Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Counting Those Chickens Again?

Okay, so Democrats are celebrating the special election victory in New York’s 26th, a district that is about as red as it gets in the northeast. And well they should. Despite Republican claims that the Tea Party candidate split the conservative vote – which is a little hard to do when one candidate gets 42% of the vote and the other one gets 9% - the writing is clearly on the wall. The Paul Ryan budget was the major reason for Jane Corwin’s defeat. Pure and simple. No other conclusion is possible given the facts.

Consider the following. Jack Davis – the Tea Party candidate – ran as a Democrat in ’08 and ’06. Assuming that, had he not run, all of his votes would’ve gone to Corwin is the height of arrogance, and quite simply ignores the polling data which suggests that he took just as many votes away from winner Kathy Hochul as he did Corwin. At best, conservatives can say Corwin might’ve gotten 55% of his votes, still not enough to overcome the six-point spread between herself and Hochul.

When you add the fact that the RNC spent well over $1 million to defend a district that should never have been in play in the first place, there’s no other way to put it: this was a bad day in GOP land. There are precious few districts in the country where either major political party can safely boast invincibility. The New York 26 was just such a district for Republicans. And now it is gone. Don't think for a moment that they are not burning the midnight oil at the RNC looking for delicate way to extricate themselves out of the quagmire that the Ryan budget has put them in. Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

But while the GOP is caught in the middle of its own toxic waste dump of political misfortune, I’m getting that sinking feeling again with respect to our dear progressive friends. To quote Jon Stewart, “How will Democrats screw this up?” Let’s see if Nancy Pelosi can answer Mr. Stewart’s rhetorical question.

“Kathy Hochul's victory tonight is a tribute to Democrats' commitment to preserve and strengthen Medicare, create jobs, and grow our economy.”

Yep, that did it. Just so we’re clear on what happened in the 26th. Kathy Hochul did not win anything; Jane Corwin committed political suicide. Period, end of discussion. For Democrats to engage in any kind of celebratory pronouncements that don’t begin and end with the words “Thank you” is moronic. The simple truth of the matter is that had Paul Ryan not decided to become Captain Courageous and had Jane Corwin simply kept her mouth shut and waved a few American flags, the 26th would still be red today. Even now the overwhelming majority of the district remains fervently conservative. Their votes were decidedly anti-Republican far more than they were pro-Democrat.

Democratic claims that they have somehow turned the tide of discontent away from them and squarely onto the Republicans based on one special election is premature at best and ignorant at worst. Yes, Republicans have gone completely overboard – as was expected – with their far-Right ideology, and yes, by doing so, they have lost many independent voters; voters they will desperately need in 2012. But Democrats still have not constructed a narrative to win over an electorate that is still wary of them. The Senate hangs precariously by a thread with no fewer than 23 Democratic seats up for grabs against only 10 for Republicans. Unless Democrats can give voters a reason to vote for them that doesn’t include the gross negligence of their opponents, they will face a difficult task holding the majority.

Assuming that Obama wins reelection – and right now all the polls show him significantly ahead of every GOP candidate except Mitt Romney – it is not completely unreasonable to see Republicans with a slightly weakened but still formidable majority in the House along with a respectable majority in the Senate come 2013. Every day that Democrats assume that they can waltz back into power without having to do anything to earn it is another day they spend deluding themselves.

Yes, Olympia Snow, Scott Brown and the rest of the Senate Republicans who had the good sense to vote “no” on the Ryan budget when Harry Reid brought it to the floor, will face tough challenges by the Tea Party next year, and, yes, some of them will lose. But when you do the math, the hurdle for Democrats is far greater than it is for Republicans.

All the more reason to stop pussyfooting around and get down to the business at hand. Yes, it was nice to steal one for a change, but stealing is what this was, nothing more, nothing less. Next time, Republicans won’t be so easy. You can count on that.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Medicare Problem for Democrats

Now that Newt Gingrich has fallen on the hand grenade as it were in articulating what every pollster has discovered and what every Republican privately knows is factual – that the Paul Ryan plan to privatize Medicare is about as popular as a Byzantine monk at a nudist colony – the only unanswered question that remains is how will Democrats deal with this most toxic of issues. For now, the bulk of the Party seems content to let the GOP continue hemorrhaging over their ineptitude and “courageousness.” And, for now, the polls seem to be backing them up.

But as any pundit will gladly tell you, polls, like the weather in Florida, can change on a dime. Lost in all the rhetoric on both sides is the unspeakable but unavoidable truth that if nothing is done to deal with the long-term problems besetting Medicare, it will simply not survive. Period. As things stand, the fund is scheduled to go belly up in 2024. Translation? If you’re in that age bracket that Paul Ryan wants to hand out vouchers to, by the time you’re eligible to receive Medicare there might not be any benefits left for you to draw from. Don’t think the 40 and 50 somethings aren’t aware of this.

Like it or not, Democrats are going to have to come to the table with proactive solutions that will fix the systemic problems that beset Medicare. Counting on your opponents to obligingly step on the third rail of politics isn’t a long-term strategy for success; it is a stopgap measure only that could potentially blow up in your face. Especially if Republicans can some how find a way to dress up this turkey of a plan and convince enough voters that they at least were willing to tackle the problem while their opponents sat on the sidelines and did nothing.

When it comes to shoveling horseshit, nobody is better at it than the Republican Party. That Democrats aren’t aware of this and busily attending to a preemptive strike of their own is political suicide, pure and simple. How many more times must progressives learn the painful lesson that those who lay in wait for their enemies to capitulate are more often than not the benefactors of a bitter defeat at their own hands.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Idiots’ Delight

Well it’s that time of the month again. Time, once more, to highlight yet more brilliant examples of stupendous stupidity.

This month, however, will be different. One winner will bare the brunt of the scorn all on her own. It’s not that there weren’t other nominees who didn’t deserve the spotlight of shame; it’s just that, given the nature of the grievous act, I thought it appropriate to let it stand all on its own.

For well over a decade Erica Payne has been a tireless champion of progressive values and has fought against the lies of right-wing groups like the Tea Party. She founded the Agenda Project, which is a progressive-action group whose stated goal is to “return normal Americans to the center of the policy debate by cultivating an understanding of public policy, facilitating common action, and connecting the best ideas and the strongest leaders with engaged citizens, elected officials, the media, political insiders, and experts through a variety of in-person and on-line platforms.”

One of the campaigns of Agenda Project is “Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength”, a petition to President Obama signed by millionaires who demanded that the Bush tax cuts be allowed to expire for those earning $1 million or more. Payne herself has been critical of Obama for meeting with the Chamber of Commerce and for ignoring his liberal base and pandering to Congressional Republicans. Whether you agree with Payne’s views or not, she is, if nothing else, someone who brings integrity to the discussion.

And that’s why it was so frustrating to see Payne and her group dive into the same corrosive cesspool of hate as their opponents with this latest attack ad against the Paul Ryan budget, which depicts a grandmother being thrown off a cliff by someone who bares a strong resemblance to Ryan to the strands of “America the Beautiful.” Dick Armey couldn’t have done a better job of demagoguery.

The ad was slimy and disgusting and went completely over the line. And the saddest thing of all was that the tactics employed in the ad were totally unnecessary to drive home the point it was attempting to make. The ad accurately denotes that more than half of Americans on Medicare live on less than $28,000 a year and that under the Paul Ryan plan, which calls for the privatization of the program, seniors will be given a voucher with which to purchase medical insurance. Of course if the voucher doesn’t quite cover the cost of the insurance, oh well.

That’s the tragedy here. Payne had the moral high ground without having to resort to this sort of fear mongering. By throwing grandma off the cliff, Payne not only ceded that moral high ground among many whom otherwise would be supportive and sympathetic to her stance, she allowed the very people who really should be running for the hills, politically speaking, to play the victim card and “reframe” an argument they know all too well they can’t possibly defend.

Payne, like so many on the Left, has drawn the wrong conclusion from the ’09 summer of madness, where Astroturf Tea Party townhall meetings attempted to thwart Democratic plans to reform healthcare through shouts of death panels, socialism and flat out lies and distortions. The “kill grandma” theme became a central tenant for the GOP to frighten seniors into believing that healthcare reform would mean that government bureaucrats would deny them vital coverage needed to keep them alive. It was shameless.

Well apparently Payne has adopted the classic axiom that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Equally shameless! If the Left thinks it is going to win the day by one-upping the Right in fear mongering, I have some bad news for it. It isn’t going to work.

While it may be tempting for some to believe that the tactics employed by the Right during the healthcare reform debates were successful, it’s important to remember that in spite of them, the reform bill eventually became law. The reason the Right engaged in such a heated and disgraceful campaign of lies and innuendos was because they knew they didn’t have the facts on their side. Without the moral high ground, their only hope was to frighten the ignorant enough to derail the whole process. They failed.

Now while Republican gains in Congressional and gubernatorial races in 2010 may have led many to conclude that the deception employed in ’09 eventually paid dividends, the truth is that it was economy, far more than healthcare, that drove many voters away from Democrats and into the waiting arms of the GOP. And, as is typical for Republicans, they almost always end up looking a gift horse in the mouth. Their over-reaching and far-right ideology is scaring many of those same voters away from them even as we speak. The Ryan budget is so far out of the mainstream of the electorate that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t even press his own caucus to vote for it when Harry Reid brings it to the floor this month. While publicly they may support it, privately to a man and woman they know it will be an albatross around their necks when they run for reelection in 2012.

So why on Earth, with all the momentum going their way, would Payne and her group elect to go with a failed strategy and risk alienating independent voters? Only they seem to know. But one thing is certain. Fighting fire with fire not only doesn’t work, it almost always succeeds in burning down the whole damn house. And that would be unforgivable, given what’s at stake next year.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Got Them Lame-Stream Media Blues Again

What do conservatives and progressives have in common? Besides the fact that both belong to the human race, they both hold the main-stream media in utter contempt. Of course for conservatives, their contempt is based on a belief that the main-stream media are a bunch of liberal-leaning elitist apologists for Obama and the Democratic Party; for progressives, the contempt is just the opposite. In their view, the main-stream media, in a feeble attempt to appear non-partisan, have not done a good enough job at, well, doing their jobs, i.e., digging for the truth.

Case in point, on today’s Meet the Press, moderator David Gregory was interviewing Republican candidate for president Newt Gingrich. When asked how he would balance the budget without at least considering the idea of raising taxes, Gingrich said under no circumstances would he consider that as an option. He then pointed to his successes in the ‘90s when they were able to balance the budget. At that precise moment, Gregory had an opportunity to ask the follow up question of the year, by bringing up the fact that one of the keys to that balanced budget was the fact that the top marginal tax rate back then was 39.6%. Gregory punted.

I’ve been seeing this a lot over the last few years – and not just Gregory (Can somebody please tell me what John King does for a living?) – and I’ve come to one unalterable and inescapable conclusion: The entire industry is just inept. In fact, I’m not even sure if inept adequately nails it. Fact is I could run out of adjectives to describe the decline in broadcast journalism, that’s how much it has fallen off over the last decade or so. With a few notable exceptions (most of them on PBS) what passes for journalistic integrity these days would make the likes of Cronkite, Sevareid and Murrow spin in their graves. The irony is that if you want to see truly excellent broadcast journalism these days, you needn’t bother tuning into CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN or MSNBC. Just set your dial to the Comedy Channel and watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In 30 minutes you’ll get more probative questions and thought-provoking topics than all the previous channels combined would bring you in 24 hours. And you’ll laugh your ass off to boot. Not content with just 30 minutes? Keep your dial right where it is and The Colbert Report will fill your tank the rest of the way.

That has to be the saddest commentary on an industry that only a few decades ago was the envy of the world. A lot has changed since the days when Cronkite and Sevareid dominated the airwaves. The internet, cable news channels, all have played a part in the watering down of this industry. But if you want my honest opinion, I think a lot of this comes down to dollars and cents. In the pioneering days, the networks knew full well that their news divisions were money losers. The profit end was left to the entertainment divisions. The integrity of news was considered sacrosanct, untouchable, a public service and trust. Ever since the ‘80s that mindset has flown the coop, replaced by a carnivorous, cut-throat mentality. News directors suddenly found themselves needing to compete, ratings wise, within their own network's entertainment divisions. The CBS Evening News had to at least hold its own against the Cosby Show. Once cable news took hold, it was off to the races. The cancer fully metastasized by the ‘90s.

Today what we are left with is a mere shell of what was once a proud and noble profession. The world has turned completely on its head and we have gotten exactly what we’ve paid for. News is now entertainment, made of profit and for profit. Ironic isn’t it. Time was when we’d turn on the news to learn about the world we live in, and then watch the comedy shows to allow us to escape from it. Now comedians, who are supposed to make us laugh, end up making us think and journalists, who are supposed to make us think, end up making us laugh … and cry.

For now, I'll leave you with the farewell broadcast of Eric Sevareid.  His wisdom and grace knew no equal. Oh how the mighty have fallen!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Debtors Prism

Funny thing about debt. Everybody has a definitive opinion on it, but few, if any seem to know much about it. Of course, if you belong to the Tea Party, you know everything there is to know about debt. It’s very bad, and, like some virus infecting our bodies, it must be rooted out. Of course, debt is a lot more complicated than that, and, while I don’t profess to have a degree in economics, I thought a slightly more sober and balanced reading on the subject might be in order.

Now let me start off by stating categorically that I acknowledge that the United States has a long-term debt problem that poses a serious threat to its future, and at some point we are going to have to come to grips with it before it ends up destroying us. There, I said it. Let no one say from this moment on that I’m a deficit hound. But, having said that, I also wish to make clear that I am not given to bouts of hysteria and hyperbole. Yes the debt needs to be dealt with, but not this very minute. Real problems like persistent high unemployment and a sluggish recovery continue to affect millions of people in a profound way, but to listen to the pundits you’d think the only problem besetting us is that mounting debt. It hangs over us like the sword of Damocles.

So let’s talk about debt shall we? In an earlier blog post I wrote back in 2009, titled Pay As You Go: The Great American Myth Exposed, I began to peel back some of the misconceptions about debt and deficits. For instance, did you know that less than a decade after defeating the British, America’s debt stood at a robust $75 million? While that may not seem like a lot when compared to the $14 trillion debt we currently have, it constituted 40% of the country’s gross national product. Quite a feat for a fledgling nation. And did you also know that once, and only once, has the nation had no public debt at all? The date was January 8, 1835 and the president was Andrew Jackson. Since then the national debt has risen steadily over time.

Here are the pertinent periods, their timelines and the corresponding debt increases:

The Civil War (1861 – 65): From $65 million to $2.7 billion
World War II (1940 – 45): From $51 billion to $260 billion
The Reagan years (1981 – 89): From $930 billion to $3.2 trillion
George W. Bush (2001 – 09): From $5.7 trillion to $10.4 trillion

What I find amazing in these statistics is how much the debt rose in such a short time. Equally impressive was the fact that since 1835 the nation has always had debt and somehow managed to not only get by, but, in some instances, thrive. In deed, far from being the albatross it has been portrayed as, debt has played a major role in helping the United States become the nation it is today.  For instance, in 1945, the debt was 123% of GDP, and yet, with the exception of a brief economic downturn – understandable after the end of such a massive undertaking as a world war – America went on to enjoy the greatest period of economic prosperity, quite possibly, in its entire existence.

Of course the top marginal tax rate during that period was 91% on incomes over $400,000, helping to drive down the tremendous debt that had piled up during the War. You think perhaps that had something to do with it? But then that has always been the dirty little secret of debt hasn’t it. It’s easy to look at expenditures, but it’s so much harder to analyze revenues.

But statistics don’t lie. They can be manipulated, but eventually they reveal clear and undeniable patterns. Like, for instance, this little tidbit: Since the end of World War II, without exception, the periods that witnessed the greatest decrease in the national debt owed that decrease almost exclusively to an increase in the top marginal tax rates. Conversely, the biggest increases in the debt occurred when those top marginal tax rates were reduced. If you subtract wars from the equation, the single biggest contributor to America’s debt is lower revenue stream. Period. For example, the difference between Bill Clinton’s top marginal tax rate and George Bush’s top marginal rate equated to about a $400 billion per year net loss to the treasury, thus turning a budget surplus of $200 billion in 2001 into a trillion dollar deficit by 2009. To say that the only contributor to the national debt is spending is to just flat out ignore the facts.

Now supply-side proponents defiantly maintain that lowering tax rates encourage investment, thus resulting in revenue gains. Unfortunately for these proponents, while lower taxes do increase base line revenues, the gains do not offset the losses generated by the tax reductions. Even Arthur Laffer – who came up with his “legendary” Laffer curve, upon which most supply-side economics is based – has admitted that not all the tax cuts would pay for themselves. In fact for every dollar the treasury sent out, it got back about eighty cents.

How profound was the turnaround from the surplus of the Clinton years to the massive deficits of the Bush years? In 2001, the CBO had forecast that within ten years the entire debt of the United States would’ve been paid off. For the first time since 1835, America would be debt free. Instead, the national debt stands at over $14 trillion. Now, to be fair, not all the debt can be laid at the feet of the Bush tax cuts. Two massive wars, Medicare Part D – all unpaid for – and the worst recession since the Great Depression certainly contributed to the massive debt problem. And then there was the $787 billion stimulus that helped keep the economy from going off the cliff. But the lion’s share of the blame must go to the decision to lower the top marginal tax rate from 39.6% to 35%. The resultant $4 trillion in lost revenue over the last ten years is now the number one long-term threat facing the nation.  Until the powers that be accept the painful reality that balancing the budget means increasing revenues as well as cutting expenditures we will continue this silly dance and an awful lot of misinformed people will continue to delight in their ignorance.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ready, Fire, Aim

Okay, it’s here: Armageddon. No, not the Armageddon that, according to resident prophecy lunatic and Family Radio hack Brother Harold Camping, is supposed to occur on May 21st of this year; nor the Armageddon that the Mayans forecasted for 2012. This Armageddon is real and it’s less than a week away.

Mark down May 16th on your calendar. That’s D-day, with the D standing for Debt Ceiling. On that day, the United States will reach its official debt limit, which is $14.294 trillion. According to the law, one of two things must happen: Either the ceiling must be raised or the government will default on its debt. There are no other choices. Sure the Treasury Department can initiate emergency “band-aid” measures to keep the government operating until July or maybe even August, but don’t kid yourself. Once we pass May 16th, the message we send to the rest of the world will have profound consequences for all concerned. And in the likely event that that occurs, get your mattress ready and stuff as much money as you can into it. You’re going to need it.

There’s no way to dance around this. Defaulting on the debt would be catastrophic for the United States’ and world markets. It would plunge the globe into an economic tailspin that would make the last recession look like a bad hair day. To even suggest, as John Boehner did, that raising the debt ceiling without getting significant reductions in spending would be more irresponsible than allowing the nation to default on its debt, goes above and beyond mere political rhetoric; it’s the height of irresponsibility. Either Boehner simply doesn’t understand the ramifications of a default, or he knows full well what it means and he’s banking on winning this sick game of Russian Roulette with Democrats.

I’m banking on the latter, for the simple reason that, unlike so many other House Republicans – especially the Tea Party freshmen – Boehner may be an ideologue, but he isn’t mad. He may want “significant” cuts in spending, but he isn’t willing to destroy the country and most of the planet to get them. The problem for Boehner is that most of his caucus doesn’t drink from the same fountain as he. To them the debt ceiling issue is just a rouse by the White House and Congressional Democrats to frighten the public and further their “radical agenda.”

So when Boehner said this past Monday in New York that “without significant spending cuts and reform to reduce our debt, there will be no debt limit increase,” he may have only been attempting to gain the needed political leverage for the bigger fight over the 2012 budget and in the process pander to a base that has grown increasingly uneasy with his leadership, the real problem for him is that that very same base neither understands the game of politics nor is desirous of a compromise that both Parties’ leaderships realize will have to be made for a deal to be struck. Remember, these are the same Republicans who shouted “shut it down” over the last round of budget talks.

The real danger is that by attempting to feather his nest with his base, Boehner could box himself into a corner whereby, even if he gets Democrats to budge a little and make concessions on further spending cuts, he still may not have the necessary votes in the House to actually get the ceiling raised. Remember, Democrats only control 193 seats, and one of those seats is held by Gabby Giffords. Assuming that all Democrats are on board, Boehner will need 26 votes from his own party. Given their current mindset, that will be a tall order. That’s the problem with pandering to the irrational. They fear the unreal threats and are oblivious to the legitimate ones.

And that’s why I am growing increasingly dubious that a deal can be struck, for the simple reason that the Tea Party element, which now controls the vast majority of the Republican Party, wants no part of any deal, even if it means averting a catastrophe of epic proportions. With a fragile economy limping along, the prospects for a double dip recession, or worse, loom as a distinct and real probability.

Be afraid; be very afraid.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A New Vision

Now that the leader of al-Qaeda has been taken out, it will be tempting to look only at how the U.S. moves forward in a post bin Laden world. The questions will be many. What reprisals, if any, should America expect to contend with as a result of last Sunday’s mission? What does this mean for our on-going involvement in Afghanistan? Is it time to bring home the remaining troops from that country? And what of Pakistan? Were they complicit in allowing bin Laden to live just over 35 miles north of their capital city right outside their chief military training facility? Or were they simply incompetent? In either case, how does America deal with an “ally” – a nuclear one at that – in the War on Terror that appears to have some profound issues with its government and perhaps even military? Everyone agrees that a destabilized Pakistan could deal a blow to any future plans the U.S. has in dealing with extremist elements in the region.

But while all these questions are crucial, and must be answered, there is one question that begs to be asked that outweighs all of them. It is the one question that few, if any, have had the stomach to ask, because it is so inflammatory and controversial in its nature, that to even speak it would cause a rip in the space-time continuum. But last Friday on Bill Maher’s Real Time show, Maher dared ask it.

Did bin Laden win?

Seriously, barely one week after Navy SEAL Team 6 put two bullets in his skull, it’s time to consider the unthinkable: Is it possible that Osama bin Laden won the war he started on September 11th, 2001? To begin to answer that question honestly, it is essential that we understand what his real objectives were. The fact is that the narrative the West has been operating on regarding this war has been faulty from the onset. Yes, Osama bin Laden intended to murder Americans and anyone else who rejected his narrow interpretation of Islamic law. But his major objective went far greater than mere death and destruction. His main goal was ostensibly to bankrupt the U.S. and its allies, and put an end to our whole system of laws and values.

With respect to the latter, he damn near succeeded. The wave of anti-Muslim extremism currently sweeping America has been a stain on all that this nation is supposed to stand for. But while these movements have been ugly and malignant, they are, thankfully, unconstitutional, and will go down to defeat in the courts eventually. While political ideologues will continue to exploit the fears and fan the flames of racism among the ignorant, the Constitution is far more resilient than such myopia would allow. Despite their efforts we will survive this period.

But, as for the former, call it, “Mission Accomplished.” Let’s look at the facts. At the start of the last decade, the total debt of the United States stood at $5.7 trillion. When Bill Clinton left the White House there was a $200 billion dollar surplus, and the CBO estimated that if the current level of spending was maintained the nation would be debt free within a decade.

By February, 2011, the national debt has risen to $14.2 trillion, and the surplus Clinton had left us became a $1.6 trillion deficit. Why the profound turnaround in both? There were many factors. Massive tax cuts under the Bush Administration cost the treasury $400 billion per year in lost revenue over the last ten years. The fairytale of supply-side economics has resulted in record deficits in two Republican administrations with little return on investment. And then there is the Medicare prescription drug plan – also unfunded – that is projected to cost the taxpayers about $1.2 trillion over its first ten years.

But a major reason for the huge debt problem of the country is owed directly to two massive wars that were launched under Bush in the months after 9/11. The first – Afghanistan – was waged, we were told, to get bin Laden. And yet, when push came to shove, the U.S. found and killed him not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. The second war – the phony war as I call it – resulted in the removal of a dictator who not only posed no eminent threat to American interests, he proved to be the only check on Iranian aggressions in the region. With Saddam Hussein gone Iraq has slid into virtual chaos and Iran is now a major exporter of violence in the region. The total costs of prosecuting both wars, according to Joseph Stiglitz, now stands at $3 trillion when you factor in both combat expenses and the impact the conflicts have had on the economy. Only World War II was costlier. In current dollars, that war would’ve cost $5 trillion. But for our money we defeated Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohita and put an end to fascism.

What have we gotten for our $3 trillion so far? The execution of one mass murderer, a deeply fragmented and destabilized Middle East and a badly tarnished American reputation that may well end up taking decades to repair. Throw in the sub-prime mortgage meltdown – a testament to capitalist greed run amuck, which sucked another trillion out of the economy – and you have a mountain of debt that is crippling the country. But the lion share of it belongs to a failed doctrine, which owes its heritage to a world that long ago passed into oblivion.

Think about it. When Osama bin Laden attacked the United States he didn’t invade with 100,000 troops and a floating armada. He sent in special operatives who trained for months to carry out their deadly mission. For a fraction of what the U.S. spent on retaliating against him, bin Laden managed to kill 3,000 people, reduce to rubble two of the largest buildings in the world, and suck $3 trillion dollars out of the American economy. Now that’s a return on investment! If he had been a Wall Street broker, Osama would’ve been the greatest financial genius of all time.

We didn’t know it at the time, but 9/11 marked the end of conventional warfare, as it were. The days of global disputes being settled through traditional methods of engagement had gone the way of the dinosaur. We just didn’t get the memo. With all the casualties we suffered and inflicted in both Iraq and Afghanistan – estimated to be in the tens of thousands – it came down to a handful of highly trained SEALs acting on intelligence obtained through operatives to put down public enemy number one. Nearly ten years after it began, the United States finally caught on that when it comes to fighting the War on Terror less is more.

And now, nearly bankrupt, and clawing its way out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the United States can boast that it has sent Dr. Evil to the infernal region. But somewhere in hell, the sinister mastermind is laughing his ass off at his handiwork. Yes, he murdered thousands of innocent people, but he did much more than that. He murdered our economy, with, of course, the help of some terribly naïve and archaic thinking on the part of our leaders.

Faced with such overwhelming and irrefutable evidence, the real issue isn’t whether bin Laden bested us, but whether or not we can learn from our colossal mistake. In some respects, the U.S. may have already begun to reexamine its modus operandi. Now that it is has become clear to all that the best way to defeat this enemy is not with huge military forces, but with small targeted special ops missions and, yes, drone attacks, expect a significant draw down in forces in Afghanistan and a dramatic rise is the same kind of smaller, assassin-like missions that took place last week. While the Left may object to such attacks, the truth is they are far more effective than what we have been doing and cost far less to execute.

But if the United States really wants not only to ensure its survival in a post bin Laden world, but begin to rebuild its badly damaged reputation within it, it can embrace the wave of democratic revolutions that are currently sweeping the Middle East. It was, in hindsight, a tragic blunder of epic proportions for America to prop up dictators in this region based solely on the fact that they supported our interests. The repression and violence these despots perpetrated on their citizens over the decades caused a deep and resounding resentment to metastasize toward America. The first hint there was trouble in the “empire” was the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. While most political pundits point to 9/11 as the start date of the War on Terror, its real origins date back to the collapse of the Iranian monarchy and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. As is typical, we were blind to what happened and why.

And now we are presented with another opportunity to reevaluate our true priorities in a fragile and turbulent region. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and maybe one day even Saudi Arabia; they could all wind up being a part of a new geopolitical democratic movement that would transform the Middle East from early nineteenth century imperialist dictatorships to 21st century republics. Interesting thing about democracy. Once it starts, it’s hard to stop it.

It’s not too late to get on board this train. For all our missteps as a nation, the ironic thing about all this is that it’s not our values that these people despise, it’s our policies. We can go a long way towards changing their view of us simply by doing something unique in American foreign policy: staying the hell out of their lives.

But while America can and must stop being the cop on the beat, we cannot afford to be the ostrich hiding its head in the sand either. No matter how hard many on the Left may wish it, the simple truth is that even if we were to do a 180 and become the true beacon of freedom the world deserves, there will still be forces out there determined to strike us. Like it or not, we will have to engage this element proactively, aggressively and efficiently with reckless abandon. I am not at all comfortable with the ramifications of what this means, and no doubt it will take a great deal of dancing on a tightrope as we grapple with and mold this foreign policy, but this is the world we live in, not the world we’d like to live in. Like Teddy Roosevelt we will have to learn to speak softly and carry a big stick. But that stick doesn’t have to be a massive troop surge. To some extent, Obama may already be realizing that the old methods don’t work anymore. They are bankrupting the nation and producing little, if any, results.

It’s time the United States learned how to walk and chew gum at the same time. Strutting our stuff as we advance from nation to nation to root out our enemies may have worked during World War II when we were fighting the Nazis, but this is a different time and a different enemy. The circumstances of today call for out of the box thinking. We can be effective and respected leaders in the world, while at the same time making it crystal clear to that same world that anyone who threatens our sovereignty will end up looking like Moe Greene, and we have the pictures to prove it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Over the last few days I have been watching and listening closely to the post bin Laden talking points from both the Left and the Right and have come to one final conclusion: their isn’t a toxic waste dump big enough to throw most of them into.

The chest thumping on the Left has been deeply embarrassing to me personally. As a progressive, I have always taken great solace in knowing that for the most part my side, while certainly no stranger to zealousness, at least had integrity and truth on its side. A bit too high-minded and lofty, perhaps, for its own good, and definitely lacking that essential ingredient of pragmatism needed to win the political skirmishes its opponents kept prevailing in, but no matter. Despite the frustration, I always slept well at night.

That is until this week. The last few days have made my skin crawl. The Left has taken this bittersweet moment in American history and turned it into a freakish sideshow. Not even Barnum would’ve been so brazen and callous. How bad was the gloating on MSNBC? I was actually forced to watch CNN, that’s how bad. Between Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz, I damn near threw up. I expect such deplorable acts of grandstanding on Fox News; I don’t expect them on MSNBC.

While most of the media focused, and correctly so, on the superb job the Navy SEALs did in the operation, MSNBC spent the bulk of the week making this all about Obama and his courage, wisdom and guts. While the President deserves credit for making the right call at the right moment, making what he did out to be the greatest military action since Sherman’s march to the sea is absurd. When Obama made the decision to ostensibly follow most of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy virtually hook, line and sinker, the Left lit him up like a firework’s display on the Fourth of July. Now that one of those policies – enhanced interrogation perhaps – appears to have netted something tangible, it can’t wait to wrap it up in one of its flags. The disingenuousness of the motives behind their selective amnesia is obvious, self-serving and revolting.

But if you thought the hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement on the Left was bad enough, the Right’s deplorable conduct went above and beyond even their usual loathsome extremes. To hear them, Obama might as well have been the water boy – yes I use that word and not as a pun – for George Bush. It was Bush who had the guts to respond to the attacks of 9/11 by sending in troops to Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban, thus forcing bin Laden into Pakistan where Obama was finally able to nail him; ergo it was Bush who deserves virtually all the credit for last Sunday’s mission. A real mission accomplished if ever there was one. Yes, that was meant to be ironic.

Of course the fact that bin Laden was able to make his way into Pakistan in the first place was due directly to Bush’s decision to pull a substantial number of U.S. troops out of Afghanistan to fight his fraudulent war in Iraq. We had him trapped in the mountains of Tora Bora. He escaped because we got distracted. Funny how that little bit of news never seems to find its way onto the Fox News Channel or the AM talk-radio shows. But then that would just ruin the whole damn narrative, wouldn’t it? Can’t have that. Why spoil a perfectly good fairytale with something so inconsequential as facts?

And speaking of facts, if I may, I’d like to “spin” my own yarn as it were, just to set the record straight. First, both sides need a serious time out and a good shower to cleanse themselves of the crap that has permeated every pore of their collective consciousness. As I said on Monday, we got the bastard. It’s a good day to be an American, regardless of whether you call yourself a Democrat or Republican or whatever. Second, the real heroes are the rescue workers who risked – and in some cases lost – their lives by running into the towers on 9/11, as well as the Navy SEALs who carried out the mission that killed bin Laden. Any number of things could’ve gone terribly wrong, resulting in disaster. Instead, everything came together and a grateful nation celebrated.

And finally, it’s time to give this president at least some measure of credit for doing something right. By insisting on a special ops mission instead of a drone attack, Obama made sure the world knew we got the right guy. And yes we got him. Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, the DNA matched. Yes, I’d like to see the photos, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it if I don’t. Fact is, Obama may be a little too calm and collected for our tastes sometimes, and a tad bit emotionally detached as well, but when we needed the ice water that flows through his veins most, we got it. That “poise” sure came in handy Sunday, didn’t it?

The irony of the Obama Administration has been that its harshest critics have come from both flanks of the political spectrum. The Left sees him as a corporatist sellout; the Right as a socialist ideologue. Never has a sitting president been subjected to such ignominy as this one. And now, even in a moment of genuine celebration, both camps can't resist the urge to make it all about him, can they?

Somebody pass me the barf bag.

And so we are left with a bittersweet moment to reflect once more on what happened to us, how we recovered and, more importantly, how we move forward as a nation. The fact that Osama bin Laden is dead closes but one chapter in a very sordid and complicated book. It’s a book that chronicles a nation still defining its position in a world that is ever changing and dynamic. How well that nation – America – adapts to this world will go a long way towards determining whether it will thrive as a leader, or sail off into the same sunset that consumed so many other empires of the past.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Just Deserts

The morning of September 11th 2001 started like any other morning. I had arrived to work at 8:30, called my wife to wish her a good day, and within a few minutes was notified by a fellow worker that the World Trade Center was on fire. That morning I, along with an entire nation, watched in horror over the next several hours as two of the tallest buildings in the world were reduced to rubble and three thousand innocent people had been the victims of the most heinous act of terrorism committed against this nation in its long history. Not even the burning of the White House by the British in 1814 or the attack on Pearl Harbor could compare.

We would soon discover the man responsible for planning the attack was Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization that had carried out the U.S. embassy bombings and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. 19 hijackers had been specially trained to deliberately fly two planes into the twin towers and one into the Pentagon. Only a selfless act of heroism by a number of passengers on Flight 93 prevented another target – possibly the Capital building – from being destroyed.

In our despair and grief, we came together as one nation. Suddenly there were no Republicans or Democrats, no conservatives or liberals, just Americans. For the first time since World War II, the country was unified. What terrorists had meant for evil, millions of us turned into hope and recovery. And even though the moment of unity soon passed into the abyss of political divisiveness, all of us who were touched by the violence that day, either directly or indirectly, will never forget where we were, what we were doing, and the tremendous example of those firemen, police and Port Authority workers who sacrificed everything they had to save total strangers.

On the evening of May 1st 2011, I was watching an episode of CSI-Miami when, at approximately 10:30, CBS broke in with a special alert that President Obama was going to address the nation. What was so important that it required waking up an entire nation? Was it about Libya? Was Gaddafi finally stepping down, or maybe assassinated in a NATO raid?

We didn’t have long to wait. Within minutes of the initial alert, the news finally broke: bin Laden was dead, killed in a raid on his compound within an affluent Pakistani suburban neighborhood. When the President finally addressed the nation from the East Room of the White House, tears of joy were streaming down my cheeks. A grateful people took to the streets to celebrate as the news spread like wildfire throughout the land.

It has been nine years, seven months and 21 days since that tragic day, and now the man who murdered so many innocent people and stained an entire religion has met his just deserts. Dare I say, it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving individual? Yes, I dare!

Please spare me the sermons about how wrong it is to cheer or celebrate the death of another human being. This was different. Osama bin Laden was a human being the same way Hitler was a human being. Both were unspeakably evil and both committed despicable acts of violence upon their victims. While Hitler had more blood on his hands than bin Laden, the difference wasn’t worth parsing, as far as I’m concerned. Ironically both died on the exact same day – May 1st – 66 years apart. Poetic justice, don’t you think?

No, there is no compassion in my heart for a monster; rather my thoughts and prayers go out to those families and friends who lost loved ones on that fateful day. My hope is that now – finally, after all these years – they can find some measure of peace and begin to move on with the rest of their lives. Nothing can ever make them completely whole, but now that the man who murdered their loved ones has himself been killed, they can rest a bit easier.

And I also don’t want to hear any political spin on this military action, at least not for some time. Already pundits on both side of the political aisle are starting their nauseating dive into the partisan pit. On the Left, Obama is the best president since Ike; on the Right, all he did was continue the Bush Doctrine. Knock it off. There will be plenty of time to go back to business as usual. The debt ceiling and budget battles aren’t going anywhere and, no doubt, will return to the fore soon enough. For now, let’s enjoy the moment. Like those days immediately after 9/11, let’s pretend we’re all one voice and forget our differences.

Take a good look at the crowds dancing for joy in the streets around midtown Manhattan, the World Trade Center and outside the White House. They’ve got the right idea. Those aren’t Republicans or Democrats you see; they’re just good old-fashioned Americans, waving flags and chanting USA, USA!

Who knows what tomorrow will bring; for that matter who cares. Bin Laden is dead. We’ve waited and prayed for this day for almost a decade. Now that it’s here, let’s not ruin it by living down to our worst proclivities. What a tragedy it would be if the last victory that bastard had was to watch us tear each other apart over how he arrived at his final resting place, which I sincerely hope is nice and hot.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Madison’s Lament

When James Madison wrote The Federalist No. 10 in 1787, he knew full well the perils of what he called a “pure” democracy. What he and his fellow founders feared most was that the chaos of true democratic rule would overcome the newly born republic. Of particular concern to Madison were the inherent dangers of “faction” in such a democracy.

“A pure Democracy, by which I mean, a Society, consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Fifty years later, Alexis de Tocqueville went a bit further by coining the phrase “Tyranny of the majority.” His concern with mob rule was quite evident when he wrote, “That which I reproach the democratic government for the most, such as it is organized in the United States, is not (like many Europeans claim) its weakness, but, to the contrary, its irresistible force. And that which disgusts me the most in America, is not the extreme liberty which reigns there, but the lack of guarantees one finds there against tyranny.”

I wonder what both men would say about life in contemporary America where the tigers are eating their young and the restless throng is fixing to seize the reigns of power from the ruling elite. In what can only be described at the consummate example of the inmates taking over the asylum, the thing Madison feared most appears to be coming to fruition in the United States. “Mischiefs of faction?” That is a polite way to put what has been happening to the republic of Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and Madison.

Freud referred to it as the id, that “dark, inaccessible part of our personality,” chaotic and “full of seething excitations.” In Freudian psychology, the id is where all our basic drives are stored. It “knows no judgments of value: no good and evil, no morality.” The only thing that matters to it is satisfying its instinctual needs.

In the classic Sci-Fi movie Forbidden Planet we discover that the id’s “monsters from the subconscious” are what eventually lead to the destruction of the Krell. “The secret devil of every soul on the planet suddenly set loose to kill and maim and take revenge,” Leslie Nielsen desperately tries to explain to Walter Pidgeon, who doesn’t seem to get it that something so primitive as an instinctual drive was single-handedly responsible for the systematic extinction of such an advanced race. In the end that realization eventually kills him too.

William Shakespeare knew a thing or two about the primitive nature of Man, as well as how volatile and unpredictable his actions often were. In his classic play, Julius Caesar, the protagonist, Marc Antony, manages to turn the people of Rome, who moments before had been heralding Brutus as a hero, into a riotous mob bent on killing him. Like the fickle weather in Florida, the crowd’s radical change of heart proved too much for reason to overcome. Shakespeare and Freud might as well have been cousins as far as their understanding of the human mind was concerned.

This is the paradox of the human experience. Despite some rather remarkable accomplishments throughout its storied past, the words that best exemplify humanity can be summed up as follows: unsophisticated, emotional, erratic and easily led astray. Add them up and you see why Madison was so concerned. Who, in their right mind, would want to live in a country where those qualities ran riot and ruled the day?

Don’t look now, but the current mood within America is on the verge of deteriorating into the personification of that country. The people are loaded for bear and brimming with a restlessness seldom seen. In deed, despite the rhetoric of conservative activists who keep referencing the “good old days” and quoting the founding fathers, the more we unravel the mechanics behind this movement the more closely it begins to resemble another famous revolution: the French Revolution. All that’s missing is Marie Antoinette and a barrel full of guillotines.

Now, before we go any further, it’s important to note that this volatile undercurrent in the electorate didn’t spring up overnight, or even in the last two years. You could say it’s been brewing for decades, maybe longer. The Great Depression of the ‘30s and the Great Society of the ‘60s saw tremendous waves of discontent within segments of the population that rocked the establishment. In both instances, the angst of these people led to profound reverberations throughout the social fabric of the nation. The reforms that ensued continue to benefit the country as a whole.

What both “populist” movements had in common was their contempt for the status quo coupled with a yearning to improve the quality of life for the nation. The Great Depression had finally smashed the myth of a pure and perfect capitalist society that could provide for all the needs of its people; the Great Society finally came to terms with the inequality that existed among the races and attempted to right centuries of wrongs. While the latter movement was more grassroots than the former, both were egalitarian in their makeup. In other words, both saw the virtue of a collective good outweighing the autonomy of an often cruel and unjust marketplace.

But, while the reforms may have endured, the movements that spawned them eventually petered out, unable to sustain the emotional energy needed for the overthrow of the establishment they so desperately despised. The system, as it were, adapted and adopted. Madison’s model of Republicanism, imperfect though it might’ve been, worked.

Such is not the case today. This movement, though populist in appearance, is hardly grassroots. Through the auspices of powerful corporate interests, which contributed untold millions of dollars, and spurred on by a right-wing media blitz that has been unrelenting, this movement has become self-actualized in a way unlike any other movement in American history. The Citizens United case has opened the floodgates, as it were, and allowed corporations to basically run roughshod over the political landscape. The 2010 midterm elections were but the first salvo in a war that, thanks to the ineptitude and complicity of the Supreme Court, promises to compromise the political process indefinitely, decimating a republic which has stood for over two centuries.

Of course, that's the problem with astro-turf movements; they are uncontrollable once they are born.  That, of course, was what kept Madison and Tocqueville up nights: the faction element of a democracy taking hold and running the show. It is becoming a reality before our very eyes. Long-standing racists elements within the Republican Party – embarrassing but ostensibly innocuous – now have come to dominate it and have forced it so far over to the Right, Eisenhower would now be considered a Communist among their ranks. They are emboldened, defiant, clueless and well funded. And just like some modern-day version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster – having been given life by its creator – is now turning on him. The Tea Party has threatened any Republican who doesn’t tow their party’s line with primary challenges next year. How’s that for gratitude? The castle you see burning to the ground represents America, and we are all trapped inside it.  Can you spell Weimar Republic?  Get used to it.  Before too long we may end up looking just like it.

Quite a spectacle! I confess, I’m at a loss for how to remedy this. My fear is that we have let the Jeannie out of the bottle, as it were, and now we will never be able to put her back in. In other words, we may, as a nation, have gone too far down the road to turn back. Money, the fuel that has driven our economy for so long, could well push the whole damn car off the cliff into the abyss.

And if that happens, you can’t say we weren’t warned. A number of very intelligent, thoughtful, and learned men gave us everything we needed to avoid catastrophe. All we had to do was heed their words. Too bad we sold the instruction manual before we read it.