Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day







Wednesday, December 28, 2011

December 28, 2011
It used to be possible, with only a modest amount of hypocrisy or ignorance, to watch A Christmas Carol and feel relief that the conditions Dickens described and Scrooge mocked or ignored had passed into the dustbin of history, banished by progress, material and moral. No longer.
Wealth
Scrooge was a piker. In 2007 (apparently the most data available) the cumulative wealth of the Forbes 400 was roughly the same amount of wealth held by the entire bottom fifty percent of American families. Six members of the Walton family had a combined worth equal to the total wealth of the entire bottom thirty percent.104
Income
According to the Congressional Budget Office,
• For the 20 percent of the population with the lowest income, average real after-tax household income was about 18 percent higher in 2007 than it had been in 1979.
• For the 60 percent of the population in the middle of the income scale (the 21st through 80th percentiles), the growth in average real after-tax household income was just under 40 percent.
• For those just below the top, the 81st through 99th percentiles, average real after-tax household income grew by 65 percent.

• For the 1 percent of the population with the highest income, average real after-tax household income grew by 275 percent between 1979 and 2007.• Between 2005 and 2007, the after-tax income received by the top one percent exceeded the after-tax income of the remaining 80 percent.105
From another report:
• The share of the nation’s income flowing to the top 1 percent of households increased from 16.9 percent in 2002 to 23.5 percent in 2007, a larger share than at any point since 1928.
• Income gains have been even more pronounced among those at the very top. The incomes of the top one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. households have grown by 94 percent, $3.5 million per household, 2002 to 2007 (and more than 400 percent over the period from 1979 to 2005).
• The share of the nation’s income flowing to the top one-tenth of 1 percent of households is at the highest level since 1913, surpassing even the previous peak in 1928. 106
The average Bush tax cut in 2011 for a taxpayer in the richest one percent is greater than the average income of the other 99 percent.107
Not only do our numbers look awful absolutely, they do so relatively. The GINI index measures income inequality; the higher the number, the more unequal the distribution. The U.S., at 45, has the worst rating among developed nations. Scrooge’s United Kingdom is at 34, Canada at 32.1; the European Union average is 30.6, almost exactly that of Australia.108
Poverty
An additional 2.6 million people fell into poverty in the United States last year, and the number below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, is the highest in the 52 years the statistic has been kept. The poverty rate was 15.1% in 2010, the highest level since 1993. About 6.7 percent of the population, 20.5 million people, fell into deep poverty, defined by an income less than half the official poverty line. The number of uninsured Americans increased by 900,000 to 49.9 million.109
Bah, humbug
As the problems resemble those of Dickens’ era, so do the responses of the insufficiently frightened rich:
Home Depot Co-founder Bernie Marcus, referring to Occupy protesters: “Who gives a crap about some imbecile? Are you kidding me?”
Home Depot Co-founder Ken Langone: “I am a fat cat, I’m not ashamed . . . If you mean by fat cat that I’ve succeeded, yeah, then I’m a fat cat. I stand guilty of being a fat cat.”
Former BB&T Bank CEO John Allison: “Instead of an attack on the 1 percent, let’s call it an attack on the very productive. This attack is destructive.”
Paychecx Inc. Founder Tom Golisano: “If I hear a politician use the term ‘paying your fair share’ one more time, I’m going to vomit."110
Visitation by ghosts won’t budge this lot.

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104. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2011/12/09/385941/walmart-heirs-worth-30-percent-bottom/  
105. http://cbo.gov/ftpdocs/124xx/doc12485/10-25-HouseholdIncome.pdf
106. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2908 ;
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/opinion/oligarchy-american-style.html
107. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2011/11/23/375654/bush-tax-cut-one-percent/
108. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2172.html
109. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/us/14census.html?pagewanted=all
110. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2011/12/20/393090/one-percent-call-occupy-imbeciles/

Monday, December 12, 2011

December 12, 2011

It is difficult to find a national television news broadcast with which I do not feel compelled to carry on a critical, irritated conversation. I went through PBS, ABC and CBS over a period of years and eventually settled on NBC.
My current complaint has to do with the treatment of weather-disaster news by NBC. Because TV news dwells on such events, large segments of broadcasts have been devoted to them. Some of the stories, including one on Saturday night, have included comments about the large number of major disasters, but I do not recall hearing any reference to global warming, let alone man-made climate change. Perhaps there has been a statement I missed, but certainly there has not been any meaningful discussion.
Why not? The network cannot be unaware of the issue. Does it really think that the science is uncertain? Is it so intimidated by the right that it daren’t broach the subject?
Next-day reruns of The Daily Show have moved to 6 p.m., opposite NBC News, and we’ve switched to watching those. Faux news at least addresses issues, and for real news, I can read the papers.

3/17/12

Tonight, NBC News managed to report on the mid-summer temperatures across much of the nation without any reference to the banned subjects or any sort of explanation, even though it tried (unsuccessfully) to explain why The Godfather became (did it?) an iconic movie.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

December 11, 2011

Usury, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, is
1. Historically, the lending of money with interest.
2. Today, the charging of an illegal rate of interest.
3. An illegally high rate of interest.

However, the second and third definitions virtually have fallen into the first, becoming relics of the past. That occurred in part because many state laws on maximum rates of interest have been superseded by federal law, which is friendly to banks. However, some state laws, including ours, set few limits; Washington’s law essentially is a comprehensive list of exceptions to the nominal limit of 12%.102 Therefore, between them they have made the definition of usury law —“A law that prohibits moneylenders from charging illegally high interest rates” — equally quaint. The result is to burden ordinary folk with oppressively high interest expenses.
The national average for credit cards is 14.43%; many, obviously, are far worse. Mortgage and auto loans, which are secured, are available at lower rates — the local average for the former is 4.25%, for the latter 5.87% — but there still is a huge spread between interest paid and interest charged. According to a list in the Sunday Seattle Times, the best money market fund yields 0.28%, with the average at about 0.02%. The national average for a 0ne-year CD is 0.35%; the average savings account pays about .2%.
The rates credit cards charge for cash advances, in other words loans, typically are even higher than the purchase rates. Discover recently sent me several checks, inviting me to use them for “cash when you need it” at the jaw-dropping rate of 23.99%, its “standard APR for cash advances.” Even that “will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate.” The prime rate is 3.25%, the lowest it has been since August, 1955, so the Discover rate has nowhere to go but up.
Pay day loans are far worse. They are short-term loans carrying nominal interest rates which sound high but not outrageous, until one notes that the rate is for a very short time period. Washington allows 15% on a fourteen-day loan, an annual rate of 390%.103 Other states allow higher rates.
Savings rates presumably will rise whenever the economy recovers, narrowing the gap if interest charges don’t also rise. Still, it’s time for Congress and the legislatures to resurrect the concept of usury and impose rational limits on the cost of consumer credit. Not likely, though.

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102. See http://dfi.wa.gov/consumers/interest_rates_exception.htm
103. See http://www.paydayloaninfo.org/state-information/55 , a Consumer Reports site. The rate actually is 391.07% (15% ÷ 14 x 365)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November 30, 2011


On Tuesday The New York Times op-ed pages produced another example of ambivalence, or inconsistency, similar to those I mentioned on November 21.
Roger Cohen devoted his column to “the doctrine of silence,” by which he refers to the secrecy with which the present administration conducts various kinds of low-level warfare, including drone attacks and assassinations. The new policy is a “radical shift from President Bush’s war on terror,” but “has never been set out to the American people. . . . President Obama has gone undercover.” His opinion of the new departure is ambivalent: “I approve of the shift even as it makes me uneasy. One day, I suspect, there may be payback for this policy and this silence.”
Most of his discussion was devoted to the risks and benefits of the policy, rather than to secrecy, but his ambivalent approval persisted:
So why do I approve of all this? Because the alternative — the immense cost in blood and treasure and reputation of the Bush administration’s war on terror — was so appalling. In just the same way, the results of a conventional bombing war against Iran would be appalling, whether undertaken by Israel, the United States or a combination of the two.
There is another alternative: not killing people, a radical notion to be sure, but one which at least should be recognized as an option. To put it in strategic terms, are any of the people we target really a threat to us? Only if Mr. Cohen answers in the affirmative, and ignores any moral objections, could his first comment override his second: “So why am I uneasy? Because these legally borderline, undercover options . . . invite repayment in kind, undermine the American commitment to the rule of law, and make allies uneasy.”
At the end, he turned, more or less, to the secrecy issue: “Just because it’s impossible to talk about some operations undertaken within this doctrine does not mean the entire doctrine can remain cloaked in silence.” However, rather than asking the President to justify the doctrine of silence, Cohen wanted a speech approving his preference for limited, covert operations:
Of course [Obama] does not want to say much about secret operations. Still, as the U.S. military prepares to depart from Iraq . . . and the war in Afghanistan enters its last act [?], he owes the American people, U.S. allies and the world a speech that sets out why America will not again embark on this kind of inconclusive war and has instead adopted a new doctrine that has replaced fighting terror with killing terrorists.
Cohen seems to believe that the covert actions have contributed to “restoring America’s battered image.” It’s not clear to me how assassinations, by air or otherwise, including at least one of an American citizen, shielded from the public and unauthorized by Congress, restore our image, especially, as Cohen acknowledges, they “undermine the American commitment to the rule of law, and make allies uneasy.”
This doesn’t seem to be the season for clear thinking at the Times.

__________________________
101. Glenn Greenwald dissected Cohen’s column to make the point that reporters no longer question authority: “American journalists are the leading proponents not of transparency but of secrecy, not of accountability but of covert decision-making in the dark, not of the rule of law but the rule of political leaders.”

Monday, November 21, 2011

November 21, 2011


On November 14, The New York Times, in an opinion column and a house editorial, commented on the pseudo-tough mindset of many contemporary conservatives, as embodied in some of the Republican candidates for the presidency. The subject was waterboarding.
The column was by Frank Bruni, one of several new hires on the opinion page. He posed this question: “If we truly believe ourselves to be exceptional, a model for all the world and an example for all of history, then why would we practice torture? Specifically, should we waterboard prisoners?” He answered in the negative, while noting that several Republican candidates are for it despite stressing American exceptionalism. He also appeared to mock Rick Santorum’s suggestion of clandestine missions to kill Iranian scientists. He closed with this: “we have to be careful about how far we go — how merciless our strategies, how self-serving our positions — because the rightful burden of the leadership we insist on is behavior that’s better than everybody else’s, not the same or worse. Exceptionalism doesn’t mean picking and choosing when to be big and when to be small.”
I don’t know whether the parenthetical was ironic or was intended to be taken literally. I would more or less agree with his statement if it were the former. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case, as revealed in the preceding paragraph: “We face difficult decisions and a tricky balancing act when it comes to keeping this country safe . . . . And there’s no doubt we can’t be as high-minded as we’d sometimes like. I for one am not losing any sleep over Awlaki.” In other words, we should be principled and exceptional except when it’s convenient not to be. Assassinating Iranian scientists isn’t a good idea, but assassinating an American citizen is OK. Torturing a suspect is bad, but obliterating one with a missile is not an occasion for lost sleep.
The Times editorial criticized the Republican candidates’ views on waterboarding, but it too managed to muddle a statement of principle, although on a different subject. It referred to Mitt Romney’s claim that, if he were elected, Iran would not have nuclear weapons, and pointed out that he didn’t explain how he would manage that. It added: “Mr. Obama prudently has not taken military action off the table — no president should — but war would be a disastrous option. It would only set back the program, not end it, and would fan anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment.” If war would be a disastrous choice — leaving aside whether it would be justified — why should it remain on the table?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

November 19, 2011

On November 1, the House reaffirmed that our national motto is “In God We Trust.” As there was no drive to change or abandon it, the reason for this action is not apparent. The vote revealed an odd set of priorities in a country with its economy in shambles and unemployment stubbornly and cruelly high.

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post suggested sarcastically that the choice might be due to semantic confusion: “ ‘God’ and ‘job’ are both three-letter words with the same vowel. House Republicans may have been confused by the similarity, much like the dyslexic agnostic who wonders if there is a dog.” Perhaps the House was concerned that we might succumb to atheism. Perhaps it was an admission that Congress, both houses of which are under direct or indirect Republican control, is incapable of, or ideologically incapacitated from, doing anything useful or even necessary, and so must rely on divine intervention. Saving the planet is an example.

Representative John Shimkus, a Republican of Illinois, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, believes that we shouldn’t worry about climate change because God has promised not to destroy the Earth. At a hearing in 2009,91 he made his point by quoting Genesis. Following the Flood, he said, God promised Noah: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”92 Q.E.D. Leaving aside whether that should be taken literally, drastic climate change would leave day and night, etc. in place, so I don’t find much consolation there.

However, Shimkus didn’t rely entirely on the Old Testament; he offered this from Matthew: “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds from one end of the heavens to the other.”93 That seems a bit off the point, but to Shimkus its message is clear: “The Earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this Earth.” He added, apparently still thinking of Noah, “This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.” What about the other hazards of warming? Perhaps he can find a proof text to reassure us that deserts will not expand.
In the same hearing, he argued that there is no need for a cap-and-trade system to limit CO2 emissions because carbon levels were much higher in the age of the dinosaurs, when flora and fauna were abundant; “there is a theological debate that this is a carbon-starved planet, not too much carbon." He reiterated his beliefs last year.94 No need to debate the science; it’s a religious issue.

To Shimkus, “God’s word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.” Apparently it also provides all-encompassing prophesy. In other words, everything has been determined. Why then did he run for Congress? He could have stayed home and, equally passively, awaited the improvement or destruction of the world, as the case may be.
A Republican state representative from Minnesota, a member of its House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, agrees: "It is the height of hubris to think we could [destroy the planet]." (He wants to lift a moratorium on coal-fired power plants). He also argued that we won’t run out of oil or other natural resources: "God is not capricious. He's given us a creation that is dynamically stable. We are not going to run out of anything."95
These comments echo the declaration of the co-leader of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh that it is it is presumptuous to think that man could destroy God's earth. “I refuse to believe,” he told us, “that people, who are themselves the result of Creation, can destroy the most magnificent creation of the entire universe.”96 (The other leader is Grover Norquist; he represents a different sort of ideological blindness).
Its being election season (although when isn’t it?), no doubt many more appeals to heavenly aid will be heard. Already, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann have indicated that they were called by God to run for the presidency, following in the footsteps of George W. Bush.
Mixing religion and politics always is a risky business. However, if appeals to religion were merely general and benign — a nonpartisan expression of a desire to do good — its presence in politics would not be so worrisome. Instead, for years now, religion has been a prisoner of the right, where it has been identified with reaction, selfishness and, at least rhetorically, violence.
An aspect of the last is the cozy relationship between religion and guns, two expressions of which I noticed recently. One came from Herman Cain, who told a Republican group “I kinda like my guns and Bible and I ain't going to give them up," producing a roar of approval.97 The other was contributed by a Representative Poe, Republican of Texas, who illustrated the point by describing with approval a t-shirt worn by a Texas “preacher” reading “I love my Bible/I love my guns.”98
On Wednesday the House voted to compel states to allow anyone to bring a gun into any state if he holds a permit from another state, no matter how lax its laws. According to Representative Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana Republican, God issued a divine gun permit: “Mr. Speaker, rights do not come from the government. We are, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights.”99 In his exegesis, one of those rights is self-defense, which leads him to the Second Amendment, thence to the right to carry a concealed weapon, and finally to a right to carry anywhere. As Gail Collins summarized the heavenly endowment, “Among these rights are life, liberty and a pistol in the glove compartment.”100

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91. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_7h08RDYA5E
92. Genesis 8:21-22
93. Matthew 24:31
94. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1110/44958.html
95. http://www.minnpost.com/donshelby/2011/02/15/25784/picking_science_that_fits_politics
_rep_mike_beard_on_climate_change
96.The Way Things Ought to Be , p. 152
97. http://www.rgj.com/article/20111019/NEWS19/110190429/Herman-Cain-excites-GOP-crowd-Las-Vegas
98. http://www.disclose.tv/action/viewvideo/49055/I_Love_My_Bible__amp__I_Love_My_Guns__Congressman_Ted/  
99. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkGgbcJ6gMc
100. New York Times , 11/16/11

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

November 8, 2011

President Obama has announced that American troops will leave Iraq at the end of the year. Predictably, hawks have denounced the move, and him. To Mitt Romney, “[t]he unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.” The hawks conveniently ignore the fact that withdrawal was contemplated, at this time, by the agreement made by President Bush in 2008. However, somehow it must be Obama’s fault.
Charles Krauthammer, reaching into the past for a slogan, captioned his November 3 column “Who lost Iraq?” and answered himself, not surprisingly, that Obama did. That silly formula, made infamous by its application to China, was entertainingly ridiculed by Mary McGrory during the Reagan years. Referring to the mining of harbors in Nicaragua, part of our strange war against the Sandinista regime, she spoke of the woes of “Patsy Senate, Ronnie's consort.”
Patsy's upset because Ronnie didn't tell her about the mining. He says "don't you remember that when I told you about all the wonderful things we are doing down there to stop terrorism - bombing airports, burning houses, killing people - I mentioned mines?" But Patsy insists she wasn't told. Still, she hates to be difficult. Ronnie can be so brusque; he does things like accusing her of "losing" countries she didn't know she had.
I suppose that Krauthammer would say that the jibe isn’t fair because we “had” Iraq. His argument does depend on that assertion — we can’t lose something we didn’t have — but in what sense did we have it? As a satellite, possession or dependency? As an ally? As a source of oil? I’d be interested to see the answer, as it also might bear on why we invaded.
At some point, it’s necessary to ask whether we are better off than we were before the invasion of Iraq and, even if so, whether that justifies the cost. The hawkish, or timid, answer, is that we must maintain our security, and that invading, devastating and occupying Iraq was necessary to that end, and continuing to control it also is necessary. Is there any evidence of that? Given that Iraq was not involved in 9-11, the argument that there has been no further attack won’t work.
It is not too much to say that waging war on Iraq was an imperialist undertaking, which makes relevant observations from two books discussing the declining years of the Roman Empire. Both deal with the monetary cost of imperial power.
[I]n the wake of the great crisis of the third century, the provision of security became an increasingly heavy charge on society, a charge unevenly distributed, which could enrich the wealthy and ruin the poor. The machinery of empire now became increasingly self-serving, with its tax-collectors, administrators, and soldiers of much greater use to one another than to society at large.89
The same might be said of us; certainly much of the revenue is spent on “national security,” and many have become wealthy from that allocation of resources. The deficit is due in no small part to military spending. As to ruining the poor, here’s the other source:
The effect of military spending on government budgets is plain enough . . .: investments of one kind diminish investments of another. "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed." That's not George McGovern whining in 1972. It's Dwight D. Eisenhower just stating the facts in 1950. 90
Then there is the human cost. On Veterans’ Day we should remember how many American lives have been lost or shattered in this foolish, immoral, unlawful project. There won’t be much thought given to the Iraqi casualties, though; we don’t have a holiday for the victims of unnecessary wars.

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89. Edward. N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (1976), p. 5
90. Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007), p. 75. The Eisenhower quote is from a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November 1, 2011
I have been critical of conservatives for using inflammatory language, for making outrageous accusations and for obstructive tactics. Is that unfair? Do they have justification? Joe Nocera, one of the recent additions to the opinion pages of The New York Times, would say yes. In a recent column he argued that liberals are responsible for the present state of politics.
On October 22, he noted the anniversary of the rejection, in 1987, of the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. He thinks that the nastiness in contemporary politics started then and, since the guilty parties were Democrats, they now are in no position to complain. “His nomination battle is . . . a reminder that our poisoned politics is not just about Republicans behaving badly, as many Democrats and their liberal allies have convinced themselves. Democrats can be -- and have been -- every bit as obstructionist, mean-spirited and unfair.” I wouldn’t greatly disagree with that if it were simply an historical statement, a description of a single episode. Leaving out “every bit as,” it is a fair critique of aspects of the Bork nomination process. However, Nocera’s claim that the “the line from Bork to today's ugly politics is a straight one” doesn’t follow. It rests on three arguments.
Bork should have been confirmed
This conclusion is implied, but clear. Nocera began by emphasizing Judge Bork’s credentials:
The rejection of a Supreme Court nominee is unusual but not unheard of . . . . But rarely has a failed nominee had the pedigree -- and intellectual firepower -- of Bork. He had been a law professor at Yale, the solicitor general of the United States and, at the time Ronald Reagan tapped him for the court, a federal appeals court judge.

Moreover, Bork was a legal intellectual. . . .
He then argued that Bork’s views (he mentioned Roe v. Wade and the First Amendment’s application to pornography) could not “be fairly characterized as extreme.” It is true that Bork’s views on specific legal principles were not as extreme as some claimed, but there was a more general, issue. As Bork conceded, the issue was judicial philosophy. The Judiciary Committee and the Senate decided that his would not serve the Court or the country well, which was correct. One of his supporters offered this test for confirmation during the hearings: whether the nominee’s views were “within the acceptable range of contemporary American legal thought.” The Committee and later the full Senate decided that they were not, and they were right. My comment at the time was this: “He is, I think, outside the mainstream in two related, fundamental ways: he views the law primarily as an intellectual exercise, not as a vehicle for doing justice & equity, and he lacks humane instincts, or as [former Attorney General Nicholas] Katzenbach kindly put it, judgment.” Ironically, Judge Bork confirmed the former point in a book written following, and largely about, the hearings, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law .

Behavior during the nomination is the cause of inflated rhetoric in the present.
Nocera argued that “[t]he Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics.” I don’t know whether “in some ways” was intended to refer to a specific qualification; if so, it wasn’t stated. In any case, the argument that the nomination battle explains present-day Republican tactics and language is implausible. One might as logically excuse Democratic behavior toward Bork as a reaction to the Hiss hearings.
Nocera offered this as evidence: “For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the ‘systematic demonization’ of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist.” It’s true that some of the attacks on Bork, especially before and during the Judiciary Committee hearings, were full of distortion and exaggeration and, although they didn’t typically include direct character assassination, that was the effect.
Nocera offered two examples. One is a speech by Senator Kennedy, delivered before the hearings, about “Bork’s America,” in which “women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters . . . ." That was unfair and inflammatory, and may have encouraged other excesses. The second is a memo by the Advocacy Institute, “a liberal lobby group” which, according to Nocera, described Bork as "a right-wing loony," and proposed that he be portrayed "as an extreme ideological activist." The former, assuming it was stated in public, was out of bounds, although perhaps too silly to be taken seriously. Whether the latter was fair comment at the time could be debated, but Bork certainly put himself in that category with his 1996 book, Slouching towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and America’s Decline .
Nocera is not alone in finding some long-term effect on attitudes. David Brock, in Blinded by the Right: the Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, said that “[f]or the conservative movement, the hardball tactics of the anti-Bork effort would give license to mount a decade-long campaign of revenge and retribution.”87 (He didn’t identify the end point of the decade, but presumably it was the Clinton impeachment). However, the excesses in Republican and conservative rhetoric can’t be traced to the Bork nomination. There are two principal considerations.
First, the rhetoric of the right is characterized by a different type of personal invective. Republicans and conservatives have accused Democrats and liberals of being, at best, less than real Americans and, at worst, traitors. Tea Party signs claiming that the President is a foreigner, a communist, a fascist, or the antichrist are in this mode. During a Congressional election a few years ago, a local political flier attacked the Obama health care proposal as "socialized medicine" and to be sure we didn't miss the point, that this is un-American, it included a picture of a Soviet officer. Senator Rand Paul, referring to oil-spill culprit BP, accused President Obama of sounding "un-American in his criticism of business." There are many examples.
Some rhetoric goes beyond denunciation. Ann Coulter produced the following gem at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002 (and was invited back):
In contemplating college liberals, you really regret, once again, that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals by making them realize that they can be killed too. Otherwise they will turn out to be outright traitors. . . .
Second, this was not a new phenomenon in or after 1987; it existed at least as early as the McCarthy era. As one reporter put it, “Over the decades Democrats have been targeted by political attack campaigns that employ the same defamation and distortion tactics used in the McCarthy years, campaigns that smear opponents with charges of being un-American, unpatriotic or, as the nation witnessed again during the 2004 presidential election campaign, of giving ‘aid and comfort’ to America's enemies.”88
Behavior during the nomination is the cause of obstructive tactics in the present .
At the end of his column, Nocera returned to the first term in his description of “obstructionist, mean-spirited and unfair” behavior: “The next time a liberal asks why Republicans are so intransigent, you might suggest that the answer lies in the mirror.” As with rhetoric, so with intransigence: it’s difficult to take seriously the notion that Republicans stubbornly oppose President Obama’s policy proposals because they still are mad about the rejection or treatment of Judge Bork. They obstruct when they cannot prevail because they adhere to a platform which seeks not only to prevent new progressive initiatives, but to march us backward by many decades. The illustrations of that are too numerous and familiar to require repetition.
As to both points, Nocera didn’t attempt to justify the behavior of contemporary Republicans, but merely shifted the blame, in essence giving them a pass. At some point, present blame for present actions must be assessed, especially for a group claiming to be champions of personal responsibility.


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87. P. 47
88. Haynes Johnson, The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism, p. 462

Saturday, October 22, 2011

October 22, 2011
Listening to the Republican presidential candidates is enough to make one wonder what is in the water. Their policies and attitudes are so far removed from reality, to say nothing of the public welfare, that it is baffling that they think one of them can be elected on such a platform. Perhaps they know the American voter better than I (which wouldn’t be difficult) but, if so, we’re in a world of hurt.
At this point, of course, they are playing to those usually referred to as the base, or more accurately to the extreme right, which is believed to control nomination. Judging from audience reaction at the debates — cheering executions, mocking the unemployed — that is a sorry bunch. One of the candidates has, however inadvertently, provided us with an apt description of his party and, consequently, of our situation. At first, Herman Cain seemed to be on board only for comic relief, but now he is, according to recent polls, in first or second place. Therefore, let us take him seriously when he says "Stupid people are ruining America.” So they are. He had different people in mind than I do, but in his backward way, he’s right on target.
One obvious manifestation of stupidity is the determination to repeat mistakes, such as cutting spending during a recession or expecting tax cuts to erase deficits. Of course, such policies flow from reactionary ideology, but an ideology wedded to policies which demonstrably don’t work can’t be described as other than stupid.
The rest of Cain’s formula: “But the good news is we can outvote them." Let’s hope so.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

September 14, 2011
I must confess that I skipped most of the stories and columns on the anniversary of 9-11, but I did read a few, two of which are worth mentioning.
Surely the award for the strangest must go to the house editorial in The Washington Post . The column was notable for complacency and a peculiar weighting of the effects of September 11, but more than anything else, it was an attempt to defend the paper’s pro-war position.
It argued that “the conventional wisdom seems to be evolving from ‘We will be hit again’ to ‘Osama bin Laden won by provoking us into a decade of overreaction’ ” The latter position is that “al-Qaeda goaded the nation to curtail civil liberties and construct a monstrous homeland security apparatus while bungling into adventures abroad that birthed new enemies, sapped the American economy and distracted the nation from bigger problems.” The Post declined to endorse the new paradigm: “it would be dangerous if it took hold.”
The editors did acknowledge that not everything has gone well over the past ten years. “The nation stained itself with its treatment of foreign detainees and particularly its use of interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that had long been recognized as torture. By refusing to raise taxes to face the new reality, it endangered its fiscal health. The United States went to war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence . . . .” Homeland security programs resulted in ”an occasional total lapse of common sense and undoubtedly a large dose of self-dealing in the contractor world. . . .” But these, apparently, are relatively minor matters; on the whole, everything worked out for the best; as the caption of the column put it, “The gains outweigh the mistakes.”
According to the Post , even though “there were excesses in the earliest, most panicked years,” and “hateful acts against Muslim Americans,” there were no major assaults on civil liberties. “The Patriot Act enabled a modest, mostly court-supervised expansion of law enforcement vigilance.” No doubt that is why states and cities passed resolutions condemning the Act. We invaded Iraq based on faulty intelligence, but apparently we were nonetheless right to do so: “The United States must protect itself at home as much as it sensibly can while taking the fight to its enemies overseas. . . .” The Post understands that invading countries is not a perfect solution to security threats; however, that simply leads it back to another rationale for dominating the Middle East: “aggression must be coupled with efforts to promote development and democracy in places that would otherwise breed terrorism.”
In case that isn’t enough backup, here are a few more theories: “The toppling of dictatorships in Iraq and Afghanistan gave two nations at least a chance at freedom, removed potential havens for America’s enemies and, along with the fall of dictators elsewhere in the Arab world, opened for Muslim-majority countries an alternative path to the medieval caliphate championed by Osama bin Laden.” Note the waffle on “potential” havens. The caliphate was an absurd fantasy, but by invading two countries and prolonging one invasion into the longest war in our history, we’ve provided an alternative dream.
Although it was irresponsible to cut taxes in war time, no big deal: “Over the decade, the United States devoted a far smaller share of its gross domestic product to defense than it did throughout the Cold War. Although it would be nice if those resources could go toward something more peaceful and constructive, the spending is not the cause of America’s economic difficulty.” As I understand the numbers, relative spending on “defense,” including many warfare-related costs not included in the DOD budget, is lower, but not “far lower,” than in the Cold War period. In either case, does that justify the wars? Spending on the wars, whatever its percentage of GDP, is one of the causes of our economic difficulty, along with tax cuts and the bubble-created recession, and it would be more than “nice” if that money had been spent on projects which actually would make us more secure.
Even if we have focused too much on war, the Post thinks that we can be excused: “if the U.S. foreign policy establishment hasn’t paid enough attention to the rise of China or the spread of AIDS, that shouldn’t be blamed entirely on the fight against terrorism; a great power will always have to do more than one thing at a time.” That doesn’t make much sense. If we, the great power, must do more than one thing at a time, why haven’t we?
“None of this means that the United States must remain perpetually at war.” Oh, good. “Having created an enormous apparatus to protect the country, we should be vigilant that it does not exaggerate the threat to justify its existence.” But there still are bad guys out there: “the greatest danger now may be premature retreat from a difficult battlefield.”85 Weaklings that we are, might be tempted to do that; after all, “it is human nature to be recaptured by the bustle of ordinary life. That we have had the luxury to do so is testament to the dedication of compatriots, in uniform and out, seen and unseen, fallen and surviving, who have fought and worked to keep the country safe.”
The last line is the one that most turns me off to the ten-year remembrance. If it were focused on the sacrifice of the first responders, the murder of those on the planes and in the twin towers, the brief moment of genuine togetherness, then yes, let us remember the date. However, too much of it is in one way or another a justification for the wars that followed, which often takes the form of praise for the soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan “to protect our freedom.” True, it is difficult to face the fact that most of the casualties in those wars were unnecessary and, as to national security, pointless. The dead, and the wounded, and those who gave years of their lives may have believed that they were defending the nation, but the wars have had far less to do with that than with misguided imperial adventures. We should remember them, and honor their loyalty and sacrifice, and provide for their care and for their families, but do so honestly, not use them as props in a tableau of faux patriotism.
The other column dealt with economic aims and effects, and addressed the new “conventional wisdom” which the Post disdains. Jon Talton, in Sunday’s Seattle Times , argued that a goal of the attacks was to “provoke a hysterical American overreaction that would begin bleeding the nation into economic ruin”, and asked, “Mission accomplished?” The source of his comment about al Qaeda’s goals presumably is a taped address by Osama bin Laden, broadcast by al Jazeera in 2004. Here is a summary by CNN:
"We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy, Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah," bin Laden said in the transcript.
He said the mujahedeen fighters did the same thing to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, "using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers."
"We, alongside the mujahedeen, bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat," bin Laden said.
He also said al Qaeda has found it "easy for us to provoke and bait this administration." "All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations," bin Laden said.86

Talton stated that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “as well as other increased military spending” cost $1.469 trillion through the 2009 fiscal year. He didn’t cite his source, and it’s difficult to establish a firm figure. The studies I found place the direct cost of the wars as of the end of the current fiscal year at about $1.3 trillion, which surely is appalling enough. Talton also noted the estimate by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes that the wars eventually will cost from 3 to 6 trillion. He described examples of waste and crony contracts, which make the costs even more unpalatable.
He turned, rather irrelevantly, to “what might have been, either without 9/11 or with a different American response.” We have “taken no serious steps to address either climate change or looming worldwide oil scarcity, both of which will prove to be major national-security challenges as well as costly to the economy.” Infrastructure is neither well maintained nor, in some cases, modern. Education needs improvement, but we are laying off teachers.
These failures cannot be laid at the feet of bin Laden or the misdirected reactions to 9-11, as he acknowledged. Even without war, we might still have been too foolish to deal with climate change or other issues. Neither the attacks nor the wars required tax cuts, and the economy collapsed for reasons largely unrelated to war spending. However, Talton’s conclusion is apt: “The tragedy is that America still lacks an exit strategy — from any of these challenges and follies.”

__________________________________

85. In a column on Sunday, Jackson Diehl, the Post’s deputy editorial page editor, made a separate argument for staying the course, describing a policy which would have us stuck in Afghanistan at least until 2014. The house editorial argued on Monday that the GOP candidates have gone “AWOL from Afghanistan.”
86. Excerpts from the bin Laden tape are here: http://articles.cnn.com/2004-11-01/world/binladen.tape_1_al-jazeera-qaeda-bin?_s=PM:WORLD
and the full broadcast is here: http://english.aljazeera.net/archive/2004/11/200849163336457223.html

Monday, September 5, 2011

September 4, 2011
Saturday’s Seattle Times carried a story from The Washington Post about Mitt Romney’s problems with tea party voters. Apparently there is a dispute over whether Romney should be invited to speak at a Tea Party Express rally in New Hampshire on Monday. “For some leaders in the tea-party movement,” the article said, this is “the opening shot . . . in an all-out war to make sure the former Massachusetts governor does not win the Republican nomination to challenge President Obama next year.” Tea Party Express had co-sponsored the event with Freedom Works, but the latter “pulled out and planned a protest because of Romney's involvement.” A comment by Matt Kibbe, the president of Freedom Works, was quoted; no other movement leader was identified, so “some leaders” is an exaggeration. Leaving numbers aside, the reporter is confused or disingenuous about what and who the Tea Party is. Freedom Works is not a tea party organization, so its president hardly can be termed a tea party movement leader.
Freedom Works was founded long before the “movement” arose in 2009. Its moving force is Dick Armey, libertarian former Congressman. The Freedom Works Foundation board includes such average Americans as Steve Forbes and the head of an investment management firm which “primarily provides its services to individuals, including high net worth individuals.”81 Kibbe’s statement — "If every political opportunist claiming to be a tea partyer is accepted unconditionally, then the tea-party brand loses all meaning" — is ironic. Freedom Works’ alliance with tea party groups is opportunistic and Armey’s involvement has caused some resentment among those groups.
Tea Party Express also is suspect as a populist organization, and is almost ephemeral. Its web site 82 does not show membership, and perhaps there isn’t any. In 2008, a PAC, “Our Country Deserves Better,” was created by a California public relations firm. It organized a national bus tour to hold rallies to oppose the election of Barack Obama. In 2009, it ran another bus tour, having changed the name from the “Stop Obama Tour” of the previous year to the “Tea Party Express.”8€ That is being repeated this year. In 2010 it was expelled from the Tea Party Federation, whatever that is, because of racist statements by its spokesman.84
The story noted that Romney “appears all too aware of the threat to his campaign from the tea party — particularly since Perry, who is popular with the grass-roots movement, joined the race.” We have here yet another example of the ineptness of the media and its disservice to voters. Assuming that any aspect of Tea Party agitation qualifies as a grass-roots movement, neither of the organizations involved here does so.

Friday, September 2, 2011

September 2, 2011
The presidential election season is, depressingly, under way and, although the candidates have much to say, none of it is useful. That is not entirely due to their limitations; it is partly a function of the audience to whom they are playing. In the case of Republican candidates, that audience is dominated by the so-called tea party movement, a noisy, manipulated group of extreme conservatives, which forces the candidates into absurd positions (or encourages absurd positions in those already disposed to them). A conservative candidate cannot believe in evolution because a certain limited version of religious belief finds it incompatible. He must deny human contribution to global warming or the effects of pollution because it would be inconvenient to corporations but also because, according to the noted theologian Rush Limbaugh, it is presumptuous to think that man could destroy God's earth. The candidate will advocate teaching creationism even though it has no factual basis. He must denigrate intellect because thinkers are elitists, elitists are liberals and liberals are immoral.

Consider the first test for Republicans, the Iowa straw poll. Somehow, a sideshow to a fundraiser has become a litmus test. It is so, presumably, because Iowa will have the first vote that counts, by way of its caucus, but why do we put up with that? Iowa hardly is representative of the population at large, but failure to do well in its caucus can be fatal.

Worse, the Iowa Republican Party has drunk the tea. Its platform,79 adopted a year ago, has a few provisions which make sense and a few which are of arguable merit, but it is overwhelmingly a reactionary document, one which a few decades ago would have been the subject of derision even by other Republicans. Here is a summary of its “guiding values and principles for the Republican Party”:

• Consistent with the usual pretense by conservatives that they represent the people, not the elites, the Iowa platform is headed “Declaration of ‘We the People’ of Iowa,” and there are many references to the people, including this: ”The God-given right to govern is vested in the sovereign authority of the whole people.” However, they don’t mean that. "Our founding fathers were very clear in their writings that the United States of America was to be a Republic and not a Democracy (a government of the law and not of the masses)." They interpret “pursuit of happiness” to mean “the right to property.” One might detect a whiff of elitism there.

• True to their adoration of property, the Hawkeye Republicans “support the permanent elimination of the estate, gift, and inheritance taxes, while retaining the step-up in basis to fair market value on the assets in a descendant's [sic] estate.” (The last bit is a nice example of having it both ways). They call for “the U.S. Congress to make permanent all tax relief enacted since the year 2000. . . .” Of course, they advocate abolition of the IRS and, for good measure, abolition of the Federal Reserve, repeal of the Federal Reserve Act, and a return to “the gold and/or silver standard.”

• Perhaps to protect their property from the masses, or perhaps just for the hell of it, the Iowa Republicans want to carry firearms, "open or concealed, without a permit."

• The platform declares that "Progressivism, Collectivism, Socialism, Fascism, Communism and or any other form of ideology contrary to our founding fathers' concept of a republic should be resisted, rejected and considered as an enemy." (Apparently a progressive republic is a contradiction in terms).

• The platform calls for repeal of all minimum wage laws, enactment of a national “right to work” law and elimination of OSHA. (Unions, decent wages and worker safety cater to the masses).

• The Iowa GOP believes that “claims of human caused global warming are based on fraudulent, inaccurate information and that legislation and policy based on this information is detrimental to the well being of the United States.” It opposes cap and trade. It advocates the teaching of intelligent design.

• The Iowa Republicans “believe that health care is a privilege and not a right,” and declare that “with the eminent [sic] failure of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, Republicans should take any and all necessary actions to abolish these programs, over time, and replace them with private solutions.” (This attitude may explain why the United States has fallen to forty-first place in preventing infant mortality).

The poll is made even more unrepresentative by the limited number of voters, partly a function of the fee required to participate. Some of the fees and other costs are paid by the candidates, essentially paying for votes. It isn’t even an especially good predictor: the winner has been the Republican nominee only twice in the five events to date. The last time around, the eventual nominee, John McCain, finished tenth. As bizarre as all of this is, the poll results this year forced former governor Pawlenty from the race, almost fifteen months before the election.

One message of the Iowa GOP statement of values and principles is that morality must triumph over facts. “A free people cannot survive under a republican constitution unless they remain virtuous and morally strong. The most promising method of securing a virtuous and morally stable nation is to elect virtuous leaders . . .” That is accomplished by requiring that certain values must be present in all candidates for public office: honesty, humility, common sense, personal responsibility, gratitude, sincerity, hard work, courage, reverence, thrift, moderation and hope. There is no mention of intelligence, education, knowledge, judgment or experience. Common sense certainly is a virtue but it is not a substitute for reasoned, informed decision making.

The platform does emphasize education, and in one passage praises critical thinking, but education is to be placed in service of ideology, as in the call to teach creationism as a science. History is to be instrumental: “We support the teaching of the documents and beliefs of our founding fathers, with emphasis on patriotism, citizenship, responsibility, respect for our country and its symbols, and pride in the United States' unique contributions to liberty and freedom, and U.S. history, including its religious heritage.” The last includes the notion that “the basis of our laws and our founding documents are rooted in Judeo-Christian values.” Sex education should not be mandatory and, when given, should stress abstinence. State and federal Departments of Education should be abolished.

The subordination of thinking to morality is nothing new. In the early years of the last century, John Erskine delivered an address, later published as an essay, entitled “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent.” He stated the issue by quoting from “A Farewell” by Charles Kingsley:
"Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever." Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other . . . .
There is a strong tendency, persisting if not enhanced today, to believe that we can reach moral results by unaided intuition or by a selective reading — or more likely an unexamined impression — of the teachings of the Bible. (The platform calls for displaying the Ten Commandments in schools; I wonder how many of those who voted for that provision could recite them). Erskine maintained that we have a moral obligation “to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end.” However, people who are certain that they have a direct line to ultimate truth are reluctant to reexamine their conclusions, especially if that requires an appraisal of real effects or other distasteful encounters with facts. Erskine noted that his essay was criticized “as a menace to religious faith and a peril to the young,” and “an attack on conventional morals.” The same would be true today.

However, conservatives do not have a monopoly on fuzzy thinking, even though Republican politics is unusual in glorifying it, nor is religion the only problem. The American people in general are suffering from a serious knowledge deficit and a disinclination to think. Numerous surveys have demonstrated ignorance about elementary topics in geography and history. Rejection of evolution is more widespread than belief in the literal accuracy of the Bible. 80 Americans need to be better educated, but there is no consensus on how to accomplish that. Meanwhile, Republican candidates and, to a lesser extent Democrats, will continue to pander to ignorance.

________________________________
79. http://iowagop.org/platform.php . I described a few other features in my note of 8/4/10.
80. Forty per cent reject human evolution, http://www.gallup.com/poll/145286/four-americans-believe-strict-creationism.aspx , and thirty per cent believe the Bible to be literally true, http://www.gallup.com/poll/148427/say-bible-literally.aspx .

Thursday, August 18, 2011

August 17, 2011

I watched “The American President” last night. It’s a sad state of affairs when a movie can serve as a primer for presidential action. True, we don’t find out whether the President’s conversion from trimmer to bold leader works (other than to bring his girl friend back), but the message, that counting votes and compromising is not always the best policy, deserves attention in non-fictional circles. Michael J. Fox, who plays an aide and the resident voice of conscience, tells President Michael Douglas “People want leadership. And in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone.” Today’s cartoon by Ben Sargent gives the same advice to the real President graphically, in both senses: Obama stands next to a wall-mounted box which reads “In case of emergency break glass;” inside is not an axe or hose, but a backbone.
Yes, this is reducing complex issues and a daunting task to simple images, but there is a difference between leading and following, and our President is doing the latter.
More progressive policies would have popular support, although some reeducation about basic economics would be necessary. Constant fear-mongering about spending, deficits and national debt has people confused. The President needs to have a serious talk with them, but this time there must be more than talk. If he were to propose genuinely progressive legislation, dealing with the recession and unemployment, it would be an effective move even if the House remained stuck in the nineteenth century. It would provide an issue on which the House Republicans and their fans in funny hats could be exposed as enemies of the public good.

Monday, August 15, 2011

August 15, 2011
On July 16, I indulged in a little sarcasm on the notion that President Obama is a liberal, and at other times I have described his political orientation as unsettled but moving rightward. There are those on the left who believe, like those on the right, that they know just where he stands, but describe that position quite differently: to those liberals he’s a conservative now, was a conservative before the debt crisis, and perhaps has been a conservative from the beginning. I came across two columns a few days ago making that argument. On first reading, the claim seemed excessive, but now I’m not so sure; as I’ve looked back over my own comments, I see that I’ve been describing more or less the same situation, although sometimes attributing Mr. Obama’s decisions more to weakness than to intent. Has he always been a conservative in liberal’s clothing? What difference does it make? As to the first question, here is a summary of the argument:
“Obama is one of America's strongest presidents ever and is achieving exactly what he wants. . . . On health care, for instance, Obama passed a Heritage Foundation-inspired bailout of the private health insurance industry, all [sic ] while undermining other more-progressive proposals.” I don’t know whether Obama’s health care plan was in any sense borrowed from the Heritage Foundation, but certainly Heritage now opposes and derides it.68 However, it may be that any conservative idea is so tainted if embraced by a Democrat that it must be denounced; right-wing opposition to “Obamacare” is violent even though it resembles the Massachusetts plan enacted under Governor Romney, and Romney’s conservative credentials are suspect because of the resemblance. The structure of the Obama plan was not truly liberal, being based on insurance rather than on Medicare (which has made it Constitutionally vulnerable), and he did not fight for the public option, but bringing up health care at all was a risky stance, especially given the Clinton experience. I would be inclined to catagorize his intent as progressive, and his performance somewhere between pragmatic and ineffective.
“On foreign policy, he escalated old wars and initiated new ones.” Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, backed into a quasi-war in Lybia and continued warlike actions elsewhere; certainly there has been no significant change from Bush policies, other than moving the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. “On civil liberties, he not only continued the Patriot Act and indefinite detention of terrorism suspects but also claimed the right to assassinate American citizens without charge.” On the first issue, it’s fair to say that he has been a conservative from the outset. He pledged to close Guantanamo, which seemed to imply a termination of indefinite detention, but neither has happened. I don’t know whether he entertained the third view at the outset, but it is incredible coming from anyone at any time, and his use of drone attacks and the bin Laden assassination show that there is little he has considered out of bounds.
“On financial issues, he fought off every serious proposal to re-regulate banks following the economic meltdown; he preserved ongoing bank bailouts; and he resisted pressure to prosecute Wall Street thieves.” The first claim is exaggerated; the Dodd-Frank Act (notably the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) and the Credit Card Accountability Act are examples of progress, although failure to appoint Elizabeth Warren is an example of timidity. The bank bailout program seemed to me at the time to reflect dubious priorities and possibly be ineffective, but it has turned out better that it might have. Bankers have not been held to account, and that policy was clear from the outset; Mr. Obama’s choice of advisors was baffling and disappointing, weakening any move toward re-regulation, and certainly showing no intention to require accountability.
“On fiscal matters, after extending the Bush tax cuts at a time of massive deficits, he has used the debt ceiling negotiations to set the stage for potentially massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare — cuts that would be far bigger than any of his proposed revenue increases.” The extension of the tax cuts in December certainly was a conservative result but, given the circumstances, it doesn’t, at least standing alone, demonstrate that he planned to do so from the beginning. He has stated many times that he wants those cuts to expire. The year-end deal strikes me as a pragmatic, if weak, move. He did hold out for unemployment benefits then.
His attitude toward Social Security is more confused than conspiratorial; I’ve discussed that in more detail below. He has, like many others, including the media, muddled the issue by sometimes treating Social Security as a general-fund expenditure. However, his position during the debt crisis does seem to show that he now is prepared to cut benefits. His Secretary of Defense, not content with denouncing cuts in his budget, recommended cutting entitlements rather than “national security.”
The best example of Obama’s present conservatism is found in the debt-ceiling “debate.” The White House proposals, its formulas for a Grand Bargain, were heavily weighted from the outset toward spending cuts, although Mr. Obama gave lip service to tax increases. In any case, contemplating cuts in the midst of what realistically still is a recession was an abandonment of liberal principle.
To here, the quotes have been from a column by David Sirota of August 5, carried in The Seattle Times .69 The other principal source is a series of columns by Glenn Greenwald on Salon which have argued consistently that Obama has been a conservative from the beginning. Greenwald cites a number of sources, which in turn cite others. I won’t try to trace each line, but will describe those that seem most pertinent.
The argument is summarized in Greenwald’s column of August 1,70 where he states, “The evidence is overwhelming that Obama has long wanted exactly what he got: these severe domestic budget cuts and even ones well beyond these, including Social Security and Medicare, which he is likely to get with the Super-Committee created by this [debt-limit] bill . . . .” What is that evidence?
On April 13, Greenwald said, “In December, President Obama signed legislation to extend hundreds of billions of dollars in Bush tax cuts, benefitting the wealthiest Americans. Last week, Obama agreed to billions of dollars in cuts that will impose the greatest burden on the poorest Americans.” As all of that happened relatively recently, it doesn’t prove that he has “long wanted” that result, although each added example tends to suggest that. Greenwald continued, “Tax cuts for the rich -- budget cuts for the poor -- ‘reform’ of the Democratic Party's signature safety net programs -- a continuation of Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies and a new Middle East war launched without Congressional approval. That's quite a legacy combination for a Democratic President.” It is indeed, although we need to look at the “reform” to see whether it is as much a rightward policy as Greenwald suspects.
He cited, directly or indirectly, several columns and articles for the proposition that Obama, since before inauguration, has contemplated cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, based in part on his comments about an “entitlement crisis.” One such comment supposedly was made in January, 2009, but the references to it aren’t sourced, and I can’t find it. One reference acknowledged that Obama’s views, as to Social Security, had been different earlier: “[D]uring the campaign, Obama suggested the relatively modest step of increasing Social Security’s revenues by raising the cap on Social Security taxes, which would make the income [sic] tax system more progressive and bring more money into the program,” and stated that “Medicare’s problems are bound up in the broader woes of the American health care system.” 71
Obama has, at times, loosely referred to a Social Security crisis, once in an interview on November 8, 2007,72 but stated that there is no crisis in October, 2007,73 in August, 2010,74 and in April, 2011.75 On Meet the Press on November 11, 2007, Senator Obama waffled a bit on what to do about Social Security, but preferred lifting the contribution cap to cutting benefits or raising the retirement age.76 In an interview by The Washington Post in January, 2009, he was reported as saying “the nation's long-term economic recovery cannot be attained unless the government finally gets control over its most costly entitlement programs” but quoted as follows: "Social Security we can solve. The big problem is Medicare, which is unsustainable. . . . We can't solve Medicare in isolation from the broader problems of the health-care system."77 In his speech on April 13, 2011 he derided the Ryan plan to gut Medicare; he didn’t offer an alternative plan, but he may think that the health care bill will solve that problem. He was muddled about Social Security.
His comments on Social Security over time seem to me to reflect the right instincts, confusion (cutting payroll taxes hardly is a way to improve Social Security funding), some rhetorical inconsistency (or political opportunism), indecisiveness and lack of will, not a reactionary stance. He treats Medicare’s funding problems at least in part as bound up with health care reform. Where he stands on Medicaid is a mystery to me.
There is evidence that the grand-bargain notion came into office with Mr. Obama, although not quite in its recent form. E.J. Dionne wrote this in January, 2009: “To listen to Obama and his budget director Peter Orszag is to hear a tale of long-term fiscal woe. The government may have to spend and cut taxes in a big way now, but in the long run, the federal budget is unsustainable.” There is nothing notably conservative about that statement. Consistent with the formula, there was significant spending early, on stimulus. “There will be signs of [sacrifice] in Obama's first budget, in his efforts to contain health-care costs and, down the road, in his call for entitlement reform and limits on carbon emissions.” The containment of health care costs supposedly was incorporated into the reform act. If right-wing rage is any measure, it and the attempt to cap carbon emissions were very liberal programs. Realistically, they were compromises, avoiding direct government control.
Dionne continued: “His camp is selling the idea that if he wants authority for new initiatives and new spending, Obama will have to prove his willingness to cut some programs and reform others.” That and the vague comment about entitlement reform state the conservative theme. “The ‘grand bargain’ they are talking about. . .involves expansive government where necessary, balanced by tough management, unpopular cuts -- and, yes, eventually some tax increases. Everyone, they say, will have to give up something.” Somewhere along the line expansive, or even very active, government was dropped from the agenda, but the desire to compromise endured.
An interview in Time with Lawrence Summers, also in January, 2009, may shed some light, although in places it isn’t clear whether Summers or Time is speaking. “Summers' immediate task is to convince skeptical Senators that shelling out nearly $1 trillion over two years isn't another exercise in traditional pork-barrel spending but a vital step needed to save jobs and invest in the future.” That certainly sounds progressive. “Summers argues that . . . not only will most of the money go to reviving the economy in the next 18 months, but much of it will also go to projects that could save money over the long term, such as weatherizing 75% of federal buildings and computerizing medical records. ‘The bill does a good job of marrying the twin imperatives of putting people back to work and doing the work that needs to be done,’ he says.”
Then comes the conservative part: “[P]erhaps as early as March, they'll launch their biggest lift with the beginnings of a plan to reform Social Security and Medicare, the two entitlement programs that, even before the economy collapsed, were threatening the Treasury with bankruptcy.” Did Summers say that Social Security threatened bankruptcy? I doubt it. “When Obama unveils his annual budget in late February or March, Summers promises that the President ‘is going to describe the kinds of approaches he wants to take to the entitlement problems that have been ignored for a long time.’ Some options might include delaying retirement, stretching benefits and lifting the cap on taxable earnings.” Whose options were those? Not necessarily Summers’ or Obama’s: “Could one of these prevail? ‘Remains to be seen,’ Summers says.”
As to when Obama’s conservatism set in, there is an alternative theory, that it is a reaction to the 2010 election results: “It all goes back to the ‘shellacking’ Obama took in the 2010 elections. The President’s political advisers studied the numbers and concluded that the voters wanted the government to spend less.”78 However, that doesn’t track: while those results may have pushed him rightward, he had stated in December, 2009 that the theme for 2010 would be deficit reduction, a notably conservative position in the face of chronic unemployment. Therefore, we must conclude that he had adopted a conservative budget position by the end of 2009.
Granting that some of his policies have been conservative from the beginning and even assuming that some that have emerged later were foreordained, does that make him a “conservative?” There are some contrary indications, in addition to those mentioned. A few days ago, new, ambitious fuel efficiency standards were announced for trucks and buses, joining new standards for cars. The Bush ban on stem cell research was lifted. Appointments to the Supreme Court certainly are to the left of Bush’s.
Greenwald offered two more general comments. Obama’s approach is “just a re-branded re-tread of Clintonian triangulation and the same ‘centrist’, scorn-the-base playbook Democratic politicians had used for decades.” In other word, Democrats, as demonstrated by the Carter and Clinton (the era of big government is over) administrations, have become more conservative, so why should we be surprised that Obama didn’t turn out to be a liberal? “Whether in economic policy, national security, civil liberties, or the permanent consortium of corporate power that runs Washington, Obama, above all else, is content to be (one could even say eager to be) guardian of the status quo. And the forces of the status quo want tax cuts for the rich, serious cuts in government spending that don't benefit them (social programs and progressive regulatory schemes), and entitlement ‘reform’ -- so that's what Obama will do.” That suggests that he is a centrist with no convictions.
My impression is a little different, although the result may be the same in terms of predicting behavior. Obama’s views and actions are inconsistent ideologically with each other, which may simply mean that he is a moderate, i.e., someone with a mixture of liberal and conservative views; the conservative side probably is due in part to the rightward drift of the Democratic party, and partly to the deficit. However, his views also have been inconsistent over time. Like any politician, he bases decisions in part on political calculation, and his political calculations often are cautious and defensive, which isn’t surprising: though he hardly qualifies as a strong liberal, right-wing hysterics label him a communist. He hasn’t articulated a vision for his presidency, has no real set of priorities, and, rather than acting, asks us to be patient and wait for better times to come. All of this, especially the caution, may have something to do with his race; the racial slurs, the birther nonsense and the hysteria on the right certainly underscore the difficulty inherent in being the first black president.
In a way it doesn’t matter when he moved to the right, as he’s clearly a conservative now on many issues. However, it poses this conundrum for Democratic voters and strategists: if the more pointed criticisms are valid, if, as Sirota put it, he is a strong president but “dissembling [and] conniving,” if he’s a closet conservative, he should have a challenge from the left in the primaries. But that would help the Republicans and do we want a president who’s even further to the right? The solution: support for (or at least no opposition to) his reelection, and concentration on electing a Democratic House. Enthusiastic support for Obama would tie any liberal in logical knots, but throwing out the House Republicans is intellectually and morally a no-brainer.

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68. http://www.heritage.org/research/projects/the-case-against-obamacare; http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/07/health-care-reform-in-maine-reversing-obamacare-lite
69. It isn’t available on the Times web site;
see http://www.creators.com/liberal/david-sirota/the-bizarro-fdr.html  .
70. http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/?page=3 : “The myth of Obama’s ‘blunders’ and ‘weakness’.”
71. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0209/18636.html
72. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21693036/
73. http://www.ourfuture.org/fact-sheets-briefs/2011010212/barack-obama-s-statements-social-security  
74. Ibid.
75. http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/155773-white-house-social-security-not-currently-in-crisis
76. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21738432/ns/meet_the_press/t/meet-press-transcript-nov/
77. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/15/AR2009011504114.html
78. “What Were They Thinking?” by Elizabeth Drew, The New York Review of Books, August 18, 2011

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

August 9, 2011
It’s no wonder that we misunderstand economic issues. They are complicated and theoretical, and at times seem divorced from ordinary experience. Worst, economics seems to be half politics, which guarantees disagreement among the experts. For most of us, some considerable guidance is required, and that, unfortunately, is just what is lacking in media reports and many editorial columns, which, in addition to reflecting the political orientation of the authors, betray more than a little ignorance. A case in point is today’s Seattle Times house column.
It began with an inaccurate comment on stimulus: “Following the Bush bailouts, the Obama administration has responded to the recession with even larger doses of borrowing and spending. . . . This was the stimulus that did not stimulate. There has been almost no recovery. That may be because the medicine wasn't strong enough, or that it wasn't much of a stimulant.” There was stimulus and there has been recovery, although certainly not enough. At least the writer(s) recognized the possibility that the stimulus was too small or was misdirected, or was of the wrong sort. The conclusion might be to do it again and do it right, but no: “Greater and greater doses are simply unaffordable.” We can’t afford to do it right; the deficit is the most important issue. Even if the latter is true, don’t we want to take the action which will reduce the deficit in the long run? No; only the short term matters: “All the countries in trouble have to cut back.” Austerity is the only course, even though experience shows that it is the wrong course. No surprise there: “[W]hat experience and history teach is this - that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” 67
The Times cited as authority an unreliable source, Standard and Poors, which has lowered its rating of U.S. bonds. “The reason for the downgrade, S&P said, was that the debt-ceiling deal ‘falls short.’ . . . Stabilizing the debt requires deeper cuts ‘in the growth of public spending, especially in entitlements,’ S&P said, plus the expiration of the Bush tax cuts or equivalent increase in taxes.” Why would anyone would rely on S&P’s opinions? It rated Enron bonds as investment grade until four days before Enron declared bankruptcy. It didn’t downgrade government bonds when the Bush administration ran huge deficits — and guaranteed more in the future — by cutting taxes and waging unnecessary wars. Any agency truly concerned about fiscal responsibility or, as it now claims, about governmental competence, would have denounced that pair of policies. Instead, it busied itself giving high ratings to toxic mortgage packages, thereby helping cause the bubble-collapse-recession sequence which further worsened the deficit it now worries about. To top it off, S&P mangled the numbers in its bond rating analysis but plunged ahead with its downgrade as if getting the math right was of no importance.
Stuck with its source, the Times reluctantly supported the tax-increase part of the formula, sort of: “We concur, in part, on targeted tax increases.” That must have hurt.
Ironically, the editorial ended by describing the situation accurately: “All of which means less medicine from Washington, D.C. There may be some little stimulants made to look like big ones, but essentially the patient is on its own. That is why the market plunged.” Does that suggest that austerity is the wrong plan, that abandonment by the government is the wrong policy? Alas, the Times was unable to follow its observation to its logical conclusion. Voters trying to understand economic issues also are on their own.
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67. G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, Introduction, II, 2

Thursday, August 4, 2011

August 4, 2011
It would be pleasant and rewarding to spend my declining years in some creative activity, such as painting or sketching, composing or playing, writing poetry or novels but, alas, such pursuits require talent and I have none, so I watch the culture and its organizational aspect, politics, become increasingly debased and occupy my time by commenting on that pathetic trend.
When Barack Obama was elected, I thought I might have to change title of my blog, or at least modify my explanation of it. However, the fog enveloping Washington, D.C. is heavier than ever.
At least, during the Bush years, the orientation of the administration was obvious. Now its political position is a mystery, but its drift (and I use the word advisedly) is rightward. To add to the muddle, Mr. Obama is denounced by conservatives as a liberal, if not a socialist or worse. This is ludicrous, but repetition of nonsense is effective in creating fog, in confusing voters. George Will joined the bandwagon this week: in 2012, he said, Obama “cannot run from his liberalism.” It’s ironic that, years ago, Will derided conservative campaigning as being limited to shouting “Eek! a liberal!” Now he’s doing it. Back then, at least, liberalism hadn’t yet been driven from the field, so there was something to fear. Will’s comment about Mr. Obama is just tea-party nonsense.
In a more rational world the media would help dispel the fog; news reports would concentrate on substance. Instead, TV news and, to a lesser extent, newspapers and their web sites, give us trivia. I don’t know how many times I have seen or heard a breathless report of the doings of some celebrity I have never heard of and wouldn’t care about if I had. When something of importance is reported, the account often has little relationship to facts. Consider an article on the Washington Post web site on the debt-limit deal, captioned, “The moderate middle wins the day.” This is a strange way to describe an overwhelming conservative victory, but the reporters saw it this way: “For weeks, the debt-ceiling debate has been defined by a clash of the extremes; tea party conservatives seeking to dramatically reshape government and committed liberals afraid that doing so would squeeze the poor and the working class.” Nonsense: liberal policies never were part of the mix; the debate was between the right and far right. We have here another example of the media’s aiding Republicans by pretending that liberals are a force, that in this case they are equally at fault for the delay and turmoil.
A few years ago, someone in the Bush White House bragged that “when we act, we create our own reality. . . .'' 66 He contrasted and dismissed ''the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from [a] judicious study of discernible reality.'' Unfortunately, his boast was justified. Conservatives no longer are part of the reality-based community and the media are following them into fantasy land.
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66. Ron Suskind, "Without a Doubt," The New York Times Magazine 10/17/04; http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

Friday, July 29, 2011

July 29, 2011
On Wednesday I saw two more indicators of how little people on the right comprehend about the debt-ceiling debate or about economics in general.
Donald Trump was quoted on the Post-Intelligencer web site (alas, it no longer is a real newspaper) on the debt crisis: “When it comes time to default, [people are] not going to remember any of the Republicans’ names. They are going to remember in history books one name, and that’s Obama. They’re not going to be talking about Boehner or anybody else . . . ” So, the prime consideration is that, when our economy collapses, that non-citizen socialist will be responsible. Actually, according to news reports, the GOP will get the larger share of the blame, but the Donald pronounced: “I don’t care about the polls.” He knows better.
What about the disaster to the economy if there is a default? Well, gosh, why worry about stuff like public welfare, the stability of the country or paying our bills? Only one thing matters: “The fact is, unless the Republicans get 100 percent of what they want, and that may include getting rid of Obamacare, which is a total disaster, then they should not make a deal other than a minor extension that would take you before you [sic] the election which would ensure Obama doesn’t get elected, which would be a great thing.”65 Never mind that the strategy risks disaster; defeating Obama is the only issue. Trump probably never was a serious candidate for the Republican nomination, but his views hardly are unrepresentative of that Party.
The other illustration came via television. At the gym where I work out (too infrequently), there are monitors showing various programs, silently. I had the misfortune to be facing one tuned to CNBC and Lawrence Kudlow. The lack of sound spared me his comments, but at one point the screen showed this legend: “Free-market capitalism is the best road to prosperity.” If Kudlow or his producer are determined to display that bit of propaganda, including the euphemism “free market,” they should be required to read on air Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, which details just how that theory has worked out in practice in Asia, South America, Poland, Russia and occupied Iraq. It is a depressing account which should convince any thinking person that it not only is bad economics but is too often is associated with authoritarianism, quite the opposite of the libertarian promises of its advocates.