Thursday, March 31, 2016

Political thoughts 6 -- Georgia on my mind

Georgia.  The Georgia governor, saying he would veto a bill that would allow religious-related organizations to maintain faith fidelity in activities and employment, placed the Constitution and commercial common sense above the political grandstanding of his legislature.  Poorly reported was (a) the bill would become law immediately upon signature and (b) it would have allowed church-related organizations not only to refuse service to some and not to hire those with differing beliefs, but it would have allowed the employers not to “retain” those whose beliefs differed or who were non-believers.  In other words, the Jewish, Muslim, atheist or possibly even Mormon or Catholic bookkeeper of a Protestant religious sponsored day-care center could have been fired immediately with no recourse under the law.  The legislative votes suggest the veto can be overridden.

Trump-Cruz wives.  Voters like their presidents to look presidential.  This spousal spat diminishes both and, as at least one reporter said, makes the campaign look more like a kids playground.

Cruz.  The anti-Trump sentiment is so high that politicians seem to be flocking to Cruz, whom they couldn’t stand until recently.  They simply ignore that Cruz is only a slightly more presentable version of Trump.  It looks like Trump’s willingness to allow hecklers to be roughed up has finally drawn a line over which some Republicans will not pass.

Clinton-Sanders.  Clinton sometimes can remind you of a school marm who makes her points by repeatedly shaking her head “yes” and has little tolerance for the unruly kids in the back of the room.  She compounded that image by suggesting she would not debate that bad boy Sanders until he behaved himself by speaking more politely.  Also a bit like the school playground, though far more restrained that the GOP gang.  And they will debate.

Clinton-Trump.  Clinton has begun focusing on the fall campaign for several reasons.  First, she wants to gain so she can undermine Sander’s claim that he would run more strongly against Trump than she would.  Plus she looks more presidential.  She also has more to run against, as Trump offers her more targets than does Sanders. And she can avoid the continual pressure from Sanders to move to the left, when she can show how much more progressive she is than any of the likely GOP nominees.  Finally, she can begin to unite her party in a defeat-GOP mode, while the Republicans are coming apart at the seams.

Debates.  Lincoln and Douglas would have been pooped by now with all the debates.  I had thought there were too many, but they seem to be boosting turnout and possibly help in picking up new voters as the campaign progresses.  Pretty sure that’s what Sanders hopes.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The mounting, secret taxes in electric bills

Most households are paying a tax that nobody talks about. Though far less exciting than today’s presidential campaign, this issue may affect most families.
If you get this tax bill, you pay it once a month. The best part about it, at least for the legislators who have created it, is that the “taxpayer” is never told about it. It is a secret tax, but the penalty for failure to pay it is so powerful that people comply. If not, their electricity may be cut off.
Every electric bill includes a number of charges that cover neither the power nor the wires. These charges have been levied by legislatures to pay for their policies, but without the usual need to raise taxes.
Some of these charges have been around for a long time, like the cost of paying for utility regulation. But new charges are being added from time to time when legislators decide to adopt a new public policy. Regulators themselves may be required by law to add on such charges.
Controversial as he may be, Gov. Paul LePage has been consistent in arguing for efforts to reduce Maine’s electric rates, among the highest in the country. In his abbreviated, written “State of the State” message to the Legislature and not the usual formal speech, he devoted a major part of it to this issue.
LePage focused on power supply that causes high electric rates. He wrote that companies considering investment in Maine back off when they learn about the cost of electricity. He might also have mentioned the adders to electric rates, many of which, unlike power supply, are under state control.
The broadest effect of this hidden tax is on customers struggling to make ends meet. The Legislature seems to pay little attention to the rate impacts on ordinary customers of its energy policies. Perhaps each time a charge is added, it is considered too small to have much of an effect. But the small charges, federal and state, add up.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in January that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can regulate “demand response” – the temporary shutdown of generators to reduce the need for higher cost power. The idle generators will usually be paid the same as the rate paid for the most expensive power used. This applies in most states.
In the end, that may save customers money by avoiding the use of higher cost power. But underlying the policy is the fact that all generators are paid, not the price they offer to the market, but the price charged by the most expensive power used. Using the actual cost of power supply, as was formerly the rule in New England, is gone.
To encourage renewable power, the Maine Public Utilities Commission requires that utilities buy from higher cost renewable power generators. Solar power, subsidized at above-market prices, could be added soon. The higher cost is passed on to customers.
Then, there’s the famous typographical error. In 2013, the Legislature passed a major energy policy bill that included a $3 per month boost to electric bills to pay for increased energy efficiency. But, thanks to a typo, the bill would produce $38 million less than expected.
The PUC was asked to correct the error in line with legislative intent. Not surprisingly, it said it must do what the law says and not what might have been meant. So, back it went to the Legislature who got into a fight with LePage over fixing the error.
Almost overlooked in meeting the need to do more to promote efficiency and potentially reduce costs was the fact that the $38 million would be collected from electricity customers. Fixing the error involved a rate increase, but almost no attention was paid to that aspect of the matter.
If no other reform were possible, the add-on charges should be shown on the electric bill as they are on most phone bills. In that way, the Legislature would have to take some responsibility for policies that raise costs.
This is not exclusively a Maine problem, though the state provides a good example. Thanks to FERC requirements and other states’ rules, it happens elsewhere.
States should fund desirable energy policies. But they should not hide their cost. Beyond requiring bills to show the added costs, legislatures should fund their energy programs, like other policies they adopt, through taxation not utility rates.
Instead of hidden charges, even for good reason, tax-financed measures could force legislators to make better, more public decisions.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Political thoughts – 5 "What do we do about Trump?"

Trump.  The political world is in fantasyland, trying to figure out what to do about Donald Trump, who keeps on picking up more delegates.

Let’s start with what ought to be the most obvious scenario, but which is hardly mentioned.  Trump gets enough delegates to secure the nomination.  Looking at his chances of winning in November and his popularity, an increasing number of key party leaders decide to support him simply because they think he can keep surprising people and beat Hillary Clinton.  Possible.

Then, there are all the stop-Trump scenarios.  Republicans fall in line behind Ted Cruz as the only viable GOP alternative.  Think Jeb Bush, Chris Christie.  At least Cruz is a tea party conservative not a wild card like Trump.  And the stop-Trump crowd believes that Trump is a sure loser to Clinton and will help the Democrats on the ticket to the point they can retake the Senate.

Or there’s the spoiler scenario.  The so-called GOP establishment runs its own “independent” candidate in at least a few key states (it’s too late to file as an independent everywhere), ensuring Trump’s defeat by splitting the vote.  The spoiler could even be Cruz who would be expected to carry Texas.

Another spoiler possibility would be former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, who runs in all states.  He thinks that if he participated in the presidential debates, he could prove to be an attractive candidate.  Does he have any scandals?  Could prevent Trump from winning, but does not yet seem plausible.

Or the open convention.  Nobody has enough delegates to win on the first ballot and delegates can vote as they wish after the first vote.  Kasich hopes for this scenario, finally able to convince Republicans that he has their best chance of winning in November.   Reasonable, but it’s hard to believe that Trump and Cruz delegates could rally to him.  Otherwise, it would be more likely that, if nobody had enough delegates, a deal would be negotiated before the convention voting began.

Clinton.  Will win the Democratic nomination.  The NYT supposes that if (a) Sanders wins 60 percent of the remaining delegates and (b) superdelegates always support the delegate-count leader, he could get the nomination.  In the current case, (a) looks impossible and (b) is not a valid assumption.  So she will be the nominee.

Should be pleased by almost any of the GOP scenarios, given that the problems of Trump and Cruz with the electorate should dwarf hers if properly exploited.  But she still needs to be looking for ways to improve the public’s trust.

Polling.  Now we hear that either Trump or Cruz poll well against Clinton.  Two possibilities.  Either the polls about November are meaningless in March, because campaigns, candidates and commercials mean something and we have not yet begun the general election campaign or polls have become relatively less valuable as forecasters due to the lack of random samples (yes, I know it’s my hobby horse) or because people lie to pollsters.

If Trump can be nominated and win the election, this isn’t your parents’ USA.  The days of American democracy calmly accepting the outrageous Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision would be gone.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Presidential campaign promises cannot be kept

Candidates simplify issues. Pandering to voters, they make bold promises,

Once elected, office holders must deal with complex solutions to complex problems and often fail to keep their promises, usually because the solutions require the agreement of others.

Presidents and governors depend on Congress and legislatures in dealing with most major issues. The nature of government itself keeps either branch from entirely have its way, creating the gap between promise and performance. The inability to produce the simple solutions leaves voters disappointed, frustrated and recently even angry about their leaders' failure to keep their promises.

Remember that candidate Barack Obama promised to close the Guantanamo prison in his first year as president. It’s still open. And now, the current candidates' promises show that simple solutions face some impossible political tests.

Take Bernie Sanders' promise that he will end fracking in the U.S. That's the process for extracting new volumes of oil and gas from deep in the earth and replacing the fuels with contaminated water. No wonder he opposes it.

But there is more to fracking than that. The massive new amounts of oil found in the U.S. have made the country virtually independent of oil from the Middle East. No longer does American policy have to be influenced by the recognition of the country's dependence on Middle East potentates.

And the availability of oil from fracking, making the U.S. the largest producer of oil and related liquids, has added so much new supply that the price of oil has tumbled. That has shown up in the drastically reduced price of gasoline and home heating oil, a benefit to consumers.

If Sanders' proposal to end fracking were adopted, the U.S. would again be dependent on the sheikhs. Oil company profits would soar. Would the man who rails against the super rich really want to enrich them further by ending fracking? And, at the same time, the proposal would result in higher prices for average customers.

The fracking companies might be able to defeat a ban. A possible compromise would be much tougher environmental rules aimed at completely protecting drinking water quality and preventing geologic change, like earthquakes. That would be difficult enough, but is likely easier to achieve than an outright ban. But it’s too complicated to be a campaign proposal.

Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, a deal among a dozen Pacific Rim countries. By lowering trade barriers with these countries, they warn the government will jeopardize American jobs.

Freer trade would cost some American workers their jobs. But it would also create job opportunities. The net impact would probably be small.

The candidates do not mention is that the TPP’s purpose is not mainly about trade. It is about creating a community of countries on the Pacific Rim to block China's expansionist plans. The phony islands that it has created in international waters are tangible examples of its Pacific area ambitions.

Rejecting the TPP would mean the U.S. would ignore the appeal by other countries for a close relationship with the U.S. to block the threat of Chinese expansion. Opposing the TPP because of its effect on some American workers means seeing only one part of a bigger picture.

This major debate will extend into the next president's term. Both the concerns of labor and the country's strategic interests must be considered. The deal might be approved with help for displaced workers going beyond the failed jobs programs of the past. Like all trade deals, it should bring some benefit to customers.

If a compromise is reached, some voters will feel cheated. Few will have voted based on their concerns about China. More voters will have wanted the deal killed. They will be disappointed by what they could see as an unfulfilled political promise.

How about Trump's support for torture because he believes it works? It also makes him appear tough on America's adversaries.

Could Congress change the law to allow it? That's unlikely, because the use of torture by the U.S. would invite the torture of American prisoners.

Trump says he can balance the budget by cutting waste and inefficiency. Presidents must rely on the Congress to cut spending, but “wasteful” spending often helps members' constituents or supporters.

Each year, the Senate receives a report on duplicate federal programs that could be consolidated, producing real savings without cutting any services or support. Nothing ever happens. It's doubtful that any president will make a serious dent in waste and inefficiency. But it's a nice promise.

Beware of the promises of presidential candidates. If elected, they will almost surely disappoint you.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Political thoughts – 4 After sort of Super Tuesday

We continue to look for the day when the voters select the nominees.  That would be the real Super Tuesday.  As the kids ask, “Are we there yet?”

Trump.  He continues his march, but still does not quite seem inevitable.  Even he talked on Wednesday about what he would do with his life if he did not win.  He claims he can unify the party, even the country, but at what price to his supporters.  The more “presidential” he gets, the more he risks alienating his voters.  If you ride the tiger, it may swallow you.  The pundits now wonder if he can get a majority of delegates before the convention.  If not, what?

Cruz.  His answer: “me.”  More truly conservative than Trump, but he has not overtly promoted violent handling of hecklers, who are, after all, a part of the political tradition.  Trump supporters could possible accept him, if nobody else.  If he and Trump have enough delegates together to win, a pre-convention deal could happen.

Kasich.  He plans to be the uncola.  If the rest of the party, loosely known as the “establishment,” can stop Trump and Cruz at the threshold and he hangs around, he believes they turn to him.  But that would have to mean delegates already pledged to one or the other of them would move to him.  He has to start showing just how conservative he really is to have any hope of that.  Not likely.

Rubio.  Something of a fraud.  Though the establishment fleetingly saw him as their alternative, his withdrawal made clear he wants to be seen as a tea party conservative who stands at arm’s length from the establishment.  Now he can.  Hopes to be vice presidential candidate.  Right now, who cares?

The GOP Convention.  Brokered?  No, there are no brokers.  Open: Not likely, too unruly and uncertain.  So, what?  “The Art of the Deal.”  If Trump does not get enough delegates, pre-convention negotiations are likely.  Trump, Senate GOP, pollsters and Cruz at or under the table at the very least. 

Clinton.  Hard to beat now.  Must be joyful at the prospect of Trump as opponent, because her issues pale compare to his.  But amazingly inept at times.  Asked this week about NAFTA, she had no answer.  Huh?  If she is the experienced leader, she must do better.  One can only assume she actually knows the answer, but lacks the political guts to state it.  Thus, does not come across with the strength she needs to project.

Sanders.  Has really helped keep the Democrats before the media, while the GOP battles, which Clinton alone could not have done.  And he has reminded the party and Clinton of its traditional values.  Unfortunately, the better he has done, the more he sounds like a conventional candidate.  He should and will stay in the race right up to the convention even if she has the delegates to get the nomination.  What he says is often worth hearing and carries influence.

Polling.  Do we need any more proof that it is not worth much?  Mostly because it is so overdone that too many people refuse to participate, preventing a truly random sample.  The media does not get it.

Media.  What makes anybody with a laptop or a microphone an expert?  People with no political experience are issuing expert views on the campaign, but fail to do more than parrot somebody else’s spin.  Anchors ask tyros what events mean without first asking what’s happening.

Turnout.  Remember that the number of people who will pick the delegates will be a small fraction of those voting in November.  That could make to so-called revolutions of Trump and Sanders be less than they now seem.

Senate.  The pundits say the GOP senators will find out if Trump as nominee or blocking the Supreme Court nominee will impose a political price when they are home during the next couple of weeks.  Probably not, but a break from just a couple of key senators on either matter could start a movement after the time away.  (We don’t have long “recesses” for fear the president might nominate somebody to something.)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Rights, defense policies threatened by FBI cell phone quest

The FBI, trying to force Apple to break into its own protected software, wants the public to ignore its own failings and misstatements.

There's much more than anti-terrorism involved in the attempt to crack a cellphone.

After the December 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California, the two terrorists were quickly found and killed. One of them had an Apple iPhone in his possession.

Though it did not need access to the phone's data to pursue the terrorists, who were already dead, the FBI wanted to see if they were part of a terrorist network. The FBI asked for and received Apple's help in accessing the phone's data.

The FBI gained some information, but agents thought more might exist. The phone had been automatically backed up in October, making data until then available, but the FBI also wanted the data between the backup and the attack.

Ignoring Apple's offer to help, the FBI fumbled in its attempt to back up the remaining data. Apple says that, with its available help, the FBI could have accessed the data. The FBI reluctantly confirmed that was true.

The FBI could not otherwise access the data, because it was password protected, and agents did not know the terrorist's password. The phone's lock allowed only ten tries with the delay between each try growing longer.

When asked, Apple said it had designed the software to provide complete customer security and even it could not access the data. The FBI then asked the company to develop new software to break its own security. Apple refused.

It said that it had promised customer security as part of its product. Even more important, it said that, once the new software existed, it could be reused, even by America's enemies, to view secret data.

The FBI then went to a California federal court and asked it to order Apple to develop the new software without waiting to hear Apple's side of the argument. After the judge said she would give Apple time to reply, the FBI filed a request that she should compel it to comply immediately. It argued the new program could be controlled by Apple and destroyed by it after just this one use.

As the basis for its demand, the FBI relied on the All Writs Act, a law passed in 1789 allowing federal courts to issue orders on all matters unless Congress had addressed the issue.

Apple replied that the federal government could not force a company to produce software and that the program would end up being used more than once. The California case remains in court.

Meanwhile, in New York, the FBI was seeking the same password access program in a drug trafficking, criminal case, not related to national security. The judge there found that the AWA did not give courts the authority to order the company to prepare new software, which would be overly burdensome on Apple. He said that Congress had “considered [such] legislation but not adopted it.”

In short, the AWA could not give courts authority that Congress had intentionally declined to give them. The federal judge decided in favor of Apple and turned down the FBI, which has appealed his ruling.

The California case revealed that the FBI could have accessed the data without the court order. The New York case revealed that, despite the FBI's claim, it would not limit its access to a single case.

The FBI seemed to be trying to stir up public sentiment for its position by raising the threat of losing terrorists' secrets. In this effort, it was willing to undermine the principles of real security protection and user privacy and to mislead both courts and the public.

That the FBI was on its own crusade became clear when both the Secretary of Defense and the chief of the U.S. Cyber Command said maintaining strong password protection is more important than opening the access the FBI seeks.

The U.S. uses passwords and other protections for its data and has its own software for breaking into the secret files of other countries. Key agencies want no legislative or court action that could compromise or expose their efforts. U.S. adversaries should continue using software they may mistakenly believe is impenetrable.

While virtually all Americans support tough action against terrorism, the FBI-Apple case demonstrates the dangers of total software access that overrides privacy rights, supposedly being protected by the government. The situation is even worse when, in its zeal, the government agency itself departs from the truth.

More thoughts on the campaign -- 3

Trump. He's still considered the frontrunner and the likely nominee, but he seems to be losing some momentum. (Update: wrong on that one.) To stop him, the GOP would have to find an alternative, a process slowly happening.

Cruz. He's the likely alternative, because he is picking up delegates. But he may turn out to be no more appealing to many Republicans. He is more conservative than Trump (when you can figure out Trump's positions) and is totally unwilling to compromise with anybody. To watch: if the combined Trump-Cruz delegates are a convention majority, one of them will be the nominee. Trump delegates should be able to support Cruz, but probably nobody else.

Rubio. Must win in Florida to avoid having to drop out, but he is not attracting enough support to make it all the way. Objective must be to depart in a favorable enough light to run again.

Kasich. Substitute “Ohio” for “Florida” and the picture is the same as for Rubio. But he could take VP (not likely) or cabinet slot.

Ryan. The all-purpose savior. But it is difficult to see how most delegates already elected could move in his direction. His only path may be an open convention. But it is far more probable that a deal will be made pre-convention that will avoid carrying the battle to the floor.

Bloomberg. As forecast, he did a careful, non-ego-driven analysis. He is sane enough to know that, if Clinton were the Democratic nominee, he could hand the election to Trump or Cruz. So he backed off. His thinking about the choice going to the House for decision was a bit fanciful.

Clinton. She will have to continue to focus on Sanders, when she would rather be running the fall campaign early. Unless she is deserted by the superdelegates because of an embarrassing revelation, she has the nomination. If they did desert her, it would not be for Sanders.

Sanders. Appeals to voters the Democrats need. Much depends on how he leads his supporters at the moment he must concede. Meanwhile, he forces Clinton to be a better candidate.

The media. Mostly lemmings. Gene McCarthy said they are like birds on a power line. When one flies off, they all fly off.

The media says more people are coming out for GOP primaries/caucuses than for the Democrats. Maybe, but here's a story.

The NYT gave prime coverage to Rubio's win in Puerto Rico and less attention to Sander's caucus win in Maine. Why? AP said that almost 37,000 people had voted in Puerto Rico, but less than 4,000 in Maine. The fact was that almost 47,000 Democrats voted in Maine (more than the less than 10,000 Republicans a day earlier), setting a new record. That undermined, at least somewhat, the reports that the Democrats are pulling fewer voters than the GOP and that Sanders, despite big crowds, is not causing bigger voter turnouts. The NYT obviously did not bother to check the data, possibly leading its pundits rely on bad info. There is objective truth out there somewhere, but we are probably not getting it.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Nominating process leaves many voters unhappy with choice

The presidential campaigns are getting closer to the choice of party nominees, but many people say they are unhappy about the most likely outcome.
Party rules and relatively few voters are responsible for the likely matchup between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
This possible choice results from the demise of the “smoke-filled room” in which a handful of party bosses picked the party’s nominee. They would pick the person who would best help them hold onto or increase their local power.
These power brokers could deliver delegates at the party’s national convention. They doled out public sector jobs or supplied social benefits and, in return, were repaid by the loyalty of convention delegates. A few people could deliver large blocks of delegates, often enough to pick the nominee.
Of course, there were times when conventions were deadlocked, and the bosses had to make deals about federal appointments and even policies to reach an agreement.
The smoke filled room began to lose its role as people who were more policy oriented than patronage dependent became politically active. And, increasingly the exclusion of women and African-Americans became unacceptable.
Finally, the Democrats decided to change the delegate selection process. Delegates to national conventions would be selected in primary elections or caucuses. Ordinary party members could gain control of the delegation selection process, ending boss control.
It became impossible for the Republican Party to resist this tide of change and it, too, adopted voter selection of its nominee.
But something went wrong. The open process for delegate selection has not worked in practice as well as in theory. While the bosses were mostly gone, the process was not left to the mass of all party voters. It fell to a relatively small group of them.
It turned out that many people who registered in a political party had little interest in actively participating in party affairs. They might vote in a primary for state or local office, but their party identification probably indicated alignment with party policy or a specific candidate more than an interest in activism.
The open process proved to be an attraction mainly to party members with strong ideological motivation. The Democratic Party process became heavily influenced by strong liberals and the Republican Party by strong conservatives.
The problem would turn out to be the weak representation of others who were less strongly committed to the parties. While they form the majority of the electorate in November, they can find themselves forced to choose between candidates supporting agendas with limited appeal to them.
Donald Trump may be changing the calculation. Turnout for the GOP primaries has shot up, partly because of the large number of candidates and partly thanks to Trump’s appeal to people who normally scorn politics. But, even with relatively high GOP turnouts, Trump is winning with the support of less than 10 percent of general election voters.
The Democrats have backed away somewhat from the purely open process. A modern version of the party boss, people with a deep stake in the party, was adopted.
These are the so-called super delegates, who get their slots because they hold public office or are committed party officials. In both cases, they give a lot of time and effort to their party. Like the old-time bosses, they care about having a candidate at the top of the ticket who will help other party candidates.
Their weight can influence the party’s choice. Hillary Clinton has about 90 percent of the declared super delegates, leaving Bernie Sanders with a huge uphill challenge from the start of the campaign.
A few steps could improve the process for selecting party nominees. The GOP might adopt its own version of super delegates, giving its party officials and office holders a bigger role.
And both parties would benefit from fewer, larger primary and caucus days. The confusing flood of elections may discourage participation and it certainly gives too much weight to the Iowa caucuses, notable for their small turnout, and the New Hampshire primaries, which allow independents into party votes.
Finally, the November voters need to start participating in the nominee selection process. Too many people, unhappy about their choices, are unwilling to vote in a primary or give a couple of hours every four years to a caucus.