Sunday, July 31, 2011

Analyzing the Deal

We're starting to hear outrage from both the left and the right in response to the debt ceiling deal that leaders of both parties have made tonight.  We're being assured by the usual gang of pundits that this outrage from the most partisan members on both sides demonstrates that the deal is probably fair. It reminds me of something that a lot of mediators like to say, which is that if both parties are unhappy with a proposed settlement, that probably means that it is fair.

I do a lot of mediations professionally myself, and I never like to tell people that. Why would I want people to leave unhappy?  I prefer to try to persuade parties to a conflict that they should feel good about the settlement they are making. They should get a good night's sleep and feel that a weight has been lifted from their shoulders, and that it is good to put a dispute behind them. One way to persuade people that they are doing something beneficial for themselves by resolving a litigated dispute is to get them to understand that they should not compare the deal on the table with the deal that they wanted or believe they deserve.  The only thing people should be comparing a deal to is the alternative of no deal. What that means in the private dispute resolution context is that you have to compare the offer being made by the other side, with the alternative of proceeding with a costly and risky lawsuit. You should not compare the offer being made by the other side with what you believe you are entitled to in some ideal system of justice.

In evaluating the debt ceiling deal, you have to compare the deal on the table, not with what either side wanted to achieve in these negotiations--for Republicans bigger spending cuts and a balanced budget amendment, for Democrats some increase in revenues. You have to compare this deal with the alternative of no deal. Here's what no deal would mean: The Treasury runs out of cash on Wednesday, and then the President has to decide whether to ignore Congress and unilaterally order the Treasury to borrow more money anyway. And that probably causes a constitutional crisis as well as an economic crisis.  Alternatively, the President and the Secretary of the Treasury have to decide to stop issuing checks to a lot of government contractors, federal employees, veterans, seniors, people on disability, and a lot of other people who depend on government checks to live. There are only a small number of Congressmen who actually want to play out either one of those scenarios.

Let's compare that to the deal. The deal prevents a default, and commits Congress to enact some substantial spending cuts and possibly some revenue increases, most of which won't kick in for quite some time, maybe five or ten years from now.

Which means that, even if you don't like the plan for handling these deficit issues in the future, right now this deal is still way better than no deal. Which means that everyone should be happy.

As for President Obama, he was somewhat thwarted in his goal of getting the parties to make some tough decisions about these priorities right now.  Some of those decisions are being put off until later in the year. But he seems to have achieved his main goal of taking this debt ceiling issue off the table until after the 2012 election. And that means we can have a real debate in next year's election about taxing and spending priorities, and that ultimately it will be up to the American people to elect the kind of Congress they want to achieve the taxing and spending priorities that they want.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Keep the calls and messages coming.

This has to be the most Capra-esque moment in the Obama presidency so far. He has basically given up on negotiating a solution directly with opposition leaders, who basically walked out on the negotiations. So he is going right over their heads to the American people asking them to flood their representatives' e-mail inboxes asking for help in getting this ridiculous debt ceiling debacle resolved. And now the president just launched a Twitter campaign (#compromise). So techy!



If this latest strategy works, it could mark only the beginning of a new kind of people power here in America.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Send a message

I know I said last night I was sick of writing about this topic, but for some reason I feel obligated to post President Obama's address on the debt ceiling negotiations.



At the end of this talk, the president states:
The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government.  So I’m asking you all to make your voice heard.  If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know.  If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message.
I'm hearing that the e-mail servers at the Capitol are crashing. Are they getting the message?

On the issue of what measures the public supports to reduce the budget deficit, here are some interesting recent poll results from the Washington Post/ABC:


 In order to reduce the national debt, would you support or oppose [ITEM]? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?



                                   ------ Support ------   ------- Oppose -----    No
                                   NET   Strngly   Smwht   NET   Smwht   Strngly   op.
a. Cutting spending on Medicaid,   
which is the government health 
insurance program for the poor     26      11       16     72     18       54       2

b. Cutting military spending       43      23       20     56     17       39       2

c. Raising taxes on Americans 
with incomes over 250-thousand 
dollars a year                     72      55       17     27     10       17       1

d. Gradually raising the 
eligibility age for Medicare 
from 65 to 67                      46      25       21     54    12        42       1

e. Changing the way Social 
Security benefits are calculated 
so that benefits increase at a 
slower rate than they do now       42     18        24     53    14        38       5

f. Raising taxes on oil and gas 
companies                          59     42        17     39     9        31       2

g. Raising Medicare premiums 
for wealthier retirees             61      31       30     36    15        21       3

h. Increasing the amount of 
Social Security tax paid by 
people with incomes over 107-
thousand dollars a year            66      36       30     33    16        16       1      

i. Raising taxes on people who 
manage financial investments 
known as hedge funds               64      37       27     25     16         9     11
 
 
SUMMARY: 
Basically everything the Republicans are suggesting, the public is against. 
 
 

Just raise it already.

I'm fairly tired of talking about the debt ceiling negotiations. I realized today that I've already written about eight blog posts on this topic. Enough is enough. Even though this debate has reached a level of complexity that is unprecedented in my lifetime, and even though the political dynamics of this stalemate are fairly interesting, those of us who enjoy this stuff have said about all there is to say on this subject. At the end of the day, all it is is the debt ceiling. We raise it all the time, and we have to do it again right now. Time's up. So it is time to say, enough! Just raise the debt ceiling. Just raise it. Right now. Tomorrow. I'm talking to you, Congress. It's simple to do, so do it. It's past time to raise the debt ceiling. I'm serious.

Raise it. Congress has no choice but to do it, so just do it already. Tack on whatever agreement you want to make about future spending cuts or revenue increases--it's not like you're going to stick to whatever plan you make anyway--just raise the stupid debt ceiling. Was it really necessary to make the president lecture the American people about the debt ceiling? Why? People have better things to think about.

Why don't you quit fooling around and raise the debt ceiling? Nobody has found a way to avoid borrowing more money this year, so just raise the debt ceiling. We already incurred these obligations. We have to pay them. We don't want to shut down the government; we don't want to raise taxes this year; we don't want to default; we don't want markets to crash and interest rates to rise. So just go ahead and raise the debt ceiling.

Enough games. Enough grandstanding. Have you noticed that people are impatient with you? Have you noticed that every day the public's opinion of Congress goes down another notch? You guys are not doing yourselves any favors. You have to raise the debt ceiling, so just go ahead and do it. Everybody has had their fun with this issue. Now it is time to just raise the debt ceiling. There are only a few members of Congress who say we don't have to do this. Let's get real here. I'm sorry, but anybody who says we don't need to raise the debt ceiling right now just doesn't know what they're talking about. End of story. Nobody has to listen to those crackpots. They don't deserve any more time on the news. Tell them to shut up, and just raise the debt ceiling. It's time.

Congress raised the debt ceiling for Bush. More than once. More than more than once. You raised it for Clinton. You raised it for the first Bush. You raised it for Reagan. Don't make me ask uncomfortable questions about why you won't do it for Obama. Just give him the same courtesy that every other president has gotten. No more, no less. Raise it. 

Raise the debt ceiling. I'm sick of asking. I'm tired of talking about it. Congress, can you hear me? Aren't you tired yet of hearing me tell you this? Raise it. Raise it now. Just go ahead and raise it. Don't even talk about it any more. Nobody wants to hear any more excuses. Just raise the debt ceiling, and let's get on with other business. Nobody is going to score any more points with this issue. Everyone has made their point already. So raise the debt ceiling. Raise it. I said raise it. Raise it and go the fuck to sleep. Don't make me shout. RAISE IT NOW! Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Don't make me repeat it. Just raise it. Raise it. Raise it. Raise it I said. Raise it already and get it over with.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dialogue

One of the reports I was reading about the Norway shooting incident this weekend mentioned the difficulties police have in trying to prevent such violent incidents. In the past, it might have been easier to infiltrate and keep tabs on hate groups because they used more traditional means of organizing themselves. Now that such people congregate primarily on the internet, it may be more difficult to penetrate their activities and predict when they will become violent. This suspect in particular was sending out somewhat ambiguous signals, which might not have provided sufficient clues to allow law enforcement to act.

One problem with modern forms of communication is that they encourage people to interact mainly with like-minded individuals, and to filter out views that differ from their own. We see this tendency on cable news, and on websites that cater to particular political viewpoints. We see it on both the left and the right and in between. People prefer to listen to viewpoints they already agree with, and they often try to exclude those who disagree with them from the conversation. When there is dialogue, it tends to consist of confrontational rhetoric that does nothing to encourage people to listen to and try to understand opposing points of view.

What is needed is to create more safe spaces where people are obliged to consider opposing points of view in a respectful way. That is the only way people can learn to communicate with one another without feeling the urge to silence those whose viewpoints differ from their own.

In a previous post I offered some rules for conducting such a civil dialogue.  My suggestions include refraining from name-calling, from questioning other people's motives, from exaggerating, from misrepresenting, and from blaming.

On this website, even though my posts maintain a definite point of view, I have attempted, in my own modest way, to create a safe space for people of differing viewpoints to disagree and argue with one another, and I appreciate comments from people of all political stripes, especially the ones who disagree with me, so long as they are willing to engage in a civil conversation.

Obviously, there are some points of view that are difficult to include in a civil dialogue. If somebody thinks we need to round up and expel or kill all the Muslims, or all the Jews, or all the blacks, that viewpoint is impossible to accommodate. But we can still have a reasonable debate about immigration policy, or religious tolerance, or education, that includes concerns about national identity and culture, without allowing for extreme solutions that would deny the legitimate rights of others. The haters need to be included in that dialogue, so they feel they have an alternative to congregating only among themselves, and plotting violence. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hate and Fear in Norway

Does it seem that whenever we encounter examples of right wing terrorism--whether it's the Oklahoma City bombing or this weeks' horrific massacre in Norway--that the media is more apt to dismiss such actions as the product of a lone deranged actor? In this case, it was interesting to watch the initial reaction from conservative sources turn from outrage--when they assumed the killer was a Muslim jihadist, to a much more subdued reaction--once it was learned that the suspect is a right wing Christian fundamentalist.

What still seems to be getting glossed over in the coverage, however, is the clear political motivation of the attack. This summer camp in Norway that was the scene of a brutal massacre on Friday was not just any camp. This was not just a random act of violence by an unbalanced individual. Well, unbalanced he may be, but random, no way.  The camp he chose to attack was a camp for politically active youth who are followers, and future leaders, of the ruling Labor Party. It would be as if someone attacked a group of Democratic interns in Washington, or any other gathering of politically committed young people. From all indications, the killer deliberately chose this camp, which met at this particular time, because it suited his goal of striking out at multi-culturalism. In other words, his targets were the ideas of tolerance, liberalism, and diversity.

Here's a quote that jumped out at me from one of the campers: "We don't deserve to die. We're just normal youth. We participate in politics. We want to make the world a better place. I missed the part where WE became the bad guys."  (LA Times)

To dismiss this kind of horrific violence, which was deliberately aimed at the most idealistic and politically committed of young people, as simply the work of a deranged lunatic is to some extent to excuse it. We should not excuse it. We should try to understand where this kind of hatred comes from, and we should condemn every form of it, before it rises to the level of massacre.


Friday, July 22, 2011

The Usefulness of Anger

It pains me sometimes to read comments by angry former Obama supporters who now see every action by the president as a personal betrayal. These people have turned to full-on hysterical panic mode lately as the president has proceeded to offer the Republicans one after another of the Democrats' sacred cows in an effort to make a grand bargain in the debt ceiling negotiations. You want cuts in Medicare? No problem. Social Security? I'll talk to my people about it. Big cuts in discretionary spending? We'll meet you more than half way. All you have to do, House Republicans, is agree to just a few teensy-weensy little revenue enhancements. If you want, we won't even call them taxes. We'll even limit them to the easiest to swallow bits of revenue. Change the depreciation schedule for corporate jets. Eliminate subsidies for oil and gas companies. Easy stuff like that.

Oh my God, the professional left starts screaming. This guy is the worst negotiator ever! Either that or he doesn't care about the progressive agenda at all. Or he's just as much a tool of the fat cats as the Republicans. Does he think we'll lift a finger to help him get re-elected next year? Maybe it's time to form a third party! These complainers seem to take everything at face value and never understood the high stakes poker game the president has been playing.

Tonight I've been interested to read over on that orange site that some of these distrusting or outraged fair weather supporters on the left are starting to understand the president's game. The brilliance of the president's strategy in these debt ceiling negotiations was made apparent when John Boehner was forced to walk away from the table, while the president is using the bully pulpit to the utmost to make the Republicans look like fools. At his press conference today (video below), President Obama made clear just how far he was willing to go to make a deal, while revealing that the Republicans are not willing to consider even a tiny amount of sacrifice by the wealthy and the most successful to help solve the deficit problem they profess to be interested in solving.

Now it has become clear that these screamers from the left were just playing the role that the president expected and needed them to play. The more these people helped prove that President Obama was facing tremendous heat from his base for his willingness to make cuts to favored Democratic programs, the more his hand was strengthened. That is because he showed the American people that he was willing to go the extra mile, but that the Republicans were not willing to raise one penny of revenue to help reduce the deficit. They would rather protect tax breaks for corporate jets than do anything to help ordinary people. The president has fully exposed the Republicans in Congress as caring more about the interests of the most privileged among us, than about any of the issues they claim to care about.

So thank you, all you crazy outraged progressives. You made the president look great tonight. 

No deal

Speaker Boehner walks away from the debt ceiling negotiations, and President Obama lays his cards on the table:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Obama the Overachiever

Frank Newport, the editor in chief of Gallup polls, expressed surprise that President Obama's approval ratings remain relatively high in comparison to what the pollsters would have expected given the state of the economy, and people's relatively pessimistic assessment of the way things are going in general. According to this report in the Christian Science Monitor, "'Looking at history, particularly Clinton and Reagan, it is somewhat surprising that [Obama] has never yet fallen into the 30 percent range in our approval rating,' Newport said. 'And yet both Reagan and Clinton, in their first terms when the economy was perceived as bad ... both fell into the 30s.'" Newport said they will be conducting some additional research to determine why this is so.

Here's part of the explanation from the Smartypants blog:
Perhaps some of us in the pragmatic progressive blogosphere could help you with that Frank. Could it be that a lot of people recognize that we have an over-performing President and an under-performing Congress? Could it be that some folks see who is "the only adult in the room?" Could it be because the opposition party that finally gained control of the House hasn't passed one jobs bill since getting elected - while the President goes all over the country doing everything he can alone on that front? Could it be that the "party of no" strategy combined with a willingness to take the entire global economy hostage in order to protect tax cuts for the wealthy does not fare very well up against a President who is willing to compromise with a balanced approach? Could it be that Americans are aware that this President walked into the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression and has worked tirelessly to do everything he can to reverse that - while the opposition has only one goal: make him a one-termer.

In other words, could it be that the American public still has an ounce of sense left?
Pollsters and pundits also have to contend with a media narrative that always portrays President Obama as struggling or under siege. They fail to report the gigantic reserve of good will the public still has for the president, carried over from the 2008 campaign. We saw a superstar candidate carried into office by enormous rallies the likes of which have not been seen in modern history. Yet the media constantly portrayed the Obama campaign as in trouble or improbable. We see a president who still exudes confidence and a positive outlook. Yet this media narrative has continued over the past two-and-a-half years, reporting every administration success as surprising, and every difficulty as overwhelming. Recent media reports have emphasized that if President Obama doesn't manage to turn the economy around, or at least the the public's perception of it, prior to the 2012 election, his chances are in doubt.

I like to check the Gallup polling charts once in a while, and particularly to compare President Obama's popularity ratings to those of President Reagan. In contrast to Obama, the media narrative on Reagan always presented him as popular, perhaps because of his actor's charm and generally positive nature. In fact, however, Gallup poll numbers show that Obama's popularity has consistently stayed ABOVE Reagan's for the vast majority of their first two-and-a-half years in office. Both presidents were dealing with difficult economies during these periods, but I think most people would agree that today's situation is worse than the early 1980's. Despite a worse economy, Obama is still MORE popular than Reagan.What people like Frank Newport need to do is learn to put aside the prevailing media spin. Start thinking of Reagan as the struggling president, and Obama as the popular president, rather than the other way around, and these polling numbers might seem less surprising.

Maybe the pollsters and the media need to take a longer view of history as well. Instead of comparing President Obama's situation to that of Reagan or Clinton, perhaps they should take a look at President Roosevelt. We are dealing today with the aftermath of a recession that is more severe than anything seen since the 1930's. Granted that the 1930's were much worse, it is still useful to look at the enormous reservoir of good will that President Roosevelt tapped into during that period. Nobody expected him to turn the bad economy around by 1936, or even by 1940, and Roosevelt was overwhelmingly re-elected both times, despite a continuing bad economy, and a looming world war. Like Roosevelt, President Obama remains the most popular politician in the country. The media and the pollsters need to get over the idea that he is in trouble, and start understanding that he retains the confidence of the people.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

"You don't get 100% . . . "

Over on the White House website, David Plouffe posted this video of President Obama speaking to a group of college students a few months ago. Maybe it was intended as a kind of a remedial lesson for some members of Congress who seem to be under the impression that they should be allowed to get 100% of what they want. Maybe it's a rebuke to some of the president's fair weather supporters who criticize him whenever they do not get 100% of what they want. These college kids seem to get the point. Why is the lesson so hard for many of the rest of us?




While you're visiting the White House blog, check out the video of Ruby Bridges viewing the Norman Rockwell painting now hanging in the White House, showing little Ruby on her way to integrating a New Orleans elementary school in 1960. Very moving. It's so interesting that we have a black president who is too young to remember the earlier part of the Civil Rights movement, and who also--having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia--lived somewhat outside of its range. Yet he is steeped in this history, and he made sure to tell Ruby Bridges that he might not be sitting in the White House without her help.



When we are caught up in the crisis of the moment, it seems helpful to put things into perspective, and reflect on subjects like the nature of politics, our somewhat unique system of government, the Emancipation Proclamation, the way media reports the story, and the Civil Rights movement. It's somewhat mind-boggling to realize that the president is in fact thinking about all of that while he is dealing with the particular problem we need to solve this month.

Fewer roads, less traffic

Almost a full day early, Metro Los Angeles re-opened the 405 freeway, after a much-hyped weekend closure for the purpose of demolishing part of the Mulholland Drive Bridge.  Though predictions of disaster have been trumpeted through the media for weeks, the whole thing all turned out to be a non-event. And that should be the real story. Because we proved this weekend, in this most car-dependent of cities, that we don't really need so many cars, and we don't need so many freeways. What we need is to drive less. This weekend we made a collective decision to drive less. And guess what? The result was a much more pleasant weekend for everyone. Those who needed to get somewhere by car could do so with even less traffic than usual. The rest of us found excuses to stay closer to home. We enjoyed cleaner air, and avoided the stresses of being stuck in traffic.

Many years ago, Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, about how the closure of a thoroughfare through Washington Square Park failed to generate additional traffic in the surrounding streets.  It seemed that the traffic that used to use that route just vanished. I wrote a post last year about  similar results from freeway closures in other cities such as Milwaukee. The same thing happened this weekend in Los Angeles. We closed a ten mile stretch of a major freeway that usually carries a half-million vehicles during a typical weekend. Everyone predicted that all those vehicles would choose alternative routes, thus choking canyon roads and other freeways. Instead, all that traffic simply failed to materialize.

My preoccupation with this topic probably results from living most of my life in major cities. That has forced me to be a student and a victim of (and contributor to) traffic. I also think that the issues of improved urban living, transportation, and the environment are important political issues. It's amazing how many of those issues  can be addressed by figuring out how to get people to drive less. Figuring that out also presents an opportunity for promoting bi-partisan and post-partisan solutions to these problems. The problem of traffic in particular is one that should cross ideological lines. I've never met anyone, liberal or conservative, who enjoys traffic, or who thinks we should have more of it.

Conservatives who rail against big government, and want to increase the scope of the private sector, should applaud all efforts to reduce the amount of acreage we turn over to public streets and freeways. If we narrow the roads, we reduce the size of government, and we also increase the sphere of private development. Conservatives should also be interested in market-based solutions, such as the increased use of toll roads, to alleviate traffic, and compel users to pay the cost of their use of public facilities. 

Liberals, who are generally more concerned about environmentalism, and who are also in favor of improving public facilities including public transportation, should also favor reducing the space we turn over to automobiles.  That might also enable us to devote more of the government's budget to trains and buses. Liberals might favor increased gas taxes and parking taxes to collect what the public is due from private use of so much space.

One thing we all need to get over is the notion that the way to reduce traffic is to keep building more roads and freeways. Every time we try that, we find out that we just encourage more people to drive. It's time to move in a different direction.

(LA Times photo)


Friday, July 15, 2011

Hope and Change in Libya

As of today, the Qaddafi regime is no longer recognized by the United States and more than 30 other nations as the legitimate government of Libya. This potentially frees up billions of dollars of Libyan assets for use by the Transitional National Council, which is now the officially internationally recognized government of Libya. That means we should stop calling them the rebels. Now we should start referring to Qaddafi's discredited government as the rebels. or perhaps as the pretend government. It's interesting that while the media and the American public are so focused on the ongoing budget showdown going on in Washington, the really interesting and perhaps more important story going on behind the scenes has involved the administration's diplomatic dialogue particularly with Russia, but also other nations, paving the way for today's announcement in Turkey.

Nobody needs to point out that we still have work to do to get Qaddafi to recognize reality and leave, but clearly his days are numbered. Perhaps we can say the same about the illegitimate governing regime in Syria. It might be useful to do a tally of the number of dictators that have been removed since President Obama has taken office, and the cost of such dictator removal, as compared to the record of the previous administration. The Obama administration has shown that it doesn't necessarily take a massive invasion and occupation to accomplish the purpose. It takes a popular movement, encouragement by the international community, and sometimes some significant outside military assistance.

(Reuters photo from New York Times)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What government spending means



This interview from yesterday shows another master stroke in the president's ongoing negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. Scott Pelley asks President Obama for reassurance that if the parties can't make a deal, people will still get their Social Security checks. Not only does the president refuse to provide that reassurance, he reminds us that it's not just Social Security checks. It's also veterans' checks, disability checks, in all about 70 million checks that are due to go out on August 3 that might not go out.

Whoa there! This is serious. It's all very well and good to talk about reducing government spending. Nobody likes government spending. We think of government spending as money that goes to support all those bureaucrats and wasteful programs that don't do anyone any good. We're not talking about money that goes out to actual Americans. Can't we cut spending enough to eliminate the deficit and still give everyone their Social Security check or their disability check or their Medicare reimbursement? The answer is no.

I have a modest proposal. Nobody should be allowed to talk about reducing government spending without specifying what spending they want to reduce. Government spending is not some kind of bogeyman that we can use to mean whatever it is that people are afraid of. Because the truth is that we don't agree on what kind of spending we think is bad. One person might think that Medicare spending is a waste, while another will defend Medicare to the death. One person thinks there is a lot of waste in the Pentagon, while another thinks we need to spend more to support our troops. If there were a rule that no politician were allowed to talk about reducing spending without telling us what spending he wants to reduce, we could have a lot more honest debate about the budget. President Obama is helping make the debate more honest by reminding us that government spending is actually something that all of us want, at least when it takes the form of a benefit that we receive.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

None of the Above

Senator McConnell today outlined the terms of a possible Republican surrender in the debt ceiling negotiations: "[I]n my view, the president has presented us with three choices: smoke and mirrors, tax hikes, or default. Republicans choose none of the above." None of the above essentially means that Congress will raise the debt ceiling without any agreement at all on deficit reduction. Under McConnell's plan, however, Congress would disguise its decision by disapproving of a resolution to raise the debt ceiling, which the president would then veto.

What this means is that the president has successfully called the Republicans' bluff about insisting on massive reductions in the deficit, and in government spending, in upcoming years, in return for raising the debt ceiling. The Republicans can't even identify the cuts they claimed they wanted. And their supposed concern about the deficit melted away when they were forced to consider possible revenue hikes as part of a deficit reduction plan. Republicans proved that there are some things they care about more than deficit reduction, and more than big spending cuts. They care so much about preserving every possible tax break for the wealthiest individuals and the most heavily-subsidized corporations, that they are willing to throw deficit reduction and government spending cuts out the window.

I'm happy to celebrate what is starting to look like a major victory for the administration, and to praise the president's superior negotiating skills. All the same, it is a genuine shame that we may have lost an opportunity to craft a bi-partisan agreement that would have gone a long way toward restoring Americans'--and the world's--trust that our government is capable to working together effectively to make lasting change. It is a shame that the budget process has become overly politicized. It is a shame that partisans on both the left and the right are so quick to view any sign of compromise as a betrayal. From my biased point of view, it appears that the Republicans have become a lot less willing to compromise than Democrats: they simply cannot conceive of any discussion of anything that looks like a tax increase, whereas Democrats have been willing to discuss all kinds of cuts to cherished programs. I will acknowledge, however, that there are partisans on the left who are ready to desert the cause at any hint that adjustments might have to be made to Medicare or Social Security, just as there are partisans on the right who have made it impossible for most Republican legislators to consider tax increases without fear of losing their seats. Any deal that included both tax increases and significant spending cuts would have been met with howls of protest from both left and right.

It's too bad we can't just settle down and remember, hey, it's just the budget we're talking about. It's not war or peace; it's not all a matter of principle. I understand that there are a lot of things in there that people feel strongly about, but at the end of the day, it's just a bunch of numbers. We've got so much revenue coming in, we've got so much we want or need to spend. All we need to figure out is what size deficit we can afford or need to run, and how much we need to adjust spending and revenue to meet our goals. In a democracy, everyone's position on these issues should be respected, and everyone needs to give a little of their goals to accommodate the legitimate views of others. Nobody gets everything they want, and anyone who expects that they should get everything they want is not being respectful of our democratic system, particularly as it is forced to operate under a divided government. Obviously what I am suggesting is much too radical a concept to consider, but we can always dream.

(photo from RollCall)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Give Peas a Chance.

At his news conference this morning, while urging Congressional leaders to seize the opportunity to make a grand bargain on taxes and spending that would reduce the federal deficit for years to come, President Obama told Americans that now is the time to eat our peas. Americans do not want to hear that. Americans do not like peas. We don't like broccoli much either. The last president who told us to eat our peas was Jimmy Carter, and look what happened to him. Americans would rather hear our leaders tell us that now is the time to have our cake and eat it too. We like cake. With a nice super-size Coke. OK, maybe we'll settle for a diet Coke to wash down our cake. But peas? Forget it.

One of the reporters reminded the president that the vast majority of Americans believe we should not raise the debt ceiling. That's right, Americans do not want to raise the debt ceiling. We believe we already have enough debt, and the government should live within its means. But we should not cut Medicare. That would be bad. And we should not cut defense spending either. We support our troops! We should cut waste, that's what we should cut. And fraud and abuse also. We are strongly in favor of cutting fraud and abuse. And maybe foreign aid.

We also want the government to cut taxes. And gas prices. We want lower gas prices. And we want the government to do something about high unemployment. But they have to do it without spending any money, because we don't want the government to spend money. So what should they do? We don't know, but they should do something. Maybe cut taxes some more. But don't add to the deficit, remember. We don't like the deficit.

Truly, Americans cannot understand what is so hard about getting a deficit deal done. Why do these Congressional leaders have to keep traipsing over to the White House for all these meetings? What is wrong with these Congressmen? Americans really don't like Congress. We don't like John Boehner and we don't like Nancy Pelosi much either. Why can't they just follow our clear instructions and get the job done? Cut some more taxes. And cut spending. But don't cut any programs that Americans like. And don't add to the deficit. And while you're at it, create more jobs. And stop all this talk about eating our peas. What do peas have to do with any of this?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Carmageddon!

They're closing a 10 mile stretch of the 405 freeway for construction this coming weekend, and everyone in LA is freaking out. The elaborate preparations and dire warnings for this event make it sound like some kind of natural disaster. Here is one humorous look at the situation:



The people who are already in a state of panic about this planned freeway closure are missing something. The fact is that every day in LA is already carmageddon. The worst feature of this city is that it is constantly choked with cars. Try to cross a normal street in this city and you may be taking your life in your hands. Turn on your radio in the morning and the traffic reports sound like war correspondents reporting from the front. Get on the freeway during rush hour--forget rush hour, get on the freeway pretty much anytime--and you can expect massive delays to appear at any moment. The 405 is already a parking lot most of the time. We need a break!

Instead of dreading the closure of a major freeway, we should be looking forward to it. We should be planning picnics, hikes and bike rides on the 405. We should be thinking about closing, or at least covering up, some of our freeways on a permanent basis, as I discussed in a previous post.

Instead of planning ways of speeding the traffic around all of the alternate routes, we should probably close some of them down also. If it were up to me, I'd love to try banning all driving within the city (with a few exceptions such as buses, taxis and emergency vehicles) for the entire weekend.

Imagine what it would be like to walk or ride a bike into town without having to dodge all the traffic. Imagine the quiet. Imagine breathing clean air and seeing the mountains around us without the haze of smog. If we abandon our cars entirely for the weekend, we could experience something better than our usual car-jammed city.


As long as I'm on the subject of widening the 405, does anyone think that completion of this billion dollar project is actually going to reduce traffic? Experience should tell us that it is far more likely that widening the road will just encourage more drivers to use it. Traffic will still be a nightmare. If we want to reduce traffic, what we need to do is REDUCE the number of cars on the road. You don't do that by widening the road. Widening the road might ease traffic flow for a while, but it is never going to reduce the number of cars on the road, and might even increase them, which makes the whole exercise self-defeating.  If you want to reduce the number of cars on the road, what you have to do is make it more expensive to drive (e.g., tolls, gas taxes, higher parking fees, and congestion itself), and create more and better alternatives to driving (e.g., public transportation, bike lanes, denser development). Perhaps this freeway widening project will help us all learn that lesson.


(photo from autoblog)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Hope and Change in Sudan

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary

Statement of President Barack Obama 

Recognition of the Republic of South Sudan


I am proud to declare that the United States formally recognizes the Republic of South Sudan as a sovereign and independent state upon this day, July 9, 2011.  After so much struggle by the people of South Sudan, the United States of America welcomes the birth of a new nation.

Today is a reminder that after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible. A proud flag flies over Juba and the map of the world has been redrawn. These symbols speak to the blood that has been spilled, the tears that have been shed, the ballots that have been cast, and the hopes that have been realized by so many millions of people. The eyes of the world are on the Republic of South Sudan. And we know that southern Sudanese have claimed their sovereignty, and shown that neither their dignity nor their dream of self-determination can be denied.

This historic achievement is a tribute, above all, to the generations of southern Sudanese who struggled for this day. It is also a tribute to the support that has been shown for Sudan and South Sudan by so many friends and partners around the world. Sudan’s African neighbors and the African Union played an essential part in making this day a reality.  And along with our many international and civil society partners, the United States has been proud to play a leadership role across two Administrations. Many Americans have been deeply moved by the aspirations of the Sudanese people, and support for South Sudan extends across different races, regions, and political persuasions in the United States.  I am confident that the bonds of friendship between South Sudan and the United States will only deepen in the years to come.  As Southern Sudanese undertake the hard work of building their new country, the United States pledges our partnership as they seek the security, development and responsive governance that can fulfill their aspirations and respect their human rights.

As today also marks the creation of two new neighbors, South Sudan and Sudan, both peoples must recognize that they will be more secure and prosperous if they move beyond a bitter past and resolve differences peacefully. Lasting peace will only be realized if all sides fulfill their responsibilities.  The Comprehensive Peace Agreement must be fully implemented, the status of Abyei must be resolved through negotiations, and violence and intimidation in Southern Kordofan, especially by the Government of Sudan, must end. The safety of all Sudanese, especially minorities, must be protected. Through courage and hard choices, this can be the beginning of a new chapter of greater peace and justice  for all of the Sudanese people.

Decades ago, Martin Luther King reflected on the first moment of independence on the African continent in Ghana, saying, “I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.” Today, we are moved by the story of struggle that led to this time of hope in South Sudan, and we think of those who didn’t live to see their dream realized.  Now, the leaders and people of South Sudan have an opportunity to turn this moment of promise into lasting progress.  The United States will continue to support the aspirations of all Sudanese.  Together, we can ensure that today marks another step forward in Africa’s long journey toward opportunity, democracy and justice.

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/07/09/statement-president-barack-obama-recognition-republic-south-sudan


Friday, July 8, 2011

57,000 - 39,000 = 18,000

Another weaker than expected jobs report issued today.  As with last month's weak figures, it's important to emphasize that job increases in the private sector (while still less than a desirable figure) are being greatly offset by continued job losses in the public sector, particularly in state and local government. For June, the private sector gained a net total of 57,000 jobs, but the public sector shed 39,000 net jobs, resulting in a jobs increase of only 18,000. When we hear Republicans in particular citing the 18,000 figure, we should keep in mind that their advocacy of cutting government spending has contributed greatly to that reduced figure. In other words, they are causing the problem they are complaining about.

Below is a chart from Matthew Yglesias showing the pattern of government job losses during the Obama administration, primarily from laying off many thousands of state and local government workers. (I believe the spike represents temporary census jobs, but the overall downward trend is clear.) The data shows that an astonishing 500,000 public sector jobs have lost in less than three years. If we were truly concerned about jobs at all levels, we would have made a concerted effort to retain these workers. Elected officials are the trustees for the largest employers in the United States. The most direct thing they can do to affect overall employment is to retain public sector employees. Instead they have initiated a concerted attack on public sector employees.





If we are primarily concerned about jobs, which is what the American public consistently reports, it seems the obvious response by the government at all levels should be to stop firing people!  Yet in response to this jobs report and other economic news, we still hear the Republican Congressional leadership, and Republican governors and state legislators, calling for even more layoffs of government employees. Let me try to explain this as plainly as I can: if you fire people you are reducing employment. You are making the jobs figures worse. If you represent the largest employer in America, you should stop laying off so many workers. When we talk about jobs, we must include the jobs of teachers and fire fighters and police officers and millions of other public sector employees. When we lay these people off, we are reducing jobs, and we are doing harm to the economy, because these people are performing valuable work and they are also using their paychecks to buy food, clothing and shelter. When they lose their jobs, they have less money to spend, and they need public assistance. 

The Republican leadership keeps saying that its top priority is jobs. What they should be saying is that they care about reducing the size of government much more than they care about jobs. They want to keep reducing the size of government even though that is greatly harming employment and the economy.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Twitter Town Hall

Herewith a sampler of some of the actual twitter questions that the president did not get a chance to answer today at the first-ever Twitter Town Hall at the White House:

If Dumbledore & Gandalf battled Voldemort & Sauron, who do you think would win and wouldn't it be awesome?

If a train leaves Boise at 3pm going east at 60mph and another leaves Cleveland at 2pm going west at 50mph, why are we in Libya?

What do you think is a better deal, 2 tacos for 99c at Jack in the Box or the 99c double cheeseburger at McDonalds?

Who he thinks he is fooling. This ideal socialist nation he is creating will be ran by stupid librals running USA into the ground.
What the fuck happened at the end of Lost?

Do you like my butt better in Wranglers or Levis?

Where have all the cowboys gone?

Does diet dr pepper REALLY taste like regular dr pepper?

Which ones are crocodiles and which ones are alligators? I can never remember.

Naturally, the most retweeted question was about legalizing marijuana, and the president did not answer that one either. Let's hope the president takes another opportunity to use this format so that he can get to all the important topics that Americans are really concerned about.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Retribution

Here's the latest in Obama-bashing from the left: Frank Rich's article in this week's New York magazine. Rich takes the president to task for the sin of failing to take stronger action against the Wall Street bankers who caused the financial crash of 2008. I guess Frank must get up in the morning and decide that it's just not worth his time to go after the people who are right now engaged in a concerted effort to destroy any chance of meaningful financial reform: namely, the legislators who are trying to water down Dodd-Frank as much as possible. Why waste time on that real, ongoing battle when you can beat up the president again for failing to pass stronger legislation?

First we have to wade through some hyperbole about how there has been absolutely "no legal, moral or financial reckoning" for the most powerful Wall Street interests whose misdeeds got us into the financial mess from which we are still trying to extricate ourselves. Curiously, in the very next paragraph, Rich lets slip that Bank of America is paying $8.5 billion (that's billion with a B) to settle investor claims arising out of that crash. I guess that doesn't count as any sort of legal reckoning. In addition to no reckoning, Rich states that there have been no "meaningful reforms" of the system to prevent another crash. I guess that means we are pronouncing the whole financial reform legislation a failure before it has even been implemented. And maybe it will be a failure if everyone takes their eye off the ball while the responsible agencies are engaged in drafting the regulations to implement it. Maybe it's just too much hard work to follow up on making sure this reform works. Maybe those big, bad lobbyists and Republican legislators are just too powerful and scary. Better to blame President Obama for not just making all those opponents of financial regulation disappear. I guess it is President Obama's fault that he did not have a powerful enough magic wand, or that he did not try hard enough to wield all of its powers.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Only in America

Here is a video of a Senators Sanders and Franken having to justify the Older Americans Act (passed in 1965) to freshman Senator Rand Paul. This Act provides services to seniors so that they can stay in their homes and avoid having to move to a nursing home. Not only does this seem like a laudable goal in and of itself, it also saves the government money, because nursing home care costs considerably more than providing such home care to seniors.



Senator Paul is so steeped in the conviction that all government programs must be wasteful and/or useless, however, that he responds that "only in Washington" can someone make the argument that spending $2 billion actually saves money. Even granting Paul his skepticism about the benefits of government programs, this seems a surprising comment to make for someone who is supposedly familiar with the business world. Because of course it's not only the government that spends money to save money. Private business does this all the time. A business spends money on new equipment when it is more efficient and more productive than maintaining the old equipment. A business spends money on providing a comfortable and safe environment for its employees, because that is cheaper than paying the costs of accidents and other employee claims that would result from an unsafe environment. A business spends money on providing service to its customers because that is cheaper than dealing with customer complaints, and helps the company sell more of its products. In fact, it is a cliche in business that you have to spend money to make money. Business people say this all the time.

I would turn Senator Paul's question around. Generally business has no difficulty justifying expenditures in the name of efficiency. Why is it that it's only the government that seems to cut programs that deal with prevention (whether we're talking about education, drugs, health, road maintenance, crime, whatever) out of concern with short term budget goals? Because we do that, as Senator Sanders points out, we spend twice as much on health care as any other country (by for example, forcing the uninsured to rely on emergency rooms for care), and put more people in prison than any other country. Only in America do we have to waste time justifying even common sense programs like providing meals to the elderly.

Happy 4th of July Weekend!

Here's what the NYPD bomb squad does with 5000 pounds of confiscated fireworks:

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Fact-Checking Mitt Romney

In a nice piece of political theatre, on Thursday Mitt Romney stood in front of the shuttered Allentown Metal Works plant, the same plant President Obama had visited the year before while trying to promote the benefits of the administration's economic stimulus plan. Said Romney: “The plant here had been open 100 years. It survived the Great Depression. It couldn’t survive the Obama economy.”

How exactly did Obama's policies cause the plant to close, one might ask. Romney doesn't say.

What exactly would Romney have done had he been president that would have allowed the plant to stay open? Romney doesn't say.

It turns out that this particular plant had been struggling financially for years. According to an article in Slate, the new owner of the plant who took over back in 2005, defaulted on some loans and now is embroiled in a lawsuit with another company that took over the plant in 2008. The last gasp of hope for this plant was the Obama stimulus program, which the owners hoped would allow an opportunity for the plant to profit from construction projects. Unfortunately, the stimulus construction spending was too small to provide any relief for this particular plant. What this means is that if Obama's policies caused the plant to fail, it was because the stimulus spending was not ambitious enough, not that the stimulus itself was a bad idea. (See some other good coverage in the Lehigh Valley Independent blog.)

But remember Romney, and all of the other Republican candidates, have been going around saying that the whole stimulus was a failure. The stimulus was opposed by practically every Republican in Congress. Since Mitt Romney never explains how the president's economic policies caused the Allentown factory to close, we have to go with the only explanation out there, which is that the closure was caused by Republican failure to agree to as large a stimulus program as the Democrats wanted. And if that isn't the explanation Mitt, then the only other thing you can possibly be saying is that every time a business fails, it must be the government's fault. Surely that can't be the message that Republicans who believe in the power and responsibility of private enterprise, want to project.