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Posts published in August 2009

Newport, and its new port


Along a Newport Bay street/Stapilus

If you want to pick out tourism central for the Oregon Coast, the best choice probably would be Newport. It's a fun town to visit, with distinctive areas (the old bay area, Nye Beach and others) and plenty to see. It's become a tourism mecca, and on the recent Saturday when we visited, traffic was jammed.

Tourism alone still isn't a solid underpinning for a community, though. It can be helpful, but you can see the limits in Newport. There seems to be a real ceiling to the prosperity there, a limit to how far tourism alone will take the community.

That's where the move by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's decision to move one of its main operations from the Seattle area to Newport can become significant (even before you consider the spinoff and multiplier effects). The number of personnel is not enormous, only a couple of hundred or so, but it will add a real base to Newport's economy - a base much more solid than tourism can be.

This could mark a significant change for Newport. Nothing less for the enjoyable day-visit place know. But something more, besides.

From the Newport News-Times: "Port of Newport officials were figuratively dancing on the docks, giddy about a sense of destiny, and what Port Commissioner Ginny Goblirsch called 'a pivotal point in our history.' Port General Manager Don Mann said initial permitting and work on a $44 million, 18-month project to build a new facility to berth NOAA’s four-vessel operations fleet should weigh anchor on the south side of Yaquina Bay within the next two weeks."

One other point: The port of Astoria had applied for the NOAA development, but backed out because it felt the chances of luring it away from Seattle were too small.

Give them credit for openly acknowledging as much after the fact.

Yanking in speculation


There are things in our economic system, in useful capitalism, that we need, and things that we don't - things that can hurt more than help. Investment in business often is constructive. But the rawer forms of financial speculation, which have become such a large part of what we've built our economic house of cards on over the last decade, tends not to be.

So this may be one of the more beneficial pieces of legislation Congress considers this year, as reported via Dow Jones: "This week, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., plans to introduce a bill that would do away with tax incentives for all types of speculators, including hedge funds and pension funds. The legislation would tax the trading gains and losses of any taxpaying speculative energy trader the same way that commercial traders are currently taxed by treating them as ordinary gains and losses. Gains made on oil and natural gas investments would lose their eligibility for lower capital gains rates. The bill would also end the tax-exempt status for certain energy commodity investors like pension funds. Under this proposal, their gains would be classified as 'unrelated business taxable income.'"

Inexcusable that these kinds of financial devices weren't always treated this way (and a testament to the skill of certain highly-paid lobbyists). Just maybe, some correction is en route.

In case you're wondering what the practical effects of this may include, note that phrase "speculative energy trader." Do you wonder why the price of gas bounces around the way it does, so often untethered to the price of oil or any other apparently price point? Look to the speculators . . . and then think about what might happen if they were a much less critical part of the picture.

With one exception

Can you statistically measure how "liberal" or "conservative" a member of Congress is? Can you even define those terms with language both side would accept?

Maybe. An academic review at the University of California-San Diego (where it's now located; earlier versions of the project were elsewhere) has taken a stab at it with this review: Of "694 roll calls cast in the 110th House (not counting quorum calls). Of these, 485 had at least 0.5% or better in the minority and were used in the scaling. The rank ordering is based upon these 485 roll calls. Note that tied ranks are allowed." The rankings probably shouldn't be taken as gospel, but they are telling.

In the Senate, the regions' four Democrats were well inside their caucus, with the two Oregonians (Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley) ranking a little more liberal than the two Washingtonians (Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell). The Northwest's two Republicans, Idaho's Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, scored (almost identically) in about the middle of the Senate Republican caucus. In each case, about what you might expect.

Numerically, in the House, the rankings run from 1.0 for California Democratic Representative Bob Filner to 436.0 for Arizona Republican Representative John Shadegg. The two parties split nearly perfectly, with all Democrats (blue dogs included) scoring 257.0 or less, and all Republicans 258.0 or more - all, that is, but one.

Among Northwest Democrats, the most liberal was Washington's Jim McDermott (23.0); among Republicans, the most conservative was Oregon's Greg Walden (349.0).

But here's the stunner: The most "conservative" member of the Northwest delegation turns out not to be a Republican at all, not Idaho's Mike Simpson (281.0) or Washington's Dave Reichert (263.0), Doc Hastings (312.0) or Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (341.5).

Rather, it is the only Democrat in the House to score more conservative than the "least conservative" Republican - Idaho's Walt Minnick, at 359.5, which puts him just about in the middle of the House Republican caucus, and more "conservative" than, for example, Simpson. No other Democrat or Republican scores across the line at all.

UPDATE Minnick's office has taken a look at the numbers, and emailed us a comment on them:

First, it's no secret that Walt has the most independent voting record in Congress. Not "one of the most" but THE most, according to CQ and the Washington Post. [Editor: The chart makes that point pretty conclusively.] He is already more "conservative" (if that's the word you choose to use) than any other member of his caucus. And this data shows he is more conservative than some members of the other party, which I think is reflective of the District.

All that said, we were surprised by the raw numbers you linked to -- until we looked at the data. I can explain most of the disparity with two words: Jeff Flake. Flake is a GOP representative from Arizona who has made it his personal crusade this session of Congress to introduce hundreds of amendments to strip earmarks from appropriations bills. Many of those amendments ultimately make it to the floor. The vast majority of Republicans and almost all of the Democrats vote against those amendments. However, Walt has joined a handful of folks who refuse earmarks to vote with Flake, on principle, for each amendment.

Our legislative director looked at the data this morning for me, and confirmed that Flake's amendments and similar anti-earmark votes are the cause of the disparity.

The state differentials

The economic mess of the last year has led to inevitable finger-pointing state by state, some of which has come to a head with a Ross Douthat column comparing the conditions of the states of California and Texas, suggesting that blue California was in rugged shape, and Texas by some measures better, in part because of their relative redness or blueness.

It doesn't really make much sense; you can run all sorts of comparisons depending on what point you want to prove. One across-the-board comparison of some interest, though, was one pulled by economist and columnist Paul Krugman, who pointed to the batch of states with unemployment numbers over 10%. They are located, he pointed out, in two groups, on the Pacific west (Oregon, California, Nevada) and in the country's east-center (Michigan south to Florida). From his blog:

What you see, if you look at the black states — states with 10+ percent unemployment — are two great belts of suffering. One is California/Oregon/Nevada, which is about the burst bubble. The other stretches down across the middle of the country. Except for Florida, which is presumably more bubble damage, what this looks like to me is manufacturing — I know that a large part of it is “Auto Alley”, which is the south-by-east spread of the old Detroit hub that took place as foreign automakers moved in. And manufacturing, remember, has been hit especially hard in this crunch.

All of this suggests that who’s suffering most has little to do with state policies. It’s about what you happened to be doing for a living when the economy fell apart.

Assessing the details

Here's a suggestions for two new public commissions (with staff) - could be set up at the federal, state and local levels - that conservative analysts logically should applaud:

One would examine public budgets to raise questions about spending, whether all those expenses are needed, whether greater efficiencies could be had, and so on. The other would do something similar with the law: Systematically comb through the code and look for whatever is archaic, contradictory, unnecessary and so on.

The key to doing this is detail, taking a magnifying glass to the specific items, to assess what works and what doesn't. This is, obviously, work. Howling generically about big government and high taxes is a lot more fun, but nowhere near as useful; if this site is sometimes a little dismissive of that rhetoric, then this is why.

Which is prelude to the other hand: Some of the work Wayne Hoffman (through his Idaho Freedom Foundation) has been doing of late. He has been poring over the details of spending at the state and local level in Idaho, and coming up with some interesting results. Some of it could actually lead to practical changes and improvement.

Today, for example, a post on how Idaho state government has, in the last budget cycle, spent nearly $20 million "on furniture, cars, trucks and computer equipment." The largest chunk, approaching half, went for computer equipment but substantial amounts on the other items as well.

That shouldn't be the end of the story. Maybe those buys were needed and efficient. Maybe they weren't. Maybe (more likely) they were a mixed bag. The point is that someone (independent of the agencies) ought to be taking a detailed look at this stuff.

Hoffman has been posting what's turning into a steady stream of government spending information. There's some dispute over some of it. He has been looking into pay for local government employees, and seeking to post names together with salaries. That has ruffled some feathers (and led to roadblocks in some places); but the request is fair: These are, as they should be, public records, and it is the taxpayers, not boards or commissions or administrators, who ultimately employ these people. Sometimes a reminder of that is needed.

Some useful Sunday reading.

Who said what

Politics wonks will spend hours of great fun on this site, Congress Speaks.

Some of what's here - based on detailed analysis of speech in Congress (I'm assuming here, from the Congressional Record) - is interesting from the point of view of regularity of speaking, and what topics they're speaking about. (Quick - in the last term, did Oregon's Ron Wyden or Gordon Smith speak more?) But it's also go some real entertainment value. Check it out.

Signing with invisible ink

The public records battle over signatures to the Washington Referendum 71 - the proposed repeal of the new "everything but marriage" domestic partnership law - is going national. Wendy Kaminer in the Atlantic has a piece on the dispute, not about about the merits of the referendum itself but about a side issue - whether the signatures are a public record.

The referendum (to overturn the law) was launched by the group Protect Marriage Washington and the Faith and Freedom Network, which is trying to collect the 120,577 petition signatures needed to bring the issue to the ballot.

Their opposition is taking a number of approaches, of them being a close monitoring of the signatures. From the group

When signatures for Referendum 71 have been verified WhoSigned.Org will:

Work to make this public record signature information accessible and searchable on the internet.
Flag the 3% signature sample that is certified by the Elections Division of the Secretary of State.
Provide Washington State Voters with a way to check that the public record of their advocacy is correct.
Provide Washington State Voters with a way of reporting when their signature has been recorded either fraudulently or in error.

The concern with that is one of harassment. Attorney James Bopp argued that "Individuals must be allowed to debate the merits of Referendum 71 without having to worry about whether they will be harassed for offering an opinion." The spokesman for a key anti-referendum group, Josh Friedes, campaign manager for a coalition of supporters, Washington Families Standing Together, seemed to indicate some concern with the publication effort, and stood neutral on the lawsuit.

Bopp took his argument to court, and federal District Judge Benjamin Settle last week granted a temporary order preventing public release of the referendum petitions, at least until another hearing on the matter in September.

Kaminer's view in the Atlantic is similar to Bopp's: "The claim that publicizing the names of people who sign controversial petitions will chill political participation is not far-fetched or trivial. The countervailing interest in transparency - when it requires exposing private citizens (not public officials or organizational leaders) - to public opprobrium for their political views, seems relatively weak by comparison. Transparency is not an end in itself but a means of insuring accountability - of public officials and, arguably, public figures and movement leaders. But why should ordinary, private citizens be held to account for their views in the public sphere?"

Why? Most basically, because signing a petition for an initiative or referendum is more simply holding or expressing an opinion as a private citizen: It is taking part in the public lawmaking process, one in which that person's name (together with others) is specifically being used to effect a public result. It is not the same thing as talking to a friend, or even dashing off an anonymous post to a blog. It is an official act, with official consequences. There's nothing wrong with doing that, of course, as long as you believe in what you're signing. But if you're going to do it, the least the rest of us should expect is that you do it in the sunshine, that you have the courage of your convictions.

Not to mention the point that the list of names ought to be open to review and challenge, in the case that someone involved should take it into their heads to do something illegal, in this case where the number of valid signatures may be very close to the legal requirement. (more…)