Monday, December 31, 2012

We're in Freefall

Everyone has been up in arms over the fiscal cliff. As expected, it looks like Congress may be pulling its collective head out of its ass to catch the New Years fireworks and maybe, hopefully, agree to a deal that averts the biggest problems set to hit us on January 1st. Keep in mind, though, that last year Congress was congratulating itself on creating the fiscal cliff in the first place...

Anyway, it seems everyone is glued to this story about fiscal policy in Washington. But they're missing some of the more depressing and distressing news going on. Specifically, everything happening in state legislatures around this country when it comes to funding some of those pesky human services programs that have been unfortunately labeled "entitlements."

Well, let me clear that up. These are not entitlements in the commonly used sense of the word. They're not food stamp programs, medical voucher programs, housing/fuel assistance programs. True, all of those have seen their budgets slashed, and they can no longer meet the needs of the people. But we're not talking about those. We're talking about mental health.

It's an interesting fact that most state governments have now lumped mental health into the same agency or department that deals with things like housing, food assistance, etc. In fact, mental health has come almost exclusively under the umbrella of government control. Why? Because private mental health practicioners who are appropriately licensed and accredited get most of their money from the system anyway, they may as well be.

In my job, I deal with mental health professionals on a regular basis. The biggest mental health agencies run almost entirely on state and federal contract. They are for-profit, and charge groups that they contract with (including schools - think of that, a government-sponsored agency charging a government-sponsored agency enough money to turn a profit) some pretty hefty fees for their services. So, what happens when state money dries up, and the federal government can't figure out which way is up long enough to fill in the gaps?

What happens is, we get fewer beds available for non-crisis individuals. We have to deny services to all but the most extreme cases. We have to do more with less, because the prevalence of mental illness increases when the economy is bad.

We've seen what happens when there is inadequate mental health services. Those who need treatment end up hurting themselves or others. They are unable to function, and the system has to find a place for them. In the worst of scenarios, they become violent, and can even become deadly.

We can gripe and complain all we want about the fiscal cliff, and how Congress is a do-nothing institution, etc. and on. But we should take the time to look at what is happening in our own back yard, because that is where the truly concerning things are happening. Even now, states are looking for ways to slash budgets. We know the usual suspects: education, infrastructure, contracting, and those pesky entitlement programs. But if we really delve into those numbers, we see that cutting those programs is hurting our future, and those in our current society that need the most help are finding themselves lost in the shuffle.

So, we're already in a kind of free-fall. States have been employing austerity for months now, even years, and we're starting to see the effects in our mental health system, as well as in education and social programs. Whether you believe austerity is helping, or whether you believe that it's hurting, the fact remains that this is the dark secret of spending cuts: spiraling crises that will end in catastrophe, and no way of preventing them. I hope that this next year brings more serious contemplation of these issues, and I hope we come to an agreement where we say that some things are just too important to cut.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sense and Sensibility

As the year draws to a close, and worries mount over the fiscal cliff that's staring us down next week, it's worth considering how we got ourselves into this position where things seem to be falling apart.

First of all, are things really as bad as they seem? It depends on who you listen to. Once you escape the American Media bubble, things look a whole lot better. In fact, some people are calling 2012 one of the best year's ever!

But it wasn't all fun and games. For one thing, we saw some very serious political dysfunction. Look at what's happening now, where politicians can't get out of their own way, can't seem to stick to one political opinion, and can't seem to figure out which way is up when it comes to our finances. And when I say politicians, I really am talking about Republicans (but I'm trying to be more neutral, for some reason). The problem, as many people have pointed out, is that Republicans have been going out of their way to be argumentative with the Obama administration and Democrats. Even when those groups agree to things that Republicans like and support (state-based health insurance exchanges, for example), Republicans backtrack and disagree with them. In the case of those exchanges, which are part of Obamacare, the result is that many conservative states are allowing the federal government to control their health insurance, when they could have done it themselves.

And what else has this led to? Why, a breakdown in talks over the fiscal cliff deal, of course! Normally, negotiations mean that two groups make concessions until they've reached a deal. In the case of the new Republican party, concessions are forgotten and a death-grip on core values is all that matters. When Boehner broke out of step with his party and crafted a plan that would have gotten us very close to a final deal, Republicans themselves shot it down. Now, even Republicans want their party back.

There's no sense in how the GOP is acting at this point, and there is no sense in believing they'll somehow snap out of it in time to save us from this fiscal cliff, or any of the other issues they've helped bring around (remember, they hold a majority in the House, and a filibuster in the Senate; anyone who says they're not part of the gridlock problem in Washington is either an idiot or a liar). All we can hope for is that, following this LAME duck session of Congress, there will be more movement on the national issues than we've seen recently.

Happy New Year (I hope).

Friday, December 21, 2012

Crooks

It's good to be back in the USA, even if the world seems to have gone hell in a handbasket in my absence. I'm going to keep my distance from the big stories that have exploded through our media in the last few weeks, because there's not much I can say that will be constructive, original, and/or helpful.

And so, we arrive at HSBC, that multi-billion dollar firm that was found to be involved in a whole slew of questionable projects. Despite a mountain of evidence, HSBC was given a deal by which they paid a little over a billion dollars in fines (less than 10% of their profits from last year).

This is another stark contrast to the flesh-and-blood person and the corporate person in America. While an organic person would have been locked up for money laundering schemes of this magnitude, HSBC gets away with next-to-nothing in repurcussions for their actions. And the reason? According to the NY Times, "State and federal authorities decided against indicting HSBC in a money-laundering case over concerns that criminal charges could jeopardize one of the world’s largest banks and ultimately destabilize the global financial system."

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bon Voyage

You may have noticed I have been somewhat lax about posting recently. I have been planning a vacation and have not had time to do a lot of research.

I will be out of town for about two weeks, and so will not be posting in that time. I appreciate everyone who has been checking out the blog, and I hope you continue to do so in my absence.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Over the Edge of Reason

We've all been anxiously awaiting that moment when Washington gets out of its own way and proclaims that they've solved this whole fiscal cliff thing. It seems as if we are gripped in a fever of uncertainty about a rather ambiguous benchmark that few level-headed people think we have any chance of actually passing. In all likelihood Congress will push the matter further down the road and breathe easily in the time they give themselves.

The problem, as you may have heard, is that there are a whole lot of people with a whole lot of opinions and views on the issue of deficit reduction and tackling our national debt, and they don't seem to agree on much of anything except that we have to deal with it NOW. But how we go about it, and whether we will have compromise in Washington, seem to be the hot topics these days.

One school of thought, which mostly covers Republicans, is that we just need to cut spending and reform our entitlements. Reduce the size of government, and the deficit will take care of itself. There's also a prominent arm of this philosophy which says that we can simultaneously lower tax rates to boost economic productivity, further helping out the debt issue.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that we can raise revenues by increasing taxes. Those who support this view, mostly Democrats, believe that we can raise rates on the wealthy and solve all the issues.

There are those on the Left and on the Right who say that the other is wrong. There are those who are in this for themselves. Truth is, the answer lies in the middle.

For one thing, raising taxes won't solve the issue. At least, not on its own. Everyone knows that. Similarly, closing tax loopholes, as Republicans like to pretend is useful, would do nothing except harm the middle class. Slashing spending to get rid of our deficit is not a solution on its own either. Besides, no lawmaker in their right mind would cut our way out of debt, especially now.

Truth is, we need a balance. It's not going to be nice, but it will be successful. Keep in mind, this is my view of what we can do to cut our spending, boost revenues, and balance our budget without the pain and suffering that will be imposed by other programs.

First, we have to raise taxes on those who can afford it. That can't be avoided, but we can do it smart. For one thing, we can diversify that top tax bracket so that those who make $250,000 a year are paying a lower rate than those making $250,000,000.

Second, we clean out regulations and beuracracy, and streamline the system. That means we combine offices, make the system smoother and easier for companies and individuals to navigate through, and save time and money in the process.

Third, we cut spending on programs that are overfunded, and relegate those funds to programs that need it. We also make sure that our social programs (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) are appropriately funded. While we do that, we look for ways to streamline the red tape that prevents those programs for their full effectiveness.

Fourth, we reinvest in American infrastructure. Putting people back to work repairing and building new roads, bridges, power grids, and so on. We can bring our failing system of mass transit into the 21st Century. I know it would cost money up front, but it would save much more in the long run.

Fifth, we invest in our future: education, green energy, new technologies, research, etc. We make America the place to do business and research again. We turn ourselves into a producer nation, not a consumer one.

Finally, we keep the ball rolling. That means, we get this plan moving, and we don't let political extremists from either side of the aisle hijack it and turn it into a piece of political artillery. We make sure that we elect common-sense, even-minded representatives who are willing to work together for the benefit of everyone.

That's it in a nutshell. Sure, there's a lot to do, and it seems insane in our current political climate. But you know what? We can do it. All we have to do is begin.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Grover's ugly twin

There are two famous Grover's out there in the world. One is the lovable puppet who resides on Sesame Street. The other is the conservative school-yard bully that has, until recently, been strong-arming our Republican party into adopting his no-tax pledge. This would be Grover Norquist, and he's been a very interesting force in our politics for the last twenty years or so.

In general, the no-tax pledge is an abysmal idea. What it does is forces an entire branch of our political spectrum to disregard 50% of the balanced budget equation. Without tax increases, the only way to balance the budget is to cut, which means a slow (or sometimes quick) dwindling of our social programs, education, health care, and retirement. The other part of Norquist's pledge is that, whenever there is a budget surplus, it must be turned into further tax breaks. Sound familiar? That's exactly what Bush II did in the early 2000's, eliminating a budget surplus in order to slash taxes on the rich.

If anyone has ever doubted Norquist's ability to manipulate Republicans, they would have to look no further than Bush I's second term campaign. The first Bush was elected on the promise that he would follow Norquist's pledge to the letter. When push came to shove, though, Bush did the sensible thing and raised taxes. Norquist and his organization strung Bush up on that, and it cost him the election (some believe).

That kind of influence leaves an impression, and since then, Norquist has been the man behind the curtain, silently forcing his pledge onto hopeful young Republicans, giving them a leg up when they agree and shutting them down when they don't.

But Grover Norquist's time may be coming to an end with the latest batch of Congressional Republicans. While many of them have signed the pledge, there have been recent discussions where many of them question the pledge and whether it's the right course for the GOP.

Of course, Norquist's legacy won't die out thanks to the rumblings of a couple of freshman congressman. He's been an institution in Washington since the 80's. That's why it's also important to note that congressman such as John McCain are also denouncing Norquist's pledge.

While this doesn't necessarily mean a change is in the works for the GOP, it shows that there may yet be hope for the Right to come back to the center a bit, and compromise our way out of a financial crisis.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Fairly Unbalanced

The recent attacks in Gaza have been canvassed by news agencies from all over the world. Here in the US, most of the coverage has been about Israel's retaliation to Palestinian aggression. In other words, we're victimizing Israel....again.

I've put the question of our support for Israel out there before. Why do we continue to support a nation that so blatantly disregards our values? They violate treaties, kill innocent people, and are engaging in social discrimination against an entire civilization. In the past, when countries have done things like this (Iraq in the '90s, and currently Libya come to mind), we've been very outspoken in our contempt for their decisions and have gone so far in some cases to put boots on the ground to stop the hostilities.

But Israel is different.

Let's look at this most recent round of attacks. It was sparked when the military leader of the Hamas movement was killed. He was killed while reviewing a draft of a peace treaty between Palestine and Israel. Despite discussing peace between their cultures, Israel was still conducting air strikes. In these most recent attacks, three Israelis have been killed and about a dozen injured. Many of the missiles have been stopped by Israel's missile defense system, which was bankrolled by the US. By contrast, over 90 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli attacks, and over 700 injured. Many of the dead and injured include families with children.

Considering these numbers, and the amount of violence, the US would normally condemn the aggressor. In this case, most of our lawmakers, political pundits, and media groups are defending Israel in their continued attacks. And while most are still watching the death toll rise, it's largely being ignored that we are supporting the side that is butchering innocent civilians.

Israel, to their credit, has stated that they want peace rather than a prolonged military action against Palestine. Meanwhile, Palestine has demanded that a cease-fire include the ending of the blockade of Palestine. The whole thing is being worked out by Egypt, it seems, who appears to be playing referee at this point. So, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, will anything have changed?

I hope that we use this as a learning experience. We can be as nice and supportive to our allies as we want, but we can't turn a blind eye to genocide. Because the continued persecution of Palestine by Israel is just that. And if we blindly support a country engaging in genocide, doesn't that make us complicit in that?

Out of the Ordinary

The Benghazi, Libya attack is certainly out of the ordinary. For one thing, it's received a lot of media attention. For another, it's sparked a kind of arbitrary and wholly unnecessary witch-hunt in Washington as Republicans seek a way to blame Democrats and the POTUS for the fact that four Americans were killed.

But the attack in Benghazi was not in and of itself unique. It wasn't the deadliest, wasn't the most coordinated, and possibly not even the largest attack that our foreign embassies have endured in recent years. In fact, here's a list of attacks that were just as deadly, if not more so, from the previous administration.

What makes Benghazi unique? The fact that we lost an ambassador? Yes. The fact that it occurred under a Democratic President? Sure. But do those factors make it worse than the attacks listed in the linked article? Not in my opinion.

Oh, and as an aside, keep in mind that 9/11 happened under Bush's watch as well. He was briefed on the attack several times in the weeks and months leading up to it, and did nothing. He was told about it the morning it happened, and didn't act for over an hour. Now, was that a failure of our intelligence community, or our leadership? Sure, but no one ever seems to point that out anymore.

Certainty is the Key

Recently, American Public Media (APM) interviewed UPS CEO Scott Davis on their Marketplace program. You can read the short transcript here. The discussion centered primarily around how Davis sees the fiscal cliff issue in Washington, how UPS is likely to respond, and what he would like to see in a deal and moving forward after the new year.

Davis makes some interesting points that seem to fly in the face of what is traditionally heard about and from CEOs. For example, Davis says he thinks a balanced agreement that includes revenue increases, whether through raising rates or shutting loopholes, is important. That's something we've often heard the wealthy do not want. And, seeing has how UPS works with about 6% of the US GDP, you can imagine that Davis has a lot of interest and money invested in this.

Davis makes another really great point, right at the end. He points out that UPS, like many big companies, are sitting on huge sums of cash. The reason they aren't investing it, Davis says, is that they don't know what's going to happen in Washington over the next several years. There's no clear way forward, with both parties refusing to work with the other. That uncertainty is forcing companies like UPS to keep their money close rather than spreading it out into the economy.

This same trend is probably why our markets and overall economy are stagnating. Investors, CEOs, and entrepeneurs have no way of knowing what Washington is going to do in the next few years. It doesn't really matter all that much who is in charge and what they do. They could raise or lower taxes, regulate or deregulate, spend or save, and it wouldn't matter as long as it was a clear and consistent pattern.

Companies don't need more money, as Davis points out, they just need an environment where they feel safe spending what they have. Consistency and certainty are the things that Washington should be producing right now. Gridlock bogged down our economy and our country, and led to a credit downgrade. Now, as we're in the midst of round 2, we need real compromise and real solutions that will work from here unto the ends of the fiscal year.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Filibuster Frenzy

In the classic movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," James Stewart's character stands on the floor of Congress and talks for eight hours to prevent a vote that he knows is wrong. The fictional portrayal of a representative of our country standing up and speaking nonstop for hours on end is a powerful image and a testament to one's test of will.

Back in 2010, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stood on the floor of the Senate for over eight hours to give a rousing speech on many issues, from political corruption to corporate power.

These examples are definitely exceptions to the rule. Most times, when a group in one of the houses of Congress wants to stop a bill, they will simply declare a filibuster and that will be it. They can sit back down and carry on with their game of solitaire. Based on the rate that filibusters and clotures (movements to break filibusters) have been increasing over the years, anything more than that is simply not feasible.

The problem is that the filibuster has become the standard response when either party tries to produce a piece of legislation. Even when something passes the House with solid, sometimes bipartisan majority, it can die in the Senate if one party decides to filibuster. That's because the only way to successfully break that is to have a 60-vote majority, which neither party has. It is the source of that insidious gridlock that we've all complained about the last two years. As usual, both parties are complicit in this, but seeing as how Republicans have been much more aggressive in their disruption of Senate business, the blame largely falls on them.

But Senate Democrats are trying to change the rules of the filibuster by making it into a...well, a filibuster. The proposed rules would force any congressman or woman to stand up and actually speak for the length of their filibuster. No more quick motions to block a bill, no more five-minute complaining sessions. If a senator wants to filibuster a bill, they have to do it properly.

It could slow things down even more, perhaps dramatically so. But the Democrats, ironically, are banking on the laziness of their fellow senators and the hope that filibuster rates would drop off if people had to actually work at them rather than simply say a few words and get their obstructionism going.

Of course, the new rules are unlikely to pass, even if they would make for real live debate and discussion. Rather, the new rules would likely be, dare I say, filibustered.

Perhaps in the future, we will see more Mr. Smith's passing out on the floor of Congress after literally standing up for their beliefs for so long that they can't see straight. That kind of pure, unadulterated conviction would certainly be inspiring. And reforms to the filibuster would make it more a tool against corruption than a hyper-partisan big stick for political idealists. We need checks and balances against corruption and abuse of power, not obstruction at the expense of a working government.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tantrums

I haven't posted in a while, mostly because all the attention is still on the election aftermath, and analysis of late results and recounts. There's little real news going on right now, so it's been hard to find interesting things to discuss.

One of the pervasive feelings about these election results is that people who opposed Obama are upset that there is no doubt he was re-elected. His margins were so big that there can be no question who won. For the extremists on the Right, they have no complaints of tampering or fraud to console themselves. So, instead of trying to fix their party, they're just going to walk away. And by walk away, I mean secede.

You may remember a guy out of Texas by the name of Rick Perry, who became infamous when he said, "When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation. And one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again."


This latest push is not coming from a politician, however, but from citizens themselves, who have petitioned the White House to secede from the union. These petitions have surfaced from more than two dozen states, each presented by individuals who refuse to use their last name. However, the theme is consistent: The United States has failed its citizens, and the people are fed up with federal power.

There are prominent names in the Republican party who are denouncing these petitions, including Rick Perry himself. Then again, there are those who support the idea (see the comments on this one, though some certainly disagree). What's clear is that there are a lot of people out there who have signed these petitions for some reason. How do we react to that?

What bothers me the most is how many people signed these petitions, and in so many places. Do all of these people really believe that separating from the United States is a reasonable option? Despite the fact that it is considered treason by the government, it is a ridiculous notion that we would separate at all. Especially over a political election.

I've read a lot of articles and posts from people who seem to think that we have lost our democracy, that somehow the voice of the people is not being heard. Well, Obama won the election. The people voted for him. And these petitions for secession were signed by citizens. Their voices are being heard. But this kind of thing is not democracy. This is a temper tantrum. The GOP lost big, and the core Republicans in the party are learning from their loss. But the fringe is not. Instead, they're doubling down, distancing themselves, and creating another alternate reality for themselves, where they are being oppressed, and they alone hold the key to freedom and liberty.

I truly hope that nothing comes of these petitions. I hope that those who sign them come back to the table of American democracy and talk about our issues. I hope they can compromise. They are citizens, and are entitled to their opinion. But as soon as they demand to secede from the nation, they have crossed a line.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Now, let's begin...

The election is over. Obama has been re-elected by a comfortable margin, and Congress has largely stayed the same. As I've said in previous posts, there will certainly be more analysis than anyone truly cares about coming out of this one. For one thing, the demographics that went for or against the POTUS were not surprising except for how much they helped him.

Anyway, I don't want to get into too much polling analysis on here. We'll all be sick of it by the time it's over. What I want to say now is that, even though nothing has really changed in Washington, everything's changed.

Back in 2010, when the GOP took control of the House in a big way (which they've retained, despite losing a few seats), Mitch McConnell spoke his infamous words about their priority being to deny Obama a 2nd term. We now know that they failed in this. It may not be enough to jumpstart our Congress, but it should give Republicans pause. No doubt they'll be poring over the results to see where they messed up, and how they can do better next time.

The status quo was maintained, for better or worse. I think for the better. There is no 2nd term to worry about for Obama. He can get tougher with Republicans and his poll numbers don't matter as much. Republicans, on the other hand, still have to contend with their constituents, and apparently need to make themselves more appealing to more voters. In their effort to appeal to a wider bloc of voters, they may see fit to start doing a good job in Congress. They may decide that cooperating and compromise for the good of the nation looks better on a resume for re-election than "we stuck to our guns and the whole ship sank, but we stuck to our guns just the same."

On the other hand, things could go a different way. Many of the most conservative, especially those in the Tea Party, have been expressing their belief that they failed in this election because they were not conservative enough with their ticket. This is a belief that seems to have come out of a lack of enthusiasm for the candidate and a feeling that the establishment GOP was selling out to the moderates, whom the TP despise.

So, nothing changed, but everything is different. A 2nd term Obama has nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain. Republicans in the House still have reputations to protect, and are looking at the 2014 senate races and 2016 generals as a way of taking back control of government. I think, and hope, that they realize what hyper-partisan has cost them, and I hope that they are willing and able to reconcile with their extremes and come back to the bargaining table. It will be a benefit to our nation, and to our world, to have them working together again. Time will tell.

Monday, November 5, 2012

How things are supposed to work

The election is officially over tomorrow. No doubt there will be analysis, discussion, and disagreement. More than one person will cry foul, say it was rigged, say something went wrong. There will be long, drawn out, and pointless dissemination about the effects of Sandy, of voter ID laws, of early voting rights and restrictions, among much else. This is all a given. It should surprise no one whichever way this thing goes. It's so close (on paper, anyway) that either candidate is in a good position. It all comes down to the numbers.

There are certain overtones to this campaign that we all recognize: negativity, hope, prosperity, different paths to the future. We are living, as we do every four years it seems, on the cusp of a new age in our history and a great change for the future.

In this cycle, unlike in many others, we have a very different political climate. From our founding, there has been the debate between federalism and American statism. Who should hold the power? Who should make the choices? How should those decision makers be appointed? Who gets to decide? These are fundamental questions about our governance that it is in our best interest to debate in a healthy and open way.

Our nation is meant to run on argument, the productivity that derives from a respectful and endless debate between two points of view, a kind of politico-Capitalist system if you will. The Liberals are reckless, bleeding-heart spenders. The Conservatives are cold-hearted, calculating tightwads. Together, when compromise, creativity, and partnership are used to achieve common goals, we have thrived. That is the story of our greatest moments in history. We became the greatest nation on earth because we gave power to the people and let their voices mean something in a national discussion for mutual benefit.

Now, that process is failing. There is no one party to blame, really, because all are involved. Whether it is Mitch McConnell saying that the #1 objective of the Republicans in Congress is to make sure Obama is not re-elected, or Maxine Waters saying that the extremists in the Tea Party "can go straight to Hell," we've lost a sense of understanding between our fundamental perspectives on government and politics.

Other observers like me see this trend away from cooperation as a result of extremist leanings to the Right. It is our view that conservatives have moved so far to the ideological extreme that they are unable to compromise, whether it be out of fear of losing support, or out of a misguided conviction that they hold all the answers. Still others believe that it is the Left that is unwilling to compromise, and has thus been the cause of our hardship. Both groups appear to have strong evidence to support their claims, and no one side is right while the other is wrong. Both groups are responsible.

This election, like so many before it, has come to represent this struggle, the argument as old as our nation between two courses of action: federal power vs. private power. It is the push and pull between these that has created such a fantastic web of Democracy in this country. And it is this push and pull that we must consider when we go to the polls each and every time we vote.

In my view, it is Obama that best represents the balance between these two systems of government. His policies have brought much-needed order and regulation to financial markets that brought our economy to its knees. He has laid the groundwork for steady growth, energy independence, strong education, and smart military all while working to balance our budget. His views are not that the government solves everything, but that the government can work to balance the power, keep things safe and fair, and give people a fair shot at leading productive lives.

Romney, on the other hand, has sided completely with the private sector and with state governments. He has advocated for a dismantling of our central government, with the exception of the military. He has called for ambiguous tax policies that, even in their most optimistic rendition would still overwhelmingly benefit the weatlhy and businesses of America. Romney has called for a restructuring of our social programs, which our best experts say would make them less effective. Finally, Romney has presented a vision of America that does not incorporate our legacy of compromise at all. He does not leave room for the ideas of his political counterparts in the Democratic party. Rather, he simply says he will "work with them." He lays out no plans for how he will do this; he seems to simply expect it. If there is anything that our recent experience with extreme, non-negotiable positions tells us, it is that they are no good for compromise.

We often hear from Republicans that Obama has failed to work with them, or that Democrats have refused to work with them. It is a lie. Republicans have been unwilling to bend on their policies (which they have cleverly renamed as "principles"). Time and time again, we have evidence that budgets, jobs bills, energy policies, stimulus programs, veterans support legislation, and much more have died in Subcommittee, or died to Republican filibusters in the Senate. It is part of the GOP plan to deny Obama his second term, as McConnell so eloquently explained for us. But what this does is causes the engine of our Democracy to break down, the wheels of progress to falter and halt, and our country to stagnate. If we are going to get back on the road to the future, we don't just need a strong President, we need a flexible one. And even more importantly, we need flexible lawmakers in Congress who are willing to work with each other.

There is a bumper sticker I have seen several times over the last several years. I don't remember seeing it before about 2010, so I believe it is a new creation. It states quite simply "Tolerance is for people who lack conviction." This simple phrase adequately sums up the problem with our political system, in my mind, and the crux of the issue with this election. More than anything else, we need tolerance of ideas in our government. Calling an opponent a socialist, communist, anti-American, terrorist, etc. does nothing except alienate people. It fuels destructive arguments, not constructive ones. We have to remember two very important concepts and demand that our representatives live by them. First, that every single person who represents their state or their party or America in government loves this nation. There is not a single person in Congress, the White House, or the Judiciary that does not want the best for us. Second, that each and every one of those individuals is entitled to believe what they believe, and cannot be judged for that. They have their worldview and interpretation, and that must be respected and accepted.

I hope that everyone who reads this will be participating in this election. I don't really care who you vote for, but I hope that all of you vote. Vote for whoever you believe will bring this country back to its senses, for the candidate that you think will start the conversation and get us back to who we are when we're at our best. Don't vote for the party, the person, or even the personal positions of the candidates. They don't matter. They're all talking points. Vote for the person that represents your vision of this country, that you believe will make us stronger, and that you believe is best. I respect your decision, and I hope that you respect mine.

America 2012.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Let's Do the Numbers

The October jobs report came out today, and it is better than economists expected. If you just look at the raw numbers, and don't listen to the explanation of what they mean, you might expect that things are neutral: 171,000 jobs created, 170,000 more unemployed, official unemployment up to 7.9%. Looks bad for the President, which is what Romney jumped on immediately following the release.

But that is a bit disingenuous. First of all, the report is better than economists expected. They were looking for numbers below 100K for job growth, so this is almost double their expectations. In addition, more people started looking for work, which raised the unemployment rate. Remember that the official rate only counts those who are actively looking for work as unemployed. Since more people are looking, the rate went up. It's not that 170,000 people lost their jobs. No. It means that many people had enough confidence in the job market to go searching again. That's a good thing.

Another point to make. The report also indicates that numbers from previous months have been increased from their original estimations, meaning the average rate of job growth for the third quarter of this year was 170,000/month. Not bad at all. Consumer confidence has also risen. Very good.

And here are some more things to consider going forward. The housing market is showing signs of growth, with more sales, increasing values, easier credit, and more construction. All very good signs. Then, there's the potential from Hurricane Sandy recovery. That clean-up will include renovation and construction for millions. Dozens of towns, not to mention NYC, will need people to clean the place up, and rebuild. That will all mean jobs (paid for by the GOVERNMENT). People have been complaining about the response to the hurricane. The response? Really? Because as far as I can tell, no one who is directly affected by the storm is complaining about the response by the government, not even those who dislike the government.

So, the job report looks good. It will be critiqued, criticized, applauded, dissected, misrepresented, distorted, and analyzed beyond the point of recognition, but it's hard to say what its impact will be on the race. There are a lot of strong signs, though, and many experts are saying that we are starting see things come back a bit. It's still early in the going, and there are a lot of factors to consider, but we can rest assured that things are getting better, no matter how much pundits want us to think otherwise.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

One Last Lie

It seems that Romney still hasn't figured out how information travels. Nor has he figured out that certain audiences in certain states may know something about their area. For example, Ohioans know a little something about the auto industry in America.

So, when Romney decided to make a bald-faced lie about Jeep moving jobs from Ohio to China, Ohioans were swiftly told that this was false. It was fact-checked immediately, statements were produced by Chrysler, who owns Jeep, and everyone settled down. Except for Romney. Instead of walking back his statement, he turned it into a political ad and put it up on their television stations. He then turned it into a radio spot, and another TV ad, all the while knowing it was a lie and knowing that his target audience knew. So, what's the point?

Well, apparently there isn't one. At least, not as far as I can see. It appears as though Romney is either banking on the ignorance of his voting block, or he just doesn't care anymore. He is knowingly lying to his supporters' faces about their own industry, despite repeatedly being countered with evidence and reality. It's amazing, since so many people put so much emphasis on the outcome in Ohio. You'd think Romney would be trying a bit harder to reach these people. I don't know about folks in Ohio, but I don't tend to respond well when someone is lying to my face.

Rachel Maddow does a great story on it.

Poor Timing

It was only a matter of time before Romney flipped again. But in this case, Romney is having to back-track a lot. Since the Primaries, Romney has held strong in his belief that things like disaster aid should be kicked back to the states and, whenever possible, should be handled by the private sector. It is his belief that this will make responses to disaster faster, cheaper, and better. Romney even said it was "immoral" for disaster  relief to be handled by the federal government.

Here's just a few issues with that. If it's handled solely in the private sector, who pays for it? Individual citizens? If that's the case, who is responsible for infrastructure repairs? Does the state pay? If so, how is that cheaper since a private business would be charging enough money to make profit on top of their operation costs, whereas a state government would simply pay the workers?

Then, there's the question of sending it to the responsibility of individual states to begin with. Sure, it would mean less money being spent by the federal government, but it would also mean a greater strain on state and local governments. It would mean more slower responses, less coordination, and no ongoing support except with state and local tax dollars for victims. I know my state couldn't possibly pay for all of the recovery needed on its own without severe tax hikes and spending cuts on everything else. They would have to do nothing else except disaster recovery for a year or more.

For these reasons, I think that Romney is wrong to suggest that FEMA should be a state's issue. Of course, you can't expect him to really get it; he only recently decided, again, where he stands on the issue.

Monday, October 29, 2012

What We're Learning from Sandy

Hurricane Sandy is barreling into the East Coast right now, and it hasn't even made landfall yet (technically speaking -- try telling that to the folks in lower Manhatten). People all across the east coast, and even as far west as Chicago, are anticipating power outages, destruction, flooding, and a whole lot of mess to clean up.

While I still have power (I happen to be in Sandy's path), I would like to point out something I've noticed about the response so far. In many places, emergency crews are already on the move, working to clear out areas. While some of these are privately owned, many are public. That's the government, now.

Another point. Who's going to pay for the cleanup? In Vermont, they're still negotiating with FEMA over Hurricane Irene damage from a little over a year ago. But FEMA is still going to be providing a lot of financial support to state and local groups to get the recovery underway as soon as possible. Again, that's the government doing that.

The estimated cost for this little storm is stretching well into the billions. While local and state governments will fork over a hefty amount of that, the majority of the cost will fall to the federal government. The same thing happens whenever there is a natural or unnatural disaster in the US.

A great point here is to remember the BP oil spill. In those days, Republicans and fiscal hawks were beside themselves with the thought that the POTUS couldn't plug a stupid hole. Well, that's what happens when you cut funding to emergency programs like FEMA. You can't have a small government and a government that can solve every problem under the sun. It just doesn't work.

So, getting back to Sandy. It's worth pointing out that it will be federal dollars that repair the roads, bridges, power lines, and homes after all this is over, and rightly so. No other group has enough resources to do that without severely crippling its abilities in other areas are severely taxing its citizens. If we want a government that responds when we are down and out, we have to fund it properly.

I hope everyone stays safe, dry, and healthy today and in the days to come. No doubt it will be a bumpy road for many.

UPDATE: Everything fine here. But I did have to post this link.

Which is worse

I promised myself I wouldn't post a piece on the Benghazi attacks, since they're so politically charged and divisive at the moment. However, I did want to post this as a way of demonstrating my view on the issue.

As an additional point, I would like to ask this question: if our response to the attack had led us into a war with Libya, costing billions of dollars and potentially thousands of lives, is that worth saving four people? It may seem harsh, but it's a question that needs to be asked. The President has already stated that he will find those responsible and do what he can to bring them to justice (and we all know he has a good track record on that).


Why Obama

A great video, with audio of a speech given by Obama about the past, present, and future of our nation. He outlines the debate very well.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Content of Character

Yesterday, Colin Powell announced his endorsement of Barack Obama for a second term as President. Powell said he agreed with Obama's direction and plan for the nation, and criticized Romney's tax plan and foreign policy, which Powell called a "moving target."

Of course, Republicans are not too happy that one of their most well-known minority celebreties appears to be breaking with tradition and calling things how he sees it. It's worth noting the Powell voted for Obama in 2008 as well, so he is being consistent, just not in the way the GOP wants him to be.

But despite Powell's clearly stated reasons for supporting Obama, that didn't stop prominent Republicans from drawing their own conclusions. John Sununu, who is a strong advocate for Romney, was the first to suggest that Powell's decision was race related. This is the same suggestion that was made in 2008 by Rush Limbaugh when Colin Powell threw his weight behind Obama. Of course, there is no evidence of this, Powell doesn't mention it, and it's a bit condescending and racially charged. Why make this remark?

Sununu released a statement after the fact, clarifying the context of the remark, but even those comments did nothing to change the fact that he alluded to Powell making a political decision based on race, which Powell himself does not admit to.

This is the equivalent of saying that whites are more likely to vote for a white candidate due to race, which seems to suggest racist overtones to me. While Sununu can say that his intention was merely to remark on a possible reason for Powell's endorsement, even this makes no sense since Powell himself provides plenty of reason for backing the President.

This has become the year of the demographics. Paul Ryan has been skewered, again, for being two-faced towards the poor. Now we have questions about whether race is driving the decision of certain voters and prominent political figures. It strikes me, though, that this kind of thing has become a way of attacking people's personal choices by marginalizing their reasons. If it can be reduced to some kind of self-serving decision, then it makes that decision seem less valid. By painting Colin Powell's decision as being racially motivated, it changes how that decision looks. It's no longer about Powell's stated reasons for support, it's about race.

And the natural response by the Right will be, from my view, the attack Powell for making a race-based decision. They will likely say that such a decision should not be influenced by skin color. And this is a point we all agree on. Let's stop looking at the color of skin and start making decisions based on content of character. Like Colin Powell.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Both Sides

Normally, Washington is all about the partisanship. Neither side can see things from the perspective of the other, and compromise has gotten to the point where both groups throw their ideas in together and pass it off as an agreement, then go back to attacking one another over the deal. It's gotten so bad that the general focus on politicians, political media, and therefore the nation has rounded on the deficit, rather than a whole range of other issues that are rather more important and pressing but that are harder to work out. Grand bargains abound on Capitol Hill as we watch from the sidelines in anticipation of more political pandering.

And why not? After all, it's what we've dealt with in the past. Deregulation and close connections to the business world have been the name of the game in Washington for decades. Starting back in the 80's, and then gaining speed in the 90's, we've seen changes in how our politicians do business, and treat business, in their legislative sessions. And things like this don't make people all that much more confident that the love affair between Legislators and special interests has grown cold with time.

Simon Johnson, in an article for the New York Times, describes this relationship as the dark side of bipartisanship. Johnson makes the assertion that, when politicians of different parties work together on something, it is usually because they have a mutual friend getting rich, or they themselves are benefitting from whatever they're doing, while leaving their constituents out in the cold. And this has been happening for a while now. So, what do we do about it?

Johnson doesn't go much into solutions. Essentially, he sees it as a complete waste at this point, since everyone is in someone's pocket. I suppose we could all simply vote in new representatives, but it seems as though our choices are being made for us. Many challengers to the incumbents also have strong ties to special interest groups. So, what's the alternative? Third party?

The only solution I see is to elect officials, incumbents or otherwise, that appear to take a strong stance against banksters and special interests. Representatives who, like Elizabeth Warren for example, will work to put limits on banks and investment firms, regulate markets in a common-sense way, and will hopefully withstand the lure of money from wealthy and powerful donors.

This is a problem that is manifesting on both sides. It's interesting to note that, despite their major differences, the Leftists and Rightists agree on one thing: the people in power have got too much of it. What they disagree on is who to blame (privateers for the Left, government for the Right). Both sides, it seems, are right, and that's a real bipartisan platform we can work with.

Confusion in the Ranks of the Crazy

Let's put aside the thought that our election is drawing closer. Even without that looming date, we are seeing a lot of the same old, business-as-usual bullshit coming out of the conservative media and the talking heads. They seem to be tasting blood, and are working themselves into a frenzy over the possibility of taking over the White House and both houses of Congress in the coming days. Unfortunately for them, and interestingly for us, this fervor has led them to make some startling decisions, and some startling things. Here's a quick breakdown.

1. Despite evidence to the contrary, Paul Ryan is still claiming that his plan to move Medicaid to a block grant will save money and make the system better at the same time. Studies bt a number of agencies and groups have shown this isn't the case (and it makes little sense), but he's sticking with it. It's worth noting here that Ryan, in addition to cutting support to the states, wants each state to set their own standards and cut the national standards of care. This is important because, as I've noted before, there are many states who only do the bare minimum required by the federal government and its clear based on their history that they have no interest in helping people when they don't have to. At what point does the Republican mind switch and say that it is more ethical to help the people than it is to make people fend for themselves? Does it ever, in the case of Ryan?

2. In a similar vein, you may remember that Ryan also fought as the champion of the poor in other ways. For example, when he wanted to axe food stamps to help shore up defense spending. I'm curious to know how this plan is supposed to help the working class who are unemployed. Ryan also stated that he voted for the sequestration that brought around the defense cuts, but like all the other GOPers in Congress they balked at their own idea when the pain came. So, rather than biting the bullet, as it were, they tried to take all the cuts out of education and social programs. Things like this show just how much they care about the poor, and how long they've been working for them.

3. We're still seeing a writhing mass of insanity over this whole Benghazi tragedy. The newest conspiracy, put together by our very own Delusion Doctor, claims that the whole thing was orchestrated by Obama because we're giving guns to the Syrian and Libyan rebels. While there are some questions about the administration's handling of the situation, it's worth noting a few things. First of all, they were receiving information from who knows how many sources, all of them saying different things. The idea that they could take all of that and process it, tease out the entire truth, and present it within 24 hours is laughable. Second, I would point out that, following the 9/11/01 attacks, no one ever demanded this level of clarity and absolute truth from Bush, at least not as quickly, and any criticism of the POTUS at that time was labeled unpatriotic. So...what's the difference, aside from the party affiliation?

4. It may not seem so bad at first that a new bill in Pennsylvania requires rape victims to prove and report their rape in order to receive benefits for the children who a result of that crime. While the law states that a woman must report the rape, including the person's name if known, to police, it's worth noting that only about 53% of rapes are ever reported to police. You could argue that the point of this provision is to encourage victims to report. You could also argue that a victim who doesn't report has every right not to, but should not be denied support for that very personal decision.

5. Finally, as if we didn't have enough pointless political arguing going on, one poor guy has decided that his next big fight is going to be against having the U.N. in NYC. The reason for this is that a number of groups in the US (NAACP, ACLU among others) have petitioned the U.N. to send delegates to observe the voting on election day to ensure that there is no attempt to manipulate or defraud the system, or manipulate potential voters at the polls. This, of couse, has sparked outrage with Tea Partiers, who already think the U.N. is evil. It strikes me as a tad unstable, though, to attack one of the most prominent forums for world stability and peace that we have and say we should kick them off "American soil". Can't we think of some other things to waste our time and energy on? Really?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Is this what happened last night?

A lot of people I've talked to were surprised by Romney's statements last night, and how much they a) coincided with Obama's, and b) how much they differed from his previous positions. We already know that Romney has no problem with changing his position on any issue to suit the political climate of the day (indeed, the minute if he must). But last night was something altogether different. How? The entire debate seemed to be one long "I agree" from Romney over the administration's policies, after months and months of criticism. He didn't touch on Libya, Syria, Iran, or any of the other hot-button issues that he has criticized Obama for in the past. Why?

Here's the theory that I've come up with. It may not be valid, but it seems to fit his performance. Romney deliberately sided with the POTUS on every major issue as much as he could. That was his strategy. It might seem ridiculous, but consider the following points.

First of all, by doing this, Romney prevented a major blowout win by Obama. Sure, he himself did not "win," but seeing as how foreign policy is Romney's weakest area, the chances of him outdoing the POTUS were minimal to begin with. Romney effectively turned Obama's biggest debate night into a draw, denying his opponent a clear-cut victory and the boost in the polls that likely would have brought. Of course, Obama still looked great, but it was not a shut-out night by any stretch of the imagination.

Secondly, it prevented criticism from Romney's adversaries. How? Since Romney basically agreed with the President on everything, any criticism made against Romney would have been made against Obama, too. The only attack that left for his detractors was to say that he was inconsistent with his record. Unfortunately, that is a line that has been used since day one with Romney (see the link above) and it doesn't seem to work well at convincing voters.

Thirdly, it meant that Romney didn't have to stick his neck out with a new plan, and thus needed no specifics. He argued a bit with the POTUS on the semantics of his policies, and that was all. He produced nothing original, and therefore did not have to claim any ideas from that night.

If this was the intention of the Romney camp, it was well done. If not, it's a happy coincidence. It strikes me, though, that this is the kind of strategy that would work well at this point in the cycle. No new information is good for Romney, since he's not running on a campaign of his own promises anyway. And in an area where he has no experience, it would have been a last-minute disaster for him to go out on a limb with a fresh approach to American foreign policy only to have it fly in his face. And Romney is still riding the support from the first debate. He would have been stupid to risk that support on a bad performance just before the election.

2012 Presidential Debate #3: Review

The third and final presidential debate was a much-anticipated showdown on foreign policy, and struck me as very different in many ways from the previous debates.

Now, a caveat: I will be posting links to stories that incorporate polling, numbers, and fact-checking. I will also be discussing and linking to discussion on "winners and losers" from last night. As I have said in the past, I do not necessarily believe that these are 100% accurate, but they are used for the purposes of showing the mood and overall view taken by media about this debate.

From my perspective, it was an interesting clash, mostly due to its complete lack of major clashes. Obama and Romney largely seemed to agree on most foreign policy issues. There were a few points where it seemed Romney was trying to create distance between himself and the POTUS, as if trying to create a unique platform for himself. Neither advocated hawkish approaches to foreign policy, which was refreshing.

Now to the outcomes. I will say that I saw a tie in this debate. Both candidates held themselves well, stayed on point for the first half at least, and neither was more outstanding in their mannerisms than the other. On substance, because they were so similar, I feel it's hard to peg a winner as well.

That hasn't stopped other from doing that, and it's interesting how wide the spectrum of responses has been. Huffington Post puts it one way, while The Blaze puts it another. Of Course, Huffington Post is making their assertions based on polling, while The Blaze is relying on the opinions of one person. Fox News, for their part, did not come out and endorse a winner, but did do some minor fact-checking following the debate.

Huffington Post, interestingly, points out that because the policy positions are so close, that the outcome should be decided on style. They cite Obama's command of the discussion, and Romney's unwillingness to respond to Obama's criticisms, as evidence of an Obama win. Krauthammer, speaking for The Blaze article, seems to think that Obama was a bully in this debate and that Romney was more presidential, which is an interesting perspective to take. As usual, I recommend reading the comments, who clearly favor Romney (though not all of them), and who also believe Obama was being unfair.

UPDATE: As usual, the hyperpartisan pundits have come out with more trash talk. Ann Coulter, who can't seem to stay out of trouble, posted a tweet that referred to the POTUS as a "retard." Now, I'm no expert, but it seems to me that name-calling is not a very good way to continue political discourse. As usual, there are those willing to defend such a statement, which I'll let you read in the comments.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Is it really that close?

All this week (really since the last debate), we've been hearing from every corner of the media that this has become a horse race. Recall that, a month ago, Obama had a commanding lead; two weeks ago, Romney had a commanding lead; and now we're back to "it's anyones guess." Is it really, though?

A lot of people who really pay attention to what's going on, instead of just feeding into the media hype of the moment, seem to think that there is a less-than-honest backdrop to polls that show the two candidates in a virtual tie for the nation. On the one hand, there are those who argue that these tight races make for better ratings in the media: more people show up to watch a horse race than a landslide. This assertion is very plausible, and is certainly backed up by historical evidence. We've seen, time and time again, how media can change the course of events they choose to cover in how they cover them. They covered the debates, declared winners and focused their attention on very specific details of the exchanges, thereby creating a vision of this race that suits their narrative and their ratings.

Another, perhaps more conspiratorial view, is that the media is deliberately attempting to make the race look close in order to excite more people into voting. This happens to be a view largely held on the Right, by folks who already believe in left-wing media bias and fabrication of poll numbers and election results. They also happen to harbor the notion that too many people are voting who shouldn't, and so support voter ID laws. The idea that media is trying to make this look like a close race to try and get more people out to vote (and notice they all seem to think it will only excite left-leaning voters? Isn't Fox News and the rest of the conservative media doing the same thing?) fits very well into this view.

Whatever the reason, I wish it would stop. We're not getting straight answers, and it's starting to get ridiculous. For example, Huffington Post has been publishing articles since last Wednesday about how close the race is getting, and how Romney is leading in one poll, but Obama leads in another, all while their on-site poll shows Obama with an 80 point delegate lead over Romney. Even if Huffington Post is part of the liberal media, shouldn't they at least be consistent with their message?

The hard truth is that we can't rely on national polls, stats, and figures. After tonight's debate, the two candidates will have to rely on their rallies, field offices, and millions of donated dollars to reach the few people in America that haven't made up their minds (supposedly).

And that's the other thing, if I may say so. I noticed how conveniently each media outlet seemed to have "undecided voters" on their panels that ended up agreeing with the viewpoint of that station. FOX News was the most blatant example of this, though other stations were certainly culpable.

So, media just needs to lay off at this point. Cover the major events like the debate, cover the issues at hand, and possibly some gaffes and policy stances. But not this 24/7 shit-show. If media outlets continue to insist on covering these things, they should at least have the decency to do them justice. For example, I'm more interested in what one candidate says than how they say it. If you are basing outcomes on the sheer volume of bullshit one can spew, than Romney won the first debate. If you're looking at substance, it was Obama, even with a lackluster public performance. But things like that don't seem to make into our airwaves. Instead, victory is based on who looked nice, who smiled the most, and who got upset. That's not analysis, at least in a sense that matters. Until our media can become part of an adult discussion on the issues that face us, they're about as useless as a Mitt Romney tax return.

He did it again!

You may remember a couple months back when the House Oversight committee was having hearing on the Operation Fast & Furious debacle. You may remember Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of that committee, demanding sensitive documents that he claimed would be used to help the committee better understand the nature of this operation and who to blame. You may then remember that Issa leaked all those documents to the media (specifically, FOX News), a major breach of ethics, discretion, and privacy that caused major backlash. One of the issues was that the documents were never redacted, meaning the names of several individuals who were helping US officials were leaked along with the documents, putting their lives at risk.

Well, he's done it again. During his most recent investigation into the events leading up to and following the attack in Benghazi, Issa demanded and received some 166 pages of documentation about the incident. He promptly handed them all over to the media, once again without having them redacted, and once again exposing Libyan individuals who had helped the US before and after the incident on 9/11/12.

Now, there's plenty of criticism to go around for Benghazi. I would point out, though, that while it is an unfortunate incident that could have been prevented, so was the original 9/11 terrorist attacks, and no one seems to be pointing out that the people who defended Bush in those days are attacking Obama now. In the days and months following the 2001 attacks, anyone who criticized the POTUS for his handling of the situation was blasted from all sides. Now, Obama is presiding over a terrorist attack, and those same people are attacking him for it. Really?

Back to the story at hand. Issa has now given large amounts of sensitive documents to the media on two occassions. He is being skewered for his clear intentions to smear the administration as much as possible. Has no one suggested that he is a national security risk? As I posted earlier this month, he and one of his friends also outed a CIA operation during this hearing as well. It just doesn't seem to stop.

Of course, Issa has not apologized for any of this, and he has his defenders. Many point out that one of the people named in the documents was already known to have been working with the US. Of course, that says nothing of the other names in the documents. They also claim that the timing of this outrage is suspicious, since it is just before a presidential debate on foreign policy. I would argue that Issa's release of documents pertaining to a damaging foreign policy issue so close to a foreign policy debate is also suspicious. So, both sides are playing politics with a mistake made by an incompetent politician.

From this point on, I don't think Issa should be allowed within 10 feet of sensitive documents. He should not be allowed to leak them to the media as a way of trying to attack the administration, and he should not be allowed to use his power as a way of spying on the White House. That's not what he's there for, and not what he should be doing.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Listen to the People who know

Fox News has been championing the Republican mindset for a long time. They have a knack for bringing people on their shows who appear credible that will back them up. But when they decided to bring on a very well-known economist to help shore up their ideas about lowering taxes and cutting spending, they were not prepared for the response.

Of course, prominent people go on television all the time, and sometimes they seem to get along well with the hosts. But in this case, it's interesting to see that these television hosts are challenging their economic expert guest on the issue that they brought him onto the show to explain.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Red vs. Blue

Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic has a great article about the different ways that social programs are implemented across the nation. Cohn's overarching premise is that conservative states, such as Texas, follow a social Darwinist approach to social programs by only offering the bare minimum, while more liberal states like Massachusetts follow a more "New Deal" type philosophy by providing a broad range of supports to all different types of people. While Cohn is clearly in favor of the Blue state approach, it's not merely because of personal preference. As the article points out, the blue states are doing better. They spend more, sure, but they have lower poverty rates, better education, less of an income gap, and overall better health and wellness.

Cohn's point is that, while there is no right answer in how to approach social programs, there does seem to be ample evidence that some ways just don't seem to work. As he points out early in the article, it's not just political views, but how one perceives the role of government and personal accountability in our world. In the Blue states (which happen to be largely Democratic), the view is that we all have to work together, that there is a social contract that says we all benefit when we help those who need it most. In the Red states (which happen to be largely Republican), the view is that we all have to work hard for ourselves, and no one deserves a handout.

I know that there are people out there on both sides of this issue, and it speaks to one of the greatest debates of our nation's history. Indeed, this could be the fundamental debate of our entire existance, so long as we extrapolate to all the other issues. As I've stated in previous posts, there's no right answer in an extreme solution. No one side is perfect, and we often have the best results when we compromise. But in this debate, in this argument, it seems there is little to compromise on. Both sides see the other as morally reprehensible. That's a tough divide to bridge.

So, is it possible to come together? I think so, but only if we accept that we must. If we are not convinced of that, we have no hope of common solutions to our common problems.

Can't make this stuff up

I've remarked several times that it does not seem possible to make a mockery of the Right by trying to find a position that is more extreme, because they've already got it covered. This comic reflects that perfectly. After all, many of these assertions have no basis in fact, reality, evidence, or history (all, at some time or another, has been accused of having a liberal bias). Instead, they're "principles," similar to Romney saying that increased spending and big deficits are immoral. The problem with that assertion is that no one can debate you on your personal morals, no matter how crazy they are. This is the result...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Age-Old Issues

One of the consistent issues that Romney and Ryan have been dealing with is their inability to get specific on any of their plans. Romney infamously said that, despite the economists and experts who say otherwise, his tax plan will not come at the expense of the middle class. Why? Because he said so. No other justification. No examples, no explanation, nothing. Just his conviction and promise. In last night's debate, Romney made similar promises, like making North America 100% energy independent in five years. He provided no details on how, no facts to back up his plan, and has yet to produce any credible evidence to show that this is possible.

This vagueness, this assertion that people can have everything for nothing, is not new. Romney and Ryan are perpetuating a trend as old as American politics itself. Having read some of The Federalist Papers, I can tell you that this is a theme even there.

And as if that weren't enough evidence, here's an interesting clip from Jon Stewart, which shows how this particular tactic has been used by the Right for many decades. Enjoy.

2012 Presidential Debate, Round 2 Review

Last night, Obama and Romney met once again to debate each other on their plans and outlook for America in the next four years. There were a number of stark contrasts compared to the first debate, the most obvious being the President's performance. Here, now, is my assessment of the debate, as I saw it.

First and foremost, I would like to point out that I don't like having winners and losers in debates. It makes things too black-and-white. But even more importantly, last night's debate was very evenly matched between the two candidates. Obama was much more aggressive, well-spoken, and direct in his explanations and criticisms. Romney continued his policy push and critique of the economy. Overall, both candidates came away looking good, and only because his performance was so poor last time, it appeared as though Obama may have had the upper hand.

There were some seriously contentious moments during the debate, one of which came when Mitt criticized Obama for not labeling the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism. Obama said he did, Mitt said he didn't, and Ms. Crowley fact-checked Romney right then and there and sided with Obama (though she later went back and clarified a more middle-of-the-road position. Romney supporters are still mad).

The other major point of contention was not immediately seen on stage, but has resounded through the internet with a whole slew of memes and websites devoted to Romney's discussion on women's rights that led to him using the phrase "binders full of women." At best, the phrase has been used to poke fun at Romney. At worst, it's been seen as evidence that Romney is out of touch, sexist, and doesn't understand women's issues.

So, how did the candidates do when talking policy? Obama, for his part, was much more animated, engaged, and appeared more willing to attack Romney, which was a good sign for his supporters after his last appearance on stage with the governor. Obama not only kept on Mitt's ass about his stated policies, but also found time to explain and expand on his record and his plans moving forward. He was clear, concise, and stuck to the point most of the time. He also did something that should have been a trigger for Romney, but for some reason was passed up by the former governor: he took responsibility for the Libyan attack on the embassy, and expressed regret over how it was handled.

Romney also did fairly well, at least until the very end. Once Obama attacked Romney for his politicization of the attack in Benghazi (which received applause from the audience, the only remarks to do so), Romney looked a little more reserved and seem to have lost some of his gusto. Prior to that however, he and Obama were largely neck and neck in terms of performance. While he was still light on specifics, and spent more time complaining about the President than presenting his plan, Romney was at least consistent with his previous debate.

However, Romney had one other moment that I felt was disrespectful. All of you people who thought Biden was disrespectful last week, do you think it was disrespectful of Romney to cut across Obama three times when asking to explain the oil licenses on public lands? And what about when Obama tried to ask him a question, and Romney cut him off with a dismissive "I'm speaking!" To me, it showed a lack of tact and respect for the President. I was also not impressed when Romney refused to answer a particular question so that he could get his two cents in on a completely different topic (this happened at least twice).  To be fair, Obama had similar moments, but they were not as numerous, and not as dickish, as Romney's.

Overall, I felt it was an informative debate, and I look forward to the next one (foreign policy). As always, it will likely be that final debate that has the most impact on the election. As people on all sides gear up for this final push, and we start seeing the dirty tactics that rear their ugly head at this time each election cycle, it's clear we're in the home stretch and will soon be given some relief from the campaigns, political ads, and punditry. We're almost there.

Monday, October 15, 2012

New Levels of Insanity

Not sure what people's thoughts are on the Tea Party. I know some people hold them in high esteem, others think they're nuts, and still others don't really notice them. Despite their own claims to the contrary, most people who pay attention believe that the Tea Party has quietly fizzled out of the political spectrum, having failed in their initial push to drive the Republican party to the hard right.

One of the things that really turned me off from the Tea Party initially, aside from their crazy-ass views, was the strange way they had of adopting vast conspiracies to explain their positions. Never, in all the history of logic and reasoning, has it been a good sign when a person must adopt multiple platforms that are individually shaky and collectively ridiculous, just to make their worldview realistic. For example, the Tea Partiers believe that our own government and elected leaders are part of some secret cabal of Communists who want to overtake our nation and turn us all into 1984-esque zombies (apparently, they never grew out of the 1950's). They also happen to believe that, only by electing their officials to government, do we stand a chance of stopping this demise of our freedoms. The irony, of course being that their officials tend to be the most closed-minded, bigoted idiots around.

For a long time, I thought that the Tea Party was a great big joke played on the religious poor by the plutocratic rich. But then, I saw that it wasn't so easy as that. In fact, there was something coming close to insanity brewing in the ranks. Something like a collective case of paranoid schizophrenia, where all the victims are having the same delusions, seeing themselves as the only sane ones while the rest of the world is bent on their destruction.

And apparently, that view is not too far from the truth. As it turns out, the Tea Party sees conspiracies everywhere, even at (or I should say, especially at) the United Nations. The conspiracy I'm referring to is a little-known, non-binding agreement passed by the U.N. in '92, and signed by then-Presiden H.W. Bush, which was meant to tackle the issue of sustainable development as the world population grows larger.

According to the plan, which is called "Agenda 21", there is an agreement among the nations of the U.N. to look for ways to create more sustainable living arrangements. Of course, never a group to let a good ol' ambiguous agreement go to waste, the Tea Party has turned a strange idea into a weapon against liberty. Just like bike paths, toll roads, and apartment buildings, Agenda 21 is meant to lower your property values over time so that you end up taking up more physical space, and therefore make more room for the growing population. Insidious! Also, downright CRAZY!!

But of course, it's not just a conspiracy. No, no. It's a liberal conspiracy! After all, it wouldn't be a conspiracy if it didn't come from the Left, right? And like all good conspiracies, it does very well in the echo chamber of the Internet. After all, the more outrageous the claim, the more popular it becomes.

Now, here's the thing about Agenda 21. It was not meant to be subjected to Americans, whose own private ownership laws and property rights supercede any precedent set forth by the U.N. Rather, it is meant to help developing nations, where land ownership is used as a weapon of oppression, keeping people poor because the wealthy have purchased all the available land. The Agenda 21 agreement is designed to help form sustainable, reasonable limits on land use in places where land is unattainable or otherwise short-handed. That's not the case in America, and likely never will be.

The funny thing about this, in my opinion, is how much can be tied to Agenda 21 by the conspiracy theorists. Again, it's the hallmark of a good conspiracy that you can attach everything you dislike or mistrust to it in some way. So, those who believe this is undermining America believe that things like bike paths are ruining their property values, that toll roads and high gas prices are meant to push them out of certain areas and into cities where they have less land of their own, and that apartment buildings are part of this as well. After all, those who rent an apartment rather than own a house have no land of their own to speak of. Conspiracy!

The lunacy of things like this really shocks me, and for a while I thought that maybe the Tea Party did this as a sort of litmus test: if you agreed with their most extreme views, they could tell you were just playing along. That's not really the case as I've seen it, though. You can't make a joke by trying to come up with a view that is more extreme than theirs because you will find people who believe it!

While I don't believe that all Tea Partiers believe this crap, I see that a fair amount do. I also see that those that don't are just as hung up about other things that are equally insane. What bothers me most, I think, is that these are people who use this information to not only define their world view, but also to decide on who to vote for. They form their opinions on this information, and don't seem to question it at all.

That's the final trait that I want to touch on, and it's one that I observe with every party and affiliation, including my own. We tend to accept information that fits into our worldview with minimal criticism, while treating information that does not with suspicion or outright refusal. This is a poor tendency to have, since it leaves us open to logical impairments (like with the conspiracy outlined above). Personally, I try to look at everyone and everything equally, and make a choice that is hopefully coming after moderate consideration of all views and positions. But it seems to me that, the more extreme a person becomes in their views, the more willingly they embrace any insane piece of information that supports their worldview, and the more vehemently they reject any and all other information, no matter how factually sound.

I hope that we can start to steer away from crazy conspiracies and return to a place where we can speak rationally to one another without fear that the other side will attack us for our positions. I think it is worth adopting a good dose of logic when we read certain things, and to think critically about it as well. Only when we do that will we be able to reject the insanity that this conspiracy theory represents, and come back to the table to work together on our problems.

Duality

Last week, Romney came out with a brand spanking new position on abortion and women's rights. In the past, he had been an outspoken pro-life candidate, and openly discussed the defunding of Planned Parenthood.

But that new position didn't seem to stick, because not 24 hours later, Romney said the exact opposite. Now, he's going to be the pro-life hero the Right has been waiting for. So, which is it?

I challenge anyone...anyone...to describe a plan of Romney's that he has been consistent and clear about. I can't think of a one. Does anyone know what his plans are if elected? Does anyone know what he believes in, aside from blaming the president for issues that took decades to create? And does anyone really think that Romney's many positions on the issues represent a clear, let alone decent, way forward?

Friday, October 12, 2012

VP Debate Analysis

The debate last night has already been claimed as a victory on both sides. Biden was in top form, Ryan did reasonably well, and they both did what they needed for their campaigns. At least, that's how the pundits are calling it. In my view, it was a clear win for Biden, if for no other reason than that Ryan failed to give a single straight answer all night, and used the very same tactics that he complained about from the Obama campaign.

First, to Biden. A lot of people are complaining that he was disrespectful towards Ryan, due to his chuckling, head shaking, and occasional interruptions. Let's put that in perspective, though, shall we? Looking at Biden's track record, he was rather subdued, don't you think? And, not to point out they hypocrisy in this, but Ryan got his own chuckles, punchlines, and interruptions in. It wasn't just one-way. Secondly, the debate went very smoothly. There wasn't a lot of back-and-forth arguing by either gentleman, and they both seemed to be very aware of their time constraints. I though Biden did a great job pointing out the successes of the Obama administration, being very clear and consistent in their plans moving forward, and I commend him for sticking to his views, and to the facts, for most of the night.

Now, Ryan. Maybe it was just me, but I didn't feel as though Ryan really answered any questions. He was also a bit hypocritical in denouncing the Obama campaign for going negative and attacking the Romney camp instead of clarifying their positions. Note that, this is exactly what Ryan did last night, Romney did last week, and what their campaign has been doing for months. They've not produced any real specifics on their tax plan, foreign policy ideas, health care reforms, or any other issue. Last night, Ryan went for platitudes and talking points. When asked for specifics on his plan, he criticized the President. I will say, though, that Ryan was respectful and showed a real commitment to letting Biden speak. He engaged with the VP, and was consistent in his statements, wrong and misguided though they were.

It was a breath of fresh air to have a good moderator, too, who appeared to be able to control the speakers without too much effort.

Again, I feel that Biden did a fantastic job, and did everything he needed to do. He was likable, he was forthright, he was well-spoken, honest, and blunt. He didn't try to mince words, he didn't toss out red meat for his base, and he didn't simply sit back and spit out platitudes. He was great.

Of course, the upcoming Presidential debate will likely be even more heavily analyzed, and will probably carry more weight in the minds of Americans. But I feel as though this was yet another turning point in the election, and that we have a real, honest horse race on our hands.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Even the IMF gets it

The IMF recently advised the Eurozone to give more slack to Spain and Greece, and stop imposing harsh austerity demands on two of Europe's most debt-ridden countries. For well over a year now, Greece and Spain have been the thorns in the side of Europe's recovery, stumbling time and again over its mounted debt while trying to cut deep enough to take the edge off.

The interesting thing about this is that it highlights a growing advocacy for European powers to move away from harsh austerity, and adopt a more balanced approach to deal with heavy debt held by smaller nations. Those who have been calling for harsher cuts have little evidence to show that it's been helpful, even among those nations that have embraced it to the fullest. So, when the IMF says that austerity measures need to be scaled back, it would probably be in everyone's best interest to at least consider what they have to say.

Now, even if Europe somehow manages to pull itself out of this debacle, there's still questions to answer. Such as, how do they prevent such an issue in the future (short of breaking up the euro, of course)? How do larger, more prosperous nations like Germany and the UK balance against smaller countries like Greece with standard of living and productivity when they're all tied up with the same currency?

To me, the answer has never been austerity, and I honestly believe that the euro can be saved. While I'm by no means an expert on economics, especially European economics, I do happen to think that there are solutions that may be unconventional that can still be successful.

One problem is that Greece is small, remote, largely rural, and has no major industries aside from tourism. It has little to offer in the way of international trade. Yet its citizens benefit from some of the best retirement packages in the world, and have one of the highest standards of living in Europe, all on borrowed money. How does Greece maintain that, pay back its debt, and keep itself from being so deeply entrenched again? It has to change how it interacts with other nations, especially other nations on the euro.

One solution is to turn Greece into a trade nation. Make Greece the China of Europe: low/no tariffs for imports/exports and free trade through Greece for all European nations,and any goods coming from without the Euro would have taxes/tariffs placed on it through the Greek markets. That money would go 50% to the debt-holders of Greece, 50% to the Greek government. This solution would mean that Greece has a valuable asset to give to all of Europe. While the larger nations may not take advantage of this, other smaller countries probably would. This would give Greece some authority over the European markets, and make them a player in the European economy, rather than a consumer.

Another is to reinvigorate Greece to be a more lucrative or attractive place to conduct business. Lowering taxes for businesses, encouraging growth, and turning Greece into a locus of private-sector activity in Europe would help it to jump start its domestic economy.

Finally, Greece could be reinvented as a tourist destination. Recreation programs and travelers incentives could be used to make Greece an affordable, attractive place to vacation. Again, lower excise taxes and so on could encourage people to visit.

What do all these solutions have in common? They cost money and take time, and won't work if there's further austerity. Instead of slashing spending in the hopes of digging out of a debt hole larger than the countries GDP, why  not work to raise that GDP and use the new-found productivity to pay back that debt? It would make the euro stronger, Greece stronger, and stabilize the European economy for years to come.