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.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupation spreading






























Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Party of ?

After voting down the President's proposed American Jobs Act, Senate Republicans decided they better come up with their own jobs plan, which they finally unveiled today. As Senator Graham said, "We have to be for something." Good for you, Lindsey Graham! No more "Party of No"!  It's about time that the Republicans start acting like a party in favor of something or other.

Let's take a look at the Republican plan and find out what the Republicans are for. First of all, according to the AP story, the bill makes sure to include nothing that would overlap in any way whatsoever with Obama's plan. So one thing we know that the Republicans are for is being against any idea that the president supports. Next, the bill would repeal the Affordable Care Act, what the Republicans like to call Obamacare. So we know that the Republicans are in favor of "no Obamacare." I guess that means we also know that the Republicans are for passing a bill that they know for certain will be vetoed by the president. (Mitch McConnell criticized the president's jobs bill as a political charade, since the president should have known that anything he proposed would be unanimously opposed by the Republicans. Republicans know that their bill will never become law either; wouldn't McConnell have to agree it is a charade also?)

The Republican "jobs" bill would also repeal last year's financial reform legislation, so we know that the Republicans are in favor of being against financial reform. And also a moratorium on regulations, so we see that Republicans are for not having any new regulations. The Republican proposal also includes cutting taxes and cutting spending of course. But going along with priority number one above, they would cut different taxes than the Obama plan would cut. (Obama wants to cut payroll taxes; Republicans want to cut the top marginal rate down to 25%)

To recap, here is what the Republicans' jobs plan is for: NO to anything that the president might sign, NO to health care, NO to regulation, and NO to taxes. Maybe it would be fair to call the Republican jobs plan, the NO jobs plan.

(Results of Republicans' previous jobs plan shown in red; Democrats' current plan in blue: actual historical data, 2008-11) Doesn't this chart clearly demonstrate that what we need is more blue and less red?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Visitor

So this flying saucer lands in my back yard tonight, and out pops a visitor from another planet who tells me he is interested in studying our enlightened political system.  "Really," I respond, "that's very flattering considering that you seem to have developed the advanced technology that enables you to whiz around the galaxy, while we are still mired in our little solar system."

"Yes, I'm very excited to be here," the alien says. "We learned from the History Channel about your brilliant Constitutional framework, and we think it might work really well on our planet. Tell me what it's like to live under such a wonderful system?"

"You're in luck," I tell the alien. "I happen to have studied history and constitutional law, and I've always wanted to explain our system to a visitor from another planet. I'll tell you what happened today, just as an example of how our Constitution functions. Tonight our wonderful Senate just voted 50-49 in favor of allowing a vote on the American Jobs Act."

"That's just the kind of thing I want to learn about," responds the alien. "We aren't really able to keep up with the latest news very well where I come from. What is this jobs act?"

I explain: "We have a problem with high unemployment right now, and this bill is designed to help put people to work building roads and schools and other stuff that everybody wants. It also provides incentives to encourage companies to hire more workers. Most of the experts think it would help reduce unemployment, and polls show that the public is strongly in favor of the bill."

The alien is getting excited to hear all this. "Wow, democracy in action! You have a big national problem, and the president and Congress act together to put together a solution. Just how the Framers envisioned it! And a majority of the Senate agreed to allow it come up for a vote, so now there will be a vote on the bill, right?"

"Not so fast," I respond. "Remember I said that the Senate only voted 50-49 in favor of allowing this bill to come up for a vote? The problem is that they need 60 votes, so tonight's vote actually means that they won't allow it to come up for a vote."

The alien looks confused. "Wait a minute, on my planet we have studied your Constitution very thoroughly, and it says nothing about requiring 60 votes in the Senate just to allow a bill to come up for a vote."

"You're right. There is nothing in the Constitution about that. It's just a procedural rule the Senate adopted a while back, but the opposition party now uses that rule routinely to block anything they are not in favor of."

"Why would they do that?" the alien asks. "I thought you said the people are mostly in favor of this bill, and the experts think it will solve a big problem."

"It's just election year politics, although, um, it's not even an election year.  The opposition doesn't want the president and the other party to have a big victory this year."

"But don't they believe in democracy? Why won't they even let a bill come up for a vote? If they don't like the bill, they can always vote against it. And whichever side has the most votes should win."

"Well, back when the opposition party used to be in the majority, they used to demand that they be given an up or down vote on all the things they wanted. But now that they are in the minority, they don't seem to be in favor of up or down votes so much anymore."

"I still don't understand. How can they possibly explain this?" the alien wonders.

I read from the paper what the Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell said: “Democrats have designed this bill to fail — they’ve designed their own bill to fail — in the hope that anyone who votes against it will look bad. This whole exercise is a charade that’s meant to give Democrats a political edge in an election that’s 13 months away.” "

"I'm really confused now." The alien is shaking his head and giving me a pained look. "I thought you said this bill was popular and that the experts think it will help solve a big problem. Isn't that the president's job to propose something that he thinks will help the country? It seems like it's the opposition that is engaged in a charade to give themselves a political edge."

"If it seems like that to a visitor from another planet, then I hope it seems like that to the voters down here," I say, slightly encouraged.

"Good-bye," says the alien. "This has been very educational. But I'm afraid we're going to have to look elsewhere for a model political system.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


I've participated in all three Ciclavia events, today's having expanded to include about 10 miles of city streets that are closed to cars for much of this Sunday, and turned over to cyclists and pedestrians. The route goes right past City Hall, which is currently almost completely surrounded by the tents  of Occupy LA. I saw a bit of interaction between the sign-waving protesters at City Hall, and the crowds of cyclists, but for the most part these events don't seem to have much to do with each other. On one level, Occupy LA might be seen as a serious political and economic movement that is presenting profound challenges to the existing power structure, while Ciclavia appears to be just a fun and frivolous bit of outdoor exercise. On the other hand, I have to wonder if hundreds of young people camped out on City Hall grounds will ultimately succeed in changing much about how the financial system does business. The crowds of cyclists, however, who appear merely to be out having a good time, might actually be having a substantial impact on the urban environment.

As a city dweller, there are few things more important to me than trying to reduce the impact of the automobile on city life. Cars waste way too much space; they create way too much noise and pollution; they contribute hugely to our dependence on foreign oil; and they can make our lives miserable by causing us to spend hours sitting in traffic. The only way to reduce these impacts is to reduce the number of cars on the road. (We've tried building more and more roads to deal with traffic, but that only seems to make the problems worse.)  To reduce the number of cars on the road, we need to find other ways of getting around, we need to reduce urban sprawl, and we need to build alternative means of transportation. Trains, buses and bike lanes can play a big part.

Ciclavia might be doing more to open people's eyes to the possibilities of living without cars than any other demonstration I have seen. Today, after riding 20 miles on quiet streets devoid of cars, passing thousands of smiling, friendly people, I had to ride another 2 miles home on car-choked streets, filled with overpowering noise and horrible exhaust fumes. I even got yelled at by a car driver. Want freedom? Want to do something about the environment? Want to improve our balance of trade? Want to foster community? We can accomplish all that by reducing our dependence on cars. Any activity that moves us in that direction might have as much serious, revolutionary potential as the more traditional kinds of protests being undertaken by the various Occupy groups.

Understand, I'm not knocking the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement may turn out to have profound impact, while Ciclavia might just prove to be an interesting diversion a couple of times a year. All I'm pointing out what I observed today, which is that the Occupy people were struggling to be heard, while on the streets of LA that were closed to cars, we already got a glimpse of what life could look like after the revolution.

(JCM pictures)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Don't Shoot.

Last night I heard David Kennedy and LA Police Chief Charlie Beck talk at the Aloud Program about reducing gang violence. Kennedy's theory, which is described in his new book, and which has been implemented successfully in a number of cities, including Los Angeles, sounds almost too good to be true. As I understand it, the approach has several parts. First, recognize that the number of people responsible for the vast majority of violence in most cities is relatively small. So concentrate on those people. Next, let the street gangs know that violence will no longer be tolerated. The police will keep track of which gangs are responsible for the most violence, and will make life as miserable as possible for those particular gangs. That gives each gang a powerful incentive to lower their violence profile. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, utilize other forces in the community--peer groups, families, other community institutions--to pressure gang members to put their guns away. What happens? Everybody starts to understand that they are safer and better off if they stop resorting to shooting one another to solve their disputes. And dramatic reductions in gang violence start to occur.

In the question and answer session, audience members kept trotting out one after another pet theory for reducing crime (in this audience mostly liberal pet theories): What about reducing poverty? How about gun control? Why not legalize drugs? The chief and the author acknowledged each of these issues, but showed how none of these approaches has as much effect on the specific problem of gang violence as the so-called "ceasefire" approach. It turns out that if your goal is to reduce gang violence, you just need to focus on that. That means that the conservative nostrums for crime reduction, which Chief Beck recounted with a brief history of the LAPD's various militaristic responses to gangs over the last couple of decades, don't work either. Young men pay more attention to their mothers than to the police. Who knew? And if you enlist all available forces in the community to communicate the message that gang violence is no longer acceptable, people get that message.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Press Conference

Here is a summary of President Obama's news conference this morning, for those who do not have time to watch or read the whole thing (official transcript here, video below). Every question is a paraphrase of the actual questions that were asked (except for the last one):

Q: Back when you were making deals with the Republicans, we criticized you for being weak and compromising, so don't you think it's fair that now we should criticize you for acting tough and calling out the Republicans about the jobs bill?

A: When it comes to dealing with the Republicans, let's just take it as a given that whatever approach I take, they will attack me for it. Whatever I propose, they are against it. The question we should really be asking is why the media are being duped into playing that game.

Q: I hear that the switchboards at the Capitol are not being jammed with calls asking Congress to pass the jobs bill. Are you worried that you are losing your magic powers?

A: What you are suggesting is that if people are so disgusted with Congress these days they aren't even bothering to call their representatives, that must be my fault. I would suggest that you take up Congress's problems with Congress. I'm doing my job. This time my team even wrote the bill for Congress. All they have to do is pass it.

Q: If the Republicans in Congress won't do what is right for the country, isn't that your fault also?

A: Unfortunately, when I tried the Vulcan mind meld on John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, my powers failed. For that I must accept responsibility.

Q: What do you think of this Occupy Wall Street movement? Isn't that your fault also?

A: Did you happen to keep track of who voted in favor of more financial regulation and who voted against it?

Q: Why haven't there been more prosecutions of Wall Street bankers?

A: That could be because most of their shenanigans were in fact legal. And did you happen to notice who voted for more laws to keep the bankers in line, and who voted against that?

Q: How come my bank is charging me $5 a month to use my debit card?

A: I hear they also stopped giving away toasters. Is that my fault also?

Q: Since one company that the government guaranteed loans for went under, doesn't that prove that the whole program was a failure?

A: No it doesn't.

Q: Mr. President, what about the European debt crisis? 

A: Good question. You don't understand the problem, but hardly anyone else does either. Anyway, don't worry, we're all over it. OK, one last question.

Q: Sir, if you gave an order that Santiago wasn't to be touched, and your orders are always followed, why would it be necessary to transfer him off the base?

A: On second thought, I don't have time to answer any more questions. I have work to do.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Occupation update

Here's a quote from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's testimony before Congress yesterday, in response to a question about protests on Wall Street and elsewhere:
Very generally, I think people are quite unhappy with the state of the economy and what's happening. They blame, with some justification, the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess and they're dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington. On some level I can't blame them. Like everyone else, I'm dissatisfied with what the economy is doing right now.
These protests seem different somehow from others I remember. They seem to lack an opposition. When civil rights protesters marched in the 1960's, opponents threw rocks, and the police turned fire hoses on them. When antiwar protesters marched on college campuses in the 1960's and 70's, Nixon denounced them, and the National Guard faced them down and even shot a few of them. Today, here in LA, hundreds of people are camped out in front of City Hall, following the lead of similar protests around the country. Their location suggests that they are demanding that City Hall somehow surrender to their demands. Yesterday, however, the President of the City Council came out to greet the protesters, invited them to stay as long as they like, and told them they have his support.

Then we have the chairman of the Federal Reserve, who is viewed as one of the chief villains and architects by at least some of these protesters, telling Congress yesterday that he has sympathy with the protesters, that they are right to some extent to blame Wall Street for causing at least some of our economic problems, and that they are also right to be dissatisfied with the response of policymakers in Washington. He actually sounds like he is . . . on the same side. Very strange.

If the chairman of the Federal Reserve is on the side of the protesters, and so is the President of the City Council, who is the opposition? It might not be the Tea Party. A lot of those right wing protesters seem to share the anger of the Occupy Wall Street movement at irresponsible banks, corrupt corporations, and maybe even at widening income inequality. Maybe not even political leaders. They want to tap into that anger also. It might not even be the rich who are the enemy. Many wealthy people, following the lead of people like Warren Buffett, are begging for a tax hike. It might not even be corporations. Corporations represent a range of attitudes just like real people.

How will this movement deal with the difficult challenge of finding out that most of the powers that be are sympathetic to their cause? Their enemy seems to be the whole system, and the difficult part, now that we know that most of us agree it need fixing, seems to lie in figuring out how to do that.

And here is an example of how to have a conversation with a representative of what many believe is another enemy, namely the media:

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Occupy LA

Today at lunchtime I put on my amateur journalist's hat and dropped by City Hall to check out the campsite set up by Occupy LA right on the grounds of City Hall. I'm not sure what to call Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots. Is this a movement? It seems too small and inchoate, at least so far, to call it that. An organization? It seems to be well-organized but it is not structured like a traditional organization. A protest? Perhaps, but these campers seem quite welcome at City Hall, and there doesn't seem to be anyone around at whom the protest is directed. I learned later that the president of the City Council dropped by and told the demonstrators, "Stay as long as you need. We're here to support you." Remarkable!

So maybe I would call this an awakening, or a stirring. Maybe these demonstrations will peter out and accomplish nothing. Or maybe they will spread and grow into some kind of mass uprising. Maybe they will turn ugly and spur a backlash. (As someone old enough to remember what happened in 1968, that would be my greatest fear.)

But for now, everyone seemed friendly. Everything seemed peaceful. The area is being kept clean and neat. There were a lot of signs, mostly about corporate greed and themes of that nature, but not a lot of anger on display. They have a website, of course. There is a facebook page.  It could be, this being LA, that the West Coast occupation is going to be more laid back than its New York inspiration, which has included some confrontations with police and arrests. If so, I would view that as an improvement on the New York model.

One of the campers, who has been living on the City Hall lawn since the "occupation" started four days ago, told me they plan to stay indefinitely.  What the demonstration mainly seems to be about, according to this participant, is a way for young people to get involved in political action. Who can argue with that goal? These people say they are not about to get co-opted by any other organization, even though the encampment attracts people with all sorts of causes. They meet every day in a very democratic way to discuss plans, and they seem to be making it all up as they go along. The ideology of this group might not make total sense to me, and I might be fearful that all this energy could lead nowhere or turn negative. But if Occupy LA manages to foster a new kind of protest movement, full of peace and positive energy; if it draws attention to urgent social problems like inequality and political corruption; and if it breeds democracy and citizen involvement, then I say hats off to the campers!

(photos by moi)