Sunday, February 27, 2011

The real agenda.

Today's Jack Kelly column is interesting. Kelly talks about how evil public sector unions are in Wisconsin, particularly taking aim at teachers (Governor Walker has largely exempted police and firefighters from making cuts in their wages or benefits, evidently because police and firefighters are more likely to give money to Republicans). Kelly cites a CPA (!) who says "If government workers were paid the same as equivalent private sector workers, no state would have a budget deficit". In point of fact, the Center for State & Local Government Excellence found in 2008 that state and local workers made around 11 percent less than comparably educated private sector workers.

In a rare display of honesty, Kelly does note that Wisconsin public employee unions have offered to meet the governor's financial demands, although Kelly fails to note the governor has simply refused to talk to them. Kelly instead rails against the evils of collective bargaining, implying the unions will simply demand more money and reversal of the concessions next year. But these same unions have had no raises in two years, and at least one year in the past accepted an unpaid furlough that amounted to a three percent pay cut. And this was with a governor who is a Democrat.

Plus, Wisconsin is not currently bankrupt. In fact, before announcing this bill, Walker pushed through tax cuts benefiting big business. Further, the pension fund that Kelly talks about in vague, general terms is in fact fully funded. As so many Democrats and labor leaders have said, this is not about the budget.

I have heard several pundits/reporters suggest the Republican motivation in this case is to bust public sector unions, with the goal of reducing union influence in general. And some of that may be true, but today on "Meet the Press" I heard that Howard Fineman has proposed a slightly more limited but focused goal. Pubic sector unions are known for giving money and labor to the Democrats. Changing public sector unions by eliminating the automatic contribution from members (and reducing the income of members) will remove public sector unions as factors in elections. This would pave the way to change the financial equation, where Republicans will be able to receive essentially unlimited amounts of money from corporations while Democrats will have many fewer and smaller sources of financing.

Meanwhile, Kelly goes on about how Milwaukee teachers are paid, on average, $100,000 for nine months work in wages and benefits. By the way, that doesn't taking home a hundred grand, it means taking home maybe sixty, seventy grand (how much does Kelly make for working one day a week?). But Kelly says, eight of the 100 worst performing schools are in Milwaukee.

My question is, by cutting teacher pay and benefits forever more, does Kelly think Wisconsin (and the rest of the country) is going to get better job applicants? That paying less will make the city's schools better?

Apparently, in their desire to gain power in local, state and the federal government, Republicans are willing to permanently damage the public school system, and much of the rest the government (I haven't even mentioned cuts to the SEC, the IRS and the EPA).

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The little engine that couldn't ....

So today in his column, Jack Kelly essentially said that while freight trains are fine, passenger trains are pretty useless, and the government shouold not spend extra or perhaps any money on them. Before I look at the gaps in his argument, I should probably look at where I might agree with him. Kelly states that right now passenger rail accounts for a small percentage of all of travel in the US, and I have no doubt that's true. I suspect Amtrak has been given an impossible task, ordered to charge ticket prices that reflect as a large a part of costs as possible, and then given a subsidy that allows the trains to (just barely) continue running. I believe the trains between DC and New York/Boston are somewhat popular, but I would be surprised if any other routes could say even that.

So when Kelly compares passenger mile prices between driving, flying and taking the train, he is looking at just the cost of gas for driving, and the for flying the ticket price for a flying cattle car (full capacity seating) as compared to the less than full trains. Of course the driving cost ignores maintenance, insurance and other incidentals, and the cost of both driving and flying ignores their greater effects on the environment. But what really caught my eye was that Kelly ignores the fact that train ridership is higher in Europe (in absolute and percentage terms). Why would that be the case? I am not absolutely sure, but I'll bet a lot of the train tracks in Europe wee laid after world war II, and can accommodate faster trains (which they run). Oil being highly taxed there probably makes train travel more attractive pricewise, especially if the trains have more passengers, and so can better leverage the higher fuel efficiency per passenger mile of trains.

Amusingly Kelly also complains about the time it would take to go to a train station, without once mentioning the time it takes to go to airports, including larger parking lots and of course the wait at security checkpoints. But despite the fact I disagree with Kelly on theoretical grounds, I think he may have a point. Unless we throw maybe ten times what the President wants to spend, we won't be able to fund more than one or two projects, a drop in this bucket. Americans seem in love with cars (and/or SUVs and pick-ups) and flying, and even if Congress were to increase the gas tax (though I don't that coming to pass), I don't think Americans will give the cars and planes easily or soon.

Still, the ultimate point in Kelly's column, for my money, was where he said he had read somewhere that the Denver airport covers more land than would be required to build an Alaska to Miami rail line. First of all, hunh? And second, if anything, that meaningless factoid supports rail construction. But Kelly tries to present it as the opposite, as he so often does.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Kelly and Islam

Jack Kelly continues his campaign of indirect attacks on the President while also implying conservatives would do a better job of running things, all vis a vis Egypt. He is snidely implying both that Obama has no influence in Egypt and that Obama is making missteps that endanger American interests and threaten to help the (according to Kelly) fundamentalist and terrorist Muslim Brotherhood take over the country. I can't help but wonder which is true.

Now, I think there is a danger the Muslim Brotherhood could wield significant or even dominant power in a future Egyptian government. I think that is the case because the Muslim Brotherhood is identified as a group that opposed Mubarak (or that Mubarak opposed, which ever). I think this is a possibility regardless of what the administration has said or will say. But Jack Kelly thinks it is important that you know to blame Obama if anything bad does happen, and to give neocons and Republicans credit if Egypt turns out OK.

Anyone who would describe Mark Steyn as a "humorist" has major issues (at least in my book).

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Addendum to Kelly on food prices

Interestingly, Paul Krugman wrote yesterday about much the same topic that Jack Kelly had on Sunday. Krugman mentioned the same basic ideas, that high food prices are putting the world's very poor at considerable risk. Krugman also mentioned, as Kelly did, that some people blame the Fed's "easy money" policy, although Krugman dismissed the notion. But Krugman also looked at a cause for the current spike in food prices that Kelly did not consider: climate change. Krugman suggested that droughts (in Russia) and floods (in Australia) are the sorts of weather we might expect to see becuase of climate change.

I notice that the PG did not reprint Krugman's column on Monday, as I believe they often, if not usually do.

Als0 in the Sunday NYTimes was a review of a book "Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth". Now, I haven't read this book, but I was struck by how (as communicated through the review) the book emphasized that we are handing off a lot of misery to our children. Our blinders (as indicated by the House of Representatives) towards climate change is increasing the depth and length of the problems that will be caused by climate change. We can't wish away the problem, neither religion or capitalism will save us. The price of oil will inevitably go up, whether we try to mange the increase or not (it is looking like we will not try).

Perhaps there is a similarity between our head in the sand behavior about climate change and the behavior of businesses in not hiring workers, in demanding to be able to avoid paying workers healthcare benefits, and in keeping executive compensation so far above average employees. There is that sense in both climate change and the business world that we have ours, and see no benefit in sharing or helping others. That worked well for the French monarchy and aristocracy in 1789.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Kelly on Egypt

In today's Jack Kelly column, Kelly engages in innuendo and implies all sorts of negative things about Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and Obama. To be fair, our experience with the Iranian revolution should let us us know that it is possible for revolutions in countries that have dictators we supported can turn out very bad for us. Kelly's various quotes indicate worst case scenarios for Egypt, and I will say that Americans should be reassured that Mohammad El-Baradei appears to be the leading figure to replace Mubarak. But Egypt will need to develop Democratic processes as rapidly as possible, or risk falling prey to another totalitarian regime.

I do want to note one paragraph in Kelly's column:

"President Barack Obama belatedly has concluded a lack of democracy is the source of instability in Egypt. The neoconservatives who were architects of President Bush's "freedom agenda" for the Middle East (which Mr. Obama sidetracked) wonder why it took him so long."

While Kelly is busy trying to pin this on Obama, let me ask, where was the neocon "freedom agenda" for Egypt during eight years of the Bush administration?