Thursday, April 28, 2011

April 28, 2011
And now this from the “you can’t win” department.
President Obama has released his long-form birth certificate. Here are a few of the responses, first from the loyal opposition:
Mitt Romney. "What President Obama should really be releasing is a jobs plan."

The Republican National Committee Chairman. "Unfortunately, his campaign politics and talk about birth certificates is distracting him from our number one priority - our economy."
Any opportunity for a cheap shot will do.

Here’s a sampling from the birthers and other Obama-conspiracy theorists:
Donald Trump. “I’d want to look at it, but I hope it’s true so that we can get on to much more important matters, . . .” — you know, like the ones he’s been talking about; oh, wait, this is what he’s talked about — “so the press can stop asking me questions about it . . . .” And why did they ask, Don? Apparently recalling that he had stirred this up, he decided that he, not the press, deserved the credit, and preened: “I feel I've accomplished something really, really important and I'm honored by it."

An aide to a Texas Republican who has introduced a bill that would require proof of citizenship from presidential candidates. "What I've seen online, what they produced today, still says ‘certificate of live birth’ across the top. We want to see a birth certificate. The one that we have that says 'birth certificate' is from Mombasa, Kenya, with his footprint on it. He has still not produced an American birth certificate." Actually, the supposed document from Mombasa is titled “Certificate of Birth.” Also, it’s a forgery, but that hardly matters in this debate.

Philip Berg (who filed a lawsuit alleging that Obama was born in Kenya). "I'm not that concerned with the birth certificate. Unless there is evidence that he renounced his Indonesian citizenship, we believe he is an illegal president." That’s one fallback position; here’s another:

Andy Martin (perennial candidate and “King of the Birthers”). "The pressure for his college records is going to become relentless."

Birther Orly Taitz (on the identification of Obama’s father). "In those years . . . nobody wrote ‘African’ as a race, it just wasn't one of the options. It sounds like it would be written today, in the age of political correctness, and not in 1961 when they wrote ‘white’ or ‘Asian’ or 'Negro'." Never mind that Obama Sr. was African in a literal sense.

And we have the all-around, general purpose dimwits, such as
Rush Limbaugh. "The two things about this that really shock me the most: one, that Obama was born at all. I thought it was a miraculous conception. And secondly, that his parents are actually mortals. . . . I mean, here they have presented this guy as 'the Messiah,' as 'the One,' and those people aren't born. They just descend from the heavens." If he’s going to indulge in sacrilegious sarcasm, Rush needs to (re?)read Matthew 1:18-25 although, given his muddled thinking, it might not help much.

It will be interesting to see what effect the long-form certificate will have on the amazingly large fragment of the population which believes that Mr. Obama is not a citizen. It may not be great. For many of them, he would have to change the color of his skin.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April 26, 2011

Winning the battle of words is a long step toward winning any political battle. The side that defines the terms in which an issue is posed is likely to prevail on that issue, by wrapping its argument in the flag or high principle, or catering to voters’ biases. The caption of a recent, and widely reproduced, Reuters article provides an example: “Pro-defense senators push fight against Gaddafi.” There was a time when war was called war, not defense. We might have a more honest discussion of foreign policy if there were still a War Department, as there was prior to 1947. However, in that year, it was folded into the new Defense Department. Since then, those who want to save or rule the world can describe military policies, expenditures and operations, however dubious, as part of national defense.

The further we go into the twenty-first century the more things resemble George Orwell’s vision of the late twentieth. Our militaristic stance not only makes a mockery of the term “defense,” but comes close to “War is Peace,” a slogan of Oceania, one of the perpetually warring coalitions in Nineteen Eighty-Four. We have many pretty labels for militarism and its methods; consider the name given to the invasion of Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or to the war in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom. (The “enduring” part is accurate, at least). Think of the description of torture as enhanced interrogation.

Such euphemisms are examples of doublespeak, a term coined by the National Council of Teachers of English. It is language that “diverts attention from, or conceals, a speaker’s true meaning. . .making the bad seem good, and the unpleasant attractive or at least tolerable. It seeks to avoid, shift, or deny responsibility, and ultimately prevents or limits thought.” 35

The Republican budget goes beyond doublespeak, to the inspiration for that term, doublethink, Orwell’s word for the core of Oceania’s mind control. This is not merely the use of misleading terms, but “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” The Republican plan to reduce the deficit while cutting taxes is a perfect example.

Are its contradictions the result of deliberate deception or self-delusion? Orwell thought that doublethink was both: “The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt.” Another term might be willful ignorance.

How can the right convince people that their programs work and liberals’ do not, when the evidence is to the contrary? Oceania had it down pat. The Party slogan was “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” 36 The Party did that by changing reports of the past, including rewriting news accounts. Our conservatives don’t have that advantage, but are making progress toward the same goal, revising history. They do it directly, by claiming that tax cuts always increase revenue or that Keynesian economic polices never work. They do it by pretending that they always have opposed deficits. They do it by winning the battle of words, by calling regulation of business an assault on liberty, describing financial manipulation as the working of the benign market, labeling imperialist adventures as defense of the homeland, describing inequality as virtuous independence, and labeling any movement toward social justice or shared benefits as socialism.

Not long ago, I mentioned a book entitled Flat Earth News, the title describing the tendency of discredited stories to persist in the news media. A companion in imagery is Zombie Economics,37 which details how flawed economic policies have continued to influence policy, even after repeated demonstrations of their falsity. Other books telling the same dismal tale are Freefall 38 and The Return of Depression Economics.39 Their message is twofold: those policies brought on the current recession and, unless reversed, they will prolong it and lead to another. Not only does the House budget repudiate those lessons, Republican policies, budgetary and otherwise, cancel the last hundred years of history, in the process expunging part of their own legacy, especially anything connected with the embarrassing Theodore Roosevelt.
35. The Oxford Companion to the English Language, p. 320
36. Oceania quotes from Nineteen Eighty-Four, pp. 270, 44.
37. By John Quiggin (2010)
38. By Joseph Stiglitz (2010)
39. By Paul Krugman (2009)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

April 19, 2011
Republicans are trying to lower taxes on corporations and on the rich prevent regulation of business, cut pensions and benefits (for ordinary folk, not the upper echelons), privatize Medicare, repeal health care, break unions, and gut environmental protection, while General Electric pays no taxes, executive compensation boggles the mind, and hedge fund management fees — peaking above a billion dollars per year per manager — are taxed as capital gains. Consider this description:
I believe leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war... against working people... and even many in the middle class of our society. The leaders of industry, commerce and finance in the United States have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress... At virtually every level, I discern a demand by business for docile government and unrestrained corporate individualism. Where industry once yearned for subservient unions, it now wants no unions at all... Our tax laws are a scandal, yet corporate America wants even wider inequities... The wealthy seek not to close loopholes, but to widen them . . . .
Actually, that was a comment by a frustrated labor leader, explaining his resignation from a presidential advisory board, in 1978.33 He no longer could pretend that there was labor-management cooperation. The assault by business and the wealthy which emerged in the Seventies only has intensified.

We’re in the midst of a debate about massive deficits and national debt. How did that condition come about? Democrats must accept their share of the blame, but a major factor is that Republicans, having abandoned their traditional fiscal conservatism, have been content, when in power, to cut taxes and to run up deficits, leaving it to Democrats to pick up the pieces and to take the blame for the measures required to sort thing out. Here is a description of the modern strategy:
And what if the traditionalist-conservatives are right and a... tax cut, without corresponding cuts in expenditures, also leaves us with a fiscal problem? The neo-conservative is willing to leave those problems to be coped with by liberal interregnums. He wants to shape the future, and will leave it up to his opponents to tidy up afterwards.
Again, not a new idea; Irving Kristol wrote that in 1980.34 We are now in one of those interregna, i.e., a Democratic administration, and President Obama is saddled with the tidying up.

The future which the Kristol plan shaped is, inevitably, one of massive debt, now leading to calls for a drastic shrinkage of government. The Ryan budget, just passed by the House, is the blueprint for that future. It purports to reduce the debt without raising taxes. In a rational world, that would get laughed off the stage, but now it treated as a sensible proposal.

Few conservatives have been as candid about tax cuts as Mr. Kristol. Most pretend that they have no cost, that they are in every way positive. That notion has taken various forms. There is the Kemp-Wanniski-Laffer version: cutting taxes stimulates business, which produces increased revenue. The notion has taken the Cheney form — deficits don’t matter — but that isn’t operative during a Democratic administration. It has taken the Greenspan form — cut taxes because it would be a bad idea to pay the debt down too quickly — but again the political situation is not congenial. Bush’s tax cuts were justified by the supposed surplus, or by the worsening economy, or by the need for investment, depending on the season. Tom DeLay stated the original principle that in war time, nothing is more important than cutting taxes.

Not everyone needs to be deluded regarding the effect of cuts; many just don’t want to pay taxes. Some libertarians believe that taxation is theft. Grover Norquist wants to starve the government to the point that it can be drowned in a bathtub. Some people seem to think that, whatever their purpose or effect, taxes are evil and must be exorcized. Some seem unaware that services cost money. Probably the most important factor is that no one likes to pay taxes, and those who like it least have the most influence.

When the Ryan plan was announced, news reports followed the familiar path of least resistance, describing the plan in the author’s terms, noting none of its flaws. On NBC, the reporter didn’t mention until the end of her bit that the plan includes more tax cuts for the rich, apparently not considering that an inconsistency. A Washington Post editorial noted several problems with the plan but commented that “it is brave of Mr. Ryan to risk the inevitable — and, indeed, swiftly ensuing — condemnations of the plan as an assault on seniors and the poor.” Brave? How about biased and blindly doctrinaire? Other reports and comments also spoke of the plan’s boldness or the author’s courage. Should we praise that sort of “courage”? The condemnations swiftly ensued because condemnation was in order.

Later, Rep. Ryan was given a spot on the Post op-ed page for a column entitled “A Budget for the 21st Century.” The caption is a joke but, although his sense of direction is off, he may well lead the way.

President Obama, not unaware of these developments, gave a speech last Wednesday, laying out a different plan. I missed the speech, but thought that there would be some mention of it on TV the following day. However, NBC News, looking more like Entertainment Tonight, ignored it.

I’ve now read the transcript of the speech. It was disorganized, and flawed politically and economically, but it more or less correctly analyzed the situation and proposed an approach to rectifying it. However, it has received remarkably little attention. When it has been noticed, it has been called partisan, as if the GOP plan were not. The bias in coverage is especially surprising given that Mr. Obama’s plan generally makes sense and Mr. Ryan’s does not.

The President called for cooperation and praised past examples of it, but was blunt as to his view of the principal source of the deficits and national debt. Debt was incurred before 1981, he said, somewhat understating the extent. “But as far back as the 1980s, America started amassing debt at more alarming levels, and our leaders began to realize that a larger challenge was on the horizon.”

At this point, he began to mix together the general fund deficit and Social Security, an error he never quite corrected. “They knew that eventually, the Baby Boom generation would retire, which meant a much bigger portion of our citizens would be relying on programs like Medicare, Social Security, and possibly Medicaid. . . . To meet this challenge, our leaders came together three times during the 1990s to reduce our nation's deficit . . . .” However, Social Security had been restructured and separated from the general budget in 1983; he ignored that, by implication folding Social Security into the general fund and into its deficit.

As to the 1990s, he praised “historic agreements that required tough decisions made by the first President Bush, then made by President Clinton, by Democratic Congresses and by a Republican Congress.” However, Mr. Obama overstated the effect: “As a result of these bipartisan efforts, America's finances were in great shape by the year 2000. We went from deficit to surplus. America was actually on track to becoming completely debt free, and we were prepared for the retirement of the Baby Boomers.” There was a surplus, but primarily because of Social Security taxes. Many believed that we were on track to pay down the debt, leading to the Greenspan theory noted above, but the forecasts of endless surplus were too rosy and soon evaporated. Even so, the President’s next comment is justified:
But after Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed. We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program — but we didn't pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts — tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country. . . .
After pointing to the tax cuts as a major problem, he made this odd comment: “if we had simply found a way to pay for the tax cuts and the prescription drug benefit, our deficit would currently be at low historical levels in the coming years.” This implies that the tax cuts were justified, but simply unfunded; which programs does he think should have been scrapped to pay for them?

When Mr. Obama took office he inherited not only debt but a recession, which necessitated further deficit spending. However, his attention now is on reducing the deficit. “By 2025, the amount of taxes we currently pay will only be enough to finance our health care programs -- Medicare and Medicaid -- Social Security, and the interest we owe on our debt. . . . Every other national priority - education, transportation, even our national security — will have to be paid for with borrowed money.” That is a very strange statement. It again runs together Social Security and general fund expenses —Medicare and Medicaid — and blames them for sopping up most of the revenue. I’m surprised that the Republicans haven’t quoted it.

The President presented a summary of the negative effects of high debt levels. One might quarrel with the particulars, but unquestionably the debt has reached an unsustainable level. He then returned to a formula laying the blame largely on social programs:
Around two-thirds of our budget -- two-thirds -- is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and national security. Two-thirds. Programs like unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans' benefits, and tax credits for working families take up another 20 percent. What's left, after interest on the debt, is just 12 percent for everything else.
Apart from running the first three together, creating what Paul Krugman derides as the socialsecuritymedicareandmedicaid budget ploy, Mr. Obama neglected to state the size of the “defense” budget, let alone comment on its massive wastefulness. He said that most approaches to the deficit focus on the 12 percent, which won’t do: “any serious plan to tackle our deficit will require us to put everything on the table. . . .” There’s another invitation to mess with Social Security..

“Now, to their credit, one vision has been presented and championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives . . . .” “It's a plan that aims to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years, and one that addresses the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid in the years after that.” Does it accomplish that? Apparently he thinks so, as he didn’t challenge the arithmetic. However, “the way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we've known certainly in my lifetime.” The fundamental change would be wrought, in his view, by a 70 percent cut in clean energy, a 25 percent cut in education, a 30 percent cut in transportation and cuts in Pell Grants, an oddly restricted list. Oh, we need to add Medicare: a few paragraphs later, he said, of the Ryan budget,
It's a vision that says America can't afford to keep the promise we've made to care for our seniors. It says that 10 years from now, if you're a 65-year-old who's eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn't worth enough to buy the insurance that's available in the open marketplace, well, tough luck — you're on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.
I don’t know whether the numbers are correct, but the conclusion is.

The President then turned to the most glaring example of illogic and bias: although we can’t pay for education, clean energy, Medicare or Medicaid, we can somehow afford still more tax breaks for the wealthy. He noted that ordinary Americans have lost ground while, thanks in part to those tax cuts, the rich have become richer. He threw the favorable comments about the Ryan plan back at the silly reporters and columnists who made them: “There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don't think there's anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capitol Hill.” No doubt that is why his speech was labeled “partisan.”

“This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.” It’s also about drastically reducing the size of government, not merely changing its priorities. Toward the end of the speech, he acknowledged that:
This larger debate that we're having -- this larger debate about the size and the role of government -- it has been with us since our founding days. And during moments of great challenge and change, like the one that we're living through now, the debate gets sharper and it gets more vigorous. That's not a bad thing. In fact, it's a good thing. As a country that prizes both our individual freedom and our obligations to one another, this is one of the most important debates that we can have.
If it were a good faith debate, yes, but it is not. The Republican aren’t interested in finding the right size of government; they want to shrink it until it can’t inconvenience the wealthy and powerful.

The President’s counter-proposal necessarily is sketchy at this stage, but he gave a few particulars.

He led off with the ever-popular cuts to discretionary domestic spending. That will build on “the savings that both parties agreed to last week.” Those, however, appear to be largely illusory. He’ll preserve “core investments that we need to grow and create jobs,” such as medical research, clean energy technology, new roads and airports, broadband access, education and job training. Doing that and reducing spending will be quite a trick but, at this point, he mentioned the most obvious source of savings, defense.

“So just as we must find more savings in domestic programs, we must do the same in defense. . . . .We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but we're going to have to conduct a fundamental review of America's missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world.” That is indeed necessary, but I’m not optimistic that the review will be anything close to fundamental or even that very substantial cuts will be made.

“The third step in our approach is to further reduce health care spending. . . .” He rejected the Ryan approach, and noted that the health care law will save money. He went after the insane provision in the drug-benefit law prohibiting the use of the government’s bargaining power to lower prices. He hinted at a new compensation formula for health care providers.

At this point he belatedly drew a distinction between general-fund expenditures and Social Security. “While Social Security is not the cause of our deficit, it faces real long-term challenges in a country that's growing older.” He didn’t specify the challenges nor propose a solution.

“The fourth step in our approach is to reduce spending in the tax code, so-called tax expenditures.” That is an interesting way to describe a tax law which doesn’t raise enough money, but it’s safer to attack expenditures than to suggest that more revenue is required. “In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans.” But no more. “We can't afford it. And I refuse to renew them again.” Bravo, if that’s a real pledge, and not just rhetoric.

Later in the speech Mr. Obama talked of raising taxes, but his discussion was muddled. “Some will argue we should not even consider ever -- ever -- raising taxes, even if only on the wealthiest Americans. It's just an article of faith to them. . . .” So it is; are we going to raise taxes? “I say that at a time when the tax burden on the wealthy is at its lowest level in half a century, the most fortunate among us can afford to pay a little more.” Is he proposing a tax increase or merely talking about letting the Bush cuts expire, equating that to a tax increase as the Republicans do? Instead of clarifying that, he went off in another direction: “I don't need another tax cut. Warren Buffett doesn't need another tax cut. Not if we have to pay for it by making seniors pay more for Medicare . . ..” There he seems to be referring to the Ryan proposal for still more cuts. Probably his aim is to prevent a further extension of the Bush cuts and any new cuts.

He also called for capping itemized deductions, limiting them “for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.” Wait for the cries of class warfare.

We “should reform our corporate tax code as well, to make our businesses and our economy more competitive.” I don’t know what that means, nor what he had in mind for simplification of the tax code.

The President acknowledged that some Democrats don’t want to cut spending until the economy is fully recovered. He proposed to deal with this by using “a scalpel and not a machete to reduce the deficit, so that we can keep making the investments that create jobs.” That makes sense as a long-term strategy, but won’t do much to create jobs now

He concluded by saying “I don't expect the details in any final agreement to look exactly like the approach I laid out today.” Of course not, but it isn’t smart to say that. Once again, he has started compromising before the negotiation has begun.
33. Douglas Fraser, quoted in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics (2010), pp. 131-32
34. "The Battle for Reagan’s Soul," Wall Street Journal, 5/16/80; quoted ibid at 233.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

April 13, 2011 Well, they blinked again.

Republicans are fond of accusing Democrats of weakness, usually meaning that they are reluctant to send others off to war, or to put people in prison forever for minor crimes, or that they otherwise exercise mature judgment. However, the recent performance of Congressional Democrats and the President validates the libel, albeit with a change of subject. Capitulation to the Republican terms for avoiding a government shutdown was weakness with a vengeance, so to speak.

The President already had adopted a Hooverish counter-stimulus posture, but that was not enough for the GOP, which suddenly is aware of, and aghast at, the deficit and the national debt. The Party formerly governed by Cheney’s complacent formula — “Reagan proved deficits don't matter” — now finds them to be a threat to Life as We Know It.

John Boehner forced on Mr. Obama and on the equally compliant Harry Reid an absurd new Continuing Resolution: absurd in its general outline, and absurd in that it was only an outline, to be filled in over the next few days by Congressional staff. The following is, more or less, what emerged from the staff rooms, taken from a report of the House Appropriations Committee.

The claimed cuts are reductions from the FY 2010 budget, organized more or less by executive department:

•$3 billion from Agriculture, including $10 million from food safety inspection. The report states that the Resolution “includes $6.75 billion for the Special Supplemental Feeding Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC),” but doesn’t mention that it cuts the program by $504 million.

•$10.9 billion from Commerce, Justice and “Science.” However, much of the “cut” reflects the ending of the census, which accounted for $6.2 billion* in FY 2010, and $1.885 billion* in unspecified “rescissions.” This section also prohibits funding for the establishment of a Climate Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

•$1.7 billion from “Energy and Water.” The report adds, “These significant cuts further the House Republican commitment to deficit reduction and reining in the size of government...”

•$2.4 billion from “Financial Services and General Government,” including the Treasury Department. This includes a cut of more than $800 million from funding for construction of new federal buildings. The plan would make no change to funding for drug task forces and programs to assist small businesses but, according to a Washington Post article, would block a funding increase, sought by the administration, for the Internal Revenue Service to hire additional agents. There is an increase of $13 million for the Inspector General of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and $74 million for the Securities and Exchange Commission, so the White House apparently won a few minor skirmishes.

•$784 million from Homeland Security. The arithmetic in this one is impossible to follow, but the net departmental cut equals the cut in “FEMA first responder grants”.

•$2.62 billion from Interior, of which $1.6 billion is cut from the Environmental Protection Agency, $49 million from climate change funding and about $13 million each* from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. As the report concedes, or boasts, 61% of Interior’s cuts are at the expense of the despised EPA.

•$5.5 billion from Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related Agencies. The resolution “terminates funding for more than 55 programs, for a total savings of well over $1 billion,” and “cuts two programs funded in ObamaCare . . . “

•$103 million from the Legislative Branch. This seems like a worthy saving, but may merely facilitate cramming legislation through without adequate review.

•$504 million from State and “Foreign Operations.” This is made up of a $377 million cut to U.S. contributions to the United Nations and international organizations, a $130 million cut to international banks and financial institutions and $73 million from family planning activities, which add up, however, to $580 million. It also “maintains pro-life policy provisions carried in fiscal year 2010,” and includes a prohibition on pay raises for foreign service officers.

•$12.3 billion from Transportation, Housing, Urban Development and related Agencies. The bill “eliminates new funding for High Speed Rail and rescinds $400 million in previous year funds, for a total reduction of $2.9 billion from fiscal year 2010 levels.” It also reduces funding for transit by a total of $991 million and includes “contract authority rescissions of $3.2 billion” for highways.

The committee report touts its accomplishments with little restraint: the legislation ”will prevent a government shutdown, fund the entire federal government until September 30, 2011, and provide essential funding for national defense.” It “will cut an unparalleled nearly $40 billion in federal spending.” The effect of the bill will be “the largest non-defense spending cut in the history of our nation . . .” It will “continu[e] the trend of budget reductions to dig our nation out of our dangerous deficits and debt for years to come.”

The non-defense qualification was a necessary concession. The negative numbers listed above add up to 39.81 billion, and there is in addition a proposed .2% across-the-board cut to non-defense spending, bringing the total to 39.89 billion, or “nearly forty.” However, two paragraphs later the report concedes that this includes 12 billion already agreed to in earlier resolutions, so the cuts in this deal are about 28 billion.

Even that requires ignoring defense spending, which will increase by these amounts:

• $5 billion to the Defense Department. “The bill also includes an additional $157.8 billion for overseas contingency operations (emergency funding) to advance our missions abroad.” It isn’t clear whether that is included in the 5 billion.

• $600 million to Military Construction/Veterans Affairs. Therefore all of the bragging is about saving $22.29 billion (39.89-12-5.6), about .63% of the benchmark 2010 budget, or .59% of the administration’s proposed FY 2011 budget.

The Washington Post article commented that some of the supposed cuts are fiscal gimmicks. The plan eliminates funding for four Obama administration “czars,” but those positions are vacant. A cut of $3.5 billion for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, would affect only “states that make an extra effort to enroll children. But officials with knowledge of the budget deal said that most states were unlikely to qualify for the bonuses and that sufficient money would be available for those that did.” There is a cut of $4.9 billion from the Justice Department’s Crime Victims Fund, “but that money is in a reserve fund that wasn’t going to be spent this year.”

The deal also sets the future legislative agenda to some extent. It requires that the Senate debate and vote on repealing the health care law and on ending federal funding to Planned Parenthood.

The ideological slant is obvious, including cuts to anything which might be considered stimulus spending, such as construction. The ideological focus leads to matters having nothing to with the budget, such as a provision preventing Guantanamo Bay detainees from being transferred into the United States for any purpose, and a prohibition on the use of any funds, federal or otherwise, to pay for abortions in the District of Columbia. As Rep. Ryan said of his similarly focused plan, “This is not a budget. This is a cause.”

* These figures are from a detailed listing of cuts which accompanied the committee report.

29.Suskind, The Price of Loyalty, p. 291

30. . Except as otherwise noted, the numbers are from that report.

31. /A/10/18.0.2370818597_epaper.html


Monday, April 11, 2011

4/4/11 Postscript to March 14

In his farewell piece Rich said, in effect, that the pressure of writing a weekly column was one reason for the move:

[William] Safire, a master of the form, was fond of likening column writing to standing under a windmill: No sooner did you feel relief that you had ducked a blade than you looked up and saw a new one coming down. . . .That routine can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about, or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambiguous conclusion.

Although Rich’s weekly column was longer that most, he found himself “hungering to write with more reflection, at greater length at times . . . .”

Now Bob Herbert has left, leaving another hole not easily filled. He wrote twice weekly, which would create even more pressure. His farewell expressed similar concern:

The deadlines and demands were a useful discipline, but for some time now I have grown eager to move beyond the constriction of the column format, with its rigid 800-word limit, in favor of broader and more versatile efforts.

As to subject matter, he said that he was moving on with “the intent of writing more expansively and more aggressively about the injustices visited on working people, the poor and the many others in our society who find themselves on the wrong side of power.” I wonder whether “more aggressively” implies that limitations were placed on his columns. Rich said not, as to his.

Rich had a kind word for another pundit: “some columnists are adept at keeping their literary bearings over long careers — George Will is a particularly elegant survivor among the generation of columnists ahead of mine . . . .”

Will, many years ago, described a columnist’s challenge: “Writing is not hard," wrote Stephen Leacock. "Just get paper and pencil, sit down, and write as it occurs to you. The writing is easy—it's the occurring that's hard." Occurring twice a week would seem to be a challenge, but Will claimed an advantage. “Actually, the ‘occurring’ is not hard for someone blessed with a Tory temperament and sentenced to live in this stimulating era. Today, even more than usual, the world is generously strewn with fascinations and provocations.”

That is a surprising observation from a conservative, having been written in the second Reagan year, but I take his point. If the world around one is unattractive and even seems foreign, “occurring,” i.e. having a critical comment, is not difficult. When he wrote that, Will was a traditional conservative — a Tory as he put it — a disciple of “Burke, Newman, Disraeli and others who were more skeptical, even pessimistic, about the modern world than most people are who today call themselves conservatives.” Therefore the advent of the age of Reagan might leave him still dissatisfied.

“What a columnist writes in his capacity as a columnist is necessarily episodic, but there are continuities, and mine are conservative convictions,” Will said. However, he placed some distance between his concept of conservatism and some others. “The most familiar and fashionable variety . . . tends complacently to define the public good as whatever results from the unfettered pursuit of private ends. Hence it tends to treat laissez-faire economic theory as a substitute for political philosophy, and to discount the importance of government and the dignity of the political vocation.” Unfortunately, that brand of conservatism is still with us, and is dominant.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

April 3, 2011

My first reaction to the rioting and killing in Afghanistan — in retaliation for the burning of a Koran — was to think that we should abandon this barbaric land to its fate. Why should we continue to put not only Americans but other foreign nationals in harm’s way? But if the test for abandonment is disdain for religious primitivism, then we would need to withdraw from Florida, where the ritual Koran-burning took place, and it wouldn’t stop there; religious fundamentalism, some of it issuing in acts more violent than book-burning, isn’t confined to Florida. We’re in no position to make religious, or antireligious, judgments.

However, the question I put is, I think, valid, with some modification: Is whatever we are doing in Afghanistan worth all the loss of life: American, Afghani and other? Also, what justifies the financial cost?

Wars, unless they are purely defensive, always raise questions of justification. Our recent adventures certainly pose that problem. None of the excuses for war in Iraq hold water. The President’s rationale for the bombing of Libya is confused and unconvincing. The invasion of Afghanistan was, plausibly, justified as a campaign against al Qaeda, which was a proven threat to our security. However, that hunt failed early on, and at this point it does not even seem to be an excuse for the continued operations.

Some months ago, The Seattle Times carried a column by David Sirota in which he lamented our inability to learn from experience, citing, among other examples, the failure to draw appropriate lessons from Vietnam, leading to the long-term occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Among other causes, he cited the failures of journalism.

Although Sirota’s reference was primarily to electronic media, the Times helpfully provided proof in the same edition. It devoted much of page one to a story about a murder elsewhere in the state, not important news except to those involved. The Times relegated to page four a report from The Washington Post that we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars building bases in Afghanistan which will not even be completed when the withdrawal is supposed to begin this summer, and which are intended for use by American forces. In other words, the withdrawal may be a farce and the occupation endless.

The Times, to its credit, has advocated withdrawal on its editorial pages, and the news department recognized the implications of the base-construction story, captioning it “Plans indicate long stay for U.S. in Afghanistan.” The placement of a less important story on the front page may reflect a realistic business decision, but it constitutes a failure of journalism, a small one, but part of a pattern.

Military fatalities total 2,388, 1,521 of them American. The monetary cost runs to nearly three hundred million dollars per day 25 and that is just the budgeted cost. As Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have shown, the actual, long-term cost is much higher.26 Yet the media more or less ignore Afghanistan — The Pew Center estimated that four per cent of media coverage was devoted to it in 2010 27 — and report the budget debate with little reference to the elephant in the room.


25. Using the FY 2011 budget, $113.5 billion, the daily figure is $310,958,904. The FY 2012 proposal is $107.3 billion, or $293,972,603 per day. See

26. The Three Trillion Dollar War


Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day