Friday, July 31, 2009

Follow up on obesity policy: reduce agriculture subsidies

I rarely agree with the Wall Street Journal, that screed of naked capitalism on social policy. Indeed, the linked article decries government attempts to tax fattening foods, not to mention government involvement in the health system. Nonetheless, the capitalist pigs make a good point:

But Congress could give up its own bad habits right now. Start by reforming agricultural “policy,” meaning subsidies that help make unhealthy food artificially cheap. Most of the new calories in the American diet come from processed foods, and taxpayers have underwritten them since the New Deal with huge price supports for commodity crops like corn and soy.

These are processed into low-quality calories that make their way to consumers as refined starches, high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and feed for livestock. Most farmers receiving ag subsidies are actually prohibited by law from growing “specialty crops”—i.e., fruits and vegetables—as protectionism for California and Florida produce growers. Call the 19% of kids who are obese the children of the corn.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reflections on Urban Institute event - Reducing Obesity: Policy Lessons from the Tobacco Wars

Researchers at the Urban Institute, a US think tank that researches issues like health, criminal justice, education, housing and welfare, have recently produced a report called Reducing Obesity: Policy Strategies from the Tobacco Wars. The report itself is quite long at 72 pages, but can be summarized thus:

The consumption of fatty snacks and foods and sugary soft drinks has elements in common with tobacco use. Accordingly, the strategies used to combat tobacco use are worth considering -

1. Tax foods that cause obesity. The UI researchers referenced research by Rayner et al in the UK; these authors divided foods based on calorie and macronutrient content into healthy, moderate and unhealthy. To leave no gaps in the market, we should consider levying a tax on all unhealthy foods (e.g. potato chips, french fries, bacon, fast food cheeseburgers, high fat cheeses, sugary cereals, etc). [For example, if you only tax sugary sodas, consumers might shift to potato chips instead, so you want to tax all unhealthy foods. Consumers might shift to moderately healthy foods while still consuming the same number of calories, but they'd still probably be better off.]

2. Put simple, graphic warning labels on the packaging of unhealthy foods. These should be simpler and starker than the current nutritional labels. Additionally, restaurant chains can be required to show similar information on menus.

3. Banning advertising of unhealthy foods.

The researchers also emphasized that much of the money raised by these taxes must go to the poor. The reason is equity - the poor generally eat more unhealthily, partly because of the lack of healthy alternatives and partly due to less education. The World Health Organization said that tobacco taxes were the most successful part of anti-tobacco campaigns around the world. However, a tax on unhealthy foods must occur in the context of an intense public education campaign and investments must be made to ensure that the poor in the US have access to good alternatives. If not, all you're doing is taxing the poor.

The term "food desert" is a US term that is applied to many poor inner city areas. In these areas, there isn't easy access to grocery stores with fresh produce and other good foods. The easiest stores to access are convenience stores, which have frozen foods and junk snack foods (not to mention the convenience stores are more expensive than grocery stores). It is definitely a problem in US inner cities; I'm not sure to what extent this problem occurs in Europe.

Judith Thorman, a representative from the American Beverage Association (aka Big Soda) was there, mainly to speak against taxing soft drinks. She argued that Big Soda has been at the forefront of ensuring low-calorie tasty alternatives to sugary sodas and has is in the process of voluntarily withdrawing full-calorie sodas from US schools. This is true, and good for them. However, she was poorly received by the audience. Frankly, Ms. Thorman, you came across as being more interested in protecting Big Soda's profits than in helping offer solutions. A tax on unhealthy foods would not be the end of Big Soda, and it would give consumers the incentive to seek healthier foods - and Big Soda as well as the restaurant industry can help us get healthier foods that are cheap and tasty if they try.

Episcopal Church repudiates Doctrine of Discovery, calls on US to do same

The Episcopal Church held its triennial General Convention recently. Too much attention centered on steps taken to allow Dioceses to potentially select LGBT people as candidates for bishops, which the conservatives say will split the church, destroy the institution of marriage, etc.

However, the conservatives are fighting an uphill battle. In the long run, they will lose on the LGBT issue. The Episcopal Church chose to take the right step in a different uphill battle: the church passed a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and calling on the US to do the same and to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Doctrine of Discovery was a principle of international law developed in a series of 15th century papal bulls and 16th century charters by European monarchs. It was essentially a racist philosophy that gave white Christian Europeans the green light to go forth and claim the lands and resources of non-Christian peoples and kill or enslave them – if other Christian Europeans had not already done so.

The doctrine institutionalized the competition between European countries in their ever-expanding quest for colonies, resources and markets, and sanctioned the genocide of indigenous people in the “New World.”

The resolution renounces the doctrine “as fundamentally opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our understanding of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God,” and promises to share the document with its churches, governments within its boundaries, and the U.N.

It resolves to eliminate the doctrine within the church’s contemporary politics, programs and structures, and urges the U.S. government to do the same. It asks Queen Elizabeth to publicly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and encourages all Episcopal churches to support indigenous peoples in their ongoing efforts for their inherent sovereignty and fundamental human rights as peoples to be respected.

Johnson v. M’Intosh, an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case, held that because of the Doctrine of Discovery American Indians have a mere right of occupancy to their lands. The ruling is foundational to federal Indian law.

Dieffenbacher-Krall, the executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission and originator of the resolution movement, said the ultimate goal is to overturn Johnson v. M’Intosh, and dismantle Congress’ claim to plenary power over Indian nations.

“This is illegitimate, this is immoral, this is evil. U.S. law shouldn’t be based on this. I want to see an all out effort to overturn Johnson v. M’Intosh just as the NAACP legal defense fund and many civil rights activists worked strategically to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson,” he said, referring to the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a “separate but equal” decision by a lower court that allowed Louisiana to operate separate railroad cars for African-Americans. The high court decision provided cover for southern states to impose racist Jim Crow laws for more than five decades until segregation was tossed out in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education.

A longtime social justice activist, Dieffenbacher-Krall said his growing awareness and understanding of the doctrine’s history made action irresistible.

“It’s not like I had a St. Paul on the road to Damascus moment, but sometime in the winter, spring or summer of 2006, I really became aware of the Doctrine of Discovery in connection to Congress’ claim of plenary power over American Indian nations.

“So where’s the social justice behind Congress saying, ‘We’ll just do whatever we want with the Maliseets or Navajo or Hopi because we’re the U.S. and you’re not?’ I felt that because I have an uncommon knowledge for a white person about some of this stuff that I might have a role to play working in my church to make people aware of this.”

Working with the Wabanaki tribes in Maine, reading Newcomb’s articles and later contacting him helped strengthen Dieffenbacher-Krall’s determination to act, and in October 2007, Maine’s Episcopal Church responded by passing a resolution calling on Queen Elizabeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury to rescind the 1496 charter given to John Cabot and his sons to go forth and claim possession of all the lands in the “New World” that weren’t already claimed by Spain and Portugal.

Dieffenbacher-Krall also worked with Chaffee, a professor of Chinese history at Binghamton University and member of the Episcopalian diocese in Central New York, to pass its own similar resolution in November 2008, and with Hamilton, a Maine social worker, who worked with Chaffee to shepherd the national church’s resolution through the process in Anaheim.

Chaffee crafted the resolution that was adopted at the general convention.

The resolution has “a substantial practical value,” Chaffee said, because it could potentially “provide important legal ammunition in terms of pending and future legal cases that might be brought by Native Americans. I’m very happy to be just a small part of that whole process.”

Hamilton was honored to be able to participate. In an e-mail update to her colleagues during the convention, she wrote, “My testimony rebutted the comment I have often heard about this issue, ‘What, are we trying to rewrite history?’ I said that to stand in any of the colonial churches of New England was a reminder that those churches stood on a history of the Doctrine of Discovery and genocide, thus there needed to be recognition of that both by the Episcopal Church and its colonial forbears in the Church of England.”

It's not certain what practical effect this will have on the Episcopal Church's structure. The US has traditionally - and usually for the worse - exerted sovereignty over the affairs of Native American tribes within its borders. Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery could be interpreted as a challenge to the presence of non-Native people in the US, and conservatives will say this.

However, what's done is done, and the non-Native people who are here now have a legitimate claim to residency. What we can do instead is to allow Native Americans more leeway in regulating their own affairs, such as law enforcement and enforcement of environmental protections. This would be the Christian thing to do. Remember, Jesus was an Indigenous person.

As a side note, while observing health reform testimony, I heard a Native American tribal official testifying before a House panel ask that tribes be exempt from any insurance mandates. I would urge tribes to reconsider. We want everyone covered on the same terms. We cannot carve out too many exemptions. That said, I'd also urge Congress that unfunded mandates on the tribes, or anyone else, should be out. In addition, the Indian Health Service must be adequately funded.

Monday, July 27, 2009

UK Bishop of Urban Life and Faith wants CoE to "commit" to "uncomfortable Britain" - what does that mean for churches worldwide?

The Rt Revd Stephen Lowe, Bishop of Hulme, is the Bishop for Urban Life and Faith in the Church of England. He recently gave the Synod a presentation on his report The Urban Church: Three years on from “Faithful Cities”. (Article by the Church Times)

... [Bishop Lowe] began by describing life on a depressed Rochdale housing estate. A half-time parish priest and a CUF-funded com munity worker were the Church’s continued pres ence in what the Bishop described as “a different world from the comfort able church in comfortable Britain”. The BNP found support, while main stream political activity struggled against apathy and impotence.

Clergy in such communities were often undervalued, poorly sup ported, and under-resourced. “We are also not training and equipping enough men and women to work in uncomfortable Britain.”

Such parishes would always need subsidy from the Church Commissioners and the comfortable churches, who needed to remember the theological imperative behind the parish system. Adding more parishes into benefices in urban contexts was “a recipe for disaster”,as the lack of articulate, literate, and numerate lay leaders meant more clergy dependency. Bishop Lowe warned that political correctness by government might defeat attempts to get some pump-priming resources.

“If politicians want the Church of England to contribute to welfare as we do on education, they have to help us build our capacity and work in proper partnership with us rather than accusations of special pleading when we make our case for help.”
He called for socially and eco nom ically mixed communities, and an end to socially divisive gated com munities. “Our presence at a national level, prodding Governments about their urban presence, is vital,” he said. A national Church that took its theology seriously must be prepared to be prophetic about the shape of society. “For that to happen, we must not become a comfortable Church for a comfortable nation, but a Church totally committed to its con tinued presence in uncomfortable England.”

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd John God dard (Northern Suffragans), said that “the most vulnerable in our society deserve the best of our priests and the best of our resources.”...

What does it mean for a church to commit to life in "uncomfortable Britain", or any urban area/urbanized country? It's a given that governments should invest in poor areas and poor people - what might it mean for the church to do so?

This connects to an article published today in the Washington Post, which reported on a study on neighborhood poverty levels done by Pew, a nonprofit US research firm. The study found that for African-Americans, which are the racial/ethnic group facing the highest level of housing segregation in the US (i.e. African-Americans are much more likely to live in predominantly African-American neighborhoods even if they are middle class). The article found that the single largest predictor of future poverty for African-Americans. The proposed solution is intensive investment in poor neighborhoods - it seems that giving housing vouchers to low-income families so that they can live in middle-income neighborhoods hasn't been successful.

However, we also have to do something about the segregation of rich from poor and Black from White, in the church. I attend the Church of the Epiphany, a historic parish in downtown DC. To put it bluntly, wealthy Whites (and I think Asians) have generally fled the downtown area. Epiphany's membership is on the decline and aging, and the budget is getting crunched. Inner city churches in general face these problems. On the plus side, the church maintains an active homeless ministry, serving breakfast weekly and lunch weekly (church attendance not required for the former, the latter is done as part of a service in a park). Epiphany is also a racially diverse parish, in contrast to most churches. A number of members are homeless. Others live in a mix of DC and the suburbs.

In the Church Times article cited above, Bishop Lowe says that the CoE has found it difficult to get people to work in “these uncomfortable places”. As a consequence, the British National Party (a nationalist far right party) has found that "white ghetto estates" are "a fertile ground to sow their poison." I don't see that sort of poison being sown by ultra-nationalists in US minority communities, but there are other problems - crime, ill-treatment by the police and the laws, environmental problems, lack of investment and social and public services.

What does it look like for the Church to invest in the poorest areas? How do we get congregations started in these areas? How do we fund them? How do we minister to the poor? All these are central questions for a church which follows a God who served the poor.

This might be hard to do, but I wonder if this is an opportunity for mainline Protestant churches, at least, to consolidate their parishes and operate ecumenically. Many churches are finding that they have to close parishes - don't just close them, see if the congregation can partner with a similar church. Alternatively, Epiphany provides office/worship space for a downtown nonprofit and a Muslim congregation - perhaps inner city churches can explore this sort of space sharing to make full use of the property, and in turn, the partners can contribute to its upkeep so that at least the church's variable costs are covered.

Summarize the Gospel in 1 tweet (140 characters)

Twitter is the latest social networking obsession (I'm on Twitter with the handle weiwentg. Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine/think tank/social network, has given a challenge: summarize the Gospel in one tweet, or 140 characters. For everybody using Twitter, the 140 character limit is a challenge; additionally, to reply to Sojourners, you need to put the phrase '@Sojourners', which takes you down to 129 characters.

I'd encourage others to give this a shot. My try is: God came in person of Jesus. Jesus liberated us. Holy Spirit inspires us 2 liberate others. Amen.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Alan Durning of Sightline: Things I love and hate about Waxman-Markley (US cap and trade bill)

Alan Durning has an excellent critique on the US House's cap and trade bill for Sightline Daily. I'm excerpting his bullet points:


1. I hate that Waxman-Markey allows 2 billion tons of offsets each year. That’s too many by an order of magnitude. Offsets are too slippery; you can never be sure if you’ve reduced emissions overall or just moved them around. W-M’s offsets provision could blow a hole in the cap – and the cap is the only guarantee we’ll meet crucial goals. This offsets number is, in my view, the bill’s biggest flaw. (Still, W-M is admirably complete in designing a set of administrative rules to sift real from fake offsets. Whether such regulatory standards will be enough is perhaps the key question about the bill, as Lisa argued.)

2. I hate that Waxman-Markey’s goal for 2020 is a paltry 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels (19 percent, considering love #3). President Obama’s clean-energy stimulus and budget investments, the 2007 federal energy bill, new fuel-economy standards announced in May, and new programs in Waxman-Markey for efficient buildings, vehicles, and appliances—these initiatives alone might take the United States to a 17 percent drop in emissions. Even without cap and trade.

3. I hate that W-M only auctions 15 percent of permits at first. Carbon permits will be a public asset ultimately worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Distributing them for free, even distributing them for free with as much integrity and cleverness as W-M does, is at best sleight of hand. Sooner or later, voters will understand that permits are cash in another form. A more forthright policy would auction all permits first, then distribute the money in the light of day. If coal and oil companies really deserve billions of public dollars (see hate #6), let them argue for it in the halls of Congress, with the news cameras rolling.

4. I hate that W-M gives 15 percent of permits for free in its early years to energy-intensive companies in traded sectors. Transitional assistance for traded industries is a legitimate public objective, but handing out permits is too blunt a tool. "Border adjustments" or "carbon tariffs" would be the better policy tool.

5. I hate that Waxman-Markey, having just lavished 15 percent of permits on energy-intensive firms, dedicates a fraction of one percent of permits to programs that benefit workers. It gives 0.5 percent to transitional aid for displaced workers and green-collar job training programs. Combined.

6. I hate that in its early years, Waxman-Markey gives 2 percent of permits to oil refiners and 5 percent to coal power plants. W-M also hands out permits to pay for carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects at coal plants. CCS is a promising technology worthy of research grants, but it’s too speculative to deserve 5 percent of permits every year, in perpetuity. (And as commenter Jim Lazar pointed out on the original post, the free permits for coal power plants perversely encourages them to continue polluting the atmosphere. Better to give them permits regardless of whether they keep operating than to give them permits contingent upon their continuing to spew carbon dioxide.)

+ 1. A new, extra thing to hate about the amended version that passed the House: I hate that the farm lobby wrote itself special rules so that the US Department of Agriculture is the arbiter of agricultural and forestry offsets in the United States. Offsets hold real potential, but they're also tricky. Appointing a single agency the official arbiter makes sense, and it ought to be the nation's pollution-control agency EPA. This amendment was essential to winning passage, I understand, and it's not a deal breaker. But it'll take close scrutiny from the administration, Congress, and public-interest watchdogs to make sure USDA holds farmers and foresters to the same standards that EPA holds other offset vendors.

7/16/2009 UPDATE: +1 more. The penalty is relatively mild for emitting more greenhouse gases than you have permits for. You have to reduce an amount of carbon in the subsequent year that is equal to your excess. You also must pay fines of two times the prevailing permit price (at auction) per excess ton. At $15 a ton of carbon--a likely price in the early years--the fine would be just $30. The fines for noncompliance in the US acid rain program are far steeper: an excess ton of sulfur dioxide brings a $2,000 fine. (Hat tip to Andrew in Chicago for this point.)

Enough bad news. There’s more to love than there is to hate:

1. I love the 2050 goal: a reduction of emissions by more than 83 percent below 2005 levels. Beyond carbon in 40 years!

2. I love Waxman-Markey’s scope. It is comprehensive, covering essentially all fossil fuels, along with most other greenhouse gases. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that W-M’s cap would cover 86 percent of emissions by 2020. For uncapped emissions, such as those from landfills and animal farms, it offers regulatory standards and other programs.

3. I love W-M’s “strategic reserve”—a stockpile of permits that authorities will accumulate to help buffer prices. To establish the reserve, authorities will withhold a share of each year’s permits, typically 1- 3 percent. The reserve will have the effect of tightening the cap in normal years, but if permit prices spike upwards (rising by 60 percent above their three-year average), it will temper the market by releasing permits. Smart policy! This reserve is a clever, cap-protecting alternative to an off-ramp, which would generate cap-busting extra permits if prices spiked.

4. I love that W-M operates (mostly) upstream in the energy economy. “Upstream” simplifies everything and makes the cap more comprehensive. It targets roughly 7,400 US companies, including oil and natural gas suppliers plus power companies that burn coal.

5. I love that, by 2030, under W-M, federal authorities will auction 70 percent of permits and distribute the remainder to public agencies and institutions. Those entities will sell their permits as well, likely through the federal auction. It’s not 100 percent auctioned from day 1, as it ought to be, but it gets there eventually.

6. I love that, from its inception, Waxman-Markey auctions 15 percent of permits for the benefit of low-income families. Working-class households have done the least to cause climate disruption; they stand to lose the most from it; and their pinched budgets are most exposed to the fossil-fuel rollercoaster. The Congressional Budget Office estimates such rebates might be worth $161 for a single adult in 2012 and grow over time.

7. I love that, starting in 2026, federal authorities will auction all unallocated permits and distribute the proceeds in equal payments to all legal US residents. By 2030, that’s 55 percent of permits, worth tens of billions of dollars. It’s almost Cap and Dividend, and it will probably make climate policy a pocket-book winner for every family below the median income.

8. I love that low-income families will get both their 15 percent climate credits and their per-capita dividends. W-M will compensate them for some of the cruel injustice of climate disruption itself.

9. I love many of its technical features: W-M provides for unlimited “banking” but tightly limits “borrowing”; has few barriers to bidding at its permit auctions (low barriers to entry are among the best safeguards against market manipulation); uses quarterly, uniform-price, sealed-bid, single-round auctions (don’t ask); incorporates a battery of protections against market manipulation; allows linkage with European and other cap-and-trade systems, at the discretion of federal authorities; and allows any recipient of free permits to offer them on consignment at the main federal auction. (More on all this here.) (And I love that the amended version that passed the House included even more provisions for oversight and regulation of secondary carbon permit markets.)

10. I love that W-M sets an auction reserve price of $10 when the program begins in 2012. I love that the reserve price will rise each year by 5 percent plus inflation, as shown in this chart. By 2050, permits will never sell at auction for less than $63 (in 2009 dollars). This rising price floor will deliver us to the climate-pricing dream-world I sketched here. In effect, W-M incorporates a carbon tax shift in its cap-and-trade system.

11. I love that W-M allocates 10 percent of permits (shrinking over time) to states, to fund renewables and efficiency programs, such as retrofits for all and upgrades to schools and other public buildings.

12. I love that W-M dedicates 3 percent of permits to climate-change adaptation—human and natural, domestic and international—and raises this allocation to 12 percent in 2027.

13. I love that W-M supports conversion to clean-energy abroad, devoting 1 percent of permits to this purpose initially and 4 percent after 2027.

14. I love—or at least feel grudging admiration—that W-M finds ways to give free permits but still channel the dollar value of those permits to families. For example, I hate that W-M gives 30 percent of permits to electric utilities (not to power generators but electricity retailers), but I love that it requires them to rebate the value of those permits—after selling them on the market—to their customers in equal lump-sum payments. This mechanism is less transparent, universal, and fair than auctioning permits and sharing the revenue in equal parts. For one thing, rebates will vary widely, depending on utilities’ fuel mix. For another, utilities have no idea how many people share each meter, nor can they ensure that landlords pass rebates to their tenants. Still, it’s an ingenious compromise that may prevent most corporate windfalls, because electric utilities are closely regulated. It also ensures that the carbon price signal will still be felt throughout the electricity market.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Smithsonian: The back story of cap and trade

The Smithsonian has some history on cap and trade. The Environmental Defense Fund features prominently in the inception of cap and trade, which is currently used on sulfur dioxide and will be (please, God!!) used to control carbon dioxide emissions.

Environmentalists had previously preferred using regulatory approaches, but these failed due to the political process and the administrative requirements. EDF worked with the Bush (elder) Administration to introduce a market with no loopholes and a hard cap. Previous state experiments were smaller and had too many loopholes for the market to work properly. Basically, one must stick to the cap and not allow additional supply to be introduced into the market.

The SO2 cap and trade experiment has been successful so far and hasn't harmed utilities or consumers. The CO2 cap and trade program could stand a lot of improvement, but I believe it will have to do.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Watch Pat Buchanan make a fool of himself on MSNBC

Pat Buchanan, a conservative Evangelical Christian minister and political activist, goes on a rant about how Judge Sonia Sotomayor only got where she is because of affirmative action and how she isn't qualified to be a Supreme Court justice. Judge Sotomayor may well have benefitted from affirmative action to get a foot in the door, but that foot in the door won't do anything if you aren't qualified. And indeed, the American Bar Association rates her as "well qualified" for the Supreme Court. An ABA committee rates potential nominees as not qualified, qualified, or well qualified. The committee evaluating Judge Sotomayor unanimously voted her as well qualified.

Ironically, Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, both Republican appointees, did not receive unanimous votes stating that they were well qualified. Thomas is African-American and sits on the court; liberals disagree with most of his decisions and he was nominated. Bork is White and received several "not qualified" votes; he was not confirmed and is not on the court.

You can't tax the rich to pay for everything

Taxes fund the basic infrastructure necessary for us to live in society. All of us should pay our fair share. The Bush tax cuts in the US did benefit the poor and middle class, but most of their benefits went to the rich.

In addition, the Bush tax cuts treated capital income far more favorably than earned income. Earned income is wages. Capital income, which is commonly called unearned income, consists of income from wealth, like capital gains and dividends. Wealth disparities are generally greater than income disparities, since the former reflect that you can accumulate wealth over several generations. A number of wealthy people (but not all of them) earn most of their income from capital income. Bush cut the tax rates for capital gains and dividend income to 15%; this probably exacerbated wealth disparities in the US. He also reduced tax rates in general.

A backlash is starting to grow in the US. Taxing the rich is growing more popular. Indeed, many of the health reform bills include surtaxes on the rich. For example, the House proposed that couples making above $350,000 annually would pay a tiered surtax starting at 1%. All U.S. residents pay a payroll tax of about 12.6% of their earned income for Medicare and Social Security, whether or not they owe federal income tax. Since Medicare provides a flat benefit (i.e. everyone is eligible for the same benefit, regardless of how much you contributed during your lifetime), income above a certain amount is excluded from the payroll tax, and capital income isn't subject to the payroll tax; however, there is talk of expanding the amount of income subject to payroll taxes, and also including capital income. A CNN Money article by Jeanne Sahadi discusses the backlash and some tax proposals; it quotes researchers at the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan collaboration between the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, which are both prominent think tanks.

The article also repeats a point made by Len Burman, director of the TPC: while the President promised not to increase taxes for anyone making under $250,000, there aren't enough people making over that amount to pay for everything that needs to be done. We can't fund the things we need to do solely by raising taxes on people making over $250,000.

That said, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a bunch of folks who are far better versed in tax policy than I. Chuck Marr of the Center figures that the House proposal is reasonable. It would affect only 1.2% of US households. Since 1976, the top 1% of US households have seen their real income (i.e. after inflation), after taxes, grow by 276%. All households in the top 20% have seen real after tax income grow 86%. In contrast, real after tax income for the middle 20%, second lowest 20% and lowest 20% of households has grown by 21%, 18% and 11% respectively. In addition, Marr debunks conservatives' arguments that the surtax will harm small businesses (most small businesses don't earn over the specified level, and can choose to incorporate in a manner so as not to make their owners vulnerable to the tax (i.e. incorporate as a C corporation). Last, tax levels in general are actually lower than they are under President Reagan.

I still maintain that you can't simply tax the rich to pay for everything we need to do, but I concur that the House tax proposal by itself is reasonable.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Leadership 3: Epistemology

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. It enables us to figure out what distinguishes justified belief from mere opinion.

I am not a lawyer, and law was probably one of my poorer classes in grad school. However, my impression is that the legal world assumes there is objective truth, and that people can be objective.

As to the latter, women's studies has traditionally asserted that objectivity is bounded, that our perception of facts is linked to our social identities, like race, class and gender. The growing fields of behavioral finance and behavioral economics also assert that our rationality has limits.

Women's studies also teaches that subjectivity is good. Women's voices have too often been silenced, as have the voices associated with other marginalized social identities. Paying more attention to the subjective allows us to understand the worldviews of people we might have marginalized.

Leaders need to aim for a balance of objectivity and subjectivity. It's impossible to be completely objective. It's also unwise to do so - else, you might marginalize someone and tell yourself that you were completely justified to do so.

President Obama said he wanted to appoint a judge with empathy to the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the President's eventual nominee, once said, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Conservatives have complained vociferously. To be fair, her remark could easily be taken the wrong way. However, in her comments, she has apparently distanced herself somewhat, in this WSJ article:

Judge Sonia Sotomayor, parrying tough Republican questioning, distanced herself from President Barack Obama's comments about judicial empathy, saying, "We don't apply feelings to facts."

Republicans suggested Judge Sotomayor was changing her views to get through her confirmation hearings. They expressed dissatisfaction with her answers on questions such as what she meant when she suggested a "wise Latina" would make better decisions than a white man.

"I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judging," she said.

"Had you been saying that with clarity over the last decade or 15 years, we'd have a lot fewer problems today," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) cited Mr. Obama's comments that in the hardest questions of constitutional law, when text, precedent and other legal tools reach their limits, the rest must be determined by what is in the judge's heart. The senator asked if Judge Sotomayor agreed.

"No, sir, I wouldn't approach the issue of judging the way the president does," she said. "Judges can't rely on what's in their heart...The job of a judge is to apply the law."

She added, "It's not the heart that compels conclusions in cases, it's the law."

Nonetheless, she still connects experience and empathy to sound judging. From the WSJ article:

On the "wise Latina" matter, Judge Sotomayor first said, to laughter in the hearing room, "No words I have ever spoken or written have received so much attention."

She said she had used similar lines for years in lectures to different audiences, particularly women lawyers or "young Latino lawyers and students."

"I was trying to inspire them to believe that their life experiences would enrich the legal system, because different life experiences and backgrounds always do," she said.

And from a New York Times article:

Still, Judge Sotomayor questioned whether achieving impartiality “is possible in all, or even, in most, cases.” She added, “And I wonder whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society.”

She also approvingly quoted several law professors who said that “to judge is an exercise of power” and that “there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives.”

“Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see,” she said.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor and an adviser to Mr. Obama, said Judge Sotomayor’s remarks were appropriate. Professor Ogletree said it was “obvious that people’s life experiences will inform their judgments in life as lawyers and judges” because law is more than “a technical exercise,” citing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s famous aphorism: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.”

The corollary to her "wise Latina" statement, then, is that a White man could also be an excellent judge if he were truly wise - if he had balanced judicial objectivity with life experience, subjectivity, and empathy to other social or economic groups. Conversely, a person of color or a woman could easily act unwisely by attempting to be solely objective.

Leaders in other fields should similarly attempt to balance objectivity with subjectivity. It will allow them to make wiser decisions.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Sojourners: A Christian Creed on Healthcare Reform

Copied from Sojourners. Interested parties can sign on here.

As one of God's children, I believe that protecting the health of each human being is a profoundly important personal and communal responsibility for people of faith.

I believe God created each person in the divine image to be spiritually and physically healthy. I feel the pain of sickness and disease in our broken world (Genesis 1:27, Romans 8:22).

I believe life and healing are core tenets of the Christian life. Christ's ministry included physical healing, and we are called to participate in God's new creation as instruments of healing and redemption (Matthew 4:23, Luke 9:1-6; Mark 7:32-35, Acts 10:38). Our nation should strive to ensure all people have access to life-giving treatments and care.

I believe, as taught by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, that the measure of a society is seen in how it treats the most vulnerable. The current discussion about health-care reform is important for the United States to move toward a more just system of providing care to all people (Isaiah 1:16-17, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Matthew 25:31-45).

I believe that all people have a moral obligation to tell the truth. To serve the common good of our entire nation, all parties debating reform should tell the truth and refrain from distorting facts or using fear-based messaging (Leviticus 19:11; Ephesians 4:14-15, 25; Proverbs 6:16-19).

I believe that Christians should seek to bring health and well-being (shalom) to the society into which God has placed us, for a healthy society benefits all members (Jeremiah 29:7).

I believe in a time when all will live long and healthy lives, from infancy to old age (Isaiah 65:20), and "mourning and crying and pain will be no more" (Revelation 21:4). My heart breaks for my brothers and sisters who watch their loved ones suffer, or who suffer themselves, because they cannot afford a trip to the doctor. I stand with them in their suffering.

I believe health-care reform must rest on a foundation of values that affirm each and every life as a sacred gift from the Creator (Genesis 2:7).

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

NY Times Economix blog: How Environmentalism Misses the Forest for the Trees

The New York Times Economix blog has an article criticizing many mainstream environmental groups for often missing larger issues in favor of smaller ones. One example that the author, Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser, gives is the Massachusetts Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which opposes wind (I think) power generators being placed in the sound. An excerpt:

The old mantra “think globally, act locally,” is pretty silly. Local environmentalism is often bad environmentalism, because keeping one’s backyard pristine can make the planet worse off. Preventing wind farms leaves Cape Cod’s views untouched, but increases carbon emissions.

In my own field of housing, a similar phenomenon occurs when some environmental groups put their own local interests ahead of global warming.

Homes in coastal California use much less energy than homes in most other places in the country. New building in California, as opposed to Texas, reduces America’s carbon emissions. Yet, instead of fighting to make it easier to build in California, environmentalists have played a significant role in stemming the growth of America’s greenest cities.

In a previous post on the Lorax, I discussed the work that I had done with Matthew Kahn on carbon emissions across the United States. We used data on energy expenditures and driving patterns to estimate the emissions associated with a new house in different parts of the country. We controlled for family size and income and focused only on newer homes. My previous post emphasized the lower carbon emissions of city residents, but the differences across metropolitan areas are even more extreme than the differences between cities and suburbs.

San Francisco is the greenest metropolitan area in the country. An average new home there emits about 38,000 pounds of carbon dioxide each year. Houston is the brownest area in the country. An average new home there emits about 68,000 pounds of carbon dioxide each year. California owns our top five list of greenest metropolitan areas in our sample, which includes San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento.

Why are these California areas so green?

The primary reason is climate. January temperature does a terrific job of explaining carbon emissions from home heating and July temperature does almost as well at explaining electricity usage. California has the most temperate climate in the country and as a result, homes use less heat in the winter and less electricity in the summer. In hot, humid Houston or frigid Minneapolis, people use plenty of energy to artificially recreate what California has naturally.

Environmentalists should, presumably, be out there lobbying for more homes in coastal California, but instead, for more than four decades, California environmental groups, such as Save the Bay, have fought new construction in the most temperate, lowest carbon-emission area of the country.

This anti-growth movement has achieved enormous successes, and the growth rate of California has plummeted. ...

I generally agree - the environmental movement does often miss the forest for the trees. That said, note that Glaeser is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

WSJ: Boost in food stamp funding percolates through economy

The Wall Street Journal has an illustration of how supports for the poor, such as food stamps, have follow on effects that boost the economy generally. An excerpt:

AVENPORT, Iowa -- The lush red strawberries caught the attention of Rachel Patrick, a mother of five shopping at a farmers market along the Mississippi River here. She selected two cartons and ignited a little-noticed chain reaction that is an important part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan.

Ms. Patrick handed a plastic card loaded with her monthly food-stamp allocation to farmer Ed Kraklio Jr., who swiped it through his electronic reader. Mr. Kraklio now regularly takes in several hundred dollars a month from food-stamp sales, a vital new revenue stream that has allowed him to hire another assistant to help tend a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. The new worker, in turn, spends her income in nearby stores, restaurants and gas stations.


But it also has put more money into the hands of the poorest Americans by boosting monthly food-stamp allocations. Starting in April, a family of four on food stamps received an average of $80 extra.

Money from the program -- officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- percolates quickly through the economy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates that for every $5 of food-stamp spending, there is $9.20 of total economic activity, as grocers and farmers pay their employees and suppliers, who in turn shop and pay their bills.

While other stimulus money has been slow to circulate, the food-stamp boost is almost immediate, with 80% of the benefits being redeemed within two weeks of receipt and 97% within a month, the USDA says.

The quick influx of cash into the economy reflects the often desperate situation faced by millions of households struggling to put enough food on the table. For many families, monthly food-stamp allotments rarely last more than a few weeks, leaving them with dwindling grocery supplies -- and sometimes bare cupboards -- by the end of the month.

Angie Minix rushes to her local Save-a-Lot grocery store on Chicago's South Side at the start of every month, when her new food-stamp allocation appears on her card. So do many of her neighbors. "You can't even get in the parking lot," she says.

On a recent shopping trip, she headed straight to the fresh produce section. Before her increase in April to $606 from $525, Ms. Minix said she would rarely even troll the fresh-food aisles. Now, she talks about how she has introduced her two sons to cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce and cucumbers.


For years, the food-stamp program was plagued by criticism that it was an inefficient way to help the poor. Many who qualified wouldn't apply because of a lack of information, daunting paperwork or the embarrassment of handing over stamps in a grocery checkout line. And it did little to increase access to more nutritional food, since fresh produce remained scarce in poor areas.

In recent years, though, registration has been streamlined; many food pantries offer information and direct sign-up services. The switch from stamps to plastic cards offers a cloak of anonymity. Meanwhile, more farmers markets offering fresh produce in urban areas have adopted the technology to accept the cards.

Nationwide, enrollment in the program surged in March to about 33.2 million people, up by nearly one million since January and by more than five million from March 2008. In a recent research report, Pali Capital Inc. estimated that food-stamp spending will increase between $10 billion and $12 billion this year from $34.6 billion in 2008.

For grocery stores and farmers markets, the added food-stamp revenue has helped offset slower sales to other consumers.


Farmers markets in Iowa have been particularly aggressive in courting the business of food-stamp recipients. At the Davenport market, food-stamp purchases have boosted business at Sawyer Beef. As farmer Norman Sawyer's sales increase, he says he plans to buy more fencing and water tanks to improve grazing areas for his cattle. "This has been a good deal for us," he says.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

WSJ video: Pfizer targets Venezuela's working poor

Pfizer's drugs in Venezuela are about 30% cheaper than in the US, and the company does give out 10-20% discount coupons.

However, the video says branded drugs can still eat up 25% of a working person's salary - in the US, we would consider those medical expenses to be catastrophic. Pfizer and other pharma companies are right to emphasize higher quality, given that WHO data shows that as many as 30% of generic drugs in developing countries are counterfeit. However, generic drugs usually work as well as branded drugs and are cheaper - meaning that we need to expand access to generic medicines in poorer countries.

US residents: how progressive are you?

The Center for American Progress has an interactive quiz based on a validated political study.

Monday, July 06, 2009

WSJ: In Political Ads, Christian Left Mounts Sermonic Campaigns

Stephanie Simon of the Wall Street Journal has an article about the increasing media power of religious groups favoring issues which have traditionally been seen as belonging to the secular left, such as (sigh) global warming.

Randy Brinson, a conservative political consultant in Alabama, has been fielding anxious calls for weeks from business interests across the South.

Their concern is massive ad blitz on Christian and country-music stations across 10 states. The ads, funded by a left-leaning coalition, urge support for congressional legislation to curb greenhouse-gas emissions -- by framing the issue as an urgent matter of Biblical morality.

"As our seas rise, crops wither and rivers run dry, God's creation cries out for relief," begins one ad, narrated by an evangelical megachurch pastor. Another opens with a reference to the Gospel of John, slams energy interests for fighting the bill, and concludes: "Please join the faithful in speaking out against the powerful."

Dr. Brinson tells his clients they are right to be worried. Such an aggressive political campaign by the religious left is unexpected, he says, and could prove powerful. "This is the first time I've seen a moderate group of evangelicals come together and do a coordinated campaign," said Dr. Brinson. He is warning clients: "You're going to hear a lot more of this."

Emboldened by what they see as a kindred spirit in the White House, progressive and liberal Christians are stepping up their political activism in a big way.

A religious coalition called the American Values Network spent nearly $200,000 placing the global warming ads. Some political analysts credit the campaign with boosting support for the Waxman-Markey climate bill, which narrowly passed the House last week.


The religious right and secular conservatives are taking notice. In recent weeks, key religious-right groups such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council have heavily promoted the work of a group called the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. The Cornwall Alliance dismisses global-warming alarms as hype and argues that forceful action to cut greenhouse-gas emissions could cripple the economy and harm the poor. It is organizing conservative pastors to carry this message to the pews.

The religious left has a long tradition of activism on social issues, including the civil-rights movement. But for the past quarter century, faith-based politicking has been dominated by the religious right, which built a powerful army of activists -- and a formidable fund-raising machine -- on the strength of leaders such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority and radio host James Dobson of Focus on the Family.

The religious left's re-emergence as a strong voice -- with the financial backing to make aggressive media buys -- is a "seismic shift," said D. Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University who studies evangelical politics.

"The religious left is experiencing today what the religious right had in 1981," Mr. Lindsay said. "They've finally found a White House that's not just tolerating but welcoming, affirming, of their involvement."


Friday, July 03, 2009

Washington Times: New Anglicans split on women

Julia Duin of the Washington Times reports that the breakaway Anglicans are split on the ordination of women, with the majority of US Anglican dioceses not ordaining women. It is my hope that our sisters and brothers in Christ will come to a just resolution (i.e. all ordain women) but I'll be hard pressed to be sympathetic if they later split over this matter.

Last week's birth of a new Anglican province in the dusty plains of north-central Texas left the question of women's ordination dangling in the air.

Of the 800 people attending the founding of the Anglican Church in North America, 368 were priests and deacons. Of that number, about 10 percent, or 36, of the clergy were female.

The new province is a mishmash of former Episcopalians, ranging from almost-crossing-the-Tiber Anglo-Catholics to low-church charismatics, and it's a mystery as to how they're all going to get along. Many are against ordaining women. Others are just as adamant that females be given access to the diaconate, priesthood and the episcopate. The Episcopal Church approved female priests in 1976 and elected its first female bishop in 1988.

The ACNA's new canon laws state women can be deacons and priests, but not bishops.

I queried retired Eau Claire, Wis., Bishop William Wantland, an old friend and an ardent opponent of ordaining women. He reminded me that 22 of the ACNA's 28 dioceses do not allow female priests. It's a system known as "dual integrity," dioceses that differ on a question where Scripture can be read both ways agree to respect and live with each other's views.

I asked him if he wanted the ACNA to eventually outlaw ordaining women entirely.

"Of course. That's our mission," he said. "Christ is the bridegroom and the church is the bride. The priest at the altar is an icon of Christ. What image is that if the person at the altar is a woman? It's a lesbian relationship."

Not much room for negotiation there.

Archbishop Robert Duncan, the new head of the ACNA, pointedly had a woman, the Rev. Travis Boline, at his right hand during legislative sessions. She reminded me that even the conservative African provinces are split on the question. Although Nigeria forbids female priests, Kenya and Uganda allow them.

"The global south has shown us a model of keeping to the main thing, while not being of one mind," she said. "Bishops serve the whole church, and if the church is not of one mind, then it's not appropriate for women to be bishops."
[Editor: How ironic.]

The other women I talked with were trying to put a good face on it all.

"It's more important to be part of an organization preaching the Gospel as the Word of God," one cleric said.

"We're trying to be servants," Katherine Martin, a cleric from Auburn, Ala., told me. "I'm not being welcomed to consecrate [Communion] in Quincy [Illinois] or Fort Worth [Texas]," which are two dioceses that don't ordain women, "but both the bishops of those dioceses couldn't be more kind."

I wondered if the men would take a similar position, agreeing to be "servants" while limitations were placed on them.

"I'd be lying if I'd say I wasn't disappointed," said Canon Mary Hayes of the Pittsburgh Diocese. "I've been a priest 25 years. I'm delighted to be in a body of people who have different views. It's not about getting my way."

Other women told me they hope men will see the light.

"They'll wake up," predicted the Rev. Joy Vernon, a Canadian priest ordained in 1989. "Jesus Christ ministered to women way beyond the culture of His day."

"We're not going to go away," a female priest told me. "Women have been patient since the beginning of time."

Phyllis Tickle: Who are emerging/emergent Christians?

Found on Episcopal Cafe:

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Sojourners on health reform

Behind the technical details of how to properly structure a reformed health care system is the moral imperative for reform. On the God's Politics blog at Sojourners, Jim Wallis discusses the three moral issues - the truth, universal coverage and cost. The last two are self-explanatory, so I'll excerpt the first:

For decades now, the physical health and well-being of our country has been a proxy battle for partisan politics. When Truman tried to pass a national health insurance plan, the American Medical Association spent $200 million (in today’s dollars) and was accused of violating ethics rules by having doctors lobby their patients to oppose the legislation. In the 1970’s when Nixon tried to pass a national health insurance plan, strikingly similar to what many democrats are proposing today, the plan was defeated by liberal democrats and unions who thought that they would be able to pass something themselves after the mid-term elections and claim political credit for the plan. In the 1990’s the “Harry and Louise” ads misrepresented the Clinton health care plan but was successful enough PR to shut down that movement for reform.

Already, industry interests and partisan fighting are threatening the opportunity for a public dialogue about what is best for our health care system. As a resource for congregations, small groups, and individuals, Sojourners has worked with its partners to publish a Health Care tool kit [click here to download] to help frame and guide this necessary debate. This guide gives an overview of the biblical foundations of this issue and frequently asked questions about it. What we need is an honest and fair debate with good information, not sabotage of reform with half-truths and misinformation.