Friday, September 30, 2011

Values

My rabbi became a fellow blogger this year, I'm excited to report, so it is now possible for anyone to find his intelligent spiritual as well as social and political commentary on his site. Rabbi Rosove's Rosh Hashanah sermon yesterday was about Israel, of course, given all that is happening now in that part of the world. But it opened up broader themes than that. He talked about the difference between using a crisis model to view the world, as opposed to a values model. The crisis model, which is what we seem to adopt at times of war or stress, tends to view the world in either/or terms. You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists, in George W. Bush's formulation. In Israel, this mentality manifests itself in attempts to restrict criticism of the government's hard line approach to its relationship with the Arab world. In the US, we fell under the grip of a crisis model after 9/11, and during earlier war times and other stressful times in our history. Many of us view the world in those terms right now. And Congress at the moment certainly reflects a crisis model.

By contrast, a values model allows for dialogue among people of different views. In Israel, the value of security, for example, is entirely legitimate, and widely shared. But so is the value of social justice. And people with different views on policy questions, whether those questions concern housing policies that have sparked some recent protests, or settlement policy, or the treatment of Arabs both within Israel and the occupied territories, or the country's response to rocket attacks or to the possibility of negotiations with Palestinian Arabs, need to be able to have a conversation about those issues. The only way they can do that without demonizing or trying to silence people of opposing views is to frame the conversation in terms of values.  For example, if people can agree that security is a legitimate value, then they can talk about whether a wall provides better security, or whether increasing efforts at achieving social justice might provide even better security.

People also need to recognize the difference, the rabbi told the congregation yesterday, between criticism from love and criticism from hate. We recognize criticism from hate in the fiery speeches of Iran's leaders, for example, and those hateful statements should be condemned. But sometimes the Israeli government and its defenders respond in almost the same way to well-meaning criticisms.  It is going too far to try to silence critics who support the fundamental interests of the country, simply because they disagree with current policies. Such critics should not be equated with the real enemies of the state. The trick is to determine whether critics are really acting out of love, or out of hate.

We face the same task in dealing with the Obama administration's critics in this country. We should probably have more sympathy and respect for any criticism that comes from love, even if that criticism comes from Tea Party protesters with whom one might have substantial policy disagreements. (I'm not saying most Tea Party protesters are acting out of love, of course, but a few of them might be.) We should condemn all criticism that acts out of hate, whether it is from the right or left. I haven't made up my mind, for example, about whether the ongoing Wall Street occupation movement  is a useful thing or not. The answer probably should depend on whether that event is generating more positive than negative energy, and on whether it is allowing for a constructive dialogue about how to achieve values we share.

Monday, September 26, 2011

No more shutdowns!

We have reached the point in our political circus where  we must celebrate the Senate's historic bi-partisan agreement to . . . wait for it . . . . keep the government open for a few more weeks. Some of my more cynical readers might question whether that is a good thing. Of course that is a good thing! We don't accomplish anything by shutting the government down. It costs money. It ruins people's vacations. It keeps business from getting done. It makes our country look foolish in the eyes of the world. It makes Congress look incompetent. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there is nothing good about shutting the government down, and there is also no reason ever to do it. Even politically, it doesn't really ever seem to advance the cause of those who try it. 

A lot of Congressmen seem to like pledges, so I will suggest a pledge. Congressmen  should all pledge never to shut the government down. I mean it's fine if they want to shut it down for a holiday or a national emergency. But never when somebody can't get their way on any particular issue. Don't be the spoiled child who says you will take their ball and bat home if the other kids won't agree to your rules. Don't be the anarchist who says you will throw a bomb into the room if the other Congressmen won't agree to your proposals. Shutting down the government is not supposed to be part of any Congressman's job description. Your job is to keep the government in operation. So just agree in advance that no matter what, you are not going to shut down the government if you don't get your way. Sounds simple? It is simple!

What my suggested rule would mean is that the parties all need to understand that they have to come to an agreement before one of these deadlines expires. FEMA is going to run out of money this week? OK, that means solve this FEMA thing. That means it's time to make a deal. It is not time to throw a temper tantrum and say if you don't get your way, you are shutting the government down. No more hostage taking. You want to get something else done: get a majority to vote for it. Don't threaten to cut off funds for disaster relief if you can't get something else done.

Everybody got it now? Good. Play nice.

(Andrews/New York Times photo)

UPDATE: For a more detailed analysis, try this article in the Atlantic

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hope and Change in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah just granted women in his country the right to vote in municipal elections. Women in Saudi Arabia still can't drive legally, however. How are women responsible enough to vote, but not yet emancipated enough to drive, I wonder. Then again, I wonder how my kids, who just got their licenses this year, are considered responsible enough to drive (they're not!), but they won't be old enough to vote until after next year's elections. They are probably just as well informed as a lot of voters over 18, and they are also going to be more affected by the decisions Americans make in elections next year than most older voters. Which country has it backwards?

I'll continue to ponder that question, but in the meantime, given the theme of this blog, I feel some obligation to post news of whatever seems to be progress in a positive direction. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Power of Pokemon

In honor of Herman Cain winning the Florida straw poll, here he is quoting what intrepid Google searchers have determined is Donna Summer's theme song from the Pokemon movie from the year 2000:



No wonder voters find Cain inspirational. He knows how to re-awaken powerful feelings from our childhood memories!

(Anyone who is interested in a substantive analysis of Herman Cain's highly-touted 9-9-9 tax reform proposal might try going here.  The question that should be asked about any candidate's tax plan is who would end up paying more, and who would be paying less under the plan, as compared to the current tax system. Strangely, that question is not always asked or answered.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Cincinnati

I thought I might write something tonight about roads and bridges, but I got distracted thinking about Rick Santorum, of all people. So I'll just let the president speak for himself. What he is saying seems so obvious and common-sensical anyway, I'm not sure there is much to add. Watch this video, because even if you don't like this speech--but how could anyone not like this speech?--it's still interesting to watch the endless stream of trucks passing over the rusty bridge.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sex and the Military

Imagine being poor Rick Santorum. He stands up for what he believes are wholesome values and traditional morality, and some joker re-defines his very name to stand for the by-products of sodomy. You almost have to admire the guy for having the nerve to run for president while having to live with that kind of deeply humiliating stigma.

Tonight Santorum's deep hatred and intolerance for homosexuality has compounded his problems once again. Asked at the Republican candidates' debate by a gay soldier, Stephen Hill, who only this week was able to come out of the closet, whether the candidates would re-institute "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Santorum couldn't help himself. He did not hesitate to give the crowd-pleasing response, but by doing so, he made a mockery of another traditional value that Republicans used to hold dear: the value of supporting our troops.

Santorum's rationale for re-instituting DADT didn't make much sense. First he said that sexual activity of any kind has no place in the military, which would probably come as news to a lot of married soldiers, as well as a lot of active young heterosexuals who do not practice a celibate lifestyle. Then he said that the new policy gives gay soldiers special privileges. What special privileges? I thought they only wanted to be just as open about their sexual preferences as everyone else around them. Is telling the truth a special privilege? Then he said that repealing DADT is a social experiment. Here Santorum at least has a point. Allowing gay soldiers to serve openly in the military unquestionably will be a social experiment. So was integrating black soldiers with white soldiers. So was expanding the roles of female members of the military. Should we re-examine those policies because they were social experiments?

The don't ask, don't tell policy was also a social experiment. It was a social experiment instituted at the beginning of the Clinton administration as a compromise that was supposed to allow gay soldiers to serve so long as they concealed their identity. We tried that experiment for more than 15 years, and the consensus of military leaders was that the policy was a failure. We forced many qualified soldiers out if their status was revealed, and we forced others to live a lie. So unless we want to go back to the previous policy, which was simply to ban all homosexuals from service (even that policy could be viewed as a social experiment), we have to try something new, something like tolerance and honesty.

Santorum finally had to admit that it would be unfair to take any actions against soldiers like Hill, who were allowed to come out of the closet by virtue of the new Obama policy. Given that concession, is it even possible at this point to turn the clock back to the old rule? Tonight the candidates did not have to explain how they would design a policy that requires toleration of all gay soldiers who came out in 2011 and 2012, but allows discrimination against those who reveal themselves after we supposedly return to the Clinton rule (Good luck getting that through Congress, Rick!). I'm sure Santorum is smart enough to realize that even if he could manage to get the new policy reversed, enforcement of a hybrid policy would present enormous difficulties.  (Not to mention the legal problems!)

My prediction is that by next year's election, the vast majority of soldiers will have fully adapted to the new policy. The military's strong sense of solidarity, or esprit de corps, will not take kindly to any attempts to disrespect fellow members of their units. Therefore Republican candidates for president will be endangering their support among the vast majority of members of the military if they continue to insult our troops by demanding that they return to the days of having to lie about their identities. They ought to be brave enough to stand up and say that, whatever their misgivings, there is no going back, just as there was no going back from the decisions made in the 1940's and 1950's to integrate the military. But the Republican base may not allow them to do that, and therefore these candidates will probably have to continue to lie about this issue to please the primary electorate, at least until the nomination contest is over. 


Do I need to add anything about the audience reaction here? I'll just say that it appears that they have not thought these issues through.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Peace is hard.

President Obama's address to the UN General Assembly today:


Politics and Negotiation

It's ironic that some of President Obama's fair weather supporters, who have been critical of his supposedly poor negotiating skills in prior dealings with Congress, are now applauding the president for his tough talk against the Republicans on the new jobs bill and on the administration's new deficit plan. In the situations the administration has been criticized for, they actually concluded some successful negotiations and got landmark legislation passed: e.g., the debt ceiling deal, the health care act, the financial regulation act, the stimulus. A lot of people have second-guessed the president's negotiating strategies in getting those deals made, but nobody has been able to prove that a different strategy in any of those cases would have resulted in better deals, from the left's point of view. It's possible, on the other hand, that a more aggressive strategy might have killed some of those deals.

The president's critics from the left don't seem to care about that. They also don't seem to notice that the tough stance they are now cheering him for so far hasn't resulted in any kind of deal at all. And it doesn't even seem likely that Congress is going to enact the president's jobs plan, or his deficit plan, in anything like the form he is demanding, even if people across the country rise up en masse and demand passage. The Republican-controlled House will more likely pass some bills quite different from the administration's plan, and those might not come to pass either, if President Obama sticks to his threat to veto proposals that do not include some revenue increases.

So how can the administration be bad negotiators in the cases where they got deals done, and good negotiators when we don't yet know whether they will get anything at all done? It seems that the critics on the left aren't really talking about negotiation at all, at least negotiation as that term is commonly defined. (I would define negotiation as a peaceful effort to get parties with different interests to come to an agreement that serves the needs of  both sides.) The left doesn't want a negotiation. What they want to see is a fight.

It's also ironic that some on the left saw the president's prior efforts to forge bi-partisan agreements as driven by political considerations. White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer explained to the New York Times that this perception could not be more wrong:
The popular narrative is that we sought compromise in a quixotic quest for independent votes. We sought out compromise because a failure to get funding of the government last spring and then an extension of the debt ceiling in August would have been very bad for the economy and for the country. We were in a position of legislative compromise by necessity. That phase is behind us.
That phase is behind us. Exactly. Now, as I posted a few days ago, we are in a new phase where making an agreement is not the primary consideration. Strangely, the president's critics from the right seem to understand the reasons for the administration's recent shift in strategy better than critics from the left. For example, I saw Senator McCain being interviewed on TV tonight complaining that the president's jobs bill is just the opening phase in a political campaign. He could have a point there. Certainly the president's recent and continuing barnstorming tours of the American countryside to talk up the jobs plan do seem to resemble a political campaign.

So while elements of the left have things completely backwards, saying the new tough talk is a good way of getting things done, while the prior deal-making phase was just a wrong-headed political effort, the right seems to have a much better understanding of how threatening (to them) both phases of the president's strategy have been. In the first, the administration nailed down a host of impressive achievements that will send the country in a different direction for years to come. And in the current phase, the president seems to be embarked on a populist crusade against a right wing Congress that only serves the rich. This phase may not accomplish much of anything substantive--except for firing up the base and bringing back enough moderates to the president's camp to get him re-elected. 


Monday, September 19, 2011

Math



When I studied taxation at the University of Chicago Law School, back when it was even more of a bastion of conservative legal scholarship than it is today, students were not allowed to take the idea of a progressive income tax structure as a given. We were required to think through and discuss all of the possible rationales for taxing higher income brackets at a higher marginal rate, starting from the perspective that none of the arguments in favor of progressivity were easy or obvious to make. But one argument that I never heard, even at the University of Chicago Law School, was the argument that people who make large incomes should actually pay a lower marginal tax rate than people of moderate incomes. Even at Chicago, prevailing thought among conservatives would allow a poverty level of income to escape taxation altogether, thus introducing a modicum of progressivity to the tax system.

We accept that some payroll taxes should be regressive (right now they cap out at around $100,000) because they support a floor of Social Security payments that is of more benefit to people of moderate means. We also accept a lower tax rate for capital gains, for reasons that I admit I never understood very well. Sales taxes are also somewhat regressive, because lower and middle class people tend to spend a higher proportion of their income than people who can afford more savings and investments. But I don't know of any good arguments for making people with lower incomes pay a higher marginal income tax rate than people of higher incomes. If we allow that, we move away from the whole idea of an income tax: An income tax, by definition, taxes incomes. Therefore we should at least tax all of the income that a person makes at at least the same rate. I understand the flat tax idea, which would subject all income to a flat percentage rate--I don't agree with it, but at least I understand it--but not too many economists or politicians even want to try to make the argument for a regressive income tax.

That is the argument that President Obama is forcing the Republicans to defend right now.

It is an indefensible position, and the House Republicans would be wise to simply agree to pass the so-called Buffett rule, as plain old common sense. Otherwise they must explain why what's left of the middle class should be required to pay a larger share of their incomes in taxes than the wealthy. And claiming that any attempt to make the wealthy pay at least the same rate as the middle class would amount to class warfare is not going to cut it.

(If you're short on time start watching at around 13 minutes on this video; the "math" line comes around 16:30)

Patent Law Reform


There is so much news about conflict and gridlock in Washington, and the impossibility of getting anything positive done, that most people probably don't even notice when an important piece of legislation gets passed on a bi-partisan basis. President Obama signed this landmark bill, called the America Invents Act, on Friday at Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia. It is expected to produce efficiencies in the economy, spur job creation, reduce wasteful litigation, provide incentives for innovation, and speed up an important federal government bureaucracy. Stuff everybody wants. Maybe it's best that something as momentous as this legislation flies in under the radar, because if the public were to pay any attention to it, politicians would likely turn it into a partisan battleground.  If only we could pay as little attention to the legislative budget process as we do to the biggest change in patent law in over a hundred years, we'd probably get a bi-partisan budget bill passed in no time.

Here's a question and answer session at the White House explaining some of the law's provisions:



People who like to keep a tally of President Obama's accomplishments can add another one to the list, though to be fair, it is the product of an effort by many people over many years.

(another summary of the law's changes here)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Time to Panic?

James Carville deserves some attention, simply because he was one of the architects of Bill Clinton's remarkable 1992 presidential campaign. But his latest advice, as posted in an article on CNN.com, seems the opposite of the well-thought-out strategy he employed back then. In a word, Carville suggests to the White House that it is time to panic. By that he means fire some people, indict some people, and start showing more fight. This by definition is not a coherent set of policy or strategy proposals. It's more like a symbolic show of doing something different, or even an admission that you have failed and don't know what else to do. If you own a baseball team, for example, and your team starts losing, you might fire the manager or the coach, or somebody, simply to shake things up. Is the Obama administration in that type of losing situation where it needs to take such desperate, symbolic action?

Carville doesn't present any analysis or research supporting his recommendations. I might give it more credence if he could show that he conducted some focus groups of swing voters who indicated that they would be impressed with a management shake-up at this stage of the game. Without some empirical evidence, how do we know that voters would be impressed if the White House started acting like chickens with their heads cut off, and embraced a strategy of fear and panic? I tend to doubt that most voters would view such actions in a positive way.

I also think that Carville probably knows, or should know, that "no drama Obama" is not about to give in to panic. He did not panic when he was way behind in the polls in 2007, and people like James Carville were saying that Hillary Clinton was a lock for the Democratic nomination. He did not panic when he took office in the midst of a horrendous crisis in which the future of the financial industry, and the auto industry, and a few other industries, were in doubt. He did not panic when the Democrats lost a special election in Massachusetts that sent Congressional Democrats into a general panic. And he did not panic when the Democrats took a beating in the 2010 mid-term elections. Why would anybody think the Obama team would panic now? Showing calmness and steadiness got them where they are, and President Obama is still ahead of any other politician in America, including all the Republican contenders, in the polls. So if Carville is making recommendations that he should know the administration is not likely to follow, I have to wonder about his motivations. I will nevertheless give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose that he is genuinely trying to be helpful. So thanks James for your suggestions. I'm sure the Obama team will take them into consideration. In fact, the White House has already adopted some new tactics and directions, for example shaking up its Defense team, and its economic team. But it is hard to see how adopting an attitude of panic will help matters.

UPDATE (actual audio of the Carville interview):

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

All or nothing?

There has been plenty of comment on how the administration is approaching the jobs bill differently from previous dealings with Congress. Steve Benen, for example, seems to view the new approach of presenting Congress with a bill drafted by the administration, and demanding that Congress pass the president's whole bill, as a recognition of the failures of its previous "poor" negotiating strategies, in which the administration has signaled its willingness to compromise in advance.

Such interpretations might be missing the point. As I mentioned in a previous post, the jobs bill is similar in character to previous Obama initiatives (like those initiatives, it starts off incorporating a lot of Republican ideas). But there is a crucial difference between this jobs bill and previous efforts to pass important bills through Congress--I'm talking especially about the stimulus bill, the health insurance reform bill, the financial regulation bill, and the debt ceiling increase. And that difference may explain the change in negotiating strategy. In all of those previous cases, the administration felt it simply had to get something passed, and by necessity all those bills had to contain substantial compromises given the composition of Congress. The price of refusing to compromise in each of these cases was considered too high. In the case of the debt ceiling increase, the alternative to compromise would have been an unprecedented default which could have caused another recession. That was unacceptable. In the case of health care reform, the alternative was no reform, and maybe another 15 or 20 year wait before another attempt could be made. That was also considered unacceptable. As for the stimulus bill, given the dire state of the economy at the beginning of the Obama administration, their economic team felt they simply had to pass whatever stimulus they could get through Congress as quickly as possible. And financial regulation was also considered something the administration simply had to do, even if the bill were weakened to get it through Congress.

In the case of  the new jobs bill, however, President Obama may finally be in a no-lose situation. The jobs bill is being presented with a fierce urgency--the administration is demanding that it be passed right away--but they know it is not the end of the world if it doesn't pass in toto. If the bill passes, the administration can take credit for bold action, and it stands an excellent chance of achieving some positive economic results. If the bill does not pass, we just have to live with a continued sluggish economy, and the president can blame Congress for refusing to do anything to help reduce unemployment. Congress will then have to at least share responsibility for the continued bad economy. If Republicans in Congress accept only parts of the bill, it will be interesting to see if the Democrats in Congress allow only those parts to pass, and whether the president would veto a bill that only does part of what he is demanding (presumably the tax cut part without the infrastructure spending part). But regardless of how the Democrats in Congress and the administration handle those tactical questions, they can still claim a political win from a partial bill. Democrats running for election next will in that case be able to blame Republicans for insufficient action.

Given that the jobs bill is not seen as a do or die piece of legislation, despite its importance to the economy, it makes perfect sense for the administration to adopt a no-compromise approach to it. This is basic Negotiation 101. If you MUST make a deal, you are going to have to compromise, because the other side knows you must make a deal. And therefore you probably won't get your best deal, but you will get something accomplished. On the other hand, if you can afford to walk away from a deal, you can also afford to be uncompromising, because you win either way. Either you make the deal you want, or you blame the other side for the failure to conclude the negotiation. I think it is the nature of the jobs bill, as much as any change in strategy to bolster the public's perception of the president, that explains President Obama's changes in tactics. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Government as the Good Guys

What was refreshing about the movie Contagion, which I saw over the weekend, was that it did not indulge us with Hollywood's usual sinister conspiracy theories involving shadow governments or evil corporations. Instead it presented a scary but plausible real life scenario involving an extremely deadly virus, and imagined how the world would react to the epidemic. The heroes of the movie are dedicated public servants working for the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Government workers are shown as fallible human beings who make some mistakes, but who ultimately prevent the collapse of civilization when we are faced with an overwhelming emergency.

Meanwhile the villain is an irresponsible blogger who spreads chaos, rumor, and false information for his own profit and self-aggrandizement. I only wish I had that kind of power (which of course in contrast to the evil Jude Law character, I would only use for good purposes).

This seems to be exactly the sort of anti-conspiracy theory movie we need now, while we are in the midst of a debate about the proper role and size of government, because it might help us appreciate essential government functions like public health and emergency preparedness. When irresponsible politicians talk about cutting wasteful government spending, without identifying what they plan to cut, they always seem to end up going after discretionary budget items like scientific research and public safety operations. Watch this movie and you might have second thoughts about the wisdom of cutting that kind of spending. Or just watch the news reports about wildfires in Texas or floods in New Jersey, and you might wonder why politicians are even talking about reducing the fire department's budget, or cutting spending on weather forecasting.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

1000 tables

If you've been paying attention to the news from the Middle East lately, you've probably read about large peace demonstrations in Israel, as well as the violent attack earlier this week in Egypt against the Israeli embassy. You might not have heard about a more hopeful event in Israel this week organized by some of these peace movement leaders. I saw something about this on David Harris-Gershon's blog on conflict resolution in Israel and the Middle East. The event was called 1000 tables.  The organizers set up roundtables in town squares in about 30 different cities, each table holding 10 chairs, and each group led by a moderator who might be a coach, group leader or mediator.

Participants had the opportunity to meet strangers, express their views, and listen to a variety of other perspectives. The contents of the conversations will be published in various social media. Traditional media doesn't seem to know quite what to do with a story like this one, perhaps because it lacks a traditional narrative. It seems to be about resolving conflict, but it has no winner or loser. There is only . . . talking, and perhaps a little more understanding. That does not fit in with story-telling conventions that require heroes, villains, and dramatic conflict. So a story about a peace protest would be more likely to make the front pages if it inspires violence or confrontation of some kind. Note that the Jerusalem Post story about this event focused on a minor confrontation that occurred when the mayor of Tel Aviv dropped by, rather than on the content of the conversations. By looking for that type of incident, the paper might have missed the excitement inherent in the spectacle of hundreds of people, in a contentious society, just sitting around tables talking and listening to one another.

Think about this: Isn't the whole idea of a PEACE MARCH somewhat of an oxymoron?  Any march or demonstration is just a group of people inspired by a particular cause presenting their cause in a forceful, in your face way that is likely to inspire counter-marchers and confrontations with those of opposing views. Sometimes that might be the most effective way to promote a cause, even the cause of peace. But if people really want to promote the idea of peace, they need to organize more events like the 1000 tables event, that actually embody peace and are intended to inspire dialogue rather than confrontation.
 
(See also another report in Haaretz)


(cross-posted on my mediation blog)
 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Tone of Voice

Reactions to President Obama's jobs speech Thursday night seem mostly favorable (here's a compendium from the indispensable Chipsticks). Republicans seem less hostile than usual, and the president's fair weather friends seem pleased that that he is calling for bold action. Even Maureen Dowd today paid the president  the back-handed compliment of saying he "deigned to get tough."

Speaking as one of the president's more constant supporters, I'm of course gratified to see the positive reaction, but also can't help feeling a bit annoyed that these critics have arrived somewhat late to the party. Because if you look at the substance of the president's jobs proposals, they really aren't all that different in character from what I would describe as previous bold proposals--whether we are talking about the amazing achievements of the first two years: the stimulus, the auto bailout, the Wall Street bank rescues, the health care reform act, or the financial reform act--or even the ambitious "grand bargain" the president sought in the debt ceiling negotiations this year.  All of these plans were big and bold, but all were fairly middle of the road politically, despite the right's absurd claims that the administration is pursuing a socialist agenda. The jobs plan is similar in being big and bold, but is also politically moderate. It doesn't propose nationalizing any industries, or any direct government employment programs in the manner of the WPA or the CCC. Instead, with a view to the politically possible, it offers more tax cuts and infrastructure spending of the most popular variety, namely construction of needed roads and bridges and schools. And it is coupled with promises of more deficit reduction down the line to pay for it all.

So why is the reaction more favorable this time? Perhaps the right has realized that their policy of unrelenting hostility displayed during the debt ceiling negotiation fiasco, didn't work too well politically for them. On the left, maybe it's just a question of tone of voice. The president's critics from the left seemed pleased with the firm manner the president displayed in his jobs speech. Instead of presenting his ideas in an open, conciliatory way, he told Congress that he had already thought of everything, and they'd damn well better just pass his bill right away.

Is it possible that what people are applauding as different is simply that the president's ideas were presented in such an assertive manner? I have to admit that it's a bit disappointing to me to see how much people seem to crave a strong father-figure president, rather than a president who attempts to bring different factions and views together and who defers to Congress's central place in our constitutional scheme. I don't think President Obama has ever acted weak, but he is sometimes perceived as weak because he is so willing to listen, to consider all points of view, and give a prominent role to other actors in the political process. I always thought these were desirable traits, but evidently they sometimes frustrate the president's supporters, and they lessen respect from his opponents.

All this might mean that the public is not quite ready for the bring-us-together, friendly, smiling, conciliatory, moderator type of president that Obama sometimes has promised. Instead we seem to prefer the tough, old-fashioned commander who tells us how it is going to be, and what we need to do. Even though our craving for authority seems a bit anti-democratic to me (weren't we the people who overthrew the king in a revolution a couple of hundred years ago?), maybe the president needs to take that tone in order to move a Congress that is currently controlled by the opposition. If that tone also cheers up the president's supporters, then I guess that's a win for the president all around.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Richmond

Here's a video of President Obama today on what might be the first stop of his Harry Truman Memorial Whistle Stop Tour of America. I got that idea from an article in the Daily Beast today making the comparison between Truman's situation and Obama's. Even though I don't think that President Obama has sunk nearly as low in public approval as Truman did in 1947, there are still some interesting parallels. If Obama starts railing about the "do nothing Congress," which is a theme he seems to be warming up to, and if next November, we see him holding up what we hope will be an erroneous headline saying "Romney (or Perry, or Bachmann, or whomever) defeats Obama," we'll know we have come full circle.







Thursday, September 8, 2011

American Jobs Act



Putting aside the substance of the proposals for the moment, and whether or not people agree or disagree with the specifics, is this the kind of tone people have been looking for from the president? The administration is writing the bill and delivering it to Congress next week; just pass it already, and do it right now. That sounded right to me. The burden is now on Congress to act, and do something big.

And when I say put aside the substance of the proposals, that is because I don't think the substance of the proposals is as important as the demonstration by the government that they can get something done. People want to see some action. Cut spending, raise taxes, raise spending, cut taxes. How much do the details matter, as long as the plan seems to make sense, and restores the confidence of consumers and businesses? I'm not an economist, and that's why I can say without knowing much about what I am talking about that it's the restoration of confidence, not the details of the proposal, that will make the most difference to the economy. That's why Congress should just pass the bill right away.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Questions

It's good that I publish my own blog, otherwise I would just yell and throw stuff at the TV. So here are some follow-up questions I would have liked to ask at the Republican debate tonight:

-Didn't we already try that de-regulating and tax cutting idea back during the Bush administration?  And how did that work out for us?

-Congressman Paul, you seriously think the airlines did a better job handling security screenings than the TSA? Or are you just suffering from a memory lapse?

-How does a border fence stop people who enter the country with a valid tourist visa? Oh, and Congressman Paul, explain that again about how a border fence is going to be used to keep Americans from leaving the country.

-Congressman Paul, you seriously think the drug companies should be able to put whatever they want in a bottle and claim whatever they want about it?

-Governor Perry, if you want the federal government to stay out of the states' business, why do you keep calling the feds for disaster relief?

-Governor Perry, do you know what a Ponzi scheme actually is?

-Governor Perry, have you ever met a real scientist?

-Governor Romney, explain that again about how Romneycare is good, and Obamacare is bad.

-Congresswoman Bachmann, explain that again about how the trillion dollar war in Iraq was a good idea, but the couple of billion dollar action in Libya is going to break the bank.

-Did you guys know that the president doesn't have the power to fire the chairman of the Federal Reserve?

-Newt, what are you still doing here? Did you feel the need to remind us that Alaska is even larger than Texas?




This was a debate in which the guy who bragged that he put more people to death than anyone else on the stage gets the most applause of the night. And found nothing interesting or ironic about that. This was a debate where we needed Rick Santorum to explain the need to create a new super-department called Homeland Security. And we needed Jon Huntsman to remind us that immigrants--legal or illegal--are human beings. Thanks for some brief glimpses of reality, Rick and Jon.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

August Jobs Figures

August DOL jobs figures showed no net gain, but part of that bad news was attributable to a strike at Verizon. Moreover, as I've mentioned before with respect to prior months' reports, it is important to remember that gains in the private sector--and we are still seeing some gains--are being offset by continued massive losses of public sector jobs. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that ever since the Republicans took over the House of Representatives and forced everybody to talk about austerity instead of talking about economic growth, jobs growth has slowed to a crawl. Since I try to keep the tone positive on this site, however, I'd rather talk about how to solve the problem than about whom to blame for it.

Somebody needs to explain to me how we are going to increase employment in this country if we keep laying off more and more public sector employees. Where in the world has anyone ever increased employment by reducing the number of people who are employed? It seems to me that unless you are ideologically committed to the notion that anyone who takes a paycheck from the government somehow does not qualify as doing work--which is pretty insulting to teachers and soldiers and police officers and even to politicians--you would have to admit that firing people does not reduce unemployment. As a matter of fact, the more people you fire, the more you increase unemployment.

If we want to increase employment, shouldn't we stop laying off public sector employees? Otherwise, we are just making our task harder, because we would not only have to figure out how to employ people who are already out of work, we also have to figure out how to employ all the people the government is laying off.

It would be unseemly for Congressional Republicans to blame the Obama administration for lackluster jobs growth while they are busy trying to make sure that the federal, state and local governments continue to fire more and more employees. They will no doubt continue to blame the administration for the problem they are exacerbating, however.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Detroit

Here's President Obama in  Detroit offering a sneak peak at the jobs speech he is planning to give this Thursday. Of course it will offer the most popular kind of infrastructure spending, the kind of jobs program that pretty much everybody understands and supports.



And here's a preview of the Republican response to the president's upcoming speech:

Sunday, September 4, 2011

New Jersey

Today President Obama visited flood-ravaged Wayne, New Jersey, right next door to the town I grew up in.


Here he is speaking with New Jersey resident Tom Nash. Hey, it's only the President of the United States. Why would he bother putting on a shirt? Besides, I'm sure those are his best cut-offs.

Only in America. Or maybe, only in New Jersey. 


Only a metaphor

Michele Bachmann walked back from statements she made the other day, to the effect that the recent East Coast earthquake and hurricane could be interpreted as a message from God to cut government spending. (See my previous post on this topic.) First she claimed these lines were just a joke, but in an interview with Bob Schieffer today she said her statements were meant to be taken metaphorically.  Bachmann said: "I’m a woman of faith and a woman of prayer, but the comment that I made right then was a metaphor. That was very simply what I was doing.” I'm not sure this statement answered Schieffer's question as to whether Bachmann believes that God uses the weather to send us messages about matters of public policy, but it's probably the best answer we're going to get.

I must say I find it reassuring that Michele Bachmann is not claiming that she knows the mind of God, and also that when she talks about God's political preferences, she might just be using God as a metaphor for people clamoring to reduce government spending. To me that shows a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of religion than a lot of people give Congresswoman Bachmann credit for. But how are Bachmann's supporters to know when to take her words about God's messages literally? Many of them do not believe that Noah's flood, for example, should be taken as a metaphor. They believe it actually happened just the way it is reported in the Bible.

Michele Bachmann is learning that she not only has to worry about how the media reports her speeches, she might also have to be more careful about how she talks to her supporters. Politicians have understood for a long time that when you invoke the Almighty, it's always best to be fairly vague about it.


(Top illustration by Rich Wakefield; bottom illustration by Mike Angelo)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Conservative Candor

Hats off to Matthew Vadum, who posted an article on American Thinker arguing that it is un-American to help register poor people to vote. It's not that I agree with his post, but I think it's refreshing to read an intellectually honest argument against expanding the franchise. (On TPM, where I saw a post about this article, they seemed to take a similarly appreciative view. The comments, however, are not so friendly.) But I would much rather debate Vadum's position than debate those who make the intellectually dishonest argument that we need to make it harder to vote in order to prevent fraud. Voter fraud is not a significant problem in this country. You do not find squads of homeless people or undocumented immigrants seeking to vote repeatedly or illegally. Nobody need bother to round up such people since there is an abundance of legally eligible voters out there who aren't motivated enough to vote even if you offer to drive them to the polls and buy them a latte on the way. Low voter turnout is a real problem in this country; voter fraud is not. Anyone who is talking about preventing fraud is advocating spending resources on an insignificant problem, and is ignoring the real problem.

But back to Matthew Vadum. He has the sense to stay out of the phony argument about voter fraud, and instead argues that the real problem with our republic is that empowering poor people allows them to steal from more productive members of society. This is a respectable argument against too much democracy that has been made for hundreds of years. I don't agree with it, but at least it is intellectually respectable.  If we give the have-nots the franchise, we would naturally expect them to favor free medical care and free education and all kinds of other benefits that taxpayers must pay for. And we would expect politicians to promise such benefits in order to obtain the votes of people who favor them. And when the have-nots outnumber the haves, and demand more than we can produce, that can create an unsustainable problem for the economy. The sad thing about Mr. Vadum's argument is that it reflects just how far the disparities in wealth have extended in this country. Politicians used to appeal to middle class resentment against supposed welfare freeloaders, and that kept social programs in check. They didn't have to worry so much about the numbers of poor people voting. Now the defenders of the status quo seem afraid that the ranks of the dispossessed are growing so large that they are going to demand a major redistribution of wealth. They might think the only way to prevent that is to discourage poor people from voting.

Instead of advocating less democracy, what we should all be working on is expanding the size of the middle class in this country. Right now we have the super-rich, the well-off, and everybody else struggling to get by. If we can change the shape of that curve a bit, conservatives might not have to worry so much about a poor people's revolt at the ballot box, or plot ways to disenfranchise the poor.

Also, while I have to applaud Vadum's honesty, his solution lacks coherence. Once we have decided to extend the franchise to everyone, regardless of sex, race or property qualifications, it doesn't make sense to advocate backhanded ways of discouraging poor people from voting. That is cheating. If you're really going to be honest about taking power away from poor people, you would have to advocate a return of the poll tax, or some constitutional changes that would limit the majority's ability to tax the wealthy. We have provisions like that enshrined in California's constitution, however, since Proposition 13, and what I would tell Vadum is that they are making our state ungovernable. I see no real alternative to full democracy, and the best ways to make our democracy work better are to get everyone better educated, get everyone better off, and get everyone to the polls to vote!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Gun Rights and Regulations

There is an interesting article in this month's Atlantic, by constitutional law professor Adam Winkler, that reminds us of the shifting positions of right and left on the issue of gun control. In the modern history of this issue, it seems it was the Black Panthers who were the strongest proponents of the right to bear arms, while conservative politicians during the years of black power militancy and urban rioting, including then-Governor Ronald Reagan, were all for restricting the right to carry weapons. Nowadays, by contrast, we associate the most ardent gun rights advocates with right wing groups.  Winkler's article also points out that the NRA wasn't always so strongly against regulation of gun ownership. Up until the 1970's, the NRA supported gun registration and permit requirements, as well as restrictions on who could buy a gun.

Perhaps most importantly, the article suggests that we have been having the wrong debate about gun rights and gun laws. In recent years, we have focused a lot of attention on the meaning of the Second Amendment, in particular whether it should be read to confer an individual right to own weapons. That argument may never have been as important as people think it is, in part since the vast majority of state constitutions already support an individual right to gun ownership. Anyway, those who support stricter gun regulation have lost that argument in the Supreme Court, but they may also have lost sight of the fact that even if there is a constitutional right to own guns, that does not even begin to answer the question of what types of regulations may still be imposed on that right. In that regard, the article closes with a quote from Justice Scalia, author of the Heller decision, who said that nothing in that case, which holds that the Second Amendment does indeed confer an individual right to own guns, should "be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

Since the debate about rights may be closed, we should instead be having a debate about reasonable regulation of firearm sales and use. In that debate, it might be useful to remember that today's advocates of unrestricted gun rights were not always so anti-regulation, as they have greatly changed their tune since the days when it was the Black Panthers who walked the streets with loaded shotguns.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

More on Date-Gate

I'm going to risk blowing out of proportion a trivial, or even a non-event, but I can't help commenting on some of the reaction to the dust-up between Speaker Boehner and President Obama over the date for the President's planned address to a joint session of Congress next week. Some Republicans applauded the Speaker for showing the President the primacy of Congress in the Constitution. They think it was perfectly appropriate for the speaker to prove to President Obama that he can't push Congress around, or try to upstage a Republican candidates' debate. But a lot of Democrats remain angry at the Republicans for insulting the president in such an unprecedented manner, but also angry at the administration for seeming to cave in to this type of behavior without making more of an issue of it.

But there is something else going on whenever this particular president is treated differently from any of his predecessors, and that can't be ignored. Even if I were to give John Boehner the benefit of the doubt and assume that he doesn't have a racist bone in his body, and whatever slight he extended to the president had nothing to do with who he is, I would still say that the Speaker needs to be more conscious of appearances. Because there is something truly disgusting about the spectacle of the white power structure trying to make a black man, especially when that black man happens to be the President of the United States of America, dance to their tune. And if supporters of Speaker Boehner and the House Republican majority get any satisfaction from treating the president in that manner, they should think twice. Because it makes a lot of people angry. The same way it made a lot of people very angry when Donald Trump had the gall to gloat about his role in making this president the first in history to have to show his papers to prove he is an American citizen.

What is also interesting is that this anger takes different forms. I don't want to over-generalize, but it seems that a lot of white supporters of the president are more likely to take some of their anger out on President Obama himself. They are disappointed that he just smiles and shrugs off every effort by his opponents to humiliate him. Black supporters may be more likely to direct their anger toward those who enjoy making the president dance. Some of them would like to see the president get angry, but they understand his reaction. They have seen it before. They might see an echo in Barack Obama's big smile of Louis Armstrong's big smile, or perhaps Jack Johnson's big smile. A big smile, and a shrug of the shoulders, are ways that African-Americans throughout our history have fought off injustice. And those may be some of the most effective ways, because anger and outrage just play into the hands of your opponents. Better to ignore the insults and let your dignity and intelligence and talent shine through.

The political opponents of the president might cry foul at comments like mine. They resent the fact that the president's defenders are sometimes too quick to claim racism in response to what conservatives claim is legitimate criticism. They think they are victims of a double standard. I understand that reaction. But I think it ignores context, and it ignores history, and it ignores some powerful symbolism. And like I said, I'm willing to assume that when Speaker John Boehner decided that he would treat the President of the United States in a manner unprecedented in history, he did not do that because of the president's ethnicity or skin color. I still say that Boehner needs to be more sensitive about the reactions he is causing, however, if he wants to be taken seriously as a leader who represents all Americans.