Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Voting rights

Below is a video of Mitt Romney answering a woman's question about the Justice Department's challenge to a voter id statute in South Carolina. He asks the well-heeled crowd if there is anyone over 18 who does not have a photo id, and of course no hands go up. How much of a burden can it be then, to ask for such a simple little thing to be allowed to vote? You can't drive or get on a plane without a photo id. Why should you be allowed to vote? There is a sub-text here, suggesting that anyone who can't be bothered to comply with such a trivial little requirement probably doesn't even deserve to vote, but that is not stated. What is stated is the need to prevent people from voting multiple times. How can we not take action to prevent such abuses?

Practically every word Romney says about voter id laws in this video is false. It is false to suggest that this issue is just a matter of opinion between people of Romney's views and people of Eric Holder's views. It is not. It is a legal issue. It is false to claim as Romney does that picture ids can easily be obtained for free at the polling place. Romney pulls that idea right out of his hat. It is false to argue that photo id laws are needed to prevent people from voting multiple times. That is a non-existent problem in this country. And it is false to assert that photo id laws will not trouble anyone, because it has been documented that they have the effect of discouraging significant numbers of eligible voters from casting a ballot.

Here are some of the legal issues that candidates like Mitt Romney are deliberately ignoring: Eric Holder is under an obligation to enforce the Federal Voting Rights Act. States that are subject to the pre-clearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act--i.e., those states that for literally hundreds of years engaged in systematically preventing black people from voting--must submit proposed changes in their election procedures to the Justice Department for review to determine whether they might have the effect of disenfranchising minorities. Pursuant to the legal requirements of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department last week rejected South Carolina's newly-enacted voter id law, based on evidence that minority voters are 20% more likely to lack a photo id than white voters. Thus, the voter id requirement will likely have the effect of hindering voters who are legally entitled to cast a ballot, and this effect will unquestionably fall more heavily on black people than white people.

South Carolina was required to justify these new requirements in order to obtain approval, and it is noteworthy, according to the article linked above, that their submission to the Justice Department failed to include any evidence or examples of fraud that were not already adequately addressed by existing procedures.  So Romney is actually saying is that if he were president, he would instruct attorneys at the Justice Department to ignore the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, and approve South Carolina's new restrictions on the ability to vote, even if those restrictions disproportionately affect minority voters, and even if South Carolina is unable to offer any evidence justifying those restrictions. At the very least, he is pre-judging an issue that he knows next to nothing about, and unfairly disparaging Justice Department attorneys who are only trying to enforce the law.

This is a legal issue, but is being treated as a political issue by candidates eager to play on the fears of some segments of the electorate that we are being overrun with voters who are not qualified to vote, or voters attempting to cast multiple ballots. Actual cases of such fraud, despite heroic efforts to find them, are practically non-existent. The real problem we have in this country is not voter fraud. The real problem we have is low voter turnout. The thing we need to be doing is making efforts to encourage a larger percentage of eligible voters to participate; not making it more difficult for eligible voters to cast a ballot.


The year in 60 seconds, as assembled by Reuters.

We certainly live in interesting times.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Personal responsibility

Conservative candidates like to talk about self-reliance, hard work and personal responsibility. I thought I would look up some quotes from Newt Gingrich on these subjects.  Here are a few, from a site called boycottliberalism:

   "Without personal responsibility there cannot be freedom. It is just that simple."

   “Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.”

   "By blaming everything on “society,” contemporary liberals are really trying to escape the personal responsibility that comes with being an American."

   "Precisely because our rights are endowed by our Creator, the individual burden of responsibility borne by each citizen is greater than in any other country. This is why our new-found sense of entitlement and of victimization is exactly wrong – and so corrosive to the American spirit."

 Today, we learned that Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign failed to collect enough valid signatures to qualify for the Virginia primary ballot. We would expect some recognition of personal responsibility on Gingrich's part. Instead, from the campaign's facebook page, this is what Newt's campaign had to say:

   "This was not due to a lack of effort by our volunteers, but the cumbersome process in Virginia."

The campaign director went on to compare this setback to Pearl Harbor. Seriously, Pearl Harbor? Was this some kind of sneak attack by the State of Virginia? Were the ballot requirements imposed in an unfair, secret manner? Was the campaign unaware of the requirements? 

I did not find any recognition by the campaign that they made a mistake or did not work hard enough. I found no acceptance of personal responsibility. Personal responsibility and hard work are for others, it seems. Not for the Newt Gingrich campaign of 2012. Their campaign is so novel, it seems, that they should not be expected to comply with the rules that apply to others. The phrase, "new-found sense of entitlement and of victimization," comes to mind. Isn't that what Newt himself said was wrong with America today?

My prediction: Gingrich's campaign is over. Any doubts that he was just going through the motions should be dispelled by this latest episode. Newt is on a book tour; not a presidential campaign. (I'd also like to remind the media not to get so enamored of the latest polls that they forget about all the hard work and organization it takes to round up actual votes in caucuses and primaries. We should take seriously only the campaigns with the staff, the volunteers, the enthusiasm, and the level of commitment it takes to win.)

P.S. Rick Perry failed to qualify in Virginia also. Remember Rick Perry?

(Photo from Creative Loafing)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Democrats finally master tax cut politics.

Today President Obama succeeded in neutralizing the Republicans' greatest weapon--their claim that they are always for reducing taxes, while the Democrats are always for raising taxes. President Reagan taught the Republican Party back in 1981 that they score more political points by bragging about cutting taxes, than by balancing the budget. When Democrats promised in the 1980's to raise taxes again, they got nowhere politically. And when the elder George Bush broke his famous promise to impose no new taxes, he was never forgiven by much of the Republican Party, and was defeated for re-election. Bill Clinton bucked this trend and somehow got away with raising taxes, probably because of the robust economy during his presidency, and also perhaps because he paid lip service to the Republican ideology of shrinking government. Then the younger Bush, who was personally scarred by watching what happened when his father raised taxes, made it his administration's first priority to put in place even more irresponsible tax cuts than Reagan ever dreamed of, accompanied by giant new federal programs that were not paid for. It became pretty difficult to justify those policies after they led to the worst recession in our time in 2008.

You might have thought that the public would be receptive to another Clinton-like tax increase after Obama took office. But Obama's team decided that the last thing our disastrously weak economy needed was a tax increase, and instead proposed even more tax cuts. The only tax increase they were willing to allow would fall on people making over $250,000 per year. If these policies were intended as a political trap, the Republicans fell right into it. At the end of last year, Senate Republicans filibustered against an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the middle class only, forcing all of the Bush tax cuts to be extended for two years if the Democrats wanted to maintain them for the middle class. People were starting to get the idea that the Republicans were more interested in protecting the wealthy and powerful than they were in anything else.

But now we can see that the Democrats' most brilliant move in last year's showdown was getting a one year reduction in payroll taxes. That set up another showdown this year, when this time it was the Obama tax cuts that were set to expire at the end of this year. Since these were the Democrats' cuts, the Republicans fell into opposition to extending them, and the Democrats could play the Republicans' game of last year to much better effect. Suddenly it was the Democrats demanding an extension of some very popular tax cuts, while the Republicans were stalling. What we learned during this battle over extending the payroll tax cut holiday was that while the Republicans care very deeply about reducing the marginal tax rate for the very wealthy, they don't care so much about payroll taxes, which are paid by ordinary working people. First they insisted that these payroll tax cuts be paid for (and not by offsetting tax increases for the wealthy). Funny how you never heard about how the Bush tax cuts which predominantly benefit the wealthy, need to be paid for. Then the Republicans demanded additional concessions, like speedy action on an oil pipeline. This week President Obama called their bluff, and the House Republican leadership caved.

It could be that the administration's ultimate strategy is to get Americans to recognize, first, that people don't really want to reduce the federal budget all that much once they realize that eliminating the deficit by spending cuts alone would mean drastic reductions in defense and Medicare and a lot of other programs that people need and want. Second, people are starting to get the idea that if we want to reduce the deficit and also reduce inequality, we are ultimately going to have to raise some taxes. But unlike the Clinton-era tax increases, this time the American people will be demanding that we raise most of that revenue from those most able to afford it. These demands are already getting more vocal, and should increase during next year's election campaign. Republicans may no longer have a credible answer to these demands, now that they have proven just how reluctant they were to preserve tax breaks when those breaks mainly benefited the middle class.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Newt Gingrich urges voters to support Obama.

Here is Newt Gingrich telling a gay voter in Iowa that if marriage equality is of highest importance to him, he should support Obama for re-election:

Shortly after this encounter, I picture an elderly person telling Gingrich that protecting her Medicare benefits is of utmost concern. Gingrich would have to respond, "You should probably support Obama too." Then a student could have shouted out that he was worried about the high cost of education. Gingrich would say, "I guess you'd better support Obama."

Next a serviceman might have come up and told Gingrich he was glad to be home from Iraq. Gingrich would have no choice but to shrug, "I guess you're supporting Obama." And someone else in the crowd could argue that while the previous administration had cost us about a trillion dollars in foreign wars, Obama was managing one foreign policy triumph after another with minimal use of force. Gingrich would tell that person he should support Obama too.

Somebody else might have pointed out that Obama was trying to extend the payroll tax reduction, while House Republicans have been blocking that measure. Gingrich must respond that if middle class tax relief is anyone's priority, they had better vote for Obama also. Then someone could have yelled out that we should be raising taxes on the top 1%, not on the middle class. Gingrich would have to yell back that if people think that, they should probably support Obama.

Then I can imagine Gingrich looking around for his remaining supporters, and finding the place empty.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

House Fail

President Obama on the refusal of the House Republican leadership to bring up the compromise bill to extend the payroll tax cut for a vote:

Is it any wonder that Congress's approval ratings are hitting record lows, while the President's approval is steadily climbing? Hey, Speaker Boehner, just bring it up for a vote already; then you can go home for the holidays and think about how to do a better job of running the House next year.

New Jersey?

  This holiday season, watch out for internet rumors!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Consider the Alternatives.

A plea to President Obama's fair weather supporters: consider the alternatives. Before you start ranting about how the administration's decision to require a prescription for teenagers who want to buy the new morning-after pill represents a heinous betrayal of women's rights, show at least a modicum of understanding of the huge number of voters who probably think that is not such an onerous requirement. And think about how the opposition might have played a different decision. Imagine the outraged campaign commercials warning voters of our country's moral decline: to think we would allow abortion pills to be sold over the counter--like aspirin--to twelve year olds! Of course, a great case can be made for doing just that, but it is a case that is never going to convince a large segment of voters.

And for those claiming it is the last straw that the administration went along with an amendment to the defense authorization act that might allow indefinite detention by the military of terrorism suspects, consider that the alternative would have required vetoing funding for the entire Department of Defense. How much understanding would the average American voter have for an administration that de-funded the troops? Let's also remember that there was no stand-alone bill allowing indefinite detentions. And while the provision in the NDAA that allows for military detentions in some circumstances may be somewhat troubling, it might not warrant the hysteria or screams of betrayal we have heard from some quarters. Especially when you consider the alternative.

Finally, for those bemoaning the administration's "cave" on the Keystone XL pipeline, can we please remember that it was Republicans in Congress who inserted a provision attempting to accelerate the approval process for the pipeline into the bill extending the payroll tax reduction? Even the most ardent environmentalist might hesitate for just a second before vetoing a bill that promises tax relief for about 100 million Americans. Those who take the trouble to study the facts should also note that this attempt to force earlier pipeline approval may very well backfire, as the State Department has already publicly announced that they will not be rushed. More likely, the bill was designed to force the administration to kill the pipeline before the election, instead of allowing it to wait until after the election. That means the Republicans may actually succeed in killing the very project they say they favor. Their motives are transparent: to make a political issue of killing this pipeline. Robert Redford understands this. Others should take the time to appreciate the alternatives.

None of these decisions are simple. All of them require balancing powerful competing interests. None of them allow the president complete freedom of action, in disregard of the political power of his opponents. Those for whom one set of issues is paramount--whether it is women's rights, or the human rights of prisoners of war, or the environment--should at least try to understand those competing concerns, and realities.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Prospects for World Peace

According to yesterday's LA Times story, Lakers Coach Mike Brown has decided to shift World Peace from the starting lineup to the second string. The article notes that the coach is "giving World Peace a chance . . . to come off the bench." I feel that some protest is warranted.

What kind of message does it send to bench World Peace? We have reason to be disappointed in such a conventional strategy of turning to World Peace only after exhausting the aggressive efforts of the Lakers' starters. Think about how much excitement the team could create if they instead activated World Peace at the beginning of each game.

Wouldn't we prefer to see the Lakers fully embrace World Peace by placing World Peace at the forefront of their strategy this season, instead of holding World Peace in abeyance? Wouldn't we rather hear the announcer herald the arrival of World Peace at the outset of every game, rather than bringing World Peace in as an afterthought? Don't we want to encourage fans to think of World Peace first, rather than calling for World Peace only after other resources are tired?

We all want World Peace to succeed. Fans should be urging the Lakers to exploit the full potential of World Peace. Of course we understand that the Lakers have to consider what World Peace can do to help the team, but they should also be thinking of what the team can do for World Peace. We have reason to worry now, at the start of this new season, whether the team will truly stand up for World Peace, or whether it will only turn to World Peace on rare occasions.

שבת שלום

Light Bulbs

A light bulb went on in my own head when I read in this morning's LA Times (the paper edition) that the spending bill passed by the House yesterday includes a provision blocking enforcement of new energy efficiency rules for light bulbs, meaning that we will be able to use old fashioned, wasteful incandescent bulbs for a few extra years. What struck me was the article's mention that the federal government policy of phasing out inefficient light bulbs was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007. Remember it was George W. Bush who acknowledged that our country is addicted to oil, and who actually took some steps, however tentative, to wean us from our addiction and to increase energy efficiency.

What stories like this bring home is that today's Congressional Republicans are not really so much in rebellion against President Obama and the Democrats. One reason that our country's politics have become so polarized is that the new Republican Party has repudiated policies that they themselves advocated only a few years ago. One of President Bush's signature initiatives was to expand the federal role in education. Today's Republican candidates want to abolish the entire Department of Education. President Bush dramatically expanded the reach of Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit. Today's Republicans want to turn Medicare into a block grant program that will force an increasing share of medical costs onto beneficiaries. President Bush pursued an interventionist foreign policy. Many of today's Republicans want us to retreat from global involvement.

It was these Bush initiatives--particularly the Medicare expansion and foreign wars, and thirdly his infamous tax cuts--that caused a gigantic expansion in the federal deficit. And even today, most of the federal deficit is the result of these Bush policies. (The other major contributor to the deficit is the recession itself, which has reduced government revenues, and triggered automatic spending increases for such entitlements as food stamps and unemployment benefits.) Therefore, when Republicans in Congress today rail against excessive government spending and the deficit, they are really in rebellion against Bush policies more than Obama's.

But back to light bulbs. By taking such an extreme stance against a common sense measure to increase energy efficiency and spur the market to create more advanced energy solutions, what kind of message are Congressional Republicans sending? It's more than denying global warming. It's more than disregard of the environment. It is hostility to government regulation to the point that we are defending wastefulness and inefficiency in private industry and home consumption. It is standing up for the right of Americans to pay higher electric bills. It is disregard of science and technology to the point where we become fearful of change and innovation. My guess is that even Thomas Edison, who perfected the incandescent lamp in 1879, would be disgusted with modern politicians' efforts to cling to such an outmoded technology.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Welcome home

Monday, December 12, 2011


Here is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell being interviewed by Chris Wallace, explaining how the Republicans are not just out to defend rich people. In fact, McConnell said, "we make sure millionaires don’t get unemployment, don’t get food stamps. . . . It doesn’t do anything for millionaires, in fact, it goes after them on the benefits side."

How reassuring that the Republicans do not want to be seen solely as the defenders of the rich. To prove it, they want to cut back on eligibility for food stamps and unemployment benefits for both the rich and the poor. All those rich people who were planning to apply for food stamps can think twice about their plans now. They will get no sympathy from the Republican Party!

Or as Anatole France said over a hundred years ago: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."  It's good to know that the Republican Party still stands for that kind of equality.

(Thanks to Think Progress, for catching the McConnell clip.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Overheard at Romney HQ

High level staffers are said to be working through the weekend to dream up strategies to counteract the fallout from Mitt Romney's disastrous $10,000 bet with Rick Perry during Saturday night's GOP presidential debate.

Here are some of the ideas that might have been overheard at Romney headquarters:

"Maybe he meant to say $10. Or maybe the sound system picked it up wrong. I mean, what kind of person would offer a $10,000 bet?"

"Hello, isn't that exactly the problem?"

"Well, maybe we'll just have to make some kind of joke out of it. We could run some campaign ads offering a whole series of $10,000 bets. We could bet on which branch of government Rick Perry will mix up next, or whether Newt Gingrich's marriage would last his full first term as president, or how many times Michele Bachmann will use the word 'Obamacare' during the next debate."

"Great idea. And if Romney loses enough of those bets, he would be a regular guy just like most Americans."

"Uh, I hate to tell you how many $10,000 bets Mitt would have to lose to sink down to regular guy level. He is worth over $200 million, so he could afford to lose more than 20,000 bets like that. I don't think there is time before Iowa votes."

"How about if we just run ads explaining that Romney is willing to throw away large amounts of his personal fortune to help average Americans like poor Rick Perry?"

"Or maybe we should explain that $10,000 to Mitt Romney would be the equivalent of about five bucks to an average American. It would have been insulting for Romney to offer a $5 or even a $100 bet. That would be like pennies to most of us."

"Maybe we could say that Romney supports personal responsibility and just wanted to illustrate his belief that Americans should only gamble what they can easily afford to lose. In his case, he wouldn't even notice $10,000."

"Maybe we should just say he was joking."

"Or we could say he was drunk, the way Rick Perry looked at that dinner speech a few weeks ago."

"We're going to say a former missionary was drunk?"

"Good point. Maybe we'd better not say anything and just hope the whole thing blows over."

"Yeah, but how are we going to prevent another dumb statement like that one? Maybe we have to put Mitt on an allowance so he knows the value of money to the average American."

"Now you're talking. Let's make him ride around in a beat up pickup truck or something like that."

"Didn't we already try that? And remember how phony he looks whenever he wears jeans to try to look like  a regular guy? People spot that a mile away."

"Then maybe we should be spreading the information that all the other GOP candidates have lots of dough also."

"That might work for some of them, but not somebody like Santorum."

"Don't worry, we don't need to spread any rumors about Santorum. Just tell people to look him up on google."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Headless Agency

How can any member of Congress justify passing a statute creating a new consumer agency, and then refuse to allow a vote to confirm the appointed head of that agency? It would be one thing if the opponents of Richard Cordray's appointment to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau opposed confirmation on the ground that he is unqualified, or even that they disagree with some of his views. Instead, the opposition is based on the ground that Senate Republicans don't like the agency that Congress created. According to Steve Benen's column on the Senate's blocking of the Cordray appointment, which he called part of the normalization of extortion politics:
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) checked with the Senate Historian’s office this week, and found that this is the first time in history that a party has blocked a qualified nominee solely because it does not like the existence of the agency the nominee was selected to lead.
Is this really the kind of historical precedent the Senate Republicans want to be known for? As the president explained in his news conference (video below), if these Senators want to modify the Act creating the new consumer agency, they can introduce a bill. Don't hold up the nomination of the head of the agency Congress created. It's illegitimate. It's anti-democratic. It's irresponsible. It's shameful for the minority to abuse its power in this way.

(Also a nice response from the president about whether he could be considered an appeaser: Ask the top Al Qaeda leaders who have been taken off the field, including Osama bin Laden, about that. And then he hesitates a second, remembering, oh yeah, they're dead. You can't ask them. So ask whomever is left out there.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gingrich promises a return to hate and fear.

Today, this week's Republican front-runner, Newt Gingrich announced that he would nominate John Bolton as Secretary of State. Here is the clip:

This is absolutely fantastic news if you are one of those people who is disgusted with the current administration's efforts to make our country more respected around the world. Favorable opinions of the United States continue to rise markedly in numerous countries, according to polls, in stark contrast to the Bush years. Obviously, it bothers a segment of the American electorate to see huge throngs of foreigners cheering the American president; to know that millions of people around the world admire the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy. Evidently some people would prefer to see crowds throwing rocks or bombs at American embassies, or throwing shoes at the president. Why people would want that, I can't explain. But for those who are anxious to see a return to those days, Newt Gingrich is surely your man. By appointing someone like John Bolton as Secretary of State, he can virtually guarantee that people around the world will start hating us again.

After all, John Bolton is the guy who said "there's no such thing as the United Nations," and then acted surprised that the Senate would not confirm his appointment as UN ambassador. The guy who said, "I don't do carrots." The guy who lost the support of his own former boss, Colin Powell, and who was criticized by employees at the State Department for his abusive manner. And who currently takes every opportunity to take to the airwaves to undermine President Obama's foreign policy leadership.

If you want to return to the days when Americans were hated everywhere they went, from Europe to South America, you would want John Bolton in charge of the State Department. If you despise the very idea of international diplomacy and cooperation, yesterday's announcements presents another reason to support Newt Gingrich. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011



Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Republican Platform

After the goings-on in Congress the last several weeks, it is hard to see how Republicans have any remaining credibility on their core promises of cutting taxes, reducing the deficit, or creating jobs. By refusing to continue the payroll tax cut enacted last year, Republicans proved that the only tax cuts they care about are for those in the top brackets or for corporations or for capital gains. Last year they filibustered the Democrats' attempt to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class only, insisting that all the Bush tax cuts must be extended, even for individuals earning in excess of $250,000.  They did not demand that any of the Bush tax cuts be paid for, not when they were enacted almost ten years ago, and not since then. This year, however, they have demanded that payroll tax cuts, which of course mainly benefit only those making about $100,00 annually or less, must be offset by spending cuts. Thus they have made a mockery of their claim that cutting taxes pays for itself. They have also revealed that their interest in cutting taxes does not reach very far down the income scale.

If cutting taxes for most Americans is not a priority, that must be because reducing the deficit is a higher priority, right? Wrong. On the deficit, Republicans on the super-committee torpedoed any potential deal by insisting that revenue increases could not be part of any compromise. Congressional Republicans are also looking for ways to avoid the automatic cuts in defense spending that they agreed to as part of this past summer's agreement to raise the debt ceiling. That means cutting the deficit is not the top priority. And cutting government spending is not the top priority either, if that includes defense spending.

If cutting taxes, and cutting the deficit, and cutting government spending are not priorities, that must be because stimulating the economy is the priority, right? Once again, wrong. Republicans in Congress have done absolutely nothing to increase employment. In fact, what they advocate most vociferously is firing more public employees. The main thing that has been depressing job creation figures, month after month, has been reductions in public sector employment, mostly at the state and local level. It is impossible to reduce unemployment while you are busy firing as many public sector employees as you possibly can. It is like pouring water back into a boat while somebody else is bailing it out. The private sector cannot even absorb the existing unemployed fast enough, and obviously cannot absorb the additional teachers, construction workers, and many thousands of other employees being laid off as a result of government spending cutbacks.

So what are the real Republican priorities? Helping the wealthy keep more of their money, obviously. They cop to that. Shrinking social programs such as Medicare. The Ryan budget plan they all voted for does that. And perhaps, as about half the population now believes, trying to stall the economic recovery so they can benefit in the next election. So let's have some honesty in next year's election campaigns. Republicans might as well give up the pretense that they are most interested in cutting taxes, reducing the deficit and improving the economy. The public now understands that Republicans are in fact running on a platform of helping the rich get richer, cutting benefits for the poor and middle class, and refusing to cooperate in any way with the other party so that they can blame the Democrats for anything that goes wrong. Being forced to run on ideas like that, it's no wonder the Republican presidential field is in disarray.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cheers to Governor Brownback

High school senior Emma Sullivan got in trouble for sending a rude and disparaging tweet about the Governor of Kansas, after her student group had a chance to meet him. One of the governor's staffers complained about her behavior, and her school asked her to apologize. Emma refused. Evidently she did not feel sorry either for her sentiments, which of course she had every right to express, or for her language, which we are supposed to accept as normal teenage-speak these days. (I have teenagers, so I can attest that according to them, everything they disapprove of "sucks.") The school finally decided to back Emma Sullivan up.

In some earlier times, this story might have involved the student's suspension, general public condemnation, and perhaps a long, drawn-out battle between the forces of dissent and the forces of propriety. Instead--who would have thought?--it turned out yesterday that it was Governor Brownback who ended up being the one to apologize, for his staff's over-reaction to Emma's comment. In so doing, the governor recognized that "freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms." Perhaps not a proud day for the champions of polite language (although we have to recognize that the boundaries of acceptable language are always changing); but definitely a proud day for the First Amendment.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Still Occupied

Some photos I took this morning of the slightly diminished, but still standing encampment on the grounds of City Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The protesters' right to remain camped in this location expired at midnight last night, but the police are evidently taking their time to enforce the order.

Here's hoping for a peaceful resolution of this situation.

Truth and Settlement

Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York today rejected a proposed consent judgment and  $285 million settlement of an SEC enforcement action against Citigroup. The SEC alleged that Citigroup had defrauded investors in a fund comprised of toxic assets, but was willing to accept a monetary settlement and injunction without requiring Citigroup to admit the truth of these allegations. In this case, the court disapproved this longstanding practice, in its words, "hallowed by history, but not by reason." The court's opinion determined that the settlement did not provide sufficient knowledge of the underlying facts, and thus would deprive the public "of ever knowing the truth in a matter of obvious public importance." The judge also seemed to think that the settlement amount was inadequate. No doubt a lot of people will applaud the judge's apparent efforts to stick it to Wall Street, but I always find it somewhat disconcerting when a judge takes it upon himself to impose a result on the parties that neither side sought or wants, in this case forcing both parties to assume the extraordinary costs and risks of trial in a case that both sides would prefer to settle. At the same time, I do understand that the court must consider the interests of the public as well as the parties.

I question the assumption, repeated several times in the court's opinion, that a public trial is going to allow the public to know "the truth," as well as the assumption that knowing "the truth," if indeed truth is ascertainable at trial, is a more important value to the public than peace. Many things can happen at a trial that can interfere with finding "the truth." What if, for example, a crucial witness for either side presents a poor appearance? Or an especially strong appearance? What if a crucial witness disappears? What about the contradictory comments that always show up in the voluminous documentation involved in a case like this one? And what about other factors that might militate against pressing forward with a full-blown trial? Think, for example, of potentially millions in costs and legal fees each side must now incur. Would it be more productive for Citigroup to avoid those costs? Does the government have other more pressing priorities to devote its scarce enforcement resources? Is finding out "the truth" worth the wait until next summer's trial? Not to mention potentially years of appeals after that. As a mediator, I generally assume the parties to a negotiated agreement are in the best position to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their case, and that such an agreement is generally going to represent a fair approximation of the costs and risks to both sides of going to trial. To assume otherwise, as Judge Rakoff does, amounts to second-guessing the careful calculations what are most likely, in such a high profile case, some very competent attorneys. 

On the other hand, public trials do serve a number of important purposes, even when we cannot be certain that a trial will produce a better end result for the public than a negotiated settlement. Judge Rakoff's decision can be justified on the ground that a trial will help educate the public about the complexities of these financial transactions, and may also satisfy the public's need for the cathartic experience of watching banking officials called publicly to account for their actions. A trial will also allow the public to make its own assessment of a mountain of possibly conflicting facts and competing versions of the truth.  But we have also seen plenty of very public trials result in a jury verdict directly contrary to what much of the public conceives as "the truth." Those trials prove to the public that they are exactly the opposite of a method for finding "the truth." When this particular trial is over, my guess is that the public will still be arguing over the meaning of "the truth" of this matter.

(excerpted from a post on my mediation blog)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

No Easy Off-Ramps

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Not non-violence

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," said Santayana. Seems that might be true of the chancellors of UC Berkeley and UC Davis, both of whom invited the cops on campus with horrendous results. Did they forget Kent State and Jackson State? Have they heard of the Strawberry Statement? Were they around for the campus protests of the 1960's and 1970's?

I looked up the biography of Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, and found that he is a Canadian, who worked at Bell Labs in the United States during those earlier campus protests. Then he spent 25 years as a physics professor at MIT. Maybe that explains it. He could have been so immersed in the laboratory that he was only dimly aware of what was going on outside. Now Berkeley students and faculty cannot understand his recent actions. This man actually said that linking arms and forming a human chain is not non-violent. That grammatically inelegant and absurd statement seems destined to be remembered by those who, unlike Birgeneau, make a practice of remembering history. Birgeneau's remark dishonors the history of non-violent protest. It is a slap in the face of history.

Then I looked up the biography of Linda Katehi, Chancellor of UC Davis, and found out she is Greek, and graduated from the National Technical University of Athens in 1977, with degrees in electrical engineering. So maybe she also missed some lessons from US campus protests of earlier decades. After looking at the footage in the video below, Katehi herself seems appalled by the forces she set in motion. She should be. Now the Davis faculty is calling for her head. 

Is the moral of the story that scientists and technocrats might not make the best university chancellors in these troubled times? Perhaps. But we really ought to concern ourselves more with how to handle these kinds of confrontations in a smarter and more positive way. These students were engaged in a peaceful, if somewhat messy demonstrations. Their causes--protesting tuition hikes and solidarity with the occupy movement--are not threatening to the university community; those causes are supportive of that community. Why was there such urgency to remove them? Why did their removal have to be so violent? That kind of response can only cause the sense of confrontation to escalate, and public opinion to polarize. None of that should have been necessary.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Grown-Up Foreign Policy

Indications from the President's trip to the Far East this week suggest a new approach to US relations with China, and the whole Pacific region.  In Hawaii last week, President Obama told the Chinese they needed to start acting like a "grown-up" economy, stop "gaming" the system, and play by the same rules of trade as everyone else. During the rest of his Asian trip, the President strengthened ties with other Asian countries, committed to an increased military presence in Australia, and reached out to Burma in rather dramatic fashion by sending Secretary of State Clinton for a visit. All these moves must send a signal to China that the US will not cede its status as a dominant power in the Pacific region, and that we expect changes in their behavior.

President Obama probably won't get many points back home for these moves, as the public seems preoccupied with football coach scandals, Congressional stand-offs, Wall Street protests, and a continuing sluggish economy. To the extent people are even paying attention to trade policy, they probably won't be all that impressed.  That may be because the American public has been taught to expect a more child-like foreign policy on our own part, in which we are allowed to bully our neighbors, play by our own rules, and beat up on anybody who doesn't go along with us. 

During the Cold War era, US foreign policy reflected an us vs. them mentality. We characterized other nations as good guys or bad guys depending on whether they were aligned with us, or with the Communists. We overlooked bad behavior by friendly governments, and we ignored hopeful developments in the enemy camp. After the Cold War ended, we carried that mentality over into a new struggle against terrorism. We probably needed a more sophisticated approach for the last few decades. We certainly need one now.

If we followed that traditional mentality, we would probably tell China they had better shape up, or else. Or else, what? The list could include treating China as an enemy, imposing retaliatory tariffs, imposing sanctions, and ultimately, military force. The problem with an adversarial approach, however, is that such moves can hurt our side as well. And when we cast another country wholly into the enemy camp, we eventually lose any leverage at all over their actions.  So the president took pains to remind China that they are still our friend and partner. But at the same time to suggest that if they want to sit at the grown up table, they have to abide by the community's standards.  We have seen this tone elsewhere in the Obama foreign policy. In messages to dictators around the world, for example, that they had better recognize the basic rights of their people, if they want the respect of the international community. That message has led to reforms in a number of countries, and has empowered the people of some other nations to get rid of dictators who don't change their ways.

The implicit threats of the old adversarial system are still present. How else to interpret the initiative to place a new Marine base in Australia, for example? The difference is that instead of telling other nations to bend to our will or we will do them harm, we are trying to appeal in a more positive manner to the desire of any international player to be accepted and respected. That is an approach designed to produce better results, and a whole lot less resentment of American power.

(AP photo, updated Saturday, from USA Today)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Downtown LA Protests

This is what I encountered on my way to work this morning: A large crowd of protesters chanting and watching a small group camped in the middle of the street, who were planning to get arrested. Organizers with bullhorns warned members of the crowd to keep to the sidewalks if they did not want to be part of the planned civil disobedience. The vast majority stayed where they were supposed to. The police waited patiently for the decision to proceed with the arrests. 

I would almost describe the mood as festive, and that is not to denigrate the serious purpose of many of these protesters. Still, there was little menace or threat in the air, only a raucous crowd and an expectant feeling. I didn't stick around to watch the forces of law and order make their move.

I later learned that the police made a couple of dozen arrests, presumably of the people who were essentially asking to be arrested. Maybe it's LA; maybe it's our finally-more-enlightened police department; or maybe it's this particular group of protesters associated with Occupy LA, but my city has somehow managed so far to avoid the ugliness that has shown itself in some other cities' responses to the occupy movement.

(top two photos from my cellphone; bottom photo from LA Times)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Welfare for the Rich

Cheers to Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn for releasing a report entitled "Subsidies of the Rich and Famous," detailing the many billions in government aid that goes to the most well-off among us. While some Republicans seem to prefer to talk about how poor and lower middle class people need to pay more taxes, while refusing even to consider closing loopholes and eliminating subsidies that benefit the rich, Coburn does not shy away from pointing out how much the government subsidizes those who seem to need subsidies the least.

We are never going to do anything about reducing deficits and making our tax system more fair until we start acknowledging that all of us benefit from government social programs and tax breaks, and that the rich might benefit from them most of all. A few Republican politicians like Coburn are also smart enough to understand that their party is going to suffer if it continues to be perceived as the party of the rich and against the poor. If we're going to talk about cutting spending and reducing deficits, we have to put some of the subsidies for the rich and famous on the table, or we are not going to make any progress.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Who are the occupiers?

I find the Occupy movement fascinating, because its strategy and tactics seem different from any protest movement I remember seeing before. While these encampments have attracted lots of people who don't have a clue, they have also drawn some pretty impressive participants. There seems to be an intelligence behind this seemingly leaderless, directionless movement that gives one hope that it is still heading in a positive direction. But where did they come from? How did they get here? And where are they going?

Some of my questions were answered in an interesting article in last week's New York Review about the origins and goals of the occupiers. Far from being a spontaneous mass uprising, the idea for the Wall Street protest was apparently formed by some members of a group called Adbusters, which started in Canada more than 10 years ago. Somebody sent an email to subscribers suggesting that a group of people camp out on Wall Street, and a bunch of people seized this idea and began meeting over the summer in Tompkins Square Park to plan the protest, developing the idea for the General Assembly, and training hundreds of activists in the democratic methods that these encampments later spread all over the country and the world. There are some savvy and intelligent people behind this movement, but they deliberately stay behind the scenes, eschewing the very idea of charismatic leaders, and lending more credence, and more reality, to the democratic and popular image of the group.

The occupiers have released manifestos. They meet and talk endlessly. They plan activities. They have some general ideas in common, most notably the idea that they represent "the 99%," and that our economic and political systems should serve the 99% and not just the top 1%. But they have released no demands, have not attempted to make specific changes, have tried to avoid being co-opted by any other organized groups, and have not made clear what their end game is. While unusual, all these decisions seem smart to me. Where they go from here is unclear, however. Perhaps a severe winter will make them pack up their tents in places like New York City. Perhaps they will wear out their welcome in other cities. Perhaps there will be more confrontations. Or perhaps they can just declare victory, and morph into a new strategy in the spring.

(photo by me)

Fed Up?

John McCain thinks it is likely that unless both major parties start doing something for the people, a third party is going to emerge. In fact he thinks it would be an "inevitability." When asked whether the new party would be a right wing, left wing, or centrist party, McCain suggested that we just call it the "Fed Up" Party.  McCain could be right that there is enough of a critical mass of people disaffected from the mainstream political parties, that something new could emerge, although our system of government is structured in such a way that historically, it has not been kind to third parties. The last time a third party succeeded at the presidential level was when the new Republican Party managed to elect Abraham Lincoln. But even then, the Republican Party was more of a replacement for the Whigs than a true third party. 

But if we could imagine our system evolving in such a way as to permit more than two parties to obtain some real power, maybe we should think even beyond what McCain was suggesting. We probably have room for a fourth or fifth party, if we really wanted to capture all of the disaffected elements of the population. On the right, we already have the Tea Party, which is more of a movement than a true political party. But they already have a sizable caucus in Congress, and a coherent set of principles advocating dismantling of all of the functions of the federal government it has picked up in modern times. If it were a real party, it might gain the support of 20% or more of the population. Then we could add a centrist party, consisting of all those who find the Republicans too conservative and the Democrats too liberal. John McCain himself might join such a party, even though he disavowed any such intent, and it might also pick up some Blue Dog Democrats in Congress like Senators Nelson, Lieberman, Webb, Manchin, etc., and the few remaining moderate Republicans. People like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg seem to be itching to join such a movement. Maybe 20 or 30% of the electorate, those who describe themselves as independents now, would flock to such a party. Finally, on the left, there could be room for a truly socialist/environmentalist/unionist party, led by people like Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich, and followed by those Democrats who already think that President Obama has sold out to the moneyed interests. There might be another 20% of the population who would fall into that camp.

If three new parties like that were to emerge, my guess is that the Republican Party would likely shrivel to almost nothing. There is not much space between the Tea Partiers, who already comprise the most energetic portion of the Republican base, and the moderate Murkowski-Snowe-McCain type Republicans who might join a more centrist party. The Democrats, who have always been more of a disorganized, quarrelsome mass of competing voices, might not fare much better under such a scenario. Which means that any such reorganization would likely lead to two even more ideologically-based right wing and left wing parties, and a less ideologically-coherent centrist party. Governing would require some sort of center-right or center-left coalition. Another possibility is that people would decide that the whole concept of political parties has outlived its usefulness, and our system would become even more personality-driven, and less ideologically understandable, than it is today.

All these are interesting scenarios to contemplate. Would any of them reduce the level of fed-up-edness? Somehow I doubt it. When you look around the world at countries that already have three or more viable parties shifting or sharing power among themselves--like the United Kingdom, like France, like Israel--their people seem just as fed up as Americans. That means we might need more fundamental changes in the way our democratic systems operate than just increasing the number of political parties.

(AP Photo from Politico)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Soap Opera Politics

Why is it that the public and the media are more than happy to spend endless hours discussing the details of Herman Cain's encounters with women a number of years ago? For some reason we think these questions are highly relevant to a candidate's qualifications for president. Or maybe we are drawn to the drama of accusation and denial. Or maybe we just enjoy it when the presidential contest descends to the level of celebrity gossip. Since we are more than happy to dissect the doings of public figures like the Kardashians, whose actions are absolutely inconsequential to our lives, we apply that same level of fascination to political figures. Does this kind of soap opera politics reflects a certain immaturity on the part of the American electorate?

In Italy, for a timely example, voters and politicians act in almost the opposite way. Italians re-elected a Prime Minister they knew to be a champion female groper, a serial sexual harasser. Mr. Berlusconi puts any American politician you can think of to shame in that department. But his sexual antics did not bring him down. No, his government is collapsing over important policy and financial issues. In the United States, by contrast, it doesn't seem to matter as much whether a politician's ideas have failed; instead we use their sexual indiscretions to bring them down. It is as if we can't bear to have a serious conversation about important political issues, or we don't really even know or care about the issues. All we care about is politician's personal lives.

In America today, it is not taboo to talk about the sordid details of exactly where on a woman's anatomy a politician may or may not have placed his hands. (And I am not, by the way, trying to trivialize the issue of sexual harassment, or suggest that these accusations are irrelevant. I am just raising a question about why questions of personal misconduct get so much more attention than questions of policy.) It seems that the real taboo subject in American politics is the issues. Particularly some of the ideas Herman Cain has been talking about. The refreshing thing about the Cain candidacy is that he was openly addressing a number of important subjects that have been taboo for many years, subjects that it is well past time we debated in a serious way. One such taboo subject is the role of government in the economy. Cain carries to a new extreme the conventional wisdom that everything the government does is bad for the economy. Leave the private sector alone, and it will flourish. Get government regulation out of business, and they will produce. Stop providing people with so many social services and they will go out and make themselves more productive. In the course of making this argument, Cain may have gone a bit too far, however, such as by denigrating the contributions of public employees like fire fighters, nurses, and teachers to the extent that a lot of people are going to question Cain's whole premise. By raising the issue of the place of government in our society in such an extreme and antagonistic way, he may risk losing the argument for his side. For that reason, the powers that be in the Republican Party may not mind seeing him fall to a more moderate candidate like Romney. But they can't attack Cain for being too anti-government. That would risk confusing and alienating the base. Better to have Cain fall to a sex scandal, and they might be about to continue to avoid having a serious debate about the role of government.

The second taboo subject that Cain's candidacy has brought to the fore is the subject of income inequality. Even without Cain in the race, politicians may no longer be able to sweep that one under the rug any longer. People are coming to be aware that the rich in this country have gotten so off-the-charts rich in the last two or three decades, and that the middle class is not keeping up, that politicians may no longer be able to avoid talking about this issue. Oh, they will still try. Republicans in particular still scream about class warfare the minute anybody suggests making the wealthy pay a larger share of taxes. But Cain's radical 9-9-9 tax plan has been threatening to make tax fairness and income inequality one of the central issues of next year's campaign. Once people start figuring out that a 9% sales tax would hit the poor and middle class the hardest, while a 9% flat income tax rate would let the wealthiest pay far less in taxes than they are currently paying, they will start to understand the real implications of the Tea Party platform. And most people will not support such an extreme position.

Herman Cain has crossed the line. Herman Cain has brought some taboo subjects out into the open. But they are not the taboo subjects that everybody thinks they are. And contrary to Cain's own ridiculous counter-attacks, it is not the Democratic machine that is bringing him down. It is not some women of troubled circumstances who are making him the victim of some kind of feminist crusade. It is not that people will do anything to keep a businessman out of the White House (although the last time we had a businessman in the White House, which was only three years ago, that didn't work out too well). No, the reason Herman Cain is going down is because he is upsetting the apple cart by taking some pretty radical ideas a little too far outside of the electorate's comfort zone. And it would be a shame if Cain were forced out by scandal so early in the campaign, because Cain has been making an important contribution to the public debate by giving voice to ideas that a lot of people find very powerful, and that deserve to be held up to scrutiny. The public, no matter what their position on these issues, ultimately gets cheated when an important player like that is taken out of the game for a personal foul, instead of being tested on the merits of his arguments.

(Spencer Platt/Getty photo: Cain accuser Sharon Bialek)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Not toast

Has Nate Silver jumped the shark? I hesitate to criticize, because Silver has such a great track record when it comes to analyzing polls, but today's New York Times Magazine cover article seems to take Nate into dangerous and uncharted territory.

But before I even get to that, I have a beef with the headline. For an article that concludes with the overall assessment that President Obama has a 50/50 chance of being re-elected, it seems a bit misleading to title it "Is Obama Toast?" It also seems a bit misleading to take the most unfavorable possible scenario (zero economic growth next year, and the strongest possible Republican candidate) and blast those figures on the magazine's cover. This is the New York Times, after all, not the New York Post. So you wouldn't think that giant letters trumpeting a "17% chance of an Obama victory," which turns out to be only one possible scenario (and a pretty unlikely one at that, unless Europe's economy sinks into the toilet), would be appropriate for the cover of the usually-respectable New York Times Magazine. I guess this is par for the course for the media, however, which continually likes to feed into the narrative of portraying Obama as struggling or unpopular, regardless of what the facts might support.

As to the analysis, it seems a bit more dangerous than Nate Silver's usually astute compilations and weighing of poll results. Maybe because this forecast seems to mix in some apples and oranges. It somehow combines two variables--the ideological position of the Republican nominee, and the growth rate of next year's economy--then throws in President Obama's current approval rating (43%), and through some complicated unspecified formula, comes up with a probability rating for Obama winning the popular vote next year under all possible scenarios. The weight given to all these variables seems to be based on an historical analysis, but even Silver admits that there are exceptions to all of his assumptions about the weight each factor should be given. For example, the elder George Bush failed to win re-election even though he had a high approval rating the prior year; Carter lost re-election even though his opponent (Reagan) was the furthest to the right of all possible Republican candidates; Eisenhower and Reagan both won re-election despite weak economic performance in their re-election years. And so on. But if all Silver is saying is that Obama is more likely to be re-elected if the economy keeps growing at a decent rate, and if his opponent is perceived as too far to the right of the mainstream, whereas he is less likely to be re-elected against a moderate opponent during another economic downturn, that seems obvious enough.  How he can put these kinds of percentage figures on the various scenarios, or why the chosen variables are the most relevant ones, is never very well explained, however.

If the only conclusion to be fairly drawn from this article is that President Obama should be viewed as a slight underdog next year, I'm fine with that. I'm still annoyed with the false media narrative that Obama is struggling or unpopular, but I'm ok with portraying the 2012 election as an uphill battle. That will generate interest in the president's re-election. And Obama performs well as an underdog. And Americans like comeback stories.

(photo from Cracked)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Energy independence

We have been talking about reducing America's dependence on foreign energy sources since at least the Carter Administration, but the share of energy supplied by foreign sources only seems to keep increasing. Has that trend finally been reversed? An article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, points out that US petroleum imports have fallen to 47% of our supply, down from a high of about 60% in 2005. A lot of this gain is due to better technology that is allowing oil companies to tap dormant fields. It is also due to ethanol, and to an increase in drilling permits. Another article in the Houston Chronicle I found courtesy of the Obama Diary gives President Obama credit for being the best energy president in decades, having increased domestic oil production by 14%, natural gas production up 16%, solar energy up 14% and wind generation up 59%. Interestingly, the article also points out that the administration's concurrent emphasis on conservation and energy efficiency doesn't seem to be hurting the energy industry at all.

I wonder if all those who chant "Drill, Baby Drill," are going to recognize that action is worth more than slogans. I wonder if they will give the president credit for the substantial gains we are making in energy production, or if they will just keep repeating the same tired criticisms that have no substance.

File this under "more inconvenient facts that don't fit the pre-determined opposition and media narrative."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Where is Europe?

People can keep occupying Wall Street if they want, and most of us sympathize with at least some of the goals of that movement, but you also have to give Wall Street some credit. Sometimes Wall Street seems to understand what is important better than the rest of us. Wall Street understands, for example, that the most important event that happened yesterday was the deal to resolve the Greek debt crisis. That caused the Dow to jump 340 points today!

But you wouldn't know much about the most important news of the day if you spend your time watching the cable news shows. I was only flipping past those news channels last night because the World Series game was postponed, but what I saw was Rachel Maddow going on and on about the Koch brothers using stock images in their videos; and Lawrence O'Donnell heating up his private feud with Donald Trump; and Ann Coulter over on Fox demonizing the Democrats; and Anderson Cooper whining about something or other. Was any of this important? No, it was not. What was important was that the Europeans may have gotten their act together to prevent a crisis that has been threatening to take down the whole Euro zone experiment and send the entire world economy into another recession. I guess Americans aren't supposed to know or care about any of this. We think that the whole world revolves around us, and that our little political feuds are all that matter. It's no wonder we think that, because the media encourages us to think that what is going on in the rest of the world is not even important enough for us to know about or understand.

But if we could learn to step back for just a minute from our own domestic policy battles, and view them in the context of a complex global economy, maybe we would understand that there are much larger forces at play than the ones we are paying attention to. And maybe that kind of perspective would make it a tiny bit easier to resolve our country's political squabbles.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Big turnout in Tunisia

We could learn a few things about appreciating democracy from countries that are relatively new to it. In Tunisia this week, something like 80 or 90 % of registered voters went to the polls, and peacefully went about selecting a new assembly. Meanwhile, legislators in the United States, which has shamefully low rates of participation, are busy dreaming up ways of making it more difficult for people to vote, on the pretext that they are worried about voter fraud, a practically non-existent problem in this country. If we were seriously interested in preventing voter fraud, we might try the simple, cheap and effective method they use in Tunisia:

Many of the reports about the election are focused on the outcome, indicating that an Islamist party, Ennahda, won the largest number of seats. But the outcome is only one indication of whether Tunisia is headed toward becoming a free society or not. At this stage, perhaps the level of participation is more important. And perhaps more important than that will be the Constitution that Tunisians write for themselves, and how it will limit the government's powers and protect the people's rights.

Sometimes we act as though people in a country like Tunisia have only two choices. They can elect a secularist government that represses religion, or they can elect a religious government that enforces religious laws. They can have a dictatorship that used to prohibit women from wearing headscarves in public, or they can have an Islamist government might force all women to wear headscarves in public. And headscarves are only an example of course.

But there is a third choice. I am not a believer that the US Constitution is perfect, but one thing we got profoundly right was the government's attitude toward religion. The First Amendment requires the government to tolerate all forms of religious practice, but forbids it from forcing any religion on us. I don't think any other countries have come up with a better solution to the problem of government and religion, than that. What we should be watching for in Tunisia, and in other countries affected by the Arab spring, is whether these countries will implement similar Constitutional protections on individual rights. And then we won't have to worry quite so much about which party wins any particular election.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dictator Removal Scorecard

Dictator                                                     Cost to US of Removal (in billions)


Saddam Hussein                                                        $799
Taliban                                                                           466


Ben Ali                                                                              <1
Hosni Mubarak                                                                 2
Muammar Qaddafi                                                          1

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


500 blog posts should speak for themselves, but I'm taking the opportunity to commemorate the milestone anyway. It's a good chance to ask myself some basic questions such as, why am I still doing this? Do I have anything interesting left to say?

When I was about 8 years old, I put out my own newspaper. It was a couple of mimeographed sheets, titled The Sunday News, that reported on the doings of our neighbors and school and town activities. I enlisted a number of friends as reporters and delivery boys, and we charged a penny an issue. I think the circulation was about 50 copies. My newspaper lasted two or three years. All proceeds were donated to charity. All costs were subsidized by my parents. Thanks mom! (And happy 86th birthday!)

My hero, at the time I started my neighborhood newspaper, was President Kennedy, and I followed politics very closely. (I was kind of a nerd.) In my view of history, the early 1960's represented a brief shining moment of hope in which we managed to recognize civil rights and put into place major social reforms. That was followed by a few years of chaos, and then almost 40 years of darkness. For me, the 2008 Obama campaign represented a reawakening of hope and possibility. I am very conscious that this moment may also be fleeting, but it was powerful enough to re-kindle my boyhood passions for politics and journalism, and led me to create this site. I wonder what I would have done if I had had access to the power the internet now gives any of us--the power to put out a professional looking publication at no cost, and reach a potentially unlimited audience--when I was 8 years old.

My goals are fairly modest. Though I am grateful to anyone who takes the trouble to read my site, and happy to see readership steadily increasing, I would probably keep writing anyway just for myself. I don't aim to idolize anyone and I'm not looking for a savior. I'm just trying to promote the spirit of hope and change. I happen to think the best way to do that is to support the president unequivocally. He gets enough criticism elsewhere; what he needs is more support.

I'm a cynical, argumentative, irascible, and pessimistic person by nature who is attempting to articulate a relentlessly positive point of view. I'm tolerant of all ideologies except for the ideologies of hate and fear. I'm very interested in promoting respectful dialogue among people of different views, but I don't shy away from mocking the opposition when they deserve it (which they do frequently!). I have some definite policy preferences, and some pet issues, but I'm not really trying to promote an agenda here, beyond being in favor of hope and change, and against hate and fear. Anyway, I'm more interested in process than policy. I'm looking forward to my next 500 posts, which I expect will carry me through the 2012 re-election campaign and beyond.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Income Mobility

Finally leaders in both political parties say they favor reducing income disparities that have grown so large in this country over the last 30 years or so. This week Congressman Eric Cantor is planning a speech on this issue at the Wharton School (an interesting choice of audience). The speech may expand on remarks he made in a TV interview on Sunday:  

About 7 minutes into the clip, Cantor says Republicans want to do something about this problem, but his solution seems to start with reducing taxes on the wealthy. Make life easier for business owners, and they will create more jobs. Income mobility will reduce income disparity.

That's a nice slogan, but shouldn't there be some burden on the proponents of this theory to show that it might actually work? To me, this sounds suspiciously like the "trickle down" economics that was touted in the 1980's as a way of encouraging the rising tide to lift everyone's boat. Instead we got slow growth, and enormous widening of income disparities. If we want to find policies that will reduce income disparities, shouldn't we look at what kinds of policies have effectively caused that to happen, either in other countries, or in our own?

We could look at a country like Sweden, for example, which has much higher and more progressive tax rates than the U.S., as well as much more extensive social services, and which has much more even distribution of wealth as a result (an income distribution that most Americans--including conservatives--say they would prefer to our own.)

Or we could look back in history at the policies in place in this country from the 1940's to the 1970's, a period in which we had significantly less inequality, and also significantly more economic growth, than we have experienced in recent years. Those policies included very high top marginal tax rates (up to a 90% top income tax rate until the 1960's, and a 70% top marginal rate into the 1980's), as well as strong protections for labor unions. Perhaps just as importantly, we had social norms in place that restrained companies from paying their top executives enormous bonuses, that kept a lid on skyrocketing pay in most fields, and that provided decent wages for the middle class.

It's refreshing to see that the Republicans are now supporting the concept of reducing disparities in wealth and income. But they need to show us a working model of their ideas. They can't say they advocate reducing income disparities, while at the same time pushing for policies that sure sound like they would take more from the poor and give more to the rich. In other words--and this advice would apply to politicians of all stripes--if we now agree that income disparity has widened to the point where it must be addressed, don't just re-label the same ideas you've been peddling for a hundred years as a prescription for inequality. Figure out what would work best to reduce inequality, and try that.