Monday, September 1, 2014

Gaza, ISIS and the Arab Spring

To be honest, foreign policy hasn't exactly been my forte. I'm more of a domestic policy type. Subjects like supply side economics, racial tensions and polling numbers are much higher up on my food chain than the goings on in the Middle East. With the notable exceptions of our costly and unjustified war in Iraq and the fake Benghazi scandal that Republicans keep harping on, I don't think I've written more than a piece or two on the whole region.

With that in mind, I thought I'd volunteer my nickel's worth on the three major stories that have garnered the most attention of late. They're in no particular order.

Gaza: Unlike so many of my progressive brethren, I think Israel was completely justified in launching retaliatory missile strikes into Gaza. It had every right to defend itself. Let's be clear here, Hamas knew perfectly well what it was doing when it started launching missiles into Israel. The fact that it launched those missiles from sites where many Palestinians lived, thus turning them into human shields, was appalling. Yes I know it was gut wrenching to see images of civilians lying dead in the streets, many of them burned beyond recognition, but that was the fault of Hamas, not Israel.

But while Israel was perfectly justified in launching missiles to defend itself, its decision to send troops into Gaza was a tactical blunder. It only added fuel to the fire and aided and abetted its staunchest critics who now could point to its occupying army as proof that it and not Hamas was the guilty party. This was an unforced error on the part of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had more than his fair share of missteps, the latest being the recent land appropriation in the occupied West Bank, a move that will only inflame the passions of the Palestinian people and make the prospects of a two-state solution that much harder to bring about.

ISIS: At the risk of sounding like John McCain - please forgive me - this group poses the greatest threat not only to the Middle East, but to the West in general. If you thought al-Qaeda was bad, well these guys make them look like the Boy Scouts of America. It isn't just the beheading of an American journalist that should concern the United States, it's the fact that ISIS has made its intentions perfectly clear. It wants nothing less than a world-wide Islamic state and it will use whatever means it has at its disposal to accomplish that goal. And, unlike al-Qaeda, it is well organized, well funded and has the support of a good portion of the populations of both Iraq and Syria (where it began).

Two things, though, need to be underscored about the rise of ISIS. First, it would never have gained a foothold, at least not in Iraq, had the U.S. not toppled Saddam Hussein. The Maliki government, which rose to power in 2006 during the American occupation, all but excluded Sunnis from any role in the government, exacerbating tensions between them and the Shiites and setting the stage for the sectarian violence in the country that led to the rise of ISIS. Had Maliki's government been more inclusive, it is highly doubtful that ISIS would wield the power it now has in Iraq.

But secondly, and even more importantly, it is important to understand that much of the unrest within this region can be traced back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. That empire, which was founded in 1453, included the territories of what later came to be known as Iraq and Syria. There is an excellent piece in The Daily Kos about the birth of Iraq that is very revealing and is worth a serious read by anybody regardless of political ideology. The parallels are striking. Suffice to say, 100 years later we still don't know much about this region.

Still, even in spite of our regional ignorance, some of the blame here must go to President Obama. His decision not to take a more active role against Assad in Syria indirectly led to the emergence of ISIS in that country. While some of his reticence was understandable given the recent history of American intervention in the region, 180 degrees from wrong is still wrong. It's true there may not have been any moderate opposition forces within Syria, but the Administration should have made a more concerted effort of finding them. While it focused mainly on Assad's chemical weapons, the elements that led to ISIS grew. Now the U.S. is in the precarious position of having to side with Assad and Iran to defeat an opponent which rose to power right under its nose.

The Arab Spring: This might be the hardest nut to crack, especially if you're a neo-con. If it's true that democracy is messy, than what's been going on in most of the Middle East resembles a toxic waste dump. But, like the above, it is important to understand that for the last century, most of this region, which included Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and Libya, were ruled by despots. The Iranian revolution of 1979 came about because the U.S. backed Shaw had brutalized his own people. It was inevitable that, sooner or later, the rest of these countries would follow suit and depose their tyrant rulers.

I submit that what's really behind all this anti Arab Spring rhetoric is the fact that all this democratization isn't going the way its critics thought it would go. After all, if you're not spending a trillion dollars forcing your vision of democracy on a country, what good are you anyway? The fact is that these countries have a right to determine their own destiny, messy or otherwise. The United States needs to know the difference between active engagement and out and out colonialism. One can employ the former without the latter.

I suspect that had we adopted that strategy decades ago, we might not be in the mess we're in today.

A Whopper of A Lie

The purchase of Canadian doughnut chain Tim Hortons by Burger King for $11 billion has created quite a stir within both flanks of the political spectrum. On the Right, the usual "oppressive tax system" drivel has been front and center; on the Left, shouts of "tax dodging," loopholes" and "patriotism" have dominated the discussion. Well permit me, if you will, to set both sides straight with a few pesky facts.

First, a lot of attention has been paid to how high the corporate tax rate in America is. At present, it is the highest in the world at 39.1 percent. By comparison, Canada's corporate tax rate is 26.3 percent. If you knew nothing more than that one statistic, you would conclude, and rightly so, that Burger King's decision made perfect sense. But, as they say in just about every TV advertisement, wait, there's more.

That 39.1 percent corporate tax rate is a nominal, or unadjusted tax rate. As anyone who has ever sat down and done his or her own taxes will tell you, it isn't your nominal tax rate that determines what you owe, it's your effective tax rate. And, for corporate America, that effective tax rate averages out to roughly 12.6 percent. That difference is the primary reason why the United States ranked 11th from the bottom among the 27 wealthiest nations in effective tax rates. Hardly oppressive.

What accounts for this difference? In a nutshell the United States has the most complicated tax system in the world, filled with loopholes big enough to drive a semi-truck through. And those loopholes are kept in place by a litany of powerful tax accountants, many of whom wrote those very same tax laws. The last thing any of them want is for the American tax system to be simplified. The formula for these accountants is quite simple: the higher the nominal rate is, the more deductions they find; the more deductions they find, the higher the fee they charge. Think about that the next time you go to H&R Block.

Second, while it may seem as though Burger King's acquisition was a classic case of corporate tax inversion, that appears not to have been the case here. For starters, Burger King's effective tax rate last year was 27.5 percent. Tim Hortons' effective tax rate was just south of 27 percent. If you think a .5 percent difference is a windfall, you obviously need a refresher course in basic mathematics. Even for a billion dollar corporation, a .5 percent differential in a tax rate is not worth the headache of potentially losing millions of customers to McDonald's or Wendy's. And make no mistake about it, Burger King is no Pfizer. I'm pretty sure the average person who walks into a CVS to get a prescription filled has no idea who manufactured the drug they are taking. You can bet the ranch they know the difference between a Whopper and a Big Mac.

Maybe that's why Burger King CEO Alex Behring wasted no time letting everyone know that their corporate headquarters will remain in Miami, though the press release also mentioned that "the new global company will be based in Canada, the largest market of the combined company." How that will effect its future tax rate, no one knows.

So what was the primary reason behind the merger. In a word, market share.

Tim Hortons is the largest fast-food chain in Canada with over 4,500 locations throughout that country and the United States. And, unlike Burger King, whose sales have slumped recently, Tim Hortons has consistently increased its market share. According to Forbes, "the company’s reported a 9% increase in net revenues year-over-year (y-o-y) in Q2 2014, while the same store sales growth was 2.6% in Canada and 5.9% in the U.S."

The breakfast sector of the fast-food market is the only sector that has shown any growth of late as anyone who has visited a Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks has known for quite some time. Burger King did what any company faced with declining sales would do: it pounced on an opportunity to diversify its lineup and expand its share in the market place. This is different than banks who merge. In those instances, it isn't about simply increasing market share but dominating the existing market altogether.

There's little doubt that the increasing trend of corporate inversions poses a serious threat to the United States tax system. If this trend is allowed to continue, the tax burden will only be shifted to smaller-sized companies and individuals who are already paying more than their fair share to the Treasury. It should be pointed out that neither of these two groups possess the resources needed to hire fleets of savvy tax accountants. That's what Turbo Tax was invented for.

Simply lowering corporate tax rates will not stem the tide of inversions. If anything, it will continue to reward bad behavior as corporate America will now have its cake and eat it too. The only answer lies in closing many, if not all, of the loopholes that currently exist in the tax code that permit these types of inversions in the first place. Only then can we have a true discussion on tax rates.

Protestations from the Right that this will only encourage corporations to look for other as of yet unknown loopholes are specious at best. Whether the loopholes are closed or not, corporations will always look for ways to avoid paying taxes. Show me a company that doesn't take advantage of every tax loophole available to it and I'll show you a company headed for bankruptcy. Or, as Senator Bernie Sanders adroitly put it last year on Bill Maher's Real Time, "If there's a corporation paying 35 percent, they should fire their accountants."

And as far as the Left is concerned, a little less hyperventilating and a little more fact checking is in order here. The truth is Burger King has done far more harm to America's digestive system than to its tax system. There are plenty of villains out there in corporate America who have done substantial damage to the U.S. economy; companies like GE, whose effective tax rate from 2008 - 2013 was -9 percent (they actually received a $2.9 billion tax refund).  It seems to me that they should be the targets of our scorn. Between companies that flee the country to avoid paying taxes - or simply avoid paying them altogether - and companies who, through mergers and acquisitions, destroy healthy competition within a given market and then end up owning that entire market, America is fast resembling an oligarchy.

To me that is the war the Left should be waging. And it's a war the Left can win if it wants to.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Idiots' Delight

Just when I thought I was going to stick with a semi-annual format, these four dingbats come along and screw up my plans. Sorry, but this just couldn't wait till December and when you read it, I'm sure you'll wholeheartedly agree. I'd say they have the inside track for the top dibs in the annual idiots' delight award, but the sad truth is they'll probably have a lot of competition given this year's field.

So, without further ado.

Rush Limbaugh for his tasteless comments on the death of Robin Williams. For more than 25 years this clown prince of hate radio has uttered just about every offensive and crude comment known to man. From his "slut" remarks on Sandra Fluke to his commentary on Michelle Obama's weight (a scream given he's about one happy meal away from a heart attack) to his recent foray into American history, the man has spent his entire career shitting all over the country.

Well now, not content with merely going after politicians he doesn't approve of, he's ventured out of the comfort zone of his private sandbox to go after, of all people, Robin Williams.  On a recent broadcast, Limbaugh had the following to say about the passing of the legendary comedian.

He (Williams) had everything, everything that you would think would make you happy.  But it didn't.  Now, what is the left's worldview in general?  What is it? If you had to attach not a philosophy but an attitude to a leftist worldview, it's one of pessimism and darkness, sadness.  They're never happy, are they?  They're always angry about something. No matter what they get, they're always angry.

He had it all, but he had nothing.  He made everybody else laugh but was miserable inside.  I mean, it fits a certain picture, or a certain image that the left has. . .Well, that is a constant measurement that is made by political leftists in judging the country.  It's outcome-based education: 2 + 2 = 5.  That's fine until the student learns it's 4.  We're not gonna humiliate the student by pointing out that he's wrong.  If he figures it out, cool.  We're gonna take the fast learners and we're gonna slow them down so that they don't humiliate the kids that don't learn as fast as they do.  It's just not fair.

Leaving aside the obvious Left bad / Right good twisted logic that is now firmly imbedded within the whole conservative movement, the sheer gall of going after someone who had just taken his own life hours earlier was beneath contempt, even for someone as depraved as Limbaugh.

Sadly, there's never a rope around when you need one most. 

Steve King for his equally offensive remarks concerning the violence in Ferguson, Missouri. For several years, it's been a horse race as to who was the dumbest person in Congress: Michele Bachmann, Louie Gohmert or Steve King. As far as I was concerned, they were the Three Stooges of the House of Representatives. The only question was who was Moe, Larry and Curly?

Well guess who just took a giant leap forward to claim the inside track? Commenting on the violence in Ferguson, King had this to say:

This idea of no racial profiling, I've seen the video. It looks to me like you don't need to bother with that particular factor because they all appear to be of a single, you know, of a single origin, I should say, a continental origin might be the way to phrase that. 

People like King remind me of the episode on All in the Family, where Archie is casting aspersions on a certain type of law firm by saying, "I know that tribe." The reason there's no need to to talk about racial profiling is because everyone is the same race; everyone that is except the cop who shot Michael Brown and the cops who threw tear gas at the "single continental origin" crowd and the right-wing media who lumped the few looters in with the thousands of peaceful protesters that took to the streets to demand justice. But then they don't count. They're just good old ordinary white folk - you know, the good guys.

I'd call his remarks ignorant, but that would be an insult to millions of ignorant people throughout the country. The ignorant can be educated; Neanderthals like King are just waiting around for the next ice age to put them out of their misery.

Supporters of Darren Wilson. I knew it wouldn't take long for the "oppressed" white peoples' contingent to come out and express their indignation over the way one of their own is being vilified in the main-stream press. The leader of this self-justified bunch is a woman sporting a baseball cap who says they won't hide or live in fear, yet refuses to identify herself.

It seems she's terribly concerned that the cop who put six bullets into Michael Brown might not get the justice he is owed. Of course the fact that a young black man is lying in the ground, courtesy of that same cop, isn't all that important to her.

I keep hearing this drivel over and over from the white community. We're the ones who are the targets, we're the ones being discriminated against, the only racism that exists in America is reverse racism. Blah, blah, blah.

The simple and undeniable fact is that minorities are far more likely to be shot by cops than whites. That's according to a report by the FBI, which concludes in pertinent part, "The concentration of death among young black and Hispanic men, meanwhile, is in part a demonstration that those are the people most likely to encounter police officers. They're the ones most likely to be arrested, and most likely to be living in the neighborhoods where police most frequently patrol."

So, you see, it really wasn't Darren Wilson's fault. Michael Brown just happened to be living in a neighborhood with a lot of cops patrolling it. What did he expect? A Valentine's Day candy gram?

It must be tough being a white man these days. So tough, I'm actually thinking of becoming a black, Hispanic woman just so I can live without fear.

Dinish D'Souza for comparing the protesters in Ferguson to ISIS. Naturally, because, as we all know, people protesting in the street are the same as terrorists who behead journalists. It's bad enough this moron made two movies - one about Obama and the other one apparently about an alternative U.S. history where manifest destiny and slavery are somehow okay and all liberals hate America -  he's actually lumping together one of the worst threats to the entire Middle East with a few thousand protesters in a small Missouri town.

I'm sure it makes perfect sense to simpletons like D'Souza. As Olivia Nuzzi sarcastically quipped in The Daily Beast, "Beheading, looting - basically the same thing. Just ask anyone who has been both beheaded and looted. You may not get a response, but go ahead and ask."

I'm kind of glad this convicted felon didn't go to prison. Think of how much stupidity we would've been deprived of had he been locked up and, even better, how much more we'll undoubtedly get to see in the years ahead. I hear he's busy working on a new movie on Hillary Clinton. Let me see if I can guess the plot: Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi.

Aw shucks, that was too easy.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What Keeps Me Up Nights

While the Right laments the loss of their individual liberty and the continued impurification of their precious bodily fluids, I thought I would list some of the things that actually keep me up nights.

Believe it or not, I don't think the government is the boogie man. Stupid, slow, corrupt, all of the above, yes, but hardly menacing. The idea that requiring people to purchase a product constitutes tyranny is absurd. You want to see what tyranny looks like, take a flight to North Korea. Send me a postcard when you get there, assuming you can. A word of caution: better have your affairs in order before you go.

I'm also not into conspiracies. If I wanted to be paranoid, I'd start smoking pot. Nobody likes the I.R.S., I get it. That doesn't mean they're out to get conservatives. Benghazi was a terrible tragedy, nothing more, nothing less. For God's sake, I'm begging you, move on. You're wearing me out. And, for the last time, the government's not taking away your guns.

So what am I afraid of? Glad you asked.

I'll tell you what frightens the living shit out of me. I worry about the continuing polarization that has gripped this nation. America has developed a reputation over the years as a melting pot. I strongly disagree. A melting pot implies a heterogeneous society transforming into a homogeneous one. There's nothing in our history that even remotely suggests we have the capacity to be homogeneous. The more I think about it, America looks more like a pressure cooker: a lot of different and diverse ingredients under constant pressure. Well, don't look now, but that pressure cooker is about to explode.

Not since the days of the Reconstruction has the country been so bitterly divided. We've always had regions that were more conservative than others, but over the last few years the country has all but split in two. It's as though we fought the Civil War all over again, only this time the Confederacy won.

Like Lincoln before him, the election of Barack Obama has triggered a wave of rage and resentment unlike any I've ever witnessed. It's as though a pestilence was suddenly unleashed and set loose upon the land. Once covert expressions of racism have given way to far more overt ones. Some are so disgustingly flagrant, it's enough to turn your stomach.

For the life of me I cannot understand the level of vitriol this president has had to endure. Some of the charges levied at him would be almost laughable if they weren't so pitiful. I look at Barack Obama and I see a fairly competent, if somewhat flawed, president who inherited an economy on the brink of depression and who did the best he could to avert what would've been a catastrophe. He's made some mistakes, not the least of which was believing he could reason with people who were unreasonable. But in his almost six years in office, I have seen nothing that warrants the constant barrage of disrespect he is shown on an almost daily basis. Not even George Bush during his darkest days in office was treated this badly.

Keep in mind, I am NOT talking about honest disagreements over policy. Those are fair game. Politicians have had to contend with such things since the founding of the Republic. But, let's face it, we're not talking about policy disagreements here. Just look at the evidence. The birther movement, the placards showing Obama with a bone through his nose, the hissy fits many threw when he put his feet up on the Oval Office desk and later when he had a Marine hold an umbrella for him in the Rose Garden, the recent law suit filed against him for delaying a provision in a law his opponents repeatedly tried to repeal and finally the calls for impeachment for his "excessive" use of executive orders (a practice many past presidents did far more frequently). It was as if he didn't know his rightful place. How dare he be so disrespectful (i.e. uppity). Who does he think he is, the president or something? Well, yeah, he is. And that, for many, is the crux of the problem.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: white America has a problem with racism. It's always had. It gleefully cheers its black athletes when they win games, but once those black athletes dare attempt to climb up the corporate ladder, they are blocked at virtually every turn. This idea that anyone can make it in America if they try hard has always been a canard. Despite all the lofty fairy tales that were fed to us as kids, the simple truth is that some are born with two strikes against them from the very start. No matter how hard they try, they will never make it to the top of that ladder.

Barack Obama turned that paradigm on its head. His ascendancy to the presidency of the United States upset the power structure in a profound way. For the first time in its history, a black man was calling the shots for the entire country. For some this was the dawning of a new and bold chapter in the American story; for others, though, it meant the end of their universe. The pushback was as predictable as it was ugly.

How we get out of this, I'm not sure. What I am sure of is this: The scars of these last six years, and the two that will follow, will take a long time to heal. The next black or future Hispanic president (and let's just get it out of the way and say it: there will be an Hispanic in the Oval Office one day) will owe this president a huge debt of gratitude. He was and is, in his own way, the Jackie Robinson of his day.

Next up on the list of things that go bump in the night for me is the flood of corporate money into American politics. The wingnuts on the Right decry government intrusion into the private sector. Actually, it's the other way around. The private sector, for all intents and purposes, has put a vice grip on the government. It is now firmly in charge of the political process in this country.

In 2012 alone, approximately $7 billion was spent attempting to elect candidates in both parties. More than $2.1 billion of it came via soft money, which, thanks to the Supreme Court, now has no limits. Not only are corporations considered people, they are apparently jolly green giants. They have unfettered access to practically every level of government from Congress to state houses to local municipalities.

In 1981 the number of registered lobbyists in Washington was approximately 7,000. Today that number stands at over 14,000. But more alarming than the number of lobbyists is the amount they spend: $3.5 billion in 2009, compared with $200 million in 1983. According to a paper by Lee Drutman, "lobbying has been expanding at increasing rates. Controlling for inflation, between 1998 and 2008 lobbying expenditures increased faster than various measures of government size and activity." The ratio was 77% to 38% respectively.

Of the 535 total members of Congress, 245 are millionaires; 66 in the Senate and 179 in the House. That comes out to 46% or more than 45 times the national average. And these buffoons wonder why their approval ratings are so dismal. It's a little hard representing people you can't possibly relate to or apparently care about.

Many of these Senators and Representatives will eventually go on to become lobbyists themselves. There are currently 416 former members of Congress who work for lobbying firms. Among the more notable are Dick Armey, Jim DeMint, Chris Dodd, Bob Kerrey, Joe Lieberman and Newt Gingrich.  All of them are raking in the dough and lining the pockets of current members of Congress who vote the way they want them to.

The decision by Mike Rogers, Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, to not seek reelection and instead become a "broadcast pundit" - whatever that means - is an excellent example of the rot that has set in. As powerful and as influential as Rogers is, he will become even more powerful and considerably richer once he leaves Congress. This is the sad state of politics in America. It is now nothing more than a stepping stone to the pot of gold that awaits many at the end of the rainbow. K Street has now overtaken Pennsylvania Avenue as the center of power in Washington.

Mark Twain once said that we had "the best government money can buy." If that was true during Twain's lifetime, just imagine how much worse the situation is today. The cancer that started to grow more than a century ago, has now fully metastasized into a massive tumor. Unless drastic measures are taken soon, the patient (i.e., the government) will perish, if it hasn't already.

The next thing that sends shivers down my spine is the growing conflagration of guns in America. Over the last couple of years, certain parts of the country more closely resemble the OK Corral than they do a 21st century nation. The only thing missing is the theme song to the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Funny though it may seem to some, it's really quite tragic to see a supposedly grown adult walking into a Chipotle sporting a semi-automatic rifle. The terror these numbskulls inflict on the general population by their mere presence is beyond belief.  How in the world did this country allow itself to become the punch line to some sick joke?

You'd think a series of senseless murders of children and adults in schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, military installations and universities would be enough for this country to finally take the necessary action to enact meaningful gun regulation. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. If anything, the opponents of gun regulation have doubled down on their efforts to resist even the mention of regulation. One of the most perverse byproducts of this movement is a book titled, "My Parents Open Carry." The cover depicts a little girl surrounded by her parents, both of whom are packing handguns. Why is this perverse? Since Newtown, 127 children have been killed by guns in their own homes. Not only have they not been made safer by the presence of guns in the home, they are far more likely to be shot by those very same guns.

Thirty-five states now permit the open carry of handguns without a permit. Thirty-four states have what are called "stand your ground" laws which permit the use of deadly force if a person feels they are being threatened in public. It was just such a law that allowed George Zimmerman to get away with murdering Trayvon Martin back in 2012.

A recent study revealed that the United States has 88 guns per 100 people and 10 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people, by far the most of any developed country in the world. Conversely, Japan had just .6 guns per 100 people and .06 gun-related deaths per 100,000, the fewest among developed countries. This is not a coincidence, nor is it rocket science. More guns equal more gun deaths. It's just simple math.

How much more innocent blood will be spilled over a warped interpretation of the Second Amendment? It's time responsible people got together, put their foot down and told the gun nuts where to go. Their freedom to own a gun shouldn't come at the expense of the United States being turned into a shooting gallery. It is possible to enact common-sense regulation that puts reasonable limits on the types of guns that can be purchased. If you need an AR-15 to kill a dear, you're a pretty lousy hunter. Either that or you're a sadist.

You want to stop a bad man with a gun? How about making sure he doesn't get a hold of one in the first place.

And now we come to the last, but hardly least, thing that gives me nightmares: the dumbing down of America. The recent wave of anti-intellectualism sweeping the United States poses perhaps the greatest threat to its future. I'm not quite sure exactly when being stupid became a fashion statement, but many in the country are wearing it like a badge of honor.

Now to be fair, ignorance didn't just spring up overnight; it's always existed to some extent. But it's recent emergence as a dominant political force in this country is most disturbing, given the potential consequences.

From the global-warming deniers who call it a hoax to the creationists who insist that the universe is 6,000 years old to the American revisionists who are attempting to rewrite history books to reflect a kinder, gentler take on manifest destiny and slavery (hint, they weren't really that bad), there seems to be no shortage of gullible people willing and able to swallow their propaganda.

And while the gullible drink in the lies, the proponents of those lies are glorified by right-wing media outlets and let off the hook by a mass media that is incapable of doing the job it was called to do. Deliberate distortions and fabrications are passed off as merely the flip side of the same coin. In an attempt to be seen as "fair and balanced," both sides of an argument are given equal consideration.

Despite the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and that man is responsible for it, the 3 percenters, as I prefer to call them, are allowed to peddle their opinion as fact. David Gregory, the soon-to-be ex-moderator of Meet the Press, recently pitted Bill Nye (a scientist) against Marsha Blackburn (a political hack) to "discuss" climate change. That would be like a Ph.D. discussing physics with a four-year old. Small wonder there are so many misinformed people in the country.

How serious is this problem? The Pentagon now says climate change poses a serious threat to our national security. With the planet's future at stake and the fate of millions of people hanging in the balance, the "vaunted" fourth estate has treated this most grave and important matter with all the triviality of two boys debating who was the best ballplayer of all time. 

There is a profound difference between fact and opinion. One may prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate. That's an opinion that can be debated until the cows come home. There's no right or wrong answer. Jumping out of a 20-story building will result in death due to deceleration trauma. That's not an opinion, it's a fact. Facts are not open to debate; that's why they're called facts.

But the poet laureate of the fiction as fact club is Ken Ham, director of the Creation Museum, who takes the book of Genesis literally and claims that the universe is only 6,000 years old. Ham has gone out of his way to attempt to discredit evolution and has fought to have creationism taught in public schools alongside traditional science. In Ham's alternate universe, dinosaurs and humans lived together; they even shared the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve (I wonder what tree they ate from, seeing as how big they were).

Augustine, as far back as 415AD, ripped such "nonsense" to shreds, calling it "embarrassing and reckless."

For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

But, despite the words of Augustine, Ham and people like him have not been deterred from spreading their lies to promote their narrow agenda. If anything it has only emboldened them to press on. A recent "debate" between Bill Nye and Ham, hosted by CNN at the Creation Museum (yes, you can see where this is going), proved to be the perfect venue for Ham.

The moment he took the stage alongside Nye, Ham immediately gained the foothold he needed. Once more, the old point/counterpoint false narrative was exhumed. Ham was allowed to reframe the whole debate around two equal, but opposing, viewpoints. Nye was doomed from the start.

In an 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, the late Carl Sagan addressed this problem.

"We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?"

Who knew that those words would prove to be a harbinger of things to come? Sagan's ghost is crying out from his grave but few are listening to it. Of all the threats to our Republic (racism, corruption, violence), none are more dangerous than ignorance. You can convict the heart of a racist, imprison corrupt officials, even reduce the number of deadly weapons that are available for purchase. But ignorance is almost impossible to cure.

The reason for this should be self evident. People, for the most part, eschew the complex for the simple. A long time ago, I learned that the secret to being a successful salesman was to keep it simple. Don't overburden customers with trivial things like facts. I have to confess, I wasn't all that comfortable with that strategy, but others were. Some of the most successful people I ever worked with were little better than snake-oil salesmen. And the worst part was that the customers never caught on to what they were doing. Stupid is as stupid gets.

So there you have it, my fab four list of things that keep me up nights. By no means is this a complete list. But it does represent the worst of the worst.

Sweet dreams.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Jeff Greenfield Scratches His Six-Year Itch

While reading Jeff Greenfield's latest piece on the upcoming midterm elections - spoiler alert, Greenfield doesn't think it's going to go well for Democrats - I couldn't help but wonder just what planet he's been living on for the last few months.

Yes, Greenfield correctly points out that most two-term presidents lose seats in their sixth year. In fact, the only president to actually gain seats over the last five decades was Bill Clinton, a fact Greenfield mentions but then glosses over like some footnote. More on the Clinton exception later. For now, let's concentrate on Greenfield.

Most of the piece focuses on two central themes: 1. Contrasting Obama's approval ratings with that of Ronald Reagan's in 1986; and 2. Something about the public mood being grim.

Going into his second midterm, Reagan's approval numbers were indeed high, much higher than Obama's, yet Republicans still managed to lose five House seats and seven Senate seats. Conclusion? Democrats are going to get pummeled in November.

There's of course just one little teensy problem with Greenfield's analysis. Actually there are two. The first is that Obama's poll numbers are far more affected by geography than Reagan's. In the South, for example, Obama is far less popular than he is in either the northern or western part of the country. Not coincidentally, those are the areas where incumbent Democrats are having the hardest time defending their seats. Both Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor in Arkansas are trailing their respective Republican challengers, though Landrieu is managing to hold her own. Conversely, the three states Greenfield cites as being in danger of flipping - North Carolina, Michigan and Colorado - are actually projected by RCP to remain in the Blue column this fall. If you're going to take the time to sound the warning bell, Jeff, the very least you can do is get your states right.

But Greenfield's second problem is far more egregious and ironically it concerns this whole public mood theme. As low as Obama's approval rating may be, the GOP's is considerably worse. In states like Florida and Pennsylvania, the incumbent Republican governors are trailing their Democratic opponents. The race is so lopsided in Pennsylvania, RCP has now put it in the "Likely Democrat" column. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker is holding on by his finger nails. The public may not be in love with Obama, but they certainly have no love loss for the GOP.

And that brings us back to Bill Clinton and 1998. Republicans, if you recall, impeached Clinton over the Monica Lewinski scandal. While it is true that the actual impeachment vote took place after the midterms, the issue was front and center in the minds of many voters way before November. The results did not bode well for the GOP. Overplaying their hand backfired terribly on them.

The recent party-line vote in the House of Representatives to sue Obama over delaying implementation of the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act - a law that very same chamber tried to repeal more than 50 times! - smacks of déjà vu all over again. Once more, Republicans are mollifying their base and badly overplaying their hand. And, once more, it appears to be backfiring on them. Democrats have now been given a wedge issue to use against the GOP this fall that they would not have had otherwise. Can you imagine the fallout if Republicans actually go ahead and impeach Obama? Talk about the political equivalent of a wet dream.

While it is still too early to tell whether the GOP will once more snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, this much is certain. Sloppy journalists like Jeff Greenfield will continue to pontificate and espouse their opinions like they were gospel, only to have their ignorance exposed in the end.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Two Broke Girls

Now that I've all but preordained Hillary Clinton as the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, I thought I would give equal treatment to the other side of the political aisle. I'm nothing if fair and balanced. Alright, stop laughing, I'm trying to be serious. Okay, now I'm laughing.

So who would I tab as the 2016 Republican presidential nominee? Unlike the Democrats, the GOP field is wide open. Let's take a gander at the potential candidates, shall we. You've got Rand Paul and Ted Cruz for the far, far right mob; Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal, for the not so far right, but still out there crowd; Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum for the self-righteous and self-anointed Jesus freaks; Rick Perry, because, well, oops; and rounding out the field, Jeb - I'm not my brother - Bush and Chris - EZ Pass - Christie, for those who long to return to the Nixon years.

So, with such a "diverse" field (I'm really having a hard time keeping a straight face here, guys), who am I putting my money on? Well, you can forget all the aforementioned candidates. Not one of them is fit to hold the door for my personal pick for Pres and VP.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you none other than Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

Yep, you heard right. America's two dumbest and bat-shit craziest women on the dream ticket of dream tickets. You can start printing those bumper stickers right now. In fact, all you have to do is cross out the "2012" part on the ones that are already out there and insert "2016" next to it.

Now, I know what many of you are thinking. Am I crazy? No, that's not it and, for the record, I'm not. My mother had me tested. Am I being facetious? Well, yes, but that's not it. Oh wait, I think I know what it is. How do I know who gets top billing on this dream ticket? Yes, that's it! I knew one of you'd get it sooner or later.

Well, to be honest, it wasn't easy deciding. I mean on the one hand, you have a half-term governor of a state nobody wants to visit save for three months out of the year, who, thanks to John McCain, hasn't shut up in six years and is a lock for a reality TV show of her own on A&E one of these days; on the other, you've got a soon-to-be former congresswoman who could substitute for nurse Ratched on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and who excels at looking into the wrong camera while giving state of the union rebuttals. 

I mean, with so much talent, you really could just flip a coin. But I went with Palin primarily because I really miss Tina Fey (boy I sure hope she winks at me) and I'm not sure there's a woman out there brave enough to impersonate Bachmann, not to mention look that scary and deranged on purpose. Be honest, whenever you see Bachmann on TV don't you fear turning off the lights? I still haven't fully recovered from watching her interview on Meet the Press in 2011. It's the only time in my life I actually felt sorry for David Gregory.

Okay, I admit it; I really did flip a coin. Palin was heads and it was heads. Busted. But, come on, guys, does it really matter? They're interchangeable, aren't they?  That's what makes this dream ticket so special. While Palin is busy mangling the English language - and apparently Spanish from what I hear - in all those gotcha interviews, Bachmann can screw up all the American history she wants, like when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor. While Palin is accusing Hillary of being anti-American with "known" ties to terrorists, Bachmann can threaten her running mate with eternal damnation for being pro gay rights and rejecting creationism. I've got a crazy idea - yes even crazier than these two running in 2016. We could alternate them every other week. Palin one week, Bachmann the next. That way neither of their feelings would be hurt.

In the event they actually got elected (okay breath in, breath out), they would simply continue alternating in and out of the Oval office. Just think of the possibilities. One week Palin is calling Vladimir Putin a thug; the next Bachmann is leading a crusade to purge him of any evil spirits and demons.

I've already picked out a name for our dream team: the dynamic duo of stupid. Every late-night comic's ratings would go through the roof. Leno could have Conan O'Brien fired all over again. Hell, Letterman might even reconsider retiring. HBO could offer a pay per view feature to its subscribers. Buy ten episodes, get one free. Game of Thrones and Mad Men? Don't make me laugh. They couldn't hold a candle to tweedledee and tweedledumb.

Relax, people, I was just fuckin' with ya. Everyone knows it's going to be Jeb and Christie.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Could Georgia and Kentucky Cost the GOP Senate Control in November?

Have you been checking Real Clear Politics' Senate polling lately? Of course you haven't; you have a life. Fortunately I'm not burdened by such things, so let me give you the latest rundown.

RCP, at present, has the Senate at 46 Democrats and 46 Republicans with 8 tossups. That means that the GOP needs to win at least 5 of the tossups to become the majority party. Democrats would only have to win 4 to hold their majority, since they control the White House and the Vice President would cast the deciding vote in a 50-50 tie.

Now Republicans are all giddy because they lead in the polls in six of those tossups. If those leads hold, the GOP would have a 52-48 seat majority in January. However, there are two seats that the GOP holds at present which are in the tossup category and, if I were a Republican strategist, I would be sweating bullets right about now.

Georgia and Kentucky are within the margin of error. In Georgia, businessman David Purdue - who survived a primary runoff against Chamber of Congress-backed Jack Kingston - is ahead 1.7 points over his Democratic opponent, Michelle Nunn, Sam Nunn's daughter. But the last two polls show the race a tie (Rasmussen has Purdue up 6 and Landmark has Nunn ahead by 6). Both polls were taken within the last two weeks. Saxby Chambliss's decision not to run has put this seat in play for the first time since Max Cleland held it.

In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is barely ahead of his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes. The latest polling - from June, mind you - has old Mitch up a mere 1.5 points, prompting a Politico piece, titled, "What if Mitch McConnell loses."

Yes, what if, indeed. Imagine the GOP taking four seats away from Democrats and being this close to taking the ball into the end zone, only to fumble at the one (er, two) yard line. As strange as it may seem, Republicans could actually lose two of their own seats this November. And you thought Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock hurt.

But that might not be the only obstacle that stands in the way of the GOP taking the Senate. In Iowa, for example, a state that RCP puts in the GOP column for November, an NBC News/Marist poll taken only two weeks ago shows the race tied. Quinnipiac has Democrat Bruce Braley in front 6 points. Even Rasmussen shows Republican Joni Ernst holding a slim 1 point lead. This race is far from settled.

The same can be said for Alaska, Louisiana and Arkansas, where incumbent Democrats are trailing their Republican opponents but are all within the margins of error. In North Carolina, Kay Hagen has been ahead of her Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, for the last two months. Public Policy Polling has her ahead by 3 points.

My guess is we probably won't get a handle on where these races will end up until a month before the election. It's usually around that time that polling starts to makes sense. Even then, it wouldn't surprise me if we had a surprise or two in November. If House Republicans actually move forward with an impeachment proceeding against Barack Obama, that could have a devastating impact on GOP prospects for Senate control.

Then there's the real issue that nobody seems to be willing to talk about. Regardless of who prevails in November, will anything actually change come January? My guess is probably not. Think about it, if the GOP did actually gain a majority in the Senate, they still wouldn't be able to pass anything. That's because Democrats would filibuster any legislation they didn't like, just like Republicans are now doing as the minority party. And even if, by some small miracle, the GOP got a bill passed both Houses, all Obama would have to do is veto it. Republicans would not have the votes to override him.

So, in other words, we seem to be spending an awful lot of time focusing on what amounts to ostensibly bragging rights, if you could even call it bragging. Truth is no matter what happens this November, it will have little, if any, impact on what goes on in Washington for at least the next two years.

2016, anyone?