Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Beyond Parody

I did a post last week when Hurricane Irene was about to strike, in part of which I imagined Michele Bachmann calling the hurricane, and the earthquake earlier in the week, a message from God. In my post, Bachmann said these natural disasters were God's way of telling us to repeal Obamacare.

It turns out I was only off a little bit. On Sunday Bachmann told a crowd in Florida that the earthquake and hurricane were God's way of telling us, not so much that socialized medicine is bad, but that we must cut government spending in general:

"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."
So Congressman Bachmann, since you seem to have a direct line to God, please tell us what level of federal spending God thinks is appropriate. Also please advise on how we are supposed to fix all those washed-out roads up in Vermont without spending some more public money. Or is God trying to tell us that it is futile to build roads, since they might get washed away in a natural disaster? Is that the kind of government spending we must stop?

                                                                                                           (Reuters photo)

So Make it Thursday.

If it were me, if it were almost anyone else you can think of, the natural reaction to Speaker Boehner's insult would be outrage. This is the President of the United States we are talking about. He is asking to address a Joint Session of Congress on an issue of national importance. He checked with the Speaker before announcing it. There is only one possible answer. You don't say, sorry we can't get the place cleaned up before that. You don't whine about how it conflicts with the 3rd or 4th Republican candidate joke of a presidential debate that hardly anybody was going to watch anyway. You just say, fine, we'd be honored to have the President address a Joint Session of Congress. But because it is the new Republican House majority still trying to one-up the President, they have to play games and try to humiliate the President one more time, in as petty a way as possible, and see if they can get a rise out of the guy.

And since it is Barack Obama we are talking about, and not you or me or just about anyone else who would fall for that kind of trap, the President just says, fine, no problem, Wednesday September 7 is not convenient for you, well then let's do it on Thursday. Thank you very much. We need to move on and talk about more important things.

                                                                        (SOTU 2011)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Mr. and Mrs. America just suffered some flooding from Hurricane Irene. "I got an estimate," says Ralph the Republican, "that it will cost about $20,000 to fix the damage in our basement. And it's not covered by our homeowners policy."

"That's not too bad," his wife, Debbie the Democrat responds. "I talked to our bankers and our credit is still excellent, even though we recently dropped from a AAA to an AA+ rating, all because of that big fight you and I had over the budget this year. But we can still get a loan to cover that for less than 2% interest. We can take this in stride."

"Sorry honey," says Ralph. "We're already in too much debt. I won't allow you to borrow any money to fix the damage, unless we reduce our spending somewhere else."

"But our debt is nothing compared to some of our neighbors, dear," Debbie replies. "Mr. and Mrs. Japan down the street have three times the debt we do, and their house was practically leveled in an earthquake. They told me they're going to have to do whatever it takes to fix it anyway."

"I don't care. I'm not agreeing to pay for the damage," Ralph says, "unless we find some more spending cuts."

Debbie responds, "How come we didn't need to find offsets when you went off to fight that war in Iraq a few years ago, or when you agreed to all those giveaways to the pharmaceutical companies, or when you decided to reduce our revenues? That's what caused most of our debt."

"That was different," Ralph responds. "When I was handling the family's books, we didn't need to find offsets. But now that it's your turn, I came to the realization that we need to cut our spending and reduce our debt. Just find a few more spending cuts and we won't have any trouble fixing the basement. I'm sure there's plenty of wasteful spending around here. I just saw a bill for new school clothes for the kids that was absolutely outrageous."

"They need new shoes too," says Debbie.

"Well there's something we can cut. Let them wear the same shoes they wore last year."

"But they don't fit."

"Well then just find something else to cut. But don't bother me about it," Ralph yells.

"We could borrow from our retirement account," suggests Debbie.

"No way," her husband responds. "Take it from the kids' college fund instead."

"It's ridiculous that we have to have these same stupid arguments every time we have to deal with a family crisis. We need to fix the basement now, and we don't need to be wasting time arguing about letting the kids go without shoes or taking away their college education money. We already agreed on every item in the family budget, and I'm not re-hashing it for the third time this year."


Sunday, August 28, 2011


Well-known international organization seeking new operations planner. Former holder of this position unexpectedly died this week. Office location for this position at this time unknown, as former location does not appear safe at this time. Reporting relationship to head of organization also may be somewhat difficult to arrange, as former head of organization met unexpected end several months ago. Whereabouts of new head of organization cannot be disclosed at this time. Applicant must possess short life expectancy, and strong interest in becoming an international outlaw. Anyone who can figure out where to send their resume has an excellent chance of being considered for this position.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Equal Protection

I heard (actually invented) a rumor that Mitt Romney is developing a new strategy to revitalize his presidential campaign. I have also invented this interview with the candidate wherein I find out more about it.

I caught Governor Romney coming out of a meeting with his legal team where they are working on their great new idea. "Are you worried about the upstart candidacy by the leader of the Republic of Texas, Rick Perry?" I wanted to know. "He seems to have overtaken you in the latest polls."

Mitt replied: "Of course not. It's only natural for the media, and the public, to become fixated on the latest flash in the pan. We understand how they might be a little tired of talking about me. After all, I've been around for awhile, and I realize I am somewhat boring. But we are working on something right now that we think has the potential of being a major game changer."

"So what's your plan, then?" I wondered.

"We are very excited about this new idea," Romney told me. "It is an outgrowth of our espousal of the important principle that "corporations are people, my friend." What we are planning is a campaign to spread awareness that corporations have been treated as second class citizens in this country for too long. We are demanding full rights under the Fourteenth Amendment for corporations. We view this struggle as the most important civil rights issue of our time, and frankly, we're rather surprised that not too many people, other than a few justices on the Supreme Court, have taken up this cause."

"Wow. that is a bold concept," I responded. "But how is that going to help your presidential campaign? I have a feeling that most of the people sympathetic to the view that corporations are people are probably already planning to vote Republican, and an awful lot of other people are pretty hostile to the whole idea."

Romney smiled. "I haven't told you about the most important part of this new strategy. We are going to start registering corporations to vote! We'll be sending teams to every board of directors in America to start the process of filing papers for every corporation we can find to register as a voter. After all, if corporations are people, and are therefore entitled to equal protection of the law, they cannot be denied the most fundamental right of citizenship, can they?"

"Hold on a second there, Mitt. Do you think any state election officials are going to let you get away with that?"

Romney pointed to his legal team. "That's where these guys come in. We'll get a test case soon enough, and we'll take it right up to the Supreme Court as expeditiously as possible. We think we will get a fair hearing there, and there is a good chance our position will be upheld. Needless to say, if we can establish equal rights for corporations, that is going to boost the chances for my candidacy quite a bit."

"Well, how is this going to work as a practical matter? Won't people just start forming millions of new corporations so they can get as many votes as they can buy?"

Mitt smiled again. "I'm tempted to ask, what's wrong with that idea? How bad would it be if people with the means to form extra corporations got some extra votes? But that won't happen for awhile anyway. See, we think the same rules for voting should apply to corporate people as to human people. We're not demanding any special privileges. That means that a corporation would have to be in existence for at least 18 years in order to have the right to vote, just like a human person. So there won't be any rush to form new corporations, or at least that won't influence any elections for quite a while. But there are plenty of existing corporations whose rights have been denied for far too long. We think we can get them all enfranchised before the 2012 election, and then we'll start to see some fairness in this country!"

"Good luck to you, Governor Romney. I have to applaud you for your creativity."

(Photo from Seany D)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Blame Obama

As Hurricane Irene barrels up the East Coast, Republican leaders must be huddling to plan their response to the crisis. I had a chance to conduct an imaginary interview with some of them. I asked Senate Minority Leader McConnell how Republicans with responsible leadership positions in the government are going to solve the problems presented by this natural disaster. "Of course our number one goal," responded Senator McConnell, " will be to figure out how we can blame this disaster, and any mistakes anybody might make in dealing with it, on President Obama. We are already formulating our talking points so that we can immediately mobilize all of the appropriate personnel to go on all the major news shows and attack the president for his disgraceful failure to respond appropriately to this crisis."  That sounds very constructive, I told the Senator.

Next I asked Speaker Boehner if he planned to introduce any legislation in the House to help with the expected costs of clean-up and recovery. "We have just completed a very successful Congressional session in which we managed to get almost nothing constructive done for more than six months. We couldn't even raise the debt ceiling without causing a major crisis, and a downgrade of the country's credit rating. I'm proud to say that Congress is now held in lower esteem by the public than at almost any time in our nation's history." Why are you so proud of that, I wondered.  "Obviously, because people's disgust with the government is more likely to lead to Republican victory in the Presidential election next year. I mean, look how we were able to blame the federal deficit on President Obama, even though we know that about 80 to 90% of the deficit was caused by Bush's policies and by the recession. But despite the facts, we have gotten a large portion of the public to believe that the deficit is all Obama's fault. We are hoping to accomplish the same result with whatever other opportunities are handed to us. Even hurricanes."

Michele Bachmann butted in. "Can you believe how many natural disasters have been visited on us during President Obama's regime? This week one of the largest earthquakes in the history of the East Coast shook the capital. It damaged the Washington Monument, which has been standing untouched for over two hundred years since President Washington's administration. If President Obama had even the slightest amount of respect for our Founding Fathers, he would have cut short his vacation and come back to Washington to make sure this monument is repaired as soon as possible. These disasters -- first, the earthquake, and then the hurricane -- are obviously a sign from God. God wants Obamacare repealed, and we had better heed these warnings." Actually, I pointed out, the Washington Monument has only been standing for 125 years. "Don't try to correct me on my history," Bachmann replied. "I said that George Washington was president more than 200 years ago and I stand by that statement."

I thanked the group and told them I was glad to hear that they have so many good ideas for helping the country respond to this disaster.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Further to the post just below this one: Not only would Republicans and Fox News commentators back in 2008 insist that Democrats admit that the Bush surge worked in Iraq, they would be positively outraged--OUTRAGED-- at anyone who continued to dare to criticize the Bush war strategy. Even at the beginning of the Iraq war, there was an effort made (I'm thinking particularly of Dick Cheney) to equate dissent with lack of patriotism; to suggest that anyone who had the audacity to question Bush policies such as restricting civil liberties, roughing up suspected terrorists, and invading a foreign country that had nothing to do with 9/11, might be in league with the terrorists. And while Bush apologists tried to intimidate dissenters, they had to acknowledge that Bush's policies weren't exactly making us a lot of friends abroad. US standing in the eyes of other nations' citizens sank steadily during the Bush years.

That situation has now reversed itself. Is it therefore fair to question the patriotism of critics of President Obama's methods of overthrowing North African dictators? People like Rick Santorum, for example, who said that Obama had "little to do with this triumph [in Libya]."  Not only is Santorum's comment exceedingly ungracious, but anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to what the Libyan rebels themselves say has to recognize that Santorum's refusal to acknowledge America's key role is just completely counter-factual.  The Libyans know that they would not be where they are today without American help, and they have publicly thanked America for our support.

I would probably give these critics the benefit of the doubt as to their patriotism (though maybe I shouldn't), but I don't mind pointing out their hypocrisy. Everybody is supposed to rally around a Republican president, especially on foreign policy ventures, but it is perfectly fine for the opposition party to give no support whatsoever to any Democrat who occupies the White House. The pattern was established under President Clinton, and is being played out even more strongly under Obama. I will not only call it hypocritical. I call it shameful. It wouldn't bother me if a lot of Republicans, even a majority, expressed reservations about the President's policies abroad, but to find virtually unanimous criticism in the face of American success? To find citizens of countries all over the world finally--FINALLY--praising the United States as a force for good, while opposition politicians in this country will not begrudge the administration any recognition of its critical role in assisting the Libyan revolution? To fail to take pride in the sight of freedom fighters in other countries waving American flags, and thanking us for our help? Shameful.

(LA Times photo from Stars and Stripes)

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Fantastic Four

Remember during the 2008 presidential campaign when Republicans, as well as the media, were so intent on getting the Democrats to admit that President Bush's "surge" strategy in Iraq had finally worked? On the one hand, you had a horribly inept, absurdly expensive, and possibly unnecessary war against a country that turned out to pose much less of a threat to anyone than was advertised. On the other hand, you had to admire President Bush for doubling down in Iraq, when many advised him just to negotiate a way out. And so I guess it was at least a fair question to ask candidate Obama whether he would acknowledge that President Bush had finally found a way to snatch a measure of victory from the jaws of a hopeless quagmire in which we were immersed in Iraq.

Now it's 2011, and President Obama has found a new way of dealing with dangerous dictators. Encourage popular uprisings, emphasize respect for human rights and the rule of law, and provide some carefully-calibrated military assistance, in partnership with our European allies. That strategy has been heavily criticized--from the right, for being too weak, and from the left, for being too warlike--but lo and behold, it seems to be working out rather well. So of course you would expect that Republicans like Senator McCain, as well as the Republican presidential hopefuls, would all be willing to admit that President Obama deserves some credit for the success of his strategy in Libya. Hmm. . . . .  So far I'm coming up pretty empty on finding congratulatory messages from Republicans, or even some acknowledgement that the United States played a positive role in helping Libyans fight for their freedom. The closest I have seen to such a message from Republicans was from David Gergen, who tweeted “#Gadhafi seems finished! If so, #Obama/alliance approach vindicated. Critics (including me, Neo-cons,GOP, etc.) shd give credit.”  But does David Gergen even count as a Republican? He seems almost neutral nowadays, if not suspiciously pro-Obama.

My challenge: If anyone can find a prominent Republican, presidential candidate or not, who has expressed praise for President Obama's seemingly successful Libya strategy, please let me know, and I will be happy to acknowledge the integrity of that person.

In the meantime, at least the Libyans seem to understand whom they should thank for help in their struggle. (It's interesting that they include US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice along with Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama, in their pantheon of the Fantastic Four. I wonder how many Americans even know who she is.)

(AP photo, from ThinkProgress)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bye-Bye Qaddafi

Text of President Barack Obama's statement on the rebel advances in Libya:

Tonight, the momentum against the Qadhafi regime has reached a tipping point. Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant. The Qadhafi regime is showing signs of collapsing. The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator.

The surest way for the bloodshed to end is simple: Moammar Qadhafi and his regime need to recognize that their rule has come to an end. Qadhafi needs to acknowledge the reality that he no longer controls Libya. He needs to relinquish power once and for all. Meanwhile, the United States has recognized the Transitional National Council as the legitimate governing authority in Libya. At this pivotal and historic time, the TNC should continue to demonstrate the leadership that is necessary to steer the country through a transition by respecting the rights of the people of Libya, avoiding civilian casualties, protecting the institutions of the Libyan state, and pursuing a transition to democracy that is just and inclusive for all of the people of Libya. A season of conflict must lead to one of peace.

The future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people. Going forward, the United States will continue to stay in close coordination with the TNC. We will continue to insist that the basic rights of the Libyan people are respected. And we will continue to work with our allies and partners in the international community to protect the people of Libya, and to support a peaceful transition to democracy.

(MSN blog)

(Photo of four dictators in better times (for them), by Sabri Elmehedwi/European Pressphoto Agency: New York Times Lede Blog)

Vacation Outrage

Just imagine the political courage it took for presidential candidate Mitt Romney to come out and attack President Obama for taking a vacation in Massachusetts, despite former Governor Romney's conflicting interest in promoting Massachusetts as a vacation destination. On this issue I have to agree with Romney, though my reasons might be different. (His reasons I can't explain or understand, I'm afraid.) My reasons for considering the Obama Vineyard vacation an outrage, on the other hand, are pretty much based on jealousy. The problem is that MY family should be on Martha's Vineyard right now!  We have been going to Martha's Vineyard for years, much longer than the Obama family, but decided to forego the trip this year. How dare the president take 10 days off to spend with his family on Martha's Vineyard, while my family is just hanging out at home. (My report from last year's trip, where we crossed paths at one point with the first daughters, can be found in this post from last August.)

In other news, Mitt Romney is planning to demolish his $12 million beach house in La Jolla, California, and replace it with a new structure about three or four times the size. I have not heard, however, whether he is pledging not to visit that house in the unlikely event he is elected to the presidency next year. 

(more photos at The Obama Diary)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tax the poor!

Why have we been hearing this line so much lately, about how half the country doesn't pay any income tax?  (There's a great collection of these quotes on the Smartypants blog.)  I guess in some people's minds, this seemingly outrageous fact proves that we shouldn't be talking so much about taxing the rich. Instead, we should be talking about taxing the poor. Leave it to Jon Stewart to do the math, showing exactly how much we could raise by taxing the bottom 50% of earners in this country--who own a whopping 2.5% of all the wealth in America.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
World of Class Warfare - The Poor's Free Ride Is Over
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

This might be as good a test as any of whether you are a conservative or a liberal: If someone tells you that 50% of the country pays no income tax, are you outraged that these freeloaders are not contributing any income tax to the federal coffers? (putting aside the fact that they are probably paying some payroll taxes and sales taxes and excise taxes) Or are you outraged that half the country has an income so low that the federal government has not deemed it worth taxing?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Silly Season

This just in! A leaked transcript of a hacked phone call from last week, between Republican mastermind Karl Rove and Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party. Don't ask me how I got a copy, because it is entirely possible that I just made it all up (except for the parts in quotation marks--those quotes are real):

KR: Hello Reince. I think I've finally found it.

RP: Found what, Karl?

KR: The issue that is going to sink Barack Obama's re-election campaign.

RP: Finally! That's great, because nothing is really working very well for us so far.

KR: Well this one is sure-fire, Reince. It's that new Secret Service black bus that the president is going to use to tool around the countryside. Did you know it cost a million bucks? And it's made in Canada? What a perfect symbol of waste and un-Americanism.

                                                                                    (Doug Mills/NY Times photo)

RP: That sounds really promising, Karl. Tell me more.

KR: Here's what I'm thinking. My attack group, American Crossroads, is going to run ads that will make a star out of that bus. We'll call it "politics instead of results, a huge waste of taxpayer dollars, and a long ride that leads nowhere." It's a perfect symbol for the Obama presidency.

RP: And it's made in Canada, you say? I'll get a statement out on it also. Let's see, how about something like this: “This is an outrage that the taxpayers of this country would have to foot the bill so that the campaigner-in-chief can run around in his Canadian bus and act as if he is interested in creating jobs in our country,”

KR: That sounds great, Reince. There are just a couple of things you should know though. First of all, the president had nothing to do with this decision. It was the Secret Service, and they actually think they are saving money by buying a bus, instead of retrofitting a leased bus like they used to do for the president. And they say there are no other manufacturers of the kind of bus they need, aside from this company in Canada.

RP: This doesn't sound quite so devastating, Karl.

KR: Oh yeah, and one other thing. When George W. Bush was president, he rode on a Secret Service bus from the exact same manufacturer on a similar trip through the Midwest.

RP: Hmm, well maybe we could just say that Obama stole the whole idea from Bush, and attack him for that.

KR: Maybe. But when Bush takes a bus trip through the Midwest, it's a good thing. When Obama does it, it's different. And, uh, there's one other thing.

RP: What's that, Karl?

KR: It turns out the Secret Service bought two of these buses. And they're going to use the other one for whomever is chosen to be the Republican Presidential nominee next year.

RP: Wait a second Karl. You mean we're going to attack Obama for doing something that wasn't even his decision, and doesn't cost the government any extra money, and former Republican presidents did exactly the same thing, and also the Republican candidate for president is going to be using the same bus next year? This is your new great idea?

KR: Relax, Reince, when have we ever let the facts get in the way of a good story?  We're talking about a big, scary-looking black bus. What more do we need to stir up some outrage? Let's just go with this attack ad. By the time the Republican candidate starts using the same kind of bus, people will forget we ever made such a big deal out of this.

RP: OK, Karl, I'm going to trust your judgment on this one.

My congratulations to these brilliant strategists for once again concentrating on the issues that really matter to the American people. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

War is over!

Joshua Goldstein has an article in Foreign Policy (and apparently a book coming out on this topic) in which he proves that, as President Obama announced in June, and contrary to popular belief, the tide of war in fact is receding, and has been for some time. Compared even to the 1990's, we are seeing about half the number of deaths worldwide from war. The U.S. has substantially reduced troop levels in places like Korea and Europe, and when withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan are finally complete, will have fewer troops abroad than at any time since the 1930's. There are far fewer civilian casualties from war than in decades past. Some intractable conflicts (e.g., Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kashmir) have subsided. The great powers have essentially renounced wars with one another. And the UN seems to have figured out how to make peacekeeping work in some areas. Obviously, there is still a lot of war going on, and too much death and destruction from war, but we are so focused on all that conflict, that we might not realize just how greatly the scale of war in general has been reduced compared to past decades.

I remain fairly pessimistic on this subject, because it's hard to imagine that with expanding populations and increasing resource competition, we will not be facing some substantial man-made cataclysms and conflicts in this century. Perhaps we are only enjoying a temporary, and relative, lull in war activity. But Goldstein's thesis is still fascinating, because it goes so much against conventional wisdom. And it's probably disconcerting to a lot of people in the hate and fear business, those who have been trying to promote the fearsomeness of some new enemy or other ever since the end of the Cold War eliminated our most powerful enemy. The idea that we can actually measure progress away from war provides hope that mankind might finally be learning how to resolve at least some large scale conflicts without the waste and destructiveness, of war.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Corporations are not people.

I'm a business lawyer, so some of my favorite clients are corporations. I don't think corporations are inherently evil any more than any other form of business organization. And I think I understand what Mitt Romney was trying to say the other day in Iowa when he tried to explain that when you tax corporations, that is not really different from taxing people since ultimately the money comes out of people's pockets.

But it is still absurd for Romney to have started off his statement by equating corporations with people. Corporations are not people. The idea of corporate "personhood" is merely what is called a legal fiction that recognizes the separate existence corporations have from their owners and officers. That legal separation is recognized primarily to limit the risks of shareholders--in most cases--to the money they actually invest in a corporation. That is important to the economy, otherwise people would be reluctant to invest in equity. The Supreme Court has recently, in the Citizens United case, stretched the concept of corporate personhood somewhat beyond that traditional meaning. But even that recent Supreme Court opinion does not fully equate corporations with people. If it did, the Court  would have to grant corporations such rights as the right to vote and the right to marry. Obviously, there are limits to corporate personhood.

The preamble to the Constitution starts by placing sovereignty in "we the people" so as to distinguish our democracy from monarchy. That does not include "we the corporations." Legally speaking, corporations are creations of the government granted only those rights that the government allows them. Corporations are not the source of the government's power.  When Lincoln talked about government "of the people, by the people, and for the people," he was not including government "of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations." The very idea ought to give most people chills.  Therefore, while we can allow corporations some of the same rights that people have--we can even give them more legal protection than flesh and blood people have in some situations--we cannot simple substitute "corporations" into any legal document in place of the word "people." Indeed, I shouldn't even have to take the trouble to explain that living, breathing human beings are not equivalent to an artificially-created legal entity. 

Not only does the simplistic equation of people and corporations stretch the concept of corporate personhood beyond any meaning recognized by the law, it is also a profoundly tone deaf and dumb thing to say.  People--that is to say, actual human beings--understand that corporations are different from themselves. A lot of people also have a distrust and suspicion of corporations, which I have seen exhibited at times when people sit on a jury in judgment of corporations. If Romney was trying to overcome that suspicion and distrust, he doesn't do a very effective job of that by simply equating corporations with people. He is only inviting more distrust.

Which means that Romney completely deserves the kind of treatment shown in the video below, which the DNC remarkably was able to put out only a couple of hours after Romney's Iowa appearance where he made the "corporations are people" remark.  It's going to be an interesting campaign.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Why do we hate Congress?

The most recent NYT/CBS public opinion poll shows Congress's approval rating down to about 14% favorable. (According to Fox, it's 10%!) Wow. That is really low. I don't remember when people hated Congress this much.

This low opinion of Congress obviously reflects unhappiness with the recent debt ceiling negotiations, which didn't seem to reflect well on anyone in Congress. But the parties did finally reach an agreement, and the agreement probably reflects, about as well as any agreement could, a consensus on what Americans want to do about debt and deficit reduction. Apparently, not much.  The poll results do seem to indicate that many, perhaps most people, would have preferred to see some revenue increases as part of the mix. But my guess is that the negative reaction to watching how Congress works has more to do with the process than the result. People are frustrated that it was so hard for Congress to get something done that a consensus wanted to get done. That most members seemed more intent on blocking the other side's plan than in adapting their own plan in a way that would enable us to move forward.

Maybe, however, we ought to recognize that if Congress is not functioning properly, that to some extent reflects a larger dysfunction among ourselves. After all, Congress is the part of government that reflects all of us more accurately than any other part of government. So if Congress acts in a way that is fractious and partisan and ill-informed and stubborn and foolish, maybe if we looked in the mirror, we might see some of those same traits. It's also interesting to note that while opinions of Congress are at a particularly low point right now, our low opinion of Congress is nothing new. The funny thing is that polls over time also show that people don't usually hate their own Congressman. It's everyone else's Congressman we are unhappy with. (Even that may be changing, however. According CNN, most people right now don't even want to see their own Congressman re-elected.) Or maybe it's just that we are sick of the whole process. According to these poll results, people want to see more compromise. But it may be that what we really want is for the other side's representatives to compromise. When our own representatives compromise, we're not so happy about that.

In President Obama's speech in Michigan on Wednesday, he tried to channel people's frustration with Congrees in a positive direction. The president asked people to send a message to Congress to put aside some of the partisan wrangling, and just try to get stuff done that most people seem to want done. People may have voted for divided government. That doesn't mean they wanted dysfunctional government.

Partisans on the right need to recognize that the results of the 2010 election do not mean that people were buying 100% of what the Tea Party was selling. And polls since that time show a steady decline in the popularity of that particular program. Partisans on the left need to recognize that the Republicans won the 2010 mid-term elections. That means the left can get even less of what they advocated than they could prior in the previous two years. Both sides need to recognize that they need the other side to get anything passed. If the deficit battle proved anything, it certainly proved that. But there ought to be enough things that would command a majority of the people's support that the parties can agree on at least a few positive programs. The alternative is gridlock, and gridlock isn't making anybody look good right now.

(Capitol dome photo from CSI)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Iowa / Michigan

I was watching some excerpts from the Republican Presidential debate in Iowa tonight, and thinking it might be fun to write up another parody of the contenders. There is something hilarious, for example, about poor Newt Gingrich acting upset at so-called "gotcha" questions, from Chris Wallace of all people. Then I thought, what's the point? I did a parody already of the Republican candidates' New Hampshire debate. Anyway, these folks are beyond parody anyway. They do too good a job parodying themselves.

I decided it's more productive to watch this guy instead. He knows what he is talking about, and he makes a lot of sense. And for those who might be wondering how someone who ran in 2008 on a theme of bringing a new kind of politics to Washington, can make that theme work again in 2012, when he will be running as an incumbent: Just watch how he does it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Democracy Looks Like

In the dramatic Wisconsin recall elections tonight, both sides may try to claim victory. Democrats won because they gained two seats in the State Senate, but Republicans also won because the Democrats appear to have fallen one seat short of obtaining a majority.

I'll try not to sound too much like some of those annoying soccer parents who tell their kids that it doesn't really matter who wins, and that everyone should be rewarded just for participating. Of course it matters who wins. But in this case, there might be some other things just as important as figuring out who wins. What might be more important in Wisconsin this year was the huge outburst of political participation by all kinds of people: the activists who flooded the capital and gathered signatures; the unions who mobilized to fight challenges to their ability to organize; and the business interests who supported the new governor. What a wake-up call for a lot of people who learned that elections have consequences. What an experience for so many people who worked hard to make these recall elections happen. I saw some of the veterans of the Madison sit-ins at the Netroots conference earlier this year, and what they seemed to have in common was a new-found energy, enthusiasm, and sense of purpose. 

Since this blog is more about process than policy, I'm less focused on the outcome than on how we get there.  So my suggestion would be that instead of arguing about which side won, we just celebrate the trials and triumphs of democracy. Unless people want somebody else to make decisions for them, they must commit to a never-ending struggle, and they must continue to participate. Or at least, vote! This is what democracy looked like today in Wisconsin:

Monday, August 8, 2011


When a psychology professor criticizes the president, it is reasonable to expect that his criticism is going to reflect his area of expertise. Drew Westen's op-ed piece in the New York Times this weekend purports to examine the weaknesses in the stories that are being told by this administration, from the point of view of psychological effectiveness. But Westen cites no empirical evidence that a different narrative would have produced better results. Instead, he just writes the Inaugural Address that he personally wishes the president had given--one that would have come out swinging against Wall Street bankers and conservative politicians whom he blames for the financial crisis of 2008. Certainly that kind of aggressive message might have pleased a good portion of the crowd, but it would have alienated the business community and a very large conservative sector of the population. And that message would have been totally inconsistent with the whole theme of hope and reconciliation and post-partisanship that got Obama elected in the first place.

Westen makes a number of claims that the administration failed to explain its economic policies and health care policies and other initiatives. Over on Xpostfactoid, these claims that President Obama failed to explain these policies are decisively refuted one by one. What becomes clear from Westen's tirade is that instead of any kind of scientific critique of the administration's messaging, all he is doing is making a critique of policy, especially what Westen calls Obama's "truly decisive move," his handling of the economic stimulus in 2009. Once he moves into politics, Westen demonstrates that he has no special expertise at all.

I and others get tired of pointing this out, but the stimulus bill needed three Republican votes in the Senate to pass. And that's all it got. It also needed the support of every single Democrat in the Senate, some of whom were quite leery of enacting the largest deficit spending measure in history. Sure a lot of economists thought the stimulus should have been twice as big, and should not have relied so heavily on tax cuts. But there was absolutely no way that a bill in excess of a trillion dollars could even be seriously proposed. The votes were not there. It didn't matter what kind of speech you could make in support of such a stimulus bill. The votes in the Senate were not there. There is just no way you can make a credible showing, as a matter of dealing with the political reality of the United States Senate, that anybody could have passed a larger stimulus bill in 2009 than the one the administration got passed. In fact, getting a bill of that magnitude through the Senate only a few weeks into the new president's term was a major accomplishment. So I guess it is legitimate to criticize the president for his unwillingness to fight battles that he is not likely to win. In my view, that is not even a criticism, however. Another legitimate criticism one could make about the stimulus act in particular is that maybe the administration should have acknowledged from the outset that $800 billion in stimulus was not going to be adequate to restore economic growth as quickly as most people would have liked. What kind of message would that have sent when your goal is to restore economic confidence?

(Jonathan Chait has another good critique of the Westen piece in The New Republic.  See also Smartypants.)

(illustration from Science Report)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

At the credit counselor's office

Counselor: Well if it isn't Uncle Sam! What a surprise to see you here. What brings you by today?

Uncle Sam: My credit rating was downgraded this week. That has never happened to me before. I thought I might need some help fixing that.

C: I had no idea you might be in any kind of financial trouble. You must be getting behind in paying your bills, right?

US: Nothing like that. I always pay all of my bills promptly. There is zero danger--ZERO--that the United States of America will not be able to pay its bills.

C: Well then, maybe you've been extravagant lately with your expenses. Are you taking a lot of fancy vacations, buying a lot of meals out, things like that?

US: Nothing out of the ordinary. If anything, I've been cutting back on that kind of spending. We did spend a few hundred billion to build infrastructure and try to get employment back up, though.

C: But that kind of spending should be making your financial picture stronger.

US: I think so. In fact most of my economic advisers have been telling me we should be making even bigger investments in infrastructure.

C: Then it must be that your income has taken a hit.

US: That is true, my revenues are down quite a bit due to the recession, but I could easily get them back up if I wanted to by changing a few depreciation schedules and grabbing some oil company windfall profits. And I have had no trouble whatsoever borrowing whatever I need to pay all my obligations, at ridiculously low interest rates to boot.

C: So maybe your debt has just gotten too high?

US: The US debt is fairly high in relation to GDP right now, but it was a lot higher during World War II, and nobody lowered my credit rating back then.

C: Hmm. This is hard to figure out. Who was it that lowered your credit rating?

US: S&P.

C: You mean those same bozos who were telling everyone a couple of years ago that all those mortgage-backed securities were perfectly safe. Now they're questioning the credit of the United States of America?

US: One and the same.

C: What reasons did they give?

US: I think it has something to do with our political stalemate in Washington. We just went through a bruising battle in Congress to raise the debt ceiling.

C: Isn't there a big showdown every time the government raises the debt ceiling, and Congress always votes to raise it at the last minute?

US: That is true, but this year was worse because a lot of the new members of Congress were demanding that we enact a plan to reduce the deficit over the next ten years.

C: That seems very unreasonable. So I guess you weren't able to get a plan in place.

US: No, we actually did pass a bill. It wasn't to everyone's liking, but it did make a start in dealing with long term deficits.

C: So you did something completely unprecedented to deal with long term deficits, something that has never been necessary in the past to get an increase in the debt limit, and they still downgraded you?

US: It seems that what we did wasn't good enough for them.

C: So maybe you need to cut back on your spending even more.

US: A lot of people say that, but whenever I ask people what they want to cut, they can hardly come up with anything.

C: So then you need to raise taxes.

US: Well duh. Look at the history of the last thirty years. Every time we cut taxes, the deficit skyrockets out of control.  In the 90's we raised taxes just a smidge, hardly enough to notice, and all of a sudden the deficit disappeared.

C: So you know what to do then. Just get the economy moving again, and then raise enough revenue to get rid of the deficit. And don't pay any attention to these idiots at S&P.

US: Sounds very obvious, doesn't it?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Blame Game

There was a great cartoon in the New Yorker a couple of months ago, showing a family lost in the jungle. The father, scratching his chin, is saying, "OK, I admit it, we're lost. But the important thing is to remain focused on whose fault it is." I'm thinking of getting a framed copy to hang in the room where I conduct mediations. Frequently the task in a mediation is to get the parties away from focusing on recriminations and blame for how they got themselves into their situation, and toward focusing on possible solutions to their conflict. It might be helpful for people to look at this picture, which enables us to see how obviously ridiculous it is for a family lost in the jungle to spend their time arguing about how they got there, instead of working together to find a way out.

In politics, which ought to be mainly forward looking, we also find a tendency to spend more time assigning blame than solving problems. Partly that is because politicians can often advance their own electoral interests by blaming the other party for whatever problems people are concerned about. And partly it seems to be a natural tendency, like the family in the jungle, for people to remain preoccupied with how they got into the fix they are in, because they have no idea how to escape.

Congress just finished an epic struggle over trying to fix a long term structural deficit problem in the federal budget. It is questionable whether this was even the most pressing problem Congress had to deal with at this moment (it was only pressing because Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling until this problem was addressed).  It is also questionable whether the compromise bill enacted to deal with the deficit problem, which will pass some of the difficult decisions to a super-committee that is yet to be formed, really does much of anything, especially in the short term, to reduce the deficit. Yet at least the bill did manage to let us escape from the uncharted territory of defaulting on the government's obligations. In that way it represents a path forward.

There is still so much left over bitterness from this debt ceiling battle, however, that instead of pursuing that path forward, the parties just entered into a new round in the blame game. Democrats blamed Republicans for holding the country hostage. Republicans blamed Democrats for not following their budget advice sooner. And partisans on both sides are blaming their own leaders for compromising so much to get a deal done. Meanwhile the stock market is crashing. Perhaps the market crash was caused in part by Congress's weak response to the deficit issue. Perhaps it was caused by the perception that cutting government spending will only make the economy worse. And perhaps the market is crashing due to other economic factors happening in this country and all around the world. Perhaps all of the above. Nobody seems to know for sure. This uncertainty is not stopping an even newer round in the blame game, on top of the one that just started a couple of days ago. Republicans say bigger spending cuts would have reassured the markets. Democrats say that the last thing the markets want to see are more spending cuts. We are still spending most of our energy arguing about how we got here, and whose fault it is. We either don't know, or we can't agree on how to get out of the jungle we find ourselves lost in.

Cheers to Governor Christie

Here's a video I finally caught up to, that was posted about a week ago, in which New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie talks about his appointment of a lawyer named Sohail Mohammed to the state court, and calls out the opponents of that nomination for their bigotry and ignorance. My favorite line: "This Sharia law business is crap. It's just crazy. And I'm tired of dealing with the crazies."  This is the kind of no-nonsense plain speaking that makes me proud to admit that I grew up in New Jersey. Anybody got a problem with that?