Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Annotated SOTU Address: Part II

Please note, again, that I have cut out some sections of Obama's speech that I didn't choose to comment on. The complete text can be found here. As before, the President's words are in italics, and my commentary is in red.

This means further reducing health care costs, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficit. Health insurance reform will slow these rising costs, which is part of why nonpartisan economists have said that repealing the health care law would add a quarter of a trillion dollars to our deficit. Still, I'm willing to look at other ideas to bring down costs, including one that Republicans suggested last year: medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.

The forecasts for savings from Obama's healthcare plan are not that firm. In the short term there may not be much, since there will be new enrollees with pre-existing conditions, most of whom will need subsidies. Cutting costs will be very tricky. Preventative medicine will help, and so will the requirement that insurers spend 80% of premiums on actual benefits. How much expense they can push onto hospitals and other providers is unclear. Eventually there will have to be a move to "the public option": either single-payer or Medicare buy-in.

To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.

And if we truly care about our deficit, we simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break.

These are closely related. The easiest SS fix is to collect FICA payments in the higher brackets. This is part of the need to tax the wealthy much more, since they have much higher disposible incomes.

It's not a matter of punishing their success. It's about promoting America's success.

Bill Maher recently pointed out that the ever-popular (especially among macho types) National Football League is an prime example of what the Republicans hate: redistributing wealth. The NFL's main source of revenue is TV royalties. These are divided evenly amongst all the teams. Furthermore, speaking of "punishing success", the teams that have the worst season records get the top draft picks. Socialism really works for professional football, the same way government sponsored healthcare works for members of Congress.

In fact, the best thing we could do on taxes for all Americans is to simplify the individual tax code.

"Simplifying the tax code" has long been a euphemism for "flat rate tax" in which everyone, rich or poor, pays the same rate. This really hammers people who have little disposable income, and, as always, would be a tremendous boon for the wealthy. For wage earners with few other sources of income or unusual tax breaks, the code is not all that complicated (assuming one has learned to read and do basic math).

Then there's my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked.

Cute: what's not to like?

In the coming year, we will also work to rebuild people's faith in the institution of government. Because you deserve to know exactly how and where your tax dollars are being spent, you will be able to go to a website and get that information for the very first time in history. Because you deserve to know when your elected officials are meeting with lobbyists, I ask Congress to do what the White House has already done: put that information online. And because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren't larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.

Fair enough. Of course, it's the Party for The Rich that tells us that our "government is the problem."

Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high.

This is a John Wayne line from another war. The war in Iraq was based on a lie, and continued mostly because it had begun. Brutal as Saddam was, the misery that has been caused for the Iraqi people as a result of our unilateral declaration of war on their government has surely been worse. Their country is still in ruins; hundreds of thousands have died and many more have been maimed. And for what exactly? This is surely not the fault of those service men and women who fought there, but their sacrifices could hardly have been based on a more dubious cause.

Of course, as we speak, al Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan attacks against us.

We have also taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies abroad. In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan Security Forces. Our purpose is clear - by preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe-haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.

Will we now do the same -- invade -- in Yemen and Pakistan and who knows where else al Qaeda may regroup?

American leadership can also be seen in the effort to secure the worst weapons of war. Because Republicans and Democrats approved the New START Treaty, far fewer nuclear weapons and launchers will be deployed.

It was a close thing. The PTR (Party for The Rich, formerly GOP) was, of course, more interested at that time in securing their upper-class tax breaks.

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

Is this supposed to suggest that we are the only democracy? Or that we are the only democracy with a decent standard of living? That would be nonsense. Perhaps it is merely suggesting that when the conditions of your life are OK you would rather not take the trouble to move -- away from family, friends and your native language. The suggestion that the U.S. is the "best" country is not as clear as it might have been a half century or more ago.

We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything's possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.

So people who haven't "made it" haven't tried? Do we all believe this? OK, at one time, when most of the wealth in Europe, say, was inherited or stolen, America was THE land of opportunity. Things have changed, though. My father went to City College in New York, which at the time was free and one of the best colleges in the country. CCNY is no longer free and no longer one of the best (though it's still pretty good). Wages have been stagnant in the U.S. for 30 years or more. The gains of the labor movement have been eroded, and the protections of the New and Fair Deals and Great Society have been weakened. The U.S. trails a lot of the democratic (and undemocratic) countries of the world by many measures, though not in self-congratulatory talk of American exceptionalism. We have lost a lot by fighting too many wars that went unpaid for -- wars fed by our inflated image of ourselves and our virtue. Of course, Obama can't say this in public, but it's true nonetheless.

We do big things. From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That's how we win the future.

It's also the country of wealth built on slavery and sweatshops and broken treaties with Native Americans. It's a country of gunboat diplomacy in the service of United Fruit. It is a country of Robber Barons, Wall Street fatcats, Big Coal, Big Oil, Enron and Big Bank speculators. It is now a country with an historically wide gulf between rich and poor, and with no political party firmly enough on the side of the non-rich to talk seriously about the problem.

This was, in many ways, not bad for a State Of The Union address -- better than the crap from Nixon, Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. It actually had a few good parts. And, of course, we really can't expect a SOTU speech to be serious and penetrating -- our political culture simply doesn't allow for that. I would give Obama a gentleman's C except that Ivy League grade inflation has pushed this to an A- .

WTF ! (and I don't mean Win The Future).

Friday, January 28, 2011

Unintended consequences again in the Mideast

Once again the self-serving foreign policy of the U.S. is having unintended consequences.

During the cold war, America would support any anti-communist group or regime, no matter how autocratic or brutal. At the same time, it would deny any support to groups not primarily anti-communist, no matter how populist or democratic.

The results of this were some serious blowbacks. By using the CIA to overthrow Mohammad Mossadeq, and by supporting the Shah in Iran, the U.S. paved the way for the Ayatollah Khomaini and the current repressive and massively anti-American Islamic state. By heavily supporting radical Islamic mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the then Soviet puppet state there, we opened the door to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda -- and eventually, the disasters on 9/11 and beyond.

(I won't go into further details, but the same support for authoritarian "anti-communist" regimes in Cuba and South/Central America made enemies of a population that once viewed us, albeit naively, as a protector of the downtrodden.)

In the Mideast, our ties to corrupt regimes -- Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen e.g. -- and consequent opposition to local reform movements has led to the failure of these movements and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as the only outlet for popular resentments. We see it once again in today's headlines.

Ours is a stupid, short-sighted foreign policy that springs from unexamined political attitudes and slogans and corporate pressure. It has cost us potential friends and exposed us to another generation of religious hatred and likely attacks. The best anti-terrorist policy would be to free us from the tyranny of corporate desires for foreign profit, as well as from the outdated shibboleths of anti-communism, American "exceptionalism" and religious -- mostly pop-Christian -- platitudes.

Obama and "just" wars

The Times Book Review describes an interesting new book (I haven't read it yet) about the theory of the "just war" and how Obama's actions in Iraq and Afghanistan measure up. Here is the review.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Annotated SOTU Address: part I

I have taken parts of Obama's State of the Union Address and added some of my own commentary. There's a lot of stuff, so I cut out a bit, but didn't change anything. My comments are in red, the original in italics.

But there's a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater - something more consequential than party or political preference.

The only lesson to be learned from the Tucson shootings is that we all need tougher gun control. Obama makes no mention of gun control in this speech; in fact, I haven't heard him say anything on the issue.

We will move forward together, or not at all - for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.

We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.

But we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone. We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer.

A major reason that corporate profits are up is because because employment is down. Many companies have laid off a large part of their workforce, and demanded that the remaining employees work harder. Benefits such as healthcare are vanishing. The quaint notion of a "pension" has all but disappeared, and the large corporations and their wealthy execs would like to see an end to Social Security and Medicare as well -- in exchange for very favorable tax cuts. Speaking of tax breaks: some of the costliest of these benefit precisely those large corporations -- big Oil and big Coal and big Agribusiness are prime examples -- which have lost their innovative cutting edge, but have gained great influence over politicians via their campaign contributions. I think it was Paul Krugman who recently pointed out that General Electric, a major war contractor, actually makes more of its money from its investment business than it does from producing and selling actual products. Most big companies like G.E. and I.B.M. have radically cut their funds for research and development.

Obama himself points this out here:

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They're investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer.

America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world's best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.

I'm not so sure that the U.S. economy is still bigger than China's, not that that statistic is so important in itself. Out universities are still the best in the world, but that is not necessarily true of our elementary and high schools.

our students don't just memorize equations, but answer questions like "What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?"

After being a teacher for more that 40 years, I'm not so sure that this is still true: either that most students memorize equations or that they approach school with a creative questioning attitude.

The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can't just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, "The future is not a gift. It is an achievement."

I really hate this use of the word "future." The future is what is going to happen: you don't "win" it, and we will certainly, if we simply live, "get there." Couldn't we actually use language modestly, carefully, and logically?

None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be, or where the new jobs will come from. Thirty years ago, we couldn't know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution. What we can do - what America does better than anyone - is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It's how we make a living.

This is true, but it is only part of the picture. technical innovation has greatly raised the intellectual stakes. Simple reading and arithmetic -- hardly mastered by all of our students -- is not long sufficient to get the kind of jobs that provide a "middle-class" living standard. In fact, for the last 30 or more years of the Internet and fibre-optics and cellphones, the standard of living of most workers has, at best, remained level. Not since the days of the Robber Barons has the income and ownership gap between the rich and everyone else been so great. Here is a statistical breakdown.

Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That's what planted the seeds for the Internet. That's what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.

Yes, and remember that the the government is us. We paid for this training. And what have we gotten for it? The Reaganites saying "government is the problem." Yes, a few companies have established training programs for their employees; some contributed (tax-deductible) endowments to colleges and universities. But they're not doing much to teach broad segments of the population how to read, write and learn. Some of their charter schools do an OK job, but these schools can weed out kids they don't like or who don't measure up. By and large corporate culture likes innovative patents, but not dreamers and non-conformists who do a lot of the innovation.

This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race.

The U.S. engaged in the Space Race and did a lot of other pro-science and pro-technology things about a half-century ago. Why? Because we were scared sh*tl*ss about the commies. Americans feared, distrusted and sneered at intellectuals about as much then as now. But, we couldn't afford to let the Soviets have more of them. Since the cold war ended, science is just another subject. The last generation of American physicists couldn't find research jobs when they finished grad school. A lot of them went to work on Wall Street and played a major role in creating financial derivatives and other exotic investment "instruments" -- an achievement that led to "the worst recession most of us have ever known" (see above).

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's.

Right on. It's not just the oil companies of course, though we've known about their unnecessary subsidies for at least a half-century now.

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America's success. But if we want to win the future - if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas - then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

Not so fast: what about making it less profitable for U.S. companies to outsource work to other countries. A lot of them get tax breaks for doing so.

Think about it. Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren't even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us - as citizens, and as parents - are willing to do what's necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It's family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.

Just as I said above. How exactly is this going to change? Less TV? I doubt that the networks are on board for that. Less educational TV? Not with conservatives wanting to cut public broadcasting. Is Fox going to underwrite the next Sesame Street? Not too likely.

You see, we know what's possible for our children when reform isn't just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.

Here in America, it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

So let's break the teacher's unions and see if we can't get good teachers for less -- longer hours, fewer benefits, more kids in a class. Let's make them teach more religion (only Christianity though) and doctored history.

Where I live (and probably nearly everywhere) school budgets are being cut, not expanded, and teachers are being laid off. Idiot tax-cutters are cutting all over the place. Get real Obama. You have to declare political war on the folks who are doing this. How many Tea Screamers are pushing for higher taxes or more federal aid for education? How many Republicans for that matter?

I ask Congress to go further, and make permanent our tuition tax credit - worth $10,000 for four years of college.

Yeah, that $10,000 voucher will go a long way. It might have in the days when states could support affordable higher education for their citizens. Not anymore.

I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.

News flash: this is a non-starter for the Republicans: they've already said so.

Our infrastructure used to be the best - but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports.

Our last N Republican governors here in Massachusetts ran on a platform that included the assertion that the state had a budget surplus. This is the standard baloney for Republicans up and down all levels of government: we don't need the taxes we have -- there's simply no problem. Meanwhile, the bridges and tunnels and streets and schools fall apart.

We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based on what's best for the economy, not politicians.

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car.

Oh man, dream on. The Republicans won't even subsidize Amtrak. The T here in Massachusetts in underfunded and pathetic I know because I take it all the time; the concrete
steps to my local station have been dangerously rotted for years now, but no effective fix seems to be possible. Multiply that by about a few hundred thousand and you'll see the enormity of just the "access to facilities" problem.

For some trips, it will be faster than flying - without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.

Over the years, a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries. So tonight, I'm asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field.

I'm on board with this. Of course the lobbyists aren't. People would know about this if they took the civics courses that should have been taught in their schools -- but weren't.

To reduce barriers to growth and investment, I've ordered a review of government regulations. When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them. But I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people. That's what we've done in this country for more than a century. It's why our food is safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is safe to breathe. It's why we have speed limits and child labor laws. It's why last year, we put in place consumer protections against hidden fees and penalties by credit card companies, and new rules to prevent another financial crisis. And it's why we passed reform that finally prevents the health insurance industry from exploiting patients.

Another excellent point worth mentioning. But, it has to be repeated over and over and become part of the Democratic mantra. It's the Republicans that don't want to pay to have our medicines and food inspected. You know: "government is part of the problem."

What I'm not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition.

As we speak, this law is making prescription drugs cheaper for seniors and giving uninsured students a chance to stay on their parents' coverage. So instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing and move forward.

OK. We now know that most people support most of the actual provisions of the Health Care Bill, though they still say they don't like the bill itself. Obama has to keep working on this.

But now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.

Maybe we can't sustain a total deficit of the current magnitude, but that doesn't mean we can's sustain any large deficit. This has been analyzed time and time again by economists. We have this huge deficit because we have refused to pay for wars and tax cuts for the wealthy. The deficit didn't cause our current recession and so far has not exacerbated it. "Full" employment (less that 5% unemployment according to many economists) will help a great deal to reduce the deficit. And it may take more "pump-priming" in order to reduce unemployment. Taxing Wall Street speculators, who serve no useful function, can help. So can healthcare reform. In fact, so can just about anything that Republicans don't want to see. There is not once scintilla of evidence that tax-cuts for the wealthy will help drive down the deficit or reduce unemployment. As I've said in a previous blog, the conservative economic policy has been tried over and over and has been found wanting.

So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

This is pure politics. Obama clearly thinks that his popularity and that of his party will increase if he is seen embracing Republican economics. But, it's all baloney and will certainly cause mischief.

This freeze will require painful cuts. Already, we have frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years. I've proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs. The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.

Bring the troops home now and shut down most of our overseas bases. Cut out a lot of military spending -- especially on junk that even the Pentagon doesn't want. Our military budget is bigger than the budgets of the next ten biggest-spending countries combined.

This is part I of the annotation. I'll work through some more after I'm through shoveling some more snow. I'll also work on whatever typos I didn't have time to correct.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mandatory healthcare and the Founding Fathers

Apparently the 5th Congress (yes, fifth, in 1798) thought that the U.S. government had the right to mandate healthcare and collect money to pay for it (as well as subsidize it to some extent). There are several articles about this: the first one is by Rick Ungar in Forbes Magazine and the second by
Greg Sargent in The Washington Post. (They each reference the other.)

Someone tell the Republicans, the Tea Screamers, and Justice Scalia about this.

(Thanks to Merrill Goozner of for pointing out the Ungar piece.)

Document release on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Al-Jazeera and The Guardian (England) released many interesting leaked (not by WikiLeaks) documents. Links can be found here.

I don't take position(s) in this blog on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is simply too complicated and emotional, and I don't feel competent to make an absolute judgment, especially a public one. If you have interesting comments, send them, but I will be very selective in okaying their appearance.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Exploding myths about slavery and the Civil War

The Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, but was about "states rights" and tariffs. Yeah, right. Here's a useful article refuting this baloney (from the Washington Post).

Not so much damage from Wikileaks

The scare tactics of the Obama administration about the WikiLeaks postings have been refuted by State Department sources, which are now downplaying the damage done.

The current administration seems to be just as secretive as the Bushies. So much for Obama's rhetoric about openness and new ways of doing things. They have released the bulldogs of the right, who are still clamoring for Assange's head.

(Meanwhile Cheney may get a new heart; couldn't be worse than the old one.)

You can read about it here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The real reasons to despise the right

It's time for the left to get over Jared Loughner, the assassin in the Tucson murders. It certainly would have been easy and convenient if investigators had found a diary or letter in which he acknowledged that "hate speech", or Sarah Palin's "crosshair" map, had convinced him to start shooting at people. But that was not the case. The brief hope for some on the left that this terrible affair would somehow discredit the Tea Screamers or the right wing, or Republicans, has not been realized. In fact, the persistence of claims for the connection has, in fact, further damaged the credibility of many who were pushing it.

This is, in fact, not necessarily a bad thing. The argument that the right wing should be rejected because it encourages political assassinations is not only very difficult -- even impossible -- to demonstrate, but it obscures the really important reasons to reject what passes in America for conservatism. The right wing and its Tea Screamer and Republican agents should be rejected because its philosophy is a bad one, and its policies have proved to be wrong many times over.

First of all, the conservative arguments -- especially those related to economics -- turn out to be empirically incorrect. The key word here is "empirically". Economics is not really a science since its claims, even when expressible in strictly scientific, numerical terms, can not be tested by experiment. You simply can't take two fairly large, directly comparable yet independent economic communities, and try two different economic policies on them. However, you can take a particular society -- say the American one -- and analyze the effects of the various economic policies that have been tried. This itself is not, of course, an exact proof or disproof of the effectiveness of the various policies, but it can give some indication of the correctness of the claims made for these particular policies.

When you judge the effects of various policies that have been referred to as conservative, you can see, by-and-large, that they have not delivered on the claims made for them. The traditional "responsible" policies of "fiscal prudence" and pay-as-you go of old-style Republicans such as Coolidge andHarding, turned out to be ineffective in dealing with capitalist failures like the Great Depression (not that any policies except wartime spending did much good either). Protecting the banks from inflation didn't help the banks on balance, because they were themselves guilty of outrageous speculation; meanwhile traditional deflationary policies boosted unemployment and made things worse. Later, after the Great Depression ended and regulation forced some responsibility by the banks, the conservative approach shifted to across-the board tax-cutting and deregulation (all couched in anti-government rhetoric). This marked the newer phase of right wing economics. Throwing money at their favorite recipients, the military-industrial complex and fat-cats in general, easily served two purposes: transferring middle class taxes to rich friends and creating deficits that they cynically hoped would "starve the beast" of a government at least partially committed to protecting all citizens.

A significant step in bank deregulation took place with the repeal of the Roosevelt-era (1933) Glass-Steagall Act -- see my blog on this. (The repeal was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed by then President Clinton in 1999 -- surely at the request of his many Wall Street advisors.) This act had prevented banks from speculating in securities with their customers' money, and had prevented disastrous bank implosions for a half-century.

During the Clinton administration, the tax rate for wealthy people was higher than it is now, mostly as a result of the succeeding Bush II tax cuts. Yet, the economy grew much faster under Clinton in spite of that, the unemployment rate was far lower, and Clinton left office with a modest budget surplus. (Balanced budgets have been the demand of Republicans for decades, yet no modern Republican president -- including Reagan -- every submitted one.) There was a small recession early in the Bush II presidency, but by the time Bush II left office, the economy was in true crisis mode. The unregulated banking and securities industries, absent the Glass-Steagall Act, had created a massive international speculative bubble based on subprime mortgage-backed securities and CDOs. (Insurance giant AIG was choking on the disastrous credit default swaps it had sold to insure the values of these CDOs.) When this bubble burst, during Bush's second term -- with all three branches of government controlled by Republicans, including their Supreme Court appointees -- the country fell into the worst depression since the Great one.

(Note: I'm not even getting into the Enron collapse, which is another tale of deregulation disaster. Enron's president, Ken Lay, was a particular friend of Bush personally, and of right wing economic ideology.)

So, after the Republicans had had carte-blanch to institute huge tax cuts, mainly benefitting the wealthy, and widespread de-regulation, the result was not prosperity and economic growth as their "theory" had predicted, but economic disaster. The very same conservatives who had created this problem in the process of transferring wealth from the middle class to big business and the already-wealthy, still have the gall to declare, in Reagan's words, that "government is the problem."

It seems pretty safe to say that, based on results, right-wing economic ideology has proved to be simply wrong, wrong, wrong. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

But there's more. By demonizing government, the conservatives (What are they conserving?) have made it extremely difficult for the government to fulfill its entire mandate, as spelled out in the Preamble to the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

In particular, the government is enjoined to "establish Justice" and "promote the general Welfare." Justice, for conservatives such as Antonin Scalia, is interpreted as establishing enough of a police and militia and court system to protect the property of the privileged and of the corporations, newly designated as citizens by the Court. The "general Welfare" to them means a "trickle-down" prosperity. They have never outgrown the old European notion that poverty is the fault of the poor, to be dealt with by the poor-house and the debtors' prisons. Their view of nature is still full of red claws and teeth -- survival of the fittest -- with only mockery for the genuine human qualities of sympathy, help, and sharing. In their view, universal healthcare is an affront to liberty (the right to bar alms, if I may be permitted). They also believe that basic rights have to be separately legislated for each subdivision of humankind: the landless, women, gays, immigrants. Theirs is the small, mean conception of mutual human respect and kindness; they consider those who take a larger view as suckers and bleeding hearts. (Ever listen to Rush L. ?)They are never in favor of a program that specifically creates jobs, yet view any law restricting what businesses may do as "job killing." They consider universal healthcare as job killing, as well as replacing oil and agricultural subsidies with environmental and infrastructure programs. (Such transfers have long been believed by most economists to be the most efficient creators of jobs.)

While both Parties kowtow to the gun lobby, it is the right-wing which has made ownership and carrying of guns a fetish. One of the questions recently asked of the candidates for head of the Republican National Committee was "How many guns do you own?" (read this here.) The Republicans have blocked a renewal of the ban on assault rifles. They have opposed similar bans on cop-killer dum-dum bullets. The NRA wants fully automatic weapons (machine guns) to be legal, and the folks on the right never say no to them. The right opposes any sort of effective control on gun ownership, including deep background checks conducted by the police and FBI, and registration of all weapons. The fact that they are not concerned about madmen obtaining deadly weapons is part 1 of their real connection with the murders in Tucson; the second part is their reluctance to provide subsidized mental health treatments for those unfortunate enough to have psychological illness -- a corollary of their opposition to universal healthcare (as an illustration, see this story, forwarded to me by Alison).

OK, time to cut this short. The point is that the truly bad policies of the right need to be pointed out, and that we should not be diverted by silly charts with cross-hairs and talk-show babble. Unlike the right, which has patiently propagandized for its causes over the years, the left wastes its time grasping for opportunistic straws such as the murders in Tucson.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Exactly right Mr. Krugman

Paul Krugman's column in today's NY Times says it exactly right. It's not a "lack of civility," it's the pervasiveness of right-wing "eliminationist" rhetoric that lies behind the terrible murders in Tucson a few days ago.

I can add nothing to what Mr. Krugman wrote so concisely and accurately.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Shootings in Tucson

The Tea Screamers' rhetoric has come home to roost. Yes, there has been wild rhetoric from all sorts of political groups, but left-associated groups tend to be pro-gun-control, while the Tea Screamers have many times explicitly advocated gun violence if the ballot-box didn't produce the results they desired.

Sarah Palin's crowd has denied that her infamous bulls eye map was to be literally interpreted as "targets", yet this was belied by a Tweet in which she herself described them as exactly that. For copies of the map and the tweet, click here.

Giffords' Tea Party opponent from the last election advertised:

"Get on Target for Victory in November Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

Can't get more explicit than that.

Here's a letter I wrote to the Globe:

The U.S. Justice Department is going all out to build a case against WikiLeaks leader Julien Assange. This includes putting Bradley Manning into very coercive confinement in the hope that it will force him to implicate Assange in the theft of the documents. The government has yet to find one person harmed as a result of the leaks -- except through embarrassment.

On the other hand, the harassment of Democrats by followers of the Tea Party has gone from name-calling and threats to outright murder today. It can't be emphasized too strongly that Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was one of the crosshair targets in Sarah Palin's map of Democrats. If Giffords survives it will be no thanks to Palin and her Tea Partiers who loudly proclaim that Democrats are enemies of the country. The fascists and brownshirt thugs said the same sorts of things in Germany in the 1930's about liberals and Jews.. Oh, by the way, Giffords is Jewish.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hey, nice map Sarah Palin

One of the targets of the crosshairs on Sarah Palin's map of Democrats to eliminate was, indeed, shot today. She is Representative Gabrielle Giffords from Arizona.

Need we say more?

So how is Obama different?

The Obama Justice Department has served subpoena(s) to Twitter to get all sorts of info (addresses, credit card numbers etc.) about Julian Assange and several others associated with the WikiLeaks publication of semi-secret U.S. documents. Only one of the targets, Bradley Manning, has been charged with a crime; two of the others are computer programers and one is actually a member of the Icelandic parliament.

The Obama administration is more concerned about secrecy than about any actual harm the leaks have caused. In fact, in spite of the wild talk about potential assassinations of "outed" agents, many of these people had their names x-ed out by either WikiLeaks or the news outlets (e.g. NY Times, Der Spiegel, etc) who published the leaks. To my knowledge, there is not a single case of anyone being injured -- except through embarrassment -- by the leaks. Recently, Mike Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked if he could name anyone so far who suffered serious harm from these leaks. He was unable to do so: here is the interview (video) from Face The Nation.

Just like the Bushies, the Obama folks don't like any invasion of their official privacy. I suspect that they are far more concerned about protecting the privacy of their gossip than the privacy of the folks they think might be guilty of , well, anything they don't like.

While Europe itself doesn't have a great record on human rights, let's hope that Sweden and Iceland at least have enough independence to say no to American fishing expeditions.

Friday, January 7, 2011

More "elitism" nonsense

One of the conservative buzz-words is "elitist." This is often, in the right-winger's lexicon, a synonym for someone in the knowledge-based community. If you are an economist, especially one who doesn't subscribe to the trickle-down theory, you are an elitist. If you like poetry or painting or music or literature that requires a bit of concentration and maybe even study in order to appreciate, you are an elitist.

When I see an article with a title containing a word derived from "elite" I am immediately suspicious of right-wing know-nothingism. (T0 be fair, the left has had its share of this kind of mud-slinging, though much more in its socialist past than in its feeble modern incarnation.) Thus, when the Boston Globe ran an Op-Ed by critic and biographer Neal Gabler entitled "The end of cultural elitism" my B.S. detector began blinking furiously. See what you think: click here to read the article.

Here is my response which I sent to the Globe, though it is too long for them to actually print.

Ah, another attack on the "elites" which supposedly rule us (Neal Gabler: "The end of cultural elitism", 1/6/11). The first sentence is nonsense, and it doesn't get any better. Gabler writes: "As anyone who has ever wiggled in his seat at a classical concert or stared in disbelief at a work of conceptual art can attest, culture in America has usually been imposed from the top down." In fact, the vast majority of people who attend classical music concerts or "conceptual" art exhibits do so quite willingly, enthusiastically, and with the intent of appreciating the art being presented.

We Americans read lots of reviews of movies, art, literature and music. These reviews, which don't by any means all agree, present opinions of people who read, look and listen carefully to lots of artistic material. Obviously some of these reviewers rub us the wrong way by being arrogant and condescending; however, in most cases we learn something that affects our receptivity to the work in question. Sometimes we are persuaded to read, listen to, or watch the work in question, and sometimes not.

Gabler is simply wrong in most of his examples. "The Social Network" received generally favorable reviews but not uniform accolades. It had pretty decent success but was neither a triumph nor a bomb. Similarly for Franzen's "Freedom." In fact, in spite of mixed reviews, it "soared to the top of bestseller lists", as acknowledged by Gabler in apparent contradiction to his own conspiratorial thesis.

So what other news does Gabler bring us? That "The DaVinci Code", a page turner like the James Bond books of a half-century ago, and many others, was popular in spite of many critical pans. This is surely more of "dog bites man" than insight. Critics don't tell us what we should or will enjoy, they simply report on the comparative craftsmanship of the works.

Or, maybe, Gabler thinks that any expertise is elitism or "commissar"-ship? Are doctors the "medical elite" and chemists part of the "scientific elite"? Is Oprah Winfrey an elitist? Is anyone who studies and learns part of some "educated elite"? Do parents and teachers have elite expertise that they force on poor children? Would he have any argument at all if he didn't keep repeating loaded words like "elitist", "commissar" and "ordinary folks"? Overall, this reminded me of the teenager's complaint: "Aw, do I have to learn all this Stuff?" or, more ominously, of the fascist dictum that we should "think with our blood."

(How many people still remember what "commissars" are or were? Not a word you hear a lot these days.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Herbert says it in a nutshell

Bob Herbert, writing in today's Times, wonders how we could have forgotten what the Republican party is all about, and what it has been doing. Read it here.

I hope to get back to fairly regular blogging now that the new year has begun and the congress will be back doing its thing(s).

The talk of "bipartisanship" floating around just before the winter break was, of course, just more chin music. We'll soon see the Party for The Rich, now controlling the House, doing its best to transfer more money from the middle class to the wealthy -- most likely by cutting spending for programs that the rich have no use for (Social Security, healthcare etc) and making sure that those people who caused this recession by their greed get even more forgiveness and tax breaks. Will we see any spirit in the Dems? In the President? Lots of luck on that.

The most outrageous claim I've heard recently is that taxing hedge-fund managers at the rate that everyone else pays is a "job killer." As if these guys who made and are making millions would stop what they're doing if they had to pay regular taxes instead of the phony "capital gains" 15%. If that were the case, why would anyone paying regular taxes do anything? Furthermore, helping speculators get rich by trading securities has absolutely nothing to do with investment in new ideas, plants and machines -- it's simply enabling a debilitating and unproductive form of social parasitism.

This claim is as phony as the one that says big execs have to make millions a year because their skills are irreplaceable and they wouldn't work for less. Who actually believes this stuff? With few exceptions these guys get the big bucks simply because they and their pals on the boards of big business have been able to perpetuate this myth.

(Note: In fairness, some people who lead companies do so because they have good creative ideas which create useful products and services. Such leaders are in a tiny, tiny minority. Remember Enron's "smartest guys in the room"?)