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Saturday, March 8, 2014

In District Maryland's 29B, Voters Need to Re-Elect John Bohanan

I have never formally endorsed a candidate in any election - until now. I have decided to weigh in on the race for District 29B in St. Mary's county - my county. In recent editions of the Enterprise and the County Times (our local papers) several members of my community have written letters urging voters to “kick Del. John Bohanan to the curb” in November - a distinct possibility given the changing political composition of the county. The letter writers typically cherry pick one or two votes, out of the thousands that Bohanan has cast, and present them as proof that he does not represent the views of St. Mary’s county voters. The most commonly cited examples are his votes to legalize same sex marriage and his vote to approve the recent increase in the gas tax.
 
Del. Bohanan was narrowly reelected in 2010 and Republicans now outnumber Democrats in St. Mary’s county, but I believe that voters would be sorry if Bohanan were defeated. The simple truth is that Bohanan is the only member of the St. Mary’s delegation who has any real influence in Annapolis. He is the chair of the powerful Spending and Affordability committee and sits on the Appropriations committee. His seniority and committee assignments allow him to “deliver the goods” to St. Mary’s county. Were he to be defeated, he would be replaced by a freshman Republican. I don’t particularly care if I’m represented by a Republican or a Democrat, I just want a representative with integrity and the power to be a forceful representative of my community. Were a Republican, such as candidate Deb Rey, to replace Bohanan she would go to Annapolis as a member of a minority party that is outnumbered by a 2-to-1 margin in the Assembly. A party with virtually no influence in the General Assembly. She would have no seniority, no prime committee assignments, and no chance of ever chairing a committee - in other words she would have no leverage and little to no ability to ensure that St. Mary’s county had a voice that was heard in Annapolis. St. Mary’s county is one of the fastest growing counties in the state and we cannot afford to be voiceless.

Clearly, Del. Bohanan is not the only representative of St. Mary's County in Annapolis and this endorsement is not intended as a slight to Sen. Roy Dyson, Del. Johnny Wood (29A) or Del. Tony O'Donnell (29C). Rather I am making an endorsement based on the best interest of St. Mary's county. District 29 encompasses both St. Mary's and Calvert counties. To many, the counties may seem indistinguishable, but the reality is the two counties are different and may well have differing agendas. Sen. Dyson and Del. O'Donnell represent both counties, as such they must always balance the needs of the two counties. In an era of limited funds and competition for resources I see that as an important distinction. As to Del. Wood, he is retiring. His seat will be filled by a freshman member with little to no influence. This makes the reelection of John Bohanan that much more important. Were Bohanan to be defeated, then both of St. Mary's dedicated districts - 29A and 29B - would be represented by relatively weak members of the Assembly. To me, that's not acceptable.
 
Am I making this endorsement based solely on Del. Bohanan's power and influence? Of course not. Neither would matter if I didn't respect him and his judgment. Have I agreed with every vote that Del. Bohanan has cast? Of course not. And when I have disagreed, he has heard from me. But that’s the nature of our system of government, a system where we elect a person to speak on behalf of a community. It is not the job of those we elect to simply serve as a megaphone or as a mirror reflecting the views of the voters - if that were the case our founders would have simply opted for a direct democracy. Instead, they chose a system in which we elect representatives and they are expected to use their best judgment and to make decisions they believe represent what is best for a community - even when a majority of voters may disagree. Though I have disagreed with some of his votes, I have never doubted that Del. Bohanan was motivated by what he believed to be in the best interest of St. Mary’s county.
 
I supported his votes in favor of same sex marriage and increasing the gas tax - though both were unpopular in St. Mary's county. In the case of same sex marriage, Maryland overwhelmingly endorsed the law in a referendum in 2012 and voters, as well as state and federal courts, have been tearing down the discriminatory barriers faced by same sex couples in other states. As to the gas tax, typically I oppose most excise taxes as they tend to be regressive and have a disproportionate impact on poor and working class people. But Maryland is in desperate need of infrastructure improvements, and as a fast growing county, St. Mary's is in particular need. Those improvements will benefit everyone, but cannot happen without sufficient funds. Perhaps of greater import, in the months before MD increased the gas tax, the Virginia legislature approved a plan to spend $3.1 billion dollars upgrading the state's infrastructure in an effort to attract businesses and residents. Though VA eliminated the gas tax, they actually increased everyone's taxes by hiking the sales tax to pay for the plan. Maryland could not afford to stand idly by in the face of such state competition. In both of these cases, Bohanan knew two things, 1) that his votes would be opposed by a majority of his constituents, and 2) that even in the face of that opposition, they were the right votes to cast. That's political courage.
 
I vehemently opposed some of Bohanan's votes - his decision to support Governor O'Malley's gerrymandered monstrosity masquerading as a redistricting map was one. His recent vote to increase the state minimum wage - an increase that I believe will harm youth and unskilled workers, especially in Baltimore City, Western MD, and the counties on the lower Eastern Shore - is another. I could name more, but such disagreements do not negate all of the good he has done for St. Mary's county. And after all, his job is not to simply reflect the policy wishes of me or any other single voter, rather his job is to represent what he believes to be in the best interest of my community. Something he does quite effectively.
 
Voters will have a choice to make in 2014, they can vote to deprive St. Mary’s of any meaningful and dedicated voice in the General Assembly, or, they can reelect John Bohanan and ensure that the needs of our county are heard loud and clear. To me, that’s an easy choice to make.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Though the Minimum Wage Needs a Boost, it is not a Living Wage

In prior posts, I've argued against proposals in Maryland to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour on the grounds that it will do significant damage to the employment prospects of young and unskilled workers - and not provide much actual help to the working poor.

What I've not made clear is that I do not oppose raising the minimum wage. In fact, I think a review of the history of the wage suggests that it should be raised to approximately $8.40 an hour and then indexed to inflation thereafter. But the proposal to make the MD minimum $10.10 by 2016 simply goes too far and would likely have significant negative effects on youth and unskilled employment levels. Those advocating the $10.10 an hour wage like to claim that had the minimum wage in the late 1960s simply kept pace with inflation the wage today would be well be roughly$10.50 per hour. Unfortunately, those folks are being intentionally misleading.

In fact, a new Congressional Budget Office report puts the lie to most of the claims made in support of the $10.10 minimum wage. According to the report, such a wage hike would result in the loss of 500,000 jobs. Though the wage hike would theoretically inject $31 billion dollars into the economy, only 19% of that would benefit families living in poverty while 29% would benefit families earning three times the poverty level or more - this is because most of those earning the minimum wage are not in poor working families. But the $31 billion figure is actually meaningless. The CBO estimates that 93% of the $31 billion would be negated by lost income to businesses, lost income from the resultant job loss, and lost income due to higher prices caused by the wage hike. In Maryland, Martin O’Malley has argued that a $10.10 minimum wage would pump $456 million into the Maryland economy, but if the CBO estimates are accurate, that $456 million would actually be less than $30 million owing to job loss, higher prices and lost business income. As an alternative, the CBO considered a $9 minimum wage as well and noted far fewer negative effects.

Are Minimum Wage Earners Young and Childless or Working Parents?
The other justification for the $10.10 per hour proposal is that it would raise the income of a family of four, with a single parent working full time, to the poverty level.  But this a dubious goal. The average family size in American is 2.6, not 4. At a recent town hall meeting in southern Maryland Senator Ben Cardin offered some less than helpful statistics regarding those earning minimum wage. He said that roughly 2/3 are women and the average age of an earner is 35. His intent was clearly to create the impression that most minimum wage earners are single Moms. This is not the case. Roughly 1/3 of low income families are in house holds with a single adult.

As to the average age, the statistics shows why social scientists have three measures of central tendency, 1) the mean or simple average, 2) the median or value at which half the observations are above and half are below, and 3) the mode or the most frequently observed value.  Though most people are familiar with concept of an average, the measure can present a skewed picture. Imagine 10 people, 9 of them have $10 and one of them has $1,000. Calculating the average cash on hand is easy - $1,090/10=$109. Clearly that is not an accurate accounting of the group. The median and modal values would be $10 - more accurate.  So, back to minimum wage earners - consider the average age of 35 and a working life of 16-65 years of age. There are 19 measurable years between 16 and 35, but there are 30 measurable years between 35 and 65. Because our working life excludes our first 15 years of life, the simple average age of a minimum wage worker would skew "old." Consider how difficult it is to reconcile the average age with this fact: one-third of those earning the federal minimum wage are teens, and just over half of minimum wage earners are under the age of 25. If just over half are 25 of younger it suggests the median age is approximately 24 years old. And one final point, the vast majority of minimum wage earners are not the sole source of income for a family. So suddenly the image of minimum wage earners as single Moms disappears. It is true that about 1/4 of minimum wage earners fall into the category of parents with children - but it's inefficient and poor targeting to implement a 40% wage hike for the 75% of wage earners who are no parents supporting a family just to provide an income boost to 25% - and a recent piece in the Baltimore Sun demonstrated that as a result of the wage hike, many of those in that 25% would lose eligibility for social supports and wind up with less net income.

Would the Inflation Adjusted Wage Really Be over $10 per hour?
The following graph, courtesy of the unbiased folks at Pew, shows that the period from the late 1960s through at least 1981 were an unusually "generous" period for the minimum wage. But the period was far from the norm. If one were to select the late 1940s or the late 1950s as the basis for today's wage in would be far below $10.50, below $10.10, and below the current level of $7.25  - so claims of an inflation adjusted $10 minimum wage are simply disingenuous.  In the end, none of the main arguments for a $10 wage hold up to serious scrutiny.


Should the Wage Be Higher?
There is a case to be made that the inflation-adjusted average wage for the "generous" period should serve as a baseline for the wage moving forward. Without question, a concerted effort was made to increase the purchasing power of the minimum wage throughout the 1960s and 70s before a long slide began in the 1980s through until 2009. Boosting the wage to the 1960s and 70s level would yield a minimum wage for 2015 of approximately $8.40 per hour. If it were then indexed to inflation and automatically adjusted every year thereafter it would no longer go through long periods of decline followed by sudden increases. As result, it would provided some degree of predictability in the value of the wage to workers and the cost of labor to employers.

In a prior post I cited a New York study that estimated a 20% jump in job loss among the young and the unskilled as a result of a 30% hike in the state's minimum wage. Applying those findings to Baltimore City, where unemployment among those aged 16-24 is a devastating 31%, could lead to an unimaginable 37.5% unemployment rate. Beyond Baltimore City youth, the overall unemployment rates in Baltimore City, Washington county in western Maryland, and the counties of the lower Eastern Shore show that significant portions of the state simply could not absorb the job shock likely to be caused by a 40% wage hike.

The Governor and the folks at Raise the Wage estimate that over 500,000 workers would get a raise if the minimum were set at $10.10. With just under 3 million employed workers in the state that amounts to nearly 17%! That represents a significant new cost imposed upon businesses. How can anyone seriously think that employers will not respond by trimming hours, cutting positions, and refusing to hire the young and the less skilled?  How can anyone believe that the state's high unemployment counties will be made better off?

Senate President Mike Miller has been less than receptive to the idea of a $10.10 statewide minimum. He has raised the possibility of allowing counties to set their own wages. Though that is certainly preferable to a statewide minimum of $10.10 per hour, I think a wage of $8.40 per hour, adjusted for inflation thereafter, is the best option for the state (and the country). 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Minimum Wage is a Poor Way to Support Working Families in Maryland

In a prior post, I argued against minimum and living wage schemes on the basis that they harm unskilled laborers and are far less effective than tax schemes like the Earned Income Tax Credit when it comes to targeting the working poor.  As Maryland lawmakers continue to consider a substantial hike in MD's minimum wage, I have been encouraged by the number of folks speaking against the perceived wisdom of such an increase.  Let me be clear, I do not oppose raising the minimum wage. In fact, I think a review of the history of the wage suggests that it should be raised to approximately $8.40 an hour and then indexed to inflation thereafter. But the proposal to make the MD minimum $10.10 by 2016 simply goes too far and would likely have significant negative effects on youth and unskilled employment levels.

In recent commentary, Barry Rascovar discussed the problems with a one-size-fits-all wage approach in a state with very different cost of living standards. Much like myself, Rascovar pointed to the better policy approach f increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit (a negative income tax that supplements the earnings of the working poor - especially those with children). Today, Howard Leathers, an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland, published a piece in the Baltimore Sun in which he outlines the seemingly paradoxical reality that a substantial increase in the minimum wage would reduce net income for a working parent. In the example provided by Leathers, a 59% increase in the minimum wage would actually result in a 3% decline in net income for a working parent. How can that be? The answer is simple, with the higher wages, the low income working parent would pay higher taxes and lose eligibility for crucial social supports such as Food Stamps, subsidies for child care, and housing assistance.

Many may consider it a good thing for people to be more self reliant. In fact, decreased eligibility for social programs would result in less government spending for those programs - in theory. But consider the costs. The decreased government spending would be offset by higher spending by employers as a result of the higher hourly wage. Many of the businesses that pay minimum wage are small businesses with precious little profit margin. Faced with higher wage costs, those businesses would likely increase prices (if the market will allow) and customers would pay more for goods and services. Those businesses are likely as well to reduce their labor costs by reducing their workforce - meaning more unemployed individuals suddenly eligible for social support services. So we'd be left with some workers receiving a higher wage, but many being worse off due to lost benefits. And we'd have more people unemployed and drawing on the social services that the higher wages were supposedly replacing. It's a perverse form of income transfer as the low income workers who lose their jobs transfer their lost income to those who keep their jobs. Then, those who keep their jobs transfer their social service benefits to the newly unemployed.

And make no mistake, a minimum wage hike like that being proposed in Maryland will have a  negative impact on employment. Consider just two recent studies - in the first, professors from Texas A&M University determined "that the minimum wage reduces net job growth, primarily through its effect on job creation by expanding establishments. These effects are most pronounced for younger workers and in industries with a higher proportion of low-wage workers." In other words, businesses respond to higher wages by either not expanding or by hiring fewer employees when then do expand. The second study is the most compelling. Most studies of the employment effects of the minimum wage consider the impact of marginal increases in the wage - increases in the range of 10% or so. Maryland is considering a 40% increase in its minimum wage. Such dramatic increases are rare, and even more rarely studied. New York state implemented a 30% wage increase about 10 years ago and a recently published paper examined the impact of that increase. According to the authors - all college professors with expertise in the matter -  "the NYS minimum wage increase is associated with a 20.2% to 21.8% reduction in the employment of less-skilled, less-educated workers, with the largest effects on those aged 16 to 24."  Their results provide substantial evidence that state minimum wage increases can have significant adverse labor demand effects for low-skilled individuals.

To put the New York study into perspective, consider this - the unemployment rate in Baltimore City for those aged 16-24 is a devastating 31%. That is more than twice the statewide youth rate of 13.4% and nearly double the national rate of 16.1%. Imagine a 21% increase in youth unemployment in Baltimore City. Instead of a devastating 31% we'd see a catastrophic 37.5% rate. That is simply unacceptable - but the empirical data, and Governor O'Malley always claims to be driven by data and not ideology, suggests that a $10 minimum wage would only exacerbate an already out of control unemployment problem in Baltimore. Good luck finding anyone who would argue that a 40% increase in the minimum wage would improve the employment situation in Baltimore City.  The Governor and the folks at Raise the Wage estimate that over 500,000 workers would get a raise if the minimum were set at $10.10. With just under 3 million employed workers in the state that amounts to nearly 20%! That represents a significant cost imposed upon businesses - how can anyone seriously think that employers will not respond by trimming hours, cutting positions, and refusing to hire the young and the less skilled?

I'd like to address as well the issue of income inequality and effective means of targeting the needs of the working poor. Minimum wage laws are indiscriminate and incredibly inefficient policy tools. Is it really a problem if an 17 year old middle class kid living at home earns $7.25 an hour while working at a fast food restaurant? The obvious answer is "no." That kid is not supporting a family and is not trying to "live" on minimum wage. At present, one-third of those earning the federal minimum wage are teens, and just over half of minimum wage earners are under the age of 25. The vast majority of minimum wage earners are not the sole source of income for a family. But employers are not permitted to offer different wages to different employees doing the same job simply based on need (keep in mind, it was once common for employers to pay men more than women for doing the same job based on the notion that men had families to support - today we call such practices discriminatory). Using the minimum wage to target the needs of working families would require employers to pay substantially higher wages to all workers. So in order to provide a $10.10 wage to a working parent with two kids an employer would need to provide that same wage to an upper middle class kid working part time to earn pizza money. That is not sound policy.

I may not care if that middle class kid earns $7.25 an hour, but do I care if a mother or father working one full time or several part time jobs is unable to meet the basic needs of their family. As a policy person, and as someone who believes in "to each according to their need," the question must be - how can we best support that family? The answer is not some misguided one size fits all minimum wage that treats the 17 year old and the single parent as if they are the same. The answer is not a minimum wage hike that effectively lowers the net income of working parents while simultaneously increasing unemployment.

Social support programs such as Food Stamps, child care subsidies, and the earned income tax credit allow society to effectively target need without creating the negative effects of artificially inflated wages. And perhaps of even greater import, these social programs are more effective at addressing inequality. A higher minimum wage simply transfers income between low income workers - those that keep their jobs and those that lose their jobs. But social programs like those listed here effectively transfer income from the well-off who pay income taxes to the less well off who earn too little to pay income taxes.

Those advocating the $10.10 an hour wage like to claim that had the minimum wage in the late 1960ssimply kept pace with inflation the wage today would be well be roughly$10.50 per hour. Unfortunately, those folks are being intentionally misleading.

The following graph, courtesy of the unbiased folks at PEW, shows that the period from the late 1960s through at least 1981 were an unusually "generous" period for the minimum wage. But the period was far from the norm. If one were to select the late 1940s or the late 1950s as the basis for today's wage in would be far below $10.50, below $10.10, and below the current level of $7.25  - so claims of an inflation adjusted $10 minimum wage are simply disingenuous.  That said, there is a case to be made that the inflation-adjusted average wage for the "generous" period should serve as a baseline for the wage moving forward. Without question, a concerted effort was made to increase the purchasing power of the minimum wage throughout the 1960s and 70s before a long slide began in the 1980s through until 2009. Boosting the wage to the 1960s and 70s level would yield a minimum wage for 2015 of approximately $8.40 per hour. If it were then indexed to inflation and automatically adjusted every year it would no longer go throw long periods of decline followed by sudden increases - it would provided some degree of predictability in the value of the wage to workers and the cost to consumers.



The real choice facing lawmakers in Annapolis is not whether or not they should support working families, rather it is how best they can support those working families. I think a wage of $8.40 per hour, adjusted for inflation, is the best option for the state and the country. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Difference Between Polarization and Party Sorting...

Discussions of contemporary American politics tend to center around the issue of polarization and the notion that Americans are deeply divided over a host of issues. This deep division is driving our elected officials to eschew cooperation and compromise. There is a robust debate among political scientist regarding the true nature of polarization in American.  An ongoing series by the Monkey Cage blog is exploring the issue of polarization and providing an avenue for very diverse and often contradictory perspectives.

One of the areas of disagreement concerns the depth of polarization in America. On one side of the argument, political scientists such as Alan Abramowitz contend that the mass electorate is deeply polarized and the deep polarization evident in Congress and many state legislatures is reflective of voter preferences. On the other side of the argument, political scientists like Morris Fiorina argue polarization is largely an elite-driven phenomenon. Fiorina contends the American public is no more polarized today than it was four decades ago. Rather, political elites - those most active in politics - have redefined the priorities of the two political parties such that they now endorse diametrically opposed agendas on a host of policy questions. Given the stark contrast between the two parties, Americans have sorted more neatly among the opposing camps. The Democratic party was once home to many conservative voters and the Republican party included more moderate and liberal voters among its coalition. As political activists took the Democratic party to the left and the Republican party to the right, liberal, moderate, and conservative voters reacted by sorting into the party that most closely matched their preferences.

So how is this not polarization? First, consider the arguments offered by Abramowitz. He argues that the distance between Democrats and Republicans on key policy questions are evidence of a polarized public.  I'll use the example of attitudes regarding abortion to illustrate his argument. The following graph compares the attitudes of self identified Democrats and Republicans regarding the legality of abortion in 1980 and in 2008. The blue bar represents a liberal attitude (legal in all cases), the green bar a conservative attitude (illegal in all cases), and the red bar is a moderate position (legal in some cases).The data for 1980 reveal something interesting - 34 years ago, there was precious little difference between Democrats and Republicans regarding abortion. Roughly equal portions of each party opposed or supported abortion rights.

Figure One

But by 2008, we see a more familiar distribution of opinions. Democrats are now clearly the party of abortion rights and Republicans the party of abortion restriction. Members of the two parties are polarized on the issue of abortion - so clearly we would expect our elected officials to mirror this mass polarization and refuse to compromise on abortion.

But does the abortion question actually reveal a polarized electorate? Does it truly demonstrate polarization at the mass level rather than the elite level? Consider Figure Two. In Figure Two I am presenting the same data presented in Figure One, except for a single difference, instead of dividing the public into Democrats and Republicans I considered them collectively. What a difference that choice makes - and the difference is the difference between polarization and party sorting. The data in Figure Two make one thing very clear, the electorate is no more polarized today on the issue of abortion than it was in 1980.

Figure Two

So how do we explain the polarization between identified Democrats and Republicans, given little has changed among the two groups when considered collectively? We explain it by looking to the actions taken by political elites.

In 1972, abortion rights advocates pushed to have a plank added to the Democratic Party Platform defending the legality of abortion. The push failed. In 1976, party activists were able to insert the first supportive abortion language into the platform, but it was a mild statement: "We fully recognize the religious and ethical nature of the concerns which many Americans have on the subject of abortion. We feel, however, that it is undesirable to attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court decision in this area."  In 1980, activists were able to expand the statement of support a bit more: "We fully recognize the religious and ethical concerns which many Americans have about abortion. We also recognize the belief of many Americans that a woman has a right to choose whether and when to have a child. The Democratic Party supports the 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion rights as the law of the land and opposes any constitutional amendment to restrict or overturn that decision." Again, hardly a polarizing stance. Over time, the language became more bold, 1988: that the fundamental right of reproductive choice should be guaranteed regardless of ability to pay... 2008: The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.

Changes were taken place in the Republican platform as well. The party's 1976 platform barely mentioned abortion other than endorsing "a position on abortion that values human life." In 1980, Republican activist make a more clear statement, while also recognizing differences of opinion: "While we recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general—and in our own Party—we affirm our support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children. We also support the Congressional efforts to restrict the use of taxpayers' dollars for abortion." By 2008, there could be no doubt regarding the Republican party's position on abortion: "We oppose using public revenues to promote or perform abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it... We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity and dignity of innocent human life. We have made progress. The Supreme Court has upheld prohibitions against the barbaric practice of partial-birth abortion. States are now permitted to extend health-care coverage to children before birth. And the Born Alive Infants Protection Act has become law; this law ensures that infants who are born alive during an abortion receive all treatment and care that is provided to all newborn infants and are not neglected and left to die. We must protect girls from exploitation and statutory rape through a parental notification requirement. We all have a moral obligation to assist, not to penalize, women struggling with the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy. At its core, abortion is a fundamental assault on the sanctity of innocent human life. Women deserve better than abortion. Every effort should be made to work with women considering abortion to enable and empower them to choose life."

Over the course of three decades, party activist worked to define a Democratic and Republican party position regarding abortion that suited their preferences. These activists represent a decidedly small segment of the population, but exert tremendous influence over the direction of each party. As the differences between the two parties regarding abortion became ever more clear, voters responded by more neatly sorting into the two camps. The electorate is no more divided on the issue of abortion today than it was 30 years ago - but the two political parties are much more divided and that division defines contemporary politics and discourse.

Over the past several decades, liberal and conservative activists have worked to redefine the political parties in their ideological images. On a host of issue ranging from health care, taxation, welfare spending, abortion, and same sex marriage the parties are increasingly defined by their stark contrasts with one another. But this stark contrast is an elite and activist driven process, one that the electorate must then adapt to and contend with.

Without question, the resultant party sorting contributes to the polarization process by reinforcing the Us v. Them nature of contemporary party politics. But if elites and activists were to stop promoting division, if they were to stop creating a zero sum political game, then the electorate would no longer be compelled to choose a side. There's a reason why the party coalitions of 2008 represented in Figure One are no longer able to forge the compromises that their counterparts did in 1980 - and the reason is elite driven.
 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Should an 88 Year Old Man Lose His Home Over a $720 Sewer Bill? I Say No (and with your help, so might the General Assembly).

Update: Members of the St. Mary's County delegation to the General Assembly will be meeting to discuss legislative changes to MetCom's tax lien authority.  Please keep making calls and sending emails!

Original Post
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, an 88 year old man in St. Mary's County, named Combs Toney, was faced with the possible loss of the home he had lived in since the age of 5. Mr. Toney's home was never connected to our public water and sewer operated by a quasi-governmental utility - MetCom. Even though Mr. Toney was never connected to the public water/sewer and had his own well and an inspected and properly functioning septic tank, but because of his proximity to the public lines he was required to pay for monthly service. Mr. Toney paid his "bill" for many years. But his retirement income became tight after his wife became ill and required in-home dialysis (which she still receives). Something had to give, so Mr. Toney decided that he would no longer pay MetCom for a service he didn't receive. But MetCom has a power that few other utilities have - MetCom has the power to impose a tax lien on someones home for lack of payment. As Mr. Toney's bills accrued, MetCom imposed the tax lien and was taking his house to public auction. The sum total of his overdue bills? $719. MetCom refused to consider Mr. Toney's circumstances and argued they were required by law to impose the lien. He was 88 and facing the loss of his home, a home where his wife was receiving dialysis. Mr. Toney's bill has since been paid, but only through January 31st. At which time his bills will once again accrue and a tax sale threat could return.

I am asking people to take action and prevent this from happening to others. I need people to contact the Democratic members of the General Assembly from St. Mary's County and urge them to introduce legislation that would restrict or eliminate MetCom's power to impose tax liens. They should rely on the same bill collection practices of other utilities such as electric or phone.  If you are so inclined, would you consider contacting Del. John Bohanan, 1-800-492-7122, ext. 3227, john.bohanan@house.state.md.us,  or Johnny Wood, 1-800-492-7122, ext. 3170, john.wood@house.state.md.us, or Senator Roy Dyson, 1-800-492-7122, ext. 3673, roy.dyson@senate.state.md.us, and ask them to introduce a bill that would restrict or eliminate MetCom’s power to impose tax liens? Otherwise this will happen again, either to Mr. Toney or to someone else.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Maryland Needs to Embrace the Natural Gas Economy

Those who think we are on the cusp of a green energy revolution should read the latest issue of Scientific American. Professor Vaclav Smir, in an article titled "The Slow Rise of Solar and Wind, notes that all global energy transitions have taken 50-60 years, with the pace slowing, not increasing over time. He estimates we are 50-75 years away from renewable sources achieving a meaningful market share of energy production - especially in a world with roughly $20 trillion invested in infrastructure to support the fossil fuel system. He found that since 1980, the best return on federal investment has come not from renewables but from work on horizontal drilling and fracking shale deposits.

We cannot spend the next 3 generations burning ever more coal, it is a dirty and dangerous fuel source and a major contributor to global CO2 increases. People need to see natural gas for the crucial and beneficial stopgap that it is. Our nation's steady transition to natural gas in recent years resulted in U.S. CO2 emissions falling to their lowest levels in 20 years
The more we replace coal with gas, the better off we are. In MD, the Western part of the state sits atop one of the largest known shale gas deposits - the Marcellus Shale. But while other states are busy extracting gas from the shale beneath their states, Maryland dithers. Many want to ban hydraulic fracking in the state - convinced that a green energy revolution is right around the corner. What they're really doing is perpetuating the use of coal. We need to stop playing politics with the Western MD shale deposits and start extracting the natural gas. And then we need to allow a new export facility in Sourthern MD at Cove Point so that we can export our natural gas to nations that might otherwise be burning coal. In the last decade, China has invested $500 million in New coal fired power plants to produce 300 gigawatts of new energy. According to Smil, that's more than the combined fossil fuel generating capacity of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK! There can be no question but that natural gas is the better and the greener alternative. But for a country to rely on gas instead of coal, gas must be available and the supply reliable. We can make that happen. So why is Maryland standing in the way?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why I Oppose Making the Minimum Wage a Living Wage

I get flack for opposing living wage schemes and minimum wage hikes... but I'm proud to oppose both. And I oppose them because I believe in a simple philosophy, "from each according to ability, and to each according to need." Neither the living wage nor a higher minimum wage live up to that belief - in fact, they undermine it. A column today from David Neumark perfectly captures my beliefs on the matter - so I quote from it heavily in the paragraphs below.

"Proponents of raising the minimum wage often point out that the real minimum wage is lower now than it was decades ago.  But the federal policy aimed at low-wage work and low-income families has shifted — wisely — away from reliance on the minimum wage and toward a generous earned-income tax credit, which is better focused on poor families.  There is nothing wrong with reducing our reliance on a less effective policy when we have adopted a more effective one.  In fact, we should hope that research on public policy leads to exactly this kind of outcome."

Minimum wages and living wages are indiscriminate and incredibly inefficient policy tools. I don't care if an 17 year old living at home earns $7.50 an hour to put a basket of frozen fries into a vat of oil. I would care if that kid suddenly made $15 for doing the same skilless task. However, I do care if a mother or father is working a full time or even several part time jobs and is still unable to meet the basic needs of their family. As a policy person, and as someone who believes in "to each according to need," the question must be - "how can we best support that family?" The answer is not some misguided one size fits all minimum wage that treats the 17 year old and the parent as if they are the same.

The Earned Income Tax Credit allows us, as a society, to support working families by targeting income to those who need it most. "So suggesting that federal policy addressing low-wage work and low-income families has somehow failed because the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation ignores the fact that we have moved away from a focus on the minimum wage — a policy with many flaws — and toward the earned-income tax credit."

"Nonetheless, there are important differences between the earned-income tax credit and the minimum wage. The fundamental difference is that the earned-income tax credit aims benefits at low-income families with children, rather than simply low-wage workers. This is in large part its virtue, and it makes a lot more sense than the minimum wage’s focus on low-wage workers."

The earned income tax credit is targeted to working families, it enjoys bipartisan support, it's indexed to inflation, and it does not negatively impact the employment of teens and unskilled workers. It is in every way superior to a living wage or a higher minimum wage. And people and policymakers who want to help working families really need to shift their focus away from those inefficient and inappropriate policy options.