Monday, December 31, 2012

Deal or no deal?



Looks like we're going over the cliff, but maybe only a tiny bit over it. So no reason to panic. The Dow ended the year back above 13,000. Tune in tomorrow when we are living in a different reality, and Republicans will be able to brag that they voted to lower taxes.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Friday, December 28, 2012

End game

Nobody should be surprised that the "fiscal cliff" negotiations are going down to the wire, and perhaps beyond it. Republicans and Democrats have been fighting tooth and nail over these budget issues for the past four years--actually much longer than that--and nobody is about to concede gracefully to the other side. Only when both sides are absolutely sure that the deal on the table is the only deal available, and that the deal is better than the unpleasant package of tax hikes and budget cuts that will take effect automatically in January, is there a possibility that both sides will accept the deal. In this situation, the deadline itself might be the only thing that will force the parties to make a deal, which means there is no reason to expect any deal to be made until we are about to hit that deadline. Except that the deadline can be extended, and except that some of the parties think their leverage will actually improve after the deadline has passed, and some of these negative consequences start taking effect.

I've seen parties in protracted lawsuits reach this point numerous times. Contested lawsuits are not usually just about the money. If that were all that the parties had at stake, they would be able to resolve the dispute fairly easily. No, if the battle is hard-fought, that is because one or both parties believes that a matter of principle is at stake, or a personal insult must be righted. It's the same with members of Congress. Republicans firmly believe that the only acceptable way of dealing with our economic troubles is to keep taxes low and keep reducing the size of government, particularly on the kinds of social programs that Republicans believe are sapping our economic strength. Democrats firmly believe that these same programs are vital to protecting millions of people from the ravages of the economic downturn, and that they will also help stimulate the economy to faster growth. They also firmly believe we need to reduce inequality and raise revenues, and can accomplish both goals by increasing the highest marginal tax rates. If this were just a matter of choosing a compromise number between say, 35 and 39, that could be easily accomplished. But any number that we end up choosing will be taken as a surrender on a matter of the most sacred principle by at least one side, and perhaps by both sides.

How can parties be induced to accept the surrender of their principles? In private conflicts, it's sometimes effective to remind people of the toll the conflict is taking on them, and to ask them to imagine being able to put the conflict behind them. Sometimes they need to realize that no matter how long they negotiate or fight, they can't improve what they view as a lousy deal. At that point, the only choice they have is between peace and continued conflict. People only reach that point at the end of a long period of negotiation, when there is no more time left to negotiate.

Politicians might have an even harder time making peace than private parties. Perpetual conflict is part of their job description. Even if they reach one budget agreement today, they will just start the next day preparing for battle over next year's budget agreement, or some other issue of even more sacred principle. And politicians have to answer to their constituents, who are even less forgiving and understanding of the need to compromise than they are. Just like parties in private disputes, the politicians are only going to arrive at the point where they might accept a deal when there is no more time left to negotiate. And even at that point, a lot of them would just as soon continue to fight. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Django Unchained

The year in political/historical films ended with a bang (a lot of bangs, actually and some booms, and much blood spatter), with Quentin Tarantino's latest, Django Unchained. It's rare enough in the movies to be able to enjoy long stretches of clever dialogue, but with Tarantino there's also the bonus of slowly-building tension in each scene until some character finally explodes into extreme violence. Maybe there's nothing else going on in Tarantino's movies than that. The setting and story are just an excuse for a number of set pieces of chatter followed by spatter. Also lots of references to lots of bad movies that I'm glad Tarantino took the time to see so I don't have to. It's all style, wit and blood, and who needs any other reasons to go to the movies?

In Django Unchained, it so happens that the genre is spaghetti westerns and the story is about slavery. But it's important to remember that this is a comic book movie version of slavery; it's not a documentary. That doesn't mean that slavery wasn't as bad as is shown in the movie. It might even have been worse than is shown in the movie. We know that the beatings and the whippings and the disregard for bonds among slaves really happened. We also know that slave rebellions and examples of revenge actually happened. What I'm talking about when I say the movie is a comic book is the depiction of an exaggerated kind of super-hero who is able to, say, mow down dozens of rifle-wielding attackers armed only with a couple of pistols. (Sorry if anyone reading this thinks I just spoiled any of the movie for you, but if you don't know something like that is coming from the moment you first lay eyes on Django, then you just don't get out to the movies often enough.) Anyway, that kind of character only exists in spaghetti westerns or action thrillers. (Jamie Foxx plays this kind of character beautifully. He should do more action movies.)

Tarantino prepared us for how to appreciate his kind of historical fiction with his last movie, Inglorious Basterds (genre: buddy war movies; story: the Holocaust). We all know that World War II didn't end anything close to the way Tarantino chose to show it. But it was fun to imagine that spectacle. We should therefore expect that a Tarantino movie about the South just before the Civil War is not going to end in a historically accurate way. On the other hand, Gone with the Wind wasn't at all historically accurate either, but made a pernicious pretense of accuracy, thus encouraging audiences to believe its lies. Tarantino doesn't expect the audience to believe in his revenge fantasy, exactly, but is going after a deeper truth I think.

Which leads me to a discussion of historical revisionism. There are basically two kinds  of historical revisionism, the good kind and the bad kind. The good kind challenges the conventional wisdom about a historical event, and tries to show history in a different, truer light. Our view of Reconstruction, for example, has in the last several decades, been challenged by the good kind of historical revisionism, to the point where we are more likely to see Southern efforts to shake off Reconstruction in a negative way. The bad kind of historical revisionism are attempts to whitewash or deny the actuality of historical events. Holocaust denial, for example. Django Unchained, like Inglorious Basterds, does not fit within either category. These stories are not historical revisionism at all; they are historical fantasy.

But this style does lead to a deeper truth. And the deeper truth lies in the depictions of the endless brutality of slavery; the horror of treating people as property. And perhaps most of all, showing just how deeply ingrained racism was and still must be in American culture. The nearly universal racism depicted in this film is and should be the most shocking thing in it. The kind of easy, offhand racism we see in Django Unchained you would not expect to see disappear from American life for hundreds of years, if ever. And in fact we know it has not disappeared, though it has moved into the shadows. (Anybody who thinks that racism has disappeared from American culture should try reading some of the truly disgusting remarks spread on the internet when our president pre-empted a football game to speak at the Newtown memorial.)

One symptom of just how ingrained racism still is in American culture is the dearth of films that deal honestly with slavery. I saw an interview with Tarantino where he noted that we have a lot of Westerns, but hardly any Southerns. Why is that? Southern history should furnish just as many stories of drama and conflict as we can gather from the west. Our fear of confronting that long stretch of our history tied up with slavery--most of American history, really--can be compared to the fear of Germans honestly coming to terms with the Nazi era. What we need now are even more movies about slavery. Tarantino has not said it all by any means. But he might have shocked us to the point where we are able to look under some rocks and confront some ugly truths.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How to talk about guns

M4 rifle
As the nation embarks on a debate about how to reduce gun violence, it might be a good idea to set some ground rules. First rule: it's useless to frame this issue in terms of constitutional rights. The meaning of the Second Amendment is a legal question that is determined by the Supreme Court. Arguing about the meaning of the Second Amendment is not going to get us anywhere, unless somebody's argument is going to influence the Supreme Court. Anyway, liberals just look foolish and hypocritical advocating a strict textual, originalist interpretation of the Second Amendment. They don't apply that standard when they claim that abortion and sodomy are constitutionally-protected activities. Why read another part of the Bill of Rights differently?

The good news for liberals is that even though the Supreme Court has determined that individuals have a constitutional right to own firearms, the Court left a lot of room for all kinds of regulations of that right. Nearly all of the ideas being floated for stricter control of weapons would probably be permitted under the Court's interpretation. If some gun regulations are not permitted by the Constitution, that is going to be for the courts to decide anyway, so it is no use arguing about it. First, propose and pass whatever gun regulations people decide are appropriate, and let the courts decide if we go too far.

My second rule for improving the debate comes from the mediation community. If we're trying to resolve a conflict, we need to ask participants to focus on their interests, rather than argue positions. Focusing on positions--whether we should or should not regulate guns more strictly--just drives people into opposing camps, and encourages them to assemble justifications for their views. If we instead try to find common interests, we might have a more constructive dialogue about the most effective ways to accomplish that common goal.The only good thing that can be said about the Newtown tragedy is that it made us see our common interest: protecting the safety of children and other innocents. Any constructive discussion of the problem of gun violence must focus on that important interest.

Using that standard, we might have to recognize that there were parts of NRA lobbyist Wayne La Pierre's statement on Friday that could be used to start a constructive dialogue. LaPierre did try to address the common interest we share in protecting the safety of children by proposing the ideas of installing armed guards at all schoolhouses, and also cracking down on violent video games and other media depictions of violence. A lot of people might think these are bad ideas, but if we're going to have a constructive dialogue and debate with the gun enthusiast community--which is a sizable community--then the right way to react to the ideas  LaPierre has proposed is to thank him for his contribution to resolving the problem of gun violence, engage him in a discussion about the effectiveness of his proposed strategies, and ask him whether he is willing to consider any other methods of promoting the same goal of protecting children.

Mall Cop
That leads to my third proposed rule, which is that we should demand empirical evidence supporting any suggestion for dealing with the problem of reducing violence. So if Wayne La Pierre tells us that the only way of stopping a bad guy with a gun is to install a good guy with a gun in every school building (and presumably every shopping mall, every movie theatre, and every other public space), we should demand studies showing the efficacy of this solution. Is that really the ONLY way? What about counseling? What about reducing the bad guy's access to the arms stockpile that his mother might have been assembling? And how effective is one armed security guard standing at the entrance to a school if the bad guy shoots him first? Still, we don't need to rule out increased security as one possible solution to gun violence.  Lots of schools already have guards and gates, and maybe we should consider beefing up some of those protections as part of the solution. But if Wayne LaPierre wants people to be open to his ideas, he needs to be open to other ideas as well. Including ideas that might keep dangerous weapons out of the wrong hands, or restrict access to high volume magazines, or require that gun owners at least pass the kind of licensing and safety tests that we demand of car owners.

Let's get all ideas on the table, look at evidence as to how well they work, and try to solve this problem in a constructive way.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Plan B fails!


The Republican House leadership finally agrees. They wish Plan B were more widely available. Speaker Boehner's back-up plan was withdrawn tonight when the leadership realized they just didn't have the votes to pass it.

This is being portrayed as a failure for the Speaker, but Plan B was actually a pretty clever gambit on his part. To get more of what the Republicans want out of a budget deal, Boehner proposed an alternate plan better for his side than the plan the speaker and the president were negotiating. Boehner thought he might pressure Democrats to agree, otherwise they might be blamed for the failure of the negotiations. But first he had to get his caucus to support Plan B.

The real failure is of the Republican caucus to back the plan. This failure is almost incomprehensible, given that the only alternatives now are either acquiescence to a negotiated agreement worse from the Republican point of view, or the dreaded fiscal cliff. If we go over the fiscal cliff, Republicans lose all their leverage on tax cuts. Taxes will go up automatically for all Americans. And the only alternative on the table will be the Democratic proposal to reduce tax rates for all but the top 2%. How could the House not bring that up for a vote once all the rates have gone up?

Here's what Representative Dan Burton said about that:
"If we go over the fiscal cliff, the president just comes back and says, 'OK, we're going to give tax cuts to everybody under $250,000.' Who's going to vote against that? Everybody'll vote for that. Everybody. Because it will be just a fait accompli. You won't be voting on whether you're going to do away with a tax cut, you're going to be reimposing tax cuts for everybody under $250,000. So the Republicans are in an untenable situation."
What explains the mentality of the House Republicans who tonight rejected the best option they seem to have in these negotiations? Tonight they decided that none of the available alternatives are good enough for them. That means they might get stuck with a worse alternative. I've seen this mentality sometimes displayed by clients and other participants in settlement negotiations in my law practice. I tried to settle an employment discrimination case a while back, for example, in which the company offered x dollars, but the guy thought he should get more like 5x. The amazing thing was that this plaintiff knew he was almost certain to lose the whole case if he went to trial. He was very clear-eyed about it, and yet still could not accept the company's offer even though it was almost certainly better than any available alternative. It just didn't meet the standards of what he felt he was entitled to. A rational person should always choose x if the only choice is between 0 and x. But people are not all that rational. If they have an unshakeable belief that they are entitled to 5x, they would sometimes rather take 0 than settle for less than they believe is right.

That's what the Republican House majority chose to do tonight. They decided they would rather have a big tax increase imposed on their constituents than compromise their "no tax increase" principles in the slightest. They rejected the possibility of agreeing to the tiniest possible tax increase that their leadership could possibly propose. This is not rational thinking. But it's not surprising either. The real world will find its way of imposing itself on the Republican House majority. But they are not going to be a willing partner to that process. 

To be fair, I should mention that Plan B was probably doomed anyway, since the Democrats in the Senate said they probably wouldn't even have brought it up for a vote. And President Obama threatened to veto it. Still, it's got to be way worse for the Republican bargaining position if they can't even agree among themselves to support the least damaging possible plan to their beliefs. It's like refusing to agree to have your smallest toe amputated, even when you know that you will either die or lost your whole leg if you don't. It's amazing to watch a political party do that to themselves. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Budget negotiations

I have a fair amount of experience representing clients in negotiations, and a lot of experience as a mediator as well. What I always have to remind parties in negotiations is not to say no too soon. Show some flexibility and movement if you want the other side to do the same. Wait until the other side has presented what seems close to their best offer before deciding whether or not to accept it. And don't compare that offer to the ideal of what you think you are entitled to. Compare it to the alternative of no deal.

Because in the real world, we don't often get exactly what we think we are entitled to. Instead we get a choice between the deal we can get the other side to agree to, and the alternative of no deal at all. And we might have to offer to accept less than we would like just to find out what the possible deal is.

Looking objectively at the current budget negotiations between Speaker Boehner and President Obama, I don't see anything for either side's supporters to be outraged about at all. Both sides are following fairly standard negotiating tactics. Both are giving ground very slowly. At this stage, the two sides don't really seem all that far apart. And the outlines of a final deal don't seem all that unreasonable.

Everybody knows the final deal will consist of a combination of revenue increases and spending cuts. For the Republicans, the revenue increases will be too large and the spending cuts too small. For the Democrats, the opposite. But look at how much progress we have made since the stalemated budget negotiations of last year, when the Republican side would not agree to any revenue increases at all. Suddenly, the Republican side seems willing to accept tax increases of approximately equal size to spending cuts, which would have been unthinkable for them last year. And to give up their attacks on Medicare. To get those concessions, the Democratic side had to show some willingness to trim slightly their demands for tax increases on the wealthiest Americans, and to tinker with the cost of living formula for Social Security. This all looks like standard negotiating to me. Neither side would be getting closer to a deal, which the parties are, without showing this kind of flexibility. People are kidding themselves if they think that the other side in these negotiations would bend if their side just held firm to their initial positions. Negotiating just plain doesn't work that way. The way it works is the way we are seeing it unfold in public.

Both side's supporters should feel confident that their representatives are doing their best to obtain the best deal possible, and are using every bargaining chip and bit of power at their disposal. At the end of the negotiations, we might quibble about whether one side or the other left a little money on the table. But for now we have no reason to think anybody is getting anything other than the best deal possible for their side.

If the parties do reach a negotiated solution, nobody is going to be entirely happy with it. That's one definition of a negotiated solution. The test is whether it is better than the alternative. Critics of the concessions their side is considering in the negotiation process, would do well to consider the serious negative consequences of failure. Those include tax increases for nearly all Americans, layoffs for federal employees and contractors, market reversals and credit downgrades that will affect the financial condition of the entire country. And perhaps most importantly, the growing sense that this country is so polarized and dysfunctional that it can't even reach agreement on something as basic as a budget, something that should never have been so politicized in the first place.

It's a budget, and it necessarily has to reflect the spending and taxing priorities of all of us. The only way it could truly fail would be for the budget to end up making one party cheer and the other party feel that its priorities were ignored. So people should be happy if we end up with something they're not entirely happy about. The alternative is worse.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Newtown



President Obama's speech at Newtown tonight, which makes an unexpected pivot from consoling the victims of tragedy to calling for action at a national level to try to prevent these kinds of violent incidents, is already being compared to Lyndon Johnson's speech after the Selma tragedy, in which he called for passage of the Voting Rights Act. What makes these incidents similar is that both caused people to say, "Enough is enough. We have to do something to solve this problem." The difference is that back then, we had a better idea of what we needed to do. We had a piece of legislation on the table; we just needed the will to pass it.

So this time it was right for the president not to propose any specific measures yet. Instead, he invited the public to begin a dialogue on appropriate responses, and challenged defeatists who doubt that anything effective can be done. President Obama is not claiming to have all the answers, but is expecting us to rise to the challenge. He's clearly heartbroken at repeatedly having to appear at these kinds of events.

The right way to begin a constructive dialogue is to stay open to all good faith suggestions, and to try to avoid the kind of reflexive opposition to anything suggested by opposing parties that represents politics as usual.

Zero Dark Thirty

The new film Zero Dark Thirty is a thrilling account of the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden. At the end, it takes you inside the raid on bin Laden's hideout in the incredibly super-realistic way that only a film can do. Before we get to that point, the film lays out a ten year history showing just how difficult it was to find and follow the trail that led to that hideout.

What should be emphasized is that this story is a triumph of feminism. The hero is a woman CIA operative whose dogged focus on her target finally leads to success. Although the film takes some liberties with history for the sake of a good narrative, apparently this part of the story is essentially true. There was a woman at the center of the effort to hunt down bin Laden, and those who want to give credit to the male actors, whether you favor Bush-Cheney, or Obama, or Navy Seal Team 6, must also recognize the key role of a smart, stubborn female detective. And cheers to Mark Boal for a great script, to Kathryn Bigelow for her determination and skill in filming this story, and to Jessica Chastain for bringing this character to life.

What's unfortunate about the film--and perhaps not the film's fault--is that it is going to revive an ugly debate about the efficacy of torture in providing clues that ultimately led to finding bin Laden. For about the first half hour or so, we are treated to graphic depictions of the dark days of secret interrogations of detainees. The filmmakers decided to show these scenes in a neutral or "balanced" way, almost documentary style. The audience is therefore free to decide what to make of this depiction. If you are repulsed, disgusted, and horrified, that is certainly a legitimate reaction. If you see torture as a necessary evil, the movie lets you identify with CIA interrogators who seem to feel that way also. I suppose you could even cheer the mistreatment of the bad guys, in this movie mostly focused on one particular mid-level Al Qaeda bad guy, if you believe that no punishment of the people who plotted the murder of Americans on September 11 can be too gruesome.

The reason I say it's unfortunate that the movie will open up a new debate about torture, is that this debate is not likely to lead anywhere productive. Those who advocate torture will resort to the following logic: After being tortured, some of the detainees talked. Therefore torture was effective. They can point to scenes in the film that justify this logic. Those who are against torture will say that we would have gotten just as good or probably better information without needing to resort to torture. That side of the debate can also point to scenes in the film showing that bribery was more effective than torture, or that the NSA's advanced surveillance techniques were what really led us to the target. It's an unresolvable argument.

This stale debate doesn't resolve the real issue, because even if we were to grant that torture can sometimes be effective, it must still remain illegal. The civilized world has already made that decision and it is irrevocable. There's no debate about it. Nobody who is taking this question seriously is trying to remove the prohibitions against torture under international law, or set up a new legal code defining under what circumstances torture may or may not be used. Even the Bush administration never claimed that torture should be legal. Instead, Bush and Cheney made an effort, relying on the Office of Legal Counsel, to redefine some of the harsh interrogation techniques they authorized, as not constituting torture. But the Bush administration eventually retracted those opinions. To the extent torture continues to occur, it therefore must remain a shadowy practice beyond the bounds of the law. To the extent the CIA engaged in torture, we must remain disgraced by that conduct, or at a minimum, have grave misgivings about it. It's not a record to be proud of.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Shooting children

Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters

AP/Jessie Hill

I think Jay Carney might be right that today might not be the day to debate policy proposals, specifically gun control. But I think people who react to that statement by saying if not today, then when?--are also right.

We have a problem, and we need to try to fix it. We need to have a real dialogue about the culture of violence in this country and what we can do about it. We don't need the kind of debate where one person's suggestion is only met by somebody else pointing out what is wrong with that suggestion. Those kinds of debates are themselves symptomatic of the culture of violence we live in. Instead, we need to listen carefully to all legitimate ideas about how to reduce violence, and think about steps we can take to reduce the occurrence of these kinds of tragedies.



Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Top tweet of the year

Here it is, according to Twitter, the most re-tweeted tweet of the year:



What does this mean for Justin Bieber, who lost out to the president for top tweet, and was also recently de-throned by Psy for most-viewed video of all time?





https://twitter.com/BarackObama

Friday, December 7, 2012

Action

Are you suffering from post-campaign depression? Are you one of the people who was caught up in the excitement and work of re-electing the president, and now you need an outlet for that energy? Wondering what to do now?

Some people have realized that they should not allow all that campaign energy to dissipate as happened to some extent after the 2008 campaign. They understand that they can't expect the president to accomplish his campaign objectives alone. They are therefore organizing around specific issues.

So if you care about an issue, say whether taxes should be increased on the top 2%, which seems to be the issue of the moment, here are some things people can do right now.  
  • Support Minority Leader Pelosi's Discharge Petition, which would force a vote on ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%,. The petition only needs 40 more signatures. Click below to find out how to fill your Congressional member's voicemail box with reminders to sign. It has an impact. http://www.theaction.org/?p=1445
  • Attend one of more than 250 events coming up all across the country -- all grassroots organized, and geared towards pressuring members of Congress to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%. Groups are planning rallies, phone banks, and such fun events as singing tax cut-themed carols outside a Rep's office. Find out if one is happening near you here: http://find.theaction.org


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The people's will

The latest polling from ABC/Washington Post shows that a substantial majority of the public favor restoring 1990's tax rates on the top 2% of earners, and that an even larger majority (two-thirds!) strongly opposes raising the eligibility age for Medicare to 67.

So why, we might ask, are Republican counter-proposals for avoiding the so-called "fiscal cliff" still refusing to agree to the Democratic position, the position that President Obama practically staked his re-election campaign on, that the Bush tax cuts must end for those making over $250,000 per year? And why the Republican focus on cutting benefits to Medicare benefits for seniors, from Republicans who practically staked their election campaign on an attack on the administration for cutting Medicare benefits? (Remember all the talk about the $700 billion supposedly taken from Medicare to fund Obamacare?)

What gives? The House of Representatives is supposed to be the body of government most responsive to the people's will. If would be one thing if the Republican House leadership could make the argument that despite the people's will, their representatives need to be the grown-ups and make the tough decisions necessary to balance the budget. But the Republican proposals don't do a better job of balancing the budget than the Democratic proposals. They do a worse job, in fact. The savings from increasing the age of Medicare eligibility are paltry compared to the revenue gains from raising the top marginal income tax rate from 35% to 39%.

It's time for Republicans in Congress to pay heed to the idea that we live in some semblance of a democracy. If for no other reason than that polls also show that the public knows exactly which side they will blame more if the parties fail to make a deal before the end of the year.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

What the fiscal cliff means

Whether you get your news from Fox, CNN, MSNBC or Jon Stewart, all you will hear is that the looming January 1 deadline to reach a budget deal represents a crisis that we should try to avert. Democrats and Republicans in Congress might disagree about what we need to do to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, although they don't really disagree as much as it appears--everyone agrees, for example, that we should at least extend the Bush tax cuts for middle income taxpayers. What everyone also seems to agree on is that the possibility of expiration of all these tax cuts at once, combined with some fairly drastic mandated spending cuts, represents a significant danger to our economy. Why is raising taxes and cutting government spending such a danger to the economy? And what does it mean that everyone agrees that raising taxes and cutting too much government spending is in fact a grave danger to the economy right now?

Of course it makes sense that if everyone's take home pay decreases, people will have less to spend on whatever they need or want to spend money on, and that will slow economic activity, but remember that that decrease would be balanced out by an increase in government revenues, which would have the effect of reducing the government's need to borrow to pay its bills. And that's supposed to be a good thing too. But if we agree that more consumer spending is better for the economy than a reduction in the amount the government has to borrow, then we are endorsing the existence of deficits in slow economic times. In other words, we are admitting, as President Nixon is supposed to have admitted, that, Republicans and Democrats alike, we are all Keynesians now. (Nixon actually only admitted that he was now a Keynesian, but the phrase stuck.)

And it's not just tax cuts that we agree on. We also agree that cutting government spending would be bad for the economy. Every day Republicans are warning us of the dire effects of sequestration on the Defense budget, not just because of the danger that would pose to national security, but also because defense cuts will harm the economy. If we cut defense spending, we put defense contractors out of work, and we reduce the size of military bases that employ many thousands of people. Obviously that would be bad for the economy just as raising taxes would slow down the economy.

I repeat: if we all agree that going over the fiscal cliff is a bad thing, that necessarily implies that we all agree that reducing the deficit too drastically is a bad thing. We agree that we have to keep taxes low and government spending high. There is nothing else that our fear of the fiscal cliff can mean.

And that means that everything that the deficit hawks have been saying since the recession hit in 2008, and all of the attacks on the Obama administration for allowing the deficit to increase, is complete and utter bullshit. No matter who had been in office the last four years, we would have had an exploding deficit. And we would have allowed that to happen on purpose, because we all agree that balancing the budget would only have made the recession worse.

The real difference between the two parties in the budget negotiations has nothing to do with the deficit. The Democrats' budget proposals will maintain a big fat deficit next year. So will the Republicans.  The difference is in spending and taxing priorities. The Republicans want to maintain a big deficit by keeping defense expenditures high, and by cutting taxes for the wealthy. The Democrats want to maintain a big deficit by keeping social expenditures high, but they also want to increase taxes slightly on the wealthy. Both sides will argue that their taxing and spending priorities are better for the economy, but that is mostly bullshit also.

What is helping the economy the most is keeping the deficit high. Whether we do that by cutting taxes or by increasing spending, and what we spend the money on, are important but only secondary considerations, at least as far as the overall effects on the economy are concerned. And since we agree on so much, that means we will eventually reach agreement on a package that will keep taxes low for the middle class, and will also include only modest cuts in government spending. We will do that because we agree that, at least for now, we need to maintain a fairly large deficit to keep the economy from sliding back in recession.




Friday, November 30, 2012

Takers and Makers

Scrambling to explain their electoral defeat this month, some conservatives are trying to comfort themselves--and scare the rest of us--with the notion that this country has reached a tipping point where the beneficiaries of government largesse are starting to outnumber the productive members of society. Like Mitt Romney's famous "47%" remarks (except that Mitt found out it's actually more than 50%), this theory posits that the ever-expanding group of "takers" is going to vote for more and more government spending to subsidize their indolent lifestyle, while the "makers" find more and more of the fruits of their labors taken from them, to the point where they have no more incentive to work.

Another version of this argument appears in a Forbes article identifying states that are in a supposed "death spiral." which supposedly starts to occur when a state has more "takers" than "makers." If, for example, you have a software company in San Francisco employing 100 people, those 100 hard-working "makers" are, according to the article, supporting 139 "takers," and so the company will have an incentive to move its operation to Texas, where they will only have to support 82 "takers." Granting that taxes are lower in Texas than California, and that some companies will move to take advantage of lower taxes, there are still a lot of flaws in this analysis. For one thing, I'll bet software companies in San Francisco are paying better wages than companies in Texas. That might give the owners even more incentive to re-locate, but a lot of their employees (who are the makers in this analysis) might have preferred to remain in California, despite its proportionately larger dependent population.

In general, however, the idea that so-called makers are paying more and more to subsidize a growing number of takers is simply false. A New York Times study published today demonstrates that overall, the combined burden of federal, state and local taxes is actually LESS for ALL income groups than it was in the 1980's. How much less? For those making over $350,000 annually, average combined tax rates have fallen from 49% of their income in the 1980's to 42% today. For those making less than $25,000 in annual income, the combined tax rate has dropped from 20% to 19%. If almost everyone is paying less on average, obviously we are not being swallowed up by an army of takers.

I also have a problem with the way the Forbes piece defines makers and takers. According to their calculations, every government employee is classified as a taker, while every private sector worker is a maker. But government employees pay taxes like the rest of us. They also perform valuable services, like driving buses and teaching our kids to read, and some of them even make things. The private sector provides goods and services that are not so different in character from the benefits we obtain from the government. The private sector also includes a lot of people who are performing contracts for the government, whether they are building military jets or preparing environmental impact reports. Moreover, all of us are dependent on government at some points in our lives, and for some things throughout our lives. We all need schools and roads and police and fire services. If we didn't pay taxes to pay the people who take out our trash and clean our streets, we would have to pay for those services in some other way.

Even if we could could separate takers and makers, there is no magic ratio between the two groups beyond which the economy will fail. In the early part of the last century, most people were working on farms. We needed a lot of  makers to feed all of us takers. But now with something like 5% of the population working in agriculture, we only need one maker to feed 20 takers. Similar changes have taken place in manufacturing and construction, allowing us to produce more goods using fewer workers, and thus enabling us to support more "takers." Think of a family's economy as an analogy to a state or nation's economy. In some families, take Mitt Romney's for example, a single breadwinner is able to provide quite nicely for his wife and five boys. On the other hand, in my family, where we have two makers and two takers, we're probably going to have to take out some loans to put our kids through college. In other words, it doesn't seem to matter what percentage of the population is employed in some productive capacity. What matters is whether that workforce is productive enough to provide a decent living for all of us. Someday when we've managed to automate everything, we might all enjoy being takers while we let machines do all the making.

People who subscribe to the takers vs. makers dichotomy might recognize that it is a bit simplistic to claim we are in a death spiral as soon as the number of "takers" exceeds the number of "makers." Nevertheless, they would still argue that there must be some limit to how many unproductive people society can support. Thoughtful conservatives will also recognize the need to maintain roads and bridges and provide for the common defense. What they are really talking about, when they get alarmed about wasteful government spending, are transfer payments: the exploding costs of Medicare and Medicaid, the rising use of food stamps, and growing unfunded pension liabilities for public employees. If those are the problems they are concerned about, we should focus directly on those problems. Let's figure out how to reduce poverty and unemployment; let's get some actuaries to calculate how to afford our pension obligations; and let's make health care delivery more efficient. If we label the problems correctly, we might find they are actually manageable. What makes them seem unmanageable is the kind of rhetoric that labels all public employees as a drag on the economy, or that disparages everyone who needs a government-subsidized college grant or unemployment assistance at some point in their lives.

What we need to do is stop dividing people up in ways that can only cause resentment. We also need to recognize that most everyone who can work is working in some form or other, and that all of us are dependent on the work of others and on the benefits that government provides for all of us. Practically everybody tries to contribute and everybody wants to be taken care of. That makes us all  both takers and makers.


(Illustration by Keith Negley for the New York Times)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Climate Change Predictions Proven Wrong!

Today some scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research released a report based on satellite measurements of sea level changes. The report showed that, even though global temperature changes have accorded with the latest predictions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), sea level changes have NOT risen at the same rate as predicted by the IPCC.

Apparently, these satellite measurements show that sea-levels are actually rising at a rate of 3.2 mm a year, while the IPCC report had predicted a rise of 2 mm per year. Ha! Shows what those scientists know. I guess that means we can all put our heads back in the sand now and ignore all the scientific forecasts of rising sea levels. Wait, what's that sound of rushing water I hear? Burble, burble, glug, glug, glug.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Hope for filibuster reform

What's the most important issue facing the U.S. Senate right now? For someone like me who is more interested in process than substance, the answer is easy. It's filibuster reform, and it's shaping up to be a bruising battle that will be fought right at the outset of the session beginning in January. Minority Leader McConnell agrees that this is the number one issue facing his members. He is quoted as saying that opposition to filibuster reform "may be the most important thing you ever do."

Why do we need filibuster reform? Precisely because Mitch McConnell has abused the filibuster more than any minority leader in Congress in U.S. history. By far. This chart should be enough to persuade anyone that we have a problem, and we have to do something about it.




(Chicago Tribune)

I'd like to ask Senator McConnell what would have happened if Republicans had won the 2012 presidential election, and also held majorities in both the House and Senate. Would Republicans sit quietly without protest if the Democratic Senate minority tried to prevent a vote on every single piece of important legislation the new Republican administration tried to pass, as Republicans have done for the past four years to the Obama administration? Of course not. If Republicans had obtained the majority, they probably would be planning some kind of filibuster reform themselves, just as Democrats are now proposing. The vicious cycle has to stop. At this point, the only way that is going to happen is by changing the rules.

The rules changes being proposed are not particularly radical. They will not by any means eliminate the ability of the minority to filibuster. Instead, they will require that any Senators who want to prevent a vote on a bill will actually have to take to the floor and debate the bill to death. No longer will the minority be allowed routinely to require the majority to get 60 votes on a cloture motion before there can be a vote on the actual bill, as is the case now. If the minority wants to prevent a vote on a bill, they will have to do what the public commonly thinks of as an old-fashioned filibuster. Stand up and make speeches against the bill, or at least muster the presence of some Senators on the floor. Let the public see who is preventing legislation from being passed. If it's a noble cause, and the public respects the feelings of the minority, more power to them. But if the public begins to understand just how routinely the minority has prevented action on Senate bills and appointments that have broad public support, the minority might just have to reduce their reliance on this device to the rare occurrence that it is supposed to be.

Life of Pi

Movies frequently play on the need to believe. Skeptical characters in movies are punished; believers are usually rewarded. In the movies, ghosts are real; animals and inanimate objects can talk. The audience suspends its disbelief and therefore knows as Dorothy does, that Oz in all its technicolor glory, was not just a dream. We learn, as the girl played by Natalie Wood learns in Miracle on 34th Street, that we should believe in Santa Claus.

So Life of Pi presents a perfect subject for a movie. Its elements of fantasy deserve to be brought to the screen in the hyper-realistic 3D style Ang Lee has chosen. While watching, we know, if we think for two minutes about the logistics of filming this story, that most of the time the tiger we are seeing on the screen is not real, and to the extent they used a real tiger, which I understand they did to some extent, the tiger can't really be on the same boat with the boy. But we believe the boy and tiger are on a lifeboat together just the same. That's the power of movies. Thinking about the artifice involved in making this film makes us ponder one of the themes of the book, which is whether what we are being told could actually have happened.

Life of Pi asks us to choose between two stories. The main story is inherently implausible and utterly fantastic. It contains elements, like the floating island, that have never been seen before. (The movie even leaves out one of the most unbelievable sequences from the book, where Pi, temporarily blinded and in the middle of the ocean, bumps into another blinded shipwreck survivor on another lifeboat. What are the odds?)

The whole story about the tiger could easily have been made up. When Pi encounters a skeptical audience at the end, he decides to offer them a more realistic story, a story of human cruelty and tragedy that is inherently believable. It rings true because it is similar to many documented stories of survivors of disaster. But we don't want to believe that story. It's too depressing. Hearing the horrible second story only persuades us to believe the uplifting first story even more. Pi also persuades us that he could not have survived without the tiger, because the tiger gave his life a purpose. And so it goes, Pi says, with God. If the story of a boy and tiger doesn't prove the existence of God, as is claimed, Life of Pi proves at least the powerful human need to believe in miracles and salvation.

[Richard Parker, by the way, is the name of the actual cabin boy who was the victim of two shipwrecked sailors in the famous case of Dudley and Stephens, and also, even more amazingly, the name of a fictional shipwreck victim in a Poe story written before the events in the Dudley and Stephens case took place. (other Richard Parkers listed here) But you still want to believe that Richard Parker is a tiger, don't you?]



Animation World Network

Monday, November 26, 2012

More on the pledge

It occurs to me that all the signs of Congressional Republican reasonableness on the budget negotiations that I celebrated in my prior post might represent a clever strategy on the opposition's part. (In addition to Senator Chambliss, we now hear similar statements disavowing pledges never to raise taxes from the likes of Senators Graham, Coburn, and Corker, and from Senator-elect Flake.) Not that these statements don't still call for celebration--they do. Any weakening of the hold that the unelected tax czar Grover Norquist has over Congress deserves all the praise it can get.

But as Jed Lewison pointed out in a post on Daily Kos, Congressional Republicans don't even need to violate the Norquist pledge in order to increase revenues. Under current law, the Bush tax cuts expire all by themselves at the end of the year. If Congress does nothing, income tax rates will automatically go up for everyone. So why all the public demonstrations of a willingness to break the pledge? Could all these pledge-breakers be throwing Grover Norquist under the bus to achieve some larger purpose?

Because Democrats are willing to extend the Bush tax cuts for income under $250,000, what is actually on the table now is a Democratic proposal to LOWER tax rates for everyone. But Republicans are balking at agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts on those income levels unless Democrats also agree to extend the 35% tax rate on earned income above $250,000. That means that Republican expressions of reasonableness about revenues are to some extent a ruse. Those Republicans who publicly embrace the need to increase revenues have yet to express any willingness to restore higher income tax RATES for anyone. All they are talking about so far are limitations on deductions.

What's the difference, so long as we get some more money into the Treasury to help pay the bills? It's a big difference. The tax and budget talks going on now in Washington are merely the latest battle in an ideological struggle that goes back decades. It's an article of faith among Republicans that the most important thing we should try to achieve in the tax code is to keep rates as low as possible; and also to reduce the progressivity of the Code. Low rates, according to this theory, represent a reduction in government interference in peoples' economic decisions. And lessening progressivity represents a retreat from government attempts to re-distribute income. Republicans have at times been willing to allow the elimination of popular tax deductions, and also to allow payroll taxes to increase, in exchange for agreements to keep top marginal rates low, and thereby satisfy these ideological desires. Democrats, on the other hand, have generally favored more progressivity and higher top marginal rates, because they want to expand the social safety net and reduce economic inequality.

On the whole, Republicans have been winning the war over high tax rates, as over the years, rates and progressivity have been steadily ratcheted down, from a 90% top bracket during the Eisenhower years, to 70% in the 1970s, to 50% under Reagan, and 35% under George W. Bush. (It's no coincidence that over the same period, the disparity between rich and poor has reached levels not seen since the 1920's.) The Obama administration has been fighting hard to restore the 39% top rate that Bill Clinton achieved in the 1990's over fierce Republican opposition, opposition that has only increased during the last few years. (I might add that Republican opposition to the 39% top marginal tax rate has cost the Republicans a great deal politically--it was a factor in the 2012 election--since a solid majority of the public favors restoring the 39% top rate for high earners. Despite the heavy price they are paying, Republicans cling to the 35% top marginal income tax rate like nothing else.)

But last year's budget agreement was engineered to make it almost inevitable that the 39% top tax bracket would be restored if Obama were re-elected. Both sides knew that at the time, and Republicans agreed to the deal because they were hoping to win the 2012 election. But now Democrats show no signs of weakening on this point. Really, why should they? They won the election. That means what we are seeing are the last ditch efforts of the Republican opposition to forestall the inevitable. In the course of this battle, all kinds of surprising things might happen, like the willingness of the Republican opposition to break pledges and put anything on the table. The last thing the opposition will give on will be the thing they hate the most, which is to allow top marginal tax rates to creep back up again. We will get right to the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff, and may tumble over it, before that will happen.



 PoliGu.com


Friday, November 23, 2012

Cheers to Senator Chambliss!

not this Grover
Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, announced on Wednesday that he is not afraid of Grover Norquist anymore. Knowing that Norquist is likely to support a primary challenge against any member of Congress who breaks the Norquist-sponsored pledge never to raise taxes, no matter what, Chambliss said "I don't worry about that because I care too much about my country. I care a lot more about it than I do Grover Norquist." As Chambliss pointed out, "Norquist has no plan to pay this debt down."

Who is Grover Norquist, anyway? Who elected him to anything? Why should anyone be afraid of him? Grover Norquist deserves no more respect than a schoolyard bully. Once a few more members of Congress stand up to him, once more candidates recognize that the anti-tax pledge is more of a hindrance than a help, Norquist will have no more power anymore.

In other political news this week, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who was vilified by many of his fellow Republicans for daring to praise President Obama's handling of Hurricane Sandy, has zoomed up in the polls to a 77% approval rating.  77%!

Mitch McConnell should take note. House Republicans should take note. Working constructively with the opposition, instead of in unrelenting opposition, could be good politics, in addition to being good for the country.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Burma



President Obama spent about six hours in Burma on his way to a summit meeting in Cambodia, enough time to visit with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and give a speech at the University of Yangon. Enough time to celebrate the progress that country has made away from a military dictatorship sealed off from the rest of the world, and to encourage further efforts toward freedom and democracy. 

Some say it's too soon for the president to visit Burma. I would say there is no fixed set of criteria for determining when a country is ready for the seal of approval that a presidential visit and restoration of relations represents. Was it too soon for Nixon to visit China in 1972? Forty years later, that country still has serious human rights problems and is a long way from democracy. Burma too has a long road ahead. But it doesn't seem premature to applaud the progress that the people of Burma have already made, and help bring their country into the light.

Lincoln

Watching the sordid deals that take place behind the scenes in Congress should be disheartening, but when Congress finally does act to do the right thing, the end result is nevertheless inspirational. The messy process of passing a bill through the House of Representatives provides the central drama in the new movie Lincoln.  In this case the bill in question is a rather important one; it became the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery. Against the advice of many in his cabinet, Lincoln wanted to get that bill through a lame duck session even before a more friendly Congress for his party would be seated, because he wanted emancipation irrevocably in place before the war came to an end, and the Confederate states would be re-admitted to the Union.  To accomplish that, Lincoln used every means at his disposal, including the promise of patronage jobs to opposition Congressmen who had just lost their seats in the election. James Spader provides entertaining comic relief as the leader of the team that uses any means necessary to secure the necessary votes for the Thirteenth Amendment.

In addition to the shady tactics used to obtain a few votes from the opposition party, the movie also illustrates the compromise Lincoln was forced to make to obtain the support of the conservative wing of his party, agreeing to entertain a peace delegation from the Confederacy, even though he knew that might jeopardize the whole project. One of the best scenes in the movie shows the president late at night in the War Department's telegraph office with two young telegraph operators. In the script, their conversation about the principles of Euclidean geometry leads Lincoln to decide to impede the progress of the Southern delegation, which turns out to be critical to passage of the amendment.  On the day of the vote, Lincoln is then shown resorting to a lawyer's trick of giving a literal answer to an imperfect question from the House, to mislead Congress about the status of these peace efforts.

Lincoln also had to make sure that the radical Republicans did not prevent passage of the bill by pushing too hard for their ultimate objective of complete equality. Lincoln persuades Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, that he must deny his own core beliefs and goals, in order to secure the interim goal of ending slavery.

Daniel Day-Lewis brings Lincoln to life. You can feel the weight on his shoulders of the terrible decisions Lincoln had to make, as well as see the indominable will Lincoln brought to bear to accomplish his object, and the flexibility, trickery and humor he needed to get it done.



Saturday, November 17, 2012

Gifts

What a sad postcript to this election campaign, Mitt Romney's comments to donors that President Obama only won re-election because of "gifts" he bestowed on his constituents. If Romney tried to think of words that would help hustle himself off the public stage as quickly as possible, and make people glad he is no longer relevant, he probably couldn't have done much better than that.

I'll grant that it would have been fair for Romney to point out to his donors that he was at some disadvantage going  up against an incumbent president, who does have the advantage of being able to travel around the country and promise storm relief, or wind energy tax credits, or the deferral of deportations for children of undocumented immigrants. But Romney knew that going in. It's sour grapes to complain about the uphill battle that any challenger has against an incumbent.

If Romney was not complaining about having to run against an incumbent, then all he was doing was insulting the majority of Americans who voted for his opponent. The politics of resentment only takes you so far. It got Mitt Romney to about 47% of the popular vote.

The graceful thing to do would have been to admit to your supporters that not enough people were buying the message you were selling. Maybe raise the issue of how to modify that message so that it will resonate with more voters. That might contribute something positive to the public discussion. Maybe it would tell us what Romney really believes in, if anything. If Romney had done that, maybe other leaders of his party would be happy to listen to him instead of telling him to go hide under a rock, as they are doing now.  Mitt Romney should heed that advice, and go home and reflect on the meaning of this election a bit more. He should not talk to us again until he has something positive and helpful to say.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Opening bids

Politics doesn't take a moment's rest after an election. All the election does is affect the strength of each side's bargaining position. Now we are hearing the opening salvos in the upcoming budget wars. Republican Congressional leaders recognize they are entering that battle in a significantly weakened position, and are already hinting at the possibility of compromise. Still, they have not yet given any substantive ground at all on their previous commitments not to raise anybody's tax rates. President Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders are standing pat on their promise to raise the top bracket rate. They are almost daring the Republicans to drive us over the so-called "fiscal cliff."

My recommendation is not to pay too much attention to the initial posturing by either side. That's the same thing I tell people when I mediate disputes in litigation. Initial demands and offers should always be taken with a hefty dose of salt.  These positions are often deliberately designed to communicate just how tough a negotiation the other side can expect. Since parties do not expect the other side to jump at an opening offer, they almost always set them too high (or too low) to give the offering party room to negotiate. Sometimes parties want the other side to think they are crazy or unreasonable. That means it usually doesn't help to express outrage at anything said in the opening rounds of a negotiation. There is little reason even to take these opening statements seriously.

Karen Brzys
There are good reasons, supported by research, for parties to open negotiations with unreasonable demands. They serve the purpose of framing the other side's expectations, a concept known as "anchoring." These initial demands set the outside boundaries for a negotiated resolution, and serve each party's interests best by dragging those boundary markers as far as each side can plausibly drag them, leaving a lot of room in the middle for an agreement both sides might be able to live with.

It's the second round of offers where negotiations get more interesting. In that round, the Republicans will probably let the Democrats know what they might be willing to do to raise revenues. The Democrats might be willing to let the Republicans know what steps they might be willing to consider to reduce the growth of entitlement programs. The parties could be discussing a total overhaul of the tax code as a means of satisfying both the Republican demand to keep rates low, and the Democratic demand to raise revenue.

The crunch will not come until we are weeks or even days away from the December 31 deadline when the Bush tax cuts will expire and sequestration kicks in. The crunch might even come later than that, because the parties know that the world will not come to an end on December 31 if Congress fails to make a deal. So it won't be until at least mid-December when we should expect to find out where the parties really stand, and where the parameters of a possible agreement might lie. We could even reach a so-called "impasse" at that time, in which both sides refuse to budge from announced positions. In the meantime, people should understand that we have several rounds of bargaining to go, and that most of what politicians are saying now is not intended to be taken seriously.

Soon, however, it will be time to pay attention. Because what will determine the outcome of these budget negotiations will be the expressed feelings of the American people, and the strength and volume with which the advocates for the Democratic, the Republican, or some in-between positions express their points of view.

If you are afraid the president might give away too much in the negotiations, it's up to you to support the president and Congressional Democrats vociferously. We should have learned from this election that strong support is the best way to strengthen his hand.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Skyfall

Over the weekend I saw Skyfall, one of the best ever entries in the 50 year old James Bond series. (50!)  And I think I've seen all of them, so I know what I'm talking about.


This movie has as much relevance to our current political situation as most  anything you'll hear on cable news this week. Seriously, check out the new Q, played by Ben Whishaw, who represents the triumph of serious computer knowledge over the silly toys offered Bond by previous Qs. Notice the old-fashioned action-hero spy standing in the background waiting for the analytics to come in.

In politics, the old-fashioned operatives are also taking a back seat to the new breed of science geeks. The LA Times ran a tribute to the computer geniuses who provided sophisticated metrics for the Obama campaign. Here's Daniel Wagner, age 29 (about the same age as Ben Whishaw), the Q of the Obama campaign, leading a staff of more than 50 (50!) who crunched the numbers that helped the Obama team win. Apparently they have been working in secret throughout the campaign in a place they called the cave, and can only show themselves now that the election is over.

photo: John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune
These are the faces of the future. If this year's election represented anything, it represented the ultimate revenge of the nerds. Look how shocked the true right wing believers were when the election went exactly as predicted by the number-crunching whiz kids like Nate Silver, who correctly called 50 out of 50 state results. (50!) No more can politicos rely on their gut instincts and feelings. Politics might finally be a science now. And you can't argue with math.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Election lessons

I caught up with continuing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for an imaginary interview in the wake of Tuesday's devastating electoral results for his party.

Q: What's next now that your primary goal of denying President Obama a second term has been thwarted?

A: That goal was only a means to an end. What the American people did in this election was merely to choose a different means to that same end.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: The results of the election clearly show that the American people want to rub President Obama's nose in the dirt. They "gave President Obama a second chance to fix the problems that even he admits he failed to solve during his first four years in office." (actual quote) Hopefully the president will heed the message of the electorate and adopt the positions of the Republican party on the most pressing issues facing our country.

Q: So you don't see these results as any kind of repudiation of the Republican platform, or suggesting any change of direction for your members in Congress?

A: What are you talking about? Clearly the American people still support the Republican program. They just chose President Obama to implement it. They want to teach the Democrats a lesson.

Q: Never mind. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing the country?

A: Obviously the major problem we are facing is that the very wealthy do not have enough money. We must act quickly to preserve their privileged position, and improve it if possible.

Q: So you don't think the president won a mandate to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthy?

A: Like I said, it seems clear to me that the voters decided to punish the president by forcing him to deal with Republicans in Congress. People could not possibly vote for President Obama because they agree with any of his ideas. The whole idea is absurd.

Q: What about the recent study by the Congressional Research Service finding that lowering tax rates for the wealthy actually has no effect on economic growth or job creation? 

A: Notice that Republicans in Congress made sure to take that report out of circulation, because we don't think people should be infected by economic analysis when they are making decisions regarding the economy.

Q: Well, what about the report of the Congressional Budget Office finding that of all the ways to deal with deficit reduction, probably the least harmful to the economy is to increase taxes for the wealthy?

A: If we are not going to allow our core values to be affected by election results, why would we reconsider our positions based on economic studies and analysis? Look, Governor Romney may have lost the election, but we can still be proud of the principles he stood for. One of his campaign's proudest statements was that they would not allow their positions to be dictated by fact-checkers.  The Republican Party will continue to stand proudly for our blind adherence to ideology notwithstanding popular opinion or truth. And if President Obama doesn't recognize the need to bend to our position, then he just doesn't understand the message of this election.

Q: So you don't interpret the election results as suggesting that Republicans need to compromise on a budget agreement?

A: I don't understand what you are talking about. The voters clearly told the Democrats they need to compromise. Why else would voters elect so many new Democrats to the Senate? They never told Republicans anything of the sort.  "I know some people out there think Tuesday’s results mean Republicans in Washington are now going to roll over and agree to Democrat demands that we hike tax rates before the end of the year. I’m here to tell them there is no truth to that notion whatsoever." (actual quote)

Q: Thank you for your time, Senator McConnell. Are there any other messages you'd like to send to the reality-based community?

A: We are not going to let silly notions like reality stand in the way of our commitment to principle.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Status quo

We can already hear people wondering why the country just spent SO much money, and SO much time, on an election that ended up changing very little in the composition of the government. I would agree to some extent on the too much money part. In the end, most of the millions each side spent on campaign commercials probably just canceled out the other side's advertising. I would also probably agree that the campaign season is too long, and we should think about ways to shorten it.

I don't agree at all that the election changed nothing, however. Sometimes the most revolutionary events in history represent a preservation of the status quo. Our own revolution could be thought of in that way, as an attempt to preserve the colonies' ability to govern themselves. The Civil War was also revolutionary, even though all it did was preserve the existing Union. Or as Lincoln put it, that war served the purpose of determining whether government of the people, by the people, and for the people, could long endure.

I'm not going to equate the re-election of Barack Obama to the American Revolution or the Civil War, but still, there are some similarities between this historic event and say, the re-election of Lincoln in 1864, a contest whose outcome was also considerably in doubt at times, and which (merely) determined whether the nation would continue on the path the president set. The election of 1864 decided, at a rather inconvenient time in the midst of war, that we should keep following Lincoln's course, and that election therefore sealed our fate. It seems doubtful we would even have a country today had we not done that.

In this election, we might not have been testing our survival as a nation, but we certainly were determining whether we want to preserve and strengthen social guarantees like health insurance for all, as well as other New Deal and Great Society programs that assist the poor and the elderly. We were certainly deciding whether we want to preserve and strengthen financial regulation that will make our economic system more fair. And we were certainly deciding whether we want to do something to reduce inequality, and enforce civil rights for women, minorities and gays.

I have less confidence in predicting this, but in the end, the most important effect of this election could even mean the difference between choosing war or peace. The Obama administration has put us on a path to reducing violence and conflict in the world, while the opposition seemed poised to increase military spending and assert a more belligerent posture. Hopefully, we have chosen to reduce conflict.

It was well worth spending a lot of time and money (maybe not as much as we spent, but a lot was still justified) making the decision to maintain our present course. Anyone who says it was all for nothing is expressing a kind of sour grapes; an attempt to deny the revolutionary effects of a powerful status quo outcome.

Election day

The polling place in Las Vegas where I spent about 13 hours watching people vote. Very inspiring.


And the party afterward, where hundreds of raucous Obama supporters watched the president celebrate his election to a second term.


Special thanks to the firemen who put out the Cajon Pass fire, thus clearing the path for myself and others to get to Vegas and assure the president's victory. I ran into a bunch of them on the way here:



Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Last minute instructions

           How to find your polling place and other information on voting. Go to www.vote.barackobama.com

                How to make sure everyone you know has voted. Go to www.barackobama.com/gotv

How to do something. Go to: barackobama.com/do-something 

How to call targeted voters from anywhere. Go to  www.call.barackobama.com

Iowa

Back where it all began:

For those saying this is President Obama's last rally, this is not the president's last rally. Midterm elections are coming up in only two years, and we can expect to see the president out on the campaign trail again in 2014. Didn't we learn from 2010 how important those are?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Keep hope alive.



Bruce Springsteen makes the case for re-electing the president.