Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Back to Obstructionism

Doing what Republicans do best, Mitch McConnell has announced the he and his Republican colleagues will seek to slow down the new administration's planned stimulus package. So after adding $ 4 TRILLION to the national debt over the course of the Bush administration, which led not to growth but to the greatest loss of American wealth since the Hoover administration, the Republicans have suddenly decided to become vigilant about excessive government spending.

Notice that this vigilance only appears when the government proposes to spend money to rebuild infrastructure and put people back to work. The concern over increasing the national debt did not manifest itself when the Bush administration cut taxes primarily for the wealthy. Nor did I hear about Republican protests when the government was paying billions to expensive military contractors in Iraq. And it was the Republicans who led the charge to increase drastically the costs of the Medicare drug benefit program, by insisting that this legislation preserve the profits of the pharmaceutical companies. This fall there were Republicans mainly in the House who protested the bank bailout and the auto company bailout. At least they get some points for consistency. But do the Republicans really want to start sounding like Scrooge when the government proposes to extend its largesse to actual working people who have been hurting the most from this recession?

Eyeless in Gaza

If any other country were being attacked daily with missiles, by a neighbor which denies its right to exist, we would not question that country's right to respond militarily. Israel is for some reason treated differently. I am passing on, at the urging of my rabbi, a statement from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Maybe this will help people think about whether world opinion is sometimes too quick to condemn Israel.

"For the past three weeks, Israel has lived under an increasing barrage of rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. More than 80 missiles landed on a single day. Israel's first responsibility, like that of any nation, is to protect her citizens. The military action, which Israel launched this morning, was clearly intended to do just that. Today's action is as tragic as it is necessary and predictable. While we mourn the loss of life, we know that no democratic nation in the world would permit a hostile force on its border to target its civilian centers with constant missile attacks. Israel has demonstrated extraordinary restraint as nearly 8000 rockets have been launched at Israel's cities in the last 8 years. When Israel withdrew every civilian and soldier from Gaza in 2005, the attacks did not stop for a single day.

"We believe that military action must always be the last resort. But more and more Israeli cities are now in range of Hamas' rocket-firing army of terror, and we know that the traumatized children of Sderot and neighboring towns can no longer be expected to live in constant fear. Hamas chose to end the existing cease-fire. Hamas has cynically chosen to use Palestinian civilians as cover for its military operations. Hamas openly declares its commitment to destroy Israel. Hamas, therefore, bears responsibility for today's bloodshed. Hamas, and only Hamas, can make the decision to move beyond this bloody conflict by stopping, once and for all, all attacks on Israel from the territory it controls.

"We welcome the words of Israel's Defense Minister that every effort will be made to limit casualties among the civilian population of Gaza. We welcome as well the words of the Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who emphasized in her statement this morning that 'while confronting Hamas, Israel continues to believe in the two-state solution and remains committed to negotiations with the legitimate Palestinian Authority in the context of the peace process, launched at Annapolis.'

"We note, with sadness, the predictable chorus of those in the international community who call for Israeli 'restraint.' Yet these critics offer no solution to the suffering of Israel's citizens, and in the face of rockets terrorizing their own children, would not be talking of restraint and proportionality. They would be demanding that their governments put an end to the attacks.

"We thank the Government of the United States, which has been a voice of reason. We hope that the Palestinian leadership will demand an end to missile fire and a return to the path of peace and the negotiations begun in Annapolis. And we pray that the Palestinian people will strengthen the hand of all who are prepared to make peace a reality."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The California Budget Mess

Because of the two-thirds requirement for raising taxes in the California legislature, we have created a system that is designed for gridlock. The only way California's government can function properly is if we have a governor from the minority party (nowadays the Republicans) who has enough clout to persuade a few Republicans to go along with tax increases. We did not have this with Gray Davis, or course, so we recalled him. We do not have a functioning government with Schwarzenegger at the head either, unfortunately, because Schwarzenegger cannot get enough members of his own party to do what is needed to resolve the budget stalemate.

What is the justification for this two-thirds requirement? Why should the legislators who are opposed to tax increases have their votes counted twice as heavily as those who are in favor of tax increases? It seems to me that if anything, it should be the other way around. Those who are selfless and politically courageous enough to impose additional taxes on their constituents ought to have their votes weigh at least as heavily as those who refuse to raise the revenues needed to support the government services that the people want.

And to the Republican legislators who say that the answer to the current crisis is to cut spending instead of raising taxes, I say go ahead! You only need a majority of the legislature to cut spending. So if you can't get a majority, what that means is that the people do not support the spending cuts you want. Once the people's representatives have agreed on the amount that government will spend, it should be their obligation to raise the revenues to support that spending. It is unfortunate that the two thirds requirement for raising taxes gives the minority a tool to attempt to impose their will on the majority. The refusal to raise needed tax revenue should be seen as a refusal to exercise the legislature's most important responsibility.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fun with yarn

The first meeting of a new group called community organize.com Trying to figure out a way to harness the energy of all of us Obama volunteers suffering from campaign withdrawal. We are in somewhat uncharted waters here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Playing Chicken

Because the Senate cannot reach a compromise, Congress adjourns and the auto industry is facing bankruptcy. The Republicans would not approve a loan to GM and Chrysler unless the UAW agreed to reduce their wages and benefits to the same level as the Japanese automakers who have been unfairly competing with Detroit for years by locating their plants in low wage, right-to-work states. The Democrats do not feel the need to compromise because they feel that the White House will use TARP funds to bail out the auto industry, or they will wait until January when they have more votes. As Robert Reich points out, a lot of what is going on is old fashioned regional interest politics, with Southern Senators, whose states have laid out plenty of taxpayer money to subsidize Toyota and Nissan and other foreign automakers, now reluctant to support subsidizing their American competitors.

Isn't this the kind of politics that has to stop? Isn't this why we elected Barack Obama? Not so much to get more Democrats in Congress, although having more Democrats in Congress will allow more Democratically-favored legislation to pass, but to reduce the kind of partisanship by members of both parties in Congress that prevents needed legislation from getting passed. Only a few members of Congress seriously believe that bankruptcy for General Motors is a better alternative than loaning General Motors a few billion dollars, when all alternative sources of credit appear to be unavailable. The rest are just taking a political position, and playing chicken with bankruptcy, hoping that the President or the next Congress will bail them out.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Chicago politics

From the looks of the complaint against Governor Blagojevich filed by the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, it seems Chicago politics is as dirty as ever. What is amazing is how Barack Obama has kept his hands so clean and still risen to the top in this corrupt world. Read down to around paragraph 101 where it says that Obama's people were willing to give nothing but appreciation to Governor Blagojevich in exchange for the appointment of Obama's preferred candidate. One question is whether other potential candidates might have been willing to express their appreciation in more tangible ways, as the governor was allegedly demanding.

Barack Obama's current favorability rating, according to CNN, is somewhere around 79%.

Monday, December 8, 2008

We have met the enemy . . . .

Many people are looking for scapegoats for our current economic downturn. Traditionally the right likes to blame the government for all problems, but they are having difficulty making a plausible case that the government caused this year's economic collapse. The right would also like to blame the unions, but the unions are too weak to be viewed as much of a threat to the economy any more. Of course they can always blame the Democrats, but not too many people are buying that either. Traditionally the left likes to blame big business for any economic suffering, and this theory is gaining some traction in a year of leftish ascendancy. But this theory is incomplete, as it leaves out another culprit for the current mess, namely ourselves.

Even though the heads of the Big Three automakers have accepted some responsibility for their mistakes, they did not cause all of their own problems. Nobody was forcing people to buy all of the SUVs and big cars that Detroit has been profitably making for years. The fact is that for awhile the American people could not seem to get enough of them. When gas prices were so high this summer, I might have felt a bit sorry for all the solo drivers in Lincoln Navigators and Cadillac Escalades that I still saw zooming around, but I feel fairly certain that those drivers had other vehicle choices. The Big Three can plausibly argue that they were only responding to market demand, and while they admittedly were too slow to respond to a sudden change in demand, they can also plausibly contend that they were caught by surprise by the sudden shift in the American peoples' tastes, caused in large part by an equally sudden spike in the price of crude oil. It is worth noting that GM makes a profit almost everywhere in the world except for the United States, which shows that the company usually does a pretty good job of building the cars that the market is demanding. It is also worth noting that the Big Three operate at a significant disadvantage to foreign competitors who have built plants in the US more recently. They are saddled with pension and health care costs that greatly exceed the costs of the newcomers, all of whom like to build their plants in right to work states full of young workers.

We also bear some responsibility for the housing market bubble, and the stock market bubble, and every other bubble we have experienced over the last few years. Collective greed and loss of rationality cause all of these bubbles, as has been well documented since at least the history of tulips. Why did people buy houses they could not afford at the peak of the market? Because they thought the market would continue to go up of course. But before we blame those people, we should remember that the rest of us had a good opportunity to sell our houses at the peak of the market, but did not do so because we did not believe a crash was coming. And if more of us had sold, and fewer of us had bought at those prices, the crash would not have been as severe. So we all contributed to the current downturn, and probably the only way we will reverse it is if we all start contributing to another upturn. Now might be a good time to buy a house, or an American car, or some stock.

And for those who don't remember the famous quote from the comic strip Pogo, the remainder of the title of this post should read " . . . and he is us."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Is it better not to have a filibuster-proof majority?

If Martin had won yesterday, giving the Democrats the potential for a 60 vote majority in the Senate (assuming Franken also wins), then the Republicans would be able to claim they got railroaded every time a piece of legislation passed by a party-line vote. And if the Democrats could not get cloture on a particular bill even with a 60 vote majority (for example if one Democrat defected and voted against cloture), then the Republicans would be able to claim that the Democrats can't even muster the discipline to pass their agenda even with a supposedly filibuster-proof majority, and the Democrats would look weak. Either way the Republicans could try to use the situation to their advantage.

With less than 60 votes, the Democrats now need to get a couple of Republicans to vote to cut off debate and allow a vote on their legislation. If they have to work to get a couple of Republican votes, so much the better. That will make their achievements look more bi-partisan. And if the Republicans stick together and block too many pieces of legislation, then the Republicans will look like obstructionists, and their popularity will sink even further.

We do not have a parliamentary system, and the Senate was not designed to work like the House of Commons, where all the opposition can do is shout at the Prime Minister. We have a system that is supposed to give the minority some real power. So if the people of Georgia voted with their eyes open to maintain the power of the minority to filibuster legislation, well then maybe all we should say is hooray for democracy!

It is also worth remembering that there is no magic number that will always allow the majority to get what they want. Some Democrats will vote with the Republicans on some issues. Some Republicans will vote with the Democrats on other issues. So the shape and size of the majority will always vary depending on the bill that is up for consideration, and the power of the minority to filibuster will also increase or diminish accordingly.

Once again, of course, our president-elect has shown how smart he is by refusing to go to Georgia and campaign for Martin. He must have made a political calculation that Martin would probably lose, and his expenditure of political capital to support a losing candidate would only make him look vulnerable. But maybe Obama would also just as soon be forced to have to get some Republican support for his agenda. He can't very well say he is governing in a post-partisan way if he only needs the support of Democrats in Congress.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Where is all the money coming from?

You have to marvel at this country's capacity to come up with all of the money that new bail-out and stimulus programs are going to cost. Why have we been paralyzed by our supposed inability to pay for other government programs, whether it is the reconstruction of Iraq or Afghanistan, or money for housing, education or transportation projects? Why was it so easy to find $100 billion for AIG, but impossible to maintain this country's roads or bridges? It makes me think our inability to invest in needed projects has resulted more from a failure of political will than from a genuine inability to find the funding. All the time that our political leaders have been telling us that we cannot afford this or that, in fact we could have installed solar panels on every home in America, or built a high speed rail network, or modernized all of our prisons and schools, or funded universal health care for all. Apparently this country's credit is still good enough to run our deficit up another couple of trillion dollars. Right now we are using this credit to save the banks and restore business confidence, and I think we do need to do that. I am a little worried, however, that the current administration is more concerned about reducing the losses of the investing classes, than they are about improving the lives of the working classes. This is one reason the new administration cannot take office too soon.

One hopes that all these new-found sources of financial capacity have not run dry by the time the Obama administration wants to put them to use for the purpose of rebuilding infrastructure. Large scale, well-thought-out public works projects have both an immediate benefit in putting people to work, as well as a long term benefit in creating productive capacity and efficiency. This kind of stimulus package would therefore seem to make a lot more sense than the mindless tax rebates enacted last year. I have confidence that the Obama team's stimulus plan will also be more carefully targeted than the investments in financial institutions that the government is currently making, which are being made with too few strings attached and too much faith in the institutions whose poor judgment got us into this mess in the first place.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Change in Moderation

Many Obama supporters continue to express dismay at the number of former Clinton officials and other moderates being offered for appointment to the Obama administration. If Obama does not appoint a few flaming liberals, a lot of people are going to wonder whether he really stands for change. Is Barack Obama thinking that if the country moves a couple of degrees to the left, that will constitute the kind of change his supporters were hoping for? We did not vote for Obama to get a second Clinton administration.

I think that those who are impatient with the lack of leftist credentials of Obama's appointments so far are missing the point. I think that Obama actually meant what he said during the past two years that his understanding of change means reducing the divisiveness and partisanship that has characterized Washington for many years. What that means is that if Obama were to appoint a slate of militant left wingers to his Cabinet, that would NOT represent the kind of change he is talking about. In fact, by doing that, he would be staffing his administration with ideologues in exactly the same way that George Bush has done. Maybe left wing ideologues would be an improvement over right wing ideologues, and maybe payback would be satisfying, but that would not represent change.

The kind of change that Obama has been talking about requires that he attempt to include everyone. That means he needs to forgive Joe Lieberman, even though Lieberman may not deserve forgiveness. He needs to put Hillary Clinton in the most important position in his cabinet. He needs to get John McCain and other prominent Republicans on board to the extent possible. And at the same time, he wants to appoint smart, experienced and competent people, which means that a lot of those people happen to be former Clinton appointees. I don't think that Obama is going to govern in the same way that Clinton did, even though Obama is going to bring a lot of former Clintonites back into the government. Clinton governed by moving the Democratic party to the right. And he did not have much success with including or reaching out to Republicans. I think Obama's intention is to move the whole country to the left, in the way that Ronald Reagan moved the whole country to the right, and to do that by making great efforts to include and not antagonize anyone. So I am not particularly worried about bringing a lot of moderate people back into the government. It is more important that these people know what they are doing, and can reassure the public that we are on the right track. At the head of the government, we have a president who understands that change is always an incremental process, and who also understands that people should be moved willingly if possible in the direction progressives want policy to take.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Barack's Cabinet

A lot of people are probably rushing out to buy Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, after all the talk about how Barack Obama is emulating Lincoln's method of putting together a cabinet. It is well worth reading.

If Lincoln is your model, then inviting Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State makes perfect sense. There are strong parallels between Hillary Clinton and Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward. Like Clinton, Seward thought he was much more experienced than Lincoln, whom everyone thought of as an unsophisticated country lawyer from the sticks of Illinois. Seward, like most people, underestimated Lincoln, however, and thought that he was going to dominate the administration. Seward also thought that Lincoln had usurped the Republican nomination for president that should rightfully have been his. Seward clearly thought that he could take the 3AM phone calls and pass the Commander in Chief test, and Lincoln could not. But Seward soon learned to respect and even love Lincoln, and he well understood who was boss, and Seward performed brilliantly as Secretary of State, at the same time being eliminated as a potential critic or rival of the president.

There are also some important differences, however. However distinguished a record Hillary Clinton has, it may not quite compare with Seward's who was a true elder statesman of the party. Hillary really doesn't have a lot of first-hand foreign policy experience. The job of first lady is not really a policy job. Also Hillary's position in the Democratic Party may not be quite the same as Seward's. As soon as Obama became the nominee, both Clintons became a declining power in the Democratic Party. Seward, on the other hand, continued to view himself as the most important Republican even after Lincoln's nomination. Therefore, at this point, Hillary Clinton may need Obama more than he needs her. She is a junior senator from New York a long way from getting much seniority in the Senate, and she is about to be bypassed on her signature issue of health care reform. Making her Secretary of State may restore her foreign policy credibility more than it adds to Obama's. It's also a little hard to imagine Clinton and Obama developing the kind of close relationship that Seward and Lincoln had. Lincoln used to spend many evenings at Seward's house, which was within walking distance of the White House, and they grew to enjoy each other's company tremendously. Clinton and Obama have such different personalities, and lingering animosities from the campaign, that make it less likely they will be able to work together well as a team.

But what such a move does do for Obama, as with Lincoln, is to place a potential critic of the administration inside the administration. As difficult a character as Hillary Clinton can sometimes be, Barack Obama no doubt feels more comfortable having her on the inside rather than on the outside.

Seward turned out to be a perfect choice for Lincoln. The troublesome figure in his cabinet was Salman Chase as Secretary of the Treasury, who never quite reconciled himself to Lincoln's view of putting the issue of union ahead of the issue of slavery. If Obama really wants to follow in Lincoln's footsteps, he might think of some really seemingly-irreconcilable people for important positions, like John McCain for Defense, or Mitt Romney for Treasury.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gay Marriage

The issue that seems to have taken everyone by surprise in California is Proposition 8, which purports to amend the state constitution to limit the right to marry to couples made up of one male and one female only. I say taken by surprise because it was only AFTER Proposition 8 passed, that we are suddenly seeing demonstrations in favor of gay marriage, and politicians coming out of the woodwork on this issue. Perhaps because of the focus on getting Barack Obama elected, a lot of supporters of gay marriage may have paid less attention to this issue than they now wish they had. In a way, it may have been unfortunate that the California Supreme Court held that denying gays the right to marry was unconstitutional, because this prevented the development of civil unions to the point where the public might have become more accepting of gay marriage. Now it is going to be very difficult to find an Obama-like common ground solution to this issue.

One option that has been suggested, allowing civil unions for all, gay or straight, with marriage left to religious authorities, is not available. That is because the state has always been in the business of sanctioning marriage, and marriage has always had both a legal component--giving certain rights and obligations to married couples--as well as a moral component, sanctioning certain relationships so as to punish others. Remember that fornication used to be illegal in many states; so was sodomy; so was adultery; so still is bigamy. These are all moral judgments that the state was always assumed to have the power to make, that is, until constitutional rights took over, and the state was told that it no longer had the power to regulate birth control, or abortion for the most part, or sodomy, or most anything that people want to do in their own space that does not hurt anyone. Remember also that marriage does not have to have any religious or spiritual component; It's fine for people to get married in a church or synagogue, but people have also always had the option of having a purely civil marriage ceremony performed by a judge or a clerk, that has no religious significance whatsoever. And they should continue to have that right.

So where we are today is that gay couples are demanding the same rights as married couples as a matter of constitutional rights. Allowing civil unions for gay couples was at best an interim step that was permitting society to get used to the idea of equal rights for gay couples. It might have been good for that experiment to continue for a while longer, just to allow public opinion to come around, because the idea of gay marriage really is something new in history, but when the issue was brought to the courts, the courts were forced to recognize that denying gays the right to marry was denying them equality with married couples, and therefore the courts got a little ahead of public opinion on this issue.

And now that the California Supreme Court, and other courts, have decided the issue as a matter of constitutional law, there is, perhaps unfortunately, no middle ground left on this issue. Either gays are going to be allowed to get married or they are not. The legal issue that remains is whether the proposition amending the constitution to deny gay people the right to marry was such a fundamental change that it required more than a majority vote. I think there is a good chance that the California Supreme Court will invalidate the results of the proposition on that ground. But whichever way the Court decides, the issue will not die, as one side or the other will keep bringing it up for a vote. And we are all forced to vote up or down. There is no room for compromise any more.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


One of the less-noticed ballot measures we Californians voted in last Tuesday was a proposal to take the power of creating the boundaries for state legislative districts away from the state legislature and give it to a bi-partisan commission. Gerrymandered districts have been rightly criticized for making it extremely difficult to remove incumbents from office, and thereby engendering a sense of complacency and non-reponsiveness from our elected representatives. Some believe that the security of representing a district that is skewed to contain a majority of your supporters also makes legislators more intransigent and unwilling to compromise. I supported this proposition for all of these reasons.

It should be noted, however, that it is impossible to draw district lines without taking into consideration the political consequences of doing so. Even a completely politics-blind drawing, that is designed only to create the most compact possible districts, will have a political effect, most likely the effect of over-representing the majority party, and under-representing the minority party. In other words, almost any way you draw a district line can be considered a gerrymander, because those lines will have discernible political consequences.

One might also question how much impact this measure will have in light of the term limits already in effect in the California State Legislature. To me, it would make more sense to introduce this kind of insecurity in the ability of legislators to get re-elected, in conjunction with a repeal or extension of term limits. That way, voters have the ability to retain their elected representative, but that representative would also face more competitive elections every cycle.

We should also recognize that creating more swing districts, which is generally a good thing because it allows the will of the voters to be more quickly felt in the legislature, also has the undesirable effect of substantially increasing the cost of running for election. A representative of a swing district must fight for his seat at the expiration of every term, and that costs a lot of money. So by fixing one problem, we may be exacerbating another. This year's election cycle might cause us to look more closely at the enormous costs of running for office, at the presidential and congressional and state levels. We might ask whether it is a good idea to shorten the campaign season, or whether it is a good idea to require the networks to provide some free air time for political commercials, or other reforms that would reduce the potentially corrupting force of money in politics.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


I saw first hand this week why Obama won this election. I was one of thousands of out-of-state lawyers recruited to do voter protection work in Ohio. On election day, I visited three campaign offices in Cleveland and met some of the legions of volunteers who have been working tirelessly to canvass, phone call, and make sure the election was run properly. Why did we do it? We all know that no one volunteer is going to make the difference in the election, no matter how hard any of us worked. But I have no doubt in my mind that this collective effort did make the difference, particularly in close states like Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida and others. There was simply no comparison between the level of commitment and enthusiasm shown by the grassroots-organized field staff in the Obama campaign and the Republican regulars who half-heartedly staffed the McCain campaign.

The themes of Hope and Change obviously won out this year over Fear and More of the Same. But another theme that may have been under-recognized is that the virtue of collective action won out this year over the virtue of individualism. It may be true that Obama supporters, like McCain supporters, generally believed that things will get better for them personally if their candidate were elected. But Obama supporters also demonstrated a far greater commitment to self-sacrifice for the common good. We worked on this campaign not because we thought that any one of us could make the difference, but because we wanted to feel part of a larger, historic collective movement. Even though we live in an competitive society, we have through this campaign come to discover the values of solidarity and community. We are going to need that collective-minded spirit, and a willingness to work hard and make sacrifices, to deal with the challenges that lie ahead for all of us.

In any case, it was worth traveling to Cleveland just to observe the fall scenery and attend the victory party!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Limits of Bi-Partisanship

One of the reasons that John McCain is unlikely to win this election is that he has no coherent or realistic plan for actually accomplishing anything that he is proposing. (In addition to that, his ideas aren't all that popular with most people, but that is another subject.) Somebody should press John McCain about how he expects to get any of his proposals passed into law given that the Congress will most likely be overwhelmingly Democratic. McCain would no doubt give his usual answer about how he has a history of reaching out to the opposition party to pass campaign finance reform and reach agreement on other issues, but since his move to the right over the last few years in preparation for running for president, he has a lot less ability to do that. John McCain was never even that popular in his own party, and would face hostility from both sides of the aisle given the divisive nature of his campaign.

So McCain can talk all he wants about not raising taxes on the rich, but the reality is that the Bush tax cuts expire next year, and he would need a majority of the Congress to vote to extend them. That would not be likely to happen. McCain can talk about his plan to move health care away from an employer-based system, to some kind of partially-subsidized individual system, but a majority of Congress is never going to pass any such thing. McCain can talk about staying the course in Iraq, but even the government of Iraq is not going to agree to a permanent US presence in that country, and Congress would not fund it.

We focus so much on the Presidential race, and neglect the importance of Congress, that we forget that the President does not really control the government, especially on domestic issues, unless he has substantial support in Congress. In most democracies in the world, the government cannot even function at all unless they can assemble a working parliamentary majority. Our government is designed to operate even if the Congress and President are from different parties, but it certainly doesn't produce the results that the President wants if the Congress is hostile.

So while McCain tries to scare people by raising the spectre of an unholy Obama-Pelosi-Reid troika, the reality is that a Democratic-controlled Congress and Executive branch will actually be able to put a coherent program into place; while on the other hand a McCain led government is a recipe for gridlock. McCain cannot promise anything better than that.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Joe the Plumber

Joe, who is not even a licensed plumber, does not really understand Obama's tax plan, but mistakenly believes that it will adversely affect him. He became famous after Obama tried to explain to Joe on videotape that even if Joe were to find himself making over $250,000 per year, he should not be too upset about having to pay 39% of his income in taxes instead of 36% because that is fair. But Joe is not buying that explanation because he has bought into the Republican mythology that taxes are always bad, and that even middle class people should be against taxes because they might be rich some day.

Joe should be thinking about whether it is really smart to finance the US government by excessive borrowing instead of taxes, which will mean that his grandchildren will have to pay these debts back with interest. He should be thinking about whether the recession which has been exacerbated by Republican policies of lax bank regulation may be more harmful to his business than any proposed Democratic tax increases. He should be educated on how the economy almost always grows faster under Democratic administrations than Republican administrations. But instead he is afraid of the tax bogeyman that the Republicans always use to scare voters, and he is seduced by the phony promises of the Republicans that we are going to be able to cut everyone's taxes and we will never have to pay for those tax cuts. Voters like Joe have allowed the Republicans to cut the taxes of the rich by enormous amounts in exchange for a pittance in tax cuts, which end up being outweighed by job and income losses, and by government service cuts that harm people like Joe the plumber the most.

Joe the plumber's story therefore does not even support the McCain program, but since Joe is deluded enough to buy what the Republicans have been selling, the McCain camp is cynically using him to falsely claim that Obama's economic plan is bad for the average Joe. Notice that they never talk about the actual facts of Joe's situation, and in fact protest when the media has attempted to investigate the facts. Instead they are relying on a character who simply thinks he will be hurt by the Democratic program, without regard to the truth. The Joe the plumber that McCain keeps talking about is therefore no more real than the Harry and Louise commercials that were used to defeat Clinton's health care plan in the 90's. But the big lie has worked before, so McCain hopes it will work again this year.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Presidents and taxes

The parts of the presidential debates I find the most disheartening occur when the candidates try to out-do each other on who will cut taxes the most. These promises can get the candidates in trouble later (as most famously happened to the first president Bush) if they have to reverse themselves and support tax increases. They also ignore some obvious limitations on the President's power to cut taxes. The first is that the Constitution places the responsibility for raising taxes on the House of Representatives, not the President. The president can submit a budget to Congress, but the President's budget is just a suggestion, and can be completely ignored. So for a presidential candidate to say that he will cut taxes is like saying that he will ask the House Ways and Means Committee to disregard its own Constitutional responsibilities and submit to the President's will. If this kind of formulation is just shorthand for saying that the President will propose tax cuts to the Congress, or will threaten to veto tax increases by Congress, it is still a dangerous kind of shorthand, as it perpetuates the idea that governmental power is all concentrated in the President's office, and that the President is some kind of ruler over Congress.

The power to cut taxes is also constrained by external forces. The only way the government can continue to cut taxes is if it retains the ability to borrow the necessary sums of money to maintain the level of government spending that we all seem to want. If the investors who buy Treasury bills find a better investment, or become worried by the dangerous levels of borrowing that the government is engaged in, then we will find ourselves maxed out on the national credit card. We seem to be headed for that kind of limitation. When the government is no longer able to borrow the sums needed for these approved levels of spending, as happened to New York City in the 1970's, it has only two choices: raise taxes or reduce services. More likely it will have to do both.

It would be preferable for the candidates to focus more on the costs and benefits of the programs they support, and when they do address taxes, to focus more on the fairness issues in the various kinds of taxes (progressivity, income vs. sales tax, corporate and capital gains taxes, payroll taxes, etc.) Whether we overall cut or raise taxes only becomes a concern after we have addressed both these issues first, and should be addressed only as a question of the desirability as a matter of fiscal policy of maintaining deficit or surplus to whatever extent. Talking about cutting taxes, before addressing what programs should be eliminated or reduced to make up for those tax cuts, or before talking responsibly about how large a deficit we should run, is putting the cart before the horse.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Health Care is a Right.

One of the best questions from the debate last night was whether health care is a right or a responsibility. This is where Barack Obama clearly differentiated himself from John McCain. John McCain is not comfortable with the whole idea of entitlements. He thinks Social Security is a disgrace. He would like to cut way back on Medicare and Medicaid. And he has no interest in creating a rational system for health insurance for the rest of us. He'll just give everyone another $5000 tax cut and then tell us we're all on our own for obtaining health insurance. So he refused to recognize that health care is a right, and wants to keep the government out of the health insurance business, even though he has benefited from government-sponsored health insurance his entire life.

To say that health insurance is a right, as Barack Obama had no hesitation in doing, is not to say that we all don't have to pay for it. But it is a recognition that we all have to pay for it collectively in a way that adequately takes care of everyone in this society. In other words, once health care is recognized as a right, then society collectively has to assume responsibility for paying for it, and insurance companies can spend less time and money avoiding the responsibility of paying for coverage. We have already accepted this collective responsibility for seniors, for poor people, and for veterans. Now we have to replace the crazy patchwork system for the rest of us with universal coverage.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Anti-Intellectualism in American Politics

Sarah Palin represents but the latest manifestation of the long history of anti-intellectualism in American politics. Why is it that Americans are distrustful of candidates with strong academic credentials, and who have a deep understanding of political or philosophical issues? In Europe for the most part successful, serious candidates for high office are expected to be knowledgeable and well-spoken. But in the US, a significant portion of the electorate would just as soon that their candidates display no more than a high school understanding of the issues.

Repeatedly during the vice-presidential debate, Palin demonstrated that she has no idea what she is talking about. She completely ducked a question about bankruptcy law, seeming to indicate that she has little knowledge of the changes recently enacted by Congress. (Her ignorance caused her to miss an opportunity to attack Biden for supporting legislation that was deeply desired by his constituents in the credit card industry centered in Delaware.) Palin kept talking about rooting out corruption and fraud on Wall Street, but gave not a hint of how she thought the government should do that. She seemed not to understand the constitutional position of the vice-president, or to have given much thought to whether Dick Cheney has abused the office, or whether she would govern in the same secretive manner he has. And beyond talking about how much she loves Israel, she has shown no comprehension of the complicated issues that have blocked peace in the Middle East for decades, or no idea of how she would advance the process.

McCain-Palin supporters complain that the media has been too harsh in attacking Palin's frequent inability to answer questions. I think they have been much too kind. It should be the media's job to encourage the public to respect candidates who have given some serious thought to serious issues. Instead, the media encourages the same kind of superficial thinking that has made Sarah Palin a star. The only encouraging news is that while many of the TV talking heads wanted to score the debate a tie, most of the public seemed to think that Biden won decisively. Could it be that most of the electorate this year may be grown-up enough to see through the simplistic answers of a C student of politics, and may instead be looking for something more substantive?