Friday, March 2, 2012

Would YOU pee in a cup?

Ezra Klein had an excellent summary of Suzane Mettler's new book, The Submerged State.  This line from Ezra's post caught my eye:
The more a government social program benefits wealthier Americans, the less obtrusive it is. We design policies for the poor in ways that make it hard to escape the knowledge that the government is providing help. But richer Americans rely on programs that are “submerged.”

This is of particular interest to me because an increasing pet peeve of mine is the inability of most non-poor Americans to recognize that they're recipients of government programs.  Very often the sentiment is that, "if they want my tax-payer money, they have to do..." things such as drug testing, jump through hoops, etc.  Yet the same people don't recognize that they themselves receive financial assistance as well from the government.

The largest housing subsidy program is the home mortgage interest deduction.  What do you think the reaction would be if millions of homeowners were forced to pee in a cup for drug testing?

For her book “The Submerged State,” she asked a scientifically selected sample of 1,400 Americans whether they had ever used a government social program. Only 43 percent copped to having done so. Then she read off 21 social programs, such as Medicare and the home-mortgage interest deduction, and asked the same question again: Have you ever used a government social program? This time, 96 percent said yes, in fact, they had.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Fact Check Gets It Wrong

There's a value in having fact-checking organizations like FactCheck, Snopes, PolitiFact, etc.  It's good to have a somewhat neutral organization attempt to evaluate claims objectively.

Which is why it's so exasperating when they bend over backwards or rely on arcane details to "prove" something that isn't so.  Case in point:  "Obama's Trillion Dollar Exaggeration".

Let's go to details.  Eugene Kiely is looking at some stump speeches by President Obama regarding President Bush's "temporary" tax cuts (which has been extended already).  January 24, he said "Right now, we’re poised to spend nearly $1 trillion more on what was supposed to be a temporary tax break for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans."  In another speech cited by FactCheck on Feb 13, he used the word "scheduled."

For those of you not familiar with the effects of President Bush's tax cuts, it was a massive revenue cut that sent us spiraling from a surplus into seemingly endless deficit spending.  As noted earlier, Congress already extended it using the logic it'd hurt the economy if it was allowed to expire.  And why does it expire?  It was an accounting trick the Republicans in power used to avoid needing a certain threshold of votes to pass it. The extension was for two years.

FactCheck's position is that since the tax cuts are scheduled to automatically expire, it cannot be true that we're "scheduled" or "poised" to spend money.

While it's true that President Obama shouldn't have used the words "scheduled to spend", "poised to spend" IS accurate.  Does anyone doubt that Congress will move mountains to attempt to extend the Bush tax cuts again? 

FactCheck used an example:
But saving money is not the same thing as spending money if the payments are automatically scheduled to stop. By the president’s logic, a car owner is scheduled to spend $36,000 in car payments over the next 10 years, even though the $300 monthly car payments are due to end on Dec. 31, 2012. Unless, of course, the car owner goes out and buys a new car. Likewise, the only way the tax cut can be extended beyond 2012 is if Obama signs a law extending it, or if Congress overrides his veto — or if Obama loses reelection and the next president retroactively reinstates the tax cut.

That's actually a good example.  But the car owner (many in Congress) is doing research on the new cars, and taking cars out on test drives.  The owner's talking about models, options, and accessories.  Wouldn't you say the owner is "poised" to spend the money?

Monday, February 13, 2012

More Tenant Protection Rollbacks

Not content with rolling back tenant protections in communities ("local control" my ass), the Republican legislature is at it again with two bills to further reduce the rights tenants have.

First up, courtesy of Representative Stroebel, who just happens to be a landlord himself (coincidence, I'm sure), we have SB466 and AB561(which doesn't seem to be online yet).  The most dangerous part of this bill, according to a lawyer, is that:

Currently, what a landlord may deduct from a tenant's security deposit when the tenant vacates the premises is specified, not in the statutes, but in the Wisconsin Administrative Code (Code). The bill incorporates the Code provisions into the statutes and thus provides that a landlord may deduct amounts from a security deposit for tenant damage to the premises, unpaid rent, unpaid utility services for which the tenant was responsible, any unpaid monthly municipal permit fees, and any other reason provided in a nonstandard rental provision to which the tenant has agreed. A landlord specifically may not deduct amounts from a security deposit for normal wear and tear.

Currently the Administrative Code allows the tenant some defense in form of double damages when a landlord acts illegally.  Moving this into the state statues would remove enforcement/punishment power on the part of the state.

The Wisconsin Alliance for Tenant's Rights summarizes the bill as:

What the bill would do:
- Remove the right of local cities and counties from prohibiting landlords from evicting under certain circumstances (i.e. winter)
- If a landlord gets caught with an illegal provision in their lease, only that provision is voided, not the entire lease
- Allows leases to be “signed” upon by fax or email
- If you leave any property behind when you move out, the landlord may sell it or throw it out without notification to you, unless you agreed to something different in writing. And then, they can charge you for any costs involved.
- Changes the remedies for when a landlord fails to disclose repair problems with the apartment—removing double damages court costs and attorney fees.
- The landlord has to provide a standardized check-in sheet with an itemized description of condition of the property at check--in
- The right to a lien is removed from the law.
- Mandatory double the daily rent if you stay past the date of a 5 or 14 day notice or end of your lease.- Removes double damages, court costs and reasonable attorney fees for failure to return security deposit -a tenant can only get single damages.
- Allows a landlord to take any money out of your security deposit that you “agree to” in a non-standard rental provision. Including flat fees and charges that would currently be illegal.
- Allows landlord to collect your rent after you have fallen behind and still seek an eviction even if you are paid in full.

Next up, we have another proposed bill from Representative Honandel, LRB 2098.  Short summary:  Don't think of even getting a ticket while renting or the landlord will have cause to evict you.  In fact, there's concern that if someone comes into your apartment and beat you up (AKA domestic violence, burglary, etc.), the landlord can evict you.

The combined effect of Act 108, SB466/AB561, LRB 2098 would be to give landlords unprecedented power to get rid of tenants, even for causes unrelated to their residency in the unit.  In fact, the language is so broad that it'd be very easy for a disapproving landlord to get rid of a tenant who would otherwise be protected under either Fair Housing Act or Wisconsin's Open Housing law.

Landlords already have a set of tools available to them to get rid of problem tenants.  Those tools can be cumbersome at times, but tenants are protected from bad landlords this way, in a small way.  But those actions would dramatically change the checks and balances in the landlord-tenant relationship.  My frustration with many landlord-advocates is that many flatly refused to admit, in discussions, that there are such a thing as bad landlords.  Apparently those legislators don't acknowlege that, either.

AB 561 apparently is already scheduled for a hearing, despite being newly introduced and not even available online yet.  Senate version to follow same day.  Think about it.  Introduced on the 13th, hearing already scheduled on the 15th, while many other bills (cough *jobs bills* cough) languish in committees.

Assembly Housing Committee Hearing
2/15 11am 400 Northeast State Capitol

Senate Insurance and Housing Committee Hearing and Possible Vote
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
2:05 PM
201 Southeast
State Capitol


Monday, December 19, 2011

Communities, Planning & Activitism

The Atlantic Cities has an article by Anthony Flint, "How the Tea Party is Upending Urban Planning".  It looks at the activism of the Tea Party in local communities.  It begins, fittingly enough, with a recounting of how legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs spoke at a planning meeting insisting that the community have a real voice in the process, rather than the usual rubber-stamping that typically happened back then.

Flash forward to today's Tea Party.  Given the libertarian tendencies of the Tea Party, it's not surprising that those activists are opposing planning efforts.  Environment safety?  Nah.  Growth management?  Forget about it.  Rail?  Not a chance in hell.   Climate Change?  No such thing.  Smart Growth?  Why, that's Communism!

Of course, give the bias in the article, written by a planner, it's natural that the author would cast a critical eye on people that are opposed to the very work he does.

But,'s hard to take seriously people who ramble about "Agenda 21" and call people UN Agents.  See this (particularly comments) for a taste of their perspective on this. 

The way I've seen planning work in many hearings often involves making changes to proposed developments or projects to satisfy community concerns.  Sometimes this unnecessarily drives up the cost ("those homes must be brick or stone all the way around") and sometimes objections may be based in prejudice and misinformation (New Berlin). The author wrote at the end:

Yet, as in national politics, the Tea Party view doesn’t leave room for compromise. Even the most open-minded and free-speech supporting planner can’t operate when the framework for the dialogue itself has been invalidated. Where does one go from there?

So what's the answer? Ignore them?  That presents a peril of its own as planning commissions often have elected officials on them in addition to citizen members.

In the words of Jane Jacobs in 1952:

The other threat to the security of our tradition, I believe, lies at home. It is the current fear of radical ideas and of people who propound them. I do not agree with the extremists of either the left or the right, but I think they should be allowed to speak and to publish, both because they themselves have, and ought to have, rights, and once their rights are gone, the rights of the rest of us are hardly safe …

 I left out the other half of the ending paragraph from the author, Anthony Fllint, a while ago.  The othe half was:

The skirmishes at town halls around the country over the past year or so means that planners will have to try even harder to make their case. But in the mean time, the chairman of that sleepy planning board hearing might be eying the exits, looking for a black helicopter, to make a run for it.