Red States Love the Gas Tax

“Don’t believe the axiom that Republicans reflexively oppose tax increases: Outside the Beltway, it just doesn’t hold up,” The Atlantic reports.

“States across the country are raising their fuel taxes to pay for the upkeep of deteriorating roads and bridges, and in a surprising number of those states, the governors and legislative leaders pushing those changes are Republicans, not Democrats. In Utah, GOP Governor Gary Herbert signed a law last week passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature that raises the gas tax by 5 cents and ties future increases to prices at the pump. A month ago, Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, approved a gas-tax hike that sailed through the legislature in under two weeks. Top Republicans in Georgia, Michigan, and South Dakota have proposed similar increases, and as many as 12 states could raise fuel taxes in 2015 alone, after six did so in the last two years, according to an analysis by Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.”

“The movement is a breakthrough for many states that have gone more than 20 years without touching the levy on gasoline, and it presents quite the contrast with the dynamics in Washington… The mere proposal of a tax hike in Washington sends lobbyists scrambling and conservative activists mobilizing in opposition. Yet the most fascinating part of the recent gas-tax debate in at least some of the states is the absence of any visible ideological fights.”

Views on Indiana’s ‘Religious Freedom’ Law

Erik Eckholm points to “eroding freedom in the name of freedom: … Over time, court decisions and conservative legal initiatives started to change the meaning of those laws, according to liberal activists. The state laws were not used to protect minorities, these critics say, but to allow some religious groups to undermine the rights of women, gays and lesbians or other groups.”

Michael Lindenberger: “Indiana doesn’t need a new law to permit businesses from discriminating against gay customers. It’s perfectly legal to do that right now … In Indiana, and in most other states, businesses who want to discriminate against gay customers face no obstacles under state law in doing so. The few statewide discrimination protections that do exist are mostly limited to employment, and often enough only cover government workers.”

Wall Street Journal Editorial Board argues that the controversy reveals a new intolerance that targets religion: “In the increasingly bitter battle between religious liberty and the liberal political agenda, religion is losing. Witness the media and political wrath raining down upon Indiana because the state dared to pass an allegedly anti-gay Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The question fair-minded Americans should ask before casting the first stone is who is really being intolerant.”

Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post notes the flip-flop in economics of exclusiveness, given the current outcry: “This is an astonishing, and inspiring, turn of events. If in [economist Gary] Becker’s day firms feared that customers would punish them for inclusiveness, today firms fear customers will instead punish them for exclusiveness. If in the past, to stay competitive and attract the most desirable talent, you needed to be discriminatory, today the opposite may be becoming true. Hooray for markets being on the right side of history.”

The New York Times Editorial Board: “Religion should not be allowed to serve as a cover for discrimination in the public sphere. In the past, racial discrimination was also justified by religious beliefs, yet businesses may not refuse service to customers because of their race. Such behavior should be no more tolerable when it is based on sexual orientation.”

Obamacare’s Prophets of Disaster

Pual Krugman: Representative Pete Sessions of Texas “recently set a new standard when he declared the cost of Obamacare ‘unconscionable.’ If you do “simple multiplication,” he insisted, you find that the coverage expansion is costing $5 million per recipient. But his calculation was a bit off — namely, by a factor of more than a thousand. The actual cost per newly insured American is about $4,000.”

“Whatever your overall view of the Affordable Care Act, one indisputable fact is that it’s costing taxpayers much less than expected — about 20 percent less, according to the Congressional Budget Office. A senior member of Congress should know that, and he certainly has no business making speeches about an issue if he won’t bother to read budget office reports.”

Krugman asserts that this is “how it’s been all along with Obamacare,” with “the prophets of disaster … pretending that the bad things they said would happen have, in fact, happened.”

“In short, when it comes to the facts, the attack on health reform has come up empty-handed. But the public doesn’t know that. The good news about costs hasn’t made it through at all: According to a recent poll by Vox.com, only 5 percent of Americans know that Obamacare is costing less than predicted, while 42 percent think the government is spending more than expected.”

California Leads the Nation in Solar Power

Think Progress: “California led the nation in new solar power capacity last year, and new data show it was the first state to get more than 5 percent of its annual electricity generation from large-scale solar projects producing more than one megawatt of power.”

“According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2014 utility-scale solar projects in California generated more than three times the output of the second-highest state, Arizona, and more than all other states combined.”

“The top three states in large-scale solar generation in 2014 — California, Arizona, and Nevada — are some of the most sun-drenched in the country, but their progressive renewable energy policies also played a major role in the solar build-out.”

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Will the US Impose a Consumption Tax?

“U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle increasingly are finding appeal in an ambitious concept for overhauling the nation’s income-tax system: a tax based on consumption, a tool long used around the world,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

“The plans vary widely in their details. They include European-style value-added taxes, a type of sales tax that is collected along each stage of the production process; traditional sales taxes; and taxes on carbon-based pollution.”

“The discussions are in early stages. The likelihood that senators will agree on a consumption tax—or any major overhaul—in current negotiations remains slim. Introducing such a different tax system also brings the fear of the unknown. Still, the talks open up a possible new direction in slow-moving discussions about rewriting the U.S. tax system.”

Antarctica Sets Hottest Day on Record

EcoWatch: “The warmest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica may have occurred last Tuesday with a thermometer reading 63.5 degrees Fahrenheit at Argentina’s Esperanza Base on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, according to Weather Underground.”

“Prior to this week’s record heat wave for the icy continent, the hottest known temperature in Antarctica was 62.8 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded at Esperanza Base on April 24, 1961.”

“The record heat coincides with the release of a new study from Science that finds ‘ice shelves in West Antarctica have lost as much as 18 percent of their volume over the last two decades, with rapid acceleration occurring over the last decade. The study found that from 1994 to 2003, the overall loss of ice shelf volume across the continent was negligible, but over the last decade West Antarctic losses increased by 70 percent.'”

Power Grid Faces Constant Stream of Attacks

A USA Today investigation finds that “More often than once a week, the physical and computerized security mechanisms intended to protect Americans from widespread power outages are affected by attacks, with less severe cyberattacks happening even more often.”

“Between 2011 and 2014, electric utilities reported 362 physical and cyberattacks that caused outages or other power disturbances to the U.S. Department of Energy. Of those, 14 were cyberattacks and the rest were physical in nature… Often, such incidents are shrugged off by the local police who initially investigate.”

“While the Department of Energy received only 14 reports of cyberattacks from utilities over the past four years, other reporting systems show rising cyberthreats. The branch of the Department of Homeland Security that monitors cyberthreats received reports of 151 ‘cyber incidents’ related to the energy industry in 2013—up from 111 in 2012 and 31 in 2011. It is uncertain whether the increase is due to more incidents or an increase in reporting.”

A More Positive Spin on the Economy

Matthew Yglesias: “The Bureau of Economic Analysis released some moderately disappointing news about the economy, saying we enjoyed a 2.2 percent growth rate in the fourth quarter of last year. That’s an okay number, but it’s a slowdown from where we were in the third quarter and adds up to an overall very ‘meh’ 2014.”

“But the White House Council of Economic Advisors takes a more optimistic view of the trend, and their case has some merit. CEA chair Jason Furman is touting this chart:”

“GDP is something you’ve probably heard of, while the chart’s number — real private final domestic purchases — is awfully obscure. But it’s arguably a better indicator of where things are going. Private final domestic purchases means you basically remove three things from the GDP number: exports, government purchases and business inventories.”

A Return to the Suburbs?

Washington Post: “During the housing bubble, Americans moved in droves to the exurbs, to newly paved subdivisions on what was once rural land. Far-out suburbs had some of the fastest population growth in the country in the early 2000s, fueled by cheap housing and easy mortgages.”

“New Census data, though, suggests that eight years after the housing crash, Americans are starting to move back there again … The exurbs are now again growing faster than more urban places, according to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.”

“That picture doesn’t mean that more Americans now live in exurbs than what Frey calls the “urban core,” nor that cities are even shrinking. It means, rather, that the most urban counties are now growing more slowly than counties containing the far-out suburbs.”

When Government is the Loudest Voice in the Room

Garrett Epps of the Atlantic asks whether there should be limits to government speech, pointing to last week’s Supreme Court Texas license-plate case, Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“Many people see Walker as a case about the Confederate Battle Flag; but Walker has little to do with the flag, and much to do with a recent invention of the Court, the doctrine of ‘government speech.’”

“It’s worth understanding that idea for two reasons. First, whatever the Court decides, we are going to hear more, perhaps a great deal more, about government speech again soon. And, second, the Court’s venture into this area seems to follow a long-established pattern of First Amendment growth. At first, the Court announces that a certain kind of speech—defamation, say, or obscenity—is outside the First Amendment; next, government bodies begin restricting that kind of speech; finally, the Court narrows the exception to Free Speech to manageable size.”

“Government is usually the loudest voice in the room; we need rules on how much attention it has to pay to citizens when it decides to shout. A workable rule will balance citizens’ speech rights against government necessity. A number of the justices don’t care much for balancing. But there’s really no escaping it in an area this delicate. The Texas case seems like a good chance for this Court to start settling this beef.”