Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Better politics

 "So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America's hopes. I've served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn't what you signed up for - arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision. Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns.

 Imagine if we did something different. Understand - a better politics isn't one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.

 A better politics is one where we appeal to each other's basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than "gotcha" moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people's daily lives.

 A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America. If we're going to have arguments, let's have arguments - but let's make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.

 We still may not agree on a woman's right to choose, but surely we can agree it's a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.

 Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it's possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.

 We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it's being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American.

 We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won't rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.

 That's a better politics. That's how we start rebuilding trust. That's how we move this country forward. That's what the American people want. That's what they deserve."


(transcript here)

Sunday, January 18, 2015


The new movie Selma depicts the events that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. There has been some controversy about the historical accuracy of parts of this movie, but I don't have much patience with those kinds of criticisms. Selma is not a documentary, even though it is based on historical events and does use some documentary footage in one part. Therefore, filmmakers are entitled to whatever artistic license they feel they need for the sake of heightening the drama. The point of the movie, which it succeeds at brilliantly, is demonstrating the power of a social movement to create change. In the process, the movie also puts Martin Luther King, Jr. front and center so that we can understand and feel the leader's personal struggle to balance the desire for change, the safety of his followers, his family's needs, and his sense of the most successful strategy for achieving the movement's goals. The movie shows is that the state's violent resistance to the legitimate demands of citizens for voting rights only ended up helping the protesters achieve their goals.

Martin Luther King was not averse to negotiated resolution of conflict. But despite his strategy of non-violence, he did not exactly renounce more aggressive and adversarial methods either. In fact, the strategy of non-violent resistance was deliberately confrontational, and designed to provoke a violent reaction. That is why it worked. This is shown in the movie when King meets with two SNCC organizers and asks whether Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma was more like Commissioner Bull Connor, whose men had been caught on film brutally attacking protesters in Birmingham the year before, or like  Police Chief Laurie Pritchett, who had effectively defused protests in Albany, Georgia, by adopting a restrained policy toward the protesters. John Lewis responds that Clark was more like Connor, and that helped King decide that Selma was the right place to organize protests.

In the end, it was not the court case, or the peaceful protests, or the legislative process in Washington, that caused voting rights to move to the forefront of the nation's priorities in 1965. It was the first attempted march, the one that barely made it across the Edmund Pettus bridge before being met with horrific police violence, that shocked the nation into responding. It was violence that prodded the legal and political system into putting the laws in place that ultimately bring a measure of justice needed to reduce that violence. And it is the tension between the deliberate use or provocation of violence to achieve a movement's goals, and the desire to use the law to create a more just and peaceful solution, that creates much of the thought-provoking drama shown in the movie Selma.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cedar Falls

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Free community college, part 2

Before people start getting too excited about the reported $60 billion price tag for President Obama's proposal for two years of free community college, let's see if we can make that number more meaningful. Sixty billion dollars sounds like a lot of money. Usually when critics want to complain about some government expenditure or another, they start describing the size of the stacks of hundred dollar bills it would take to add up to that amount. I for one don't find those kinds of comparisons very helpful, however, because they don't translate the overall expenditure into each person's share. So let's keep in mind that since there are more than 300 million of us, each of us is only being asked to cough up a small percentage. Let's remember also that the $60 billion is over ten years, so the actual cost is only an average of $6 billion per year. That is about $18 per year for every man, woman and child in the United States.

If that still sounds like a lot (maybe you have a big family), let's try a few other comparisons. Americans reportedly spend nearly $60 billion per year (that's ten times the cost of the community college program) on our pets. Do we care at least one-tenth as much about having an educated work force as we do about our pets?

Americans spend over $2 billion per year on Halloween candy. I'm not saying this is not a worthwhile investment. Dentists especially obtain a huge multiplier effect from this expenditure. I'm just pointing out that for one holiday every year we all run out and purchase the equivalent of approximately one third of the cost of providing free community college to everyone who wants to go for two years.

We spend about $11 billion per year on bottled water. Imagine if we could give that up; we could pay for almost four years of free community college for everyone who wants to go, and we wouldn't be any the poorer.

Almost $100 billion on beer, $7 billion on ATM fees, $11 billion on coffee, $34 billion gambling. The list goes on and on.

When I start seeing a lot of complaining about these kinds of expenditures, then I will start to take seriously the complaints that we can't afford to provide free community college for people willing to work for it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Free community college

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lame duck

Never have the president's opponents been so happy to see him take a vacation. Since the midterms, President Obama has accomplished the following:

Came out strongly for net neutrality.

Reached a climate agreement with China.

Took action as promised when Congress failed to put immigration reform up for a vote.

Prevented a government shutdown.

Won confirmation of new surgeon general and numerous judicial appointments.

Announced normalization of relations with Cuba.

Called on eight women at his press conference yesterday, and no men.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

It's about time!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


The White House
Office of the Press Secretary

Statement by the President on Hanukkah

Over the eight nights of Hanukkah, Jews across America, Israel, and the world will remember an ancient triumph of freedom over oppression, and renew their faith in the possibility of miracles large and small. 
Even in the darkest, shortest days of winter, the Festival of Lights brims with possibility and hope.  The courage of the Maccabees reminds us that we too can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.  The candles of the Menorah remind us that even the smallest light has the power to shine through the darkness.  And the miracle at the heart of Hanukkah – the oil that lasted for eight nights instead of only one – reminds us that even when the future is uncertain, our best days are yet to come. 
May this Hanukkah embolden us to do what is right, shine a light on the miracles we enjoy, and kindle in all of us the desire to share those miracles with others.  From my family to yours, Chag Sameach. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Immigration action, part 2

I am more sympathetic to John Boehner's plight than a lot of my liberal friends. He has an almost impossible job holding his fractious caucus together. He can't make alliances with the Democrats, or the right wing elements of his caucus will depose him, and he can't give in totally to those elements either, or else they will force him to do crazy things like defaulting on the national debt or impeaching the president. Democrats should be more sympathetic to the Speaker's position than they are, because there have been times in our history when Democrats were as fractured as Republicans are now. Remember the civil rights movement or Vietnam?

But on the issue of immigration, I have a hard time feeling sympathy for Boehner's predicament. The Senate has already passed a bi-partisan immigration reform bill. All Boehner has to do is call the bill up for a vote and it would most likely pass, with support from both parties. If more people recognized this, they would understand just how false ring the complaints of president's opponents, who are moaning all over cable news about overreaching executive action. If they wanted to stop President Obama taking unilateral action to limit deportations, they could fix the problem in about two days.

Just call the Senate immigration reform bill up for a vote. If Speaker Boehner wants to keep the Tea Party caucus in line, the best way to do that might be to simply call the immigration bill up for a vote, so those Tea Party members will understand how outnumbered they are. If Boehner wants to do something to prevent the Republican Party from limiting its support to a declining base of angry old white men, he should call the immigration bill up for a vote. And if he gives a thought to securing a place in history for getting something important done during his term as speaker, he should just put the Senate immigration bill up for a vote.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Immigration action

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Gruber tapes

The Affordable Care Act passed Congress after one of the most grueling series of hearings, debates, and votes in American history. House committees and Senate committees held record numbers of hearings. The bill was in the news practically every day. The debate could not have been more public. And if people wanted to find out what was in the bill as it worked its way through both houses of Congress several times, that information was available.

Of course the law is complicated, and few people, even members of Congress, bothered to become familiar with every detail. But if they did, they would have understand such features as the tax on "Cadillac" health care plans, or the medical device tax, or the individual mandate, or the many other features that, taken in isolation or out of context, were made to sound threatening.

So why are people so stirred up by the comments of some MIT professor, who thinks that some of the features of the law were downplayed or obfuscated in order to gain the support of the American people? To be cynical for a moment, which I think is appropriate, it's an opportunity for the president's opponents to feed into an assortment of conspiracy theories about this law in particular and the Obama administration in general. What's ironic is that the people peddling these conspiracy theories are the same people who had no problem with misleading the American public about the reasons for going to war in Iraq, or the giveaways to the pharmaceutical industry in Bush's Medicare prescription drug benefit, or about the effects of tax cuts on the deficit, etc., etc. Not to mention all the distortions they promoted about the health care act itself ("death panels," "government takeover," etc.) These are major perpetrators of misleading information in the service of conservative causes.

So the proponents of the Affordable Care Act might have wanted to present that bill in a way that people would support. This is news? Those trying to make it news know or should know that it was up to the bill's opponents, and they were legion, to point out any distortions, and they had ample opportunity to do so.

I think the central distortion was always this: The Affordable Care Act was sold, in large part, as a means of solving the enormous problem of the tens of millions of uninsured in this country: those who are not provided insurance by their employer, those who are unemployed, those who were turned down because of pre-existing conditions, those who simply couldn't afford health insurance. This law was touted as a way to help those millions of uninsured get insured. And it does that. That's why liberals supported it. That's why conservatives, who are suspicious of that kind of government help, opposed it.

In fact, however, although the Act does contain a lot of subsidies to help people afford health insurance, it does that by forcing a lot of free riders on our health care system--those who can afford to pay but don't or won't get insurance because they can always rely on the "free" services of emergency rooms or hospitals in case of catastrophe--to pay their fair share into the system. To gain the support of conservatives, maybe the bill should have been called the Personal Responsibility for Healthcare Act, or the Hospital Reimbursement Act, or something like that. The political problem was that even though Obamacare always had some great moderate and conservative bona fides (it was based on Governor Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts for crying out loud), conservatives were never going to support the president's bill anyway. So it had to be sold to liberals as a way of helping the uninsured. (Which it does. And it also makes the uninsured pay what they can for their coverage.) Was that misleading? Only if you don't take the trouble to understand the law in the first place.

It's ironic that conservative heads are exploding now at revelations that the White House might have strategized about downplaying features of the health care law that had a more conservative bent. Are they suggesting that they might have supported the law if they had only better understood these aspects? Seems doubtful. But then, it's also ironic that John Boehner wants to sue the president (if he can only find a law firm to take the case) for delaying the implementation of a law that the House voted 50 times to repeal. Politics!

Thursday, November 6, 2014