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“Something’s Still Fishy In Jersey”: There Are Reasons To Question Chris Christie’s Bridge Scandal Story

I doubt the veracity of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christies’ bumper-to-bumper mea culpa. A trove of circumstantial evidence indicates that he had at least some knowledge that his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and former Port Authority officer David Wildstein colluded to wreak traffic havoc on Fort Lee, N.J.

It wasn’t like the week of Sept. 9, 2013 saw a typical commute on the George Washington Bridge. Drivers spent more than two hours stuck in traffic, and news of it was all over the New Jersey press. Thousands of people, including Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and New York State Port Authority officials, were screaming bloody murder up and down the Palisades Parkway. It’s amazing that the entire New Jersey phone grid didn’t collapse from the tidal wave of calls flooding Christie’s office.

Even if the governor didn’t take one of these calls, he was in the midst of campaign season. His campaign team would’ve told him about the problem and how to respond to reporters should the traffic jam come up on the campaign trail. They wouldn’t have wanted to put him in a position where he might cede his advantage to his democratic challenger Barbara Buono.

Most telling was that on Sept. 13th, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, ordered the lanes open, a decision made by a senior New York state official affecting the New Jersey side of the bridge. Cuomo’s office would have had to have spoken with Christie’s office before the order went out. Resolving that traffic jam depended on a lot of moving parts that needed to be coordinated on a state and Port Authority level.

In a perfect world, Christie would resign, showing deference to the people of New Jersey, not spend 107 minutes spouting flimflam meant to keep his presidential aspirations afloat. But this isn’t a perfect world – it’s a world where politicians can cough up a well-crafted, poll-tested apology to avoid punishment for their bad behavior.

In keeping with the standard trajectory of most political scandals, many commentators are now blaming Democrats for the scrutiny Christie is under. My colleague Peter Roff posted a bait-and-switch piece arguing that governor’s apology was a proper way to school President Obama on how to handle Benghazi, Fast and Furious and his dog Bo’s pooping on the White House rug.

Although it’s easy to blame every problem on Obamacare, none of what Roff argues has anything to do with anything. The Christie administration engineered a major traffic jam to get back at a politician whose endorsement or lack thereof would have made no difference to the inevitable outcome of the election. Christie’s apology doesn’t make him the George Washington Bridge Memorial Professor of Presidential Leadership.

The most disappointing part about this whole affair is that another talented politician with the potential to become president has collapsed under the weight of his own self-destructive behavior. Perhaps Christie will run for president next year, but the GOP would be better off if he didn’t.  There are plenty of prominent Republicans out there who’ve demonstrated enough integrity to qualify for 2016. Perhaps they’ll throw their hats into the race soon, of course, provided that they’re not stuck in traffic on announcement day.


By: Jamie Chandler, U. S. News and World Report, January 10, 2014

January 11, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Sorry, GOP Reformers”: Your Own Party Isn’t Interested

Republican reformers are getting excited. For years, Ross Douthat and David Frum have been stubbornly making the case for a more moderate and economically populist GOP that would speak to and offer solutions for the problems facing struggling Americans. They are no longer voices crying out in the wilderness.

David Brooks has joined them in a column touting several reform-minded articles in the latest issue of National Affairs, a center-right policy journal. This comes in the wake of a recent speech by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and some not-so-recent speeches by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on how the GOP might begin to combat poverty.

Taken together, these columns, articles, and speeches show that the movement for Republican reform has begun to persuade…at least a dozen people.

That’s no doubt an exaggeration on the low end, but it goes a long way toward explaining why I’m skeptical about reform efforts. By all means, such efforts are to be applauded and encouraged. But until Republican voters begin to express their support for them in opinion polls and at the ballot box, reform proposals will remain the impotent pet projects of pundits and politicians.

The fact is that there’s no sign so far that those voters want anything to do with new government initiatives to help the poor — or to do anything else for that matter. “Government is too big!” “Taxes are too high!” “Washington is the problem, not the solution!” Those are the only messages the Republican base wants to hear — and thus the only messages most Republicans dare deliver on the campaign trail or act on in the halls of Congress.

There’s a reason why the first tentative expressions of support for reform have come from senators, who are elected by entire states every six years. That distance from those partisan passions, which have produced a deep right-wing skew in gerrymandered House districts, gives senators more ideological freedom of movement.

Still, Republican senators must deal with irascible primary voters. And in the House there is no such freedom, which is why that chamber’s Republican majority refuses to budge on extending unemployment benefits or reversing cuts to food stamps. It is also why Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) efforts to revive immigration reform is likely to fail as well. Republican voters want none of it, and that’s exactly what they’ll get.

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. He, too, has been trying to rebrand himself as a reformer — talking about the problem of poverty, and reaching a bipartisan deal to pass the bill that temporarily ended gridlock over the budget. All of it is an effort to make himself palatable as a general election presidential candidate. (Nothing inspires donors like “electability.”) But his position is only possible because he established himself as a leading conservative warrior on economic issues, which got the Romney ticket in so much trouble in 2012; indeed, it remains to be seen whether Ryan’s commitment to centrist reform is anything more than PR gloss.

That points to the depth of the GOP’s problem. Its base uncompromisingly demands that party members toe a line that places them far to the right of the median American voter. As long as that continues, Republicans will find themselves out of serious contention for the White House — and unable to follow through on any serious proposals for reform.


By: Damon Linker, The Week, January 10, 2014

January 11, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Poverty | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Delusional Pro-Poverty Agenda”: This Is Why The GOP Should Be Afraid Of The Minimum Wage In 2014

Illinois businessman Bruce Rauner, a top candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, demonstrated this week why Democrats are eager to use the minimum wage as a political cudgel in the 2014 midterm elections.

On Tuesday, Rauner suggested reducing the state’s $8.25-per-hour minimum wage to the national level, a $1-per-hour reduction.

“I will advocate moving the Illinois minimum wage back to the national minimum wage. I think we’ve got to be competitive here in Illinois,” Rauner told Illinois Radio WGBZ.

Rauner’s stance sharply contrasts that of Governor Pat Quinn (D), who has said that he wants to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour. But it’s not particularly controversial in the context of the Republican primary. After all, each of his rivals for the nomination — Kirk Dillard, Dan Rutherford and Bill Brady — oppose raising the wage. Still, throughout the rest of the state, the idea of cutting the already insufficient minimum wage sparked instant outrage.

As The Chicago Sun-Times reports, the backlash to Rauner’s plan was swift and severe.

“In my 26 years in the Legislature, I’ve seen many candidates roll out anti-poverty plans, but Bruce Rauner is the only candidate to roll out a pro-poverty plan,” Democratic state representative Lou Lang said.

“He’s delusional if he thinks that the General Assembly would bow to his class warfare on low-income workers. He needs to have his delusion shaken up,” Lang added. “He needs to come to grips with the fact that the era of robber barons is over, and impoverishing workers is no longer an economic growth strategy.”

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson similarly blasted Rauner, insisting that “instead of alleviating poverty, this cruel and backwards proposal would take thousands of dollars from working people who are doing some of the hardest, most difficult jobs in our society.”

And Chicago labor leader Karen Lewis took even more direct aim at Rauner, who made a fortune in private equity, charging, “It is ironic that billionaire Rauner, who reported $53 million in earnings last year, or $7.36 per second, is calling for a reduction in the state’s minimum wage.

“While he sits back and ponders where to take his next exotic vacation or which mansion to lay his head, others are trying to survive in a climate of foreclosures, rising medical costs, and the shuttering of neighborhood schools,” she added. “Instead of pledging a war on poverty he is vowing to advance a war on poor and working-class people.”

The heated response to Rauner’s proposal was stunningly successful; within days, he was apparently scared away from it.

“I made a mistake. I was flippant and I was quick,” Rauner told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday. “I should have said, ‘Tie the Illinois minimum wage to the national wage and, in that context, with other changes in being pro-business, I support raising the national minimum wage.’ I’m OK with that.”

Rauner expanded on his new position — that after cutting the minimum wage, we should raise it — in a Tribune op-ed on Thursday, writing, “Raising the national minimum wage would raise the level in Illinois and in our neighboring states, eliminating our competitive disadvantage. I support that.”

It’s not hard to understand how Rauner went from advocating a minimum-wage cut to advocating a raise in just a few days. Polls have consistently found that Illinois voters overwhelmingly favor raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour (a recent survey from left-leaning Public Policy Polling pegged support at 58 percent). It is a very difficult political environment to be running against a measure that could lift millions out of poverty.

Increasing the minimum wage isn’t just popular in Illinois; it has broad national appeal as well. So it’s not surprising that Democrats are planning to use the issue as a centerpiece of their 2014 campaigns. And if other Republicans mirror Rauner’s apparent fear of being attacked on the issue, their strategy could prove very successful.


By: Henry Decker, The National Memo, January 9, 2014

January 11, 2014 Posted by | Minimum Wage, Poverty | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Just Another Vindictive GOP Governor”: Maine Governor’s Welfare Investigation Turns Up Next To Nothing

Maine governor Paul LePage (R) finally has a smoking gun in his effort to restrict welfare programs — at least according to him. According to a much-hyped study conducted by the state department of Health and Human Services, recipients of social programs like SNAP and TANF used money from these programs at places like bars, smoke shops, and strip clubs.

But according to the Bangor Daily News, during the period the study was conducted, these questionable transactions accounted for just two-tenths of one percent of the total money spent from these programs. The small amount of misuse holds steady with the national trend. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, families and single parents who receive public benefits have much smaller budgets on average and spend a larger portion of their budgets on basic necessities.

LePage, however, sees any abuse of the welfare system in Maine as evidence of the need for reform. “Any amount of abuse in the system that takes away from the truly needy needs to be dealt with,” LePage’s spokeswoman told the Bangor Daily News. “We’re not uncovering anything new. There are always going to be bad actors out there. We’re simply saying, ‘We’ve got an eye on you.’”

In fact, what came to light after the study signals a larger problem with the system than LePage expected.“This information is eye-opening and indicates a larger problem than initially thought,”  LePage said in a press release. “These benefits are supposed to help families, children and our most vulnerable Mainers. Instead, we have discovered welfare benefits are paying for alcohol, cigarettes and other things that hardworking taxpayers should not be footing the bill for.”

However, it’s important to note that, according to the Daily News story, “those transactions include purchases at the checkout counter and withdrawals from on-premises ATMs. The state does not track what is purchased in EBT transactions.” So it’s highly likely that a substantial number of the hinted-at “immoral” purchases were not even made.

Similar efforts to expose fraud in social programs were attempted in Florida and Utah. Both states began drug-testing their welfare recipients to weed out drug users. There were similar results: Utah, for example, spent $25,000 to drug-test 4,730 recipients, only 12 tested positive for drugs.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, LePage is convinced there is a problem with welfare fraud in his state. The answer to this problem? Limits and restrictions to social programs like TANF and SNAP.

First, LePage would back legislation that reforms the lack of paper trail on where welfare money is spent. It’s a measure that Maine Democrats would also support, according to the Democratic House Speaker. “No one wants to see funds meant for struggling families abused,” House Speaker Mark Eves said Tuesday. “State law already forbids EBT cards from being used at liquor stores. If this list is verified, it’s time to take action. The question for the governor is, will he prosecute or politicize it? Democrats will continue to support good-faith efforts at cracking down on fraud and abuse.”

The question of whether this is a good-faith effort to stop fraud, or a political tactic to further a conservative cause, is an important one. LePage’s record on welfare reform doesn’t suggest that his intentions are sincere. In fact, LePage has been encouraging cuts to government aid throughout his term as governor. In 2012, for example, LePage said at a Republican convention: “Maine’s welfare program is cannibalizing the rest of state government. To all you able-bodied people out there: Get off the couch and get yourself a job.”

Previously, LePage instituted a five-year cap on TANF benefits, a move Democrats argue ended benefits for thousands of poor Maine residents. Just last week, Governor LePage also introduced a bill that would increase Maine’s work requirements for welfare recipients, another reform Democrats opposed.

Thus, it’s not hard to conclude that this push to investigate welfare recipients is another partisan move by a notoriously vindictive governor.


By: Ben Feuerherd, The National Memo, January 9, 2014

January 11, 2014 Posted by | Maine, Welfare | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Right-Wing Unemployment Myths Debunked”: When You Look At The Data, It’s Just Not There

Surprising many supporters, a three-month unemployment extension bill survived an initial Senate test Tuesday, with six Republicans joining 37 Democrats in voting to let the bill proceed to debate. But GOP members in both chambers have suggested they’ll withhold or withdraw their support unless Democrats offer up conservative concessions – be they parallel budget cuts, deregulation measures, new requirements for the unemployed or an Obamacare mandate delay. Others have argued that unemployed people would be better off without unemployment benefits.

In a Sunday CNN interview, Wisconsin governor and potential presidential contender Scott Walker argued that “the federal government doesn’t require a lot” of the unemployed, and urged that rather than “just putting a check out,” Congress tie unemployment extension to tightened eligibility requirements.

“Making them jump through more hoops will definitely increase administrative costs, but it’s not going to generate more jobs,” Economic Policy Institute economist Heidi Shierholz countered in a Tuesday interview with Salon. “Unless he’s looking at it as a jobs program to hire more public sector workers.”

Shierholz, a former University of Toronto professor now at the progressive Economic Policy Institute, panned several of the right’s other diagnoses and prognoses for the unemployed. A condensed and edited version of our conversation follows.

Some of the same Republican senators whose votes were necessary for unemployment extension to move forward Tuesday are implying they could still vote against final cloture if it isn’t offset with cuts. Is insisting on budget cuts to “offset” the cost of unemployment extension good policy?

It isn’t in this context. And I say that sort of carefully. Because if we were at full employment, and the economy was humming along, and fully utilizing all its potential, then if you’re going to spend a big chunk of money, you might want to think about offsetting it, because the economy doesn’t need any more demand.

We are so far away from that situation that this is exactly the kind of time where you do not have to worry about trying to do offsets like that.

It’s not a bug of the UI system, it’s a feature that it actually costs money. Because at a time like this, when the labor market is so weak, the economy is so weak, and we know that the overwhelming factor behind that weakness is just weak demand,  we’re operating way below our potential. People don’t have the income, so they’re not spending. Businesses aren’t investing as much as they would if we were in a strong labor market. Weak demand for goods and services means businesses don’t have to ramp up hiring, they don’t have to ramp up to meet the demand, because demand isn’t there.

So the fact that you’re spending this money on UI, you’re getting money into the economy, is actually exactly what we want to do at a time like this. So trying to sort of bend over backwards to offset it actually just undermines one of the key features of extending UI, which is that it increases economic activity at a time when the economy desperately needs it.

Scott Walker told CNN that “one of the biggest challenges people have who are either unemployed or underemployed is many of them don’t have the skills in advanced manufacturing, in healthcare and I.T. where many of those job openings are.” What’s your assessment of that claim?

You hear that claim made a lot: that the reason we have this weak unemployment, or high long-term unemployment, is that workers don’t have the right skills for the jobs that are available.

I think because you hear this anecdote a lot, there’s been a ton of research done on it — a ton. And economists have dug in, and looked at the data from all sides. The overwhelming consensus: People who aren’t just relying on anecdotes, but who are actually digging in and looking for any sign of a skills-mismatch in the data, don’t find it. The divide on who finds this is more those who are relying on anecdotes versus those who have looked at the data, not right-leaning or left-leaning. Because of those who have looked at the data, you just don’t find evidence that the problem right now is due to workers not having the right skills.

If it were due to workers not having the right skills you would have to see some evidence in some meaningfully sized group of workers of actually tight labor markets relative to 2007. [But] unemployment rates are higher now relative to before the recession started across every education group, across every gender, across every age group, across all racial and ethnic categories, in all major occupations, and all major industries.

If we were seeing tight labor markets, you’d see wages being bid up for the workers who can’t be found, people poaching from other companies. And that you also don’t find. You actually find basically no group that is even seeing wage growth keep pace with overall productivity growth. In any group meaningfully sized enough to be actually driving anything, you don’t see any sign of wages being driven up. Same story with hours.

You’re not seeing any sectors of meaningful size where there’s more job openings than people actually looking for those jobs.

You hear anecdotes a lot about people saying, “I just can’t find the workers that I need.” This may be some interesting sort of psychological stuff about the echo chamber of how those things get so much play at a time like this. When you look at the data, it’s just not there.

One of the senators who voted against proceeding with the unemployment bill, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said, “First and foremost, unemployment insurance is treating the symptoms of the problem. It’s an aspirin for a fever, but the fever has been raging for weeks now.” Is that a revealing analogy in any way?

It’s treating the symptoms and it helps actually be part of the cure.

They actually are a lifeline to the people that were most hurt by the downturn — people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and have not been able to find another one in the period of weakest labor market we’ve seen in 70 years. The fact of the matter is that the labor market is still extraordinarily weak. It’s way weaker by far than at any time we’ve ever allowed extensions to expire.

So it definitely is part of dealing with the symptoms. And then it is absolutely part of the cure: You get money in the hands of the long-term unemployed.

Those are people who are almost by definition cash-strapped. They are going to spend that money. It goes straight into the economy and generates demand for goods and services, which generates demand for workers. So it helps strengthen the recovery.

You put out an estimate that not extending unemployment benefits would cost 310,000 jobs this year. How?

Around $25 billion would be spent if the extensions were continued [for a year]. Some spending is actually more stimulative to the economy, and it has everything to do with how fast and how completely that money goes into raising and creating demand. So unemployment benefits are consistently the second most efficient way that a government can spend money — either through direct spending or through tax cuts to support an economy, to generate economic activity. The only thing that consistently comes in ahead is food stamps.

You have that [unemployment] money spent on rent and groceries and clothes. So you increase demand for goods and services. Then there’s the fiscal multiplier. Then from there, that’s where you get the total amount of economic activity generated — the boost to GDP. And then from there, there’s a direct walk to jobs created.

It’s a rough measure. But that’s an idea of the scope.

Scott Walker also argued that instead of “just putting a check out,” the government should require more from people on unemployment, in terms of entering job training and looking more often for work. What do you make of that argument?

We do know that it’s already keeping people in the labor market, looking for work. There’s good evidence that receiving benefits actually keeps people looking for work.

A helpful bit of information, to know if the reason people are long-term unemployed is because they’re not looking hard enough, is the following: You’d want to know if our long-term unemployment situation is somehow weird, if it’s unexpected, if there’s something going on with our long-term unemployed, like they’re not looking as hard as they should, or they’re not being as flexible as they should. Like, is there something about these benefits that’s keeping them from doing those things? And that you don’t find.

So there’s a paper by Jesse Rothstein that looks very carefully at today’s long-term unemployment situation in the historical context. And he found that what we’re experiencing now is exactly what you would expect given three things: given how deep the period of economic weakness has been; how long it’s been as bad as it’s been; and then a little bit of this longer-term trend in long-term unemployment share. Which has to do with declining incidences of temporary layoff and stuff like that — but that’s not a big component.

We’re not seeing something abnormal right now in the long-term unemployment situation, except for an incredibly abnormally weak labor market that’s been incredibly abnormally weak for a very long time. Once you have that, then what’s going on with long-term unemployment is exactly what you would expect.

So it’s not like, “if we just get them to look harder, they’re going to find jobs.” The real problem, why we have this long-term unemployment crisis, is that the labor market has been so weak for so long.

So making them jump through more hoops will definitely increase administrative costs, but it’s not going to generate more jobs. Unless he’s looking at it as a jobs program to hire more public sector workers to deal with more administration. But I don’t think that was probably his angle. The real problem right now is weak demand for workers, and this won’t touch that.

The reason we have elevated unemployment is not that workers don’t have the right skills for the jobs that are available. It’s just that we don’t have jobs available. It’s not like training can never help an individual, but that’s not why we have high unemployment right now.


By: Josh Eidelson, Salon, January 8, 2014

January 11, 2014 Posted by | Jobs, Unemployment Benefits | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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