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more on the MN Budget Surprise

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Here are a few reactions to today’s MN budget news that I think are worth sharing. It’s worth taking a minute to think about why we in Minnesota went from a projected $5B deficit to a  projected $876M surplus for the current biennium. We’ve had our fun on the subject (see the previous post) but, really, what happened?

Sarah Kliff at Wonkblog offers two reasons. Minnesota is doing pretty well economically, at least comparatively. And we have cut spending, especially on health care, and partially by jumping on the Affordable Health Care Act’s requirements.

State officials chalk a lot of the good news up to factors specific to Minnesota. The state has seen its revenue increase as its unemployment rate is lower than the national average. The state has, for example, regained about a third of the jobs lost since the recession began. Nationally, that number stands at 22 percent.

Minnesota has also cut its spending, particularly on health care, in unique ways. It’s one of just four states, for example, to expand its Medicaid program in advance of the health reform law’s required expansion. For doing so, it’s received a higher Medicaid matching rate for some patients from the federal government.

Kliff continues that this is not particularly unique to MN, and that budget outlooks are rosier for many states across the nation, and that news could be harbinger of lighter budget pressures for state governments.

The other important factor will be how this budget forecasts re-shapes the budget fight between Governor Dayton and the MN legislature. All the arguments have to be reassessed when billions in the hole becomes millions in the coffers, including the cantankerous Vikings stadium debate and the unfortunate school shift that occurred to cover the deficit. At the Star Tribune, the problem has been noted.

The surplus will turn the traditional budget fights on their head.  Earlier this summer, legislators beat down a $5 billion deficit to end a 20-day state government shutdown. Now, Republican lawmakers and the DFL governor may have to fight over how and whether to spend the windfall, bank it for troubled times or pay back a school shift that rankles all sides.

Come February, the budget picture will get even clearer. But for today, we’ll take a bit of positive economic news.


Written by Christopher ZF

December 1, 2011 at 15:59

Posted in budgets, Minnesota

MN finds money. A lot of money.

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Dear Minnesota Government,

Please tell me where you found a surprise surplus of $876 million. I am always searching for unexpected money, but unlike you, have been unable to find anything more than a dollar bill once on the floor of a bar. In comparison, that is not very satisfying.

Please do the right thing, and give that money to the public schools, since you earlier took money from the schools to cover your expected deficit. Which has now disappeared. Miraculously.

Thank you,

The Relative Comment.

Written by Christopher ZF

December 1, 2011 at 12:51

Posted in budgets, Minnesota

Is putting people on Mars worth the money? A wandering series of thoughts on science, politics, and inspiration

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I would love to go into space, especially Mars, even if nothing ever happens there*. You know Mars, fourth planet from the sun, red, god of War. I want to go. But being a middle-class Midwesterner who works in energy policy instead of some kind of m(b)illionaire with money to burn  will likely keep that dream from becoming a reality. Alas.

Turns out though, lots of people want to go to Mars. And some people think that wouldn’t be all that difficult (difficult here being relative, of course). Life’s Little Mysteries has laid out a 5-step plan from Robert Zubrin to get humans to Mars, establish a base camp, and begin regular outgoing and return trips using technology that we already have. When you read the plan it seems that Mars is not that far away. Getting there would take billions of dollars, but that’s a political problem, not a scientific one.

That 5-step plan has me wondering if the hurdles to Mars are mostly financial and political. Isn’t this America? If we wanted to get to Mars, if we could overcome the politics, certainly the US could send humans to Mars. Damn right. As Zubrin says, “”We’re closer today to sending people to Mars than we were to sending people to the moon in 1969.”

But there is a real question to be asked: why should we go to Mars? Seriously. What argument would convince Americans that a trip to Mars is worth billions of dollars?

The first, and most obvious, answer is the knowledge. There’s a lot to learn, more than can be expressed in the sentiment ‘there is a lot to learn’, but why risk sending people on that trip? Take water. We’ve long since discovered that there is ice on Mars, a discovery that changes what Mars means. But now the evidence is mounting, (in full barsoomenating detail at BadAstronomy) that there is liquid water on the red planet. LIQUID! And it just might be that liquid water means life on Mars. Possibly. Well, maybe but worth looking for, for sure. For TRC, who is in a temporary political malaise, it’s a discovery that’s worth getting excited over, in the least, and maybe worth calling for manned Mars Missions, like Ross Pomeroy at Newton Blog:

It is my hope that a finding of this magnitude will spark renewed enthusiasm for devising a manned mission to the “Red Planet.” What could be more worthwhile than finally answering the question of whether or not life is only endemic to planet Earth?

If you stop reading the entry at this point, it is exciting. But it would also deny reality. Pomeroy continues:

Unfortunately, I doubt any such discussion could survive or even begin in the current political climate. A “we can’t” atmosphere has taken hold of Washington, D.C. Now, most politicians seem to look at everything through a narrow, short term lens that focuses purely on costs and poll numbers. Lost, in this distorted view, is the long-term picture.

This is what we’re doing. Focusing so narrowly on a political moment in time at the expense of the future. Is that over-simplified? Of course. Do we have serious short- and long-term political problems that need addressing? Of course. Do we need to work out this budget gridlock and our spending and debt problems? Of course. Should these political problems facing a country in 2011 involve themselves in the long-term scientific pursuit of knowledge and truth and life? A pursuit that needs steady certainty to move itself forward? No. These are politics of the moment, and we need to see beyond the moment. After all, just a flight to Mars is a political lifetime.

And this is Life on another Planet that we are talking about.

It might not be on Mars, but Life is what we’re really looking for, isn’t it? Deep down? The wonder of the cosmos, for TRC at least, is that somewhere some other life exists. Be it microbial or intelligent. It’s a marvelous thought. And that get’s to the second reason (of many) to go to Mars.

The search for liquid water and the implications for life on Mars can bring back what the American Space Program seems to be losing. Magic. Sending humans into space-to Mars, to an actually different planet than the one humans inhabit-is a mind-blowing endeavor. A collaborative, national mission to Mars is capable of inspiring literally millions of young women and men to engage in science and poetry and engineering and philosophy, and all the great pursuits of humanity. It can produce the next generation of innovators and dreamers that our nation seems to desperately need. That’s the romantic argument. The strongest one, really.

*couldn’t resist.

Written by Christopher ZF

August 10, 2011 at 16:07

The odd circumstance of Debt Ceiling negotiations

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It seems to TRC that the debt ceiling talks are taking a very unusual pattern of negotiating. A normal negotiation would start with two parties staking out claims that are far apart from one another. Each side has a list of negotiating tools, and those things are slowly whittled away until a couple of the things that each side can live with remain, and a compromise is reached. This could be visualized like this:

This does not seem to reflect the debt ceiling negotiations. Here, both sides staked out their positions and made their list of priorities. Then President Obama moved directly to the middle and offered what by many accounts was a very good deal for the Republicans. This was rejected by the Republicans, and ever since things got very strange. Because negotiating ceased. What resulted was the Democrats giving up more and more of their priorities, while the Republicans moved further and further away from their original position.  This looks more like this:

So, what’s going on here? Since when can anything that looks like the bottom be considered negotiations? Turns out it is not negotiating. Because the GOP must work with the Tea Party, and the Tea Party does not want to negotiate with the President. Compromising with the Enemy is a sign of weakness. And yes, President Obama is the capital-E Enemy. Glenn Thrush at Politico gets at the problem: “There’s no guarantee Boehner can get anything through his conference, so skeptical are rank-and-file members of anything Obama could possibly approve.”

Is that where we are now? Where any kind of agreement is a sign of not good enough. If the GOP makes an offer, and Obama takes that offer, well then, it must not have been asking for enough cuts, enough sacred cows, enough hardship for the President. Whatever he will agree to, the Tea Party must have more.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 25, 2011 at 14:43

A Government of the People, unfortunately

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Hopefully this won’t turn into a rant.
We have a political circus that is overflowing past the aisles, out the entrance, and into the streets. Why? Because raising the debt ceiling can only occur now if spending cuts are attached. That’s where we are, better or worse. And on the issue no one will back down, it seems, and no one will retreat, only advance. Two sides with advance only modes leads to, what? Mutual destruction? The rhetorical  destruction alone is getting seriously out of hand. These may just be editorials, but they are a dime a thousand, decrying the end of American days. I’m not always a reasonable political person, but there are limits.

Roger Simon, over at Politico, has a pretty damning article up today, calling out both sides on this debate, claiming a lack of patriotism, and too much hatred in our politicians. Serious accusations, but unfortunately, not all that hard to understand.

That’s right. Too many Republicans refuse to raise taxes on the rich, no matter what happens to this country.
And too many Democrats refuse to consider cuts in entitlement spending, no matter what happens to this country.
That’s the extremism crisis, which makes people willing to follow their ideologies off a cliff. Are the two sides equally to blame? No, I don’t think so.
But it really doesn’t matter because it has led to a paralysis that has brought us to an economic abyss. Talk to lawmakers about economic theory? Heck, some of them don’t even believe in evolution.

Simon’s last paragraph gets at the heart of TRC’s exhaustion, rage, disbelief and madness over this whole debt ceiling standoff. We have somehow created an environment where in all capacities and on all issues, there is a choice  to believe something or not, regardless of fact or experience. It may be true that we do not know what is going to happen if we pass Aug. 2 without getting a deal done on the debt ceiling. But one of the options seems to be pretty catastrophic.  Why risk that based on the fact that you don’t believe that will happen? That’s a pretty big risk. Especially if, as some believers say, the doomsayers are wrong because no one knows what will happen?

A friend of mine yesterday compared this situation to a man having tingling in his left arm, and chest pain and dizziness. He thinks about these feelings and says: I don’t believe I’m having a heart attack so I’m going to just sit this one out instead of going to the hospital just in case. And by the way, the hospital is across the street and you have free health care and there is a doctor waiting to see you. But, maybe its nothing, so I’m not going. We’ll wait and see what happens. In this case, you believe wrong. Your belief does not matter, your symptoms warrant a trip across the street.

So why can’t our nation cross the street? How did we get to such intransigence? Where belief in one’s own knowledge and rightness can trump anything anyone might say? Roger Simon reminds us:

They scream because they are afraid of losing their jobs. They don’t want to compromise, even if compromise would be best for this country and would avert a financial catastrophe.
And who elected these bozos? We did.

We elected a divided government filled with politicians convinced they know what’s best. And we expect those politicians to stand firm in their values, because in today’s USA, compromise is for the weak. How this happened, I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t new at all. But there is something different in the air now that the circus has taken over the streets. Something smells different now, and pretty soon it will reach a point where it won’t matter who is “right” on the issues, or what one “believes.” It will just be a disaster. This disaster is not inevitable. But it seems more possible every day.

So what should we make of this? I have political values, strong ones that I believe should be upheld at almost any cost. But only almost. There is no purpose in holding on to political principle to the point of government failure. Extended government paralysis doesn’t serve anyone’s political vision. This is why compromise is also a virtue, and should be considered as such.

In the debt ceiling argument you have two political visions: that of President Obama and that of the Republican Party (I know the GOP have about 14 political visions, but for simplicity’s sake…).  The political analysis of Relative Comment has determined that a truly substantive victory for either side is not likely, since both parties are pretty much infuriated at the failure of of the opposition to see how clearly the light shines on their side. So the most Obama or Boehner & co. can strive for is a largely political victory; and if they are lucky, it will be accompanied by a few substantive points.

There may even be a way for both sides to get political victories out this mess. But remember: our government, on some level, has failed by putting itself in a position where political victories are the most we can hope for. I hope my side of the political spectrum wins the political fight. Because losing the political fight yields the ability to move the nation towards one’s vision for government. You may have to compromise the substance on this fight, President Obama or Eric Cantor, but if you do not, and you lose the political fight as well, and lose the Presidency in 2012, you didn’t just lose this fight, you gave away a chance to move the country towards your political vision. This is the kind of cold political calculus that I abhor. But we as a voting nation put ourselves here. We shouldn’t forget that we elected these stalwarts to represent us, and we have to live with the results. Unfortunately, we are mostly a government of the people, and this is us.

The Relative Comment is not in the business of making political predictions, so we’ll just say this to our political leaders: Don’t give up on fighting for a country in which you believe. But don’t fight for that vision to the point of destroying the chance to bring that vision to fruition. That would truly be a loss.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 14, 2011 at 15:33

Hook and Bullet Conservation

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Americans throughout our history, overwhelmingly and without party distinction, support conservation. We like state parks and national parks, even if we don’t visit them and nature is mostly abstract. We are not a nation of environmentalists, because environmentalist is dirty, dirty word these days. But we are nation that understands that conservation, of land and wildlife, is an overall benefit, especially as urban and suburban America grows. For some though, preserving wild lands and wildlife is not abstract. The ZF family, for example, loves getting into wilderness.

So do outdoor sportsmen. Those men and women who get up at 3am to hit the lake or the forest, to hunt and fish and spend long days outside, have done as much to protect our wetlands, wildlife, and landscape as anyone (except for, you know, the Nature Conservancy, I suppose). The hook and bullet bloc are a strong voice, politically, and they are generally, historically conservative. But they are not pushovers. And if standing on one principle (spending cuts) gets in the way of a stronger principle (conservation), watch out.

This morning, Politico wonders if the GOP has “poisoned the well” with their interior and environment spending bill for 2012.

“Under the legislation, the Interior Department’s overall budget would fall $720 million from fiscal 2011. A popular land and water conservation fund would see a more than 80 percent cut to $62 million, while funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act would get a 47 percent reduction to $20 million. State Wildlife Grants would also be cut 64 percent to $22 million.
Wildlife-themed riders are also sprinkled throughout the bill, including language that allows chemical companies and large agriculture operators to skirt pesticide permit requirements and enforcement of certain mountaintop mining rules. Conservation groups are complaining the language will dirty rivers and streams they use for recreation.
Other riders include a prohibition on judicial review of Interior’s decision to delist wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes region from the Endangered Species Act, as well as a zeroing out of funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service to list new species and designate critical habitat under the law…
While they may understand the budget crunch, hunters and anglers are not done making their case to get their funding restored and the riders removed.”

This may not have a chance of being in the final budget. But it’s hard to say these days what will and will not receive funding. It seems as though everything is up in the air.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Id), chairman of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee wants people to face reality: “There’s an awful lot of Republicans who are concerned about conservation and that I’d call Roosevelt Republicans, myself included, to some degree… But when you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money,Simpson added. “I’d like to drive a Porsche. Guess what? My wife says I can’t afford it.”

So of course, like all political discussions today, it comes back to money and what are our priorities. It’s a bit insulting to compare the entirety of American Nature and the interest of millions of Americans to wanting Porsche, but Rep. Simpson demonstrates the difficulty. Tough choices are tough, and cutting spending on what publicly could be seen as overreaching environmentalists may seem a good party move to some Republicans. But the cut-spending-at-any-cost folks in the government should be careful of stretching their mandate too far. Or they will find strong traditional support looking around for someone who will protect the lakes and rivers and woods that provide so much to so many Americans.

*NOTE* I must make mention of the common conflicts between wilderness preservation and recreational conservation efforts by sportsmen. I have been involved in these debates, usually not in the pro-outdoor sports side (you should not be able to drive your ATV anywhere anytime, sorry) but I think the important overlap of the interests far outweighs these disagreements.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 13, 2011 at 11:11

How do you compromise against the Truth?

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What does it mean to be unwilling to compromise? At any cost, it seems, the GOP in the  US Legislature are simply not going to waiver on their demands, and it might have some serious consequences. Maybe. Possibly. This wasn’t always the case and it hasn’t always been a GOP problem, but something has changed this time around with the GOP. David Brooks wonders what’s happened to the Republican Party:

Moreover, many important Democrats are open to a truly large budget deal. President Obama has a strong incentive to reach a deal so he can campaign in 2012 as a moderate. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has talked about supporting a debt reduction measure of $3 trillion or even $4 trillion if the Republicans meet him part way. There are Democrats in the White House and elsewhere who would be willing to accept Medicare cuts if the Republicans would be willing to increase revenues.
If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred million dollars of revenue increases.
The party is not being asked to raise marginal tax rates in a way that might pervert incentives. On the contrary, Republicans are merely being asked to close loopholes and eliminate tax expenditures that are themselves distortionary.
This, as I say, is the mother of all no-brainers.
But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

This is pretty spot-on, in my opinion. The Democrats are in a position of willingness to compromise–for whatever reason, political weakness or political savvy or just wanting to be done with this to move on to their issues, who knows–and the Republicans can really get incredible sacrifices from the Democratic Sanctuary of Holy Welfare Programs. So why won’t they do it? Brooks offers several reasons that may be behind the stubbornness: refusal to accept the logic of compromise, a willingness to disregard scholars and experts for no reason at all, a lack of moral decency in the casual flaunting of enormous national risk. These are all reasonable arguments, and there is something to each of them in this debate. But they are applicable to any debate such as this. There must be another reason.

I think the real nature of the problem is much more simple. The GOP has realized it is on the upswing in the past two years or so. The Tea-Partiers, or whatever we are calling this new firebrand of conservatism, have evangelized the party and turned its political values into cocksure capital T Truth. Why would anyone compromise if they know, know with a certainty that is without fail, that what they are doing is right in the eternal sense of the word? For example, why would Michele Bachmann compromise on her plans, when God clearly lays out the appropriate plan right there in Chronicles? There’s no incentive to negotiate against God’s Will. There have always been religious conservatives in the US Government. And being a religious conservative is not the problem. The problem is when the Truth of say, the Bible, becomes the Truth of Debt Ceiling Limits in the US in 2011 and Why This Vote on the Debt Ceiling is Unlike Any Other Debt Ceiling Vote in US History. There is no equivalence.

When we talk about the debt ceiling and cutting spending and raising taxes, our politicians should worry about doing what is right, but being Right is not something our elected officials should claim, on either side. The reality of governing in a divided government is such that one should try to compromise, but in doing so try to gain more concessions from your opponents than you give up to them. The GOP could truly, utterly transform the US Government by taking advantage of Obama’s willingness to stay in the role of moderate and moderator to the parties and to compromise (like they did on the Bush tax cuts) and change the shape of the national government towards their political vision–whatever that might be. But digging in their heels in the face of all compromise, well, what good does anyone see coming from that?

As Brooks concludes: Over the past week, Democrats have stopped making concessions. They are coming to the conclusion that if the Republicans are fanatics then they better be fanatics, too.

This is the worst possible outcome, when extremism takes over both sides of a government, and the few people left in the middle, willing to work together, become the ridiculous ones. We can see the results of this in Minnesota, where my state government has decided that compromise would be weak, and that it is better to let the state shutdown, lay off thousands of workers, jeopardize health and safety, and ruin a whole lot of summer vacations, because when one is cocksure of the truth, there can be no compromise. It’s not about being weak politically–I would love to see Dayton’s plan emerge over the Republican one in Minnesota, and I think it will–but there comes a time when compromise is necessary.

The opportunity is still there for the new conservatism to learn something about how government really operates. And if they don’t learn that soon, they might lose their chance to participate in the conversation at all.

David Brooks has been widely (widely!) criticized for his editorial today, mostly for taking the Republicans to task for rejecting a deal that does not exist and calling conservatives anti-intellectuals and morally deficient, etc,. I think this is  fair criticism of Brooks, because the White House and Reid have not actually made a specific deal to the Republicans, and the other things.

I do not, however, think that this criticism defeats the argument Brooks is making, nor is it relevant to the point Relative Comment is making. Here, we are concerned not with whether some budget deal has been made, or the intellectual nature of GOPers, but rather how the new brand of Tea-Party Conservatism requires a faithfulness to political values that equates with religious fervor and thus makes compromise nearly impossible. Just wanted to make a note.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 5, 2011 at 11:34