Thursday, December 27, 2012

Violence and the NRA

First of all, to see one of the many nasty political facets of the NRA, please check out the column by the NYTimes' longtime Supreme Court analyst Linda Greenhouse; you can find it here:

As you can see from this article, it is a big mistake to believe it when the NRA says it is for the enforcement of gun laws already on the books. In fact, the NRA has opposed virtually every gun control measure ever proposed; when a measure is passed, the NRA has done everything in its power to suppress enforcement of the law. The bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has been underfunded for decades because the NRA has put political and economic pressure on representatives in both houses of Congress -- mostly Republicans but many Democrats as well. It has also exerted sufficient pressure to keep ATF from having a permanent director, which limits the department's power to enforce existing laws. Although the general membership elects the leadership of the NRA, it is not a all clear that the general membership is aware or explicitly approves of the behind-the-scenes political activities of its leadership (more on this below).l

The NRA blames the video game industry for promoting gun violence, but in fact only games from makers not under their political control or not involved with political payoffs for the NRA meet with it's disapproval. It seems that games with a military theme, no matter how perverted or unrepresentative of the U.S. military, seem to be OK with the NRA: this is discussed in this article carried by Yahoo News. Although most mayors and police have split with the NRA on gun control issues, the NRA still maintains close ties with the military and, of course, with the Republican party.

Incidentally, violent video games, whether approved or not by the NRA, can be pretty awful and are largely unregulated. You can see a brief survey of the "Top Ten Violent Video Games" here. I suspect that for most grownups these are pretty primitive and simple-minded, but they contain frightening examples of bloody violence and complete dehumanization of putative "enemies". Nevertheless, it is clear from the many examples -- many uncomfortably recent -- of mass murders that the killers were completely unswayed by any pity or guilt during their crimes -- exactly the same as the killers in these games. The fact that most of the sadistic acts in these games are not committed with guns is actually irrelevant: it is the dehumanization of the victims that makes the torture and murder possible. And this includes the "military" themed games, which the NRA seems not to find objectionable. In these, dehumanization takes the form of presenting the victims of violence as Nazis, communists, terrorists, vague "criminals" or even zombies. The point is that they are "other" and "bad", hence one is justified in doing anything we might want to do to them.

Whether such games can actually create mass-murderers is probably impossible to tell, since how could one possibly test this hypothesis scientifically? Some hypothesize that it may be possible that the violence in video games might actually be a catharsis for some potential killers, taking the place of actual violence. Of course, a similar hypothesis might also be made about, say, simulated child pornography (animated or with adults imitating children): that viewing and finding release from such videos might actually supplant the need for assaults against actual children. These are interesting topics of discussion, but once again: how could we assess their truth?

Anyway, returning to the issue of guns and the NRA.

It is important that those who favor gun control in some form be realistic about the NRA and its members and its leadership. First of all, the NRA is not composed of just hunters and hobbyists. Many in the NRA don't hunt but own a gun for purposes of self-defense. Among these folks there is a wide variety of visions about self-defense, ranging from store-keepers worried about robberies to individuals worried about street crimes, to people who believe that an oppressive and dictatorial government may "come for them."

Now, of course there are paranoid loonies who fear the U.N. and "black helicopters." What about those who think that guns will protect them from street crime? There certainly are cases where store owners have thwarted robberies and homeowners have chased away intruders. However, from what I've read, most cases in which a gun has been fired by an individual at an individual have been cases of either improper or  criminal use of a weapon to intimidate (and not to defend), or cases of mistaken identity that lead to tragedy or near tragedy. David Frum, a longtime Republican consultant, takes this view in an article for CNN: Guns endanger more than they protect.

(I personally am not gun-phobic, but would never keep a firearm in my house unless it were disassembled and locked. Can you imagine having a loaded firearm in your night table and hearing a person rattle your front door in the middle of the night and enter your house? You call: "Who's there?" and there is no answer. Footsteps come up the stairs toward your bedroom; you take the gun and when the bedroom door opens, you fire. Oops, it's your slightly inebriated son paying a surprise visit from college. I, for one, would rather be killed by an intruder than accidentally kill a family member. Somehow I suspect most people share that preference.)

So how should we take the position of the NRA on gun control as expressed by its leadership? Actually, in a survey of 45,000 Americans, only about 22% reported owning a gun, and only a total of about 35% of households reported a gun in the family. Of actual gun owners, only about 1 in 4 actually belonged to the NRA; thus, gun-owning NRA members seem to be only about 5% of the population. These figures come from a statistical essay in the Washington Post. The article goes on to show that the views expressed by Wayne Lapierre (VP and spokesman of the NRA) do not uniformly represent the opinion of NRA members on all issues involving gun control, and certainly not the opinions of all gun owners.

Outside the minority of gun owners and NRA members, Americans at this time support reasonable gun control measures. The two obvious ones are a ban on assault rifles and a ban on large capacity ammunition magazines (those holding more than 10 bullets). Neither of these would be a burden on hunters, hobbyists, and even self-defense advocates: if 10 shots from a semi-automatic weapon won't deal with a random street assault or a home invader, you are pretty much doomed. If you are worried about black helicopters and resurgent communism then, I'm afraid, we owe you nothing except a plan that pays for a good healthcare professional.

Monday, December 17, 2012

More stupidity from the Dems.

If the Democratic Party were run by the Republicans, here's what they would do.

1. They'd make up some phony charges against U.N. ambassador Susan Rice; scream about them over and over, and let the usual network news hacks  blow it up into something that seems to have substance. They'd trot out hawks Lindsey Graham and John McCain and have them babble about how they could never support her for Secretary of State -- though they loved Condi Rice, who really screwed up.

2. They'd suddenly turn faux non-partisan by hinting that they'd love to support incumbent Senator John Kerry for the position of Secretary of State.

3. They'd let their timid President back down and signal to Rice that she should make his life easier by pulling out of contention for the position.

(As if on command, she followed the script and Obama quickly accepted her decision. So much for inviting them to pick a fight with him.)

4. They'd quietly let Scott Brown put his political machine back in gear while the "Democrats" try to find temporary replacement for Kennedy, then engage in a divisive primary campaign to pick a candidate for the Senate candidate to replace Kerry.

Oh, you remember Kerry: the guy why learned that the Viet Nam war was wrong after serving there (because he needed military cred to run for political office some day), then proceeded to forget this lesson and back George Bush's phony war in Iraq -- even though the vast majority of his constituents in Massachusetts opposed it.. Obviously the Republicans still love him for that and the Democrats would never say a thing against him. Oh, he also backed the Patriot Act.

Will Obama appoint the deeply flawed Kerry to be Secretary of State as the Republicans hope he will? We shall see.

It sure is a good thing that the Republicans don't run the Democratic Party...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Eliot Spitzer on tax reform

Eliot Spitzer has posted two short essays on Slate in which he suggests that we tax capital gains and dividends the same as ordinary income, and also institute a "financial transactions" tax. Here are the links:

Raising Capital Gains Tax

Financial Transactions Tax

Note that these are parts of the tax and spending program that I have been advocating; see my recent blog Solving the Debt Problems.

Note that Eliot Spitzer would make a good chair of the SEC; too bad he has a "past".

Monday, December 3, 2012

Robert Reich's new video

Robert Reich -- one of the good Bobs -- has a new video about how and why the Democrats should hold firm in facing the "financial cliff". 

BTW: It would be disgrace if Reich were not appointed to some important position in the Obama Administration.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Solving the debt problems

For the past 40 years or so there has been a de facto class warfare in this country. While workers' productivity has soared, worker compensation has remained essentially flat. Meanwhile, corporate profits have boomed and the gap between the top 2% of income earners  and the remaining 98% has widened to the largest its been since the gilded Age of the Robber Barons (late 19th century) or the time just preceding the Great Depression.

(There is really no dispute about this; to see some background and charts, here are some from the Economic Policy Institute.  Also check out this discussion of CEO pay increases at the Institute for Policy Studies.)

In spite of this, Republicans and other so-called "conservatives" are suggesting that we somehow must all share equally in reducing the public debt and balancing budgets. What makes this even more outrageous is that they don't even mean equally. What they mean is that the rich should continued to enjoy tax breaks that are unequally in their favor, while Congress must enact spending cuts that hit programs that the wealthy don't need or even like -- e.g. national parks, protective regulation, healthcare and aid to education. Thus, as Weill/Brecht say in Three Penny Opera "The answer to a kick in the pants is just another kick in the pants." Thus, the much-vaunted "Simpson-Bowles" prescription for paying down the debt is yet another kick in the pants for working non-rich Americans.

Yet, we can "fix the deficit" and end class warfare simply by cutting away the nonsense about "job creators" and "balanced approaches" and all the rest of that 2% propaganda that even the Democrats are circulating. Several years ago I suggested an alternative tax and spending program that would have balanced the budget (at that time): You can find it here; it has a link to a NY Times "budget calculator" which, though somewhat outdated, is fun to play with; click here (you can use it to check some of the figures for the suggestions I make below).

Here then is my updated program for tax fairness and spending reform.

1. Tax all income equally. In other words, eliminate a special Capital Gains Tax and tax all income including dividends at the same graduated rates. This will prevent Mitt Romney and Warren Buffet from paying at a lower rate than their secretaries.

2. Put a sales tax on sales and purchases of stocks and bonds. Speculators should pay a tax on their sales and purchases the same as most of us do on school books, garbage cans and refrigerators. I discussed this in a previous blog. This tax would be small (¼% on each sale and each purchase) and would not be burdensome to people who are actually investing as opposed to speculating. It could generate as much as $100 billion a year.

3. Cap total deductions for income tax purposes to something around $50,000. This was, in fact, an idea proposed by Mitt Romney near the end of this year's campaign. I doubt that either he or any Republicans would actually support its implementation since it would do a lot to level the tax playing field.

4. Return the Estate Tax to 1998-2000 levels (around 50% on estates above $3 million -- we could raise that to $5 million even).

5. Sell carbon licenses to industry and allow trading of these licenses. This was also at one time a Republican plan, before the party became opposed to everything except showering money on its wealthy patrons.

6. End the state of perpetual war and cut the military budget  to pre-Cold War levels (as percentage of GNP). Bring all troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Drastically cut troop levels in Europe, Japan and Korea.

7. End the expensive and ineffective War on Marijuana and redirect most of the rest of the ineffective "War on Drugs" toward treatment of addiction. This would save not just on police time but also help to lower the lavish spending on prisons.

8. Cut agricultural subsidies to big agribusiness (especially ethanol subsidies to "Big Corn").

9. Cut oil subsidies to companies like Exxon-Mobil.

10. Save Social Security for a century by eliminating the limit on income subject to the FICA tax. Doing this would make raising the retirement age or adjusting the COLAs unnecessary.

Note that I didn't mention ending the "Bush Tax Cuts." I am assuming that they will disappear on schedule January 1. Reinstituting them for people earning less than a quarter million dollars a year will probably be one of the few things that will happen in a somewhat bipartisan way: the Republicans can't afford not to.

This leaves the last and biggest elephant in the tent: Medicare, Medicaid, and healthcare in general. People far more knowledgeable than I have made many suggestions that might be effective. We know that the problem can be addressed effectively because every other advanced industrialized country (and many others besides) have systems that provide better healthcare results than ours and at half the cost. We should have had "Medicare for All" (the "public option") but that didn't happen because of the power of the insurance industry. Nevertheless, we can start with substituting "outcome-based" compensation for the current "fee for services" contracts. Instead of doctors and hospitals being paid for the number of treatments and tests they provide, they would be paid for keeping certain numbers of people healthy over certain periods of time. This is part of Obamacare, but needs to be the standard "operating procedure" for all of national healthcare.

The steps I have suggested above would raise far more money in a far fairer way than anything proposed by either political party. Furthermore, they would help reduce the burden unfairly placed on the working people of this country by 4 decades of class warfare against them.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Parasite Tax (Redux)

(If you want to join the "Fantasy Cabinet" discussion, scroll down a bit, or click HERE; then use the "Comments" section below that blog to make your own comments.)

Below I have reproduced a blog I wrote two years ago -- Nov 20, 2010. With all the talk about generating revenue and shifting the tax burden from the middle class to the wealthy, no one talks about the inequity of sales taxes on everyday items that the middle class purchases such as school supplies and diapers, but no similar tax on financial speculation. This is a little publicized but important example of the class warfare already declared on the 98% by the top 2%.

When I learned about economics in high school, we were told how the stock market works and why it is good. Inventors and entrepreneurs who had good ideas about new and useful products could form companies and issue stock. Investors who thought these ideas or products were promising could take a risk and invest in the stock, thus becoming part "owners" of the company. The money they paid would be used by the company to grow and develop its products. If all went well, the company would thrive and the investors would be rewarded for the risk they took. Sounds wonderful. Like so much of capitalist theory.

But that's not quite the way it works, especially these days. There are still people who buy stocks based on the "fundamentals" of the companies: the management, ideas, and products. These are the true investors. However, most of the trading of securities these days is based on speculation. This is not speculation about the fundamentals of the company, but speculation about how the market and other investors will behave. Probably most stocks (and bonds) are not kept for months and years, but are traded monthly, weekly, daily, and even by the minute and second (see the insider newsletter Zero Hedge for some estimates). Sophisticated computer programs can use statistics and mathematical modeling to estimate small-scale fluctuations in segments of the market and relate that to the second-by-second behavior of particular stocks. Lightning fast buying and selling programs can trade thousands of stocks a second based on these analyses. All this computer power is available to trading companies and their best and wealthiest customers. Often a trading company (Goldman Sachs is a notorious example: see this blog) will pit their best customers against their less-favored customers.

There are tens of thousands of individual "day-traders" who do similar things on their own or are the favored customers of the big brokerage houses.

Make no mistake about it:

These People And Brokers Are Social Parasites.
They serve no useful purpose and do what they do solely out of greed. They are responsible for a lot of the volatility of the market. The tiniest bit of news or financial gossip can set off flurries or cascades of day-trading and computer sales that account for big fluctuations in the daily indices. No wealth or products or innovation or anything of social value is produced. The stock market is already very liquid (i.e. it's easy to pair buyers and sellers), so what these parasites do is create "churning" or "hyperliquidity": meaningless buying and selling that enriches only speculators. Responsible investors such as pension funds, hospitals and schools end up, more often than not, as victims of these irrational market swings.

Now add in derivatives: side bets on the performance of bundles of stocks and bonds; even bets on the financial indices themselves. Sometimes these bundles are only theoretical, as is the case of synthetic CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) which may not actually contain anything more than a list of securities that one bets on. Or consider the trading of Credit Default Swaps, which are like "insurance policies" on securities. The whole setup has absolutely nothing to do with the fundamentals of capitalism, and everything to do with wild speculation and gambling.

It is universally acknowledged now that this gambling culture on Wall Street is responsible for the recent economic collapse and resulting unemployment. Unlike other ruined gamblers, however, the big players here -- investment banks (Citi e.g.) and insurance companies (AIG e.g.) were bailed out because their excesses threatened our entire economic system. Not only are many of the villains in this debacle now taking home huge annual bonuses -- often more than the average family's life savings -- but the Republicans and the woefully ignorant Tea Screamers think that we need fewer regulations of Wall Street.

(Gambling behavior by banks was forbidden after the Great Depression by the Glass-Steagall Act. This worked to prevent a major market crash for more than 60 years. It was repealed by a Republican Congress helped by then President Bill Clinton. For more, see my blog about it.)

The time has come to make Wall Street start paying. One effective way to do this is to enact recently proposed legislation to tax stock and bond sales. This has just been done in Europe and, in fact, there was such a tax in the U.S. from 1914 to 1966.

Yes, Virginia, it's true that we all pay sales taxes on purchases, except the gunslingers on Wall Street.

They can trade a hundred million shares in a day and not pay a dime in sales tax, while you and I fork over 5% or 6% or even more on back-to-school supplies and lawnmowers.

The idea of a Speculation Tax is simple and fair and necessary. Each time a stock is traded, the buyer and seller each pay a small tax -- about 1/4% in some plans. This is a tiny amount: $25 on $10,000 worth of stock, or about what you'd pay in sales tax on a $500 stove. It is absolutely no burden whatever on a long-term investor or conservative pension fund, or hospital or university. It does amount to a burden -- and rightfully so -- on people who make massive and frequent computer trades to take advantage of tiny point fluctuations in securities. It could also be called a Parasite Tax. Conservative estimates say it would bring in at least $100 billion a year in tax revenue (e.g. see Robert Kuttner's article). This revenue could be used constructively to undo some of the bad things that Wall Street has done to us.

Here is a fairly extensive article on the Parasite Tax (a.k.a. the Financial Transactions Tax or Tobin Tax) from SourceWatch and some other articles from the AFL-CIO and The Hill. Google it yourself to find out more.

Another important thing we can do is to make stock and bond traders' profits subject to regular income tax, not just the capital gains tax. But that will be the subject of another blog.

The important thing is: Make Wall Street Pay.

Write your rep about it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fantasy Cabinet Game

In today NYTimes, columnist Joe Nocera discusses his choices for Obama's new cabinet. Below is a summary of his choices for some of these posts:

TREASURY:     Tim Geitner → Sheila Bair
STATE:              Hillary Clinton → Bill Clinton
ATTY.GEN:       Eric Holder → Ken Feinberg
DEFENSE:        Leon Panetta → David Petraeus
ENERGY:         Steven Chu → Fred Krupp
EDUCATION:  Arne Duncan → Randi Weingarten (AFT) 
S.E.C.:              Mary Schapiro/Elisse B. Walter → Sean Berkowitz

For the record, here are the remaining ones: AGRI, COMMERCE, HLTH&HUM. SERV., HOMELAND SEC., H.U.D., INTERIOR, LABOR, TRANSP., VETERANS SERV.

I am in favor of Sheila Bair for Treasury.  She is a Republican who is a firm believer in controls over Wall St and who just finished a 5-year term as chair of the F.D.I.C. to which she was appointed by George Bush. Since Elizabeth Warren is currently occupied as Senator from Massachusetts, Bair is my first choice.

Bill Clinton as Secretary of State is not a great idea. It is unclear how interested he would be in the day-to-day functioning of the office, or how closely he could work with Obama. I think he might be better as special envoy to the Middle East. At the moment Susan Rice seems to be Obama's choice for State, and I don't see anything objectionable in her filling the role; also, Republican opposition to her seems to be moderating.

I am not that happy with Eric Holder who seems to embrace the disastrous "War on Drugs" (but then, so does the President). He also didn't go out of his way to prosecute central figures in the 2008 economic collapse. Ken Feinberg is really a cipher on issues other than disbursing money to victims of 9-11 and the BP oil spill. I have no special knowledge of other deserving nominees.

David Petraeus for Defense seems quixotic. (If we were going to install well-known philanderers in the cabinet, I would have proposed Eliot Spitzer for Attorney General -- but see below.) In any case, it is my understanding that someone who served so recently in the military is ineligible to be Secretary of Defense. Also, Panetta seems to have done a decent job so far.

I for one think that Steven Chu has done a fine job in Energy, so unless he wants out I think he should continue. It never hurts to have someone who actually knows some science in this position. Fred Krupp, as head of the Environmental Defense Fund has some enviro-cred, but he is also a big proponent of fracking, a technology whose dangers have not been investigated nearly enough.

For Education I think that the president of the American Federation of Teachers is too provocative, even if she is a very good person (which she seems to be): I doubt that she could be confirmed. Fortunately, Obama could put forward Diane Ravitch who has been a very pointed and knowledgeable critic of just about everyone and everything in the field. For a long time she was just about the only really thoughtful voice on the right in matters educational. Recently she has changed her mind about many things and has become a very progressive voice. I have read a lot of her essays and found them quite impressive.

For S.E.C. I think that Eliot Spitzer would probably be the best choice if he can overcome the fallout of his sex scandal. Sean Berkowitz, though, is not a bad choice: he was one of the major prosecutors in the Enron case, who helped to nail Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay. He could arguably be better as AG than Ken Feinberg.

Anyway, I'd like to invite readers of this blog to make a case for their favorites for any of these cabinet positions (and SEC). Please use the "Comments" section directly below. I'll collect those that seem most convincing and devote at least one blog to them.

As we "go to press": Sarah B. reminds us not to forget former senator Russ Feingold (AG?) and former Sec. of Labor Robert Reich (Council of Economic Advisors?). SB has named this the "The Fantasy Cabinet Game".

Which reminds me of the other "good" Bob: Bob Kuttner (and not the "bad" Bob: Rubin). He should also be on the Council of Economic Advisers.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Eric Severehead from Philip Roth's "Our Gang"

When it comes to putting folks out to pasture (see previous blog on John McCain), let's not forget Bob Schieffer. If you watched the third presidential debate you know how ineffectual he was. His analysis on various news shows was also pompous and superficial. On one he described Obama's campaign as a purely "tactical" one, as if running on universal health care and shifting the tax burden to the rich from the middle class were some sort of minor "gimmicks". Given his past history, I can't believe that Schieffer himself believed this nonsense.

Some journalists get more perceptive and cogent as they grow older. Others become more pompous. As another example of the latter, Schieffer is following in the footsteps of his generational predecessor Eric Sevareid, a protege of Edward R. Murrow. Sevareid, in his youth, was one of the best buckers of TV network conservatism, but in his later years became verbose and fuzzy. He couldn't seem to see the Vietnam war through clear eyes until the Nixon era.

As a public service,  I dug up two hilarious satirical "quotes" of the older Eric Sevareid (renamed "Erect Severehead"); they are from Philip Roth's "Our Gang", an outrageous spoof of the Nixon years.

“—and so in they continue to come [Do I detect a whiff of pre-Yoda here?]. And now they have told us why. They come not as they came to Washington to mourn the death of President Charisma. Nor do they come as came they did to Atlanta, to follow behind the bier of the slain Martin Luther King. Nor come do they as to the railroad tracks they did, to wave farewell as the tragic train that bore the body of the murdered Robert Charisma carried to its final resting place, him. No, the crowd that cometh to Washington tonighteth, cometh not in innocence and bewilderment, like little children berefteth of a father. Rather, cometh they in guilt, cometh they to confesseth, cometh they to say, ‘I too am guilty,’ to the police and the FBI. It is a sight, moving and profound, and furnishes evidence surely, if evidence there need surely be, of a nation that has cometh of age. For what is maturity, in men or in nations, but the willingness to bear the burden — and the dignity — of responsibility? And surely responsible it is, mature it is, when in its darkest hour, a nation can look deep within its troubled and anguished blah blah blah blah blah blah blah the guilt of all. Of course, those there are who will seek a scapegoat, as those there will always be, human nature being what it is instead of what it should be. Those there are who will self-righteously stand up and shout, ‘Not me, not me.’ For they are not guilty, they are never guilty. It is always the other guy who is guilty: Bundy and Kissinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Calley and Capone, Manson and McNamara — yes, the list is endless of those whom they would make responsible for their own crimes. And that is what makes this demonstration here in Washington of collective guilt so blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. The blah blah of the spirit and the blah blah blah blah blah blah for which our sons have died blah blah blah blah blah blah reason and dignity blah blah blah blah blah dignity and reason. No, blame not those who gather here in Washington to confess to the murder of the President. Ratber, praise them for their courage, their blah blah blah, their blah and their blah blah blah, for blah blah blah blah as are you and I. We are all guilty. And only at the risk of blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah forget. This is Erect Severehead from the nation’s blah.”

“Good evening. This is Erect Severehead with a cogent news analysis from the nation’s capital… A hushed hush pervades the corridors of power. Great men whisper whispers while a stunned capital awaits. Even the cherry blossoms along the Potomac seem to sense the magnitude. And magnitude there is. Yet magnitude there has been before, and the nation has survived. A mood of cautious optimism surged forward just at dusk. Then set the age-old sun behind these edifices of reason, and gloom once more descended. Yet gloom there has been, and in the end the nation has survived. For the principles are everlasting, though the men be mortal. And it is that very mortality that the men in the corridors of power demonstrate. For no one dares to play politics with the momentousness of a tragedy of such scope, or the scope of a tragedy of such momentousness. If tragedy it be. Yet tragedies there have been, and the nation founded upon hope and trust in man and the deity, has continued to survive. Still, in this worried capital tonight, men watch and men wait. So too do women and children in this worried capital tonight watch and wait. This is Erect Severehead From Washington, D.C.”

Oh, and here's an actual quote from Sevareid himself, from 1972. By this time the full terror of our war on Vietnam was pretty obvious to nearly everyone. Sevareid goes on:

If we have reached the dreadful point where the honor of the state and the conscience of the people collide, then what does honor mean, anymore? We are asked to believe it is dishonorable to depart and risk the safety of Vietnamese political and military leaders, but honorable to go on contributing to the certain death and misery of the wholly innocent. We are asked to believe that better relations with Russia are worth the loss of our own sense of moral identity. There does come a time when the heart must rule the head. That time is when the heart is about to break.

Has he made this perfectly clear?

Time to put McCain out to pasture

John McCain (R-Ariz) has been acting erratically for years now, but things are getting worse. With all the problems confronting the U.S., he has made Susan Rice, current ambassador to the U.N. and possible Obama nominee for Secretary of State, the focus of his increasingly irrational annoyance. He seems to think that she should have substituted her own analysis of the attack in Benghazi Libya for the official CIA briefing.  What her own analysis could have been is entirely unclear, nor is it her job description to have one, much less substitute it for official intelligence reports.  It is really unclear why he is so obsessively negative toward her.

This is the same John McCain who thought that Condoleeza Rice was just fine, even after she missed all the intelligence warnings preceding 9-11 and was part of the whole Bush Iraq deception. But this didn't stop McCain from further adventures on his new rocking horse. First he announced his implacable opposition to a possible Susan Rice nomination, making vague threats to filibuster it -- in spite of the fact that he knew nothing at that time about the nature of the intelligence briefing she and the administration had been given. Next, he called for a "Watergate"-type investigation of the whole affair -- a request quite properly shot down by Harry Reid as "partisan" posturing. Finally, when the administration offered a two hour press conference last Wednesday on the Benghazi attack, McCain blew it off and instead scheduled a press conference of his own at the same time -- a press conference at which he had nothing to say. CNN published the following account of a follow up on this nonsense:

When CNN approached McCain in a Capitol hallway Thursday morning, the senator refused to comment about why he missed the briefing, which was conducted by top diplomatic, military and counter-terrorism officials. Instead, McCain got testy when pressed to say why he wasn’t there.
“I have no comment about my schedule and I’m not going to comment on how I spend my time to the media,” McCain said.

Asked why he wouldn’t comment, McCain grew agitated: “Because I have the right as a senator to have no comment and who the hell are you to tell me I can or not?”

When CNN noted that McCain had missed a key meeting on a subject the senator has been intensely upset about, McCain said, “I’m upset that you keep badgering me.”

Am I the only one who wonders how John McCain got his reputation for being an expert in military matters? He certainly was a bomber pilot who was shot down over Hanoi and was a POW in N. Vietnam for 6 years. By accounts I have read he acted courageously and honorably during his captivity, but I could find no further special training or education about military matters  or foreign affairs in his bio. Shortly after he retired from the military (in 1981) he entered politics. He did serve on various military-oriented committees as a representative and later senator; one could argue that these assignments were the result of his military sacrifices more than any particular expertise. For a conservative he was not unreasonable in his suspicion of military projects, and he did work for normalization of relations with Vietnam. He also took relatively enlightened positions on non-military issues such a campaign reform, energy (cap and trade), climate change, and immigration -- often breaking with his party to do so.

Nevertheless, through it all McCain has been an unrelenting hawk. He, along with lots of others (e.g. John Kerry, Hillary Clinton,  Joe Biden, and nearly all Republicans) supported Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He predicted that the latter would be quickly successful -- a totally wrong prediction he no doubt would have sneered at had it been made by Susan Rice.

Since his unsuccessful presidential race against Obama in 2008, McCain has been increasingly conservative and dyspeptic. Whatever flashes he may have exhibited in the past of a "maverick" nature have largely disappeared, and he now seems old, tired, irrational and bitter: long past the time to call it a career.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

He truly IS defective

So Mitt himself is telling us that the "47%" remarks he made were not taken out of context, but in fact represent how he feels. Please read or reread my blog A Defective Human Being and you'll see that it represents his character quite accurately and fairly. Not only is Romney beneath contempt, he is now even unacceptable to his own largely beneath-contempt party. Just today Bobby Jindal (R. Governor of Louisiana) and Kelly Ayotte (R. Sen. NH) publicly dissed Romney's latest assertion that Obama won because he promised "things" (like helping students with their college loans and health care, helping women get contraception, and maybe not throwing lots of Hispanics out of the US) to non-rich people. Of course, it's still OK to promise wealthy folks tax cuts.

If the Mormon church has any real charitable feelings, beyond those that are reserved for either proselytizing or for helping other Mormons, it will denounce Romney for what he now has clarified as his very uncharitable beliefs.

He is truly a defective human being.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Population chart

Reader (and friend) M.E. sent me the chart below, which is a map of the U.S. with red and blue states colored in. In this map the states are distorted so that their areas are proportional to their populations. Thus, you can see that although the number of red states exceeds the number of blue states, the latter contain quite a few more people.

(There are similar maps showing countries of the world "distorted" by population or energy consumption etc.)

Opportunities to move forward on taxes

Although it is a minor part of the necessary progress needed to shore up our economy, raising taxes on the wealthy while preserving current rates for the remaining 98 - 99% is at least important symbolically. And, it looks like this will happen.

The reason is that the election has enabled Obama and the Democrats to box in the PTR (Party for The Rich, formerly the GOP). As Obama has put it:

"Now we need a majority in Congress to listen – and they should start by making sure taxes don’t go up on the 98% of Americans making under $250,000 a year starting January 1st. This is something we all agree on [my italics]. Even as we negotiate a broader deficit reduction package, Congress should extend middle-class tax cuts right now. It’s a step that would give millions of families and 97% of small businesses the peace of mind that will lead to new jobs and faster growth. There’s no reason to wait."

As he said, his pen is ready to sign the bill.

I can't see how the Republicans can hold out for helping million/billion-aires. True, these folks contributed mightily to the party and its PACs, but the money led to electoral losses, not gains. It may be safe to say that this "investment" by the rich in the PTR was a losing one, and that the PTR must be worrying that such large-scale financial help will not materialize so easily in future elections. So what motivation do they have for strapping themselves to this albatross again? I doubt that there are many in the middle class who really believe their tax rates should be bound with those who are much wealthier. The argument that we need big tax cuts for the already rich because they are the "job creators" didn't seem to gain much traction. And who could fail to notice that the "official" definition of "Small Business" applied to Donald Trump's  empire as well as to Bain Capital -- and who but the lame-brained could wonder about such a "definition"?

As people digest this more and more, I believe that they will turn up their noses at the PTR position of absolute support for preserving all the Bush Tax cuts. Nothing is certain, but if the President and his party stand firm and are willing to continue boxing in the Republicans on this issue, I predict that Obama will get his chance to use his pen on a bill to his liking.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

If Einstein were here today...

(You can make your own Einstein messages HERE.)

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Election: Part II

In yesterday's post I discussed the changing demographics and the Republican party's inability to adjust -- or, at times, even acknowledge -- to them.

Why this election was Important

There are may signs that the American economy is improving -- albeit slowly and fitfully. Many things can go wrong, including serious and expensive consequences of climate change and serious and expensive consequences of Congress's inability to come to terms on financial policy in the face of the vast tax increases and spending cuts due at the end of the year. I think that some sort of compromise will probably be made, though it will likely be distasteful. In any case, in several years it is likely that unemployment will be down and GDP and the stock market will be much higher.

Had Obama lost this election, the credit for whatever upturn may occur would have gone to
Romney, the Republicans, and their crazy theory of trickle-down (ugh!) economics. This would enable the Party for The Rich (PTR, formerly GOP) to claim credit, as so often happens, for policy decisions made previously by others (e.g. Obama's "stimulus" package and the withdrawal from two wars). This in turn could easily have led to 8 or more years of conservative policies under several Republican administrations -- postponing the politically progressive effects of the changing demographics for perhaps another generation.

In addition, there is a real chance that Obama has learned enough about the PTR to understand that "bipartisanship" is a meaningless term these days, and compromise by Democrats has meant, too often, capitulation to off-the-wall Republican reactionaries. We have paid a price for Obama's on-the-job training, and it would have been a pity to lose that investment.

Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I like to picture Obama proposing serious recovery programs -- including transfer of federal funds from the military into "clean energy" and infrastructure. I'd like to imagine him accompanying each of these proposals with news conferences and public addresses explaining and advocating for them (something he barely did for health care), while asking people to pay attention to the responses they get from the Republicans. Wouldn't it be wonderful if each time the PTR tries to sabotage his program he calls them out loudly and publicly on it? That's what a real activist President -- like FDR -- would do.

Obama strikes back: Remember when Mitch McConnell said that the priority of the Republican party would be to ensure that Obama is a one term President? (If you don't, here is the video.) I hope Obama can skillfully rub his nose in that; also, dump on the cowardly John Boehner and the vile Eric Cantor. These three guys need to be surgically neutralized and ridiculed. Maybe Obama and the Democrats can get some of their "Hollywood friends" to write the lines: subtle, humerous, devastating. Oh, and while we're at it, what about some further examination of the record of that hood Darrell Issa? For more details, see the New Yorker article on Issa.

And then there's the Supreme Court: need I say more?

Finally, for today: Can we at last put Sheldon Adelson behind bars? He spent maybe $100 million supporting various Republican candidates for President -- first Gingrich, then Santorum, and finally Romney -- in the hope that electing one of them would save him and his casinos from further investigation into violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act -- see this Times piece for more info -- or Google it.

Whew: nice that the right person won the Presidential election a few days ago!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Election: Part I

Well, my computer has been repaired, so I'm back blogging.

It's been an exciting election. It probably would have been more relaxing if I had just believed everything Nate Silver has been saying all along. Then I would have "known" that Obama would win (at) least 303 electoral votes, and that the Democrats would increase their Senate majority to 53+ seats (and probably 55 with independents Angus King and Bernie Sanders). Ah well, nothing like extra excitement.

Anyway, here is the first of several thoughts inspired by this election.

Demographics and the Republicans

The change in the makeup of the American electorate has been noted by many different observers for some time now. By midcentury Whites will be a minority group, with Hispanics, Blacks and Asians adding up to more than 50% of the voting population. Given that these last groups tend to vote Democratic, and that Whites are fairly split by party, this, together with the emerging "gender gap", suggests a real strengthening of progressive forces -- all other things remaining equal. The Democrats have realized this for decades. In 1968 a commission chaired by (the recently deceased) senator George McGovern started work on a set of rules for assuring that women and minorities would be assured fair representation in the party. The commission's rules were adopted just in time for McGovern's disastrous loss to Nixon in 1972. However, these rules and subsequent additions have enabled the Democrats to take advantage of the demographic changes that have now become quite apparent.

I think it is fair to say that the Democratic Party's concern about women and minorities had more to do with the party's interest in fairness than its interest in winning elections. Whatever else liberals may be, they are certainly idealistic.

On the other hand, the PTR (Party of The Rich, formerly the GOP) has never claimed the mantle of idealism. After the "Dixiecrat" split during the 1948 election, the southern segregationist faction of the Democratic party was wooed by the Republicans. This became a more formal policy with Nixon's "Southern Strategy", and the pursuit of the White, southern voter has become a hallmark of the PTR. Even a cursory glance at the electoral map shows where most of the "red" states lie: outside the north central and northern coasts. Confederate flag country is PTR country. For an update on the "Southern Strategy, click HERE and also look at Tom Edsall's Times Op-Ed on Romney's version. (Note also the gradual increase in political influence of Hispanics in southwestern states such a Nevada, Arizona and even Texas.)

So, the post-election journalists are now crawling all over themselves speculating on how or when the Republicans will adapt to the changing electoral dynamics. It's an odd question. The Republicans have created a party based on the White Male Viewpoint. Even a cursory look at Republican conventions shows hardly a non-White complexion or viewpoint. By creating this sort of party, and forcing out "deviants", the Republicans have made it nearly impossible for own their party to change: there simply are almost no "changers" left. By purging the PTR of dissenting voices they have purged the sort of leaders that might move the party to a more realistic view of the world.

I, for one, think this is fine. There is very little that the Republican party has to offer of value that isn't already represented in the various factions of the Democratic party. Furthermore, most of what the Republicans stand for is simply wrong: unfettered capitalism, undermining government, tax breaks for the wealthy and other elements of "trickle-down" economics, climate-change denial and other anti-science attitudes, fundamentalism and religiosity, and militarism and American "exceptionalism".  My great hope is that they never realize the error of their ways but, rather, become over the years a shrinking and increasingly marginalized living fossil. Couldn't happen to a nicer party...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A defective man leading with his chin

I'll say this for Mitt Romney: after the first debate in which, like Clint Eastwood, he debated an empty chair, Mitt has been going out of his way to get clipped. In the second debate he exhibited his first case of Romnesia when he claimed that Obama hadn't mentioned terrorism in remarks made after the assassination of our ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi. Then, to end that debate, he stuck out his chin again by saying he'd be president of 100% of Americans, thus enabling Obama to clip him with the "47%" rap as the last word.

Last night was even worse for the Mittster. He delivered up this utterly stupid comparison of our current Navy with that of 1916:

MR. ROMNEY: Our Navy is older — excuse me — our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917.

Did he think that this line, which he has been using for weeks, would catch Obama unaware? What could he have been thinking? He got clipped again very neatly by a line that I'm sure the President must have wished many times in his dreams he could have been set up for so neatly:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

One other moment also comes to mind. Romney chided the president:

MR. ROMNEY: Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to — to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to — to Turkey and Iraq. And — and by way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  ... when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the — the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable. 

And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children’s bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. 

(All quotes from the offical transcript of the debate.)

This would have been even better if Obama could have reminded the viewers that the "donors" Romney took to Israel consisted mainly of the infamous Sheldon Adelson,  the casino magnate who has given millions to the Republicans. A Romney victory is about all that stands between Adelson  and prison -- for using his casinos in a money-laundering operation. I suspect that Romney was too busy baptizing dead Jews to take in the significance of visiting Yad Vashem. "And by the way", I think some of the residents of Florida may also know something about this. We'll see.

Mitt Romney once again shows that he is a defective human being.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

More of Romney's entitlements

In my blog "A Defective Human Being" (Sept 24, 2012) I pointed out that Mitt Romney's past history shows him to be a bully and snob -- a person whose anti-social behavior stems from a strong sense of entitlement based on his wealth and social status. The family financial cushion that sent him to elite schools also helped him get started in business; he parlayed aggressive Mormon proselytizing overseas into a military deferment during the Vietnam War; he took every advantage of financial dodges and tax loopholes to amass a fortune, much of which is hidden overseas. Throughout all, his attitude has been one of entitlement and disdain for others less fortunate or less rapacious.

It is no surprise, then, to see his character so clearly on display at last night's Presidential Debate. Rules of decorum that were agreed upon by both sides apparently don't seem to apply to Mr. Romney: if he wanted to get the last word and it wasn't his turn, why he simply just started to speak -- even over the objections of the moderator.  While both he and Obama went over their allotted time on several occasions, he did so more often, more arrogantly, and with more obvious a sense of entitlement. On several occasions this included simply speaking over the moderator as if she didn't matter or even exist.  Play it over and you'll see.

When asked what would happen if somehow his "numbers don't add up" (which is what non-voodoo economists have shown numerically to be the case), here is what he said:

"Well, of course they add up. I was — I was someone who ran businesses for 25 years and balanced the budget. I ran the Olympics and balanced the budget. I ran the — the state of Massachusetts as a governor, to the extent any governor does, and balanced the budget all four years" 

Well, it's not "of course." Romney is used to bullying other, weaker companies and not being second-guessed by anyone -- he had no stockholders at Bain to get in his way or question him. In Massachusetts, he had to balance the budget: it's required by law. As a one term governor, who was already prepping for national politics before his term expired, he was not responsible in any way for Massachusetts' excellent educational record. In fact, he cut state aid to cities and towns for their schools, police and fire departments, and raised fees for state community colleges and universities and other citizen services.

In point of fact: The numbers don't add up. Even if all tax deductions are eliminated, that would only pay for less than 10% of the deficits that his tax cuts -- on top of the Bush tax cuts he vows to retain -- and his proposed increase in military spending would rack up. So what's the "of course" all about? The "of course" means "I'm Mitt Romney, I'm entitled to your belief in me,  and that's all the proof you need." Actually, it's all the proof we've gotten or will get from him or his party.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Scott Brown and Republicans lie again

Here is the definitive word, from, on Elizabeth Warrens work for victims of asbestos poisoning:

Warren’s Role in Asbestos Case

Posted on October 15, 2012
Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren are accusing each other of “not telling the truth.” Brown says Warren worked to “restrict payments” to asbestos victims, while Warren says she worked to “get more money” for them. We find Warren is correct; Brown’s ad is a distortion.
It may seem counter-intuitive that Warren’s work on behalf of an insurance company that covered an asbestos manufacturer could be work on the same side as the victims of the case. But Warren was brought in as a bankruptcy expert on a case before the Supreme Court to secure a $500 million trust to pay asbestos victims. As part of a settlement that Warren worked to preserve, the insurance company sought immunity from lawsuits in exchange for releasing the $500 million trust. Attorneys for most of the asbestos victims supported Warren’s efforts.
Here are the two narratives portrayed by the competing campaigns.

Brown’s Version
In recent TV and radio ads, the Brown campaign begins with a narrator saying, “Elizabeth Warren’s not telling the truth about her career.” It then cuts to a clip of Warren saying, “I’ve been out there working for people who have been injured by big corporations.”
The narrator then says, “But the [Boston] Globe says Elizabeth Warren was a key lawyer in an asbestos case working for a big corporation. Warren helped Travelers Insurance restrict payments to victims of asbestos poisoning. The results were disastrous for the victims. The insurance company saved millions. And Elizabeth Warren got paid 40 times what they paid victims. Elizabeth Warren’s just not who she says she is.”
Brown echoed those comments during a debate on Sept. 20, saying, “You chose to side with one of the biggest corporations in the United States: Travelers Insurance. When you worked to prohibit people who got asbestos poisoning, and I hope all the asbestos union workers are watching right now. She denied, she helped Travelers deny those benefits for asbestos poisoning, made over $250,000 in an effort to protect big corporations. There is only one person in this debate, right now, Jon, who is protecting corporations. She has a history of it.”
“It’s just not true,” Warren said at the debate. ”The facts speak for themselves.”

Warren’s Version
Although she didn’t elaborate during the debate, Warren’s camp later fired back with two ads featuring family members of victims of mesothelioma who describe Warren as a champion of their cause.
“I’ve been a widow since 1990 when my husband, Sam, died of mesothelioma,” says Ginny Jackson. “He was exposed to asbestos when he worked at the Quincy shipyard. It’s a terrible, terrible way to die. Elizabeth Warren went all the way to the Supreme Court to try to get more money for asbestos victims and families. Now Scott Brown is attacking Elizabeth Warren about her work. Scott Brown is not telling the truth. He’s trying to use our suffering to help himself. He outta be ashamed.”
Warren’s version of the case has been publicly backed by several attorneys representing the asbestos victims, as well as leaders of an asbestos workers’ union.
“He’s flat out misrepresenting the facts,” Francis C. Boudrow, business manager for the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers Union, Local No. 6 told the Boston Globe. “It’s offensive to all these people who’ve lost lives” to asbestos-­related illness, he said.

Warren’s Work
At the heart of this issue is an ongoing asbestos case involving the nation’s largest asbestos manufacturer, Johns-Manville Corp. The company ended up in bankruptcy, leaving some victims, who did not develop symptoms until more than a decade after others, seeking compensation from an ever-shrinking victims fund. By the time Warren entered the case in 2008, more than $3.2 billion had been paid out to over 600,000 claimants.

Warren was brought into the case by Travelers Insurance, one of the insurers of Johns-Manville. Specifically, Warren worked on the case Travelers v. Baily to preserve a $500 million trust from which current and future victims would be paid — part of a settlement agreement previously reached between lawyers for Travelers and the victims.

According to Warren’s financial disclosure forms, Warren was hired by Travelers in April 2008 and did work for the company through September 2010. By that time, Travelers and the asbestos victims were working together on a common goal: to preserve the $500 million trust both sides had agreed to. Another insurance company, Chubb, was contesting the settlement agreement, and Warren ended up making her one and only appearance before the Supreme Court arguing on behalf of Travelers to uphold the trust. As part of the deal, Travelers would be permanently immune from future asbestos-related lawsuits concerning Johns-Manville. Warren’s argument prevailed. According to the Globe, Warren was paid $212,000 over three years by Travelers.

So it’s true, as the Brown ad says, that a Boston Globe headline on May 1 described Warren as playing a “key role in an asbestos court case.” But the subhead of the story  — “Worked for insurer on fund for victims” — belies the ad’s claim about her opposing the interest of the victims.
Specifically, the ad leaves out this pivotal paragraph from the same Globe story:
Boston Globe, May 1: Travelers won most of what it wanted from the Supreme Court, and in doing so Warren helped preserve an element of bankruptcy law that ensured that victims of large-scale corporate malfeasance would have a better chance of getting compensated, even when the responsible companies go bankrupt.
Unfortunately for the asbestos victims, the Supreme Court’s decision wasn’t the final word on this case. After Warren left the case, it took a “disastrous” turn for the victims when a lower court issued a ruling on Feb. 29, 2012, that, as the Globe reported, took Travelers “off the hook for paying out the $500 million settlement.”

The Globe noted that according to one judge who tried to preserve the settlement, Travelers received “something for nothing” — immunity from future lawsuits without having to pay out the $500 million trust.

Warren has said she believes the lower court erred. The ruling is still under appeal.

Bruce Carter, an Ohio attorney whose firm has worked on behalf of over 19,000 claimants in the case, told us Brown has simply mischaracterized Warren’s role. The idea that Warren was working against the interests of the victims, he said, is ”not true.”

“During the period she worked with Travelers, the claimants (the victims) and Travelers were working together to do what was necessary to get these funds approved and established,” Carter said. “We were all working together for the benefit of the victims. We were working together toward a common goal.”

The trust established through a settlement with Travelers avoided further legal wrangling that “could have taken many, many more years, if ever, to succeed,” Carter said. In other words, he said, the trust provided a mechanism for victims to actually get paid.

In an interview with the Globe in May, Warren said, “The issue I was focused on like a laser was the constitutionality of preserving the trust, because the trust is a critical tool for making sure that people who’ve been hurt have a fair shot at compensation. Without it, millions of people who’ve already been injured will get nothing, and millions more in the future will get nothing.”

How close was the relationship between Travelers and victims? Before the Supreme Court, the attorneys representing the victims gave Travelers’ attorneys their time so they could provide a more complete argument in favor of the settlement agreement, Carter said.

“That tells you, we worked together toward a common goal,” Carter said. “We gave them our time to argue to the panel.” It was only after Warren left the case, he said, that Travelers “tried to back out of the deal and try to get something for nothing.” Another lawyer representing victims in the case, Edwin L. Wallace with the law firm Thornton & Naumes in Boston, echoed Carter’s assessment.
“She was working for the victims,” Wallace said. “In order to pay the victims, we needed a settlement trust,” said Wallace, who has contributed to Warren’s campaign. “She represented Travelers for that argument.”

Warren’s work for Travelers was over by the time a lower court ruled that Travelers would not have to pay the $500 million trust. So no one — including Ginny Jackson, the woman featured in the Warren ad — has been paid yet.

Carter and Wallace both said that — contrary to what the Brown campaign is now saying — neither they nor Warren could have foreseen the lower court ruling that let Travelers off the hook for the $500 million trust.

And Wallace is confident that ruling will be overturned. “They will get paid,” Wallace predicted.

– Robert Farley

Monday, October 15, 2012

Careful what you wish for

The Law of Unintended Consequences is alive and well in the Middle East. Arms that we send to supposed "allies" more often than not end up in the hands of future enemies -- who may very well be the same people. This was apparent when we armed the Mujahedin in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, only to have the weapons turned on us when the "freedom fighters" were reborn as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden. It happened again when we backed the Shah in Iran who was deposed by the Ayatollahs; they turned the Shah's weapons to face us (and Israel). At the same time, we were arming Saddam to fight the Iranians, and a lot of the military support we gave him became the Improvised Explosive Devices and small arms that murdered and maimed American troops there.

Now, to make an election issue, Romney and company think we should be doing more for the Syrian rebels. They don't specify exactly what, but the implication is military aid and not water purification tablets. Never mind that these people, should they depose Assad, may very well share their weapons with Jihadists, who seem to be everywhere. You can find more about this HERE and HERE.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The VP debate: Part II (Libya)

I think this issue of the American Consulate debacle in Libya, which figured in last Thursday's VP debate, will be an important one in the remainder of the campaign. Congress is already roiled in investigations of the issue.

Surely there was a failure of the intelligence community -- once again! -- on this one. The consequences were not as great as on 9/11 of course, but grim nevertheless. Even worse was the failure of Obama -- once again! -- to take a situation seriously. A furrowed brow and a very "thoughtful" response was not enough.

Joe Biden tried to make things look better in the debate by saying that Congress had cut a lot of money requested for security. I think he mentioned $300 million but that figure didn't appear in the transcript I read, since I think it was an "interruption". Rep. Darryl Issa (R, CA), appearing on Bill Maher's RealTime show (broadcast the next day), claims that the cuts from the request were bipartisan, with essentially the same number of Dems voting for them as Republicans. Also, it seems that the request for additional security was for the Embassy in Tripoli, not for the Consulate in Benghazi.

Of course, we know that all of Congress has been lead around by the nose by the GOP budget-cutters; the State Department appropriations are pretty easy targets. (The Republicans look down of the State Department as sort of effete internationalist do-gooders, not real fighters like the Defense folks.) Nevertheless, Obama has to defuse this issue since Romney & Co. are making competence a big issue in the campaign, and saying that the administration was at the mercy of the intelligence community does not seem all that competent. When Romney says "We can do better" that is probably exactly true, since basically a failure, no matter how explicable, is always worse than doing better. Whether Romney can, in fact, do better remains to be seen -- a hopeful claim is verbally hard to dismiss.

Since Romney will undoubtedly launch some attack on this issue in the next debate (and certainly in the final one devoted to foreign policy),  Obama will have to come up with something about the Libyan attack that will be plausible and, even more important, that will sound telling and convincing. I'm not sure that is possible. The intelligence community is pretty much independent and self-sustaining. If, in fact, it did not see Al-Qaeda as threatening in Libya, and did not immediately see that the actual attacks were planned by terrorists, that is their failure; however, it will be hard, in a public debate, for Obama to cast that blame without sharing in it. Nuances and legalisms don't go over well on TV; if he claims to be dependent on his intelligence briefings, that can be seen as a weakness and lack of executive strength and acumen -- something that many people, rightly or wrongly, see as Romney strengths.

Perhaps Obama can explain the inherent danger of a diplomatic posting in an unstable country such as Libya. Perhaps he can quote the many diplomats who say that they don't like to conduct their business from within a "fortress mentality", where anything they do, or any place they go, can be nixed by the security detail. Perhaps he can add up the number of troops or private contractors that would be needed to secure all of our 200 plus embassies and consulates, and pull up some quotes from Republicans about the need to spend more on tanks and aircraft carriers than on diplomacy. Whatever, he must come up with something before the debate or he will -- once again! -- pay dearly for his lapse.

Oh, one last thing. Bill Maher had a great quip about the first Presidential Debate: "Liberals were freaking out.. borderline suicidal -- which is tough on them: when you lock yourself in the garage with the Prius running -- nothing happens!"

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Romney, Bain and China

This is a quote from an article that appeared in the New York Times several days ago:

"The tale of Asimco Technologies, an auto parts manufacturer whose plants dot eastern China, would seem to underscore Mitt Romney’s campaign-trail complaint that China’s manufacturing juggernaut is costing America jobs. 

"Nine years ago, the company bought two camshaft factories that employed about 500 people in Michigan. By 2007 both were shut down. Now Asimco manufactures the same components in China on government-donated land in a coastal region that China has designated an export base, where companies are eligible for the sort of subsidies Mr. Romney says create an unfair trade imbalance.
But there is a twist to the Asimco story that would not fit neatly into a Romney stump speech: Since 2010, it has been owned by Bain Capital, the private equity firm founded by Mr. Romney, who has as much as $2.25 million invested in three Bain funds with large stakes in Asimco and at least seven other Chinese businesses, according to his 2012 candidate financial disclosure and other documents."

I pretty sure, in addition, that Bain has taken over companies and then shipped their jobs to China (among other places). I may have mentioned it in a previous blog, but I am too lazy to look it up now.

Typo fixed

Ryan quote on faith got cut and pasted badly in yesterday's blog; it's now fixed. More later.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The VP debate: part I

1. Abortion

During the Vice-Presidential debate on Thursday, the candidates were asked about how their religious beliefs affected their views on abortion (both Biden and Ryan are Catholics). Ryan said the following:

REP. RYAN: I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do.

 This is exactly the opposite of what John F. Kennedy said in response to the same question. Biden, like Kennedy, said that he wouldn't impose his religious views on other Americans.

Ryan also went on to say: The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

While such an administration most-likely couldn't pass any sweeping anti-abortion laws, it is likely that it would have at least one Supreme Court nomination during its first term. Since Roe v. Wade is hanging by a one vote thread in the Court, this would almost guarantee its overturn.

Incidentally, Ryan has always opposed abortions in all cases -- even for rape and incest (I'm not about saving the life of the mother). Among most anti-abortion people, this is a radical position -- so much so that, at least for the moment, Ryan is suppressing his true feeling on the issue in order not to damage the ticket. Ryan, following official Catholic doctrine, also opposes contraception, a position he also dares not air too publicly. Since, as he says, he can't separate his faith from politics, we can assume that he will actively work to limit the availability of contraception.

But he is such a cute fellow, isn't he? Kind of elfish...

Of course, Ryan's adherence to Church teachings doesn't extend to other facets of morality. As I pointed our previously,  the Ryan budget, which is the official document of the Republican Party on matters economic, is so grossly anti-poor that even the quite conservative Conference of Catholic Bishops declared it immoral. Like so many abortion ayatollahs, Ryan believes that life begins at conception and ends at birth (in the words of Barney Frank).

2. The Romney Tax Plan

Both Romney and Ryan claim that their tax plan, which includes re-upping  the Bush Tax Cuts when they expire, as well as elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax, elimination of the Inheritance or Estate Tax, and "across the board" 20% cuts in income-tax rates, would not lead to deficits. The Democrats have claimed that, on the contrary, they would produce, on face value, a $5 trillion dollar deficit over 5 years. Part of this discrepancy results from a poor agreement on what each side is talking about. The Democratic figure is taking the budget cuts alone, while the Republicans claim that they will counter them with closing of various loopholes, eliminating certain deductions, and, of course, spending cuts. The Democrats -- and most economists -- claim that these countermeasures would at most partially offset the cuts, and that severe deficits would still result. The Republicans claim 6 (count them: six) studies show otherwise. Some of these so-called "studies" have been debunked as simply blogs and not real studies. You can read a summary of the Six Studies debunking in a recent article by Josh Barro in Bloomberg News. (Barro is himself a blogger and not an economist, but he does summarize the debunking material pretty well. I'm waiting for Paul Krugman to take up the Six Studies.) Pretty much every defense of Romney's plan, however, makes the assumption that these lower taxes will so stimulate the economy that deficits will vanish like fairy dust. Of course, the Bush Tax Cuts and the rest of conservative dogma led to a very weak recovery in 2003, and, to put it mildly, didn't do so well when the economy went south in 2008...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Maureen Dowd in today's Times

While it's still online, check out Maureen Dowd's column in today's NY Times.

I believe there is a lot of truth in what she says, though it's always dangerous to play shrink (even if you are a shrink!).  Humans are really pretty complicated. Anyway,  see what you think.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Romney's deficit plan

I was going to suggest that if Romney claims, again, that his budget won't result in a 10 year additional deficit of $ 5 trillion, that Obama might begin a reply like this:

(The President takes the "T" for "Time Out" sign with his hands):

Wait just a second. We should be able to do the math here, and I for one am not afraid of numbers. (He pulls out a calculator from his pocket) In this case, it's not rocket science, so here goes. The total amount of income taxes Americans pay is (quotes the figure). Mr. Romney wants to cut taxes by 20% ...

However, I started to look at the financial analysis from the Tax Policy Center I realized that the math was not a simple as I had hoped. If one simply looks at the amount paid by Americans in Federal income tax last year -- about $1.1 trillion -- and cut that by 20% and multiply by 10 (for ten years) you don't get $5 trillion -- only somewhat half of that. But that's not the whole story. First of all, Romney's plan includes continuation of the Bush Tax Cuts, will will soon expire. There is little chance that they will be renewed in toto since the Dems won't agree nor will Obama if he is still President. So, the $1.1 trillion in income tax revenue will be a much higher figure to reduce by 20%. But the Romney budget has lots of other cuts -- to inheritance taxes and to certain charges on the health plans for high income people under ObamaCare. Also, there's the Alternative Minimum Tax on millionaires which Romney's plan would eliminate. There's lots more technical stuff as well. If you click on the link above you can read it yourself. The upshot is that, although the $5 trillion seems correct, it's not easily demonstrable.

So, whipping out a calculator won't really work. Nevertheless, nearly all sources I've read agree with the results of the TPC analysis. Even the Cato Institute can only dispute the TPC analysis by complaining that it doesn't take into account the boom in the economy (hence in tax collections) that they claim will result from more tax cuts. Of course, this is not fair for two reasons: (a) the TPC is just analyzing the cost on paper of the cuts because (b) neither it nor the Cato Institute can predict the future. Yes, certain tax reductions can stimulate the economy -- that's what some of Keynesian theory can be applied to -- but that isn't always the case. In fact, the Bush Tax Cuts, in conjunction with a lot of other bad policy, led to busting not booming the economy, and to one of the slowest and briefest recoveries from a recession ever; it also converted a Clinton tax surplus into years of terrible deficits.

Friday, October 5, 2012

To win a debate

Even Attila the Hun could win a debate if he were allowed to make up things that go unchallenged by either the opponent or by the moderator.

Even the Romney campaign was forced to admit that there is no meaningful protection for people with "pre-existing" conditions in his healthcare plan.

He also told a bald lie that "half" of the green companies helped by Obama's stimulus package had gone bankrupt. Not only was this is a gross exaggeration -- the figure was less than 1/4 of that -- but the plan, passed by Congress, had a reserve fund built in that more than covers the firms that have experienced bankruptcy (e.g. Solyndra) or severe financial difficulties. Of course it was too bad that Obama didn't challenge this, but the facts remain.

Claims about job losses were equally false. When Obama took office we were losing over 800,000 jobs per month. In the last 30 months we've be adding tens of thousand of jobs each month, for a total of over 4 million.

When the Romney campaign said: "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers" I guess they meant it. I hope that the Democratic publicity machine can effectively set the record straight.

With due respect to Attila, even I could win a debate if I were allowed to make up things that go unchallenged by either my opponent or by the moderator.

In my next blog I will present my daydream of an Obama response to a Romney claim about taxes...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

It's tax cuts all the way down

Here's a point that is rarely mentioned: Republicans keep talking about cutting federal spending and moving costs and control to the states. However, they are also campaigning in the states to cut state spending. For example, here in Massachusetts they were saying for years -- at least before the current economic disaster -- that the state had a surplus and that we therefore had to cut the income tax. They even managed to do it. When Romney was governor, state aid to cities and towns (for education, hospitals, snow removal etc.) was cut very drastically (25% - 30% as I recall), while fees and surcharges for education and class sizes soared. Of course, there was no surplus, simply a lack of interest in fixing  bridges, tunnels, and school systems in disrepair -- the very parts of a decaying infrastructure that now haunt us.

So this "leave it to the states" is HUMBUG -- a word I'd like to see a straight-talking Obama use more often. The Party for The Rich (PTR, formerly GOP) wants to cut government at all levels, and leave the grindstones of Social Darwinism to eliminate the poorer or weaker of our brothers and sisters. Is that the kind of country we want?

Oh, one other thing. Telling current retirees that the evisceration of Medicare should not worry them, since it will only be applied to their children and grandchildren is, when you think about it, not a very nice appeal to the "better angels of our nature". Let's hope our seniors have more generosity in their hearts than to buy that.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Once again, Obama disappoints

Has he learned nothing?

He was boring, repetitive, and unresponsive. Romney made point after point that Obama left unchallenged, or answered with generalities and platitudes. He never answered statements about transferring money out of Medicare; he never pointed out that leaving medical care to the private sector and competition has up to this point resulted in astronomical increases in expenses and a healthcare system that is twice as expensive with poorer results than every system in every developed country.

Obama never explained why Romney's tax plan benefits the rich, but left unchallenged Romney's assertion that he would not cut taxes for the wealthy. Obama claimed that Romney favored a $5 trillion dollar tax cut, but was unable to answer Romney denial or explain how where the $5 trillion figure came from. In fact, he fell back on a very weak "the arithmetic doesn't add up" -- a pale reflection of Bill Clinton's rhetoric.

Never once did Obama mention the obstructionism and radical nature of the Republican party in both houses. It was the Republicans who scuttled any sort of compromise on the debt ceiling, yet Obama refused to pin it on them. He seemed hardly ever to mention Republicans.

Obama never challenged Romney's assertion that Dodd-Frank created a class of banks too big to fail.

Obama let Romney repeat, over and over again, all sorts of things that he should have been able to refute.

I would have to say that Romney wiped the floor with the President, and with no evident "zingers" needed.

I hope that Obama can recoup his losses in future debates, but once again he has proved a disappointment, and a tiresome one at that.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Ryan touch

In the last blog I described Mitt Romney as a defective human being: someone who, in spite of his success at making his money and avoiding taxes, lacks understanding and sympathy for his fellows -- as evidenced by his obsessive reluctance to share his wealth with anyone except his proselytizing church, and his obvious contempt for just about everyone's intelligence.

His running mate Paul Ryan is cut from the same cloth. Ryan's so-called "budget" is so grossly anti-poor and anti-middle class that even the quite conservative Conference of Catholic Bishops declared it immoral. It is perhaps the single most unpopular document released in recent years, and only a tone-deaf party would have doubled down on it and nominated its author for Vice President. The arrogance and contempt exhibited by the Party for The Rich is, however, consistent with the attitudes of its candidates.

I am glad to report that Ryan and his budget are not fooling anyone this time around. The New Republic shows some statistics about how the man and his work have contributed to the tremendous decline in the popularity of the PTR's ticket; you can find the article HERE.

Of course Romney and Ryan do have a certain animal cunning: this time around they left off a lot of details about how the "budget" would close "loopholes" and somehow become "balanced." They don't want people to know exactly which popular and worthwhile programs would be cut in order to give tax breaks to the rich. That's why I refer to it as a "budget" not a budget. It's a phony and a mere shell. No one I've read, even Martin Feldstein, can seem to make it work without very big tax increases for all but the rich -- see Jared Bernstein's analysis on his blog.

Ryan is a person who's taken some economics courses in college -- he was a dual political science and economics major. As far as I can tell he never took a graduate course in either subject, but he is considered among Republicans and easily-impressed media folk to be some sort of expert on economics and finances. Ryan also read a lot of Ayn Rand -- a novelist well-known for her "me first" two-dimensional characters. Somehow Ryan, who calls himself a religious Catholic, missed out on the fact that Rand was a committed atheist. Ryan has been skewered several times by prominent economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman; two of his most devastating columns (with further links) can be found HERE and HERE (where Krugman so famously said about Ryan: "Mr. Ryan isn’t a serious man — he just plays one on TV.")

Ryan has never impressed even a single economist. Now it is clear, in spite of a lot of Republican hype and media money, that he hasn't impressed too many others either.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A defective human being

Atlanta Mayor Kaseem Reed (D) recently said that the reason Mitt Romney is now trailing President Obama is because Mitt Romney is a “defective” candidate who continually makes mistakes.

Actually, Mr. Reed is off by one layer of causality. Mitt Romney is a defective candidate because he is a defective human being. This conclusion became pretty clear as we learned some of his past history, and becomes clearer each day as both his private and public comments receive increased attention.

We have learned that Romney has always been a bully -- a quality often reinforced by feelings of entitlement. What can be more entitled than coming from a very wealthy family and knowing that your future would be secure no matter what you did -- no college debts to be paid off by a struggling young Mitt. We know about how he and a bunch of his pals attacked a fellow student and forcibly cut his hair -- they thought he was effeminate. Unlike his friends who were in on the attack -- an act that nowadays would be considered felonious -- Romney claims not to remember the incident. The others realized, to their credit, that what they did was wrong, and feel bad about it to this day. Romney tosses off whatever might have happened as just another youthful prank. And there were others for which he was well-known among his peers. He would sometimes impersonate a police officer in order to terrorize couples making out in their cars -- things like that, 'cause that's the kind of guy he was: a barrel of laughs. It was OK because he was rich and entitled -- a never-have-to-say-you're-sorry kind of guy.

I will skip most of the religious stuff. I'll just add that spending a lot of time evangelizing Mormonism to poor people in the U.S. and overseas is not my idea of a socially useful activity -- but that's just me. Tithing to the Mormon church is a little like contributing to a very wealthy college: generally harmless, but nothing of such societal value as to be worth a tax deduction (though they are given). Of course, for Romney, it lead to another entitlement common to his class: not having to serve in Vietnam. Funny how his kind of people who are so ideologically in favor of such wars are rarely asked to serve in them.

Then we come to his business. "Vulture capitalism" is exactly the correct phrase to describe Bain Capital; maybe "bully capitalism" is equally correct. Bain sought out weak companies either to loot for "consulting fees" or to turn around by cutting employees' benefits, retirement funds, and jobs. While some survived and prospered, others were destroyed. In all cases Bain Capital made out very well, as did its CEO and owner. When you pick on people weaker than you, that's how things turn out.

How did Romney get to own and control such a company? He found many willing investors via his contacts within his very wealthy circle and, it now turns out, from South and Central American business people offering very questionable money they wanted to launder. Romney made a point of not knowing too much about the sources of this money, but probing reporters are finding out more each day. As the old saying goes: "Behind every great fortune lies a great crime." Romney never worried about this, in spite of his supposed religious values, because he was... well... entitled.

Of course, all young folks can "make it like Mitt" even if they don't have much money personally. When asked how, Romney made it simple: Just borrow money from your parents. Money means nothing to Romney, and he has no conception of how hard most people must work just to make a small amount of it, and that the vast percentage of Americans have very little in savings and retirement funds (he has amassed a virtually impossible $100 million in his IRA.)

We know that Romney made a lot of money and paid a very low tax rate on it. Of course, that's typical of many rich people who make money that is taxed at capital gains rates. He also has hidden millions of dollars in offshore secret tax havens. These are not necessarily illegal -- though we can be rightly suspicious -- but indicate a less than patriotic attitude toward giving back anything to a country that facilitated his huge personal wealth. After all, people in public life are always waving the flag and telling us how selfless it is for those in the armed forces to sacrifice life, limb and fortune to serve their country (see his evangelistic draft evasion above). Romney is the anti-selfless person, who thinks that paying "not one penny" above his minimal required taxes is the most presidential -- and to his lights, patriotic -- thing to do. He is the Leona Helmsley of presidential candidates: taxes are for the "little" folk, not for the entitled.

Minimal Mitt is, effectively, his sobriquet and motto.

Yet, in spite of his minimal taxes, he sneers -- in private, amongst his wealthy donors -- at the "47%" who pay "no federal taxes". He says they pay "no federal taxes", which is of course not true. They may not pay federal income taxes, but all pay Social Security taxes as well as state property, income and sales taxes when applicable etc. Calling them "entitled" is some sort of transference. He is the one who feels entitled -- to all that the federal government does to coddle rich folk like him: the special tax rates and tax breaks that he uses to pay a smaller percentage of his income in taxes than Warren Buffet's famous secretary. He gladly accepts the roads, bridges, police and military and other benefits and protections which he and his businesses enjoy. As Elizabeth Warren has recently pointed out, this country's financial system is rigged to favor accumulation of wealth by people like Romney; it is he who acts and feels entitled.

A lot of what passes for straightforward campaign incompetence and lack of sensitivity is, in fact, Romney's arrogance. He has refused to disclose his income tax returns for all but a couple of years, then claims, falsely, that John Kerry did the same. When told by every news source and fact checker about this error, he refused to acknowledge it. When he recently released his 2011 tax return, it showed that he made up for his under tithing  his church in the previous year by giving extra. However, this would make his tax rate percentage outrageously low in comparison to Buffet's secretary, so he didn't claim the whole deduction. This in spite of his assertion that he wouldn't deserve to be President if he paid one cent more in taxes than he had to. Here we see Romney assuming we are all idiots. He didn't claim the deduction in this election year in order to make his rate seem high, knowing full well that he could refile next year, after the elections, and get the money back.

Another reason why he is a defective human being.

Recently, Romney, who once decried emergency room treatment of the medically uninsured as socialism, now tells us that it's really OK, and would fit in just fine with his and Paul Ryan's plan to kill universal coverage and lay a heavier cost burden on Medicare -- if only they can.  (I won't even get into Paul Ryan's obvious human and intellectual deficiencies here.)

Can you find any reason not to say that Mitt Romney has been weighed in the balance and found wanting?