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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Barack Obama

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As readers of these posts will recall, I'm not the biggest fan of the Affordable Care Act. My view is that the legislative compromises needed to get the ACA through Congress made it an unwieldy mess; that the bungled roll-out was a logical outcome of its Rube Goldberg structure. The claims of the president's loyal supporters that all is being fixed and that the ACA will still be a net political winner by November sound like so much whistling past the graveyard.

It may yet be possible to turn this lemon into political lemonade. Here is the speech President Obama should give—again and again with slight variations—between now and November.

Nonetheless, the damage done by the ACA rubs off, not only on President Obama, but on the Democrats' chances of holding the Senate and on American progressivism as a whole. If Republicans take both Houses of Congress, Obama in his final two years will be the lamest of lame ducks. The rarely wrong Nate Silver projects a Republican takeover of the Senate this November.

With control of Congress, Republicans could well destroy the ACA by blocking its funding. And then it's anyone's guess which party takes the fall for even worse general legislative gridlock going into the 2016 presidential election.

So as a critic, but in the spirit of we-all-sink-or-swim-together, here are some thoughts about how to turn Obamacare from lead weight into a political lifeboat for this November. Though millions of Americans have had an unfortunate encounter with the ACA, either cursing out Healthcare.gov in frustration or facing premium increases or blaming policy cancellations rightly or wrongly on Obamacare, millions of others have benefited by getting affordable insurance for the first time.

There is one other relevant political category—younger Americans who have not yet signed up for insurance because of the perverse incentives of the ACA's ban on denials for pre-existing medical conditions. The fine for not getting insured is so low—from $95 to more than $500 depending on income -- that many economically stressed younger workers have rationally concluded that it's more cost-effective to just wait until they get sick and then get insurance. In fact, there can be a long waiting period. If you missed today's March 31 enrollment deadline, the next open enrollment period is not until November 15—a long time for someone who is seriously ill.

That behavior has made the ACA less financially stable and reduced the coverage rate.

However, it may yet be possible to turn this lemon into political lemonade. Here is the speech President Obama should give—again and again with slight variations—between now and November.

"My Fellow Americans,

As you have surely heard, my Republican colleagues have pledged to destroy the Affordable Care Act if they win control of Congress in this November's election.

I will do everything I can to defend health reform, but two large groups of Americans should be aware of the risks that the Republicans mean what they say.

The first is young people. The ACA guarantees that you can choose to stay on your parents' insurance until you turn 26, whether the insurance industry likes that or not. If the ACA goes down, you will be on your own.

Secondly, the ACA guarantees that nobody can be denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition. If the Republicans are successful, that provision could be scrapped, too.

So if you are young and healthy, and have been hesitating about getting insurance because you can always get it later should you become seriously ill, you might want to reconsider and get coverage now. If the Republicans take control of Congress in November, that guarantee just might not be there.

What's more, if the ACA goes down, so does the ban on exclusions for pre-existing conditions. That could well be applied to renewals of existing policies.

We had to fight to get these provisions into the ACA, in order to protect tens of millions of Americans. So you should buy insurance while you can.

And in order to make sure that your right to get insurance at affordable rates is never taken away, you should carefully consider who you vote for.

You may want to strangle the people who designed the website Healthcare.gov, but do you really want to kill the ACA?

I'm as frustrated as you are with the glitches in getting this program going. They are being fixed. But those frustrations are no reason to toss away protections that cover people at risk of getting sick and of not getting good medical care.

So please get insurance while you can, and please think twice about voting for those who would take it away."

This strategy is known as nationalizing a mid-term election. If Republicans want to make a promise to repeal or de-fund the ACA the centerpiece of this November's campaign, let's have that fight and educate Americans on just what repeal would mean. The ACA might even turn into a political winner —or at least not the big loser that it now looks to be.

Economists have a nice concept known as "endowment effects." In plain English, that means people hate to give up what they have. The Republicans have turned that psychology against President Obama, because the ACA requires some really lousy insurance policies to be swapped for better ones that are occasionally more costly.

But by November, Obama could turn the psychology of endowment effects back against the Republicans. Do Americans really want to give up their right to get insurance despite being sick?

Is the conciliatory Barack Obama willing to be that partisan? His presidency and his greatest legacy could well depend on it.


Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School. This originally appeared at robertkuttner.com


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APTOPIX-Mideast-Iran Horo-e1379687164617(Hassan Rouhani | Source: Times of Israel)

A six-month diplomatic dance with Iran is underway—each step as dainty as a minuet because any misstep is weighted with danger.

The issue is Iran’s nuclear research program and the UN inspections that are taking place as a result. And while each side has its own agenda, they’re suspicious of the other’s motives.

The United States and its allies seek proof that this program is in fact peaceful, as Tehran claims, while the Iranian government is looking for relief from the international sanctions that hobble its economy. Through a process that started in January and will run through July, Washington and Tehran will test each other’s intentions according to a Joint Plan of Action agreed upon in Geneva last November.

Iran might stumble but the Obama administration should take the greatest possible care not to trip its partner.

On a broader scale, Iran is searching for clarity on its place in the global order. The cooler heads in Iran want to end the country’s 35-year isolation, beginning with security guarantees for the regime, but culminating in restoration to the community of nations. The welcome mat, the Iranians know, is in Washington’s hands.

But not every Iranian yearns for the West’s embrace, let alone the renewed good graces of Washington. Hardline clerics and their backers in the security services are more comfortable on the war footing where they’ve been since the 1979 revolution and the hostage crisis.

These forces believe that the more Iran opens up to the outside world, the more privileges they will lose in Iran’s government and economy. And the arch-conservative old guard may be right.

The hardliners are watching like hawks as the Joint Plan of Action proceeds, waiting for the opportunity to label the pragmatic Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, as an appeaser of the Great Satan.

There are signs that the Obama administration appreciates the delicacy of Rouhani’s task.

The White House, for instance, has steadfastly defended the Joint Plan of Action from domestic critics and foiled attempts to sabotage the fragile diplomatic process. President Barack Obama has promised to veto any new sanctions against Iran that Congress might pass, and the Treasury Department recently eased restrictions on academic exchanges between American and Iranian universities.

But the message to Tehran is mixed. While Obama talks about vetoing new sanctions, White House spokesman Jay Carney has boasted that the Geneva deal is leaving the “core sanctions architecture” intact. The big players in the Democratic Party don’t always have Obama’s back—Hillary Clinton, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee in 2016, warned Congress against further sanctions but also asserted that “all options are on the table” even with a signed agreement.

And in January, as the Joint Plan of Action commenced, U.S. officials paid calls on captains of industry around the world to tell them that the relaxation of sanctions is temporary, so any business they do with Tehran should end before July.

The U.S. has issued similar warnings to countries like India that wish to increase imports of Iranian oil.

The UN also refused, at Washington’s behest, to let Iran join the Syrian peace talks in Geneva. These talks are on hold. If they resume, Iran should be at the table.

As a Syrian regime ally, Iran could exercise a positive influence, particularly if the nuclear talks continue to yield encouraging results and particularly now that Russia’s attention is diverted to Ukraine. Keeping Iran away, on the other hand, undermines the Syria negotiations as well as any efforts the United States has made to strengthen diplomatic relations. The hardliners in Tehran seize upon such signals that the enmity of the West—in particular, Washington—is implacable.

So far, Iran has honored its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action. The UN’s nuclear watchdog verified on January 20 that Iran has stopped enriching uranium as it is supposed to. Subsequent UN reports are also positive.

Iran might stumble in this dance, of course—Iranian politics are unpredictable. But, given that the alternatives are so undesirable, the Obama administration should take the greatest possible care not to trip its partner.


Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report.


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Obama Haaretz(Source: Haaretz)

The American Israel Public Affairs committee (AIPAC) would have been much better off if the snowstorm that blanked Washington, D.C., at the beginning of March had forced their annual “policy conference” to be cancelled.

That didn’t happen. Instead, it took place and accomplished nothing for the powerful lobby, except to demonstrate how much it has declined in the past year.

And that is thanks to President Barack Obama who entered negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program over AIPAC’s strong opposition and, when AIPAC tried to scupper negotiations by getting Congress to enact new sanctions on Iran, said that he would veto them.

With little likelihood that the next president will be a Republican, AIPAC’s glory days may be behind it.

Obama issued his veto threat in his State of the Union address. And he did so by invoking “our national security.” When the president said an AIPAC initiative put someone else’s security above that of the United States, AIPAC had little choice but to fold.

The day after the address, Democrats were taking their names off the Iran sanctions bill being promoted by AIPAC. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came out in opposition and, by the end of the week, AIPAC itself announced that it was no longer pushing for its passage. This was the worst defeat AIPAC had ever experienced, a defeat that suggested that its clout was something of an illusion. (This can be overstated. AIPAC remains powerful because legislators depend on the campaign contributions it sends their way. And legislators will still roll over for AIPAC, but not when a president takes them on directly.)

AIPAC’s surrender on sanctions made its March conference all the more important for rebuilding its image of invincibility. But the opposite happened.

The whole was a subdued affair and, unlike previous years, it was mostly ignored by the media. Yes, the usual numbers of House and Senate members were in attendance, not to mention 14,000 AIPAC members.

But the old oomph was gone. Even though virtually everyone in attendance was furious at Obama, they were clearly under instructions not to make their antipathy known. The two speakers representing the White House, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, were received politely, even when they praised their administration’s plans to negotiate with Iran and to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians.

Although the audience preferred keynote speakers Senators Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez who breathed fire on the subject of Iran, no Obama-bashing was heard from the dais. Clearly, AIPAC does not want to antagonize this president any more. They fault him for insufficient toughness with the Iranians and Russians, but no one at AIPAC views him as weak on AIPAC.

The final two indications that AIPAC knows that it is losing came when it sent its members up to Capitol Hill to ask legislators to sign a letter supporting Benjamin Netanyahu’s demands on Iran. Not a bill. A letter! Small beer.

And then there was Netanyahu’s speech. Israel’s Prime Minister said nothing he hadn’t said before. He praised the president and secretary of state. And he devoted 25 percent of his speech (this was the part that got the audience cheering) to denouncing the college-campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Which was as if Lyndon Johnson had delivered a major foreign policy speech in 1967 and blamed his Vietnam problems on the Students for a Democratic Society.

In short, AIPAC’s annus horribilis continues with no signs of a change in its fortunes anytime soon. Even if the Republicans take the Senate in November, the Israel advocacy group founded the year LBJ assumed the presidency will still have Obama to contend with. With little likelihood that the next president will be a Republican, AIPAC’s glory days may be behind it.

This is good news both for the United States—and Israel, which badly needs a real friend in the White House, one who will actually say “no” to the Israeli right’s endlessly bellicose plans.

In Obama, they have one.


M.J. Rosenberg is a Special Correspondent for The Washington Spectator. He was most recently a Foreign Policy fellow at Media Matters For America. Previously, he spent 15 years as a Senate and House aide. Early in his career he was editor of AIPAC's newsletter Near East Report. From 1998-2009, he was director of policy at Israel Policy Forum. Follow him @MJayRosenberg.


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david koch2(David Koch | Source: Reuters)

As Barack Obama was being inaugurated, he stood on a red and green carpet. That bright accompaniment, welcoming those come to see a progressive sworn in—ostensibly to further a liberal agenda—was manufactured by a Koch brothers subsidiary, INVISTA, which had won the contract to provide carpeting for the quasi-monarchical presidential ceremony. It would be the last time anything associated with the Koch brothers enjoyed a non-antagonistic relationship with the Obama presidency.

As Lee Fang notes in his dense little book, The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right—packed with depressing details about the highly-organized and ideologically motivated New Right—the corporate funding and support the Koch brothers have provided for supposed grassroots movements of resistance have resulted in the almost complete derailing of Obama’s legislative agenda and prompted Fang’s grim conclusion that America is headed for rule by a “small selfish oligarchy.”

The American Right is committed to preserving all hierarchy and imposed order: men over women, white over black, rich over poor, bosses over workers, Christian majorities over Muslim minorities.

The modern Republican Party supposedly suffers from ideological confusion. It is for the regulation of gay marriage and reproductive rights; it is against the regulation of industrial pollution, healthcare insurance, and workplace safety. It is for the reduced power of the executive branch, except when it comes to spying on Americans and declaring war. It is for the religious freedom of Christian evangelicals but not Muslim Americans. These seemingly disparate platforms actually display a coherent unity: the American Right is committed to preserving all hierarchy and imposed order: men over women, white over black, rich over poor, bosses over workers, Christian majorities over Muslim minorities. This love of hierarchy, of entrenched power, is manifest in the most visible face of opposition to the Obama Presidency: the Tea Party and the new crop of Republican representatives it has sent to Congress. The Republican Party has been hijacked in the past; sometimes by anti-New Dealers, sometimes by the evangelical right; now it has been taken over by those committed to ideologically pure reactionary tendencies. Fang’s rich descriptions of the origins, tactics, tools and successes of this dedicated new force will make sobering reading for progressives.

Fang shows how the Tea Party never was, or is, a grassroots phenomenon; its birth is found in the tobacco industry’s resistance to government regulation, packaged in a verbal and visual co-optation of the language and symbols of the Boston Tea Party. Indeed, every instance of supposed bottoms-up Tea Party activism is shown to be corporate funded and organized to advance a corporate agenda, whether in pursuing tax breaks or derailing climate change legislation. This is best visible in Fang’s historically rich chapter on the Koch brothers, who have seamlessly married their financial bottom line to successfully resisting governmental regulation, all the while casting themselves as libertarian intellectuals.

Fang’s book shows how the New Right has mastered all the avenues of political change available to it: it deploys lobbyists to influence legislators; it provides financial backing and TV time in primaries to send its candidates to Congress; it elbows aside insufficiently ideologically committed Republicans through a barrage of rhetorical abuse, or compels them to move further right. Fang also details the right’s clever and flexible use of social media, where following a historical pattern, it quickly masters and exploits the tools developed by the left. These tactics show that technology can be bent to whichever political change its users deploy it for; the Tea Party has been aided, in particular, by a corporate media culture that needs a constant flow of news, no matter how minor or sensational, to fill its twenty-four hour programming commitments. The Tea Party has obliged this insatiable monster with a steady stream of misleading sound bites that help it win the war of words.

Through Fang’s book we learn how an ideologically committed opposition with resources and organizational skills that allow it to derail a legislative agenda and replace it with its own can do severe damage to a successful incumbent with a mandate from the electorate. Thus, the rhetorical and organizational tactics that led to the most famous failures of the Obama presidency—the healthcare public option, cap-and-trade carbon legislation and the extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the super-rich—are described in depressing detail. Progressives are rightly disappointed with Obama.

Reading Fang’s book, they will realize he was confronted by a committed foe against whom he needed to bring his A-game (and didn’t). In sharp contrast to Obama and the Democratic Party, the activities of the corporate-funded and corporate-staffed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) demonstrate that the New Right can control the legislative process from start to finish—by writing bills and getting them passed by senators and congressmen beholden to it. The corporate right is equally effective at the state level, where legislation and litigation can ensure that seemingly broad federal protections and safeguards are eviscerated; unsurprisingly, Republicans have used the redistricting process in those states where they have legislative majorities to ensure uninterrupted control of state government and increased Republican representation in the U.S. House.

Progressives will find their first reading of Fang’s book distressing. The second time around they can use it as a primer for how to best resist the conservative juggernaut. It won’t be easy.


Samir Chopra is a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College and the author of Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket. He blogs at samirchopra.com. Follow him @eyeonthepitch.


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Deporter in Chief

Because I am married to the principal of a public high school located in a border state, each semester I witness at a remove an agonizing process. A student arrives home at the end of the day to find that one or both parents have been picked up and are being processed for deportation.

Or are already deported.

Because I am married to the principal of a public high school located in a border state, each semester I witness at a remove an agonizing process.

In some instances, the child is an American citizen by birth. In others, the child has DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status, provided through the June 2013 executive order President Obama signed granting temporary legal status (for a $465 processing fee) to youths brought to the country as children. In some instances, the child is undocumented.

If both parents are gone, school administrators scramble to find a relative, social services, or some place for the child to land. If one parent had been deported, often the breadwinner, the family decides whether to live apart or to return home. Home is usually Mexico: 241,493 of the 368,644 removals last year were Mexican.

With immigration reform blocked by House Republicans, Obama allows the machinery of deportation to run.

Take the kids out of the equation and the process is cynical at best. We have allowed to evolve a self-regulating yet illegal labor market that provides enormous advantages for employers and the economy, yet a Democratic president targets workers for deportation.

At last, members of the president’s party are calling him out. In December, Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva stood with colleagues on the Capitol steps and urged Obama to suspend deportations until the House acts on immigration. (The Senate has passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill.)

Last month Congressman Luis Gutíerrez stood on the House floor before a photo triptych of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama and quizzed his colleagues.

• “Which president deported a population slightly larger than the population of the entire state of Nebraska?”
• “Who spent more on immigration enforcement than all other criminal federal law enforcement combined?”
• “Which of these presidents put more than 420,000 people in detention in just one single year of his presidency?”

The Illinois Democrat referred to “the estimated 5,100 children placed in foster care because their mom or dad was deported” and declared Obama the “Deporter in Chief.”

The advocacy group NOT1More has declared April 5 a day of protest intended to stop “President Obama’s Path to 2 Million Deportations.”

As I write, carpenters on the roof of a new house going up across the street are shouting out measurements in nasal, norteño Mexican Spanish.

Drastically curtailing deportation would be humane public policy.

And probably good politics.


Lou Dubose is the editor of The Washington Spectator.


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US Highway 83 in McAllen Texas

No matter how hard lawmakers try to close their eyes, click their heels, and hope for the best, they can’t make highway funding magically appear. But that doesn’t stop them fiddling and flailing as they burn through the Highway Trust Fund.

The Highway Trust Fund was created in 1956 to provide the nation’s surface transportation system with a stable and sustainable source of revenue. It’s supported largely by user fees in the form of federal gas taxes. But with overspending, a gas tax unchanged since 1993, reduced driving levels, and more fuel-efficient vehicles, the trust fund is running on fumes.

No matter how hard lawmakers try to close their eyes, click their heels, and hope for the best, they can’t make highway funding magically appear. But that doesn’t stop them fiddling and flailing as they burn through the Highway Trust Fund.

Instead of responsibly dealing with the issue, President Barack Obama’s budget for the 2015 fiscal year taps a passel of offsets and gimmicks to fund this spending over the next four years.

In his new budget, the administration proposes a $302 billion four-year surface transportation bill to fund existing grant programs and even create a few new ones for roads, transit, and railroads.

The government only expects the Highway Trust Fund to take in half of that money. To make up the difference, Obama’s plan counts on $150 billion in revenue from “pro-growth tax reform.”

What that might be is left up to the imagination.

Even if the budget had laid out specific loophole-closing pay-fors, there’s little chance that tax reform is going anywhere this year. Back in the real world, the Highway Trust Fund will be broke four months from now.

Despite the whimsical accounting laid out for the next four years, even the White House’s draft of the budget treats its own trust fund fix as temporary, noting that “the offset does not offer a permanent solution.”

The budget request projects that by 2024, the Highway Trust Fund (which it reconstitutes and renames the Transportation Trust Fund) will be underfunded by $123 billion. But even that grim prediction is sheer fantasy.

To get that number, the budget assumes that after splurging between the 2015 and 2019 fiscal years, transportation spending will drop to current levels. If spending instead continues at the levels prescribed for the next four years, the Highway Trust Fund will be closer to $223 billion in debt.

Well, you get what you don’t pay for.

Back in the 1990s, former Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA), the father of the current House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), was its chairman. That Shuster successfully fought to drive the trust fund “off budget.”

This meant that the gas tax revenue could only be used on transportation projects. That was great in the years of surplus, but now that we’re living through a prolonged era of deficit spending, the Highway Trust Fund is barred from borrowing.

Yet the fund must have enough revenue in hand to make grants. So, if nothing changes, highway spending in the next few years will have to contract from around $60 billion annually to the $40 billion that it collects every year.

That won’t happen. The money will come from somewhere. Because Obama’s budget request is using a pocketful of promises to pay for massive highway spending, you can bet that in the end, the money will come from the pockets of taxpayers through general revenue.

Instead, policymakers need to demonstrate real leadership and set better priorities. Even absent additional revenue, the cash can be spent more wisely.

For instance, in a study we recently released with Smart Growth America, we found that states were spending too much on building new roads and not enough on fixing them. In the long run, this means more and more roads in poor or fair condition and increased repair costs.

Federal policymakers should target more funding to states that are concentrating on repair and less to states that are squandering too much cash on additional lane-miles.

Ultimately, our policymakers and lawmakers must align their spending desires with revenue realities. No more raiding the treasury, no more false promises—like the ones driving this unfunded road-spending habit.


Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.


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gun in waist band

Not long Ken Cuccinelli narrowly lost Virginia governor’s race last year by running one of the most hapless campaigns in modern memory (he tried to made sodomy a campaign issue—really!), the former attorney general has a new scheme to get Virginians with weapons permits to pay him protection money.

The increasing number of lax gun laws in many states are one reason all gun deaths (homicide, suicide and accident) been growing steadily since 2000.

Declaring that gun-toting Virginian’s risked prison or even bankruptcy, “like George Zimmerman,” Cuccinelli declared his legal subscription firm, Virginia Self Defense Law, would “Defend Those Who Defend Themselves.”

For $150 annually for as many years he can get gullible clients to pay him, Cuccinelli promises gun owners that should they ever be arrested for shooting a utility meter-reader in their backyard, their legal bills are covered.

You can’t really blame Cuccinelli for his cashing in on a phony anti-gun hysteria. After all, why should the NRA have all the fun?

Despite any claims by Cuccinelli, the NRA and other gun groups that America is gripped in an “anti-gun hysteria,” the exact opposite is true—in the 18 months since the Sandy Hook massacre, states have passed several bills to limit or even absolve gun owners from responsibility.

This year alone, Florida, a state that once tried to ban organized voter registration drives, will let gun owners apply for a conceal-carry permit when they pay taxes. Florida and Georgia may pass bills (over the strong objections of teachers and principals) to make it easier for “qualified” school personnel to protect themselves from kindergarteners by allowing them to keep guns in elementary school classrooms. Georgia is also likely to extend “stand your ground” protections to violent felons who’ve done their time even though they aren’t legally allowed to own guns in Georgia.

Meanwhile, the Ohio legislature seems likely to expand Ohio's limited “stand your ground” law to one similar to Florida’s: the most basic “stand your ground” laws (also known as “shoot first” statutes) passed in 26 states have simply expanded the ways a shooter can plead self-defense. But Florida’s version is “shoot first” on steroids and absolves gun owners of nearly all responsibility.

Consider the case of Jason Rosenbloom, of Clearwater, Florida, shot in 2006 by his neighbor over a long-running argument on how many trash bags he could put on the curb. Kenneth Allen, Rosenbloom’s neighbor and an ex-cop, might have gotten off on a traditional self-defense plea, because he shot the unarmed man on his property and even his victim (who survived) admitted he followed Allen onto his property.

Thus, it was what happened in the shooting that was different: Allen, the ex-cop, ignored his police training by failing to report the shooting. Instead, Allen simply went back into his house, leaving Rosenbloom to bleed on his lawn. Thankfully, another neighbor’s saved Rosenbloom’s life and Allen dealt with the public backlash by blaming his wife.

Under Florida’s old law, Rosenbloom had at least civil options to sue Allen for medical costs and recklessness. Now Florida’s “stand your ground” law effectively protects shooters from liability for any damages or actions they take during the shooting, including killing innocent bystanders—this is what the gun lobby wants for Ohio.

The increasing number of lax gun laws in many states are one reason all gun deaths (homicide, suicide and accident) been growing steadily since 2000. At the current rate, gun deaths will likely exceed auto fatalities as America’s leading non-medical cause of death sometime in 2015.

And the gun lobby has done such a good job of framing the debate, they have been emboldened to go after the only institutions left that will take them on, doctors and medical researchers.

The recent pressure in the Senate to derail Dr. Vivek Murthy is only the tip of the iceberg: Florida has fought for more than two years to block state pediatricians to follow practices established American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians to discuss safety with patients who keep guns near children.

An even longer battle is the one that has prevented the Centers from Disease Control (CDC) from researching the real affect of guns on public safety. In 1996, after research from the CDC proved unregulated gun ownership could be a public threat, the NRA pressured Congress to defund and end all CDC gun research in 1996. In 2013, President Obama used his authority to restore the CDC’s right to research and asked Congress for $10 million he won’t ever get to expand gun research.

Look for the NRA to sabotage scientists: in 2006, California (one of the last outposts of gun regulation) required guns sold in the state to have mandatory safety features, including devices to let gun owners know if they had accidentally chambered a bullet—presumed to be the leading cause of accidental gun death in America.

Since then, the gun lobby insists these safety serve only to make guns more dangerous for owners, while experts like Dr. Garen Wintemute of UC-Davis, has research that safety features do work and guns should be regulated like cars (for his troubles, Wintemute has been targeted by gun zealots for harassment).

Rather than wait for the CDC to weigh in using its limited resources, the gun lobby is willing to take on the medical establishment. You’d think it would be their most risky battle yet, but so far opposition has failed to show up.


Peter Lindstrom is a political consultant and researcher. He lives in Washington, D.C.


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apimages vivek-murthy-surgeon-general-638x424(Dr. Vivek Murthy | Source: AP)

President Barack Obama should have known Senate Democrats would balk at the confirmation of Dr. Vivek Murthy as the next surgeon general of the United States.

Murthy has been outspoken in his belief that gun violence is a public-health crisis, and the National Rifle Association, the big voice of the gun lobby, is afraid people might agree. Until the midterm elections are over, the White House has put Murthy on ice.

Gun deaths are poised to surpass automobile deaths soon. One analysis by Bloomberg News estimates that point to be within the next year.

That's fine for now, but the president had better not let this go. If he is to live up to his promise to do everything in his power to prevent another massacre of innocents, like the one in Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Vivek Murthy's confirmation should be his administration's top priority once the new Congress convenes in 2015.

The position of surgeon general holds virtually no policy-making power, yet the NRA lobbied hard to block his confirmation. Why? To answer that, let's recall the broad outlines of the debate over gun violence. It has more or less two camps.

One is the camp of constitutional freedom. The other is the camp of commonsense. It is perfectly rational for a society to control the circulation of firearms to minimize the potential harm such firearms may inflict. But that cannot and will never compete with full-throated calls for individual liberty. Not in this political climate.

Indeed, more guns do in fact lead to more death by gunfire, but it's folly to believe Congress will restrict what the Supreme Court has ruled is an absolute right. The Democrats and other proponents of "gun control" can shake their heads in the disbelief that people can be so stupid, but that's not going to get anything done. And the more they push for gun regulation, the more power they give the NRA, because the NRA draws its strength from the deep pool of fear that the government imperils liberty.

First, Democrats need to stop. Just stop it. Second, they need to reframe the debate. Not only that, they themselves need to correctly see the issue for what it really is: a public-health crisis. Gun deaths are poised to surpass automobile deaths soon. One analysis by Bloomberg News estimates that point to be within the next year.

So this isn't about sacrificing liberty. This is about preserving life and liberty by way of protecting public health. This, and probably only this, can break the vicious cycle we are in. And that's why Vivek Murthy's Senate confirmation is so important.

Try naming a surgeon general. You probably can't. That's because the job of surgeon general doesn't have much of a public profile. The exception, if you're old enough, is likely to be C. Everett Koop, President Ronald Reagan's pick. We remember him because he used the position of surgeon general as it should be used: as bully pulpit.

In an era when smoking cigarettes was a God-given right, Koop said they'd eventually kill you. In an era when AIDS was a disease homosexuals got, and therefore unworthy of our concern, Koop said no. If you have irresponsible sex, you can get it, too.

In other words, the surgeon general may have no power, but he can have enormous influence on Congress and on public opinion. He speaks volumes as the authoritative voice of the medical establishment on laws and policies effecting us all.

To be sure, there are many reasons why smoking is now banned in virtually every public space in every major American city, and there are indeed many reasons why AIDS is now entirely understood to be a disease indifferent to sexual orientation. But neither would be imaginable without the high-profile soapboxing of C. Everett Koop.

Vivek Murthy has the same potential. He's impeccably credentialed. He practices medicine at the Harvard Medical School. He's the president of Doctors for America, a 16,000-member advocacy group. And he has said, more or less, that the 300 million guns now in circulation are a public health hazard the government must address.

In attacking Murthy, the NRA may have tipped its hand. Surgeons general can do nothing but attempt to persuade us to embrace policies that are for our own good. If we had a surgeon general who told us that our love of guns, like our former love of tobacco, would eventually kill us, we might take steps toward a solution.

That must terrify the NRA. And that can be nothing but a good thing.


John Stoehr is managing editor of The Washington Spectator.


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Obama

With the loss of a close House special election in Florida, the entry of several strong Republican contenders in close Senate races, and continuing fallout from flaws in the Accordable Care Act, Democrats are in a panic about their president dragging down the Democratic ticket in this November's mid-term elections.

Many Democrats have joined Republicans in criticizing Obamacare. Several Democratic incumbent senators in swing states have already moved to distance themselves from President Obama in key confirmation votes.

The opposition of seven Senate Democrats killed the nomination of Debo Adegbile to be assistant attorney general for civil rights—he had once defended Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of murdering a cop, and whose professed innocence became a cause celebre on both left and right. Opposition from centrist Democrats is also derailing the nomination of Vivek Murthy to be surgeon general, because the National Rifle Association sent out a member alert that Murthy had spoken out on guns as a public health problem.

It's a tricky business when a president's unpopularity hurts members of his own party. What to do?

Both of these candidates were highly qualified, and it was outrageous on the merits that they were not confirmed. On the other hand, a little political advance work would have revealed that their appointments would cause acute embarrassment to Democratic candidates trying to hold seats in conservative states in a difficult election year. (Does the Obama political operation communicate with the appointment staff?)

It's a tricky business when a president's unpopularity hurts members of his own party. If a Democratic candidate criticizes him, the president and his party appear even weaker. But supporting an unpopular president does rub off on down-ticket officials. What to do?

The best thing that Democrats—including Obama—have come up with lately are measures to remind voters that Democrats care about the worsened economic condition of ordinary working families and Republicans don't. Obama, for instance, went to a recent gathering of Democratic governors meeting in Connecticut, and urged them to raise the state minimum wage. Even if Republicans in Congress block the president's efforts to deliver a higher national minimum wage, he said, governors and legislatures could and should raise the minimum at the state level. Good move.

Even better are state referenda to increase the minimum wage. These not only draw to the polls voters likely to vote for Democrats, but put Republicans in the awkward position of having to explain why they oppose giving America a raise.

A variety of other ballot initiatives could remind working voters why Democrats protect their interests and Republicans don't. Massachusetts and other states are likely to see ballot measures mandating paid sick leave. That idea has the support of overwhelming majorities of voters—even more than a minimum wage hike—because paid sick leave affects everyone.

The United States is also the only wealthy country where workers are not entitled to an annual minimum paid vacation. We could use some ballot initiatives on that front as well. It's always instructive to see business groups—who are enjoying record profits relative to their employees—bleat that even minimal standards for workers would be "job-killers"; and to listen to Republicans echo the party line of their corporate allies.

Another good issue for ballot initiatives and Democrats is the lunacy of college debt.

It's time to end exorbitant borrowing to pay for higher education, a policy that has shackled the dreams of young Americans. Oregon has approved a pilot program experimenting with the concept of adding a progressive surcharge on the income tax to pay college costs—people of median income would pay far less than they currently pay in student loans. Other states should follow.

Issues like these reclaim the Democratic soul and remind voters that the problems in Washington are not the result of symmetrical partisan "bickering" or "gridlock." Rather, Republicans block policies that might give some economic help to regular people.

But what of Obama himself? What might he do to be less of a lead weight on other Democrats?

Obama last week directed the Labor Department to update and more effectively enforce overtime regulations requiring employers to pay time-and-a-half for employees who work more than 40 hours a week. A lot of workers are excluded from coverage because corporations create bogus categories like "assistant manager" that exempts relatively low-wage workers from these rules.

When Obama acted, business groups and their Republican friends made the usual noises about higher costs, as if it were a reasonable business practice to cheat workers out of overtime that has been mandated in the law since 1938.

Obama's order was fine as far as it went, but the president could do a lot more.

For five years, worker advocates have been imploring the president to use his executive powers to raise labor standards in federal contractors, to have the Labor Department crack down on a variety of abuses such as widespread wage theft, phony classification of regular employees as temps or contract workers, and violation of the right to unionize. A much more high profile initiative could have more political impact.

Obama should also stop supporting budget austerity at the expense of working people. The president came within ace of watering down the annual cost of living increase in Social Security, as part of a proposed grand budget bargain with Republicans that was never in the cards. He relented only because the entire Democratic party base went off on him.

Some of the Democrats' dilemma this November is baked into the cake. It's normal for the incumbent's party to lose House and Senate seats in the sixth year of a presidential incumbency. By the luck of the draw, a lot of Senate Democrats are up for re-election in swing states. On the other hand, the Affordable Care Act rollout was bungled more than it had to be, and some of the bungling was a logical consequence of the deep flaws in its design.

Even so, Obama, who found to his chagrin that no amount of compromise could win over Republicans, could be finding his inner partisan, however belatedly, and reminding working people just why it's not in their interest to have Republicans take over both Houses of Congress.

It's hard enough to run as a Democrat this year.

Obama could be doing a lot more to make it a little easier.


Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School. This originally appeared at robertkuttner.com


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obama-education

The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases a study of U.S. occupations every two years, showing the number of jobs in each occupation, its educational requirements, and how much it pays. Though the specifics change, every two years the study shows that a large majority of jobs now and in the future require no education beyond high school. And every two years the carefully compiled BLS data is ignored, leaving the field clear for everybody from the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to President Obama to proclaim that “education is the answer” to economic inequality, poverty, and low wages.

Not much education is required for most American jobs (now and in the future) and more education leads to higher pay and steadier employment. It is only when you put the two half-truths together that you can see the whole picture.

“Graduating college is highly overrated” is about as half-true, and therefore false, as “education is the answer.” But each claim has some evidence to support it.

According to the BLS, in 2012 only 22 percent of all jobs required a bachelor’s degree or more, and of the more than 50 million job openings the BLS projects by 2022, only 22 percent will require a bachelor’s or more. (In fact, if all you have is a bachelor’s degree, there are only 17 percent of jobs now and 17 percent of job openings projected by 2022 that require that degree and no more.)

Problem is that about 32 percent of the population over the age of 25 has a bachelor’s, and among young people ages 25 to 34, it is a bit higher at 34 percent. In other words, there are only two jobs for every three persons who have a bachelor’s degree, and the number of people getting bachelor’s degrees is growing faster than the number of jobs that require that degree—or anything close to it.

Indeed, 26 percent of jobs in 2012 did not even require a high school diploma, and another 40 percent required only a high school diploma. And the BLS projects that it will get worse by 2022, when nearly a third of all job openings will require “less than high school.”

There is a more ambiguous category of jobs that require some “postsecondary education,” whether an associate’s degree or some kind of specialized training certificate or simply “some college.” But they are required for only about 11 percent of jobs now, and are projected to provide about 12 percent of job openings going forward.

The table below summarizes how overeducated our population is for the jobs we actually have.

Level of education

percent of people over 25 with this level of education

percent of jobs that require this level

Less than high school

12

26

High school diploma

30

40

Some college, A.A., or postsecondary

26

11

Bachelor’s or higher

32

22

We have an oversupply of jobs that require high school or less (66 percent) compared to the 42 percent of people whose education fits those jobs. And conversely, we have an oversupply of people with some postsecondary education (58 percent) for the 33 percent of jobs that require something like that level of education.

Just looking at what jobs are now and will be available in the U.S. economy, graduating college seems highly overrated—and it might even be that “going to college is for suckers.” If all you need for most jobs is a high school education, why bother with college? That’s simple: wages.

A recent Pew Research Center study, The Rising Cost of NOT Going to College, looks at how income correlates with earnings. As previous studies have found, high school graduates make $7,000 more a year than those who do not graduate. Those with “some college” make an additional $2,000, and those who get bachelor’s degrees make $13,000 more on top of that.

The gradient could not be clearer: those with bachelor’s degrees have average incomes twice that of those without high school diplomas ($45,000 vs. $23,000). What’s more, unemployment rates, poverty rates, and other things follow a similar gradient: the more education, the lower the unemployment rate, the lower the poverty rate, and the more likely you are to have full-time employment and employer-paid benefits.

Conversely, though there are and will be plenty of jobs for people who do not graduate from high school and for those whose education ends with a high school diploma, these jobs generally pay miserable wages—almost uniformly less than $30,000 a year, and most much less.

So, “education is the answer” has some evidence to support it, too. But both statements are half-truths—not much education is required for most American jobs (now and in the future) and more education leads to higher pay and steadier employment. It is only when you put the two half-truths together that you can see the whole picture.

If you are an individual 18 year old, your only chance for a decent income is to go to college or to get some other form of postsecondary education. Statistically, it will give you a 2 to 1 shot at a decent standard of living vs. a thousand to one for high school graduates and a million to one for those who never graduate from high school. But if all 18-year-olds—or even most of them—play these odds by going to college, it will do nothing to remedy economic inequality, low wages, and poverty. In fact, it would probably make all these things worse.

The increasing imbalance of supply and demand—more college graduates than jobs that require them—puts downward pressure on the wages of jobs that require higher education and ensures that more college graduates will be forced to take jobs that do not require college.

Pew found that more than a third of recent college graduates it surveyed were working in jobs that do not require any college. Likewise, as more college graduates take jobs that require only high school, more high school graduates are forced to take jobs that do not require a high school diploma, and those who did not graduate from high school have great difficulty finding and keeping any job. More and more education is required to attain a decent standard of living, but as more and more people gain higher levels of education, they further flood those higher-paying job markets, leading to lower average wages and living standards for everybody.

It’s a perfect formula for cheapening all labor.


Jack Metzgar is a core member of the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies. He writes for Working-Class Perspectives, where this originally appereared.


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