A Few Questions, and a Few Answers (10/15/10)

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A Few Questions, and a Few Answers (10/15/10)

Postby Ferguson Foont » Fri Oct 15, 2010 1:32 pm

Some people seem to be puzzled about a few things, and and I may have some answers for them. At the same time, I am puzzled about a few things and could use some answers myself. For example:

1. Why can't states and localities fund large projects anymore, or in many cases even make ends meet?

This one is one of those questions that seems to befuddle our pundit class, particularly in light of the cancellation by the Republican idiot Governor of New Jersey, whose parents cruelly named him "Chris Christie" so I guess he's taking all the teasing he had to take in Jr. High out on all of us, canceled a project, already underway, to build a railroad tunnel between New Jersey and New York City. It also plagues us here at Bareknuckles World Headquarters, deep inside the Washington Beltway, as our bus service keeps getting cut even as Metro fares rise unconscionably in a way, based on time of day, current ridership levels, and length of trip, that nobody can understand anymore. Heck, they even added a 50-cent per ride surcharge to all rides taken with the normal farecard instead of their newfangled "SmartTrip Cards," which is so totally bogus that I think I'll drive instead. This is, of course, in lieu of a badly needed increase to the subsidies Metro receives from local governments in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, as if somehow public transportation can either fund itself or is unnecessary, both provable and immutable falsehoods.

But anyway, the reason we can no longer afford the kinds of things we used to take for granted is because of that new feature of our political landscape, the "Death to Politicians Who Raise Our Taxes" thing that the Republicans have been so effective in promoting nationwide, and the bursting of the housing bubble which caused a rather severe recession, actually a depression of which we are still only experiencing its earliest, partial stages. (Just wait. You'll see.)

The other cause revolves around the ways states and localities fund their services. Most states fund their operations out of sales taxes, which have taken a one-two punch from a sharp and continuing increase in untaxed Internet sales and because people can no longer afford to buy as much stuff as they used to do, and/or from property taxes, which declined as housing prices fell so sharply following the bursting of the real estate bubble that brought down our economic house.

Setting aside sales taxes, which were always a HORRIBLE idea because of their archly regressive nature and their bass-ackward volatility -- sales tax revenues fall just as the need for government services increases because of the exact same bad economic environments that caused the revenues to decline -- property taxes are based primarily on some market valuation of each parcel. The market value of the parcel is assessed, and taxes are collected based on some arithmetical formula involving the "millage," or an amount, expressed in tenths of a cent, that the home or business owner must pay for each $100 of assessed value.

The sharp rise in real estate prices that constituted the "bubble" was a godsend for local politicians, because it allowed them to increase revenue even as they reduced the millage rates, which was perceived as a tax cut. But now that prices are falling everywhere, the shoe is quite tightly on the other foot -- increases in millage are perceived as tax increases, and your local Republicans use this as a weapon against Democrats during election season.

But of course local governments have many ongoing contractual obligations, bond repayment, road maintenance, school operations, etc., that are funded out of these revenues, obligations that do not decrease just because the sources of revenue have dried up through no fault of the government. Therefore, they have to cut out expensive but necessary projects like that NJ/NY tunnel, or face the wrath of homeowners who just hate to see their taxes appear to increase (even when they don't actually).

But now we are seeing a coordinated effort in the media, spread around by the usual suspects, to blame local and state revenue shortfalls on government employee pensions and government employee unions. Of course, these pension plans have been revised downward and downward and downward, repeatedly since the early '60s when most government employees collected full pay after thirty years of service -- WITHOUT contributing from their paychecks, the same way most American private industry treated their workers back in happier days -- to the point at which they now only provide supplemental income even though most of the money has come out of employee paychecks and has earned heinously poor interest rates in their retirement accounts. Forces are at work to entirely eliminate government employee pensions and outlaw government employee unions.

And they are blaming it on teachers. Those nasty teachers unions! Of course, we pay a hundred teachers less than we pay each of our baseball players, but that's OK, right? I mean, how many homers does your kid's English teacher hit each year? Why, all we need to do is fire a lot of teachers, and pay the ones who are left in our schools a lot less, and everything will be just hunky dory.

I've gotta say, though, that Republican attacks on public education funding are beginning to bear real fruit for them. When your life-blood consists of deceiving those too ignorant to detect your deceits, public education is your enemy.

Of course, progressive state and local income taxes instead of sales taxes, and a reasonable way to deal with declining real estate taxes by restoring millage rates to the levels they were at before the bubble, would solve these problems. But it ain't gonna happen. We must sacrifice everything, public schools, roads, fire protection, everything, just to save a few dollars that might be taxed from robber barons. What a world!

2. How on EARTH is the EPA going to set city and highway mileage for the new breed of electric vehicles coming out?

Again, this one would be easy if we could break our brains out of the concrete mold into which we've set them, where we talk only of "miles per gallon of gasoline."

We should take the average price of a KWH of electricity supplied by utilities, the number of KWH held in a charge in the cars' battery packs, and the distance that can be traveled on a full charge, to provide a "Miles per Dollar" figure. This, of course, could also be done substituting the average price of a gallon of gasoline and the miles you can travel on a dollar there.

This would be easy for the Volt and for non-plugin hybrids like the current Prius, where it's simply miles per each dollar's worth of gas. It's simple for the pure electrics like the Nissan Leaf, the Tesla and their like, which have no petroleum-based fuel engines to worry about -- it's just miles per dollar's worth of electricity. It gets a little trickier when we get into the plug-in series hybrids like the Volt, but it is certainly not an insurmountable problem.

For city mileage, you can presume that the car will run in pure electric mode and assess its miles/dollar rating accordingly. For highway mileage you can set a certain, somewhat arbitrary distance over which to assess the mileage (I would suggest 300 miles as a standard, which is the distance you are expected, by reimbursement or tax deduction regulations, to travel per day during a relocation for a new job in a distant city), assume you started with a full charge, and assess the total cost.

The EPA is tinkering with the notion of filling the tank with gas and taking it its full range, and basing its calculations simply on miles and gallons of gas. I don't like that method because it discourages auto companies from putting larger fuel tanks in cars, which would lengthen the range but make more of that range require gasoline, reducing the mileage simply because the gas tank was bigger, not because the car is any less efficient.

Of course, miles/dollar needs to assume a price for gasoline and a price for electricity, and would rise and fall as those prices rise and fall, but you'd just set a baseline amount for each energy source each year and go from there.

3. Why do TEA Partiers think Republicans will solve those problems that agitate them so?

This one particularly puzzles me. Aside from their increasingly concealed (but still present) racial bigotry and their innate gullibility borne of extreme stupidity, it seems that these TEA Partiers are very angry because of several things. First, they are just in a complete tizzy over the insurance mandate contained in the Health Care Reform Act. But don't they understand that this is only there because the health insurance companies, backed unanimously by Republicans in the House and Senate, insisted on it, and killed the public option (or what would have been MUCH better, Medicare for All) that would have made it unnecessary. Electing more Republicans is not going to make health insurers less greedy; indeed, it is likely to result in an environment where their greed is the chief governing force controlling our health care nationwide.

And they are very angry over the bank bailouts and their ineffectiveness in creating jobs. Well, guess what? So am I! For the price of TARP we could have bought almost every homeless American a house, fer cryin' out loud (or at least put down a healthy down payment on it). But TARP wasn't a Democratic thing; it was a George W. Bush thing. And the badly needed government stimulus packages, like ARRA (which has actually created millions of jobs) were sharply cut back and rendered much less effective because REPUBLICANS insisted on it, and unanimously opposed any increases to it, or even the continuation of those packages (the "You'll see" in the first question's answer will come when Obama's stimulus packages expire, and that right soon!).

And they're angry at the bankers' bonuses. Me too. What is it about Republican proposals, policies, and behavior makes them think that these will somehow be less heinous if Republicans get their way?

And they're angry about immigration. Well, I am too, along with some related issues revolving around our headlong rush into the internationalization of industry. But I'm MUCH angrier about some LEGAL immigration than I am about illegal immigration. I don't have any problem with some guy sneaking over our border to take a job as a berry picker or a gardener or a house cleaner or a street vendor. What I have a problem with is when AMERICAN corporations claim they cannot find an American citizen to do a job like computer programmer when there are millions of American computer programmers out of work, just so they can import a guy from Pakistan under the H1-B visa program to do the job for the same wage McDonald's pays its fry cooks. And I have a really BIG problem with shipping AMERICAN industrial, manufacturing and customer service jobs and capacity overseas, and with the tax policies that make such exportation of OUR jobs so attractive to corporations.

But Republicans will take this absolutely the OTHER way. These angry TEA Party people may not know it, but they crave the return of at least a moderate amount of protectionism for American workers -- they are angry that American workers now have NO rights, but they have been persuaded to regard any effort to restore those rights as socialism or communism or some other bogeyman name they don't understand.

And so they vote for candidates like those whose platforms consist largely of denying she's a witch (Christine O'Donnell), or whose raison d'etre is to continue to oppose any and all solutions to the problems that have angered them so intensely (Sharron Angle, Marco Rubio, et al), or who want to completely end Social Security and Medicare (Rand Paul), or who threaten the families of reporters WHO ARE ON THEIR SIDE for asking questions (Carl Palladino)!

This is all very odd, don't you think? These folks really are on the right track, but want to move in the exact opposite direction. Weird.
Republicans whine and Republicans bitch: "Our rich are too poor, and our poor are too rich."
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Ferguson Foont
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