Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jason Chaffetz is an inspiration

Well, he's an inspiration to me. He's constantly inspiring me to blog, and that counts for something.

Here's his speech from the floor of the House yesterday:

Mr. Speaker, I rise with deep concern about families of United States of America. The economics of this credit card congress are not working. Where are the jobs?
You cannot tax and spend our way out of our challenges. I fervently believe that President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and the Democrats in Congress are taxing, spending, and borrowing too much money.

This credit card congress has now put us nearly twelve trillion dollars in debt. We're spending nearly 600 [million? billion? it sounds like he said "billion", though that makes no sense] dollars per day, just in interest on that debt. Bailouts, stimulus money by the billions it is not helping the average person at home.

And now we have a proposal to slam through a government run, Chinese-financed health care system, that puts a Washington D.C. politician between our doctor and my wife.

The tax and spend, credit card driven, Chinese-financed economics driven by the Democrats don't work. We need fiscal discipline, limited government, accountability, and a strong national defense.

We need to restore liberty to the American people and small business men and women. That's where you'll find the jobs. Stand up, America, let your voice be heard, put a stop to this credit card congress.

He was proud enough of this performance that he pointed to it on Twitter. He really shouldn't have been, because the whole speech sounds like he's attempting some sort of Republican Buzzword Bingo record, a bunch of half-baked ideas delivered auctioneer-style.

But let's focus on the substance of his comments.

First up, his deep concern for the families of the United States. Where is the concern for the families without health insurance? Or for those who have seen their premiums skyrocket? Does Chaffetz have any ideas for dealing with these?

We need fiscal discipline, limited government, accountability, and a strong national defense.

It's the only idea he's got.

The accusation that the bank bailout hasn't helped ordinary Americans seems fairly accurate to me. If the goal was to keep credit available, I think there were better ways to do it. But despite the fact that lots of fat, rich bastards got fatter, richer, and bastardier from the bailout, it did keep us from plunging off an economic abyss of George Bush's making, which was good for everybody.

But the stimulus bill is a completely different and far superior animal, and by lumping the two together, Chaffetz shows either his ideological myopia, or an actual intent to deceive. You can't talk about the stimulus package solely as money spent, or money added to the national debt. You have to go line by line, project by project, and ask if the thing we're spending the money on is a good investment. By and large, Republican attempts to show the waste and pork in these projects have left me unconvinced.

But even if the stimulus spending was wasted, it has still created jobs, and will continue to create more. Elsewhere, Chaffetz has argued that the price per job is too high. Well, we could have slashed those numbers by just giving people $30K a year, plus $30 for a shovel to lean on. But in order for those jobs to actually be investments in the future, those workers need equipment to run, material to move, concrete to pour, etc. Those things tend to drive the cost up.

The Republicans in general have been very dishonest in their handling of the stimulus jobs numbers, and Chaffetz has happily cited these arguments. Their argument essentially boils down to, "The stimulus is supposed to create jobs, yet unemployment keeps rising. The stimulus is therefore a failure." Which is akin to tapping lightly on the brakes (the stimulus was, by Paul Krugman's estimation, far too small), then saying that your brakes are out because you're still moving forward. Things would look much bleaker right now without the stimulus bill.

The "Chinese-financed" meme is making a mountain out of a molehill. China owns about $1T in U.S. debt, which isn't exactly a good thing, but that's only 1/12th of the outstanding debt. The Chinese are just a useful bogeyman for Chaffetz to invoke. Boo!

The debt presents a serious long-term problem. But Chaffetz wants to tackle it in the middle of a recession, which is a horrible idea for the same reason that raising taxes in a recession is a horrible idea. Government spending -- whether Chaffetz likes it or not -- is an important part of the economy. If that sector contracts suddenly, people lose their jobs, businesses with government contracts scale back or go out of business, and suffering ensues. Whereas if government increases its spending, these businesses flourish, which provides a buffer against economic downturns. That's Keynesian economics in a nutshell.

Government should be ratcheting up the debt right now, and tackling the debt problem when the economy is good. Clinton did that, lowering the deficit during good years. Bush did the opposite, piling up a mountain of debt when the economy was doing okay, mostly to pay for tax cuts for the rich and a war that should never have been fought.

Health care is an investment, just like the stimulus package was an investment. We should have been making these investments when the economy was doing okay. But we're stuck with the present. The investments we make in health care now are going to reap long term rewards. The bill isn't perfect by any means, but it will give us a healthier, more productive population, lower health care costs, more competition in the insurance market, and hopefully a greater focus on preventative care. Plus, when everyone has insurance, fewer people will rely on expensive emergency room visits for their health insurance needs, driving down costs for everybody.

This plan is characterized as a government takeover of health care, but it should really be talked about as a takeover of the health insurance industry. Lots of people like their doctors (Chaffetz doesn't seem to want anyone standing between his doctor and his wife, so he must be really fond of his doctor). But who has nostalgic feelings about their family HMO?

Health insurance is a market that cries out for government takeover like no other. Insurance companies compete not just on price and services, but on selecting the healthiest populations, by excluding the people who need it most, and by denying claims, regardless of whether the procedures were medically justified. In short, the free market demands that health insurance companies be very bad at what they are supposed to do: spread risk.*

Chaffetz believes -- ignoring the evidence of the last eight years -- that the government is invariably worse at choosing wise investments than the private sector. Chaffetz also fears that a "D.C. politician" will stand between his family and health care, even though his plan probably wouldn't change. Yet he cares not a whit that, for forty-five million Americans, what stands between them and the health care they need is a hospital security officer with a tazer.

He's a bit of a tool, is what I'm saying.

* Note: This is one reason why the public option shouldn't have to compete on an equal footing with private sector plans. I want a public plan that would be required to take all comers, and that would pay for medically justifiable procedures without trying to weasel out of its obligations. That puts it at a huge disadvantage in competition with private insurers.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

More hand-waving on the energy bill

Jason Chaffitz tweeted our attention to an overlooked detail of the energy bill that just passed the House. The measure would give money to utility companies and non-profit tree planting organizations money to plant trees around homes, as a way to promote energy efficiency.

Chaffetz didn't explicitly state his disapproval, but he did link to an outraged condemnation of the provision:

What this means for Americans: Almost half a million people lost their jobs in June alone and Democrats want taxpayers to subsidize retail power providers and their tree planting programs. Runaway reckless spending is not going to get America back to work. Because of the Democrats’ national energy tax millions more jobs will be lost as American manufacturers relocate overseas, but at least homes and empty warehouses will have shade.

Which makes it sound as pointless as anything can be. Bill? Justify your existence!
(1) the utility sector is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States today, producing approximately one-third of the country’s emissions;

(2) heating and cooling homes accounts for nearly 60 percent of residential electricity usage in the United States;

(3) shade trees planted in strategic locations can reduce residential cooling costs by as much as 30 percent;

(4) shade trees have significant clean-air benefits associated with them;

(5) every 100 healthy large trees removes about 300 pounds of air pollution (including particulate matter and ozone) and about 15 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year;

(6) tree cover on private property and on newly-developed land has declined since the 1970s, even while emissions from transportation and industry have been rising;

(7) in over a dozen test cities across the United States, increasing urban tree cover has generated between two and five dollars in savings for every dollar invested in such tree planting.

(H.R. 2454, American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, Sec. 205)

The bill takes no official position on whether Republicans are being slimy and dishonest in touting this tiny line item as a waste of money. But sources close to the bill -- speaking under conditions of anonymity -- report that the bill once asked Senator Inhofe (R-OK) if he wanted to "take it outside."

The Republicans won't argue this portion of the bill on its merits. I pointed out to Chaffetz that it was actually a very reasonable thing to spend money on, and he sent me a PM saying, "The taxpayers shouldn't be paying for it." That's consistent with Chaffetz' overall political philosophy, but that's not what he was implying to his followers. The message that came across wasn't just that it was a misuse of government power, but that the whole idea was patently stupid, and that the bill could just as well be ordering the creation of a giant ball of aluminum foil.

If you're going to point to something as a laughable waste of money, it generally helps if the thing being pointed at doesn't create jobs, increase property values, beautify neighborhoods, clean our air, and reduce energy bills.

This is such a common sense measure, I suspect that the Republicans are only drawing attention to it because they think they can spin it as "your hard-earned dollars spent on tree-hugging hippie crap." But trees aren't just fun to hug; trees -- especially the ones planted by this program -- are infrastructure, just like roads, houses, factories, and casinos. They serve human needs, and they do so in a way that will touch your heart and make that little brat look like a total user.

More important to the Republicans' political futures, people like trees. Coming out against trees is like coming out against puppies, ice cream, and "the troops." Outside of a small fringe who hate every sliver of the environmental movement, planting a tree is an act of hope for the future and generosity towards those who follow. When I see Republicans taking a stand against planting trees, I wonder at the smallness of their souls.

Given that their stance against green energy is already hurting them, I think the Republicans would do well to let this one drop. Thanks to @david_h_roberts for that last link.