Sunday, May 29, 2011

Politics and the debt limit

For as long as I can remember, votes on raising the federal government's debt ceiling have served as an occasion for political grandstanding. When the Democrats are in charge, Republicans take advantage of the opportunity to rail against excessive government spending, and use these votes as a means for blaming the Democrats for incurring too much debt. When the Republicans are in charge (especially since Reagan, when Republicans' sense of fiscal responsibility went out the window), enough Democrats in Congress vote against raising the debt ceiling to force Republicans to take some responsibility for adding to the government's borrowing. It must be recognized, however,  that every vote against raising the debt limit is nothing but a political statement, since the debt ceiling MUST be raised otherwise we risk defaulting on current obligations, impairing the credit of the United States, and substantially increasing the cost of financing our existing debt.

Currently we are at that point once again. Congressional Republican leaders understand that we have no choice but to raise the debt ceiling. They cannot even argue in good faith that there is a way to avoid raising the ceiling. They have not proposed a budget that lowers or maintains the existing level of debt. Even the Ryan budget, passed by the House but defeated in the Senate, projects deficits as far as the eye can see. There is no serious budget proposal on the table that does not require raising the debt ceiling. In fact, Republicans are now being forced to recognize that the Ryan budget proposal, especially in regard to Medicare (which is the program you would have to cut drastically if you had any serious intention of balancing the budget without raising taxes), has virtually no chance of being accepted by the American people. So let me repeat: NOBODY has put forward a serious plan (which I would define as a plan that has any chance of even being considered by Congress), for balancing the federal budget this year, or in the immediate future. Nobody. And if we can't balance the budget this year, that means we have to increase the national debt. Nevertheless, Republicans are using the current impasse as a lever to attempt to force a few more policy changes they have not been able to pass otherwise. It's an illegitimate and anti-democratic tactic.

One of the videos I came across when I was collecting scenes of Republicans being confronted by angry constituents during the last recess, showed a Congressman (I can't remember who it was now) being asked by a constituent whether he would vote to raise the debt ceiling, or allow the United States of America to default on its debts for the first time in history. His response was to ask whether, if your kid has maxed out his credit card, you would give him another one, or force him to live within his means. A cute analogy, except that Congress cannot be analogized to the parent forcing the kid to live within his income. Congress is the kid. Congress has already voted on the appropriations for the year, and has refused to vote for the revenue increases required to pay for them. That means we need to borrow the difference. If Congress wants to act like the grown-up, it must vote to raise the debt ceiling.

(photo from My Credit Specialist)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cheers to Senator Rand Paul!

Here is Rand Paul demanding time to debate the extension of the Patriot Act. This video has that wonderful "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"  quality of a freshman Senator taking a quixotic stand against the inevitable and politically-safe path of continuing a highly problematic policy. I give Paul credit for not being afraid to speak out on a matter of principle in a way that might not be popular, as well as for standing up for our Constitutional rights.That is a truly patriotic act.

The Senate voted to extend the Patriot Act, 72-23.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Is féidir linn!

If anyone is interested in coverage of the President playing ping-pong with David Cameron, or sitting for a State Dinner with the Queen of England, you'll have to look elsewhere.  The relative stiffness and formality of the trip to England, at least as portrayed in some of the coverage I've seen, leaves me a little cold, especially in contrast to the warm and enthusiastic reception the Obamas received from the people of Ireland. The President's speech in Dublin on Monday is especially worth watching, if people haven't seen it already. (White House transcript here)  And if I could have one wish granted right now, I think it might be to be introduced by Enda Kenny.

Really nice high-def video from C-Span. (I'm going to have to start looking at their video library more often.) I recommend blowing this one up to full screen size.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Presidents Abroad

Bush in Ireland:

Clinton in Ireland:

Reagan in Ireland:

Kennedy in Ireland:

Obama in Ireland:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cheers to the Republican dropouts!

Whatever happened to patriotism? Whatever happened to the ideal of personal sacrifice? Whatever happened to all that Republican rhetoric about how disastrous the Obama administration has been for the country? Here is what some leading Republicans have said about their choice between the need to do what it takes for the good of their country, and their personal desires:

Mitch Daniels (5/22/11):
“Simply put, I find myself caught between two duties. I love my country; I love my family more.”

Donald Trump (5/16/11):
"I maintain the strong conviction that if I were to run, I would be able to win the primary and ultimately, the general election. I have spent the past several months unofficially campaigning and recognize that running for public office cannot be done half heartedly. Ultimately, however, business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector."

Mike Huckabee (5/14/11):
"All the factors say go, but my heart says no."

Obama supporters can't help but find these statements amusing. It is satisfying to watch some supposedly leading Republican candidates recognize the gulf between their rhetoric and the reality that their chances of success next year are slim. But I for one do not want to see the entire Republican field collapse. I would rather see the Republicans run the strongest possible candidate they have in 2012. I'm not sure who that would be, but Republicans (unlike Democrats) can usually be counted on to unite behind their strongest possible candidate. They have done so in every presidential election since at least 1964 (when there was probably no candidate who could have won), and they will probably do so again next year. And that is a good thing, because when Barack Obama wins a second term, those questioning his legitimacy as president will have no excuses, and will just have to accept his leadership for another four years, just as those on the left who questioned George W. Bush's legitimacy after the 2000 election had to accept Bush as president after 2004.

So good luck to Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and whomever else decides to jump into the race. May the best among you win the nomination (and then lose the election).

Unbreakable Bonds

Text of AIPAC address is here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hope in the Middle East

The President's speech at the State Department on new directions in the Middle East:

Monday, May 16, 2011


Friday, May 13, 2011

Too late for bi-partisanship?

This week 42 Republican freshman members of Congress sent a letter to the President pleading with him to restrain Democrats from attacking Republican plans to trim Medicare spending. Evidently these representatives are scared that Democratic criticism of their vote for the Ryan budget are scaring voters away from Republican positions. How ironic, considering that many of these freshman legislators rode into office last fall based on scare tactics of their own, claiming that the Health Care reform act was a government takeover of health care, would create “death panels,” and would lead to cuts in Medicare spending. Once the Republicans took control of the House, they immediately enacted their own, much more drastic cuts in future Medicare benefits. They were apparently surprised to find out, when they went home to their districts, that these proposals were not all that popular with their constituents.

Naturally, the reaction of many Democrats to these Republicans' belated pleas for civility descends to the level of childish taunts such as "boo hoo" or "you can dish it out, but you can't take it." (Krugman has a good piece on this story also.) But I would urge the President to take a serious look at this proposal. After all, the President has been urging such a spirit of bi-partisanship for years. He should welcome this suggestion from the opposition. One condition, though. Remember the famous line from Adlai Stevenson, who proposed the following deal with Republicans: “If the Republicans will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.”  If we are going to proceed to discuss budget and spending issues without engaging in unfair attacks on each side's proposals, President Obama should insist that the Republicans accept Stevenson’s modest terms.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Our History

For those who still think government can do nothing right, tell me how you could possibly disapprove of this: The Library of Congress just released a trove of over 10,000 historic recordings from about a hundred years ago, all available for free at anyone's desktop computer. Click a few buttons and you can listen to a speech by Teddy Roosevelt:


Or you can find a lot of classical and popular music and plenty of other stuff. Check it out here:

In other news, General Motors, after being rescued by the government in 2009, announced yesterday that it is investing $2 billion in plant upgrades, expected to create or retain about 4000 jobs.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Cain Mutiny

Psychologists tell us that when people have an idea firmly fixed in their heads, it is very difficult for us to accept contrary information. In fact, contrary information may only cement that idea more firmly. Here is a possible example of that phenomenon in this clip of a Fox focus group (all Republicans) reacting to the South Carolina Republican presidential debate this past Thursday, attended by Tim Pawlenty, and several other lesser-known candidates.  Since the media always seem to focus on the horse race aspects of campaigns, the big news was the surprisingly strong showing for businessman Herman Cain, who still has to be judged a long shot candidate.

What I found interesting, however, was watching the clip that supposedly scored the most favorable audience reaction of anything said during the entire debate. It was Herman Cain saying that government doesn't create jobs; only the private sector creates jobs. And that the problem with government is that its regulations tie the hands of business and interfere with their ability to drive economic growth. Let's first consider how insulting this remark is to public sector employees. Now I would not denigrate the work of the people flipping pizzas in Cain's stores (I love pizza!), but at the same time I wouldn't rate that job as more important than that of a teacher or fire fighter or astronaut or soldier.

But more importantly, instead of dials moving upward so enthusiastically, shouldn't there have been at least a few raised eyebrows at the suggestion that the government has been inhibiting private sector growth? One wonders where these focus group members were in 2007 and 2008, when the private sector suffered its most spectacular failure since 1929. After about 30 years of increasingly lax regulation, demonization of government, and lowered taxes, precisely the remedies these people still believe in, the private sector wasn't exactly creating jobs; it was shedding jobs as fast as could be imagined. And the precipitating cause of that market failure was the banking industry's reckless financing of unsustainable debt to purchase homes that people could not afford, especially after the bubble inevitably burst. Most economists would agree that it was a lack of regulation, and not excessive government interference with private business, that caused the 2008 crash.

That information simply does not compute with people who have so strongly absorbed the message that government is the enemy. Even after they have watched with their own eyes as the government rescued the banking industry, and the automobile industry, and much of the insurance industry, they still go on believing that government is the enemy, instead of the savior of the economy. In fact, the government's rescue of a failed private economy has probably only fed the resentment of this group of voters. The only thing that seems to fuel this group of voters' rage more than the perceived failure of the Obama administration's economic policies, is the perceived success of those policies.

If people continue to turn their meters all the way up in response to this tired, and false, argument that the private sector is always contributing positively to the economy, while government is always harming the economy, even after the experience of the last couple of years, there is probably nothing anyone can say to change these voters' minds. Change can only come slowly, with the gradual acceptance of a new paradigm that recognizes that business is not always right, and government is not always wrong.

(Humphrey Bogart in the film The Caine Mutiny)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Torturous Debate

I would like to think that it is only in the spirit of promoting national unity that the president was talking about, that many people are re-visiting the issue of whether the torture of some of the Guantanamo detainees under the Bush administration might have yielded some of the information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Perhaps they are just trying, in the spirit of bi-partisanship, to acknowledge the Bush administration's contributions to the eventual success of one important part of our ongoing war with Al Qaeda. If so, that seems a strange thing to want to call to our attention. First of all, torture is still illegal, whether it yielded useful information or not. If we had learned something useful by committing burglary or some other crime, would that imply we should legalize that crime? Of course not. Second of all, no one can prove whether or not the same or even better information could have been obtained through other means of interrogation. We can never prove that waterboarding worked (or made no difference), and even if we could, we cannot be proud of doing it anyway, and we cannot condone its use in the future.  (I should note that John McCain, one Republican leader who knows something about torture, said today that he was unaware of any useful information obtained by waterboarding.) Why would anyone want to be promoting the idea that torture is useful or beneficial? Do we want to return to the world of the Middle Ages, where the rack and screw were commonly-used devices?

For those who want to recognize the contributions of George W. Bush, why not instead remind us that it was the Bush administration's invasion of Afghanistan that drove Bin Laden out of that country? Or that US aid to and cooperation with Pakistan ultimately lulled Bin Laden out into the relative open in that country where he would eventually be caught? Why not mention the war in Iraq, Bush's major contribution to the so-called war on terror, for whatever benefits that has brought? The focus instead on one of the most shameful legacies of the Bush presidency seems almost perverse. It almost seems like an effort to prove that Bush was just as tough in fighting terrorists as Obama has proven to be. Or it represents an effort to denigrate the achievements of the Obama administration. Or maybe it's a last ditch effort to defend something that Bush supporters know is difficult to defend. In any case, it doesn't seem like a healthy kind of debate.

We've been dealing with terrorism since the airplane hijackings and hostage-taking of the Carter administration. In fact, we've been dealing with assassinations, bombings and other forms of terrorism throughout our history. Why not simply acknowledge each President's contributions to combating terrorism, and leave it to the historians and the professionals to judge what has worked and what has not worked? As for Obama, would it kill his critics to simply say, "Good job"?

Leaked Documents from Pakistan!

Just released: some excerpts from the minutes of the Planning Commission meeting for the town of Abbottabad, in 2005.

 Q: All right, next up we have an application for a permit to construct some modifications to a private home off of Kakul Road, and build a 12 foot concrete wall all around it. May we have the applicant's name please?

A: I'd prefer if you just called me by my code name, "Courier."

Q: All right Mr. Courier, please tell us the reason you need to build such large fortifications around your house?

A: We like our privacy.

Q: I see. Well, what are these metal supports shown on the plans?

A: That is for stringing the barbed wire.

Q: Do you really think in such a safe neighborhood, that you have to be concerned about people trying to scale such high concrete walls?

A: You never know. It's better to be careful, we think.

Q: What is the purpose of this double set of large gates, and the long passageway between them?

A: Our architect just thought that would make a dramatic entry into our compound.

Q: How many people are going to be living in this house? I notice you are expanding to a size much larger than all your neighbors.

A: Only about 30 or 40, mostly women and children, nothing for you to be concerned about.

Q: That many? Won't that have an effect on parking and congestion, and the strain on municipal resources?

A: Most of them will never be leaving the property, so we should not bother our neighbors at all. Also we plan to burn all our own trash, and we will not be hooking up to the telephone lines.

Q: You've thought of everything, haven't you. I just noticed that these architectural plans you submitted are titled "OBL Hideout." What does that mean?

A: Oh, that is just a whimsical name that the architect came up with for our little retreat. It doesn't mean anything at all.

Q: You are planning to build an enormous fortified structure less than a mile away from the nation's most prestigious military academy. Do they have any concerns about this building?

A: Don't worry. I have a letter from one of the senior officers, stating that they are well aware of our building plans and have no problems with them.

Q: You've thought of everything, haven't you. Why don't we make that letter part of the record? 

A: Actually, we would prefer to keep that information confidential, if you don't mind. The officer wants us to respect his privacy.

Q: We understand. Well, I'm glad you have gone to so much trouble to follow all the rules of our city and be a good neighbor. Any other questions before we stamp these plans approved? No? Very well, then, welcome to Abbottabad, and we hope you enjoy hiding out, er . . . living here.

(Diagram from CIA/AP) (authenticity of this transcript awaiting verification)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Campaign Flashback

From TPM, here's a video compilation of statements made during the campaign by all three candidates about Pakistan and terrorism. Now we can appreciate the strength of someone who tells you, and the world, up front, what he intends to do, gets criticized for it, then goes ahead and does it. Then the rest of us catch up and acknowledge that he was right all along. It seems that candidate Obama was especially right about the thing that McCain was criticizing him for during the campaign: telling Pakistan well in advance what our intentions were, so that they can never complain that this was a sneak attack. So that they are seen by the whole world community to have accepted American aid for years with the knowledge that we reserved the right to take action within their country if circumstances warranted.

What is remarkable is that even during the campaign, even before he had access to all the information the president has, and the benefit of the advice of all the people the president has working on a problem like this, Obama still had this all figured out pretty much by himself. And in a way that was directly contrary to the conventional wisdom of the time.

Monday, May 2, 2011

"a little bit of fun"

Video clip of the President's remarks at a bi-partisan dinner of Congressional leaders at the White House. This dinner was apparently scheduled weeks ago as part of an effort to encourage more social occasions with members of Congress from both parties, to try to lessen some of the partisan rancor and divisiveness. It turned out to be a perfect time to celebrate a spirit of unity.

The Man Who Shot Bin Laden

I'm just old enough to have seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in a theatre when it came out. One of the last of the great John Ford westerns, it starred Jimmy Stewart as a lawyer on the frontier who made his reputation by taking down a notorious outlaw, played by Lee Marvin, in a gunfight. This action propelled him to become a Senator when the territory became a state. Of course, the Jimmy Stewart character knew that the real hero of the gunfight was the character played by John Wayne, who actually killed Liberty Valance from the shadows. Jimmy Stewart missed, but it didn't matter. The legend had become more important than the facts by the time he revealed the truth.

Today Barack Obama is both Jimmy Stewart AND John Wayne. He is both the smart lawyer and the sharpshooter. He is the master poker player and the master chess player. We will not be hearing many of his critics making Jimmy Carter comparisons any more. His odds of getting re-elected just went up about 10 points today.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Presidential Announcement

Time for Civil Disobedience?

In the skewed political world represented by the aging lefty audience for political panels at the LA Times Festival of Books (an event I rarely miss), supporters of President Obama stand on the right end of the spectrum (represented on the panel I saw this morning by Bill Boyarsky).  The loudest applause was reserved for Chris Hedges, who seems to think that Obama is as much a tool of the real power structure as was George W. Bush, and who believes that we have reached the point where civil disobedience is the only means left for combating corporate power, and other evils of our current economic and political system.

I want to say this to Chris Hedges. While I agree with many of your criticisms of our current condition, your proposed remedy is hopelessly old-fashioned, out of date, even reactionary. In the 1930's, when millions of people lived in shantytowns, calls for revolution might have seemed understandable, but even then the countries that avoided violent upheavals (like the United States) seemed to emerge more whole than those in which protest movements triumphed, because those protests often led to fascism. And in the 1960's, in the wake of the civil rights and anti-war movements, it also might have seemed understandable to call for violent protests, but the upsurge in violence in the late 1960's in fact led to a law and order backlash, the election of Richard Nixon, and 40 years of a conservative counter-revolution. If the peaceful, democratic revolution of 2008 was such a jolt to the American system that it has sparked yet another conservative comeback, what do you think would happen if people took to the streets in a lawless way, as you are advocating?

And Chris, if you want to view Bradley Manning as some kind of whistle-blower, hero, or political prisoner, who is being tortured to dissuade others from revealing war crimes; instead of as a criminal who got caught reading other people's mail, and is being treated no differently from others in similar circumstances, I suppose that is your privilege. But you should understand that your perspective is not going to be shared by more than a small minority of Americans. If we learned anything from the 1960's, we should have learned that people are turned off by violence and lawlessness. When they see disruptive behavior, they tend to follow figures of authority. You could try pointing to Egypt and Tunisia as counter-examples, but my response would be that whatever the faults of the American system of democracy, it has not reached the level of repressiveness of the dictatorial regimes that demand to be changed by massive, peaceful protests.

Bill Boyarsky made the point that as far as he can tell, civil disobedience is not what most people are looking for. And it was either Boyarsky or the middle of the road panelist, Joe Mathews, who has co-written a book on California's dysfunctional political system, who pointed out that much of what Hedges is saying is wrong could be fixed by re-structuring the tax code, which would do more good than marching in the streets. Mathews advocates a new constitutional convention for California, on the ground that our current system is so beyond our control that we cannot fix it through regular democratic means. At least in Wisconsin, he said, the voters could choose a slate of candidates and actually give them the power to do what they said they would do. And if people don't like it, they can go to Madison and protest at the center of power. In California, we can elect a Democratic governor and Democratic legislative majority, but they are still powerless to enact the programs that they and a majority of the people favor. And if we don't like it, there doesn't seem much point in marching on Sacramento. We should probably march against the system that we ourselves have set up over the years, and which is now  beyond our control.

My real problem with writing this post is the following, however. Why am I obsessing about the most doom and gloom panel of all the ones I attended? I should be talking about Patti Smith! I saw her yesterday talking with Dave Eggers about their respective memoirs and art and life and stuff, and it's hard to think of two more inspiring and uplifting artists to have the privilege to listen to. On the other hand, Patti also mentioned that she thinks it might be a good idea if billions of people start taking to the streets demanding change. Well, if she led the charge, I'm sure that at least she would try to channel all that energy in a positive direction.