Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cavesville Centre: a rant

Is it ever possible for Barack Obama to take a position without caving?

Yes, I understand that he doesn't want to appear to be "an angry black man." Yes, I understand that he wants to appear as the voice of reason and compromise.

Yes, I understand that he thinks that compromise is better than losing.

However, I think he is now hurting himself simply because people want a leader who is strong and is not afraid of fighting and winning. That's why they liked Reagan.

Obama is now rapidly approaching total wimpdom -- if he hasn't already reached that state.

Doesn't he understand that he was chosen in a national election, while Boehner is simply a representative of one congressional district? Doesn't he understand that Boehner is extremely unpopular with the American public? Doesn't he understand that people want him to pick a fight and win it already? To draw a line and not back down. If he constantly retreats from what he claims are his principles, how good are those principles if they are so easily relinquished?

Doesn't he understand that he has to put down the flock of Republican presidential aspirants by thumbing his nose at their twice rescheduled debate? He is The President and they are the Seven (or however many they are) Dwarfs of Fairytale Land. Can he be afraid of their anti-science stances? Can he be afraid of their support for the rich? Why won't he pick a fight with them and win it?

I am pretty partisan, but I am getting disgusted and disillusioned. This jobs speech better be pretty good and tough, and he'd better show total commitment to what he proposes. I've long felt that one should support and work for a Democratic candidate because if the Republicans take over, lots of folks less well-off than I am will get hurt. But now I'm beginning to feel that it doesn't make much of a difference with Obama since he can't be counted on to help the people he claims to be supporting.

Yes, Republicans are beneath contempt, and will do all in their power to enact policies that are truly harmful. But, just maybe, the best strategy is to let them, once again, have their way, and maybe this time the disaster they create will lead to their destruction as a political force. Maybe after this next disaster we'll get a president who'll administer the political coup de grace and not seek out bipartisanship. What, though, will it take for this to happen?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Perry, Ponzi: Pfui

Rick Perry recently recorded the following reflections on Social Security.

"It is a Ponzi scheme for these young people...The idea that they're working and paying into Social Security today, that the current program is going to be there for them, is a lie... It is a monstrous lie on this generation, and we can't do that to them."

The only thing that Social Security and Ponzi schemes have in common is that people who join later contribute to those who joined earlier. Some facts:

1. Social Security has always honored its commitments to older Americans. In fact, the U.S. government has routinely borrowed money from the Social Security trust fund, which has stored -- and still stores -- surplus funds from our contributions.

2. Social Security still has a net surplus, although it is currently paying out more than it is taking in. The main reason for this is the varying sizes of successive generations. The "Baby Boomer" generation which is retiring now was a very large one, while the generation that is currently paying for its retirement is much smaller. Also, because the Social Security "tax" (FICA) is basically a tax on the middle class (it cuts off at income above about $106,000), it is not doing so well because the middle class in the U.S. is not doing well.  While income of the wealthy, which is largely not subject to FICA (because of the cutoff), has been soaring, the income of the middle class has been stagnant at best for decades. Thus, the problem is not with Social Security but with the widening class and income gap in this country.

3. Actually, the situation is likely to be the exact opposite of Perry's description. The generation that is currently paying for the Social Security benefits of the Baby Boomers is a fairly small generation. There is a very good chance that the generation(s) which will be paying for its retirement will not be that much smaller -- maybe even larger. Thus, when the "X-ers" or whatever they're called reach retirement age there may very well be plenty of workers paying into the fund. I don't know the exact demographics, so perhaps some reader will fill in the numbers.

4. Unlike a Ponzi scheme, the problems of Social Security can be fixed in a simple and above-board manner: adjust the FICA tax so that everyone makes a fair contribution. This is easily and painlessly accomplished by raising the income cut-off for FICA contributions -- say from $106,000 to $1 million. Or, remove the cap entirely. This could be accompanied by modest (say logarithmic) increases in the amount paid out, based on contributions -- so those who contribute more would get somewhat more in benefits.

The simple fact is that 99.99% of Americans are very happy to contribute to the retirement of their parents and grandparents by paying the FICA tax. Social Security is not only popular with the old, but is also popular with the children and grandchildren of the old. Only Scrooge (or Grover Norquist) would make a principled objection to the efficient and dignified operation of one of the most popular programs ever implemented by any country at any time in history.

Ponzi scheme indeed! As the great fictional detective Nero Wolfe would surely have said to Rick Perry: "Pfui!"

The PTR strikes again

M.E. sent the following.

"I was listening to NPR with half an ear a few days ago and I heard a report of a Texas Republican congressman who was a signatory to the pledge not to increase taxes. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay enough attention to catch his name.

Anyway, he expressed the view that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire was a tax increase and therefore he was against it. However, allowing the 2% reduction of SS taxes to lapse was not a tax increase so he would support it.

Party for The Rich for absolute sure!"

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hurricane Irene

So far so good: damage everywhere seems far less than anticipated. The National Weather Service pretty much makes statistical predictions, with words such as "likely" or "60% chance of". Local stations and even national stations, as usual, hype everything, and their motives are clear: get people to think that they have to stay tuned every second lest they miss some critical words that might seal -- or enable them to unseal --  their fate. And of course, people who stay tuned to forecasts also stay tuned to advertisements. (See my blog from Feb. 2010 about Commercialization of Weather Reports.)

Nothing too terrible about all this: the pattern for years has been that every strong storm is a possible "storm-of-the-century." Well, of course, every century has a storm of the century, plus centuries  can, conveniently, be measured from any starting day you wish...

Anyway, I hope that wherever you are you got far less damage than you were warned about, and maybe, even, a little excitement as well.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Conservatives and promiscuity

Conservatives are against the vaccine for the human papilloma virus (a cause of cervical cancer) because it would encourage promiscuity. In other words, sexual diseases are a punishment from the god(s) for premarital and extramarital sex. (The fact that married folks also get these diseases falls under the heading "the god(s) work in mysterious ways.")

Similarly, in their eyes AIDS is a punishment for homosexual sex.

Some conservatives even believe that pregnancy (outside of marriage) is itself a punishment for premarital and extramarital sex. Thus, use of condoms and other birth-control devices are, in their opinion, immoral because they diminish the risk of pregnancy out of wedlock, hence encourage promiscuous behavior.

Given that the vast majority of Americans commit the sin of premarital or extramarital intercourse at some time(s) in their lives, you would think that this kind of anti-human thinking would make these "conservatives" extremely unpopular. The very concept that disease and even pregnancy is a punishment for anything is so medieval that one wonders why holding this view isn't a major negative in elections.

Are we becoming crazy?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Qaddafi, Libya, and presidential war powers

It would be tempting to say, in defense of President Obama's military aid to insurgents in Libya: "Told ya so." Col. Qaddafi is certainly an unappealing dictator, and many of Obama's critics were Republicans who would (and did) criticize him for any actions (or non-actions) he took on this or any issue. Unlike some U.S. military actions, this one was not unilateral, or even totally dominated by our forces. Furthermore, U.N. resolution #1973 allows members to take all actions necessary to safeguard civilians in Libya who may be under attack.  Finally, the usual  constitutional arguments about the President being "commander in chief were made by both the Obama administration and others who have used this argument in the past.

I don't buy it, nor am I impressed by the "nothing-succeeds-like-success" rationale. First on all, while the President may be "commander-in-chief", we know that the Congress is given the war making power by the Constitution. Commander-in-chief means that, under conditions of war, the President's orders supersede those of any military leader, regardless of rank. If the framers of our Constitution thought that that meant he could initiate conflict they wouldn't have given Congress that power. I am not a scholar of the Constitution, but I know that many such scholars -- though not all -- subscribe to this view. The fact that American presidents have failed since WWII to ask Congress for a declaration of war when engaging in armed international conflict has, I believe, turned out to be a very bad thing, with the disasters of Viet Nam and Iraq being only the most notorious examples. This is not to say that Congress would show much reluctance to undertake bloody adventures, but at least we would have a more extensive and public debate.

(For a list of military actions and authorizations or non-authorizations thereof, see this Wikipedia summary.)

Also, such a debate might have led to a discussion of how an approved action might be financed.

It is important to point out that none of the wars that presidents have undertaken since the last formal declaration -- in 1941 -- have been, in any way, such emergencies that a formal request to Congress would have caused a security problem. This is true even for the case of Afghanistan in 2001. At any time of dire threat, an emergency session of Congress could easily and quickly have been called.

After the Vietnam debacle, a "Presidential War Powers Act" (1973) was passed by Congress to ensure that at least some Congressional consultation would be made by a president within 60 days of the introduction of American forces. Some wars, such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have been approved by Congress in this sense: not formal declarations of war, but authorizations to the then presidents to introduce American troops. I don't think this is adequate in any way. Once presidents put troops "in harms way" it is nearly impossible to get a jingoistic Congress -- or jingoistic public, for that matter -- to reverse the decision.

In fact, President Obama neither asked for a declaration of war nor invoked the War Powers Act. He and his advisors has deemed it sufficient that the U.N. passed Resolution 1973 authorizing a "no-fly zone" and other actions to "protect civilians under threat of attack." What is interesting is that U.N. resolutions have the force of law in the U.S. by virtue of the terms of our membership in the organization. However, what if a U.N. resolution conflicts with the will of Congress in a matter of war? I am certain that the politics of this country are such that a president can not cede decisions on war and peace to the U.N. In reality, U.N. resolutions simply do not replace either the Constitution or the War Powers Act. For Obama to claim otherwise would mean that he could, say, bomb Israel if the U.N. passed a resolution requiring such activity -- and do this without consulting Congress -- at least for 60 days.

Yes, I hold Obama, his administration, and the Democratic Party to standards higher than I demand of the Republicans. Of course! Who would want this country run by Republican standards -- say those of Bush, Yoo, Cheney and the doctrine of the "unitary presidency"?

We don't need yet another hyperthyroidal president, even if his policies, in the short term, achieve aims we desire.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Class Warfare

In case you missed it, here is Jon Stewart's review of Fox News on Class Warfare. Warning: this compendium contains totally disgusting views expressed by Fox pigs. It may leave you fuming and/or totally nauseated.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Might as well watch the Red Sox

There is simply nothing substantial being said by any of the major characters on the American political scene. The Republicans are, as usual, beneath contempt, making dumb statements about climate change, the EPA, and financial stuff. The slavish media cover it all as if there were any content to report on. Meanwhile, Obama is "campaigning", pitting hot air against hot air. We'll have to wait until after Labor Day to hear a major speech (so he bills it) about the economy, as if he and his advisers and speech writers somehow didn't suspect that there has been a problem there.

So, for all the blather, the country (and a lot of the capitalist world) is playing losing economics.

Meanwhile, the Sox of late are playing losing baseball.

But, at least it's not BS. At the end of the game, the team with the most runs wins: I've never heard of Final Score Deniers.  And: you don't have to listen to the opinions of know-nothings (though you can if you are crazy). The views of anyone except, maybe, the managers and a few others, don't hardly matter for beans (Boston baked beans, that is).

So, for American politics, these are the dogsh*t days of summer (extendable indefinitely). Might as well watch the Red Sox (or your favorite home-town team).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why doesn't he DO something?

I've been in Central Maine for a week. During that time there was nonsense in Iowa and the promise of even more nonsense with Texas governor Rick Perry joining the Republican fun. I had a few unkind words to say about his state last February. He will surely trot out the myth that Texas is an example of successful conservative principles at play. Yes, Texas has created a lot of (mostly low-paying) jobs, but not enough for its population increase. As several economists, including Paul Krugman (here and most recently, here) have pointed out, the "Texas miracle" simply isn't. The state's unemployment rate is greater than New York's and much greater than Massachusetts' -- both hotbeds of godless Leninism. And the situation with education and health in the Lone Star state is even worse.

Of course, like other Republicans, Perry will not let facts get in the way of his story. Why can't we just let him and his state secede already, as he has patriotically suggested? (Interestingly, while Texas pretty much gets back all the taxes it pays to the Feds, California, New York and Massachusetts get back only about 80 cents per dollar; yet, they still are all firmly in the Union ranks).

But I digress. What I really wanted to say is, if some polling company asked me what sort of job Obama was doing, I'd have to say a pretty poor one. He talks. And talks. And talks. Believe me -- and I know this from experience -- he's a one man faculty meeting.

Why doesn't he submit legislation? I keep waiting for him get on the news and say: "My friends, today I submitted the following legislation to Congress to deal with our economic problems..."

But no: all  he is doing now is campaigning against some at-this-point unknown Republican presidential opponent.

What's the matter with this guy? Does he do anything beside talk? Yeah, so your uncle has offed your dad and is sleeping with your mother; will you do anything about it, or just tell us more and more about how you don't think it's a good idea?

Monday, August 8, 2011

A failed president

I found the following article from this Sunday's NYT to be, unfortunately, all too true. Check it out for yourself; I'd appreciate reading your comments.

(Thanks to Maxine for spotting this.)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

S.&.P and the Tea Party Downgrade

The Democrats finally have what I think is a winning slogan:

The Tea Party Downgrade

to describe S.&P.'s downgrade of the United States from AAA to AA+.

Bob Kuttner reaffirms what I said a few days ago about S.&P.:

"You have to hand it to Standard and Poor's. Forget their two-trillion dollar math error. The whole idea that these clowns are evaluating the creditworthiness of the United States is just loony.

For starters, these are the same people who brought us the crisis, by blessing junk sub-prime loans as AAA securities. And they did so because they were paid as consultants by the same financial scoundrels who created the securities.

The executives of the credit rating companies -- not "agencies," for these are private, profit-making, essentially unregulated companies, not public entities -- belong in prison."

Exactly true. Why should we accept S.&P.'s opinion on this when its recent track record on important credit ratings -- viz: bundled subprime mortgages -- is no better than AIG's ... or Trek Bicycle's for that matter? They're just a private company which has already shown itself to be either corrupt or incompetent.

(You can read the rest of Kuttner's commentary here.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

No cheers for Standard and Poor's

Standard and Poor's rating service downgraded the U.S. from AAA to AA+.

No cheers for them. Here's part of the NY Times article:

"The credit rating agencies have been trying to restore their credibility after missteps leading to the financial crisis. A Congressional panel called them “essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction” after their wildly optimistic models led them to give top-flight reviews to complex mortgage securities that later collapsed. A downgrade of federal debt is the kind of controversial decision that critics have sometimes said the agencies are unwilling to make."

Of course. Standard and Poor's and Moody's rating agencies were the ones that gave AAA ratings to the securitized bundles of subprime mortgages that investment houses were peddling at great profit and with no regulation during the "housing bubble". The crash of this junk market in 2007-2008 was one of the main -- probably the main -- factors that lead to the continuing major recession afflicting us. Yes, Virginia, S & P gave these crap securities higher ratings than it now gives the United States. Can we take their judgment seriously? They have already shown themselves to be tools of the industries they were supposedly rating. (Oh, did I mention Alan Greenspan?)

As if this were not enough, it turns out that S.&P. made a major (not mega-, not giga-, but tera-dollar)  mistake in calculating U.S. debt -- to the tune of at least $ 2 trillion dollars. They now acknowledge this mistake, but have not revised their AA+ rating.

BTW: Business Insider had an article on this downgrade which quoted the S.&P. report as mentioning S.&P.'s belief that the Bush Tax Cuts would never be allowed to expire. Clearly the revenue that is lost through these cuts would be a significant balance to expenditures, especially if and when the recession lets up. As usual, the business community and the ratings agencies all know that the recession and the tax cuts are major issues; yet, they waited and hid their concerns until after the Republicans and TeaScreamers  terrorized and extorted the President, the Dems, and the rest of the country before they brought up the fact that maybe, just maybe, the crazy deal just made might not solve our problems.

In fact, near-term, cuts instead of stimulus is exactly a recipe for continued unemployment and recession. The markets now recognize this. They also recognize that, with these imposed cuts, the government has hardly any tools left to combat the financial -- and social -- dangers that confront us. If anyone comes up with a good idea, it will be killed by Republicans unless it involves cutting regulations, taxes, protections, safety nets, education or health care and medicine.

So: that's what happens when people vote for Republicans. When will this lesson be learned?

Finally, note that the Congress is away for several weeks (though not officially adjourned). The President babbles on but does nothing. He's waiting for the Republicans to come back from their vacations (where they are plotting further ways to paralyze and crush him) so that he can broker some more "compromises." What will he and his advisers sell off next?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

More baloney in the news

According to CBS news on the radio today (and other reports from many other news sources such as the AP), "Congress" is acting badly in this whole FAA matter. No, news media, it's not Congress, it's the Republican obstructionist party that is behaving badly. And the issue is not just some subsidies to rural airports. There are labor issues involved (and we know that the PTR is anti-labor); also, the airports in question are mainly in "Blue" areas of the country. At least 70,000 airport construction workers have been idled and the Treasury is losing millions a day in fees -- far more than the obstructionists claim the subsidies are costing -- due to the willingness of the Republicans (not Congress) to sacrifice everyone and anyone to achieve their wrong-headed ideological objectives.

In any case, this is simply part of the TeaScreamer/Republican attempt to discredit the U.S. government in the eyes of its citizens. The plan is to so thoroughly muck up the financing of important government agencies that they can't do their vital jobs properly.  This has been, quite correctly, described as political terrorism by several well-respected observers; terrorism as in: the willingness to injure large numbers of innocents in order to obtain political or economic objectives. (See, for example, Joe Nocera's column The Tea Party's War on America in the New York Times.) The Screamers and Republicans could never have achieved by either popular votes or even votes in Congress -- where they control only the House -- what they have achieved by outright extortion: "We will destroy the ability of the U.S. to govern itself and pay its debts unless we get our way."

Today's stock market debacle shows that the business community knows that this terrorism is working. In spite of a not-so-terrible jobs report, and in spite of the recent raising of the debt ceiling, the market knows that  we are not going to come out of this major recession by cutting and disrupting government. But this damage has just been done, and the enablers are only now beginning to realize that the forces they set in motion are turning against them and the country as a whole.

Where is the President? Where is the Democratic Party? Can gross extortion win without a fight?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Coming home to roost

Suddenly, the press and the business community is discovering that maybe all that stuff about cutting the federal government is, well maybe, Bad For Business.

Gosh, who would have thought? (Answer: most economists.)

If Americans don't have jobs, or are underemployed, or are afraid of losing the jobs they have, they won't be buying a lot of the products that American businesses need them to be buying. If state and local governments see tremendous shortfalls in their budgets, they are going to be laying off police, firefighters and teachers. Surprise: unemployed folks don't buy much and don't pay much in taxes. As Robert Reich recently said, "this [part of economics] isn't rocket science."

A lot of the business community -- as represented by the Chamber of Commerce -- and a lot of the "wealth" community has been cheering and financing the Tea Screamers. They saw this as a way of using their movement as a front for cutting their taxes and regulations; in other words, as a way of making more money and keeping the money they have. Of course, they said it would be "good for the country"; it's what they always say.

With the stock market tanking and the outlook bright for a double-dip recession, they are maybe thinking it over (or maybe not).

As I've said before, many self-centered business people (like Grover Norquist) and the Party for The Rich (formerly GOP) have created a monster in the form of the Tea Party, and that monster has gotten out of control. There are some among them who knew better, but greed or cowardice prevented them from speaking out. Now, with trillions on the cutting block and the economic outlook looking less rosy each day, they are starting to whine.

The unemployed (and soon-to-be-unemployed) are under the bus. The voodoo economics that was used to justify tax cuts for the rich and program cuts for everyone else is, with each passing day, losing more of its mojo.

I'd be looking forward to them losing their shirts as we careen down the road to third-worldism, if it weren't for the fact that the rest of us will lose our shirts first. I think Mr. Obama may get his wish for "shared sacrifice" (Good Grief, he's still saying it!) in a way he didn't intend.

Monday, August 1, 2011

It could have been even worse

I finally was able to see some of the details of the budget "compromise" (see here and here). It is still a victory for the Republicans, but a somewhat mitigated one. It is "back-loaded" in the sense that most of the cuts will be after 2011-2012, and a good chunk of the cuts will be in the bloated defense appropriations. Also, it seems that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will not be severely damaged, though there is no guarantee as to what the "bipartisan committee" will come up with.

There will be bad effects on our already feeble recovery: there is simply no way that cuts can help in a (de facto) recession. The unemployed will really take it in the neck. as will cities, towns and states. Federal aid to education will suffer, thereby placing the burden on local governments who will have to maintain schools as well as police and fire departments.

The Wall Street banks and traders, who played a major role in getting us into this mess, will be bailed out once again, since a default would have actually hurt them at least as much as everyone else. They will continue to make out like the bandits many of them are.

I still think that Obama's lack of leadership was a big strategic mistake for him and his party. A lot will hinge on the 2012 elections. These, in turn, will be strongly influenced by the state of the economy and the perceptions of the electorate. I am not encouraged by the short memory that people have about how things got to this state. Most people still seem to believe, for example, that the TARP was an Obama program, and that the deficits were, and are being, caused by his health care plan.

A terrible mistake

Obama has caved again. He may have avoided literal financial default (we'll see how the votes in the House and Senate play out) but by agreeing to cut important government programs now and, in effect, later, he has ensured de facto economic and moral default.

What part of being rolled doesn't the President understand? He agreed to a "bipartisan commission" which will present to Congress a plan in a few months to cut an additional $1 trillion plus from government programs. The scenario for this commission is already clear. Since it is half and half from both parties, the chances are small that it will achieve consensus. But, even if it does, there is 0 chance that the Republicans, led around by the Tea Screamers, will vote for its recommendations unless they are in total agreement with its very narrow "principles". Why should they? Thus, I'd say that the almost certain outcome is that the recommendations of this committee, if there are any, will be rejected, and so automatic cuts to important programs will be triggered. We don't know yet exactly what the nature of these cuts will be, but they most certainly will involve Medicare reimbursements, and slashes to agencies that make our lives better and safer. This will further make our government appear -- and in fact, be -- less effective: a prime Republican/Big Business objective. There will be no tax increases on the wealthy, or even the tax "reforms"  which the Screamers regard as tax increases anyway. And, in fact, as nearly all economists agree, cutting government spending at this point in an economic downturn is a recipe for a double-dip recession. When this happens, Obama, by his lack of leadership will have made himself a one-term president.

In fact, the Republicans will have won everything, including the public-relations battle -- by Presidential default.

Of course, to sound an optimistic note, when the Republicans take over the show in 2012, they will resume the true disaster begun by 8 years of G.W. Bush: 0 regulation, 0 protection for consumers, 0 help for our crumbling federal, state and local education and infrastructure, and soaring unemployment with its resulting toll on already historically low tax revenues. Things will be so bad that by 2016 the Dems have a real shot at a rebound -- if there's anything left.

I can't wait.