Monthly Archives: July 2012

Want to Contribute to a Political Campaign Via Text? LOL Not This Year

by Rachael Myrow

The Federal Elections Commission cleared the way June 11th for political campaigns to collect small contributions from mobile phone users through text messages. Both presidential campaigns applauded, as did a gaggle of grassroots groups. But phone companies aren’t ready to applaud just yet. At least, not until some of their concerns are addressed.

Getty Images

I asked Ann Ravel, Chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, just what wireless carriers are worried about.

“They have expressed both to us and also to the Federal Elections Commission a couple of concerns. One of them is they say they don’t want users to think they are endorsing a particular political campaign that might be odious. But it seems that now their bigger concern is they fear they’re going to be held liable if some of the campaign laws are violated.”

Would anyone presume AT&T, Verizon or any other phone company supports a group just because they allow customers to text their money to it? Continue reading

Arguments Take Shape in Battle Over Richmond Soda Tax

(Photo: ciukes/Flickr)

“This product is toxic.”

That’s Richmond Councilman Jeff Ritterman at a council debate in May. The product at issue is not a pesticide or even an oven cleaner; what Ritterman, the former chief of cardiology at Kaiser Medical Center in Richmond was describing is sugar, or more specifically the sugar found in sweetened beverages for sale. Ritterman is the author of the so-called Richmond “soda tax,” voted onto the November ballot by the city council  in May.

If the measure passes, a 1 cent-per-ounce fee will be imposed on all Richmond businesses “that sell any drink containing added sugars, including fruit smoothies, fountain drinks, soft drinks, sweetened teas and energy drinks,” reports the Contra Costa Times. “Markets, food stands, food trucks and restaurants would be expected to use inventory figures to calculate sales and pay the tax, according to city staff reports.” Continue reading

San Francisco Ballot Measures — An Early Look

Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Most people probably have a clearer sense right now of whether they’re going to vote for (or against) Barack Obama or Mitt Romney than what they’re going to do way-down ballot on local measures.

But if you’re the type who’s actually taking time out between picnics and Summer Olympics-watching to formulate your position on, say, the proposed City College of San Francisco parcel tax … hey, knock yourself out, we’re with you.

Early-bird election watchers will note the final ballot is starting to take shape. The deadline to submit Charter amendments and bond measures is June 27– today — at 5 p.m., though the system has built into it the potential to certify a sort of “bonus measure” beyond that. “The Board of Supervisors may submit and the Director of Elections has the discretion to accept [an additional] Charter amendment or bond measure by August 3,” says Evan Kirk of the city’s Department of Elections.

Ordinances, charter amendments, bond measures, and declarations of policy can all be put on the ballot. Charter amendments need the votes of at least six members of the Board of Supervisors or the signatures of 10 percent of the number of registered voters at the time of a “Notice of Intent to Circulate Petition,” says Kirk. An ordinance can be put on the ballot by four or more members of the board, or unilaterally by the mayor. Same thing for declarations of policy, those non-binding statements about national or world affairs the government of San Francisco is so fond of making.

Ordinances and policy declaration can also go the popular route, qualifying through the submission of the signatures of five percent of the total number of people who voted in the last mayor’s race. That tally is currently just 194,046 people, which computes out to 9,702 required signatures, reports Kirk. Referenda must meet a 10 percent threshold.  Continue reading

Election 2012 Roundup, Monday Jul 23

Central Valley Voters Speak Their Minds at Focus Groups

Editor’s note: This story is part of an intermittent series. The Public Policy Institute of California is conducting small focus groups across the state to discuss the role of government, and KQED was invited to listen in. First names only were used to encourage candid conversation.

By Alice Daniel

I’m sitting behind a two-way mirror in an air conditioned office in Fresno as ten voters enter a meeting room and sit around an oblong table.

Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, introduces himself. He’ll lead this focus group and one directly following it. Initially, people look uncertain — as if they’re not sure what to expect. Yet once these people — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — begin talking, the pain and anger they are feeling over the economic and political landscape soon spills out.

Luz, a single mother of a teenager and a one-year-old, said she just got laid off after 11 years as a supervisor for a produce refrigeration company. She’s scared she won’t have the money to raise her children.

“Probably go homeless,” she says. “Too sad. And I can’t relocate right now because of my family. And it just makes me mad also.”

Daniel, a Democrat, is voting for Mitt Romney because he thinks the country needs a change. He works at Lowes but is about to lose his house to foreclosure and he’s wondering whether he’ll have to move out of state. Continue reading

Spreading the Wealth: America’s Geography of Jobs


Opening speaker at Silicon Valley's DEMO Conference for new technology

Stephen Brashear/Flickr

KQED’s Forum host Michael Krasny held a provocative conversation Tuesday with UC Berkeley economics Professor Enrico Moretti about Moretti’s new book “The New Geography of Jobs.” The Italian-born economist describes the growing chasm between prosperous cities in the United States that are centers of education, innovation and technology — and struggling cities that were once powerhouses of manufacturing but are now losing ground.

In theory, the shift from an industrial economy to one driven by innovation was supposed to make geography matter less. In fact, Moretti says, we are witnessing a “great divergence” where the resource gap between places like San Francisco, Boston and Raleigh on the one hand, and Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis on the other.

Moretti offers a case in point through the story of a young Silicon Valley engineer, David Breedlove:

The year is 1969 and Breedlove, just like many other professionals at the time, is thinking that urban areas were not good places to raise a family. He has a house, he has a good job in Silicon Valley, but he wants something quieter. At the time Visalia is not that all that different from a place like Menlo Park. Sure, wages are slightly higher in Menlo Park and there are slightly more professionals. But at the time, both cities have a mix of residents, both cities have decent schools and both cities have a variety of social classes.

If you look at the two cities today, 40 years after Breedlove made his choice, it’s almost like looking at two different continents. On the one hand, Menlo Park has become one of the most vital and prosperous innovation hubs of the world –Menlo Park including the communities around it, the entire Silicon Valley area. Visalia hasn’t grown in 40 years. It hasn’t added any college graduates to its population. Its wages are falling, schools are very problematic. Crime, that used to be higher in Menlo Park, is now twice as high in Visalia. Pollution is much worse there.

It exemplifies what has been going on with many American communities. They were very alike in the ‘60s and the ‘70s and they’ve been growing apart and now they’re almost different continents.

The key predictor of a community’s economic success today, Moretti says, is the education level of its workers — in particular the number of college graduates in the workforce.

“It didn’t use to be like that,” he adds. “Sixty or seventy years ago, infrastructure and physical capital were the key predictors of a community’s success. Workers in Detroit were well paid because they had access to great infrastructure and great physical machines.”

But in the information age, Moretti says: “new ideas and successful innovation are rarely born in isolation” and clustering educated, innovative people has a multiplier effect.

That’s bad news for a place like Flint.

So what are we to do to secure American prosperity? One solution, Moretti believes, is that the United States must put more resources into education and support for research and development:

It’s clear that there are two engines that are supporting U.S.prosperity right now. It’s human capital — meaning people and education — and innovation. And it’s clear that we’re not investing enough in either one. We all know about the problems of not investing in education. The U.S.used to be a leader in high school graduation and college graduation and for the past 30 years it has been surpassed by a number of countries.

The second under-investment we’re doing is in innovation.America does have some of the greatest innovation hubs of the globe. But at the same time we are grossly under-investing in R & D and that is costing us right now in jobs and it’s going to cost us jobs even more in the future. In the same way that there’s a market failure in the creation of human capital, there’s a market failure in the creation of innovation.

When a company, for example when Apple invents a new product like the iPad, it generates private profit in the form of its sales but it also generates an external benefit for all the other companies in the same industry that can see the new product, can learn from it and will copy the new product. Apple doesn’t get compensated for that part of innovation. That’s why the federal government provides R & D tax credits for innovation because there is a private benefit from investing in innovation but there is also a public benefit. The problem is this tax credits are not large enough and they are not permanent.

We really need to put more resources in investing in human capital and more resources in subsidizing innovation, because they both are activities that generate vast benefits for us as a society. It’s not a fairness argument; this is just a purely pragmatic self-interest argument.

 Another idea for revitalizing America’s Rust Belt (and beyond) in the post-industrial age, comes from journalist and historian Cathy Tumber, who’s new book, Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, argues that there’s hope for smaller American industrial cities to be revitalized through a green economy. Of course more investment in education and innovation may still be key.

Corporate Misdeeds and the Role of Government

Barclay's Bank branch

Flickr/Some Driftwood

In Wednesday’s New York Times, business columnist Eduardo Porter probes what he calls “The Spreading Scourge of Corporate Corruption,”in the wake of the scandal in which Barclay’s Bank admitted trying to manipulate key interest rates to its benefit (at a cost to consumers, businesses and investors), and implicated other banks.

Porter says misconduct in the financial industry has become so commonplace that it seems to have lost its shock value:

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Libor scandal is how familiar it seems. Sure, for some of the world’s leading banks to try to manipulate one of the most important interest rates in contemporary finance is clearly egregious. But is that worse than packaging billions of dollars worth of dubious mortgages into a bond and having it stamped with a Triple-A rating to sell to some dupe down the road while betting against it? Or how about forging documents on an industrial scale to foreclose fraudulently on countless homeowners?

Porter debates whether corporations have become less ethical in recent years or whether their misdeeds are just more visible to us lately. He suggests “the temptation to bend the rules is probably highest toward the end of an economic upswing, when executives must be most creative to keep the stream of profits rolling in.” And he ticks off some of the forces that can lead to corruption:

  • Complex balance sheets at big companies make it easier to hide fraud;
  • Government’s urge to bail out banks that are “too big to fail,” can encourage them to take self-serving risks;
  • Globalization can spur “tooth and claw” competition for new markets;
  • The surge of corporate cash into the political process (see: Citizens United) can influence politicians to make laws friendlier to business desires.

Whatever the case, the United States at this point is no beacon of ethical behavior, Porter asserts. He cites an international watchdog agency:

In 2001, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the United States as the 16th least-corrupt country. By last year, the nation had fallen to 24th place. The World Bank also reports a weakening of corruption controls in the United States since the late 1990s, so that it is falling behind most other developed nations.

Weakening corruption controls… what are those controls? They’re the laws and regulations that require transparency and fair dealings… and the regulatory agencies that enforce those rules. California’s “Homeowners Bill of Rights,” which Gov. Jerry Brown will sign into law Wednesday, is an example.

An accompanying article on the New York Times business page reports that regulators with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission have just approved new rules aimed at reining in the derivatives industry and “preventing a repeat of the financial crisis.” The Securities and Exchange Commission last week approved similar rules, which are a key part of enacting the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law.

But the same article points out that one member of the commodity futures commission voted against the plan because he said “the fine print created loopholes wide enough for Wall Street to exploit,” and it said the commission wrote exemptions to the new rules “after months of frenetic corporate lobbying.”

On the one hand, it seems we need regulation to keep business and finance operating on the up-and-up to protect consumers and investors. On the other hand, businesses argue that regulation can become unwieldy and put them at a competitive disadvantage. So what’s the proper balance? And who will get us there? To help you understand the philosophies about regulation of presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, the National Journal recently came up with this explainer.

The whole debate brings to mind a 2008 radio piece produced jointly by NPR News and This American Life. Called “The Giant Pool of Money,” it does a good job explaining the mortgage meltdown and connecting the dots between the world of high finance and the homeowners who lost their homes to foreclosure. The program is an hour long, but it’s clear and entertaining.

Here’s reporter Adam Davidson describing what happened to an Iraq war veteran and to others like him:

Richard actually qualified for a Veterans Administration Loan at a really good rate. And he had money to put down. But the broker convinced him to take a mortgage that turned out to be much worse, but did have a much higher commission.

Mortgage brokers were walking around east Flatbush knocking on doors, telling just about anybody, hey, we can get you a house. If you have a house, we can get you a big home equity line of credit. This happened in poor neighborhoods all over the country.

And while the FBI and other law enforcement folks say they don’t have the exact numbers, it’s clear that fraud, like that fraud on Richard’s application, was ubiquitous.

What’s at stake when business regulation fails? Eduardo Porter ties it to a broader breakdown in trust, a fraying of the social compact that underlies our whole democracy:

It’s hard to fathom the broader social implications of corporate wrongdoing. But its most long-lasting impact may be on Americans’ trust in the institutions that underpin the nation’s liberal market democracy.

An overstatement? A mis-reading? Or grimly accurate? What do you think?


Health Care Reform… Is That What Government’s For?

Naval Medical Center, San Diego

Flickr/U.S. Navy photo, Todd Hack

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act June 28 has consumed lots of attention. Republicans are talking about repealing the act, while Democrats defended the law as “transformative of our society.” Why is it that this has become such a polarizing issue?

Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut, a veteran pollster, shared some insight, based on his public opinion surveys, in a wide-ranging conversation this week with PBS NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer:

“Instrumental to the dislike of this program is the mandate,” said Kohut, referring to polling last month that showed that Americans are divided on the Obama-backed health reform law but that a majority disapprove of the “individual mandate,” that requires individuals to purchase health insurance coverage or face a penalty. “What has been overwhelming is the reaction to the mandate in particular and the concern about the role of government.”

The role of government… in health care and so many other aspects of American life… has become a central point of debate this election year.

Take a look at this graph from the Gallup poll: A decade ago, roughly 6 in 10 people believed the federal government had a responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage. Now just 5 in 10 think so.

Gallup health care survey 2000-2012

Gallup health care survey 2000-2012

Yet, the government’s role in ensuring health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act is a much smaller one than in other proposals Americans have debated in recent years.

Remember the “public option”…? That was the proposal for a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers as part of the health care overhaul. It was widely popular, according to a New York Times poll in 2009.

The national telephone survey, which was conducted from June 12 to 16, found that 72 percent of those questioned supported a government-administered insurance plan — something like Medicare for those under 65 — that would compete for customers with private insurers. Twenty percent said they were opposed.

But it didn’t pass muster in Congress and didn’t end up in the final version of the law.

Looking back a little further, Ezra Klein, writing in the New Yorker, reminds us that the “individual mandate” that conservatives now consider a government intrusion, actually began its life as a conservative idea.

The mandate made its political début in a 1989 Heritage Foundation brief titled “Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans,” as a counterpoint to the single-payer system and the employer mandate, which were favored in Democratic circles.

Here’s a link to that brief, by Stuart M. Butler with the conservative Heritage Foundation, which formed the basis for a Republican alternative to President Clinton’s plan for health care reform in the early 1990s.

A lot of Americans still don’t fully understand what the Affordable Care Act would do (or what the Supreme Court did last week). In fact, the New York Times reports, some of the politicians campaigning to repeal the law are actually proposing to replace it with… elements that are already in it.

A spokesman for Representative Rick Berg, Republican of North Dakota who is seeking a Senate seat, told a reporter in his state that Mr. Berg wants to replace Mr. Obama’s health care law with one that does not deny insurance coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and closes the “doughnut hole” — a gap in pharmaceutical coverage — for people on Medicare. Those are two of the most popular provisions of the law Mr. Berg would repeal, which would be difficult to replicate without the regulatory mandates and tax increases he has vowed to reverse.

So what IS in the law? For an easy overview, check out this animated video from the Kaiser Family Foundation. It was produced before the Supreme Court’s ruling (and has been viewed more than 400,000 times) but most of it still holds true:

And then let us know what you think: What IS the role of government in terms of health care?




San Diego’s Political Geography is Increasingly Divided

Flickr/Dan Englander

What does a freeway mean in California? In the city of San Diego, Interstate 8 is more than a way to get from the desert to the beaches. It has become a political boundary. Since redistricting, newly drawn city council districts no longer cross the east-west freeway.

“It didn’t intend to be a demographic divide,” San Diego State University Geography Professor John Weeks told our reporter Katie Orr. “We do have this historical divide that’s created a demographic divide between the old part of the city, where people have sort of been left behind a little bit and the newer parts of the city, north of Interstate 8.”

San Diego’s northern suburban neighborhoods are home to residents who are wealthier, older, whiter and much more likely to vote Republican. In the central city and southern neighborhoods, residents are on average younger, less well off, more ethnically diverse and more Democratic. And some observers fear that will mean council members will be less willing to reach across the freeway… er, aisle.

Until recently, San Diego had a moderate mayor and a mix of Democratic and Republican city council members from both northern and southern neighborhoods. Now, all the northern council districts are represented by Republicans and all the southern ones by Democrats.

“We all know about the north and south of 8 divide,” said Councilman Todd Gloria. “What I think is perhaps troubling about the current drawings, though, is that there aren’t council members who have a stake on both sides of that fence.”

Will that set San Diego up for political gridlock?

And is it emblematic of California’s divided political geography more broadly?

Check out the story here: