Monthly Archive: May 2010

thoughts on Specter

Yesterday, “Democratic” Senator Arlen Specter lost in his state’s primary to a Tea-Party-affiliated (the line between Tea Party and anti-establishment is blurry, IMO, especially when you consider that it was founded on opposition to the ARRA stimulus package, specifically).  This is a bit of a tough situation to really assess, but is nonetheless important.

First, Specter has annoyed the bejesus out of me for a while.  First a Republican, then claims that he doesn’t like where his party is going but really just doesn’t like where his numbers are going and switches to the other party, then everyone loves him for “crossing the aisle” and being “bipartisan.”  Just because someone votes against party lines once (then changes parties entirely) doesn’t make that person a messiah.  Yes, party lines have been as rigid as they have been…since I started following politics (a whopping 10 years, maybe), but that doesn’t mean we should start putting people on pedestals.  I mean, the whole rage over Snowe from Maine?  She really only cast that one vote in support of the health care bill to put it before the Senate and is praised for her courage from Democrats, but really didn’t show a consistent bipartisan spirit otherwise.

But just because Specter was a useful ally because he crossed party lines and helped give Democrats a strong(er) majority in a ridiculously partisan Congress doesn’t make him a savior of any kind.  From what I’ve read of his track record (which isn’t extensive, by the way – I follow Pelosi more, for instance, at least partially because she’s from my district in CA), he doesn’t deserve that kind of estimation.

But enough of that rant.  What is perhaps more disconcerting is that the whole Tea Party movement does nothing to stop this partisan mess that is going on in Congress.  Yes, it sends a message to both parties.  I would argue, however, that mid-term elections always send a message to the President as there is almost always disillusionment following the election (how many presidents really deliver on every campaign promise within the first 1.5 years?  How many aren’t attacked left and right by the opposition, even if they are the incumbent, much less the force of change that Obama represents?  People pick up on this, and vote accordingly).  But while the message of massive, rather organized (though if you watch even a couple episodes of the Daily Show you will likely see how illogical some of their platform arguments are) discontent and anger over the “established” ways of “government as usual” is important, the formation of a highly ideological movement that has developed legitimate political and popular backing just creates more partisanship.

Does anyone really think that putting Tea Party-oriented candidates in Congress will decrease partisanship?  Or that somehow bills that have been stuck here or there will suddenly move forward?  Or that government as usual will in fact stop operating as government as usual?

The obvious truth, as one reads this post, is that I’m more of a “work from within” kind of guy.  I do believe that it’s possible to make change from within.  Some of the most influential senators have been the least visible ones, the ones that have been deal-makers, ones that help find compromises and get the job done.  These aren’t the ones that kill off public options (and I don’t think that such people would have made any difference at all in the electrical storm that was the health care reform bill and is the still existent overall debate) or that even make it onto Sunday morning shows.  And I’m not sure they even exist anymore (I do wonder if Clinton or Obama, in another 12 or so years, might have become those kind of people in the Senate had they not run for higher office).

This post, as are many of mine, is all over the place, and is indicative more of how torn I am over the political landscape than anything else.  I’m more of a centrist than anything else, and many nowadays would probably even call me slightly conservative (though definitely not on health care reform or economics – I’ve already been called a socialist on the latter topic).  But overall I’m just a pragmatist.  And it’s becoming just flat-out hard to be a pragmatist in today’s climate.

a stadium for santa clara…

Measure J here in Santa Clara in the upcoming fall elections covers the building of a new sports stadium in the city.  This would be the new home to the 49’ers, a well-known, established football team with a loyal following that would certainly come down the peninsula for games just as they currently head up to the city to Candlestick Point.

Based on the phone surveys, television commercials, and the number of trees killed on flyers in the mail, this is a pretty hot topic.  This group endorses it, another group opposes it.  The teachers support it, but the school janitors don’t (I’m just making that up, but it really seems that divisive at times).

I was speaking with a work colleague about the topic while thinking about this blog post and started off by comparing the project to a stimulus package.  On the one hand, this is a big, government-driven project that will create jobs right now and into the future.  Ongoing business at the stadium will also generate tax revenue.  The measure is actually written relatively well considering how often these kinds of projects go massively over budget, with various protections built-in.  This is the type of project that only a government can put together.  With very few exceptions (McGowan’s ATT Park for the SF Giants, Jones’s Texas Stadium for the Dallas Cowboys), no individual business (much less a person) could start up such a project.  This energizes the local economy, contributes to GDP, and helps overall long-term growth.

On the other hand, the main argument I’m seeing in the mail (and I must admit I’m throwing a lot of stuff away) is that this is a bad idea because this is going to be paid by debt.  And we’re all in this mess because of debt, right?  Well, personally, I don’t think that holds a lot of water (at least not to a quasi-Keynesian like me).  Deficit-spending (i.e. fueled by borrowing) is not bad unto itself.  It is in fact the only way to fund big stimulus projects, almost by definition (if the economy needs to be stimulated, it is unlikely to have enough existing monetary power to fund such projects without borrowing).  The problem is if such spending goes unchecked or if there aren’t plans to recoup that debt as part of the plan.

As I thought more about the issue last night, I realized that there is a key issue with thinking of this as a stimulus project.  One of the problems with any stimulus package – including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA!!!! as pirates would call it), the big federal package started under President Obama at the start of his administration – is that there is a lag before its effects are felt.

Let’s say that the money goes into a project the day after the ARRA was approved.  Person X is hired after being unemployed for some time.  Person X now has money.  Person X spends some time paying off bills, perhaps overdo, and then saves for a while out of a renewed inclination to do so (the national savings rate is still higher than it has been since, I think, the 1950’s or so, perhaps ever).  Eventually, after Person X is confident of his or her income and financial stability and perhaps the well-being of his or her family’s well-being, there is some spending.  Then the money multiplier (where $1 from Person X leads to something like $100 of GDP growth) kicks in and things start to get better.  This is the lag.

Well, the key is that such stimulus packages go towards “shovel-ready” projects.  These are not only ones that are ready to go right off the bat, but also ones that have already been approved, presumably because they have gone through some vetting (not always the case – lots of examples of ARRA funds going to some dumb projects).  The Santa Clara stadium, however, is a totally different situation.  The fact that we’re voting on it indicates that it’s not shovel-ready, and the benefits are still unclear.  Such projects – stadium construction – have historically gone over budget.  Those overruns are almost always borne by the taxpayers (even if the original costs are designed to be covered by the team).

I don’t know where I stand on this, even with the mail-in ballot sitting on the table in front of me.