Thursday, January 27, 2011

State of the DisUnion

It was inevitable that progressives would be disappointed with President Obama's State of the Union speech. Personalities and showmanship aside, the content of the speech was not what liberals wanted to hear. I knew going in that he would be shifting toward the center and trying to position himself as a moderate who would work with the GOP to achieve common goals. It was still very difficult to listen to him abandon campaign promise after campaign promise.

Yes, renewed focus on education is vital to our future - and would hopefully provide more opportunity for the under-privledged in our country.

Yes, fostering new technological innovations would create jobs and stimulate economic growth. And if we could manage to re-educate the labor force to work in these growing (or future) industries, unemployment will decrease.

Yes, investing in our infrastructure would improve the efficiency with which our economy can transfer goods and information, which would make us more competitive globally.It would also have the added benefit of creating jobs in the very hard hit construction sector.

Those are all laudable goals and I completely agreed that if we want to remain competitive into the future and provide a better life for our children, these are the areas to focus our energies.I have very little faith that these goals will actually be achieved while the GOP controls the House of Representatives.

Reforming the tax code is all well and good, but do we really think that the Republicans are going to agreed to a corporate tax reform structure that actually increases the effective taxes for corporations in this country? Or a reformed individual income tax structure that actually increases the effective tax rates for the wealthy? Dream on.

Obama played right into the GOP's hand when he claimed the U.S. has high corporate taxes. We don't. Corporations pay about 2.5% of GDP in taxes. That's extremely low even among other developed countries including those social democracies in the European Union. Yes, there are other ways to evaluate corporate taxes and our top marginal corporate rate is high, but if you show me a company that actually pays that rate, I'll show you a bankruptcy in waiting. So cutting corporate taxes isn't really going to help anything except corporations. They aren't sitting on piles of cash, because they're worried about corporate taxes. They're sitting on piles of cash, because there isn't as much demand for their goods and services - because nearly 20% of us are un- or under-employed.

While I appreciate President Obama's call to end the Bush tax cut extensions for the wealthy, I find it comical that he, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Neverneverland) all attacked the deficit as our greatest enemy when all three of them supported extending those tax cuts. The hypocrisy is staggering.

Everyone needs to get it through their thick skulls that we'll only reach a balanced budget and a reduced federal debt through both spending cuts and tax revenue increases. There is plenty of sound economic research showing tax cuts do not increase revenues. So taxes have to go up for revenue to go up. Cuts alone will never get us there - not with the gridlock we see in Washington.

And now is not the time to balance the budget anyway. Our recovery is weak. Austerity measures could lead to a double-dip recession. Don't believe me? Did anyone notice what's been happening in the UK?

In May 2010, David Cameron and the Conservative Party took control of the UK government. 

In October 2010, the Conservative Party announced broad austerity measures.

 In January 2011, it was announced that the UK economy *contracted* in the 4th quarter.

They blame the weather. I'm sure it didn't help, but neither did the threat of austerity measures in a weak recovery. Well done, Conservative Party leadership.

I'm just dumbfounded how poorly our leaders understand economic principles.

Taxes aren't a threat to our liberty - they  help assure our liberty.

Friday, January 21, 2011

It's the economy, stupid (again).

For much of 2009 I think much of the country was perplexed by Washington, DC's focus on health care reform. The economy was in shambles, businesses were hemorrhaging jobs, home foreclosures hit record highs. And the politicians were busy in their big marble buildings negotiating (or filibustering) on issues related only to health care.

A case could be made that health care reform was addressing the longterm health of the economy, but I won't make that argument, because too much of the cost control needs were kicked down the road to worry about later. That said, health care reform represented an enormous victory for progressive ideals. For egalitarianism. For the believe that nobody should go bankrupt because they get sick.

Granted early in 2009 a first stimulus was passed and immediately excoriated  by the Republican party as not working - even as they took credit for its job creation in their home districts. Politicians are nothing if not opportunistic.

Finally, in 2010 the powers that be got down to business by passing the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act- a reform measure intended to reign in the excesses of the financial industry and protect average investors from predatory behaviors. This again didn't directly address jobs and the economy, but will hopefully help avoid future Wall Street initiated weapons of mass destruction. 

Despite these gains, the public punished Democrats for a lackluster economic recovery, putting the GOP in charge of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections. 

What's their first order of business?

A symbolic repeal of the health care reform law. Mission accomplished. The entirely meaningless repeal was passed with no hope of escaping the Senate. Well done.

Their second?

An attempt to limit the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to protect the environment. No surprise from a party that has demonstrated time and time and time again that they're more interested in protecting businesses than the people of this country.

I'm guessing I know what's third.

Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) has proposed a repeal of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. I mean, why protect consumers when bank profits are threatened?

Of course, even if the House passes all of this legislation, it won't pass the Senate. These are all symbolic votes. Which means what? It means they are a waste of time.

At least one Republican gets it. Something Democrats tend to forget is that even though Joe Miller lost the election for an Alaska Senate seat, he lost to a write-in Republican. Fortunately, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) represents one of the few voices of reason left on the right. She's come out with this gem:

I don't believe that there are votes sufficient in the Senate to repeal health care reform....We're in this situation where there is some messaging going on ... The real question is how much time do we as a Congress spend on this messaging? We've got a situation where our economy continues to be in the tank, the longest extended period of high unemployment since World War II. ... As important as making sure that we're reining in our health care costs -- spending a lot of time on the messaging vote? I don't think that's what the American public wants us to do. ... I don't think what people want is kind of the messaging that's going on.
 I guess this is why the tea party wanted her out of office. She's too pragmatic. Why get down to resolving the economic calamity when time could be spent symbolically voting against things that don't have a chance in hell of being changed?

Of course the cynic in me realizes that the longer the economy is in the toilet, the better the GOP's chances of taking the White House in 2012. Since Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has already said that Job #1 is making Obama a one term president, I guess getting to things like economic recovery would not be a priority. The well-being of the American people isn't nearly as important as controlling the executive branch of government.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Job Killing Health Care!

I suppose it should come as no surprise that one of the first orders of business of the new Republican controlled House of Representatives is to attempt a repeal of the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act.

What is surprising is that they're so cynical about its prospects that they've actually entitled it, Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act. I'm surprised they didn't mention the fictitious "Obamacare" in the title. In fact, no fewer than 4 outright repeal bills were put forward on January 5th alone - the first day of the new congress. The Job-Killing bill, put forth by newly minted House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA), is only the most talked about due to its absurd title and the fact that its the first of these asinine and enormously Sisyphean efforts to reach the House floor. It has 181 co-sponsors, all Republican. Two additional bills attempt to defund all or part of the Affordable Care Act without actually bothering to attempt repeal - without funding the law would be unenforceable. 

Neither repeal nor defunding of the legislation is going to happen. A Democrat-controlled Senate likely won't even bring anything the House passes up for a vote, let alone actually vote for it and pass it along to President Obama. If somehow it did pass the Senate, President Obama would, of course, veto the legislation.

So this is all symbolic posturing by Republicans to show that they're against the most important piece of legislation passed in the past two decades. As I said at the time of the health care reform debate (pre-dating this blog), the Republicans will find themselves on the wrong side of history with regard to health care reform.

The law is the "law of the land" according to former Republican House Majority Leader Bill Frist who is working with former Senator Tom Daschle to help implement aspects of the reform. This doesn't mean Frist is in favor of the law in total, but that he believes the Republicans should be trying to modify the existing law rather than repealing it whole cloth. The American public appears to agree with him. Despite the hue and cry from the right. Americans appear to favor even more substantial health care reform over repeal by a 2:1 margin.

I agree with Mr. Frist. The law is not perfect and should be amended to improve upon the legislation. How to do that is what should be debated in the halls of congress, not absurd and time-wasting repeal efforts. Fortunately, at least two of our legislators see things this way as well, which is why I want to highlight two bills.

John Fleming (R-LA) has put forward H.R. 118 - To amend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to permit a State to elect not to establish an American Health Benefit Exchange. I don't necessarily agree with this particular attempt to change the law. Without nonprofit insurance exchanges, the insurance costs to the currently uninsured would almost certainly be higher than with exchanges. But at least Mr. Fleming is attempting to work within the current law in ways he sees as improvement.

Likewise, Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) has put forward H.R. 191 - To amend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to establish a public health insurance option. This clearly represents the opposite direction - making the health care reform law even stronger. No doubt this has no chance of passing a Republican controlled House so it also represents a symbolic effort on Rep. Woolsey's part (and her 46 exclusively Democrat co-sponsors).

I'll get into the details of the strengths and weaknesses of health care reform at a later time (including the "job killing" aspects), but suffice it to say the Republicans aren't going to let this piece of legislation be enacted without a lot of negative press and the Democrats aren't going to cave on their biggest legislative victory in decades. It makes a titillating topic for the pundits, but it's ultimately meaningless noise since little or none of this legislation has a chance of being enacted.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Arizona's tragedy is our tragedy

I'm still absorbing the profound impact of the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Griffiths (R-AZ) and 18 others at a public meeting with constituents outside a grocery store in Tuscon, Arizona. Six people are dead in the worst political assassination attempt our country has ever seen. 

This is not the kind of news I expected to wake up to this morning as I prepare to return to the States after two weeks abroad. I am grieving for our country. 

Shortly after President Obama was elected I ended up in a discussion on facebook with an old high school friend. The usual "socialist", "communist", "liberal elite" comments were bandied about before someone chimed in with a "second amendment solution" ... and an even more chilling comment that "we're headed for war". 

The right wing in our country was so unhinged over President Obama's election that some were apparently ready to take up arms to defend the union against the man who had captured the largest number of votes in U.S. electoral history and had captured the largest percentage of votes of any non-incumbent/non-sitting VP presidential candidate since Eisenhower. Obama's historic election was seen as a direct threat to our union. 

What was even more disturbing to me was that nobody else in that discussion thread stood up and chastised the poster for overheated rhetoric. I was the only one to do so. 

I'm not sure exactly how this happened, but our political discourse has begun seeing violence as an acceptable threat. 

Just in the past 18 months we've had:

- A gun dropped at a Griffiths town hall event

- Bricks thrown through the windows of Democratic campaign offices including that of Representative Griffiths. 

- A Senate candidate in neighboring Nevada, Sharon Angle, suggest a "second amendment remedies" might be needed if the tea party doesn't get its way.

- A certain right wing pseudo-politician's website put sharp shooter's targets on a map of the U.S. over Congressional districts she considered targets for the upcoming election. One of those districts belonged to Rep. Griffiths. 

- Griffiths' opponent in the 2010 midterm election hosting a campaign fundraiser at a shooting range where donors could shoot automatic weapons with the hopeful congressman

Now all early evidence suggests the young man who attempted to assassinate Rep. Griffiths was mentally unhinged. His YouTube videos were off the wall bizarre and the final video clearly intimates that he is going to initiate an act of violence.

However, the call for sanity from those who understand the dangers of overheated rhetoric predicted precisely this kind of scenario. Rational, sane people do not shoot elected officials at point blank range and then shoot 18 more people before being subdued after running out of ammunition. The concern was that the rhetoric would spur an insane person to carry out an act of violence. That's exactly what has happened. 

Our representative government is what makes us great. It's also what makes us vulnerable. It is time for the use of violent rhetoric in political discourse to stop. No excuses. Ever. 

Rest in peace to those who died today and I hope Representative Griffiths and the 12 other wounded victims make full recoveries. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why are we liberal or conservative?

There are a lot of theories about why people are liberal or conservative. I'm talking mainly about political ideology, but for many this also bleeds over into their social interactions. You don't meet too many gay Republicans or gun-toting Democrats. Sure, they exist, but they're the exception rather than the rule. 

One prime mover in the level our liberalism or conservatism is certainly age. The baby boomers who drove us out of Vietnam with the peace movement are now voting more and more conservatively as they acquire wealth and near retirement. They've abandoned the liberal ideals of their youth in favor of the security of the status quo. The youth vote went overwhelmingly to Obama in 2008 and still leaned left in the 2010 midterm elections.

This brings to mind Winston Churchill's famous quote. "Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains." Mr. Churchill was certainly talking about a different era and different brands of liberalism and conservatism than are practiced in contemporary American politics, but the quote rings true to a large degree - young people tend to be liberal, old people do not. 

A recent poll demonstrated that even young Conservatives don't care much about gay marriage. It's a non-issue among the youth of our time. This suggests that eventually gay marriage will be allowed - this battle has already been won, but the spoils have not yet been received. 

Beyond age, our upbringing, education, and religious affiliations also certainly play a role in our political ideology. I'm sure there is also some effect of our geographic location. Not many liberals in Utah or many conservatives in New York City. Are people of certainly ideologies drawn to those places or do those places breed people of a certain ideology? 

But more than these things, recent research has suggested that there is much more to the workings of our brains - our actual genetic make-up - to our political leanings than previously thought. 

A study out of the UK using U.S. data found that people with higher IQs were more likely to be liberal and atheist, and among males, sexually exclusive. The findings, from research by an evolutionary psychologist, suggest that these are evolutionarily novel positions taken more often by those with higher intellects who have managed to overcome our natural predispositions to self-preservation. 

This is further explored in research suggesting that the reason so many professors are liberal and atheist may not be because they are biased, but because conservatives and religious people are much less likely to want to be professors, leaving the field overwhelmingly to liberals and atheists. Of course, since intellect is also tied to these positions, it may additionally reflect the findings of the UK study. 

Another study found that Conservatives have larger fear centers in their brains. Fear centers drive self-preservation. Fight or flight, right? Since liberalism, as classically defined, is a focus on empathy for others, in other words, a focus on fairness and not doing harm to others, it makes sense that fear plays less a role in these judgements. On the other hand, Conservatives have been shown to have a higher degree of disgust, which would influence focus on self, or again, self-preservation. 

It appears, from yet another study, that approximately 50% of our political ideology is genetic

None of this is to suggest that liberals are smarter or better educated or more altruistic, but rather that we aren't completely in control of our own political beliefs. Our beliefs may be driven by factors outside of what we consider our rational thought processes. Next time you think someone is dumb for disagreeing with you, remember you may or may not have beliefs based on sound reason and judgment, but rather based on who your parents are and where you grew up. Likewise, the person disagreeing with you may have the same handicap. 

What this draws into a larger light is how useful is democracy if the "free will" of the people is not so free after all? And also perhaps why political discussions are so often fruitless. It's not simply about presenting evidence and drawing rational conclusions from that evidence. 

Welcome to Hell?

Yesterday the new GOP majority was sworn into office for the 112th Congress. Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate and, of course, the presidency. I'd argue the GOP holds the judiciary even though judges are supposed to be non-partisan. The Roberts Court, despite two new nominees from President Obama, remains strongly corporatist and conservative. Justice Scalia even went so far this week to claim that the constitution does not protect women from sexual discrimination. What year does he think we're in? 1879? Seriously. 

I've managed to experience the Congressional transition from overseas. I'm home in a few days and curious about just how much damage the new Congress will do while I'm gone. My guess is less than I fear, but more than they should. 

If you look at their laundry list of goals they are a big long list of ways to screw the American people in favor of big business. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who pays the least bit of attention to Republicans, but it still looks like a disaster in waiting. 

To sum up they're threatening to: 

Let's think about that for a minute. A recent poll suggests 3/4ths of Americans favor federal subsidies to help people afford health insurance. 71% favor expanding Medicaid for low-income Americans. 52% even favor an employer mandate to provide health care coverage for their employers. All of these provisions are in the reform package, yet the GOP wants to throw the whole thing out. Prior to reform we had out of control spending on health care, tens of millions of uninsured, and an insurance system that is allowed to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions or drop people who get sick. That's what the GOP is proposing to return to. 

For those of you who missed it, the reform law was based largely on a Heritage Foundation proposal from 1997. The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank! My how the tides have shifted. The GOP has become substantially more conservative and the Democrats have shifted to the center. Now the center is right. 

The Center for American Progress sums up the effect this would have better than I can. 

The budgetary consequences of this conservative pledge would be catastrophic and far-reaching, forcing the immediate cessation of more than 40 percent of all federal government activities (excluding only interest payments on the national debt), including Social Security, military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, homeland security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance. This would not only threaten the safety and economic security of all Americans, but also have dire impacts for the economy and job growth.
They can't be so stupid as to think that this is a good idea. I think it's most likely a great deal of posturing in hopes of getting President Obama to cave on something that really matters to them like cutting benefits for seniors or eliminating the estate tax.  

3. Investigate the Obama Administration

You may remember the last time Republicans held control of Congress under a Democratic president. The Clintons were investigated for accusations of insider trading, shady real estate deals, and even misuse of the White House Christmas card mailing list. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money were spent distracting the American people over the escapades of the president while Congress ran amok deregulating. 

Well, we're there again. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has already promised "hundreds" of investigations as the new Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He's already publicly called the Obama Administration one of the most corrupt administrations in our modern history. I think it's safe to say that we'll be entertained for the next two years as Issa and his colleagues dig into the administration. 

4. Cut $100 billion from the federal budget

On the surface this seems like a good idea. Or rather it would have been a good idea had it been proposed during the last economic boom when the working poor were less reliant on government aid to weather a harsh economic climate. Trouble is the proposed cuts are supposed to come from discretionary spending, which is a relatively small percentage of the federal budget. Defense, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and the interest on the federal debt are not discretionary. This leaves a relatively small portion of the budget left for an enormous cut. The programs most likely to lose funding are precisely those we should not be threatening - things like medical research, education, regulatory oversight, etc. 

It's come out that this was meant to be $100B from the proposed Obama budget, not the actual cuts, so the actual cuts will amount to $50B or less. That is if it can pass the Senate and the President signs this budget. Nevertheless, this is a frightening prospect. And more than a little duplicitous after the Republicans bargained for a $900B tax break, much of which goes to the upper tax brackets. 

Voters get what they deserve and the next 2 years is shaping up to painful for all of us except the most wealthy. Well done, folks. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year

I'm spending New Years overseas for the first time in my life. It's given me time and perspective to reflect. 

That perspective comes from celebrating in a country that was celebrating its 100th year of democracy. I've had interesting discussions with locals about how they perceive the U.S. as having reached a tipping point - that our democracy has been corrupted from the original intent. I think this is the local's own version of lamenting the corporatization of America - the dominance of the plutocracy. 

The big question I was asked, rhetorically I think, was whether democracy is truly the ideal or if some hybrid will eventually take its place. This is an interesting thought. 

China (not the country I'm visiting) has been experimenting with a combination of central planning from "professional" legislators and an elected body, which recommends laws to the professionals. This is likely the direction Chinese democracy will develop since it doesn't seem that there's much truck in revolution in that country. They're too wealthy at this point to drive toward unrest. A slow evolution toward more citizen involvement in decision-making is likely to take the form of some sort of hybrid. 

I can't help but wonder if a similar system would work better than our current system in the U.S. We saw how much work was accomplished during the recent lame duck sessions - when the politicians legislating were actually legislating rather than making calculated political decisions. If well trained legislators were immune to corporate or political influence they may make better decisions for the people. The trouble, of course, is that it would be difficult to hold them accountable for poor decisions. 

I know it could be seen as heretical to suggest our system is not the best it could be, but let's face it. It's not. Remember, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. 

Thomas Jefferson wrote:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
I think this holds as true today as it did when he said it. Our system of government should evolve as society evolves. To think the U.S. Constitution is inviolable is short-sighted at best. What worked in 1787 does not necessarily work today. That's why we have had periodic amendments to our constitution. Unfortunately, we've only had one new amendment since 1971 (40 years ago) and that was to limit Congressional pay raises, which in the grand scheme of thing is pretty trivial. 

The most pressing amendment we should be thinking about is the removal or limitation of corporate personhood. More on that in another post.

In the meantime, please enjoy your New Year's Day.