Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dumbing It Down: The Pursuit of Intellectual Mediocrity in America

It never ceases to amaze me how so many Americans are not only ill-informed but apparently prefer to remain hopelessly lost in their own self-imposed ignorance.  Case in point, while driving on the road just today I happened to be behind a van that had a bumper sticker on it, which read:



What was so sad about the sticker was that somebody obviously took the time to write it out and have it printed up, and did not even bother to check it for the correct punctuation.  I’ve been noticing that and other grammatical errors, such as “There going out to lunch,” instead of “They’re going out to lunch” or “Your really not going their are you?” instead of “You’re really not going there, are you?” or “Its raining cats and dogs,” instead of “It’s raining cats and dogs.”  It reminds me of that famous comedian, whose name escapes me at the moment, who did a routine about illiteracy by announcing, “I is a college graduate!”  Most of the audience got it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a certain percentage were completely oblivious to the slight.

What scares me most is that the percentage of people who aren’t getting it in America is growing and, worse, they apparently don’t seem to care one bit.  Indeed there is a swelling pride in somehow being perceived as “simple” or “plain” that has become appealing in a perverse sort of way.  Conversely, to be thought of as well-spoken and articulate is rapidly being frowned upon and thought of as elitist and snobbish.  It’s like that classic joke about the difference between ignorance and apathy?  The response of “I don’t know and I don’t care” has now become the official anthem for a new world order.

And it isn’t just the sloppy use of language that is disconcerting.  The lack of intellectual curiosity about how things work and an almost pathological pursuit of the lowest common denominator of understanding is frighteningly apparent to anyone with a modicum of awareness.  Both have risen almost exponentially over the last few years.

If you’re looking for empirical evidence of this malaise in the culture look no further than the spectacle of the GOP debates.  The current front-runner Herman Cain – Mr. Godfather himself – has risen to the top, not by meticulously explaining the problems that currently beset our tax code, but by reducing it down to a cheap and easy to remember catch-phrase: 9-9-9!  Sounds more like the price of one of Cain’s pizzas, than a solution to what ails the common taxpayer, doesn’t it? 

Forget for a moment that nobody who understands even the basics of tax law believes it is workable, that’s not important.  Cain connected on a visceral level with a segment of the population so fed up with the complexities and frustrations of an inefficient system that they have elected to throw the baby out with the bathwater rather than try to grapple with a workable framework.  And Cain has capitalized on his good fortune not by challenging their ignorance, but by enabling and encouraging it.

Not to be outdone, old Quick Draw McGraw, Rick Perry, came out with his own “simple” tax plan.  In his scheme you get a choice: stay with the old, convoluted system with all its confusing deductions and exemptions, or opt for a flat 20% tax rate that even a child could understand.  That the target audience for both Cain and Perry fails to grasp that under both plans the amount they pay in taxes would actually go up is apparently irrelevant.  The only thing that matters is that both men are appealing to a baser instinct within that demographic that eschews anything even remotely complicated for a softer, easier to comprehend resolution.   

The public may demand accountability and answers, but it has no stomach for the gory details.  As one political pundit once put it, “It likes the sausage, it just doesn’t want to see how it’s made.”  The result has been a lot of flimflam artists selling snake oil as health tonic to an awful lot of lost and sick souls who neither have the inclination or the capacity to realize they’re being flimflammed.

As a retail salesman I often employed this technique of dumbing it down to capitalize on my customers’ inability to decipher anything remotely difficult.  It made me a fair share of money along the way.  Do I regret it?  At times, yes.  But the fact is if I hadn’t dumbed it down, my competition would’ve.  Barnum was right.  There is a sucker born every minute. 

As of right now, the American public is that sucker and it is being taken for the ride of its life by a very shrewd and manipulative political process that is capitalizing on its fears and frustrations by promising it the world with a song and a dance.  Before this song and dance are through an awful lot of dazed and confused dullards are going to be in for the shock of their lives.  And the worst thing of all is that these dullards willingly lined up for the shock.    


Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Half-Filled Glass

I must confess I’ve never been much of an optimist.  Whenever I see a truly beautiful day, my mind tends to focus on the clouds that I’m sure are coming over the horizon to ruin it.  For nearly fifty years, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Whoever came up with “May the bluebird of paradise shit on your head” must’ve been thinking of me.  Taking good news in stride has been the biggest challenge in my life.

But this week two things occurred that lifted my spirits up several notches.  The first was today’s news that European leaders have apparently reached a deal to save the euro, sending the Dow up more than 300 points.  The S&P 500 is up more than 13% this month, its biggest gain since 1974.  For those of you who’ve been paying attention, this could be the biggest break – and by break I mean good – the economy has gotten in years.  The sword of Damocles that was hanging over the head of most of the Western world has, for the moment, been stilled. 

While details are still a bit sketchy, the highlights are as follows: a 50% write down of all Greek debt (which still has to be agreed to by Greek bondholders); and the setting aside of $1.4 trillion in rescue funds for other fragile economies on the Continent, including Italy and Spain.  Assuming there are no last-minute snags or foul-ups, 2012 could be a very good year, economically speaking.

And speaking of 2012, that brings me to the second bit of good news that greeted my weary eyes.  And that was the results of a new poll (albeit a Democratic one) that revealed that Republicans are in trouble as far as the House goes for next year’s election.  Seems the incumbent curse is now afflicting them just like it did the Dems in 2010.  With Congressional approval now sitting at 9% - the lowest ever recorded – voters are far more likely to support potential challengers, even if the challenger happens to be a Democrat.  If they manage to gain 25 seats next year, the Democrats will take back control of the House after having been thoroughly trounced in the previous election.

Don’t laugh; they might just pull it off, for the poll also shows that the public has grown tired of the Tea Party shenanigans.  Tom Jensen, Director of Public Policy Polling, which conducted the poll, said, “The reality at the district level matches the reality at the national level: Americans think John Boehner and the new majority have gone too far.” And the news gets even better.  Polls taken by Reuters and NBC/Wall Street Journal – both taken on October 10th – show Democrats ahead of Republicans by margins of 48% to 40% and 45% to 41% respectively.

For once that light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t appear to be a train coming.  Of course my lesser angels will do their best to try and ruin my spirits.  After all, if we’ve learned anything about Europe and early polling it’s that neither can be depended on when push comes to shove.  But, for now at least, I’m choosing to see the glass as half-filled.

The clouds be damned.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Tip of the Hat

Once more we venture over to the other side of the fence to catch a glimpse of what some of the more reasonable conservatives are saying. This month's feature presentation is an excellent piece about the Republican obsession with Ayn Rand.  Enjoy!

The GOP Can’t Quit Ayn Rand

by Gary Weiss

Two years ago, I began work on a book that was to examine the ideological roots of the 2008 financial crisis. Over time this became a broader examination of the radical right’s renaissance in America. For many months I’ve been eating, sleeping and breathing Ayn Rand—and on February 28 the results of my journey will be published by St. Martin’s Press, in a book entitled Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul.

Ayn Rand’s spirit hangs over the 2012 presidential race like the aftermath of a bad meal that, for some reason, we’ve all forgotten that we’ve eaten. In the run-up to the financial crisis the markets became a kind of Fifth Estate, the ultimate arbiters of American society. This was not a Republican disease; some of the most voracious deregulation took place during the Clinton Administration. It was as if a moral choice had been made, substituting the “wisdom of the markets” for admittedly flawed and sometimes grossly inept regulators. It made perfect sense, especially in an era in which the stock market averages rose by as much as 40% in one year, but today we know, or should know, that untrammeled capitalism doesn’t work.

But you’d never know any of this when listening to the Republican candidates for president, especially the one who most overtly embodies Rand’s philosophy: Ron Paul.

Paul is by no means a card-carrying Objectivist—his embrace of religion, and his views on foreign policy, makes him anathema to Randian true believers. But his embrace of the most primitive, extreme forms of free-market, almost-zero-government capitalism comes closest to Rand’s belief system of any in the Republican field.

What’s remarkable about Paul is how effective he is at putting forward his views, extreme as they are. Indeed, the unyielding, unwavering non-flip-flopping character of his opinions is perhaps his greatest asset. He is the best friend free-market capitalism has at present, as can be seen by his recent debate performances and especially his recent triumphant appearance at Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. The man exudes small-town charm while at the same advocating positions that would make life into hell for the great majority of his followers and listeners.

I was struck by Paul’s appearance on the Daily Show because Stewart has taken a strong, sometimes angry position against Wall Street excesses. Yet no presidential candidate embodies the worst instincts of Wall Street—and is more aggressive at promoting the financial industry’s hopes, dreams, and hatred of regulation.

Like many on Wall Street, Paul is opposed to the very existence of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the only regulatory agency that stands between the Street and the American public. Now, let’s be clear on what that means. Many people, myself included, feel that the SEC has done an abysmal job of regulating the markets. It probably should be abolished—but replaced by a stronger agency, one with teeth and a culture of aggressiveness, not bureaucratic lassitude. But Paul wants it replaced by nothing. In 2009 he said,
For a good many years now, since the 1930s, every time a problem like this comes up, like in the Depression, we think that it is a lack of regulation, so we introduce regulatory agencies like the SEC, and, like after Enron, that was a major problem so we appropriate more money, and hire more people… that doesn’t do any good.
But this circumstance I think really makes my point, that the approach is completely wrong. [The approach] that the regulatory agencies are preempting people from doing bad things, just doesn’t work. There are millions and millions and millions of transactions. You can’t do it. All they do is give a false sense of security.
This is a perfect example of it. The SEC was involved with Madoff over the last decade. And that sort of gives the stamp of approval and says, “oh, must be okay”. So everybody’s guard is let down. This creates the moral hazard that allows people to make these mistakes and not to assume responsibility for themselves.
As I said earlier, Paul is not an Objectivist. But this eloquent exposition of unregulated capitalism is straight out of the Rand canon, specifically a 1963 essay by Alan Greenspan in her anthology Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. His essay was entitled “The Assault on Integrity.” Greenspan argued that “regulation—which is based on force and fear—undermines the moral base of business dealings.” Using very much the same rationalizations as was employed by Paul 46 years later, Greenspan argued for the entombment of every form of regulation, from local building inspectors to the Food and Drug Administration. Greenspan said, “It is precisely the ‘greed’ of the businessman or, more appropriately, his profit-seeking, which is the unexcelled protector of the consumer.”

Needless to say, Paul did not invoke the despised Greenspan in his appearance on the Daily Show. Nor did he advocate ending the FDA and abolishing building codes, which might sound extreme to even his most dedicated supporters. Instead, in his charming and folksy manner, he appealed to his audience by invoking the corrosive effects of the war on drugs and the CIA.

Stewart did not seem convinced but was suitably impressed, as we all should be, by Paul’s candor. But yet there was an odor to the appearance that lingered. Perhaps it was the way he pandered to his audience. Or perhaps it was that he was repeating the same tortured reasoning that has proven so destructive to the financial system. Or perhaps it’s that Paul is in the forefront of a campaign to strip the public of its protections from the excesses of capitalism, out of a professed belief that the alternative is a government that is even worse than the worst excesses of business.

Yet it was business, not government, that caused the financial crisis—unless you believe, as does Paul and many on the far right, that the financial crisis was caused by government policies.

Recently there was an SEC action that should mean a lot to every Paul acolyte—or at least the ones that have a keen sense of irony. In July, the SEC brought fraud charges against a man named Jeffery A. Lowrance. The SEC said that Lowrance “defrauded investors by promising high fixed rates of return from foreign currency trading.” The SEC contended that Lowrence engaged in “affinity fraud” by targeting people who shared his belief—in Ron Paul. (H/T The Financial Arts blog.)

In the Randian world of laissez-faire capitalism, the markets would effectively police themselves, and be more effective than hard-pressed government bureaucrats. So don’t fix regulation. Don’t improve it; abolish it.

Ayn Rand believed that we all should pursue our own rational self-interests. When you hear the cheers that Paul gets when he manipulates his audiences, you have to wonder: Do these people understand their own rational self-interests?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Facts is Facts

Sometimes there isn’t a mountaintop high enough to shout out the obvious: SUPPLY-SIDE ECONOMICS HAS BEEN AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER! Period, end of discussion.

The facts are as clear as the nose on your face.  Not only has this bastard-child of an economic scheme been responsible for the bulk of the U.S. debt over the last three decades, which the vaunted defenders of the faith fail to even acknowledge, it has been responsible for the biggest upward redistribution of wealth in this country since the 1800s – the time of the great land barons.

Just take a gander at the data from the chart above.  Read it and weep.  It’s easy to understand how Republicans can continue to sell a failed and morally bankrupt economic philosophy to the American public; it’s all they have left.  What still befuddles the mind is how the American public keeps on buying it.

Double Dip This!

Good news continues to mount on the economy.  Third quarter profits were up 16% from last year’s third quarter numbers and the stock market is having its best run in God knows when.  Yep, things are really looking bleak these days, for the doomsayers, that is.  If Europe manages to avoid imploding, many analysts – the same ones mind you that warned us we were headed into a double-dip recession only six weeks ago – predict a far rosier prognosis for the economy in 2012.

Clearly the news points to the only conclusion possible.  That, despite all the nonsense coming out of the Right about how over-regulation and those terrible tax and spend policies are keeping corporate America from unleashing its full potential, the only remaining stumbling block to a full and robust recovery is that six-letter word that every first-year economics major has engrained into their cranium: DEMAND!

Profits are soaring; the market is climbing; investors know a phony issue when they see one.  Right now they’re buying and the reason they’re buying is because, despite persistently high unemployment numbers, the economy is actually much stronger than any one expected. 

What this reminds me of is that period during FDR’s second term when he bowed to Republican pressure and took his foot off the gas pedal, letting all the steam out of the recovery.  The result was that the economy slid backwards and unemployment, which had been steadily decreasing for four years, shot back up.

There is a time for easing off the accelerator and a time for flooring it.  History has proven conclusively that during tough economic times, the latter is clearly called for and justifiable.  With interest rates at historic lows, now is the perfect time for short-term stimulus spending to get people back to work.

When demand begins to go up, corporate America will begin to hire, not before.  The only thing cutting will bring about is a reduction in demand, which will cause an increase in unemployment, which, ironically, will increase the budget deficit.

When will these clowns ever learn?    

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What the Right Fears Most About Occupy Wall Street

As I wrote a while back, grassroots movements are nothing new in American politics. From the Civil Rights movement to the counter-culture movement, all have two things in common: a genuine bone to pick with the established order and a lack of resources with which to sustain the momentum of the cause.

“It is that way with virtually all movements, regardless of ideology. Grand ideas that lead to a rush of enthusiasm that inevitably peter out on their own like a dying dwarf star from a lack of fuel, that is when they’re not being subverted and bought out.  Find a cause or movement that hasn’t collapsed of its own weight and you will find a very large stash of Benjamin Franklins bankrolling it.”

The Tea Party movement is an abject lesson in how to subvert a genuinely grassroots cause and turn a nation upside down in the process.  Voter angst over how the nation was being run became a national phenomenon, thanks to an awful lot of Benjamin Franklins being thrown around.  The efforts – not to mention deep pockets – of the Koch Brothers and Dick Armey’s Freedom Works acted like miracle grow to the simmering tensions that existed deep within a restless electorate.  The result was a movement that long ago outgrew any semblance of grassroots identity.  It has now become, for all intents and purposes, the driving force of the Republican Party and now dominates the political landscape of the nation.  

Despite claims to the contrary, the Right knew full well that the Frankenstein monster they had created was as genuine as a Canadian dollar at a flee-market.  But after getting their proverbial butts kicked in two consecutive elections, they took advantage of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and capitalized on an inept and disorganized Democratic Party to write the fairytale of all narratives.  It was a brilliant and highly successful strategy that now has them twelve months away from taking both the White House and Senate.

But there was one problem with their master scheme.  While peddling their drivel to a gullible electorate, they were never quite able to seize upon a genuine populist theme that could thrive without the aid of all those millions of corporate dollars.  Without Fox News and most of the A.M. dial to constantly stir up the pot, the fledgling Astroturf movement would’ve faded months ago, and they know that full well.

What the Right never counted on was that the real rage that existed out there had been untapped, yet quietly simmering away with the venom of a snake looking for an ankle to bite.  Whatever else you may want to call the “Occupy Wall Street” movement – and for the record I still don’t know quite what to make of it a month in – know this much: this truly grassroots movement is not phony, nor does it appear to be some left-wing counterpart to the Tea Party.  While Labor has lent a helping hand, they are not driving this bus.  In deed, this rather diverse and unpredictable movement looks about as organized as a tailgating party before a football game.

But deep within that diverse and disorganized group lies a seething contempt for what has transpired not only on Wall Street and the financial institutions but for the seeming complicity of a Washington political establishment that, as far as they were concerned, cared more for millionaires than for every day working people.

And while I am certainly not going to suggest that programs like TARP and the GM bailout were not necessary – they were, even if the former was poorly managed – I can identify with those who feel as though they were ignored and tossed aside.  Washington may have saved the Titanic from sinking but not before an awful lot of passengers got thrown overboard in the icy waters.  And it is those very same freezing and dripping wet passengers who have apparently had their own “mad as hell” moment and have decided that “they’re not going to take it anymore.”

This is the populist rage the Democrats couldn’t or wouldn’t tap into when it could’ve been there’s for the taking back in ’09.   Maybe they don’t represent the 99% that they purport to, but they sure as hell represent a majority of the population.  And, far from petering out, they seem to be spreading like wildfire.  From a tiny throng near the World Trade Center they have sprung up in dozens of cities throughout the country and, now, hundreds of cities across the world.  These people are tapping into an energy that is as old as dirt and, despite what the Right may be saying about them, their angst appears to be resonating among the general public.  

Yes there are flakes and nut jobs among their lot – show me a movement that doesn’t have its fair share of escaped inmates – but, by and large, they have been surprisingly disciplined and well behaved for a group that, as of yet, has failed to come up with a cohesive and defining message.  They are as unpredictable as they are committed.

And that’s what the Right fears most about this movement.  It’s genuine, growing and, for the moment at least, beyond co-opting.  Furthermore, this truly grassroots movement is connecting in a visceral way with independents that even the Tea Party couldn’t and that spells trouble for the people at News Corp.  If they can manage to organize themselves around a central theme and stick to it, this could be the biggest phenomenon to hit American politics since the days of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of course that’s a tall order.  There are many stumbling blocks that lie ahead for Occupy Wall Street, not the least of which is the approaching winter, which in New York can be quite brutal.  Then there’s this little thing called money.  Like it or not, without some kind of funding, it will be almost impossible to sustain the momentum they have gained the last thirty plus days.  While contributions are continuing to pour in, it may not be enough.  And then there’s staying power.  How long will these people hang in when the elements turn harsh and public opinion begins to wane?  Say what you will about the Koch brothers, it’s amazing what a few million dollars can do to overcome a host of obstacles and fix a multitude of sins.

But, for the time being, it’s been both fun and encouraging watching this fledgling movement turn an awful lot of heads.  While I’m hedging my bets a bit, I’m nonetheless cautiously optimistic about its chances of success.  For even if it turns out that Occupy Wall Street ends up going into that long good night, the spark that they have lit may continue to flicker in the hearts and minds of millions of voters.  And that is always a good thing, especially with such an important election coming up next year.  Besides, any movement that can make the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh sweat is OK in my book.             

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Vindication in Libya

Now that Moammar Gadhafi has been put out of his interminable misery and the Libyan people are finally free to determine their own fate for the first time in over four decades, it’s time to give it up and admit that President Obama’s strategy regarding the insurgence was not only right, as it turned out it was the only way to effect the change Libya and the region so desperately needed. 

Putting aside for just a moment the fact that the genocide that still goes on in Darfur rivals anything faced by the Libyans, this is nonetheless a historic occasion.  For the first time in what may seem like ages, the United States did not go into another country guns a blazin’ to dethrone a dictator.  For the first time, quite possibly going back to the 1800s, America did not take the lead and instead chose to be a part of a team whose mission was to “help” an oppressed people oust an unwanted tyrant.

Yes, I know we were part of a great big team called the Allies during World War II that defeated Hitler, and a couple of other despots.  Anybody want to lay odds on how that War would’ve turned out had we not “joined” the team?  Don’t look now, but I think that was your wiener schnitzel burning on der Ofen.  And while some would claim that the Clinton Administration’s involvement in the Bosnia- Herzegovina War set the precedent that Obama followed, the facts are that more than fifteen years later, much of what happened in that war and the “peace” that ensued leave much to be desired.

No, like it or not, the current President, not his immediate predecessor – who never met a mission he couldn’t un-accomplish – nor the one before him, has put in place a new paradigm for American foreign policy that, if followed, might actually transform much of the Middle East and restore our badly tarnished reputation.  For once, the neocons didn’t have their way.  For once they were forced to the sidelines and had to endure the painful reality that the days of the United States charging over San Juan Hill are effectively over, and not just because the country literally can’t afford it anymore.  The truth is it just wasn’t working. 

This isn’t the 1950s anymore; hell it isn’t even the 1980s.  American hegemony, if it meant anything once upon a time, has worn out its welcome.  Most of the world has grown tired of our dog and pony show.  It was getting old fast.  Credit Obama for realizing that and for having the courage to chart a different course.  While we aren’t out of the woods yet – we still don’t know what kind of government will emerge out of the chaos in Libya and the Syrian situation is fast reaching critical mass – at least this time it wasn’t our military that hauled ass down the streets of a foreign capital pronouncing victory.  There’s something to be said for allowing a sovereign nation to decide its own fate that does wonders for your prestige, not to mention your budget.  Compare the $2 billion spent in Libya to the more than $1 trillion spent in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But if the Right needs to cool its jets and pipe down a bit, the Left shouldn’t be dancin’ in the streets if you know what I mean.  If I remember correctly there were an awful lot of liberals who threw Mr. Obama under the bus for his decision to even involve the country in the conflict in the first place.  Something about sticking our nose in where it didn’t belong and violating the Constitution.  Hmmm.  I bet they must feel pretty foolish right about now.  The truth is that, despite the fact that this President has had a horrific time drawing narratives and selling his vision of America to the voters, he’s made a number of calls that went against the grain; calls that in all likelihood will be vindicated by history.  This is just the latest one that, for now, goes into the win column. 

Chalk one up again for Captain Pragmatic.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Herman Cain's Love Potion Number 9-9-9

Herman Cain’s “brilliant” and “simple” 9-9-9 tax plan for America isn’t just some publicity stunt or a promotion for a pizza pie with all the trimmings at one of his Godfather establishments.  The current GOP frontrunner actually believes that it would be the best way to spur a stalled economy and, at the same time, “simplify” a tax code many feel makes calculus seem easy by comparison.

Leaving aside the fact that, yes, the tax code desperately needs some kind of reform, a closer look at Cain’s “simplistic” proposal not only reveals a staggering lack of real tax code knowledge, if passed, it would end up being the greatest tax increase for middle and lower income earners since the federal income tax was introduced, while simultaneously ushering in the single greatest tax break for millionaires and corporations.  Here’s why.

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention over the last few weeks, Cain’s “simple” tax plan comes down to three components: a 9% federal income tax (supposedly flat, but with a few allowable deductions), a flat 9% corporate tax and a 9% national sales tax.  While proponents of the plan say that by eliminating virtually all tax deductions and simplifying the code it allows for the treasury to close loopholes and obtain new sources of revenue, most of that revenue would be disproportionately gotten from those who can least afford to pay it.  In the words of Bruce Bartlett, a senior official in both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations, the plan would be a “distributional monstrosity.”

Most middle-income workers count on the deductions that Cain would eliminate to reduce their overall tax rate.  For instance if you earn between $75,000 and $100,000 per year, the fact is you probably don’t even pay 9% by the time you file your federal return.  Under a Cain Administration you would in all likelihood pay more than you’re paying now.  Homeowners would be hit hardest as the interest and property tax deductions would be eliminated.  Only certain charitable donations would be retained.

As for the lower and lower middle-income groups, they would be devastated.  Roughly 30 million households pay no income tax at all, many of them living at or below the poverty level.  If Cain’s tax plan were to go into effect, many of them would be hit with tax rates that could approach a third or more of their incomes.  Families already struggling to make ends meet would find it impossible to survive.

And it gets even better from there.  Cain proposes to eliminate completely the payroll taxes that fund entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as estate and capital gains taxes.  If you’re a millionaire, you’re salivating over this proposal.  If you’re a part of the middle class, you should be peeing in your pants at the prospects.

Cain saves the best for last.  To make up for the lost revenue to the treasury, he proposes a national sales tax of 9 %.  But some economists have already said that 9% won’t be enough to make up the shortfall.  Estimates as high as 23% have been floated.  But even at the “paltry” 9% level, the burden to consumers would be immense.  With consumer demand already at record lows, a value-added tax – which is what Cain is ostensibly calling for – would drive the economy even further south.

And, as far as the deficit is concerned, the “simple” truth is that Herman Cain’s “simplistic” and regressive 9-9-9 tax plan would more than likely add to it, rather than reduce it.  And that’s because while it counts on the elimination of loopholes and standard deductions to potentially raise revenues, actual net receipts by some estimates could fall by as much as $300 billion annually.  Furthermore, with the addition of a national sales tax, it is overly punitive to most middle and lower-income wage earners who make up the vast majority of consumers in the country.

Ask any business owner – whether they employ two workers or two thousand workers – what’s the most important ingredient in their success and they’ll gladly tell you point blank: customers.  The more the merrier. 

With all the talk about the great engine of capitalism being the entrepreneur, the reality is that all the entrepreneurial spirit in the world can’t make up for a lack of consumer spending.  The more customers spend, the better the profit sheets look and the more likely businesses are to hire more workers.  You would think that someone with the supposed business acumen of Herman Cain would get that “simple” truth.  The fact is he does.  What he’s counting on is a majority of frustrated voters falling for the seeming “simplicity” of it, without of course bothering to find out the gaudy details. 

“Simply” put, the 9-9-9 tax plan would increase most Americans’ taxes and have profound consequences on the nation’s economy.  Even conservatives are skeptical about the tax plan.  Grover Norquist said recently that the Cain plan would be “like having three needles in your arm taking blood out.  It’s much more dangerous than just one.”  My guess is when more Americans find out about it, they will have a “simple” answer to Mr. Cain’s “simplistic” tax scheme.  They will “simply” reject it outright.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Idiots’ Delight

This is fast becoming my favorite monthly piece.  You could say it’s where I let what’s left of my hair down.  Trying to act like the adult in the room, like our president, is an exacting and demanding job, so every once in a while I let my alter ego out of his cage and let him have at it, as it were. 

With politics dominating the stage – and rightfully so I might add – I thought I would shift gears a bit and go Biblical on your butts this month.  Below are two “fine” examples of idiocy. So deserving of the spotlight of shame, they could easily share first prize.  But, alas, someone had to edge out in front, if only by a nose, which, after reading this, you will have to hold for quite some time.

Without further ado, the envelope please:

Robert Jeffress: This “evangelical” pastor calls himself a devout Christian.  In reality he represents no faith that I am aware of.  His remarks about Republican candidate Mitt Romney belonging to a cult religion and Catholicism being a counterfeit “Babylonian mystery religion” that represents “the genius of Satan” reveals a mind so depraved and bigoted as to suggest a total absence of the very qualities Christ possessed and sought from his followers.  Those qualities include mercy, compassion, empathy and, above all, love.

That Texas Governor Rick Perry distanced himself from the remarks and later condemned them was reassuring, but the real scab behind this flap wasn’t just this pastor’s ignorance, but how prevalent his views appear to be within the Church.  Religious bigotry doesn’t get a lot of press these days – what with all the racial prejudice that has risen once more to the surface – but it is alive and well and running rampant throughout the Christian faith.  Jeffress merely gave voice to what many – particularly in the evangelical community – have been feeling all along.

In fact, a look at his bio suggests that, far from being a fringe player among evangelicals, Jeffress is highly regarded and respected by many of the “faithful.”  He leads a 10,000-member congregation in downtown Dallas and has few equals among his ilk.  Many of Jeffress’ contemporaries not only share his views but have publicly stated like-minded opinions. 

This superiority complex and contempt for other faiths is nothing new.   Ironically Jesus had to deal with it during his own ministry.  He often referred to the Pharisees of his time as a “brood of vipers.”  Two thousand years later, that very same brood is, once more, exposing its heart and making a royal ass of itself for all to see.  And, for the moment at least, Jeffress is its crowned prince.  He will not be the last.  Trust me.

Harold Camping: File this under dumb and dumber.  Captain Rapture is at it again. It wasn’t bad enough this used-car salesman of a preacher duped potentially millions of gullible boobs into believing the world was coming to an end last May 21st.  Now he’s back for another bite at the same apple.  The new date for Armageddon?  October 21st.  Exactly five months to the day of his last “bold” prediction.

How does he explain his gaffe?  Let’s let old Harold put it in his own “humble” words.

“What really happened this past May 21st ? What really happened is that God accomplished exactly what He wanted to happen. That was to warn the whole world that on May 21 God’s salvation program would be finished on that day. For the next five months, except for the elect (the true believers), the whole world is under God’s final judgment. To accomplish this goal God withheld from the true believers the way in which two phrases were to be understood. Had He not done so, the world would never have been shaken in fear as it was.

“I do believe we are getting very near the very end. We’ve learned that there is a lot of things we didn’t have quite right and that’s God’s good provision. If he had not kept us from knowing everything that we didn’t know, we would not have been able to be used of him to bring about the tremendous event that occurred on May 21 of this year, which will probably be finished out on Oct. 21. That’s coming very shortly. That looks like at this point, it looks like it will be the final end of everything.”

If there is any justice in the world this snake oil salesman will be beamed off the face of the planet on October 21st and the lives of millions of tortured souls will be spared from having to contend with and fall for any more of his false doctrine.  Every Christian who doesn’t have his head up his butt knows full well that predicting the end of the world is not only a fool’s errand, but those who actually attempt it are contradicting the very scripture they purport to represent and adhere to in the first place.

Camping isn’t the first to peddle this drivel; in fact, you could say he follows a “grand tradition” of other nefarious preachers who thought they could catch lightning in a bottle, only to be disappointed by the reality that the planet they were predicting would soon end had been around for millions of years and was, no doubt, going to outlast their wretched and hypocritical lives.  Brother Harold is merely more famous and, apparently, more adept at shoveling shit than his predecessors.

In the unlikely event, however, that Camping is right, and the Rapture does in deed take place on October 21st, I am asking my fellow colleagues to preserve my writings for how ever long their miserable, condemned, pusillanimous lives are permitted to exist.  No sense in wasting a perfectly good judgment day, right?

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Crying Shame

The more I think about Steve Jobs, the more I agree with Thomas Friedman in The New York Times:

“He was someone who did not read the polls but changed the polls by giving people what he was certain they wanted and needed before they knew it; he was someone who was ready to pursue his vision in the face of long odds over multiple years; and, most of all, he was someone who earned the respect of his colleagues, not by going easy on them but by constantly pushing them out of their comfort zones and, in the process, inspiring ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

The more I think about our elected officials in Washington, the more I reluctantly agree with Thomas Friedman in The New York Times:

“There isn’t a single national politician today whom you would describe by those [Jobs’] attributes.  Neither party is saying: Here is the world we are living in; here are the big trends; here is our long-term plan for rolling up our sleeves to ensure that America thrives in this world because it is not going to come easy; nothing important ever does.  What is John Boehner’s vision? I laugh just thinking about the question. What is President Obama’s vision? I cry just thinking about the question.”

I hate it when I agree with Thomas Friedman, not because he isn’t often right, but because this isn’t rocket science.  This should be so much less difficult than an awful lot of really stupid people are making it out to be.  But then Friedman has made a career out of stating the obvious, hasn’t he?

Looking at the political landscape these days is like looking at an iceberg adrift on the ocean.  You know it will eventually wind up in warmer climate where it will melt, but at the moment all you can focus on is its immense proportions, its icy and formidable composition and the hazard it poses to navigation.   

These are perilous times in America.  Solutions are almost impossible to come by.  A sitting president is all but paralyzed by an innate inability to craft a narrative and define a vision, not only for his administration, but for the country as a whole.  And an opposition party seems more intent on stringing him out and letting the ballot box decide the issues next fall, rather than be a partner in a workable process that could enhance his reelection prospects.  Both sides seem hopelessly locked in a stalemate.  Paralysis vs. intransigence.  And you thought “War of the Roses” was a just another silly movie.

In normal times, the Left / Right debate would be healthy, even vital for the nation.  Now, it’s acting like an anchor stuck on a reef and, as the ship tries to pull away, it ends up pulling the bow under water.  Eventually the whole damn ship goes down.  Rather than cut the anchor loose and allow the ship to proceed, the powers that be seem determined to keep the tug of war going ad infinitum.  Like Bruce Springsteen once sang, “No retreat, no surrender.”

The solutions are right there in front of everyone, but they refuse to see them.  The Left refuses to acknowledge that corporate tax rates are way too high and must be reduced; that spending on some level must be trimmed; and while stimulus spending can mitigate severe economic downturns, it is no substitute for real long-term growth in the private sector.  A business-friendly environment will do more in the long run for future prosperity than any government-run program can ever do.

The Right refuses to abandon the idea that spending cuts alone, without addressing the issue of revenues, will never balance any budget, much less one that is $1.4 trillion in the red; that there is no “confidence fairy” that will miraculously appear once they take the reigns of power and dramatically reduce unemployment.  Demand is the key to future growth and, with virtually every economist out there forecasting stubbornly high unemployment through at least 2015, some stimulus spending is needed to prop up the economy until this great engine of capitalism is firing on all cylinders.  Additionally, its fixation with “Obamacare” and the Frank/Dodd Financial Reform law is pathological to say the least.  As far as anybody has been able to tell, neither healthcare nor financial reform has cost the economy a blessed thing, other than a ton of antacid tablets arguing and bickering about it.

As for entitlements, neither side is offering up real workable solutions.  The Left will not talk about any cuts in benefits, means testing or raising the retirement age, even if it actually strengthens the viability of those programs; and the Right’s solution ostensibly comes down to privatization and vouchers, which have been thoroughly rejected by a plurality of voters. 

And then there’s that sacred cow that nobody wants to touch: the military industrial complex.  The Left wants defense spending cuts, unless it means losing valuable jobs (that’s votes in Washington speak) in their districts; the Right is paranoid that even capping military spending would leave us vulnerable to future attacks, as if being able to blow up the world several times over isn’t sufficient enough.  The fact is the Pentagon’s budget rivals most other countries’ total budgets and, at some point, must be trimmed.  It currently receives more than one third of all discretionary spending.  That is simply insane under any circumstances.  The sensible solution would be a ten percent cut each year for the next five years, and then a cap for the foreseeable future.  Good luck seeing that.

The lack of leadership, both on Capital Hill and in the White House, is an embarrassment; the lack of a clear and viable plan of attack that can actually succeed and bring about the solutions that people demand and expect from their elected officials poses the biggest threat to the nation's future and well being.  Quick fixes, base pandering and a reluctance to face reality are what got us into the fix we currently find ourselves in.  Only a unique type of courage that calls for shared sacrifice and a willingness to think long-term will get us out of it.  Unfortunately, such courage is not to be found these days.

There’s a word that perfectly describes the current state of affairs in Washington.  It is not a particularly polite word; in deed, it is quite vulgar.  But, it is, nonetheless, appropriate and, in lieu of any reasonably effective substitute, it will have to suffice.

The word is Clusterfuck.  The military uses a variation of it when one of their operations has gone bad.  They call it SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up).  Sometimes they use another term: FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Repair).  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Washington version of a SNAFU and FUBAR.

Bon App├ętit!

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Good News and the Bad News for the Economy

First, the good news.  The September jobs’ report wasn’t nearly as bleak as some were expecting.  The private sector added 137,000 jobs, with the public sector losing 34,000.  That’s a net gain of 103,000 jobs.  In deed, since January 2010, the private sector has added 2.6 million jobs, while the public sector has cut or lost 503,000.  So much for the Right’s “theory” that all the jobs that were being created were in the government.  Clearly, based on this data, along with the upper revisions for July and August, we don’t appear to be headed into a double-dip recession.  For now, the doomsayers will have to find a new scab to pick.

However, that’s about as good as it gets.  As I have pointed out in earlier postings, while the economy continues to add jobs, the amount is insufficient to reduce the abysmal unemployment numbers.  And that’s because the U.S. population grows at just under 100,000 per month.  So adding around that number in jobs just keeps things at status quo, which, if you’re a Democrat these days – especially a particular one who just happens to be the President – is hardly reassuring news.  The fact is that, in order to make a significant dent in the unemployment numbers, the economy has to add between 200,000 and 300,000 jobs per month net.

No matter how you slice it or dice it, telling voters that, “Well at least things aren’t getting any worse,” is not a very good strategy for winning their hearts and minds.  In fact it’s a recipe for disaster.  In order to prevail next fall, the President and Democrats must make the case that they are proactively trying to help the economy and, in so doing, help the nation.

Ironically, their greatest weapon may in fact be the jobs’ numbers themselves.  They confirm what many economists – including Paul Krugman – have been saying for two years now: that cutting government jobs, while popular among certain groups, is actually making things worse.  It is increasing the overall unemployment rate, which is hurting demand, which is stunting private sector growth.  They are all inter-related.  Demand, not capital, is the key.  So long as consumers are hesitant to spend money, businesses will be reluctant to hire more workers, and nothing makes a consumer more hesitant to part with money than the prospect of getting canned.

It’s a vicious cycle and, so long as the slash and burn mindset continues to prevail in Washington, I’m afraid we’re going to remain stuck in it for quite some time.  That’s the bad news.    

Sunday, October 2, 2011

From Class Clown to Prophet: The Legacy of George Carlin Lives On.

 “But I'll tell you what they don't want. They don't want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that. That doesn't help them. That's against their interests. They don't want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they're getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard thirty fucking years ago. You know what they want? Obedient workers - people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork - but dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.

“And now, they're coming for your Social Security. They want your fucking retirement money! They want it back so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And you know something? They'll get it! They'll get it all, sooner or later, because they own this fucking place. It's a big club and you ain't in it. You and I are not in the Big Club."
– George Carlin

God, how I miss this man.  He told it like it was and never gave a rat’s ass what anybody else thought about it.  He had the balls to speak truth to power and managed to do it through the best vehicle imaginable: making people laugh.  Yes, George Carlin was a comedian, but calling him a comedian would be like calling Martin Luther King, Jr. a reverend.  Truth be told he was the Shakespeare of our generation and his untimely loss in 2008 cannot be overstated enough.  Like so many brilliant satirists before him, he was taken from us way too soon. 

Though seventy-one, and facing serious health issues – he looked weak and frail in his last HBO special – his wit was as sharp as ever.  I wonder what he would’ve had to say about the state of politics in this country today.  I’m guessing he would’ve had a field day with it; sadly we will never know.

Carlin understood power and what effects it had on an open and, supposedly, free society better than any comedian since Lenny Bruce.  He also understood what conformity was and how essential it was in order to get anywhere in life.  When he made the decision to be his own man and changed his act in the 1970s, it was not without risks or casualties.  But he soon found his true calling, and for the next forty years he made it his business to rip the blinders off his audiences’ eyes and allow them to see the world as it was, not as they thought it was.

There were no sacred cows in George Carlin’s universe.  Language, religion, war, corporate greed, political correctness, you name it.  Everything was fair game to him.  But in the years just before his death, his venom turned particularly towards power and how it manipulated and controlled every aspect our lives.  You can just imagine how his candor could provoke certain groups and ruffle more than just a few feathers along the way.  Witness some of his more masterful moments:

“We enjoy war.  And one reason we enjoy it is that we're good at it. You know why we're good at it? Because we get a lot of practice. This country is only 200 years old, and already we've had ten major wars. We average a major war every twenty years, So we're good at it!  And it's just as well we are, because we're not very good at anything else. Can't build a decent car anymore. Can't make a TV set, a cell phone, or a VCR. Got no steel industry left. No textiles. Can't educate our young people. Can't get health care to our old people. But we can bomb the shit outta your country, all right!”

“Conservatives say if you don't give the rich more money, they will lose their incentive to invest. As for the poor, they tell us they've lost all incentive because we've given them too much money.”

“This country was founded by a group of slave owners who wanted to be free! So they killed a lot of white English people in order to continue owning their black African people, so they could wipe out the rest of the red Indian people, in order to move west and steal the rest of the land from the brown Mexican people, giving them a place to take off and drop their nuclear weapons on the yellow Japanese people. You know what the motto for this country ought to be? ‘You give us a color, we'll wipe it out.’”

“The real reason that we can't have the Ten Commandments in a courthouse: You cannot post ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ and ‘Thou shalt not lie’ in a building full of lawyers, judges, and politicians. It creates a hostile work environment.”

“I got this real moronic thing I do, it’s called thinking.  I’m not a very good American because I like to form my own opinions.  I don’t just roll over when I’m told to.  Sad to say most Americans just roll over on command. Not me.  I have certain rules I live by. My first rule, I don’t believe anything the government tells me, nothing, zero.”

“War is rich old men protecting their property by sending middle class and lower class young men off to die.”

“Elections and politicians are in place in order to give Americans the illusion that they have freedom of choice.  You don’t really have choice in this country.  The limits of debate in this country are established before the debate even begins, and every one else is just marginalized, or made to be seen as Communists, or some sort of disloyal person. There used to be seven oil companies; there are now three; it will soon be two. The things that matter in this country have been reduced in choice. There are two political parties, there are a handful of insurance companies, there are about six or seven information outlets, but if you want a bagel there are twenty-three flavors because you have the illusion of choice.”

Of course he said so many other things of import – far too many to post here – but you get the point, I hope.  The man got it; he understood it, probably better than anyone else before or, sadly, after him.  Attempts to characterize him in his later years as some conspiracy nut or off the deep end fell on deaf ears.  His fans understood what he was saying, even as those he looked to root out and expose went after him.  By the time of his death, the term comedian was nothing more than an honorary title.  He had transcended that line of work long ago.

Ironic isn’t it?  A man who got famous for his hippy-dippy weather report, acting like the proverbial class clown and for uttering the seven words you could never say on television (Psst! It’s now six; you can say piss on TV) in the end became a modern-day prophet and visionary.  

As I see the protests taking place on Wall Street, somehow I can't help but think that where ever George Carlin is, he's smiling and probably screaming at the top of his lungs, "WHAT THE FUCK TOOK YOU SO LONG, ASSHOLES?"
Here’s to you, George, for the rich legacy you gave us and the cause you fought so hard to defend.  The fight is ours now.