Friday, September 30, 2011

The Empty Threat

A number of years ago I was working as a manager for a computer company.  Every other Friday was payday and, since I had direct deposit, I seldom if ever bothered to look at my pay stub.

Well one Friday, I got a call from the payroll department.  Seems they had made a “slight” mistake with a decimal point.  Instead of getting my usual $1,350.00 deposited into my checking account, I got $1,350,000.00.  The CFO noticed the error almost immediately, but not before the checks were issued and the monies got deposited.

As I looked at my pay stub, I was stunned.  I had never seen that much money before, not without playing Monopoly.  Two things immediately struck me: The first was, Wow! That’s a sh*tload of money; the second was, Wow!  That’s a sh*tload of taxes.  Yes, back in those days, a check of that amount was taxed at 39.6%.  After subtracting federal, state and FICA – along with my 401k – my take-home pay was a paltry $678,000.  Almost 50% of that check went to taxes and / or retirement.  Even I couldn’t believe it.

Of course they corrected the error and by next Monday, I returned to my usual mild-mannered, overworked and underpaid position, with only a canceled check to remind me of how great it felt to walk among the millionaires, if only for a day or two.

Over the last eleven years, I have reflected on that moment many times.  While I have misplaced the check, I have never forgotten the feeling I had when I gazed at the amount of money I fleetingly possessed.

I think of all the things I could’ve done with $678,000.  My wife and I could’ve bought our house without a mortgage and put the rest of it into a retirement account, or a much better house than the one we currently live in.  We also could’ve put all of it into a retirement account and set ourselves up for what would’ve been the most glorious and comfortable golden years any retired couple could ask for.  Of course, we could’ve donated most, if not all, of it to charity and, in the process, brought a little relief to those who, through no fault of their own, couldn’t lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.  The possibilities seemed endless.

But the one thing I would not have done, and would never do, would be to have the gall to say that because the government took out almost 50% of that check in taxes, that I would refuse it, or that I would quit (as Bill O’Reilly had the nerve to say on his show the other day), or that if I didn’t quit I just wouldn’t work as hard as I had been, because, after all, what’s the point of working hard if the government gets to keep almost half of my earnings?

Because to say something that utterly stupid is insane.  Over the last decade I have had the good fortune to earn a respectable income.  And, in all those years, I still have not earned, collectively, what that one check represented.  Not even close!  And I have a message for the Bill O’Reillys out there.  Any time you’re feeling so repressed and burdened by your shackles that you just can’t bring yourselves to show up and collect your meager millions, just drop me a line.  I’ll be more than happy to relieve you of your burden.  In fact, we can trade places.  You can have my slightly lower tax rate and I’ll just have to rough it with your slightly higher one.  Deal?

Of all the hyperbole we have had to put up with from the Tea Party faction, none has been more ridiculous, or insulting, than the notion that taxing the rich an extra 3.6% would mean that they would pack it in and close up shop.  Truth is they aren’t going anywhere.  The reason rich people have so much money is because they are very good at making it and they have been for centuries.  They will do just fine with a slightly higher tax bracket and they know it, as does Bill O’Reilly.

Sadly, he isn’t going anywhere!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

They’re Cuckoo for Christie in GOP Land

Psychiatrists refer to it as dissociative identity disorder; a condition in which a person displays multiple, distinct identities or personalities, known as alter egos, each with its own pattern of perceiving and interacting with the environment.  Of course, it also goes by another name: split personality.  Whichever term you prefer – the clinical and more appropriate definition or the common, less politically correct one, one thing is certain: it can be quite a debilitating disease.  You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.  Or would you?

Looking at the Republican Party these last couple of months, it’s becoming all too obvious that the powers that be are loaded with it.  There is great concern within the Grand Old Party over the viability of the current crop of candidates vying for the nomination and the chance to dethrone emperor Obama from the Kremlin (er, White House) next year.  Hence the “Draft Christie” movement among the, how should I say it, less enthusiastic contingent of the faithful and the hopeful.

Not one to feed a neurosis, their concern is hardly without merit.  Despite the threat of a double-dip recession, only Mitt Romney has polled well against the President.  Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Ron Paul have enough baggage to star in their own Southwest Airlines commercial.  But voting for Romney, for most Republicans (particularly Tea Party Republicans) is like having to go to the prom with your sister.  You can dance with her but that’s where the fun ends if you know what I mean.

And therein lies the problem.  While conservatives may loathe Obama, they aren’t exactly fond of Romney.  That he is thought of as the prohibitive favorite drives them up the proverbial wall.  Perry was like a breath of fresh toxic air from one of his oilrigs.  A straight shooter and drinker of the Kool-Aid, he was a dream come true, until he shot off his mouth so much he made George Bush look intelligent.  Michele Bachmann is certifiable.  Not even the most ardent of conservative pollsters believes she has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning a general election.  And Ron Paul and the Godfather guy are nothing more than the half-time entertainment at the Super Bowl of the Demented. 

If only they could find someone to run who they like who doesn’t have all those skeletons in his closet; someone who is a conservative, but who could woo independent voters; someone who says and does what he believes and who isn’t afraid to tackle tough issues; but most importantly, someone who could actually win a general election against Obama without being either crazy or a phony.  Chris Christie is that candidate.

And that’s why everyone from Fox News to Ann Coultergeist is practically begging the New Jersey governor to throw his ten-gallon hat into the presidential ring.  And while my gut tells me Christie wants it, my instincts say he probably won’t do it, and for one very important reason: he really isn’t a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and he knows it.

Yes, you heard me.  The second coming of Howard Taft maybe right-of-center, but he is hardly a disciple of the Right.  Just listen to the man and you tell me, does this guy sound like anything you’ve heard coming out of the echo chamber that currently passes for the Tea Party-lead GOP?  Not even close.  Romney maybe the used-car salesman from hell, but at least he talks the talk.  Christie’s rhetoric suggests he be more likely to tell the Tea Party faithful to go F themselves as hang with them.  He’s already blasted the Sharia Law mobs as “crazy.”  Imagine what would happen the first time he was in a debate with his fellow sheep and his record was actually revealed. 

Yes, he’s been tough on unions; yes his cuts to education have hurt.  FYI, virtually every governor – Red or Blue – has had to make some painful and often draconian cuts to his or her budgets over the last two or so years.  Have you taken a good look at what’s happened on the other side of the Hudson?  Nobody’s particularly happy these days, least of all unions.  At least Christie hasn’t made the same mistake as some of his fellow GOP governors like Scott Walker or John Kasich in assuming that concessions necessarily mean obliteration.

But when you look closely at Christie’s record and, more importantly, his stances, it’s quite illuminating.  In addition to rejecting the anti-Muslim sentiment that has gripped most of his Party, he is also not a global warming denier.  This is what he said just this week about the topic.

“I’m certainly not a scientist, which is the first problem,” he said. “So I can’t claim to fully understand all of this, certainly not after just a few months of study. But when you have over 90 percent of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role, it’s time to defer to the experts.”

Christie also supports a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, which runs counter to his Party’s base.  And then there was his decision to sit out the “Obama Care” fight and not join in with the other Republican governors filing suit against it.  Somewhere, Mark Levin was seen choking on his phlegm.  And he wasn’t alone.  Despite the endorsements of el Rushbo Limbaugh and the aforementioned Coulter, the simple fact of the matter is that Christie isn’t nearly as conservative as you might think, and certainly not as conservative as the current crop of mental defectives running are.  In deed, far from being a Reaganite, he more closely resembles a portly Nixon: moderate on some issues, conservative on others, and abrasive as all hell.   

What kind of president would he make?  Assuming he could survive the nomination process – and that’s a big if – a radically different one than any we’ve had in quite some time.  He would certainly revitalize a Republican Party that has been branded, and justifiably so, as belonging to a lunatic fringe.

Think about this.  Would the Republican Party be in this lofty position today with this current crop were it not for the worst recession to hit the nation in generations?  Would most independents even bother with the likes of a Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul or Rick Perry, not to mention Herman Cain, if the economy were on a more secure footing?  Of course not.

And while the Republican Party might still be under the control of the escapees of an insane asylum, there’s just enough sanity left in there and at News Corp. to realize the enormity of the chance that fate has dealt them this coming election.  Everybody knows full well what’s at stake and no one – not even the extremists – wants to blow it.  

Now if only the fat man from Trenton would oblige them.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Once More, a European Conflict Threatens the World

Twice in the twentieth century, Europe plunged the world into massive wars that cost millions of lives to fight and billions of dollars to wage.  Now, eleven years into the twenty-first century, another major conflict in the Continent threatens to wreak untold carnage upon the globe.  This time the financial cost might well run into the trillions.

In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, titled “An Impeccable Disaster,” Paul Krugman warns that the euro, the common currency of all of Europe, except for Great Britain, is at risk of collapse. 

Financial turmoil in Europe is no longer a problem of small, peripheral economies like Greece. What’s under way right now is a full-scale market run on the much larger economies of Spain and Italy. At this point countries in crisis account for about a third of the euro area’s G.D.P., so the common European currency itself is under existential threat.

And all indications are that European leaders are unwilling even to acknowledge the nature of that threat, let alone deal with it effectively.

Listen to many European leaders — especially, but by no means only, the Germans — and you’d think that their continent’s troubles are a simple morality tale of debt and punishment: Governments borrowed too much, now they’re paying the price, and fiscal austerity is the only answer.

Yet this story applies, if at all, to Greece and nobody else. Spain in particular had a budget surplus and low debt before the 2008 financial crisis; its fiscal record, one might say, was impeccable. And while it was hit hard by the collapse of its housing boom, it’s still a relatively low-debt country, and it’s hard to make the case that the underlying fiscal condition of Spain’s government is worse than that of, say, Britain’s government.

So why is Spain — along with Italy, which has higher debt but smaller deficits — in so much trouble? The answer is that these countries are facing something very much like a bank run, except that the run is on their governments rather than, or more accurately as well as, their financial institutions.

Now, a country with its own currency, like Britain, can short-circuit this process: if necessary, the Bank of England can step in to buy government debt with newly created money. This might lead to inflation (although even that is doubtful when the economy is depressed), but inflation poses a much smaller threat to investors than outright default. Spain and Italy, however, have adopted the euro and no longer have their own currencies. As a result, the threat of a self-fulfilling crisis is very real — and interest rates on Spanish and Italian debt are more than twice the rate on British debt.  

Adding to the problem is the E.C.B.’s obsession with maintaining its “impeccable” record on price stability: at a time when Europe desperately needs a strong recovery, and modest inflation would actually be helpful, the bank has instead been tightening money, trying to head off inflation risks that exist only in its imagination. 

And now it’s all coming to a head. We’re not talking about a crisis that will unfold over a year or two; this thing could come apart in a matter of days. And if it does, the whole world will suffer. So will the E.C.B. do what needs to be done — lend freely and cut rates? Or will European leaders remain too focused on punishing debtors to save themselves? The whole world is watching.

Why should the U.S. be concerned about the threat of a euro collapse? Because U.S. banks and corporations are heavily vested in Europe to the tune of approximately one third, that’s why.  If the European economy goes south, many U.S. firms and banks will follow suit.  The domino effect could conceivably be worse than the ’08 run after the Lehman Brothers’ collapse.

The crisis is so ominous and imminent that U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner virtually pleaded with European policy makers to step up their efforts to avoid a calamity.

“The threat of cascading default, bank runs, and catastrophic risk must be taken off the table, as otherwise it will undermine all other efforts, both within Europe and globally,” Geithner said. “Decisions as to how to conclusively address the region's problems cannot wait until the crisis gets more severe.”  He also urged governments to unite with the European Central Bank to immediately “create a firewall against further contagion.”   

There are some indications that European leaders are finally starting to heed the warning signs and take action, but some believe it might be too little too late.  While a $500 billion euro war chest will be made available to ward off any run, Bank of Canada Governor, Mark Carney, believes that number is too inadequate and is calling for $1 trillion euros to “overwhelm” the crisis.

Most observers now concede that a Greek default is inevitable and that the real test will be whether Europe can stop the hemorrhaging from progressing further.  The protagonist, however, is Germany – the Continent’s most powerful nation – which has been reluctant to break from its hard-line stance of “responsibility” and “monetary stability” in order to play the unusual role of savior.

And while Germany’s government begins to shore up its banks in anticipation of a Greek default, the rest of the Continent – and the world – holds its breath.  The last time Germany played the lead in a European conflict an awful lot of people got killed and an awful lot of damage was inflicted.  Wouldn’t it be ironic – not to mention poetic justice – if this time Germany rode in on a white horse instead of a gray tank? 

It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

When it comes to Washington politics, there’s no such thing as a statute of limitations on stupidity.  In fact, the dumber the better.  Watching Congress making the sausage is like watching a really bad movie while being strapped down to your Lazy Boy chair. You want to leave the room but you can’t get up. And the worst thing about it is that you’ve seen this movie before; you know the plotline, as well as the ending, and yet all you can do is sit there and wait for the inevitable, nauseating ending you know is coming.

Once more the government is on the brink of a shutdown, just like it was last December and this past April.  Once more, Republicans have pointed a loaded gun at the country and once more we get to see why the American people have nothing but contempt for their elected officials.

The House on Friday passed a continuing resolution that would’ve funded the government through November 18th just two days after Tea Party Republicans and many Democrats had balked at a “softer, gentler” bill.  By a 59 to 36 margin, the Senate voted to table it.  Why? Because it contained offsets to fund FEMA.

And while the GOP must once again grapple with the wingnuts who currently control it, Democrats might very well end up kicking themselves in the pants for their intransigence.  Why? Because nobody is winning this insipid war, that’s why.  Sure Republicans are taking more heat, and sure the Tea Party has badly damaged the GOP brand, so much so that poor old John Boehner may end up with the Purple Heart – not to mention battle pay – before all this is over.  But make no mistake about it: out there in independent land – where all elections are decided – the mood towards both parties is getting decidedly ugly.  Consolation prizes don’t mean much when you have to explain why grandma didn’t get her social security check.

The contention this time was over the demand by Republicans that in order to get $3.7 billion in disaster aid, along with enough funding to keep the government running into mid November, Democrats would’ve been required to come up with $1.5 billion in offsets.  Excuse me for being the lone wolf here in progressive land, but, federally speaking, $1.5 billion in cuts is analogous to having to pay for your fortune cookie at a Chinese buffet. Somebody give me a quarter, please!

Yes, I know that Republicans wanted the $1.5 billion to come from an Energy Department clean air fund to pay for the disaster relief.  So what?  If you’re the Democrats you get back in there and tell the Republicans, “You got your cuts; we’ll decide where they come from!”  What you don’t do is vote “no.” Not when the lives of so many people are hanging in the balance.  The truth is that if 22 more Democrats had voted for the original House bill on Wednesday, in all likelihood the continuing resolution would’ve passed the Senate and might well have been signed by President Obama.  Now both Republicans and Democrats will have to pull another rabbit out of a hat to avoid the unthinkable: a government shutdown.

This was the headline in The Huffington Post:

Government Shutdown Looms After Senate Blocks Short-Term Funding Bill

And that was a liberal publication.  You could argue that the only other sites more to the left than HuffPo are Mother Jones and the Socialist Review.  Don’t bother checking out the conservative ones; it only goes downhill from there.  Trust me, this isn’t going well for either party, and right now Democrats need to start playing catch up, not tit for tat.

Repeat after me: $1.5 billion.  That’s right, $1.5 billion. Kinda sounds stupid doesn’t?  Trust me, folks, in millions of homes around the country it sounds a helluva lot stupider. You have to know when to pick your fights in politics.  Once more, Democrats have proven that they aren’t up to even this simple task.  Think about it; Republicans were willing to fund the government through mid November and fund FEMA to the tune of $3.7 billion, and all it would’ve required is $1.5 billion in cuts.  If you ask me that was a gift horse that Democrats should not have looked in the mouth.

But what do I know?  I’m just a frustrated pragmatic progressive who desperately wants his nation to succeed and who is scared shitless about what might happen to it if the Tea Party ever gets a real hold of it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Walking and Chewing Gum at the Same Time

The more I think about the economy, and the mess it’s in, the more convinced I become that neither side of the political spectrum has a clue about how to fix it.  Both seem hopelessly locked into a narrative that, on its own, will not solve the country’s systemic problems.

Conservatives hold firm to the belief that if the federal budget were just slashed and entitlements were either privatized or given to the states to run then the “confidence fairy,” as Paul Krugman calls it, would instantly appear, cure what ails the nation, and all would be well with the world.  The reason we got into this mess in the first place, after all, had nothing to do with a lack of government oversight, but rather with the government and poor people living beyond their means.  Washington couldn’t control its spending and poor people bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford.

Liberals and progressives blame the mess on Republicans, who either ignored the warning signs of an economic collapse, or, worse, steered the ship right towards it.  They believe that the answer lies in massive government spending to prop up the economy; spending that will lead to more deficits and possible future consequences.  They steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that entitlements need to be reformed at some point and resist any attempt to make them part of a national debate, even if it means strengthening them.

Conservatives want tax reform, but only insofar as it means lowering and flattening the overall rate, and flat out reject the idea of increased revenues as a part of deficit reduction.  They want to drastically lower the corporate tax rate – some have proposed as low as 9% - to levels not seen in over a century.  For them, the debt is about spending, not revenues.

Liberals and progressives are adamant that revenues must be a part of any discussion on deficit reduction and maintain that Washington cannot just cut its way to a balanced budget.  While they have publicly lauded the idea of tax reform they have balked at the idea of lowering the corporate tax rate, instead choosing to focus on closing loopholes, ending subsidies and, as the President has called for, implementing the “Buffett Rule,” which would require millionaires to pay the same tax rate as middle class tax payers.

I know I’m going to get in troubling for saying this, but, while both sides have some valid points to make, neither seems capable of putting two and two together.  Here’s why:

It’s ridiculous for conservatives to blame the economic collapse of 2008 on deficit spending and poor people.  That simply flies in the face of every bit of data available.  But it is equally irresponsible for liberals and progressives to blame Republicans solely for it.  The repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 occurred under a Democratic president, who ignored the warnings of economists about the risks involved.  The truth is that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats heeded the danger signs until it was too late.  For either side to point a finger at the other is juvenile.

With regards to slashing the budget, virtually every economist agrees that deep cuts would actually make unemployment worse in the short run.  Furthermore, far from lowering the deficit, the cuts will actually increase it as more and more people are added to the roles of the unemployed.  The problem isn’t a lack of liquidity, it’s a lack of demand.  Putting people back to work will actually increase demand and begin to grease the gears of an economic engine that has been stuck in first gear and / or neutral for far too long.  But no amount of stimulus will be sufficient to sustain a recovery until the long-term problems plaguing the nation are dealt with.  Tax reform – particularly corporate tax rates – must be addressed for long-term growth to occur.  While Republicans are wrong to believe that spending is the only problem, Democrats are in denial if they believe that merely raising taxes will solve the dilemma.

What we need is an out-of-the-box solution that incorporates the very best of both sides of the political spectrum.  It should consist of the following three steps.

Firstly, regardless of how Republicans feel about the word, further government stimulus is needed and called for to mitigate the devastating effects of this lagging economy.  The Congress should pass President Obama’s job’s plan.  While not perfect, it will help hundreds of thousands of out of work people and stimulate some demand.  Even if it only brings temporary relief, something is better than nothing.  Additionally, the federal government should provide short-term stimulus over the next several years until the economy is on a sound footing.

Secondly, both political Parties need to work together to reform the tax code, and by that I mean not just making sure Warren Buffett pays the same percentage in taxes as his secretary – though that certainly is a laudable goal.  No matter how you slice it or dice it, the painful truth is that America’s corporate tax rate simply isn’t competitive with other industrialized nations out there.  A top rate of 35% is insane.  When Ireland starts stealing your jobs away, you know you have a problem.  While lowering it to 9% is way too extreme, there’s no reason why it can’t be reduced to, say, 15%; lower for companies that build plants and set up offices here in the States.  Such reductions could be offset by eliminating tax loopholes and ending subsidies.

Thirdly, long-term spending must be gotten under control, and that means all spending, including defense and entitlements.  Even with an elimination of the Bush tax cuts in toto and ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there would still be a budget deficit.  Both political Parties created this monster; both are going to have to do their part to kill it.  For the sake of the country there cannot be any sacred cows.  Revenue and spending must be a part of a long-term strategy to reduce the debt.  Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, if they are to survive, must be dealt with, even if it means lowering some benefits or applying means testing.  And, finally, the great military industrial complex must get the long overdo shave its been needing ever since Eisenhower issued his warning in his farewell address in 1960.

When we were kids we all learned how to walk and chew gum at the same time.  It’s time our politicians learned how to do the same.  A “my way or the highway” approach is not only bad politics, it’s bad policy.  It leads to the kind of grandstanding and paralysis that has plagued Washington for decades and has earned its leaders the infamy they so richly deserve.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Live Free or Be Allowed to Die

Want to know the thing that most disturbed me about the CNN Tea Party debate last week?  No, it wasn’t Ron Paul’s predictable answer to Wolf Blitzer’s lame attempt at journalism question about whether a 30 year-old man who had lapsed into a coma should be allowed to die.  The idea that Paul or any of his cohorts in slime would fail to exhibit even a sliver of humanity in what could have been a golden opportunity to display compassion in front of their minions should come as no surprise to anyone.  For months, these fools have been on automatic pilot.  You can almost predict their answers before the questions are even asked.  Government? Smaller; Regulations? Less; Taxes? Lower; Obamacare? Rescind; Liberty and freedom? More, more, more!

No, what bothered me the most was the idiot in the background who shouted “Yeah” and the roar of approval from the buffoons in the audience.  If you had any doubts about whether the tail was truly wagging the dog, that display should remove them once and for all.  I used to think that what we were witnessing in the country over the last two and a half years was the replaying of that famous Brutus / Mark Antony scene out of Julius Caesar.  You know the one where Brutus foolishly cedes the stage to Antony and then allows him to speak to the mob, which then turns on Brutus and the other assassins?  Yeah, that scene.

Well Antony is still on the stage; only he’s not speaking, he’s listening: listening to his master’s voice – the mob.  And they are now clearly calling the shots.  This faction - the Tea Party - has not only become self-aware; it’s completely in charge of the whole damn ball of wax.  The candidates are as interchangeable as spare parts.  Forget Frankenstein’s monster going on a rampage throughout the village.  What we’re seeing now more closely resembles Godzilla destroying Tokyo.  Not even the specter of shame is enough to convict and deter them from their appointed rounds.  Their voracious appetite for power knows no equal that I can think of.  To paraphrase a famous line out of the movie Network, they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore! 

What we saw up there on that stage weren’t eight independent-thinking human beings engaging in an open and honest debate; what we saw was the modern-day equivalent of the Stepford wives (and husbands) incarnate.  Eight docile and submissive robots all preprogrammed to give the answers that will please their creators and ensure their continued usefulness in the new order. 

Except that Huntsman, though; he could pose a problem.  He doesn’t snarl enough or bash Obama enough.  And that remark about global warming and evolution, can’t have that sort of thinking, can we?  He might have to be reprogrammed or eliminated altogether.  Better safe than sorry, right? Besides, seven is a smaller and more controllable number than eight.  Makes you almost feel sorry for the fools, doesn’t it.  Well, almost.

Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering about Brutus, worry not; he’s quite safe.  He’s been hiding out in Aruba getting a tan.  I hope he brought enough suntan lotion with him.  He’s going to be there a while.

O death where is thy sting?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Lesser of Two Evils, or What Life After Obama Might Be Like

The other day I had a very passionate and spirited conversation with a fellow progressive about the gang of eight currently engaging in an all out free-for-all for the Republican nomination.  He is of the mind that they are all the same and that it doesn’t matter who wins the nod, the country is screwed if Obama loses in 2012.

Then he said something that sent shivers down my spine.  Maybe that would be a good thing, he said.  Maybe then the country would finally wake up and realize just who and what the GOP is really all about.  Then we could dispense with them once and for all.  Strange as it may seem, he isn’t alone in this belief.  There are an awful lot of progressives out there who also don’t see any distinction between the Republican candidates, and who think it would serve America good if Obama lost next year.

To which I would reply, WTF?  Are you kidding me?  This is, again, the sort of drivel that makes me wonder if I’m living in a psyche ward, or something.  At the risk of being accused of crashing this party and throwing cold water on the attendees, allow me to make, what I hope, are some cogent and reasonable points.

First off, it should be painfully clear to anyone who has been to more than one of these freak-show rodeos that the number one objective of any candidate hoping to get the nomination of his or her party is to run as far as possible towards the base of said party.  For Democrats, that means running to the left; for Republicans, it means running to the right.  The fact that the GOP is so far over to the right that it’s almost completely off the page doesn’t change anything.  You want in, you drink the Koolaid, period.

With that in mind, anyone who doesn’t think that there is a profound difference between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney or Michele Bachman and Jon Huntsman simply isn’t paying attention.  What evidence are you waiting for?  Oh, I see, the old “They all stand for the same thing” logic.  I hate to break the news to you guys, but they’re Republicans; it’s a Republican primary; of course they all stand for the same thing.  If you’re waiting for a Republican to sound like a Democrat, don’t hold your breath.  There hasn’t been one of those since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, nor is there likely to be one anytime soon.

Right now Mitt Romney is doing the political dance of his life and managing to hold his own against the de facto Tea Party favorite, Rick Perry, much to the chagrin of the far Right, who see Romney as a fraud and Perry as the real deal.  Translation: Romney would betray their core values and principles, while Perry would give them everything they want and demand.  Now if the Tea Party clearly sees a difference between their candidates, why can’t some progressives? 

I think the reason for this is that progressives tend to see conservatives in much the same way conservatives tend to see progressives.  They all tend to look and sound alike.  To some extent, this is justifiable.  After all, when presented with a ten to one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases, all the GOP candidates were unanimous in their response. They would flatly reject such a proposal.  It’s pretty hard to see any difference in that crowd, I grant you.

Of course, what some Progressives aren’t seeing is that the “apparent” unified response does not necessarily reflect the genuine view of ALL the candidates on that stage, merely the typical pandering of politicians looking to score points with a particular demographic that, in this instance, happens to be controlling the whole of the GOP.  Anybody care to venture what would've happen if any of them had said, “Yeah, sure, I’d take that deal in a heartbeat?”  Just ask Jon Huntsman what happened to his poll numbers when he came out in support of global warming and evolution.  Committing political suicide to appear different not only isn’t a requirement of a candidate, it’s pretty damn stupid, if you ask me.  The real issue isn’t the differences in stances but rather the differences in temperament.  And right now, you could drive a fleet of Mack trucks down the middle of the gap between Romney and Perry. 

Secondly, with respect to believing that it might be a good thing if Perry or Bachmann won next year, this apparent death wish that some progressives have is profoundly disturbing to me.  To some extent, I think this is leftover resentment at how Obama has led the nation.  Many progressives still can’t get over the fact that they were expecting FDR and wuz robbed.  While I empathize with their angst, I cannot and will not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If it turns out that Obama does in deed lose next year, and most polling shows him either tied with or trailing a generic Republican candidate, then there is such a thing as a lesser of two evils.  That doesn’t mean I would vote for Mitt Romney; it does mean that if I had my druthers, I’d prefer a Republican who at least has some experience governing in a blue state that forced him to reach across the aisle, then someone who thinks the word compromise is an anathema to all he or she believes in.  Believe it or not, a Romney Administration wouldn't be the worst thing to happen to the country; a Perry or Bachmann Administration, though, would be devastating.  Anyone who can't see that is hopelessly lost in their own private Fantasy Land. 

Differences are what you make of them, and not all of them are obvious.  Sometimes you have to squint a bit and look past your own preconceived notions.  Let’s not forget that it was Michael Moore who said he saw no difference between George Bush and Al Gore in 2000.  We all know how that turned out.  Look, the ideal scenario would be an Obama reelection.  Barring that, better someone who chased the ambulance then the one who drove it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Making Sense of the Ninth

Let’s get something straight.  The Democrats’ loss in the New York 9th was not due to any particular grand strategy on the part of the Right and the Republican Party, nor is it an indication that this district – about as blue as any in the nation – is in danger of turning red.  Like the other special election in upstate New York – the 26th – in which Democrats were falling over each other in jubilation when it flipped back in May, districts are what they ostensibly are, nothing more, nothing less.

So why did the 9th, like the 26th before it, turn so drastically and definitively on a dime after decades of voter consistency?  One word: ineptitude.  Nothing else explains this debacle.  Please spare me the half-assed explanations about how Bob Turner manipulated voters with lies and distortions about Dave Weprin’s (alleged) anti-Israel sentiment, or his gay rights’ stance, or his support of the downtown Mosque; they are nothing more than pitiful excuses for an otherwise dreadful and arrogantly presumptuous campaign.  Truth is, Weprin had no business running in the first place; he didn’t even live in the damn district!

In fact, the special elections in both the 26th and 9th districts are almost carbon copies of each other in that, in each instance, the incumbent party was taken completely by surprise after outspending their opponents by wide margins defending candidates who were, to put it mildly and delicately, clearly in over their heads.  In the case of the 26th it was the Paul Ryan backlash over Medicare that contributed to the GOP loss; in the 9th, well let’s just say that the name of Anthony Weiner will forever be synonymous with the greatest punch line in political humor.

The loss of the 9th district was particularly distressful, given the fact that Democrats are already badly outnumbered in the House to begin with.  This latest fiasco just makes things that much worse, not to mention embarrassing.

Still, there’s reason to be optimistic.  In all likelihood the 9th will go blue again in 2012 – remember this was just a special election to complete this congressional term – as Democrats manage to find someone competent enough to run and who, hopefully, lives in the district.  Unfortunately for them, the victory will be short-lived, as they will almost certainly cede the 26th back to the Republicans.  That’s just the way things go in politics.  You win some; you lose some.  The moral of this story is quite simple: while you can’t always teach an old dog new tricks, every once in a while you can get him to roll over and play dead.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Never Underestimate the Desperate

One of my favorite movies of the ‘80s was Ghostbusters.  I thought it was Bill Murray’s finest moment (no it wasn’t Caddyshack; Rodney Dangerfield stole that flick).  Among the more memorable lines was this little often forgotten gem, which took place as the third member of the Ghostbuster crew was being interviewed for the job.

Janine Melnitz: “Do you believe in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?”

Winston Zeddemore: “Ah, if there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say.”

Right there, two simple sentences in a comedy film, nailed the entire human experience and wrapped it into one rather neat and sad little package, complete with a bow and ribbon.  Give somebody a paycheck – especially somebody who hasn’t had one in a while – and they’ll believe anything you say.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how so many people can be deaf and blind to the outrageous comments and tactics of the GOP over the last two and a half years, especially when that very same party got the hell beat out of it in two consecutive election cycles.

It’s quite simple, really.  People – a lot of them – are getting desperate.  Not only isn’t the economy “recovering,” it appears to be sliding backwards.  That tends to scare people, even those who have jobs and are actually doing quite well.  After a while you get an avalanche of negativity and despair.  People not normally given to rash judgments start thinking the sky is falling in on them.  In that moment of vulnerability and desperation, where reason fails, people tend to do stupid things, like listen to and agree with policies that only a short time ago they thoroughly rejected as being ridiculous.  Snake oil salesmen begin looking like miracle workers, and the inane looks like the greatest thing since sliced bread.

That’s why I am not overly optimistic about Democrats’ chances in 2012.  It’s not because I don’t think they have the right positions, it’s because, at the end of the day, fear and ignorance may very well end up trumping sanity and reason.  In the end, it’s never about whether one actually believes in UFOs – or supply-side economics – it’s about whether they can put food on the table.  Ultimately, that’s the deciding factor for many voters.  To get the security they lack, most would gladly join a three-ring circus.  And if they’re given the opportunity next fall, the Republicans will be more than willing to oblige them.

Who ya gonna call?  Right now it ain't the Dems.      

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Republican for All Seasons

Funny how the GOP loves to refer to itself as the Party of Lincoln, even though that party long ago went the way of the dinosaur.  Fact is, it's been quite some time since Republicans had a president worthy of that banner.  The last such one was none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower and, while he may not have been the most prolific and polished politician - even in his day - his list of accomplishments is nonetheless quite distinguished.

Here are the highlights:

1. He ended the Korean War.

2. He launched the Space Race.

3. He appointed Earl Warren as Chief Justice to the Supreme Court, which subsequently led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

4. He enlarged Social Security by rolling it into the newly formed Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

5. He launched the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which basically led to the construction of the interstate highways.

6. He warned the country about the growing influence of what he referred to as "the military industrial complex" in his farewell address to the nation in 1961.

But Eisenhower, for all his accomplishments, also had some regrettable moments.

During his term in office the CIA launched several successful military coups, notably the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran and the instillation of Shah Pahlavi, who ruled as an absolute dictator until his overthrow in the 1979 revolution.  That one blunder, alone, has been responsible for turning many an Arab and Muslim against the United States.

Eisenhower was also responsible for planning the Bay of Pigs invasion that John F. Kennedy regrettably carried out.  Oops!

Still, on the face of it, Eisenhower did a lot more good than bad.  With all the silly talk from conservatives and the Tea Party about taking back their country to what it once was, here's a thought.  Dwight D. Eisenhower would make a helluva good presidential candidate -  for the Democrats that is.  He'd be far too left of center for Republican tastes.  Hell, Ronald Reagan couldn't get nominated with this motley crew!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years After

Let’s face it, everything changed on 9/11. In every way imaginable, the terrorist attacks that occurred that day represented for the United States the most important demarcation point in its history, rivaling even the attack on Pearl Harbor and the entire Civil War. Not even its own successful revolution could compare. This was, for all intents and purposes, a BC / AD moment for the country. For America wasn’t just simply attacked; it was rudely awakened from an almost two hundred year old snooze; a snooze which enabled it to believe that nothing could touch it and that it was, thanks to its natural geographical borders, impenetrable and invulnerable.

Not that America hadn’t tasted the bitterness of defeat, mind you. It’s been more than thirty-five years since the nation pulled out of Vietnam, its tail between its legs. But while it may have been humbling to discover that we weren’t invincible after all, we could revel in the knowledge that, at home at least, it was business as usual. War after war came and went and, despite the economic ups and downs that accompanied each of them – all of them cyclical and expected – the borders were secure, the citizens safe. The stain of war was always somebody else’s mess to clean up: Europe, Asia, Latin America, you name it. Over there wasn’t just a song; it had become the standard operating procedure for a country, which had grown accustomed to not having its collar wrinkled, much less its door broken down.

Then at 8:46 A.M. on September 11, 2001, something new was added to the script; something no one had ever anticipated. America’s collar got wrinkled and its door smashed in all at the same time. Nineteen men were able to pull off what the combined forces of Germany, Italy and Japan had not managed to do in World War II: kill thousands of Americans on U.S. soil, destroy two of the tallest buildings in the world and wreak untold carnage on the global economy. Before that day was over, the United States would know what every other country knew all too well: that there was no such thing as complete security and safety, thousands of miles of oceans could no longer be used as a buffer against the tyranny of evil men and, just like the global market that had connected all the worlds’ economies, geographical borders were ultimately irrelevant.

But there was more to it than mere apathy and sheer arrogance. For the better part of the twentieth century, the United States strutted around the globe as if it owned the joint. Just like the Manifest Destiny it used to build its empire westward in the 1800s, America turned outward in the 1900s, helped by two World Wars that devastated most of Europe and Asia. By 1945, the U.S. had become the number one nation on the Earth. Our hegemony was rivaled only by that of the Roman Empire in its day. And while we danced the night away and celebrated our greatness, unbeknownst to us, parts of the “empire” grew restless. Our foreign policy decisions lacked even a semblance of the laws for which we had become known abroad. Our tit for tat cold war with the Soviet Union exacted a toll on our reputation. While we pronounced ourselves as the deliverers of freedom and democracy, to millions of people around the world we were no better than our opponents. If anything, our high-sounding words seemed shallow and hypocritical.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, far from being a wondrous occasion, actually proved a dilemma for America. With no “evil empire” to contend with, our foreign policy wandered aimlessly like a puppy looking for its master. The unrest that gripped most of the Middle East continued to fester and now, with only one super power to contend with, became finely honed.

The Persian Gulf War – Desert Storm – was seen by Islamic fundamentalists as an occupation of the Holy Land. After decades of propping up dictators who brutalized their own people, e.g. the Shaw of Iran, it was now the United States’ turn to play the role of evil empire to an entire generation of extremists who saw fit to declare a holy war to defeat the “Great Satan.”

Their first attempt to extract revenge in 1993 failed. Yes it killed a few innocent people, but the objective – bringing down the towers – was denied. America’s response? Yes, we awoke slightly, turned over on our side and went back to sleep. The Clinton Administration went after Osama bin Laden, but insofar as believing we were vulnerable, our whole attitude was profoundly wrong. They failed, we prevailed, that was the story line. As far as our intelligence community was concerned, the threat was still “over there.” The U.S.S. Cole attack and U.S. embassy bombing only reinforced our own badly outdated narrative that the world might be a tinderbox, but America was safe. You could bet the rent on it.

And then all of it came crashing down, like the towers themselves, on that early September morning ten years ago. Our hubris and our naïveté ended abruptly and we came face to face with a sobering and humbling reality. With all the technological prowess and military might at our disposal, in the end we were no better off than the rest of the world. We got hit, end of story, period.

But as the ash pile in lower Manhattan continued to burn, our own government began a decade-long series of political and military missteps that only added the insult of overreach to the injury of death. We correctly went after those responsible for the attacks, but the Bush Administration’s decision to plunge the nation into a needless and fraudulent war in Iraq not only cost nearly a trillion dollars to wage, it drove still countless other young Muslims into the waiting arms of the Islamic fundamentalists who now had yet another reason to hate us. Our active engagement in the region, far from making us safer, has fanned the flames of resentment against us. Not even the killing of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks has quelled our fears or vanquished our foes. We are unable to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan and while Al-Qaeda has been badly wounded, the terror threat remains persistently high, as does our hyper-vigilance.

In ten years, we have gone from an over-developed sense of detachment to an almost paranoid obsession. The recent Arab Spring, which you would think would be heralded as a confirmation of our values and beliefs, has instead divided most of our leaders. The prevailing sentiment among the skeptics is that democracy brings uncertainty and uncertainty is a breeding ground for radials, and those radicals could end up attacking us again. Convoluted logic has become the rule of the day over the last decade. Even now, at this very moment, hours before the ten-year commemoration at the Trade Center site, intelligence officials are grappling with yet another terror alert that threatens the homeland. It never ends, does it?

But if overcompensation had been the rule of the day for our politics and foreign policy, it was thwarted by what has happened to this society in general. America, for all its high-sounding rhetoric, has never been the open society it portrays itself to be. Without exception, every ethnic group that landed on these shores faced a plethora of slurs and obstacles seldom seen since Biblical times. The Germans, the Jews, the Italians and the Irish bore the brunt of the most myopic and insular society yet created. And when they weren’t catching hell, there were always the fan favorites: African and Native Americans. It seems America never met a minority it couldn’t both exploit and / or discriminate against.

The events of 9/11 had the effect of sprinkling miracle grow on these traits. American society became even more insular and myopic as distrust took root. It wasn’t just our politicians who stirred the pot of fear and loathing, our discourse in the media became hyperbolic. Rather than have an intelligent and informed discussion on fundamentalism as a whole, the nation seems consumed with branding Islam in general as the greatest threat to our way of life. In a mood reminiscent of the McCarthy era, Muslims are being asked to swear an oath of allegiance and denounce any and all connections to Sharia law, despite the fact that it poses absolutely no threat – real or imagined – to the Constitution.

Our laws have been subverted, we’re told, to contend with an ever-growing Islamic threat. Warrantless wiretapping, illegal detentions, and torture have become commonplace and are widely accepted as a necessary evil to keep us safe. And while the Obama Administration has officially banned the use of torture, the wiretapping and detentions continue unabated.

The Constitution, once thought to be sacrosanct and absolute, has taken second fiddle to national security, much to the chagrin of Constitutional scholars and the indifference and complicity of a general population that has traded in their freedoms for a good night’s sleep. The words of Benjamin Franklin, who once warned that “those who trade liberty for security deserve neither,” have fallen on deaf ears.

This is America, ten years after 9/11: awakened, armed, dangerous and dangling precariously over a slippery slope. The images of those planes crashing into the twin towers and the Pentagon have become so indelibly etched into our collective consciousness, that we cannot extricate ourselves from the ghoulish nightmare they represent. Like the victim of a violent assault, we remain imprisoned by it, thus trapped in a vicious cycle that only feeds our rage and justifies our need for vengeance, without any hope of true healing and understanding of what happened that day and why. Without quite realizing it, we have become the perpetrators, thus fulfilling their aims and goals. For the real tragedy of that day wasn't merely the huge loss of life and the collateral damage, but the way in which America willingly compromised the very thing it cherished most to accommodate the forces of evil in a naive belief it was making itself safe.

And while it may be comforting for some to realize that they have not been caught up in this madness, the sad truth is that they do NOT represent the majority view. The spectacle over the building of a Mosque within a few blocks of the World Trade Center was a national embarrassment. Poll after poll taken revealed a persistent theme: While the majority of Americans supported religious expression, most did not believe that expression should come at the expense of the needs and feelings of those who lost loved ones. In other words, even though the Mosque had no connection with the attacks, guilt by association took priority over the Constitution.

I wish I could say I am hopeful that America will soon wake up from its national nightmare. Sadly, I can’t. It may be quite some time before we are able to adequately deal with the events of that day, process the rage we still hold onto that prevents true healing from occurring, and begin to rebuild a society worthy of our heritage.  Only then will we be able to properly mourn the dead and move ahead with our lives. Until that happens, their ghosts will continue to call out from the grave and we will once more rekindle the battle cry of justice and, in so doing, lock ourselves into our own self-imposed prisons.  I am no stranger to this incarceration.  It has taken me to some of the darkest places in my life.

More than forty years ago, Jesse Colin Young wrote a song that spoke to this very topic. It was called “Get Together.” One verse is worth noting here.

You hold the key to love and fear all in your trembling hand.
Just one key unlocks them both. It’s there at your command.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Tip of the Hat

Last month’s piece, titled “The Sane and the Few,” which was an answer to a question I posed in an earlier piece inquiring as to where all the sane conservatives were, got me thinking. With all the rhetoric out there and super-charged partisanship dominating the political landscape, wouldn’t it be nice if I could do my part to dial it down just a notch?

So, with that in mind, once a month, I will post a piece by a conservative writer on this blog that I feel is making a lucid and valued point. Note, that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge and pay it its proper and due respect. I should also point out that candidates for this distinction are likely to come from the right-of-center contingent. If you’re looking for contributions from members of the Tea Party and their supporters, I would advise you not to hold your breath and to stop ingesting whatever that is that is obviously affecting your brain. The purpose of this piece is to build bridges and hopefully establish a working framework that both the Left and the Right can utilize to bring workable solutions to a nation that desperately needs them.  Those who seem intent on blowing up said bridges can peddle their wares elsewhere.

Without further ado, the maiden voyage of A Tip of the Hat.

Perry’s Immigration Problem: Even Bigger than it Looks

David Frum

September 9th, 2011

Byron York has some astute things to say this morning about the immigration issue and its potentially negative impact on Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential candidacy:

Start with the border fence. Perry opposes it. “Building a wall on the entire border is a preposterous idea,” he said recently in New Hampshire. “The only thing a wall would possibly accomplish is to help the ladder business.” Perry says he supports some forms of “strategic fencing in certain urban areas,” but that’s all.

Then there are measures to stop employers from hiring illegals. Perry opposes E-verify, which is a program requiring employers to check the legal status of new hires. It has been very effective in stopping the hiring of illegals, but Perry does not support requiring private businesses to use it, and he doesn’t want state agencies in Texas to use it, either. “E-verify would not make a hill of beans’ difference in what’s happening today,” Perry said in a 2010 debate.

Then there is taxpayer-subsidized, in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. Perry signed the Texas Dream Act in 2001 making it the law in Texas. “We must say to every Texas child learning in a Texas classroom, ‘We don’t care where you came from, but where you are going,’” Perry said at the time. “The message is simple: Educacion es el futuro, y si se puede.” Perry still supports the measure.

Finally there is the question of guest workers. “I support a guest worker program that takes undocumented workers off the black market and legitimizes their economic contributions without providing them citizenship status,” Perry said in 2006. “A guest worker program that provides foreign workers with an ID removes the incentive for millions of people to illegally enter our country.” To critics, that’s just amnesty with a different label.

Some will interpret Perry’s relaxed views on immigration as a rare indication of a more humane side to the otherwise hardline Texas conservative. Maybe.

But here’s another way to understand Perry’s stance:

Texas has pursued a distinctive economic strategy: drive down all costs of doing business, especially including wages.

Texas workers receive some of the lowest wages in the nation; by some metrics, the very lowest. The encouragement of heavy unskilled immigration from Mexico and central America is an integral – even indispensable – element of the Texas low-wage job-creation strategy.

Perry’s views on immigration are not a “liberal” deviation from his views on the minimum wage, on Social Security, on healthcare coverage, etc. His high-immigration views are of a piece with his general preference for a low-cost, low-wage economy.

By contrast, Mitt Romney has begun to articulate a call for a high-wage economy. To get average wages rising again after a dozen years first of stagnation, then of outright decline, will not be easy. The most important step is to control healthcare costs. The rising cost of healthcare benefits devours workers’ cash pay.

But a rethink of immigration policies is also necessary. In the September 7 debate, Romney articulated something almost never said in a Republican primary: much, much, much more important than a fence or “boots on the ground” is tighter enforcement of labor laws inside the country. I’d go further: if the labor laws were effectively enforced, a border fence would be a costly redundance.

Why have labor laws gone so badly enforced? In very large part: because Rick Perry’s donors don’t want them enforced. The National Restaurant Association does not want them enforced. The construction industry does not want them enforced. Meatpackers do not want them enforced. The hotel and landscaping industries do not want them enforced. When you hear Republican candidates complain of “burdensome regulation,” keep in mind that the regulations that many small businesses find most “burdensome” are those intended to reserve American jobs for American legal residents.

On that issue, Gov. Perry has been, is now, and continues to be an advocate of laxer rules to promote more immigration in order to hold Texas and ultimately American wages low.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


I have two questions to ask the African American addressing a joint session of Congress tonight: Who are you? and What have you done with the President of the United States?

Seriously, if that was Barack Obama tonight then where has he been hiding these past two and a half years? That’s the most confrontational I’ve seen this man be since he schooled Hillary Clinton during the contentious primary debates of ’08. After running the perfect campaign to get elected, the President everyone thought was going to be Superman turned out to be Clark Kent trapped in a closet filled with Kryptonite; Mr. Transformative turned into Captain Pragmatic; Jackie Robinson into Mookie Wilson.

Well, not tonight folks. Tonight Barack Obama came out, guns a blazin’ and gave the speech of his life. Not only that, he dusted off the self-imposed shackles that have been gradually eroding the effectiveness of his Administration – not to mention killing his poll numbers – and, in typical Dick Nixon fashion, made one thing perfectly clear. If Republicans planned on waiting him out “fourteen months” he was going to take them down with him. Period! Do NOT for a moment think that John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell didn’t get the message loud and clear. You want “my way or the highway?” I’ll give you some “my way” alright, and, oh by the way, I’ll be paying a visit to your state over the next few days just in case you were a little hard of hearing. Now that’s what I call a bully pulpit.

Ladies and gentlemen I present to you the – hopefully – true President of the United States: Harry B. Obama. The Harry stands for Truman, the B for Baines (though it could also stand for balls, if you know what I mean, and yes, you do, in deed know what I mean!).

Now, before we go tripping over each other in sheer ecstasy, I should probably dispense with the party-pooper part of the piece so we can get on to the festivities. The $450 billion dollar stimulus plan (and, please, let’s get over the word; it isn’t synonymous with socialism, especially when Republican presidents do it) isn’t going to drastically reduce unemployment or, for that matter, significantly jumpstart the economy into high gear. I’m afraid we’re going to be on this yellow-brick road for the next few years. The President was quite correct in saying there is no silver bullet. In deed, even if passed intact – highly unlikely – it will probably reduce unemployment by less than half a point by next summer. Still 8.6% or 8.7% unemployment is certainly better than 9.1% or 9.2%.

But it does address two nagging issues that are at the heart of this sluggish economy: the lack of demand and the unwillingness of employers to hire new workers. [It was never about liquidity in the first place, seeing as how there’s over $2 trillion in capital sitting out there waiting to be unleashed]. Between the infrastructure component and the tax incentives for small business, even the most conservative of economists will be forced to concede that, on the whole, this plan has merit. It also has something else that even the most ardent and stubborn of Republicans will not be able to thwart: the support of the American people, along with the Chamber of Commerce and Labor. That’s one helluva trifecta! Put that in your pipe, Rush, and smoke it.

We now resume the jubilation part of this piece. No matter what happens over the next few weeks, this President has finally served notice that he isn’t going to go down without a fight. And, quite frankly, based on what I heard tonight, he may have just resurrected his reelection hopes, not to mention the nation’s hopes as well.

Let’s face it: the debt-ceiling fiasco was a three-ring circus. It was a major embarrassment for the country as well as for this President. No matter how you sliced it and diced it, he looked feeble and passive. Whatever else you may say about voters – particularly independents – they want their leaders to lead. The last thing they want to see is their President looking like the Maytag repairman. It was humiliating to watch and, if there’s one thing Americans hate with a passion, it’s being humiliated. The spectacle proved costly to the President. In a span of eight weeks his approval rating plummeted from around 50% to 39%.

But, if Obama’s rating was sinking like the Titanic, Congressional approval ratings were half way to China. The Tea Party may have held a nation hostage and congratulated itself on its “purity” and “principles” but to millions of Americans – many of who voted for these representatives – they looked every bit the spoiled brats that they were. Deep within their bowels, the GOP was facing a conundrum. On the one hand, they had won a major victory over this president and, in the process, made him look ineffective. They had, in essence, succeeded in shaving off Sampson’s hair.

But they had forgotten the most important question every political victor must ask themselves: Now what? Because, in the final analysis, Republicans finally had to start taking ownership of the mess in Washington. It wasn’t just Obama’s economy anymore. Being the “Party of No” served them well when they were the minority. Now that they had a super majority in the House and 47 seats in the Senate, it was about as useful and productive as peeing in the wind. And the cost of their obstinance has been far more exacting than any of them could’ve imagined. In less than a year their approval ratings have fallen to record lows. Used-car salesmen and insurance agents have higher numbers.

To add insult to injury, these conservative stalwarts started hearing from their constituents – ALL OF THEIR CONSITUENTS – during the summer recess. Let’s just say that, absent the echo chamber of the Fox studios and A.M. talk radio, the natives were getting a bit restless. I’m guessing dear old Agent Orange was fit to be tied up there in Ohio whilst getting an earful. Suddenly, the GOP found itself in the same boat as the Democrats in ’09. Funny how the tide can turn in a hurry, isn’t it?

Throw in the “Come get some” throwdown tonight and small wonder the GOP was, how shall I say it, “receptive” to working with the President. In the immortal words of Dick Martin, “You bet your sweet bippy” they’re receptive. Even the most in-the-tank ideologue can read an opinion poll. And right now, the polls are showing the electorate increasingly frustrated at the inability of Washington to overcome its partisan ways and work together. Their ire is directed squarely at the Tea Party, make no mistake about it. Want proof? Here it is, courtesy of the Speaker of the House himself.

“The proposals the President outlined tonight merit consideration. We hope he gives serious consideration to our ideas as well. It's my hope that we can work together to end the uncertainty facing families and small businesses, and create a better environment for long-term economic growth and private-sector job creation.”

Sounds a whole lot better than “Dead on arrival,” doesn’t it? You bet your sweet bippy it does! Somewhere Harry Truman was smiling and LBJ was, well, takin' a piss.  Something about a tent.  Can’t take that guy anywhere!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Idiots’ Delight

It was Isaac Asimov who once wrote in a column for Newsweek back in 1980 that “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

I can only imagine what dear old Isaac – were he alive today – would have to say about the likes of one Michele Bachmann, who has now officially taken over the mantle of idiocy from her sister in arms, Sarah Palin Shovel.

Bachmann, like the half-baked, half-term former governor of Alaska, has made so many ridiculous statements over the last few years, if she had been earning frequent flyer miles based solely on her outrageousness, she could’ve flown around the world three times by now. Whether it was her McCarthy-like call for the media to question the patriotism of liberals on Chris Matthews’ Hardball show back in ’08, or her botched attempt at a State of the Union rebuttal, or her failure to get her John Waynes straight in her now infamous Waterloo fiasco, the woman is the gift that keeps on giving, as far as progressives (and Saturday Night Live) are concerned.

But her latest gaffe may go down in history as her crème de la crème moment. At a rally in Florida last week, Bachmann said the following:

“I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people, because the American people are roaring right now,” Bachmann continued. “They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending.”

A Bachmann spokeswoman later attempted to “clarify” the comments by suggesting that the Congresswoman was joking. “Obviously she was saying it in jest," Alice Stewart said. I don’t know which is more offensive: the idea that God somehow brings about natural disasters to reinforce narrow and myopic political viewpoints, or that these disasters are somehow comical to begin with. Frankly, given Bachmann’s history of inflammatory statements, I’m inclined to go with the former. If nothing else, it’s at least consistent with her other flubs, and quite frankly her warped and twisted belief systems.

And therein lies the real problem. I rarely share this part of my life in this blog, but as a Christian, I am offended at and deeply embarrassed by supposed Christians evoking scripture to justify their political agendas. For one thing, it’s not Biblically accurate or appropriate to do so. I could easily use last winter’s horrific snowstorms in the Minneapolis / St. Paul region of Minnesota to suggest that perhaps Michele Bachmann should resign from Congress. While that would certainly be a gratifying scenario, it would be no less wrong than her assertion that those who suffered and / or died in the wake of Hurricane Irene were somehow used by a judgmental and punishing God to warn us of our misbegotten ways. Sorry, Ms. Bachmann, that isn’t the God I know and worship. If he were half as petty and vindictive as you infer in your ignorant rants, I’d stay out of the rain and avoid overcast days, if I were you.

In all seriousness though, Bachmann isn’t alone in her self-justified and profoundly wrong interpretation of the Bible. You’d be amazed at just how many people within the Church subscribe to the same perverted ideas. Whether it’s believing, as her husband does and has stated publicly, that gays are somehow “barbarians” that need to be “educated” and “disciplined,” believing that God only helps those who help themselves (which runs counter to actual scripture, by the way) or believing that natural disasters are evidence of God’s wrath upon his people [in the months after 9/11, I was astonished to discover just how many “leaders” in the Christian community were using the event to suggest that the attack was allowed to happen by God so that we could repent as a nation] the level of ignorance among this lot is alarmingly high and continues to rise.

So this month, the Idiots’ Delight award goes to the distinguished and depraved representative of Minnesota’s 6th District for being totally bereft of moral integrity and so brazenly stupid. Congratulations, Congresswoman, you’ve truly outdone yourself this time.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Two Things Obama Got Wrong

Ever get the feeling that someone was reading your mind?  Well Harry Shearer was definitely reading mine, and not only that, he managed to pen (okay type) one of the best critiques of President Obama I've read in quite some time.  The guy is a genius, he reminds me of me.  So, rather than quote parts of it and try to add my own two cents worth, I figure, why not just copy the whole damn thing and be done with it.  Great minds do think alike.  Maybe next time old Homer won't steal my thunder. D'oh!

August. The month that Democrats seem to think doesn't count. Think John Kerry in 2004. Think Barack Obama the last two years. Somebody had better look at Washington Democrats' calendars and circle August in red. It might help.

This August, in addition to the media swoonfest over Michele Bachmann's meaningless Ames straw poll victory (which even the media polpundits admitted was meaningless), there have been new signs that the economy is swooning, too. Pinch me if I'm dreaming, but isn't it 2009? It must be, because the President is about to deliver a major speech on jobs.

But this August has been bad for the Obama Administration primarily because the liberal knives have finally come out for him, with the maraschino cherry on top being the backdown on ozone regulations at month's end. Drew Westen's attack at the beginning of the month, and Jon Chait's rejoinder at the end, seem to have bookended this debate, at least for New York Times readers. But, not to brag, I've been off the Obama bandwagon almost since before it had Michelins. In mid-March 2009, back around the time he gave the big jobs speech (not), I started criticizing him here for (a) doubling down in Afghanistan and (b) ignoring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' announcement that they were choosing the "technically not superior" solution for a part of the new protection system for New Orleans. Obama fans here pelted me with digital spitballs, on the grounds that "his plate's so full" and "he'll get to it."

And now, here we are. Oddly enough, the President's plate has just gotten fuller. What's with that kitchen staff? And the intervening two years have shown me -- and yes, commenters, I know, I'll get back to doing cartoon voices just as soon as this post is completed -- that this President has committed two profound strategic blunders.

One is based on the circumstances he faced on taking office. The economy was in a shambles. When that happens in this country, history tells us there's a big wave of populism that sweeps through the population most severely affected by economic turmoil. Sometimes it's left-wing populism; sometimes it's right-wing populism. I think the president had the moment, and the option, to select which direction that populist wave would break. Had he gone left-wing populist, directing the anger of Main Street at -- to quote TDR -- the "malefactors of great wealth," it's quite possible that he could have cornered the market on populism. Leaving that field vacant opened a big market for right-wing populism, which conveniently swooped in, in the form of the Tea Party. Yes, I'm suggesting that Barack Obama, not the Koch Brothers, is primarily responsible for the rise of the Tea Party.

The second strategic blunder has to do with misunderstanding his opposition. What was it about Mitch McConnell saying in 2009 that his primary goal was the defeat of President Obama that President Obama didn't understand? When your adversary is hell-bent on denying you any victories, making conciliatory policy moves towards them is quixotic and self-defeating. Example: adopting Mitt Romney's (and many other conservatives') model for market-based insurance "exchanges" in his health-care plan merely allowed the opposition to demonize a previously conservative policy, thereby moving the argument to the right. It didn't earn him the votes of (almost extinct) moderate Republicans, nor the ardor of centrists. It merely allowed another set of policy options to be labeled "socialist." Westen decries this as the failure to understand bully politics. I'd go simpler, based on my own experience as one of the shortest white guys to play street basketball in NYC: if you get into a game that surprises you with its free use of elbows and other apparent deliberate contact, with the determination of both teams to cheat on the score and argue every foul and out-of-bounds call, you're ill-advised to call "time" and say, "Hey, guys, I do happen to have a copy of the rules here...." You play the game you find yourself in, and you rev up your elbows.

The truly sad thing is that, for this Administration, the whole year is August.

I can't wait till 2010 and that big jobs speech.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Something To Talk About

This coming week the President will address a joint session of Congress and the nation concerning his plans to revive an economy that has, for all intents and purposes, stalled. In every way imaginable it will be the most important speech of his presidency and might well end up determining whether he will be a two-term president or another Jimmy Carter.
Pundits on both sides of the political spectrum are already sizing up what he needs to say in the speech. From the Right, the usual tax cuts, reducing government spending and eliminating regulations that impede corporate profits. From the Left, massive government work projects like the ones FDR put in place to get people back to work. The deficit be damned, employment is where it’s at.

In my humble (yeah, right!) opinion neither option is viable. For one thing, giving into the deficit hawks now would virtually guarantee a Republican win in 2012. Massive cuts during economic downturns almost always lead to higher unemployment numbers, which of course reinforces the GOP narrative that this President has badly mismanaged this economy. Furthermore, due to the increase in unemployment, it actually has the unintended consequence of increasing the deficit, which also feeds the narrative of the wingnuts who are obsessed with this insane notion that deficit spending and not the sub-prime mortgage bubble is what caused the recession in the first place; an assertion that can be easily disproved by anyone with access to a computer and a functioning brain.

But if succumbing to his lesser angels on the Right is out, equally impossible and politically suicidal would be any attempt at replicating a grand FDR approach. Sorry, kids, the time to go New Deal was back in the first 90 days of his administration, when Obama had the opportunity – not to mention the political capital – to put in place a true stimulus; one that would’ve had the effect of jump-starting an economy on life support. As I have said on more than one occasion, that ship has sailed. He settled on $787 billion because he thought that was all he could get through a skeptical and resistant Congress. Now, as they say, he has to lie in the bed he has made for himself.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t go out and get some new sheets. So this is what I think he should do. Since it is a given that anything he says or does will be met with extreme resistance by the Republicans, it’s time to be bold.

First off, start by taking away their thunder. Offer to lower the corporate tax rate (currently at 35% for the highest bracket) to a flat 15% across the board. But tie it to creation of new jobs in this country and, as a further enticement, if they open up new facilities here, their first year corporate tax rate would only be 10%. To make up the difference to the treasury, certain tax loopholes would be closed.  Yep, you guessed it, revenue.

Secondly, infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure! America’s roads and bridges are badly in need of repair and time is running out for many of them. The collapse of the bridge outside of Minneapolis four years ago last month underscores that fact. The longer we wait as a nation, the more expensive these repairs will be. With all the criticism over Obama’s stimulus, one of the bright spots was the work projects on various roads throughout the country. Unlike most of the projects, these were, for the most part, shovel-ready. Though not nearly sufficient to deal with all the nagging maintenance issues, the federal assistance was nonetheless responsible for employing thousands of workers in many states. In my own neck of the woods, stimulus funds were used for the repaving of both the Northern State Parkway and Long Island Expressway; the former had been in dire need of resurfacing for years.

In the Sierra Nevada’s there is a 40-mile stretch of I-80 that desperately needs repair work. The interstate has long had a troubled past during much of its 3,000 miles from New Jersey to California, but this particular stretch promises to be the most problematic. As it stands now it will cost approximately $400 million to complete the repairs to that area. However, if the road is allowed to completely deteriorate, the cost could well soar into the billions.

There are literally hundreds of similar stories out there – bridges on the brink of collapse, roads nearing the impassible stage – that cry out for workers to repair them. With state budgets already stretched thin, the only agency with the resources to do the job is the federal government. This isn’t make-work spending for the sake of spending. These repair projects will take years to complete and employ tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of workers in the process. And they must be done sooner rather than later. The President must make the case to the American people that it is fiscally prudent and morally responsible to tackle these projects now while they are somewhat manageable, before the consequences of delay end up proving to be fatal.

Next, the President must send a message to the business community that he is going to reassess some of the regulations that are on the books – particularly with respect to the environment – and, where permissible, suspend them. We have already seen evidence that this is happening. Just last week, the Administration halted an increase in clean air standards. Expect more of the same in an attempt to get a stubbornly high unemployment rate down below 9%. Right now, the priority is the economy; the environment will have to wait.

And finally, the President must stop showing his frustration over the recalcitrant obstructionism of his opponents and instead start emoting a more positive outlook. This isn’t to suggest that he should not go on the offensive and continue to highlight the differences between his bi-partisan approach and the “my way or the highway” approach of the Tea Party faction, but it’s time to stop sniveling and whining about his circumstances; circumstances that in all honesty he is at least partly to blame for bringing about.

In my line of work, attitude can go a long way. Customers hate it when you get defensive. They want to see that their salesperson has the ability and the confidence to take care of their needs. At the moment, Obama is acting very much like the proverbial salesman who has just found out his boss is going to honor a competitor’s price on a flat panel TV, thus reducing his commission. Well tough noogies, as they say. Deal with it!

Last Wednesday’s email to his supporters was pure sour grapes and showed a side of him he cannot afford to reveal. It’s one thing to show anger, it’s quite another to get flustered. And another thing: this president needs to stop using words like “we” and instead use words like “I” and “me.” “We” aren’t the President of the United States, he is. If he truly wants to be the next Truman, he can start by committing to memory that most famous of desk signs that reads: The Buck Stops Here!

Next week’s speech will be a turning point for Obama. If he nails it, he could go a long way towards making the case to the American people why he is the best choice to lead the nation out of the hole it is stuck in; if he flubs it, he will end up making the Republican’s case for change in 2012. As is par for the course, his fate is in his own hands.