The problems are far from over but a bit of positive news is always good to hear. Bloomberg:
Employment climbed more than forecast in January and the U.S. jobless rate unexpectedly fell to the lowest in three years, casting doubt on whether the Federal Reserve can wait until 2014 before raising interest rates.The 243,000 increase in payrolls was the most since April and exceeded all forecasts in a Bloomberg News survey, Labor Department figures showed in Washington. The unemployment rate dropped to 8.3 percent, the lowest since February 2009.The jump in hiring shows companies are gaining confidence the expansion will weather Europe?s slump and may boost President Barack Obama?s re-election bid. The data come one week after Fed policy makers said the economy wasn?t growing fast enough to push down the jobless rate, prompting them to extend a pledge to keep interest rates low for another two years.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his allies in the state legislature are pursuing a plan to privatize dozens of prisons in South Florida. Republicans claim that private prisons are more efficient and that the move would save the state millions of dollars. The privatization bill is facing some trouble in the state senate, including opposition from key Republicans.
Scott claims that the purpose of the privatization push is to shave 7 percent off the state budget, which perpetually comes up short since Republicans refuse to raise revenue and continue to drive the state's economy into the ground.
[State Sen. Steve] Oelrich, a long-time member of the Florida Retirement System, said he was taken aback when Scott suggested the reason the state had to save the money on its prisons was because he believes the "retirement system is broke."
"The governor's words were that we are 'lying to state employees,' '' Oelrich said. "That troubles me. I don't think that's necessarily correct."
Oelrich questioned why Scott would use that as a rationale for defending prison privatization, which is projected to save between $16 million to $30 million a year. The state's retirement fund is more than 80 percent funded, he said, a level he believes is considered high compared to other states. Bringing it up to 100 percent funding is not something advocated by actuaries, Oelrich said, and would cost billions.
"He says we're between $25 and $60 billion in unfunded liability because we've assumed a 7.5 percent accrual rate and it's only making 5 percent,'' he said. "I'm very concerned that if in fact the retirement system is broke and we can't fulfill our obligations, then the State of Florida ought to let people know that and make the decisions they ought to make."
A broad coalition of groups has come out in opposition to the plan:
No other state has initiated such an ambitious experiment as the one proposed in this legislation. Consequently, the proposal to greatly increase the number of prisons under private contract raises several issues of concern including the dubious cost saving claims, efficiency in correctional management, and the impact on public safety. Successful efforts to contain correctional costs have been achieved in a number of states in recent years through other criminal justice policy initiatives that have reduced demand for scarce correctional resources.
The groups are: ACLU of Florida, Advocare, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), Critical Resistance, Florida Justice Institute, Human Rights Defense Center, In the Public Interest, Justice Strategies, National African American Drug Policy Coalition, Inc., Ohio Justice Policy Center, Private Corrections Institute, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, The Sentencing Project, Southern Center for Human Rights, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, United Church of Christ/ Justice and Witness Ministries, United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society
The bill is likely to have a strong negative impact on prison workers:
Labor groups and current corrections officers have warned legislators that privatizing prisons will lead to staff cuts and public safety hazards.
Roberts says his prison is already operating with a limited number of staff: ?We are already running at critical levels.?
?We have the same number of prisoners,? Roberts explains, ?but we have less staff.?
There are also concerns that workers who are not laid off will face significant cuts to their salary, benefits or both.
According to information given to state Sen. Mike Fasano?s office from the Senate appropriations staff, their fears could be warranted. Comparing beginning salaries and benefit rates for someone who takes a job at a public prison and someone who takes a job at a prison run by one of the top three private companies shows that workers could make significantly less if their prisons were to be privatized.
Fasano is one of the most vocal opponents of the state?s privatization plan, and has introduced an amendment that would strike out the entire bill.
According to Fasano?s office, someone starting out at a public prison would, on average, make $30,800 plus benefits at a rate of 59.8 percent, which amounts to a total compensation package of $49,222.
Beginning compensation packages at Management Training Corporation, meanwhile, are a $25,085 salary plus a 30 percent benefit rate, which amounts to $32,610 in total. GEO Group starts workers at $30,356 with a 20 percent benefit rate, which amounts to a $36,427 compensation package. Corrections Corporation of America pays $22,000 with a 25 percent benefit rate, which adds up to $27,500.
Roberts says that people working in prisons ?are already upset.? He explains that 3 percent was recently taken out of public employee checks for retirement, and most workers have not seen a raise in six or seven years. He says finances are already tight for him.
?If they take my wages down, I wouldn?t make my rent,? he says. ?I would be homeless. I have three kids. ? I would starve.?
Robert also says that the fears have already started to affect morale. ?We have lost our will to work,? he says.
The supposed benefits of privatization are a mirage as well.
Private prisons have a well-documented record of failing to save taxpayers money. An exhaustive 2007 study conducted by the University of Utah concluded that ?the value of moving to a privately managed system is questionable,? while many services are often inferior at private facilities as compared to public ones.
If the savings Scott and his allies suggest are a sham, what's the real drive behind the privatization scheme? Money, of course:
(A) growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It?s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.
And a lot of the profits from these for-profit companies have found their way into Republican campaign coffers:
But while the taxpayers may not see much return on their investment, others stand to reap millions of dollars. Last year, a report issued by the Justice Policy Institute found that private prisons spent millions on lobbying to help ?make money through harsh policies and longer sentences.? In 2010, the two largest private prison companies had a combined $2.9 billion in revenues, Think Progress reported.
The corporations that own and operate private prisons are not the only ones who benefit financially either. An examination of campaign finance records shows that GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, was one of the 15 largest contributors to the Florida Republican Party in 2010, and gave over $11,000 in contributions directly to the campaigns of 14 of the 20 members of the Budget Committee that approved the bill, by a vote of 14-4. Since 2006, GEO Group has spent a total of $1.3 million in campaign contributions in Florida alone.
The battle has been a dirty one, with Senate President Mike Haridopolos removing fellow Republican Mike Fasano from his leadership position on the Senate Subcommittee on Criminal & Civil Justice Appropriations because he wasn't in support of the privatization scheme. Experts were not allowed to testify in advance of the vote. Finally, the bill itself would prevent the collection of data about private prisons and their effectiveness. Why would you hide that info unless you knew it proved your arguments wrong?
During an interview last night with Nevada reporter Jon Ralston, Mitt Romney attempted to walk back his statement that he is “not concerned with the very poor.” “It was a mistake. I misspoke,” Romney said:
ROMNEY: It was a mistake. I misspoke. I’ve said something that is similar to that, but quite acceptable, for a long time. And you know, when you do I don’t know how many thousands of interviews, now and then you may get it wrong. And I misspoke. Plain and simple.
RALSTON: What did you mean to say?
ROMNEY: Well, what I said was that my focus, my primary focus, is on helping people get in the middle class and grow the middle class. That we have a safety net that cares for the poor, I want to keep that safety net strong and able. The wealthy are doing just fine. But we really need to focus on the middle income people in this country. And you know what, if people are going to go after me when I make a mistake — when I slip up on a word I say, even when I say I got it wrong, sorry, that’s not what I meant — you know that’s part of the political process and I understand that.
However, Romney’s claim that he misspoke flies in the face of the fact that he’s used similar language before to explain his lack of concern for the poor. “The people who need the help the most are not the poor, who have a safety net,” Romney explained during an Oct. 20 town hall at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. “The very poor have a safety net, they?re taken care of,” he said in an October debate.
According to the latest data, the percentage of Americans qualifying as “very poor” — meaning that they live in a household with an income of less than half the federal poverty rate — has hit a 35 year high, so they are decidedly not taken care of. And Romney’s economic plan wouldn’t make them any better off. In fact, Romney would raise taxes on 20 percent of households making between $10,000 and $20,000, because of his less generous tax credits.
Not only that, but his plan would cut critical safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid, and limit the ability “to leverage federal resources to provide necessary social services to assist people in need.” As the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s Desmond Brown wrote, Romney’s plan “would provide $2.24 trillion in tax breaks to the superrich while cutting $2.17 trillion from critical health care services for poor and elderly Americans.”
An investigation by the Corporate Crime Reporter blog forced the Sierra Club to admit that it secretly had taken millions of dollars from the Chesapeake Energy natural gas company to fund its Beyond Coal campaign from 2007 to 2010 under the leadership of Carl Pope. Time’s Bryan Walsh writes in the complete exposé that Michael Brune ended the relationship when he became executive director in 2010:
Though the group ended its relationship with Chesapeake in 2010?and the Club says it turned its back on an additional $30 million in promised donations?the news raises concerns about influence industry may have had on the Sierra Club?s independence and its support of natural gas in the past. It?s also sure to anger ordinary members who?ve been uneasy about the Club?s relationship with corporations.
In a Sierra Club blog post, Brune explained his response when he became the executive director in 2010: “We cannot accept money from an industry we need to change. Very quickly, the board of directors, with my strong encouragement, cut off these donations and rewrote our gift acceptance policy.”
Proponents of marriage equality in Maryland are optimistic that the enhanced religious protections in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s newly-introduced same-sex marriage bill will attract additional support for the legislation, but are keeping their vote count close to the vest. Del. Heather Mizeur (D) told the Maryland Gazette that “a number of delegates who were ‘no’ votes on last year?s bill are expected to vote for it this time around.” “[P]rogress is being made,? she said. Religious opponents of the measure are also “much more organized this year,” the paper notes, pointing to Monday’s rally at the State House against marriage equality. Last year, the bill passed in the Senate, but could not muster enough votes in the House.
The Catholic Church’s “Courage” ministry ? which treats homosexuality as an addiction to be cured through 12 steps ? continues to expand in New England. Following the establishment of the program in Connecticut last month, the diocese of Portland, Maine, has announced it too will offer the pro-chastity service. Sue Bernard, a spokesperson for the diocese, described Courage in very positive terms:
Courage offers hope and encouragement to men and women who desire to live in accordance with the church?s teaching on homosexuality ? specifically that the dignity and identity of every person is not determined by their sexual attractions, but by their relationship with the Lord and their striving to live the virtues of faith, hope and charity.
It’s fairly obvious that Bernard is implying that non-heterosexual identities are not worthy of dignity. Given one of the goals of Courage speaks to “the problems of homosexuality,” the ministry’s motives are clearly to impose guilt and shame as it discourages gay people from ever experiencing love. Combined with the large sums of money the Church commits to fighting marriage equality and defending “religious liberty,” condemning the gay community seems to have become one of its highest priorities.
John Boehner's alligator tears for the defense budget
Remember this post-mortem from House Speaker John Boehner after taking the nation hostage over raising the debt ceiling?
When you look at this final agreement that we came to with the white House, I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I'm pretty happy.
He's going for the other two percent.
?I?ve got concerns about the sequester,? House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Thursday. ?I?ve made that pretty clear. And replacing the sequester certainly has value. The defense portion of the sequester, in my view, would clearly hollow our military. The Secretary of Defense has said that, members of Congress have said it. But the question I would pose is, where?s the White House? Where?s the leadership that should be there to ensure that this sequester does not go into effect.?
"Sequester" is the legislatese for the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts the Congress agreed to in their deal with the White House last August. It was that, or cuts made by the Super Congress, which had a best a 50-50 chance of actually succeeding. Because Republicans refuse to actually negotiate in good faith. In fact, the defense cuts were included in the eventual automatic triggers as a way to try to make Republicans actually bargain for real, because everyone knew the last thing a Republican wants to see is defense contractors losing money.
Gosh, it's almost enough to make you think you can't trust a Republican.
It isn't easy getting a bead on what motivates Mitt Romney. He's always polished and prepped, his square jaw firmly in place and every word carefully planned and delivered as though it were part of a 57-slide PowerPoint presentation. He married his high school sweetheart and raised a gaggle of strapping boys, not a rebellious one among them (so far as we can see, anyway). He has no visible vices. When he's frustrated he gives a fake laugh. He never seems to get sad or angry. In short, it's hard to discern what turns the wheels inside him.
But those who try are homing on Romney's relationship with his father George Romney, car company CEO, governor of Michigan, and failed presidential candidate. And two of the smartest commentators around, Rick Perlstein and Michael Tomasky, have come to the same conclusion about the relationship of Mitt's political choices to what he saw happen to George's political career, and his presidential bid in particular. Here's Perlstein describing the kind of politician George Romney was:
His calling card was his shocking authenticity; his courage in sticking to his positions without fear or favor was extraordinary. In January of 1964, for example, the second-year governor received a letter (downloadable here) from a member of the top Mormon governing body reminding him of the "teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith" that "the Lord had placed the curse upon the Negro." Drop your support for the 1964 civil rights bill, the elder warned, arguing that God might literally strike Romney dead for his apostasy: "I just don't think we can get around the Lord's position in relation to the Negro without punishment for our acts," the letter said. Romney only redoubled his commitment ? leading a march the next year down the center of Detroit in solidarity with Martin Luther King's martyrs for voting rights' in Selma, Alabama. In 1966, the Republican Party staked its electoral fortunes on opposing open housing for blacks. Romney begged them, unsuccessfully, not to.
And of course, Romney's 1968 presidential campaign unraveled after he committed an overblown "gaffe," saying that he had been "brainwashed" by generals and diplomats in Vietnam into thinking the war was going great, when it wasn't. "Mitt learned at an impressionable age," Perlstein writes, "that in politics, authenticity kills." It must be particularly painful for him, after trying so hard to avoid a gaffe like the one that destroyed his father's campaign, to find himself committing one gaffe after another. And that's not all?as CEO of American Motors, George Romney "would give back part of his salary and bonus to the company when he thought they were too high. He offered a pioneering profit-sharing plan to his employees. Most strikingly, asked about the idea that 'rugged individualism' was the key to America's success, he snapped back, 'It's nothing but a political banner to cover up greed.'"
The difference in their approach to business is a potentially fascinating topic, but what concerns us most is the political, and there's an important point about ideology that should be kept in mind when we watch Romney move to the center for the general election: there is no "real" Romney, ideologically speaking. That's true to varying degrees of many politicians (including Barack Obama); they have beliefs, but those beliefs will always be subject to adaptation and compromise depending on what's politically possible and necessary. It just happens to be more true of Romney than almost anyone else. As Tomasky argues, "Commentators have spent countless hours speculating whether Romney is "really" moderate or conservative. The answer is that he is neither, and both. The lessons he learned from watching his father fail to make it to the White House are: don't stick to your guns; be flexible; suit the needs of the moment. And so, in order to complete his father's unfulfilled destiny, he has decided to become his father's opposite."
The last few presidents have all had father issues of one sort or another. Barack Obama wrote a whole book about his struggles to form his identity with the shadow of a father whom he met only a couple of times. Bill Clinton never knew his biological father, and one of the key moments of his youth was when he stood up to his abusive stepfather to defend his mother. And in what is in some ways a parallel with Romney, George W. Bush spent much of his life defining himself as not like his father. George H.W. was patrician, George W. was down-home; H.W. was an achiever, W. was a screw-up. But unlike Mitt Romney, George W. Bush confronted his father directly, even challenging him to a fistfight ("You want to go mano a mano right here?") after driving home drunk and knocking over the neighbor's garbage cans.
That kind of thing was not for Mitt Romney. His rebellion, like everything else about him, was more methodical and controlled. I'm sure that if asked, he'd deny that he's trying to be what his father wasn't, but for both better and worse, he is who he is, whatever the reasons.
The STOCK Act was a media-driven bill that politicians felt they could not resist after 60 Minutes ran a (somewhat flawed) exposé on the insider trading activities of members of Congress. Once a must-pass bill like that gets into circulation, it's going[...]
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The latest jobs report was a welcome surprise. Jobs increased in January by 243,000, cutting the unemployment rate to 8.3 percent.
The question remains: is this a blip, or has the economy turned a corner?
Earlier in the week, the Congressional Budget Report put out a more pessimistic report, showing unemployment rising to 8.9 percent by the final quarter of this year (which happens to include Election Day), and peaking at 9.2 percent in early 2013.
According to the CBO, we won?t return to pre-recession employment levels until 2019.
Why the grim picture? CBO assumes more budget cutting, as the Bush tax cuts sunset, the deficit keeps declining, and there is no further offsetting stimulus.
Though the short-term jobs numbers have been above expectations for both December and January, there is no assurance that this good news will continue in the absence of additional stimulus.
And the risk remains of either a spike in the price of oil, as a byproduct of the escalating conflict with Iran, or further troubles in Europe. Either could weaken this hopeful trend.
The EU, wedded to an even more perverse brand of austerity economics than the United States, remains our biggest export market. And even a modest hike in the price of oil is like a tax on purchasing power.
For now, a prime engine of economic growth is the Federal Reserve, which has pledged to keep interest rates at near zero for the next three years. That itself is both recognition of how fragile this recovery is and also a necessary tonic.
Astounding, senior House Republicans spent yesterday morning raking Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke over the coals for his refusal to let the economy fall off a cliff. The ever-clueless Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, attacked Bernanke for failing to pay sufficient heed to inflation. The Fed?s policy, Ryan opined, ?runs the risk of fueling asset bubbles, destabilizing prices, and eventually eroding the value of the dollar.?
On what planet does this man live? Bondholders are now willing to lend the government money for thirty years with returns of under four percent. If investors were worried about inflation, the interest rate on Treasury bonds would be rising, but it has been steadily falling for two years. The more serious risk is prolonged deflation.
As Bernanke, nobody?s idea of a Bolshevik, told the committee, ?We still have a long way to go before the labor market can be said to be operating normally. Particularly troubling is the unusually high level of long-term unemployment.?
And if Ryan and his fellow Republicans want to be sure that low interest rates don?t cause asset bubbles, the remedy is financial regulation?of the sort that Republicans relentlessly oppose.
The Fed has done all it can to fight unemployment?you can?t push interest rates below zero. More public investment is needed. The latest jobs report showed that the public sector actually shed a net 14,000 jobs last month.
And a much more aggressive policy of mortgage relief would reverse the current problem of sinking housing values dragging down the rest of the economy.
Still, let?s celebrate good news when it comes?and hope it continues. There is much still to be done to help these encouraging trends turn into a durable recovery.