitive Slave Act.  I would respond that Dr. Will skipped the lecture on the pitfalls of argumentum reducto ad absurbem.

 


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gerrymandering and Hostages

In the popular press, the current government shutdown is being treated as a hostage crisis or an act of civil disobedience.  For Fox News enthusiasts, brave patriots such as Senator Ted Cruz are correcting executive branch abuses.  For another segment of the public, the Tea Party is holding the federal government hostage because they despise the federal government and wish to shut it down for good.  Most of the public views both Congressional leaders as childish and pedantic.  Few want to admit what it really shows.

American politics is broken.

One of the things which broke it, is the Gerrymander.


The source of Gerrymander as a noun, dates from a political cartoon published in Boston in 1812.  Elbridge Gerry , then Governor of Massachusetts, had signed a bill into law which favored the Democratic-Republicans over the Federalists.  One of the districts was sinuous, like a mythical salamander.  The cartoonist superimposed the drawing of a mythical salamander over the District and dubbed it the Gerrymander, placing full credit and blame on this outrage on Governor Gerry.

Gerrymander is now used as a noun or a verb.  The word is used to describe the use of redistricting to give political advantage to one political party by concentrating political opponents into a district.  Thus, we call it gerrymandering whenever one political party uses redistricting to increase their political advantage.  In a two party system this is particularly effective, especially when combined with single member districts and closed primary elections.

In 2012, American voters cast 1.3 million more votes for Democratic candidates in the House of Representatives than for Republicans, yet Republicans increased their control of the House.  As many as 21 net Republican seats in the House of Representatives are reflective of an advantage in Republican gerrymandering following the 2010 census. 

The United States has been infected with gerrymandering abuse for 200 years.   Both parties have done it.  Everyone agrees it is wrong. The 2010 census gave House Republicans a gerryamandered advantage which will persist until 2020.  This insulates those seats from any response to political pressure from independents in closed primary states, as only a primary challenge from the right can unseat a gerrymandered representative. 

Now it has killed our political process and has taken our government hostage.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Which is it Mitch?


Less than two years have passed since North Carolina began studying fracking issues. When lawmakers first announced their desire to study statutory changes to allow fracking, they promised to wait and study the facts before deciding whether to allow fracking.  Experts from other states and from our Department of Environment and Natural Resources (“DENR”) agreed that the state should study the groundwater quality in the area before fracking occurs.  This scientific study is needed so the new fracking rules will protect water.   This week news reports show that DENR is refusing EPA money to do the study before the rules are developed and signaling layoffs for water research.  Durham’s County Commissioners wisely protested DENR’s decision as the wrong course at their meeting on Monday.

On October 10, 2011, DENR conducted a public hearing in Sanford, North Carolina. 
Current DENR Assistant Secretary Mitch Gillespie was at that meeting.  In 2011, Gillespie was still serving in the House of Representatives.  Rep. Gillespie was the legislative leader most responsible for crafting HB 242, the bill which called for fracking study.  Rep. Mike Stone accompanied him and explained to the audience that: “We need this information so we can develop either the best reason to frack with the best law in the nation, or not to frack at all.” 

Rep. Gillespie’s version of HB 242 directed DENR to answer a series of questions, including whether there was enough water in the area to do fracking.   DENR staff outlined all the steps needed to update North Carolina’s oil and gas laws from late 2011 into the summer of 2012.  Staff worked hard to pull this information together. From the very beginning DENR staff told the public that the State needed to sample groundwater in the shale areas to establish a baseline for groundwater quality.  This baseline would be used to help revise our oil and gas laws and to draft the regulations that would protect the State’s groundwater resources.  

Based on this information, DENR’s report recommended that the State conduct baseline groundwater testing in the regions with shale.  DENR also asked a neutral, non-profit task force called STRONGER to come and review the steps North Carolina must take to safely develop oil and gas.  STRONGER also recommended that the State conduct baseline groundwater testing in the regions with oil and gas potential. No one disputed this recommendation in the STRONGER process. 

Baseline testing protects the public health and the economy.  The baseline is what tells you whether the water is clean now and whether it is safe to drink.  It will also tell whether the groundwater is suitable to be used to supply the fracking operations with the water they need.  Water resource managers need this information to help insure we have enough clean drinking water.  DENR needs this information so it can develop rules to protect the drinking water now underground. 

Representative Gillespie had a reputation for targeting DENR, having jokingly painted a bullseye on his office window so that it lined up with DENR’s old office building.  About a year after the Sanford public hearing, Representative Gillespie resigned his seat in order to become an Assistant Secretary at DENR.  Representative Gillespie championed public involvement and sound science.  Less than six months into the new job, Assistant Secretary Gillespie had already changed his tune, supporting Halliburton's efforts to keep fracking chemicals secret because he did not want DENR to have the information.  Assistant Secretary Gillespie’s methods of handling fracking issues have moved from open public hearings to behind closed doors. 

DENR had asked the US EPA to help pay for the baseline testing and EPA agreed to pay for the costs.  Now DENR has turned that check down.  Assistant Secretary Gillespie appears to have forgotten what Representative Gillespie promised to the folks in Sanford a couple of years ago: a comprehensive study of all the issues. 

Division of Water Resources Director Tom Reeder is claiming responsibility for this decision.  Considering how tight DENR's budget has been the past two years, he could not have made a decision to turn down $600,000 without checking with his boss, Gillespie.  Reeder is just following orders. Gillespie is the one who promised to study all the issues

DENR’s mission is to protect the environment.  Forty years ago, voters in North Carolina approved a Constitutional Amendment which sets forth his agency’s mission.  That provision states in part: “It shall be the policy of this State to protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry.”   Assistant Secretary Gillespie needs to take his orders straight from our Constitution.  He should direct his staff to use all the resources available to protect our lands and waters.  Drawing a new bullseye on DENR cannot achieve this mission. 


Monday, June 3, 2013

Why is Law Enforcement Profiling a Bad Thing at All Times?

"With all the power that a President has, the most important thing to bear in mind is this: You must not give power to a man unless, above everything else, he has character. Character is the most important qualification the President of the United States can have."
--Richard Nixon endorsing Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign in 1964.

Giving power to anyone to enforce laws on the basis of character is bad governance.  If the enforcer has a bad character, you have done nothing but empower rank prejudice.  Tricky Dick is but one example among hundreds which can be found.  Profiling is a threat to liberty in all circumstances.

Profiling is nothing more and nothing less than inferring unlawful character from appearances and opinion.  Character inference is then used to construct inferences about behavior and propensities.  If the propensities lead an enforcement official to believe that a person is intending to break the law then the enforcement official decides to take the next step.  The corruption is to use “character” to prevent the supposed violation by investigation and premature intervention.

A great fictional lawman of an earlier time had a term for this technique: “nip it Ange.  You got to nip it in the bid!”

Just as Barney Fife was the object of ridicule for his simplistic and autocratic methods, all of us should be revolted by profiling, not selectively but absolutely.  Count me in the camp that rejects profiling in all its forms.  Profiling is merely prejudice, cloaked in law.

So, let me be clear.  It was wrong and unlawful to scrutinize applications for 501(c)(3) status based upon keywords.  And so, I condemn the IRS decision to use the terms “tea party” and “patriot” to single out 501(c) (3) applications for extra scrutiny.  Just because you used those words in your name does not mean that the purpose of your group was to influence elections.  Wrong.  Nip it, Ange!  This was bad.  It should be stopped.  Those responsible should be held accountable.  Count me in!  Profiling is a pernicious evil and should be condemned.  Fundraising will tea-partying is no crime.

Now let’s talk about the law enforcement profiling that has impacted far more Americans’ civil liberties  for far longer: racial profiling and religious profiling.  North Carolina’s Republican Party is counting on the fact that profiling Democrats is perfectly legal when deciding whether they should be allowed to cast a vote in their newly-gerrymandered dollar store districts.  Those folks need to show their papers, especially the poors and those folks who were alive when FDR saved the country.  But hopefully, they recognize that profiling folks for their race and their religious beliefs is also despicable.  So where is their outrage?

   Driving while Hispanic is apparently a basis for being stopped in Alamance County, North Carolina.   Where is Congressman Issa’s outrage on this “profiling? What about Driving While Black?  No outrage left for that one, either Mr. Issa?  What about Flying while Muslim?  


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sharks versus Kings



“I went to fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”  --Rodney Dangerfield

Recently, the General Manager of the San Jose Sharks NHL franchise decided to question the call of the NHL in suspending one of his players.  The player in question hit an opponent in the head.  His opponent was injured to the point of missing the next game. The Sharks were fined $100,000. The Sharks won over the Los Angeles Kings in the next match. 

Here is an excerpt of his statement:

“As stated in the NHL's Player Safety video, Rule 48.1 says, "A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted." Thus, with the use of the word "and", this rule clearly states that two elements must occur in order to violate the rule.”

Now the thing that strikes me about this statement is the language used by the Sharks GM in critiquing the decision of the NHL.  His defense appears to be that the blow was struck to the shoulder and then only incidentally knocked Stoll’s head.  You would think this was a summation to the jury and the athletes in question are vehicles in a collision.

Now we have come to expect this sort of behavior in the ranks of hockey, which is a full contact sport.  But the real question it raises for me is how close are we to promoting this behavior in all sports.  Are athletes just meat for the YouTube replay grinder?  Are we just enjoying their pain a little too much?

Do we want to teach our children to act like Sharks or Kings?  Do we want them to become injured in their mid-twenties or earlier?  Would it not be better if we told them that sports is for fun, not for fighting.

Who am I kidding.  Tonight’s goal fest will be nothing compared to earlier forms of sport, such as gouging.   I guess we are more civilized after all.   

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The People who Cast the Votes decide Nothing…


Last week the North Carolina General Assembly proved true the old aphorism about counting votes: it is the people who count the votes who decide everything, not those who cast them.  For the better part of the past decade, North Carolina utilities have been complying with a piece of legislation referred to as Senate Bill 3, which included among other provisions a renewable portfolio standard provision or RPS.  This provision of legislation was enacted after a lengthy process of negotiation which arrived at a consensus RPS.

North Carolina’s  RPS has been wildly successful as well explained by Robin Smith’s excellent blog.  By every measure you can reckon, the RPS has achieved a number of important long term objectives.  The only people who do not like the REPS appear to climate change deniers, young earth creationists and John Locke Foundation columnists.  In other words, the base of the current legislative leadership objects to North Carolina’s RPS because it violates their hobby horse theories about renewable energy generally.  The facts do not support their claims.

The original bill capped the RPS costs to consumers at $1 per month.  Please note that this type of cap does not apply to any other form of energy subsidized by Utilities Commission.  Contrary to statements by Senator Harry Brown, all forms of energy used by state-regulated utilities are subsidized by the regulated monopoly structure of our Utilities Commission.  Any investments by utilities in generation assets are subsidized by rates paid by all customers set by the Commission including a profit margin for the utilities constructing the plants.   

Now that consensus is under attack, including some people who voted for the original bill.  The opponents of the RPS lost a key vote two weeks ago.  Rather than making their case, they ran the same bill again and this time the Chairman of the Committee declared that the ayes had it on a voice vote and gavelled the meeting closed before recognizing members who objected.    

First, the REPS has increased the percentage of energy that is produced entirely in North Carolina.  This has positive economic effects throughout North Carolina.  Most of the new solar installation has been done by North Carolina’s small businesses in the energy sector.  FLS Energy of Asheville has grown steadily, investing more than $70 million into North Carolina and creating scores of jobs.    Some of this growth is due to the RPS, but much of it is driven by demand from industry and the military.

Second, the REPS has kept costs down of electricity for consumers.  Duke Power filed application to rebate customers money due to the lower costs of implementation than expected.  Instead of hitting the $1 per month cap promised, the utilities have placed 3% of their electricity into renewables for less than $.25 per month and the cost is going down, hence the rebate. 

New power plants using coal or nuclear fuel are very expensive to construct.  These plants only make sense to build for very large increases in demand as they can only be built on a large scale.  The REPS allows utilities to recover costs for meeting smaller increases in demand as they occur, rather than forcing all customers to pay now for demand that may not come for decades.  North Carolina utilities which invested too heavily in nuclear plants in the late 1970s have foisted a large bill on their customers that still lingers today.  These customers would love to have seen increases to their monthly bills limited as the REPS was to less than a dollar a month.

Third, the REPS has environmental benefits that are impressive.  Many miles of North Carolina’s surface waters are impaired for mercury contamination.  This mercury contamination makes fish unsafe to eat and damages the nervous systems of fish themselves.  A significant amount of mercury comes from burning coal.  Nuclear plants in the United States produce prodigious amounts of high level radioactive waste.  No safe place to store that waste has been found.  Instead, we keep it piling up at our active nuclear power plants.

Solar energy does not emit mercury.  Nor does it produce radioactive waste.  It is far more efficient and far more reliable than it was twenty years ago.  Growing economies are embracing the solar technology as they expand.  So why is Senator Brown opposed to solar?   His constituents include many active duty Marines.   The Marine Corps has invested heavily in solar energy in order to protect soldiers’ lives.  There is now healthy service rivalry over who can develop the best solar systems.

Some see little to gain from the solar revolution and are using politics to stop it in the United States.  Solar is not vulnerable to the supply disruptions or price market manipulation as commodity-based energy swings.  OPEC cannot cartel the Sun.  Investment banks have not figured out how to tranche the Sun.  No one has yet taken a hedge position on the Sun.   

It is more dangerous than voter fraud because the result actually subverted the will of the elected majority on that committee.  A single voter cannot swing a major election.  A single chairman can swing a bill through and has done so, blatantly disregarding the principles of one person, one vote in the General Assembly itself. 

Besides, solar energy is patriotic.  Oorah!


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Coal-Fired Cartels


"In the long run my observations have convinced me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first establish some conclusion in their minds which, either because of its being their own or because of their having received it from some person who has their entire confidence, impresses them so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it out of their heads. Such arguments in support of their fixed idea as they hit upon themselves or hear set forth by others, no matter how simple and stupid these may be, gain their instant acceptance and applause. On the other hand whatever is brought forward against it, however ingenious and conclusive, they receive with disdain or with hot rage — if indeed it does not make them ill. Beside themselves with passion, some of them would not be backward even about scheming to suppress and silence their adversaries."  --Galileo Galilei

In 1970, United States Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin celebrated an event entitled "Earth Day" on April 22.  There has been an earlier teach-in event in New York City that same year.  This past week, we celebrated yet another Earth Day.  But things have changed in our policy discussion over our ecological footprint.  The pollution cartels are now running our policy-making institutions.  In particular, the interests which mine coal and own coal-fired power production have produced a strong cartel with the assistance of state and federal laws and regulations. 

Cartels can flourish under direct government fiat, or by private enforcement by the cartel members.  Government regulation can help cartels along by creating barriers to entry for competitors even when the government does not directly create the cartel through licensing schemes.When the United States Congress ratified the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977, they created a form of cartel through the New Source Review ("NSR") program.  While the goals of the NSR program are laudable and understandable, its side effects have been quite intractable.  In effect, existing power plants were allowed to continue operating with antiquated pollution control technology, while any new power plants had to meet stringent technological standards.  To build a new coal plant became far more expensive than just repairing  the old ones.

By making it much more expensive to build newer types of power plants, the holders of older permits and their suppliers could maintain a market advantage.  The cost of new controls created a barrier to market entry for new firms.  Technology prescription can have this effect in ways that other environmental control strategies may not, such as taxing pollution or setting performance standards.  Of course, any scheme which allows one group of users to avoid paying the tax or adopting the standard is creating a cartel.  This is usually referred to as "grandfathering" rather than "cartelling."

As with all cartels, pressure will build from the outside or the inside to break the cartel.  In the case of new source review, the pressure to break the cartel came from EPA in the form of costly litigation.  The industry claimed that it was entitled to rely on EPA's prior endorsement of its cartel arrangement-for more than a decade EPA had allowed firms to repair the grandfathered units so long as they did not exceed a cost threshold.  The result of this has been that a barrier to market entry for new forms of power has been created.

In addition to this, add the existing barrier posed by the organizations that license electrical distribution monopolies, including FERC and state Utilities Commissions.  The sad result is that new sources of energy are not attempting to compete in a free market, but begging for entry from a coal-fired cartel.  It is little wonder that the cartel feels its market power threatened and fights back hard.  Cartels usually do.