Saturday, April 30, 2011

President Releases His Birth Video!

AND, the trailer for his new movie, The President's Speech, and a preview of what the White House would look like if Donald Trump became President:



It's just the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

Friday, April 29, 2011

More Town Hall Heat

Here is Representative Rick Crawford from Arkansas being challenged on lowering taxes on the wealthiest:




And Representative Guinta in New Hampshire facing more questions on the Ryan plan for Medicare:



Congressman Huizenga from Michigan being told that his party has become the party of the rich, for the rich and by the rich:


And here's a highlight reel, compiled by ThinkProgress, including most of the clips I have posted this week:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Left, Right and Center

I have to add my voice to those complaining that the media are portraying the ongoing budget battle as a clash between the Obama plan on the left and the Ryan plan on the right. What this view ignores is that the Congressional Progressive Caucus has put out something called the People's Budget, which should be seen as the true progressive alternative, while the President's plan should be seen as moderate. (In fact, noted economist Jeffrey Sachs thinks that the People's Budget should be portrayed as the moderate plan, the President's plan as a center-right alternative, and the Ryan proposal a far right agenda. A number of other economists and organizations have also praised the People's Budget as the most fiscally responsible plan on the table, as well as the most humane.) If the media thinks it is appropriate to marginalize the Progressive Caucus budget, then it seems to me just as legitimate to marginalize the Ryan plan as the radical right wing alternative. The Ryan plan is not popular with most people, and even Republicans are starting to distance themselves from it.

The People's Budget reduces the deficit more than either the Ryan plan or the Obama plan. It does that because it is not afraid to raise taxes. So as I've said before, we must recognize that this debate is not about the debt or the deficit. It is mainly about spending priorities, and also about appropriate levels of taxation.

I am not going to criticize the President for offering a middle of the road budget plan, even though I might also personally prefer the People's Budget. (People who read my blog know I make it a rule not to criticize the President here. He gets enough of that elsewhere.) It is probably a smarter move for him both politically and as a matter of negotiating strategy to advocate a balanced and moderate plan, rather than to play into the hands of his conservative detractors by putting forward a more traditional tax and spend Democratic alternative. Besides, the President is supposed to represent all of the people, so he has some obligation to offer a plan that appeals to his entire constituency, namely the whole country.

But if critics on the left want to do something constructive, instead of just criticizing the President for being too moderate, it seems to me that it would not hurt for them to increase awareness of and to advocate the priorities included in the People's Budget. That will help make people understand that the President's plan is truly moderate and reasonable and should appeal to a wide spectrum of public opinion, and that we should not be looking for a "compromise" somewhere halfway between the Obama plan and the Ryan plan. The Obama plan is already the compromise. (See this Robert Reich column making a similar argument.) The media should also make more of an effort to balance the massive coverage they have given to the radical Ryan budget plan, with at least a little attention to the more liberal alternative being put forward by the Progressive Caucus.

Silliness


I should probably ignore this birth certificate story. Or I should try to treat it with humor. But I already tried that in a previous post, describing my own Hawaiian investigation, and for some reason my investigation did not get as much play in the media as one big, fat, loudmouthed, bad-haired idiot talking about the fictitious investigation he conducted. So I can't be humorous about this today. I just feel sad. 

Instead of gloating about having accomplished something positive, the big, fat, loudmouthed, bad-haired idiot should be ashamed that he revived this non-issue for no other reason than to draw attention to himself. The media should be ashamed that they gave any coverage to loudmouthed idiots who tell lies for their own self-aggrandizement. And the rest of us should wonder why we paid any attention to this story.

Three years ago, the Obama campaign released a document that would have been accepted in evidence in every court in America, but that was not good enough for a lot of people. The document that was released today probably still won't be good enough for some people.  But if it ends the silliness, release of this document might serve a useful purpose. If it makes us wonder, even for a second, why we pay more attention to the deranged rantings of pretend presidential candidates, than we do to actual problems that affect our lives, maybe that would be a useful purpose also.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Voters' Remorse

For some reason I just can't get enough of these clips of angry voters confronting Republican Congressmen at town halls last week. Thanks to Think Progress, a truly fair and balanced news source, for collecting a lot of these.

Here's Congressman Dan Webster from Florida facing some angry and skeptical constituents:



And Representative Charles Bass of New Hampshire being grilled on Republican plans for Medicare:



Here's a funny clip of Congressman Gibson in New York trying to blame high taxes on illegals not paying their fair share. A woman in the audience shouts out, "you mean like GE?"




Finally, here's a clip of Congressman Meehan from Pennsylvania being challenged on his vote to abolish Medicare:

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Scenes from the Counter-Backlash

For those who watched with concern when Congressional Town Hall meetings in the summer of 2009 were disrupted by angry protests about health care reform and other Obama initiatives, the turnabout this year has been satisfying. We often forget that every movement provokes a counter-movement, and that backlash is one of the most powerful forces in politics. After Obama swept into power in 2009, along with Democratic control of Congress, the Tea Party Movement was born. And after Republicans took control of the House at the beginning of this year, and began calling for spending cuts and other changes, their agenda is re-energizing traditional Democratic constituencies.

So here is Congressman Ryan being booed for his unwillingness to tax the rich:



And here is Representative Duffy catching hell for supporting the Republican plan to kill Medicare:



And here is Representative Barletta also being challenged on the Republican plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program: 



These Republican Congressmen made the mistake of thinking that because a bunch of Republicans were elected to Congress last fall, the public suddenly wholeheartedly supports the whole Republican agenda. They forget that a large part of the reason for Republicans' success last fall was that Republican candidates scared voters into thinking that Democrats were going to harm the health care system. Republican candidates scored points in the last campaign by talking about death panels and Medicare cutbacks. How did they think voters were going to react when they started proposing massive cuts to the Medicare program themselves?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Obama in LA

Imagine how exciting it would be for a little kid to see the President speak. His family was standing right in front of us among the crowd in a sound stage on the Sony lot. He seemed pretty happy to be there, but was starting to get sleepy by the end of the speech, and he might be so young that he won't even remember this event very well. For the rest of his life, however, he'll be able to tell people about how his parents brought him to see President Obama at the beginning of his 2012 re-election campaign. Obama supporters need to capture this kind of enthusiasm without getting tired themselves.

This early campaign speech, which I would judge as a work in progress, was still strong enough to fire up the crowd of supporters, and remind us of how important it is to keep working for change. It's always a challenge in a re-election campaign to re-kindle the candidate's original supporters, and especially where the first campaign was based so much on the promise of something new and different. Almost by definition, the 2012 campaign can't promise something new and different. What it can promise is to preserve and strengthen the gains of the last two years, against forces that are trying mightily to tear down everything that has been accomplished so far. Is that still hope and change? Maybe it's more hope and more change. The President's speech was about what we have accomplished so far, and what we have yet to accomplish. And as Mary Jane Stevenson, California director of Organizing for America, who spoke before the president, reminded us: "Our opponents are getting organized; we need to out-organize them." Though this campaign is going to be much too long and very tiring, and it will be difficult to re-capture the spirit of 2008, it seems necessary to start early, so we can out-organize them.




(photos by moi)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cheers to Governor Brewer!

Give credit where credit is due. Governor Jan Brewer, the same Arizona governor who became famous for signing that state's controversial anti-immigrant law, yesterday vetoed a bill that would have made the Arizona Secretary of State the arbiter of whether a candidate meets the qualifications for running for President of the United States. Standing up to the loony right, she sensibly refused to put Arizona in the middle of a distracting and ridiculous controversy. At the same time, Governor Brewer vetoed another bill that would have allowed guns to be carried on campus at public schools and universities. You have to wonder that the majority of the state legislature thought that was a good idea.

I know there are people on the left who would welcome presidential candidates like Michele Bachman or Donald Trump. I am not one of them. It's really not better from the standpoint of improving the quality of our national political debates if the right is dominated by people who think that every state election official should examine the birth certificates of presidential candidates, or who want to turn public universities into the Wild West. We are better off with sensible Republicans. We should be glad that Governor Brewer showed some common sense yesterday.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Beyoncé !

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Americans want more equality.

I heard an interview on the radio today with Dan Ariely of Duke University, one of the authors of a study asking Americans how much inequality in income distribution exists, and how much is desirable. The vast majority of respondents seemed to have no idea just how unequal our country's income distribution has become. The rich are much richer, and the poor are much poorer, than people think they are. Most people apparently think the wealthiest 20% control only about 59% the nation's wealth, when they actually control about 84%. Respondents in this survey were also asked what sort of income distribution they would prefer. The overwhelming majority, across all ideological lines, when asked to choose whether they would prefer to live in an unspecified country where the top twenty percent control more than 80% of the country's wealth (USA) versus a country where the top 20% only control about 40% of the wealth (Sweden), chose a distribution resembling that of Sweden.

People also may not realize that this condition has changed significantly over time. As I discussed in a previous post, we had levels of income inequality similar to today's levels in the 1920's and 1930's, then a relatively equal period from the 1940's through the 1970's, then rapidly rising shares of income going to the wealthiest among us, as this chart shows:

What is a "natural" state of inequality? To what extent have government policies increased or decreased inequality over time? To what extent must we accept the existing state of affairs, and to what extent should we try to fix it? While many of the causes and cures can be debated, the cited study suggests that people would find it more just and harmonious to live in a place where the incomes and shares of wealth are more equal than those that currently exist. One thing Ariely said he does not understand is why people have such an aversion to any talk of taxes that they seem unable to contemplate that raising taxes might be a way to get to a place that they evidently want to reach.

If people had a better understanding of these facts, would they have less of an aversion to making the tax system more progressive? And now that Republicans and Democrats have staked out such divergent positions on the budget, with Republicans seeming to favor taking even more from the poor so as to give even more to the rich, will the issue of inequality itself will come to the forefront in next year's election campaigns? Would that debate foment social unrest? Or is it the rising level of income inequality that is posing risks to social cohesion?

(chart from Animal Spirits)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Medicare

Today the House of Representatives actually voted to abolish Medicare as we know it, over the next ten years. Wow. The audacity of that move is breathtaking, though perhaps understandable as a symbolic gesture, since the House Republicans know that their plan to scrap the current system has no chance of being enacted any time soon. If the House Republicans thought they were proposing something that might become law, it would be hard to put together a coherent picture of where they think they are heading with this idea. It's not about the deficit, because if they were serious about the deficit, they wouldn't be proposing huge tax cuts at the same time. It might not even be about spending per se either, for these same Republicans voted only a few years ago to dramatically expand Medicare coverage for prescription drugs. Republicans say it's not even about hostility toward Medicare or seniors either, since these same Republicans were screaming loudly about death panels and Medicare cuts when the Democrats passed comprehensive health care reform last year. So how did we get from hearing the Republicans try to scare people into thinking that Obama wanted to cut people's Medicare benefits, to Republicans passing a bill in the House sharply curtailing Medicare benefits over a number of years to the point where there would be no guarantee that the vouchers they propose handing out to seniors would be sufficient to cover their needs?

I have to assume the House Republicans do not have a death wish. Therefore, the only way I can tie all these actions together is by noting that they all favor private insurance companies and health care providers. The Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit turned out to be a boondoggle for pharmaceutical companies (and it hugely impacted the deficit), since Medicare is not allowed to use its tremendous purchasing power to obtain better prices for drugs. Opposition to the Affordable Care Act seemed prompted to a large extent by concern that private insurance companies would find themselves unable to compete with a proposed or potential public plan. And now the House bill to replace traditional Medicare with a voucher program opens up the possibility of greatly expanding the market for private health insurance companies. Under the Republican plan, this market would open up to them whether or not they are able to deliver better services for a cheaper price, because spending on Medicare would be held constant or decrease regardless of whether insurance was available for the voucher price. Those who can afford it will pay more out of pocket, and those who cannot will do without. Those who advocate market-based solutions should be upfront about the fact that that is how markets regulate supply and demand.

This solicitude may spring from the power of lobbyists and campaign contributors, or it may represent an ideological preference for the free market regardless of whether or not the market can actually deliver a better product for a cheaper price. Whatever is driving the House Republicans, it's a blind obsession, because it doesn't seem very smart politically, and it doesn't seem likely to represent a good deal for most of the people who will be eligible for Medicare. This is going to be a tough sell, and deservedly so.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Fiscal Future



People should understand that the budget debate is not in any way about the deficit. The Democrats have a better track record over the past three decades, and a more credible plan, for reducing the deficit. Republicans are not proposing any more deficit reduction than Democrats. As the President said in his speech at GWU today, the Republican vision "is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America." Let's have an honest debate about that.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Different Times

For anyone who thinks we live in especially partisan, divisive times, let me remind you that on a scale of partisanship and divisiveness, things really aren't that bad right now. My evidence? Here is a video of the President visiting the Lincoln Memorial today, facing a crowd that is just thrilled to be there and obviously feeling very lucky to be part of a presidential visit. They also know that it is due to the President's efforts, and the efforts of Congressional leaders in resolving the budget last night, that the Lincoln Memorial is open for business today.



For more pictures, check out the Obama diary website.

Last week I happened to visit the Nixon library in Yorba Linda, after reading about how they updated the Watergate exhibit to reflect a more balanced view of a truly divisive time. That was probably why, when I saw the pictures today of Obama's triumphant visit to the Lincoln Memorial, I was reminded of the strange story of Nixon's pre-dawn unannounced visit to some anti-war protesters camped out at the Lincoln Memorial. In contrast to Obama, Nixon was awkward and hesitant, trying but failing to connect with these protesters. In contrast to the happy crowds at the Lincoln Memorial today, the young people back in 1970 were angry and outraged. It's good to remember that even though nowadays we still see lots of signs of suspicion and hate, they are nothing compared to the suspicions and hate that existed during the Nixon era. Here is Oliver Stone's re-creation of this bizarre event. We may live in interesting times today, but not nearly as scary as some of the times we have lived through in the past.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Government Open for Business!



Nobody is going to be thrilled about this deal. Personally, I think it's a mistake to cut federal spending so much while we're still trying to recover from a recession. If we're worried about the deficit, which we probably are more worried about than we should be right now, my preferred solution would have been to hike some taxes on people who can afford it, rather than cut services for people who can't. But other people are going to think these spending cuts are much too small. Still others, on both the left and right, would just as soon have seen the government shut down to make whatever point they would like to make. What we all have to realize is that this is not about our personal policy preferences. This is about dealing with a situation where at least two competing visions for this year's budget are pulling in completely opposite directions, and neither side has the power to impose its view on the other. This is about trying to reconcile competing ideas--the idea government is a force for good vs. the idea that government is a force for evil--that are completely irreconcilable.

A lot of people are going to complain about the style of leadership of someone who calmly brings such diametrically opposed parties into a room and just keeps working on them until they make an agreement, an agreement that most people won't like much, and who does this just so he can stand up and say that we succeeded in keeping the doors of the government open. It is still going to take more time for people to appreciate that kind of performance. Grandstanding and confrontation might make people feel better for the time being, but they don't usually get the job done.

I'm sure there will be plenty of second guessing. Some of this post-game analysis of the parties' negotiating strategies could actually be interesting: did the Democrats agree too quickly to the Republicans' numbers, thus inviting the Republicans to come back with even bigger demands? Did the Republicans fall into a trap when people started to realize that the sticking points were not primarily budget issues, but rather were all about women's health? Should the president have been more of a cheerleader for the Democrats' positions, rather than try to be a mediator? The fact is that no one can say that different negotiating strategies or a more confrontational leadership style would have achieved a better deal. That might have only resulted in no deal at all. Instead, we have to learn to live with a president who just insists on getting the job done. And as a result of that, instead of the horrible government shut-downs we experienced in the 1990's, this time the doors will stay open, the crisis is averted, and we maybe end up with a bit more hope that we can keep moving forward without always trying to destroy those who disagree with us.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Brinksmanship

Also posted on my mediation blog:
Watching the ongoing negotiations over a budget deal needed to avert a government shut-down, which are approaching the eleventh hour tonight, once again we see a pattern that is common in labor negotiations and many other kinds of negotiations in which parties are forced to stay up all night, and the outcome remains in doubt up until the deadline or even beyond the deadline. It's not just procrastination that creates this dynamic.  In the budget negotiations, there are some serious substantive issues at stake, and the ultimate shape of the deal does make a real difference in people's lives. But in terms of large issues such as the size of this year's deficit, the difference between the two sides is tiny, and the outline of the ultimate deal is already pretty well known to the parties. So why is it so difficult to close?

What seems to matter more than the substantive issues are more fundamental issues of political power, and public perception. When this episode is over, who will the public think has won? If the parties fail to reach agreement, who will people blame? Republicans who remember history know that the last time they forced a shut-down of the government, when Newt Gingrich was Speaker, the public mostly blamed the Republicans. This time, however, their Speaker has kept a low enough profile, and enough members of the public are worried that the government is not doing enough to control spending, that Democrats might wonder whether people are going to blame them. (Rachel Maddow had a funny segment on tonight where people on the street were asked to identify the Speaker of the House. Most could not.)

For members of Congress who will have to vote on it, the issue ultimately boils down to whether they really want a deal or not. Will they feel better with a negotiated outcome that does not fully satisfy either side's interests, or would they really rather force a government shut-down to prove that they would prefer to allow a disaster to happen rather than compromise their principles? Neither choice appears to be a good one, and people's principles don't always tell them how to choose between two bad alternatives, neither of which satisfies their principles. The most decisive consideration for many Congressmen may be how their vote will affect their ability to get re-elected next year.

In both private and public negotiations, parties often face a moment where the shape of the deal becomes known, and the only question they have to decide is whether the deal on the table is better than no deal at all. That can be an excruciatingly difficult decision to make, and people don't generally make that decision until they have to.  Often late at night.

(Reuters photo from The Atlantic)

Monday, April 4, 2011

2012 Campaign Starts Today!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

First Amendment Refresher

Why is it that many conservatives, who profess to love the Constitution so much, seem to need schooling in some of its most basic provisions? First there was House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, who demonstrated his lack of familiarity with the provisions of Article I, section 7, dealing with how a bill becomes a law.

Then there is Pastor Terry Jones, who probably believed he was well within his First Amendment rights by burning a Koran, which provoked violent protests in Afghanistan, including the killing of more than twenty people. Technically, Jones might be right. The First Amendment does protect all kinds of provocative speech, and unless Pastor Jones was directly inciting his listeners to imminent violence, he was entitled to make whatever hateful comments he chose to make, including the symbolic speech of Koran-burning. But Pastor Jones was ignoring two other important aspects of the First Amendment, and for that reason his own speech must be condemned as profoundly un-American.

First, he ignores the fact that Muslims have the same free speech rights as he does. If he wants to condemn their teachings or disagree with them, he has the right to do that, but if he wants to be seen as a patriotic American, he also needs to defend Muslims' First Amendment right to publish their own teachings. What that means is that burning books of any sort is absolutely contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment. The philosophy behind the First Amendment holds that the remedy for speech you don't like is more speech, not censorship.

Second, he ignores those clauses of the First Amendment dealing directly with religion, those prohibiting government establishment of religion, and protecting the free exercise of religion. In our Constitution, contrary to the claims of many so-called Christians, no religion is held up above any other, and religious tolerance is mandated. What that means is that, again, it is absolutely contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment to condemn any religion in blanket terms. Certainly that doesn't prohibit a vigorous theological debate. And it doesn't even preclude anyone from condemning particular religious practices. If a particular religious cult practiced human sacrifice, for example, that would be illegal, notwithstanding the free exercise clause. If Pastor Jones wants to tell his congregation that he believes any particular tenets of Islam are abhorrent to him, he is free to do so. But condemning an entire religion practiced by hundreds of millions of people in many different ways, by burning its most sacred text is not showing the kind of religious tolerance that the First Amendment would seem to encourage.

Pastor Jones says that we should reserve our outrage and condemnation for the people who committed horrific violent acts in Afghanistan this week, and that these acts only prove his claim about the violent nature of Islamic teachings. And he's right that we should condemn those who committed those acts, and bring them to justice. That does not excuse Pastor Jones, however, from trampling not only on the sacred texts of Muslims, but also on the sacred text of our nation. The violent reaction in Afghanistan only proves his own stupidity and stubbornness.